Monday, November 28, 2005

Mask hysteria

We’re not yet at the fever pitch of rumour, counter-rumour and speculation that engulfed the whole of Hong Kong during SARS in 2003 (as a newcomer to the city I was utterly bemused by the fact that I suddenly seemed to be in the middle of a hospital drama on a gigantic scale), but, ratcheted up of course by hysterical coverage in the press with a lot of unseemly mentions of how slow mainland China is at releasing information, with the barely hidden implication that it's those mainlanders who will cause the pandemic, it’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves back in the numbers game for counting up the bird flu deaths and calculating the infection-to-mortality rate (yes, this was quite a popular SARS pursuit).

After SARS, clear-headed commentators pointed out that the real economic damage was caused by the spread of fear, not the spread of SARS. But every morning at the bus stop there are more people wearing masks. I think the bird flu threat encapsulates all of HK’s favourite fears rolled into one:

  • an illness spread by contact with other people
  • toxic food (just when you thought it was safe to buy live chickens...)
  • a falling economy which will affect property prices, and finally, of course,
  • mainlanders

Thursday, November 24, 2005

“Help promised for obsessive people”

Today’s BBC Ticker Special. My first question is: do I qualify?

I think someone was having a laugh, because in the blink of an eye they changed it to the much more anodyne “GPs get obsessive disorder advice”.

Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season

I admit that I am looking forward to Christmas with almost childlike enthusiasm (unlike New Year which never fails to be a damp squib). This is partly because of the new traditions my sister, also a great lover of Christmas, has invented: buck’s fizz in the morning, and stockings for everyone, and home made almond croissants in front of Marg’s open fire. Since coming to Hong Kong, and being at any given time at least 14 hours away from my family, my appreciation of the time spent with them is magnified one hundred fold.

Because it’s Scotland it’s always cold, but we wrap up warmly and go down to the sea before lunch. The beach at Gullane is about 15 miles away and we listen to carols from King’s College in the car. The wind is often so harsh you’re bent double trying to walk along the beach and the flying sand hits your face like a resurfacing peel gone wrong, but the air is sharp and you can see for miles.

I love the thought that the Peas will have happy memories of the traditions we are perpetuating, and perhaps apply them themselves one day.
Unfortunately Christmas was a disaster for us last year, but we are going to try to overlay some nice memories this time. I know that for many people it is the worst possible time of year and to some extent it’s always a triumph of hope over experience for me too. Better to have hope in the first place, though.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Who's that next to the President of China?

At the time of the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997 Prince Charles reportedly described the Chinese leadership as "awful old waxworks". Looking at this photo of Bush in China next to Hu Jintao what immediately springs to mind is: who's a waxwork now?

There is a slight, but amusing satire in which Bush asks Condoleezza Rice "Who's the President of China?" and she says "Hu". And he says, "The President of China?", and she says "Hu's the President of China". And he says "No, I'm asking you, who's..." and she says "Yes, Hu", and he says "OK. So who's the Vice-president?" and she says "No, it's Wen", and he says "When's the Vice-president what?" ... and so on.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

She blinded me with science

Once a week, on a Sunday, I have a date to "see" my sister and her three year old twin boys (AKA the Peas) using the webcam. I feel the need to dress up for the occasion and always put lipstick on, and sometimes a wig or a hat to make them laugh. It is odd knowing that I am looking in to Claire’s living room in East Lothian - Scotland - UK - The World. When I physically step inside that room I am usually jetlagged, tired, disorientated, but happy to be back with my family so there is another disconnect to be looking in to her house when I am feeling none of those things. At 9pm on Sunday night in Hong Kong it’s lunchtime on a Sunday in the UK and the sun always seems to be shining like a memory of childhood. This week my dad (Chris) and his wife were there and were, rather touchingly, excited beyond measure at the strangeness of technology. Chris must be the slowest typist ever. There’s no sound, so all I could see was "… is writing a message" and the top of Chris’s head (still blond, but slightly balding) as he pored over the keyboard laboriously writing. Occasionally Claire walked past with a little boy either on her hip or looking up at her plaintively, completely ignoring the computer in the corner even though their aunt was looking out of it. After at least 10 minutes of typing Chris’s message finally came up and it was a pocket sized sentence. I realised that this was the first time I’d ever seen my father in front of a computer.

It is a strange sensation viewing the lives they are living as though watching a documentary (“Little Sister is Watching You”). Sometimes someone moves the curtain and the sun stripes across the room. People are holding cups of tea in coloured mugs. Chris (my dad) is wearing a bright red shirt and waistcoat with a kerchief neatly tucked in the pocket. His wife is wearing a long black skirt and has a faintly Romanian air about her. Faces cross the eye of the webcam, smile, wave, reassuringly continue doing what they are doing as if it’s commonplace having me here watching. The TV may be on because I can almost see its flicker in the corner. I hold my camera up to show the lights of Hong Kong night (and my neighbours’ lives) outside my window.

After I stop watching the sun will still be shining and they will finish their cups of tea.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Around the world in a day

Yesterday I circumnavigated Hong Kong Island by sea: the club were paddling in the Round the Island Race in an all-male crew and I was in the support boat, a junk belonging to The Economist. I was meant to be paddling, but there weren’t enough women to enter a separate crew; and I admit I was relieved because the race involves sea changes where you have to wait in the water for the boat to come by and then haul yourself over the gunwale while the person in the seat you’re headed for racks their paddle and bails out the other side. This is manageable in flat water, but in swells, in a race situation, and at speed, it is a thoroughly nerve-wracking prospect.

The race is organized by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, takes place once a year and is for anything that is not engine-powered - usually yachts, although there are windsurfers too. It’s connected to the Harbour Day celebrations which are intended to promote the idea that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the harbour is for everyone - tralala, and the day that it’s not too toxic to swim in and they stop reclaiming it to build shopping centres and prestige apartments maybe I’ll believe that.

This year, for the first time, outrigger canoes were permitted to take part. Our team took nearly 5 hours, and the yachts, which started later in stages according to class, came racing round Cape D’Aguilar at the south-east tip of the island and towards us in the blink of an eye. I looked back and there was the fleet (about 180 sailing boats of all sizes) bearing down on us in the late-morning sunshine: some with white sails and some with grey. It was an incredible sight. Then the wind dropped and all the yachts were becalmed not far from Aberdeen Harbour while our team moved past them again - a very strange sight, as their sails fell, and the current against them slowed their speed, and they looked across at the tiny six-man canoe slipping from their clutches.

The top outrigger team came from Hawaii and they completed the clockwise circuit of the island in just under four hours, beating all but a few of the yachts. The last stretch, into Victoria Harbour, was spectacular, with sails everywhere and the usual intense atmosphere of a somewhat polluted Sunday in the harbour: the Star Ferry crossing back and forth in wide loops to avoid the harbour reclamation project which inexorably impinges into the waterway; the Macau, Discovery Bay and Lamma ferries powering past us churning steaming water in their wake; tug boats pulling unimaginably heavy loads of what looked like sand and rocks; container ships towering with rusty ice cream blocks; the oily sheen of the water; the tall buildings rising into the smog; and what sounded like karaoke booming out from the Exhibition and Conference Centre.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Picture this

Hong Kong Chinese-language newspapers, such as the Apple Daily and The Sun, have a tendency to reproduce the most shocking pictures on the front page to attract readers. Blatantly displayed on the newsstands are graphic aftermath pictures of car crashes and other disasters, often with a specially blown up portion showing the severed hand, pool of blood or chopping knife in question (the weapon of choice in Asia: victims are generally “chopped”, not stabbed). The Apple Daily had a series on how people committed suicide - an undeniably fascinating topic for Hong Kong, which has an unusually high suicide rate (the top two methods being (1) charcoal burning in a sealed off room and (2) jumping from a very tall building), but not an appropriate subject for a full-colour illustrated guide.

Today’s South China Morning Post has a picture on the front cover of three dead bodies lying in the street in Amman after the bombings on Wednesday. I strongly object to the news values which suggest that it’s acceptable to have pictures of bodies on the front page, but at least the Apple Daily and The Sun are even-handed: they’ll show anyone’s dead body. There’s no way the South China would have shown pictures of dead westerners - which is corroborated by the absence of any such pictures following recent bomb attacks which have killed westerners, in Bali and elsewhere.

Lest it seem as though I have some sort of vendetta against the South China -- well, okay --

Marshall McLuhan said “people don't read newspapers, they slip into them like a warm bath”. One thing I miss from the UK is reading a really good quality newspaper every day. Of course Marshall meant this as a criticism: we’re unthinkingly reading the paper to have our prejudices confirmed. Unfortunately the poor old South China confirms all my prejudices, and not in a good way.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I've seen the past and it's the future

We watched Primer on DVD the other night and the story has stuck in my mind. The film was nominated for an award at Cannes and is a very clever, downbeat, ingenious exploration of the concept of time travel and the butterfly effect: in its execution, almost like a forward-motion take on Memento. The really impressive element was that nothing was spelt out for the viewer and nothing was explained: you have to use your own intelligence to get to grips with what is happening.

The film centres on two would-be start-up millionaires experimenting in a garage, having clearly given up full time work in pursuit of their vision, who almost accidentally discover a way to project themselves back in time. What follows is a series of scenes, connected and, at first, seemingly unconnected, which play out the effect of their own attempts to harness the machine for their own purposes: from the banal, by futures trading on the stock market, to the dangerous, by interfering with the course of past events.

The film is shot in a determinedly low-key style with such naturalistic performances that it makes an implausible scenario seem quite believable and the outcome, or series of outcomes, entirely credible.

When the film, which seems much shorter than it actually was, came to an end, John and I sat there in silence for a while trying to puzzle things out. We can’t stop talking about it, thinking about it, and contemplating watching it again. Strangely I’ve been having trouble remembering the name of the film. I have been projecting myself back in time to watch myself watching the title coming up on the screen...

Friday, November 04, 2005

Moles to soles

Using brand new technology just arrived in Hong Kong from Australia, where they’ve had to take such things seriously, I have just had my little collection of suspect moles scanned and analysed by a computer program which analyses the shape, colour and formation of each mole and rates it according to how likely it is to be a melanoma. Before this, a very matter of fact doctor examined my entire body in what seemed like a blink of an eye, and then recommended that the five moles I’d been worried about should be scanned.

During the scanning process a handheld scanner is pressed against the skin like a little eye - cushioned by a satisfyingly viscous blob of gel from a tube - and the mole appears on screen magnified to thousands of times its normal size. This was a thoroughly unnerving experience as (and I’ll spare you too much visceral detail) the things I’d thought were weird, wrong or just plain scary about my moles suddenly appear blown up to crisis size.

Back to the doctor, though, and he succinctly dismissed my concerns by showing me the computer assessment of each mole which concluded that each one of them was in the “normal” range. Nothing to worry about then, and so giddy was I on emerging into Des Voeux Road that I went into On Pedder and nearly bought myself a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes with sexy red soles (hence the crass title of this entry). Clearly great relief turns me shallow.

(Due to popular demand, here are the Mole Man's details: Dr Leung, Room 610, Tak Shing House, 20 Des Voeux Road, Central. Tel. 2523 5995.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Brave New World

I met someone claiming to be the Deputy MD of New World First Bus at a party a few weeks ago. Although slightly unnerved by his claim to admire George W. Bush (and without missing the chance to argue with him about it by pointing out that he might not feel that way if Dubya ran the company he worked for, a point which he was forced to concede), I took the opportunity, as you would, to complain bitterly about the bus service outside my own door. (I think this is the definition of "think globally act locally", or maybe just a portent of becoming the sort of person who writes indignantly to the South China Morning Post.)

His surprisingly dynamic response was that he would have the problem (too many passengers, not enough buses) fixed by Monday. I'm still waiting in vain, literally and figuratively, but this was a good response, which I try to emulate when someone challenges me about the service my company provides; but he'd better follow up on his promises or I will be writing to the South China.

I don't know what can be extrapolated about the psyche of Hong Kongers from their behaviour on buses. Suffice it to say that a good Hong Kong commuter is no more deterred by a sign on the front of the bus saying "BUS FULL", a fact thoroughly supported by the legions of customers already on the bus whose cheeks are pressed against all the windows and doors as if someone has just exerted a centrifugal force by spinning the bus like a top, than he or she is deterred by the sight of an orderly, but extraordinarily long line of people waiting outside an egg tart shop which has been given notice to quit by its landlord. Perhaps it's a variant of the urge to buy expensive branded goods on the basis that if so many people want it, it must be good.