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".