Archive | January, 2013

What are you smiling at? Oh, nothing…

29 Jan

Hong Kong panoramaHere’s a question. Why are so many Hong Kongers so bloody miserable? I hadn’t really thought about it until a Gallup poll of 150,000 people worldwide last month revealed that those living in the SAR and their counterparts in Singapore are among the most miserable anywhere on the planet.

Singapore came bottom in the poll of 148 countries, with just under half expressing happiness, while Hong Kong came in 73rd, with 69 per cent of respondents all smiles. As pointed out by SCMP, these two city-states rank third (HK) and seventh (Sing) on the World Bank’s per capita GDP table – in Hong Kong’s case the figure is ten times higher than that of the happiness joint leader, Panama.

So what can we deduce from this? Money can’t buy you happiness? Asians are intrinsically less likely to tell a stranger they’re happy than Central Americans? Such polls are a spurious waste of time? Well, a mixture of all three probably. The problem with this kind of research is that no matter what the results, you can drag some kind of expert out of the woodwork to validate it with their insightful social commentary.

So here’s mine. I can’t speak for Singapore but there’s a huge wealth gap in Hong Kong. Around one in six Hong Kongers live in poverty, according to a ten year study released last November by Oxfam. Bearing in mind the median salary of Hong Kong’s top 10 per cent is HK$88,800 (£7,300) per month this is pretty shameful. It would be difficult to imagine even Margaret Thatcher in her prime ignoring that kind of societal imbalance.

So that might explain why around a sixth of Hong Kong isn’t very happy. What about the rest? To put it bluntly, the acquisition of wealth seems to be one of the few things which binds the people of this former colony together. It’s why they run two or three jobs, working all hours; why they school their kids until all the joy is sucked out of them, wait until they’ve been to uni and then nag them to get hitched before they hit 30. Incidentally it’s also why you see men who’ve been beaten furiously with the ugly stick married to stunning brides. Money. Money. Money. It’s fucking relentless and, I imagine, it doesn’t make for super happy smiley people.

I’m not sure whether the survey was confined to indigenous locals, but I’d also posit the notion that there’s probably a difference between the happiness rankings of Cantonese and gweilos living in Hong Kong. I say that through no rigorous research of my own other than I’m having a cracking time here.

As the snakey New Year approaches – China’s rent-boy-friends come out to play

22 Jan

snakeSince China’s gradual opening up to the world post-Mao, a whole generation of youngsters have grown up free from the life or death choices that faced their forebears. These Little Emperors – the result of China’s controversial one-child policy – have had it pretty bloody good when you consider their parents’ and grandparents’ generations faced the horrors of the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution and flared trousers. They may be blinged up with iPhones, Gucci handbags and Burberry scarves but one thing the girls at least still can’t get their hands on these days is a fella.

Now, it’s not quite clear why this might be, given that the one-child policy and a cultural predilection for a son and heir has led to a gender imbalance in China which could mean 40 million more men than women by 2020. Maybe the women need to try a bit harder, put some make-up on from time to time, stop playing so hard to get and just put the chopsticks down once in a while. Either way, the problem has reached crisis proportions in China, where familial pressure for girls to settle down and marry before they’ve even hit 30 is huge.

With the impending New Year’s holiday break upcoming, that generation of late 20-something girls we’ve just been talking about are starting to get nervous – pretty soon they’ll have to travel back home to their folks and explain why they’ve still not managed to bag an eligible batchelor.

Well, in 21st century China, that’s not a problem. E-commerce site Taobao – a kind of eBay-like platform for small merchants – has recently been flooded with hundreds of enterprising young gents keen to make a quick buck out of the misfortune of others. These rental boyfriends apparently charge around 20 yuan (£2) an hour and will even travel home to meet their clients’ parents.

Afters are extra.

Even in modern, international city-state Hong Kong where parents often have the luxury of more than one child, the cut off for girls is around 26. The only winners in all this, apart from a few entrepreneurial rent-boy-friends, are the online dating firms. Charging as much as HK$3,000 a month, these companies feast on human loneliness and parental expectations like a bunch of bastard mosquitos. Some even offer date nights with foreigners. Can you imagine?

The government has clearly let down these poor girls. I suggest mandatory marriage for all who reach 30 without getting hitched.

Southern Weekly saga: porridge, censorship and hacked off hacks in Xi’s China

10 Jan

chinaflagIt’s been a rather depressing, or optimistic, week in China depending on how you view the Party’s latest not-so-subtle attempts to strangle free speech and the unusually vocal reaction to it.

It all began when propaganda chief of the southern Guandong province, Tuo Zhen, decided he didn’t like an already edited-for-his-pleasure New Year’s message in the liberal-leaning Southern Weekly and decided to re-write it, removing the bits calling for reform and adding his own anodyne intro.

Considering China’s hacks already conform to imposing censorship requirements, the editorial team got rather peeved at this blatant hatchet job and went on strike.

Messages of support from scholars, students – and maybe more importantly, bloggers and celebs with tens of millions of followers on weibo – followed as the stand-off between the hacks and the Party-influenced paper management continued.

An editorial in state-run rag Global Times playing down the dispute was ordered by the Party to be published in papers across the country, forcing the principled Dai Zigeng, editor-in-chief of the Beijing News, to resign after he refused to do so.

Undeterred, the BJ Daily, as it’s called by no-one, ran a fascinating article about porridge in defiance of the Party. Yes. Porridge. Read CMP here for the reason why porridge is now politically dissident (hint: It involves homophones and metaphors).

All of this can be set against the backdrop of incoming Party and national leader Xi Jinping’s crusade for reform and transparency. Xi has made it his mission to root out corruption in the Party and sent some pretty strong signals so far that this isn’t just an attempt to cement his popularity and power base.

So is this a particularly sad day for freedom of speech in China’s admittedly pretty sad history? It depends what you believe is going on here.

To take the pessimistic view one could see the message coming loud and clear from the new administration that no relaxing of the country’s tough censorship laws will be allowed, despite initial hope that the country’s new leaders would be a tad more liberal.

A leaked directive sent to all editors from the Propaganda Department would seem to confirm this depressing take on things, blaming as it did the usual mythical “external hostile forces” for the development of the Southern Weekly situation and stating unequivocally: “Party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle”.

Coming from another angle, however, there are signs of encouragement.

One couldn’t expect Xi to stamp his personal mark too quickly on the presidency and the Party, in fact, he’s not even sworn in as pres until March and Party-wise the incoming leader is usually hidebound for many months and even years before they can really take control.

This whole affair could rather be seen, as Beijing-based scholar Russell Leigh Moses argues, as the result of heavy-handed actions – perhaps even designed to deliberately disrupt Xi’s reformist push – of the old guard of the Party.

In addition, pro-democracy protesters were allowed to gather freely outside the Southern Weeklybuildings – although police took pictures of many in that rather sinister “we’ll be in touch later” way police sometimes do – for several days.

And in defiance of the Party, hugely popular internet portals such as that run by Sina published theGlobal Times editorial with the crucial caveat that it did not represent their views. Acrostics in unrelated headlines were also used ingeniously to spell out messages of support for Southern Weekly.

In short, I’ve absolutely no idea what’s going on in China, as usual, but there are signs, albeit hugely caveated ones, that some things may be changing across the border.

Ladyboys in Boots – NYE in Phuket

4 Jan

IMG_1064The world’s population can be divided very neatly into two mutually exclusive camps: those who enjoy New Year’s Eve and those who’d rather stay in with a box of wine and the box set of the Wire. Unfortunately for me, I’m firmly in the might-as-well-have-a-fucking-party category and have been searching for that perfect night ever since a roller-coaster ride through the suburbs of Newcastle in ’95 left me temporarily blind in one eye.

What this meant a few days ago was decamping to Phuket in search of fun, sun and lots of Chang (beer). Only now do I feel my blood is purified and my head clear enough to recount what went down. You may even find the following useful if you too fancy a break on Thailand’s debauched west coast.

My first observation: I have never been mistaken for a Russian oligarch so many times in my entire life. Yup, there’s a direct flight from Moscow to Phuket, which means lots of stunning ice maidens and horrific, vodka soaked, flame-haired 50-something divorcees. Then there are the men. Mis-matched primary colour wearing oafs, skin as pallid as cold pelmeni. I hate to regurgitate stereotypes but they don’t smile, they don’t talk, they just drink and growl whilst shoveling Borscht into their mouths at the many Russian restaurants that have depressingly sprung up in the area….

They played a persistent, menacing counterpoint to our lovely, smiley, patient Thai hosts who, to be fair, managed to make everything better. Phuket is actually not all bad and the beaches of Kata and Karon offer more relaxed, up-market holidaying options for those not prepared to join the Full Moon party loons in Patong.

A trip to Phuket, however, really isn’t complete without a visit to this town:

If Hong Kong is a coke-fuelled banker then Patong is his methamphetamine-addicted younger sister. Up. All. Night. A walk down Bangla Road is enough to cause temporary cerebral cortex shut down. Sketchy touts brandish laminated cards offering ping pong shows and shove live iguanas and slow lorises at passers-by; ladyboys – and not particularly hot ones either – grab at balls, arms, and anything else that comes close; sadness, tragedy, sex and sheer unbridled joy sit cheek to jowl, often in the same person.

IMG_1092Tattoo parlours proclaim “15 years experience. Brand new needles”; stunning Thai girls gyrate hypnotically around their poles with the agility of Olympic gymnasts; dirty electro blares out of every available speaker; cockroaches scurry; Japanese tourists gravitate between awe and terror – literally having no frame of reference for this shit. Even staff in the Boots at the top of the road are pre-op trannies.

A chance encounter with a flyer led us down to the beach on New Year’s Eve for electro festival Sydictive Element. A vanity project which encountered numerous hurdles as over-officious local government and police chiefs waited for their palms to be crossed with baht, the beach party to end all beach parties finally went ahead. Some DJs didn’t show but those that did will be glad – it’s not every day you get to play to 20,000 people on a stage moored a couple hundred yards off shore.

Never been to a rave on a beach before. Would be back in a shot. As the beach area was only 600 metres long and fairly narrow it meant everyone could get a good view of the floating stage, with its monumental soundsystem, giant LCD displays and floating VIP area. At midnight, flying lycra-clad ladies attached to hanging wires soared overhead as fireworks exploded around us to the tunes of Bassment Jaxx and beach-front party go-ers let loose a thousand paper lanterns.

Phuket: you party good. I shall return with reinforcements.