Changeless Beijing
Asia/China

Changeless Beijing

Back again.  I barely got home before I flew out again.  This time to Beijing.  The experience borders the surreal.  Everything is the same, and yet I feel as if nothing should be.  The airport is just as I last saw it; the experience at immigration, the little shuttle train, waiting for a taxi: all the same.  I feel nothing but flatness.

For a show of friendliness, I had booked into the same hotel as my colleague.  But the hotel cancelled my booking and said they had no rooms.  So I returned to my usual place in Wangfujing, pitching up near midnight.  Again, the hotel I had stayed in so many times before was just as it always was, right down to the smell in the lobby.

Nothing seems to change.

Asia/China

Back to Kunming

Here I am back in a different world.  The official government car that is waiting for me outside the airport is neither black nor an Audi, but the waiting chauffeur has his obviously-thick woollen jacket turned up at the collar.  The Kunming sky reminds me faintly of sludge.  The air is not good today; sometimes, the driver confides in me, the sky is blue.

I am here for a meeting with the local government, but a more important man (the Governor) has jumped the queue.  My meeting is suddenly bumped.  I check into my hotel, wander out to find some lunch, and wait.

But the wait ends in typical Chinese style.  I am sent a message on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp, but with rather fewer encryption measures.  Are you ready for dinner?  “What time,” I reply.

In the friendliest terms, official Chinese dinners can be brutal affairs.  The baijiu flows constantly, and attempts to deflect a toast are rarely well received.  The politest I can be about baijiu is to think of it as alcoholic petrol. I can feel it damaging my body with every sip, but if only one were allowed to sip.  The liquid must be knocked back, brimming glass by brimming glass.  With each, my body shudders; however I attempt to train and restrain myself, I simply cannot repress them. But with the toasts and their shudders come other things as well.  The smiles and the hugs; the speeches and the vows of everlasting friendship.  As the evening wears on, the constant cigarette smoking fills the room and the air becomes thicker and thicker. As thick as thieves, the saying goes. Like the air, so the friendships.

I have been here before, of course, in different times with different people in different places.  Such vows never mark the end of the road, but they do at least signal that you have been granted access to the road.  The hard work might still remain, but the gate has been opened.  Now is the time to step through it.

*

The morning replaces haze with a blue sky and a surprisingly bright sun; inside the government officesa chill still pervades. Around the table are the usual pink slips of paper bearing names. On one is marked “LEO”. I guess it is where I am meant to sit.  Slowly the others gather. It ends up with me against eleven. And so we begin.

*

When it is over there is another car, this time black. It is time for lunch (where I must learn on the spot how to fillet a small fried fish with chopsticks) and then the airport.

My time is done.

The Buddhist monk of Mount Jizu
Asia/China

The Buddhist monk of Mount Jizu

It has been almost a year since I last flew over China.  The view from the aeroplane is always unmistakable.  It is the blue roofs, of course, that are the ultimate give away.  The shallow sloping blue metal roofs the Chinese adore so much.  But there are other traits that make China so distinct: the endless blocks of flats; the scarred, brown earth; the endless construction work of roads and buildings.

It has been a while too since I have stood in a wholly domestic Chinese setting, being bustled and shouted across by people who seem to have no volume control, nor any understanding of a queue.  It has been time too since I have been driven along winding Chinese rural roads by a man who at times steered with an elbow.

But if this sounds as if I start with a litany of complaints, it is not my intention at all.  For these things, though they may at first jar, conjure up the many delights of China too.  The energy and enthusiasm, the downright friendliness of people.  My taxi driver recognised me from a picture I had sent him, he sorted out every logistical detail of the (surprisingly complex) journey from the airport, and he finished off by undercharging me (though in this respect he was an uncommon man).

The drive from Dali could not be described as pretty.  For a town famously pretty, the part I saw was dominated by a huge cement works, and pretty much everywhere we passed was in the process of being cemented over.  Where the earth itself still peaked through, it was a bare, damaged land.  I could not call it beautiful.  It simply wasn’t.  Even the farming villages we passed lacked beauty. The vineyards that sprawled in every direction and filled every little space of unbuilt-up land at times seemed to be more concrete post than grape or leaf.

Journeys, of course, are rarely just about the destination, yet rarely too are they just about physical movement or the view along the way.  Journeys in the real world can provide a changing backdrop for an introspective journey.  As I was taken ever further into the Yunnan countryside so I ventured into a kaleidoscope of thoughts.

Perhaps today was not the right day to read Carson McCullers, but I was reading her nonetheless.  Her pages exposed the awkwardness and difficulty of life, and the frailty of our existence.  They left me struggling to keep other thoughts at bay.  Since my last trip to China, so much had changed. Changing jobs; changing countries; changing lives.  The past haunts our choices; the present tires out the mind; the future piles up fresh anxieties.  We solve a problem only by plunging headlong into another.  As someone I am a mentor to rang me up to ask, why had achieving all her ambitions not made her happy?  Why did she feel no better, no more secure, no more content?  What was it she was meant to do?

The light faded quickly as the car climbed the mountain and finally, in the darkness, we stopped.  Two people dressed in black robes met me at the car door. I was whisked from the cold dark outside, to a brightly lit reception room with a golden Buddha, women arranging flowers, a drawer where my passport was lain to rest, and a very welcome cup of pu’er tea.

*

But let me explain what I am doing here, on this journey that has so far gone deeper into my soul than it has into Yunnan’s mountains.  During my trips to Beijing, I used to frequent a tea house across the road from the Confucius Temple at Yonghegong.  The man who served me tea ended up giving up on Beijing and headed south to a monastery and a simple life. After two years in the monastery, he was to formally become a monk.  Convinced that I should give up tickling the plastic of my laptop’s keyboard, convinced that my happiness lay not with the corporate world or with saluting the totems of careers, he had invited me to visit.  My friend, a man who had walked away from a life he did not care for, choosing instead peace and simplicity, was convinced that I too would benefit from such tranquillity.

*

My cot is a lower bunk in a room with four bunkbeds and two little tables.  I am left for a few minutes to gather myself and then shown the washing room.  I am given a small bucket of hot water with which to clean my face and hands.  A monk sits back on an old garden chair in the middle of the room; his feet have disappeared beneath a bowl of now-muddy hot water.  The stench from the loos is such that I know I will not be doing more than a pee.

*

Morning comes very early. At 4am I am up, following my friend on his rounds as he sets out sacred bowls on alters and pours out water.  As I look on, he arranges prayer mats and lights incense.  He tells me to stay where I am, and he is gone.  The sky through the windows is still pitch dark. It will be for hours.  A monk enters the room, but he says nothing to me; muttering under his breath, he stands to the side, eyes shut, fingers on a string of beads.  Then the student who had arrived at the monastery minutes after I had, looking to all the world like some mediaeval magi, enters the room.  Others follow.  At 5am chanting begins.

The main ceremony starts at 9am.  People have come from all around to participate.  Nuns from the nearby sister convent have come up.  Quite a crowd has gathered to watch the initiation of the new monks. The chanting lasts hours and we guests must periodically leave and then re-enter the room.  Even when it finishes, it does not end.  At the signal that everything has finished I get up and walk out of the temple, my frozen feet longing for my shoes.  But though the Master also leaves, it seems most of the monks remain, to pray and chant yet more.  But finally, in their orange or brown or purple cloaks, they flow out, their big metal begging bowls in their hands.

The nuns have cleared a space in front of the main temple hall and have swept the ground of large stones.  Rose petals have been strewn across the area.  A line of tables supports a weight of snack food: sugary rice crackers, fruits, nuts and chocolates. As the monks process along, the nuns and local townspeople pile these sweets into the begging bowls and shower the monks with yet more rose petals.  There is laughter and smiles and a final bout of singing before silence descends as everyone starts eating.  Lunch is dished up soon afterwards, the food markedly worse than it had been at breakfast.  As I manfully chewed on my cold, dry-and-yet-soggy rice, a local townsman came up to me to practice his English.  With a broad smile he told me that in Buddhism there could be no waste.  ‘I am sorry,’ he said. ‘No waste. No waste at all.’  He watched me lift another chopstick-full of rice to my mouth.  Mid-tasteless bite I paused and smiled.

*

On this Jizu Mountain, mine is not the only temple.  They dot the entire mountain, and up at the top a stone pagoda juts up into the sky.  It is a steep walk along mountain paths to get there.  The drops are sheer but the views staggering.  My friend, newly-made monk that he is, swishes in his new robes confidently: he has walked these paths before.  He course is clear.  We stop at a hermit’s hut, gather wood, draw water from a spring, and boil up some local pu’er tea, our backs to stupas covered in swastikas alternately pointing to the right, alternately pointing to the left.  I am a little out of puff as we finally make the summit in time for the last of the evening light.  In the dying light the colours seem more vivid, and the quickly cooling air focuses our minds.

Yet as we make our descent our conversation broadens out.  It is as if we both feel that this is our last chance to speak.  But what it is that we are meant to say?  This is the Buddhist way.  This is the moment for the profound.  For the life, the universe, and for everything.  But reality is somehow more tawdry, even when we manage to step beyond the awkwardness of a Carson McCuller’s tale.  In simple English and Chinese we chat. He tells me of his choices and his path, but he is keen to dissect my life as well.  He wants me to experience the joy he gains through his new found simplicity: a simplicity of life that has shorn him of much, including wife and child.  But the questions are too great and we are out of time.  The darkness now is complete, but there are little dots of light ahead.  We are back at the monastery.  It is time for bed.  Tomorrow I must return to the world.

Eating out in Hong Kong
Asia/Hong Kong

Eating out in Hong Kong

The restaurants in my immediate neighbourhood are dismal, despite Hong Kong’s reputation for great food.  There is the local Japanese restaurant where the tempura prawns are so soggy they go splash in the mouth. There is the local Cantonese meat restaurant where the waitress makes no effort at all to hide her contempt for me. And there is the friendly looking breakfast cafe where the food would probably be improved were it to come from a tin of dog food.

So it was a nice change to journey across to the island to sup with a friend. Where else can one drink white wine/antifreeze and munch on a luke warm slice of oddly flavoured pizza?

Where else indeed?

The tourist trail
Asia/Hong Kong

The tourist trail

If Mainlanders had rushed to Hong Kong in the early 1950s and set up home in Sham Shui Po, they went elsewhere as well.  On the far east of the island is Chai Wan, which used to be home to six little Hakka villages.  The refugees led the government to embark on extensive land clearance and development for new public housing. The villages were demolished.

All that is left is a single house now: Law Uk Hakka House, a designated monument.  The house had caught my eye on the internet last week when I had gone to see the Han Dynasty Tomb.  I rather feel that I should do a spot of tourist stuff from time to time.  So today, I took the underground to the end of the line.

It wasn’t, perhaps, quite worth the journey.

Sitting alone in a small public park by the edge of a housing estate is the single story, five roomed, white-washed house.  Despite an uncurated air, the rustic wooden furnishing somehow still bestow a romance of poverty on the place.  I am reminded of the line from Sense and Sensibility, ‘I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them’.

One suspects, of course, that there is nothing of the sort.  If the Law family, who owned the place, were poor farmers, their elegant and comfortable cottage would have likely been cold in winter and crowded all year round.  And judging by how difficult it is to keep my flat dust and dirt free, the place would have been slightly less immaculate and ordered than as displayed in museum form.

Go and visit if you live in Chai Wan. For those coming from further afield, you can be forgiven for tarrying.

Lei Cheng Uk Tomb
Asia/Hong Kong

Lei Cheng Uk Tomb

Sham Shui Po is an area of Hong Kong with history, distant and modern.

In 1955 a Han-dynasty tomb was uncovered, getting on for two thousand years after it was sealed up.  The interior is brick lined, and though a sheet of glass prevents one from actually entering the tomb, decorative engraving can still be seen on some of the bricks.  In the museum attached are pieces of pottery and bronze work.  The bronze has mostly disintegrated; the pottery jugs and containers have a quality that, though simple, belies their age.

The tomb was discovered during levelling and construction work to build new public houses after a fire swept through the area of Shek Kip Mei on Christmas Day in 1953, killing scores and leaving homeless over fifty thousand.  Most were refugees from the Mainland, fleeing Maoist excesses; their destroyed homes had been rudimentary and makeshift.  By 1954, the first of Hong Kong’s public housing estates had been built, but as more tower blocks were thrown up, and more land developed, the tomb was unearthed.

But ten minutes’ walk from the tomb is Sham Shui Po Park, which stands now where an old British Army barracks once was.  Where now stand trees and little plaques, the Japanese had their main prisoner of war camp in Hong Kong.  There is nothing left of the barracks or the camp; that slice of history has been removed, but across the road is the barbed-wire surrounded shell of an old factory that could serve well as prison in any nightmare.

Saying hello to the year of the rooster
Asia/Hong Kong

Saying hello to the year of the rooster

What are you doing for Chinese New Year, came the message on my telephone.

Lying languidly on the sofa, I look out of the window at a grey sky, dirty buildings and the rain. I wonder if it would not be too inappropriate to reply “drinking tea, reading French novels, and listening to possibly romantic Japanese songs that I cannot hope to understand”.

Chinese air
Asia/Hong Kong

Chinese air

The pollution flowed down from Shenzhen like an oozing mud flow. The thick, noxious air came down over the mountain and blotted out the view.  Everything disappeared as if behind a blind. Chinese air.

Left behind
Asia/Hong Kong

Left behind

As if every passer-by were an Emperor, she kneels and rocks before us, paying her obeisance. But the school children do not see her, walking by with their noses in their smartphones, and headphones in their ears. The lines on her face are ingrained with years, but they look gentle still. Her skin, weathered and tanned, could be as hard as leather or as thin as paper. It is hard to see, for she keeps the backs of her hands to her face and her forehead low to the ground. Only the meagre glint from the few tarnished coins in her cap makes a grab for my attention.

Sitting under a deserted shop-front, an old man angled a square biscuit tin in vague protection of his modesty as he peed into it. His legs looked as thin as chopsticks: the sort of emaciation found only in an Oxfam appeal. The bus stopped in front of him, but his eyes looked at nothing, and no eyes looked on him. It was as if his withered, frail frame wasn’t there; as if his few possessions were invisible to all.

On the footbridge by the railway line the cardboard boxes that stand for houses. The other footbridge is always busy, the relentless crowds on the street found just as relentlessly up there. But this bridge never takes someone across the road. It seems a bridge to squat on, not to walk across. The crowds sense that it is not theirs to use, that it isn’t just a crossing or a walkway: that to stand on its concrete is to stand on someone’s hearth.

Hong Kong may be full of glitz and razzmatazz, it may be full of lights and sounds, and even full of energy and bustle, but it isn’t kind to all. Despite, or perhaps because of its wealth, it is an unequal city. Over a million live in poverty, priced out of their own city, their own country, their own lives.

Government tables show that the largest group of people earn somewhere between HK$10,000 – 14,999 a month, not much in a place that is as expensive as London; over half earn under HK$24,999 a month. That isn’t so different from the UK’s median salary, yet a long way short of London’s, which might be a rather more appropriate comparator. In the space of time that incomes have risen by 42%, house prices in Hong Kong rose by 154%. While the average house price in London was 12 times average earnings in 2015, it was 19 times for Hong Kong.

A 2015 poll showed that under 30% of “young adults” were satisfied with life in Hong Kong: a bad figure for the future. But it isn’t the future that is the problem for the old men and women who eke out a living selling bits of cardboard collected early in the mornings from the public bins in the streets. It is the present.

Local fashion
Asia/Hong Kong

Local fashion

What a globalised world I find myself in. My Hong Kongese friend plays music composed by Mozart, printed in America, with Japanese writing on the cover.

In other ways, of course, Hong Kong has a distinctly local flavour. Take the deposits I need to pay for my electricity, gas and water bills that are worth more than a year’s worth of bills. Or the near impossibility of finding a normal bow tie: one that is not made of plastic, in hideous colours, with weird pointy ends or without a covering of sequins or other little glittering plastic studs.