The Line is Drawn

Wednesday night, 6:30pm, the phone rings: it’s Long Hair. “Can you play guitar for me at the rally tonight? I want to sing Bob Dylan’s song, “The Times they are a’Changing”.

My first reaction: Uh oh. Leung Kwok Hung loves music, loves Bob Dylan and loves to sing. But keeping him in rhythm and in tune is like trying to steer a sailboat through a typhoon.

“I have the lyrics already!” he urges. “Come down to Chater Garden, bring your guitar, okay?”

How can you say no to a Bob Dylan fan? I pack up my thrift-shop guitar and head down to Chater Garden, where 4,000 supporters are celebrating the kickoff of the “Five District Referendum” campaign. Earlier that day, Long Hair and the four other legislators from the LSD and Civic Party had handed their “I resign” letters to Legco secretary Pauline Ng. Now, to borrow a line from Dylan, “the line it is drawn…the curse it is cast. The order is rapidly changing.”

Okay, my confession: When I first heard Wong Yuk Man and Long Hair floating the idea of a mass resignation of pan-Democrats from the legislature early last year, I thought it was an absolutely terrible idea. My gut reaction was pragmatic, not political: How would they pay for it? Long Hair lives on a shoestring and funnels the bulk of his Legco salary into the pay packets of his political staff, mostly low-income grassroots supporters from his April 5th Action group. If he cut off his Legco salary, how would he support these people whose livelihoods depend on him? More important: without his experienced political workers in place, how would the LSD ever stand a chance against the DAB, with its bottomless gobs of establishment and Beijing money?

Gradually, though, I got won over to what at first seemed a Quixotic plan. Leung’s logic convinced me the pan-Democrats really had no other choice but to force a referendum by resigning. What other options did they have, in the face of the Hong Kong government’s political “reform” proposal, which simply juggles the status quo while keeping the functional constituenies in place? You can’t fight or amend the proposal in a Legco that’s stacked with establishment flunkies. The best you can do in there is veto the bill, which maintains the unacceptable status quo and opens you to public criticism for being a “Party of No”.

Marches used to be an effective negotiation tactic, but, 7 years later, they don’t pack as much punch in Hong Kong. Since the giant, 500,000-strong march of 2003 that pulled down Tung Chee Hwa, the police have instituted some clever tactics designed to make it impossible to get an accurate head count. First, they use gates and human barricades to block, squeeze and fragment the marchers into tight segments, making it uncomfortable to demonstrate (and also impossible to accurately count the marchers). They’ve also learned to play the numbers game, seriously undercounting demonstrators. For years, Hong Kong people have relied on “vote with your feet” democracy as their last resort. But the government has figured out how to stuff that ballot box.
So why not stage a protest in which an exact headcount is not only guaranteed, but actually certified by the government? 

The real beauty of the plan, though, only became clear in the last couple of weeks. First, there was the media roll-out of the resignations–which was pretty impressive, considering the, diverse cultures and presentation styles of the two groups involved, the lawyerly Civic Party and the banana provacateurs of the LSD. The odd bedfellows–the press, natch, has created a snappy and short Cantonese acronym for the alliance, the “Gung Se Leung Dong”–wisely chose legislator Audrey Eu as their spokeswoman. (I’m impressed that Wong Yuk Man put his ego on ice so that the charming fashionista barrister can take center stage.) Audrey, who always polls at the top in Hong Kong U’s public surveys of politicians, is at the peak of her game, switching effortlessly at press conferences from beautifully modulated Cantonese to pitch perfect–and often dryly witty and cutting– English.

Then there’s been the reaction from the dark side, which has been fun to watch. One by one, Beijing and establishment stalwarts in Hong Kong have been lining up on cue to condemn the pan-Dems, and predict the worst sort of doom and gloom for Hong Kong society if the referendum/election is allowed to go through. (The SCMP’s Lau Nai-Keung practically implied that the PLA might have to roll in the tanks!) Since it is impossible that such hyperbolic comments would be floated without a suggestion from someone “above”, you have to conclude that the referendum has made certain people very, very upset.

The mainstream, middle class press pundits are criticizing the “Gung Se Leung Dong”‘s Five District Resignation/Referendum plan from a different angle. The “conventional wisdom” argument is that the politics of the referendum is bad,  because politicians should never act without being absolutely sure what the outcome and results of their actions will be. Poobahs like the SCMP’s Steven Vines ominously predict that the upcoming by-elections will be a farce. (Vines, last I looked, is a member of the Civic Party. Why are they letting him stray so far from the reservation? Audrey, get out your big stick!)

But conventional wisdom only works in conventional situations. And Hong Kong is a through the-looking-glass kind of place. Here in Hong Kong, where you have an unaccountable government, a cartel of powerful tycoons, plus a Beijing “shadow government” all operating at the same time, how can you play by the political rules of a real democracy? How can you predict the result of any political action in a system that is designed and calibrated to prevent action and spontaneity?

In the last week I’ve watched the pan-Democratic politicians launch their boat into the uncertain harbour, with firmness and faith. I’ve watched the protestors of the post-80’s gen launch their theatrical protests of songs and sit-ins and street fairs. And it’s struck me that both groups are doing the same thing: refusing to honor the old boundaries. (In the case of the “Siege of Legco” protesters, quite literally! And I think it’s telling that the one thing that most upset the government and establishment press is that the protesters dared to push back some of the police barricades.)

Hong Kong isn’t a spontaneous action kind of place. The unpredictablity and creative expression that I take for granted will be part of my daily experience on the streets of my native New York–street fashion, performance, oddball characters, public art and grafitti–is conspicuously absent here. Here, the government “creates” art districts-cum-property developments, and public parks are festooned with billboards that tell you all the things you aren’t allowed to do while you “enjoy” yourself. Public space is scarce, and often hidden deep inside private property to keep people from accessing it.

But the weather’s changing in Hong Kong, and these days people are in the mood for stepping, even dancing on the grass (what little there is of it!) When I arrive at the rally in Chater Garden that night, the rock band on stage is deep into a heavy metal version of Pink Floyd’s “Just Another Brick in the Wall”. Out in the dark, thousands of people are singing along. This is a political rally, but it is also that rare Hong Kong thing: a free, outdoor public concert. An unexpected moment of community.

I jump up on stage, borrow a red electic guitar from the band, and hit the ringing, opening chords of Bob Dylan’s ode to change. “Times They are a’Changing” was written more than 40 years ago, and yet tonight, in Hong Kong, it seems to rise and catch a second wind.

Long Hair sings Bob Dylan’s words loudly, with conviction and passion–and completely out of tune. But that’s okay. Tonight is a night for breaking boundaries in Hong Kong. It’s part of the process,
and maybe, also, part of the point. As for where it leads–well, we’ll see. 

The Siege of Legco

At 6:00pm, a few minutes before the tycoons, establishment cronies and pro-Beijing hacks who stack the decks of Hong Kong’s legislature rubber-stamped the government’s 67 billion dollar super-fast rail link,a mighty shout rose up from the crowd. “Baau wai!” Surround the legislature building!

“This is it. Let’s go,” said Po-ying. We threaded our way to the front of the Legco building, joining the surging river of marchers, percussionists whacking big red Chinese drums, singers and white-and-green draped “fu hang“protesters–the young people who have been marching solemnly all over Hong Kong, taking 26 steps, then prostrating themselves on the ground.

Maaan maaan hang!” organizers shouted over the loudspeakers. “Yat bouh, yat bouh, goi bihn Heung Gong“Take it slow! Step by step, we will change Hong Kong! In the background I could hear the electronic chimes which signal that a vote is about to take place inside Legco. This would be the final vote, pushing the money through for the government’s bloated infrastructure project and sealing the fate of Choi Yuen Tseun, Vegetable Garden Village. Twilight was falling, the air turning chilly and damp with a sea fragrance from Victoria Harbour. The government of Hong Kong was about to “win” this protracted battle, yet this moment did not taste like a defeat for this plucky upstart movement of “Post-80s” generation kids and their often amazed 1950s Gen activist elders. Not at all.

It took us about 15 minutes to weave around the side of the building to the south entrance of the Legco member’s parking lot. Inside, chauffeurs were warming up assorted Benzes, Beemers and Toyota vans. The government officials and the 31 un-elected legislative “fat cats” from the financial, construction, banking and property sectors who voted to approve the budget were figuring to make a quick getaway from the scene of their crime. This evening, fat chance.

Policemen in striped, reflective yellow tactical vests stood guard at the parking lot entrance, standing behind a metal fence. “Baau wai!” the chant continued, and one after one the protesters linked arms in front of the police barrier, to close the entrance. A scuffle between one protester and the police erupted at my left side, and the police and the melee pushed me away. Which was a good thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t have spotted my friend Patrick at the edge of the march.

“The police are using pepper spray over on the other side of the building!”he shouted, then grabbed my hand and pulled me in that direction. “Come on, let’s go.”

Amazingly, the Hong Kong police–according to later reports, there were more than 1,000 on the scene already–hadn’t blocked the route around the back of the Legco building. Patrick and I got over to Chater Road in a minute or two. There I could smell the sharp odor of the repellant spray, classified as a dangerous weapon here in Hong Kong. The area was thick with cops, people,rubber-neckers, protesters, but there were no scuffles. Why were the police using pepper spray in an area with so many bystanders? A couple of young protesters in their 20s crouched on the ground over the victims, emptying plastic bottles of water into their eyes and over their faces.

Patrick’s a photographer whose professional instinct is to seek the high ground during such situations He spotted some NOW TV cameramen perched up on a hill overlooking the Legco parking lot, and we scrambled up to join them the scrubby steep wall.

And that’s how I came to have the best seat in the house during the Siege of Legco.

Once I got my footing up on the incline, I looked around and realized that I had a sweeping and unobstructed view, not only of the protesters, but of Legco’s back door member’s entrance, and of the exit entrance of the parking lot. In front of me, a group of about 150 protesters sat and even laid down on the pavement, blocking the path forward. To my right,a group of about 200 protesters was gathering in the middle of Chater Road.

Choh dai! Choh dai!” the chant went up, and the protesters started sitting down. Then something audacious and wonderful happened: a bunch of guys ran over and grabbed handfuls of the police’s own metal crowd control gates from the side of the road. Dragging them over, they tied them together with plastic, arranging them in thickets to barricade themselves in so police couldn’t drag them out of their position.

Suddenly it hit me that I was seeing something very very new in Hong Kong politics–and maybe in global protest politics, too. A lot has been written already about how this Post-80s, baat saap hauh generation is using the tools of social networking–facebook, Twitter, and SMS–to organize the movement. But that’s not such big news in this city. Hong Kong’s probably the tech geekiest city in the world. We have more than11 million mobile phone lines in a city of 7.6 million people. And the general geekiness isn’t confined to the youth.  Long Hair’s April 5th Action Group, for instance, uses SMS mass mail to send alerts about last minute demonstrations (as I was standing on the hill, I felt my phone vibrate–it was an “urgent mass alert” from Long Hair to get over to the Legco building right way).

So sure, this movement–like the Iranian protesters in Tehran–knows their tech and knows how to use it. But what’s even more interesting is how the culture of tech has changed the structure of protest. Social networking and SMS subverts the top-down model in favor of the organic, improvised, spread of information and action. The day when movements were headed by”leaders”, in the old-school sense may be over. This baat sap hauh group has organizers, and it even has one “poster girl” (Christina Chan, the HKU student-cum-fashion model, who got famous for flying a”Free Tibet” banner at the 2008 HK Olympic events). But there aren’t any stars or figureheads in this movement, like there were in the 1960sand 1970s. The impact of these protests doesn’t come from a charismatic leadership. The focus is on the action, not the personalities.

And what action. When I saw these guys rush to grab the equipment of the”enemy” and use it against them, I felt the same rush that I do when watching, say, Ronaldinho play for Brasil. This is team politics, and the cheeky, confident and plugged in demonstrators of the baat sap hau play–with apologies to la liga argentina– a “beautiful game”.

So while the police had more equipment and weapons, they had the wrong equipment, and the wrong organizational model for this battle. Just as the U.S. army in Vietnam couldn’t fight the poorly equipped, but more clever guerillas, so the top-down, order-driven Hong Kong police were at a disadvantage before this highly wired, organic army. They rapidly outmaneuvered their opponents. Within 30 minutes of the final vote, the baat sap hauh groups had strategically divided themselves into smaller mobile groups. Using SMS and twitter to stay in constant communication, they created human roadblocks in front of every exit from the Legco building.

What happened next, at the Siege of Legco, is now showing, over and over, on TV news clips, and I am sure the HK government hopes it fades from public memory fast.

Around 7:30, from my perch on the hill, I noticed amongst the luxury cars in the parking lot a police van full of people who were not police. The van idled impatiently behind the gate,where a phalanx of police stood at the ready to escort it out. Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty, as it became clear there was no way the van would be able to exit. The protesters had dug in on both sides, and there was no way to exit except to run over them.

At 8pm, the people inside the police van in the parking lot got out, and scurried inside the Legco building. It was then I spotted the unmistakable stringy comb-over of Timothy Fok, one of the un-elected Legco members.As I’d suspe
cted, the police van was an “escape” vehicle. And the escape plan had just been aborted.

Hours passed, but the baat sap hauh had prepared for a long haul. They sang the Internacionale. They clapped and chanted. People pulled out the essentials of any sit-in–guitars,tambourines, warm coats, even tents. The police, too, relaxed, and started distributing dinner boxes to the squads. Meanwhile, Patrick and I, along with hundreds of other people left the scene and ran up to Queen’s Road to buy bread and water for the demonstrators. This is Hong Kong. Even when we protest, everybody breaks to sihk faan!

As political analysts like to say, the optics of the situation were looking very, very bad. The government had just rammed its budget proposal through a stacked deck legislature in a building surrounded and guarded by police. And even though the demonstrators were peaceful,and demanding only to speak personally with the officials, the officials were too cowed to address them. Too scared, even, to walk out of the building.

How would the legislators and officials get out? Would the police use the pepper spray again to roust the protesters? Patrick chuckled. “I always heard rumours that there’s a secret tunnel under the Legco building. Maybe they’ll use that.”

He was joking, but in the end, that’s exactly what happened. There’s an MTR entrance right outside the Legco building. Early in the evening,the police had blocked it off, and pulled down the entrance gate to prevent more demonstrators from arriving by public transit. Now, as the siege of Legco went into its seventh hour, the police massed at the back door exit of the building, and at the MTR entrance, preparing for…something.

After long hours of waiting, they moved fast,forming a human barricade of more than 100 officers to cut a path through the crowd. Inside the protective circle, the legislators and government officials huddled, looking fearful and haggard. In the evening’s only display of “violence”, somebody managed to bonk legislator Philip Wong in the head with a near-empty soda can,(fulfilling the fantasies of many members of the Hong Kong public, I’m sure!) The protesters, caught off guard, tried to move to the MTR entrance to block, but it was all over in less than a minute. The officers swept the officials swiftly into the MTR, then dropped the gate behind them.

NOW TV has great shots of the “escape”, and I hope someone posts it on You Tube soon, tagged under:

(I love the incredulous voice of the guy, towards the end, who keeps saying Waaaa….Waaaa….as the police hustle Eva Chang and the legislators out of the train. Then he says something I can’t make out … yiu daap deih tit jauh la“– need to ride the MTR and leave!” –Cantonese speakers, help me out if you can hear what he’s saying!)

Anyway all you have to do is watch these videos to see why the Hong Kong government is the big loser of the Siege of Legco. It’s all about the optics–and the class issues. Thrilled as I am by what I witnessed outside the building, I haven’t written much about the mighty, and very well coordinated efforts inside, where the pan-Democrats worked together to pull off a three session, 25 hour long filibuster. Before they began their “long march” of procedural delay, surveys showed the public was largely supportive, or at least apathetic, about government’s fast rail proposal.

But hour by hour, question after question, public support for the “Go Tid“, has eroded. Everybody in Hong Kong now understands who’s going to make a killing from this deal, and who’s going to get screwed. (By Friday night, even my doorman,Mr. Poon, could recite the fact that the rail link was going to cost every Hong Kong citizen $10,000. He was angry, of course, because that is more money than Mr. Poon, like many Hong Kong people, earns in amonth).

A more PR savvy government might have called a moratorium to reconsider the project cost, or directly spoken to the protesters. But Chief Executive Donald Tsang stayed behind the walls of his mansion, and sent out his government flunky, transport secretary Eva Cheng, to handle the job instead.

Cheng answered some questions, but stonewalled most, and that undoubtedly accounts for some of the slip in public support. But it was her attitude that really sealed it. With her stiff expression, her thin lips curling in irritation, she personified the arrogance of the Hong Kong’s elite civil servant class. Even watching her on TV I could practically hear her sniffing in disdain. “Who do you think you are?! Just give us the money. We aren’t going to let a bunch of riffraff tell us what to do, and who cares if they were democratically elected..WE know what’s best for the people of Hong Kong!

But they don’t. And the Hong Kong people want some accountability. And accountability means only one thing: un-game the stacked political system, and give all Hong Kong people an equal vote.  As the dust settles, it’s looks like the pan-Democrats won’t have to struggle to make the argument for real political reform in Hong Kong when they resign in the five district referendum scheme later this month. The Siege of Legco–and the inspired, tactically savvy troops of the Post-80s baat sap hauh–have done the heavy lifting for them.

The 26 Steps: People Power Rises in Hong Kong

“It’s just like People’s Park, Berkeley, in 1967! I feel old.” My American friend Francis has a grin almost 26 kilometers wide, weaving through the ecstatic throng. Over there are Hong Kong twenty-somethings draped in green banners, drummers pounding away on huge red Chinese opera drums, and here are elderly villagers from Tsoi Yuen, Vegetable Garden Village,  selling homemade rice balls and sesame seed candies, and yu daan.

It’s political protest as Hong Kong culture festival. The Women Worker’s collective of Hong Kong is selling cool tote bags made from old plastic rice sacks, and a group of student artists have subversively slapped their protest posters over the luxury ads on a backlit bus shelter. A farmer’s group is even selling organic Hong Kong choi sam and cauliflower. Meanwhile, my head is playing a loop of the famous 1960’s anthem by Buffalo Springfield:  There’s something happening here…What it is ain’t exactly clear…

But this time the song’s wrong. It is very, very clear what’s going on with this new generation of demonstrations in Hong Kong. We’re witnessing the birth of an engaged Hong Kong civil society. And while this movement is determinedly local (the main group that started it all, years back, with the Star Ferry protests was called Bun Deih Wut Dung, Local Action), it’s also tapped into a the global political consciousness in a creative, and savvy way that suggests new tactics for organizing to fight all the world’s devils, not just the ones that speak in Chinese.

These students marched around and around the Legislative Council building for hours. It was the most moving part of this multi-dimensional demonstration. Slowly and deliberately, like monks in Vipassana meditation, they made their way forward to the beat of a loud drum. Every 26 steps they halted in unison, and fell prostrate to the ground in silence.

Why 26 steps? Because the 67 billion dollar railway link to China’s high-speed railway network that the Hong Kong government wants to, um, railroad through the legislature would extend exactly 26 kilometers.  That’s 2.57 billion taxpayer dollars per kilometer. At a time when the wealth gap between rich and poor in Hong Kong is one of the greatest in the world, the government wants to build a project that would cost the equivalent of taking 10,000 from the pockets of each Hong Kong citizen.

The government wants to start construction right away. It will be embarrassing if they don’t–they’re being pressured by Beijing. China’s new world’s-fastest-railway project is a huge vanity priority for the PRC. Even more pressure is coming from the tycoons who control Hong Kong’s construction cartel, who stand to make a mega-bundle from this bloated project.

There are cheaper, more cost-efficient ways to make the rail link to China. The government refuses to consider them. They know they have enough crony votes in Hong Kong’s stacked deck legislature to get approval for their funding request.

But they didn’t count on the persistance of the Vegetable Garden Villagers from Tsoi Yuen, whose home will be bulldozed if the plan goes through. And they didn’t figure that they’d have to push against the combined forces of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic legislators and the creative activist kids who’ve been building up momentum now through four years of collective action to save Hong Kong’s beloved neighborhoods, heritage, and cultural icons.

student protesters channeling Woody Guthrie. They also sang the Internationale in Chinese later than night.

young graphic artists borrow an all-too-familar American design to paint their portrait of the “Devil”–in this case, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Henry Tang. The character on his forehead means “sat”–die!

“Stop, hey what’s that sound?” It’s the roar rising from the voices of 10,000 people camped outside of the graceful, British colonial era Legislative Council building. All the speechifying and maneuvering going on inside the legislature is being broadcast up on giant TV screens outside.  Every time someone from the pro-government faction begins to speak, the crowd jeers. But when a pan-democrat steps up to ask more questions about the project–like, for instance, how they can expect us to vote on it when we just got the traffic impact statement yesterday?–everyone erupts in cheers. It’s a giant, communal, talk-back-to-your TV fest!

Like I mentioned, the government has the votes. But according to parliamentary rules, the legislators can raise questions. As many as they want. So the pan-democrats engage in a kind of Hong Kong filibuster, asking question after question as the night wears on.

Luckily, the chairman of the Finance Committee happens to be Emily Lau, a member of the Democratic party. As chairman, she’s required to conduct the meeting in a non-partisan fashion. But hey, speaking of fashion, get a look at what Emily’s wearing tonight! An electric, all-green ensemble. Green is the color of the HK Democratic party, and also of tonight’s protests.

The pan-dems at the meeting keep peppering the Hong Kong administrators with questions, and keep it up for nearly six hours. The protesters stay camped outside as the LEGCO building lights up like a candle.

Finally, at about 10:45, Emily Lau adjourns the meeting until next week Friday. There’s been no vote. Since the government cannot tap the project money without approval of the legislature, Tsoi Yuen village–and Hong Kong taxpayers–will have a one week reprieve. Stay tuned for the next chapter.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess. But what’s certain is that the protesters, students, villagers, marchers, drummers and rice ball sellers in this marvelous new Hong Kong band of merry citizens will be out again next Friday.

Here’s my wish for the New Year, in case you’re wondering. What I want is for these local Hong Kong seeds of activism to spread on the wind.

Something’s happening here. What it is is exactly clear. The protesters of the Vegetable Garden Village understand that this struggle is all struggles. That, in fighting for a village they also attack corporate-government collusion, the rapacious skimming of the people’s wealth, the destruction of the environment, and the worsening quality of public life.

And they know this: when democracy fails (or, in the case of Hong Kong, never gets a chance to root) you have to take matters into your own hands.

after every 26th roll of the drums, the protest marchers fall to their knees, careful not to drop a single grain of the rice they carry in their hands….

Cantonese Is Dead

I’ve just landed in Hong Kong only to discover that Cantonese is dead.  Sei jo la! It must be true. The New York Times says so. But wait. Their reporter also calls Cantonese a “dialect”. (And determines that Mandarin is a “language”). And he goes on to declare that Mandarin is the “lingua franca” of East Broadway, the Fujianese stronghold of New York’s Chinatown.

Hmm. I was down on East Broadway just last Sunday with Long Hair, during his whirlwind 36 hour visit to New York City (his first trip to America!). We were there because one of his Hong Kong- American supporters owns an herbal shop there, and he wanted to give Long Hair some bags of fresh Wisconsin ginseng to take back home to Wong Yuk Man as a present, a sau seun.

The shop owner, of course, spoke to us in straight-off-the-Cathay-Pacific-777 Hong Kong Cantonese. As did at least half the people we passed on the way to his shop. As for the rest of the bustling pedestrians, shopowners and restaurateurs on East Broadway, I can confidently report that they were NOT speaking what the New York Times reporter has determined to be the new Chinatown “lingua franca”, Mandarin.

They were, of course, speaking Fujianese.

The, ahem, language of Fujian province.

Anybody who has studied Chinese linguistics is familiar with the complex and fascinating language map of China, but for some reason Americans, even Times reporters, manage to not get it. And what’s really even more frustrating is that a lot of Chinese themselves (like the people interviewed in the NYT article) are happy to go along with the Westerners’ misguided notion that Mandarin Chinese is the original Chinese native language from which all other so-called lesser Chinese “dialects” spun off.

But as we readers of Learning Cantonese know, linguistically, China is almost as vast and varied as Europe or India. The language of the Beijing region and of Canton are as different as Italian and Portuguese. In Hunan they speak a language with different roots and structure from the people in Wanzhou. Wanzhou language is vastly dissimilar from the language spoken in Sichuan.

Written Chinese was developed, thousands of years ago, with a purpose: to be the first pan-Chinese lingua franca–a kind of Chinese esperanto. The characteristics of written Chinese that we westerners find so difficult and cumbersome–the vast number of characters to memorize, the lack of a phonetic alphabet–are a direct function of the original project. Written Chinese had to be ideographic, for if it had been phonetic and pronouciation-based, it would have been useful only to one Chinese language group.

Mandarin–or as it is called here in Hong Kong, putonghua, “common language”–was created (yes, created!) for the same reason as written Chinese. The Chinese nationalist movement knew that in order to unite the far flung regions of China, they needed to establish a national language. The old story goes that Sun Yat Sen (a Cantonese speaker) got together with the top Nationalist honchos to vote on what the national language would be. And, but for one vote, all the bureaucrats in Beijing would be speaking in Gwong dung wah today.

Instead, they decided to base the national language of China on the Chinese spoken in the region around Beijing.

Still, despite more than 50 years of official support, education, and with all the levers of the central Chinese government pushing the primacy of Gwok Yu (national language), Mandarin is the first language of a whopping 40% of all Chinese. (It’s spoken by just 70% of Chinese, which is still an astonishing figure, given the primacy of putonghua).

Anyway, the “Cantonese is Dead” meme gets my dander up for all kinds of reasons. For one, it perpetuates the falsehood that Mandarin is the original Chinese language from which all others are somehow lesser, dialect derivatives. As a student of Cantonese, I resent this perfunctory dismissal of a rich language that is both older and more complex than Mandarin.

But more than that, I get annoyed because the “Rise of Mandarin” meme also feeds the central Chinese government’s distorted propaganda about Chinese ethnicity and identity. In the eyes of Beijing, all Chinese are “Han people”–whatever “Han” is (to my ears, the term carries the creepiness of “White” or “Aryan”). In their universe,  all Chinese are “Han” who should be speaking “gwok yu” (national language). And, every right thinking “Han” person from Taipei to Bangkok, from Sheung Wan to Mott Street must fall in line and get with the Motherland program: bowing to the inevitabilty of a new Chinese empire, ruled from Beijing.

I’m not against mutual intelligibility. I think it is great that Mandarin exists so that Fujianese can speak and exchange ideas freely and easily with Sichauanese and Chiu Chow. But language is not just about communication, it is about politics. And if you accept the “Cantonese is Dead”, “Shanghainese is Dead” and “Fujienese is dead” dialect meme, then you are also buying into the idea that there is just one China, and only one kind of Chinese. And that this “Chinese-ness” is defined (and controlled) by the central government of the People’s Republic of China.

I like diversity. So do Chinese. Without the distinctive, vibrant, regional cultures of Sichuan, Canton, Fujian, Hunan, and the tribal regions of the West, China would be a far less interesting and compelling place. Chinese-ness has evolved in splendid ways thanks to the sophistication, history and complexity of Hong Kong and the overseas Chinese communities from New York to Bangkok to Singapore and Melbourne.

And Chinese people do understand this. That’s why, in cities from Guangzhou to Shanghai, to Shantou, the kids speak two (and often three) languages–the one they speak at home, and the one they learn in school. That’s why the babble of business on East Broadway is in Fujianese, and the babble of business in Penang’s Chinatown is a polyglot of Fujianese (Hokkien), Cantonese and Mandarin. (This polyglot nation notion is very alien to Americans, which is probably why the New York Times article works on the assumption that one, and only one Chinese language must dominate Chinatown).

I’m also creeped out by artificial nation building projects, with their whiffs of racial supremacy and manifest destiny, whether they originate in Washington DC or Beijing. There’s much more spiritual strength, in the long run, in a nation that encourages people to be their polyglot, quirky, diverse and fascinating selves, rather than tries to mold them into some idealized mono-lingual “New Man.”

Language is a dangerous thing. It springs from the people, not from the bureaucrats. You can try to regulate it, squash it, punish people for speaking it. Yet it persists, survives, subverts. We speak, and what we speak is who we are. That’s not going to die anytime soon.

Look Back in Anger

Yesterday afternoon
at the Legco question and answer session, as Hong Kong legislator Margaret Ng stood brimming with righteous fury before Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang , I swear I saw a halo of golden sparks shimmering around her tweedy, cropped salt-and-pepper bob.

“I have a simple question for the Chief Executive,” she spoke in her soft, no-nonsense voice. Barrister Ng is one of the few public figures in Hong Kong whose speech carries equal intelligence and gravity in both English–which she speaks eloquently, with an academic British accent–and Cantonese, which she pronounces precisely with the genteel, somewhat old-fashioned tones and inflections of Canton. My first teacher, Mr. Wen, would approve. 

“My question is this.” She paused. “On the 20th anniversary of the 1989 incident, many Hong Kong people are concerned about an issue of the most extreme importance…

“We would like to know, Mr. Chief Executive, do you, or do you not support the vindication of the June 4th (Tiananmen Square) incident?”

As I watched this drama play out(on live TV in the comfort of home, thanks to NOW Direct, Hong Kong’s own C-Span) I observed Tsang’s face freeze into that tight mask he adopts when he knows he must deal with something he’d really rather not.

Aiming his gaze out at the chamber, not at Margaret, he took a breath, and then words began pouring out.

“This is something that happened a long time ago. The national economy has grown and brought prosperity to Hong Kong….the Hong Kong people have made their own judgements.”

Margaret Ng stood again, her voice now rising in pitch, incredulity and fury. “Am I understanding the Chief Executive’s meaning? Do you mean to say that as long as the economy is prospering that we should not care about people who were killed? That we should bury our conscience for economic benefits?”

Tsang has the George W. Bush reflex. When cornered, he gets testy and starts swinging back like a street bully. “My view represents the opinion of Hong Kong people in general,” he huffed back at Margaret.

At this, a man up in the public spectators’ gallery jumped up and  started shouting Tsang down. Several security guards surrounded him, and bundled him out of the chamber. As they did, chaos broke loose down on the floor: the LSD’s Wong Yuk Man and Long Hair also began shouting. Labor legislator Lee Cheuk Yan stood up to denouce Tsang. Then, he, Margaret Ng and the rest of the 20 or so pan-democrats in the chamber turned their backs on the Chief Executive and walked out. Legco President Tsang Yok Sing had to adjourn the meeting. Later, the democrats gave a press conference and raised hastily printed banners with the slogan that swept across Hong Kong today: Tsang Yam Kuen, Bat Doih Biu Ngoh!

Donald Tsang, You don’t represent me!

Today’s Hong Kong papers are filled with unflattering headlines and stories about Donald Tsang’s sat yin 失言
–his “slip of the tongue”. (The literal meaning of the two characters 失言  combination is “lose speech”. The “sat” character is the same one you’ll find in other ill-fated Chinese expressions like failure (sat baaih), unemployed (sat yihp) and disappointed (sat mohng). )

Tsang came back out after his gaffe when the meeting resumed and apologized, kinda sort of, for his loss of words in the face of Margaret Ng’s firestorm of indignation. He said he was sorry to have raised such unpleasant emotions. His aides later ran around spinning the ridiculous excuse that Donald Tsang–the Hong Kong born and bred son of a cop– made an error because “he’s really more comfortable speaking in English than in Cantonese.” (Last year, when Tsang made an inconvenient remark in an English language interview, his spin-doctors proclaimed just the opposite).

Then, thirty minutes after the meeting, he faced the press and said that he shouldn’t have claimed to have been speaking on behalf of all Hong Kong when he suggested that people have “moved on” from the Tiananmen Square massacre.

After lunch today I saw my friend Eddie, who summed the Tsang debacle up in three words: “What an idiot.” June 4th is a couple of weeks away. Zhou Zi Yang’s posthumous memoir of the sordid behind-the-scenes story of the Tiananmen affair was published today. (if you speak Mandarin you can
listen to some of the tapes his followers smuggled out of China at the
New York Times website.)
It’s a perfect storm of bad timing. As of 6pm today, more than 2,700 members have joined the Facebook group “Donald Tsang Does Not Represent Me”.

Thanks to Tsang’s awkward handling of a pointed question he should have known was coming, it’s pretty much of a slam dunk now: there will certainly be record crowds of Hong Kongers at this year’s candlelight commemoration of the fallen Tiananmen students in Victoria Park on June 4th.

So I’m happy for Donald Tsang’s sat yin. Because the terrible, unspoken truth here is that he is right–many, many Hong Kongers would rather forget about the ugly murders of 1989, and the subsequent persecutions of the victims’ families, stick their heads in the sand and just go about their daily lives. It takes a soaring, courageous and eloquent figure like Margaret Ng to galvanize people into action, to remind them to act according to their better nature. To remind them that sometimes you must look back in anger in order to look forward with hope.

I only wish that Donald’s slippery tongue disease was as contagious as swine flu and could infect, and draw shame, on politicians across continents. Yesterday, just a few hours before Tsang’s blooper, the U.S. government–Barack Obama’s government–changed its mind and decided to block the release of photographs of the victims of American torture. And so, the Obama administration continues the Bush policy of hiding America’s own festering Tiananmen behind lies, elaborate justifications and cover ups.

Like Donald Tsang, Obama has lots of soothing words for his public. We shouldn’t dwell in the past. We need to look forward. Move on. Transform America. Rebuild the economy.

But as I’m sure Margaret Ng would say, if she were rising to the occasion in the House of Representatives in Washington DC instead of the Legco chamber in Statue Square, “What about the people who were injured and maimed? Are you saying we should just bury our consciences because it might disrupt national harmony? What about justice, our constitution, and the rule of law?

Sometimes this life I live bouncing back and forth between Hong Kong and America makes me dizzy with dislocation.  Traveling thousands of miles, between cultures and continents, the narratives of each place twist and wrap around each other, and the words of arrogance and power seem to converge into a single stream, a language that is, at once, English and Chinese.

In these dreams, Barrister Ng is standing like a beacon in Legco–or is it the U.S. Senate?–as she proclaims in her clear, steady tones: “It is our obligation to remember. Our duty to vindicate. We must therefore not hesitate to look back, and look back we shall. Now.”



Everybody I know is bun nguk. Moving. Anh thu to Happy Valley, driven away from Elgin Street by the creeping Lan Kwai Fong-ization of Central (despite the recession, the drunken expat bar scene has been spreading across my neighborhood like an extra-terrestrial mold, swallowing up the Persian carpet stores on Wyndham Street, the antique dealers on Hollywood Road. Now, Saturday nights are a parade of women encased in lycra minidresses and strapped into spike heels teetering woozily down Shelley Street’s 70 percent grade.)

In English, “moving” is a verb–the language emphasizes the action, implies the uncertainty of transition. But
in Cantonese, the stress falls squarely and practically on the noun of place: bun nguk means, literally, “change
Maybe this is why I feel so unsettled and anxiety ridden by moves, even when (or maybe especially when) I am not the one moving.

But my Hong Kong friends David and Ah Lan have no such emotional baggage. Next month they will say goodbye to their 6th floor Caine Road walkup in the tong lau  with its magical tin toi and decamp to a new flat in Kowloon Bay.

David got the keys on Friday, and Saturday morning we all went up to Gaau Lung Wan to inspect the premises.

Kowloon Bay is not a neighborhood you’d ever think to visit if you didn’t live there yourself (or know someone who did). Decades ago, in the time when the proud label “Made in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong” dangled from toys, plastic flowers and transistor radio sets, the area was an industrial center, home to small factories. But in the mid-60s, Hong Kong’s colonial government faced a housing crisis, with more than a half million squatters, refugees from Mao’s economic “reforms”, living in slum conditions. The bureaucrats embarked on a public housing program, kind of a low-rent version of Britain’s own council housing estates. The relatively unpopulated Kowloon Bay became the early staging ground for this grand social experiment, which continues to the present day.

We emerged from the MTR station at Kowloon Bay to a archeology of public housing estate architecture, old and new.

The building in the foreground, marked with the number “10” is part of Lower Ngau Tau Kok estate, and it is one of the reasons I was extra-eager to accompany David to check out his new digs (which are in a private housing estate about 10 minutes walk away). Built in 1967, “Lower Cow Head Corners” estate is a vintage example of early Hong Kong public housing architecture. It’s going under the wrecking ball in a month or so, and lately it’s been the subject of lots of newspaper and magazine articles and even an artists’ exhibit.

“Let’s cut through the estate,” David suggested. “Then you can see the old grassroots shops and food stalls.”

We entered the estate courtyard from the bright sunlight street, and headed down a narrow alleylike passageway covered with plastic tarps and the occasional corrugated iron roof. The place teemed with commerce–here there was a cha chaan teng, over there was a vendor selling cooked dishes over a steam table. A sign overhead marked the palace of “Ah Jing” the “Big King of Lo Seui Goose”.

The residential buildings were decrepit in inverse relationship to the shops’ liveliness. Most of the residents had already moved into nearby, newer tower blocks. It was not a bad move to be making, from what I could see.

entry to block 9F, Lower Ngau Tau Kok estate

I felt relieved for the people who were getting out of here. The estate had outlived its usefulness, and seemed ripe for one of those disastrous events–fire, contagion, monstrous family murders– that spread across the front page of Apple Daily illustrated by hand with helpful cartoon strip re-creations of the gory scene. Indeed, during the 2003 SARS epidemic, Lower Ngau Tau Kok was one of the hardest hit areas. (Central Hong Kong, on the other hand, was almost untouched).

And yet, I completely understood the nostalgia that Hong Kongers have been expressing for the Lower Cow Head Estate as its last moments tick away. If you believe, as I do, that the real grassroots spirit of Hong Kong is the spirit of the Chinese village modulated by the constraints of cramped urban living conditions, then Lower Cow is a brilliant, Jane Jacobs-ean creation. Here, down these narrow lanes filled with crazy quilt, makeshift businesses, is the living genius of Hong Kong people who can transform a cheerless, bureaucrat-designed public housing block into a thriving, teeming urban village. One where the poverty of private cubicle space is overwhelmed by the glorious cacophony of living in public.

“fix-it” shop, Lower Cow Head Estate

David and Ah Lan’s new flat is in an estate that’s ten minutes, and thirty years away from this scene. Built in the mid-1990s, the architecture is typical of the most recent wave of Hong Kong middle class housing: clusters of skyscraper tower blocks constructed upon wide concrete platforms that contain spaces for shops and markets.

The modern housing estates, unlike Lower Ngau Tau Kok, were designed with the control of public space in mind. After the early 1960s experiments in estate housing, the Hong Kong government decided that outdoor markets and shops were “un-hygienic”, and they set in place new policies to prevent the shopkeepers and food vendors (dai pai dongs) from setting up outside, makeshift stalls, and to force them to move into proper premises. Of course, when you force business into buildings, you create new income streams for property developers, too. 大家樂 —Everybody happy!

Except the on-a-shoestring, spontaneous small businesspeople like the ones who created the messy, marvelous urban village in Lower Ngau Tau Kok.

I’ve read the economic theory, so I know that choking off the ways that people from the grassroots can independently make a living is one of the strategies of late-stage capitalism. The big boys want Mr. Wong slaving away for them. They don’t want Ah Wong out there selling his cuttlefish sticks from a cart in the lane when they can make big rent money by having a branch of the Daai Ga Lok chain in the estate’s lower retail area.


As we walk through the ordered, undistinguished shops underneath David’s new building, I suddenly understand the source of my anxiety. All around me, Hong Kong is bun nguk, changing houses. Trading up from damp, grimy tong lau walkups and ancient housing estates one step up from the squatters hut to better, cleaner, healthier flats in the property developer’s towers.

But what kind of lives are we moving towards? The nicer private spaces bear a steep price tag that’s greater than any mortgage can cover. We–and I say this about Hong Kongers, as well as New Yorkers–have been forced into a Faustian bargain, paying for better private spaces with the richness of our public lives, and our control over them.

The longer I stay in Hong Kong the more I grasp at beloved moments. I try to freeze all my friends, and our memorable dinners enjoyed on tin tois, holding onto them like a parent does a child, filled with fear these things will vanish if I loosen my grip or glance away. Before the handover, I am told, the city’s sensi
bility was ruled by anxiety and uncertainty about the future. But now Hong Kong seems to be about fear of loss. All these precious intangible things–the texture of daily life, neighborly connections, the patch of view from your window, the vendor who sells you cuttlefish on sticks–are being stripped away, erased from existence, by the relentless machinery of Hong Kong’s government, in cahoots with crony capitalists.

This fear manifests as nostalgia for the passing of the old Lower Cow estate. But lately it also has surged in the anger over the redevelopment of Wedding Card Street, and the destruction of the Star Ferry. It is, I believe, the most potent and untapped political force in Hong Kong. If I were doing branding for the pan-democrats, I’d be making spots filled with dai pai dongs and cuttlefish vendors cross cut with leering execs from Sun Hung Kai and with ex-Housing Authority turned New World Development honcho Leung Chi Man. I would use propaganda to make the point that democracy is all that stands between a rich, satisfying community life, and the people who want to re-design public lives to suit their profit margins.

But I don’t see the pan-Democrats doing that. Half of them because they belong, or aspire to, the profiteering class, and the other half because they are so focussed on street-fighting that they’ve forgotten the essence of what they’re fighting for:

The street, unmediated, lovely, independent and messy, bursting with the smell and sound and life of Hong Kong people.

Let’s Resist the Virulent Flu Together

Friday night I was sitting at Ngau Gei eating steamed fish head with Ching Wah, Po Ying, and her daughter Fook Lik, when a mass SMS message came through on Fook Lik’s cell phone: “First case of Swine Flu found in Hong Kong!”

Immediately, the news channels jumped into breathless action, showing endless grainy black and white security camera loops of one poor Mexican flu sufferer passing through HK immigration. The Hong Kong authorities, who clearly had been marshalling all their forces for this moment, commandeered, closed and quarantined the Metropark in Wanchai, the budget hotel where the Mexican man had been staying, forcing 250 staff and tourists to remain inside. The word was that they would not be allowed out for 7 days. (There’s a Hong Kong law on the books, passed after SARS, that punishes quarantine violators with a fine of $5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment.)

The following evening, I was waiting for the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui, watching an overhead TV screen silently run and re-run shots of health personnel swathed in white protective suits swarming around the entrance to the quarantined Metropark hotel lobby. Seven or eight people waiting for the ferry wore green surgical masks over their faces. Taped up to a nearby post, I spotted this passionately hand lettered sign:

I decided then, to take the ferry back to Wan Chai instead of to Central, so I could rubberneck the scene at the Metropark.

Metropark Wanchai, Saturday May 2, 9:30 pm

It was a typical Hong Kong Police Department lockdown scene. (It made me nostalgic for the 2005 WTO demonstrations, which took place in these same Wanchai streets). The sidewalks were cordoned off on all sides, so pedestrians couldn’t get close. The press, as you can see, were crammed in a pen on the left, and the lobby windows had been screened with white paper so they couldn’t photograph inside. Police vans blocked the side street, and a big police command trailer had been set up across the street near where I stood, on the corner of Hennessey.

Cops hovered around. They were all wearing hau jau, surgical masks, a word I learned as a Cantonese student in Hong Kong in 2003.

Some cops had pulled off  the hau jau so they could eat their faan hap, their rice boxes. The press, also, were eating rice boxes. In Hong Kong, we take our flu epidemics seriously, but god forbid they should interfere with dinner.

It looked like everyone was hunkered down for a long stakeout.

After a few minutes of nothing doing, I got bored and decided to head over to the nearby Wing Wah noodle shop, home of some of Hong Kong’s best wonton soup. I shuddered to think of the misery being endured by the most unfortunate tourists and workers inside, who imagined they were coming to Hong Kong to sightsee, eat wonton mihn, work or do business, and now found themselves imprisoned in a cheap hotel crawling with doctors and Hong Kong civil service bureaucrats.

Before the authorities put up white paper in the lobby windows, intrepid HK reporters had taped up messages with their cellphone numbers, begging “inmates” to call. Stories filtered out, telling of bureaucratic confusion and bad communication. The guests were told to stay in their rooms and avoid contact with other guests. Yet they were all herded into the lobby together for meetings and examinations.

They Gave Us Spam Sandwiches For Breakfast! read the subhead in the next day’s South China Morning Post.

What, no faan hap?

The rationalist in me knows the Hong Kong government is acting totally over the top. New York has more than fifty confirmed cases of H1N1, including one death, and nobody’s imprisoning tourists in their Best Western cubicle rooms. But if you ask my inner fraidy cat which city she’d rather spend an epidemic in, New York or Hong Kong, I’d vote for the paranoid, over-kill, bureaucratic and quarantine mad Asia World City every time.

I only wish they were as fanatically concerned for my health in the long term. Thanks to the vigilance of the Hong Kong government, it is highly unlikely I’ll get swine flu, or bird flu, or any kind of flu, and die. But if the government continues its policy of building massive highway projects, and allowing tycoon developers to build walls of skyscrapers that block air circulation, I may choke to death in five years from Hong Kong’s toxic air. The number of potential flu victims is a fraction of the actual tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who suffer from environmentally caused (and exacerbated) illnesses.

If Hong Kong’s hyper-drive flu season sounds to you like a bad case of politics trumping medicine, you’re not alone. I find it unsettling that feverish emotion, not cool science, is the driving force behind the Hong Kong government’s actions. My acquaintance Dr. Lo Wing Lok, one of Hong Kong’s most respected epidemiologists said on RTHK yesterday that the quarantine of the Metropark was entirely unnecessary, from a medical and scientific point of view.

Of course he’s right. And of course that’s beside the point. What’s really underneath all these hau jaus and quarantine edicts isn’t science, but fear and guilt. The mismanagement of the SARS fiasco, and the horrible way that people, mostly frontline medical workers and poor folks in dilapidated public housing estates got sick, is still a raw memory here. No government official wants to get it wrong again this time. Better to lock up tourists and trot out the contamination suits than follow sensible science. (And–thinking long range–sensible urban planning for one of the world’s most crowded cities).

So the more nervous of us don hau jaus, while others (like the South China Morning Post’s editorial board) praise the HK government for their terrific preparation and precautionary wisdom. Meanwhile, British tourists suffer Spam breakfasts locked in cheap Wanchai hotels while the poor hapless Hong Kong taxi driver who had the bad luck to ferry the feverish Mexican from his hotel to the hospital is hunted down by the Criminal Investigative Division of the HKPD.

And I walk–maskless and free–from Wanchai back to my neighborhood in Central Hong Kong, through narrow lanes where the bubonic plague once raged, and where now financial execs buy overpriced apartments and vomit lager on the Saturday night streets.

Wash your hands. Get a good night’s sleep. Together, we will resist the virulent flu.


The Jong Sau

Jong Sau! The rumors of our building’s impending renovation were put to rest last Christmas when Mrs. Wong, the doorlady, posted a copy of all six A4 pages of the coop association’s meeting minutes, in English and Chinese, underneath the red tinsel by the elevator:


Since then, we lowly tenants of Prosperous View Court have been waiting, nervously. A Hong Kong building renovation– is a form of slow torture so inhuman and despicable that it has been banned by the Geneva Convention. My buddy Josh spent 8 months living under renovation conditions, in a building that was scaffolded from top to bottom in bamboo, then wrapped up like a Christo art project in dark green plastic mesh that covered all his windows, turning his flat into an eerie den with a Kryptonite glow.

Everywhere in Hong Kong you see buildings matchsticked with bamboo and wrapped in netting. Modern construction here is a slap bang, profit-squeezing affair, and most new buildings start looking shabby in a few years. Things are built with the idea that they will be torn down in 10 years, 15 at the outside. Rice farms in the New Territories are buried under ever-growing heaps of construction debris. Hey, it’s the Hong Kong way!

At least it has been until recently. A handful of grass roots green activists and Jane Jacobs-ite urban planners are fighting the system, and gaining a foothold here and there. Hong Kong has lots of gorgeous and solid old low-rise and art deco buildings, and unused factories that are ripe for conversion. Renovation, not demolition, is the rallying cry of these new Hong Kong urban activists.

I support this movement. We should repair, not raze. So how can I complain when it moves from theory to reality, from the buildings across the street to the one I live in?

“Of course they will have to da paang,” laughed Mr. Poon, the night doorman. ” The whole thing take, maybe, six months–rainy season is coming.” Da paang? I called Leung up to ask for a translation. Did it mean what I thought?

“Da paang means putting the bamboo,” said Leung, confirming my worst fears.

I shuddered. I am home during the days most days, working. How could I do anything bathed in Kryptonite green for 12 hours?

I considered moving. I considered a long vacation.

But when would this work begin? No one seemed to know.

Then, one day last month, I walked into my lobby and noticed Mrs. Wong speaking to an affable young man. I overheard the words “jong sau”. When the man stepped into the elevator with me, I asked him if he knew anything about the impending construction.

“Actually, I’m the building association president,” he told me. “I’m coordinating the work.”

He told me that the renovation was only a replacement of the building’s external pipes, which had become rusted over time. The work would last exactly 63 days, and the scaffolding would only be constructed over the parts of the buildings where the pipes are.

Yesterday, at 10am, Jack the building manager, assisted by Mrs. Wong, held a ceremony with the manager of the construction company in the sitting out area behind Prosperous View Court. They burned sticks of incense over a bowl of fruit.

I knew that “hoi gung” (literally “start work”) ceremonies were common for new buildings, and even used before starting work on a film. But I didn’t know they were performed for renovations. “We would always do this,” Mr. Building President told me. “To make sure the work is performed well.” (Note to self: I should recommend the Hoi Gung ceremony to my building’s coop board back in Brooklyn).

The scaffolders arrived this morning at 9:30am. By 11, their shaky matchstick grid of bamboo poles rose almost to my apartment on the 12th floor. I watched them from my kitchen window in awe.

What amazing cool. I’d admired these guys from afar before, but watching them upclose is a revelation. They scramble, pirouette, work and balance with four limbs at once. Two of the guys, I notice, are climbing the slippery poles wearing only simple cloth kung fu shoes.

The bamboo scaffolders belong to a very exclusive union of professionals who dominate this traditional trade unique to Hong Kong (it’s been outlawed in most of China, where its considered too dangerous).

I think they are even more awe-worthy than the wire acrobats who dazzle moviegoers in Hong Kong’s kung fu movies. Because these guys aren’t protected by wires. There’s no safety net below as they dance on the temporary stages they build in the air.

They are like Hong Kong–impermanent, nimble, and awesome.

They’re back from lunch now, and I’m going over to my window to watch some more.

The Bad Stick

The unfortunate fortune of the “Number 27” stick drawn at Che Gung temple

Nobody I know in Hong Kong is rending their garments in despair over the very, very bad Chinese fortune stick drawn by Lau Wong Fat at Che Gung temple in Shatin last Tuesday.

My buddy, Ah Wong, in fact, is laughing. “What did they expect? The most important ritual of the Chinese New Year for the Hong Kong Government, and who do they send to kau chim? A guy who’s under investigation by the ICAC!”

Really, Ah Wong has a point. If I were sending a proxy to pull the stick that determined my fortune for the forthcoming year–pulling it, mind you, in front of the entire assembled Hong Kong media corps–I certainly would hesitate before sending the shifty, scandal-ridden “Uncle” Lau, head of the clannish, secretive and powerful village chief’s association, the Heung Yee Kuk.

Let me backtrack a moment for you non-Hong Kong readers. “Kau chim”, 求簽
, literally “request a sign” is one of the hallowed rituals of our Chinese New Year. I’ve never been tempted to try–it involves unpleasant waiting in line for hours with throngs of people in the cold weather at one of the kitchy “auspicious” Taoist temples like Wong Tai Sin.

The drill goes like this: you get to the head of the line, you are handed a cup filled with 64 (sometimes 96) flat wooden sticks, each one engraved with a number and one of three Chinese characters–seung, ha, jung: up, down, or middle. You shake the cup until one stick jumps out, and take it to the fortuneteller, who pulls out the slip of paper that corresponds to the number of your stick, and reads the fortune printed on it. Whatever it says, that’s your “year”, on a stick.

How seriously do people take this? Well, I’ve actually seen people quickly shove a bad stick down in the bunch when no one’s looking, and start shaking over again. A few years ago, a local district councillor drew such a bad stick, on behalf of his district, that he immediately re-did his pick.

And what was the number of the stick that caused this fellow such distress that he saw no alternative but to beg the gods for a do-over?

Number 27. The same number on the stick that Lau Wong Fat drew on behalf of the Hong Kong Government at Che Gung temple the other day.

“Evil and Calamity Is Coming And Going All Around You: And it Comes from You.”

Soothsayers and oracles, in all languages and cultures, derive their power from maddening un-specificity. The companion text to the Chinese fortune sticks, true to its genre, is written in flowery, dense poetry filled with allusions to Chinese literature and history. In other words, there’s enough interpretative wiggle-room in here to make the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference blind with envy. No surprise that the team of fortunetellers at Che Gung temple, along with the pundits at twelve or thirteen Hong Kong dailies, representatives of various Hong Kong political parties, and Lau Wong Fat himself, have been spinning the result like it’s Sunday morning on Meet the Press. (There’s an excellent digest of all the armchair oracles, and a translation of the fortune poem, on ESWN.)

My Chinese is not up to literary standards, so I’m not going to try to analyze the 28 character poem with its allusions to demons and phantasms, and traitors from within. But you don’t need an M.A. in Chinese Literature to notice that there is one, and only one, specific historical figure referenced in the frame of Stick Number 27.

Qin Shi Huang

Okay, here’s where I admit that most of what I know about the first Emperor of a United China comes from the Zhang Yimou movie, HeroBut his nasty cinematic character, I’m told, is pretty true to the history books. Qin was a manipulator, a single-minded tyrant, who justified slaughtering and repressing the people (he banned dissenting books, buried scholars alive) in order to pull competing fiefdoms together into a Chinese nation. The Great Wall of China is the man’s legacy–he started its construction to keep China safe from outsiders. Hero makes the very controversial case that Qin was, in the end, a good guy–that the violence and extreme political repression he unleashed was an unfortunate but necessary means to achieve the higher goal of nationhood.

Does this argument sound familiar?

Anyway, Emperor Qin is right smack in the middle of Bad Stick Number 27:


“Emperor Qin built the Great Wall in vain…Evil and Calamity are Everywhere, and it’s Because of You.”

Now, if you wanted to stretch and spin-doctor a lot–a whole lot–I suppose you could transform that ominous warning about the dangers of arrogant, absolute power into a DAB-ready platitude for the Hong Kong People. Something along the lines of “We must stay united as a community and beware of dissent and disharmony within.”

At least, that’s what “Uncle” Lau Wong Fat did.

But nobody in Hong Kong is buying it. Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s popularity rating is not quite as low as George Bush’s was in the Final Days, but it’s heading to Tung Chee Hwa territory. The HK government’s missteps and political failures are there for everyone to see–as clear and vainglorious as Tsang’s very ugly “Great Wall” of a government complex that’s being constructed over in Admiralty.

Like Ah Wong, everyone is chuckling, because they know who pulled the bad stick, and it isn’t the Hong Kong public. Of course the pro-government spinners want to pin this bad mojo on Hong Kong and the community–that “we” are to blame for our “internal squabbles” (that is to say, for insisting on being able to actually elect our representatives, instead of letting the Emperors in Beijing call the shots).

“We” is a word that tends to get thrown about when uncomfortable realities are being avoided. It often works: my countrymen in the U.S. so far seem quite happy to go along with Obama’s inaugural suggestion that “we” citizens are the ones culpable for the current evils and calamities facing the U.S. (instead of, say, the yet-to-be-prosecuted corporate and financial industry crooks, plus George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzalez,

Thank god Hong Kong people–no doubt sharpened by their love for chao dao fu— have a nose for that kind of smelly “we”.

That is to say, Hong Kong people understand that when politicians start throwing around the “we’s” you really have to take a close look to determine who, really, is “We”.

And in this case, the “We” is not us. It’s them. The really, really bad fortune stick Number 27 belongs to the un-elected officials of Hong Kong’s government.

Serves them right, I say. What were they thinking when they dispatched Lau Wong Fat to Che Gung temple? Actually, I’m pretty sure I can figure what they were thinking. Usually, the Hong Kong government sends one of the Secretary-level cabinet ministers to do the deed each year. This presents problems, since many of the top brass are Christians who really don’t want to be involved with such a superstitious practice, or they’re sophisticates who jet off to Paris or New York the instant the Chinese New Year holiday begins. What’s more, nobody in the government wants to be saddled with the bad press of making an unfortunate stick pick in this most unfortunate of years.

From that perspective, traditional old “Uncle” Lau from the New Territories must have looked like a great solution to this knotty, perennial problem. What’s more, probably the government figured it would be a way to give him face. The week before Chinese New Year, Lau was given a seat on Hong Kong’s Executive Council amid a storm of accusations that his appointment was a political tit for tat. (Lau Wong Fat, you may remember, turned his back on his own political party last August to campaign for a government-supporting DAB candidate).

Ah, but how inexorably the wheels of karm
ic justice spin! As it turns out, the traitorous and scheming Lau Wong Fat got exactly the fortune that he–and by extension, his masters–deserved.

Ji San Bat On. You got that right. In 2009, the year of Financial Tsunami and the 20th Anniversary of Tienanmen Square, there will be no rest for these guys.

And that, in plain English, is the lesson of the bad stick: believe in the illusion that your power is righteous and justified, and it will eventually come and bite you in the ass.

I’ll need a few more years of study before I can translate that elegantly into Chinese.

Surfing the Financial Tsunami

The Cantonese description of the mess we’re in is way better and more colorful than that dull old CNN/New York Times-standby: “Financial Crisis.” It shows more poetic flair, too, than the slangy, “Ponzi scheme”. And I’d take it in a minute over the other C-words that have been bandying around the newspaper headlines: calamity, collapse, catastrophe.

The Cantonese term for the global economic crisis is gam yung hoi siu:


literally: gold fuses, the ocean screams.

I know, I know, you can’t translate these things so literally. Chinese words consist mainly of pairs of characters that carry a different meaning in combination than the individual parts. Yet for a Westerner, it is hard to resist parsing the elements and delighting in the uncanny, poetic resonances of the basic building blocks. For me this is one of the joys of being a student of Chinese, so you’ll just have to put up with my quirks. (In elementary school English class I was the number one diagrammer of sentences and sleuth of root words, so at least I’m consistent).

Anyway, the “Gam Yung” part of this equation is the character combination that translates as “financial” (as in the Hong Kong building we all call IFC, but which occasionally gets referred to by its “official” Cantonese name “Gwok Jai Gam Yung Jung Sam” –International Financial Centre.)

But the “hoi siu” is another story. The literal power of these two characters only amplifies the meaning of the pair. It carries, for me and anyone who has lived close to the sea, the same kind of powerful horror as “dai fung” the great wind of the “typhoon.” The ocean screams, surges out of control, without favor or pity wipes away everything in its path.

Ah, if only our current financial ocean scream were as democratic as nature’s big winds and giant killer waves.

But it isn’t, and it is–typically–hitting those people hardest who deserve it least.  And barely moisturizing those who deserve to get soaked to the bone and swept out to oblivion.

I don’t belong either of those groups. I’d say I’m in a pretty average and typical situation, all things considered, and I’m thankful. But I’ve still taken a couple of hits, which is why you may have noticed my blogging has gone dark for a while. Writing these Learning Cantonese essays about Hong Kong is my passion, but it takes my full focus and energy to put out work I’m proud of. If I’m tapped out because I’ve been spending that brain capital on money-spinning projects, I’d rather not post some old blah blah blah on the blog. I’d rather wait and hold on until I can tap my top-shelf product.

So I thank all of you, this Chinese New Year of the mighty ngau, for your patience and continued support. No matter how long the blog goes dark, you terrific readers have come back. I appreciate that.

Speaking of support, I have been brainstorming a way to support the time I spend on this blog, and came up with a little project called Little Adventures in Hong Kong. You may have spotted the button for the link down on the left side of the page. It is my small way of trying to surf this financial tsunami, and I hope it may generate the $$$ to offset the hours I spend wandering around the city looking for adventures to recount on this blog. If you plan to come to Hong Kong, or have a friend who’s planning to come, please do check it out.

Enough self-promotion. Here’s to a powerful year of the OX, which I just now notice spells, backwards, my favorite Hong Kong spicy fishy flavored sauce. This must be a good thing, and when I figure out if there’s any luck or fortune attached to this lovely coincidence, I will come back and tell you all about it.

Sooner than later, I promise.

In the meanwhile, San Nin Faai Lok!