Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 in review

New countries visited

None that I can think of, strangely

Countries revisited after a long absence

Russia, Vietnam

Days spent on the road

250 approx

Biggest change

Leaving Hong Kong after so long for Dalian

Best trip

Xinjiang in August -- stunning

Worst trip

Xinjiang in August – repressed more than North Korea

New Year Resolutions

Travel less
Write 1,000 paid words every other day
Learn Mandarin

2009 outlook for the AsiaScribbler

Strangely positive despite the global downturn. I feel ’09 will be the culmination of years of hard yards getting to where I am, namely a relatively savvy East Asia writer with a dab hand at editing. People might not know me going into ’09, but I am going to be marketing myself hard this year!

Daily grind

Show dailies – they’re good money, ultimately satisfying but hugely stressful. For those that don’t know the terminology, show dailies are the newspapers that come out at exhibitions – a what’s on guide, plus news from the show type newsletter, generally done with a skeletal staff and amid incredibly tight deadlines … and often with designers who are a couple of bulbs short of a chandelier (or, at least, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!).
For regular readers you’ll have noticed a strange, frankly worrying appreciation I have with things that I find are difficult or irritating.
The latest show daily I was asked to do was in Dubai in mid-December. There was an Ozzie company exhibiting just opposite where our show daily office was and the guy manning their stand described perfectly the frustrations, stress and all round madness that I endure editing these show dailies.
“At the beginning of the day, your hair was relatively neat,” he said, a kind lie given that I sorta pride myself by how few times a comb has ever touched my bonce! “But as the day went on your hair went more and more wild,” he relayed, “ I could see you literally tearing it out! By the end of the day your hair looked like someone who had been electrified.”
Therein lies the joys of editing and writing show dailies, but they do they get me around the world. Sometimes, though, the pressure does tell, such as in Greece this year where for the BOLD front page headline we managed to spell ‘heralds’ as ‘hearlds’ to much consternation the following day, scrawled large across 5,000 odd copies at one of Greece’s largest exhibitions. Nevertheless, this is me saying I’m a scribe for hire for any and all exhibition show dailies!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hot and cold in Dubai

Dubai is a place that leaves me cold. And I’m not just talking about the indoor ski zone – perhaps the world’s most unenvironmentally friendly building (click here for video). Sure the forest of cranes shows ambition, the soaring skyscrapers dazzle and the blueprint for the future looks, on paper, to be world beating. And yet it feels so empty, so soulless. The locals are not exactly forthcoming with their friendliness. The expat brigade are a funny bunch too – obviously money obsessed since there is no other earthly reason why you’d chose to live here. And the workers from third world countries are treated APPALLINGLY.
Take a look here and you’ll see part of the reason this place is so soulless. It is all so new; there has been no time for things to settle, to take shape and character. The pictures of the main throughfare from 1991 to the 2005 show the dramatic changes. From desert dustbowl to Bladerunner in the space of a generation.
People in Dubai have size envy. Everything has to be the biggest. Whether it’s the tallest building in the world (pictured) or the recent opening of the Atlantis Hotel (click here for a video of the event), a spectacle so large it could be seen from space and used five times more fireworks than Beijing’s blockbuster Olympic opening ceremony in August.
But this theme of emptiness was all too apparent on my second visit to the emirate this December. Dubai is running out of cash. It has been too lavish. The immense property boom has crashed. The emirate has attempted to build an economy on a grand scale that is diversified away from oil dependence, yet it does not have the hinterland to achieve its aims. Newsweek memorably wrote that the opening of the Atlantis Hotel resembled Nero partying while Rome burned. While I was in Dubai, its leaders had to make a humiliating journey to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, cap in hand to ask for some urgent oil dosh.
Projects are on hold, cranes are stationary, the normally constantly rising skyline is experiencing a rare moment of monotony, and workers from the sub-continent and the Philippines are heading home as work dries up.
With my parents I boarded an open air double decker tourist bus to get a feel of the city. The prerecorded guided tour relayed by headphones was amusing in that it perfectly encapsulated Dubai’s severe lack of character. I’d say about one in two of the twenty odd places described was a shopping mall – not what I in particular with my aversion to malls (see previous story here) would classify as tourist stuff. (NB The best, most characterful thing to do in Dubai is to take a water taxi or abra to and fro across Dubai Creek.) The bus tour stopped at one of many malls on the tour – in fact the one where we were staying. It had the aforementioned ski resort with snow inside. Environmental guilty secret: I’ve only been to Dubai twice and both times I’ve skied there! Anyway, you think that’s bad: at a beach 15 minutes walk away (or 25 minutes in a taxi through Dubai’s notorious traffic) they plan to build an underground cooling system because, poor lambs, the sand gets too hot in summer! That’s not all that’s burning in Dubai as Newsweek pointed out.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Uniquely Singapore

It had been an especially gruelling travel schedule and so one Tuesday in Singapore this December rather than going out on the lash for the umpteenth night in a row a colleague and I decided to check what was on at the flicks. A quick bit of research around lunchtime showed the best option was Ridley Scott’s Iraq spy movie, Body of Lies. To be safe we booked online though we had nothing to worry about, with just ten of the seats taken.
We bundled down to one of Singapore’s many shopping malls that evening where there was little sign of the credit crunch. The place was mobbed making negotiating the countless cluttered escalators to get to the top floor cinema a very trying experience; Singaporeans, like many in this part of the world, have zero spatial awareness.
I cannot stand shopping malls as a rule. The muzak gets on my nerves; the sheer volume of people buying pointless tack annoys me. In situations such as negotiating a mall, I switch off – I go on autopilot, turn down most of my sensors and adopt a sort of tunnel vision.
A spot of nosh, a quick pee (there’s nothing more annoying than needing a piss during a movie) and film time beckoned. Into the cinema with ten minutes to spare and we’ve got the whole place to ourselves. We plonk ourselves down at the centre of our allotted aisle and wait, leaving a gap of one seat between us because a) I’m tall and b) two blokes going together to a cinema frankly need some breathing space or people will wonder!
A couple come in and sit a couple of rows behind us. Two more come in and take up seats at the far end of our aisle. Still, with barely five minutes to go before lights down it’s about as busy as a Lehman Brothers board meeting.
Suddenly they started filing in. Not in any great torrent, but a steady number. At no point was this cinema, which could hold around 200, busier than 25 people. For some strange reason though 15 of the said 25 people had opted for tickets on our row.
Gradually our row filled up. We were shunted more towards our actual seat numbers as the row filled up, even though the rest of the room was pretty much empty. To my right a gigantically fat pair were chowing down on three courses of cinema junk food, blubber rolling onto the arm rest where my elbow had been.
The situation was crazy and very Singaporean in the lack of spatial awareness and the supreme observance of following rules, in this case seat numbers.
It got to a point whereby there was a guy and a gal who came in just before lights down and who had the end seats of the row. They were taken as we had shunted everyone to our right down by one to ensure we had a seat between us. The film was about to start, the man could have had a centre seat on just about any other row in the place but, oh no, he wanted to stick with what he had been given, the crappy pair of seats on the end. He called an attendant over. Our extra seat was swallowed up. The entire row was full. Crazy-la!
As the ads came we made our move getting in everyone’s way as we tramped over the refuse of my neighbour’s junk food, trod on people’s toes, tripped on people’s shopping and clobbered others with our bags. We bolted for a nice empty row two ahead of where we had been. Phew! The movie was a humdinger; the movie experience uniquely Singaporean!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Moving on

In Hong Kong the traffic lights tell first time visitors a lot about the energy of this frenetic city. The clacking sound they make counting down to when a pedestrian can cross the road is like a starting gun. Once that little green man flashes, the sound picks up considerable pace, like a scatter gun. Nowhere on earth has a faster sounding pedestrian crossing noise, I’d bet, than Hong Kong.
Life in this city is fast, sometimes too fast, hence my decision years ago to live on an outlying island.
When I got my first full time job in HK in the autumn of 2000 a colleague told me that once you’d worked in Hong Kong you could work anywhere else in the world, so hard do they work you down in this Cantonese former colony.
Many who live on the mainland give the SAR a bad rap, saying it has no future and its expats are a bunch of fat so and sos. I will always stand up for Hong Kong and its amazing opportunities it offers people with ambition. Its stunning skyline – the best in the world – reflects the citizens’ repeated ability to reinvent themselves to fit in with the regional and global economy.
Nevertheless, after eight and a half years this November I decided it was time to sample a different paced life. I’ve decamped to what the locals in my new environs like to call the Hong Kong of the North; Dalian in Liaoning province. It’s got a long way to go if it really does want to become the Hong Kong of the North. For starters, the pedestrian crossing noise is way too slow. Still, it’s high time I learnt Mandarin and this lovely city is the perfect place to do so, and should make for a more interesting blog, which now, post crazy busy HK, I should have more time to spend writing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Will the real Olympics please stand up?

I am sure I speak as one for the many travellers around China. Thank God this farcical Olympics is over! Getting around the People’s Republic during this period has been a right royal pain in the bum.
I watched the closing ceremony in Xining, Qinghai province with great relief. After seven years of propaganda the five-ring circus was nearly over. The pundits who continually referred to the whole Olympiad as China’s ‘coming out’ ceremony had, in my opinion, been totally wrong. This was an event aimed at an internal audience, something to rally around and boost the image of the ruling party. The tub-thumping nationalism that had characterized these Chinese games had proved a huge turn off for me. That said, I admit there were rare stirrings of national pride as the ceremony wound down to the handover to London.
The British part of the ceremony did not start strongly though. A typically unkempt Boris Johnson guffawed his way up the red carpet, mock saluting as he passed each stunning dolly bird lining the route. The Olympic flag that marked the transition from east to west – Beijing to London – struggled to unfurl.
Then came the staged London show, starting off with that dreadful London Olympic logo. How anyone could be paid for this incomprehensible, ugly signage I will never know. Since someone pointed out to me some months back that it looks like Maggie Simpson giving Homer a blowjob (go on, scroll back up to check, if you dare!) I’ve never been able to see it as anything but a seriously fucked up episode of everyone's favourite yellow, four fingered cartoon characters.
There followed a humdrum introductory multicolour, multiethnic and multimodal cartoon before a red London bus made its way round the Bird’s Nest stadium --- people popping out of the iconic London transport mode and performing some modern dance – all arched backs and big gesticulations. It all seemed so small to what the Chinese had been doing for the past 16 days. And then the roof of the bus folded down and a TV talent show winner started to belt out a tune.
It was the guitar that I clocked first that got me going. Surely not, I mused. The camera moved up from the jangling, familiar Gibson. There he was, Jimmy Page, in a long dark coat, sweaty in the Beijing night, nailing one of the most recognized riffs in history. No Robert Plant, granted, but Ms TV Talent Show had a decent voice and rarely have the lyrics to Whole Lotta Love hit home more than on this global stage. ‘You need cooling, baby I’m not fooling, going to take you back to schooling…’
Somewhat predictably and crassly the camera panned to David Beckham who punted a football, snapped up by a delighted Beijinger.
The tune came to an end, the bus gently left the stage, Jimmy awkwardly dancing. Still, the lesson was there for all to see: you don’t need to be big and brash to host an Olympics – on the contrary, there is no doubt Olympian fatigue setting in and it will be London’s mission to teach the world that the Games are all about, errr, games. China’s urgent rush to modernity, its penis envy with the West can infuriate and also obfuscate reality.
I leave my hotel, humming Led Zep in an elated mood. Stepping outside a horribly disfigured shadow on the uneven pavement begs for any small change.
One world, one dream, biiiiiitch!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Where the rhinos roam

Romanian émigré Eugène Ionesco wrote the wonderful allegorical French play Rhinocéros back in 1956. Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses; ultimately the only human who does not succumb to this mass metamorphosis is the central character, the indifferent Bérenger. The play, very much part of the so called Theatre of the Absurd, essentially looks at how the French succumbed to extremism, especially fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.
Earlier this month that play reverberated around my head as I wandered through the heavily policed streets of Yining in the west of China’s Xinjiang province. As the crescendo of the Olympic opening ceremony hit an ecstasy of fireworks many of the locals were kowtowed. Squadrons of army and police sewed fear into the minds of the Uighurs. Worse still though were the people’s militia that roamed the streets. These state backed civilians, almost all Han Chinese, wear a red armband with yellow characters safety pinned on their sleeves stating that they are public security. Some stroll around with tazer batons, others drag baseball bats behind him. Many of these state backed vigilantes have taken to wearing all black too. We have been here before, some 70 years ago, haven’t we?
Beyond the alarming city of Yining though China and the Chinese as a whole are far more keen to exert their newly acquired power than before. As nationalism has replaced communism as the ties that bind (fasces: ties that bind bundles; Latin derivation for fascism) the Chinese together and to central government the winning of the rights to stage the Olympics in Beijing seven years ago set in motion the centerpiece around which the Chinese Communist Party could rally the nation.
The Beijing Olympics flag is everywhere alongside the five star China flag, just like the swastika became synonymous with the German flag. The swastika was an ancient Buddhist sign from thousands of years ago symbolizing represents Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites before Adolf Hitler defaced its meaning by attacking those he deemed opposites. It was Hitler who instigated the concept of the Olympic torch relay around the world, something the Chinese embraced to much fanfare and considerable controversy. Now the Olympic logo, tarnished with commercialism from the 1980s onwards, has been tainted with nationalism.

True blue

Tourist locations are perennially sprucing up their image, using Photoshop to often comical, outrageous affect. We’ve all seen it before. The murky, rough English Channel transformed into an azure, flat Caribbean paradise on postcards for sale near Dover or tourist brochures extolling the stunning blue skies of Beijing.
So it was with some apprehension that I unfolded a tourist map of Xinjiang nine days ago to see where I was heading from the provincial capital Urumqi. There way up in the far north, on the border of Russia and Mongolia, was an image of Lake Kanas (sometimes written Hanas). The picture was of a piece of stunning chalky turquoise water. Simply unbelievable.
36 hours and another 1,200 kilometres later though I got to see that this was no figment of an imaginative tourist board’s mind. Measuring 24 kilometres long and up to 188 metres deep this huge domestic tourist draw set in a gorgeous, gigantic Alpine valley, just two valleys away from desert, has a mythical creature in it like Loch Ness in Scotland.
Eagles soar, nomads roam, and for the brief three months of the year that constitutes summer the Chinese mob this spectacular location. However, walk for five miles and you’ll have the place to yourself, everyone else contents themselves with taking a high speed boat to tour the area. Go there!

The taxi driver

She was 50-ish, permed, and a Chinese version of Roseanne Barr, replete with wild cackles. She hurtled through along the highway in her green taxi, the fierce hot air blasting in through the windows. Worryingly, Roseanne keep giving me the eye in the rear view mirror. Like an infatuated teenager she teetered and laughed whenever our eyes happened to meet. I lowered the wide brim of my cowboy hat to avoid eye contact. It was going to be another long journey.
Getting to the Narat grasslands in the centre of Xinjiang was proving difficult. The police had said it wasn’t possible. The area was full of innocuous Kazakh nomads, hardly a breeding ground for terrorism, but, hey, by now we were used to the unilateral, undecipherable decisions of the cops in this part of the world during Olympic time.
The night previous though salvation seemed to arrive as we kicked our heels at a bar watching the opening ceremony. A Chinese guy chipped in saying that he could get a car and take us to Narat no worries. Narat was where his girlfriend was and it shouldn’t be a problem. Cool, we toasted this rare bit of good luck over another ice cold Yanjing beer as Yao Ming led out the huge Chinese sporting delegation into the Bird’s Nest stadium to rapturous applause.
As is the way of these things, our man turned up the following day with a car and the driver just happened to be his sister, and the price just happened to be 100RMB higher than originally agreed. Nevertheless, eager to get out of Dodge and onto the horses in the beautiful grasslands we headed out of Yining. It was a relief to be out of the heavily policed city but increasingly I had something else to worry about. Roseanne didn’t exactly beat around the bush. “She wants to f*ck you,” Roseanne’s brother tells me after a couple of hours on the road. He glances at me seeing my surprise and takes it for confusion so he repeats this generous offer, “My sister, she wants to f*ck you.” I demur. It’s hot as hell in the cab, and following this statement the temperature seems to have risen further. We get two thirds of the way to our destination before cops at a roadblock turn us back – no permit, no entry. By now this kind of irritation is so commonplace we take it in our stride. The cab turns round heading back to our nemesis, Yining. Will we ever get out of this Orwellian police state?
Roseanne continues to cackle, glancing up in the rear view mirror, preening herself as she looks my way. Dear God, got me out of here! To compound matters our car overheats twice on the way back. On one such occasion in the middle of nowhere Roseanne, with her considerable girth, tries to pin me against the side of the car. Whooooa, lady! With a deft touch, I pirouette out of her orbit just as she is coming in for her prey. Suddenly I can’t wait to get back to the security of my hotel room in Yining.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The five ring circus

They swooped before dawn. Roads were cut off, police sirens whirred and more than one hundred menacing green trucks of the People’s Liberation Army started to patrol the streets of Yining in the west of Xinjiang province. Guns toted from flaps in the roof and riot shields formed walls at the back of the vehicles. They travelled in packs, slowly and deliberately, so that no one could miss their significance.
Taxi drivers scratched their heads. Long haul buses had to drop passengers in the outskirts of this multiethnic city that sits nearer to Almaty than Beijing. Citizens woke up confused, dazed as their normal walk to work was shut. The eighth of the eighth in 2008, a day when China was to show its friendly, polished face to the world would also turn out to be the single most repressive day of my life.
Xinjiang – which literally translates as New Frontier – has always been a contentious region for Beijing since it was conquered in the 18th century. It briefly enjoyed a period of independence in the first half of the 20th century known as East Turkestan. There are a total of 14 minorities in the region whose size is the same as western Europe. Mass Han Chinese migration from the 1950s onwards diluted this mix. The region is home to the largest onland oil and gas deposits in China as well as significant mineral reserves. Up until the early 1990s it was home to China’s nuclear testing. It shares borders with Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. All of which means the presence of the Public Security Bureau, the army and the police is unmissable. The repression of the minorities especially the Muslim Uighurs, the original inhabitants of much of this land, has been well documented.
Yining was the site of a massive 1997 Uighur rising that saw thousands protest and a very bloody response from the authorities with many human rights organizations suggesting the number of violent deaths that followed hit four figures. The Uighurs call this city Ghulja and when I arrived on the August 8 before six am they were clearly kowtowing to the increased security presence, wary of the recent bomb near Kashgar that killed 16 Chinese soldiers and the reports of reprisals and riots that followed.
After a long night time bus journey covering some 1,000 m our bus finally hit solid tarmac and came to the outer limits of the city where at 5.45am the first police patrol boarded and gave a very firm look at all ID cards and passports. Before I would get to my hotel three hours later my passport was checked another six times.
There are police/army checkpoints on every other block of the city and in total my passport is checked 17 times that day, my bags scrutinized countless times too, and the pictures on a digital camera are given a quick once over for good measure. Police carry a full complement of fearsome looking tools – knives, guns, rifles, and bats.
Moreover, there’s a public militia, generally Han Chinese led, with citizens wearing red armbands fixed to their sleeves with safety pins with ‘Public Security’ scrawled in yellow Chinese characters on their armbands. Some of these locals even tote tazers. Hey are there ostensibly to check bags of people entering buildings but also to inform authorities of anyone they deem suspicious. Xinjiang, like Tibet, has long been awash with spies and informants. My second nature journalistic tendencies such as reaching for a notebook, snapping a pic, are kept on the down low all day long. The constant security keeps everyone on their toes.
We eat that evening just around the corner from Sidalin Jie, it appearing wonderfully appropriate that the city has named a street after Stalin.
After dinner the long seven year countdown is over; the Olympic opening ceremony is underway. No where is showing it outside in the bright sunshine. It might be 8pm but the sun is still high – Beijing insists on one time zone for a nation that stretches from New Delhi to Vladivostok in longitude.
We decamp to a bar to watch the culmination of the greatest propaganda show on Earth. The symbolism of this four hour power flaunt is occasionally misconstrued. All dressed up in their ethnic costumes individuals from China’s 56 minorities process through the sweaty, smoggy Bird’s Nest stadium with the five star flag over their heads, handing the red and flag drape meekly to six stern looking members of the People’s Liberation Army. Around 20 minutes into the show a dove of peace emerges on the digital scroll in the centre of the stadium. Outside the bar all we can hear are the sounds of sirens.

The bus journey

We pull up. It’s just after 10 and the sun has finally gone down in this remote part of western Xinjiang. Strolling barefooted down the narrow aisles in between the bunkbeds we put our shoes on at the exit of the bus. Ahead lies dinner and round the corner a chance to ahem ‘freshen up’.
The bare surroundings of the diner mirror the landscape, the only colour bar the blue plastic seats is the fearsome black grime eminating all over the kitchen area.
A cheeky chappy comes in with a deck of cards trying to hustle diners with three card monty – no one is dumb enough to fall for this routine. He leaves within 60 seconds.
The Hui chef attends to his wok on the roaring stove; the results are slopped onto bowls and passed around.
A host of men shuffle off to the bogs – open holes in the concrete. While others are pissing away three men whip down their kegs and are crapping for all the world to see through the fetid gaps, one even nonchantly speaking on his mobile while laying his deposit.
So far this day we’ve covered around 750km, there’s another 300 or so to go before we arrive in Yining – a town with a wild, gritty reputation for multiethnicity, drugs and prostitution.
Bus rides in this part of the world, as well as being bad for yr stomach (I barfed gloriously a couple of hours back), are also a relentless security nightmare. Countless passport checks both in station and on the road, bags checked and stickered as safe. No leaving the bus station once you’re in. A caged existence.
Sirens wailed, combat police stood to in our last city where we changed buses. One day before the Olympics security is at all time high in Xinjiang following bombs and riots in the Kashgar area.
Now if only Beijing 2008 had a freestyle crapping tournament the Chinese would win hands down.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Alorcha – a haven in a fast changing society

As Macau changes beyond all recognition there are few constants left amid the spiralling gambling revenues. Macau has given up a lot of its charm as Vegas has moved in. Don’t be misled by the 30% rise in GDP figures – this is a two strata society where gleaming casinos make a few very, very rich and leave others poor.
One haven though that I make a beehive to every time I am in the former Portuguese enclave is the simple, traditional surroundings of Alorcha, a small, immaculate restaurant opposite the maritime museum and just round the corner from the Poussada Sao Tiago. Inside there are arched whitewashed walls, tables that seat 50 people max – book in advance +853 313193, as this is a place locals frequent regularly. This place is probably my favourite restaurant in all of China.
The food – a fusion of Portuguese and Macanese – is good, filling, honest fare; the chargrilled chicken washed down with a cheap bottle of Borba red a standout favourite. And then there’s the friendly staff who greet regulars and newcomers with a warmth that increasingly is hard to find in plastic coated, casino driven Macau. If somehow after the massive oven warmed bread roll and your humungous main course you can squeeze a pudding in too then the serradura should finish you off.
Old Macau just exist still, you just have to search harder for it, but it’s worth the snooping around.

Hanoi rewound

Hanoi, glorious Hanoi. A chance to reminisce. A throwback. Or would it have changed beyond all recognition? Flying in for the first time since the mid-1990s there was a part of me that expected me to recount countless tales of “Well, of course it was much nicer back then …” or “Globalisation has ruined this city.” It hadn’t. Far from it. Hanoi still is the place I remember. Wonderful dilapidated French buildings, a colonial whiff among the teeming streets, and the calming influence of the lake. Sure there are more cars now, less conical hats, Coke has replaced Ho Chi Minh as the premier brand, and some modernisation pervades the skyline, but the character of Vietnam’s capital is still so exotic, cultured and colourful. My murmurs of “well in my day …” were muted.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Curries on the high seas

Measuring some 750 feet long she wasn’t small by any means. And when her engines roared it was clear we were in for a special journey. What we couldn’t have known at that point was the frailty of the engine that powered this Mediterranean Shipping Co-owned containership bound for the US.
We were onboard documenting some fluff for a magazine. Our welcome had been magnificent; the Indian crew and officers clearly delighted to have something out of the norm onboard.
We were set to go from Hong Kong to Ningbo, a port city a couple hours steaming south of Shanghai. It was meant to take two and a half days along a busy section of the East China Sea. No sooner had we left though than a problem arose. A piston gave way within 45 minutes and we spent a full 24 hours staring back at my home island of Lamma. Still, the inconvenience was negligible so hospitable were everyone onboard.
The cook hailed from Goa and prided himself on his curry skills. He was ably abetted by both the chief engineer and the master who grew limes and chillis on the bridge and in their cabins and made the most delicious lime pickle imaginable. In between meals we’d while away an hour or two playing table tennis or strolling around the deck. Our cabins were very decent – they probably each measured about half the size of my flat, which was just about in view as we lay prone while a team got to grips with the engine, appearing from time to time very grimy but always cheerful.
Masters of containerships hate this particular stretch of work, with so many port calls in China, and, post-911, more and more paperwork to fill in at every call. Worse still is the volume of boats dotted in the sea. The Chinese are hoovering their seas dry and it takes a fair bit of skill to avoid the phalanx of fishing vessels.
The night before we arrived at Ningbo there was an impromptu party with much drinking, singing and dancing, the latter a reminder of just how long these men can be at sea without heading back to their families.
I had put in a word to a tycoon in Hong Kong who originally hailed from Ningbo saying that I’d be heading up to his old stomping ground. I was gob smacked as we docked and glimpsed the red carpet and limo that awaited. “Mr Koo said to look after you, please let me know of anything I can do during your stay,” the driver said, before whisking us away --- passport stamps done in a VIP manner. We had arrived in style.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The daily commute

Mine is an incredible commute, but one that I and thousands of others simply take for granted in fast living Hong Kong. Door to door it lasts about an hour and hits all five senses good and proper when I am more alert, particularly on a hot, sweaty summer’s day. I’ll take you through it.
Leaving the confines of my fan-assisted top floor living room I head downstairs. My hands brush up against the walls on the steps which are already sweating, beads dribbling down the tiles. The grated door shuts behind me with a metallic grunt. Outside the bright sunshine initially blinds me. My flat is full to overload, crammed with books, DVDs, electronic gizmos and eight years worth of pointless paraphanalia which has a habit of crowding out the daylight.
Straight outside there is a strong jungle noise. No, not dub, the real deal: banana leafs shuffling in the light breeze, crickets blaring full volume and birds tweeting wildly. This zoological cacophony is added some domestic growl by the block of flats opposite, stuffed full with at least ten excited, barking dogs.
If it’s been raining then the initial cracked stages of the path can get ankle deep in muddy water requiring a spot of tight rope walking, plank style. These first 50, 60 metres are lined with overgrowth higher than me, the green natural corridor nourished by the swamp to the right. Said swamp though is imperiled by the never-ending construction. Only five thousand odd people live on Lamma Island, yet they never stop building blocks of flats. Within 100 metres of my flat I can list nine new blocks built in the five years I have been there.
The path wends its way onto a larger street that eventually spawns shops, restaurants and bars: welcome to Main Street. It’s hardly a bustling hub, but bear in mind this island is different to most of Hong Kong; no cars, no high rise buildings, narrow streets and no chain stores. If I am catching a ferry before 9am then the Main Street is packed with commuters, my quick, long-legged pace reduced to an impatient shuffle. Bicyclists’ irritation at the throngs can be amusing to watch – with no amount of bell ringing working.
The ferry pier gives me an idea of how bad the pollution is. Most of the time it ain’t great. 28 days out of every month are deemed high pollution. If you can see across the sea to Lantau island, consider yourself lucky. Such visibility – all of five clicks, say – is rare.
OK, now to the ferry. It used to be easy – 10 bucks for a slow ferry, 15 for a fast. Then they raised the prices twice in quick succession so the price is now an awkward 11.8 or 16.8 bucks – that’s a lot of shrapnel to get through the turnstile. Most people have monthly tickets to avoid this daily coin shenanigans. Even after eight years I still don’t, and yet I bitch and moan about all these coins every day, particularly when the turnstile spits them out mistakenly.
Here’s a strange thing about Hong Kong. Pneumonia is common. Hot and sweaty from the 15-minute walk in 97% humidity to the pier, stroll onboard our ferries and you’ll quickly understand why this illness pervades. Inside it is freezing. Pointless fact of the day: the former British colony has the coldest offices in the world. If it’s before 9am then the seats are almost fully taken up, many regular faces chatting away, others hidden behind broadsheets. Some sit outside, most cool off under the Arctic blast of the air con.
Engines stutter into action and the ferry is underway. We immediately cross one of the world’s busiest container shipping lanes, the Lamma Channel. Giant ships laden with cheap goods made in the Pearl river delta plough in front of us creating swell and a stiff neck as the shipping geek in me peers up as each vessel looms passed us.
Hong Kong island - “an upland terrain which the sea has invaded” as a 19th century government official eloquently described it – rears up through the pollution. Aberdeen lies opposite Lamma – hardly the granite city of eastern Scotland, more a series of monochrome, dull apartment blocks dwarfed by the sheer, green Peak, the centrepiece of the island, where high society lives in property with more 0s alongside their prices than the in the bubble wrap covers of their swimming pools.
Talking of swimming, as the ferry comes alongside Hong Kong island, with the small Green island to the left, every morning, come rain or shine, a few elderly hardy souls stroll down the bamboo platform of the swimming club and are to be seen exercising among the filth and detritus of the South China Sea.
Entering Victoria Harbour boats of all shapes and sizes scuttle to and fro, a giant steel wire bridge spanning the container terminal to the left nears completion, Kowloon with all its multiethnic charm lingers on the left, while we pass Kennedy Town, then Western and Sheung Wan before alighting smack bang in the middle of town, Central, home to one of the world’s greatest skylines.
Out of the ferry and onto an elevated walkway, the sound of cars below, a free rag of a newspaper thrust my way. It takes 90 seconds to scan through on a good day though a few minutes to wash the cheap ink off my fingertips later on. Hong Kong is great for pedestrians with all its walkways through malls and above streets, avoiding the roadside pollution and the rain.
A few minutes later and we’re inside the IFC shopping mall – a brand sensory overload where Versace competes for your attention with Calvin Klein, Armani et al, all over the desperately irritating tinny muzak of the mall. A glance to see what’s on at the cinema, and on past endless shoe shops and fashion stores. It’s cold in here. Folks scurry, face down, oblivious to their surroundings. They’ve got work to do, and their armed with their little helper, the ubiquitous Blackberry clasped to their ear.
Suddenly back into the glaring sunlight and heat as an elevated walkway connects two malls. I like to walk fast. A walk should be exercise and at two metres in height I do leg it pretty quick. The thing is, though, the Cantonese have a habit of typewriting when they walk. What I mean is they will drift to the right as they amble gently forward and just as I am about to overtake them, it’s as if they have eyes in the back of their heads, PING and the typewriter starts going left.
Anyway, into Chater House and the Landmark, two identikit high-end malls with gaunt models peering from every shop window and more icy chill, and Starbucks cups in the hands of those who aren’t scrolling through their Crackberries. HMV in the far corner is the only potential wallet lightening distraction for yours truly. Upstairs and across another walkway where the clash of perfumes and soap from competing stores makes quite a stench.
Finally, I am out in the open, just behind Marks and Spencer. The deafening noise of the road, where pneumatic drills and tooting taxis combine, is almost a relief from the infernal sax led, sub Kenny G drivel that constitutes music inside Hong Kong’s ever-encroaching malls.
There’s just one hundred metres to go to SeaBird House, where I exchange the same gesticulated banter with the member of staff on the ground floor as I do every morning. Mind your head, he cautions silently, tapping his forehead with a smile. I smile back, touch my forehead with a grimace as I do every day and chuckle for effect. I really must learn more Cantonese if only to alternate our daily silent routine. I step into the ancient lift, hit the fifth floor button and muse to myself that this 1960s lift is one of the last redoubts in this capital of consumerism where there are no ads or speakers blaring. And so to work.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Visa wars

I recently had to go through the rigmarole of getting a China visa and was none too happy with the experience. Post us and the French trying to snuff out the Olympic torch Beijing has suddenly changed the laws for getting a visa into China. Multiple entries are out, and on applying you now need to show flight tickets and hotel vouchers – and it costs close to US$200 for a double entry, three-month visa, which is the best Beijing is offering at least till after the Olympics.
The effects of this new regulation have already been seen. The giant Canton Fair in Guangzhou, where buyers from around the world flock to buy anything and everything from coffee machines to engines, reported a huge drop in international visitors this year.
Now, I have to admit I was super hacked off with this visa change, as I’ll probably shell out at least $400 in China visas before the Olympics are over. However, on reflection can I really blame the apparatchiks in China? Not really. There are a hell of a lot of floating westerners in China, taking odd jobs, never paying taxes and generally not contributing to the improvement of society. This measure serves to clear them out --- as well as, obviously, minimizing potential demonstrator embarrassment during the all-important August showcase that is the Olympics.
But far more importantly, let’s be honest, if a Chinese fella walks into a British embassy or consulate and asked for a six month multiple entry visa to the UK he’d be laughed out the door. Tit for tat.

The world is bumpy

Are we approaching the moment where globalization suddenly comes to a very firm halt? The whole premise for “making the world flat” was to get Johnny Asian to manufacture things darn cheap for fat Westerners.
China entered the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and its exports have soared ever since. Factories in the US have been relocated to China, an incredible amount of gigantic container ships are being built to ferry all these finished products back to the shelves of Wal-Mart et al.
Massive inflation in China in the past 12 months has given some factory owners pause for thought. But the real reason why globalization is unsustainable is down to the price of oil. At $135 a barrel suddenly moving that tshirt/teddy bear/TV 6,000 miles from Shenzhen across the Pacific to the US consumer just does not make economic sense. International trade is likely to become far more regional if oil prices remain at such exorbitant levels. Thomas Friedman will have to eat his hat.

Gulliver’s travels

I’ve just arrived in Europe. While I’m here I’m going to get a tshirt made up with English on the front and Chinese on the back, saying ‘No, I do not play basketball.’
Just this week in Shenzhen a forty-year-old came up to me in the street, face askew to the sky and my head and thrust his phone in my face. He clocked my confusion and did the international sign for taking a photo. Oh okay, you want a picture with the freak show that at two metres in height is yours truly. His daughter dutifully snapped away with his phone, he putting his arm round my frame, and a gaggle of locals gathering to look at the giant. Then, as is so often the way in China, he turns to me and says excitably, “Yao Ming, Yao Ming!”. No, I do not play basketball, I tell him as I have countless others in China.
In the Philippines where basketball is the number one street, folk call out from the street, “Hey Joe, you play basketball?” Occasionally I might humour them and show just how bad I am at the game. Now though I’ll be armed with my sport repellent tshirt!

Flying the flag

In North Korea it is mandatory that you wear a pin badge everyday, typically a red one with a picture of the Great Leader, Kim il Sung. Lose your badge and woe betide you; a gulag awaits.
In the coming week Barack Obama should be anointed as the Democratic candidate for November’s presendential election. For so long he managed to campaign on the ‘change for good’ mantra, claiming he was different to old Washington He had managed to eschew wearing the frankly fascist US pin badge so beloved of the current White House resident. Yet when Obama’s campaign hit a sticky spot six weeks back with his wacky pastor, Jeremiah Wright spouting off, his opponents attacked Obama’s patriotism – cue the stars and stripes pin badge on his crisp suits. A small but revealing aspect of the depressive, constrained state of US politics.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Dead in the water

André the photographer looked out of the window at the thick, depressing grey in front of him. “They call it Wuxi,” he said of our then current abode, “cos that’s the sound it makes as the pollution hits the window – woooshi, wooooshi.”
We were on a triangular tour, various ships up from Hong Kong to Shanghai and then into the industrial heartland of the Yangtze delta before taking the 24 hour train back home.
We’d checked into the flashest place Wuxi had to offer, some 400RMB a night or so. It was satisfactory, especially considering the dreary surroundings. The trip had been tiring and we opted to eat at the Chinese banqueting hall downstairs. After a shower to peel the pollution off we headed downstairs. We ambled through the lobby and along a passageway towards the giant restaurant that seats at least 400 at a time.
Prior to the entrance of the eatery were fifty or sixty aquariums with the day’s fish on offer. Except, and somehow wonderfully appropriate for the noxious surroundings, every single fish was belly up – dead.
A Russian dance troupe entertained diners that evening. We feasted on Wuxi spare ribs, a famed Chinese dish, keeping well clear of any fish hoiked out of the Yangtze. No wonder there are no more dolphins plying the world’s third longest river.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Beijing Alzheimer’s

To live in Beijing is like suffering from Alzheimer’s. No, you don’t wake up every day looking for your wallet, but almost as disconcerting you spend much time double checking if you are indeed on the right street as countless changes prove hard to compute.
There I was just the other day heading down one of my most visited streets for a blind massage to blow out the martini stained cobwebs of the night before. Glancing up to my left expecting to see my regular Xinjiang restaurant with its gold turrets masquerading its plain interior from where the most wonderful hand pulled noodles have been created for decades the regular Beijing horror set in. In its place was a humdrum 24-hour shop kinda like a 7/11 with an orange plastic facade. Double check. I was here just a few weeks back. Totally gone.
And then the other common Beijing moment in such instances – reminiscing over all the times I had been to that place. Mental note to never, ever buy anything from that shop. And then I walk on, slightly dazed by the rapid demise of yet another favoured haunt and its speedy replacement, so speedy in fact that it leaves me wondering if the Xinjiang restaurant ever existed on that street at all. That’s Beijing Alzheimer’s for you. And chuffed with this new municipal medical term at another bar nearby I had to scribble it down for a later blog post or else I’d forget it!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Media blackout

It descended into a media blackout. A national prestige project was to be rolled out this year to much fanfare and nothing would spoil the coming out party. Billions had been spent on what was claimed to be the finest facilities of their kind.

However, as mass protests got underway, chaos ensued. Angry citizens hurled abuse, the kudos that this project, eight years in the making, was meant to bring was quickly soiled.

International media piled in to reveal the full scope of the bedlam. Each hour the news got worse and worse; those on the ground ever more infuriated.

Eventually the powers that be took the desperate decision to bar journalists from entering this hallowed area – a media blackout was the only solution the authorities could come up with to minimalise the fallout. It really has been an inauspicious start to the opening of Heathrow’s new Terminal 5!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Slow boat to Lamma

Every Lammaite has the ferry timetable imprinted on their brain. People in town can spot a Lammaite easily. At the bars from Wan Chai to Lan Kwai Fong, Lammaites start getting tetchy circa 10 past the hour, especially ten past midnight, for in twenty minutes the final ferry back to Fantasy Island departs, and there isn’t another for six hours. Hasty goodbyes, and a much flagging for taxis take place; a couple of cans of Tsingtao for the boat ride, the shrill ringing like a school bell that signifies time’s up … all aboard.
For those that miss the 12.30 there’s two options. Stay in town or take a HK$70 cab fare to Aberdeen on the western shores of Hong Kong Island overlooking Lamma. From there old grandmothers tend to their sampans. They know tow things about you. 1. You have no other means of getting home and 2. You’re drunk. Your bargaining position is tough to say the least and HK$150 is about the minimum to get back home. These classic wooden motorised vessels leave busy Aberdeen harbour, normally by which time I am komatose on a bench, and enter the Lamma Channel, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, where 350 metre long steel giants of globalisation plough through the waves, the little sampans bobbing like corks in their wake. If it’s rough, it’s a green faced way to end the night. After 45 minutes the lights of Yung Shue Wan pier hove into view and then 15 minutes later I’m wrapped up in bed, promising myself once again I really, really should have got that last ferry.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Granny Chan’s aka the Seats of Shame

Of a steaming day in the back and beyond of Fantasy Island you used to be able to hear much hot air coming from a shaded seating area near the tennis court.
Granny Chan, a wizened old lady, ran her eponymous store, where perhaps failing eyesight accounted for her lapses in returning the right change.
Opposite are ramshackle seats in a concrete, grubby surroundings, shaded by tarpaulins. Here sat Lamma Island’s expat down-and-outs pontificating or generally putting the world to rights over countless Carlsbergs or Carsybas as they are pronounced in this neck of the woods.
In just a few years though these so called Seats of Shame have become deserted, their occupants no longer with us.
The loudest – and gruffest – of all was David Slough, a burly, noisy gentleman for whom Hong Kong would forever be a territory of the British Crown. He seemed to love his Alsatian dogs more than his Asian wife, and his booming voice carried over long distances. One day he forgot his key to his house, climbed up the drainpipe to his second floor apartment, almost made it, but fell and was gored on the bamboo fence below. A chopper got him off the island but he was dead on arrival.
Kenny, a prematurely silver haired Scot, was the ultimate piss artist. In his rare moments of lucidity he sold insurance for a succession of firms. Most of the time, though, he was incoherent and wretched. He meant well; alcohol had ruined him. He did marry a Texan lady who got him off the island and into rehab but to no avail. His thin frame eventually ballooned, his liver packed in, his skin lost all its palour and he died at St Margaret’s Hospital, across the Lamma Channel in Aberdeen. The Seats of Shame nailed another victim.
Then there was John, the most erudite of the Granny Chan regulars. A journalist with a massive thesaurus for a brain, John became like the rest – slurred, easily irritable and a wreck. He had a drinker’s body – no muscle and unhealthily pale skin. The last time anyone saw him, in his mid-40s, he was stacking shelves at a Tesco supermarket in Yorkshire and living with his mum.
Others who were regulars ended up taking the 12 step programme and now don’t touch booze. Granny’s is just a store these days, her family have built her a bungalow just down the slope from the shop. As for me, well, first I was always a Tsingtao guy over Carlsberg, and mercifully a full time job whisked me away from there in the nick of time.

The stickmen of Chongqing

There’s nowhere quite like Chongqing throughout the People’s Republic. Ringed by mountains and rivers, the first time visitor will always be amazed to note the complete absence of bicycles. The burning sensation in your calf muscles as you walk the city’s steep streets explains this two-wheeled phenomenon. Not of course that there aren’t two wheel contraptions – nowhere on Earth produces more motorcycles than Chongqing, the world’s largest municipality. As well as this size moniker (it has roughly the same landmass as Austria!) the 11-year-old municipality is also famous for its spicy food – the home of lip numbing hot pot – and the ubiquitous stickmen, themselves a product of geography.
Up until the 1960s these wiry men, armed with their roped trusty bamboo sticks, were the principal means with which cargoes from the Yangtze were carried up the vertiginous river banks to the city.
Nowadays the port is more automated, but that does not mean there is little work. On the contrary, as the citizens get richer, their shopping bags become heavier and more numerous. This being one of the four so called furnaces of China makes the prospect of strolling home laden with heavy bags a sweaty and unattractive prospect. Cue the stickmen. Outside many a department store or supermarket these sinewy men hover waiting for business. There are an estimated 10,000 of them and they charge anywhere from 3 yuan to 20 depending on the distance, steepness, steps and weight of their job.
I caught up with a gaggle of them to see how their lives are progressing. All of them appear to have mobiles and pretty regular clients who phone them up in advance of a planned trip to the shops.
There are a couple of other cities with a noticeable if not as large stickmen contigent – Wuhan and Yichang, both also on the Yangtze.
Typically they work 12 hour shifts – 7am to 7pm – and tend to stick to specific areas. The savvy ones have moved to more upmarket areas where redevelopment has brought the joy of elevators over the dreaded staircase. The richest stickman I met, Zhang Guang Heng, 40, hung around the Hilton Hotel and paid the management 100 RMB a month for a license to operate. Zhang manages to make around 30,000 RMB a year and is the envy of all stickmen.
Typically, these green freight transport providers make 1,300 yuan a month. By comparison, the Chongqing average wage, according to the latest mayor’s figures is 2,700 yuan.
As this city develops the future of the stickmen looks likely to snap.

Where the sun is always over the yard arm

To purloin a description from Prince Charles, they looked like waxworks. Puffy, purple, splodgy ancient faces beamed at us as we entered the president’s office of the Vladivostok State Maritime University. It was 10am on a crisp, but by Russian standards, manageable day in February and we were close to finishing a tiring but highly hospitable junket by French hosts, Total.
Regardless of the time a bottle of French cognac was plonked on the table. Three generous shots each later, and those less accustomed to such morning spirit consumption were eagerly consuming coffee to try and help assuage the burning sensation trickling down to our bellies.
Of all the demographic statistics I’ve read about Russia surely the most alarming one is the disparity between male and female life expectancy – an incredible 13 years, roughly three times the global average. Why? Severe alcohol abuse.
Come 11am we found ourselves in a cramped office for another round of meetings. The cognac from Armenia (pictured) was met with a glower of disapproval by our bon viveur French hosts but in the spirit of maintaining an entente cordiale we all slurped down another three healthy glasses before toddering back to the airport. Even the hardiest of drinking journos was taken aback by this half bottle of cognac each before midday.
Apparently many Russians have inherited Mongol genes that make them absorb more alcohol into the bloodstream and break it down at a slower rate than most Europeans.
That means that they get more drunk and have worse hangovers, and are more likely to become addicted to alcohol, given Russia’s taste for vodka and its harsh climate.
The Mongols swept across Asia and Russia and into Europe in the 13th century and ruled Russia for two centuries. Inter-marriage with the Slavs and other ethnic groups was common.
Scientists have long known that people of Mongol extraction, including Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, have an enzyme for metabolising alcohol that is different from that of Caucasian Europeans.
Russians drink about 15 litres of pure alcohol a head each year, one of the highest rates in the world, and by some estimates one in seven Russians are alcoholics. At least though they’ve nixed the old raping and pillaging routine of their Mongol forebears.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Poverty is pungent

Poverty is pungent. And few places on earth stink of destitution more than the Philippines – an archipelago where the wealthy, corrupt few lord it over their impoverished constituents.
I’ve been to many poorer parts of the world; Africa, Bolivia, and myriad Asian destinations but when it comes to the stench of deprivation Manila wins hands down. Whether it's the garbage dumps of Payatas, the slums of port side Tondo, the amoral goings on in Ermita, Metro Manila does poverty in loud, full technicolour – an assault on all the senses. Yet, perhaps the most intriguing slumville area that until this weekend had eluded me were the rail tracks by Bicutan.
I presumed by the deep, well pressed garbage into the buffers that no train passed this depressed area. The kids played, the garbage stank, cockerels faced off to fight each other, while ingenious converted wooden crates ferried folk up and down the tracks. The stench was awful, the huts lined up close to the tracks, electric wires bunched overhead and sewage flowed freely. Yet happiness reigned.
I guess this is the key point with being poor – people get by, their glass tends to be half full, where as us with a living and bills, etc are forever stressed. God knows this is a lame comparison but when I was poor (this coming from an Old Harrovian!)– when I first came to HK and literally scavenged to get by for a while – I now look back as some of the happiest days of my life.
Back to Bicutan. I’d walked up and down the tracks, snapping away, attracting much attention – the typical Philippine call out ‘Hey Joe” – and was still getting to grips with the torrid smell when a loud whistle blew. Up ahead a slovenly, battered train made its way through the trash. As it passed me, kicking up near vomit inducing dust, a plane soared up overhead. I knew where I’d rather be at the moment.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

First trip to Asia

Onboard the air hostess made her way down the aisle. “I’ll have a vodka and…” I paused, checking her embarrassment, reminded myself that the cheapest flight I could find was a dry Arabic one with a stopover in the desert somewhere. “Make that an orange juice,” I corrected myself.
We’re going back more than a decade now to my first trip to Asia. At uni, there was a charity with the catchy acronym H.E.L.P. that posted people on the summer hols all over the world to do good, worthy things. It was always oversubscribed and it was potluck where you were assigned.
I got the call sometime in February. “Congratulations, you’re going to the Philippines!” Wow, fantastic. Elated, I put the phone down and only then wondered where the hell the Philippines was! A soggy four and half day bike ride from London to Edinburgh a couple of months later stumped up the cash for the alcohol lite flight. That summer I headed out.
I’ll always remember the huge round of applause plus many crossings of hearts as the flight landed in Asia’s only Catholic country, and one of the more superstitious places I have ever been.
That first night in Manila was intensely raucous (and distinctly non-religious); a pair of Australians saying we just had to go to the dodgiest bars imaginable down on Roxas Boulevard. The exuberance would wear off in the devout, basic surroundings of the mentally handicapped camp we were sent to build various things like greenhouses and ditches. Rice and rain were two constants that month. Before long mutiny broke out in our camp …

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The killing fields

His eyes lit up manically as we unfolded the map. Spread over his sparse wooden floor he pointed to the heart of southeast Asia to Cambodia and grinned wildly. “Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff; Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhhfff,” he cried out in joy, miming a jeep held machine gun spraying all and sundry. He was delighted with his memory and also that we had at last been able to communicate between each other.
It was more than a decade ago. I was traveling with a lovely Scottish girl, slightly built, with braided hair, called Mary who was on her first big trip overseas and was determined to ‘find herself’. Thus far she’d managed to find me, some grotty backpacker dorms, mindblowing Cambodian weed and a sense of adventure that had led us to this backwater.
We’d hired a motorbike and trundled up to see some magnificent temples in the back and beyond of central Vietnam’s jungles. Coming back though along rural mud tracks flanked by padi fields we’d run out of petrol.
The gas pump had a padlock on it and somehow, via the power of point and mime, we’d worked out the gas attendant would be back in a couple of hours at a which point a friendly family invited us into their spartan hut on stilts for tea and rice.
Now I was kinda proud of my perfect dialect in being able to count from one to five in Vietnamese, but that was the absolute limit of my language repertoire so conversation with the male of the family, who had shooed away his wife and kid and pointed to the floor where we should sit, was going to be limited. And indeed it was, for a while. And then we unfurled our map by way of pointing where we had been in his country and the placid nature of our host changed, his eyes glowed and danced, his memories rekindled of mowing down countless soldiers of Pol Pot in the late ‘70s. “Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff, shhfff; Kampuchea, shhfff, shhfff, shhhfff,” he repeated endlessly and joyously. Happy times!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Kung Hey Rat Choi!

Rubbish when wet and on the road, trodden down by thousands, turns grey and mushy. It was smeared thick on the unseasonably chilly streets of Guangzhou yesterday when I rocked up to gawp at the stunning volume of folk heading to the city’s main train station ahead of the Spring Festival.

The perfect storm had descended upon the world’s most populous nation just as people were turning their attention to the week-long holidays. The worst snow storms for more than 50 years wreaked havoc to the already strained Chinese transport system, just as the biggest human migration was about to get underway – where millions upon millions of Chinese head home from their factories, offices, farms for a well earned rest.

The taxi driver took me as far as he could. About one kilometer from the station barriers had been erected and swarms of police funneled the pedestrians from there on in. Looking ahead the street, Hua Shi Lu, was just jammed – a sea of people pushed, heaved, shimmied and shuffled their way forward, the swarms of cops becoming battalions – I’d never seen so much bacon in one place.

Barriers ensured progress was slow and irritation was high.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers had passed before me desperate to get home and still, with just a couple of days to go authorities estimated two million more had to process through the station.

An errant banker might have squandered €4.7bn in Paris a week earlier and the Federal Reserve may well have been slashing interest rates quicker than Freddie Kruger but the real story affecting the world economy these past days has been the frayed Chinese transport system. The engine of the world has blown a gasket and really it’s hardly surprising. Latest World Bank figures show that a quarter of all rail movements – both freight and passenger – take place in China on just 6% of the world’s tracks. Manufacturers here are on edge. Wait till they see how the Beijing Olympics messes with their crucial Christmas deliveries this August. At least then it will be hotter, though that’ll make the sodden, trodden trash wreak more.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

In the hands of the blind

You know you’re onto a good one the moment when you can’t breath for a couple of seconds, the pain is acute, and perhaps a sliver of saliva will slide out of the corner of your mouth uncontrollably onto the crisp white sheets that your body is pounding.
I’m no sadomasochist, but when at a blind massage joint they ask soft, medium or hard, I’ll always go hard and then ratchet up the pressure once underway. “Is OK?” they’ll say. “Harder,” I venture. Moments later they’ll inquire again, “Is OK?” and I wince back in a falsetto crescendo that yes it is OK.
The point that takes your breath away is invariably around either the fourth vertebrae or as your neck is needled.
Any trip to the mainland is always accompanied by regular blind massage excursions. I find their sense of touch is naturally that bit sharper, their keenness to impress is more noticeable and unlike the other massage parlours that dot most streets in the People’s Republic there is no hanky panky insulations, just a straight, hard rub down that always seems to make me taller and unwrap the knots and kinks in my crumpled body. And at roughly 1RMB a minute there are few better ways to spend your money than a one-hour blind massage.
In Beijing I go to a place just next to the old Red House on Chunxiu Street, where an albino, blind lady has such a fantastic grasp of her profession that she can tell you things like, “You use a computer mouse too much the wrong way so that is why this knot here,” cue sharp intake of breath to suppress the howl of pain on my behalf, “is so big and hard to get rid of.” In Guangzhou there’s a decent place on lovely old Shamian Island while this week I found a massage heaven in Shanghai that surpasses my old regular behind the Jingjiang Hotel. Next time you’re in Shanghai make sure you head to FeiNing Massage Centre at 597 Fuxing Road, near the intersection with Maoming Road. A cracking place, literally.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cocktologists from Fitzroy

Melbourne is a great city and the very best part of it (from the miniscule amount of time I have spent there) is the bohemian area of Fitzroy and specifically Brunswick Street (pictured). This throughfare is lined with brilliant bars, restaurants, shops – all colourful, slightly run down in a fashionable way and full of out of work actors working the tables. Think of a cuisine and Brunswick St caters for it – even Afghan food, and the quality of tucker on offer wherever you go is outstanding.
Then there are the brilliant bars. Half way down is Ginger, which lays claim to being one of the top 20 cocktail bars in the world. Certainly the wasabi capriosca the AsiaScribbler imbibed was suitably ingenious, blending spice and sour to drunken effect.
Still, just a few doors down is, for my money (and, doff of cap here to my sister and her boyfriend for steering me here in the first place) is an even more inventive cocktail bar – called the Black Pearl, oh aaaagh. So creative and inspired are the select number of drinks here that I took the liberty of purloining the menu, all in the name of journalistic/blog research, you understand.
What the alcohol chemists behind the bar do here is phenemonal in mixing certain ingredients that on paper make you wince at the prospect, but on supping make you drool with delight.
Take the Spring Martini, A$16, which according to the blurb is a “myriad palate of flavours activating every pleasure sensor on your tongue.” The ingredients are Hanwoods Port, Gin, Fresh Raspberries, a little Balsamic Vinegar (!) and Cranberry Juice. Vinegar in my martini glass? Are you having a laugh, as Ricky Gervais’s character in Extras might say, but I tell you what it works a treat.
Similarly excellent is the Marjini (pronounced Ma-hee-nee), which allegedly is a “margarita for ‘las personas del sol’”. El Jimador Tequila, Jasmine Syrup, Sauvignon Blanc, and Lime is served with a Corriander Salt lacing and is some of the best A$15 you will spend in Melbourne.
The Black Pearl is a treasure trove in a street lined with gems.

City of Dreams

To be the AsiaScribbler is to lead a charmed life. Many people are often jealous of my lucky niche, roaming the world “like a French movie star” as one chum likes to put it. But every now and then I get that perverse feeling that perhaps I am in the wrong place. Normally, it comes on holiday. And so it came to pass once again yesterday as I spent a marvelous 24 hours wondering around the fantastic city of Melbourne. This place has so much going for it: clean air, parks, culture, fantastic food, a benign climate, huge sporting events, multiculturalism, good transport, top wines … the list could go on. Put simply, it is as ‘livable’ a city as I have ever come across.
Living in Hong Kong and indeed all of China, one has to contend with awful pollution, mega humidity and a very different paced and focused way of life. I love it, but, wow, Melbourne does make me pause for thought. The thing is I am chained to HK as a China scribe. Otherwise a life Down Under might be a serious possibility.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The weekly commute

“The Colony had therefore become for him exactly what it was already for the rest of the journalists: an airfield, a telephone, a laundry, a bed.”
The Honourable Schoolboy
, John Le Carré (1977)

It is one of the great pieces of inspired infrastructure in Hong Kong, yet for me it is now a bit of a bore. I’m on it now as I am pretty much every week.
12 years back Hong Kong’s airport was in the middle of town, the bellies of 747s nearly scraping the tall towers that dominated the then colony’s heart.
When they reclaimed land and built the gigantic and ultra efficient new airport out on the west of Lantau island, unlike other Asian cities with new distant runways (step forward Narita and Incheon) the authorities linked the city centre with Chep Lap Kok airport with a 23 minute, HK$180 return train. Travellers are able to check in downtown – a brilliant idea – and wonder around HK, bags free, while they wait for their flight before taking the train to fly out.
The route of the tracks heads underground straightaway off Hong Kong island across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon before passing the container port and onto crowded Tsing Yi island. It then veers around Lantau island crossing the truly impressive Tsing Ma bridge, sadly in the dark, and whips past a stop for Disney before alighting at Arrivals.
As useful as it is though after a while it can get boring. In this hyper commercial centre, nominally under communist rule, just like Orwell’s 1984 adverts blare out of the TV for Disney and Dior - you can turn the sound down via your headrest, but never off.
I always say to myself I’ll take the bus and that way get to see different things and no Mickey Mouses. Trouble is in fast paced HK the bus takes 22 minutes longer than the train, and, well, that’s just too long.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Grey nomads

Grey nomads are what they’re called in these parts. You can’t miss them. They’re the baby boomers hogging the roads with the pride and joy of their lives – their caravans.
The highways and byways of the great Australian landmass are made up of these folk in their sixties who have cashed in everything, usually offloading their homes in the process, to live the, errrr, dream of becoming a roaming free spirit in later life. They are proud members of the SKI club – Spending the Kids’ Inheritance.
Their white plastic caravans are adorned with stickers, like war insignia, of where they have been and certain incongruous phrases – “Just cruisin’” or “Rock on” type spiel.
A grey nomad’s car is easy to spot because however dusty the terrain it is always shiny and spotless.
As they compete for spots at camping sites up and down the land you’ll hear them exchange banter about how long they’ve been on the road: “Yeah, this is our eighth time round,” they might say, in reference to circumnavigating the nation. Theirs is a life permanently on the road.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Way Ay, Man!

Inside the darkened rooms of the cavernous Newcastle Arms there lies pleasant surprises aplenty for the average British pub goer. Premiership football blares out from countless big screens, a normally pretty tight rock outfit plays well-known tracks from yore, the pool table is always busy while perhaps the world’s largest shove ha’penny apparatus sits alongside the main bar, just to the left of the darts board. And from said bar pour forth many of the more mundane local lagers associated with this region, plus the rusty brown, welcome taste of McEwans Ale on tap not to forget, of course, Newcastle Brown Ale. All in all, a strange but highly appreciated sight in the world’s largest municipality, Chongqing.

A number of years ago Scottish and Newcastle invested in Chongqing Brewery, God bless ‘em!

Address: Bayi Road, Yuzhong District, Chongqing, China
Tel: 23 6373 1488

PS: Opposite is a McDonald’s – just to the right of that is an entrance to what looks like a another office block, go in, punch the number 8 button in the lift and, post copious ales at the Arms across the way, boogey away the night at the city’s best club.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The E Street Band

“You buy me ecstasy.” These four words are perhaps what the average foreign bloke will hear most often on a night out in Jakarta.
I have never really had that much against MDMA and E really. I always thought it overrated and the comedown the following day easily outweighed the frankly dull high moments. Still, in Indonesia my viewpoint changed on seeing the sheer depravity and desperation caused by this drug. The streets are lined with gurning chicks, faces distorted by pills, words exiting their mouths in long, drooling fashion.
It used to be the upper classes that indulged in this drug through till the late 1990s where mass production and a perceived ‘coolness’ factor made it the pill of choice for the masses too.
Inside a cavernous warehouse that doubled up as a nightclub, the green laser lights darted across the huge dance floor, with techno music at full body-quivering blast, and the 2,000 strong crowd heaved to and fro as if filmed by an old fashioned Cinecamera thanks to the powerful strobe lighting. We perched ourselves at the back to take in the view and preserve our eardrums. No sooner had we sat down than dozens of girls came up, each one in turn demanding we buy them ecstasy. This rife drug doesn’t cost much in the Indonesian capital – around US$9 – but it sure dictates lives.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Another year on the road

A quick glance at the 2007 calendar shows I was away a hell of a lot. 2008 is even more blacked out with escapades around the globe. Being the AsiaScribbler involves seriously pissing off Al Gore with all the air miles I accumulate, and genuinely it is something I think about a lot. I don’t drive being perhaps the only person to fail a driving test because of a screeching, tire burning emergency stop 13 years ago, and the house I own has solar panels. I take long, long train rides often to avoid planes, but more often than not time or oceans get in the way of taking my preferred way of travel.
There’s a guy on Fantasy Island, where I live in Hong Kong, who is often pilloried for his extreme hippy looks, yet credit where credit is due he has planted more than 7,000 trees on our fair shores since I came here. In a vain attempt to rid me of my green guilt, I think I’ll pitch in with his tree planting sessions this year … if I am around at the allotted time.
So 2008, the Beijing Olympics year, sees me avoiding that sporting fest like SARS given the expected 10,000 journos to be hanging around the Chinese capital this summer.
Still, I’ll probably visit Beijing at least four times, Shanghai a couple, Chongqing, Wuhan and Chengdu each twice, excitingly the China/Afghan border (all 76km of it), Xinjiang province in the northwest, a return to Yunnan via Guizhou, plus obligatory trips to nearby Guangzhou.
So that’s China! Then there’s Singapore likely 6-8 times, the Philippines countless times, South Korea twice, North Korea in March for their game vs the ROK, Japan twice, Taiwan once, Dubai once, France and the UK three times, Australia once, Vietnam once, Thailand once, Tajikistan once, and possibly Russia’s Far East. These are just the planned ones.
In other words, this year I got me self a lot of trees to plant!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008