Chan-demonium!

“I’ve just heard that Anson’s gonna be out on the street in Central at 12 noon. Meet me there, and then we can go out for lunch after.”
    It’s Francis on the phone. I have been in Hong Kong exactly fifteen hours, and I haven’t even unpacked my computer yet. I’ve been gone so long there’s mold growing on the shoes in my closet, courtesy of Hong Kong’s 95% humidity. But I am itching to get back into circulation. So I throw on a pair of flip-flops and scurry down to Central.
    Francis didn’t say where Anson Chan was going to be, but it wasn’t hard to figure out. I could see the scrum of cameras, video cameras, boom mikes and eager young Hong Kong journos from blocks away. You know it’s a serious media event when the camera guys arrive carrying those little aluminum ladders attached to shoulder straps. When the scrum gets really tight, the cameramen whip open the ladders and climb up for that unobstructed overhead shot.
    I get to Theatre Lane, just off Queen’s Road, and circumnavigate the pack, checking out the scene. Contemporary politics is all about creating a narrative, and the one being enacted here is Anson Chan’s baptism as a Hong Kong politician. The ex-civil servant is getting down and dirty, hitting the streets for the first time to hand out her flyers to the public. But journos outnumber actual citizens about 100 to one here, and most of the average citizens are racing by, trying to get through the crowd on their way to lunch.
    There’s no sign of Francis yet, and I’m worried I missed him. So I slip around the corner, away from the media thicket, and stand in front of the Vaucheron Constantin jewelry store on Queen’s Road to see if he’s called me. I’m digging around in my bag, fishing for my mobile phone, when suddenly I feel the hair rise on the back of my neck, the way it does when you feel someone creeping up silently behind you.
    I look up, then, and see to my horror that twenty cameras and a dozen microphones are pointed in my direction. In front of me stands a tiny grandmotherly taai-taai with a hairspray-laced bouffant and a face the color and transparency of fine parchment. She thrusts her slender, bony hand into my startled direction, and proclaims, in plummy round British tones:
    “Hello, I’m Anson Chan, and I’m running for the Legislative Council”
    Startled, it takes me a beat or two before I realize what is going on. With hundreds of registered Hong Kong voters milling around curiously within a ten foot radius of her position, why has Anson Chan zeroed her heat-seeking political radar on the blonde-haired foreigner? Answer: I am being ambushed for The Gwailo Photo Op.
    This isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. If you are a foreigner in Hong Kong, and like to attend political events, you are the elephant in the drawing room. Better prepare your soundbites, for you will soon be buttonholed by local journalists, student reporters, stringers for the Falun Gong’s newspaper and China Daily, all wanting to know what you think about Hong Kong and its people. Usually it’s no big deal, but occasionally it can get embarrassing. Some years ago I was sitting in the Legco press gallery for a speech by Tung chee-hwa. He said something in his clumsy Cantonese that struck me as unintentionally funny, and I chuckled to myself. That night, a ten second film clip of my chuckle played every thirty minutes on the ATV news roundup. Since then whenever I go on the political trail, whether it is to Victoria Park for the Tienanmen memorial candlelight vigil, or to a big march in Chater Garden or an LSD rally, I’ve learned to keep my profile as low as possible.
    The Gweilo Photo Op decodes in several ways, depending on the event and the media involved. If Apple Daily runs a photo of a Westerner at the June 4th demonstration, it is there to remind Chinese readers of the international importance of the event. But if Wen Wei Po runs the same photo, it’s there to tell its readers just the opposite story–that the only people in Hong Kong who still care about Tienanmen Square are a bunch of crazy democrats and their anti-patriotic gweilo friends.
    Likewise, the Gweilo Photo Op With Hong Kong Political Figure can translate in different ways, depending on the politician and the media outlet involved. I got a fast education in this three years ago when I was dogging the footsteps of Leung Kwok Hung to write a magazine profile about him. Unbeknownst to me, his footsteps were also being dogged, secretly, by paparrazzi from the pro-Beijing weekly scandal rag, East Week. They were following Long Hair’s every move with a super-long lens camera mounted in an unmarked panel truck. Just as I was wrapping up my reporting, East Week’s super-exclusive expose hit the stands: “Long Hair’s 100 Days Of Passion”.
    Inside was a spread of photos featuring three Western women that Long Hair had been spotted with by the intrepid papparazzi team. To my endless amusement, one of them was me. We’d been caught in the most steamy of circumstances: discussing politics over won ton mihn in a brightly neon lit Mongkok cha chaan teng together with district councillor Andrew To. (Now, every time I go out for siu yeh, late snacks, with Leung and Andrew, I joke with them: “We have to stop meeting passionately like this!”)
    You may wonder what makes running a photo of Long Hair in the same frame as a female so scandalous–after all, he is a bachelor. But East Week’s intention in running these Gweilo Photo Ops isn’t about sex, but blood. They’re meant to suggest that Long Hair’s friendships with Westerners make him suspect, traitorous, somehow less Chinese. It’s the same strategy that gets used against figures like democrat Martin Lee.
    But there’s a flip side to this story: sometimes the Gweilo Photo Op works in reverse. That is to say, a photo of a prominent Hong Kong figure with a Westerner can also signify positive, desirable qualities. Like that the politician in question is cosmopolitan, speaks excellent English, is comfortable in all situations, and well respected both at home and abroad.
    “Hello, I’m Anson Chan and I’m running for legislative council…”
   
I’ve barely gotten my feet back on the Hong Kong pavement. I’m jetlagged, and now I’m being ambushed by a press pack led by a perfectly-coiffed matron–while I’m wearing flip flops. I am in no mood to play the cheerful Gweilo in the Photo Op.
    Yes, Mrs. Chan, I say, know who you are. And what I really would like to know is: Why are you running?
    Her eyes light up, as she launches into her speech about universal suffrage and the Hong Kong people.
    I gently cut her off. Yes, but what I would really like to know is why now? You were in the government for decades–why didn’t you do anything about universal suffrage then? You could have run for Chief Executive earlier this year but you didn’t…
    I can see the creases at the corners of her eyes tighten ever so slightly as she realizes this isn’t turning out to be kind of softball encounter she’d expected. “Well, I didn’t run then because as you may know, it was a small circle election. Only 800 delegates were voting. I didn’t want to be a part of that system, so I decided not to run for Chief Executive.”
    Now it is my eyes that are tightening at the corner. She’s making this up, rewriting her past. The only political groups who came out forcefully and publicly against the small circle Chief Executive elections were the Frontier and the League of Social Democrats. Emily Lau and Long Hair and Wong Yuk Man and Dr. Lo. Where were you, Mrs. Chan, when we were all riding bicycles from Wan Chai to Chater Garden?
    “Really, Mrs. Chan?,” I say, “I don’t recall that was your position at the time.”
    Her eyes are darting to the right and left, looking for an escape route. “Yes, yes, I am completely against the small circle elections, and that is why I’m running now for a directly elected seat in Legco…”
    An aide gently grasps her elbow, pulling her away to the next photo op. The press pack follows. When I see her again, she’s posing for the cameras with her arms around two elderly British tourists.
    At last, I spot Francis ambling towards me along Queen’s Road. “Look at all this! I was just down at the corner. Margaret Ng is there, and Audrey, and Albert Ho and Lee Wing Tat from the Democratic Party. The troops are all out in a show of force. It’s Chan-demonium!”
    Francis is excited. This is the big Hong Kong political story of the moment. It makes for juicy press that will just get jucier if Regina Ip decides to run for the opposition. As for the Democrats and the Civic Party, they are clearly thrilled to have a sure-bet winning candidate to support, especially coming off the quixotic, doomed-from-start Alan Leong campaign.
    But I wonder: what’s the point? How is electing Anson Chan to an 8 month Legco seat in Hong Kong island going to tip the political balance in Hong Kong? What makes ex-civil servant Anson any different from ex-civil servant Donald? After all, both worked for the system that’s left Hong Kong with deepening wealth inequities, entrenched cronyism, worsening environment and rampant overdevelopment. In the bustle and buzz of Chan-demonium, is anyone going to ask these questions?

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