Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Shopping for Justice in Yuen Long 27/7

Despite the intense heat, an estimated 280,000 people reclaimed the town of Yuen Long in north-western Hong Kong in a mass act of defiance, last Saturday.

It was their collective response to the shocking mob violence by thugs at the town’s MTR railway station and the police failure to react to it, the week-end before.

The authorities had already declared the march illegal, on public safety grounds but attendees were undeterred. Many joked, saying they were just shopping, sightseeing, praying or on a Pokémon hunt.

“I am shopping for justice,” says Edward Ng Ka-fung a quietly spoken IT consultant waiting in the shade of a municipal building for the march to start. Ng says he has been on every recent protest march with his wife but with this one declared illegal by the authorities and with widespread fear of clashes with local villagers and Triad thugs, she has stayed at home this time.

“I don’t want to get beaten up but I just want to send the message that we not accept it (the violence of last week-end),” he says as we set off with thousands of others down Castle Peak Road, towards Yuen Long railway station. Many marchers wear hard hats, many wear black masks and most carry umbrellas to shield them from the fierce afternoon sun. There are young people, old people and I count at least three people in wheelchairs.

Yuen Long resembled one of those remote cowboy towns in classic Hollywood Westerns. Shutters pulled down on shop fronts, buses parked up and driverless at the bus station and shopping malls deserted except for protesters enjoying the chilly air conditioning. Only tumbleweed blowing down the street was missing from the scene.

The crowd had started gathering near the sports stadium opposite Yuen Long police station, a large concrete compound with conical watch towers on each corner like a fort. The cavalry who failed to arrive last week-end at Yuen Long MTR station, were safe and secure inside.

As always, the march started peaceful and orderly, despite the absence of any obvious leadership, the posters were witty and the shouted slogans subversive.

“Har-geng-haw-zee,” was a popular chant, meaning shame on the police. 

Those attending made little or no reference to the unpopular Extradition Bill which triggered the latest wave of mass protests. Instead, they condemned what they see as police collusion with criminals and they call for the “liberation of Hong Kong” from Beijing-backed crony capitalism. In case you hadn’t noticed this is more than a protest now, it’s a revolution; the hard hat revolution. A revolution of our times.

During a brief refreshment break, I am approached by an “independent observer” from the Mainland, a euphemism for a PLA spy. He tells me how Western governments are influencing events on the streets. He speaks very polished English with a Beijing accent and says he is an export businessman from Guangzhou, specializing in trailers. He has all the sincerity of those scammers who hang around the Imperial Palace in Beijing and invite tourists for a cup of coffee, so their daughter can practice her language skills and then rip you off.

As he leaves, the hardcore protesters are preparing to get “geared up” in alleys and side streets. A ripple of spontaneous applause from bystanders greets one platoon of black-suited activists in masks and hard hats and armed with metal poles, as they march past purposefully.

It’s approaching party time in Yuen Long.  As the main crowd surges in silence towards the Yoho Mall which is adjoining the MTR station,  it’s time to put a hard hat on, just in case.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Blood, bombs and pollution- welcome to Hong Kong

It’s genuinely shocking. Watching such a great city unravel in the intense summer heat.  

White shirted mobs assaulting members of the public with bamboo poles in an MTR station while the police turn a blind eye. There was human blood shed on the polished marble floor of a public transport hub in Hong Kong last night. It’s hard to digest. This is the safest city in the world, or at least it was.

There is no shortage of phone video footage from Yuen Long MTR station of terrified passengers standing in an open train carriage, trying to defend themselves with umbrellas, as thugs hurl abuse and attempt to beat them with sticks and poles. One unconfirmed report suggests a pregnant woman was beaten to the ground and one male passenger is in a critical medical condition.

The police were nowhere to be seen for more than 30 minutes and no arrests were subsequently made. There are widespread allegations that the mob had Triad affiliations and may even have been paid to exact some retribution on protestors, returning from a demonstration in Central that evening.

From all accounts the town of Yuen Long is now shut down with mobs prowling the streets like a dystopian scene from 1970s Haiti.

It was reported this morning that bomb making equipment was miraculously found in premises rented to pro -independence political groups who reported a break-in to police a few months ago. Police were reportedly "acting on a tip off". Really? Do they think we are all stupid and will all just swallow this garbage?

The sea is polluted, the air is polluted and now the entire political system is polluted.

The political establishment is now running on empty in terms of credibility or legitimacy. Propped up by Beijing, by the corporate elite and now, it seems by organized crime syndicates. They remain completely impervious to the demands of ordinary Hongkongers.

No-one knows where we are all headed. It feels like a revolution but it also feels like a pending catastrophe. No-one is predicting a happy ending.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Keep calm. Don't shoot.

As I pour out of Exit E of Causeway Bay MTR station with the rest of the hordes of black shirted bodies, I almost collide with a young man sitting on top of an aluminum step ladder. He is holding a donations box crammed full with Hong Kong bank notes. 

It's Joshua Wong Chi-fung, the poster boy of the localist movement, only recently released from prison. I find myself shaking hands with him and enthusiastically stuffing a modest $20 into his clear Perspex donations box. I can exclusively report he had a reassuring firm handshake and I have to admit, I admire that in a political figure.

I should have asked him for a telling quote I suppose but today I am a citizen not a journalist, though often the lines get blurred.

Every street is crammed with people standing shoulder to shoulder in the intense heat, shouting slogans and holding posters and banners. If this is a revolution it’s a very Hong Kong revolution. The people are very nice you see. They are all generally very restrained, polite and dignified. They bring their aunties and their kids. Plastic bottles are recycled, drinks are shared, litter is picked up. Even the policing is very low profile and restrained for now, at least. The posters being handed out are well designed and witty.

“Keep calm, don’t shoot,” was my favourite, though there were many contenders.

This movement which traces its roots back to the 2014 Occupy movement and beyond was supposed to be dead. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had most of its leaders and figures of inspiration behind bars. The remaining former student leaders were expelled from political office and their followers demoralized, rejected and cynical. Job done as far as Beijing was concerned and all justified by the rule of law too.  Well done Carrie. Well done indeed.

She should have heeded the words of John F Kennedy before she attempted to introduce the proposed Extradition bill and on such blatantly bogus grounds as the urgent need to bring an alleged murderer to justice in Taiwan.

“Never paint your opponent into a corner,” Kennedy once said, referring to international diplomacy. Or, to put it more crudely, don’t keep poking a defeated enemy with a sharp stick because eventually it will strike back, even if it knows the fight is futile. There is no more noble a cause to fight for, than a lost cause, after all. This is Hong Kong’s lost cause and many are prepared to fight for it. Some even say they are willing to die for it.

So, as this is being written, the Legislative Council building in Admiralty is being attacked and ransacked by angry young Hongkongers right next to the PLA headquarters where China’s soldiers await orders from Beijing. No-one knows what will happen next but even the most avowed optimist would struggle to predict a happy ending. Please keep calm Hong Kong and don’t shoot.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Christmas in Shanghai

Christmas morning is not greeted by a choir of heavenly angels but by the excruciating whine of an angle grinder being enthusiastically operated by a labourer outside my hotel window at 7am. Welcome to Christmas in Shanghai.

If, like me, you dream of avoiding Christmas every year, then China is the place for you. The religious festival that justifies a three-month febrile commercial circus in Europe does not even merit a public holiday on the Mainland. Almost any international hotel anywhere else in Asia will try to include a compulsory and overpriced Christmas gala dinner and so maintain the tradition of ripping off their guests during the season of goodwill to all men. Not in China though.

Don’t think for a moment you might escape the Christian festivities in Buddhist Thailand and Myanmar or Muslim Malaysia or Indonesia. Not a chance. I once travelled for several hours in a bumpy speedboat to a remote island, off the coast of Cambodia, to escape Christmas, only to be greeted by a member of the hotel staff in swimming shorts and a Santa hat.

“Are you here for merry Christmas or merry Christmas and happy new years,” the man inquired earnestly looking for my name on a list on his clipboard.

China is the place to be at Christmas if you don’t appreciate the tackiest extremes of Christmas fare being rammed down your throat 24 hours per day and Shanghai is perfect.

Apart from the over-enthusiasm for power tools in the early morning, this vibrant, young, switched on commercial metropolis gets Christmas just about right with a suitable smattering of festive glitter, cold clear days, amazing food and some great bars to drink to forget the festive season.

The quirky Muller hotel located in the former French concession, once owned by a European business man who wished to indulge his daughters’ passion for fairy tales by building a home that resembles a 1930s version of Disney’s magic castle, gets it spot on. Of course, there are the obligatory cheesy Christmas decorations and jingle bells is on a closed loop over breakfast but at least it’s better than Abba or Jonny Mathis and rest assured, few in China have heard of Cliff Richard.  And it’s a small price to pay for the fact that all the public attractions, museums and shops remain open over what is considered a holiday period almost everywhere else.

Wrap up warm and browse the boutiques situated along the tree-lined avenues of the French quarter, check out the residence of Soong Chi-ling, try the amazing soup dumplings, or walk the Bund before demolishing a few cocktails in the jazz bar at the Peace Hotel.

For the thinking person’s Christmas, choose China every time. 

Friday, 30 June 2017

My arrival in Hong Kong with President Xi

I arrived back in Hong Kong airport yesterday with General Secretary Xi Jinping.
It was the first visit of his nine-year tenure as supreme leader of China but I live here. 
We arrived at the same time but were not travelling together. 
Fortunately for the General Secretary, he did not, like me, fly Cathay Pacific or he would still be on the tarmac in Beijing. He would have arrived five hours late and may have missed the carefully stage-managed greeting from delirious school children, waving flags in a suitably synchronized fashion.
No doubt, the Presidential jet served up something more appetizing than stale peanuts and greasy stir-fried chicken because Xi and his glamorous first lady looked far more composed than I did on their arrival, judging by the glossy images shown on the relentless TV news bulletins.
While my ID card was being rejected by the automated immigration gate in the arrivals hall at Chek Lap Kok, the most powerful man in the world, unless you count Donald Trump, (and very few do) was speeding to town in an old-style cavalcade with motor cycle outriders. The scene was in the finest traditions of deluded dictators of third world tin-pot dictatorships. Xi was only missing some Rayban sunglasses and a pseudo paramilitary uniform adorned with copious medals. Papa Doc en-large.
The walkway from IFC mall to the central ferry piers was fenced off with metal barriers and officious police notices but his hotel was several kilometers away in Wan Chai.  Stoic and pragmatic Hongkongers side-shuffled past each other through the narrow passageway left for the public. Apparently, the risk of the General Secretary being embarrassed by the fleeting sight of protestors was simply unacceptable. The newspaper I work for carried a full page sponsored feature on page five. It was headlined ‘one country, two systems enriched by Xi’. Yes, really.
In my two-week absence to help prop up my elderly parents and see family and friends, the fare on the Hong Kong Express had increased by 15% and this wonderfully rich, diverse and tolerant city seems to have descended into 1970s Haiti.
There is lots of press coverage of course and no shortage of pompous political analysis.  Few want to mention though that the city that served as a haven for the oppressed and starving for over 150 years, today witnessed TV coverage of an unelected dictator greeting his goose-stepping troops from a glossy green military jeep. Perhaps the General Secretary thought he was in North Korea.
During its brief and imperfect modern history Hong Kong has welcomed (or at least tolerated) many political dissidents. Ho Chi Minh, Jose Rizal, Sun Yet Sen and Edward Snowden, amongst others. Today the same city welcomed Xi Jinping, the man who locks dissidents up with impunity and the city was treated to a chilling glimpse of its future.
At least the police only locked up the pro-democracy demonstrators for 28 hours. Papa Doc would have had them imprisoned, tortured and summarily executed.
But let’s face it, after 20 years, it’s still early days.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Thompson on Trump

It is a bitter disappointment that one of my literary heroes and second-favourite American writer (after Hemingway) is not still with us to offer his acerbic analysis of the election, and subsequent inauguration, of the orange-haired narcissist and sociopath, who now leads what used to be called ‘the free world’.

“We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world—a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully,” wrote Hunter S Thompson in a frenzy of righteous scorn provoked by his nation’s prosecution of the Iraq War.

The seasoned political journalist and writer of great wit, originality and verve who employed razor-sharp and visceral prose, died in 2005. He was the self-styled “freak” who confronted bullies, hypocrites and bigots, and those “flag-sucking half-wits” who supported them.

Thompson liked to quote Edmund Burke who said the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing and he would not have been content to just wring his hands in despair or whine in moral outrage on social media, about odious President Trump.

Though the hard-drinking, gun-toting and often drug-addled, Thompson was not an obvious paragon of virtue, he possessed a profound sense of liberal justice and was never slow to confront oppressive, totalitarian, corrupt and fascist tendencies, wherever he detected them. Over his years of reporting, he developed a talent for hitting the political nail on the head, with his unique uncompromising style.

“At the end of the decade,” he wrote of the 1990s, “no one will be sure of anything except that you must obey the rules, sex will kill you, politicians lie, rain is poison and the world is run by whores.”

One can only speculate about what he would have made of a political era where inheriting lots of money and being popular on reality TV, were the key qualifications for holding the highest offices of state. “Doom is the operative ethic,” he once wrote and when he describes “the ominous polarization between right and wrong,” he could easily be referring to 2017. Donald Trump is a monster-ego, fuelled by undiluted hubris, created in 1990s America and Thompson could sense his creation in his own dystopian visions.

“He is like some atavistic endeavor on speed- just another stupid monster as Attorney General of the USA, a vengeful jackass with an IQ of 66,” was his description of John R. "Jay" Ashcroft who he also regarded as “dumb as rock.”  Perhaps, like Thompson, more should just tell it how it is and give up excusing or seeking to rationalise those who support bigotry, ignorance and greed. 

 “They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us—they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis. And I am too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them.”

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sweat, sweat and tears.

Now temperatures are soaring to inhumane levels in Hong Kong, it is time to suffer the season of ultimate social indignity. 

By now I should be conditioned to the anxiety of being witnessed melting uncontrollably in rivers of sweat, like the traumatised ex-Vietnam pilot Ted Striker, in the movie Airplane but like Striker, I just can't get over it.

While the city's urban elite remain insulated in their own artificially controlled arctic microclimate, from temperature-controlled chauffeur driven limousine to air-conditioned office block, they remain blissfully unaware of the cruel embarrassment us lesser mortals must suffer. They have probably never even heard of a 'three shirt day'.

The  three-shirt procedure is mandatory for those  forced to venture outside  into the huge open air pizza oven to stagger to bus stops, ferry piers or MTR stations.

For those not familiar with the protocol, it necessitates a replacement shirt being concealed in a small discrete plastic bag together with a small bottle of highly pungent deodorant. Shortly  before reaching the intended destination, it is necessary to dive discretely into  a conveniently located public toilet. Here,  start to unpeel the offending wet shirt (shirt one) that has adhered itself to your skin during the journey in the searing heat. 

A dry replacement can then be put on over flaccid damp skin after a liberal dosing of toxic deodorant has been applied to the upper body. Always wait at least three minutes to dry and avoid the temptation to use toilet paper to mop excess moisture from your upper body. This can result in tiny fragments becoming attached to eyebrows or other body  hair, giving colleagues the misleading  impression that you are suffering from a rare and contagious dermatological disorder.

Shirt three remains in a reserve plastic bag in case of any unexpected social invitations that evening. If so, the offending shirt (2) is  normally removed  in a small toilet cubicle in the bar or restaurant. This exercise often requires the agility and grim determination of Houdini escaping from a strait jacket.

Abstaining from this golden rule, as I did recently for an informal party at a neighbour's house, a short walk away from my home, will only produce tragic results. Even though the sun had set and I had taken  the precaution of walking at a funereal pace, it did not prevent me bursting into spontaneous fountains  of fluid by the time I entered the party. My light-blue shirt (always a high risk sweat colour) had stuck to me like glue, so that my nipples protruded from the sweat-soaked cotton in a revolting  limpid mess.

The desultory party small talk stopped abruptly apon my dripping entrance.  The  host took one horrified look at me and said, "please, go inside and I will find you a shirt to wear. " It was the calm matter-of -fact paternal tone often reserved for a small child who has accidently defecated in their trousers.  

A friend told me later that  it was the first time he had ever heard of anyone being offered a replacement shirt on arrival at a Hong Kong social engagement and he has lived here for over 37 years.

The host kindly produced three short sleeve shirts on a hangar and asked me to choose one. The first had tiny motifs of Bob Marley spread across it, the second was a sick mustard colour so I opted for the third, an innocuous faded blue floral patterned print.

As if the evening could not get off to a worse start, the shirt, while perfectly tasteful, was several sizes too small for my ample frame.  The buttons stretched across my torso and grey chest hair sprouted through the gaps like dead weeds on a cracked patio. I felt like I was about to audition, unsuccessfully no doubt, for a part in a 1970s porn movie.

I decided to spend the remainder of the party sat very still within close range of an air conditioning unit but the final indignity was yet to come. On making my excuses, hoping at least to make a graceful exit the host insisted on having his shirt returned.  He explained he was about to go on holiday to Europe and it was one of his favourites. I paused hoping in vain that this was an ironic joke as all eyes were turned to me once more.   I slowly removed his shirt and  left, rather self-consciously and topless, to make my way home in the dark.