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.