Ask your nearest Chinese-reading friend to translate into your favourite language. (Do this even if you can read Chinese, because who wants to explain things to themselves?)
Ask your nearest Chinese-reading friend to translate into your favourite language. (Do this even if you can read Chinese, because who wants to explain things to themselves?)
Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the UK, and the first female head of government in Europe, has died. Here are some pictures of her in a Hong Kong context:
There is a lot of anger nowadays over the role of the British government, and Thatcher in particular, for giving China control of Hong Kong and essentially washing their hands of the place. But the historical record is clear that actually Thatcher was against returning all of Hong Kong initially, and only acceded when Deng Xiaoping made it clear he would invade if necessary.
I leave the last word on the Hong Kong perspective to the Big Lychee, who is basically right about her influence and symbolism, and especially why so many are wrong about her.
Update: Oh, new last word: A broadcast interview with Margaret Thatcher about Hong Kong and China. Does anyone know more details about it, such as who is interviewing her and when?
Another update: A transcript of a speech in the House of Lords by Margaret Thatcher given in December 1992, soon after she become a member of that chamber. One depressing quote:
“It is already agreed that half the members of the Legislative Council will be directly elected in the year 2003. That means that there could be universal suffrage by 2007, 10 years after the end of Britain’s responsibility. It is not perfect perhaps, but it is a provision for steady and orderly progress towards full democratic elections.”
Her strong support for democracy and universal suffrage in Hong Kong, including Chris Patten’s attempts to expand the franchise in 1995 against the vehement opposition of the Chinese government and its local lackeys, should give the current pro-”business” anti-democracy forces in Hong Kong much pause.
The most interesting form of public transport in Hong Kong, at least to this humble resident, are its minibuses, which were formerly and more evocatively called maxicabs, and are legally called Public Light Buses. Hundreds of thousands of commuters ride them every day, but they are also notorious for their idiosyncratic drivers, some of whom, especially those in charge of the red minibuses at night, drive as though they have a death wish. The supposed undesirability of a death wish in public bus drivers by those boring bureaucrats in their ivory offices and those spineless politicians in the Legislative Council has led to the legislation of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Ordinance 2012. Among other effects, this legally [but not physically, for now] limits their speed at all times to 80 kilometres per hour (just under 50 miles per hour). The ordinance also requires the display of this nannying and ugly notice:
I just found out that the Hong Kong government’s Department of Transport publishes a yearly newsletter for those involved in driving and operating the Special Administrative Region’s minibuses. In a sign of the limits of bilingualism here, as well as the undeniable truth that every driver of public transport here that I’ve ever seen is Chinese, the newsletter is only in Chinese. Or, even better, it is written to some extent in Cantonese, and also uses comics to transmit its message of wholesome, healthy minibus driving. Here’s the latest newsletter, and two pages from it (4 and 5, specifically) excerpted for your perverted delectation:
I want to be a good boy and pay my taxes online, but unfortunately my browser is too up-to-date (and alternately named) for the Hong Kong government to let me do that. That they still require Java to use the etax website is the real scandal here, especially in the light of the US Government’s admission of its insecurity (http://www.forbes.com/sites/eliseackerman/2013/01/11/us-department-of-homeland-security-calls-on-computer-users-to-disable-java/).
Jackie Chan is absolutely right that Hong Kong has become a “city of protest”, although he hasn’t shown the same enjoyment and enthusiasm for it as his fellow entrepôt-dwellers, preferring to go in for a more Mainstream Mainland-style crushing of dissent, including a quirky bureaucratic element of having “rules to determine what people can protest about and on what issues they can’t protest about”. [The traditional indigenous response to Mr. Chan can be observed here. I can attest this also works with other idiots, including me.]
But hold on, that most mainstream of Mainland websites, Sina Weibo — “the Chinese equivalent of Twitter” as glossophiliacs have it — has been allowing photos from today’s anti-Mainland demonstrations (see screenshot above, which at the time of writing could still be found on Weibo). Is Mr. Chan even more retrograde than previously envisaged? Maybe the Mainland authorities have finally seen the light and stopped censoring online discussion so assiduously… Let’s start this new Gregorian year on that quixotic note.
This jolted me awake! I found the above doctored version of a classic Chinese one-child policy poster at a somewhat unhinged conservative blog (which itself was personally discovered via the libertarian blog reason.com).
For people who aren’t sure, and based on my experience while visiting the UK that’s plenty of people: Hong Kong does not implement the one-child policy.
Dear visitors to Britain or Planet Earth,
Welcome to our beautiful country/planet! We hope you enjoy your stay. We are happy to serve you dead animals soaked in oil and heated until crisp, accompanied by boiled vegetable matter and tubers.
We understand that you want to travel around our island by train. The UK was a pioneer of train travel a century or so ago, to the extent that train speeds here have not increased since then. We are not sure if we should be proud of this fact…
Based on your humble blogger’s experience this morning, let me pass on two tips for how to make your train journey a relatively painless experience… because just buying a ticket and getting on the train isn’t enough in this great nation.
1) If you don’t want to spend hundreds of pounds on a return ticket just because you were naive enough to think you should buy it immediately before your journey, you need to buy it in advance. You will have to specify exactly which trains you will take, but you are probably willing to commit to that. Just don’t forget to bring all the documents and bumf you will be handed, because goodness forfend that a ticket would be enough; no, that would be far too simple, as two young ladies found out yesterday morning. One set of paper will say you bought a journey between two specific stations, you understand, while the other will say which train you are entitled to be on. Or something like that. Having one document without the other, or only with goddamn confirmation of your booking, is not good enough, and you will have to buy another ticket for your oversight.
2) If you don’t book your journey in advance, at least don’t be so foolish as to just buy a ticket between the origin and destination. It is often cheaper, obviously, to split your booking at an intermediate station, even though you will make an identical trip and not get off there.
For example, I went yesterday from my delightful and misnamed hometown of Blackwater to Coventry, and returning today. (This last is an important detail, as returning on the same day is cheaper, and it’s only because I knew this that I could point out to the confused train guard that he was selling me the wrong ticket, which of course by common courtesy I would be fully liable for.) Buying an off-peak return ticket between the two would cost a suspiciously exact £50. (A peak return would cost over £90). However, one of the journey’s stops is at Banbury. Duly rephrasing my order as two off-peak returns, one from Blackwater to Banbury, and another from Banbury to Coventry, resulted in a price of £43.40, without any change in my itinerary whatsoever.
Consider it one of those cute, quaint features of England that make it so attractive to visitors and residents alike, and is totally unrelated to the terrible state of the economy.
So once more, welcome! We will gladly take your money, but please don’t try and make any money back by staying and immigrating. That would just be rude…
I can hardly be the first to be moved to emotional outbursts and extroverted introspection at reaching the age of 30 years of aliveness. But I’m the first to be me, and so this post comes into being, against all the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and rational self-interest.
Humans are extremely good at seeing causality and assigning structure where there is none, and are very bad at making those causes and patterns anywhere near complex enough when they do exist. I don’t know if my fate was decided at the moment of birth, let alone conception (eww), let alone when a fish decided that walking on land might make a nice change… but if anyone suggested to me 30 years ago, when I was being babyish in a hospital in Israel, that exactly 30 years later I would be doing whatever it is I’m doing in Hong Kong [I should probably write about that more often, say on a blog], I’m sure I would have been extremely shocked and cried my little, pure heart out. And then sicked up on the nearest person to me.
Jews traditionally did not celebrate birthdays. (We do like parties though, so don’t feel scared about inviting us along, even 500 years ago!) As I grew up, we used birthdays as an excuse to have cake (and ideally eat it too) and maybe even get a small present. Occasionally we would throw a relaxed, un-self-conscious party, just because it seemed to be the done thing and we didn’t want to be outcasts or weird.
So I don’t remember many of my birthdays, although I accept that I did indeed live through them. My 18th birthday was extremely exciting, because it became legal for me to buy alcohol, and more importantly, to vote in elections. I was sure I wasn’t a child any more.
A few days before I turned 24, during my first ever trip to China and hence outside Europe, I ate some cheesecake that actually looked like it had grated cheese on it on the train from Shanghai to Nanjing which I almost missed because before taking the train I went back to where I was staying in Shanghai to get my passport because I thought it would be necessary to check in to the hotel in Nanjing which is also why I was sweating to an even greater extent than usual that summer in China due to all the running. Heady stuff. Here is a picture of me at that moment, with my friend Peter who had just saved a plastic plant I’d just been gifted from being lost:
Here is a pictorial approximation of who bought the cake and plastic plant for me (along with the limelight- or even tungsten-light-seeking non-organic plant):
It was one of those annoying moments that stick in the mind because they’re so perfect, so perfect that you don’t want them to ever pass, and yet despite their seeming perfection they still do… And you just know, even as they’re happening, just before they do that passing away, that there will be other certain moments later on in your life when you will compulsively stroke those momentarily perfect moments, stroke them with brain-fingers to relive them and to analyse them and to compare them to the rather more imperfect moments you’re living through, and wonder what it all really means.
For some reason, arbitrary chronological milestones still make us stop and wonder. Maybe we’re just looking for an excuse to stop and wonder.
I didn’t plan to celebrate my 30th birthday especially, and in a way I didn’t. It’s not that I’m against celebrating it, but rather I’m just continuing my personal habit of not taking birthdays too seriously, even when the age is a multiple of 10 (in base 10). But to try impotently but out of a sense of civic duty to get across to you just how awesome life in Hong Kong can be (and probably anywhere, with a little more effort), this is how I spent the evening (in local time) of my 10957th (or so) day of my life on this mostly harmless planet [all courtesy of Leo's unrivalled sense of which routes to walk and which crazy decisions to make]:
^ Eating Turkish food with the aforementioned and herepictured Leo
^ Appreciating colourful stairs and overabundance of fuses
^ Appreciating the local varieties of Chinglish
^ Drinking good German beer with the entirety of Hong Kong’s German community in a nonetheless very touristy German pub
^ Watching K-Pop videos at a Ladies Night at a nightclub on the third floor of a nondescript building which would have been empty but for one large group of regulars. This photo was taken just before the police came in to check everyone’s ID cards without explaining why for around 30 minutes, while the club’s bouncer didn’t even let us talk to each other in the meantime with even less explanation why.
^ Finding Falun Gong followers and nemeses sitting close to each other at 2am at the Hung Hom MTR station bus terminus, ignoring and hating each other but making sure not to cover anyone else’s banners while putting up their own. Listening to a middle-aged Falun Gong believer (and ex officio Crazy Banner Protector) lecture me in non-standard Mandarin about the evils of Jiang Zemin was as fun and timewarped as letting someone complain to me about Bill Clinton’s proclivities while he was President of the USA. And while they also recommend breathing exercises and cheap plastic amulets. And doing it in Welsh.
I couldn’t really and fairly demand more what I already have in my life: being in Hong Kong for my 30th birthday so that I can have that sort of evening not just on that one day but every evening. I’m sure my baby-self would agree.
I am, according to Hong Kong taxonomy, a gwailou (鬼佬). This is the term used to describe (white) foreigners, i.e. people who have no discernible Chinese heritage yet who also suffer from a comparative lack of melanin. [I don't know, but I am curious, as to whether African albinos would be included in this category]. This is usually the first word learnt by the same and so there is already plenty written about it elsewhere to which I won’t add my own ill-judged entry. At least not this time while I am completely sober.
Suffice it to say that not being Chinese is still a relatively big deal even here. Whatever the reason for this — whether the usual human desire to find any and all differences significant, to Hong Kong’s colonial history, to a traditional Chinese shyness or Confucian attitude to strangers, to a reputation for foreigners to be partying animals and stupid buffoons — there is wariness and curiosity shown by most locals to those who are not of Chinese ethnicity. Of course this is a simplistic reflection of the situation and I apologise to all those who are suitably offended by my crudity and for thus displaying my own vulgarity, provincialism and downright mendacity so openly. But I maintain that this is a sufficiently true description of the atmosphere here for my question to make sense.
Here is my question:
Why am I always the last person to be sat next to on the bus?
There is a certain order to how buses are seated here. Those travelling by themselves will take a pair of seats for themselves if any are available, so that at some point the bus ends up with two neat lines of people all sitting by the windows, being careful to look outside and not at each other. If there are no spare pairs of seats left, they must then sit next to someone — a live, unpredictable human being — and this requires some careful consideration.
First of all, it is not the done thing for a man to sit next to a woman, and vice versa, if this can be at all avoided.
Next, as far as I can tell, young will not sit next to old, and vice versa, although this doesn’t seem to be as strict, and could even be a product of my fevered and under-stimulated imagination.
And lastly, don’t sit next to a gweilou, unless by some misfortune you are one yourself.
I guess I can understand why ladies, especially young ones, might not want a man to sit next to them. What could be worse than enduring a journey where your new journeymate flirts with you or even just says “hello” because you’re pretty and he’s lonely?
But why are you so clearly unenthusiastic about sitting next to me, whatever sex or age you are? Do I smell bad? (I sniffed my armpits on the bus this morning and with all requisite humility I think I smelt great). Am I fidgeting too much? Was it because I made eye contact, or because I didn’t? (I’ve tried both as an experiment and it doesn’t appear to make a difference). Are you worried that I’ll test your English language skills and find you wanting before bursting into loud laughter over it? (When actually your ability to speak English is almost certainly much higher than mine in speaking Cantonese and you have nothing to be embarrassed about. And anyway, why would I laugh at you?!)
The only conclusion that I can come to is that you’re risk-averse. I understand: I am an unknown quantity. My eyelids are unambiguously double-lidded and I don’t have an epicanthic fold. Other people with similar complexions kill taxi drivers.
So this is a plea to the fine permanent residents of Hong Kong: I promise you that no harm will befall you if you sit next to me on the bus. You don’t even need to move further away if I sit in the row behind you because I won’t shout at you, unlike some of your compatriots. And you never know: if you do strike up a conversation with me, you might learn something new.
[I also apologise if you take this post too seriously].