Tuesday, January 31, 2006

sufficiently new year

4703 is the new 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

kung hei fat choy

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 China, and it has billions of people.

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 Causeway Bay, wished Yumi “Kung Hei Fat Choy,” and grabbed a cab back home. It was a tame celebration, but an interesting one. And a relaxing one. There was no plan, no worry about what parties to attend or not, not much concern about who I was with or not. It felt like any other night, and except for the compelled walk into the gardens, which we wanted to check out anyway, we had no pre-drawn plans. We just went, or we stayed, and in the process probably forgot that time was moving at all, forgot even that it was New Year’s.

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 Hong Kong, and a kind of prelude to his newest long player, “2046.” It’s about what and how we remember and why, and like the best of movies, I couldn’t help falling into its faded depths, its rainy streets, pensive moments of blurry people in quiet rooms—and eventually through those depths into the filmic scenes of my own life. I zone out into my own memories watching Wong’s. “Time” is not mentioned, but its his arching theme: people are always mentioning things about “from this moment on” and asking what time it is, making promises about the future and thinking about the past (whether it be a lost love, a lost youth, unknown origins) while the clock’s tick is as omnipresent as the beating of rain on the streets. A clock seems to appear on the wall of every other scene. Across the characters, each torn by unrequited love, the scenes roll in slowly with the languorousness of old Hong Kong and, with the sound of a quicker-than-expected, sometimes tropical beat, they roll out again fast, with the clip of a city on the move. These shifts in the speed of the narrative are a reminder that time flies when your characters are having fun maybe. But they are also a sign that the movement of time is contingent on individual memory of it, on the memories of our love affairs really—those which bind or release us, keep us grounded or lets us fly (also think of how Wong’s memory of an old Hong Kong, if he even has one, leads us to a quiet, slow place on film, far from the one that exists now, one that truly resists remembering). So the movement of time is dependent on where we stand, not just in Einstein’s sense, but as films always remind us, in the sense that the progression of living is always being reordered in some, sometimes secret way by each of us, who are controlled by unnamed desires and needs and myths. How we move through time is no different from how we see our movement through time; and that in part is a function of our search for what we’ve lost, or a renunciation of what we’ve gained. That our protagonist asks his friend to tell the protagonists’ former lover to “Tell her that I’ve forgotten everything,” is not just a reflection of nonchalance: he is cool but not passionless, and though we expect him to have forgotten the moment he and his ex-lover met, he remembers immediately that minute he promised to never forget. Nor then is his renunciation merely an act of spite, a continuation of a cycle that winds into the frustrated love in “2046.” In a way it is a gesture of charity, a way of releasing her at last from the binds of a shared past, a memory they shared together, the one with which the film starts. It’s a reminder to her that as much as he wants to create memories, he won’t stop to actually remember them, to linger over past love, and neither should she.

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

Freezing Point

The only censoring that occurs at Time, and at most papers in the world, is for space and legal and ethical reasons. A small piece I was working on about the richest non-royal world leaders (Berlusconi, Bloomberg, Cheney, not to mention the recently deceased Arafat and Hariri) was a bit touchy because it made reference to Castro's wealth of $550 million, a figure calculated by Forbes based on his control of government industries, but then reportedly challeged with a lawsuit by the world's longest-serving dictator. Lawsuits are bad, and trying to determine how big Castro's humidor is definitely isn't worth one.

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.

leap second

In all of our concerns about being on time, let us not forget that there is a debate, not a very loud one, but an old and persistent one, over how to measure it. Those with their heads in the clouds would prefer to measure it as the world turns; earth-bound precisionists want to measure a second as the more dependable duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of an atom of the isotope cesium-133. To keep the two times in sync--the world is turning slower, and our days longer, by about 2 milliseconds per century--a leap second is added to atomic time every so often. One was just slipped in just before Jan 1, 2006. But like me you probably didn't notice the clock skip a beat because you were drinking.

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.


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

'consideration of unique elements'

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. Hong Kong’s a good place to witness this sibling of globalization, which, for lack of an official term, may be called "flattening" or "cloning." Or maybe just "faking" (which is the new "cloning").

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 Hong Kong cultural festival, which appropriately enough, was centered on Singaporean culture; that night we would see a bit of a "canonical" 70s Singaporean film that mixed kung fu, a powerful vixen and blaxploitation in a way that would cause Quentin Tarentino to babble giddily for hours. We sat down at the first available table at the behest of a small wrinkly sprightly man who spoke with a French accent.

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 China, their second homeland, and to never return, they had been asked to leave Belgium, their first homeland, and also to kindly never return.

It wasn’t completely clear why they had been kicked out of Belgium, but their quick exit from China probably had something to do with Christian’s photographs, which he displayed in a gallery nearby. Aside from pleasant pictures of rural and small city life, which is the life they lived around in China, there were many portraits of the startling conditions of that life, from terrible factories to government-destroyed homes. Christian told us of widespread censorship, of distorted views of the west, of complete deference among rural citizens to the tyranny of local officials. (David, who by the way is Chinese and left Taipei for the states at 3 years old, would emphasize later with certainty how well Christian understood China.)

Christian mentioned the arson of an internet cafĂ© 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 China, local laws and practices require consideration of unique elements.”

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 Middle East (I’m not being cynical here, just realistic.) But China may be as much a potential military threat as it is an economic friend, and we’re not about to go in and do anything rash, make democratic waves as our emissaries do, powerfully, on trips to southeast Asia or Eastern Europe, even if the country does kill an inordinate amount of prisoners or whitewashes stories of blatant incompetence or keeps letting its chemical plants leak into rivers or beat to death citizens who try to demonstrate when their homes are taken to make room for factories for the goods that are leading to an unprecedented boom in the cities and the stock market, to the detriment of the millions who live outside of them.

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 Europe. The state of Kentucky has just instituted a program for middle-schoolers.

In the office for Time, where I am an intern, only one reporter speaks some Mandarin. Austin sits across from me, and like the two other researchers, is very friendly and good humored, cool like the ice cream. David and I have joined their ranks near the bottom of the Time Inc. food chain, nodding whenever an editor flits by, who will inevitably be muttering about something either really significant or really trivial. Up on the 37th floor of a sleek office building in Quarry Bay, in the sanitized globalized node of Hong Kong, there aren’t many reminders of what’s happening on the mainland, beyond the mountains outside our windows across the bay. There aren’t really many reminders of what’s happening in general, except through the (uncensored) internet, (which is really slow on the old iMacs they have) and planning meetings. Those, and the articles they spawn, tend to be more about business and marketing trends, how far bird flu’s spread, is Kim Jong Il in China or not, and why Asians aren’t having sex. There are more sophisticated things to discuss than the old stuff about Chinese repression or malfeasance or daily life. And anyway, the magazine must appeal to a wide swath of readers who span from businessman to student, from Osaka to Mumbai. But creeping across the cork and fabric Great Wall next to our desks is the frequent ring and lick of Cantonese from the tongues of the magazine’s designers. While there only three Asians on the editorial side, the administrative side is 99% Chinese.

So China’s the white elephant in the air-conditioned, florescent, cubicled room, but where is it? Perhaps I’ll be able to spot it from Victoria Peak when I get back up there, or maybe one of these weekends (actually, we get Sunday and Monday off—Saturday is the magazine’s bed time) we’ll head to Shenzhen, the closest big city on the mainland, a constantly growing, modern place which in my imagination is like a bootleg version of Hong Kong. That’s exciting and funny, because Hong Kong itself feels like a bootleg of a bunch of other stuff, China included. For instance, sometimes its dizzyingly simultaneous distance and proximity to the mainland makes it feel like the Moscow of China.

And sometimes not. Sometimes it reminds you of everything, sometimes nothing at all. Altogether, Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan culture, not to mention its vertiginous architecture, gives the sensation of living inside a copy of a copy of a palimpsest, which is made up of all sorts of copies of things, shiny surfaces and bright lights extending high into a pink sky. There’s an expat “culture,” especially near where we live in the neighborhood called SoHo (that's not just a shameless rip off, it stands for South of Hollywood road). But expat culture often strikes me (like a drunken Australian after you touch his whiskey bottle) as suspect to begin with; and there’s Cantonese culture, which has spawned dozens of great Chinatowns around the world, the ones here being no exception. Then again, considering the mostly happy British integration (is expatriation a reverse colonization, or just another form of it?) and the tourists, what is authentic—original, historical—doesn’t seem much more real or less real than a pirated DVD—a Hollywood film in a box written in French with a title screen for some random Russian movie. That’s how I watched The War of the Worlds the other night—it was bad, but the quality of the picture was quite good, though it was missing part of the frame. High tech pastiche turned into something new, accidental work of art even, original for being unoriginal, and not boring.

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.

Small world after all

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 Lamma Island, a relatively large refuge about half an hour and a whole world away from hong kong’s whirling, worldly downtown. But while you can't see the city, for most of the hike across the island you're trailed by the gigantic power plant that supplies it with power. Still Lamma feels impressively far from all that. There is a small village in the middle of the island made up of wooden and corrugated aluminum shacks. Old ladies chop wood while men lounge in their plastic chairs. The sound of hip hop was emenating from a stereo, the last, perhaps neccessary reminder of our global mooring. There is a host of yummy seafood restaurants on the south harbor (facing toward the sea), and a set of ladies selling the tastiest hot fruit tarts.

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 China, which just opened up on nearby Lantau Island.)

Though it’s super populated, as befits China (again this is sort-of-China), Hong kong is also a small world. Three-quarters of its 6.8 mil people are squeezed into a slice of Hong Kong Island between the harbor and the mountains that is 17 square miles large, which is two-thirds the size of Manhattan, which, to give you a sense of our closeness, only has about 1.5 mil people living on it. The other night, after mentioning to my roommate a) alex turnbull (Harvard 05, working at deutsche bank, Australian power scion) and b) the feeling that we would run into someone verrry soon, we walked into Yumla, a cutting edge bar nearby, and speak of the devil, there he was! But apparently this sort of run-in no longer passes as enough of a coincidence to please the Fates’ spectacular reality-tvish tastes: and my jaw actually dropped, for standing next to Alex, accompanied by a clear drink and a button down shirt, was Michael Meager. He too just graduated from Harvard (like Alex I didn’t know him very well there) and from Buckley in New York, where we spent close to ten of our more formative years.

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 Hong Kong’s young creative people. Yet another poison ivy connection: some nights ago, back at that first bar, Timo and David and I met Timo’s friend Rosalyn (a Chinese Singaporean who he met on an exchange program in Hull, England) and her boyfriend David Kwong. David looked utterly familiar, but no more familiar than any of the other ex-American psychos who stalk these places buying drinks for the ladies and ready to grab cell phones to show pictures of their vacation house in South Africa. But he wasn’t that. It turns out that maybe I had a class with him, as he left Harvard the year after I arrived. We discovered that he went to Harvard because he grew up with Eran Mukamel, my best mate Ronen’s brother, in Rochester. And as it turns out, we’re both into magic. Not Magic cards, but magic card tricks.

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 Hong Kong magic. It says a few things besides “Harvard University, BA 2002” (magic is all about showmanship), including “Learn English Through Magic!” (Also, David, who is a former member of the famous Din and Tonics, is very talented at singing, which presumably he could use to deliver English lessons while doing card tricks.) I’m always impressed by recent graduates who find imaginative, magical ways to support their itinerancy local or far-away. For instance, David Mahfouda and Kevin Connor and others started their own moving company, the factually named The Very Polite Movers, which I urge you to consider using if you need to get your stuff around the New York metropolitan area, or perhaps if you need to move yourself around New York during a subway strike or fit of laziness, etc. Other ideas swirling, in no particular order: personal assisting aging legendary writers and actresses, running an aesthetic consulting firm, artist-caterer, a chain museum company, freelance writing, making money from online ads, band, theater company, short-order cook, tutor, general word-of-mouth self-marketing, carpentry. I’m eager to hear any similar gigs you have, deer, reader, anyone, or simply find out what tricks you're up to these days.

What I am doing with time

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 Asia, budget cuts and lay offs are in. Along with the bureau chiefs in Beijing, Moscow, London, etc. of the editors in the Hong Kong office had been let go (they’re aiming at the most expensive people first). During our first week, we encountered a lot of edginess, a bit of gallows humor. One of the editors, the ever-bemused Zohair, came through to offer a quote from Tolkien ("You come with tidings of grief and danger, as is your wont they say...") hours before international editor Michael Elliott arrived from London to hold a Q and A. We weren’t invited but word was that the answers were cryptic. But for now at least, contrary to some rumors, Time Asia will continue, and it will remain not be squished, 21st century style, into some watered-down Time International.

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 Beijing correspondent), and if those magazines are the company’s biggest money makers, as I think they are, why not extend them here? Let’s not answer that question, and instead take solace in the fact that Time’s a pretty good representative of the west over here, and it also does a pretty nice job of reporting on Asia. (Maybe someday North America will get its own version of Time Asia.)

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

lawrence durrell on time

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.

from "Clea"

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

about [time]

There is a new watch that just tells you what time it roughly is, which is a watch I should probably not have.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

one more time (asia), with feeling

I didn't imagine this was how I would see Siberia the second time. Somewhere in between a good Chinese movie called "Gimme Kudos" and my guidebook, in the pitch dark limbo of the international flight, I caught a glimpse of the live map on the little screen in front of me. In my manifold preparations for the trip, of course I had meditated on how an airplane gets from one east coast to the other one, from the Hong Kong of America to the Hong Kong of Guangdong province. For reasons of distance, I knew the plane would have to fly west, but would we pass over Los Angeles, or San Francisco's Chinatown? Toronto or Alaska? Well, five hours out of New Jersey and we were still going straight up, now passing over Goose Bay and Gander in Newfoundland, headed straight for the Arctic Circle.

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 Siberia, a permanently white, uninhabited landscape too intense for even the meanest Soviet exile. Having spent some months in southern Siberia, this felt like home but one I would never visit, one of those areas of the world I may never touch but couldn't help smiling about out of some familiarity. Fatigued from staring at all the rough blankness, the blanket of white, I returned to my seat, but later hopped over my sleeping Naomi to catch other glimpses: white-rooted forests, the distant Sayan mountains, the impossibly blue sky, and then, even more impossibly, the lake I had visited two months earlier, the great Baikal. I had dipped my hands in, I had sailed on it, I sat next to it, had studied it on maps, had seen a 3d model showing just how deep it is. (Sitting on the continental rift between Asia and Europe, it is the deepest, and oldest, lake.) But seeing it from above was a chance to see it in its true size. But this wasn't the capstone on my Baikal capstone, it still confounds. I asked another curious legstretcher who was staring out one of the window if he had seen the lake. He said he hadn't, but he had. It is so white now and so large (it is easily visible from space) that it looks less like a lake than some enormous swath of steppe land. The occasional slits in the ice give it away.

Ulan Ude wasn't so easy to spot. After flying directly over Irkutsk (the "Paris of Siberia") and passing over the lake, I tried to spot my previous eastern home, but all I could make out was some texture in the distance, some shadows. It may have just been some hills and not the apartment complex where I lived, the factories along the Uda river, the square with the largest Lenin head in the world. How happy and disconcerting it is to pass by an old home, or at least think you're passing by it.

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 Manhattan, with its dizzyingly high and narrow towers. See these glistening, neon topped, swirling and spiny monuments to international banking from one of the surrounding mountain peaks, as my new friend and roommate David wisely suggested we do that first night, and you might feel like I did: horrified and delighted, like the devil's played some trick that you must confront even as you keep trying to convince yourself it's not real.

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 China, this is not even really a city. It's one large open-air market for the 21st century. Almost anything can be found at any price, and no matter if it's a fancy, authentic LV handbag or a pirated copy of the last Wong Kar-Wai movie, none of it seems real. How bazaar.

Hong Kong's enough of a sensory overload to make you want to get a massage by a blind person. After having lunch with one of David's Yale friends yesterday, that's what we did. It was great. If you're interested, I had my neck, upper back, well, and arms done. And then we went looking, unsuccessfully, for a blanket for me, since it got really cold in my room the night before (we didn't find one, but we did manage to find two incredibly inspired Japanese shirts, each one with a long, droopy neck that doubles as a mask). Anyway, the weather is unseasonably cool, which isn't that bad because miraculously it's still at least 20 degrees warmer than New York City. Our apartment is quite central, bordering on the slightly upscale Soho neighborhood, and while we've got a very large television and a rich cache of back issues of Time Asia and assorted good books (we're renting from a reporter at the magazine), we have only one electric heater and one blanket. Last night that meant sharing a bed, Queequeg and Ishmael style.

And today we launched off on our new ship, aka Time Asia, a clean, well-lighted affair of mostly empty cubicles, perched high above Quarry Bay. Ahab (international editor Michael Elliot) returns tomorrow, perhaps with more pink slips. The wreck and the whale. I'll survive I think, and next time I'll tell thee more!

Missing you in the anti-Siberia,


You can see some visuals here:

You can write to me at

30 F Oxford House, Taikoo Place
Quarry Bay, Hong Kong

Tuesday, January 10, 2006