Public Art

Lai Tak Tsuen Estate, Tin Hau.

Hong Kongers love to take photographs. That is a given and indisputable truth. And while many of these photos involve posing next to bizarre installations in shopping malls (the one near my work currently has a ‘Glamping’ installation where people can lounge across a fake campsite), there are many more interesting places in this city to snap.

5 of the 10 best Instagram spots in Hong Kong are actually public housing estates and, while I normally scoff at the cult of the Instagrammer (mainly because I lack both the patience and the finesse to be any good at photography) I spent last weekend having a gander at 3 of the most famous…

Public Housing in Hong Kong, as with any kind of living space in this city, needs to cram as many people into as small a space as possible. And while there are plenty of dull, depressing estates around the place, there are a few gems, such as Lai Tak Tsuen. Opened in 1976, it is – you’ll be fascinated to hear – Hong Kong’s only bicylindrical public housing. Now, I know next to nothing about architecture, but surely building square towers would be a lot simpler than building cylindrical ones, no? Luckily for us this particular architect persevered: the design won awards in the ’70s and allows for photos like this (looking up from the ground floor):

…and this (looking down from the 14th floor). I felt a little queazy I have to admit, whether from the height and low barrier, or the hypnotising spirals, I don’t know. We were heading towards the 24th floor, right at the top, before a security guard advised us to move along, probably bored that his weekend shift was yet again interrupted by amateur photographers.

Through the lattice work around the exterior walls you can glimpse the harbour, Kowloon and the ICC in the background.

Earlier that day we had been to Pink Shek Estate, built in 1970, where you can get photos with a similar effect, this time in a very stark, very Cubist kind of way. I was left a little disappointed that we missed being there in a downpour by ten minutes or so – imagine standing in the middle of that hole as rain pours in – but the tiled floor was sodden and the balconies running around the sides dripped as we took the photos.

Ping Shek Estate, Choi Hung.

And then there’s perhaps the most famous housing estate in Hong Kong, just next door to Ping Shek. One of the oldest estates in the city – dating from 1962 – and once the largest housing estate in the world, Choi Hung (or ‘Rainbow’) Estate lives up to its name with different coloured panels running along the outside of every floor. The palm trees lining the basketball court lend a bizarre, Californian-pastel vibe to what is a densely populated (it’s apparently home to 40000 people) in one of the more deprived areas of Hong Kong.

Which brings us on to the moral dilemma of this particular story: the ethics of well-heeled students and young professionals trawling around public housing estates, home – let’s be honest – to some very poor people, looking for the perfect Instagram shot. While they aren’t taking pictures of the residents shuffling in and out, for some kind of weird anthropological exhibition, and while the buildings are undeniably eye-catching and historical (Hong Kong standards dictate that any building over 30 years old is a historical monument), it didn’t sit right with me.

Residents were coming and going as we took our pictures and I half expected them to tell us where to go. But none did. And who knows – maybe the other people taking photos last weekend (and we weren’t alone in any of these spots) lived in similarly deprived but less photogenic tower blocks? It is a very Hong Kong thing, after all, turning overcrowding and deprivation into art, making the most of this tiny territory’s space and resources. But should it be used as means to boost your Instagram likes…?

If you like half-hearted and somewhat rushed photography, not exclusively involving public housing estates, follow me on Instagram at whatididinhongkong. I can assure you that I am 100% #nofilter.

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Cosmic Ordering

‘Designer handbags’ in a Sheung Wan shopfront…

One of the big problems I have when attempting to believe in ‘the afterlife’ is that ‘the afterlife’ can’t be proven. It’s a very abstract concept. If I could confirm what was in store for me after death –  could choose my own eternity even – then that would be great. But it’s all currently a huge leap of faith.

This, apparently, makes me agnostic, rather than a full blown atheist. But surely to God (so to speak) anyone who doesn’t believe in the afterlife – heaven and hell and whatever – is an agnostic. If Jesus does somehow make another comeback, with a set-list crammed full of classics like ‘Water into Wine’ and ‘Loaves and Fishes’, right in front of our very eyes as well as on Twitter and Facebook Live, then who the Hell (so to speak) would still say “Nope. Not buying it”?

Thus, as someone who can’t believe in something unprovable – AKA a rational human being – I can appreciate the very literal approach that Hong Kongers (at least those who follow local religious practices) take towards remembering, nay helping, the dead. They buy new clothes, new accessories, new shoes, toiletries, food and drink, cars, iPads, houses, boats, among many other things, to ensure their deceased’s comfort in the afterlife. They bring these gifts to the graves of their loved ones and burn them as an offering. They’re made of paper, you see, those handbags in the picture, and their ashes float up into the sky and somehow find the right recipient.

I like this approach. I like the idea that you can actively alter your afterlife, rather than trust that it will be a lovely place full of great people having a brilliant time. However, I’m not sure that I believe in this form of afterlife either. Not yet. Though I might start ordering some paper bottles of gin and paper Frasier box sets, ready for when I need some relief in the great unknown. I’ll think of it as a new kind of cosmic ordering – a very literal reimagining of the term. I’ll leave a list behind. It’ll be worth a try.

 

Chasing the Dragons

Dragon Boat Festival, Sai Kung, 30th May 2017.

Every May I paddle up and start training for the dragon boat festival, with our work team. This year, at the fifth time of asking, and after lots of sweat and sunburn, we placed a podium finish, got a trophy, medals and, most rewarding of all… a suckling pig (looking very fetching above in his red sack)! 

March 28th – In a Coffee Shop Window

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It was nearing the end of his week in Yunnan, and nearing the five-year point – the half-decade mark – since his arrival in the Far-East. The Far-East… Far? In terms of distance, yes. Depending, of course, where you measured from. He would measure from the white cliffs of Dover, from the spires of Durham Cathedral, from the peak of Ben Nevis. From what had been home. That was thousands of miles away, half a day of wriggling in an economy-class plot, hours of whatever in-flight entertainment best numbed the distance. If the distance from here to there was measured in episodes of ‘Modern Family’ then it was far indeed.

But here – eating a breakfast of French pastries and coffee, sitting at a thick, unvarnished ledge, Wi-Fi details on the wall and obscure ’70s disco on the sound system, the western world didn’t feel far away at all. He was, he would like it recorded here for posterity, drinking local Yunnan coffee and the coffee shop he was in was categorically not a Starbucks. And this helped him feel somewhat as if he were in a foreign country. He wasn’t one of those who bemoaned mass-commercialisation or globalisation or gentrification. He didn’t believe that the rest of the world should remain in some time-locked state of quaintness in order to boost his Instagram likes. And he hadn’t missed the fact that the sort of person who most vociferously lamented commercialisation and globalisation in foreign countries  – perhaps shaking their matted dreadlocks as they did so – were the very people who would rejoice when their local Waitrose started selling, at ten times the original price, the very same Laotian coffee that they’d discovered on their travels #living.

And even he would have to admit that in Hong Kong, his home in the Far East these five years, where the default response to any vacant plot was to build an H&M, commercialisation was rampant. But the best thing about China was that no matter how civilised and gentrified you might fear the place had become, there was always a dainty old woman hocking up a huge lump of phlegm onto ancient streets, or a tour group stopping to point and stare at the westerner in the coffee shop window, or an elderly man, dressed in the ill-fitting suit jacket so favoured by Chinese men of a certain age, performing his morning ablutions in the dubious looking stream running along the centre of the street to assuage you. Add to this the gently curving, picture-book rooftops in the foreground and the vast, snow sprinkled mountain tops clashing with the shockingly clear sky, as if the scene had been shot using cheap blue-screen, and he felt a great love for this bizarre yet stunning country. And add to this the man who had just strolled past wearing a Burberry bucket hat (presumably fake – was it racist to assume that all Burberry in China was fake?) similar to one that he had owned in younger, less self-aware days, and he felt ready to claim this to be the greatest country on the planet.

But as he sat and watched and drank his 2nd coffee – a cappuccino this time (that the Yunnan coffee had been worth a try was the best he could say about it) – one thing nagged at him. Five years. A child born five years ago would by now be an independent talker, walker, eater and pooer. A pet hamster bought five years ago for said child would have died and been replaced by another hamster which would now be on its last legs, if not already buried in the garden alongside its predecessor. A footballing prodigy who made his debut five years ago aged eighteen would be sitting on the bench at West Brom by now, having been written off as yet another vacuum of unfulfilled potential.

Yes, he thought, five years was a considerable chunk of time.

 

February 26th – obligatory post about politics

Graffiti in bar toilets, Soho, January 2017… Regina Ip is running as a candidate for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

The world we live in is a post-political one, apparently. People no longer consider manifestos when they place their crosses in the voting booth and they no longer afford their vote the deference and thought that it 

Society, you see, has spent the last twenty years feasting on a main-course of reality TV followed by a dessert of social-networking, that has left us all sore losers and opinionated loudmouths.

And, looking back at the three political events upon which I have invested the most attention in recent years, it’s hard to disagree with this. From the Scottish Independence referendum (“we don’t like the result – let’s have another vote”) to Brexit (‘cry-baby Remoaners’ and ‘ignorant Brexiteers’) to Trump (Mexicans! Muslims! ‘MURICA!) political discourse has slumped very low indeed.

But, casting our glance a little further east… Nowhere in the world, I would argue, has had a less politically productive time of it in the past decade than that old pearl of the orient, Hong Kong.

In May, the next Chief Executive will be elected. Four candidates will be voted upon by 1200 people (out of a population of 7.3 million). The winner, it is widely known and accepted, willingly or otherwise, will be a puppet of 

People here can be reduced into three broad groups. 1) Those who reject Beijing and all it stands for – who camped out on the streets for nights on end in 2014 and still harbour hopes of democracy, or even complete independence for Hong Kong. 2) Those who actively support Chinese influence and relish disrupting pro-democracy protests (often, it is said, because they are well paid to do so). And 3) Those who have no love for China – perhaps have never even been across the border – but are quite comfortably off and think the Umbrella Revolutionaries were a bunch of spotty little upstarts who should have known their place.
In short, then: there’s a bunch of people who completely reject the system and those working within it (with a nice line in STD-related insults), a bunch who unflinchingly support the system, and a bunch who know it’s corrupt but quite like their standard of living and wish people would just behave.

So, while we count down the years until the next Scottish Independence referendum, or to Britain’s eventual re-election to the EU or whatever has by then replaced it, or to the US electorate flip-flopping between Republicans and Democrats until the end of time… Spare a thought for Hong Kong, where political discourse and debate truly goes to die.

Many Congratulations and be Prosperous

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Tis the season to be jolly. The year of the rooster is upon us. Merry Cockmas!

I’ve always felt a little hard done by when it comes to the Chinese Zodiac. I was born in 1986, the Year of the Tiger – not a bad animal to have – but as a January baby my birthday fell a week before that year’s Lunar New Year, meaning I just squeaked into 1985: The Year of the Ox. The plodding, stubborn, load-bearing Ox. Add to that my ‘Western’ zodiac sign – Aquarius, the water carrier – and my assigned profile couldn’t be more menial or dull unless it wore dungarees and steel-capped boots.

In addition, every year is assigned one of five elements… Fire, Metal, Water, Earth and… Wood. I’m a Wood Ox. Some people are Fire Dragons, or Metal Tigers (a 3rd-rate glam act if ever there was one). Even a Water Rat sounds some whatt cool.

So then, what does this Year of the Rooster have in store for a Wood Ox? Well, quoting directly from http://www.yourchineseastrology.com – where the horoscopes are simple and the English a little odd…

The overview tells that this will be a year of “extreme fortune changes” – something either very good or very bad will occur. Oh no… More details follow:

Wealth Prospects – I will make money as long as I invest wisely. I will have “lots of investment opportunities as long as I am not greedy”.

Career Prospects – No problems here. Slow and steady. Is there ever a work-related problem for the “stable and tough” ox?

Romance Prospects – My horoscope claims that I must have already “married and settled down”, what with me being a near middle-aged Ox. Hmm. However, I should communicate a little more to avoid “worsening relationships.”

Health Prospects – This is the best bit. Due to “frequent social engagements” I will “gain weight due to surfeit and should pay attention to digestive health.”

So apparently the worst that will occur in 2017 is I’ll put on a bit of weight. So much for ‘extreme fortune changes’. It’s almost as if they wanted to hook me in with an unnerving tagline then wrote what they knew I wanted to hear… It’s almost as if horoscopes – Chinese or otherwise – might be a load of tosh.

Anyway, this is the only time of year in which I cast my eyes to the skies to see my future. If you are really serious about your Chinese horoscope – you can pay attention to daily, even hourly updates, that will signpost good days or times at which to marry, travel and even have a haircut.

I will, though, trust the next 12 months to fate, and wish everyone Many Congratulations and a Prosperous New Year, as they say around here.

Saan Nihn Fai Lohk!!

 

 

 

 

January 22nd – gambling my time away

A crisp, winter’s day in Cheung Sha Wan.

Earlier this month I had to go to the dentist – my teeth having made an unfortunate habit of falling out without warning – but was determined to find a new one. My previous dentist had been trying to push ultra-expensive, screwable, titanium teeth implants on me. The one before that had been disturbingly keen to perform an unscheduled and extremely hasty extraction.

I had a new clinic recommended to me up the road in Cheung Sha Wan, an area which I had never really explored before. So one Wednesday morning I had a wander around, took the picture above, and enjoyed the thought that you can live in a city for years and have whole, unexplored neighbourhoods almost on your doorstep. Best of all my new dentist was nice and young, happily filled the ruins of my tooth in, and made no mention of yanking any out.

But… Without wishing it to seem like I only turn to this space when urgently requiring an outlet from which to vent steam… I do have another Hong Kong-based gripe. As with the ‘incongruously loud music as an accompaniment to hiking’ theme of my last post, this latest bugbear isn’t something I’ve just noticed. More something that has niggled at me on a daily basis, like a child mimicking everything I say in a stupid voice, until last week I turned round and shouted: “Hey. No! Why?”

It’s this… When you go to an ATM in this city you are basically forced to gamble; to enter a game of roulette. To lump all your chips on one horse with no clue as to the form or the going.

In other, less silly words: you have to guess at and choose which ATM queue will see you served first. Every machine has its own queue and you must commit to one and only one the second you arrive. I’ve noticed that in places less manic than Hong Kong, no matter how many ATMs there may be, people form one queue and subscribe to a first come first served deal: the person first in line moves to the next free machine.

Here, however, you have to choose your queue and stick with it. And I think it’s a gambling thing. Hong Kong’s national sport is, after all, horse racing. It’s ingrained on people here. ATM-roulette brings a frisson of risk to people’s otherwise monotonously overworked days. And I could accept it on these terms, almost, if it weren’t for the fact that I never pick the right queue.