Monthly Archives: August 2008

Vote For Long Hair

Of course I’m biting my fingernails down to the cuticle, worried that my dear friend, Leung Kwok Hung, might not make it back into LEGCO–that compromised, politically hog-tied legislature of which he is the most interesting, and certainly the most principled member (show me another Hong Kong pol that lives in a council house flat, and gives away all his salary except $1,000 US a month!). The early LEGCO polls from HK University looked good, giving him about a 6.2 percentage share of the vote, which in Hong Kong’s convoluted “first past the post” electoral system, would return him to his seat, albiet at the bottom of the pack in his district, New Territories East.

But that was before Leung stood up in the stands at the first Hong Kong Olympic equestrian event and shouted “Human Rights for China”–and before Gary Chan Hak-kan, the smarmy, ex-Donald Tsang flunkie who is number 2 on the Beijing puppet DAB party ticket, got the idea that he could ensure winning a seat by picking off the bottom man on the list.

Here’s the latest HKU Public Opinion Poll for the New Territories East district, conducted between 17 and 23 August 2008. There are 7 seats up for grabs.

Gary Chan Hak-kan–I love it that this slimy opportunist pol has the given name of “Hak”–tried to sling mud at Long Hair during the RTHK radio debates this weekend by questioning his commitment to LEGCO. He asked: Why is Leung Kwok Hung bothering to run for office when he’d rather be out on the streets burning tyres and protesting? Long Hair, steamed up, pointed out his 95% attendance record in LEGCO, and demanded an apology from the DAB flunky, who earned $80,000 HKD (around $10,000 US) a month in his sinecure as Donald Tsang’s Xerox copy boy, and has never held elective office. Retorted Long Hair: “I’m working for HK people in the streets AND in the legislature…and where were you?”

Slime is a time-tested political tool, and it is especially effective when slung around in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press echo chamber, in newspapers like Wen Wei Po, Tai Kung Pao, and Oriental Daily, which essentially photocopy each other’s anti-Long Hair stories. This week’s HK University poll has Long Hair’s share down to 5.7, which might lose him his seat. The margin of error here is plus or minus 2.7, so it’s hard to tell what’s what. And I wonder, too, about the HK POP survey methods***

When I talked on the phone to Long Hair, he was feeling positive–“This time the people I meet on the street are much more enthusiastic than the last campaign. I feel good.”

But in a few days, the pro-Beijing parties are gonna pull their trump card: an “Olympic Gold medal parade” of China’s victorious athletes is coming to town. Funny, every time Hong Kong has an election, suddenly there’s a special envoy from up north, bringing the treasures of the motherland to the citizens of the Big Lychee. We’ve had astronauts and alleged finger bones of the Buddha, and now there will be golden heroes of diving, ping pong and women’s wrestling to remind us of the wonderful things that await those who keep their head down and follow the lead of the Chinese Communist Party.

Actually, I don’t think the Hong Kong voters are going to be fooled by the Olympic parade any more than by the Buddha bone or the astronaut. People in the city are sophisticated enough to see through PR manipulation. (That’s why NT LEGCO candidate Scarlet Pong Oi-Lan wins the Learning Cantonese Clueless award for her weekend stunt of inviting reporters to join her on a free helicopter ride over the Shenzhen border, piloted by a film-throb famous for his clumsy Cantonese, Michael Wong Man-Tak)

Still, I wonder how many voters are bold enough to believe that voting for a maverick like Leung Kwok Hung can do anything to staunch the tidal wave of history. The greatest success of the Beijing Olympics is the way it has cemented not only the power of the Chinese Communist Party, but also the image of China’s inevitability. The inevitability factor may discourage the Hong Kong voter who might be a natural Long Hair supporter from coming out to vote on September 7th. What is the point of trying to push the river?

Obviously I hope this doesn’t happen. You understand, I am an unabashed partisan here. I actually do believe that a noisy, unbought and unsold candidate like Long Hair makes a difference to the future of Hong Kong. I also think that LH’s triple-threat combo of street protests, High Court judicial review challenges, and standing up to the hypocrisy of HK’s leaders in the LEGCO chamber is worth more than a dozen lawyerly intellectual types like the pro-democracy camp’s front runner in New Territories East, Ronnie Tong. Because, when Beijing forces turn the pressure on a legislator to vote their way, a solidly upper middle class professional like Tong not only will vote according to his class interest, but he has much, much more to lose. (And, so say the batgwas, there are certain reasons why Tong is even more vulnerable to Beijing’s arm-twisting than his party-mates.) When the big crunch comes, odds are he will cave.

But there’s no twisting the arm of a man who has no money and lives in a 300 square foot tenement box surrounded by his books.

This is the kernel of the English language manifesto I wrote for Long Hair’s campaign (which may surface as a flyer in the expat ghettos of Sai Kung at some point, at least I hope so). Yes, it is true, I’ve become a Hong Kong political hack (as distinguished from a Hak-kan). Actually, the term used in HK politics is hak sau, which means “black hand”—ghost writer. Ha! Which translated back into Cantonese would be gwai jok ga.

When I get back to HK later this week, you may find this gwai-lo ghostwriter  in Sai Kung, passing out leaflets, waving hello to fellow English-speaking Leung Kwok Hung supporters like this one.

See you, then, in a few days, on the campaign trail.

***According to the HK University Public Opinion website, the survey method is phone interviews, and the phone numbers are chosen from published lists. Since something like 95 percent of Hong Kongers use cellphones, I wonder about this survey method. Do their lists include cell numbers, or just land lines? If it’s the latter, then I would figure the survey skews towards the stay-at-home pensioner, the traditional backbone of the DAB.
    What’s more, the survey method includes only Cantonese speakers over the age of 18. There’s a sizable number of English-dominant speakers in Hong Kong with voter eligibility–according the the 2006 census, nearly 100,000 alone in Long Hair’s New Territories East district. To give you an idea of proportion, in the 2004 election, Long Hair won with a total vote count of 62,000.

Jumping Through Hoops

My lucky date China visa: baat baat baat

Of all the hurdles that I had to clear in order to get my shiny new (and very fortunately dated!), multiple entry China tourist visa the strangest one was this:

“You need a letter from your employer verifying that you are authorized to take vacation during the days you plan to be in China,” explained Michael, my ever-patient, magical visa expediter.

Since I am self employed, I told Michael that would be no problem–I’d just write a letter on behalf of myself!

“No no no! Better not do that,” he warned. They like to see the signature on the letter is different from the name of the visa applicant.”

I see. And so, in addition to buying a plane ticket and a hotel reservation that only my travel agent knows if I’ll actually use, I had to deputize a friend, “hire” her to be my supervisor, and ask her to write me a letter that gives me permission to go on leave from my own business.

As I was printing out this Kafka-worthy document for my friend to sign, the culturally inflected logic of the Chinese requirement suddenly hit me. These seasoned bureaucrats, treating me as if I were any Chinese citizen, were asking me for a permission letter from my work unit, my danwei!

The Olympic season of 2008 introduced a new event: visa hoop jumping. As most of you probably know already, back in April of this year, China’s requirements for a visa suddenly, and mysteriously shifted. Foreign friends of mine who’d been living and working or studying in China for years found they could not renew their business visas in the easy, casual way to which they’d become accustomed. Just before I left Hong Kong, at the end of April, a stampede of mainland-based friends arrived in town, to sleep on our couches while they bargained, begged and pleaded at China Travel Service for a pass that would get them back into the place they had come to call home.

My pal Shanghai Vixen, who was part of the expat exodus, regaled us over dinner with horror stories of stampedes at the visa line, of South African women collapsing in tears, of endless delays, constantly shifting requirements, and general lack of information. (Thankfully, after much stress, paperwork and leveraged guanxi, Shanghai Vixen’s got her situation all sorted out).

The worst news, from my perspective, was that it was going to be tough, if not impossible, for a non-HK ID card holder like myself to get a multiple-entry China visa from an office in the city.

If you are an American in HK, the multiple-entry, or “DO” visa, for tourism or business, is really the only kind worth having. Since the Chinese price their visas reciprocally (as they absolutely should), a single entry visa costs a U.S. citizen over $100. Which makes that last minute impulse shopping trip across the border to Shenzhen, or restaurant odyssey in Guangzhou far too pricey an excursion to consider. What’s more, now that the single tourist visa application requires proof of round trip carriage, plus proof of pre-paid accommodation, it requires a level of advance planning and committment that will discourage the sort of traveler who makes up her mind at the last minute, and wants to be free to change her plans on the fly.

In other words, a traveler like me.

My two-year “DO” was, unfortunately, due to turn into a “MOUH” on August 1st. So one of the first things I did, after I got back to New York this summer was call Michael. Since the Chinese visa office in Hong Kong was changing its tune every day over in HK, I figured (hoped) the Chinese consulate in New York might not be on the same page.

As it turned out, they weren’t. Although I’d been reading all over the blogs that a multiple entry visa was going to be as impossible to obtain this Olympic year as a perfect 17 on the balance beam, my guy Michael told me not to sweat it. The consulate in NY, he said, was still giving one year multiple-entries to Americans who had received multiples before. So I filled out all the forms–including my danwei permission–, jumped through all the hoops, paid my $130 fee, gave it all to Michael, and bingo! One year, multiple entry tourist visa gold. When I get back to HK, I will not have to hesitate for a moment before jumping on a train to sample the dumplings of Guangzhou and the temptations of Shenzhen.

But what of the would-be China tourists intimidated by all the new hurdles? According to news reports from Beijing, a lot of them just decided to drop out of the race and stay home–hotel occupancy during the Olympics has run far below expectations. Obviously it is China’s prerogative to control its borders and choose who gets to enter its country (We who live in the glass house called the USA have zero business throwing stones in this situation). Still, it seems especially mean–not to mention stupid, hypocritical and self-defeating– for nations to insist on the free flow of global capital, goods, and resources while tightening the screws on the free flow of that most important resource of all, people.

The worst fallout of “terrorism”, by far, is the resurgence of barbed-wire nationalism. I hate it that America’s post 9-11 borders are such a nasty gauntlet for my foreign friends. And I add my voice to all the other critics of China’s 2008 Olympic visa hurdles. I hope, for the sake not only of Asia expats like me, but also for the Chinese who make a living from them, that China quietly reinstates the more relaxed, pre-Olympic rules of play come October.

Gold Medal Noodles

The Last Emperor of Flushing, his wife Wendy, my friend Karrie and I paid a visit to the Culinary Palace of the Ancient Kingdom of Queens–aka the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing– last night. I’d been reading about this amazing basement food court packed with regional Chinese snack vendors on foodie websites like for months, but general torpor and malaise (more about that later), and my utter surety that There Is No Chinese Food In New York That Can Compare With Hong Kong’s kept me from taking the long subway ride out to the further reaches of New York’s borders.

But a few weeks ago the New York Times food page featured a full page article on Flushing’s Chinese food–basically a watered down summary of the Chowhound bloggers’ reports for a mass audience. Uh oh, I thought. Better get out there before it all disappears.

The Emperor kindly offered to whisk us to the Motherland in his royal Toyota chariot, thus sparing us an endless ride on the number 7 train. Flushing was rainy and cold when we arrived, but we found a parking spot close to Main Street right away, which the Empress proclaimed a good omen.

I’ll spare you too many details of our amazing meal, and anyway you can find the food kiosks and their various offerings obsessively documented on the Chowhound site, which even features a Rosetta Stone–a laborious line by line translation of many of the vendors’ hand-written Chinese character menus.

We split our dinner between two vendors–the guy from Xian who calls himself after his signature dish, “Cold Skin” 皮–a fresh, chilly salad of hand-cut wheat gluten and wheat noodles tossed in a vinegar/hot pepper oil dressing and spiked with chives and cilantro. Mr. Skin speaks a fair amount of Cantonese (he kept dancing over to our folding table and saying “Hou meih doh!”) in addition to Mandarin and English. No fool, this guy–he had the NY Times article pasted on a post by his open kitchen stall, and kept egging us to order more dishes.

Everything was absolutely stunning. The lai mihn noodles which the ladies were pulling and cutting right in front of us, perfectly al dente, topped with yummy, cumin-scented lamb. We shared yummy mini-pita bread round sandwiches, stuffed with the same cuminy lamb–“Just the thing to pack for lunch on your Silk Road trip,” Karrie proclaimed. Cold Skin urged the Emperor to order yeung gwat, and shortly a huge heap of braised lamb ribs, muttony goodness clinging to the bones, arrived at the table. Indeed, hou meih dou.

We ate and ate, then got up, wandered around the tiny crowded, fluorescent-lit basement warren with electrical wires loose overhead ( better get here soon, before the NYC building inspectors do!), and ate some more. The tip on the Xian guy had come from the Chowhound chronicles, but this time we just followed our stomachs, and our hearts, to a small stall where a broad-faced woman in an apron was rolling out dumpling wrappers by the dozen at a little table. The sign at the stall was hand lettered, in rather nice brush calligraphy, “seui gao”. The calligraphy, coupled with the no-nonsense description, and the amazingly dexterous flour-dusted hands of the dumpling lady, called out to me. “Let’s try this place,” I said.

The dumplings arrived, all twelve of them ($3!!) steaming and cute as babies. I noticed a steam table with veggie dishes, and ordered a plate of slivered cold potato salad as accompaniment. The owner, a guy in a baseball cap, came over to chat in Cantonese and English. He is from Tianjin, and the dumpling lady is from Qingdao, same as the beer. The basement of the Golden Mall in Flushing is like a Chinese national food convention.

Or, more to the point, like the Wang Fu Jing food street in Beijing, where migrant workers from all over the country have set up stalls featuring the culinary specialties of their region. I’ve been to Wang Fu Jing. Trust me, this little basement in Flushing is just as good. It may even be better (The general quality of foodstuffs like pork and cooking oil is probably better in New York than in Beijing). What’s more–and this is the most shocking thing to me–there is no place in Hong Kong where you can go and eat mainland Chinese street food as good as this.*

I suppose it makes sense, when you think about it. Hong Kong’s immigration policy is tight, particularly towards its northern neighbors, and as a mainlander you’ll have a hard time getting in and staying there long enough to do something like open up a hand-cut noodle stall. And, even if you do, the paucity of mainland migrants from central and north China (and the general un-adventurousness of the average Cantonese palate) means your business will have trouble finding a clientele.

But Flushing is awash in mainland Chinese from Hunan, Wenzhou, Fujian, Chengdu. (The Last Emperor laughs wryly at this turn of events–when he grew up here, he and his Toisanese family were the only Chinese among thousands of Italians and Jews.)

Immigration. Freedom of movement. America, it is true, has a blemished history when it comes to giving foreigners, particularly Asians, the big “fun ying” 歡迎, or welcome.  But on the balance, the door has been fairly open, especially since the 1960s, and all you have to do is look at the demographics to see it–by the middle of this century, the U.S. will be a nation of minorities.

And that, more than anything, is this country’s greatest strength. (Immigrants also are the strength of our even more open-door and fun-ying ge neighbor Canada). Which brings me to the Olympics.

I’m not particularly interested in fighting battles over who’s winning medal counts on Yahoo or Baidu, or squabbling about underage gymnasts, or whether a Disney-perfect kid is prettier and more charming than a sweet, chubby-cheeked little girl with crooked teeth. (Okay, I’m not being completely honest–speaking as a ex-chubby-cheeked 7 year old with an overbite and a dream to be a singer, I wanted to shut my bedroom door and cry into my pillow when I read about Yang Peiyi. Who, by the way, I think is much cuter than her picture perfect “ringer”, and I don’t think I’m alone in my opinion).

But when I look at this media-fueled uber-nationalistic Battle For World Supremacy and Gold Medals what I notice is this. On one hand you have a country intent on muffling its national minorities, making Tibetans, and Uighurs vanish into the mythical homogeneity of a Great Motherland, and throwing near impossible hurdles in the path of a non-ethnically Chinese immigrant to become a citizen. (Not to mention all the new visa application hoops put into place since last April). On the other hand, you have U.S. Olympic teams where the best athletes include teenagers named Nastia and Raj and Sasha, and whose coaches come from Rumania and, yes, even from Beijing.

This is the season of gold. China’s Politburo dreams of a gold medal coup for its hardworking, super-humanly dedicated athletes, and of re-establishing the golden era of empire. Meanwhile, in the far reaches of New York City, in a golden mall named Wong Gam, immigrants from the four corners of mainland China have their eyes on a different prize. I’ll take another bowl, please, of those Gold Medal Noodles.

*Footnote–yes, it is true you can get very, very good northern-style dumplings in Hong Kong at Wang Fu on Wellington Street. But the dumplings I had last night i
n Flushing at the “Seui Gao” stand were fresher and better. And while I am recommending New York restaurants, I must shout out another surprising find, the Fukienese “Everett” restaurant on 8th Avenue and 56th street in Sunset Park’s Chinatown, where I ate an eel soup every bit as delicious as any such dish I’ve sampled in Hong Kong. Unexpectedly, as I head back to the Big Lychee just in time to watch the LEGCO elections, I’m overcome with culinary loss and regret…