Monthly Archives: March 2010

Catholics and Commies

Originally published at Libertines Pub

Authoritarians are all alike. The inheritors of the Earth’s two most significant historical empires, the Roman and the Chinese, don’t seem to realize that the days of “it’s true because I said so” are over. There was a time the Pope and the Emperor of China could literally dictate what was true and false within the substantial segments of the globe they controlled. This is no longer true, but apparently the authoritarians haven’t gotten the message.

Lately, the New York Times seems to be reporting daily on new evidence that during his tenure as a Catholic bishop, the current Pope was informed of several priests sexually abusing children in Germany and the US, and he did nothing to help those children or prevent further abuse. All his actions seem to have been directed at image control, not sexual abuse control. Obviously, this behavior is about as immoral as human behavior gets, yet there has been no official explanation of the evidence from the Vatican, other than to attack those who present it. Apparently, the Pope still thinks he’s infallible. Now, there is a certain segment of the Catholic population who’s self-identity is so tied up in being Catholic that admitting that the Pope is actually an abusive asshole would cause an identity crisis so large that no amount of evidence can convince them of the truth. These people cannot be reasoned with, and as a result they don’t require explanations that are rational. “I said so,” uttered from an authority figure they identify with is enough. But for an increasing number of humans, particularly the increasing number of humans raised to think for themselves in an atmosphere of free and open discussion, “I said so” doesn’t cut it. No matter who says so.

Big Beijing is running into this problem as well, all over the place. From poorly constructed schools in Sichuan that killed hundreds of children to disappearing Falun Gong practitioners and their on-demand organs, to countless other examples of Big Beijing showing no respect for the value of human life, the response is always the same (see attached photo). The recent spat with Google is instructive. When Google decided to stop censoring Chinese search results, a decision that included a statement about the value of free exchange of information and open debate, Big Beijing’s response was that Google was “totally wrong.” Nothing about the value of social harmony vs. freedom of information, just a blanket statement that if you disagree with Big Baby, you’re wrong. Why? Because Big Baby said so, and Big Baby, like the Pope, is infallible. They both have the Mandate of Heaven, apparently. Just like some Catholics, some Chinese have so thoroughly attached their personal identity to their government that these “arguments” are actually “persuasive.” Perhaps in a nation of only children, educated in Chinese state schools, many people are predisposed to this type of nationalistic, authoritarian “thinking.” But if you want to convince adults, you have to make a coherent argument. Which is why Big Beijing’s propaganda system doesn’t seem to work in HK, and why many Americans areleaving the Catholic Church. It should be interesting to see how this plays out between now and 2047 (the year the gweilo evacuate HK).

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Gweilometer: Island Line 4-5 and beyond

Originally published at Libertines Pub

Wan Chai: This is one of those places that my gweilometer is more honest about than I am. The mix of pubs and dirty strip clubs make parts of Wan Chai feel like the bad part of an American city. But the pubs are too nice, and grime doesn’t lead to violent crime, so it’s not like home after all. The pubs are gweilo-friendly, a little too gweilo friendly. Same goes for the Chinese Restaurants. My gweilometer is set to prefer a slightly higher level of cultural authenticity: something in-between sweet and sour pork and thousand year old egg. Wan Chai certainly has plenty to offer both ends of that spectrum, but just not quite enough in my authenticity-band. Wan Chai and Sheung Wan are more in-between Central and, say, Mong Kok on this spectrum, but Wan Chai feels like it’s trying too hard in it’s gweilo-friendliness, with scores of Irish pubs and a Chinese restaurant called The American. We North American gweilo like our gweilo-friendliness to feel a little more natural than this. Average gweilometer reading: 84.435

Causweay Bay: This was the first place I landed in HK. My company apparently thought this would be the perfect place to put a fresh off the airplane American gweilo. Note to Chinese people: when arranging accommodations for your gweilo friends and colleagues, do not put them in Causeway Bay unless you’re sure that they’re super materialistic. They’re likely to be completely overwhelmed by the confusing street layout, congestion, pollution, and hyper-consumerism, and they probably won’t understand the status-message you’re sending by choosing some of the most expensive real estate in HK for their hotel. You have to really love shopping to love Causeway Bay, and I hate shopping. I notice some French people using their European gweilometers are getting higher readings than I am. It seems that their gweilometers are calibrated to give high readings in places where fashion is a priority. It’s places like Causeway Bay that allow significant proportions of the populations of Paris and Milan to be employed in the fashion industry, tricking Chinese people into buying clothes they don’t need is big business, almost as big as tricking them into smoking cigarettes and eating fast food. My gweilometer is overheating; it wasn’t built to handle this kind of thing, and it’s nearly impossible to find a bar to cool it down. This is why I can never stay in Causeway Bay for more than a few hours…so let’s get back on the MTR. Average gweilometer reading: 54.312

Beyond Causeway Bay: The gweilo-map doesn’t have many entries East of Causeway Bay. I understand that some gweilo live in North Point, or Quarry Bay, but I think their motivation to live there comes from the fact that those places are affordable, and have an MTR station. Using some of the special features on my North American gweilometer, I’m able to detect a burrito stand of some kind in Fortress Hill, but nothing else of note. Maybe I need a more sensitive gweilometer; they do get better with age.

The High-Speed Rail Controversy: An American Perspective

Originally published at Libertines Pub.  (Note: This post is really intended for a HK audience, not a US audience like most of my posts.  So if you don’t dig this one, don’t worry.  I’m blogging for a HK blog now, and I’ll share those posts here, but that doesn’t mean this blog has changed its focus.)

Since I arrived in Hong Kong a half year ago, the biggest political story has been the proposed high speed rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Apparently the young people in HK are really upset about this. I don’t get it.

Recently, the SCMP documented the evolution of this movement from a community issue centered around villagers trying to keep their homes, to a mass political movement that has sparked political activism among many young people in HK. Chu Hoi-dick, one of the leaders of the movement, is quoted as saying, “When I first started, it was a community issue. My goal was to help villagers keep their homes. No one should be sacrificed because of a railway or because of any development.” Really? How is this a rational political position? No one should ever lose their home because of any development? How would any nation or municipality ever create any public infrastructure under this standard? It’s absolutely preposterous, yet somehow the SCMP doesn’t mention the absurdity of Chu’s statement. In a city as densely populated as HK, nothing could ever get built if you couldn’t ever demolish anyone’s home to build a public good.

Now I’m American, and as such I’m all for the rights of individuals. But even Americans know that sometimes people have to lose their homes because that land is needed for something that benefits society. OK, not all Americans know this. Many of the ones who don’t are currently involved in what is called the Tea Party movement. This is a bunch of conservatives who think that it’s immoral to raise taxes on individuals so that the government can provide a public good (in this case, what they object to is poor people receiving health care). Which brings me to my main point. This anti-rail campaign is essentially a conservative movement. The two basic arguments seem to be that individual property rights trump collective goods (the nobody should ever lose their house nonsense quoted above) and that it’s just too expensive (or that the costs outweigh the benefits). It’s ironic that young people in HK seem to have similar political opinions to a bunch of old, rural, uneducated and generally misinformed Americans.

Since the first argument is absurd on it’s face, let’s address the second one: it’s just too expensive. I have no doubt it’s very expensive, but taxes in HK are insanely low (it helps that the defense budget is zero). And I don’t think there’s much danger of a tax hike because of this project, so what are people so upset about? Public services and infrastructure work pretty well in this city, but that’s because people invested in them in the past, and continue to do so.

My president has proposed several high-speed rail networks linking major American cities. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional US political system won’t allow him to accomplish this goal, which would be of great benefit to the US economy. The auto and oil industries will surely succeed in limiting the scope of high-speed rail in the US. And the Tea-partiers will be right there by the corporations’ side, shooting themselves in the foot because they oppose government spending.

I’m no fan of Big Beijing, but I sincerely wish that my government was forward-thinking enough to cover my continent in high speed rail. Whatever the economists say about the cost/benefit, does Hong Kong really want to be the one major Eurasian city that isn’t part of the high speed rail network eventually connecting Shanghai to Paris?

I understand that a lot of the anger expressed in this anti-rail campaign is really frustration about the lack of real democratic influence in the political process. I feel your pain there. The US has had universal suffrage since 1776…ok, maybe 1865…no wait…1920. Ok, we realistically attained universal suffrage in 1964, except for the brief, computer-enhanced hiatus between 2000 and 2006. My point is this: the vote can be bought, influenced, suppressed or miscounted, but political speech is a fundamental human right. Use your right to protest wisely. Remember the boy who cried wolf.

My American Education

One of the joys of being an American expat is that people are constantly educating me about my home country.  Local Hongkongers and European expats love to tell me how fat and ignorant Americans are.  The Euros particularly love to tell me how my country lacks culture.  The one thing all these people have in common is that they have never visited the U.S.  Nevertheless, they insist that their experience with the U.S., which consists of watching American movies and TV, somehow gives them some special insight into American culture that my 30 years of living in the U.S. didn’t provide me with.

I know many Americans are overweight, and I know many Americans are ignorant about the world.  I’m aware of the stereotypes, and I can even see that these stereotypes are in part based on reality.  But the facts on the ground are a little more complicated than that.  Surprisingly, people in HK seem to be unaware of the fact that the U.S. is a large, diverse country.  People in HK think that HK is diverse (with it’s 5% minority population), and therefore simply cannot comprehend the scale of American diversity.

I am often confronted by people who dress like Americans, use American slang, watch American movies and listen to American music, telling me that the U.S. has no culture of it’s own.  Europeans think U.S. culture is a simply a bastardized version of their own.  The fact that foreigners like to mimic my culture does not negate the existence of that culture.  The fact that my culture is relatively young, and is a blended culture, does not mean it is somehow not a real culture.

It’s not my fault that Europeans and Asians lack the nuanced understanding of U.S. culture to appreciate the good American music, movies and television.  The American music that’s popular abroad tends to be lyrically and musically unsophisticated.  This is particularly true of hip hop.  I get why the interesting stuff isn’t exportable.  But when people use the crappy American music that’s popular overseas as an example of how ignorant Americans are, I tend to lose patience with them.

The fact that McDonald’s and MTV are popular in France reflects badly on France, not the U.S.  If we can trick you into consuming our low grade beef and cultural leftovers, and keep the good stuff for ourselves, that’s on you Frenchie, not me.

Sorry for the rant, had to get that out of my system.

Gweilometer: Island Line 1-3

Oringinally published at The Libertines Pub.

A gweilometer is a device that gweilo use to make themselves more comfortable in non-gweilo territory.  Among other things, gweilometers can rate locations on a a 1-100 scale, allowing gweilo to find gweilo-friendly zones when they’re too overwhelmed by neon, foreign characters, and MSG to navigate by sight.  Not all gweilometers are alike: North American gweilometers come with different inputs and feature packages than do European or Australian gweilometers.  Furthermore, gweilometers can be individually calibrated, and my gweilometer is set to my specifications. Other gweilometers may not give identical readings.

This is the first time I’ve used my gweilometer, so I’m gonna start with something familiar.  Let’s hop on the Island Line in Sheung Wan, and head east.

Sheung Wan: According to my gweilometer, Sheung Wan is a pretty desirable place to live.  Like many places on the north side of HK Island, my gweilometer gives higher readings as I walk uphill from the water.  Within walking distance are good restaurants, a few nice neighborhood-type bars, some parks and small green spaces.  The cheap Cantonese restaurants are greasy, tasty and gweilo-friendly (English menu, not too many weird animal parts).  But much of the appeal of Sheung Wan is that it’s close to Central and the Mid-levels, with slightly lower rent.  So let’s move away from the dried seafood smell, and head to Central.  Average gweilometer reading: 88.425

Central: My gweilometer points me in too many directions at once, but the strongest signal comes from the escalator.  Once I get on the escalator, my gweilometer kicks it up a notch (you know how gweilo feel about walking).  The Mid-levels in general give some of the highest readings I’ve seen so far.  Good European and Indian food, and established bars that aren’t trying too hard.  It’s no surprise that my gweilometer is getting giddy; this has got to be one of the most gweilo-friendly places in all of East Asia.  At this point, their are only two inputs my North American gweilometer has that really aren’t getting enough action: hip hop, and Mexican food.  As I move up the escalator, my gweilometer emits a warning buzz around SoHo (I’ve calibrated it to warn me when prices rise above my day-to-day range).  So I dive back down to the MTR, headed for Admiralty.  Average gweilometer reading: 95.733

Admiralty: Arriving at Admiralty, my gweilometer takes a big plunge from it’s reading in Central.  There’s shopping, and offices, and more shopping.  Just as an experiment, I set my gweilometer to “banker” and the reading shoots way up.  When I restore my original settings, it falls again.  Not really a bad place in any particular way, but in the shopping mall that is HK, Admiralty does very little to get my gweilometer going.  I’m tempted by the variety of Chinese restaurants, but my warning buzz goes off again.  Average gweilometer reading: 71.251

Back on the Island Line, as I head toward Wan Chai my gweilometer needle starts to point north again, but that will have to wait for next time.

Escape to Lamma Island

Originally published at Libertines Pub

I moved from Sheung Wan to Lamma Island over the weekend.  I have a love/hate relationship with Sheung Wan, Central, and the north side of HK Island in general.  Sheung Wan has a great energy to it, particularly around 8pm when I get off work.  And it’s nice to be so close to Central and the mid-levels.  But now that I’ve escaped to Lamma, I can finally be honest with myself about the negatives in the Sheung Wan equation.

During the day, the city wears on me. The noise of the car horns and construction drive pound away at my brain all day. Walking in Sheung Wan is a constant hassle, as I have to be vigilant for both speeding cars and stagnant pedestrians. And nobody smiles unless there’s a camera pointed at their face (Filipinas are the only exception to this rule). Five months was long enough for me to figure out that this is just not the kind of environment I can spend all my time in. Nobody likes mosquitoes, but there’s something disconcerting about an place that’s so hostile to life that cockroaches are practically the only insects that can survive there.

I still work in Sheung Wan, but now I get to go on vacation everyday. On Lamma, I hear birds rather than car horns. I smell flowers instead of diesel smoke. People smile, and dance. And this is joyful dancing, not the dancing-as-status-display that you see in Lan Kwai Fong. People actually go out in public without trying desperately to look “trendy.” Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Lamma is completely free of the oppressive advertising that poisons hongkongers minds. There are packs of mixed-breed dogs and mixed-race children happily roaming the streets. It’s my kind of place.

But for all it’s bohemian charms, Lamma is still the SAR. On the surface, it appears to be the only place in HK where people have some respect for the environment. But there are random piles of garbage along the trails: old toilets and worn out couches dropped in the middle of green spaces. People still look at me like I’m an alien just because I don’t want them to give me two pieces of garbage with every purchase. The seafood restaurants, packed with hypocritical hippies, are obviously unsustainable. Those diesel powered Lamma-vehicles are annoying, and make an unreasonable amount of noise. There’s still a ridiculous amount of loud construction everywhere. (Why do roads in HK seem to require 10 times as much maintenance, at 10 times the volume, as roads in the US or Europe?) Then there are the three smokestacks, reminding everyone that this isn’t really a remote fishing village, more like a fake tourist version of one.

The biggest drawback is the fact that the last ferry for Lamma leaves at 12:30. But if it were more connected to the city, it would be more like the city. So that drawback is part of the charm. I’m just happy to be able to take my headphones off. And breathe.