The Fashion Police


“Am I the only person in Hong Kong who didn’t know that ‘Delay No More’ was a pun for  diu leih lo mouh?”. My
Korean-American  friend Leslie, a 9 year resident of Hong Kong who is
my only non-Chinese friend completely fluent in Cantonese, rolls her
eyes and laughs at herself. Then she gets back to our important
business at hand, which is enjoying
the excellent Cantonese lunch laid out before us. The restaurant, Wun
Sha Kitchen in Tai Hung, is one of those trendy places that have sprung
up thanks to the recent boom-boom economy. At Wun Sha they take classic old-school Cantonese dishes, refine
the presentation and cooking, add smart touches from the culinary
traditions of other parts of China, and, voila!–contemporary Cantonese fusion cuisine.

Even
a non-Cantonese customer can appreciate the sublime flavors and textures in Wun Sha’s braised pomelo skin, goose “web” (literally, ngo jeung, goose palm. Or, in plain English, foot) and mushrooms. But to really understand and appreciate how the si fu,
the chef, is playing around with the homely dish, presenting the
slow-cooked, starchy fruit peel in a smartly carved rectangle as if it
were polenta, arranging the goose foot just so–you
have to have some Hong Kong in you. What makes this food creative is
the way it riffs, like a jazz musician would do, on Hong Kong’s local
culture and its food traditions.

What makes a city
cosmopolitan, sophisticated, urbane? The government of Hong Kong’s PR says it’s all about skyscrapers (with a couple of token pagodas thrown in), an “international”
population (at a ratio of one Western banker for every 10 HK citizens), a sleek and expensive
transport infrastructure (quick, hide those exhaust-belching red-light jumping mini-buses!).

But I don’t think sophistication is something you can
build or buy into existence. It takes time, space and freedom to
simmer, to deepen. For me the most sophisticated thing about Hong Kong, what raises this place to World City league status, is
that here (as in New York, or Rio de Janiero, or Rome) people have a sense of who and what they are that is strong enough to support critical and creative commentary. When you know and feel confident about where you’re coming from, you feel free to re-arrange and get creative with it. You can take your grandmother’s braised goose foot, and re-invent it as a nouvelle cuisine. As I bite into the most brilliant dish
we’ve ordered, a  mini-sandwich of Yunnan ham slices dressed with a
honey, lotus seed and osmanthus-flower sauce, it occurs to me that
restaurants like Wun Sha kitchen are the culinary equivalent of Hong
Kong’s beloved bad-boy design store G.O.D.

I’m sure you’ve read
about what happened the other day: the Hong Kong Police Department staged a
simultaneous raid on all of G.O.D.’s shops. The fashion police arrested
18 people, including clerks and G.O.D.’s head honcho Douglas Young.
Why? Because of a t-shirt. A G.O.D designed t-shirt that says, in the
old-style Chinese numerical characters, “14K”. Which happens to
be the name of one of the big Hak Se Wooi, Triad gangs.

Already
I can hear you saying, “Wait a minute. In Hong Kong, where every other
movie is about Triad gangs, where the best filmmakers are mainly
working in the gangster noir
genre, and where the biggest-grossing film of the decade begins with a
Triad ceremony…the police staged a massive three-pronged bust because
someone was selling a Triad T-shirt?”

Really, if the cops truly want to protect the fashion sensibilities of Hong Kong citizens, I could recommend any number of better raid targets. (The Shatin mall, Joyce boutique, and innumerable streets in Causeway Bay are just a few Hong Kong areas that are desperately under-served by the Fashion Police.) The police department says
their action against G.O.D. was prompted by a little-known law that prohibits the
display of Triad gang names in public. This law, as far as anyone’s
been able to tell, hasn’t been enforced in years. (The G.O.D. director
maintains the t-shirt had nothing to do with Triads anyway.)

What’s
really up here? A little digging turns up a Perfect Storm of the usual
sorry suspects: The ailing, bankrupt pro-Mainland newspaper, Sing Pao (currently involved in a lawsuit because it
hasn’t paid its journalists in something like 9 months.) The “True Light
Society”, a quasi-religious group that’s Hong Kong’s local equivalent of Jerry Falwell. And Legco
representative Wong Kwok-Hing, member of (no surprise here) the pro-Beijing flack party, the DAB.

Last Tuesday, the desperate-for-circulation Sing Pao ran a full page “investigative” story about G.O.D.’s latest new t-shirt with the 拾肆K design (see picture above). Inside was the usual handwringing about
how G.O.D. uses, (oh dear!), puns and profanity on its products (the
shop’s main slogan these days is the above-mentioned “ Delay No More“,
printed on shopping bags, shirts, retro-vintage flight bags, etc.). Add
canned quotes from representative Wong, and the True Light Society, and
wrap it with a flashy headline and blurry picture of a Triad meeting. Then cross your fingers that it will sell enough papers that you’ll be
able to pay your editorial staff this week.

Such a cheezy ploy
should never have gotten above the radar. But this is an election year
(c.f. DAB member Wong Kwok Hing), and there’s something else about
G.O.D. that you should know (and that none of the local papers
mentioned in the ensuing media storm about the shirts). A few months
ago, after the Star Ferry protests, and just before the struggle around
the Queen’s Pier, my local G.O.D. emporium, the flagship shop, put up
some interesting window displays. The shop, on Hollywood Road
across the street from the historic Central
street market that’s scheduled to be demolished for urban “renewal”,
placed in its window several mannequins dressed in shirts. The t-shirts said
“DELAY NO MORE: SUPPORT LOCAL CULTURE” and “DELAY NO MORE: SAVE LOCAL
MARKETS”.

Anyone tuned into the Hong Kong scene, and to
G.O.D.’s cheeky design style, got the message: hipster store G.O.D. was coming out to support Local Action–the loose coalition of
protest groups who are leading the charge against the destruction of
Hong Kong cultural icons like the gaai sih, the Star Ferry and Queen’s Piers, and the Wedding Card Street, Leih Tung Gaai.

The
support makes perfect sense. Indeed, you could say that G.O.D.’s
designers are the godfathers of the current Local Culture political
movement.

It was G.O.D.’s design style that transformed local Hong Kong objects,
customs and landscapes into signifiers of “cool”, and made many people
re-think the value of Hong Kong’s everyday cultural life. If you can
sell a t-shirt covered with a photo of a shabby but vibrant Mongkok
apartment block for $250 HKD, then that Mongkok building must truly be worth something!

The
Triad 14K thing is just an excuse. It’s G.O.D.’s status as a supporter
and purveyor of “Local Culture” that’s got these designers in trouble with certain
powerful people. The DAB along with the Hong Kong government, would rather suppress than support any genuinely local Hong Kong cultural expression. Because
to support the young hip protesters of Wedding Card Street, or to
promote the wise-cracking, knowing sophistication of G.O.D. is to
suggest that there is something about Hong Kong that is special,
distinct, and intrinsically different from Mainland China. (Hong Kong, according to this great study by think-tank Civic Exchange, is particularly scary to the mainland authorities because it demonstrates there is a different, and very successful, way to be Chinese in the modern world).

All this is
dangerous, not part of the master plan. The master plan is “Integration
with the Mainland.” The master plan is “Patriotic Education and Flag
Raising Cermonies”. The master plan is spending 200 million dollars
changing the language of instruction for Chinese literature in Hong
Kong’s public schools from Cantonese to Mandarin.

I walked by
the G.O.D. store yesterday, after the raid and the public apology from
Douglas Young. The window display was changed, the pro-Street Market
and Local Culture signs were gone. I went inside, and not only were the
14K shirts gone from the racks, but the “Delay No More” shirts were
missing, too. Looks like the Fashion Police have won, for now. But I
hope that this is only a temporary diu leih.

POSTSCRIPT: SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 4th:

Like I said, the police raid of G.O.D. wasn’t really about Triad symbols. The police were being used by the government and the pro-Beijing political cabal to launch a shot across the bow in Hong Kong’s simmering political/culture wars. But don’t take my word for it–check out this morning’s photo of Local Action’s most celebrated activist, Ho Loy, in Sing Tao Daily:

Ho Loy gets it. She’s becoming one of the most interesting figures in HK. (One sure sign that you’re getting interesting in HK: the local papers start referring to you as “The [fill in adjective here] Long Hair”.) Yesterday, when I wrote the article above, I wanted to try to drop in a quote or two from the outspoken interview Ho Loy gave to HK magazine a few weeks ago. But I couldn’t figure out a way to make the connection. Now she’s done it for me:

“I am a Hong Konger, but I am not quite sure if I want to be Chinese.”
“The urge for preservation will only grow stronger as young people in this generation, those who have grown up in a non-colonial society, begin to question their own identity. This isn’t some pop song everyone will forget in six month’s time.”

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