China-Me and the Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 3 (v.1) - Hong Kong

Submitted: December 30, 2008

Reads: 260

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Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Hong Kong
You join me on a ferry from Macao to Hong Kong. It’s super fast. I think it’s called a catamaran, or something, but whatever it’s called, it’s certainly fast; so fast, in fact, they make you wear a seat belt, but that might just be for show. Perhaps they feel they can charge you more if they make you feel like you’re on an airplane.
Out of the window, tiny islets glide by and we zoom past countless small fishing boats in the interminable mist. Southern China spends about nine months a year shrouded in cloud and mist, and I’m beginning to remember how dispiriting it is. When I lived in China, I remember the sky becoming overcast and misty in about November and I didn’t see the sun again until June. Perhaps my memory is just playing tricks on me. Surely there must have been some sunshine between November and June, but I don’t remember any.
As we near Hong Kong, the sea changes from dirty brown to pale blue. This means we have escaped the clutches of the Pearl River Delta, one of China’s most massive rivers; pouring mud, silt and a million containments into the South China Sea. . Hong Kong is far enough away from the mainland to be free of its effects, so the sea is blue and not brown, but Macao and Zhuhais’ waters (the city where I used to live) are permanently muddied by it.
The sea is very choppy today, I note in my diary, and we’re experiencing what a pilot might call ‘major turbulence’. As I write, the captain announces that that “the boat is pitching heavily, and we’re experiencing a heavy swell and you should please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts.” I wonder absent-mindedly what exactly a ‘swell’ is, and then I wonder when people stopped using the word ‘swell’ as an adjective to mean great, and I ponder if a connection ever existed between the two uses of the word ‘swell’.
I am also suddenly interested in unhygienic nature of seat covers, and wonder if headrests carry germs.
My mind often fixates on irrelevant details like this, even in moments of ‘crisis’. If, one dark night, the nuclear missiles do fly, and we hear the air raid sirens wail out the final three-minute warning,I’ll probably start thinking about a song from the eighties called ‘Two Tribes’ that began with a siren alert, and then start wondering what ever happened to Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
My mental perambulations are brought to a halt by the disquieting sound of people vomiting into paper bags. It makes me question the wisdom of that last glass of wine last night, or even the bottle of wine that preceded it.
I wasn’t really worried though. Actually, I’ve never been sea sick, unless you count the sense of nausea brought on by watching Leonaro di Capio’s romantic histrionics in ‘Titanic’. Nevertheless, the sound of quadraphonic vomiting is rather unpleasant.
Vomiting, I suddenly recall from an unfortunate incident in my university days, can easily become projectile vomiting. I wonder if my fellow passengers can be trusted to fire into their vomit bags with 100% accuracy. An irrational fear of being hit in the face by projectile vomit grips me for a while, but then I realise it is an irrational fear and it passes.
Eventually the swell passes as well. I pick up my pen again as we head into Hong Kong. Small fishing boats are replaced by enormous tankers. Hong Kong has the busiest port in the world, but will soon be replaced by Shanghai.
Through the mist, I can now make out the magnificent Victoria harbour, whose skyline must be unmatchable, and the catamaran has slowed to impulse power as we dock at Central, Asia’s answer to Manhattan.
Arriving in Hong Kong always gives me an odd sense of …well… ‘arrival’; that I am entering somewhere important and therefore must myself be important.
We’ve all seen Hong Kong as the backdrop to some movie or other. It’s one of those places everyone can identify whether you’ve been there or not, like Paris or New York. James Bond seems inordinately fond of the place, but his Hong Kong is very different to mine. In Bond’s Hong Kong, it’s always swelteringly hot, beads of perspiration glisten on wispy young girls in Suzi Wong dresses, rickshaw drivers hustle busily, triad gangs wage war on each other using ancient marshal arts, and so on and so on.
The reality, of course, is far more mundane. When we docked, everything was enveloped in that omnipresent Chinese mist; hiding the glass and chrome of the skyscrapers. The temperature was a damp and chilly 15 degrees; a cold that quickly enters your bones. The Cantonese busily and joylessly went about their daily lives in drab clothes, occupied as we all are in making a living, wrapped up in the blanket of petty distractions and irrelevancies that is modern life.
In a sudden moment of bleakness, an emotion that seems to follow me wherever I go, uninvited and unwanted, the place looked about as exotic as Birmingham in the Winter.
I had never noticed it before, but Hong Kongers don’t look happy: busy and purposeful, certainly, but not really happy. It shocked me for some reason: the sight of so many unhappy people.
Perhaps it was because I had spent the previous nine months in Thailand, ‘the land of smiles’, and Thais look so happy they’d make Santa’s Elves seem like a miserable bunch of workaholic dullards.
In Thailand, as a teacher, I lived in fear of being found ‘too serious’ by my students, and tried to only show them ‘Phillip Light’ in class: the fun-loving, game-playing, all-singing, all-dancing side of my personality; and kept the more serious, some might say dour, side of my personality hidden. In China, in contrast, I could keep my students spellbound with earnest discussions on my philosophy of teaching.
The point I’m trying to make is that while the word ‘serious’ only has negative connotations in Thailand, the country I was living in at the time, seriousness was definitely something positive in China. So, for the first time I understood why my Thai students who visited China were rarely impressed by the place, or more exactly, by the people, who they found too ‘serious’ and rather unfriendly.
While Hong Kongers don’t have the steely-eyed grimness of Muscovites, who have an idiom that claims that ‘only an idiot smiles all the time’, Hong Kongers do not go through their day with a smile on their face, a song on their lips, and a magical glint in their eye.
On the other hand, neither do I, and if I ever start doing so, I’ve instructed my wife to shoot the alien body snatcher who has taken over my coprse, or at least poke me in the eye with a chopstick, which she has agreed to do-all too readily, come to think of it.
But let’s return to our trip. We went through the tedious formalities of customs, and I went through my habitual moan about my passport being filled with stamps for travelling from one part of China to another. Sandra had heard this particular rant many times before, and just nodded resignedly, no doubt going to that ‘happy place’ in her mind that she goes to get away from me. I often wish I had a ‘happy place’ in my mind I could visit to get away from me too.
The problem, you see, is that when travelling between Hong Kong/Macao and China proper, you are required to go though an awful lot of form-filling and passport-stamping, all watched over by stern border guards; the boys in black and blue, men trained for years in how to go through their entire working day without ever showing the slightest flicker of human emotion.
I passed my time in the queue wondering how they did it. I imagined them sitting through old episodes of Star Trek and studying Science Officer Spock, the emotionless Vulcan.
Anyway, after the border formalities, we brought our slightly queasy stomachs onto dry land, and set about looking for a toilet.
This is not as straightforward as you might think, as Asian shopping centre architects set out to hide them in the unlikeliest of places, believing that if they make you walk around the mall long enough, you’ll make an impulse purchase. Personally, I’ve never enjoyed shopping, and I’m even less likely than normal to pop into Benetton to buy a fluffy jumper when what I really want to do is empty my bladder.
But after ten minutes that seemed much longer, and another ten minutes looking for the mall’s exit (those wily architects also hide those, the fiends), we found ourselves in the centre of Hong Kong, ants among the skyscrapers.
For the record, I should point out that my have the world’s worst sense of direction, and my inability to find my way out of shopping centres in legendary.
We came out of the mall on an elevated walkway. The centre of Hong Kong is full of them, and to be honest, I think they’re amazing. I kind of feel like I’m walking on air, removed from the traffic fumes and the eternally red pedestrian traffic lights.
It feels a bit like being an extra from a Star Trek episode, a contented automaton in a futuristic metropolis. However, if you’re not careful about where you’re walking, you can easily end up in another Mall, and if you wander too far inside the mall, you may never find you’re way out of it again. However, we kept our bearings, and soon descended into the middle of Hong Kong’s financial district, where all the best skyscrapers are to be found.
Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than any other city on Earth. I don’t just mean per capita of population or anything; I’m talking absolute numbers here. It has a whopping 7,417 of them; 2,000 more than its nearest rival, New York.
Moreover, their setting, with Victoria Harbour on one side and a mountain on the other, only adds to their appeal. Admittedly, only a small percentage of the 7,417 skyscrapers in Hong Kong are works of art, but those that are enthral me.
A skyscraper, you might object, is inherently ugly, but I don’t agree. In Central Hong Kong, they are works of art; monuments to progress and the unlimited potential of man. They have style and panache. The architects actually seemed to be trying for once (perhaps growing tired of hiding toilets in shopping malls).
The centre of Hong Kong is what all future cities should look like, and we should live and work in these gleaming utopias, challenging the sky and aiming upwards, upwards, ever upwards.
Cities like London could be squashed into a fraction of their present size if we tore up the suburbs and let people live in skyscrapers; buildings they could be proud of, buildings that make a statement. Not rabbit hutches, not council-built lego sets, but real buildings.
The retreat of the countryside could be halted and the suburbs tuned to parks and farmland. All would be perfect, evermore!
Or perhaps it’s a terrible idea, but Hong Kong’s skyscrapers can turn a boy’s head.
In the centre of Central, we took a lunch break. We went to some yuppie health-food place and had a smoothie, or to give it its proper name, a ‘Power Booster’, and ate a ‘Tofu Full-On Energiser’. Everything on the menu sounded very tiring, but it tasted nice nonetheless.
It was an American chain, and the staff had been well trained in offering American service: shop assistants enthusiastically wished me a good day, and seemed inordinately keen on me enjoying my meal. I didn’t know why they were so taken with me, but it felt very gratifying to be so wanted.
The other clientele were very smartly dressed, and spoke with that quasi-American accent so common among the children of the ruling elite in Asia.
In the group of four teenagers next to me, for example, there were four different races; all speaking with the same accent, all dressed the same way and all using the same body language. I wondered if this was the ‘new global society’ I kept hearing about, and if so, why did it make me feel slightly uneasy?
Perhaps because it’s not quite the egalitarian meritocracy it first appears to be. The teenagers might look good in a ‘United Colours of Benetton’ commercial, but these future captains of industry are simply the offspring of the present captains of industry; preened in exclusive private schools, and set to inherit the Earth.
The positions of power and prestige are not won by hard work and aptitude on a level playing field. They never were. They are passed on from generation to generation. The poor, for the most part, are excluded through lack of opportunity.
I wondered if this was the same in mainland China. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the ‘Communist aristocracy’ moved quickly to grab the wealth and preserve their place at the head of the trough. I wondered if the Party cadres in China were doing the same thing.
My analysis came to an abrupt end when I noticed the group I was studying had realised I was staring at them and taking notes. This always upsets people, as a matter of fact, and I usually just take notes in my head, which is much safer.
Suddenly the tables were turned, and they studied me. Even though I am white, which is always a status symbol in Asia, they recognized by my relatively shabby appearance and lack of brand names that I did not belong in their class. They knew I wasn’t ‘white trash’ but they also knew that I wasn’t an ‘alpha male’. Our caste signs are easily read.
I stopped writing before they called the police and had me thrown to the dogs, or thrown to the chickens, or whatever animal they throw you to in this part of the world. I didn’t want to end up as part of a ‘Full-On Energiser’ on tomorrow’s menu.
In the afternoon, we took a funicular up the side of the mountain, and took in the view from ‘The Peak’, Hong Kong’s park/shopping centre at the summit of one of its mountains.
From The Peak, you get some idea of the majesty of Hong Kong: the skyscrapers, business and residential; the harbour, its blue waters and jetties; Kowloon stretching into Shenzhen and the mainland. Millions of people; all of them busy.
When faced with all this beauty, this New Eden, this Brave New World, I found myself, much against my will, focusing instead on ear-wigging a telephone conversation between an obese English woman and her family back in Blighty. She spoke of nothing else but what she had bought and how little she had paid for it. I earwigged and earwigged, convinced that she would have to change the conversational topic sooner or later, but she didn’t. Eventually, she hung up, and I was forced to seek other entertainment.
I looked at the mist for a while, and felt a little glum, wondering if beauty actually existed if you didn’t see it, and wondering if there was a pill you could take to prevent distraction from beauty.
In the evening, back in the heart of Hong Kong, we had a fantastically expensive but rather mediocre Indian meal in one of Hong Kong’s so-called ‘budget’ restaurants. After 9 months in Thailand, Hong Kong seemed horribly expensive.
Trying to recover from the shock of the bill, we went to a bar but were even more shocked to pay eight dollars for a beer in one of Hong Kong’s backpacker bars. It was Happy Hour in the backpacker bar, but I wasn’t happy.
This particular backpacker was haemorrhaging cash, and decided to head for China proper, where a beer costs a dollar, as God intended.


© Copyright 2020 Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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