13 March 2006

Somewhere Between Hong Kong and Shanghai

9pm, Sunday 12 March 2006

This is the stuff that science fiction was once made of. Eva and I are in a very comfortable sleeper compartment in an express Chinese train speeding from Hong Kong to Shanghai, having eaten pleasantly enough in the dining car, and I’m working on a computer.

The first time I was in China was 1978. I took the train through Hong Kong, past small farms and villages in the New Territories – one of which, Sha Tin, is now a suburban city of almost two million people – to the end of the line at Lo Wu. There we got off the train and humped our luggage across a wooden bridge over the nearly dry Shenzhen Creek, to a small brick border station where we were stamped into the People’s Republic by an unsmiling official who sat under a large poster of Chairman Mao handing something – the reins of power I suppose – to Hua Guofeng.

As we boarded the Chinese train on the other side, we could see farmers toiling in the fields, some of them with oxen, none of them with machines. They were being blasted by squeaky patriotic music and the occasional quotation from the Chairman, from loudspeakers on wooden poles scattered around the countryside. There was a speaker also just above our seats on that train. We could turn it down, but not off. We only took the train as far as Guangzhou (Canton) that time. We later flew to Shanghai.

I’ve been to China many times since, but not again to Shanghai. I feel as though we are heading for what will seem like another planet.

Hong Kong always feels like another planet. But it’s one I’m familiar with.

I was reminded at dinner in the dining car of how primitive the state of mobile phones is in the U.S. A man seated across from us simply picked up his mobile phone, pushed a button to dial a number, and was happily and clearly talking with someone in Europe while our train rumbled through the dark, rural night of China. No doubt it was the same cell phone that he uses in Europe. He simply bought a sim card, slipped it into the slot and was able to call as if he had a local cell phone. In the civilized, high-tech world outside the U.S. and Canada, you simply buy whatever phone you want then you have options to sign up with a specific service or purchase local sim cards wherever you go. Why is it that we can’t do that in the U.S.? Regulation? Quasi-monopolies? What?

The Hong Kong Literary Festival was a lot of fun and had a number of events of interest, even other than my own. It was remarkably well organized, ran efficiently, was very well attended and in every way was very impressive. I’m hoping they’ll invite me back again next year.

The Festival is a great deal more international than similar festivals in the U.S. I listened to and spoke with authors from Ireland, Britain, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China, Canada, Mexico, South Africa and I think there might have been a Frenchman or an Italian. Among the continents only Antarctica was unrepresented.

I fear that in previous posts I may have given you the impression that I harbor no fondness for Hong Kong. There are many things that I truly love about the place, the international social life being the best among them. I recall numerous dinner parties at which the 12 people around the lazy Susan in a Chinese restaurant represented anywhere from six to a full-dozen native languages and countries. Something like that is very rare, even in Los Angeles where the inhabitants speak over 150 native tongues and come from every country in the world. Most big U.S. cities actually have a much more diverse population than Hong Kong. Most mid-sized U.S. cities do too for that matter. But, the social milieu is just not the same. I miss that – a lot.

Even so, it is rare to get together with a group like that and discuss literature or art or music or film or politics. The talk is more often than not of business or consumer goods or food itself or other such topics that would not make for a particularly interesting salon. I guess you can’t have everything.

Or perhaps the conversation is often not particulary deep due to the rather massive ingestion of alcohol that is common in nearly every expatriate gathering. I was reminded of this while being interviewed by a writer for the South China Morning Post. One of his comments about my book The Living Room of the Dead was that he realized very quickly that the hero was an American, ‘because he didn’t really drink all that much.’

It’s one of those ‘eye of the beholder’ things. Readers and reviewers in the U.S. have almost all commented with horror and disapproval on how much the hero of the book does drink. My sister-in-law told me that one of the things she found unrealistic about the book was that anyone who drank that much would be incapable of functioning in a normal way and would, if deprived of booze for a day or so, be incapacitated by delirium tremors. All I could say by way of defense was that she quite obviously had not ever worked in a largely British or Australian office in Hong Kong. Perhaps I should put her in touch with the Post’s journalist.

I was also interviewed by one of the daily newspapers in Macau. I’ll see if I can get a PDF posted on my website for those of you who might want to practice your Portuguese. If you just can't wait and want to read the original on the newspapers site, here's a link: http://www.pontofinalmacau.com (You'll have to copy and paste it, sorry.)

Now I’d like to write a little about amahs – housemaids. I was wondering one day why there seemed to be a lot more Indonesian and Nepalese amahs in Hong Kong than in the past when nearly all of them were from the Philippines. The reason for it is shameful and indicative of the extremely ugly, elitist side of life in Hong Kong and its government’s utter lack of regard for protecting the underdog.

Not long after the Asian economic collapse of 1997-98, Hong Kong, for the first time in a while, found itself in recession. Amahs have always been underpaid, but Hong Kong had a minimum wage for them – around US$475 per month – that made them the highest paid in the region. (Besides their salary, amahs are usually given room and board, although a 12 hour day, six day week is considered a light schedule. By law they only have to be given two days off a month, and there are no limits on the hours they work.)

A group of wealthy and upper middle class employers of amahs, worried that their property values and stock portfolios were declining, petitioned the Hong Kong government to lower the minimum wage for amahs. It did, to something around US$340 per month. The government promised that it was temporary, only until the economy rebounded.

There was only so much that the Filipinas – coming from a society that had overthrown its longtime dictator Marcos not all that long ago – were willing to accept. Many of them protested. The government of the Philippines protested. A whole lot of amahs didn’t get their visas renewed and were sent home. They were replaced with more “docile” women from even poorer countries – Indonesia and Nepal.

The economy rebounded quite some time ago. It’s percolating at a very nice clip these days. There is, of course, no talk of reinstating the previous minimum wage, much less raising it. And, now that Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic, a country ideologically (at least on paper) committed to creating a worker’s paradise, there is even less chance of change for the better than ever.

Perhaps if the amahs were Chinese, Han Chinese that is. In the booming cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing there is an increasing demand for amahs. They’re paid even worse and protected even less than in Hong Kong. But then everything is cheaper in China. The Peoples Republic’s exploited domestics are coming from all the traditional places with young desperate women: the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal; but also from Tibet, Xinjiang, Yunnan and the other “ethnic minority regions” of China itself.

And, speaking of the minority regions of China, Eva just got back from five days in Lijiang in Yunnan Province. She highly recommends it. It’s one of the most beautiful and interesting places she’s been. In particular she suggests: the Zen Garden Hotel and Li & Richard Travel Service for local forays to Naxi and Tibetan villages and areas of interest.

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