From the Balcony
Asia/Hong Kong
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From the Balcony

As the aeroplane door closes, with its reassuring ker-thunk heralding the end of another little trip to Hong Kong, I cannot help but indulge in a little retrospective. Hong Kong is a place that seems always to pull me different directions. The views from the rooftop bars are inspiring, but the pollution wearying. The opulence of the big-name shop fronts is dazzling, but the relative limits and expensiveness of the place for ordinary shopping become boring. The markets still retain a little of their grubby allure, but distinctiveness has become smudged into an endless array of tat, the same across Hong Kong and, really, across China.

Yet the wealth and the poverty, the order and the chaos, the tidiness and the dirt, the crowds and spaciousness: these are the contrasts that bedevil (or enliven) every city and they are not the true source of my unease with the place. For there is something else, a more particular story, that is being told in Hong Kong. A peculiar unravelling of a social story that, as I sip a long drink on a balcony overlooking the Johnston Road in Wan Chai, I may not be able to see, but I can yet still feel.

For Hong Kong is a city where its government has become something that is at times seemingly truly unrepresentative of, and unmotivated by, its people. Though the government may claim to be responsive, it feels at times it is only responsive when responding to local concerns aligns with responding to high politics. For many of the locals I meet, futures narrow and hopes dim. Yet a vibrancy still remains, be it corralled into ever smaller pens.

On Saturday 2 December, a demonstration took place. It was cheerful and orderly; the police were out in force with metal barricades, berets and their little whispering plastic earpieces, but there was no anger or animosity in the crowd and the uniformed youngsters (as they seemed) just looked a little silly when they ran with their backpacks full of banners, ready to unfurl messages of warning, dismissal and, even, imminent arrest to the collection of students, parents and grandparents.

It wasn’t a large march, though they carried their placards determinedly. Perhaps a thousand; perhaps five hundred? It is always so hard to judge numbers just from a casual untrained look. Joshua Wong was there, out on bail and awaiting his next sentencing. And this was what the protest was about: a shout at the authorities that Hong Kong should not be a place with political prisoners, that Hong Kong should not be a place that fills its prisons with young citizens merely because of the workings of their conscience. But for the people in the march, this is what Hong Kong has become. Through the courts, the political parties opposing increased control by, and harmonisation with, Beijing have been shattered, their members either imprisoned, awaiting sentence, or banned from running for office. By-elections have been delayed until March 2018 (the seats fell vacant in July 2017) amid on-going appeals, leaving the pro-Beijing camp with a veto-busting majority in the city’s Legislative Council.

Of course, the government denies any undemocratic tendencies, but it is hard to take their spokesmen seriously when their playbook is so artlessly copied from you-know-who. Court judgements that talk of social harmony and worrying trends of civil disobedience: of the importance of citizens obeying the law (but not of the law being just). Government officials that deny government interference despite it being the government that has called for retrials and more stringent penalties. There has even been talk of retroactive application of the to-be-implemented law penalising ‘disrespecting’ the national anthem with imprisonment. And everything cloaked in Beijing’s ultra-shriek that any comment by a foreigner is an insult and interference that is not to be borne.

This shriek has been heard much less than it should have been. Britain has been powerless and voiceless, perhaps also spineless; the EU apparently simply uncaring; America distracted by an executive with priorities quite different from championing the rights Americans are meant to cherish. The voices within Hong Kong have also been muted. The city’s system of functional constituencies (also known as entrenched vested interests) grants real power to various business groups that look beyond what might be right to what might merely be profitable. The executive too, mindful that ultimate promotion and success are increasingly in the gift of Beijing, look beyond the city’s shores for guidance. Everything is wonderful, officialdom smiles fatly. Only the young, the elderly, or those with families might wish to worry about a future they are in danger of being priced out of.

In the first-floor dining room of a shabby branch of a once favourite dim sum restaurant chain, I found an odd parallel with Hong Kong’s wider malaise staring at me from my food. I remember my first trip to Dim Dim Sum, with its delicious dumplings and cute pig-faced custard buns. I remember too my second and my third trip. But over time the delight faded, and this last time will likely have to be the very last. For while the pig-faced custard bun was as cute and piggy as ever, I couldn’t help but notice the encrusted grim and filth that coated the dish they were served in. The table too was stained with dirt; the ceiling low and the room cramped. But most of all, it was the dried (but now soggy) detritus of dumplings long past lurking at the base of the serving dish that made me think that this was a restaurant living on a reputation borrowed from an earlier time. Walking through Causeway Bay, reading the desperately formulaic English of the supposedly spontaneous anti-Falun Gong and anti-Japanese street protests (exhibitions that dripped with an arms-length official hand), one cannot help but wonder if Hong Kong too is living on a reputation borrowed from an earlier time.

But now my time has ended once again. The door is shut, the aeroplane is pulling away from the gate. My phone, switched off, is no longer bleeping incessant warnings about the toxic air I spent hours taking great lungs-full of as I walked along the streets. Soon the aeroplane will turn onto the runway, take off and climb into (or is it out of?) the dingy, dirty, grimy, noxious air that has coated the city throughout my stay.

Oh, Hong Kong! Until next time?

Comfort food
Asia/Hong Kong
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Comfort food

Sometimes before a long journey, a little comfort food is needed.  Few cultures do comfort food quite as well as the Cantonese in Hong Kong.

Dim sum for lunch but pork for dinner.  And not just pork: a feast of pork. Four different types of pork for dinner: minced pork with beans, fatty belly with preserved vegetables, honey glazed barbecued pork, and crispy roast pork.  For there is something quite alluring about a restaurant with piles of glistening pork stacked up in trays or hanging from hooks in the window.

A swift rebuke
Asia/Taiwan
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A swift rebuke

Sitting in a Taipei taxi, I used the word ‘mainland’ in a sentence. My driver’s rebuke was swift and clear. ‘China,’ he said. Not the mainland. ‘Taiwan is Taiwan; China is China.’

It seems Beijing’s tactics have failed to win the heart of this man at least.

Ten thousand Buddhas
Asia/Hong Kong

Ten thousand Buddhas

If you travel north of Mongkok you can pretty swiftly leave the Hong Kong of insane crowds, bars and shops, and enter quieter, more residential areas. Indeed, for normal everyday shopping, these can actually be the more useful neighbourhoods. Not only are the crowds thinner, but the Gucci and Prada stores are replaced with useful shops actually worth entering.

Sha Tin is just such a one of these places. Three stops north of Mongkok East on the East Rail Line, it is a world away from the bustle a stone’s throw from my flat. There is a village feel to the place and a far quieter air. But that was not the reason for my visit. I was here for the Temple of the Ten Thousand Buddhas.

Waiting for the unwary tourist is, at the bottom of the stairs, a would-be monk. Unbidden he presses beads to your forehead, bestows a kiss of blessing, and tries to force a bracelet on you. He is easily shaken off and left behind; I bounded up the first flight of steps away from the false monk and past the first of the ten thousand Buddhas.

The way to the temple is steep. A staircase cuts up the hillside, through the trees. It is lined with golden Buddhas, each in a different pose (or would these be Buddhavista or Bodhisattva?). They smile and frown, read books and play music, ride animals and stand alone. All the way up they go to the temple itself.

In truth, there is nothing very special at the top. The temple is as temples are. But the setting and the views and the entrance make it well worth the visit.

Back the other side of the MTR station is the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, an apparently politically contentious museum that Beijing is using to try and educate Hong Kongers about mainland history (and instil enthusiasm for a shared sense of nationhood).

I wandered through an exhibition focused on a single room from the Forbidden City that was important in the Qing Dynasty. The exhibition was lighter on actual exhibits than it was on videos but the effect was to inculcate a sense of mystery and excitement around the Qing. Quite why the Communist Party should want to evoke such feelings for the last imperial dynasty is less clear. But perhaps the ambiguity Hong Kong feels towards the museum is shared by its curators. Who knows?

Prelapsarian fruit
Asia/Hong Kong

Prelapsarian fruit

Fruit can so often be a dull affair.  “Is it sweet?” is asked almost as a forlorn hope with an orange.  Bananas too often taste of just so much old mash.

There is a hierarchy to the fruit sold in Hong Kong.  At the bottom is produce from the Mainland.  It is cheap, it is ok, and it is shunned by a chunk of society fearful of toxins in the food.  Then there is fruit from Southeast Asia, or even further afield.  Perhaps a British apple in Marks and Spencer, or something from Australia or America.  But at the top, at the very pinnacle, is fruit from Japan.  It doesn’t come cheap, but it is good.

It is, though, infinitely inferior to the real thing.

A friend returning from a trip to Japan brought with him some fruit.  Grapes so intensely sweet and flavoursome that they could only be eaten one at a time and savoured slowly.  To guzzle these grapes, popping them into the mouth with gay abandon as one might at home, would not just be a waste, it might even lead to some neuralgic shock.  The melon too was of a succulence and taste that I have never before experienced.

Is this what fruit was like before the Fall?  Is this the way all food should taste?

What has happened to our food, and to our palate?

Pillars to impress
Asia/China

Pillars to impress

When there are blue skies, the water and the mountains give Kunming a peaceful even graceful feel.  Sit beneath the quiet sun and one can, for a moment, forget the cranes that dominate the route to and from the airport, along which endless blocks of flats are being built, their dark little windows staring blankly out at yet another building site.

From my first trip to Kunming I remember the stone pagoda; from my second, just a few of months ago, shaded alleys and picturesque restaurants.  This visit, for a conference at which I was the only Westerner and at which the presentations were perhaps not even meant to be heard by Westerners, was dominated by the modern grandiose. China still builds to impress, not in details or flourishes, but in size.  The building was monumental.  Such was the size of the pillars, they would not have been out of place in Pharaoh’s palace.  The entrance was three four five stories high. Kunming is a city with a message.

But what that message is was softened over dinner by the province’s vice-governor who dwelt in his speech on the flowers and the sun, and one his hopes for our health.  It was a message that was also far overtaken by my dining companion’s own story, for he had been a political prisoner in Burma for eleven years.  And it was a message that was reduced to irrelevance when, after dinner, a door to another room opened and I was enveloped by the welcome of my Yunnanese friends as they smoked and drank and gossiped.

A weekend in paradise
Asia/Taiwan

A weekend in paradise

Through the window, I could see a warm rich dark orange light stripe the sky.  A beautiful end to a marvellous weekend.  A weekend back in that most wondrous of places: Taipei.

That sense of quiet, relaxed comfort never leaves me when I walk the streets.  Though I may not understand what is said, it is hard to doubt the warmth and sincerity that one meets.  And though nothing I did was very special (a haircut; a little shopping; a dinner of snacks in the local night market) everything was special (the haircut was really very good; the sales assistants were incredibly helpful; the night market didn’t just serve up fresh Korean-style fried chicken, but also the wonderful Taiwanese sausages, fresh seafood – and oysters, and a whole range of unidentifiable local delicacies).

It must be boring to be always told that other journeys and visits to other places are never quite as good.  But what can I say?  Taiwan simply is the best.

Guangzhou
Asia/China

Guangzhou

Guangzhou. Canton.  It is a name with resonance, but a place I have never been to before.

Today China’s third largest city, it couldn’t be more different from neighbouring Shenzhen despite their similar size.  While Shenzhen was still the little fishing village of Baoan before 1979, Guangzhou’s history stretches back rather further, stretches back before the days of Canton, to a city of Panyu as old as China itself. Yet though I shunned modern Guangzhou, and left Guangzhou Tower and its as-standard modern city centre to another time, it was to Canton that I headed.

Tucked to the side of the Pearl River and bounded by a moat, Shamian is the original foreign concession: a place where the French and British were able to set up their factories and trading posts.  The place still retains its colonial feeling. The buildings are unmistakably European in form; quite different from their Chinese counterparts, and the island is beautiful.  Beautiful and tranquil. Despite the number of people sitting beneath its trees, ambling along its semi-pedestrianised roads, or sipping at its bars, the area retains a quiet, relaxing and welcoming feel.

Leave the island and the European influence begins to fade in intensity, though it is still there in the Customs House and the French Catholic cathedral and much else besides. But China proper, at least my romanticised view of an end-of-Qing-China, seems to reassert itself. There are the narrow streets lined with shops the wares of which spill out over the pavement. There are the bags of the dried and unidentifiable in the medicine market, the cacophony of glazed colour in the pottery shops, and the dark wide flat-seated furniture that would not look out of place in a Qing palace.  There are the tea shops and fruit sellers lining pavements that are themselves shaded by overhanging first floors.  And in the back streets, adventitious roots trail from the branches of fig trees, draping green and brown above the crowds.

Though it is just two hours away by train, this slice of Guangzhou (and I am sure there are others) is a far cry from Hong Kong.  Perhaps not better or worse, but certainly different. Although the railway ticket office in Hong Kong accepted only cash, one bar in Guangzhou placed signs on every table prohibiting the playing of chess while another served almost comically disagreeable drinks. Yet Guangzhou too gave us an impromptu table-side magic show that started with a man pulling a flaming wallet from his pocket and ended with a trick in which rubber bands were made to physically pass through one other. Guangzhou too gave us a dish of pork belly that was so delicious, so tender, so soft, so juicy and so sweet that eating it seemed almost a waste, for how could it be enjoyed once swallowed? Guangzhou too gave us stalls selling scorpions and (what I hope were fake) animal legs covered in red and black striped fur, with curly claws and straggling tendons.

But most of all, it gave a respite and a break. A step into something else, just a step away from Mongkok.

Watering plastic flowers
Asia/China

Watering plastic flowers

It is a glorious day in Beijing.  This is what summer should be.  The sky is blue; the sun is hot.

A mass of slowly-shuffling people chatters quietly as they queue to pass through the security checkpoints and enter the vast concrete wasteland of Tiananmen Square.

A man is watering the plastic plants arranged outside a department store.  The plastic petals are garishly colourful; the plastic leaves, wetly bright.

Later, lunch is delicious, but it is in the wrong restaurant.  My hotel is in between two with the same name.  I turn right and head to the wrong one.  After I get to the restaurant and realise my host is elsewhere, I do the twenty-minute walk to the correct restaurant as a four minute run and make the meeting hot and late, but in time for the first course.  We discuss tea and temples.  He asks me my religion.  I ask him if he is a Buddhist.  ‘No,’ he replies. ‘A Communist.’

No questions, please
Asia/Hong Kong

No questions, please

There is, I don’t think it would be too unfair to say, a certain type of Hong Kong expat that views Kowloon as ‘the dark side’, and possibly anything outside Central as ‘a bit far away’.  Wan Chai at push, because one must have a taste for the exotic.

What surprised me was where else I should find this brand of ultra-parochialism.  Attending a conference billed as international, I was left wondering just what Hong Kong meant by that word. At one point, mention of the New Territories seemed as un-local as it was going to get.

But that isn’t entirely fair.  There were presenters who had come from outside Hong Kong, even if not really from another country: there were Mainlanders.  Wonderfully, one senior researcher from the Mainland appeared to have been briefed not to answer any questions at all.  No matter how concise and precise the question asked, this particular researcher would ask for clarification.  With the obviousness of the question then unavoidable, he would look around the room panic-stricken, waiting for someone else to answer for him.  Perhaps even he felt slightly embarrassed by his performance; once the question had been dealt with he would come forward to ask if he might add a few words himself, only to mumble on some unrelated topic until confident we had all been put to slumber.