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.