Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Plastic bags: environmental time bombs

Just back from 7/11 down the road where on picking up a couple of items the lady at the counter pleasingly said almost apologetically, “Sorry, no plastic day”. What, no VISA or Mastercard? What she meant to say I learnt from my colleagues in the office is that every Tuesday in the Special Administrative Region is No Plastic Bag Day, an encouraging development.
A couple of years back a photographer and I headed to one of the largest garbage dumps in the world, in Payatas near Manila.
Amid the squalor, the atrocious smell, the squelching sensation underfoot, what sticks out most visibly in these mountains of rubbish are the plastic bags. They perforate every seam of the garbage hills, one of which collapsed in 2000 causing many deaths, and only on seeing these monuments to waste does the true disastrous nature of the proliferation of these largely superfluous bags hit home. Amid the decaying detritus, it is the plastic bags that refuse to break down, leaching chemicals into the environment.
Plastic bags, which are of course made using oil, represent one of the great stupidities of mankind — the damage they do, compared with the amount of use the average bag gets is shocking. The world uses up as many as one trillion of them a year, many of course are used just once.
So while the idea of a No Plastic Bag Day is commendable let’s go the whole hog and levy taxes on bags. Ireland did this and these environmental time bombs are almost a thing of the past, usage down by more than 95%.
On a recycling tangent: as a buyer of 750ml glass bottles of Perrier with a twist of lime most mornings why, oh why, is there no glass recycling whatsoever in Hong Kong? The government line, I am reliably informed, is that glass recycling is heavy and as a result the transport costs are higher. The glass cannot be crushed down or bailed together like plastic bottles and tins and sent across the border for recycling. This issue needs resolving!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A climate of fear

“You’re not to stop walking, do not raise your hands or shout,” I was told firmly. Was I back in school on some outing to a museum? Kind of. The timepiece I was visiting was the last slice of the Cold War, what Bill Clinton in those hazy pre-Iraq War days of the 1990s called “the most dangerous place on Earth”: the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
I’d been whisked from Hong Kong to Seoul at the drop of a hat on the promise of a decent conference to report on for my former newspaper. Checking in at the Lotte Hotel then my eyebrows raised somewhat when the friendly, sweet receptionist handed me an envelope with a ticket to tour the DMZ the next day.
“Yeah, well, err, turns out the conference will be all in Korean,” said my former colleague turned conference organizer, “so it’s kinda pointless you sitting through it, but since you’ve come all this way I thought I’d make your trip worthwhile.”
Fast-forward 12 hours and after a bus ride through endless barbed wire partitions where the population thins to almost nothing I was in the vast CCTVed-to-the-max compound that straddles the border. Fear was the most pungent feeling that our military guides tried to engender in us.
100 metres in front of our building was the mad, bad Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, from where a bunch of frankly scraggy guards looked out; their uniforms hanging loosely from their frail physiques. In the awful ‘Arduous March’ as the DPRK refers to its heinous famine of the mid-1990s where hundreds of thousands died, South Korean guards used to waft the smell of their cooking across the border.
The hillside behind the DPRK installments contrasted poorly with their southern cousins, raped of any trees, barren and a clear reminder why this neo-Stalinist ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is so prone to flooding.
The largest flag I’d ever seen – the red star with white circle and blue lines of the DPRK - fluttered high in the sky, while on the ground the bullshit flowed freely: from the handpicked South Korean military guards all of a certain height and frame to give off the illusion that the South is far mightier (since the 70s it is true the South’s population has grown in height, while the impoverished North’s has stunted); to the fake village on the North side whose lights come on everyday at 5pm and which bares no resemblance to real life in the DPRK, more for the movie junkie Kim Jong-il, reel life, à la Stepford Wives trying to create an illusion of modernity, and comfort.
The South Korean guards in the centre of this pissing contest, shades on come rain or shine, stand in a firm tae kwon do pose. Fear, fear, fear: that’s what one takes away from the South Korean side.
Yet, as luck would have it, I had the chance to see the bipolar opposite just a few months later and for me it showed all that is wrong with, what my chum Paul French coined, the ‘Paranoid Peninsula’.
Midway through an unforgettable and highly recommended trip to North Korea our tour party trundled down to the border. There the guards couldn’t have been nicer, taking pictures with us, cracking jokes and not hurrying us along whatsoever. The CCTVs from the other side frowned back at us, the US and ROK guards glared down from their modern bastion, yet all I felt was a sense of camaraderie, of being in the presence of friendly, kind people.
To this day the two Koreas are still technically at war having never signed an armistice. Shots were traded across the border just a fortnight back and now President Roh will travel from Seoul to Pyongyang this year for only the second ever inter-Korean summit.
Here’s what I learnt from visiting both sides of the DMZ in the space of five months. The climate of fear suits many nations most notably the US so it can station troops strategically in East Asia. If the world only knew what wonderful people the citizens of the DPRK are this whole paranoia would ease up and the paper tiger that Kim, and to a certain extent the US, have created would cease to be.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The fire within

So you think you’re pretty hard when it comes to all things spice, do you? You can wolf down a vindaloo with nary a peep of complaint. The hottest, tongue tingling creation from Chiang Mai barely elicits a bead of sweat from your brow. Kimchi doesn’t even register on the heat scale of your well-worn taste buds. You even laugh in the face of Mexican chilli.
Then it’s time for your comeuppance.
Chongqing, one of the four so-called furnaces of China, is home to the hotpot or huoguo, and dear God is it hot!
The experience is so bodily debilitating to the novice that countless parts of the human anatomy simply give up normal operations when confronted with this red menace.
First to cease functioning are your lips; they start to tremble, go numb and generally careen all over the place out of control.
Next to go is any form of decorum as you stretch across the table and neck any available beer in sight in a desperate attempt to douse the fire.
Finally, and often for days afterwards, your bowels are in a total mess. You will be uncertain whether or not it is safe to switch off your computer for all the downloading you’ll be doing!
A ‘Chongqing’ hotpot from outside of the world’s largest municipality simply isn’t the same thing as a Shanghainese friend recently related to me. “Sure they are warm enough,” he said of the various Shanghai incarnations he’d had over the years, “but really they are like hot water compared to the real thing.”
So what is it then that does the damage? It is not the mass of red peppers floating in the broth, nor even the pungent chilli oil. It is the local ingredient, hua, that sets the mouth on fire. These speckled little balls look like peppercorns, add a certain aniseed quality to the soup and never fail to numb. Local residents delight in showing silly spice-boasting foreigners, lao wei, like yours truly their cuisine. You’ve been warned.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Head down to Adriatico

It is one of the greatest, yet least commended streets in Asia. Morphing from slums to bars Adriatico Street in the central Manila district of Malate offers the best that the Philippine capital has in terms of night life yet still manages to encapsulate all the faults, frights and frissons of this third world country. Running parallel with Mabini street, Adriatico is less overtly red light; more disco light.
Starting from the bottom end – where Quirino Avenue leads onto the coastal Roxas Boulevard -the street is slumville, with a welter of narrow lanes leading off Adriatico into crowded dens, where think bunches of electric wires hang overhead and foamy water flows along the pockmarked concrete.
In amongst this poorer part of the street though is a genuine oasis – Bianca’s Garden, formerly known as True Home. As the black gates swing open, a Spanish style villa awaits amid plenty of lovely trees, a swimming pool and the generous, friendly welcome of Jupiter and his team. The rooms are large but basic with great Philippine wooden furnishings, and though the price has gone up a lot in the last five years, it is still a favoured spot in this part of the world.
At the halfway point of Adriatico is Remedios Circle, a concrete park that despite recent renovation attempts still looks a bit duff. Nevertheless, this is the hub around which the street hums.
There’s the wonderous Café Havana, with mojitos that even Hemmingway would have approved of, and a cigar bar upstairs. Havana’s fantastic Cuban style band gets going after 9pm till the wee hours. Across the way from Havana is the Korean Palace, kimchi central, a place to gorge on barbeques and soju. The street in between Havana and the Korean Palace, San Andres, is full of outdoor barbeque shacks where blue marlin ribs or tuna belly can be rustled up for next to nothing.
Heading further up the street, past the booming music of Flintstones and Padi’s Point, a Starbuck’s juts out from the Malate Pensionne, a sad infringement on what used to be the backpackers’ mecca in this archipelago a decade or so ago; since then though the pensionne has gone a bit upmarket. Back in the day, it served as a great place to meet people time and time again after jaunts around the islands, because the number of travelers was so few you’d often bump into the same bunch at the pensionne where its freezer worked overtime to ensure the San Miguels were amongst the coldest in the capital.
Continuing the walk further north then, is the steet’s only properly decent hotel, the Pan Pacific where room rates start at US$120 and up.
Further up on the left is Mey Lin, perhaps the best Chinese restaurant on the street, with decent hand pulled noodles, dimsum and braised aubergine.
Just before that on the opposite side is Mocha Blends whose espresso serves to get you through the often exhausting Manila day.
At the junction of Julio Nakpil, where the cavernous Robinson’s shopping mall continues to expand, on the left is a barber shop, used to be known as Bruno’s, now under new management with the same staff but less exciting name, Barberos. Inside is the quintessential barber shop – leather reclining seats, mirrors everywhere, barbers in uniform ready with sharp single blade razors or scissors depending on what ‘Sir’ demands. For my money the scalp massage is pretty unmissable.
The street continues all the way up to Padre Faura, with the encroaching Robinson’s mall taking much of the right hand side. At the top is the much written about Kamayan restaurant, with its 400 peso buffet – avoid it, the service is slow, the food old and if you hang a left as Adriatico hits Padre Faura to Mabene where Watson’s is on the corner, just next to that is the supremely good value German establishment, Munchen Bar and Grill, whose goulash soup is well worth the walk. But the street of iniquity that is Mabini, with all its oddities such as the bar run by midgets, will have to be for a separate post.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sun sets for the Red House

The rooms were spartan but clean. The price - at RMB250 - a bargain. But it was the location of the wondrous Red House that made it my home from home whenever I was in Beijing over the last decade.
On the ground floor was a North Korean art gallery run by the wacky chaps from Koryo Tours, whose office was on the third floor. Also on a wing of the ground floor was the China Football Club, where Yanjing beer flowed freely, footie was permanently on the telly, and pictures of the likes of Ian Rush at the Great Wall adorned the walls.
Across the way was a great Xinjiang restaurant with scrumptious hand pulled noodles. 15 minutes walk took you to San Li Tun, the bar street, where, with its convivial atmosphere and wireless internet, the Bookworm café continues to serve as my de facto office when residing in the Chinese capital.
Shopping, in the form of the cavernous Yashow market, was similarly nearby to stock up on cheap clothes, even cheaper DVDs and ludicrous trinkets.
And two minutes to the right as you headed out the door of the Red House was a blind massage joint. An Albino lady there performed wondrous things to my knotty back.
So it was with no small amount of horror and indignation that I rocked up at the green doors of the Red House the other day to see rubble everywhere inside, the whole place gutted and odds and ends thrown out on to the street. The Red House, like far too much of my once favourite city in China, has been set on the ‘path of progress’. The character chai (tear down) stamped on its wall, like thousands before it, earmarked for bigger and supposedly better things once it has been pulled down.
I am told it will become a KTV bar. I’ll only be singing sad songs in there.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The short life spans of umbrellas

'Big Red' was what I called it. A corporate gift from some shindig way out on Tsing Yi island from as far back as four years ago. It was so robust it could even handle typhoons. Given my giant frame (six foot six with an expanding girth to boot), Big Red's wide circumference made it the ideal tool to combat Hong Kong's stormy summer months.
I've been through more umbrellas than there have been typhoons in my seven years here in HK. Left at bars/ferries/meetings/more bars/yet more bars, umbrellas generally have had a lifespan of approximately one month. Oh yeah, I forgot to add just how many have been pilfered from the office over the years as the heavens opened and those less hard working than yours truly scuttled out to face the downpours with my brolly never to be seen again.
But Big Red was different -- it led a charmed, protected life as I looked out for it. All that changed a month ago when, on a truly gargantuan night out that ended circa 5am on a sampan back to the Fantasy Island where I reside, the umbrella somehow went missing at one of countless hostelries frequented on that tempestuous night.
All of which preamble brings me to my main point of all this drivel - the strange existence of that seemingly most constrained of business sectors in this roaring metropolis that I call home, namely the humble umbrella repairman. You see them in shacks around the lanes in Central, often next to a shoe shine/key making kiosk. Now, here's what I don't get: an umbrella costs all of HK$25 from the ubiquitous 7/11 stores that line our streets. How on Earth can you earn a living out of repairing an umbrella?
Now, if anyone has laid eyes on a large red umbrella with the letters HUD emblazoned on it, please let me know - that's one brolly worth repairing!