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.