Archive for June, 2009

New favourite songs

June 30, 2009

This is Zhang Chu 张楚 and his famous song sister 姐姐。It was very famous in China in the 90’s, at the height of the rock music popularity spike initiated by cui jian, tang dynasty et al. The rock of this time was gritty and earthy and windy, of displaced people in a new society, with political undertones. Western visitors lapped it up. Most people still preferred diabetes-inducing Taiwanpop etc. Nonetheless it is ensured a place in the historybooks and a continuing influence at the founding stone of chinese rock. Not this song or artist in particular. I love the plaintative chorus, the simple and poetical words, and the music video of old Beijing. 

Another Zhang Chu song in a rather different tone is 孤独的人是可耻的 – lonely people are shameful. It sounds like a sweet spring lovesong with an update violin swinging the rhythm along. But the meaning cuts darker and realler. I like it. He once played at Helan mountain in Ningxia near where I used to live, along with Dou Wei and He Yong etc. Would have been super to have been there. 

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A historical sunday

June 28, 2009

Today I went with three friends to the history museum in Hong Kong. I’d heard good things about it and have been meaning to go for ages, and today was the day. It was raining in fits, and since (as usual) I didn’t have an umbrella, it was a dash to the mtr station, hiding under covers as the rain pelted, then sprinting as it eased. Hot Yunnan rice noodles with pickled vegetables for lunch, and then finally, the museum! 

The verdict is a definite thumbs up. One of those big, spacious, slightly confusing buildings, and a breath of fresh air from all the identikit fixed histories of mainland museum. Relatively speaking at least. I learned that pearl divers had stones tied to their feet to make them sink, one of the most famous tombs on Hong Kong probably never had a body buried in it, and that one of HK ethnic groups – the hoklo people, are originally from Fujian province. Got to see the warrant banning Sun Yatsen from HK for causing revolutionary annoyance, a replica grocery store from Sheung Wan, and various bits and pieces from the 97 handover, when it stopped. My friend said: there’s more on the prehistoric stuff because it’s easier to interpet, people aren’t really sure what to say about recent history. 

One of my favourite bits was the section on the boat people. They literally lived on boats for almost all of their lives, only going on land for essential business and supplies. There were some fantastic photographs of fish being salted, and pizza-sized spreads of prawn paste being dried in the sun. Included was a replica boat of the type that a whole family might live on, at Aberdeen or Cheung Chao or one of the other boatbeds. I can’t imagine anything more exotic and magical than living permanent at sea, darting between pearl river islets among smugglers and pirates and revolutionaries. Doubt it was that glamorous in real life though. 

P6280016

The picture is a rather poor one I found on the internet. To see a better view, I’d well recommend a visit yourself.

Poem for my mum!

June 27, 2009

 

“Sea-Fever”
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
By John Masefield (1878-1967).
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)

“Sea-Fever”

 

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

 

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

 

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

 

By John Masefield (1878-1967).

(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)

 

(actually it’s courtesy of Sov, via Ed, and I hear Dick likes it too. after the record longest phone conversation with ever, 3 hours 11 minutes and counting! but also productive, I now have some excellent feedback for my essay)

Death of a tree

June 26, 2009

The 40-year-old candlelight chestnut was the only natural thing which could compare in bulk to HKU’s tall grey buildings. It stood in Sun Yatsen Square, between Starbucks, the library, the Knowles building, and an epic view down to Sai Wan’s flats and the sea beyond. Its limbs were tall and hefty like the arms of a triumphant young man held up to the sky, and the green leaves provided something tranquil to stare at from a 4th floor library window, or to shelter from the sun and the rain. But the green leaves turned to grey. Then the tree doctors came and stuck funny white plugs all around the trunk. They poked it and sliced it and took stuff away in little glass bottles. Then they came back and fenced off the square with orange and white tape. 

The sign said the tree was sick and it had to be euthanised. It didn’t look that sick to me, the grey could almost have been sticky pollution like along dusty roads in the mainland. But it was a danger they said. It had been eaten on the inside by fungi, and could collapse at any minute. So today, on a howlingly wet day spliced with bursts of clear, the racuous, excited men and women with hard hats arrived and cut it to pieces in the rain. They hung ropes from the 16th floor of the building next door, scaled up and down with chainsaws and long sheathed knives, and all morning the square shook with the crack as each piece of wood shattered to the ground. For hours the crowd shifted and drifted, and as I went for coffee I wish I’d brought a camera. Luckily, someone else had. 

Tree death

That’s the tree before and during. After – well, perhaps I’ll find out tomorrow. When I left there was still a leafless stump. A shame. A great shame. But just as my HKU student card expires on Tuesday, there will be new students into this fine university come September. And I hear they will be a planting a new tree, too.

The tree will grow quickly. As the expression goes: “it takes ten years to grow a tree, and 100 to educate a person.”

 

p.s. I may have got the name of the tree wrong. i never was much of a botanist, but I remember it made me think of candles.

If you want to make God laugh

June 25, 2009

tell him your plans.

A rightly famous quote. Very wise. Sometimes I feel I spend so much time stressing about what I should be doing with my life. I have all of these plans and hopes and things I want to achieve and change. But then I screw up even the most very basic things. Future ideas are all very well, but they are dreams in a mirror. What counts is this second, and whether it is being used wisely. Doing something small.

Head’s in!

June 24, 2009

Or not…

A new drumming

June 24, 2009

Yesterday I moved into my new flat, where I’ll be living until I leave Hong Kong in mid-July. It’s on Wilmer Street in Sheung Wan, and hardly the “flat of dreams” like the place I was before, but I like it. There’s almost two rooms – that is, the entrance area is separated from the place where the bed is by half a wall. There’s also a wee fridge, cooker and sink, and the bathroom opens onto the bedroom. No interent or desk or shelves yet (and a couple of ants, blargh) but methinks it’ll do me nicely.

It was as at 6am today that I discovered a new noise. Like rain in several layers – an orchestra of rain. In the background the whistling hum of speedy drizzle, the sortof stinging, irritating rain of a wet november morning in Edinburgh. I suppose this was water spattering the dirty concrete streets. But it was also the screeching of violins at tremolo. The next layer was deeper. . Not as frantic, but more like tropical rain in its weight, each drop taking a fraction of a second longer to explode at different pitchses. This may have been water running from the roofs and splattering on glass windows. But it was also the stacatto of a woodwind swirl.

But the new drumming, that was a hollow, tinny ping that clattered and rumbled like steelpan drums but arythmic, gunshot crakcs and salsajerks. Not as fast, but centre of attention. I cuddled my ears beneath pillow and duvet to hide from it, but finally in curiousity stuck my head out the window. From the back wall you can see air-conditioner boxes hanging out of each window. Some new and shiny, some more like a battered metal box at a dump. The rain slides off the roof and then rolls like a collecting of waterfalls leaping and dancing between the different air-conditioner boxes, each producing a different note. Plopping. The base of the orchestra. What a rain. I like it.

Is Poverty a Human Rights Issue?

June 20, 2009

Is poverty a human rights issue? The long-standing debate appeared again in the Grauniad yesterday. An exchange between Conor Foley (aid worker) and Kate Allen (Amnesty director) about how far Amnesty should be getting involved with poverty campaigning. Is it a case of “mission creep” – trying to do everything at once and becoming less effective as a result?

The fact remains that poverty is specifically mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing… (etc)”. And Amnesty’s own mission statement clearly states: “To conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.” Though it’s not entirely clear what constitutes a “grave abuse”.

Perhaps the three main points of contention could be summarized as:

1) The UDHR was drafted by a few white men on a boat 50 years ago, much of it is philosophically questionable, it has been used as a diplomatic tool for governments to play politics with each other. Is it actually relevant?

2) Does getting involved with poverty campaigning harm Amnesty’s other work and if so, where’s the evidence?

3) Can poverty be effectively fought as a “rights violation”? Many countries simply don’t have the money to feed, clothe, educate and treat everyone. Shouldn’t they be sorting out their economy first?

The first two are perhaps the easiest to deal with. The UDHR is obviously a modern and indeed western construction. It has been misused both for politics and propaganda, by countries both north and south. But it is still the best we’ve got. At the core, it’s a framework to protect values which people hold for different reasons, be they religious, humanistic, philosophical, or whatever. Any umbrella concept trying to cover these values for the diversity of humanity will obviously be artificial. But the fight for better treatment for individuals is not. It is not about governments pressurizing governments, but about a platform of legitimacy for individuals to protect themselves and each other against abuses of organized power.

The second claim, that poverty work dilutes Amnesty’s core areas, is a practical one. It is true that Amnesty used to focus on clear-cut issues such as prisoners of conscience and torture. It still does. On the other hand, its scope and budget have increased a lot in the last few years, giving it more resources to stretch out to other areas, including “positive rights” which cover poverty campaigning. There are many other organizations working in this area – and in the core areas as well. Co-operating rather than competing has always been a key challenge for humanitarian organizations. Campaigning on poverty does not in itself undercut work on “negative rights”, but it is a balancing act. As long as Amnesty doesn’t slip up, there is potentially much to gain.

The third question is the most difficult to deal with. No matter what your stance on Human Rights, the fact remains that no amount of documents, laws or campaigns can “cure” poverty. Until very recently, the vast majority of all people had little education or health care, and were frequently hungry. No country has come close to eradicating internal poverty (by the UDHR definition) without experiencing an industrial revolution and rapid economic growth. And while it is true that the current world output, if evenly distributed, would be enough to provide food, healthcare and education for all people, the chance of this happening is 0. We could distribute the food we have today, but where will tomorrow’s food come from? Some people believe in worldwide revolution. There is zero evidence that this is possible, or that people are willing to participate. Eradication of poverty will require not just a transfer of knowledge and capital, but assistance to grow them organically in the places that need it most.

So why is it that developing countries consistently advocate “positive rights” as being so important – often more important in fact, than the “negative rights” which in the west are considered to be the most fundamental? Indeed, pressure from developing countries was influential in causing Amnesty to shift its position to cover these rights in the first place. China is just one example of a country calling for economic and social rights to be prioritized, and that a right to expression if no use if you don’t have food in your belly. Cultural reasons are undeniably a factor. Another is authoritarian governments who know that whereas “positive rights” may strengthen their power, “negative rights” may undermine them. But the fact also remains that people in these countries live much closer to destitute and dehumanizing poverty, and arguably have a better understanding of the challenge it presents.

So I believe that Amnesty should be staying involved with poverty campaigning, precisely because it is such an influential organization. Human Rights as a concept has a long way to go to be accepted, especially in some developing countries (and also in many developed countries, *cough cough*). By reaching out to the areas which are most urgent in people’s daily lives, Amnesty can prove that it is directly relevant to all people. It can stand up to allegations of politicking or luxury rights, and answer the criticisms of countries such as China which say they want to focus on the economy. And the point is, that by broadening their appeal, it should actually strengthen the fight for “negative rights”. Of course China should be free to get rich. The poverty reduction and standard of living improvement China has produced is historically unprecedented and should be celebrated by all the world. It is fantastic. But this does not preclude it from allowing greater freedom of speech, and not locking people up in prison for political protest.

So is poverty a human rights issue? Perhaps not. Philosophically it is debatable whether humans have an innate right to be given anything at all. But should Human Rights organizations be involved with it? From a strategic perspective: yes they should. Historically the existence of the UDHR is a major breakthrough, but its worldwide legitimacy comes from its entirety. Only by recognizing all the rights it stands for, can we continue to fight for them in a way that is relevant to everyone in our world.

The coldest city in the world

June 15, 2009

Is Hong Kong. No really, it is. Inside. It’s not that I’m not used to cold rooms. Stone scottish tenement houses with high ceilings and gaps around the window panes. Yinchuan where I once forgot to do the washing up and returned to find a sink-shaped frozen block of eerily suspended dirty plates and crystalised porridge. But there at least its cold outside too. This is like winter turned inside out. Staggering up the hill in the evening in subtropical heat, sweat dribbling down your knees and panting out your ears, and then you’re hit from the side by a blast of icy air like a mix of the wicked witch of Narnia and a wart-remover. And that’s every time you pass a shop. Or an office. Or a bus for Christ’s sake. The fiercest aircon in the whole world. 

OK I’m exaggerating about the bus. The bus is close to normal temperature. The library is not and I have to bring a jumper and socks. There’s a water fountain and I drink from it hot. I huddle my shoulders, gaze out at the grey skies, and I could be back in Edinburgh. Slippy floors, low ceilings with half-flickry lights, rows of boring-looking identically-bound volumes. A scowling student, a concentrated student. A sleeping student. I shuffle my pages and see the grey marks my fingers leave, the creases that have appeared at the sides of my perfectly flat photocopies, still toasty warm to press against the cheeks. They’re wrinkled forever, scars like the little marks on my cheeks which will never go away. 

Are all the university libraries in the universe the same? Do they connect somewhere into that amazing orangutan-garden outlawrous semibound jungle of the unseen universary? I really could be back in Edinburgh, padding past the identical book-scanning machines, white-plastic computers (let’s ignore the dozens of very HK-looking students and calligraphy on the walls for the now). Bleeping outside in the chill. But then I open the door and I’m thwacked by a solid wall of humid, boiling tropic air, like someone just dropped Leeds butterfly house on my chest.

Welcome to the (sub)tropics. You’ll never get use to it.

Not a factory girl

June 14, 2009

I wanted to read a book about triads and tycoons, something daunting and glamorous from Hong Kong’s history. Perhaps involving opium and casinos, moonlit smuggling and Japanese soldiers. Instead I found myself staring blankly at the Hong Kong section and the China section of the bookshop. Shining, multicolured volumes vie for attention, clevely punning titles and photographs of smiling chidren and dragons. The authors mostly western, or overseas Chinese who’v been gone for a long while. “Read me and understand the riddle of China”, they promise. “Pandas and mystery and chopsticks”. Yes and MAO, Mao and the economic miracle. What a delightful contast! Read us and we’ll translate China for you in 140 pages!

It’s a feeling a bit like I had when I stumbled onto a Chinese expats blog. Full of famous writers like Peter Hessler who have become widely acknoweldged as “China watchers” and now earn their living writing for westerners, about China. They have become experts on a culture which they discovered as adults. And they market it well indeed. For some reason it makes me feel sightly lost and cynical. What am I doing here in this place? I will always be marked an outsider because of the colour of my skin. Always be a Guilo, a laowai. And even if I learn to speak chinese completely fluently, that will be a party trick, I’ll move into the “wannabe Chinese” box.

In the midst of this cynicism I picked up a book called “Factory Girls” about migrant workers in Dongguan (no at all far from HK) and soon I was absorbed. I love how quickly such thoughts can be blown away by just reading about ordinary people and ordinary lives. I am also left at a loss of wondering what to do with my life. It seems my time will be so short, the amount of skills and experience I can learn so little, just a tiny puff of air before my time is extinguished. Already I am 22 – too old already for many migrants jobs in Guangdong! And yet what am I doing… a student, who’s had a pampered upbringing and a fortunate amount of chances to travel, but never really “accomplished” anything. Whatever that means.

As the saying goes, “it takes 10 years to grow a tree, and 100 to educate a person”. Life is the journey itself. And it rocks.