Monthly Archives: May 2009

Look Back in Anger

Yesterday afternoon
at the Legco question and answer session, as Hong Kong legislator Margaret Ng stood brimming with righteous fury before Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang , I swear I saw a halo of golden sparks shimmering around her tweedy, cropped salt-and-pepper bob.

“I have a simple question for the Chief Executive,” she spoke in her soft, no-nonsense voice. Barrister Ng is one of the few public figures in Hong Kong whose speech carries equal intelligence and gravity in both English–which she speaks eloquently, with an academic British accent–and Cantonese, which she pronounces precisely with the genteel, somewhat old-fashioned tones and inflections of Canton. My first teacher, Mr. Wen, would approve. 

“My question is this.” She paused. “On the 20th anniversary of the 1989 incident, many Hong Kong people are concerned about an issue of the most extreme importance…

“We would like to know, Mr. Chief Executive, do you, or do you not support the vindication of the June 4th (Tiananmen Square) incident?”

As I watched this drama play out(on live TV in the comfort of home, thanks to NOW Direct, Hong Kong’s own C-Span) I observed Tsang’s face freeze into that tight mask he adopts when he knows he must deal with something he’d really rather not.

Aiming his gaze out at the chamber, not at Margaret, he took a breath, and then words began pouring out.

“This is something that happened a long time ago. The national economy has grown and brought prosperity to Hong Kong….the Hong Kong people have made their own judgements.”

Margaret Ng stood again, her voice now rising in pitch, incredulity and fury. “Am I understanding the Chief Executive’s meaning? Do you mean to say that as long as the economy is prospering that we should not care about people who were killed? That we should bury our conscience for economic benefits?”

Tsang has the George W. Bush reflex. When cornered, he gets testy and starts swinging back like a street bully. “My view represents the opinion of Hong Kong people in general,” he huffed back at Margaret.

At this, a man up in the public spectators’ gallery jumped up and  started shouting Tsang down. Several security guards surrounded him, and bundled him out of the chamber. As they did, chaos broke loose down on the floor: the LSD’s Wong Yuk Man and Long Hair also began shouting. Labor legislator Lee Cheuk Yan stood up to denouce Tsang. Then, he, Margaret Ng and the rest of the 20 or so pan-democrats in the chamber turned their backs on the Chief Executive and walked out. Legco President Tsang Yok Sing had to adjourn the meeting. Later, the democrats gave a press conference and raised hastily printed banners with the slogan that swept across Hong Kong today: Tsang Yam Kuen, Bat Doih Biu Ngoh!

Donald Tsang, You don’t represent me!

Today’s Hong Kong papers are filled with unflattering headlines and stories about Donald Tsang’s sat yin 失言
–his “slip of the tongue”. (The literal meaning of the two characters 失言  combination is “lose speech”. The “sat” character is the same one you’ll find in other ill-fated Chinese expressions like failure (sat baaih), unemployed (sat yihp) and disappointed (sat mohng). )

Tsang came back out after his gaffe when the meeting resumed and apologized, kinda sort of, for his loss of words in the face of Margaret Ng’s firestorm of indignation. He said he was sorry to have raised such unpleasant emotions. His aides later ran around spinning the ridiculous excuse that Donald Tsang–the Hong Kong born and bred son of a cop– made an error because “he’s really more comfortable speaking in English than in Cantonese.” (Last year, when Tsang made an inconvenient remark in an English language interview, his spin-doctors proclaimed just the opposite).

Then, thirty minutes after the meeting, he faced the press and said that he shouldn’t have claimed to have been speaking on behalf of all Hong Kong when he suggested that people have “moved on” from the Tiananmen Square massacre.

After lunch today I saw my friend Eddie, who summed the Tsang debacle up in three words: “What an idiot.” June 4th is a couple of weeks away. Zhou Zi Yang’s posthumous memoir of the sordid behind-the-scenes story of the Tiananmen affair was published today. (if you speak Mandarin you can
listen to some of the tapes his followers smuggled out of China at the
New York Times website.)
It’s a perfect storm of bad timing. As of 6pm today, more than 2,700 members have joined the Facebook group “Donald Tsang Does Not Represent Me”.

Thanks to Tsang’s awkward handling of a pointed question he should have known was coming, it’s pretty much of a slam dunk now: there will certainly be record crowds of Hong Kongers at this year’s candlelight commemoration of the fallen Tiananmen students in Victoria Park on June 4th.

So I’m happy for Donald Tsang’s sat yin. Because the terrible, unspoken truth here is that he is right–many, many Hong Kongers would rather forget about the ugly murders of 1989, and the subsequent persecutions of the victims’ families, stick their heads in the sand and just go about their daily lives. It takes a soaring, courageous and eloquent figure like Margaret Ng to galvanize people into action, to remind them to act according to their better nature. To remind them that sometimes you must look back in anger in order to look forward with hope.

I only wish that Donald’s slippery tongue disease was as contagious as swine flu and could infect, and draw shame, on politicians across continents. Yesterday, just a few hours before Tsang’s blooper, the U.S. government–Barack Obama’s government–changed its mind and decided to block the release of photographs of the victims of American torture. And so, the Obama administration continues the Bush policy of hiding America’s own festering Tiananmen behind lies, elaborate justifications and cover ups.

Like Donald Tsang, Obama has lots of soothing words for his public. We shouldn’t dwell in the past. We need to look forward. Move on. Transform America. Rebuild the economy.

But as I’m sure Margaret Ng would say, if she were rising to the occasion in the House of Representatives in Washington DC instead of the Legco chamber in Statue Square, “What about the people who were injured and maimed? Are you saying we should just bury our consciences because it might disrupt national harmony? What about justice, our constitution, and the rule of law?

Sometimes this life I live bouncing back and forth between Hong Kong and America makes me dizzy with dislocation.  Traveling thousands of miles, between cultures and continents, the narratives of each place twist and wrap around each other, and the words of arrogance and power seem to converge into a single stream, a language that is, at once, English and Chinese.

In these dreams, Barrister Ng is standing like a beacon in Legco–or is it the U.S. Senate?–as she proclaims in her clear, steady tones: “It is our obligation to remember. Our duty to vindicate. We must therefore not hesitate to look back, and look back we shall. Now.”



Everybody I know is bun nguk. Moving. Anh thu to Happy Valley, driven away from Elgin Street by the creeping Lan Kwai Fong-ization of Central (despite the recession, the drunken expat bar scene has been spreading across my neighborhood like an extra-terrestrial mold, swallowing up the Persian carpet stores on Wyndham Street, the antique dealers on Hollywood Road. Now, Saturday nights are a parade of women encased in lycra minidresses and strapped into spike heels teetering woozily down Shelley Street’s 70 percent grade.)

In English, “moving” is a verb–the language emphasizes the action, implies the uncertainty of transition. But
in Cantonese, the stress falls squarely and practically on the noun of place: bun nguk means, literally, “change
Maybe this is why I feel so unsettled and anxiety ridden by moves, even when (or maybe especially when) I am not the one moving.

But my Hong Kong friends David and Ah Lan have no such emotional baggage. Next month they will say goodbye to their 6th floor Caine Road walkup in the tong lau  with its magical tin toi and decamp to a new flat in Kowloon Bay.

David got the keys on Friday, and Saturday morning we all went up to Gaau Lung Wan to inspect the premises.

Kowloon Bay is not a neighborhood you’d ever think to visit if you didn’t live there yourself (or know someone who did). Decades ago, in the time when the proud label “Made in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong” dangled from toys, plastic flowers and transistor radio sets, the area was an industrial center, home to small factories. But in the mid-60s, Hong Kong’s colonial government faced a housing crisis, with more than a half million squatters, refugees from Mao’s economic “reforms”, living in slum conditions. The bureaucrats embarked on a public housing program, kind of a low-rent version of Britain’s own council housing estates. The relatively unpopulated Kowloon Bay became the early staging ground for this grand social experiment, which continues to the present day.

We emerged from the MTR station at Kowloon Bay to a archeology of public housing estate architecture, old and new.

The building in the foreground, marked with the number “10” is part of Lower Ngau Tau Kok estate, and it is one of the reasons I was extra-eager to accompany David to check out his new digs (which are in a private housing estate about 10 minutes walk away). Built in 1967, “Lower Cow Head Corners” estate is a vintage example of early Hong Kong public housing architecture. It’s going under the wrecking ball in a month or so, and lately it’s been the subject of lots of newspaper and magazine articles and even an artists’ exhibit.

“Let’s cut through the estate,” David suggested. “Then you can see the old grassroots shops and food stalls.”

We entered the estate courtyard from the bright sunlight street, and headed down a narrow alleylike passageway covered with plastic tarps and the occasional corrugated iron roof. The place teemed with commerce–here there was a cha chaan teng, over there was a vendor selling cooked dishes over a steam table. A sign overhead marked the palace of “Ah Jing” the “Big King of Lo Seui Goose”.

The residential buildings were decrepit in inverse relationship to the shops’ liveliness. Most of the residents had already moved into nearby, newer tower blocks. It was not a bad move to be making, from what I could see.

entry to block 9F, Lower Ngau Tau Kok estate

I felt relieved for the people who were getting out of here. The estate had outlived its usefulness, and seemed ripe for one of those disastrous events–fire, contagion, monstrous family murders– that spread across the front page of Apple Daily illustrated by hand with helpful cartoon strip re-creations of the gory scene. Indeed, during the 2003 SARS epidemic, Lower Ngau Tau Kok was one of the hardest hit areas. (Central Hong Kong, on the other hand, was almost untouched).

And yet, I completely understood the nostalgia that Hong Kongers have been expressing for the Lower Cow Head Estate as its last moments tick away. If you believe, as I do, that the real grassroots spirit of Hong Kong is the spirit of the Chinese village modulated by the constraints of cramped urban living conditions, then Lower Cow is a brilliant, Jane Jacobs-ean creation. Here, down these narrow lanes filled with crazy quilt, makeshift businesses, is the living genius of Hong Kong people who can transform a cheerless, bureaucrat-designed public housing block into a thriving, teeming urban village. One where the poverty of private cubicle space is overwhelmed by the glorious cacophony of living in public.

“fix-it” shop, Lower Cow Head Estate

David and Ah Lan’s new flat is in an estate that’s ten minutes, and thirty years away from this scene. Built in the mid-1990s, the architecture is typical of the most recent wave of Hong Kong middle class housing: clusters of skyscraper tower blocks constructed upon wide concrete platforms that contain spaces for shops and markets.

The modern housing estates, unlike Lower Ngau Tau Kok, were designed with the control of public space in mind. After the early 1960s experiments in estate housing, the Hong Kong government decided that outdoor markets and shops were “un-hygienic”, and they set in place new policies to prevent the shopkeepers and food vendors (dai pai dongs) from setting up outside, makeshift stalls, and to force them to move into proper premises. Of course, when you force business into buildings, you create new income streams for property developers, too. 大家樂 —Everybody happy!

Except the on-a-shoestring, spontaneous small businesspeople like the ones who created the messy, marvelous urban village in Lower Ngau Tau Kok.

I’ve read the economic theory, so I know that choking off the ways that people from the grassroots can independently make a living is one of the strategies of late-stage capitalism. The big boys want Mr. Wong slaving away for them. They don’t want Ah Wong out there selling his cuttlefish sticks from a cart in the lane when they can make big rent money by having a branch of the Daai Ga Lok chain in the estate’s lower retail area.


As we walk through the ordered, undistinguished shops underneath David’s new building, I suddenly understand the source of my anxiety. All around me, Hong Kong is bun nguk, changing houses. Trading up from damp, grimy tong lau walkups and ancient housing estates one step up from the squatters hut to better, cleaner, healthier flats in the property developer’s towers.

But what kind of lives are we moving towards? The nicer private spaces bear a steep price tag that’s greater than any mortgage can cover. We–and I say this about Hong Kongers, as well as New Yorkers–have been forced into a Faustian bargain, paying for better private spaces with the richness of our public lives, and our control over them.

The longer I stay in Hong Kong the more I grasp at beloved moments. I try to freeze all my friends, and our memorable dinners enjoyed on tin tois, holding onto them like a parent does a child, filled with fear these things will vanish if I loosen my grip or glance away. Before the handover, I am told, the city’s sensi
bility was ruled by anxiety and uncertainty about the future. But now Hong Kong seems to be about fear of loss. All these precious intangible things–the texture of daily life, neighborly connections, the patch of view from your window, the vendor who sells you cuttlefish on sticks–are being stripped away, erased from existence, by the relentless machinery of Hong Kong’s government, in cahoots with crony capitalists.

This fear manifests as nostalgia for the passing of the old Lower Cow estate. But lately it also has surged in the anger over the redevelopment of Wedding Card Street, and the destruction of the Star Ferry. It is, I believe, the most potent and untapped political force in Hong Kong. If I were doing branding for the pan-democrats, I’d be making spots filled with dai pai dongs and cuttlefish vendors cross cut with leering execs from Sun Hung Kai and with ex-Housing Authority turned New World Development honcho Leung Chi Man. I would use propaganda to make the point that democracy is all that stands between a rich, satisfying community life, and the people who want to re-design public lives to suit their profit margins.

But I don’t see the pan-Democrats doing that. Half of them because they belong, or aspire to, the profiteering class, and the other half because they are so focussed on street-fighting that they’ve forgotten the essence of what they’re fighting for:

The street, unmediated, lovely, independent and messy, bursting with the smell and sound and life of Hong Kong people.

Let’s Resist the Virulent Flu Together

Friday night I was sitting at Ngau Gei eating steamed fish head with Ching Wah, Po Ying, and her daughter Fook Lik, when a mass SMS message came through on Fook Lik’s cell phone: “First case of Swine Flu found in Hong Kong!”

Immediately, the news channels jumped into breathless action, showing endless grainy black and white security camera loops of one poor Mexican flu sufferer passing through HK immigration. The Hong Kong authorities, who clearly had been marshalling all their forces for this moment, commandeered, closed and quarantined the Metropark in Wanchai, the budget hotel where the Mexican man had been staying, forcing 250 staff and tourists to remain inside. The word was that they would not be allowed out for 7 days. (There’s a Hong Kong law on the books, passed after SARS, that punishes quarantine violators with a fine of $5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment.)

The following evening, I was waiting for the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui, watching an overhead TV screen silently run and re-run shots of health personnel swathed in white protective suits swarming around the entrance to the quarantined Metropark hotel lobby. Seven or eight people waiting for the ferry wore green surgical masks over their faces. Taped up to a nearby post, I spotted this passionately hand lettered sign:

I decided then, to take the ferry back to Wan Chai instead of to Central, so I could rubberneck the scene at the Metropark.

Metropark Wanchai, Saturday May 2, 9:30 pm

It was a typical Hong Kong Police Department lockdown scene. (It made me nostalgic for the 2005 WTO demonstrations, which took place in these same Wanchai streets). The sidewalks were cordoned off on all sides, so pedestrians couldn’t get close. The press, as you can see, were crammed in a pen on the left, and the lobby windows had been screened with white paper so they couldn’t photograph inside. Police vans blocked the side street, and a big police command trailer had been set up across the street near where I stood, on the corner of Hennessey.

Cops hovered around. They were all wearing hau jau, surgical masks, a word I learned as a Cantonese student in Hong Kong in 2003.

Some cops had pulled off  the hau jau so they could eat their faan hap, their rice boxes. The press, also, were eating rice boxes. In Hong Kong, we take our flu epidemics seriously, but god forbid they should interfere with dinner.

It looked like everyone was hunkered down for a long stakeout.

After a few minutes of nothing doing, I got bored and decided to head over to the nearby Wing Wah noodle shop, home of some of Hong Kong’s best wonton soup. I shuddered to think of the misery being endured by the most unfortunate tourists and workers inside, who imagined they were coming to Hong Kong to sightsee, eat wonton mihn, work or do business, and now found themselves imprisoned in a cheap hotel crawling with doctors and Hong Kong civil service bureaucrats.

Before the authorities put up white paper in the lobby windows, intrepid HK reporters had taped up messages with their cellphone numbers, begging “inmates” to call. Stories filtered out, telling of bureaucratic confusion and bad communication. The guests were told to stay in their rooms and avoid contact with other guests. Yet they were all herded into the lobby together for meetings and examinations.

They Gave Us Spam Sandwiches For Breakfast! read the subhead in the next day’s South China Morning Post.

What, no faan hap?

The rationalist in me knows the Hong Kong government is acting totally over the top. New York has more than fifty confirmed cases of H1N1, including one death, and nobody’s imprisoning tourists in their Best Western cubicle rooms. But if you ask my inner fraidy cat which city she’d rather spend an epidemic in, New York or Hong Kong, I’d vote for the paranoid, over-kill, bureaucratic and quarantine mad Asia World City every time.

I only wish they were as fanatically concerned for my health in the long term. Thanks to the vigilance of the Hong Kong government, it is highly unlikely I’ll get swine flu, or bird flu, or any kind of flu, and die. But if the government continues its policy of building massive highway projects, and allowing tycoon developers to build walls of skyscrapers that block air circulation, I may choke to death in five years from Hong Kong’s toxic air. The number of potential flu victims is a fraction of the actual tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who suffer from environmentally caused (and exacerbated) illnesses.

If Hong Kong’s hyper-drive flu season sounds to you like a bad case of politics trumping medicine, you’re not alone. I find it unsettling that feverish emotion, not cool science, is the driving force behind the Hong Kong government’s actions. My acquaintance Dr. Lo Wing Lok, one of Hong Kong’s most respected epidemiologists said on RTHK yesterday that the quarantine of the Metropark was entirely unnecessary, from a medical and scientific point of view.

Of course he’s right. And of course that’s beside the point. What’s really underneath all these hau jaus and quarantine edicts isn’t science, but fear and guilt. The mismanagement of the SARS fiasco, and the horrible way that people, mostly frontline medical workers and poor folks in dilapidated public housing estates got sick, is still a raw memory here. No government official wants to get it wrong again this time. Better to lock up tourists and trot out the contamination suits than follow sensible science. (And–thinking long range–sensible urban planning for one of the world’s most crowded cities).

So the more nervous of us don hau jaus, while others (like the South China Morning Post’s editorial board) praise the HK government for their terrific preparation and precautionary wisdom. Meanwhile, British tourists suffer Spam breakfasts locked in cheap Wanchai hotels while the poor hapless Hong Kong taxi driver who had the bad luck to ferry the feverish Mexican from his hotel to the hospital is hunted down by the Criminal Investigative Division of the HKPD.

And I walk–maskless and free–from Wanchai back to my neighborhood in Central Hong Kong, through narrow lanes where the bubonic plague once raged, and where now financial execs buy overpriced apartments and vomit lager on the Saturday night streets.

Wash your hands. Get a good night’s sleep. Together, we will resist the virulent flu.