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.

2 comments:

spinoza said...

Great piece, milord.

Compared to Metra from Evanston to Chicago, past quiet streets and a big Catholic cemetary, and then through low buildings and Goose Island and into the Loop...

Compared to the Princeton dinky and Jersey transit into New York, under the river no view of Liberty, sometimes taking PATH to a station that since 9-11 is only a memory, buried under tons of debris...

Compared, oh ye laurels, to the old Insull electric cars of the early 1980s, fleeing Silicon Valley for the fleshpots of San Francisco, winding up behind a martini in Henry Africa's...

It's a pretty cool commute.

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