Life

Dispatch from Hong Kong

Just ahead of the P.M.’s arrival, our man Burgess files this, uh, report.

By Steve Burgess 21 Jan 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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On any cross-oceanic voyage the aim is to defeat the horrid jetlag that shaves the top off your emotional responses, and here in Hong Kong I thought I was all set. After the long flight I was in bed before midnight, determined to pile up restorative hours of slumber. I set the alarm for 10. Not necessary, as it turns out—down on the street the jackhammers started up at 7:30. Flailing at the bedside table, I discovered that Chinese jackhammers do not come with snooze buttons. And that might be the secret of the Chinese economic miracle right there.

Traveling to Hong Kong is like traveling back in time—approximately a month, I’d say. So far I have heard stores playing Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Could it be that scouts searching North American airwaves last month for the latest hip-hop trends became confused? More likely it’s just holiday music, being applied to a different holiday. This is the true festive season in Hong Kong, the lead-up to lunar New Year’s. As at Christmastime, this holiday is all about commerce. The difference is that nobody here seems to beat themselves up about it. It’s guilt-free shopping for everyone. Even me -- I just spent a lot of money on a winter coat, an item of clothing I truly didn’t need. But this one is special and so damn stylish that once I get home, caravans of Surrey pick-up trucks will be organized just to drive into Vancouver and beat the crap out of me.

Browsing

Almost every store has a sale. I saw one clearance event at a women’s clothing store in the Causeway Bay district called “Ho So What?” Just an odd phrase or a working girl’s statement of defiance? I did not have the nerve to ask just what was going at clear-out prices.

I have certainly had my opportunities to find out. Wandering around the old Yau Ma Tei district yesterday through market stalls hung with turtle shells, snake-skins, and dried lizards stretched over wooden pallets, I noticed that plain peasant garb was in a few cases giving way to thigh-length boots and rather nifty little skirts. It took me a few minutes to catch on, perhaps because none of the loitering women were trying to catch my eye. I think non-natives are a rare enough sight in that neighbourhood that the girls assumed I was just lost. It was a real bonus for me, though. I had been feeling bad about splurging on that coat, but now I felt better. By declining the chance to spend money on a hooker I had saved more than the cost of the jacket. So now I was in the black.
 
All that commercial activity means that not everyone can be kicking back window-shopping with the family at holiday time. Queenie, the nice young woman at the Agnes B. store who sold me the swanky coat, was in the middle of a 12- hour shift. She didn’t seem to mind. “We get more holidays,” she said. Hearing my description of lovely, relatively tranquil Vancouver, she mused, “Maybe it’s a little boring?”

Got to be. At the very least a Hong Kong resident might miss the nightly light show. At 8 PM each night the towers that line Hong Kong Island put on a spotlight-and-laser show, all the big skyscrapers working it like a row of Rockettes. Would New York ever do something great like that? Hell, no. Woody Allen would be mortified. But Hong Kong is a show-biz trouper with an unabashed pitch for itself.

Canadian invaders

My favourite is the HSBC building, edged with pink and white columns of light. The much-maligned Bank of China building, criticized for its bad feng shui, is delineated in white neon that emphasizes it geometric shapes. I sat below it last night, eating an orange and feeling thankful that I consider feng shui a bunch of crap.

I threw those orange peels in the garbage, mindful of that day’s front-page story in the South China Morning Post: A woman who dropped her house key was fined heavily by Hong Kong’s new cleanliness cops. Whether that’s a sign of growing mainland-style repression or just a quixotic attempt to turn over a new leaf, like No Fun Vancouver’s late-night club openings, I couldn’t say. But it won’t work, anyway. Singapore this ain’t.

I’m getting out of here just in time—Hong Kong is about to be lousy with Canucks. The Prime Minister lands here Saturday, leading a phalanx of House and Senate members and their entourages. By the time I return here next month on my way home, those girls in Yau Ma Tei might just have learned how to recognize a Canadian.

Tyee columnist Steve Burgess will (probably) file a report or two more from his travels in Thailand and Vietnam in the coming month.


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