21-27 September, 2008
|Sun, 21 Sep
To a desolate corner of the land, which is experiencing a once-a-century absence not only of rain but of cloud cover, to scatter my father's ashes. He grew up around here, one of several places in the region that are almost devoid of life. There are no trees or leafy plants. The only vegetation is an extremely tough, wiry type of grass, which also grows on the moon. This supports a small number of bedraggled sheep with behavioural problems and depressed, rheumy-eyed wild horses. They in turn support a few swarms of blood-sucking flies and ticks.
But it wasn't always this way. Five thousand years ago, the area was largely covered with forest and inhabited by people. They were pre-Celtic, and thus pre-Roman, pre-Saxon, pre-Norman, pre-Huguenot, pre-East European Jewish, pre-Italian, pre-Caribbean, pre-Indian, pre-Pakistani, pre-Somali and pre-Polish plumber, but nonetheless are still the main providers of DNA to the people of these islands.
Like all good late neolithic folk, they dragged big stones around and arranged them in circles and walls. Here, in particular, they liked to enclose the peaks of hills, preferably ones with unusual natural rock formations upon them. It has never been clear whether these were sites of defence, religious or even social significance. At his request, my father's remains end up at a particular entranceway to one such fort/temple/fairground. Perhaps this resting place represents a symbolic escape.
Moving rocks took time and energy, which these distant stone age ancestors gained by clearing their neighbourhood through slashing and burning. As the bronze age dawned, greed and disregard for green issues led to increasingly unsustainable agricultural practices, farmers grinding nature away until patches of bare granite started to show through what was left of the soil. Climate change – the weather cooled, and they were probably told it was all their fault – left these environmental vandals with no choice but to abandon the uplands for the valleys below, to begin the long journey of progress that today leaves the land under the commercial parks, wind farms and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. My father especially didn't like KFC.
Tue, 23 Sep
From a remote stone age place of rest for a departed parent to a family outpost nestled in a lush valley a county away. Compared with the cairn-strewn wilderness, this is civilisation. But not as we know it.
|There is still no mobile phone signal, which causes great anguish to some. In fact, a hike up the hill through a meadow – a local word meaning tufts of grass with lots of horse droppings – and a short climb up a tree will improve the chance of a signal. The anguish dissipates. The call suddenly seems so much less urgent.
The water here comes out of the ground. It passes tests for heavy metals, excessive minerals and billions of microbes feasting upon small scraps of deceased furry animals, and it tastes fine. But it still feels somehow unnatural to be quaffing H2O that has not been lovingly hand-crafted, prepared and delivered by Hong Kong Water Supplies Dept. I will mention it in passing to Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary when I am back in the Pearl of the Orient. Drinking water that comes straight out of the ground – she will never believe it.
|Staring up at the sky at night, it is impossible not to notice that the planet here is naked, exposed to countless thousands of tiny, shimmering silver dots up there. I have seen stars on rare occasions in the Big Lychee – Shek O Country Club of all places one evening in 1988 or so – but we forget they exist in such vast numbers. If I were leaning towards belief in intelligent design, I would be convinced once and for all by the particularly vivid view of the Pleiades, the tight cluster of bright heavenly bodies that could not have happened by chance. They can only have been left there in a pile by a sentient entity that then forgot about them. Slightly absent-minded design.
People here can live without telecoms, potable water and that comfortingly familiar orange-grey miasma cloaking the world after sundown. But television is essential. We switch it on before bedtime to hear startling news of the real world. A politician, puffed up with his own importance after banning short-selling, declares that he will do something about the City's bonus culture. He thinks it's still there? Can't he hear the Porsches rusting? Investment banks have ceased to exist. They are to become deposit-taking, full-service, retail institutions, meekly submitting to regulatory oversight and handing out plastic piggy banks to passing children to encourage prudent saving habits at an early age.
|Fri, 26 Sep
A day out in the exciting Big Little City, gateway to – not to mention heartbeat, nerve centre and occasional despair of – the region. I notice a few small but interesting changes since my last visit.
|The number of overweight women with tattoos seems to have declined, or at least plateaued out. The same applies to people wearing rings on their thumbs. Unlike the wearing of nasty-looking nylon jackets (sharply down), these welcome trends cannot simply be attributed to a brief, soon-to-be-reversed spell of pleasant weather.
Even more striking to the casual observer from Hong Kong is the commendable state of race relations, with school-mates, on- and off-duty colleagues and even married couples of different colours unselfconsciously delighting in one another's company. These are not cosmopolitan, urbane elites as seen hanging around in art galleries on TV commercials for high-end European goods. If they were Hongkongers they would be tearing down the doors of the Bank of East Asia to retrieve their HK$12,000 life savings. Atlanta once declared itself the city that's too busy to hate. This is the city that's got too many candy bars stuffed in its face to hate.
And, on a gloomier note, perhaps too absorbed in self-mutilation. The male population at least seems to find it harder than ever to kick the 'body art' habit, with many now so densely covered with ink-infused skin that they have tattoos on their necks – usually depicting some sort of lightning bolt. I would have thought the tattooist's needle would pierce the jugular vein, resulting in a gushing torrent of gore washing away the hackneyed design, not to mention the life of the grotesque practice's victim. But apparently not.
But that is a minor quibble. For the most part, life here is getting better and better. Where else in the world do you get a weekly network TV show conducting a search for the country's youngest grandmother? My favourite is the single (they all are) blonde (ditto, mainly) who produced a daughter at the age of 16 and put said girl on the pill at 12, only to find a couple of years later that, owing to one of those hilarious mistakes that make life so amusing, the kid was pregnant. Now, a few years on, mother and daughter get a babysitter in at weekend evenings and take off to the nightclubs together like sisters, freaking out drunken, tattoo-necked suitors by revealing their relationship, parental status and – presumably – fecundity. And to think in Hong Kong we fritter away welfare handouts on ugly old women with neither family nor entertainment value.
Dymocks, IFC Mall
& other HK Dymocks
(some, probably, maybe)
Hong Kong & worldwide
USA & worldwide