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.