Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Already Gone
I was canned today. No e-mail access for awhile, at least regular e-mail access, so if you need to contact me sooner I'll be at my HK cell: 6071-8474.
We'll see what happens.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Art Lover
If you've ever been in a cheap motel, following, say an ill-advised adulterous tryst or a kidnapping wherein one of your kidneys was removed with a butter knife by a defrocked alcoholic Columbian surgeon to be sold to a Mumbai cartel, and then, as you mused about where exactly your life had gone wrong and you found your eyes wandering to the wall decorated with a banal land or seascape, or maybe an amateur looking reproduction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and you wondered, 'who the hell painted that?' and where did it come from, well, odds are it was someone surnamed Li, Jeung, Hu, Zhang, Wu, etc and that it originated in Dafen, an "artists' village" about 45 minutes east of Shenzhen.

The same for late night and afternoon TV advertised offerings for "starving artists sales of sofa-sized original works at rock-bottom prices!"

Dafen (certfied by the Chinese Ministry of Culture in 2004 as a “Cultural Industry Model Base”) is a place where you can get a Van Gogh to go, in any color you want. Want Sunflowers in red? Blue? Mauve? No problem. US$1.25 unframed. How about a Last Supper? US$5, maybe a little more if you want, say, you, your bowling buddies or maybe Elvis included in the assembly.

An estimated 60 percent of the world's worst oil paintings are spun out within Dafen's 1.5 square miles. Last year, the local art factories exported paintings worth US$36 million.

The fastest of the thousands -- no one knows how many -- workers here, who paint more Van Gogh's in a month than he did in his lifetime (about 800), can crank out 30 a day, said Shi Fei, an artist, gallery owner and art assembly line factory honcho who employs 12 "students" who earn anywhere from US$25 to US$50 a month plus room and board for their art assembly line skills.

But Shi, who went to art school and got his start making copy paintings in Guangzhou, isn't particularly impressed with Van Gogh, though he sells about 20,000 faux 'Goghs a year.

"Everyone thinks Van Gogh was a great artist but a great artist should be rich," he said with a smug grin. "If he couldn't make a living as an artist he wasn't a great artist." But, Shi admitted, "He would be very sad, I think, if he could see this. He should be happy, though, because he can help so many Chinese people make a living."

Thanks to Van Gogh and other masters, Shi -- who, perhaps to his creative credit, also owns a rare gallery that belies Dafen's overall Mc-Art ambiance and features original (albeit stunningly mediocre) works -- makes a grand living indeed. He drives a pimped out white 2005 4-wheel drive Jeep complete with overhead lights, bullet hole decals on the sides, and an authentic blue and gold Lion's Club badge (he's a certified member) bolted to the grill.

The rest of Dafen is similarly culturally alarming. There's the village entrance where an enormous bronze hand holding a paint brush rises to the sky about 10 yards from a lonely moldering plaster of paris Venus De Milo. It's across the street from the "Dafen Louvre" where another plaster of paris masterpiece, Michelangelo's David stands surrounded by flowerpots and where inside you'll find, not a knockoff Louvre but bad art mall, the stairway to which is adorned with a kitsch mix of ancient Egyptian and Chinese seals.

Paint like an Egyptian, or a Chinese simultaneously! As for Shi, whose own works tend toward dark smog-fog choked studies of bleak Chinese urban vistas (much like Dafen on the day C and I went) he said he's sold few of his own works displayed at his "Non-Formula Art" gallery, but wouldn't mind being copied.

"I would be very happy,'' he told C, who translated for me. ''If someone could make a living from my work I would feel like I have contributed to society."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Shake a Tail Feather
Note: The following will be overly familiar to local readers (all 2.3 of you)but probably not to the other 1.7 who check in from outside Hong Kong. Today my assignment was to cover "the color" of HK Chief Executive Donald Tsang's annual policy address.

Tsang, except for his spiffy bowties, can safely be described as colorless. Bringing color to a corpse would be easier. He's a rather vapid, vacant sounding professional bureaucrat who increasingly spends his time ducking real issues and sucking up to his Beijing puppet masters and who liberally sprinkled his speech with variations on the phrase "harmonious society" (not so coincidentally methinks, also the current buzz phrase of Chinese President Hu Jintao).

One the other hand, thank gawd Hong Kong has its one firebrand troublemaker -- a long haired, chain smoking, beer guzzling self-proclaimed "pure Marxist" named Leung Kwok-hung. He's the naughty school boy in the HK Legislative mix and did his best today to flame Tsang's otherwise empty blather. This is what I filed, though no guarantee that it's the same version that will hit print tomorrow after it's run through the editorial dull machine.

It looked like the set-up for a joke that begins, ``A guy walks into a bar carrying a duck ...''

So when radical legislator Leung ``Long hair'' Kwok-hung, accompanied by independent colleague Albert Chan Wai-yip, strode to his Legco seat carrying a balloon, a sheaf of leaflets and a white bamboo duck adorned with a red bow tie, you could see a punch line or two coming.

A chief executive and a famous duck both named Donald? A lame duck politician?

Even Legco President and disciplinarian Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, sitting aloft in her leather-upholstered throne, appeared to crack a brief bemused smile.

As for the butt of the joke, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen _ in a sky blue bow tie, presumably a sartorial nod to his ``Action Blue Sky'' anti-pollution campaign _ well, he studiously ignored the sight as he readied himself to deliver his solemn ``Proactive, Pragmatic, Always People First'' policy address.

That's when Leung and Chan pulled the proverbial plug. Alternately brandishing the duck, they shouted at Tsang for failing to advance democracy in Hong Kong and called for minimum wage laws.

While Tsang continued to stare straight ahead and legislators, long accustomed to Leung's irreverant antics, either looked on in amusement or barely disguised distain, Fan whipped into action telling Leung to behave or leave.

Leung, in a red and black Che Guevera T-shirt, shouted back that Tsang was ``heartless like a bamboo duck; a man with no heart for Hong Kong people'' before he finally wound down, collected his papers, balloon and duck and voluntarily vacated the chamber alongside Chan.

About 30 minutes and a laundry list of policy platitudes and cliches later, Legco was again enlivened when six undercover minimum wage supporters in the public gallery jumped up shouting slogans and unfurling banners.

Tsang -- who had barely eased into his plan for a voluntary minimum wage for only the cleaning and gardening sectors, denying the hecklers' repeated demands for legislation to force all employers to pay above a set limit -- appeared startled before resuming his ``I see nothing'' pose.

Security guards hustled to remove the protestors, who went peacefully but not quietly, as Fan quickly adjourned Legco for 10 minutes and gave Tsang time to regroup and collect his thoughts.

In contrast, prior to Tsang's speech and at Legco's rear, nine groups of about 100 protestors vied simultaneously behind cramped rail barricades for a variety of issues ranging from equal rights for ethnic minorities to judicial grievances and the minimum wage.

``Keep your promises! No more delays!'' chanted the minority rights group, trying to be heard above the din from the minimum wage supporters who were yelling and shaking ``Donald duck,'' readying him for his Legco chamber debut.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Moonlight Mile
As burrowed in self-pity, job woes and impending tax debt as I am currently, I wasn't exactly walking on sunshine Friday night when I left my HK digs to meet a pal in Wanchai for some basic adult beverage-based male bonding.

But when I hit the exit door and grumped into the courtyard ... damn. I felt as if Steven Spielberg or Frank Capra were filming. It was jammed with families eating, laughing, chatting, screaming and milling with no more purpose than food, fellowship and fun minus the beer and brauts vendors. The most commercial aspect were the glow-lights that young and old alike had wrapped around their arms, torsos, legs, and in the case of one (in US politico-correcto speak) "physically challenged" celebrant, her wheel chair.

It's the Mid-Autumn Festival here, kind of a Chinese Thanksgiving/harvest festival, known mostly to me as "moon cake disposal week." Moon cakes are the Chinese equivalent of fruit cakes except more expensive. Like uraninum and fruit cakes, moon cakes are extremely dense, potentionally explosive and have an extraordinarily long half life (760 million years). No one that I know actually eats them, but instead pass them on like counterfeit money or tainted goods.
But after three years here, earlier in the day I'd seen another side of the Mid-Autumn Festival when a female Chinese coworker had bustled in late afternoon of Mid-Autumn Festival eve with a paper mache rabbit lantern.

(We pause to explain the rabbit significance...viewing the harvest moon is part of the festival, and the legend says that it all began when a virtuous maiden/mondo-babe with whom an emperor was smitten with refused to do the nasty with him and instead ate an eternal life potion he'd planned for them both. Her impulsive pharmacutically-inspired behavior shot her to the moon where she still lives today, chastely attended by the Old Man on the Moon and his pet rabbit. The emperor died unconsumated and was last reported to be ecking out a living as an assistant night manager for a Qwik Lube shop in Minot, North Dakota.)

My coworker, a late 20something English-fluent, college educated Hong Kong Modern Woman, was acting like a 12-year-old anygirl with the latest boy band release as she pulled Mr Rabbit out of her bag. "Every year I buy one and my mother throws it away after a short time! I like the rabbit lantern so much!"

So, apparently did other English-fluent, college-educated otherwise sane Modern Female coworkers who flocked to her desk as if she'd flung out a pair of Robbie Williams' or Edison Chan's used briefs. She ceremoniously hung Mr Rabbit from a rack under one of the newsroom's TVs and for about 8-minutes she and the other women were giddy photographing themselves with cell phone cameras as virginal Chinese maidens snuggling with their paper moon rabbit.

How could I scoff? And the feeling returned and multiplied when I saw the glow light lit families romping and stomping under a perfect harvest moon. Would that it would shine forever.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Don't Fear the Reaper
I was laboring through a deadly and dull assigned tome on Hong Kong private schools when my editor, an excitable erratic and often irrational chap (as well as something of a bully) signaled me to his desk.

He stutters also, but suffice to say he managed to tell me that a popular Hong Kong film and TV comic named Lydia Shum Din-ha (or "Fei-Fei" which means "Fatty") was dead and he wanted an obit asap.

Another reporter had been dispatched to the hospital for the gruesome details and a press conference, he said.

To anyone outside of Hong Kong or China, her name is meaningless -- as it initially was to me -- but I knew the face. It's everywhere here. Fei-Fei is roughly a cross between Roseanne (fat) and Lucy (immensely popular) and her frizzy haired, black bespectacled chubby face is frequently seen in gossip and entertainment mags as well as endorsing countless products.

I Googled her, found some background and began calling people (four total) who might be able to comment, give me more information about her life or lead me to others who could. "Fei-Fei is dead," I said. "Yeah, this afternoon. Cancer, I think...listen I don't know too much about her, can you...etc."

I also told a startled coworker who wandered up to my desk about 40 minutes later looking less shaken.

"How do you know Fei-Fei is dead?" she asked.

"M--- told me. He said Ch--- was at the hospital for a press conference."

"Why is there nothing on TV?" she said, pointing to our news room TVs which were broadcasting weather or traffic reports at that moment. "It would be big news. Everywhere, everyone talking about it. Why are we the only ones who seem to know?"

I went back to M---. "Um...are you sure Fei-Fei is dead?" I asked carefully. He often bristles if even slightly contradicted and, sho 'nuff, began puffing up like a South American toad.

"I did not say she was dead," he sputtered, lying. "I said she is probably dead. Write everything you can find! It does not matter!"

"It does matter because I've already told four people that she's dead," I said in measured tones. "They will be telling others. Now I have to call them back and say we don't know if she's dead."

"It does not matter! Write everything!"

I left him with one tawdry bit that I had gleaned. "One person told me she gave great blow jobs. That's how she was able to keep that good looking boyfriend and husband for so long."

His face wrinkled, collapsed and puffed up again like some kind of grotesque trick balloon. "No! You cannot write that!"

I called the reporter at the hospital who laughed. "No, she's not dead. She has been taken from the ICU and is better. Her daughter is here and telling everyone she feels much better and that she thanks all her fans."

Then I began calling my Fei-Fei sources, including the one who'd given me the oral sex tidbit. He was gracious and laughed when I thanked him for his insight.

Meanwhile, M--- was in the news meeting, presumably telling our editor in chief that our lead story was the death of Fei-Fei. When he emerged, I told him what I had learned from Ch--- at the scene. More sputtering.

Other Chinese reporters (who also dislike him) began drifting by my desk, shaking their heads and saying things like "unbelievable!" One asked me why I'd called those whom I'd already informed of Fei-Fei's "death."

"I had to," I said. "We are a newspaper. People are supposed to trust us and what we say."

She laughed. "I don't believe it. I don't trust anything we write."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lonesome Town
One reason for my recent malaise and yet another self-pitying/self-absorbed post is the fact that I'm increasingly lonely in Hong Kong. Virtually all of the people I considered reasonably close friends - i.e. we could talk about topics beyond hangovers and weather - have left the paper.

After work it's me, books, the CDs, TV and all too often ... my pals Jack or Jim who don't say an awful lot beyond (assume eerie high pitched voice): "C'mon, drink meee! More!!! A little more iccceee, that'sss it, now drink meee...More! Now call an old girlfriend who hates you and who you haven't talked with in 20 years. Or maybe an old boss you always loathed! Let him have it! C'mon! It's only 4:30 in the morning there..."

No. Not pretty. Not too pretty at all.

I found myself mulling this over considerably during the last two days when I had some out of town visitors and was almost ecstatic at the thought of having someone to talk with after work. Fish and visitors stink after three days, goes the cliche, but I had to restrain myself this morning from falling on my knees and begging them to stay

Then, after walking with them to the MTR entrance before peeling off to deliver my laundry I was almost giddy with anticipation at the thought of small talk with my laundress whose comments normally don't go beyond "Hello! Minimum! (HK$27, the usual charge for my sack o' filth) You want tomorrow? Not possible! Thank you!"

Today I knew I had more than the "minimum" and got caught up in a fantasy wherein I would be able to spin that fact into a charged give-and-take 20 minute philosophical discourse on the connections between lesser works of the Roman poet Virgil, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and, oh, maybe, the Buzzcocks.

Alas, it was not to be. "Hello! Wha!? WhAAA?! No minimum? Maximum!"

"Uh, yeah. You see I was listening to Spiral Scratch by the Buzzcocks last night, you know while reading Virgil's Book One of the Georgics and I got so excited when I realized that it all mirrored Murakami's obsession with mysterious women who lead him through walls that I knocked a bowl of curry noodles all over my last pair of good pants..."

No. I just paid HK$37 and asked if I could pick them up tomorrow. "No tomorrow!" she said. "Friday! Bye bye!"

No tomorrow, indeed.

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