Slowly, Slowly Go

I arrived in New York City last night. It was windy and raining buckets and the Cathay Pacific 747 had to circle JFK for more than an hour before landing in a series of humpety-bump-bumps on the runway. Then it took me another hour to find a limo driver who would take me to Brooklyn at midnight.

God, I hate JFK. It is right down there with Mumbai Airport as a wretched third world experience. Hong Kong spoils you. I talk to Joyce about this all the time.  You get used to living in a city where you don’t have to guard your pocketbook all the time, or be suspicious that kindly strangers are scammers, and where you can waltz off a flight and board a clean, super-train that will take you from airport to downtown in 23 minutes.

But now I’m back in New York, in a cold rain, fighting with cabdrivers. I have to get tough, and re-learn the instinct to watch my back.

Not that you don’t have to keep your wits about you in Hong Kong. For instance, there are certain words and phrases that are almost always attached to a big lie. One of these is “development”. When the “D” word starts being tossed around, you know you’re being sold a bill of goods that has as much to do with the real deal as what a Mainland tourist takes home from a Yau Ma Tei jewelry store. I’m sick that real estate “development” is poised to steamroll over the last vestiges of Chinese daily life in Central.

But I am hooked on other Hong Kong things that are, arguably, the results of “development”: MTR, the escalator, Airport Express, Chep Lap Kok, Octopus Cards and the way that everything works in Hong Kong, always. (When the MTR train is going to be more than 5 minutes late, someone actually gets on the intercom and apologizes. )

Is it too much to ask that a great city should have both things? Terrific infrastructure, and a messy, lively soul? Cesar Pelli’s gorgeous IFC center, steps from flopping live fish at the gaai sih?

I’m here in New York for two months, maybe a little longer. This is the unavoidable part of my human ping pong ball life. Post-modern Persephone. My deal with the gods and the devils is that my work and editors are mostly on one side of the world, and my life is mostly on the other. The bright side is that Cantonese is widely spoken in both places!

Ah Go is terrible with goodbyes. Probably because he’s had too many of them in his life, starting with his parents. In the days before I leave, he treats me and some friends to a splendid and expensive “formal” French dinner–then he disappears from sight, screwing up one planned date after another. “Why do you have to be sad about leaving?”, he complains to me. “You just make everybody else feel sad.”

Finally, we meet face to face exactly fifteen minutes before I have to jump on the Airport Express. And then, as usual, he goes through the whole Chinese farewell thing.  First, he hands me a gift, a book for my journey. Then he accompanies me every step of the way, right up to the turnstile entrance of the train. Add a little bow at the end, and we might be in 1920s Shanghai.

Sung haak. Literally, deliver your guests. In olden days, a gracious host would accompany his departing guests for quite a ways down the road, until the guest beseeched him several times to allow him go on alone. The host would then, reluctantly, turn away, but not before wishing his guest a good wind at his back. And then telling him to go, but slowly: maahn maahn haang.

Hong Kong is supposed to be a busy, staccato place, where nobody ever has time, conversations are clipped, and people are terse almost to the point of rudeness. Maybe so. But still, the old Chinese ways of greeting and farewell carry on.  Guests must still be delivered. Whenever I meet with someone in a Hong Kong office, they will always, always, walk me out of the offices to the corridor, then wait with me until the elevator comes. The other day I met a very hip Cantonese guy–a film writer who works in advertising–for coffee at Starbucks. We chatted for a while, then I got up to go. And, to my amusement, he rose up, leaving his double latte to chill on the table, and walked me all the way out, through the door of the coffeeshop to the sidewalk.

Even at Starbucks, you sung haak.

It is like an ancient play, or something from those gu jong pin soap operas that are always showing whenever you turn on TVB.

At the Airport Express gate I promised Ah Go that yes, I would maahn maahn haang, slowly, slowly go. With a good wind blowing behind me, I boarded the fastest and most efficient airport transit in the world. .

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