Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pasteboard masks

At midnight, the lights on the buildings switch off. This one's in mid switch

Hong Kong is present

I’ve been meaning to write something somewhat meaningful about this city, something to distill things down in a way that will clear my cellared head and show something for two month’s of work/party zombie life. The Art Walk through the galleries of SoHo the other night is as good a symbol as any for what might be wrong with our situation, and why it’s sometimes good. It’s an apt symbol partly because, in a way, the ArtWalk didn’t seem to be connected to much of the city at all.

The idea, au currant in a number of cities, is to plot on a map a group of galleries in a given area, reserve one night for those galleries to open their doors and put out some wine and cheese for caravans of people in suits who choose to see their art and be seen too. I’m not sure how it works elsewhere but in Hong Kong, anyone who wants to join in must pay for the privilege. The cost is US$50. Of course, you can sneak in, and while no one will toss you out per se, the well-appointed gallery assistants will inevitably ask awkwardly about your pass, and where did it fall off, and maybe you can go get another one, and yes, the wine is only for guests thank you, and no, no—thank you. And so on.

The high ticket price, I was told, was because this was a charity event—but I could see no mentions of the charities.

I had passes, courtesy of a friend who couldn’t go, but the whole premise of paying to play made me feel yucky. I didn’t want to be conspicuous as I crept around, stealing glances at art, stealing samosas, stealing down the street to the next unsuspecting den of red-wine antiquity or pomo iniquity, and besides, I figured it would be fun, funny, a little provocation on a night of preening and peering to wear a wig. It was a remnant from my suzie wong costume—the qipao/lipstick/wig getup that almost won me best costume at the corporate dinner the week before, had not I been robbed by a well-meaning but boringly-dressed hooligans from HR pretending to be the Partridge family. Please. I was also robbed of the “best karaoke” performance by some HR vixen. In a way, the wig on Art Night was my form of revenge on the system.

It didn’t really work in the bright lights of the galleries—or maybe, just maybe, it worked too well. People were taken aback by the discrepancy between the wig (black) and the eyebrows (brown); and yet, I’m not sure they could tell what they were seeing. They just knew something was out of wack. So they stared, standing right in front of me, standing across the room, etc. Sipping their red wine, they couldn’t quite figure it out. A sweater, wrinkled pants, no tie. A black mop. I had become a work of art, surrealist global sculpture, a non-corporate piece des resistance, inexplicable cocktail conversation starter. I’m embellishing a bit, but stay with me.

Just how unrecognizable was I? Let me tell you. As I only had myself as date—and what a beautiful date she was, those black curls, those rosy cheeks!—I knew I would bestow the extra ticket on a lucky feller or lady. It just so happened that as I was registering—only in Hong Kong would you have to register to do this art walk thing—a man in a suit and an upper-crust amused, British voice slid up beside me with his 400 dollars in hand. Quick, Alex (no, I didn’t adopt another name for the evening)—that ticket’s going to waste! Don’t let 400 dollars also go to waste! I said something, stretched out my hand and handed it over.

Only later—after I had run into him a third time at a gallery, as he was talking to an owner about actually buying something—did I realize that a) this was the last person who needed a free ticket and b) I had had dim sum with this man a few weeks earlier. In fact, he had given me and David and a random Dutch man a ride on his boat to get to the dim sum place. He is David’s “uncle,” and is one of the few people I’ve ever met who can claim that rarefied title “shipping magnate.”

When I tried to start a conversation, the second time, he made it clear, albeit politely, that he wanted little to do with me. Not only did the wig make me a stranger to him, it made me kind of freakish. Remember: brown eyebrows, black hair. Also, brown sideburns. OMG, can you imagine anything weirder or more freakish??!

Of course the woman who registered me had recognized me almost immediately. She’s married to the owner of the coolest gallery in town, Para/Site. So had my cousin’s friend, Cameron. Same with Elizabeth, a friend of a friend I had met over a month ago. As I stood talking to her, Alexis strolled up—he is merely a budding “shipping magnate” who had been at our party—and he recognized me too. They were all apparently a little weirded out, probably as much by the wig as by my eventual explanation: I wanted to try to be anonymous. Ha! Not in Hong Kong. Not in this neighborhood. I knew I had to leave.

Just not yet.

We ended up going to a gallery—right across the street from my apartment, incidentally— where the owner told me that he preferred if people disliked his art. That way, the art would stay more pure, higher. And presumably, with less people visiting the gallery, there would be more wine for him. (I should say that overall the stuff these galleries had to offer with notable exceptions -- largely contemporary painting -- wasn't so bad.)

Later, we went to some clubs. We crashed a party for some avant gallery at a rooftop club, and ate free steak. A slovenly, drunken American woman came up and said, “Gawd! I hope that’s a wig!!” I told her it wasn’t and buried my head in the mirror tabletop, but hadn’t had enough to drink yet to bring myself to cry.

We ended up at Dragon-I, that fussy melting-pot of models and bankers we visited in the early days of being mild. In a moment of indiscretion and abandon, the wig came off—I forget how—and before the night was over, it had adorned Sarah’s, Elizabeth’s, Alexis’s and a few other people’s heads. Need I say more?

It was a lot of fun—the Dj’s selection was surprisingly smart and fun, and the models didn’t get in the way too much. The pals were pretty awesome too.

But could this be Hong Kong? Hong Kong, special administrative region of China? Opium wars and colonialism? Was that a bathroom hallway or a casting call? Who were these people, and where had they put all the locals?

I guess they didn’t exactly feel invited to Dragon-I, which has a scrupulous door policy. Ditto with the Art Walk, with its high admission price, location in the white-bread, appropriately named SoHo neighborhood (there are a few reasons why it’s appropriate) and button-down, British and American Psycho pilgrims.

Thing about Hong Kong is—and I’m trying to imagine another city like this—is that it’s premised on a somewhat comfortable economic (and racial) separation. The colonial legacy is strong, no doubt about it, but the city’s half-century emphasis on capital, convenience, and consumption—which may be the most popular characteristics of first-world money making—has made this an especially easy place to seclude oneself from the less comfortable parts of the world. That is to say, foreignness, poverty, the means of production.

Nevermind the irony about communism and capitalism. How ironic or appropriate is it that the capitalist world’s favorite point of entry to Marxist China is a place that conceals the intricacies of the situation, that feels as far away from China as anywhere else? Groucho, if not Karl, would appreciate that.

In a sense too, in the context of globalization, Hong Kong might be as close to China as anywhere else. In the context of “global cities,” it might just be anywhere else too.

So easy to get the sense these days, in a hallway or a hotel or office or street or paved road covered in cabs and busses, that we could be anywhere. (Aside: can we be anyone?)

But Hong Kong is a special case of globalization. Because it is so focused on being a global city, it doesn’t offer much in the way of self-identity. Because Hong Kong, with its nondescript geography of bars and restaurants and gyms and all-English signs, can be such an easy place to fall into a foreigner bubble (whether you’re an elitist capitalist or sketchy tourist or something in between) it can be such a hard place to feel very much a part of the world at all. And this is an interesting side effect: because it is so desperate to seem familiar to world (western) eyes, Hong Kong can end up making a modest westerner like me feel more foreign than ever before.

It’s the same discomfort one might feel upon returning for the seventh time to Disneyworld—a sense that there is something behind the façade, there’s something that’s making all of this wonder possible, something that has to give somewhere so we can get, but that every force is conspiring to prevent you from uncovering it. The censorship of the future, liberal capitalist style. Every time you try to get behind the façade, it shifts, so you’re always on the outside. Try to stab through it and you hit a great wall.

(The eagerness to live inside the walls was symbolized, in absurd, exaggerated style, last month at the ground zero of first world fantasies. When Disneyland Hong Kong oversold tickets one day, hundreds of ticket-holding Chinese families who had saved up to come from the mainland were left locked outside. So they began pushing their children over the fence, like refugees from a harsh reality.)

The Ahabian madness that might set in temporarily in the upper regions of Hong Kong is quickly calmed by the gentle reminder that, sure this is part of China, but you’re living comfortably (SoHo etc.) and hey, why not come back and have a beer with the models?

The massive sense of façade—that you reside in some capitalist amusement park, or in a super mall—is only heightened by the fact that life here seems so oriented to buying things. People spend their weekends at shops, shops line every metro station, you can’t throw a dumpling without hitting a mall. Hong Kong exudes mall-ness by keeping every space well lit, to naturalistic daylight effect, and air conditioned. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re indoors or out, or even what time of day it is.

And where does all the cash that runs this shopping machine come from? That too is hidden, in a way that exemplifies, that defines, the Hong Kong spectacle: buildings that by night transform from cubicle hives into light shows. At 8 pm the amazing barrage of steel and glass and xenon fireworks goes down like a competition between video game robots, Bank of China and HSBC as Megalon and Optimus Prime. From their roofs search lights explode upwards, pointing upwards in a night-sky flood full of exuberance and power, revealing nothing. In a sense it’s Hong Kong’s version of urban disruption, a playful happening on a large scale, but underwritten by corporations.

For the reverse, “dialectic image” of this, see the crowds of young Filipino live-in maids who gather beneath these buildings every Sunday, huddling together over card games where there is no money to be gambled. Gentleman’s bets. And the hostess bars in Wan Chai.

Another good symbol is the surgical mask. Hong Kong deserves to be paranoid about disease given the beating it’s taken from SARS and avian flu. But the other reason these masks have become so fashionable—here as in big mainland cities like Beijing—is pollution (which many agree is the most devastating and most long-term side effect of China’s rapid growth). I’ll make a (gentleman’s) bet that the people who complain about all the particulate seeping into their lungs are some of the same ones who insist upon keeping the light shows going, and the air conditioning blowing all the time, and the relatively unregulated production and construction flowing. It’s not a coincidence that Hong Kong is both one of the most polluted and one of the most wasteful cities I’ve lived in. I just want to breathe but the surgical mask is cramping my style. My style of talking a lot. Gallery-hopping. Also it doesn’t go too well with the wig.


Jim said...

I miss you, visit when you get back, or I'll visit.

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