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.

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.