Laan Haang Yan

Maybe the teacher who named me “Laan Yan” wasn’t so off-the-mark after all. Lately on my walks around Hong Kong I’ve noticed that my style as a pedestrian, a haang yan, is changing. I used to be proud of the way I could figure out the fastest, or most interesting way to walk from Point A to Point B. But now that it is starting to get warm and muggy, all I think about is convenience, fong bihn. I am looking for the easiest way out. I want to glide through Hong Kong on the wings of escalators, comforted and coddled by the Arctic breezes of shopping mall air conditioning.

For those of you also devoted to fong bihn, here is Laan Haang Yan’s Lazy Pedestrian Route from Central MTR Station to the Mid-Levels Escalator:

Normally, you’d want to get out of the station at exit D1 or D2, which let you out near Queen’s Road Central. But both of those exits involve climbing stairs, so forget about them! A wise laan haang yan heads immediately for the speedy escalator at exit B, Worldwide House. (Note! This is not a good idea on Sundays, since the area around here is the main shopping stroll for thousands of Filipina workers on their day off!)

After gliding effortlessly up to street level, we are in for the most strenuous and unpleasant part of the journey: three long blocks of walking along noisy, polluted Des Voeux Road, a six-lane traffic corridor for busses, trolley cars and those new prestige vehicles of the Mainland nouveau riche–the Toyota maxi-van.

But you won’t need to breathe much, since minimum exertion is involved here–we are walking from east to west. This is one of the only stretches in Central where the pavement is perfectly, utterly, deliciously flat!

Upon arriving at the corner of Pottinger Street, we cross Des Voeux, and enter, by escalator of course, the little shopping mall of the Man Yee building. We don’t care about the shopping (the little boutiques in the ground floor have cute Japanese-style clothes, but if you are bigger than a size 4, dream on). Our main objective is the all-important escalator (which saves us the hike uphill on Pottinger Street) and the shot of air-conditioned comfort to console us after our pollution-choked run down Des Voeux.

Exit the mall-ette, and cross Queen’s Road Central. Once again, warning! On Saturdays you may be forced to weave your way through a sea of crazed Madonna fans queuing to buy ugly cheap women’s wear in the new H&M. Take a moment to thank your stars that these shoppers are demonstrating (without a permit) in support of consumerism, and do not belong to the League of Social Democrats or any other pro-democracy movements–if they did, half the Hong Kong police force and most of its vehicles would be lined up here on Queen’s Road, making your forward progress even more difficult!

On your right is a spanking new escalator that goes up from Queen’s Road Central and takes you to the entrance of the Mid-Levels Escalator (or, as the odd signage here proclaims, the “Mid-Levels Travelator”).

Ta da! From here, as they say, it’s all downhill. Well, actually, uphill. And while gliding up the mountains of Central on the dihn tai, the electric ladder, a Hong Kong haang yan has plenty of time to ponder a nagging question: Is it just the warm weather that is making her so irritable about walking around Hong Kong? Or is it something else?

Suddenly the answer comes to me in a flash as I hit the bottom of the escalator on Shelley Street.

When I first moved into this neighborhood, some years ago, this gap between two segments of the Mid-levels escalator was open. But last year the Hong Kong department in charge of public works began to narrow the access with those metal gates that you see all over the city. The barrier got longer and longer, until now there is barely room for one person to enter the escalator at this heavy traffic point.

Why block free pedestrian access in such a busy area? It happens all over Hong Kong in the name of “safety”, but I’ve begun to feel it as deliberate harassment. Gates are erected alongside streets to force haang yan to cross roads in a certain place–leading to even more dangerous bottlenecks. They often are erected at corners, so if you are walking along a street, you have to make a detour around the side street in order to be able to continue your forward progress. The Public Works department seems intent on turning a walk around Hong Kong into an obstacle course of gates, barriers and frustrated crowds.

Yet, up in the New Territories there’s a street that runs through the middle of a village. Huge trailer trucks from the big transport companies use the road as a shortcut on their runs to the Mainland. One of them crushed a little boy to death earlier this year, as he was trying to walk down the street. Clearly, there’s a safety hazard. But the traffic department still hasn’t banned heavy trucks from using this busy pedestrian road.

That’s why I don’t buy the safety issue at all. One afternoon, trying to cross Staunton Street–where a series of posts and chains has been erected to force you back onto an impossibly narrow sidewalk, I got so frustrated and angry I wanted to stomp the chains. I realized then, that I had Pedestrian Road Rage. And that’s why I’ve become a laan haang yan. Cutting through malls, hopping escalators, and refusing to walk in their little rat mazes, is my little way of taking back control over my tiny segment of Hong Kong public space.

In a city as densely populated as Hong Kong, space–even the small amount that my body needs to walk around comfortably–is worth more than gold. And at every turn, I’m being told by gates, blocks, chains and bottlenecks, that the privilege of space is alloted to me at government discretion. The control and demonstration of power matters more than my walking pleasure and convenience and–when it conflicts with the needs of a transport cartel or a property developer, or an auto–even my safety.

They giveth the pavement, and they taketh it away.

Over the weekend, Donald Tsang gave an interview in which he confessed that he learned something from his recent campaign–that government should listen to the people, rather than assume it knows what’s best for them. That decisions about public matters shouldn’t be made behind closed doors, and then presented to the public as a fait accompli.

Well that all sounds very nice. But the habit of arrogance of power is as difficult to break as a government-issue solid steel gate.

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