Thursday, 12 March 2009

How I got even with Johnny Swanson, and other Hong Kong related stories

So you know how it is: you're sitting on the Trans-Siberian Express, trying to work out what fiendish time-based ruse the Russians will use to stop you buying a beer THIS time, feeling vaguely sorry for yourself about the fact that your long-cherished dream of going to Japan is in tatters thanks to the bloody Japanese not playing ball with the whole 'global economic collapse' thing, and then you get a text from your Canadian ex-girlfriend informing you she has a three day stopover in Hong Kong on her way to visit her Malaysian family, and she wonders if you want to meet up.
Oh hold on, you don't.
Because you're not a totally chill traveller like me.
Bet none of you cunts have even found yourselves.
Anyway, I said yes, as you do, as I figured that a) it would be awesome to see Deb again, b) Japan was just financially psychotic, c) Hong Kong is a pretty cheap place to fly back to the UK from, and perhaps most important- d) this would be my chance to get even with my erstwhile best friend Johnny Swanson.
As I've probably explained to all of you all ad nauseum, one of the bugbears of my childhood was that despite my parents being totally middle class, a couple of bad financial decisions meant that I ended up with all the liberal guilt and none of the fringe perks of middle-classdom. Or to put it more plainly, aged one to,I dunno, 18, my summer holidays involved caravaning in Wales; Johnny Swanson, meanwhile, went on holiday to Hong Kong in order to visit some relative or other presiding over the final dismantling of the British Empire.
It would be fair to say that other than the above stated reasons, I have never particularly wanted to go to Hong Kong, and my enthusiasm wasn't exactly knocked up a gear by my main man David Byne's blogs about his experiences there, which makes it sound like the soulless mess of ex-pat-filled skyscrapers I was afeared of.
But actually, I really liked it.
It's very different... logically you should be able to break it down to 'Chinese + British + extra dash of capitalism', but it doesn't feel like anywhere I've ever been to. The fact these were Cantonese Chinese obviously counted for something, but I think more relevant is the fact that the ravages of the Mao never happened here, which I'm sure must explain why people are generally friendly and will try to help you, regardless of language barriers.
At the same time the British influence is not that of today's Britain, but the late Victorian/early-Georgian period. Which may sound gristly, but it's mostly manifest in the nostalgic but functional paraphernalia of times past - the 100-year-old double decker trams that plough Hong Kong Island, slow and kinda steampunk, but cheap and efficient; a funicular up to Victoria Peak that actually dates back to the reign of Victoria and blitzes uphill at a faintly terrifying 45 degree angle; the faintly anachronistic names of streets and shops.
Otherwise it just feels like Hong Kong, a mass of improbably tall skyscrapers (the highest is 88 stories and 415m high, the top wreathed in clouds the whole time I was there) sprouting out of what is basically a jungle, while a vibrant city gets on with its business below.
So trip almost over, but a few things...
It was good to see Deb; last saw her in 2007, which was cool if a bit odd for a couple of reasons, and then we had (what I thought was) a slightly stilted phone call last year, but face to face it was all the good again, and much fun was had with minimum Dawson's Creek-style moments of soul-searching. Unbelievably she'd read some of my travel blogs, and being of Chinese extraction, she sort of wanted me to explain myself a bit on my grumblings. I think maybe the conclusion we came to was "you can think that stuff but surely there must be a better way to say it"*. Or something. But then we were idly looking at CCTV of a lift while waiting for said lift to come down, and Deb mistook the Asian girl in the lift for herself. Yes, Deb thinks all Asians look the same. Arguably this makes her a self-hating racist, but I choose to believe she actually broke racism.
And what is more beautifully symbolic of the way things have changed than a wealthy Asian family taking a scruffy white Englishman out to a members' club? NOTHING. And that is exactly what happened. Deb has an aunt out here, and her husband's some sort of high-powered lawyer, and they took us out for lunch to self-explanatorially-titled Foreign Correspondents' Club. It kind of had its heyday during Vietnam, when it was the principle pitstop for war reporters taking a break from the frontline, but it still has dedicated computer terminals set up with newswire feeds, and a couple of interviews appeared to be taking place in the bar. It was very grand, and kind of made me feel fleetingly inadequate at not having become a 'real' journalist. Then I reflected that thinking of myself as any sort of journalist at present was essentially self-aggrandising,and balance was restored. Anyway, it was nice, and when the bill came it was so eye-wateringly expensive that me and Deb wordlessly abandoned a half-hearted scheme to offer to chip in. I may never see its like again.
We went to see a Philippine drum and bass band, along with a couple of local acts, as part of a night called HK! Live. It was by far the most meritorious live music I've seen on this whole trip (admittedly competition = low), and I vaguely reflected 'oh, maybe I could live out here'.
I probably couldn't, though. A music geek cannot live on Philippine drum and bass alone.
Rightyho, two more observations and then we're done, if you're lucky I might never even get around to writing the Macau blog. That'd be pretty lucky, though.
As Mr Byrne observed, there are a lot of Philippine workers out here, and on their one day off (Sunday) they congregate together in large concrete spaces for a sit down and a chinwag, Hong Kong not really having any grassy areas suitable for gathering. It's actually been nice to see ethnic diversity again, even though I can't imagine it's exactly living la vida loca for them, as they're predominantly employed as domestic help. Also they were almost all women, which surely has to have some sort of negative impact somewhere along the line. I guess 'lost generation' would be exaggerating things, but still, given the fact they more or less seemed to be their own hermetically-sealed community, socially-speaking, I do wonder how they get their jollies. Maybe they are all gay. Heartening as it is to see black people, white people, subcontinent people and Asian people palling around out here - in a way that most definitely did not happen in China or Korea - it does seem that the creation of a new underclass was maybe required in order to achieve this. Someone's gotta go bottom.
But not to end on a sour note, after Deb had left I got a ferry out to the island of Lantau, which is twice the size of Hong Kong Island, but has only 50,000 inhabitants, plus a smattering of free-roaming cattle, and one gigantic mountaintop Buddha statue. It was very lovely, the only real, peaceful, honest to god countryside I've had this whole trip, and I suppose it was some sort of a reminder that you should always approach places with an open mind. Maaaan.
I bet Johnny Swanson never went to Lantau.
His favourite bit was the escalator up a hill.
The escalator is RUBBISH.
I won Johnny, I won.
That's it.
Apart from that threatened blog about Macau.
Also the asterisked bit below.

*Oh yes, I put an asterisk in - deal. Er, yeah, I dunno, having talked it through with Deb and pondered on what I said about 'the Chinese', I'd perhaps like to layer on some self-justification for my other blog: 1. Chinese people aren't allowed to vote, and the government limits physical and intellectual freedoms, and inevitably that makes for a gulf with the average backpacker; 2. Over the last 60 years they've been subjected to the most extreme series of cultural upheavals imaginable; I'm pretty sure this has impacted on them additionally; 3. Nightlife is not part of the culture, which makes it harder for said average backpacker to blow off steam, and though there are bars, you don't get chatting to random Chinese there as they only exist for the benefit of foreigners;4. Yeah yeah, I know we've all read Orientalism, but srsly, I'm only saying 'the Chinese' in the way I'd say 'the French'. AND WE ALL KNOW ABOUT THE FRENCH, EH?

1 comment:

Mark said...

'subcontinant', is that some kind of trouser issue?