Friday, 5 June 2015

Uncertain times

They say that last night's candle-lit vigil to mark the 26th anniversary of  the Tiananmen Square protests and to commemorate its victims, attracted fewer people than last year, as though it was somehow an admission of defeat. 

On the ground the event feels more like a victory though, albeit a restrained and dignified one. From Tin Hau MTR station to Victoria Park  the area is crammed with people of every demographic profile, patiently proceeding along a narrow route lined with colourful banners, women distributing leaflets, police officers, volunteers with collection boxes for the victim's of the crackdown, young men bawling into megaphones, and cheerful T-shirt vendors. The atmosphere is orderly and restrained but hot, noisy, political and electric too. I ask the women selling one distinctive yellow T-shirt decorated with black characters to explain the slogan. Her colleague turns the shirt around to reveal the English translation; "Uncertain times call for certain action."

By the time we reach the park, the assembly area is already full of thousands of people sitting, listening to the organiser's announcements with the soft glow of their candles piercing the dark night air. It is a moving spectacle and they remain dignified, defiant and determined as our procession files past into a secondary area on the Causeway Bay side of the park, where a large video screen conveys the events to the ever-swelling crowd.

This is the only place in China where a public event marking the military suppression off the Tiananmen Square student protest in 1989 would be allowed to happen and it is the first vigil since the Occupy demonstrations. It is peaceful, well organised, spontaneous and uncensored in any way. Perhaps it represents all that is best about Hong Kong and the event must be an annual thorn in the side to those dry apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party looking on from Beijing.

Given that many feared those idealistic young protesters in their tented settlements in Admiralty and Mon Kok might suffer the same fate as their counterparts in Beijing 26 years ago, this year's event is particularly poignant. In such uncertain times, it  seems tragic that some of the younger, more radical localist groups have boycotted the vigil as an irrelevance to Hong Kong affairs and not of their direct concern.

The unfortunate reality is that freedom of expression and civil liberty in China must be everyone's concern and this event deserves everyone's support, if only as a symbol of the distinctive identity and the essential values of Hong Kong.  

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lessons in Dissent

There is a natural reticence on the part of many Westerners in Hong Kong to demonstrate overt support for the Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central. However sympathetic to the cause, they fear it might inadvertently reinforce the Beijing fictional narrative that youthful dissent on the streets of Hong Kong is somehow inspired and supported by Western capitalist agents.  In reality, many of the activists weren't even born when Hong Kong was a British colony and when you visit the Occupy sites most of the well-behaved youngsters in the sprawling tented communities assume you are just another gawping tourist. 'Gweilos' are just about irrelevant in their campaign.

My  feeling of impotence and irrelevance was only increased by watching the excellent new movie by Mathew Torne, shown at the Foreign Correspondent's Club this week which succeeds in touching a few raw nerves.

Lessons in Dissent documents the contrasting political development of two very young social activists, Joshua Wong,  the church-going co-founder of the student group Scholarism and Ma Jai, a more vehement anti-establishment figure and instinctive rebel, with appropriately long hair and a rock & roll personal image. Curiously, both boys grew up on the same middle class housing estate in Ap Lei Chau and while Wong becomes the well-scrubbed media darling of the student campaign to oppose National Education and Beijing's tightening grip of authority on Hong Kong's civil society, Ma Jai becomes slightly cynical about relying on media-invented celebrities like Wong to achieve political change.

It's a fascinating dual portrait combined with an exposure of the extremely mild but determined and idealistic version of radicalism, born in Hong Kong schools and universities that is now at the very heart of the Umbrella Movement. Torne should be congratulated for his foresight, fortune or instinctive talent for spotting such an influential movement and its key characters, at such an embryonic stage and bringing it to wider attention.

Joshua Wong appears as articulate, energetic, persuasive, politely recalcitrant and occasionally over- zealous as he  confronts leading establishment figures about their failures in office. He is truly impressive and the viewer has to remind themselves this is a vulnerable 15 year old child we are witnessing, directing dissent against arguably the most powerful and ruthless organisation on the planet- the Chinese Communist Party.

Wong, now just 18, is on a hunger strike. Today it was reported that his blood sugar levels are dropping to alarming levels but he is refusing medical advice to accept glucose water. He is younger than my youngest son and he and his colleagues like Ma Jai, are prepared to risk their health for their ideals while the rest of us gawp, sneer, ignore, or even moan about them delaying our taxi journey by a few precious minutes.

Hats off to Mr Wong. That's what I say.  Well done son and please ...take care.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Chinese kiss of death

Social kissing has become another version of public humiliation just waiting to happen and there seems to be no definitive guide on how to kiss in Hong Kong.

Who do you kiss and when and where? How many times and in what order?

It's painfully confusing and getting it wrong can be a social disaster.

At one exclusive  public reception at a smart hotel  in Kowloon, I was introduced to the hostess who offered such an alluring smile of welcome, that I inexplicably felt compelled to launch myself towards her for a social kiss. Stooping down and  puckering up simultaneously in a most unsightly manner, it must have made a terrifying spectacle for the poor woman.  As I aimed for her right cheek, her warm smile turned to a look of impending horror and like someone avoiding a nasty car-crash, she deftly stepped back a pace as I approached. I missed her cheek by a considerable distance and stumbling, collided heavily with a table of savoury snacks.

A simple etiquette guide would avoid this sort of social embarrassment. In France they seem to master these delicate social intimacy issues with consummate ease and  across South America people are embracing everyone like old comrades, so why are we so inhibited in this city?

One friend told me that at the conclusion of one particularly dreary private reception, he was invited to kiss his hostess's hand like a knight from the round table about to depart for battle in her honour. Instead, he left her snooty party only in search of a taxi that might transport him to to the Star Ferry.

And what about air kissing? Is that insincere or just more hygienic? What if your host or hostess is wearing a sanitary face mask?  Should you just  go for it anyway, safe in the knowledge you are unlikely to contract avian flu?

Perhaps the recent internet sensation of  "somersault kissing" should be introduced as the obligatory greeting at Hong Kong's premier social functions. For those not familiar with the popular manoeuvre, it requires one person to bend forward,  burying their head in the host's crotch. The host then flips their partner  backwards through 180 degrees by jerking violently upwards on their guest's buttocks.  If successfully implemented, the guest ends up  straddling the host's waste and is able to give them an affectionate peck on the lips.

Might be a useful ice-breaker anyway.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

There's a rat in the kitchen...or is there?

It is hardly cause for acute alarm when there is evidence of a tiny mouse in a flat, particularly when you co-reside with poisonous centipedes, burping toads, cockroaches, geckos and the occasional snake.

The first tell tale signs of our furry visitor were little pellets of black poo in my wife's knicker drawer.

It was early days in our epic challenge with this uninvited guest but in retrospect, it was the first indication that this was no ordinary rodent.  Subsequent weeks were to confirm this was no less than a super-rodent with an apparent weakness for junk food and  a perverse obsession with women's underwear.

Over recent weeks this little fella has become increasingly cheeky. Reluctant to encourage his nocturnal wandering around my wife's lingerie, we decided to close the kitchen door overnight. The next morning revealed that he had chewed through the door frame (presumably in a desperate attempt to escape and surround himself in lace and silk) leaving a significant pile of wood shavings and brick dust on the floor. He has also scaled the highest shelves in the kitchen and deliberately tipped my emergency rations of pot noodle on to the floor below, splitting the carton and allowing him a salty and very unhealthy snack.

Having developed a worthy respect for my adversary, I was slightly hesitant to revert to the local Chinese anti-rodent solutions that can verge on the barbaric. Instead,  I tried opening the kitchen window and closing the internal kitchen door in case we had blocked his means of escape. Things looked encouraging for a couple of days except that a large Huntsman spider took advantage of the open window to gain access and take up residence in the cupboard under the sink where he remains getting bigger and more grumpy. When there was no immediate sign of super -rodent, we deluded ourselves that he had returned to his family in sleepy rodent-ville, deep in the Hung Shing Ye jungle.

And then one evening, two days later we saw him , darting under the gas hob towards the pot noodles and he did not look like a rat or a mouse. He (or she) actually looked quite cute (ish) with pointed ears and legs that splayed out at the back like a squirrel. This confirmed sighting presented the perfect opportunity for our friends to play the role of expert zoologist and confident identifications ranged from a possum to a ground squirrel and even a mongoose.

Meanwhile our bananas were being eaten in greater quantities and when I left some English muffins on my desk inside my rucksack after a late night out, he found those and gobbled them up too.

The gloves were off. We had clearly exhausted all diplomatic avenues and it was time for tough action against this unilateral and unprovoked terrorist rodent attack. A trip to the hardware stores in the village highlighted a number of solutions. First I was offered a small clear plastic bag from under the counter with a skull and crossbones crudely printed on the side above a forbidding label saying 'poison'. The storekeeper refused to take any payment but insisted that I must not accept it if I had children or maybe he meant if I wanted to have children. In another store I was offered a solution which, judging by the illustration the side of the box, was like fly-paper for mice and rats. This highly effective adhesive pad would ensure that any passing rodent would just simply stick to it. But what then, I thought?

Finally, I stumbled across the perfect solution. For a mere $35 HK I procured an intricate wire cage with a spring door that can be baited, in this case with the obvious choice of English muffins, banana and a pair of lacy panties from Marks & Spencer. This will be humane, effective and Monsiuer Rodent can be released into the wild several kilometres from my pot noodles and my wife's underwear.

So tonight is the big night in our struggle with super rodent. The bait is set and the lights are dimmed. Game on my little furry friend. The morning will reveal if I have finally outwitted my worthy yet elusive opponent and he can be returned to the wild with the other rats, possums, ground-squirrels and mongeese. Or will this be the year of the rat, after all?  

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Paradise Lost- Pulau Pangkor

Even the male leaf monkey turns his nose up with disgust, having tentatively inspected my squalid hotel room from the balcony outside.

Perhaps inevitably, the Pangkor Bay View Hotel does not offer a view, except of a rubbish strewn wasteland and it is certainly nowhere near a bay. Sadly, this crumbling concrete edifice located a few hundred meters up a scruffy narrow road, is entirely devoid of any charm, rather like the rest of the island.

Once upon a time, this was a natural unspoilt gem, sited just off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia in the straits of Malacca. A few humble fishing villages, some quiet white sand beaches and the forsaken ruins of a 17th century Dutch fort, reminding visitors of the days when this was a strategic maritime spot in the lucrative spice trade and later in tin and rubber.

As the ferry from Lumut passes the naval base and approaches the traditional fishing villages of the east coast of Pangkor, it seems surprisingly sleepy and undeveloped. It’s not difficult to imagine how, not long ago, it was a romantic island paradise, popular with Malaysian holiday makers and a few western back-packers. Now very few visit except organised tour parties of hysterical local students, those imprisoned behind the high fences of luxury resorts who could be in Barbados for all they know and those few who still pay any attention to Lonely Planet.

The mountainous spine of the island is thick with dense steaming jungle but the periphery is lined with a smooth black tarmac road that separates the forest from the sea.  Along the east coast piles of refuse are either stacked in stinking heaps near the traffic or just distributed casually across the beaches and on the forest floor. Polystyrene food cartons, plastic bottles, discarded food waste, soiled nappies, plastic bags; an impressive smorgasbord of shite.

Teluk Nipah is a handsome U-shaped bay with two boulder strewn islands guarding each end of it, which has been tragically ruined by callous disregard on the part of humanity.

Concrete bunkers have been built on the shoreline to accommodate tacky shops selling “I love Pangkor” T shirts. The narrow strip adjoining the road looks like an abandoned seaside refugee camp complete with rusting barbeques, discarded kayaks, wrecked jet-skis and dilapidated temporary buildings. Hundreds of faded orange life jackets hang from every tree on temporary string lines, ready for a maritime disaster that may have already occurred. Giant black Hornbills perch on the fence of a deserted restaurant being fed sticky rice and crisps by bored tourists and those greedy Hornbills won’t hesitate to share anyone's lunch.

Surly and recalcitrant youths sit on motor scooters and rev the engines before screaming away in to the distance.

This is high-season but there is an unmistakable atmosphere of mass resignation and desolation as a white plastic chair is washed in the surf and the high water line is marked by a thick strand line of marine rubbish. There are more pariah dogs to be seen patrolling the beach than tourists sunbathing and a single converted fishing boat tows an inflatable raft at high speed across the polluted bay.

There are no high-rise resorts in this small soulless village so the greed of international corporate groups and global capitalism cannot be blamed for this local man-made disaster.

At least that monkey has the good taste return to his jungle home in the mountains and I can escape from this lost paradise on the first ferry back to the mainland the morning. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Learning Cantonese, I think I’m learning Cantonese, no I don’t think so.

For someone who has exhibited little or no aptitude for mastering second languages to date, learning Cantonese is proving to be several steps too far.

Only two lessons into an intensive course of eight, at the Panda Cantonese Academy on Lamma Island with my devoted and proficient tutor, Dilys, and things are already looking ominous.
Cantonese is monosyllabic which should make it simple. Unfortunately, it also has a number of tones that must be mastered before vocabulary can be attempted or grammar properly grappled with. Some text books insist there are no less than thirteen tones but Dilys has decided we will stick to six, which is more than enough for the time being, as far as I am concerned.
Because of these different tones, one word can have multiple meanings depending on which tone is adopted and making basic errors can have quite devastating consequences on your social life. 
For example, “Ngo Hai (6th tone) Stuart, “means simply “I am Stuart”.
However, “Ngo Hai (1st tone) Stuart,” means “I fuck Stuart”.
As you can probably appreciate, this is quite a crucial difference in translation when introducing yourself to the neighbours in Hung Shing Yeh or, even worse, exchanging friendly banter with schoolchildren on the ferry.
One tiny and subtle variation in pronunciation can mean the difference between approving nods of amusement and being arrested.
And when I use my new list of stock Cantonese phrases on local shopkeepers and café owners, they just look at me blankly as though I might have uttered Russian, Hebrew or even Welsh rather than their own Mother tongue.
Tragically, during Lesson two, things descended rapidly from mild embarrassment to utter humiliation.
At least at school you could mime along with the more linguistically gifted or just mumble enthusiastically in the back row but at these intensive one to one sessions at the Panda Academy, there is nowhere to hide.
To be fair, when I was asked to repeat an audio Cantonese conversation between Mr Wong and his boss Miss Cheung, I was still suffering from a slight hangover from a night at the Happy Valley racecourse the night before.  My mind went in to a blind panic as the dialogue speeded up to the pace of near normal conversation.  I started looking at my notebook in desperation when Mr Wong says “Ho Ho” as I thought it might be some sort of Christmas comedy being acted out featuring a Chinese Santa.
This caused  the usually patient Dilys to accuse me of “Chut  Mau” or “cheating” though literally translated it means “chucking the cat out of the house”. I feared that Dilys might chuck me out of her house so poor was my performance.  I am confident she would have done if I had not been persuaded to pay for the first eight lessons in advance.
Poor Dilys has just emailed me the recording of today’s lesson but I am too embarrassed to listen to it. 
Lost in translation without a GPS.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Successful psychology for bus trips in Laos

The bus station at Vientiane is crowded, chaotic and thick with hot choking diesel exhaust even at this early hour as I grapple with wads of the incomprehensible yip currency to pay for a small bag of satsumas from a hawkers stall near the ticket office.

I am still trying to mentally calculate whether this modest polythene bag of fresh fruit has cost about 50 pence or £50 as I look for the 0800 Express VIP service to Luang Prabang and remind myself of the first psychological tip for bus travel in Laos. Never take any notice of the name of the bus or the bus company for invariably, the luxury implied in the name is inversely proportional to the luxury experienced on board the vehicle in question.

For Premier Class Luxury VIP express think squalid rusting wreck that leaves two days late and breaks down in  muddy lay-by in the middle of a jungle.

Like most journeys in this region, this one starts early in the morning or early in the evening.  Arrive in the dark or leave in the dark-take your choice. Having squeezed my frame into the last remaining vacant seat for the 10 hour bus journey north, a painfully cheerful Australian man with a white beard and spectacles politely informs me I am sitting in his seat.

I am immediately reminded of a famous management guru book you might be familiar with called "Who moved my cheese?" Without wishing to reduce a rather tedious best-selling self-help guide to a sentence or two, the mantra is that if something changes just go with the flow rather than waste a lot of energy resisting that change which will in all probability achieve nothing at all.

This is particularly relevant to seat allocation on buses in south-east Asia.

Having located an alternative spot, the 0800 VIP express departs promptly at 08.23 sharp which introduces the next psychological tip after the cheesy one. Remove your wristwatch or indeed any other device that might reveal the time and secrete it deep in your baggage. Ideally, just smash it into a thousand tiny pieces because the south-east Asian bus network does not work to the same time zone or convention that you might be familiar with.

Next, you must meditate very deeply indeed and cast aside any tangible consciousness of the destination that might be printed on your ticket. That way you will only feel delight and a mild sense of excitement when, after less than 2km into your ten hour journey, you feel yourself grinding to an unscheduled halt outside a scruffy tyre repair shop or fuel depot on the outskirts of town. The bus remains here for no apparent reason for an indeterminable time while one of the posse of assistant bus drivers smokes a cigarette with the owner of the aforementioned tyre repair shop and shares what appears to be some sort of raucous joke or anecdote that is evidently highly popular at this ungodly time of the morning.

All the time the agony of the armrest digs more deeply into your forearm, the man behind continues to pummel his knees into your lower spine and that cute baby you made funny faces at while waiting at the depot is now screaming at full throttle.

Often there are tell-tale signs of when progress may re-commence. On the 0800 VIP Express to Luang Prabang it is when the engine stalls, which is does infallibly every time the driver attempts to engage first gear. As the engine stalls I can feel my body relax slightly as he restarts the engine and we draw away uncertainly from the kerb.

Laotians and Cambodians must have a much more highly developed sense of self-control than us Europeans. They are sanguine and philosophical about the entire bus travel affair. If there is only a cardboard box to sit on then that will have to do. If the bus is six hours late it cannot be helped. If the clutch scrapes and slips making an excruciating grinding scream as we engage a steep gradient there is little that they can be expected to contribute.

There is no question in their mind of complaining to the driver, demanding a refund or spontaneously starting a fight with the man behind with the restless knees. There is little value in writing to the bus company or taking up the matter with the local MP. Even a sigh of exasperation or a sardonic raised eyebrow is a waste of energy on a hot day in the tropics.

They must have all read that cheese self-help book or more likely, have never felt the need to.
By way of contrast, I have observed that North Americans often seem to make the most impatient and intolerant of travellers. I remember hearing an American complaining volubly on an English train when he was asked for his ticket by a surly inspector for the fourth time on the same relatively short and much delayed train journey.

“Jesus H Christ, what sort of dammed fool train service to do call this anyway?” he demanded.

Fellow passengers all tutted silently and turned their heads away from his rudeness having wanted to ask the same question for decades but always lacked the nerve.

Strangely enough my travel companion for the next 10 hours is a young American man from Washington DC called Chip. Chip is wearing a very suitable khaki outfit and has that well groomed Ivy League look about him with thin brown curly hair, high cheek bones and clear blue eyes.  I notice he has unusually thin and bony knees for an athletic looking chap and he tells me that he has spent six months travelling to get over a broken relationship but will be returning to his steady job in banking next month. He was rather keen on Indonesia and Albania.

I wondered sadly if the love of his life had been unable to reconcile herself or himself to a life with a banker with knobbly knees.

Disproving my theory about Americans, Chip kindly offers me the aisle seat and proves to be taciturn, diffident and most importantly, still. We exchange a few words of pleasantries but as seasoned bus travellers we both respect that in such cramped conditions the maximum amount of mental space must be offered to one's fellow travellers.

This could, I suppose, be another tip. Always be very tentative and gentle in all attempts at conversation with fellow travellers in the hope that this courtesy might be reciprocated. Never put your face in someone else’s and progress to tell them your entire life story in a ten hour uninterrupted monologue. You might well  find that you are left stranded on the side of a remote mountain road during a toilet stop as only your neighbouring passenger will raise the alarm to the driver if he has left without you.

The road to Luang Prabang winds, dips and turns relentlessly through the beautiful mountainous countryside of Laos, a poor nation of about six million souls where 85% of people are subsistence farmers scratching a modest living from the earth and from the abundant Mekong river and its many tributaries that appear and disappear in the valleys as we rattle and bump our way north. Gazing out of the stained windows I casually observe that while rivers meander more on the flat, the road winds more when on the steeper gradients. I am pleased with my private observation but taking my own advice, decide not to share it with Chip.

The old Laotian man across the aisle introduces himself in English and tells me something about the scenery pointing out a fish market and two Chinese cement factories-the only industrial buildings seen over 500km. Mr B lives in Luang Prabang and does some work as a tour guide. Life expectancy for men in Laos is only 58 so it is impossible to guess his age but he has deep lines etched into his dark bony face and his sharp jaw a gives him an air of distinction. Smartly dressed in a pressed blue shirt and wool trousers he could be a university academic or the district chief of police.

With alarm, it suddenly occurs to me that he could also be my minder that the people in Bangkok had warned me about.

I smiled at him warmly trying to convey innocence, honesty and honour in one complex grimace but he only looks back blankly.

Not deterred by my contorted facial expressions, he tells me he also speaks Lao and Czechoslovakian. He studied agriculture for five years at a university just outside Prague in the late 1970’s.  I could only try to imagine what a young man from the mountainous tropical jungles of Laos would have made of a snowy bleak winter in communist Prague.

“Some days it was minus 30 degrees Celsius” he tells me, as though reading my thoughts.