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Ho Yih

Deja vu time. Exactly one year after starting this blog, once again it is New Year’s Day. and once again I’m riding a bicycle down Queen’s Road in Hong Kong with a group of democracy activists from the League of Social Democrats. This time, though, our marvelous (and rare) bicycle tour through downtown Hong Kong has a more extensive route. At two pm, we gather by the waterfront in Fortress Hill, and ride through busy Causeway Bay and Wan Chai before streaking in double file towards the finish line across the street from Statue Square. “The route is longer this year,” explains the demo organizer, activist Lau San Ching. “Because this year the road to democracy in Hong Kong is longer, too.”

The sky is postcard blue, the air clear and crisp–there’s a “cold” warning up at the Hong Kong Observatory (which means that it might plunge below–yes, you Canadian readers are welcome to laugh now–50 degrees Fahrenheit. But hey, that’s pretty freezing when you live in buildings with no insulation or central heat). As we weave through crowds of afternoon shoppers, somebody fixes Long Hair up with a headset microphone so he can shout out the march’s key slogans while maintaining a firm grip on the handlebars. “Heung Gong Yi Ling Yat Yi Seung Po Syun!” “Faan Deui Leung Dihn Ga Ga!”

I take it all in, and notice I’m taking in much more than usual. In the last few weeks my Cantonese has finally moved off the miserable frozen plateau where it has been languishing all year. While my ability to read Chinese characters has steadily improved all year, my conversational Cantonese had gotten so bad that I could hardly get through daily pleasantries with the amazing Mrs. Wong Syut Ha, my doorlady. So a few weeks ago I signed up for some conversation classes, and it’s recharged my Canto-vocabulary batteries. Also, I gave myself a vacation from writing in English for the last couple of weeks, which really seems to help. When I’m wrapped up too much in one language, there doesn’t seem to be room for a second to find its way in.

In any case, I am thrilled to be understanding just about everything going on around me –from the slogans (“Hong Kong 2012 must have universal suffrage!” “Oppose the two electric company’s price hikes!”), to the instructions of the police as they guide our merry band of cyclers across intersections and around busses, trucks and cable cars.

We reach the Legco building, dismount, and a bunch of us–Long Hair, Ah Ngau (the Bull, Tsang Kin-sheng), Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai Yip–stroll over to Canteen, the only cheap cafeteria in the super-pricey Prince’s Building.

The exertion of the ride, and the beauty of the day, has worked magic–everyone’s smiling and laughing. I’m  feeling so good, I break my moratorium on greasy cha chaan teng cuisine and order siu ngaap faan–that’s a bowl of rice topped with slices of barbecued duck (mostly the skin and fat parts. As the old saying goes: Yauh yauh, yauh peih, yauh meih! If it’s oily and has skin, then it’s tasty. Yum!).

Comfort food for discomfiting times. For anyone who cares about the future and well-being of Hong Kong, it’s been a really, really crappy couple of days. Right before Christmas, as the world and the media were shutting down for the holidays, and half of Hong Kong was about to split town, the National People’s Congress sprung a surprise. Guess what! This week we’re going to meet to consider and vote on Hong Kong’s electoral future!

Those of you who’ve read about this in the international press are probably wondering why this was an event that sent the Big Chill to Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The headlines, mostly, read: “Hong Kong to have Universal Suffrage in 2017, says Chinese Government.”

Okay, so it’s a long way off, but now the Chinese leaders have committed to a timetable, so this is a huge step forward, right? That’s what Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang proclaimed, with a triumphant smirk on his face, to the Hong Kong people after the decision was announced.

As is always the case in politics–and especially in politics conducted in the Chinese language–the devil’s in the details. In two little words, actually: ho yih.

Ho yih”,  可以 , is a compound Chinese word comprised of two characters– the first, ho, means can, able, may,  and the second character, yih means “implement”. Together, the phrase is usually translated as or “may”, “permitted” or “it is possible”. According to the text of the National People’s Congress decision, the Hong Kong people ho yih have universal suffrage to elect the Chief Executive in 2017. At some time after that, (the declaration doesn’t specify when) the Hong Kong people ho yih elect their Legislative Representatives by one-person-one vote.

But ho yih, just like the English “may”, is slippery, fuzzy, indefinite. Just because you “ho yih” do something, doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to do it. Ho yih belongs to the realm of polite expressions. The radical, or root, of the character is the mouth character, 口, or hau. The mouth radical, as you’d expect, usually shows up in Chinese words that have to do with the spoken word. (In the so-called “bad” vernacular writing practiced by Hong Kong tabloid newspapers like Ta Kung Pao, you’ll notice the 口 radical appears at the left side of many colloquial Cantonese characters. It’s there as a marker to let you know that the character is a transcription of spoken Cantonese speech and not “correct” standard written Chinese.)

In other words, “Ho” is a character that has at its middle an open mouth. It might be filled with good intentions, but also might be filled with hot (albiet polite) air.

It’s a commonplace belief among non-Chinese speakers that Chinese is one of the world’s most ambiguous languages. While there’s some truth in this (Cantonese, for instance, has no words that are the exact equivalent of the English “yes” or “no”), Chinese is not lacking in direct, strong and clear language. If you want to proclaim that Hong Kong people, without any shadow of a doubt, will have universal suffrage in 2017, there’s a wide variety of phrases and expressions at your disposal, from ying goi (should), to yauh (have), to yat dihng (certainly). Or, you might use that handy, all-purpose word, one of the most widely used in Cantonese, and certainly one of the most fun to say:

Dak dak dak! says Mrs. Wong as she tells me that yes, certainly, she can collect my groce
ry delivery in case it arrives while I pop out. DAK! smiles the clerk at the stationery store when I ask if I can pay for my computer paper with the EPS card. Melvin, the genius shoe-repair guy on Cochrane Street can have my heels replaced by next Friday at the latest, dak!

The radical, or root, of the character is
彳, which means step. As in action, forward motion, accomplishment.
Hong Kong, Asia’s proud, can-do metropolis, is a city of daks–just walk down any street, and your background music is a bubbling, staccato chorus of short, high-pitched, emphatic exclamations of positive action.

The National People’s Congress resolution on the future of Hong Kong’s political development contains not a single .

What it does contain, besides those fuzzy ho yihs, is a lot of conditions. Beijing will consider the possibility of universal suffrage for Hong Kong people in 2017–if they first get a proposal from the Hong Kong government. The proposal has to be passed by two-thirds of the Hong Kong legislature. Since the legislature cannot (m’ ho yih ) be selected by universal suffrage until after the Chief Executive electoral process is settled, that means that all proposals for suffrage plans have to please a majority of the 30 Legco members in the Functional Constituency. These are the guys who are not popularly elected, who come from the moneyed, special interest classes. Will they sign on to any suffrage proposal that doesn’t give them control of the nominating process? M’ dak!

And so, the Beijing ho yih becomes even more of a ho yih. In fact I would even demote it to a yauh gei wuih (there’s a chance) or even further, to a waak je. A perhaps.

Roadmap to democracy? What roadmap? This decision from Beijing is like a beautifully presented and packaged invitation to a party. You open the heavy vellum envelope with great anticipation, and pull out the folded card, only to discover at the bottom, in small engraved print, the information that the party’s not happening until ten years in the future. And then, in even smaller type, down at the bottom, comes the kicker–that if you care to accept the invitation, you’ll have to first pay a very, very high fee.

It’s enough to make you want to burn a tire on the steps of the Chief Executive’s mansion. Or eat an entire bowl of greasy siu ngaap faan. And it adds yet another entry to the many meanings of ho yih. Now, next to “can, possible, permitted, maybe”, you can insert: Hong Kong people yearning for a voice in their own future: screw you.


I’m fine, really. No, I don’t need anything, so kind of you to ask. I’ve stocked up on take-out yu pin juk from Lau Fu on Lyndhurst Terrace (best congee in Central!), and that special fresh Greek yoghurt they sell in Oliver’s for way too much money. Truly, I wasn’t upset at all to have to cancel my birthday dinner and spend the whole day curled up on the couch instead. (Aside to HK blog watchers: did you know this amazing fact-let? Hemlock and I are born on the same day?!)

And while I’m waiting for the heavy drugs to take effect and kill the intruders who invaded my digestive system somewhere between Dumaguete and Sai Wan Ho, the comfort foods and medications from East and West are at my fingertips. What’s more, I have the most deadly weapon in the Hong Kong medical arsenal at my disposal:

The Po Chai Yuen. Protect-Assist Pills. They really work!

I haven’t read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor for a long time, but I remember her line about “emigrating from the kingdom of the well to the kingdom of the ill.” She was seriously ill, and of course I’m not, but I think that any resident of Sick-o-landia will see the world from a different angle, even if only for a few days. I must say that my brief sojourn as expat in the land of gut trouble has given me a special perspective on this week in Hong Kong politics.

I’m talking about tung. No, not as in Tung Che Hwa, 董建華, he of the newly-minted honorary Chinese University doctorate. I mean tung as in 痛.

Pain. Ouch. Tung was one of the first words I learned in Cantonese that really stuck with me. Literally, that is. I remember the afternoon my friend Leslie dragged me to her Chinese medicine si fu, master. Si fu’s consultation room was on the 18th floor of a crummy 1960s high rise on Sai Yeung Choi street in Mongkok. Hollywood couldn’t have done a better job casting this guy–he was close to 80 years old, skeletal, with a pallid complexion and a thin, grey wispy beard that came to a point. I’d had acupuncture before in New York and thought I knew what to expect. But si fu jammed the needles into me like a five year old poking a sharpened pencil into the neck of the pig-tailed little girl he’s trying to impress. Aside to language fans: did you know that in Cantonese the word for needle is also jam? So I could say that my si fu jammed the jam. And then he stuck a little piece of dried herb onto the top and lit the thing on fire! Every time he repeated this action, the Chinese doctor asked the same diagnostic question beloved of doctors worldwide:

Tung ‘m tung ah? Does it hurt?

(I don’t recommend this extreme method of language acquisition, but it certainly does work.)

Back to tung. When I began to study Chinese written language, one of the first things my teacher pointed out to me is a rather unfortuate family of Chinese characters. There are dozens of them and they all share the same building block, or radical. In Cantonese it is called nik, and looks like this:

Radicals, as a lot of you certainly know already, are used to organize the words in Chinese and Chinese-English dictionaries (along with the number of strokes in a character). Opening my dictionary to the
疒 section, here’s the first few entries:

prolonged illness
plague, sickness, jaundice, hemorrhoids,  rashes, eruptions

(Ah yes. In Chinese, as in English, love can make you sick.)

Anyway, you get the idea. The radical 疒 must be the most worn-down key in every physician’s computer. I must ask Dr. Lo about this next time I see him. Which hopefully will be in social, not clinical circumstances…

Living, as I have this week, in the Land of Tung has made me more sensitive to the manifestations of tung in the world around me. And by this I don’t mean just 痛苦 tung fu, pain and suffering, but also variations
痛恨, tung han, to hate bitterly, and 沉痛 cham tung, bitterly resentful. Actually, cham tung is a pretty heavy number: it literally means to sink into, to become addicted to the pain of your hatred and resentment.

As I watched the Secretary of Home Affairs, Tsang Tak-sing, personally attacking newly elected legislator Anson Chan on the live TV broadcast of this Wednesday’s Legco meeting (brought to me in living color by the marvelous new NOW Direct TV–more on this later), all I could think of was cham tung.

I would argue that cham tung is the dominant emotion of the pro-Beijing DAB leadership. How else to explain them? Look at their faces, gloating and gleeful like bullies when they “won” the District Council elections last month (even though they are fighting with brass knuckles against wimpy democrats with legal degrees), twisted with hatred when they think they have lost face, as they did with Anson Chan’s decisive victory on Monday.

Tsang Tak-sing--who is the brother of Tsang Yok-sing, the former head of the DAB (Cantonese parents often name their various children in “parallel”–Tak-sing, Yok-sing)  lost his cool on Wednesday when he came out and attacked Anson Chan for being a Johnny-come-lately democrat while delivering a speech as a spokesperson of the Hong Kong government.  Sure, his assesment of Chan’s career twist is absolutely correct. She was one of the top bureaucrats at the table crafting and approving many of the bad policies that Hong Kong suffers under today. Still, in politics (and even more so in Cantonese culture) you figure out a way to slice someone elegantly. You don’t mix personal and professional and lose your cool in public, as Tsang did–major bad.

But cham tung is a powerful, uncontrollable force. Tsang Tak-sing, like most of his DAB senior cohorts, has been working for the Chinese Communist Party since he was a high school student in the late 60s. Back then, to be pro-left meant that you were fightin
g the British Colonial powers, which was not an unpopular or unjustified position at all. The far-leftists, however, got carried away. Some of the groups got violent. Bombs went off and innocent people died. And Tak-sing got arrested in 1967, at the height of the action, for passing out pro-Communist leaflets criticizing the British colonial education system at his school, the elite prep academy St. Paul’s College.

Convicted under the draconian sedition laws of the colony, he was sent to Stanley Prison for two years. He came out with a felony record and couldn’t apply to university. (His brother Yok-sing went on to become a graduate of Hong Kong U.) Tak-sing’s adolescent revolutionary fervor was costly to him personally.

After the handover, the DAB guys were jubilant, and figured they’d be rewarded for their unswerving loyalty to the Little Red Book. But it hasn’t quite worked out the way they imagined the Glorious Motherland would arrange it. Yeah, they got perks parceled out to them–Tak-sing, who spent years editing Ta Kung Pao, even snagged a minister’s position last year. Still, there is bitterness, tung fu, to suck down for these Mao-quoting true believers. For instance, the person occupying the Chief Executive’s mansion of Hong Kong is not a fellow traveler of the lefty Tsang brothers, but a very differnt Mr. Tsang who is not only a former bureaucrat of the British Civil Service–he even has a knighthood bestowed by the Queen!

And, bitterness of bitterness, another smiling Brit-trained bureaucrat is now sitting in Legco–in the seat that’s right next to Tak-sing’s brother, legislator Tsang Yok-sing!

My stomach cramps in distress, thinking about these layers and layers of bitterness. Is there no escape from cham tung? Is Hong Kong’s government forever at the mercy of these men and women filled with angry resentments that go back 30 and 40 years? Tsang’s dispropotionate punishment at the hands of the British  sowed his heart with bitterness–a bitterness that, decades later, is causing suffering to anyone who hopes for a democratic Hong Kong. Will these ugly emotions never die? History, in this city, sometimes feels like one of those ghosts in a Hong Kong horror movie–just as you think the hero has banished it, it pops up out of the ground gloating like a victorious DAB party official, and wraps itself around your neck.

Ugh. Hou tung, indeed. Hand me the po chai yuen.

Hau Houh

Here in downtown Hong Kong, there’s no escape from the upcoming Legco by-election. The posters began popping up last week. Shop windows, building walls, market stalls, every merchant in my neighborhood is coming out of the closet to show support for their favorite candidate. This is not such a great thing. A moral dilemma now confronts me every time I run an errand. The stall of the stinky tofu seller in the gaai sih, the Graham Street market, is awash in Regina Ip posters–should I go buy my stinky tofu from a less odiferous shop? My beloved Perfect Laundromat has, thank goodness, decided to keep its politics separate from the dirty linen, but its competitor down the street, the Ho Ho Laundry,  has two dimpled photos of democracy doyenne Anson Chan on its walls. Should I be supporting Hong Kong democracy by changing my laundromat, even if it doesn’t use my favorite fabric softener?

I head down Lyndhurst Terrace, to the bank, and as I’m standing on line I notice a mini-shrine to Anson Chan in the window of the Tai Cheong bakery:

This one’s no surprise. Tai Cheong is the bakery that hangs its reputation on the loyal patronage of Chris “Fatty” Patten, Hong Kong’s egg-tart-loving colonial governor (Anson Chan was Patten’s number two). Eat daan taat for lunch, support Democracy in Hong Kong!

The staunch support for Regina Ip amongst the fishmongers, pork butchers and vegetable hawkers in the old market, though, doesn’t make much sense to me. Regina Ip is pro-goverment, and this is the same government that is about to steamroll over the Central Street market with an urban renewal project–aka, two luxury apartment towers, a hotel, some office buildings, and a “heritage corner” that will “preserve” the old food market by re-creating several stalls in a shopping mall. These vegetable sellers and pork butchers will have to abandon their businesses and retire, or move out to Tuen Mun, thanks to the visionary people at the HK government who see nothing wrong with bulldozing another of Hong Kong’s most famous attractions, Asia’s oldest outdoor food market.

Surely the market vendors don’t want more of this sort of government policy. So why in the world are they backing Ms. “I’ll Do Better Than My Best”?

Or, I should say, Ms. San dik yat yihp gang cheut sik, which is the official Cantonese slogan, or hau hou, of the Regina Ip campaign. This is as good a moment as any to tell you that I love the Chinese characters for “hau houh”.


…which consist of the character , which means “mouth” and the character, which is used for a lot of things: number, position, symbol. You’ll see it most frequently in addresses, and on the doors of houses and buildings, sometimes on license plates–think of it as the Chinese #.

But back to Regina’s hau hou. As readers of this blog will have guessed by now, Ip’s Cantonese slogan has absolutely nothing to do with her (pretty lame and arguably ungrammatical) English one. It’s a wordplay that riffs off the character for Ip’s surname, which in Cantonese is pronounced yip, and is the same character and sound as the Cantonese word for leaf. Literally translated, it goes like this: (The) New Leaf (Is) Even More Outstanding
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You don’t have to be a brilliant campaign strategist to get what Ip’s handlers are trying to do here–position their candidate as an All! New! Improved! No MSG or Article 23! reformulated product.

Will the Ip–or Yip– hau hou do the trick? My guess is not. Any savvy campaign strategist will tell you that if you want the public to forget about your past actions, you stop mentioning them and move on to the next news cycle. But embedded in Ip’s campaign slogan is a constant, nagging reminder of the “old leaf”–Ip’s previous incarnation, as the Bureaucracy Broomhead who tried to ram through legislation that would have allowed police to search and seize property without warrant any time they suspected that “national security” was being breached.

The other problem with Ip’s slogan is that it is ripe for, um, reinterpretation:

The night before last, Long Hair showed up at a Regina Ip rally waving–what’s this!?–a big Regina Ip poster. But wait a minute, what’s that hau hou?


In Cantonese, it sounds almost the same: San Dik Yat Yip Mouh Cheut Sik. But it’s a clever parody that dumps the original meaning of the slogan on its head by substituting a different “yip” character for Regina’s surname. The meanings of this yip are as bad as it gets–evil, monstrous, bastard (son of a concubine). The “new, improved” Regina hau hou states: (The) New Evil (has) No Future.

Actually, it’s even worse than worst. Long Hair (“Yes of course I wrote this. It only took me a minute”) told me that the yip Chinese character he used has a Buddhist/Taoist connotation to it. “It is like the most evil of evil. The kind that you need to expurgate and work through so you don’t carry it on to your next life. And if you don’t get rid of the bad karma you have no future, you could be re-incarnated as an animal.”

Or a broom? Seriously, as long as we’re getting all Taoist here, I would like to point out something that I’ve yet to see mentioned in the reams of commentary that have been spun out about this special election for the future of Hong Kong’s Democracy movement–aka the six remaining months of an unexpired seat in Hong Kong’s hamstrung legislature. And that is not the hau houh but the houh.

Houh as in number. Regina Ip’s poll position is the deadly 4–the sei, that rhymes with sei that means death (which is the reason why this Legco seat came available in the first place…coincidence..or destiny?). Note how Ip’s graphic designers have tried to downplay the fatal digit by burying that 4 in an uninspiring light pastel orange against a blurry background (compare this to the bright red, eye-popping and bad-omen-free “7” on Anson Chan’s poster).

They know. Regina Ip cannot run away from her yip past, or her unfortunate houh. That’s it. This Sunday, sei la!–she’ll be history.


“I shall pass this way but once. Therefore, if there is any good that I can do, or kindness I can show to any person, let me do it now. For I shall not pass this way again.”

Long Hair pauses after his recitation. “Do you know that one? I really like that saying. I read it in the preface of a book. Do you know it?”

I do. It’s from some Quaker minister, I think. The launching pad for 1,000 Sunday sermons in the United States heartland. But I haven’t heard anyone recite it in decades. This is why I come to Hong Kong: to be reminded of all the small, everyday commonplaces of my own culture. There are so many things about America that Leung and his friends remember and hold in their minds and hearts; things that I have completely forgotten.

Why is Leung waxing poetic after midnight over bad red wine at Club 71? A silly question for anyone who has been in Hong Kong for the past few days, watching as disgraced knights of local politics fling themselves publicly and noisily upon their swords with bitter remorse. Blood is flowing down every gutter, and the tortured, cat-like wails of mea culpas rise from the twisted alleys of Hong Kong’s darkest night of the soul.

The Democrats have lost.

Leung quickly corrects me: “The Democratic Party has lost, not the pan-Democrats.” He’s right. The pan-Democrats did pretty okay, all things considered, in the District Council elections. Their opponents had all the time and money and workers, plus the added edge of being the “pro-Government” party. If you want a district councillor to help you get your sidewalk fixed, or your rent lowered, who would you rather have working for you, a guy who’ll be kept twiddling his thumbs outside the office, or a DAB member who can walk right in and pull some insider strings? The game is stacked, just the way Beijing likes it. And yet, despite it all, the pan-Dems held on to 93 seats versus the DAB’s 115.

Leung’s LSD acquitted themselves well, held on to 3 seats and added 3 more. The Democratic Party (that is, the Man Jyuh Dong), on the other hand, took a blow, and lost 38 seats, a third of their districts, including some incumbent seats. Now their leaders are tripping over each other to apologize in public.

In Cantonese, the concept of “sorry” is even harder to get a grip on than Cantonese’s shifty and slippery thank you. There are a lot of ways to say sorry, depending on what kind of sorry situation you’re in. The simplest, most low-key Hong Kong apology, the thing you might say, for instance, if you bump into someone on the street, or accidentally trip over someone’s foot while trying to get out of a packed MTR is easy to remember. The most commonly used Cantonese expression on the streets of Hong Kong is straight out of English: sorry.

If you want to sling your “sorry” just like a Hong Kong native, pronounce it with a high tone on the first syllable, descending to a low on the second syllable (and remember to slur the “r” into a slight “l” sound). Also remember to spread the word around a lot more liberally than you might in a less polite and population-dense place. Hong Kong is a city in which you can never be too sorry.

Now here comes the fun part. See the guy sitting on the MTR, the one with the foot poking out in the aisle? He is clearly negligent and rude, hogging four extra inches of space that obviously belong to you, the unfortunate straphanger without a seat. But when you trip over his offending big foot, sorry is the word that should immediately emerge from your lips. Say it loudly, and draw out that first high syllable archly, and he and everybody else sitting in the car will understand that your “sorry” is the Cantonese word for: “Hey, you stupid pook gaai, get your lazy fat foot out of everybody’s way!”

The borrowed-from-English “sorry”, however, is not a deep enough expression of regret for the more serious and embarrassing social situations. For that, you have to dip into the next Cantonese level of sorry, deui ‘m jyu and m’hou yi si.

The first sorry, deui m’ jyu means, literally, correct-not-stay. But the meaning, as used, comes closer to the written Chinese version of this colloquial expression, which is 對不起 , “correct-not-rise”.  A deui m’ jyu is an expression of personal responsibility to another person. I’m not correct here, I let you down. I don’t know if I can face you.

Sorry Number Two, m’hou yi si is a bit lighter, a sorry not of shame but of politeness. Its literal meaning is “bad intention,” and it is usually brandished on occasions that involve an improper action, some social misstep on your part. (You can also use it before you make an intentional misstep, as a polite way of preparing people for it). You show up late for a meeting? M’ hou yi si. You accidentally forgot to respond to an invitation? Blurbed out something in conversation that embarrassed everyone because it was inappropriate and/or ill-timed? M’hou yi si (But if what you spilled to the group was a remark that hurt a particular friend, you owe that friend a deui m’ jyu).

Clearly, now is a major deui m’ jyu moment for a lot of Democrats. And Long Hair thinks this is deui, proper and correct, as it should be.  “Albert Ho should resign. Frederick Fung was right to resign,” Leung says. “They failed. They didn’t work hard enough in the district level.” (Leung faithfully spends each Monday evening behind a folding desk in Tai Wai for hours as his thousands of constituents petition him with problems, schemes, and, in once case I observed, a paper bag full of shit. He has no reason to deui m’jyu.)

Here’s the Leung Kwok Hung take on what the results of the District Council Elections mean: “The poor people are the ones who come out faithfully and vote in the district council elections, and they vote to take care of themselves. Because the poor people are the ones who may need the district councillor’s help. If the middle class person has a problem, they will hire a lawyer, or write a letter of complaint. They don’t need someone to translate an English document, they can take care of it themselves. But the people with no recourses look to their district councillor. And the DAB has money to put its people in the districts doing that kind of work full time. So of course the grassroots people will all come out and vote for them in district council elections, while a lot of the middle class will just sit home and not vote. That’s why the DAB could win in districts that have lots of pro-Democracy support.”

“But those sit-on-hands voters will come out and vote for Legislative Council, because they want political representation. And this defeat in the district elections is the best thing that Anson Chan and the pan-Democrats could hope for in the elections. It will mobilize pan-Democrat voters on Hong Kong island.”

Long Hair falls silent. Even the alley cats in the lot across from Club 71 have gone to sleep, it’s after 1am. I wonder what he’s going to say next–and I know there is something unspoken hanging in the stillness. I’m sorry, Long hair, m’hou yi si, bu
t I gotta ask this:

What about you? You’re up for election next year. You won on the coattails of 2003, the anti-Tung movement. Now Tung Chee Hwa–in large thanks to you–is history, a fuzzy memory. The middle class, happy in their economic bubble, may sit this next one out, or vote for the squeaky-clean barristers of the Civic Party. The disgruntled civil servants may vote for someone else. Doesn’t this worry you? What are you going to do?”

He leans back and shrugs his shoulders. “What can I do but what I am doing? At the end of the day, the people will decide. And if they reject me–well, they are the voters. The golden rule of democracy, of universal suffrage, is that you have to accept the result. Even if the people give you George Bush. Twice. The government may be bad, or doing something you don’t like, but the principle of democracy doesn’t change. You have to honor the will of the people, no matter what.”

This is what Beijing doesn’t get. Or Bush and his Republican cronies. They want democracies in which they can fix the game, in which they can control what happens before it does. But of course, these are not real democracies. It is the tragedy of our century that this is the kind of “democracy” that is replacing the one that men dreamed about and fought for hundreds of years ago.

Like I said, I come to Hong Kong to remember what I’ve forgotten about America.

Yauh Chau, Yauh Yit

Saturday morning, Long Hair calls. “I’ll be protesting on Paterson Street this afternoon, why don’t you meet me there?” He doesn’t say who or what he’ll be protesting, but when I get to Causeway Bay around 3pm, I’m not surprised to find a Regina Ip rally in full swing. She’s sitting on a chair in the middle of the pedestrian street in front of a banner that says “Show the power of Facebook! Show your support for Regina!” Apparently, Ip is using Facebook as a campaign tool which strikes me as a terrific tactic–if you are running for freshman class president. (Catfight alert! Anson Chan has joined the Facebook campaign, too–and she has four times as many “friends” as Regina…)

I glance around, and sure enough, to Ip’s right, there’s a long bamboo pole swaying to and fro above the former Security Secretary’s head. At the top end of the pole is a bright red banner with lots of hand-lettered Chinese characters I can’t read. At the bottom end of the pole is Long Hair.

“What does this say?,” I ask him, and he
smiles. “Hard to explain. It’s like a Chinese poem. I say that Regina
Ip is like a toilet stone.” As I stand there, looking totally
bewildered, Long Hair’s assistant, Peter, trying to be helpful, chimes
in: “Chinese toilet stones.”

mind,” says Long Hair. “I’ll explain it to you later. Too bad you are
late. You didn’t see me hand my petition to Regina. She said I was a
nice person, a gentleman. That’s because I opened a door for her once
at Legco. She was very surprised and didn’t expect it, so she
hesitated. And then the door slammed in her face. Accidentally of
course. “

He is playful, gleeful, grinning and dancing
restlessly from one foot to another. Long Hair lives for these street
confrontations. “Look at her–see how nervous I make her? She cannot
relax because she knows I am right here. So I will
follow Regina around for the next two weeks. This is a war!”

is wrapping up. She finishes her speech and heads to a waiting car,
surrounded by her security guys.

“Hey, we’re going to go out now to
support some of our district council candidates. Want to come?”

course I can’t refuse Long Hair’s invitation to get an inside look at
Hong Kong’s district council elections. So I wait while his supporters
roll up the “toilet stone” banner, and we head for the Cheung
Mo-mobile, a white panel truck completely painted over with Long Hair’s
caricature, his name, and various political slogans. The van is the
nerve center of Long Hair’s mobile protest
operation–in the back there’s a huge stack of black speakers, a couple
of loudhailers, cartons overflowing with leaflets, folding tables, a
couple of bamboo poles for banners. When we get stuck in traffic at the approach
for the Eastern Tunnel, passing truckdrivers wave, and taxis beep their
horns or roll down the window to yell, “Waaay! Cheung Mo!.

headed for Kwun Tong, where one of Long Hair’s long-time colleagues,
Chan Po Ying, is running for district council in a three-way race. The
district, which has 14,422 voters, consists of seven buildings in a
public housing estate, Tsui Ping South. Chan, a single mother of 51 who has a masters degree
in social work, is a community activist. For seven years she ran an NGO
for women workers that’s headquarted in Tsui Ping South estate. Now she
is running for the council seat here under the banner of the League of Social Democrats.

The common wisdom about Hong Kong’s district
council elections is that the voters aren’t concerned with big issues
like universal suffrage, but with the everyday problems in their
communities–sidewalk cracks, dangerous intersections, smelly garbage.
That’s why the pro-Beijing DAB is supposedly so sucessful getting their
candidates elected at this level–because they concentrate on the
little problems, the local stuff. (And because they, notoriously, have an endless Yangtze River flow of mysterious funds–enought to take busloads of elderly people out for outings and lunches on
election day).

The LSD doesn’t have lunch money, but Po-Ying’s background in community work, and her track record as a
social worker in this housing estate would seem to make her a very
attractive candidate.

We pull into the estate, a grey
institutional block of deteriorating high-rise buildings (the estate
dates from 1989, which in Hong Kong terms means it’s ancient). This is the other side of
“boom boom Hong Kong”. Sad laundry sags from racks sticking out of most
of the windows.

The estates around here were built to house the workers
in the nearby factories–Kwun Tong was once one of Hong Kong’s major
manufacturing centers. Now most of the factories have moved across the
border. The people who live here work as low wage cleaners and store clerks. If they work at all. Since the current economic bubble has lifted property values in all Hong Kong’s neighborhoods, not just the rich ones, rents are soaring, and
nobody who lives here now can afford to move out of their dingy, but
subsidized, government housing.

In the distance, I see a band of
about 20 young women and children wearing yellow vests. They are
holding bright yellow banners on poles and chanting, “Chan Po-Ying! Tauh sam hou!” Vote Number 3! Chan Po Ying.

Ying–whom I’ve known casually for about three years–spots me and
waves excitedly. A campaign supporter runs over and grabs my hand, “Gan ngodeih la!” Follow
us! At this point, Long Hair decides to bail. “I  better go to Shatin
now…I’m late to help my buddy running for DC up there. Stay here with
Po Ying, you will find it interesting.” He jumps in the
Cheung-Mo-mobile, and speeds off.

I fall in with the little
yellow parade. We weave through the concrete platforms between the
buildings. Then, suddenly, we stop in front of a high rise, and
assemble in formation. Chan Po Ying steps out in front, takes a mike
that is connected to a loudhailer, faces the wall of windows and
hanging laundry, and begins to speak about minimum wage, the hard times
faced by working people, the problems of the estate.

At first
it seems very strange–there are only a few elderly people around
listening. It seems like Chan is literally talking to walls, delivering speeches to the sides
of buildings. But the logic of this form of campaigning quickly becomes
apparent. Since you can’t drive around in the estate (there are only
footpaths and large concrete plinths, typical of Hong Kong’s dreary
institutional public housing architecture), you can’t use a truck with
a loudspeaker here. And since there’s no MTR exit to stand by, nor any
high-trafficked path, shouting at hanging laundry seems like the best way to
make contact with voters in this estate.

Still, it seems like a
lot of effort for very little result. As I troop with the troops, I
fall into conversation with one of Chan’s supporters, a bright young
woman just out of college who worked as an intern in Chan’s NGO office
here. “I hope that Chan will win, but it will be hard. Because there is
another guy running from the Civic Party in this district.”

shocked to hear this. The Civic Party, the Democratic Party and the LSD were
supposed to be cooperating in the district council races, to make sure
they formed a united front against the DAB. In other words, there
aren’t supposed to be two pan-Democratic candidates running in the same district. What happened?

don’t know,” says the supporter. “They are badly organized.” The Civic
Party sent a “parachute” candidate into Tsui Ping, 26 year old Kwan
Chi-kin. He doesn’t live in the district, and has not been a community
organizer here–he’s an unknown. He will split the pro-democracy vote, for sure.
Incumbent Fung Mei-wan, the DAB sympathizer, will certainly win. (And the following day, Fung handily wins re-election, with 2,838 votes to Chan’s 359 and Kwan’s 887).

Civic Party has only one tactic–to get as much media attention as they
can. But that doesn’t work in a district council election,” sighs the
young supporter. “You need to understand the needs of the grassroots.”
She is too polite to put it more directly: the comfortable lawyers and
professionals in the Civic Party haven’t a clue about how to speak to
the heart of a Hong Kong worker struggling to rise from a shabby
housing estate. Sure, universal suffrage is hugely important,
ultimately, to the future of this worker. But you have to offer
something more tangible and compelling than intellectual and moral
arguments to win the votes and support of people on the other side of
Hong Kong’s widening economic divide.

And even then, politics is
politics is politics, whether you are in Hong Kong or New York or
London. “It’s a big advantage being an incumbent,” observes my buddy
Andrew To (who successfully defended his district council seat against the DAB’s shrill challenger, talk radio host and “legal executive” “Angel” Leung, by a vote of 2,825 to

Andrew and Angel met last month in a raucous RTHK TV debate that has become a YouTube classic. But Andrew doesn’t think the debate made any difference in the outcome. “Not that many voters saw it, although we did distribute a CD. But I don’t think the results at this level have to do with
the media but with voter mobilization. I got almost the same number of votes in this
election as I did last time. People already know who they want to vote
for and I made sure I got all my supporters out. Also, if you are currently in office, as long as you don’t have a scandal, people would be likely to vote for you. It is human nature to not want
change.” Andrew’s right: incumbency is like inherited wealth. Americans usually re-elect their congressmen, and Hong Kongers
are no different. Virtually all the sitting district council candidates who ran yesterday won.

It is also human nature to follow the leader.
And that is what the DAB is all about. They’re taking orders from the
Big Party over the border, demonstrating a lockstep discipline that
Republican Chairman Karl Rove can only dream of. Meanwhile the
pan-Democrats are trying to forge a winning team from a loud, messy
family that includes wealthy barristers, feisty unionists, grassroots
activists and civil servants with expensive hairdos.

The papers today are spinning the results as the “triumph” of the DAB. I wouldn’t exactly call it that. Out of 405 seats, they won 115, and 94% were re-elected incumbents. Respectable, but hardly a rout. If you count up all the pan-Democratic parties–and there are two new ones formed since the last election in 2003–the total number of pro-dem seats is 93. Since the DAB had the lion’s share of the campaign money, and the majority of incumbents, I don’t see much evidence of their political genius, or their surging public support. Truth be told, the DAB aren’t
really great campaigners. Their “platform” consists of repeating the
correct party line, and their repertoire of tactics is straight out of
the old school political playbook: smears, threats and a chicken and
rice box for every voter. It is only compared to the pan-Dems that they look like

I was in the middle of chewing this over with Hemlock over
breakfast yesterday morning, when I was interrupted by an unexpected phone call:
Long Hair. “Hey, I just finished protesting Donald Tsang at the polls.
I’m on Robinson Road, where are you?” Two minutes later, he had joined us
for coffee, all charged up by his close encounter with his favorite
adversary. But Long Hair, what about the district council elections? “We messed up,” he shrugs. We should have been more organized.”

The voting has just started, but the election is already yesterday’s news to him, Long Hair’s gathering
his stones for the next battle. Oh yes, about those stones: “The poem on my
banner was from a Chinese proverb. In the old days, you know we used to go
to the toilet on stones. The urine would run off, but the shit would
stick and then you could collect it to use as fertilizer in the fields.
So the toilet stones would always be stinky and hot. Just like Regina Ip. Yauh chau yauh yit.”

Three Days in Shanghai, 47 Xiao Long Bao later…

I’ve been on the road, in Shanghai and the Philippines, eating for the International Herald Tribune. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been up to:

Scouring Shanghai for the perfect dumpling

Read it all here

Sleepless Nights

Sunny is visiting from Manila. He lived in Hong Kong for 8 years, but left the city, and his bank job in 2005. He is my big-time food buddy. You know that saying about the Cantonese–that they’ll eat anything with four legs that isn’t a chair, anything with wings that isn’t an airplane? The truth is that most Hong Kong people I know are fussy eaters. Leung won’t eat shrimp or anything with fish sauce. He doesn’t like crabs, too much fuss. Ah Lan doesn’t like cheese. Anh-thu is–my god, the horror–a vegetarian. Only Sunny, the Filipino banker, will eat ANYthing. I mean anything. Everyone should have a friend who feels free to call you up and say, “Hey, I’m going to Sheung Wan for duck blood soup, and afterward we’re going to get some fried pig ear, wanna join me?”

Tonight’s a light night, for us–just a plate of lo seui ngo and some crispy-fried taro at Sheung Hing. Afterwards, I lead Sunny on a long, post-prandial hike back to my apartment the roundabout way, snaking up and down narrow stone stairs, then along my favorite little street, Tai Ping Shan Douh, and across the little “sitting out” catwalk that’s  behind and above Bridges Street. It’s Sunday, and silent. Heavy incense from the three temples on Tai Ping Shan, and from private houses fills the air with perfume. The roots of stately, ancient banyan trees drip across the sides of old Chinese buildings, tong laus. “You stand here,” I say, “And you can imagine what Hong Kong was like 40 years ago. I don’t think much has changed.”

“Yeah,” Sunny quips. “It’s probably next up on the ‘urban renewal’ list. It’ll be gone the next time I come back to visit.”

We descend to Bridges Street, and bam! Back to neon and boutiques, overpriced French and Italian food (there is now exactly one real Chinese restaurant left in Soho) and “civilization”, aka “Urban Lifestyle District”. I know it is civilization because the real estate shops (which, in Soho, now outnumber laundries and even 7/11’s) have all of their signs posted in English. And the signs are not favorable.

“Jeez, $15,000 for 370 square feet? What are they thinking?” says Sunny.

It’s boom-boom time in Central. Real estate in my neighborhood is through the roof because few or none of the Western newcomers to Soho is paying his rent with “real” money. As Sunny explains to me, the big financial corporations usually give their expat workers a housing allowance. “I had one when I was working for XXX investment bank. I lived in the most gorgeous apartment I will ever live in, in my entire life. It was way too much, it cost $30,000 a month. But I had to spend the allowance on housing, or else I’d lose it altogether.”

Interesting. I’d never thought of this before. What a boon to the Hong Kong island property cartel– 200,000 expats with non-transferable housing allowances! Meanwhile, because expats tend to cluster in neighborhoods with other expats, the per-square-foot price of certain Hong Kong areas–Soho, MidLevels, Causeway Bay, Star Street, Happy Valley–is soaring, boosted by this foreign “funny money”. I’m afraid to speak any more, because my rent level is pre-boom, and I’m superstitious. On the other hand, the texture and local life that drew me to this neighborhood has pretty much disappeared. I have to skip down remote back alleys on Sunday nights to find a hint of it. Not to mention put up with the clatter and commotion of new construction and renovation by day, drunk rugby fans by night.

And what about the housing situation of Hong Kong citizens? Lately I have been scouting around outlying nabes (Sai Ying Pun, Tin Hau, Tai Hang, Shau Kei Wan) looking at flat prices…just in case…and I’ve rarely come across anything posted that is renting for less than 30 dollars a square foot. Or selling for under 2.8 million HKD. (And the ads I’m checking are only in Chinese, no English). Yet there are lots and lots of Hong Kongers–taxi drivers, for instance– making only 10 or 15,000 a month. How can anyone afford to rent a flat, much less buy one?

With the district elections coming up, it’s becoming au courant for HK politicos to concern themselves with the housing and economic squeeze that Hong Kong’s regular folks are suffering, during this time of crazy money. In fact, there’s a bit of a real estate “boom” in the making at the low end, as politicians scramble to experience the grassroots lifestyle for themselves. This past week, DAB vice-chairwoman (and corporate managing director) Ann Chiang Lai-Wan bunked down with a family in the blighted Tin Shui Wai district. Well, she stayed on the sofa in their public housing flat for one night, anyway, before fleeing to the Harbour Plaza, a nearby luxury hotel. “If I don’t get enough sleep, how can I study the problems of the district?” she told reporters.

Indeed. Meanwhile, in Chai Wan, our erstwhile DAB-endorsed candidate for LEGCO, Regina Ip, spent a night with a family in a public housing estate, to personally investigate the residents’ complaints that noise from the nearby MTR train was disturbing their sleep. Ip did manage to survive the entire night–but to be fair to Ann Chiang, she did have her own private bedroom

(the family’s daughter, in a very haak hei gesture, relinquished her room to the distinguished guest and former Security Secretary.)

With all the politicians rushing to slum it in Hong Kong’s housing estates, it’s worthwhile to remember that there is one–and only one–prominent local politician who doesn’t need any help in locating a public housing estate flat to “investigate”…

Hey, maybe Long Hair should invite some of his DAB colleagues in the Legislative Council for a sleep-over. But they will have to bring their own teddy bears.

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.

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.

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.)

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

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.

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

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!

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.


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.”

Write Words

I was in New York this past summer when the King of Kowloon
passed away. He was in his 80s, lived in an old folks home, and his
health had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t walk around and
practice his life’s passion: se jih.
Write words. I have loved his work since the moment I first saw a mural
he painted on the wall of my friend Lau Kin Wai’s restaurant, the
Yellow Door. Mr. Lau, who writes a column for Seun Bo, used his connections to get the King into the “real” art world–he helped get Gau Lung Wong’s works included with Hong Kong’s contributions to the Venice Biennale.

mural at Mr. Lau’s restaurant was unusual, for the King of Kowloon
preferred to paint on Hong Kong’s public spaces–walls, pillars,
underpasses. This I dug a lot, because I lived in New York City during
the Graffitti Years, which spawned two of the great visual artists of
the 1980s, Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. I can remember
walking in the New York subway in the late 1970s,
searching like a treasure hunter for Haring’s and Basquiat’s
characteristic icons–the stick figure man, and the little crown with
the words SAMO–sketched
in white chalk on empty black advertising billboards. There were a lot
of these unsold billboard spaces at the time, because New York back
then had just declared bankruptcy, and the city was broke. All cities
go through these phases, booms and bust times. Hong Kong is the same.
The late 70s in New York had the empty, desolate feel of the spring and
summer of 2003 in Hong Kong, SARS time.

The King of Kowloon was,
by most reports, a bit of a madman. He really thought he had a claim to
Kowloon, and his calligraphy was his way of making a public protest. If
you translate his work, you’ll come up with an obsessive repetition of
his name(s), and those of his ancestors. (He also enjoyed dissing the Queen of England.) The King was “tagging” his turf,
just like the new York graffiti artists of the 70s and 80s. Was there
anything to the King’s proclamations? Who knows–but the important
thing is he shouted out over and over again, in bold, aggressive,
modern brushstrokes full of soul and personality, anywhere he could
find an empty space or a sympathetic person to give him a platform
(like Mr. Lau, or more famously, Fruit Chan in his movie Hong Kong Hollywood.
Fruit had the King do his thing on the body of a pig. As an expression
of Cantonese protest culture, I can’t think of a more perfect vehicle.)


Just about every day, when I’m walking around Hong Kong or anywhere else in China for that matter, I think about the King of Kowloon. I see his traces in the crude but lively hand-lettered signs posted on pedestrian gates by the second-hand electronics dealers, in the quickly scrawled but personality-filled daily menus tacked to the walls of a cha chaan teng.

In Chinese, the written word carries a greater weight, relative to the rest of the culture, than in English. A Chinese character has serious gong fu. It can be, at once, art, literature, history, performance and protest. As a writer who works in the English language, I get a little jealous when I contemplate the awesome power of the Jung Man jih. It wraps meaning, symbol, history, personality, passion, dance
movement and aesthetics into a single act.
We English-language writers console ourselves with the old saying “The pen is mightier than the sword.” But in Chinese language, the pen really is the sword.

In Mainland China, the art and practice of se jih has suffered two heavy blows since the Communist revolution of 1949. The first was the forced introduction of simplified characters in the early 1950s–a messy and hastily conceived affair that had good intentions (the less-complex characters were supposed to make it easier for more Chinese to learn to write), but a couple of really bad side-effects (the new system messed up the character radicals, the building blocks of meaning in Chinese writing. The new character set is also an aesthetic nightmare that turned beautiful, balanced and meaningful iconography into chicken scratch–it is the Chinese equivalent of Gregg shorthand. Okay I’ll stop ranting now.).

The second blow, no surprise, was the Cultural Revolution. “It totally disrupted the education of my generation,” my 43 year old friend from Wenzhou lamented to me over the summer. “We missed elementary school and never learned to write characters properly. I can tell the age of anyone in mainland China by their handwriting.”

Or by their lack of it. Computers have finished off what the politicians and bureaucrats started. Ask anyone under-30 in China to write a “complicated”, less-used character on paper, and they may not be able to do it. (The flip side of this is all the computer illiterate 50-somethings who can only write by hand. Long Hair writes his dozens of newspaper articles in pencil on exercise sheets with little blue-lined blocks that mark off the space for every character. When he’s finished, he faxes the pages to his editor, who then gives it to someone to enter into a computer. Many, many of Hong Kong’s daily columnists do their jobs the same, painstaking, low-tech way.)

Anyway, my sadness at the steady erosion of the world’s most beautiful handwritten language is why, walking through a public park early one morning in Shanghai the other week, my heart suddenly stopped when I saw this:

He’s doing calligraphy on the pavement, using traditional characters…and, in place of ink, water. I’d never seen this before, but friends in Shanghai told me they see it a lot these days. Like early-morning tai chi, it’s considered a form of exercise and relaxation to se jih in the park.

I watched this guy for a long time, gracefully executing each bold stroke, each waak. In the dry morning air, his water-characters quickly evaporated. One minute there was poetry, the next minute only empty pavement. Beauty, swallowed by time, transformed into memory.

Like I said, it touched my heart. But it also made me restless and yearning for the noisy, yit lau streets of Hong Kong, for the freestyle glossolalia of its written signs and placards, for the shouts of the hundreds of political banners hand-lettered every day in this city of (still, mercifully) free public assembly and speech. And for the exuberant, inimitable calligraphy of the great King of Kowloon. May his strong and immortal waaks dance defiantly on Hong Kong’s pillars, walls, and highway dividers, long after his passing.

The Sausage Positions

Saturday afternoon I head out to the headquarters of the League of Social Democrats in Tsim Sha Tsui. How could I miss this event? Anson Chan is coming to pay a visit to the feisty leaders of Hong Kong’s feistiest band of politicians: ex-talk show host and restauranteur Wong Yuk-Man, district councillor “The Bull” Tsang Kin-Sheng, crusading epidemiologist Dr. Lo Wing Lok, perennial Legco gadfly Albert Chan Wai Yip, and the King of Feist himself, Leung Kwok Hung.

Scratch that last one. “I’m not going,” says Long Hair, when I call him to find out if it’s okay if I show up. (Anson Chan requested–can’t say I blame her– that the Q and A meeting with this potentially hostile grassroots band be conducted behind closed doors, no press). Why aren’t you going? I ask. “It would be awkward. I don’t support her. If I go, all the attention will be on our confrontation and that would be bad.”

Even though Long Hair’s absence means that fireworks probably won’t be on the afternoon’s program, I decide to go anyway. I’m interested to see how Anson Chan, member of the board of directors of Cartier, handles herself around the jeans-and-trainers working class LSD bunch. I’m also curious to hear how she comes across in Cantonese. Will she be as old-school and pleasantly formal in both languages as Margaret Ng? Or will her plummy British accent morph, like Emily Lau’s does when she shifts languages, into the speech of a baat poh, a cranky Hong Kong nosy neighbor.

When I get to the old office building on Kimberley Road where LSD has its headquarters, I am surprised to see party chairman Wong Yuk Man, wearing a spotless, perfectly pressed white jacket and an “anxious host” face, waiting with a couple of party members on the sidewalk outside–they’re waiting there to greet their guest Mrs. Chan the moment she arrives. It’s the right, polite Chinese thing to do, after all, to be haak hei. There’s a very old fashioned gentility and formality about the customs of Hong Kong party politics that you miss if you just read about it in the papers–or listen to Donald Tsang rant about “opposition parties” as if they were packs of raging beasts. 

The LSD didn’t want Mrs. Chan to be the pan-Democratic candidate in the Central district by-election, and Dr. Lo (their candidate) attacked her aggressively when they debated last month. But today, Dr. Lo is among the dignitaries waiting to greet Mrs. Chan on the tin toi, the terrace of the office building.  Chairs and a microphone are set up; little boxes of juice and sponge-and-cream cakes have been laid out. I say hi to Dr. Lo, and we chat for awhile about the Queen’s Pier demonstrations of last summer. Dr. Lo joined the sit in with the young demonstrators. When he found out they were writing protest posters to present to the government, using their own blood instead of paint, Dr. Lo donned rubber gloves, and brought sterile needles to draw their blood. “I wanted the children to be safe from infection,” he smiled. “Do you know it takes at least four pricks of the finger to write just one Chinese character?”

I ask him if he’s planning to run for the Central seat for the four-year term in the “real” election of 2008, and he says he is. Then, our talk shifts to the hot political topic of the day, which is not the dimpled grandmother with pearls about to ascend the elevator, but Leih Chiu Ming–Martin Lee. What do you think is up with these vicious attacks on Martin Lee? I ask the good doctor. I mention that I read the original Wall Street Journal article that the pro-Beijing hacks in the DAB are making such a big fuss about, and that I found it pretty weak tea. Innocuous, in fact.

Dr. Lo shakes his head. “It’s because of the translation into Chinese. They translated it wrong, and now everyone is shouting and screaming that Martin Lee’s a traitor.”

Matters of (mis) translation, of course, are of great interest to Learning Cantonese. so I ask Dr. Lo to explain the problem to me in detail. The doctor writes it out:

Martin Lee’s original article was a plea for the international community to use the occasion of the Olympics to make a “direct engagement” with Chinese leaders on the subject of human rights, democracy in China and Hong Kong, etc. Say the words “direct engagement” to any native English speaker, and their eyes will begin to glaze over–it is one of those overly-used high-minded blah blah blah phrases that means, well, blah blah blah. Discussion, diplomacy, face-to-face talks. But the article’s Chinese translators turned “direct engagement” into a stronger, meatier four character Chinese phrase: Jik jip gaai yahp. The last character is the killer: yahp means to go in, enter–a room, a territory, a country. Read the translation, and you come away with the impression that Lee wants America and the rest of the world to go in and make a “direct intervention.”

It’s too late to re-translate Martin Lee’s mis-represented English words. The Hong Kong Chinese language media–and the local Red Guards of Hong Kong’s DAB– have fixed the phrase jik jip gaai yahp in the public mind. A quick poll taken the other day shows that around 70 percent of Hong Kong people strongly disagree with Lee’s position. Or at least, they disagree with the bad translation of it.

But I don’t have any more time to talk with Dr. Lo about mistranslations, because Anson Chan yahp lai la! She sweeps through applause and smiles and takes a seat behind a table with Wong Yuk-Man and cameras  emerge from every other LSD member’s pocket.

As soon as she starts to speak, my heart sinks and I know I’m in trouble. Her Cantonese isn’t precise and bookish like Margaret Ng’s (and therefore easy for me to catch). What’s more, the microphone is terrible, her voice is soft, and I can barely make out what she’s saying above the street noise, the whirr of the fan, the background buzz of the LSD members on the fringes of the meeting. I can understand the topics under discussion–June 4th, the poverty of Tin Shui Wai, her bureaucratic background, the staggering inequities of Hong Kong society–but I can’t hear what she’s saying well enough to quote her. Just as well. This is supposed to be an off-the-record meeting. And so it shall remain.

Well, except for one quote. Listening to Chan, I hear her mentioning again and again something about her laap cheung. This totally throws me off because laap cheung is the Cantonese word for Chinese sausage.  I figure I must have heard it wrong. But then someone stands up and asks her again about laap cheung. Is this some old-school Cantonese slang that I’ve never heard before?  Torn between enormous feelings of stupidity and overwhelming curiosity, I finally cave and lean over to ask Andrew To: “Why is Anson Chan talking so much about sausage?”

His look says one thing: What in the world is in the woman’s box of iced chrysanthemum tea? I try again. “Anson’s talking so much about her laap cheung. Is th
is some slang?”

Finally, Andrew figures me out. “No, no! Laap cheung means POSITION– not Chinese sausage.”

I look it up when I get back home. According to my dictionary, I haven’t been hallucinating. In Cantonese, the two words–sausage (臘腸) and position (立場
)— are pronounced exactly the same way. But unless you know this, you will end up thinking that Anson Chan is making her delicious Cantonese-style stuffed pork intestine absolutely clear. Really, the road from Cantonese to English and back is a treacherous one. I feel Martin Lee’s pain.

So does Albert Chan Wai Yip. He’s restless, shifting around in his seat during the meeting with Anson Chan. He is the only one present who questions her aggressively enough to peel the smile from her face. Afterwards, he disappears from the meeting, and when he comes back, he tells me, in a low voice, “I just called Martin Lee to tell him I support him completely. Really, it is disgraceful that the Democratic Party has not stood up strongly behind him.”

Why aren’t they? I ask Chan.

“The District Council elections. They’re in trouble there, and they’re afraid if they stand strong behind Martin they will lose. But I say, what is the point of having a party if you are afraid to stand up for what you believe?”

And at this moment, as if on cue, Anson Chan finishes answering the last question, and the members of the League of Social Democrats stand up to applaud. “The Bull” clasps his hands in front of his chest in a “gung hei” position, and leads them in a cheer: “Jaan Chan taai! Jaan Chan taai” Praise to Mrs. Chan!”

Yes, this is Cantonese politeness and guest manners in action. But the whole thing still seems surreal to me. Bear with me, and follow my train of thought. The real reason Martin Lee is being attacked by Beijing and the DAB is not because he wrote a tepid Wall Street Journal article about human rights, but because he’s the hak sau, the black hand, behind Anson Chan’s candidacy–a move that challenges Beijing’s script. The attacks succeeded in scaring Martin Lee’s own party away from him during a difficult local election. Meanwhile, the LSD– which until last week was the least-enthusiastic group of Democrats in Anson Chan’s coalition–is standing up to praise Mrs. Chan.

Hong Kong politics, indeed, makes for some strange sausages.