More HK Essays

Work headaches. They are cracking down somewhat, trying to make everyone more “billable,” but the effect might be a negative one, with a sense of fear instilled and a reaction from clients who think they are being nickled & dimed. Must be extremely sensitive to these things, especially when in the midst of an ever-deepening recession.

How can it be that a classical music devotee and scholar of the music of Wagner and Mozart — how can it be that I can’t get the bubble-gummish music of Abba out of my head?? Ever since I saw Mamma Mia in London, those songs have been ringing in my ears non-stop. It seems I pick a “song of the week” and focus on it for a while. Now it’s “One of us is changing” (so beautiful) and before that it was “The Name of the Game,” which I used to think was a pretty bad song (I love it now).

Here is one of my essays on HK, written about a month after I moved here:

Hong Kong Diary, Part 2

It was nearly midnight and I was walking down the street in fashionable Lan Kwai Fong, where the beautiful people in Hong Kong go to drink and eat and be seen. As I stumbled toward the MTR station (the HK subway), in a doorway ahead I noticed a young couple engaged in some very heavy petting and kissing. The man was energetically kissing the neck of his impeccably dressed girlfriend, who was running her fingers through his hair. Normally this wouldn’t be that noteworthy except for one further observation I made as I got closer: As they were making out in the dark doorway, the young man’s hands exploring every centimetre of his partner’s torso, the object of his affection was engaged in a lively conversation on her cell phone. Her young playmate didn’t seem to mind at all, and seemed to be rather oblivious of the fact that she was yakking away throughout the intimate scene.

Perhaps the first observation a Westerner makes upon entering Hong Kong is the ubiquity of the cell phone. Everyone has one. It is rare to be anywhere in Hong Kong without hearing a cell phone ringing somewhere. Everyone chooses a distinct ring, otherwise you’d never know if it were your own phone ringing or someone else’s. My own cell phone rings to Beethoven’s Fur Elyse while a colleague’s down the hall plays Mozart Rondo all Turca. Some play pop songs, others strange and intrusive sounds designed to penetrate the noise of the subway and the street. No matter where you are — restaurants, elevators, trains, buses, movie theatres — there is guaranteed to be a cacophony of cell phones ringing and singing and beeping. During one recent ride on the MTR I counted no fewer than 13 people in one car talking on their little phones.

In the United States only 40 percent of the population own mobile phones. In Hong Kong it is above 80 percent. Elderly women shopping in the run-down little market near my apartment hold the little shopping basket in one hand, their phone in the other. It is a social phenomenon that, for whatever reason, has taken root more firmly in Asia than anywhere else. (I witnessed a similar phenomenon when I was in Singapore two years ago, and I’m told it is likewise in Taiwan and Japan.)

When I asked a native why everyone seemed to need a cell phone, he looked at me in dismay. “Don’t you get it?” he asked. “All they care about in Hong Kong is money, and they are afraid that if they miss a call they might miss an opportunity to make more money.”

Was he on to something? Is the cell phone craze just a symptom, a reflection of a broader and more deeply rooted social trend in Asia, i.e., the worship of money (which is not necessarily a bad thing)? Mainland China, too, has been bitten by the money bug, and it is this love of commerce and profit that will apparently make China the world’s next great power. It doesn’t take a newcomer to Hong Kong long to realize that the city lives and breathes money and opportunity. With more Rolls Royces per capita than any city on earth, millionaires live here in abundance. There is no capital gains tax, no sales tax, a small 15-percent flat tax on income and a strong sense that anything goes when it comes to making money. “The wild, wild East” is what my employer calls Hong Kong.

I’ve been here a month now, and for half that time I’ve been down (but not out) with the flu. My one consolation is that everybody else seems to be down with the flu as well. I’m told that Hong Kong is flu capital of the world, thanks to its high humidity and heat, which together form a breeding ground for mold and rot. Then there is the constant and sudden change from the high heat of the outdoors to the ice-cold air conditioning of Hong Kong buildings. This apparently causes a shock to one’s system and further encourages those little flu bugs to flourish.

And still, for all its oddities, for all its cell phones and diverse strains of influenza, I am definitely in love with this little city-state, or whatever Hong Kong is. My office provides a breathtaking view of the spectacular harbor, and just beyond the skyscrapers one can view vast expanses of lush green mountains. For all the buildings here, more than 70 percent of the land remains undeveloped, and I’m told that hiking in the hills is one of the most enjoyable ways one can spend the weekend. I’ve discovered lots of new restaurants where I can eat cheaply (at least relatively speaking), and despite the fact that everyone here is in a hurry and rudeness is taken for granted, there are a lot of wonderful people here, some of them right in my office. I shall elaborate with my next instalment, but now I need to take my flu medication.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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