Friday, October 28, 2005

Miers to go before I sleep

The combination of the shape of Harriet Miers's jaw, her heavy eyeliner, her hair and her slightly tentative demeanour made me think: this is what Princess Diana would have looked like had she lived.

The power of nightmares

I saw my first scary film at the age of about 9. We were staying at the house of friends in Edinburgh - quirky university lecturers who lived in a huge multi-story house in the west end where all the embassies are. Just one floor of their house was bigger than our entire cottage. They had a mynah bird in its own huge caged domain and served venison for dinner. They had a separate playroom for their only child, an over-clever boy who’d be programming his computer in the days before anyone really knew what computers were.

After dinner the kids were sent to the playroom where we watched TV - a 60s English oddity called “Psychomania” (1971) which seemed to wrap urban legends and strangely contemporary themes of bikers, mods and 60s cool into the tale of a zombie biker crew who, following their messianic leader and his magic talisman, killed themselves in bizarre ways in order to return to from the dead to terrorise the lieges. According to IMDB it's a black comedy, and there were funny parts which we could cling to - a policeman inspecting a bike at the bottom of a tower block looks up to the owner standing at the roof top and says “Is this yours? Come down and move it please” to which he responds with a cheery “OK!” and a flying leap. But my first "horror" film had such an impact on me that even after we hastily turned over to the golf before the film had even ended to try to overlay the frightening imagery with something cheerful and anodyne (and I’ve never looked at golf in the same way since), I was gripped by a terror that made me feel sick to my bones. I didn’t sleep that night and had terrible dreams of silver-clad men coming in to my room to bear me away to their zombie lair.

The taste for horror films is a peculiar part of my make-up given my formative experiences of them. I devoured tales of UFOs, ghosts and the unexplained until the point when I realised that human credulity had more to do with the persistence of these tales than anything else. I’ve still got a soft spot for a good horror film; unfortunately there aren’t many of those around. The most recent thing I saw which was genuinely scary was a Thai film called “Shutter” - a young photographer starts seeing mysterious shadows on his photographs and discovers that someone is haunting him. Like all good stories the impact was in the idea and the imagery rather than the reality.

There are two reasons I was thinking about this today: one, because eight schoolchildren were crushed to death on Tuesday in Guangna township in Sichuan province because one of them shouted that he’d seen a ghost; and two, I did a test last night on the BBC website which registered levels of “Disgust”. One picture was so revolting that the image stayed with me until I went to sleep and contributed to uneasy dreams not unlike the dreams I had after seeing “Psychomania” (except, and this is a relief, without the silver space-suits).

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Just shut up and paddle

I’ve just spent the weekend racing in Guam with my team, the Hong Kong Outrigger Association (HKOA - although for some reason the vacuous commentator consistently referred to us throughout the tournament, over the PA system, as “HKOC”). We flew in to Guam extremely early on Saturday morning and went straight to our hotel, the Marriott, overlooking the beach where we were going to be racing. We just had time to change and rush down to the beach which was a long, narrow strip of sand overlooking a bay of clear blue water with huge waves breaking on a reef a few hundred metres from the shore.

The US formally purchased Guam (“Where America’s Day Begins”) from Spain for $20 million in 1899. It’s an “unincorporated organised territory” (according to the US federal government) and a “non-self-governing territory” (according to the UN) - I think this means it’s voluntarily part of the US, not pressganged into being a colony, but falls short of being a proper US State. It’s the place where, amongst other things, Ferdinand Magellan anchored in 1521 on his ill-fated circumnavigation of the globe. During WWII, it was occupied by the Japanese and retaken by American forces in August 1944 - a mere 18,000 soldiers died in the process. It was home to the Japanese soldier, Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi, the poor devil who was discovered hiding in a cave 28 years after the war was over.

Guam itself is a rather weird, almost wholly Americanised place. If you woke up there without knowing your location you really would think you were in any anonymous town in the American mid-west - with the same wide roads lined with the same chain stores and chain food outlets. It was jarring to see US flags everywhere and a large picture of George W. Bush in the airport. It sounds fatuous given current events, but it’s easy to forget just how patriotic Americans are - I can’t imagine any public place in the UK displaying a cheesy snap of a grinning Tony Blair.

The beach where the races took place was actually very nice and the water was clear and blue - a vast improvement on paddling in Hong Kong in murky water you dread falling into. Paddling is exciting; reports of it are not. Here they are anyway.

A day at the races: Saturday
The sun shone and it was already very hot by the time the first races started - 1,500 metres, with four turns around a buoy. The turns are exhilarating and exhausting, with everyone yelling and the paddlers at seats one and two (the latter being me on this occasion) leaning out of the boat to draw on the left while the water, with the texture of just-setting concrete, seems to resist every effort our bodies are making.

We had an alien paddler at seat four in both the 1,500 metres and the 500 because our steerswoman had hurt her back and couldn’t do turns, so the other team (the A Crew, who are all more experienced paddlers) got one of our team and we had to ask the other Hong Kong club to lend us someone for each of the races on Saturday. Paddling with six women in a crew has taught me a lot about teamwork - it sounds trite, but we work really well together and had all been training together at least three times a week at least for the weeks leading up to the race, so it really felt like there was something missing when she went in to the other boat.

A day at the races: Sunday
I was at seat 3 for the 16K race - an hour and a half of hard paddling, for which we went out beyond the reef into the big wide ocean. Seat 3 calls the changes, which means that every 15 strokes, in what must seem a rather quaint exchange, I call “Hut!"; everyone responds "Ho!" and we all swap sides from paddling on the left to the right, or vice versa (we paddle on alternate sides down the boat). The B Crew triumphed by beating the B and C crews of our main Hong Kong rivals as well as the A Crew from our own team - a victory that was, probably perversely, very sweet. The picture above is of the victorious team (well, we came fourth, but it felt damn good as we are all new to outrigging this year) in our eye-wateringly bright kit in front of the canoe.

I can't believe how much this has changed me: starting with dragon boating, and now moving on to outrigging, two sports I'd never even heard of before coming to Hong Kong. I am now so far gone that I am convinced that a paddle is a beautiful thing - I am even going to buy one of my own. Clearly I am now nothing more than a Paddle Zombie, standing lifeless and unmoving, waiting only for the cry “Paddles Up!”

Monday, October 17, 2005

I've seen the future and it hurts

In the cab to Beijing airport the driver was playing some Chinese pop music which was actually really good: Coldplay-ish, I suppose, and shades of U2 and Nirvana (I'm not painting a very attractive picture here, I realise). When we asked what it was, he took the CD out and tried to give it to us. I still have no idea what it was and we refused to take the CD, although he may just have copied it somewhere anyway as it had the generic no-brand label of a CD from a pack of blanks.

I think the music might have sounded better than it really was partly because we are so used to awful Cantopop that it was refreshing to hear a sweet, mellow voice singing in Chinese something that didn't sound trite. It could have been a lament for choked lungs or a meditation on a doomed love affair, or it could have been a song about eating some truly excellent siew long bao (Shanghainese dumplings).

Strongly reminded of it by the city we'd just visited, we talked about the film Blade Runner and about how visions of the future showing the world as a polluted city where only the poor breathe the air is so much more believable than the sanitised, graceful ballet of space stations in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The plane was delayed for an hour and as I was due back in Hong Kong for a very important conference call at 9, I started feeling increasingly anxious. We touched down at 8pm and I left my colleague to carry the brown paper-wrapped painting I'd bought and ran at full speed through the airport - clattering in my high heels and yanking along my little black suitcase on wheels to great amusement from passers-by - through immigration, and on to the airport express train.

It's a sign of the extraordinary efficiency of Hong Kong's airport and transport system that I was sitting at my desk in Central at two minutes past 9, dialling the conference call number with my heart still pounding from the effort.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Unreal city

I am in Beijing, which yesterday was shrouded in bitter-tasting clouds of pollution settling unbelievably low across the city. From the window of the China World Tower, it was difficult to discern the shape of buildings only metres away. Today, however, is clear and beautiful and you can even see the mountains in the distance beyond the Forbidden City.

Beijing is difficult to imagine even when you're at the heart of it which (I think) I am, at least in the business sense. All the law firms we are visiting have their offices in the same place: China World Tower 1 or 2, and beneath the towers there's a labyrinthine, extraordinarily large shopping centre packed with luxury stores, cafes and sushi bars, supermarkets, and a small but perfectly formed ice rink around which we watched a tiny girl, wearing a pink lurex outfit with the universal tasteful (sic) flesh coloured patches, swish her way.

Going in to Armani and Prada and Marc Jacobs, it's hard to imagine who is actually buying anything. Prices are higher than Hong Kong, but apparently shopgirls are saving for months to buy. It sticks in my mind that there are nineteen (19) Chanel stores in mainland China; so even relatively obscure places like Dalian (in the north east) are part of the luxury brand phenomenon. It seems to fit with the Chinese notion of face value.

Looking out the window today, and actually able to see the scope of the city without the "mist", you realise just how vast it is. Unlike Shanghai it's not really a walkable city: you'll walk a block and the same building will still be alongside. Giant roads packed with slow moving cars slash across the vista in every direction.

G√ľnther Grass lived in Berlin before the wall came down because he described it (somewhat pretentiously, I always thought) as the city "closest to the realities of the age". Without hyperbole, with its pollution and rapidly emerging consumerism, I think Beijing better fits that description now.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket -
And you listening.
A spider's web, tense for the dew's touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming - mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath -
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
'Moon!' you cry suddenly, 'Moon! Moon!'
The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes

Thursday, October 06, 2005

October revolution

It's Golden Week in mainland China at the moment, and everyone downs tools and, typically, travels thousands of miles to their home towns. All the factories in the Pearl River Delta are shut and as a result the skies in Hong Kong were a Turner painting today. Looking out of my office window, the sun was shining and all the buildings, even across the harbour, were sharply defined and perfectly visible. It was like seeing them for the first time.

Of course, HongKongers' proclivity for blaming the mainland for all our ills is somewhat hypocritical, given that most of the factories belching out the pollution which drifts down the Pearl River Delta and attaches itself to Hong Kong are owned by Hong Kong residents looking to source their production somewhere cheaper and less well-regulated than Hong Kong.

When I go out paddling on the water at night I try not to think about the correlation between the clearly visible swathes of pollution obscuring the hillsides of South Island and the air I am breathing.