05 March 2006

First impressions after an absence and a communist takeover

Hong Kong & Macau - 06 March 2006

It’s dirtier, a whole lot dirtier. It’s noisier than I recall and I remember it as the noisiest place I’ve ever been. It’s more crowded than ever and it was always the most crowded place I’d ever been. And, strangely, if you think ideologically rather than realistically, it is more nakedly, aggressively, greedily capitalist than ever. The people of Hong Kong, never shy about turning a buck, have ramped it up to yet more awe-inspiring heights than ever. Perhaps they’ve been egged on by the supposed quote from that great Chinese Communist leader, Deng Xiaoping: “To get rich is glorious.”

I lived here for 11 years and left one week after the “handover” back to China in 1997. I was last here in 2000. Then, the place seemed sort of depressed, not so sure of itself or where it was going. In spite of British colonialism it has always been a chinese city, but it didn’t seem quite so sure how it was going to do as a Chinese city. It seems to be doing fine, sort of.

There are a few, not so little, problems.

Before the handover the Chinese government promised; or was it that they implied; or was it simply an outright convenient lie that Hong Kong would have a democratically elected government before too long, maybe even as soon as seven or so years after 1997. That hasn’t happened, nor, to be honest, should anyone in their right mind really have expected it to. But there are plenty of people here who are not happy about that, who feel betrayed. There are plenty of others who seem to have the attitude of: ‘get over it, you’re making money aren’t you?’

The air quality here, while not so bad as the other eight Chinese cities that are among the world’s ten worst, is truly awful. And I know bad air when I breathe it. I grew up in Los Angeles when it had the world’s worst air. A lot of the bad air is blown on the prevailing southerly winds down the Pearl River from the north. There’s a whole lot of filthy factories up there. But Hong Kong’s contributing plenty of its own feculence to the stew. China, and by extension Hong Kong, actually has some of the world’s most advanced environmental regulations. Its auto emission standards are much stricter than the U.S. But enforcement is another matter. I’ve had a sinus headache since I arrived. I’m on a couple of Drixoral and regular fistfuls of aspirin daily and I’m managing it to within bearable parameters – just. Maybe if I lived here again for awhile I’d adjust. Maybe not.

One of the joys of living here when I did was that the territory has some of the world’s greatest transportation infrastructure. It still does. It’s fast, efficient and relatively cheap. But I’m getting the impression it’s verging on overwhelmed. When I lived in Hong Kong the population was around six million. It’s something around eight million now. And the place isn’t any bigger – well, other than all the newly reclaimed land in the shrinking harbor, but that’s all offices. So, traffic is a lot worse than it was. The subway, buses, trams, minibuses and ferries are much more densely packed than I recall.

As for the ferries, the rides are getting shorter. It’s not that the boats are getting faster. Developers are filling up the harbor and building on it and no one seems able to stop them, or even slow them down. They’re building a new Star Ferry pier at about the mid-point of what used to be the ferry’s crossing. When I first visited Hong Kong in 1978, taking the ferry from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui took about 12 to 15 minutes. Yesterday it took five. I won’t be surprised if within another 50 years or so the harbor disappears under new construction. After all, there’re a lot of ways to the container port. Ships can go around the south side of Hong Kong Island, why waste all that potentially valuable real estate?

Okay, so Hong Kong’s sort of nightmarish, in an exciting kind of way. It’s still fun to walk around in the crowds, especially at night when you’re showered with multi-hued neon and assaulted with a bewildering array of sounds and smells – some of which are pleasing and some of which make you want to flee screaming.

In the past, Macau was my quick fix getaway from the frenzy of Hong Kong. It was a rather sleepy Portuguese enclave on the south China coast. It was filled with charming, quiet neighborhoods that were a quirky mix of European and Asian architecture and culture. It was a place for long, wine-soaked lunches and casual strolls through beautiful gardens or old temples. Some of that still exists.

But Macau now takes pride in calling itself, “The Las Vegas of Asia.” Arriving at the ferry pier, practically the first thing you see is a giant fake mountain of what looks like dung. I think it’s supposed to be a volcano and one of these days it will put on an eruption show no doubt. It sits on reclaimed land just in front of a Disneyland-style recreation of part of the Forbidden City, next to Tibet’s Potala Palace and a faux Chinese fishing village. Looming over all of it is the hideous glass and neon façade of the new Sands Hotel and Casino.

The taxi into the city center passes dozens of dull cookie-cutter office and apartment blocks and several more new, garish casinos and hotels. There is a large construction site next to the Lisboa Hotel. Part of the Lisboa’s charm, so to speak, has been its unconscious striving for the title of the world’s ugliest building. The addition going up next door is so remarkably horrible that it can only be deliberate bad taste. There goes the charm.

Eva and I took a taxi out to Coloanne Island. Or at least, what used to be an island. It is now attached to Taipa Island by landfill on which a Venetian Hotel and Casino are being erected. Somehow the southeast corner of Coloanne has been spared and Fernando’s, at Hac Sa Beach, is as peaceful and delicious as ever. In the midst of the lunacy it remains one of the world’s greatest restaurants.
After lunch we did manage to walk around some of the remaining old neighborhoods and through the Lou Lim Iok gardens. Some of all the development money in the city does seem to have a conscience. So far at least, the old neighborhoods in the middle of the peninsula have been largely spared from the wrecking ball. Some of them have even been nicely restored.

Tired from our walk, we decided to go get massages. Now Macau has long been famous for prostitution and it’s not so easy to find a legitimate massage. But in the past they had a good, workable solution at the Lisboa Hotel. There was the Sauna Fuji and the corridors of the shopping area around the coffee shop for men looking for sex; and there was the Lisboa Health Spa, with both men’s and women’s sections, for people who wanted a good, “real” massage in a place that also offered saunas, jacuzzis, steambaths, etc.

I left Eva off at the women’s section and then ran the gauntlet of hookers down the hall to the elevator to the men’s section. I took a shower and a steambath and then went to the sitting area for a juice and to wait for my massage. The first clue that things had changed was when the waitress asked if I wanted a Thai massage or a Shanghai-style massage. Both of those places have traditions of legit massage, so I didn’t think too much of it. Since we’re going to Shanghai after Hong Kong, I opted for that style of massage.

A young woman in jeans and t-shirt came and led me through a maze of hallways to the massage room. It looked just like it always has: a small room with a massage table, a pile of towels, some oils and a box of tissues. The door had a large, lightly smoked glass window in it. I lay down on the table and the masseuse hopped up and started walking on my back. This struck me as a little odd, since they usually work their way up to that, but I figured she had her own technique. She was good at it too. I didn’t worry even once that she was going to leave me a paraplegic.

She wandered around up there for about ten minutes. Then hopped off and I heard her oiling up her hands. Then she squirted a bunch of oil on my ass and thrust a hand up underneath me from behind. Huh? I thought I was getting a legit massage.

She started a hard sell – she didn’t speak any English so there was a lot of mime and demonstration involved – for sex. She spoke enough English to let me know I could fuck her for one thousand Hong Kong dollars – a hundred and twenty-eight U.S. And, she knew how to say – both demonstratively and verbally: “No condom.”

I was tired, jet-lagged, sore from walking around all day. And aghast. I like sex as much as the next guy, probably more than a lot of the next guys, but I wanted a massage, only a massage. Even if I had wanted sex, no condom seemed like a particularly dumb idea. I argued with her for a while. It was clear that she only makes any money if she has sex with customers and she didn’t want to waste her time giving me a massage. I finally talked her into it, but it wasn’t any good. She desultorily rubbed my back for a few minutes and then cut the session short.

I tipped her, about what I would for a massage. She didn’t deserve it. But I felt a little guilty. We entered into the thing with different expectations and I could better afford the disappointment of mine than she could of hers. I complained to the management on the way out though. I told them I liked the old system better than the new one.

Is this all some sort of offbeat metaphor for the differences between the old Macau’s sleepy colonial system and the rapacious new Las Vegas of the East emerging from the fattened wallets of China’s so-called communists? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

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