Shanghai blues

Shanghai. There seem to be no jobs there for expatriates at the moment and I am so depressed about this. I’m sending resumes out but it’s always the same : “We are seeking local hires.” I don’t blame them, of course. My last resort will be to just pick up and move there for a while and knock on doors for work. It’s been done before!

I’m doing okay at work, but HK seems to be in a state of perpetual decline; the only things going up seem to be unemployment and suicide rates. Yesterday I read how a 28-year-old man who had lost his job killed himself because he couldn’t bear to go to the welfare office, fearing he would lose face. How horrific. So I think I want out. China is the place.

Just made plans to visit Kaohsiung in two weeks, and want to get back to Thailand. Now, if I could get a good job there I’d probably grab it.


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.


HK Essay

It’s been a long time. I was depressed to see that someone chopped out a big slice of my last entry and posted it on a local site for expats, but I guess that’s always the risk with a public weblog. I went to Shanghai last weekend for one of the most interesting and unforgettable trips of my life; the entire trip report has been posted on TW, with all the details.

Meanwhile, I got really pissed at the way people push me whenever I step out of an elevator or subway car — they believe they have to run in before the people get out, not realising that this only slows things down for everyone. I guess it’s “a cultural thing.” I posted this on TW recently and was amazed to see how many locals agree with me. Here goes:

Hong Kong: I love it, but…

It was all over the newspapers last week: Movie theaters and concert halls throughout Hong Kong will soon be implementing a new technology that will block all mobile phone and pager signals in their auditoriums, ensuring that the audience can enjoy performances without constant interruptions from chirping pagers and phones that burst into song. This was great news, but it was also depressing: Theaters were forced to adopt this last-resort solution for the simple reason that there are always a few selfish people who, despite the pre-show requests for silence, refuse to turn off their phones, terrified at the prospect of missing that one all-important call. When I say always, I mean always. It is taken for granted that whenever you go to a movie here, without exception, there will be at least two or more phone interruptions to ruin the show for everyone. The ringing is bad enough. But since the people who leave their phones on are self-centered and rude, they feel it is their right to answer the call and sit there in the theater and talk, as though they’re in their living room. It’s hard to stay absorbed in the film when someone behind you is shouting into his phone in Cantonese.

This is just a manifestation of a far broader issue here in perennially noisy, crowded Hong Kong. When I decided to move here more than a year ago, a Hong Kong native I know said I was crazy: “People in Hong Kong are so rude, they are uncultured, the streets are always packed, the air is polluted, it’s always dirty and the cost of living is the highest in the world.” (He had some good points, though I feel the positives here balance if not outweigh the negatives: great food, great location for Asian travel, many nice people who nearly all speak English, low taxes, bountiful shopping and entertainment, etc.) The point about rudeness is what’s on my mind, because it is so ubiquitous, and it’s a bit startling to a Westerner, and even to other Asians from outside Hong Kong.

Case in point: Hong Kong’s superb subway system (called the MTR) is a real pleasure, marred only by the behavior of some of its riders. “Let the passengers off,” blare the loudspeakers as the train approaches, a request that is almost completely ignored. As the doors open, the waiting mob tries to squeeze into the doors, going head-to-head against the poor passengers trying to exit. It happens every time, and I wonder why there is so little respect and courtesy for others. After all, even in New York City, subway riders extend basic rules of civility toward one another. Someone told me it had to do with the sheer number of people here, that there¡¦s always a crowd and that has generated an “every man for himself?mentality. That’s too bad, because it looks terrible to the outsider who watches, somewhat amazed, as a little old lady weighed down with shopping bags stands in the MTR, and none of the young people who managed to get a seat offers her theirs.

When someone bumps into you on the street in Hong Kong, they rarely say anything like “Excuse me” or “Sorry about that.” I guess it’s just a fact of life that when streets are always this crowded, this thick with unending throngs of pedestrians, you are constantly moving from one bump to the next, always pushing, slamming, evading and strategizing in your mind how you can most effectively wind your way through the masses. There’s no time for “Excuse me’s.” Every man for himself.

Perhaps the example that is most likely to raise culture shock to new levels is the way cars in HK interact with pedestrians. The pedestrian has no rights, and must always be on guard; the cars here simply do not stop for them. In Japan, in New York, in California — everywhere else I have ever been, in fact — motorists extend basic courtesy to pedestrians. Here, if you are crossing the street (even at a corner) and a car approaches, instead of slowing down, the driver will hit his horn and accelerate, forcing you to run. Someone at my office said the only reason they don’t mow the pedestrians down is that they’d have to take time to wash off the blood and repaint their fenders. Again, this could stem from the fact that there are so many millions of people in this microscopic city, and if drivers were always deferring to pedestrians they’d never get anywhere. Drivers are as rude to other drivers as they are to the pedestrians. The concept of “merging” or “right-of-way” is anathema to the local mentality, and cars are constantly scrambling to stay ahead. So when lanes converge at a tunnel, for example, it often seems as though a driver would rather give up his life than let another car in front of him. Twice now I thought my life was over as my taxi driver had to slam on his brakes to avoid smashing into a car that decided my taxi had no right to merge into his lane.

I can go on and on. The way some people insist on cutting into lines, pushing their way onto escalators, never acknowledging that there is anyone else on the planet but themselves…. The “rudeness thing” is probably the most common source of dismay to newbie expatriates here, and I wonder if I will ever really get used to it. Articles appear in the newspapers about it now and then, and public officials will write op-ed pieces admonishing their people that such rude behavior could alienate Hong Kong from the international community. It doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact so far, so for now I just gird myself for battle whenever I go onto the street and remind myself, “Every man for himself.”