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.

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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.

Diaspora

On several occasions, Chinese people have told me that I “look Australian.”  At first, I thought this made no sense, how could I, someone from a nation of immigrants, “look” like someone else from a different nation of immigrants?  Surely nobody could “look Australian” anymore than anybody could “look American,” right?  It turns out that both have distinctive looks, at least to the discerning Chinese eye, and that “Australian” is a much more consistent look than “American.”

I guess it makes sense that I look Australian, since many Ozzies are members of the Irish diaspora, as am I.  I find I get along pretty well with the Ozzies, and that’s largely due to the shared values and culture that the US and Australia share.  But also, they look like me.  And around here, I notice that.  And noticing that gets me thinking about the history of why I look like these people from the other side of the world.  And makes me feel more connected to that history.

My family tree has potato famine written all over it.  This genocidal act by the British empire scattered the Irish people all over the world, and sent my ancestors to Pennsylvania.  Others, the famine sent to Australia, Canada, and even HK.  I think we still carry the legacy of this violence in our genes.  Perhaps that helps explain why we’re known for our petulant personalities, and why I don’t deal well with bankers.  Put it down to genetic PTSD.  Survivors of genocide are not necessarily reluctant to perpetrate it on others, and potato famine survivors and their descendants certainly went on to participate in genocidal acts against Native Americans (and perhaps something similar is happening with the descendants of holocaust survivors in Israel).  Recent research in epigenetics indicates that it may be possible for certain genes to become activated by traumatic histories like these, with unknown consequences for the potential for world peace.

In the US, many white people feel like they lack ethnicity, and I was one of those white people.  I felt like a generic white American with no culture of my own, beyond that supplied to me by my TV.  But now that I’ve regained my ethnicity, I understand the desire to be around people like myself.  It’s not that I don’t get along with Chinese people, but I spend all day with them.   Sometimes it’s nice to be with people who understand me not through something they learned about my culture from a book or the media, but because their culture is my culture.  It’s nice not to have to explain everything.  It’s nice not to need everything explained to me.  I now understand why the minority kids often self-segregated themselves at lunch time.

USA vs. HK #4: Education

By most objective measures, this should be an easy one for HK.  In 2007, HK ranked among the best in the world on most measures of math and science science performance, ranking among the other developed Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.  The US is toward the middle of the second tier, not as horrible as the media makes it seem, but not competing with East Asia.  (The US is way ahead of China though.)  So Hong Kong seems to be doing a much better job of teaching math and science to it’s children, at least on average.  But what about higher education?

The US still has the best universities in the world.  But on a per capita basis, the US and HK are pretty comparable.  Because of it’s protection of freedom of expression, and it’s high per capita income, HK is one of the leading centers of education in Asia, and the world.  The US has historically had a big advantage in this area, because there was a long period of time when it was one of the few places where academics could work without fear of the government looking over their shoulders.  This is the primary reason China will never have world class universities under the current regime, and why HK and Japan have such a regional advantage in Asia.  Asia is catching up in higher education and Hong Kong is a big part of that advance.  For a look at the world rankings of universities, according to the Times of London, check out this link:

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=408560

Since we all know that K-12 education in the US sucks, and the US doesn’t have a big advantage over HK in higher ed, why am I still writing?  Doesn’t HK win?

I guess it depends on what the purpose of education is.  Basically all the school systems in the world were designed to train workers for the industrial age.  The goal was to teach basic literacy and computation skills, and to make people good at following schedules and obedient to authority.  Nobody explains this better than John Taylor Gatto, and his  basic argument is here.

Americans have never been the obedient type, blind obedience to authority is not an American value.  Years ago, I remember crossing a street with no traffic in Berin, watching the Germans wait for the light to give them formal permission to cross, rather than decide for themselves when it was safe.  The Chinese do not wait for the signal, they just go.  Obedience to authority is a Confucian value though, and it can stifle  creativity.  American schools have been much less successful in training obedience than Asian schools, and this helps explain why innovative companies like Apple and Google are located in the US, not Asia or even Europe.  Confucian values teach students not to question their teachers and professors.  So when a Chinese student has a new idea, and it conflicts with what the prof is saying, I have a feeling that student is less likely than an American student to decide that they might be right and the prof might be wrong.

Because of Americans’ issues with authority, they often have difficulty the hierarchical rigid environment created by most schools.  So even though American schools are failing to teach math and science as well as HK schools, they’re also failing to teach blind obedience.  In the age of the Google search and the smartphone, being able to do calculations quickly and memorize information is not a particularly useful skill; it’s creativity that counts.  Since public school systems all over the world teach how not to be creative, American schools succeed by failing.

The winner, in a shocker, is the USA.  It’s all tied up after 4: USA 2, HK 2.

False Dichotomies

dichotomy is a splitting into exactly two non-overlapping parts.  Those two parts must be mutually exclusive (nothing can be in both) and exhaustive (nothing can be in neither).  A false dichotomy is a seeming dichotomy that fails one or both of those criteria.  Hong Kong is full of ’em.  Here’s a quick list.  It’s far from exhaustive.

East vs. West: HK is mostly a Chinese city, but it has considerable Western, Indian, Malyasian, and Filipino influences.  The culture is Chinese, but the economic and political systems are Western.  What’s interesting is how naturally they seem to go together.

New World vs. Old World: China and everything Chinese is about as Old World as you can get.  But HK is a very new city, much newer than NYC.  The architecture is New World, but the culture is very old.

Big vs. Small: people often talk about how HK is a very small big city.  This is particularly true if you’re an expat.  I randomly run into people I know in this city of 7 million much more often than I did in Boulder (population 100,000 or so).

Left vs. Right: except on the streets, where everyone faithfully keeps to the wrong side, HK lacks a left/right convention, and it’s really annoying.  Sometimes you’re expected to keep left, other times right.  The lack of an established convention in this area makes walking considerably more chaotic and difficult than it needs to be.

Freedom vs. Authority: The political system here has some superficial democratic elements, but at the end of the day the only real power players are Big Beijing and big corporations. Mussolini would approve.  On the other hand, freedoms of speech, assembly and religion are protected.  J.S. Mill would approve.

Wasteful vs. Efficient: The amount of trash this city produces is insane, and I think it’s higher per capita than even the extreme wastefulness of a US city.  And recycling bins are so rare that I often find myself throwing plastic bottles away.  But those bottles, along with much of the reusable garbage, gets recycled anyway.  If something has value, Chinese people are loathe to waste it.  There’s a huge array of small businesses and individual poor people who make sure that much less gets wasted here than in HK.  More on this later.

I am e

If you’re in the USA, type the title of this post into Google.  If you’re in HK, go to Google USA and do the same.  Wait for autofill to do the rest.  If you’re in China…well, if you’re in China, you may or may not be able to read this blog or use Google at all.  And that’s because if there’s anyone who’s extremely terrified of Chinese people, it’s Big Beijing.

I went to Shenzhen yesterday.  It was a day trip and I was working, so I didn’t get a chance to see much of the city.  Part of what I did see reminded me of my old home (the USA).  And part of what I saw made me really appreciate my new home (HK).

I’ve mentioned this before, but in Shenzhen I was constantly reminded of how cheap life is in China.  From the wreckless driving and biking to the stories of kidney theft, kidnapping and murder, Shenzhen is a dangerous place.  As far as the crime goes though, I think I’m pretty unlikely to be the victim of anything serious.  Chinese lives are cheap, but diplomatic trouble with the West is expensive.  In other words, killing a honky gets you in more trouble than killing a honkie.  And the people know this because the cops know this.  So yes, my passport and my skin keep me safe.  It’s not fair, but it’s reality.

In the USA, the same legal logic applied whenever I was the only white person in a “minority neighborhood” that white Americans would consider dangerous.

To all the white Americans who get freaked out when they’re suddenly in the minority: Just remember that they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.

The Pint and the Pub

In response to my last post, one of my facebook friends posted this to my wall:

“The pub brews revolution more than the tea house. Just a thought.” Dude, if this were true, the amerindians would’ve all joined AIM [American Indian Movement]! Grievance-sharing, sure, but grievance construction is quite another thing!! The Green Dragon Tavern where revolution was brewed in Boston still doesnt sport TVs, but that is the exception to USer bars these days. the causes and dis-causes of revolutionary activity, or even plain political involvment in general, far outstrip the pint-factor, true though it may be.

He also mentioned the use of alcohol as a tool of distraction and repression.  And I generally agree, so let me clarify myself.  Alcohol can be useful in getting people to open up and express sentiments they wouldn’t otherwise express.  But what’s more important are gathering places.  The pub is more potent than the pint.

Big Beijing knows this.  In Mainland China, gathering places, whether physical or virtual, are rare and monitored.  Pubs aren’t a major concern because Chinese people don’t drink much, and when they go to bars it’s usually more about status than sitting and talking.  In HK, foreigners sit in the bars and drink; Chinese people take pictures of each other outside the bars.  This is such a familiar scene in all the high-status nightlife areas of the city, that it makes my local pub very special to me.  It’s a rare place in HK where people gather to just have a few pints and discuss what interests them.

The Hong Kong Basic Law protects freedom of expression and assembly, and those protections are actually pretty robust, similar to the US.  What’s also similar to the US is the way the rulers use commercialism and other distractions (like beer and sports) to keep people from engaging in politics.   In both places, there is a small minority of citizens who actually use their freedoms of expression and assembly to try to gain a voice in the political process.  In both, citizens are still working to get a voice, not using that voice to effect change directly.

An example of this is the current “debate” over Hong Kong’s proposed construction of a high speed rail link with Beijing.  But what this debate is really about is democracy: the protesters want universal suffrage.  What universal suffrage means in Hong Kong (where all adult permanent residents can vote already) is the elimination of the functional constituencies which effectively give corporations and Big Beijing direct representation in the Legislative Council  (This council is appropriately called “LegCo” and the head of the executive branch is Chief Executive.  Hong Kong is basically a Chinese corporation, and the people are its consumers.) So while the government builds infrastructure that will probably benefit a majority of citizens, those citizens protest because they weren’t consulted.  In the US, the health care debate is stalled because of a corporate sponsored backlash masquerading as populism.  In the end, the people are manipulated into fighting against their own interests because they feel manipulated; the real issues are forgotten, and the protests prove paranoid.

Because Americans and HongKongers lack real power to influence policy, they rebel against “big government spending” even when that spending is arguably in their interests.  Fed up with a political system dominated by corporate interests and a government that doesn’t listen to their demands, Americans fight the government’s attempt to provide better health care and HongKongers  fight the government’s attempt to provide more efficient infrastructure.  When people are this manipulated by the media and this frustrated by their own inefficacy, no amount of conversation, no matter how honest, will do them much good.