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.