The Filial Piety Tour
20 July-2 August 2003
|Wed 22 July
After a three-hour bus ride from Heathrow into England’s wild west, the long-lost returning son of a warm, caring family will be met by loved ones. I, however, am left to take a taxi the 10 miles from town to Stonegallows Hall. As ever, there are horse droppings on the highway, “Cider for Sale” at every farm, and bullet holes in the road signs. Last time I was here, they were beating foot and mouth disease by burning mountains of dead sheep. The whole county smelt like a barbecue. All is normal again now, and various creatures’ dung dominates the medley of pastoral aromas. Walking up the driveway, I see that the old house is as shabby as ever on the outside. Letting myself in the front door, I enter a similarly unchanged interior – the grandfather clock in the hallway; the painting of an obscure ancestor on the wall; the stuffed dodo in its glass case on the hall table, next to which is an old-fashioned black telephone into which my mother is reciting a familiar refrain, “..if they hadn’t taught the working classes how to read and given them the vote…” She looks up. “Good lord, it’s my son from Hong Kong! Must dash.”
In the kitchen, she fills me in on the latest news. Something about Tony Blair’s government collapsing because of the suicide of a defence official with a beard who was a member of the Bah’ai faith. This is good. (Why is Blair following me everywhere? He was in DC last week and then went to Hong Kong, obviously misjudging my itinerary.) My sister ran for local election for the Green Party and got 2% of the vote. Also good – apparently. A local felon has bought our silence about his illegal hunting with a leg of venison. Very good. My father is becoming senile. Not good.
Powered by a hand-crank, the Internet connection is hard work to maintain, but I do manage to check the news from home. Regina has stepped serenely from her office for the last time. The Almighty registers his opinion of her treatment by threatening to deliver typhoon Imbudo on Hong Kong, arranging for it first to dispatch a handful of people in the Philippines as a reminder to the Big Lychee of how He feels when people screw up a nice place. The Democrats are upset that Blair didn’t spend time with them. Send them an email – it’s nothing personal, I reassure them, it’s just that you’re the most boring people in Hong Kong. While I’m at it, I send an email to Tung’s office to rule myself out as new Financial Secretary. No-one can be low enough down that list.
A smell intrudes on my Oriental musings. Is my mother cooking something? Or is it just more dung? Hard to tell.
|Sat, 26 Jul
After a lengthy search, I manage to track down my father in a dark corner of his study examining shards of Roman pottery with a magnifying glass. He updates me on Blair, my sister's political career and illicit deer meat. "The bad news, as you may have noticed," he adds, lowering his voice, "is that your poor mother is getting rather, um... well, senile." Is it contagious? On a brighter, indeed exciting, note, he announces that he has solved the great Mystery of the Concrete Diamond. I well remember this peculiar place – a series of concrete posts, 6 ft high, set around 10 yards apart in a 1-3-5-3-1 pattern on remote and wild public land a few miles from here. A favourite childhood playground, with gorse and bracken providing excellent conditions for hide-and-seek. "Spoke to a chap who'd worked at Nancecuke," says my father. "Reckons the diamond was used to test dispersal of poison gas during the war." And to think we would go scrabbling around the place on all fours, having almost as much fun as members of the Japanese upper house's foreign affairs and defence committee! This might explain my sister's mental derangement – the environmentalism, the vegetarian diet, the nose stud, etc, etc. Who do we sue?
Barely a week to go – including a visit to London – before returning to Hong Kong. The headlines from the on-line South China Morning Post rouse powerful feelings of homesickness. Dead maid's blood will be tested for SARS in Hong Kong. Where did they find the blood? On the carpet? Or the teeth of her employer? Regina Ip embraced by unionists. I have been thrown around on a bed by her, but that was purely platonic. Jealous – what did these creeps do to deserve the opportunity to place their grubby, coarse-skinned paws on the lady? Victor Fung declares himself out of race for finance chief. Who hasn’t? Donald Tsang... and that late domestic helper probably never had the chance. That’s it. 37 underage girls held in cyber cafe vice raids. Government attempts to thwart market forces yet again. 'Hello Kitty' killing not exceptional, says lawyer. Can there be a more quintessentially evocative HK headline? Tears of melancholy well up in my eyes.
- Spies Michael Frayn. Espionage and treachery in quiet London suburbs during World War Two.
Clever recreation of the way children make sense of the adult world.
- The Shipping News E Annie Poulx. Under-achieving journalist from New York and his kids find happiness in a Newfoundland fishing community. More amusing than it sounds.
- Stupid White Men Michael Moore. Polemical barrage of economic illiteracy and historical inaccuracy from the maker of classic documentary movie Roger and Me. Funny – sometimes intentionally.
- Web of Deceit – Moral Bankruptcy at the University of Hong Kong Hugh Tyrwhitt-Drake. (Abandoned half-way through.) Even by the standards of Hong Kong’s obsessive and unbalanced expat academics, this person needs treatment. A believer in speaking in tongues, he describes his persecution by colleagues at HKU in such mind-numbingly minute detail that you wonder they didn’t lynch him. A good aid to sleep on long flights.
- Our Man in Havana Graham Greene . A re-read, as funny as ever.
|Thurs, 31 Jul
London has been fun. Stayed with former Hong Kong TV star Piers Grunge, his beguiling wife Loretta, and their three young children – all of whom have clearly inherited their parents’ impulsive joie de vivre. Do cornflakes taste better when accompanied by bits of Lego? There’s only one way to find out. Piers still inhabits TV-land, a place where, even more than in real life, polish, knowledge and temperance are impressions that can be boosted as easily as volume, brightness and contrast. He gives me a tour of lavish, high-tech broadcast studios.
My first ever visit to the Tate Modern is a little disappointing. The building – a converted power station – is possibly more impressive than the contents, though the Henry Moores look good. Also spend hours in the British Museum with the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles and other reminders of the days when the acquisition of museum exhibits was so much simpler. To my amazement, I find a Korean section – I am the only visitor, and I suspect the museum itself has forgotten it is there. I can’t resist the Wellcome Collection of medical artefacts – gruesome, centuries-old artificial limbs and fearsome-looking forceps.
I had a strange dream last night. I was talking to Mike Rowse, the jovial, PRC-passport-carrying boss of Invest Hong Kong. He told me how, strolling through the corridors of power, he had found a suitcase with HK$36 million stuffed in it. “Taxpayers’ money,” he explained, “just sitting there, doing nothing.” He looked at me with an expectant grin. “OK,” I said, rising to the challenge, “let me guess. You decided to give it back to the people who earned it?” He burst out laughing. “God, you’re funny,” he said. “No, no – we’re going to give it to 11 men from Spain. They’ll come here, dress up in colourful shirts and shorts, and run up and down a field kicking a ball to each other.” I scratched my head, trying to get my mind around the idea. “All that for just 36 million?” I asked. He nodded enthusiastically. Then I woke up.
This is obviously a sign that I have been in the UK too long. Soccer is, to quote Karl Marx, “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” With their overwhelming purchasing power, Britain’s moronic lower orders now drive national cultural life. Their only interest apart from the wretched Beckham and his hairstyles is the toilet that will be used in Australia by Prince William, son of the beatified bimbo Diana. On a brighter note, Britain is attracting a fascinating variety of newcomers. Forget the boring old Pakistanis and West Indians – there are Somalis, Albanians, Algerians, South Americans, Mainlanders, Ivorians and others turning up day after day. Unfortunately, they appear to share the natives’ obsession with soccer.
I fly back to Hong Kong this evening. The nightmare scenario is being downgraded to Economy Class, with the screaming babies, the drunks, the Attention Deficit Disorder victims, and the cretins who need something from the overhead locker every five minutes.