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.

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