Sunday, April 23, 2006

My little airport

Ever imagined a future when we get transported by tube, or capsule, or teleport, from home to work to play and back again, a la the Jetsons? I certainly have. When I had to get up for school, I used to dream of one of those robots that dressed me and showered me and fed me breakfast. If that scenario were to come about, Hong Kong would probably be where it starts. One can already move around the Central district of Hong Kong island without touching the ground, without mingling with the bustling commerical traffic and taxis and tinted sedans, thanks to a system of elevated walkways and the world's longest escalator, not to mention the most efficient and punctual and quickest subway in the world. Maybe that future's already started.

There are few symbols of globalization as epic and flashy as Hong Kong, which takes an efficiently-run system of exchange as its goal and organizing ethos, from the culture of shopping to transportation, from the shipping industry to the business-friendly regulations that have for decades made Hong Kong the world's free market city. It's no wonder so many companies set up shop here, and so many foreigners come here. Or rather, pass through on contracts of six months, a year, two years. It's a city that's comfortable, but ultimately hard to get a grasp on for a non Cantonese-speaker, considering that so much of the foreigner population is just arriving too, or on its way out, or busy with 60-hour work weeks.

I think it's telling then that one of the first things you might hear about Hong Kong, as I did, was that its airport is the world's greatest. Smartly designed by Norman Foster, he of that iconic HSBC robot-like building in Hong Kong itself, it pushes the city's cosmopolitanism and ostentation up front while taking typical international airport efficiency to unseen extremes. There is a fast mini-subway system that connects one to a whole series of terminals and escalators that ascend through airy atriums, eventually to the famous Airport Express, the fast train that whisks almost every passer-through from the airport to downtown Hong Kong in twenty minutes. From there more escalators, elevators, and another futuristic subway, the MTR, a system so punctual that when a train is late, headlines are made. Inevitably, more escalators and shiny office buildings. It's all fast, super clean, and almost completely lacking in any sense of fun.

I say "all" because it's kind of hard to tell where the airport ends and the city begins.

In March I noticed a small piece in the newspaper about aerotropoli:

An "similar to the traditional metropolis of a central city and its commuter-heavy suburbs," but "consists of an airport city core and an outlying area of business stretching along transportation corridors."

I think this describes Hong Kong pretty well--and not just because Hong Kong is organized as an Asian "hub," a place to make connecting flights, as much as it is a city. The airport extends into the city and vice-versa. As in an airport, everything feels under control, the crowds are bustling and moving via escalators and horizontal people movers, individuals rush to their next destination, or terminal, or wait in waiting areas, checking their cell phones or watching CNN, until it's time to board. Everything is easy, the drinks are expensive, the brand names are many and mixed together so you have every option, and can't go anywhere without being reminded to buy. Everything (legal) you need is available, everything is clearly marked in English, every piece of information is available. The entire construction is meant to make things comfortable or at least convenient for the traveler (check), to be attractive (check check), to be safe and efficient.

The emphasis on efficiency and security gives way to guardedness and unobtrusivity, obscuring the mechanism by which all of this works (Karl Marx where you at??). So much in an airport is unknown, hidden from view, denied, behind nylon ropes or inconspicuous doors with "Prohibited" on them. Everyone is moving somewhere, or in the logic of the airport, being moved, in keeping with airline rules and security rules and departure times. Despite the cosmopolitan feel of an airport, despite the sophistication, the overriding mode within it is a kind of naivete.

Once, when he worked in an office building, my dad was sitting at his desk late at night, alone, when two men came in wearing repairmen overalls but saying nothing of their business. When he asked them what they wanted, they ignored him, continuing to browse the office. My dad has always said he was nervous, frightened even--until they pulled their guns and asked to see the safe. All of a sudden he knew exactly what was happening. The unknown is one of the scariest things, and at the risk of exaggerating, I find an airport city like Hong Kong scary. No, in one sense it's not scary at all as long as you do what you're supposed to: go about your business and ask few questions. Follow the many rules and move along. Forget about culture, forget politics, just commute, eat, work, drink, sleep.

It's that Disney effect, a sense that something is seriously out of place beneath, generated because of, not in spite of, a facade. It doesn't matter that the facade may cover nothing at all: if you are curious about your surroundings, but living in a landscape that denies knowledge of how things work, that betrays no seams, a certain discomfort is unavoidable.

There is something especially uneasy about sliding around the shiny, Utopian, too-clean surface of Hong Kong, with the knowlege that just beyond the New Territories lies that rough giant of a superpower.

There may be nothing out of place actually, nothing missing, because maybe Hong Kong has already established by silent force, by corporate consensus if not a community culture, the model for our new global cities. This isn't meant to be critical; it's merely an observation. Just as, globalization isn't up for discussion, though how it goes down is. (O but that it's merely an observation--does that say something about late feelings of complacence here?)

There's the line in that Borges story about the library of Babel: "Every hexagon of the library was the world's exact center, its circumference was unmeasurable."

I was thinking that as the world gets smaller, my distance from the edges also seems to grow larger, to the point where those distances now feel infinite. If so many places we go and know about come to look and feel similar--ie, the world getting smaller--the more exotic and far off the other places we haven't been should come to seem. The more similar and digestible and comfortable the places we live in become, the more the other places defy imagination. Hong Kong isn't only a convenient Asian hub or airport, but as part of a globalized chain of cities, packed with ersatz culture and brand names, it's practically an argument for getting on a plane and going somewhere else.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Thai me down, loose ends

I sent this email out after a night in the big 'kok. I went there with David for a week after the internship. We took a trip to the sedate northern backpacker city of Chiang Mai, where David's friend Keely is teaching. Sadly we left just before the start of Songkran, which is basically a nationwide water-throwing festival disguised as a chance to clean the Buddhas and show respect to elders. One of many reasons to return then!

Two days ago the prime minister of Thailand announced he would be resigning. That's not why I'm in Bangkok now, though Time--where I stopped working last week--demanded my cell phone number just in case. I haven't had the pleasure of doing any reporting for them during my vacation just yet, so I thought I'd do a little now, for you. Apologies in advance: I will not be discussing Thaksin's resignation--I'm saving all that juicy stuff for a later email of course!

One thing you notice pretty soon after rolling out of a taxi from the airport--the second taxi you got in because the first one tried to rip you off--are the white people on Khao San Road (an almost inevitable destination if you're wearing a backpack), and how many of them look as if they've just checked in to drug rehab, or just escaped. It wasn't until later, in the mirror of a bright, air conditioned bootleg CD store, did I realize that the pot had called the kettle crack. My face was glistening, covered in a thin layer of dusty sweat, and it also had a beard on it. For a second my hair even looked dreadlocked. I brushed it back with a hand at the base of which sat a lotus-seed prayer bracelet (acquired at a monastery in russia but nevermind). Did I mention that at the CD store that David and I stopped in--David, my roommate from Hong Kong, is traveling with me--the one album I picked up was a collection of Pete Tong remixes? I quickly realized what was happening, returned it, steered clear of the Jack Johnson and edged towards the door. Playing on the stereo at the loudest possible volume, and still reverberating through my hot head, was Eminem's "White America."

That's not Thailand but I don't know what is yet. Some clues: as we sluggishly made our way over to Wat Po, Bangkok's big famous temple, I was approached by a man smiling a big Thai smile and trying to find out where I was heading. A word of advice: generally, when men approach you in Asia (at least in Hong Kong, but probably everywhere in the world), smiling and on the verge of saying something, try to avoid eye contact because you are probably walking into an elaborate scam. After a little shrugging and some pseudo-lingual answers, I realized he meant well. He said he was a teacher, and he wanted to know where we were heading and explained that due to a national holiday, the temples we wanted to see, along with the Grand Palace, were closed (I partly verified this later to be true--today was a celebration for Rama I, Chakri Day). Luck (that was his name) gave other recommendations and even circled them on my map just before a tuk tuk driver pulled up. The tuk tuk, basically a motorcycle with a three-person bench on the back and a canopy on top, is an apt symbol for Bangkok: strange, cheap, breezy, dirty, noisy, go anywhere you want, and just fun. Another word here: the tuk tuk, I was told, is one of the most popular instruments of scam art in the capital. Needless to say, it wasn't long before David and I were being whisked around by tuk tuk to various landmarks--the golden buddha, the black buddha, the 90 buddhas (the reclining buddha was on vacation along with, presumably, the napping boddhisatva)--while the tuk tuk driver (Luk--not Luck) waited for us outside. He even waited for us while we had lunch at a restaurant near the 90 buddhas temple (that is not the real name). During a delicious repast (like every meal we've had, esp. the street meat, not to be missed!), we befriended another wandering soul named Hillary, a medic on an oil rig in British Columbia who had come to Thailand for a few weeks on her own. There we were, finding ourselves together. It turned out her tuk tuk driver was also waiting outside, and had plans to take her to a ping pong tournament later.

I'm actually not sure that that teacher, the one I mentioned earlier, was actually a teacher. But but but everyone has been so nice--even the people who wanted nothing from us, the men who stopped me virtually everywhere we went today: the medical technician, the vagabond outside the temple, the monk at Wat Suthat. And even if each of them was a scam artist, it was my pleasure. Plus everything's so cheap, getting scammed in Bangkok (like getting some shirts made, or getting a massage) is much better than elsewhere. Something karmic to it probably.

After I ended up buying some discount tailor-made "businessman" shirts--this was the completion of the scam, I realized, but I wasn't sure who was scamming who (see, our driver gets a free gasoline coupon for every foreigner he brings to one of a handful of tailors across the city, and we thought we'd do him a favor, but the anxious burmese store owner was on to our "just browsing" game, and I needed some shirts anyway)--we paid the driver his 2 bucks and David took off for Chiang Mai, up north, where I'll go tomorrow. Tonight solo wandering took me to chinatown, a crazy fresh fish market, dark alleys full of people gnawing on things or napping, a slew of sidewalk blankets covered in the most random assortment of amulets, magazines, broken electronics, cables and used and new clothes you can imagine. Old Thai-Chinese shops selling/making things that resisted my understanding. I in turn resisted the tuk tuk drivers that would occasionally stop, especially the one that offered to give me itinerary recommendations, before asking if I wanted a "massage," or if I wanted to see a "show," or maybe go to an "open bar," or take me back to Khao San Road. I thanked him graciously for his offers, even if they weren't made out of kindness, because he was probably a nice guy trying to make money in this pretty poor country, because everyone I've met has been likable, because this is really a great city, even if I just got here, I swear on my lonely planet (er, lets go). Anyway, I found another tuk tuk, ate some roti at the muslim shop down the road and wrote this rough rough guide to you.

love you long time.