21 December, 2008-3 January, 2009
|Mon, 22 Dec
However few days of 2008 remain, there is never too little time for the Hong Kong Government to pull off one more inglorious feat in the battle between the noble, all-knowing bureaucracy struggling for survival in its underground bunker and the hordes of disenfranchised ignoramuses surrounding it outside.
The chances are that we cannot expect a random building in a large public hospital complex to offer instant on-the-spot emergency treatment when a passer-by suddenly keels over. Getting the victim to Accident and Emergency, maybe a few hundred yards away, probably makes most sense. And, given that A&E is a static facility, it may well be unrealistic for its staff to dash through the streets to help – that’s why we have emergency ambulances and paramedics on motorbikes. So it could well be grossly unfair for everyone to lay into the Caritas Medical Centre and our senior health officials after this weekend’s Tragic Heart Attack Death on Doorstep of Uncaring Brutal Hospital Outrage.
But who can resist when they hear the emergency room boss on the radio this morning, defending his unit with icy determination and total loyalty to the sanctity of correct procedures. “It was not possible for A&E to do anything because that comes under another department – the Fire Services ambulances,” he more or less said, in a magnificently dispassionate-to-the-point-of-menacing tone of voice. The man was a credit to the Hong Kong Civil Service’s intensive training methods, and quite possibly graduated top of his Arrogance in the Face of Impertinent Public Inquiries class.
Sadly, I am likely to miss any further governance-horrors the Big Lychee’s visionary leadership can produce before 2009 dawns. The most tedious time of the year – apart from New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year, the Rugby Sevens, The Budget, Reunification with the Motherland Day, National Day, Halloween and the Policy Address – looms. My usual practice is to inform everyone outside Hong Kong that I will be stuck here, and everyone in Hong Kong that I will be out of town. Then I instruct the Filipino elves to stock up the larder and refrigerator with various necessities and withdraw deep into the womb of my retreat in Perpetual Opulence Mansions, complete with disconnected phone.
This year is different. Wild American friend Odell is begging me to accompany him somewhere over the holiday period while his Thai wife Mee is visiting her home village of Thaksin-supporting head-shrinking hunter-gatherers deep in the jungle. A mixture of bar managers wanting bills paid, clamorous Indonesian Wanchai wenches and a grim-sounding gang of Pakistanis with a vaguely defined grievance have convinced him to flee the shores of the Fragrant Harbour.
I have told him it must be a place that doesn’t celebrate Christmas. It must have good food. Preferably warm. Not beset by riots or mayhem. And not China. If he can find such a location and organize everything, I will go. I have instructions to meet him this afternoon with passport and carry-on baggage.
I demanded that he arrange it all out of both laziness and an assumption that he would fail. On the eve of what will probably be a week’s interlude in this diary, I now have serious misgivings. I am tempted to find a public hospital to collapse outside of.
|Tue, 30 Dec
Although we arrived back yesterday, the post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the Odell-arranged vacation will take time to overcome. Memories of the trip are hazy…
The excursion begins at Macau’s ‘Best Emerging’ Airport, with the twin propellers of a Roti Airways DC4 roaring into action as we take off and head south. Seating is free, though the few Westerners on board seemed to be invisibly guided into seats next to the emergency exits. In exchange for listening to a quick extra safety briefing, they get more legroom – and are first out if something goes wrong. Slightly sullen cabin crew sell water to anyone who wants it and hot meals to those who have booked them on-line.
We land in what appears to be a dilapidated terminal at Kuala Lumpur’s old airport. (We later learn that it is, in fact, the budget facility at the new one that opened 10 years ago. The authorities painstakingly installed peeling paint, cracked concrete, bad lighting, stale air, half-finished annexes and few escalators in order to accentuate the low-cost ambience and, presumably, punish cheapskates who patronize an uppity ethnic Indian’s start-up rather than the state-owned flag carrier.)
Just how big a mistake it had been to entrust Odell with organizing this trip becomes apparent when we are herded onto a bus with a group of around 20 Macau tourists and a guide comes around placing garish tour company labels on everyone. “Stickers!” spits my ex-Mormon friend, “We don’t need no stinking stickers!”
He has booked us onto an economy group package designed for unworldly and easily amused Cantonese of modest means, mostly youngish couples, plus a few with kids. I have been on one before. The main thing going through my mind is – do I kill him now, or bring him with me when I escape and do it then so I can hide the body?
“You said no Christmas,” he protests, “good food, warm weather, no riots and not China. This is all I could find. There was nothing else!”
After a lengthy welcoming spiel from Candy the short but palpably vicious Malaysian Chinese tourist-handler, the bus sets off on a lengthy journey past sprawling palm plantations. With no interest whatsoever in the never-seen-before landscape, our fellow travellers pull the curtains and snooze, as they had on the plane, while I look out the window trying to spot the occasional fragments of the country not owned by Sime Darby, monocultural agronomists to the gentry.
Eventually, over halfway to Malacca by my reckoning, we pull into the resort where we will stay the first night. Theoretically promising four-star family fun, the A Famosa is a creaking wreck of an attraction, with an unfinished and abandoned extension next door and such depressing features as Cowboy Town (with Red Indian fire-blowing act) and an Animal World Safari. Everything, from bottled water and extra teabags in the room to Internet access in the lobby, must be paid for. It would seem extortionate if someone was making a profit, but instead it is simply sad to the point of being heartbreaking – paying a few Ringgit to check your email feels like an act of charity.
Ewww… I have to share with Odell. “Oh my God,” he tells me as I try to work out how anyone could design a hotel room with bath/shower, toilet and hand basin all in separate rooms, “the other people on the bus were looking at us. Maybe they think we’re gay.” Even though that probably carries the death penalty here, it’s the least of my worries.
|Having a quick shower, I find the bathtub is a miracle of engineering. The water that falls onto the area next to the wall does not flow back in. The angle is such that surface tension keeps it there and then allows it to flow gradually around two sides of the bath until it pours onto the floor. I’m sure NASA or semiconductor manufacturers or someone could find an application for this.
Into the bus again, and we set off for dinner. One of the big attractions of these tours is that you will eat only familiar food, and after half an hour we turn up in a small town and enter a spacious – not to say deserted – Chinese restaurant to feast on braised cabbage, steamed chicken, soup and some other highly inexpensive bits and pieces with not a drop of chilli, lemon grass, tamarind or other alien horrors to pollute the blandness. Small talk with the other captives reveals that a couple of them are in fact from Zhuhai and can’t understand Candy the guide’s incessant Cantonese chatter over the bus’s PA system. Odell and I have been able to pick out enough to know that her urgent-sounding narrative is childish and dispensable gibberish, and, so far as their English comprehension allows, try to assure them they are missing nothing.
We are permitted to walk up and down the dusty street for a few minutes, which gives me the chance to duck into a ramshackle Indian store and peruse the shelves of incense, spices and bottles and jars with labels dating from the 1920s. A few of the more adventurous Macau tourists follow me and watch curiously as a buy a box of asafoetida and a grand jar of lemon pickle. Sexual perversion is bad enough, they are thinking, but that…
|Electric cattle prod at the ready, Candy rounds everyone up and ushers them back on the to the bas, as it is called in Malay. It has been a tiring day and it is getting dark, but we still have things to do. Outside Cowboy Town, where the Red Indians are dressed in Santa Claus costumes and dancing to a live rock band playing Christmas tunes, we are issued with bar-coded plastic strips that go on our wrists and allow us admission to the world of Jesse James. We enter through a turnstile and past a young orang-utan posing for photos on a bench. Large signs forbid visitors to take their own pictures – you must pay for a park employee to do it with a company camera. Odell causes much consternation by raising his empty hands to his eyes and saying ‘click’.
Like Steve McQueen checking out the perimeter of Stalag Luft III in The Great Escape, I nonchalantly wander away from the herd in search of a weak spot in the security. The town looks like a fake bad Hollywood Western set. I push through crowds of Saudis with black-clad wives and locals apparently finding the scene thrilling and then, next to a numbed-looking pony in a stall, I am confronted by Candy. “We must do everything as a group until I say so,” she informs me with an evil grin. “The fish foot spa is part of the package.”
The minimum we can get away with is 20 minutes of sitting with our trousers rolled up, dangling our legs in tanks sunk into the floor of a massage centre while larger-than-expected cousins of the piranha nibble at dead skin on our heels and toes. The adults of our party squeal even more than the kids at the sight and peculiar sensation of a school of the slimy creatures sucking away at their feet. An Arab woman opposite me seems to take it in her stride, though for all I know she is grimacing horribly – a flash of ankle and pink toenail polish are the only parts of her exposed. To take my mind off the disconcerting thought that these animals have been doing this to hundreds of other people with God knows what infectious podiatric ailments, and aware of the fact that next year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, I ponder the wonder of nature at having found an evolutionary niche for a life form that gently gnaws human epidermis as entertainment
At last, we are free to go. Entering the lobby of the rickety hotel, I try to think of a way to sum up how deep down in the barrel of the Malaysian hospitality industry we are scraping. Then a tour group from Ho Chi Minh City arrives.
|Waking with the sun as I do, I don’t find the 7.00am wake-up call a problem. But Odell, upon whose snore-tremored pillow I gently place the telephone at 6.55, waxes wrathful about how this is supposed to be a freakin’ vacation. And whose idea was it? After falling in for inspection in the lobby at 7.30 sharp, our merry band is whisked off to breakfast at, needless to say, Animal World Safari. We eat a canteen meal of watery congee, cold noodles and sugary orange juice – during which thoughts of how fortunate we are not to be among the starving millions in Somalia are drowned out by electronic disco versions of Auld Lang Syne and Frosty the Snowman – then assemble in the crowded courtyard. More and more tourists, obviously on pricier packages that provide breakfast at a more decent hour, arrive while we wait for the wildlife park itself to open.
After parading past an elephant (no taking your own photos), we board open-sided trucks and set off up steep hillocks, round tight bends and even across a little stream – all landscaped by and for people who assume this is what Africa must look like. We pass crocodiles, buffalo, lions and tigers (happily sharing the same compound), goats and much else, most of which elicit spontaneous ‘wahs’ of delight and snapping of photographs. As we wave a cheery hello to a pair of giraffes, Odell asks if today is Christmas. Perhaps. I have lost track of time.
|As we zip down the freeway to Malacca in the bus again, a sign flashes by advertising the World Bees Museum – but this is presumably too educational, or the exhibits too small or unexciting, for us to visit. Instead, our fellow travellers snooze, while I admire Malaysians’ greatly improved driving skills since I last came down this way nearly 20 years ago, and Odell looks down on the cars we overtake and tries to peer up the skirts of women in the passenger seats.
In Malacca we pop into a temple with pictures of earlier visitors Li Peng and Jiang Zemin on the wall. Worshippers write their prayers on pink candles. Many are presumably beseeching the relevant almighty for global harmony and relief of human suffering, but the one I examine seems to be making a fairly specific demand for money. Next stop is a warehouse-size outlet specialising in local fare that Southern Chinese will want to pay over the odds for. Before entering, everyone gets a numbered sticker on their arm to identify our guide for commission purposes. (Was that her candle in the temple?) The shelves are stacked high with lime juice and honey concoctions, Healthy Recreational Dessert, dried satay squid, shrimp paste and durian coconut cake – all of which, Odell assures us, you can get cheaper in Thailand.
We skip a museum of Malaysian democracy, presumably for the same reasons that we missed the bees. After photo opportunities outside old Portuguese churches in the old town – and pestering from the same Mainlanders dressed as monks that infest Hong Kong – we head out to the suburbs to another big empty Chinese restaurant for the much-anticipated ‘local’ meal of fish head curry. An extremely unexceptional dish it is, too, though our companions are mostly too petrified to touch it, preferring safe, plain cabbage and chicken. Odell by this stage is starting to take a particular dislike to a scrawny father of two little girls who we have dubbed Mr Table Manners for his energetic rice-shovelling and loud, open-mouthed mastication. Despite this slobbishness, he and his family compulsively clean everything – from chopsticks to seats – before contact.
So – safari, temple, pricey food store, churches, while-you-wait portrait (optional), trike ride (ditto), fish head curry, photos of everyone posing in front of everything everywhere. Check, check, check. Hopes of a restful afternoon vanish back on the bus as we speed off to Kuala Lumpur and the guide noisily regales us with pointless information about the next items on the itinerary. You will see KL from the TV Tower observation deck. (This turns out to be the one thing that distinguishes it from its counterparts from Toronto to Shanghai.) The aquarium has a lot of exciting fish. (And is the first I have ever seen with a Christmas tree at the entrance. It is so gloomy inside that my picture of Odell grinning and making a ‘V’ sign next to a stingray sadly failed to come out.)
Dinner finds us at yet another strangely uncrowded place, which alarmingly advertises itself as Vietnamese, but – to everyone’s great relief – serves up cabbage, chicken and tofu. It is bad quality because it is cheap, and thus a prime reason for the tour’s amazing value for money. I think that’s the logic.
Exhausted, we eventually arrive at the Petaling Jaya Hilton at nightfall. The wake-up call will be at 7.30. An extra half-hour in bed for good behaviour!
|Odell finally guesses the reason for the paper arrow pasted onto the ceiling in every hotel room here. At first he thought it pointed towards a fire escape, then he imagined it indicated the way to the nearest convenience store. Ours has the Arabic as well as the Malay ‘Kiblat’ written on it, which is a bit of a giveaway.
Standing to attention in the lobby of the PJ Hilton, everyone looks eagerly across to the extensive coffee shop, where other guests are enjoying an elaborate breakfast buffet. But our hopes are dashed. Our diminutive but venomous guide announces that the food here is not acceptable because, by law, there is no pork. “We will be going somewhere much better, with pork!” she tells us with the sort of contrived cheerfulness Hong Kong Government officials use when declaring that, in response to public opinion, a totally disastrous policy has been amended to make it merely 75 percent wretched.
As it happens, we end up a bus ride later having two-hour boiled soup, with huge chunks of pig on the bone and ho fun, which partially compensates for going without the buffet, and for putting up with yet another big, vacant restaurant with cracked tiled floors and squat toilets. The bad news is that Mr Table Manners has taken to blowing his nose in slow motion. Rather than expelling the mucus with one short blast into the tissue, so we can all get on with enjoying our meal, he does it slowly and gently, maybe for fear of damaging his precious nasal membrane or capillaries – who knows? So it takes a full, loud minute. Per nostril. Indeed, it seems to take longer, but that goes for absolutely everything on this trip.
“I thought we were going to escape today,” Odell whispers as we get back on the bus. Me too, but the evil tour guide is holding our bags hostage. So back to the bus. As she informs us that Malaysia has oil and horse racing, we head into town to see the National Museum, where we learn about the valiant Malay struggle against evil Communists in the late 1940s, in which colonial British forces played no part whatsoever and the baddies were all Chinese. Then to Independence Square and a quick look at an old cricket ground and its mock-Tudor surroundings where, the guide says, the British drink tea, and everyone does some posing for photos outside the Moghul-style Supreme Court. The couple from Zhuhai look suitably appalled when a deranged bore from Falun Gong stands nearby holding up anti-CCP signs and gruesome pictures. Then we are taken to Petronas Towers, where we are free to roam the shopping mall that has exactly the same brands and logos as all the rest, planet-wide.
En route to lunch, it occurs to me that something is missing – something we haven’t done yet. It nags at me. We stop for a quick visit to an attraction I didn’t catch the name of. I think I can miss it, but the tour guide catches me hiding at the back of the bus trying to read the special end-year edition of The Economist. “Why you reading magazine? No. Put it away.” And she grabs me by the ear and drags me to… the dried meat shop. That’s it! I knew we would visit one sooner or later.
Those of us who feel like it buy chicken floss, satay beef shreds, dried squid and grab small free samples of the flat sheets of hot preserved pork, exactly as sold for half the price in Macau. Then we march down the street, past a Malay place selling spicy fish and palm hearts in coconut, past an Indian place offering biryanis and lamb, past a place selling (among other things) fish and chips, and past a Nonya place specialising in the much acclaimed Tamil/Malay-Chinese hybrid cuisine, and into… big, empty, cheap Canto-place Number 17, for another delectable lunch of braised greens, steamed chicken and fried tofu.
After a brief stop at a shop selling overpriced local chocolate, tourists from our and other groups put their numbered stickers on whatever comes to hand, including trees.
|Then we head out of the city for the hills – Genting Highlands, to be exact. The few of us who are not asleep notice that the bus winds up through scenic mountains and tropical rainforest and past a couple of impressive car crashes. Near the top, we transfer into cable cars for a heart-stopping ride over ridges and crevices of jungle, and views of the occasional monkey swinging in the trees for those who can bring themselves to look down. At the end of the journey we approach a mountaintop, where we are delivered into the jaws of hell.
Following our guide, we step into a cavernous, indoor amusement park – a cacophony of people, McDonalds, overhead railway rides, a canal with gondolas, KFC, flashing lights, more jostling, babbling people and electronic noise. Eventually we arrive at what appears to be the departures lounge of a medium-sized airport, but is in fact the lobby of the inaptly named First World Hotel. There are half a dozen hotels here, and this is the biggest. Not the biggest at the mountain resort. Not the biggest in the jungle. Not the biggest in Malaysia or even Asia. The biggest in the entire Solar System, complete with Guinness World Records certificate to prove it. It has 6,118 rooms.
There must be an optimum size for a hotel, beyond which economies of scale and efficiencies go into reverse, and the place collapses in on itself in a huge pile of suitcases, guests, staff, bed linen and screaming kids. Combined with Malaysian organisational skills, the result is chaos and mayhem, especially when – as today – every room is full.
Our group is processed in 30 minutes or so, but the thousands of Singaporeans, Mainlanders and other guests travelling independently stand in line to get a ticket with a number, then sit in rows of plastic seats waiting for their turn at check-in desk 20, 100 yards away. Our room is strewn with pillows, sheets and towels left by the herd of baboons staying last night. The cleaner arrives and says he will be done in one hour. If he does 10 a day, that’s over 600 room staff alone. The main restaurant takes up the entire 8th floor, and is what you would expect if a city of 20,000 had one centralised mega-canteen. In the basement, there is a casino, medium-size by Macau standards, and full of chain-smoking Chinese women forlornly pumping coins into slot machines while their menfolk crowd round the odd-even tables.
Looking at the rest of the complex and the mist-shrouded hills from our ramshackle room, I come up with a plan. Tomorrow – freedom.
|Even before the morning wake-up call, Odell and I are out on the prowl in the cavernous corridors of the biggest hotel in the world, looking for room 42,593. We find it and wait a few minutes until the door opens and Candy the Obergruppen-guide starts to emerge, pulling her Hello Kitty suitcase on wheels. Within seconds, we have bundled her back inside. While I keep a hand clamped over her mouth, my ex-Mormon comrade binds her tightly in strips of bed sheet and then – recalling what she said about how the walls in this place were made thin to prevent sleep and keep guests in the casino – gags her with a hand towel. We role her under the bed and tell her through her muffled squeals to make sure our baggage gets to tonight’s hotel, the PJ Hilton again.
Just 10 minutes later, we are boarding a municipal bus at the resort’s transport terminal, just outside the mist-shrouded First World. Although it looks old and dilapidated, this turns out to be a special high-speed bus, capable of careering down the steep, winding hill at 90 miles an hour. Glimpses of things flash past through the window. Faraway Kuala Lumpur through the trees, a skin lotion advertisement declaring ‘Say No To Bread Face!’, and Malay-only signs apparently advising drivers to keep in low gear. Maybe non-speakers of the national tongue don’t need to be told this. Or their lives are considered to be less valuable. Or both.
|At the bottom of the hill in the outer suburbs, the vehicle has had enough punishment and creaks to a halt. Following the lead of passengers who drift away and flag down other buses, we end up downtown, breathing in the heady air of liberty. The rest of the day is spent becoming de-institutionalised, getting used to having choices and making our own decisions – specifically to select from the many options on the menu of one of the many Middle-Eastern restaurants catering to the Arab tourists who have been turning up en masse since Western destinations tightened visa rules post-9-11.
I show Odell the Brickfields district – Little India – with its exotic, even antiquated, sounds, sights, aromas and men’s hairstyles. “Hey, this is different from Thailand,” he says for the 50th time, as we pass a store full of incense and Hindu statues. “And have you noticed, there are no hookers in this country?” I tell him they don’t have wall-to-wall, in-your-face sleaze like the Land of Smiles. “But then in Thailand,” he adds, “they don’t have giraffes.” Nowhere, I explain, is perfect.
In the modern mass-transit train station, six of the automatic ticket machines are out of service and the only two that work are temporarily accepting coins only. So, like nearly everyone, we stand in a long line to buy the tickets from a man in a glass booth, giving Odell ample time to loudly tell anyone who will listen that this would never happen in Hong Kong.
Back at the Hilton, the bus has just arrived. Candy the guide looks suitably chastened, while the Macau and Zhuhai members of our party whistle For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow as Odell and I walk into the lobby, the two heroes who defiantly stood up for truth, democracy and the Anglo-Saxon way and skipped a breakfast and lunch, and a bus ride, and exciting visits to many attractions worth photographing or buying things at – even though they had already paid for them!
Following the humiliation of the despotic guide, a marked change comes over the tour. The wake-up call is at 9.00, and for breakfast we are permitted to enjoy the same Hilton buffet that was unacceptable two days earlier on the grounds that it had no pork. Despite this deplorable omission, even the most stolid and unadventurous eaters among us delight in at least some of the Western, Indian, Malay, Japanese and Chinese fare, not least because, as we have been repeatedly reminded, there is no lunch today.
On the last leg of the trip, the guide returns to her favourite subject of property prices. “The apartments around here,” she tells us as we pass through the suburbs between KL and Putrajaya, “are very nice. If any of you is interested in maybe buying a place, see me later on. A nice flat of 1,000 square feet costs the equivalent of 400,000 Hong Kong Dollars.” Odell and I let out an audible and involuntary ‘wah!’, but our Macau co-tourists are less impressed, and the Zhuhai pair look quite put out. At this point, I notice one Mint Hotel, which would win hands down if there were a prize for pastel coloured architecture most evocative of Dachau or Belsen.
|Putrajaya is a brand-new, spacious, landscaped, planned, intelligent garden city that hosts the Federal Government. It comes across as a sort of tropical, Muslim Pyongyang – and I mean that in the nicest, most positive way. After taking photos of lakes, bridges, mosques, grand boulevards and kids eating ice-cream, it’s back on the bus for the ride to the airport.
On the way, Candy the real-estate dealer briefly mentions that Malaysia is the world’s leading producer of rubber and therefore condoms before elaborating on the local property scene. A HK$400,000 apartment, it seems, would be in a less desirable area where the people are poorer and have bad hygiene. For HK$600,000, you would get a more middle-class neighbourhood, full of such residents as civil servants who are clean. For HK$1 million, you would get a location popular with Japanese and Americans, who, it goes without saying, are so impeccably spotless you can eat off them.
One compulsory cash tip for Candy and the driver later, we are back at the budget airline terminal, in which – if it had them – apartments would be HK$200,000 at most. At the zoo-like check-in, Odell valiantly comes to the rescue of Mr Table Manners’ wife when the Roti Airways staff try to charge her for having excess baggage totalling one whole kilo.
The terminal – or maybe just the airline – has devised a novel and highly entertaining system for boarding passengers. After passing a checkpoint in the lounge, we find ourselves out on the apron with no bus, no ground crew and no signs. Eventually, someone in a uniform vaguely points the way, and we march off along open covered pathways linking aircraft stands. After traipsing for several hundred yards we climb the steps to the Roti Airways plane, only to be told by cabin crew that it is going to Kota Kinabalu. Retracing our steps and taking a left towards the runway, we try another. “Are you sure?” Odell demands when the crew confirm that this is the Macau flight. “Are you absolutely fucking certain about that?”
Mysteriously, we end up next to the emergency exits again, with lots of legroom and a head start on everyone else if the standards of aircraft maintenance prove to match those on the KL busses and the train ticket machines. During the flight, as I try to read, Odell turns to me.
“C’mon, admit it, you enjoyed yourself really.”
Damn – I was going to kill him, wasn’t I? I forgot.