Tuesday, January 31, 2006
I had my second foot massage in three days today, except this one was self-administered, at the Victoria Park foot massage garden. It is a brilliant, intricate path made of rocks stuck in the ground--one side (for beginners) with rocks arranged lying down on the surfaces, the other side of the path (for the pros) made with rocks sticking up on their edges. Whereas there was an Indian man nonchalantly strolling barefoot along the latter part of the path, I took the former side, with my socks on, and that suited me just fine.
Before that, I met David and Yumi and Hanna for a bit of sunbathing at the ifc mall, which is a shiny, sleek and sedate consumers' palace, perhaps the finest of Hong Kong's thousand malls. They decided to go prada-prancing (David had already purchased a tea pot at the ubiquitious lifestyle store Goods Of Desire, or GOD for short--a neat heuristic for Hong Kong's devout consumers). I extricated myself to Victoria Park, where I discovered many Fillipino housekeepers enjoying their days off (in one of the more sublime moments I watched a group of women dancing around a boom box) and found a place to read. Shopping and taking in green spaces. Aside from work, these are the two things people do in Hong Kong I'm told, and I haven't yet seen evidence to the contrary.
After the foot massage, I met David and his Hongkonger cousin John to watch the Spring Festival fireworks. It is only a myth that every Chinese person knows how to make fireworks, but it is not a myth that fireworks are a Chinese invention. These were good, but either they weren't that great or it is just getting harder to appreciate fireworks with age. I think every fireworks show will have to withstand comparison to the one I saw one January a long time ago in Aspen, Co. The fireworks were spectacular, and there was good music too (maybe it was playing in my head) but more spectacular was everything else that the fireworks lit up--that deep night sky and the epic, unfathomably-sized Aspen Mountain. For moments at a time its face was almost completely illuminated--unusually bare and thus even more majestic than normal: lit up by itself, without the skiers and the rest all over it, it took on the appearance of a sleeping monster, hiding in plain sight, as the guardian of the legion of princely, forbidding Rocky mountains. Like that monster in The Empire Strikes Back that doesn't just live in the tunnel, but is the tunnel. The mountain thankfully is nicer than that monster, and it doesn't have a mouth.
Fireworks over Hong Kong aren't as spectacular if only because the skyline always already looks like a fireworks show. Nightly, the billion-dollar bank buildings are lit up in some of the most inexplicable and sometimes delightful ways--from the HSBC's alternating colors rushing up and down its robotic facade, making it look like an 8-bit nemesis of Godzilla, to the pulsating edges of the Bank of China's right triangles, to the flashing lights of circular buildings that make up unreadable scrolling messages (most likely ticker symbols), to the the funny hanging light murals that show variations on Christmas scenes, even a month afterwards. Wait--it's always Christmas here.
After the show, we jumped on a bus to get to Kennedy Town (I think), where we met John's family for a Lunar New Year dinner. Okay, so dining is the third thing that people do in Hong Kong, and I don't just think its another form of shopping. David had not met most of these people before, and he had only previously met John and John's 80-year old mother when he was one year old, in Taipei. (Apparently, David was a quiet, quite agreeable baby.)
John's mother (David's cousin of sorts too) was a real sparkplug, and she knew enough English to talk to both of us about David's family and about how dirty is the mainland, especially her former home, Beijing. She said she loves Hong Kong, which seems so unlikely considering old peoples' tendency to favor some past over the present. But Hong Kong doesn't seem conducive to nostalgia. She's a real local.
One of her other sons was really interesting to talk to, a modest businessman of about 50 with three kids (all present) and lots of enthusiasm for European integration as the key solution to the world's "China problem." He even drew me a map to illustrate his idea, which I wish I had but suffice it to say it was a map of the world with America, Great Britain, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and China represented by globular shapes, connected by lines and arrows.
The dinner was as grandiose and interconnected, a real feast of everything from shark's fin soup to bok choi to sweet and sour pork to a diced up chicken to all sorts of other tasty, fleshy things whose ingredients I am unable to recount in Chinese or in English. (Whether the animal of honor was present at the table, I can't say.) Again, suffice it to say it was all yummy, and no rashes have yet to creep across my body, as happened to David the other night. For a good New Years meal and celebration it more than sufficed.
Monday, January 30, 2006
Days of being wild
The lovely song “It’s Only Time” by the Magnetic Fields is playing on the ipod stereo now, accidentally. It’s on shuffle. Then again not so accidental. I put it on there, along with 2900 songs, so the chances of that coming on at a time like this aren’t completely infinitesimal. We’ve got choices in the garden of forking paths. Last night, after we left work late (Saturday is when we send the magazine to the printer, in a frenzy), and after a group foot massage, David, Yumi and I ended up in a path headed toward the gardens of Victoria Park. We were in a police-controlled, inescapable crowd of hundreds—the last time I was in one was during the Republican convention in New York, though that one was a bit rowdier—who were being corralled because the number of people already at the gardens was already too much, presumably something like 10,000, though I’m not very good at estimates like that. Let’s just say that things were very crowded, and even more crowded than you might think because after all this is
Also, there was great cause for coming out when we did, as it was the Lunar New Year, the year 4703 actually (I know, I know, it crept up on me too!). Because it's the year of the dog (something I want to talk about later), everyone was wearing furry dog hats, or they were looking at mechanical dog clocks that waved their paws, or they were wielding inflatable dogs,. Also, they had inflatable hammers, inflatable batons, inflatable fish ball kabobs, inflatable police shields, inflatable bar stools (those last two being inexplicable in a context admittedly already quite inexplicable).
We pushed, or were pushed, our way through the crowds, passing by all assortment of stands selling household items and toys as useless as the inflatable stuff. When we got out, I grabbed a stick of fish balls (un-inflatable). We made our way back to
Last night David and I watched “Days of Being Wild,” which is Wong Kar-Wai’s 2nd film (made in 1990), an important souvenir of
But then again, not trying to remember (and he also tells his friend this is a problem of his, memory) means that you have no sense of time at all. Ie, you never move. As his friend narrates at the end, “A bird that’s always already dead.” Our days of being wild—what a charged phrase in terms of memory, some great time that we want to remember and yet can’t help but forget—these days are numbered, and in more ways than one. We have to try to remember and deal with all that that means, or we won’t have any days at all.
Basically, I think Wong’s idea is that love is a continual reckoning with and ultimate defeat at the hands of time. We always lose to time, but we also can’t not fight to regain what it's taken.
Our best weapon is memory.
[And then suddenly the music picks up again, and we're moving.]
"It's only time..."
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Also mentioned, after some tiring research by yours truly, was President Omar Bongo of Gabon, the second-longest serving head of state. This guy is your classic corrupt African quasi-dictator, having led his poor country since '67 while profiting from its oil riches. (He's no Mobutu, whose daughter my new friend Yumi knows from Paris--she's running an NGO now that works with Africa). What little news there is of him, at least in English, largely relates to a bribery scandal at a French oil giant and a Senate investigation of money laundering at Citibank in 1999. No way of knowing how much he has, but during the 90s about $130 million passed through his accounts. Though he was just sworn in for his 7th term following an election without challengers, his story and others (corruption, inequality, despotism) go under-reported in the western media.
Oh also: in 2004 Jack Abramoff asked him for $9 million exchange for a meeting with President Bush, and then they hung out a few months later. I'm just saying.
(Anyway, in the end, my piece got bumped for space reasons.)
In China, however, editing is more severe, its reasons a bit different. Whole papers, and even journalists themselves, are edited out of existence. The latest victims of Communist censors' wrath are editor Li Datong and his Bingdian (Freezing Point) paper, a popular four-page weekly supplement in the China Youth Daily. The paper has been shaking things up by reporting on official corruption and inequality and, notable of late, historical revisionism in Chinese schools. This week, the paper was closed.
But. Li didn't take this sitting down. He wrote a 19 page open letter to the editor-in-chief, detailing in it how the China Youth Daily sought to keep its reporters in line through a point system and, most powerfully, chastising his boss and the government for betraying their Marxist ideals.
It's an illuminating look at the way media is controlled in China, and pretty exciting proof that despite government control (and corporate kowtowing, as in the recent case of Google) people keep fighting for the truth.
The core of these regulations is that the standards for appraising the performance of the newspapers will not be on the basis of the media role according to Marxism. It is not based upon the basic principles of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not based upon the spirit of President Hu Jintao about how power, rights and sentiments should be tied to the people. It is not based upon whether the masses of readers will be satisfied. Instead, the appraisal standard will depend upon whether a small number of senior organizations or officials like it or not...
As I read these regulations, I could not believe my eyes. When a report or a page received the highest accolade from the readers, only 50 points is awarded. But if a certain official likes it, there is at least 80 extra points up to a maximum of 300 point! Even worse, in the section on 'subtracting points,' points will be deducted when officials criticize it. What does that mean?
This means that no matter how much effort was put into your report, no matter how difficult your investigation was, no matter how well written your report was, and even if your life had been threatened during the process (and enough reporters have been beaten up for trying to report the truth), and no matter how much the readers praised the report, as long as some official is unhappy and makes a few "critical" comments, then all your work is worth zero, you have added zero to the reputation of the newspaper and your readers' opinions is worth less than a fart -- in fact, you will be penalized as much as this month's wages!
There is no choice but to win the trust of the people, like Marx's "people's news": "It must live among the people, it must share the problems and pains with the people, it must love and hate with the people, it must fairly tell all the things that people hope for and suffer from." Marx emphasized: "The trust of the people is the condition for a newspaper to live. Without this condition, the newspaper will shrivel."
It is an undeniable fact that the atmosphere at our newspaper has been abnormal for quite some time. Increasingly, people feel that they can't talk. Everybody is worried and scared. All sorts of irresponsible rumors abound. Vulgarity and obedience abound. The meeting notes of the editorial committee always say "unanimously agree"; the public comment section only has adulations and self-aggrandizement. All the routine official "letters of gratitude" from various provincial departments after completing the required propaganda work are even published, as if we had never seen that kind of stuff before. So now those praises will continue to multiply with the newly announced appraisal regulations. Hey, there's money involved! What kind of guidance is that?
The whole letter is here, and its worth reading.
The South China Morning Post story is here.
Astronomers prefer to calibrate their telescopes, satellites, and other instruments against deep-space objects such as pulsars, which emit pulses of energy at regular intervals.http://www.theweekmagazine.com/article.aspx?id=1295
The International Telecommunication Union decided that astronomical time could not differ from Coordinated Universal Time—which is based on atomic time—by more than 0.9 second. Because the two systems are inherently out of step, it’s periodically necessary to add “leap second” to bring them into sync. Most people didn’t notice, but one of those seconds was added after midnight on Dec. 31, 2005, just before 2006 began. A leap second, says Jonathan Betts of the Royal Observatory, “asks the atomic clocks to hold their breath for one second, so that the Earth can catch up.” So far, the compromise has worked. But some American scientists have proposed scrapping leap seconds altogether.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
The other night my roommate and workmate David and I were wandering (this is our favorite activity) around Central, around a maze of bustling open-front bars that could pass for galleries, a Starbucks and Ben and Jerry’s that could pass for boutiques, boutiques that could pass for bars and so on.
Anyway, after pushing past a crowd of people and up some stairs at a hip place called the Fringe Club (next to the very fancy Foreign Correspondents Club, to which we do not belong), we found ourselves on the roof, standing smack in the middle of some temporary Hong Kong bohemia, whose temporariness was underscored by the endless backdrop of shiny skyscrapers in the distance. We grabbed some Heinekens and stood amongst the people in leather jackets and suits and wiry glasses as we poured over glossy programs trying to figure out what exactly we had happened upon. It turned out it was the opening night for a big
His wife soon arrived—an elegant, beautiful woman perhaps ten years younger than him—and they sat together peacefully in silence, taking in the scene around them as only old happy couples do (the younger couples, like the one we encountered in a dumpling place the other night, are inevitably more anxious and don’t take in the scene so much as search it for something). Annnnyway, a young Chinese artist happened to stop by, cards were exchanged—always funny how these conversations start—and before long, the four of us (the artist fluttered away) were chatting. Before recently being asked to leave
It wasn’t completely clear why they had been kicked out of
Christian mentioned the arson of an internet café last year, allegedly arranged by the government in order to justify the closing of cafes across the country, and the recent cooperation of Microsoft and Yahoo in shutting down blogs. I looked this up, and found this quote from a Microsoft spokesperson: “Most countries have laws and practices that require companies providing online services to make the Internet safe for local users. Occasionally, as in
Microsoft plays along and looks the other way as do many others because money talks, and it should be allowed to even if it drowns out people’s voices. I can’t forget that the safety of our oil supply has been a big cause of our moves in the
The question then is: are we about to learn more about what’s happening? Not if the Chinese government (and Microsoft) can help it. But they can’t. Eventually, those servers and all the rest are going to come crashing down. There are more photographs and articles and op-eds in the papers every day, and people around the world are, if not finding out what’s happening inside China, beginning to learn how to. Mandarin programs are popping up everywhere, even becoming mandatory at some places in
In the office for Time, where I am an intern, only one reporter speaks some Mandarin.
And sometimes not. Sometimes it reminds you of everything, sometimes nothing at all. Altogether,
Anyway, being an Asian neophyte and not having been to the mainland yet, I can’t say much about originality or authenticity here. But I’m looking forward to going somewhere that hasn’t caught the tourist fever (aka the Aviation Flu?), which seems to be spreading faster than ever.
Where is the new? New things, something to shift me in the slightest way, surprise, reorient everything. No confirmations that I’m right, but how wrong I am. Every place is the same in ways--that's been my suspicion--but I'm remembering that every place is also so different and complicated inside.
Yesterday, after he had accomplished his mission of buying a camera and an ipod (hong kong is a good place to do this--though contrary to rumors, these things are no cheaper here than in the U.S., even if they're often more futuristic looking --Ed.), Timo Koro and his friend Rosalyn and I took the ferry to
So Timo Koro is a Finn who I barely knew before he came to stay with us in our apartment, a 27-year old web designer I met last month for ten minutes at a hostel in Moscow, with whom I bonded over our varient cultural investments in Helsinki (see hel-looks.com to understand my own; Timo knows some of these people), a near-stranger to whom I gave my email and extended a provisional invitation to Hong Kong--a really down to earth, friendly, infinitely comfortable person who I just had a good feeling about. And I was right! Timo Koro is great!
When traveling, especially by yourself, you have an incredible, baffling capacity for trust and openness and adaptibility. It’s that—that’s part of what made me invite Timo, and perhaps because of his name, cognate of my employer—but I also just felt like I already knew him in a way. Among other things, we happen to share a fascination for advanced fashion: we spent one night on a pilgramage to Kowloon so he could find the sweater I had purchased the week before, a "Japanese" affair in Burberry plaid with a long neck that easily doubles as a face covering--convenient for stick-ups and protection from avian flu. You must see it, photos forthcoming.
Magical sweaters aside though, we just clicked. He played along when I made up fantastic stories when people ask us, “how do you two know each other, anyway?” which is always a fun parlor game, but it’s also just as fun to think that maybe this acquaintance sitting next to me at a Chinese restaurant isn't so coincidental after all, that this is merely a stop along a long invisible path of kinship that started elsewhere, in a past life, or maybe you actually did go to preschool or spent formative years in the mountains of Nicaragua together. And its exciting to realize that these games are just a sign of the inexplicability and ease of relationships. Coffee shops look like coffee shops look like galleries look like boutiques everywhere, everything may be becoming the same, but it's still comforting and amazing to realize, in other ways, how small the world is after all. (The ride by that name is strangely absent at Disneyland
Though it’s super populated, as befits
We had some moments of catching up as Alex, Michael and entourage led us to the nearby Dragon-I, a club at the top of an escalator with no clear distinction between inside (dancing part, loud music incl. DJ + drummer) and outside terrace (mingling part, loud shirts incl. models). Clearer was the distinction between inside of the velvet rope and outside, which is where david and I were left gawking after Michael and Alex and co. were whisked inside with a whisper in the gatekeeper’s ear. Though the outside is just as rowdy as the inside of the rope, the rowdiness on the inside is more Nietzschean, more colonial, more opulent, as if the gods were shooting lightning (business cards) around for fun, whereas the rowdiness on the outside is more desperate, more eager, more fatalistic, its source the death drive and the sheer anxiety of being rejected. That nervousness is always tangible in Hong Kong, where everyone is always judging and being judged and waiting for the right moment or not to drop the right name or the right stock or the right stock pick-up line, but getting past the rope is always the biggest hurdle, the biggest bestower of confidence after a bottle of $100 vodka--and the proof of some credibility.
That I snuck in—slinking past the enormous bird cage, slyly grabbing someone’s discarded drink—explains a lot then I guess. (David waited patiently for the door girl (“door bitch” is the preferred expression) to let him in. I think he also said he was a tennis pro or something). I was not quite prepared for the inside, not prepared to deal with the rowdiness of fancy drunk expats jumping around on tables in a big dark room, not prepared to be eyed and summarily rejected by everyone who passed by me. People weren’t rejecting me exactly, but it felt that way. But then David and I managed to score some drinks from a table of bankers, and and and. David seemed generally disinterested, and I wanted something more. I thought I would try to meet someone, because that’s what you do in clubs, so I leaned over and said hello to a woman who looked like she was bored. The response was ‘talk to the hand,’ except in sign language. Another swig from the black label. It was okay. Probably won’t go back there, but if I do, I’m not sneaking in, better to go through the front door. I'll be wearing my fly sweater and my alias will be Mr. Alex Turnbull.
We often run into people we "know" from past lives. David and I have been hanging out *a little bit* with Samantha Culp and her boyfriend Adrian Wong, she an English teacher and writer, he a sculptor, both Tyler Coburn-recommended art enthusiasts. Their friends from Yale and elsewhere promise late nights with
Once I thought I had a future in magic. Really, I got into it for a couple of years. But David, besides being an English tutor (making a killing I take it), is an expert, in the fine tradition of Davids (Copperfield, biblical, Blaine, Ricky “David” Jay). He showed us some pretty good tricks with cards, and asked me to take his other one, the business kind, an essential piece of
The Time internship (latest in an apparently infinite series) is nice because it does allow me to survive in Hong Kong (barely), and though it doesn’t feel particularly inventive or exciting so far—mostly we’re collecting quotes and numbers for the “Numbers” and “Verbatim” sections, and taking care of minor research—a journalism job lets you make of it what you will. I’m not sure what I will make of it yet, though I’ve got some ideas. So far here’s what I make of Time: Once I was an intern at Time Asia’s distant, more gossipy cousin Entertainment Weekly, an exciting if sometimes tedious and mindless job which gave me an idea for the corporate style of AOL TimeWarner, a sense of the grueling hierarchical structure and strict attention to popular taste and format concerns that are not nearly as common at newspapers where I’ve worked--not that those too didn't have their faults; everything does. Though Time Asia feels a far cry from all that, if because it’s so far away from World Headquarters in NYC, and because it’s dealing with a more mature, less pop-culture-oriented audience, the place has recently felt the tightening of its corporate ties. Ad-selling is out in Europe and
Michael and other editors, some of whom David and I have had lunch with, believe that there is more than enough interest in this part of the world in what Time has to say, both what it has to say as an Asian news gatherer with a western perspective, and as a deliverer of western news to Asia. I think that’s reasonable, and I think Time is pretty good at it. Even though it borrows many stories from the American magazine, I think it’s much better than that version in general, which often feels about as deep as a television newscast, heavy with “news you can use,” another way of saying “not news at all, but you’re certain to want to read this rather than something about the Iranian nuclear program!” I imagine it’s only a matter of time before the region gets People Asia, or Entertainment Weekly Asia. Tabloids are all over the place here, the Hollywood-style entertainment industry is growing (I’m proud to say that my cousin Jonathan is the Hollywood Reporter’s
But there’s always more to report, there’s always a million little Asias that aren’t being talked about and should be—things probably more worth our attention than lying memoirists and celebrity births—and even though I may not get to write those stories, I should probably stop writing this now and go look for them.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
For us, the living, the problem is of a wholly different order: how to harness time in the cultivation of a style of heart – something like that? I am only trying to express it. Not to force time, as the weak do, for that spells self injury and dismay, but to harness its rhythms and put them to its own use.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
I didn't know what to do. The man next to me, occupying the window seat, was sound asleep, and Naomi, my new friend from Bangledesh-by-way-of-Dallas, could have also been sleeping, though her eyes were trained on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Everyone else on the plane, tucked under their filly looking flannels and blindfolds, their necks awkwardly couched in those traveling pillows, seemed as blasé about this scenario, or simply, happily, unaware. I fell into a state of quiet panic, which can be an easy thing to do when you are sitting in a small space, between two people, at 31000 feet, with an outside temperature of -70 degrees, and headed straight for the top of the world. I started chewing on my blanket.
Of course, I realize that this "top" of the world business is a bit silly given the particular shape of the world, but all the same, that's where we were going. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse out the window of any hangers-on, obstinate towns, stars, any last signs of life before we slipped into that white blotch at the top of the screen. The only thing I could see was the slowly flashing warning light on the wing. It was a breathtaking reminder of solitude, as when you discover another person in an otherwise lonely room, only to have your heart broken a second later upon realizing it's just your reflection in the large living room mirror.
Some hours later, after all that darkness had left, I almost saw my reflection in the window. I had to peek out the porthole in the plane's door to get a look at this: the wild mountains and plateaus of northern
Ulan Ude wasn't so easy to spot. After flying directly over
18 hours after NJ Transit, the Hong Kong Airport Express ferried me to the city at speeds faster than I've ever known. The shipping containers of the port, the harbor, the cars and shiny buildings and billboards for Disneyland flash by and then you're in the center of town, which looks like Vegas just made a hotel deal with
Getting in there, in between the buildings, down the streets, across the elevated footpaths, is no help. The buildings, whether black glass or prickly concrete or covered in bamboo scaffolding shoot upwards as the narrow roads angle off in every direction, chock-a-block with warrens and alleys. Even the super fast automated subway inspires a sense of vertigo: it there is nothing separating one subway car from the next, so we have an impossibly long subway car, extending as far as the worn out eyes can see. Only adding to the confusion is the embarrassment of neon signs hovering above every street like so many tailors hawking their shops, the warm, breeze-less air that makes you wonder if you're really outside to begin with, and then the buses that pass you before you know they're coming. The familiarity at certain points (the cars, McBody Shop and Eleven, Starbucks and Gabana) only makes the rest of the city, physically and psychically, that much more inscrutable. You stand back and wonder, what are we looking at? At an intersection of three streets, each pitched at different degrees, and four tall buildings some of them with light patterns running up and down, you feel like you're walking through one large Escher painting. This is certainly not
And today we launched off on our new ship, aka Time Asia, a clean, well-lighted affair of mostly empty cubicles, perched high above
Missing you in the anti-Siberia,
You can see some visuals here:
You can write to me at