Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Notes from the Political Scene (or lack thereof).

I must say – recent reviews have been less than edifying – which is good, I suppose, in their own peculiar way. It seems my companions have an eye for detail – nay – they read between the lines! Well read on, you Argonauts of the ideal…

An (admittedly quasi-Hegelian) friend said my reflections of late have lacked the enthusiastic world-conquering spirit – a cruel understatement if ever I’ve heard one, for they possess nothing of the sort. Have we grown old, weak and wayward in our geo-demographic dementia? I should think not. We’ve only just begun. Rather than overturn the goblet, one must kiddy-sip the first several rounds. Such are the dictates of Rome. No games when you’ve yet to erect the stadium: you must first content yourself with bread. So pace ahead we shall, à quatre pas du danger, and do as the Kongians do: sweet, submissive and unaffected, remorseless to a tee. I say we’re merely learning the ways of our hosts, imbibing in measured form...


Speaking of moderation, Hong Kong is the most politically pacified place I’ve ever stepped foot in. True, scoffs are a dime a dozen from laboring males, but a Hilton Boxer Rebellion we haven’t upon our hands (just yet). My Italian colleague – nephew of many an ageing Red Brigade – bemoans the number of revolutions that fail to envelop the city each day. “There could be thousands!” he cries in resignation, “ripping apart the city’s social fabric in scurrilous human waves!”

I exaggerate, of course, though he has a point. In a city of seven million, the great majority of whom seem content to peddle trinkets, scrub floors and waste away in shops, it is daunting how little sense of strife there is, considering the opulence thrown in one’s face each day. No graffiti, no posters, no scribbling, no chalk, no demonstrations,[1] no signs, no rallies, no forums – no unabashedly nothing. (Perhaps they’ve taken Mitch Daniels more seriously than we have: “America is not a nation of haves and have-nots, but a nation of haves and soon-to-haves”). One spots the occasional nod to Falun Gong, of course, though little addressing local conditions or manners of social organization. Perhaps that’s a good thing: they’ve gone to the root of pride, lust and envy and slayed the beast himself. There can be no banlieusards if we’re all in the banlieues.

That said, the city’s awash in commerce, grease and goons, each battling for hegemony in their own particular way. Glass, steel and gray pierce a teary-eyed atmosphere bursting with fumes and condensation, though not always unpleasantly so. Each day a hundred gleaming Corbusian Yales spring from the ruins of a steady, dank and crumbling New Haven. Erecting well into the starless night, there’s a 24-hour assault on the past, a post-Puritan affront with no remnant of historical decency. Alas, they haven’t the old Calvinist mores to figuratively call upon – merely a post-Maoist malaise they’re helping the mainland overcome.

The newspapers most doggedly reveal this trend. For ten days running, the intrigues of a Mr. Tang have graced the front page of the most renowned English-language daily. Said gentleman is running for Hong Kong chief executive (i.e. mayor, Grand Caudillo of Little Canton) – and his opponents, the press included, have been relentless in their attacks. Graft? Prostitutes? Pension-fund Ponzi schemes? Not quite – though he is part and parcel of the tycoon class.

Some months ago, Mr. Tang put an illegal 2,400 ft. addition into his basement – replete with Japanese tearoom and sauna – without obtaining the proper license. Since the story broke, the front page has consisted of nothing but public-opinion polls and various floor plans plastered across the headlines (“Could you trust a man who violates personal zoning codes to guide your children’s future?”). Then again, perhaps the media hype is but a front for deeper socio-economic dissatisfaction. After all, Tang’s father was a well-known textiles tycoon whose familial constituency has only grown more powerful since the 1997 handover. As a recent article points out, the indomitable property bubble that enriches their likes has only gained in luxe what it’s lost in luster: http://timeout.com.hk/feature-stories/features/48834/evil-overlords-or-lucky-devils.html (Thanks to Harry for pointing that out).

The other story to dominate local discussion since I’ve arrived is a little spat between Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese that pretends to place a wedge between their fifteen-year Philadelphian hug-fest. In days of old, the latter were demonized as country-bumpkins, pre-modern peasants enthralled to hillside spirits and shuttered huts. In good Cuban fashion, they’d perennially storm the British pearl with dreams of depressing wages and defecating in the streets. Now the opposite has occurred. Flush with cash, they flock to Hong Kong’s gluttonous array of high-end shops to wave their Renminbis about in good post-imperial fashion. In search of political stability, mainlanders buy up the empty concrete slabs that dot the city’s horizon – the vast majority of which sit vacant, while relentlessly driving up the all-too-inflated price. (Read the aforementioned article for more).

But that’s not all. Mainland children also have the audacity to slurp noodles on the subway – a practice strictly reserved to any square foot in the Special Economic Zone sauf le train. Never mind that each station houses (at least one) 7-Eleven, Mrs. Field’s Cookies and Pret-a-Manger: all consumption in public transport is strictly prohibited. As the Mainland girl slurps away, all hell breaks lose. A Hong Konger berates the girl’s uncomely ways, warning her of the health hazards she tempts with her chopstickian wand. This would only bring mamma bear into the mix – who, despite her daughter’s recantations, urges her to slurp on ahead. “Interconnected” as always, another patron-of-both-the-Subway-and-the-Arts whips out his communicative device to detail the oncoming war. Security enters, to no avail. “This is Hong Kong!” screams the enraged local. “You don’t eat dried noodles on the train!” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEComrx76uY)

In the following days a prominent Beijing academic added fire to the (seemingly ideational) flame. Calling Hong Kongers ‘dogs’, ‘bastards’ and British lackeys, he finally gave the papers something else to talk of than Tang. The Hong Kong papers, for their part, responded that mainland women flocking to give birth in the S.A.R.[2] were ‘locusts’ feeding upon their precious maternity wards and forcing local women to give birth in the sea. (Ok, I may have fabricated that last detail for effect).

Sometime later that week the first locally led demonstrations broke out in Tism Sha Tsui, a vibrant shopping quarter on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. More than a thousand people took to the streets in mid-afternoon, demanding an end to discriminatory practices in the city. Just what rights were they re-vindicating - which solidarity did they invoke? At the recent grand opening of a flagship Dolce & Gabbana retailer, a local man was barred from taking smartphone snaps of the glittering storefront. When he demanded an explanation, he was told, “Only mainlanders are allowed to take pictures.”

[1] Apart from Indonesian domestic workers outside their country’s consulate

[2] Special Administrative Region

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