Thursday, December 28, 2006

Shirty tricks

I once had a personality assessment at work and one of my characterisitcs apparently was that I bear grudges. The following story may well be proof: Some years ago my friend Greg gave me a beautiful slate grey shirt from Cruise in Glasgow. It didn't really suit me (I think I'm too chubby-faced for collars) but I coveted it and admired it as it hung in its hallowed position in my wardrobe.

At the time I was sharing a flat with my then boyfriend and his sister Helen - a girl I never really got along with, especially after she tried to get my boyfriend back together with his ex (a saintly woman whom everyone apparently much preferred to cynical smart-mouthed me - and who can blame them?). Helen was one of these pinchfaced Scottish girls who always looked a bit miserable.

One day she was proudly showing off some black and white studio photos a friend of hers had taken of her - for some sort of portfolio perhaps, I can't remember - and in a truly jaw-dropping moment I realised that without asking me, and without mentioning it, she'd taken the shirt out of my wardrobe to wear for the photo shoot, and then slyly replaced it afterwards.

So blatant was she that I didn't even bother to remonstrate with her - it was too late for regrets by then. Perhaps some sort of socialist what's-mine-is-yours argument might have ensued (the same line of thinking as that of a onetime boyfriend of my sister's who at the bus stop espoused the view, on the basis that he was a Buddhist, that money was utterly unimportant, but then asked me for the fare when the bus came). But when this incident crossed my mind the other day I felt the newly kindled heat of outrage.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Melting moments

In other news, from Popbitch:

Burn baby burn: Iraq to get the Goodbye

Let's hope the US doesn't pull out of Iraq until we can see their great new weapon, the ADS, utilised. The ADS is a non-lethal crowd control weapon that beams microwaves at people, making them feel like their face is melting and provoking "highly motivated escape behaviour". Security experts have called it the "Goodbye effect".

The ADS has been tested in secret for 10 years, costing $40m. In human tests most
subjects reach their pain threshold in three seconds - no one has passed five seconds. The military claims its effects don't last long but this has yet to be checked independently.

What a great idea. Surely beams of searing pain from armoured Hummers liberating the streets of Baghdad can only help Western-Iraqi relations?


For the price of a cup of tea

My clothing labels today:
Jacket (Reiss): made in Portugal, bought in London
Skirt (Reiss): made in Portugal, bought in London
Shoes (Zara): made in Spain, bought in Hong Kong
Top (Gap): made in the Philippines, bought in Edinburgh

I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even really thought about looking at the label for country of manufacture before I buy something:,,1967404,00.html

Friday, December 08, 2006

Cape of good hope

An apology: to the woman in Harvey Nichols, to whom I said, in an unguarded moment as I swung past, “It’d be a great look if you could walk in the shoes”. Mea culpa: I immediately regretted sounding so catty because really, you did look great (short coal-black cape-like coat, deep blue pencil skirt, towering black suede heels, red lipstick and hair like Eva Marie Saint, above: now will they see?).

My only defence is veritas* - you really couldn’t walk in those shoes.

*Veritas convicii excusat, a principle in Scots law that the truth of a statement exonerates the maker from liability - a defence to a charge of defamation.

Cape from

Monday, November 27, 2006

Rise and shine

I'm in East Lothian, in the place where I grew up, just for the weekend before returning to Hong Kong tomorrow. It's cold, but crisp, and the sky is icy blue and clear. The air smells so fresh you could bite it. I went for a run with my sister today along the old railway walk: the simple pleasures of mud underfoot, breath streaming out in front of us, feeling warm, talking as we ran. Bacon sandwiches this morning and Midlake on the CD player.

Sometimes when I'm in the gym in Hong Kong and losing the will to live on the treadmill, I try to visualise the railway walk disappearing into the distance, the woods around me, and the way I feel: the run and the day could go on forever.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Let's go round again

Yesterday the HKOCC team competed once again in the Around the Island Race. This year we were able to put in a women’s crew. It’s 46K right round the island so it’s a change race – where paddlers jump in and out of the boat in a kind of relay. There were a couple of international crews paddling this year – Team Hawaii (the gods of the outrigger world) and Poksai, a strong women’s crew from Guam. Accordingly, I was acutely aware that yesterday was hellishly polluted, with extremely poor visibility and a faintly acrid taint in the wind: “please leave your tropical island paradise, where the skies are always blue, and come to see the sights of Hong Kong… er… oh.”

To the sailors’ great chagrin, there was no wind yesterday and the water was as flat as a pancake, so every single outrigger canoe (and there were nine), and two oceangoing double sculls, finished ahead of the sailors.

The race itself was pretty tough (our time was 4 hours 50 minutes, compared to team Hawaii’s 3:15), but quite exhilarating, even the sea changes, where you bob in the water as the boat veers towards you, hoping that you’ll have the strength to grab the sides and haul yourself in, in a sort of panicked blur (“Imagine there’s a shark underneath you”, I was advised). I have bruises in all the wrong places (from landing inelegantly on the side of the canoe) and my hands are in shreds, but it was a brilliant experience, especially paddling in through the harbour with ferries coming in on either side, the water like a washing machine, wake and waves everywhere and Hong Kong’s tallest building, 2 IFC, appearing through the gloom followed by the alien structure of the Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The above picture shows our boat coming in (I'm at seat two) - and gives a hint of just how murky the air was.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Not my bag

Asian women are very fond of Louis Vuitton - real or (whisper it) fake: apparently 94% of Tokyo women in their twenties own something bearing the LV logo (that could well be a made up statistic, although not by me: but it has a ring of authenticity about it from empirical evidence). On the bus in the morning, I can see at least 10 LV bags from where I'm sitting. It's almost cliched to observe that for the Chinese in particular, for the purposes of "face", wealth is something you wear on your sleeve.

Counterfeiters in mainland China have taken a very pragmatic approach: given how much money there is to be made, why not go straight to the source and hire Italian craftsmen from Louis Vuitton factories to make it look like the real thing? So good have the fakes become that at one time, before anyone got wise, people were taking fake LV bags in to the mainland's newly opened, less-sophisticated LV stores and getting their money "back".

Surely, however, even the most hardened LV fan will balk at this dog's dinner. As a further, even more unnecessary embellishment, that tuft of fur is frankly the most disturbing feature I've ever seen on a handbag. Marc Jacobs, hang your head in shame!

Find the Gap

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Roland Mouret designing for the Gap. I'm not convinced this is anything more than a cheap publicity stunt.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Mind the gap

There are a hell of a lot of very wealthy people in Hong Kong. Conspicuous wealth is everywhere, from the record sum a billionaire was willing to pay for a truffle (US$160,406), to the tycoon who has just paid US$17.4m for Andy Warhol’s pop-art portrait of Mao, to the proliferation of the world’s largest signature designer shops (Gucci, Armani, Lanvin), with unwearable clothes and baroque jewellery glittering inaccessibly behind heavy windows, to the fact that Hong Kong has the highest per capita ownership of Mercedes and the most dollar millionaires per square metre.

But there’s a lot of poverty and hardship here too: huge families packed in to 700 sq ft apartments; people sweltering in filthy rooms; children who can’t afford books; taxi drivers who throw themselves from the top of buildings because they’re so heavily in debt.

It does bother me that this dichotomy exists, and that I’m part of the problem, with my shallow desires for shoes and rings : from precipitous glass edifices posing as office buildings to rotting shacks – it’s a city of contrasts all right. The only thing we all have in common is that we’re currently all breathing the same filthy polluted air.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Holiday in Cambodia

I haven't really felt able to write about the experience of travelling with my mother to Cambodia because something so multi-faceted needs to time to digest.

It's also incredibly difficult to write about the trip in any meaningful way so I won't try. A few things:

When the Dead Kennedys wrote the song with the title of this post, it was a genuinely appalling prospect to visit Cambodia; and although Year Zero was in 1979, it's only 10 years ago that the resultant civil war finally ended.

Clearly there is a huge amount of poverty, but also, jarringly, conspicuous signs of wealth: along the narrow, crowded streets, amongst the mopeds, and bicycles, and tuktuks, occasionally an oversized 4x4 with blacked-out windows would make its brutish way, and once I saw one of those concrete symbols of arrogance, a Hummer. The city was undoubtedly not designed for large vehicles of any kind and on our way back to the airport our driver took a shortcut which led us straight to the heart of a traffic snarl of unimaginable intractability, at a standstill like a blood clot spreading out from the city centre.

Our visit had two purposes: I wanted to visit Sok Sabay, the orphanage in Phnom Penh where the little girl that we sponsor lives; and opportunistically, I'd arranged to go and visit the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia to see if my company could provide any services to the tribunal trying the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge (slogan: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss").

We stayed in the Foreign Correspondents' Club, overlooking the Tonle Sap, the wide, muddy river leading from Asia's largest freshwater lake to the Mekong. The river is the focus of the entire city, and along its banks are beggars, people selling hot food from mobile stalls (eggs, insects, pears), and kids selling travel guides from boxes slung round their necks. We saw an elephant, festooned with a red banner, walking along the street. When we sat outside a cafe eating lunch, squads of pocket sized kids crept up behind the protective row of pot plants with their hands out for money, but they seemed happy enough when we took some of them to a food stall and bought them prickly handfuls of lychee-like fruit, or a couple of waffles.

The orphanage houses 69 kids and we waded through calf-deep water in the flooded street to join them for lunch. They're housed in two multi-storey buildings, the upper floors packed with beds, and there are computers and blackboards and books, and the kids are happy and healthy. It is a very pragmatic, cheerful place. The kids were incredibly affectionate: one little mite leapt out of nowhere into my arms for a hug. The little girl we sponsor was quite shy at first but we took her out for ice cream and she seemed to relax a bit and put her hand in mine as we walked by the river. We bought her a little box from the Russian Market; when she was picked up to be taken home on the back of a motorbike, she turned and waved and waved until she was out of sight.

The Extraordinary Chamber has taken shape a few miles out of Phnom Penh, in an old army base. The tribunal itself will sit in a converted army concert hall, on a vast wooden stage, with tiered rows of blue seats holding the audience, watching the witnesses and defendants in the spotlight. I asked the Cambodian administrator who was showing me around how the Cambodian people felt about the tribunal given that it is costing US$20m a year (a snip of the US$90m reportedly being incurred by the ICTY). He said simply "People want justice".

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Chan meeting

Hong Kong has a waxwork museum, on the Peak, inside the massive anvil-shaped building that contains the viewing tower from which, on an increasingly rare clear day, you can see down to the whole of Central and across to Kowloon. The waxworks, judging by the pictures, are astonishingly inept: the one of David Beckham looks like Steven Seagal, which I suppose is killing two birds with one stone: like a Rorshach blot, if you want Beckham, you get Beckham; if you want Seagal...

Above: Steven Seagal's waxwork (c) Hong Kong Waxwork Museum, AKA another opportunity to publish a risible photograph

I was in the lift in my office building with Jackie Chan yesterday. Had he been on his own I would certainly have said hello, but he was chatting animatedly with the person he was with, so I kept my mouth shut. The interior of the lift is entirely clad in mirrors (profoundly disheartening on a bad hair day) so I was able to observe him from a few different angles. Clearly he looks nothing like he does on the telly, and in fact it immediately struck me how much he looks like his waxwork. Ouch!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Chain of fools

Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga, Spring 2007. From

Shock of the new

Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga, Spring 2007 "ready to wear". On the contrary, it's practically unwearable, but somehow fabulous.

Why should I let the toad "work" squat on my life?*

It's my birthday today, and I'm off work and wandering the streets seeing again, as if for the first time, what people who don't work do all day. When I was looking for work in Edinburgh in 1993, I remember walking along Princes Street looking at people in suits and feeling permanently excluded from their club.

Someone asked me the other day where I get my confidence from and I answered straight away "professional success" (half-quoting from the maxim "professional success is the revenge of the nerd"). Work is extremely important to me: what I do is a major contributor to how I feel about myself. I still suffer from crises of confidence about work, and whether or not I'm competent; but on the whole I feel confident about myself because I have a good job.

I've been feeling a bit disillusioned about work lately but walking around today reminds me that I need to work. I couldn't bear to be a tai tai, wafting around Lane Crawford and spending money on expensive bags to no end.

Amongst other things, today I noticed that a significant proportion of people are boldly walking around with a small flannel tucked into their clothes at the back of the neck. While practical (in the humidity of Hong Kong it absorbs the sweat), it's also frankly a bit disgusting. Do you rinse out the flannel by hand at the end of the day? Perhaps someone should suggest to Commes des Garcons that they should be incorporating this as a style feature in their workwear.

*Philip Larkin

Friday, September 22, 2006

Thick as mince

A very Scottish story.

Quote: "although the mince had been thrown, it was not hot mince". Now you have to read the story.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Soled out

Christian Louboutin from net-a-porter. Because I like to juxtapose... or maybe I'm just shallow.

[If you're looking for a hagiography of Violet Naylor Leyland, you're in the wrong place. If you want to read some scorn, go here. If you don't know what hagiography means, go here.]

Dollars in the heavens

On the plane on the way back to Hong Kong the pilot remarked that it was a beautiful night for flying. I lifted the plastic shutter to look out of the window and saw the most amazing vista. The sky was perfectly still. There was pale blue light above and dark blue below, and a seam of pink on the horizon, and narrow threads of white cloud here and there, and above it all hung the moon, glowing perfectly white and perfectly full. For a moment I felt disorientated, as though we could have been flying upside down (as John F. Kennedy Jr reportedly did). The sky gradually began to turn deep blue and for a while I watched the moon glow almost unbearably brightly until finally it was covered by cloud.

I'd just been watching "An Inconvenient Truth", which is genuinely scary. I couldn't see a sky like that without wondering if there's something strange and unusual going on as a result of the hammering we give the planet. Amongst moments of levity in the film, and there are a few of them, though mostly in an ironic vein, there's a clip of George Bush Sr's surreal, yet sincere, declaration that "if these environmentalists get their way, we'll be up to our necks in owls".

Meanwhile, on a completely different planet, the University of Utah has been told by the Utah Supreme Court that it can't ban guns from the campus.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Singapore slung

I seem to have nae luck when it comes to taxi drivers in Singapore. I could have sworn today's had Tourette's; either that or he was so pleased to see me he kept on inadvertently trying to turn his head 180 degrees to look backwards.

With a consequent free disregard for the lane demarcations, we coasted along the main road to the airport, which is dead straight (any dead straight road when I was a kid was "a Roman road") and lined in the centre with flower boxes containing attractive pink flowers.
The sight fair gladdens the heart on first arrival in Singapore, but takes on a more sinister connotation when you hear the rumour that the plants can be removed at a moment's notice, presumably withdrawing Dr Evil-style into a massive underground bunker, in order for fighter planes to take off in the event of war.

Singapore's biggest problem is its lack of natural resources: like Hong Kong, it's theoretically at the mercy of its largest neighbour any time they choose to turn off the tap. Considering they used to be the same country (Malaya), Singapore's bitter rivalry with Malaysia is surprising, but, on reflection, it's understandable given the Singapore government's effective inculcation of super-strength loyalty in its citizens.

I'd fear I was being cruel about the taxi drivers, who are perfectly innocent in all this, of course, if it weren't for the obvious point that I've had two near-death experiences on my last two trips to the airport.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

You can't hide your love forever

I've just bought the Orange Juice compilation, The Glasgow School - breaking my own rule of "out with the old, in with the new", or is it "never go back"?

Reading the sleeve notes I was astonished to discover that the classic "Blue Boy" (as well as "Lovesick" and the better known "Simply Thrilled Honey") was recorded in the village I grew up in, in my old school, which was turned into a recording studio in the late 70s. I visited the studio (Castle Sound) in the early 90s to see a friend who was recording there, and for the twisted nostalgia of it, I knelt on the polished wooden floor in what used to be the assembly hall (now a recreation room complete with pool table) and sang a few bars of "The Lord of the Dance", just like old times.

My sister and I used to listen avidly to a weekly programme on Radio Forth, hosted by Colin Somerville, called The Rock Report. I clearly remember him playing a few bars of "Blue Boy", which was the second single released on Postcard Records (I resist the tempation to use the adjective "legendary", but it is). I had no idea that what we were taping, using the time-honoured ancient tape recorder crammed up to the radio, which meant that our comments and parodies could often be heard in the background, had been recorded less than a mile away.

I suspect only my sister and I will find this news at all exciting. But I felt a strange stab of disorientation that, as I travelled to work on the number 23 bus from Mid-Levels to Admiralty in Hong Kong, I should be listening to a song recorded by one of Scotland's best ever bands in the building where I learned to write.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The deceitful face of hope and of despair

I was thinking about calling this post "Leaving on a jet plane", which seems appropriate for a number of reasons. I've been suffering from jetlag all week, having arrived back from the UK on Sunday. Jetlag does strange things to your mind, not least because it involves (often) being inadvertently awake at 3am which as you know is the worst time to be awake if you don't want to be.

Yes, jetlag is that contemptible middle class affliction, so you may say I deserve no sympathy (and the cure for jetlag is not to fly); but what it really feels like is suffering from a week-long hangover complete with all those feelings of disorientation, intermittent self-loathing, miserabilism, and helplessness. After the plot to blow up planes mid-air was uncovered this week, my 3am preoccupation was how angry and impotent I feel about the fact that although clearly UK foreign policy is a powerful impetus for nihilistic religious maniacs with murder in their hearts, Tony, and I voted for him in 1997 (or at least, for the lickspittle David Lamy, in whose constituency I was living at the time), persists in his egomaniacal self-serving refusal to bow to anyone's advice, no matter how sensible, at the cost of the lives of hundreds of Lebanese civilians to date, a third of whom have been children.

That last fact puts my own silly preoccupations into perspective.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Monday, July 10, 2006

Everyone sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Speak, memory

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the London bombings. A year ago me and J were driving from Edinburgh to Halifax airport, returning our hire car and listening to the radio. We knew straight away what it meant, as most people listening must have, when they said there had been a reported "power surge" on the London underground and that people were emerging injured from the stations.

Our friend G was in the first carriage of the Piccadilly Line train that was bombed, a route I used to meet him on when I worked in London, before I started travelling by scooter becaue I couldn't bear the rush and the crush. He would get on at Turnpike Lane and I would get on one stop later at Manor House, often letting three or four packed trains go by, unable to get on. We would change at Holborn, and he would continue his journey to Swiss Cottage. I know that journey so well.

G is a New Yorker transplanted to London, warm-hearted, generous, inquisitive (he made it his mission to disembark at every tube station in the city in his first year, and walk for ten minutes to either side, so he knows London better than most Londoners do). He makes the most powerful vodka martinis I've ever tasted and laughs very long and hard at his friends' jokes even if they're quite unfunny. He's a loyal friend and a pragmatist. When the bomb went off he was standing in a different place from his usual spot, and thus avoided injury. He walked along the rails to Russell Square, emerged into the daylight, and amazingly, went to work as usual. He hasn't talked about anything he saw. Those are his memories.

I emailed him yesterday to tell him I was thinking of him, and he said he'd made the same journey, the train as packed as ever, and stood in the place he should have been standing at the same time, and thought about what had happened a year ago. No drama, no histrionics, just what he did and what happened to him.

Who you know

I was off ill from work yesterday, and miserable and listless in my flat. I ventured out once, to do some software training for clients which no one else was available to do, and on the way home in stifling humidity and sunshine, I succumbed to buying a copy of British VOGUE.

I should have known better. More than usually after reading it, I felt the mix of excitement and despair that always stems from reading fashion magazines: "I could be like that/I'm not like that". Sometimes the clothes seem baroque, ugly, unwearable, but sometimes deep in my shallow little black heart all I want to do is rush out and buy "autumn's new egg shape".

But this time I was also absolutely infuriated by much of the content. The cover story "COUNTRY HOUSE FASHION GETS A REVAMP" should have alerted me; the nod to the toff Tory leader David Cameron in the editor's letter; the Checklist piece which began "British Fashion has no greater champion than the Queen"; but worst of all, even by VOGUE's London-insular, nepotistic standards, was an article about "YOUNG LONDON" photographed by Mario Testino. Darling Mario says at the beginning

"What I absolutely loved about this shoot was photographing all the kids of my

- such an unvarnished, unashamed admission of what this piece was really about! And sure enough, across dozens of pages the spoiled, petulant offspring of the rich and well-connected, among them the sons and daughters of VOGUE contributors ("London's coolest teenagers") sprawled their way and, despite the billing ("our 'Young London' story ... shows that teen style can be every bit as quirky and innovative as it ever was", Alexandra Shulman gushes in her intro), they were not even wearing their own clothes. A sample:

"VIOLET NAYLOR-LEYLAND in Luella, LUCY LYTTLETON in Molly Grad ... Photographed at the Cuckoo Club."

"Fifteen year old TAMARA BELL claims she grew tired of the London club scene
when she turned 12. These days, though, she promotes a music night at Madame
Jojo's in Soho."

and most risible of all (but absolutely typical of the fawning tone of the entire piece):

"Art lover CLARA PAGET, the 17 year old daughter of the Earl of Uxbridge, loves
the culture surrounding the drum'n'bass scene and has been known to devote entire evenings to flyering upcoming nights." [my emphasis]

Sadly, none of the above is ironic. Rarely has the phrase "First up against the wall come the revolution" seemed more appealing.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Island of lost souls

I’ve spent the last few days in a strange netherworld, on an island in the Whitsundays in North East Queensland where golf buggies are the only form of transport - almost, but not quite, as scary as Discovery Bay in Hong Kong, near where the new theme park has been built: a Stepford toytown built primarily for the amusement of children, with Disneyland nearby.

My outrigger team (HKOC) participated in the Hamilton Island Cup. We didn’t win anything, because competition is fierce and sport is a religion in Australia; but we had a great time on the water and off, with much drunken capering at the party on Saturday night (tip: never drink a shot of any description containing Bailey’s) and have started to recruit teams to paddle in this year’s Round the Island Race.

I was in the support boat for the 46K change race, having applied super-strength anti-emetic patches the night before (usually I’m seasick at the slightest provocation), and M and I had a great time bobbing up and down on the high seas with two laconic Australian fishermen, one of whom cracked open the beers at approximately 10am and kept drinking all day, to the sounds of Jack Johnson (clearly Maximo Park would have been preferable, but there’s some thing nicely soporific about Jack’s voice that went well with the sunshine), while we waited for the canoe and held up seat numbers for the changes. The team finished in under 4 hours, which was a fantastic achievement.

Later we went up the hill - me behind the wheel of the buggy belonging to our villa, which turned out to be the slowest buggy in the kingdom, although I got up a good turn of speed on the downhill with the engine off - and watched the sunset next to a mobile bar, which appeared out of nowhere and packed up when the sun went down.

One thing I found extraordinarily frustrating during this trip was the lack of availability of international news from any source. The only TV news seemed to be very local, as was the newspapers’ coverage. Having been in Sydney and Melbourne for work the week before, I came back to Hong Kong feeling as though I’d been in a vacuum for two weeks.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Head on the block

In keeping with the rich, somewhat narcissistic blog tradition of making the slightest incident take on unbearable weight because it happened to me: today unbearable weight did happen to me, in the form of the unbearable weight of the ama hitting me on the head during a huli drill. The rest of the crew had to paddle me to shore with blood streaming from my head and I ended up in the emergency room getting five stitches.

I've been in a&e before with a head injury: during a school dress rehearsal for The Importance of Being Earnest, when I was 16, in which I was playing Algernon (complete with pencilled on moustache), I had to be taken the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary for stitches - six that time, so obviously today was a walk in the park - because a piece of scenery fell on my head.

Unlike the Royal, today the Hong Kong hospital x-rayed my head, and so I saw the skull beneath my skin for the first time - a fascinating sight.

At the time I had a big crush on my English/drama teacher, Mr Snow, who took me to a&e, so I milked the situation for everything I could - "hold my hand, I feel faint!". What a manipulative little cow.

Today I had my crew members holding my hand - the sort of bonding experience, and accident drill, that you don't really want to engineer, but it was a perfect example of everyone staying calm and working together to retrieve the situation.

They had to shave a little of my hair off, so I think my place in the Miss Outrigger Hong Kong Beauty Pageant will have to be forfeited.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Friday, June 02, 2006

Falun angel

On my way to work every morning I cross a pedestrian bridge over a busy highway heading up from the harbour to Mid-Levels. A pocket sized woman mans the bridge every day from about 8am, handing out free newspapers to passers by and calling out "jo san!" (good morning) to the passers by, if they're Chinese, and "morning!" to the gweilos.

As the newspaper she's giving away is in Chinese, I've never picked one up, and after a few half-hearted responses in kind, I started ignoring her as I walked by. She seemed to take this very personally and whenever she saw me she'd leap like a dervish across the pathway to stand right in front of me and shriek "morning!" at me reprovingly. Eventually I gave in because she started to make me feel guilty: after all it's a pretty lonesome furrow she's ploughing and it must be extremely depressing when everyone walks past you stony-faced. So now she says "morning!" and I say "jo san!" and we smile complicitly at each other, although she still seems faintly dissatisfied with my behaviour.

It was only very recently that I realised what she was giving out: it's a Falun Gong newspaper with garish pictures of beaten bodies. She has started to put up pictures on the railings all the way along the walkway, which is surprising in itself that the police haven't tried to move her on. It's an appropriate place for her to be: just over the way looms the former British Army base, now home to the Chinese Army. I can see it from my office window: soldiers marching across the square, and the swimming pools and tennis courts from colonial days lying unused. It certainly explains her look of forbearance and determination, but not her personal gripe at me. Whenever I've seen them before, the Falun Gong have been demonstrating peacefully, chiefly it seems by sitting in the lotus position, closing their eyes, and sitting incredibly still for hours, but I don't think my wee woman has read the manual.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The drive of your life

The first time I got into a taxi with a Singaporean, I was surprised that she addressed the taxi driver as "Uncle". I quickly realised that of course they weren't related: it is part of the Singaporean tradition of showing respect for your elders.

My Uncle on the way to the airport today would have been more properly addressed as "Grandad". The fact that this is an insult in UK culture is a sad reflection of our attitude towards the old; but in my taxi driver's case there were genuine reasons to suspect that this sort of caper wasn't really good for him: we made truly erratic progress as he leaned forward across the wheel, peering myopically and somewhat pessimistically through the windscreen, as the taxi veered freely across the three lanes of the highway. I was just about to suggest cheekily that if he stuck to just the one lane, I thought he'd find that we would not have an accident, when even more alarmingly he began to fumble in what appeared to be a specially fashioned pocket in the dashboard for his box of mints. How he got the plastic wrapper off I'll never know, because I was in the Brace Position at the time.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The vigorous imagination

Last night I went for dinner with the General Manager of our Singapore office at a new development called Rochester Park, which is an area in the north west of Singapore island filled with large white colonial “bungalows” (in reality, two or three storey houses) built for army officers in the days of British rule and set amidst the trees. L’s grandmother used to be an amah for a British family there and she has an early-1970s vintage memory of her father taking her swimming in their pool.

Now the houses have all been converted into restaurants, and you sit outside surrounded by the cacophony of crickets, with lights strung through the trees in the evening warmth, and it is wonderful. We ate at a Chinese restaurant decorated with vintage black lamps and clean pale wooden tables, and had mouthwatering Beijing crispy duck served with the familiar pancakes and hoi sin sauce. You could also fill your pancake with traditional garlic sauce and spicy cabbage – an unexpectedly brilliant combination. Compared to the rather raddled, dry and stringy duck which often appears, this was fresh and juicy, the skin crisp but not hardened. I had a “Great Wall” cocktail, which consisted of lychee liqueur and soda.

In Hong Kong such buildings would have been razed years ago, and there would certainly not have been any similar leap of imagination by the government to adapt beautiful old buildings for modern use. Instead, they’re knocking down the Bauhaus-influenced Wan Chai market and concreting over all the paths.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Seasick, yet still docked

Yesterday morning we set out from Stanley to paddle round to Shek O in the OC6 (six person canoe). It wasn't a particularly nice day, and it was windy; when we passed Cape D'Aguilar, the waves were the biggest I'd ever paddled in. It was slightly scary, but we reached Shek O Back Beach, and had a Snickers bar each and shared a couple of bananas, and then set off back to Stanley.

The waves were on the ama side on the way back and I felt slightly nervous about flipping, but it was an experienced crew and J was there so I felt reassured. About 10 minutes out, the waves were high and unexpected and the inevitable happened: as if in slow motion, but in a nanosecond, we hulied, the boat flipped upside down and we all fell or jumped out.

When you huli, you get the boat back over as fast as possible and a couple of people jump in and bail. But our bailers weren't tied on and so two of them went straight to the bottom, leaving us with one. The waves were so big that one bailer wasn't enough to empty the boat and we quickly realised that we weren't going to be able to get back in. It was a horrible feeling having to get back in the water, and when we put our lifejackets on, it started to feel pretty serious. The water was still big, and we were a few hundred metres off Shek O main beach, so two of us got back on the upturned boat and tried to paddle, and the others swam alongside trying to guide the boat away from the rocks.

The only progress we were making was wherever the waves wanted to take us, which was in towards the beach but also towards the rocks, so after about 20 minutes of floating, we ended up firing a flare, which glowed a satisfying ultraneon firework pink which was seen from the beach and eventually a jet-ski came out to us.

As the weakest swimmer I knew I'd be a liability if I stayed but it was a wrench to leave the rest of the crew floating with the boat. I got on the rescue platform on the back to the jetski and the lifeguard crouched over me as I was pulled back to the beach. It was surreal arriving at the beach with people frolicking in the surf as if nothing was wrong, looking curiously at me as I emerged shakily from the water. The lifeguards were about to put the jetski away, and I had to play the angry gweilo and shout at them to get them to go back out - they were all shrugging their shoulders, having fulfilled their duty by calling the police. There was no sign of the police boat, though and I knew the crew would be hoping someone would come back, maybe even with rope to try to tow the boat in, so reluctantly they got back on and went out again.

I stood on the beach watching, wearing my lifejacket to keep warm, as people ran by me in bikinis, like a nightmare scenario where no one believes you that something is very wrong; but when the dull grey police ship appeared it seemed as though the whole ordeal was over.

I was brought a red blanket and stood on the beach like a refugee with family fun going on all around me, but nothing seemed to be happening and so I retreated to the lifeguards' station where I sat disconsolately with binoculars while the lifeguards smoked fags, chatted and stared at me. I was feeling sick as a dog and must have looked pretty bad, because they tried to look after me by buying me a bowl of noodles with a big fat fried egg on top.

It took the police nearly four hours to do nothing: it emerged that they had no idea how to tow the boat and I watched in disbelief as inertia seemed to set in. The other members of the crew, after a lot of faffing around, were transferred to the police boat and sat there for hours getting seasick; they had the worst of it and I was lucky to be on shore, though it felt pretty bleak at the time.

I was just starting to lose the will to live when a friendly face appeared on the beach below: L, who had been competing in an open water swimming race at the Back Beach, had been called by the crew from the police boat's phone and told to come and find me. She took me round to the Back Beach where everyone was hanging out and chilling to funky beats. In the meantime the crew had got fed up with the inertia of the police and called the Yacht Club who sent a boat round from Causeway Bay and got them all fixed up within ten minutes. We watched as they emerged round the corner with the OC6 bobbing disfunctionally behind the Yacht Club boat, and the remains of the crew jumped from the boat, which couldn't come right in. I went down to the shore to help them come in, still in their lifejackets, and pulling the wretched OC6 behind them on a rope.

I'm not very good in big water and am not a strong swimmer, and I am grateful beyond words that everyone else looked out for me. While we were floating in the waves, there was no panic, although clearly the situation could have been very dangerous; there was black humour - some one said "Thank goodness we had those Snickers bars" - and we joked about who would play us in the movie (Angelina Jolie, in case you're wondering). It was everything it could have been: calm, everyone looking out for everyone else. Teamwork and camaraderie are the reasons I paddle and yesterday we had that in spades.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Paper over the cracks

Anwar Ibrahim is in Sarawak participating in the 2006 election campaigns there and drawing huge crowds. Needless to say, Malaysia's ruling party have attacked him again with insinuations about sodomy - for which he was disgraced and jailed (eventually serving four years) by former PM Mahatir, having been Mahatir's protege and sidekick until he got too popular. The South China yesterday, without a hint of irony, described these allegations as "below the belt".

My favourite South China solecism was the caption to a picture of an ultra-orthodox Jewish kid standing grinning in front of barricades with reinforcing strips of metal all over his teeth. The headline was "Gaza braces for further trouble".

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It's in the stars

A horoscope from The Onion today:

CANCER. June 22-July 22
The position of the stars, phase of the moon, and orbital paths of the planets will have absolutely no bearing on your life this week. Enjoy the feeling of being in complete control of your actions while it lasts.

And mine:

LIBRA. September 23-October 23
You will ignore the voice of reason once again this week, but that’s only because it’s gone hoarse and grown nearly inaudible over the years.

And an article on a study finding that drunk humans do not fare better than sober ones against alligators:

"Our data strongly indicates that human intoxication does not transform an alligator into a docile creature that enjoys wrestling" …

Monday, May 15, 2006

Market forces

For a city where the free market supposedly reigns supreme, the state of Hong Kong’s supermarkets is a sobering reminder that there is no such thing as fair competition.

It’s a truism that every 20 minutes of being in Hong Kong you are putting money in the pocket of one of the three or four large companies which own everything, from the mobile phones to the pharmacies to the cable TV to the supermarkets. Rumour has it that a major British supermarket chain tried to open in HK (as it has done successfully in other countries in the region, not least China) but was forced to close following price-fixing collusion by the two other main supermarkets which it couldn’t compete with.

Apart from the fact that they are either cheap and nasty, or horribly expensive, with nothing inbetween, the thing that annoys me most about Hong Kong’s supermarkets is that they are all named insultingly inaccurately:

· you can’t park at Park’N’Shop;
· GREAT isn’t (Great);
· Gourmet isn’t for gourmets (indeed for some reason they sell toothbrushes as well as food);
· City Super isn’t (Super); and
· you don’t get much of a welcome at Wellcome.

Soliloquy of the Solipsist

A poem I loved when I was sixteen for its bleak humour and self-preservation masquerading as arrogance:

I walk alone;
The midnight street
Spins itself from under my feet;
When my eyes shut
These dreaming houses all snuff out;
Through a whim of mine
Over gables the moon's celestial onion
Hangs high.

Make houses shrink
And trees diminish
By going far; my look's leash
Dangles the puppet-people
Who, unaware how they dwindle,
Laugh, kiss, get drunk,
Nor guess that if I choose to blink
They die.

When in good humor,
Give grass its green
Blazon sky blue, and endow the sun
With gold;
Yet, in my wintriest moods, I hold
Absolute power
To boycott any color and forbid any flower
To be.

Know you appear
Vivid at my side,
Denying you sprang out of my head,
Claiming you feel
Love fiery enough to prove flesh real,
Though it's quite clear
All your beauty, all your wit, is a gift, my dear,
From me.

Sylvia Plath

Friday, May 12, 2006

Code read


I just had an odd, if prosaic, revelation. I've seen several trailers for the new The Da Vinci Code film and I wondered vaguely who the actor was, because he didn't look familiar (not that I was really paying attention, because I refuse to read the book or see the film). Glancing from the bus this morning on my way to work I saw a Chinese poster for the film with only one phrase in English: TOM HANKS, and it dawned on me who it was. What on earth has happened to him? I always thought he was one of those actors in the mould of Sean Connery, which can only be Sean Connery in any film. Has he shaved his sideburns off? What's going on? Is he remodelling himself as Richard E. Grant?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

True to type

For some reason I have been quite taken lately with trying to remember all the obscure indie bands I liked in the 80s. How quickly we forget - until I looked them up I'd almost forgotten they existed: The BMX Bandits; Close Lobsters; The Orchids ("I'm drinking Irn Bru and I'm thinking of you" - clearly a classic of its time); The Bodines. In some circles it was a point of honour to be able to name bands no one else had heard of.

Before CDs, before the internet, before digital technology of any kind, you could write off for a fanzine (one I remember particularly was an Edinburgh "'zine" called Alternatives to Valium, which I thought was very cool at the time) which would consist of four sheets of photocopied A4 paper stapled together, with a seventh-generation band photo on the front and written entirely in Courier because that was the only typeface on the old typewriters - the kind where you had to hit the key quite hard and a skinny length of metal shaped a bit like a grasshopper’s leg, with the letter on the end, would spring out of its bed and whack a length of ink-soaked cloth to create an imprint on the paper.

I think in some ways the fanzines were a reaction to the looming onslaught of technology and the shock of the new, the slickness of the 80s; they were home made and low-tech, and often came with a flexidisc of some quasi-plastic material hardly more durable than rice paper, which when played on your turntable emitted the tinny, scratchy sounds of effete guitar bands with whimsical names. CDs were regarded as the enemy; as heralding the Death of Music; and as somehow not being as real as vinyl.

When I first started in legal publishing, which was in the mid-90s and not that long ago, all the terms used actually meant something: “leading” was the divider between the lines of type holding them in place, which was made out lead; and “typesetting” was literally setting type, each letter individually placed in a row next to the others to make up a page.

We outsourced typesetting to a company in Roslin, near Penicuik, which was full of old men who had been working there for years; they all seemed to have beards and pot bellies and stood around with their sleeves rolled up, with the ease borne of long experience, smokin’ a fag with half an eye on the machines, presumably wondering what things had come to with these wee lassies telling them what to do. They were already using newer technology but still regarded the old methods as the real thing, and one of them showed me the rapidly-obsolescing equipment with real pride, hefting the heavy letters in his hands.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Bench mark

There's something about these bags which is really quite lovely. Buy one here. Alternatively, perhaps I am going mad and I just like them because the way that they're displayed is reminding me of the old wooden bench in my mum's garden, on which I used to sit, cup of tea in hand, looking out over green lawns (belonging not to my family but to the laird, a nasty wee nyaff of about my age called Francis) in the sunshine. I always used to say, rather pompously, "nostalgia is the enemy of the future", but it comes out in funny ways.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Party fears too

I've been having a wonderful holiday here, hence no posting for aeons; getting an almost-but-not-quite tan (factor 50, on account of my huge collection of moles, does seem to prevent the slightest hint of having been on holiday from getting to my appearance), learning to swim under water, and paddling a lumbering two-person canoe which was shaped like, and handled as heavily as, a child's bathtub (for the record, we broke the all-comers fastest time by paddling round the island in 50 minutes). I think I finally began to let go of thoughts of work by about day 5. As I surfaced in the pool in the sunshine, the very picture of bourgeois contentment, a topic for my blog suggested itself: and not just another essay on the futility of blogging.

The topic is: things I will never tell anyone. Though this seems rather unpromising as subject-matter, since I'm not telling anyone, it's got possibilities.

For example, I will never tell anyone what I, as a gauche, dyed-black-haired 18 year old said to Billy Mackenzie in a nightclub in Edinburgh (called, for what it's worth, The Kangaroo Klub).

Like the old Top Tip from Viz ("Pensioners! If you're feeling the cold this winter, just think of Neil Kinnock, at the triumphalist Labour Party rally of 1992 [just prior to the election, which they lost] shouting 'Comrades! Well all right! Well all right! Well all right!' - You'll flush from head to toe with embarrassment - no need for costly heating!") this particular memory could heat Hong Kong.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Just shoe me

Walking around Lane Crawford today, in a more than usually bad mood having been ignored by one blank-eyed shop assistant too many, I experienced the nadir of the shopping experience TM when I idly picked up a particularly vertiginous shoe from a display which turned out to have been barely holding itself together until I came along. In a domino-style collapse worth of Heath Robinson, my act of lifting the shoe (the one pictured above, as it happens) from its tiny metal platform was enough to send at least five ludicrously expensive pairs crashing to the floor along with the metal plates they were sitting on.

The nearest shop assistant looked around with barely concealed disdain at the clanging sound, as did the overdressed tai tai customer she was fawning over, and after picking up the shoes and putting the whole edifice back together as best as I could (and on reflection, if only I had had the chutzpah to sail away nonchalantly!) I hastily exited out of the nearest side door, blushing horribly. Yes, this sort of thing happens not only in American sitcoms, where it is completely unfunny, but on my Sunday afternoon, where ditto.


My favourite time of year (hardly): the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. A time when Hong Kong fills up to the brim with self-righteous expats convinced that their favourite sport (drinking all day in the sun) is everyone's favourite, heart-warming. just-can't-help-yourself activity. Why do I hate the Rugby Sevens? Here are a few random reasons: 1) I can't stand having to justify why I'm not going. Again and again. 2) It's a time when poeple think it's really cool to dress up as cowgirls. All ten of you and your friends, lassoos and all. Or is it angels? Or werewolves? 3) What do the Chinese think of us? Yes, we're all fat, pie-eating, drunken bastards. Aren't we? 4) Call me an inverted snob (I'm an inverted snob), but rugby originated at Rugby. 5) England won this year.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Glowing nowhere

I've been doing a lot of paddling (both outrigger and dragon boat) lately and have the blisters on my hands to prove it. Paddling at night is the most ethereal experience. On Thursday we took two six person outrigger canoes (OC6s) out on the water at Stanley. A huge bruised moon hovered very low in the sky, strangely and dimly orange, and "mist" (AKA pollution) hung heavy in the air, broken by the occasional lights and sound of planes coming over Hong Kong island to land at the airport beyond.

The strangest thing about paddling at night, apart from the almost unnatural quiet once you're a certain distance away from land, is the fluorescent green algae in the water which is brought to life by the passing of our paddles. I was at stroke, right at the front of the boat, and the glowing water sloughed away in front of me as though we were paddling through molten lava.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Chicken on the run

There’s a whole load of chicken nonsense on the front of the South China Morning Post this morning. Under the banner headline “York Chow warns of total chicken ban”, there’s a story about how HK may ban all imports of chilled and frozen chicken if there’s a bird flu outbreak in Guangdong (just across the border); news that the mainland’s Vice-Minister of Health, Wang Longde has declared that it's all right, no need to panic, the people who have died of bird flu so far just had weak immune systems (so it’s their fault then!); and most farcical of all, a story about pigeons at Prosperous Garden, a block of flats in Yau Ma Tei, a place so Prosperous that they have been advised by Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation (But Clearly Not of Chickens) Department to buy sticky gel to repel the pigeons which tend to congregate around the building.

Quite reasonably, the Prosperous residents asked the question, repeated verbatim in the paper, “If the birds have avian flu, why would we want to stick them to our buildings”?

The bird glue is called Bird X (naturally), is applied with a glue gun, and costs HK$737 (US$95) (plus shipping and handling, as the South China helpfully points out).

Stand by for a veritable avalanche of similar stories, all designed to make HK residents (just south of Guangdong, after all) feel really, really confident. My friend G was at a dinner party last weekend, and he said that the conversation was confined to two topics: (1) one's villa in Bali, and the cost thereof; and (2) how much Tamiflu one had managed to stockpile.

Friday, February 24, 2006

This is how it feels

For the first time since coming to Hong Kong in early 2003, I ate at a restaurant in "Rat Alley" this evening. It's round the back of Lan Kwai Fong ("the Fong"), an area in Central packed with bars and restaurants. It goes by the name Rat Alley because, plainly, it looks like an alley a rat would run along. But it's full of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, and plastic chairs and awnings, and people filing by with mobile phones clamped to their ears, and touts trying to entice you in, with a not-all-that-attractive routine involving shouting, gesturing, and holding up the menu either aggressively or plaintively.

I was there with J, from work, and we sat at a tiny table right on the street, next to a potted plant which kept on getting knocked over, and with a ringside view of a particularly hirsute Elvis-esque tout who seemed to know everyone, gwailos (westerners), little Thai girls with fat white western men, western women, Chinese men, everyone passing by an arm's length away. The food was an amalgam of Chinese, Vietnamese and Malaysian - so perhaps there's actually only one kitchen out the back for all the shopfronts and you get what's served.

I'm not often out on a Friday night; after work I tend to want to go home and regroup before the weekend. There seems to be a lot of people on the streets looking for someone - you can see it in their eyes; they're never quite satisfied with who they're with. I found it quite dispiriting.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

In the city

The view from our bedroom window. I was tempted to use the headline "Unreal City" again, because it is.

The drugs work

I don't really like writing about people I know. It seems intrusive, exploitative almost. But when I read this article I was struck by how obvious this suddenly seems: it's a fascinating (albeit somewhat depressing) article about the link between cannabis use and mental illness, some aspects of which sound all too horribly familiar:,,1713001,00.html

Recognition of these issues probably comes a bit too late to help R, whose life seems to be in ruins. At our school, 20 years ago, it was regarded as being quite normal and cool to smoke dope. For someone like R, intelligent but alienated, it must have seemed like such an attractive proposition: social acceptance and escapism rolled into one joint.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Somewhere in the Empire

My Mum's family still use an ancient colonial expression when it's time for a drink: "The sun's over the yardarm somewhere in the Empire" (ie it's after 6pm somewhere in what used to be the Empire, so we will damn well have a drink if we want one). I always found this amusing because my Mum and her brothers and sister all grew up in a red brick house, in a row of red brick houses, in the town of Melton Mowbray (home of the pork pie). Less like imperial stormtroopers you could never have imagined them to be.

But I was thinking about this yesterday, on a three day trip to Singapore, when we met a client at the Tanglin Club and sat in the lobby waiting for him and reading the long list of Past Presidents, written in ultra-traditional style in gold lettering and dating back to the early 1860s. I noted that it was not until 1980 that a Chinese name appeared on the board, and I couldn't help picturing Colonel Double-Barreled Smythe sipping G&T and holding forth at the bar about the unreliability of the natives.

When our client arrived he said there's still a sign somewhere in the building that says "No dogs or Chinese". He's Chinese and seemed to find this very amusing, but I felt terribly guilty. I'm not sure why, because my family are hardly the idle rich.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Speak of the devil

For want of anything better to do, I watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose on the plane on the way back from Sydney; and a fine piece of nonsense it was too, graced by Laura Linney looking pained as it began to sink in just what a farrago she was starring in.

There's one overwhelming question about demonic possession: what does the devil get out of it? If you're the devil, there must be more fun to be had than spending precious days inhabiting some poor pathetic body which you proceed to rack into unlikely poses, preferably in the vicinity of someone holy. Then the next dance move: twist the head round, bulge the eyes out of its little head, and bellow in ancient tongues (the clever polyglot you are!) in a very deep voice. The possessee (in this case Emily Rose) doesn't appear able to wreak very much real physical damage on anyone: it's all a bit ineffectual in the end and there is still plenty of room for doubt: look, forget possession, maybe she was just a bit mental.

So why is the devil not sneaking in to Versace in invisible guise and stealing armfuls of jewel-coloured silk dresses to hand out to the poor (true cruelty), or shaving Paris Hilton's head in the dead of night, or painting graffiti on the walls of St Paul's (Romanes eunt domus perhaps)? That's how to get people's attention.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A sensible defence

A thought-provoking piece about the recent riots over the "anti-Muslim" cartoons published by Danish newspapers:,,1705688,00.html

And a wonderful satire on the offence you could take, if you were looking to take offence:

Monday, February 06, 2006

Life on the water

In Sydney, where the Opera House is strangely small, and the weather is mercurial. When the sun comes out, the carapace of the Opera House shines with a creamier colour than expected and a porous texture like an eggshell.

Opposite where I'm staying there's a backpackers hostel, and looking across to their windows at 9.45 pm (now), there is a vast open plan area filled with bright orange sofas, and some of them are sitting talking as if they're in the Big Brother house. I realised that there's something missing in Hong Kong: backpackers. It must just be too expensive to sustain: and why go to HK when you could hang out at Bondi Beach?

Yesterday we had dinner on the deck of our friends' house in Coogee, looking out over the water, and I could see myself living this laid-back, easy-going lifestyle, where the most important thing in life is the size of your stainless steel barbeque. You can't live in Sydney without a car, though, and public transport seems to be pretty unreliable. And everything closes down at 11pm. A bit like Edinburgh, really. But the graciousness and infinite possibilities of waterside life are so well explored here: in Hong Kong, a complete failure of imagination requires you to build a concrete monstrosity between you and the water.

All of that aside, my most bourgeois observation yet must be this about Sydney: it's so nice to be able to get a decent cup of coffee.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Required reading...

... for anyone who still thinks the war in Iraq is, or ever was, a good plan:

The isle is full of noises

Yesterday we walked from Robinson Road to Repulse Bay, a journey that entails crossing Hong Kong Island from north to south. It was the first day of Chinese New Year and everywhere Hong Kongers and their families, in accordance with tradition, walked or drove to see each other. On the hiking trail we were following, inappropriately dressed women tripped down the path in heels and we passed one immaculate couple with artfully knotted sweaters who looked as though they were just on the way from the Country Club to their yacht.

Despite the sky high property prices, an unexpectedly large swathe of Hong Kong island is undeveloped - probably undevelopable, consisting as it does of precipitous hillsides swarming with dense greenery. We passed Parkview, a complex of three towers at the top of a steep incline, a place with its own supermarket, home to thousands of wealthy expats and the site of a notorious murder a couple of years ago. It's quite remote, yet gated and exclusive. It's a trite observation, but looking down at its sterile, graceless outline, you could almost see why that place would drive a woman to drug her husband, bludgeon him to death and, with spectacular ineptitude, attempt to hide his body in a carpet in the basement.

I realised how little of Hong Kong I've actually visited in the last few years: a GPS readout would show me circumscribing a very narrow path between the Lippo Centre for work, and SoHo for the gym and the restaurants, and IFC for shopping, with multiple trips to Zara and Lane Crawford, to my eternal, shallow shame.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

City of noises

I'm in Kuala Lumpur, where the Petronas Towers (above) loom out of the sky wherever you are like the spacecraft in Alien. I first saw the towers on The World's Strongest Man - incongruous though it may seem - about six years ago, long before I ever dreamed I'd be living in Asia. Then, as now, the towers seemed impossibly strange: and close up, incredibly tall.

The traffic in KL is notoriously bad and you're really only able to arrange two or three meetings a day because it takes so long to get anywhere - according to today's taxi driver, cars are too cheap. Malaysia manufactures the Proton which has been struggling for a while with the same problems Ford have been trying to tackle by making sweeping redundancies across the US - too many cars, too few buyers. All the world's keenest consumers seem to be in KL right now - in their cars, and driving somewhere (and if this doesn't seem too solipsistic, usually in the same direction as I need to go to get to my meeting on time).

KL, despite its traffic problems, is a very interesting city. Malaysia's slogan is that it's "Truly Asia" and that has been my experience - at the risk of making Hong Kong and Singapore seem like ersatz Asian cities, until I came here I don't think I understood Asia at all. Not that I'm much closer to understanding now, but I'm less colossally ignorant than I used to be. So far a majority Muslim population in a largely secular state with a large Chinese minority have managed to co-exist with a minimum of trouble.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Pear of the Dog

A cocktail in honour of the Year of the Dog (Chinese New Year begins on January 29, 2006)

One measure of Skyy vanilla vodka
Two measures of pear juice “with bits”

Serving suggestion:
Pour into cocktail glasses and drink in huge quantities

Kung Hei Fat Choi!/Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Military intelligence

It's hard not to be incensed by the deaths of 18 villagers, including four children, from Damadola Burkanday in north-west Pakistan, as a result of a bungled attempt by the CIA to kill a senior Al Qaeda figure. Pakistan is a sovereign state and an ally in the disastrous "War on Terror". This is the equivalent of a foreign government attacking North Uist because it's rumoured Tony Blair holidays there. Are Americans comfortable with their elected government dropping bombs on children in breach of international law? Even if the bombs had found their intended target those deaths could never be justified.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The opium of the people

I have been in Singapore for three days this week, visiting our office and when I could, eating at my favourite sushi bar where the prawn tempura maki are out of this world. (This is posted at the lounge in the world's most efficient airport, as I wait for my flight back to HK.)

We ate at a halal Turkish restaurant last night with the entire team (nearly 30 people now) - a completely indifferent meal, laden with bread, which suited the Singaporeans no better than it suited me (we'd all prefer rice). But we had to eat there because one member of the team is a strict Muslim and she insisted that we eat somewhere where the food was not only halal but certifiably so (which was rather difficult to find) and with absolutely no alcohol being offered or consumed on the premises, to the great disappointment of everyone except M, who said she would not be comfortable with eating anywhere else.

I think it's important that we respect M's religious beliefs, but this should be seen according to J.S. Mill's utilitarian precept that each person should be guaranteed the greatest possible liberty that does not interfere with the liberty of others. Next time I think we will tell her that we can't let the choice of venue be dictated by one person.

This seems clear cut, but I am more conflicted about Muslim women wearing headscarves (which is a much more common sight in Singapore due to the different cultural mix here). At worst it seems to me to be a potent symbol of oppression, yet it doesn't affect me directly, so according to Mill's precept it's not interfering with my liberty. But it is creating a division between women and men and I can't help thinking that is extraordinary that women have to make such a public statement of their obedience to their religion - and by extension, to the men who run it.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Hawk Roosting

I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

The convenience of the high trees!
The air's buoyancy and the sun's ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth's face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly -
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads -

The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

Ted Hughes

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Rock stars. Is there anything they don't know?

Bob Geldof has been asked by the Tory party to advise them on debt relief. He's agreed - as they used to say in the NME, natch. Homer Simpson's quote (above, the title of this post) says it all. Call me cynical, but this is the latest and most despicable twist in Geldof's ego-driven tale.