25 October 2010

On Memory

It's always tempting to lay your eyes on Central in the morning. A trip to the Starbucks coffee may offer us the best scenario for sight-seeing. In any morning on the weekdays, we may be in solemn awe of the landscape of Central being carpeted by a flock of black suits, rushing into Starbucks Coffee so they may rejuvenate themselves for a long day of work. The endorsement of Central values cannot be more obvious. The adoption of the American middle class lifestyle hints at a refusal of local values, which hardly warrants a restaurant of local flavour anything beyond ordinary pedestrian appraisal.

If drinking Starbucks Coffee is a vital ingredient for Central values, it is perhaps because a paper or plastic cup that carries a familiar green logo suggests a vision of more international tone. Rather than straying into a local restaurant for a ham and egg sandwich along with a cup of coffee blended in a style of local flavour, a cup of Starbucks may actually align us with an upper level in the pyramid of social hierarchy. Small wonder why Hong Kong is an international city.

However much Starbucks coffee we may drink, what is interesting is the fact that our desire for a cup of Starbucks stems not from our tendency to cherish work values, but, rather, from our romantic fantasy to centre our values rooted in a traditional American middle class routine. Behind the Starbucks drinking ritual hardly suggests our effort to reconcile the kind of happiness typical of the bourgeois outlook with financial necessity, rendering the surface more superficial than it seems. A sip of Starbucks in the morning may offer solutions for our fallible souls, for it carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues that are only deemed discoverable in the West.

This is, perhaps, precisely the reason why such scenario provokes a feeling of distance. But everywhere is like this in Hong Kong nowadays. While many may acknowledge the notion of historical value, but hardly there is anyone who offers sympathy for sentimental value. We may learn how our society and identity are formed by the past and traditions in order to acquire a sense of belonging and community. Our government may venture to do away the Tsim Sha Tsui Bus Stop and deprecate anything of sentimental value, yet too seldom they realise the merits of most buildings in Hong Kong lie not in their historical value, but, rather, sentimental value. Having breakfast at a restaurant of local flavour may not summon back a range of old yet valuable traditions, but the fact that being sat there might invite us to attend to a collection of life-enhancing thoughts in order to acquire a sense of the self.

What originally furnishes our sense of belonging and community is not merely architectural styles that offer aesthetic relief which reminds us of the past, it is also the resemblance of style and taste that triggers our bondage to what we may call a Proustian moment. Promoting ourselves to remember something often leads to an undesirable result. It often requires the charity of a friend's patience for us to utter the bits and pieces that seem to stretch too far to recall at all. True memory is different. It can only be experienced only accidentally and occasionally. Instead of being forced on us by another intrusive question of a friend, our memories might have only been returned to us only by an incidental encounter of a similarly constructed fried rice six years later in a restaurant.

The key to harbour our sense of belonging is whether that particular restaurant or this particular street can grant us access to certain emotional textures that only memory can attend us to. The problem of Hong Kong is that the landscape and what constitutes its soul fluctuate too much. Only through memory, our origin of birth may not be muddied up to a point where soul-searching is impossible.

Both physical and metal landscape of Hong Kong fails to recover a distinctive sense of community, belonging, and continuity. It deprives us of an essential medium to express our need for communication and commemoration, an attachment which can only be registered through memory, which only our will can transubstantiate through a material medium. Not until too long, we may no longer be able to tell others who we actually are nor we can remind ourselves of it.


22 October 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

I recently returned from a visit to my economically distressed homeland. After 1 year in the Hi-Tech Village, some reverse culture shock was inevitable. Some quick observations:

1. Nobody's working, anywhere! Besides all the obscenely obese people, this was the first thing I noticed. On arrival in the airport in Chicago, I was blown away by the fact that there are only 2 people behind the service counters, trying frantically to do the job that would be done by 20 people in HK. Same thing in grocery stores: with all the automated checkout and various other ways to save money by reducing payroll, grocery stores have vastly fewer employees per square meter than they do in HK. Restaurants are perhaps the most noticeable example of this: in the US, there will be one or two servers working their asses off constantly making sure that their 20 tables are happy, refilling water glasses without being asked and just generally paying attention to their customers. In HK, the ratio is reversed: 20 servers are seemingly dedicated to each table, yet they still manage not to notice when a customer sits down and are completely oblivious to the needs of the people it is supposedly their job to attend to. I've heard that the ridiculous number of people employed in the service industry is the result of tax incentives the HK government gives for hiring more workers, yet Obama passed several such incentives as part of the stimulus, and still US businesses would rather work their employees to the bone than hire even one more.

2. People can see me! Yea! I know it sounds strange, but outside of the Chinese world, people pay attention to the existence of others. I had forgotten how much I missed that.

3. Bars and restaurants are comfortable. In the Hi-Tech village, the decor in bars and restaurants is designed to impress customers to the point of making them feel inadequate, not make them comfortable. Upon visiting some of my favorite restaurants in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, the contrast reminded me just how uncomfortable restaurants, and particularly bars, are in this Village. In these neighborhood restaurants, the lighting is non-blinding, the seats are comfy, and the vibe is generally bohemian. I spent my first few months in HK looking for the bohemian side of the city, and eventually gave up and moved to Lamma. There is no bohemian Hong Kong: perhaps that's why Chinese people can't walk past the Bookworm Cafe on Lamma without taking millions of pictures, they've just never seen a restaurant that actually tries to make it's customers comfortable rather than intimidate them with expensive decor (once inside the Bookworm, the totally inattentive service will quickly make them feel at home again).

In HK, space is expensive and people are cheap. In the USA, people are expensive (particularly due to insane health care costs), and space is cheap.

After three weeks in the good old US of A, I'm well rested, and somewhat recovered from the hostile environment I had grown accustomed to. In three weeks, I got soft (in the brain and in the belly). Time to build up my urban calluses again.

14 October 2010

What do we care?

Yesterday, instead of chatting nonsense with Henry on msn or clearing the mounting paperwork on my desk, I was busy watching the rescue of Chilean miners on my computer screen, fighting back tears to keep my makeup in place.

I didn’t even care about whether Bow Tie is going to help me secure a flat in his Policy Address, nor whether Big Beijing will resume its tie with Japan. They immedidately became irrelevent.

I was obsessed with the names and individual stories of each of the 33 miners, trapped underground for more than two months. I was looking forward to each face emerging from the rescue capsule, its simile and kissing to its owner’s woman, then children and relatives.

Because it’s all about the survival of unfortunate individuals and caring the world about it is all about humanity.

If the miners had been born in our Motherland, they would be buried alive like nobody. Reports and images of rescue attempt and grieving relatives would be brutally restricted by the authority. Instead of being overwhelmed with joy of seeing the miners alive, I would grew numb to another appeal for donations to help the widows and orphans.

So when I tried to read the local newspapers and saw nothing about the rescue on the front page, not like their counterparts from the US and the UK, I was devastated. Do we actually shut ourselves up from the outside world and just care about ourselves and celebrity gossips? The whole world is watching somewhere else. The horizons of our villagers’ mind is driving me insane.

13 October 2010

Gym blabber gets clobbered

There are some people in this Village that simply deserve a beating. But when you can't really throw a punch and/or afford to get thrown in jail for physical assault (thus ruining your squeaky clean image), you can always imagine...

Read all the fun stuff at Miss Fong in Hong Kong.

11 October 2010

The Herd Instinct Revisited

The criticisms of the herd instinct might appear so common that they start to sound rather cliche nowadays. Though we are often reminded how it may strip us of our true identities, we still tend to be reluctant to detach ourselves from the bondage to the masses and establish our "i-confirmation". If the mass values are cordoned off questions, it is because they are deemed too implausible to be the targets of scrutiny. To start doubting the commonly accepted beliefs is to risk overthrowing the indisputable fact that great minds are scarce, that we are unlikely to be the pioneers of previously unknown truths.

Perhaps our tendency to follow the flock lies in the anthropological fact that we are all social animals. Rather than exaggerating the gravity of free will, our existence is actually critically dependent upon the existence of others. We can only be intelligent if others possess the same level of reasoning abilities. We can only be humorous if others are funny enough to get our humours. Small wonder why Aristotle remarked that friendship is essential to wellbeing.

However, humans are no machines. How seldom we may prefer to be obedient drones rather than creative originals. But how then might we solve the conflicts between the herd instinct and individuality? How might we discover our own identities if we are continuously forced to burden ourselves with the heaviness of inhabiting the same mentality? Is it impossible to reconcile mass values with our unique selves?

Mass values, at one level, might be easily regarded as deluded versions of truth, yet at another level they reveal something more than meets the eye. Mass values may be considered in the same light as fashion or wearing make-up. The quest to search for a decent pair of high heel shoes or a certain kind of mascara from Bobbi Brown provokes our philosophical sentiment to understand who we are. If we have a desire to understand ourselves, it is perhaps because identity is an inherently complicated, obscure notion, that one can bear various identities in different stages of life. Why do we have different identities? It's because we constantly succumb to new experience and are forced to harbour new visions about ourselves. Confused, we are therefore liable to adopt the suggestions forcefully made in the clothes and cosmetic section of a magazine to fit in a socially recognisable form. Similarly, the herd instinct works in the same mechanism. Unsure who we are, we need to surrender to the masses and begin our process of soul-searching.

Though I might have been charitable to the herd instinct, we should not deduce from my previous line of argument that the accusation against the flock is largely undeserved. To acknowledge the merits of the masses is not to legitimately consign them to respectability. Whatever sympathy we may have for the masses, it seems far from being inaccurate to generalise the herd between two acerbic notions commonly associated with them, namely, stupidity and ignorance. If stupidity and ignorance are the hallmark of social eminence, how might we tender the mass values as something valuable to justify the lifelong search for our souls?

The solution perhaps lies not in struggling to break free from the herd, but rather, in educating the masses. Much of the criticism has been focused on the individual self, but hardly there's any criticism focusing on the masses as a whole. What is valuable in educating the masses is that there are values perhaps the entire human race should hold dear to: democracy, science, emotional sensibilities etc. However democratic we may get, even in the most democratic society, there are never enough democratic participations, most notably, voting. To refuse to vote is to refuse to participate in the promotion of common wellbeing. Who could disagree freedom is desirable? Who could disagree science is the most reliable agent to civilisation? Perhaps only the exceptional few seem to suggest the otherwise.

The herd instinct might not muddy our identities as it tends to suggest. But the major criticisms against the flock push us into a baneful direction where we might hardly progress. What's important is the education of the masses instead of the other way round. How many years before the mass values might actually become praiseworthy?


05 October 2010

Things I Hate about Central

After two years of working in Central, my colleague suddenly told me, “I don’t fancy working in Central. It’s such a pretentious place!”

I have been blinded by my vanity of being a Central OL (my first job was in Kwun Tong industrial district, one of the poorest areas in Hong Kong) that I never thought of criticizing our CBD. Now I come up with the following grievances.

Many gentleman here (most believed to be bankers) are too conscious of themselves. They seem to have rehearsed their body language just because winners are supposed to behave this way. I especially don’t like the way they turn their heads back and forth, left and right a thousand times whenever they’re queuing, waiting or chatting with someone else. Is it a gesture to spot out their business partners right away or is it just subtle ogling? I find it pretty annoying especially when I’m waiting behind them. Won’t they just look at the front?

I hate shopping at beauty counters in Central as well. The salespeople are only warm to customers who speak in Putonghua or some tai tais who can no longer turn back the clock but are very willing to spend in the hope of doing so. If you speak Cantonese and can only afford a $720 jar of moisture cream, you can never make it to the cashier as the staff is always busy with someone more valued.
Food is a hundred times more expensive in Central. I’m not talking about luxurious food like foie gras or white truffles. I’m just talking about humble food like bread. It is usually served cold in the baskets and tastes like cardboard. However, it is sold 3 to 10 times more expensive than fresh bread from bakeries elsewhere, just because the bread is labeled “organic” or “whole grain”. Does it make Central people do better in the economy?

There are also mysterious people lurking around, asking for money. The Lehman Brothers victims (they ask the banks, not me), orange monks, grey nuns, street artists and worst of all, the charities. Most of the charity people pressured you into donating when you are about to cross the road. They make you look bad in the street when you refuse. Some are young chaps who try very hard to charm you into donating (“Don’t you think you should at least say hello to me?”). I reject them not because I’m particularly cold-blooded, but because I don’t know anything about the organizations they’re representing. Besides, I donate through PayPal.

Sometimes, I wonder if Central represents the values all Hongkies should go for or its value system has already been isolated from that of the Hongkies. The lack of sense of belongings often bothers my heart.

04 October 2010

On Love At First Sight

Whatever consumerist ethics might be vigorously practised by modern women in Hong Kong, they seem far from being able to escape from the customary female logic- that we should never fall for logical factors such as money and physical appearance. The whole language of love has been corrupted by the sound assumption that our falling in love is based upon a mixture of ignorance and desire, rendering us liable to make false additions to an already muddied notion of self. If we should never fall for first glance, it is perhaps because the reality is always in the habit of disappointing us. A partner with an angelic face who supposedly possesses the ability to read Oscar Wilde's works may end up pinning her interests firmly on an issue of Cosmopolitan, or worse, FACE, and a Hermes handbag.

Hence, in the mature account of love, before we are granted legitimately the right to fall in love, we are apt to investigate in depth about what opinions our partners may hold regarding science, politics, morality, and even daily habits. Instead of strictly following the traditional concept of how two sexes might align together, which is that of money and social status, we should look for in our partners logically irreducible elements: intelligence, emotional sensitivity, talents in the arts and crafts etc. In short, the cliché concept of "inner beauty". How easy a natural archaic impulse might be transformed into an artificially designed empirical notion.

If maturity indicates the quality of truth, then we might be forcefully led to abandon the inherently presumed distinctive differences between men and women, for men are liable to surrender to a superficial romantic logic easily triggered by the invitations of the appreciation body forms, make-up, fashion, and facial symmetry. We are forced to re-evaluate the politically incorrect gender stereotypes: in the mature account of love, women paradoxically analyse their romantic experience according to reason, while men submit their thinking to intuition, emotions, and impulsive desire. Why is it paradoxical? It's because when dealing with other issues in life, these two sexes tend to be consigned to exactly opposite categories. The feminists might have been in the right.

However, our instinctive curiosity of who our partners are poses a threatening problem. If the mature account of love is threatening, it is because understanding too much destroys romantic fantasy. Perhaps the easiest people to fall in love are those whom we know nothing. Our attraction for our beloved ones stems not from our constant intimacy with them, but rather, our lack of understanding of them. People who bear angelic faces tend to be able to carefully administer doses of illusion and reality, that faces happen to be aesthetically constructed in Golden ratio should be able to collect evidence which indicates signs of intelligence, femininity, and innocence around the eyes, noses, and mouths, an utopian image that could only be destroyed when they pick their noses aggressively without a handkerchief and display an excessive interest in the prices of high heel shoes. How seldom we acknowledge the inherent normality in our loved ones; how easy we might slide into a romantic pathology when love reveals its insanity.

Moreover, the modern world, with the help of technology, is changing with an incalculable speed. Our lives are filled with various experiences which are deemed too implausible to be identical with others. Is it sane to think what constitutes our partners' souls will remain the same? Is it sensible to secure our love of regularity for those who operate within the same mortal coil? If our desires and opinions are susceptible to change as time varies, why, then, can't we expect the same from our partners? The same burden no longer inhabits the same soul. Most of us are in fact not aware of our blind submission to Platonic utopia where eternity is praiseworthy and change is despised.

Therefore, the art of securing a romantic conception of love lies in an understanding absenteeism- a conception that is only possible when we don't know who our romantic partners are, but rather, who we think they are. So should we fall in love at first sight? Yes, always fall for first glance. Love without its romantic elements ceases to be love. Apart from the exceptionally rare cases in the romantic history, most depressing endings of romantic affairs are likely to result from the ones rooted in friendship and the like. It's only the romantic experience that we are after.