Saturday, 30 December 2017

Christmas in Shanghai

Christmas morning is not greeted by a choir of heavenly angels but by the excruciating whine of an angle grinder being enthusiastically operated by a labourer outside my hotel window at 7am. Welcome to Christmas in Shanghai.

If, like me, you dream of avoiding Christmas every year, then China is the place for you. The religious festival that justifies a three-month febrile commercial circus in Europe does not even merit a public holiday on the Mainland. Almost any international hotel anywhere else in Asia will try to include a compulsory and overpriced Christmas gala dinner and so maintain the tradition of ripping off their guests during the season of goodwill to all men. Not in China though.

Don’t think for a moment you might escape the Christian festivities in Buddhist Thailand and Myanmar or Muslim Malaysia or Indonesia. Not a chance. I once travelled for several hours in a bumpy speedboat to a remote island, off the coast of Cambodia, to escape Christmas, only to be greeted by a member of the hotel staff in swimming shorts and a Santa hat.

“Are you here for merry Christmas or merry Christmas and happy new years,” the man inquired earnestly looking for my name on a list on his clipboard.

China is the place to be at Christmas if you don’t appreciate the tackiest extremes of Christmas fare being rammed down your throat 24 hours per day and Shanghai is perfect.

Apart from the over-enthusiasm for power tools in the early morning, this vibrant, young, switched on commercial metropolis gets Christmas just about right with a suitable smattering of festive glitter, cold clear days, amazing food and some great bars to drink to forget the festive season.

The quirky Muller hotel located in the former French concession, once owned by a European business man who wished to indulge his daughters’ passion for fairy tales by building a home that resembles a 1930s version of Disney’s magic castle, gets it spot on. Of course, there are the obligatory cheesy Christmas decorations and jingle bells is on a closed loop over breakfast but at least it’s better than Abba or Jonny Mathis and rest assured, few in China have heard of Cliff Richard.  And it’s a small price to pay for the fact that all the public attractions, museums and shops remain open over what is considered a holiday period almost everywhere else.

Wrap up warm and browse the boutiques situated along the tree-lined avenues of the French quarter, check out the residence of Soong Chi-ling, try the amazing soup dumplings, or walk the Bund before demolishing a few cocktails in the jazz bar at the Peace Hotel.

For the thinking person’s Christmas, choose China every time. 

Friday, 30 June 2017

My arrival in Hong Kong with President Xi

I arrived back in Hong Kong airport yesterday with General Secretary Xi Jinping.
It was the first visit of his nine-year tenure as supreme leader of China but I live here. 
We arrived at the same time but were not travelling together. 
Fortunately for the General Secretary, he did not, like me, fly Cathay Pacific or he would still be on the tarmac in Beijing. He would have arrived five hours late and may have missed the carefully stage-managed greeting from delirious school children, waving flags in a suitably synchronized fashion.
No doubt, the Presidential jet served up something more appetizing than stale peanuts and greasy stir-fried chicken because Xi and his glamorous first lady looked far more composed than I did on their arrival, judging by the glossy images shown on the relentless TV news bulletins.
While my ID card was being rejected by the automated immigration gate in the arrivals hall at Chek Lap Kok, the most powerful man in the world, unless you count Donald Trump, (and very few do) was speeding to town in an old-style cavalcade with motor cycle outriders. The scene was in the finest traditions of deluded dictators of third world tin-pot dictatorships. Xi was only missing some Rayban sunglasses and a pseudo paramilitary uniform adorned with copious medals. Papa Doc en-large.
The walkway from IFC mall to the central ferry piers was fenced off with metal barriers and officious police notices but his hotel was several kilometers away in Wan Chai.  Stoic and pragmatic Hongkongers side-shuffled past each other through the narrow passageway left for the public. Apparently, the risk of the General Secretary being embarrassed by the fleeting sight of protestors was simply unacceptable. The newspaper I work for carried a full page sponsored feature on page five. It was headlined ‘one country, two systems enriched by Xi’. Yes, really.
In my two-week absence to help prop up my elderly parents and see family and friends, the fare on the Hong Kong Express had increased by 15% and this wonderfully rich, diverse and tolerant city seems to have descended into 1970s Haiti.
There is lots of press coverage of course and no shortage of pompous political analysis.  Few want to mention though that the city that served as a haven for the oppressed and starving for over 150 years, today witnessed TV coverage of an unelected dictator greeting his goose-stepping troops from a glossy green military jeep. Perhaps the General Secretary thought he was in North Korea.
During its brief and imperfect modern history Hong Kong has welcomed (or at least tolerated) many political dissidents. Ho Chi Minh, Jose Rizal, Sun Yet Sen and Edward Snowden, amongst others. Today the same city welcomed Xi Jinping, the man who locks dissidents up with impunity and the city was treated to a chilling glimpse of its future.
At least the police only locked up the pro-democracy demonstrators for 28 hours. Papa Doc would have had them imprisoned, tortured and summarily executed.
But let’s face it, after 20 years, it’s still early days.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Thompson on Trump

It is a bitter disappointment that one of my literary heroes and second-favourite American writer (after Hemingway) is not still with us to offer his acerbic analysis of the election, and subsequent inauguration, of the orange-haired narcissist and sociopath, who now leads what used to be called ‘the free world’.

“We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world—a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully,” wrote Hunter S Thompson in a frenzy of righteous scorn provoked by his nation’s prosecution of the Iraq War.

The seasoned political journalist and writer of great wit, originality and verve who employed razor-sharp and visceral prose, died in 2005. He was the self-styled “freak” who confronted bullies, hypocrites and bigots, and those “flag-sucking half-wits” who supported them.

Thompson liked to quote Edmund Burke who said the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing and he would not have been content to just wring his hands in despair or whine in moral outrage on social media, about odious President Trump.

Though the hard-drinking, gun-toting and often drug-addled, Thompson was not an obvious paragon of virtue, he possessed a profound sense of liberal justice and was never slow to confront oppressive, totalitarian, corrupt and fascist tendencies, wherever he detected them. Over his years of reporting, he developed a talent for hitting the political nail on the head, with his unique uncompromising style.

“At the end of the decade,” he wrote of the 1990s, “no one will be sure of anything except that you must obey the rules, sex will kill you, politicians lie, rain is poison and the world is run by whores.”

One can only speculate about what he would have made of a political era where inheriting lots of money and being popular on reality TV, were the key qualifications for holding the highest offices of state. “Doom is the operative ethic,” he once wrote and when he describes “the ominous polarization between right and wrong,” he could easily be referring to 2017. Donald Trump is a monster-ego, fuelled by undiluted hubris, created in 1990s America and Thompson could sense his creation in his own dystopian visions.

“He is like some atavistic endeavor on speed- just another stupid monster as Attorney General of the USA, a vengeful jackass with an IQ of 66,” was his description of John R. "Jay" Ashcroft who he also regarded as “dumb as rock.”  Perhaps, like Thompson, more should just tell it how it is and give up excusing or seeking to rationalise those who support bigotry, ignorance and greed. 

 “They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us—they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis. And I am too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them.”

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sweat, sweat and tears.

Now temperatures are soaring to inhumane levels in Hong Kong, it is time to suffer the season of ultimate social indignity. 

By now I should be conditioned to the anxiety of being witnessed melting uncontrollably in rivers of sweat, like the traumatised ex-Vietnam pilot Ted Striker, in the movie Airplane but like Striker, I just can't get over it.

While the city's urban elite remain insulated in their own artificially controlled arctic microclimate, from temperature-controlled chauffeur driven limousine to air-conditioned office block, they remain blissfully unaware of the cruel embarrassment us lesser mortals must suffer. They have probably never even heard of a 'three shirt day'.

The  three-shirt procedure is mandatory for those  forced to venture outside  into the huge open air pizza oven to stagger to bus stops, ferry piers or MTR stations.

For those not familiar with the protocol, it necessitates a replacement shirt being concealed in a small discrete plastic bag together with a small bottle of highly pungent deodorant. Shortly  before reaching the intended destination, it is necessary to dive discretely into  a conveniently located public toilet. Here,  start to unpeel the offending wet shirt (shirt one) that has adhered itself to your skin during the journey in the searing heat. 

A dry replacement can then be put on over flaccid damp skin after a liberal dosing of toxic deodorant has been applied to the upper body. Always wait at least three minutes to dry and avoid the temptation to use toilet paper to mop excess moisture from your upper body. This can result in tiny fragments becoming attached to eyebrows or other body  hair, giving colleagues the misleading  impression that you are suffering from a rare and contagious dermatological disorder.

Shirt three remains in a reserve plastic bag in case of any unexpected social invitations that evening. If so, the offending shirt (2) is  normally removed  in a small toilet cubicle in the bar or restaurant. This exercise often requires the agility and grim determination of Houdini escaping from a strait jacket.

Abstaining from this golden rule, as I did recently for an informal party at a neighbour's house, a short walk away from my home, will only produce tragic results. Even though the sun had set and I had taken  the precaution of walking at a funereal pace, it did not prevent me bursting into spontaneous fountains  of fluid by the time I entered the party. My light-blue shirt (always a high risk sweat colour) had stuck to me like glue, so that my nipples protruded from the sweat-soaked cotton in a revolting  limpid mess.

The desultory party small talk stopped abruptly apon my dripping entrance.  The  host took one horrified look at me and said, "please, go inside and I will find you a shirt to wear. " It was the calm matter-of -fact paternal tone often reserved for a small child who has accidently defecated in their trousers.  

A friend told me later that  it was the first time he had ever heard of anyone being offered a replacement shirt on arrival at a Hong Kong social engagement and he has lived here for over 37 years.

The host kindly produced three short sleeve shirts on a hangar and asked me to choose one. The first had tiny motifs of Bob Marley spread across it, the second was a sick mustard colour so I opted for the third, an innocuous faded blue floral patterned print.

As if the evening could not get off to a worse start, the shirt, while perfectly tasteful, was several sizes too small for my ample frame.  The buttons stretched across my torso and grey chest hair sprouted through the gaps like dead weeds on a cracked patio. I felt like I was about to audition, unsuccessfully no doubt, for a part in a 1970s porn movie.

I decided to spend the remainder of the party sat very still within close range of an air conditioning unit but the final indignity was yet to come. On making my excuses, hoping at least to make a graceful exit the host insisted on having his shirt returned.  He explained he was about to go on holiday to Europe and it was one of his favourites. I paused hoping in vain that this was an ironic joke as all eyes were turned to me once more.   I slowly removed his shirt and  left, rather self-consciously and topless, to make my way home in the dark. 

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.