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.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

US President calls for urgent gun control law

It is a sobering fact that it was fifty years ago this month that US President Lyndon B Johnson first called for urgent action to introduce strict gun control laws.

His plea followed the shooting of 42-year-old, Senator Robert F Kennedy, who was fatally gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel, on June 5th 1968, shortly after winning the California presidential primaries. 

A front-page report in the South China Morning Post dated June 7th 1968, stated that President Johnson wanted to “bring the insane traffic in guns to a halt “and to slow down the violence and spare many innocent lives. In an emotion charged TV address, the President ordered a special gun crime commission to investigate “why we inflict such suffering on ourselves.”

Five decades later, the suffering continues.

According to the website there were 61,707 violent firearms incidents in the USA last year including 15,619 deaths. 735 of those deaths were of children aged 11 years old or younger and 2,332 were aged 12-18 years. Three times more children were killed by guns in peacetime America in 2017 than UNICEF estimate were killed in the Syrian civil war, (900) over the same period.

The statistics for 2018 are even more chilling. More than 28,000 violent gun incidents to May 31st including 5,870 deaths. This year, guns have already claimed the lives of 258 young children and more than 1000 teenagers many of whom were slaughtered in the 23 mass shootings at schools across the USA. All the above figures exclude the approximately 22,000 suicides by firearm, recorded every year in America.

The scale of the problem begs the question how can it have been allowed to fester and grow over the course of five decades in a representative liberal democracy?

The 1968 SCMP report went on to say that legal progress on gun regulation was bottled up in Congress due to the objections of the powerful pro-gun lobby.  Some four in five Americans canvassed in a telephone poll shortly after Kennedy’s death, strongly supported greater gun control at a local and federal level but nothing significant has changed since.

Since 1968, thousands of American children have died and families have been traumatised by futile tragedies they can never hope to recover from. Was this mass suffering necessary, just so a few corporations might make a few extra dollars or bigots and bullies could retain the freedom to brandish deadly military grade assault weapons?  

It’s a uniquely American madness and even a populist administration like Mr Trump’s seems paralysed when it comes to challenging the most powerful of vested interests.  Of course, the USA is not the only nation with an increasingly dysfunctional and monetarised democratic process.  

There is very little in the way of democracy in China of course, but also an almost complete absence of gun crime and mass shootings. The only super powerful vested interest in China is the ruling Communist Party (CCP) and its primary objective remains the preservation of its political legitimacy. This means both suppressing dissent (in Hong Kong, Xinjiang province and elsewhere) while delivering improved economic, environmental and social well-being for loyal Chinese citizens. 

History demonstrates that totalitarianism usually ends in tears and democracy has proven to be the least bad form of government. If it’s blatantly high-jacked by powerful elites acting contrary to the public interest though, it risks being increasingly devalued while the stock of the Chinese model of government might start to rise.  

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. 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Hong Kong Hamlet

I was lucky enough to enjoy a memorable evening out a few weeks ago, with Benedict Cumberbatch and my mother in law. 

He was starring in the National Theatre production of Hamlet which was showing at a cinema in Hong Kong and she was visiting from England. I was eager to see Cumberbatch in action after the penny finally dropped that he has become a huge media sensation in Asia. On a recent visit to Vietnam, he was the only subject the young female representative, meeting me at  Da Nang airport, wanted to chat about.

"I love Benedict...he is my lover," she confessed solemnly as we waited patiently by the baggage carousel .

The cinema was sold out though it has to be said, this production of Hamlet is average at best. Not surprisingly, it is very focused on the energetic superstar in the title role, as he dashes and sprints over the stage like a hyper-active labrador.  This interpretation  has the youthful exuberance of a sixth-form production and lacks a little soul and finesse.  While the innovation is to be applauded, seeing a play at the cinema is perhaps the worst of all worlds. You miss the intimacy of live actors and can't make up for it with sexy cinematography or special effects, like in Roman Polanski's classic film adaptation of Macbeth.

Anyone spending over three hours in a local cinema risks acute hypothermia, given the sub-arctic air conditioning preferred in these parts, so at least there was lots of energy to keep the audience's pulses racing.  

The play was also a timely reminder of what a bloody good writer Shakespeare was when it came to dealing with those timeless political themes of ambition, corruption, injustice, deception and disorder. Some of his lines work as perfectly in Asia in 2016 as they did in London in 1597, when his work was first performed.  In Hamlet, when it all starts to go noticeably 'Pete Tong' and Polonius delivers the famous line  "there is something rotten in the state of Denmark," there can't have been many in the audience, who were not thinking about recent events in Hong Kong.

There is a very witty script for an updated and highly satirical 'Hong Kong Hamlet' that someone once lent me and surely it about time it was dusted down and performed.

"When sorrows come, they come not single spies but as battalions," laments Claudius and few would disagree with him, some four centuries after the line was written.  It's a shame Shakespeare  is not still around to write the next series of House of Cards and add a modest short cameo role for Asia's latest heart-throb, Benedict Cumberbatch.