29 November 2010

Why be snobby?

Recently, I came across a rather vile personality that came in an appropriately vile package. This person puzzled me so much by her bitchy behaviour that I was left wondering why people are the way they are.

I tend to believe that you can tell a lot about a person by the things they do and say, so that it's quite easy to see through a person even if their mouths are saying otherwise. For example, bullies need to push others down to feel good about themselves, fat people use humour to compensate for their large sizes, and extremely vain women use a lot of makeup and products because they are insecure about their looks, etc.

But the person I met, who was lacking quite a lot in the looks department I'm afraid, did not try to make up for her poor appearance by being nice or funny. Instead, she was bitchy, rude, negative and whiny. And not just that, it seemed like she had a personal hatred aimed directly at me, for whatever reason I have no idea.

Still, I just don't understand why people would choose to be mean or snobby as opposed to nice and friendly. As a fair person, I don't mind if this attitude comes in a nice package (ie. hot hunk or sexy babe), but if you're a fat, tattooed and pimpled troll with sloppy cleavage hanging out of what looks like a thrift store floral dress... just save it, would ya?

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

26 November 2010

Western Imports

The Chinese are probably responsible for more significant inventions in human history than any other group of people. But during the last 50 years, the economic success of Taiwan, Hong Kong and now China has depended mainly on adopting Western technology, and making products cheaper than they could be made in countries that value human life. But with all these Western imports, there is bound to be some confusion about exactly how they are meant to be used.

Car horns: These are safety devices designed to warn pedestrians or other drivers who can't see your car that they need to pay attention to it. They are not devices designed to let everyone within earshot know that you are frustrated and having a temper tantrum in your taxi because traffic isn't moving as fast as you would like.

Eyeglass frames: These are designed to hold corrective lenses in front of your eyeballs. I wish I could have sat in on the brainstorming session where some eyeglass frame manufacturing executives decided that they could increase sales by tapping into the seemingly unreachable market of people who have perfect vision and don't wear sunglasses.

Margherita pizza: Contrary to common usage in the Village, this is not just a fancy Italian-sounding way of saying "cheese pizza." The word margherita signifies a pizza that is white, green and red (like the colors of the Italian flag). The pizza must have tomatoes (no, tomato sauce doesn't count), fresh basil (no, oregano doesn't count) and mozzarella cheese (no, cheese made from vegetable oil doesn't count). A couple months ago, I ordered a margherita pizza at Pizza Express, and they gave me a plain cheese pizza. When I told them that I ordered the margherita, they told me that the plain cheese pizza they put in front of me was what they called a margherita, and that the pizza I was describing was what they called a "buffalita." It told them that this word has a meaning, and that deciding it means something else is confusing. So then I asked for the buffalita instead, forcing them to make two pizzas for me while only paying for one. I'm happy to report that the last time I visited Pizza Express, their margherita pizza had a picture of an actual margherita pizza, I ordered it, and it was pretty damn good.

Freedom of speech: Recently I learned that citizens of People's Republic of China (let's not get into what the word Republic means) enjoy freedom of speech. Apparently, Big Beijing doesn't understand that having the freedom to say whatever you want, as long as the government approves of it, is the exact opposite of freedom of speech. Here in the libertine Hi-Tech Village, citizens actually do enjoy rather robust freedoms of speech and the press, but they don't seem to understand what those rights mean or what the purpose of those rights are. I've had a couple conversations with Villagers where they asserted their "freedom of speech" against me. This assertion was triggered by the fact that they were saying something I thought was ridiculous or offensive, and I had told them that I disagreed. Freedom of speech does not entail a right to say bullshit and not get called out on it. It does entail a right to say bullshit and not be censored or punished by the authorities. The purpose of freedom of speech is to allow for a robust debate, not to save face and therefore stifle debate. Perhaps this particular Western import simply doesn't mesh with Chinese culture very well.

I know this misuse of imported ideas goes both ways. So let me first apologize for what my country has done to "Chinese food," in addition to many other Eastern imports. I invite our cosmopolitan readers to share their experiences with the misuse of Chinese culture in the West.  The Pub is one place in this Village where freedom of speech is respected and understood.

25 November 2010

Why Self-Help Books Should Be Useful

There is no more ridiculed genre than the self-help book. Yet far too many turn to this genre to escape from bureaucracy and the chatter of societies. It always surprises me when people, especially women, crowd the two narrow corridors with awe expressions to learn how to be successful or millionaire with a handful of tips. If self-help book seems to offer consolations of our miserable lives, it is perhaps because it wishes to pin our hopes firmly on the sentiment of fierce optimism. Rather than telling us how the world actually operates, it tends to depict the world as totally just and equal, rendering it completely meritocratic.

Whatever shortcomings self-help books may have, though novels and literature may offer a better solution to human condition, to undermine the value of self-help book is to downplay its traditional role in literary history in contribution to our wellbeing. Much of the history of this genre spent its gloriest history analysing aspects of human psychology and aiming to enrich our lives through practical advice on the art of living such as friendship, romantic love, and diet instead of how we might boost up our self-esteem . The prestige of self-help books owed its success to its practitioners who were largely made up of philosophers and essayists, whose writings seduce us to bear a philosophical mind to even the most trivial details of our everyday life, through sensitising our awareness of the habitual, attuning our minds to pick up certain details that we are previously ignorant of.

Many of these writers were Stoic thinkers. Philosophers ranging from Epicurus and Seneca, Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, wrote a great deal of self-help books almost on every topic, offering practical advice to help us deal with death, the rejections of our lovers, and how to be happy without being rich. Instead of telling us how we might save up our money and invest in stock market, their advice went to the very core of human nature, urging us to perfect the art of going with the flow even when what was before us was as hard to swallow as, to use Arthur Schopenhauer's phrase, a toad.

This is precisely the bent of thinking that underlay the prominence of traditional self-help books. Not only they ventured to portray the world as it is, but also convinced us to be lightened by life's absurdities, adapting to the change rather than resisting it. But this is no optimism. Rather, it suggests pessimism, refuting the grave assumption that we will be cheered up when we are told all is well, and instead drawing us to the thought that we should never expect anything to go well, so we may restore the tranquility of our mind.

If the tradition of self-help books is deliberately divorced from philosophy, then perhaps philosophers are largely to blame, for they are no longer concerned with how to live happily, but, rather, how to get facts and concepts right. The greatest enemy of this genre may be thought as analytical philosophy, whose main objectives are clarification of concepts and logical consistency which seem almost totally irrelevant to our everyday experience however much we need logic to distinguish good arguments from the bad ones. Modern philosophy is entirely lacking its traditional vigour to improve our wellbeing.

Unfortunately, our steering away from analytical philosophy is not enough. The crucial danger of modern philosophy is that many philosophers suffer from the rigid inability to write beautifully. If we survey the history of philosophy, most of the philosophers, aside from the ancients, are terrible writers. Their inability lies not in being unable to articulate their ideas clearly, but, rather, in taking on a wrong perspective of how the human mind operates. The fact is the human mind needs to be seduced and entertained. Instead of employing the art of writing in merely a logical, coherent manner, they should pay more attention to plotting, a characteristic to which novels and literature are anchored.

Therefore, not only philosophy should resume its importance in self-help books, philosophers should also relearn to recast our moral confusions and griefs and collapse an old wisdom into beautiful, communal sentences in order to appeal to the lay audience. I wish to imagine one day where philosophers write much less for philosophy journals and fill their own writings without the slightest trace of jargons, where the self-help sections in any franchise bookshops whose bookshelves will be filled with volumes of Stoic writings, the entire collection of Alain de Botton's popular philosophy, and Bertrand Russell's essays instead of books with lurid covers and images of optimistic-looking faces that tend to falsely do away our anxieties and worries. Because, as the British philosopher John Stuart Mill put it so well, "ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."


22 November 2010

On Novels and Literature

If we walk into any franchise book shops nowadays, books may be distinguished into two broad categories: self-help and finance. The former tend to bear optimistic titles that supposedly help us to cope with our existence, hovering between "How To Boost Up Your Self-Esteem" and "How To Awaken The Giant Within Yourself". While the latter may offer descriptive details of what the financial reality might be like, it seeks to blend itself with our self-help obsession, offering a lucid account of the possibility of economic happiness, rendering realistic our dream of making a fortune from the stock market.

But it wasn't always like this. Much of our literary history has rested its glory on the genre of novels and literature. Classics ranging from Shakespeare's and Oscar Wilde's to Harry Potter and Twilight, it seems rather hard for us to neglect their importance to our wellbeing. But why would novels and literature start to lack their appeal? Do self-help and finance books help us make some serious improvement of the quality of life so we may legitimately ignore the lessons novels and literature have to offer?

If self-help and finance books are the guidance of how to live, it is perhaps because these genres supposedly aim to seduce us to get something practical out of them and help us improve our lives in a certain way. But as we contemplate pages of practical advice in our beds, sadness might have been returned, for not only they are filled with illusions of what life actually is, they also go on to paralyse our imagination of possible happiness. The drawback of self-help books lies in their attempt to explicitly temper our worries and anxieties with a sense of primordial optimism, while subjugating our accurate views on life, they tend to falsely describe the world as one full of opportunities rather than one that is inherently depressing.

If we are to find a way to console ourselves in the midst of economic hardships and political disgrace, yet self-help books are unable to recast an old truth or wisdom into passable communal sentences, then perhaps we may need to turn to novels and literature in order to remind ourselves of how we should live. One valuable lesson from novels and literature is that they tend to mirror our experience. Rather than making false additions to an already muddied picture of life, their stories are generally founded on our everyday experience, harbouring in us a sense of belonging. But what's so special about mirroring our experience?

If mirroring our experience is essential to helping us to cope with our existence, it is because it sensitises our awareness of what we all have experience with. It allows us to pay attention to the minutest details what we may easily neglect. Upon reading a romantic novel, while we all may have experience falling in love, it transforms itself into a prism and forces us to adapt its content to our experience, allowing us to take on a different perspective that we may be previously ignorant of. It stretches to an ability to describe our emotions and our psychological make-up far better that we do. It guides our mind to pick up certain signals that initially bypasses our consciousness, and from that, cultivating our emotional sensibility and generating an entirely new experience of what we are familiar with.

What's more is that it allows us to understand experience that is not our own. While most of us tend to work in offices as ordinary white collars, seldom we are detectives, murderers, spies, and the like. Novels and literature present before us professions we are unlikely to have experience with and tell us what the world is like from their perspectives. Hence the business of novelists is also to enlarge our sympathy. They engage us into an experience we are unfamiliar with and ward off our bias and prejudice that might have been arisen through our conceptions of these professions as outsiders. This is also precisely one of the most admirable values of democracy. The virtue of tolerance lies not in respecting the differences in ideas and opinions, but, rather, in trying to understand them, through discussions and debates. How easy novels and literature may prompt us to understand others.

The limits of the modern form of self-help and finance books stem from an incompetence to portray our lives accurately and offer relevant insights to improve our wellbeing. In our current moral confusions, novels and literature are crying out to resume their importance.


15 November 2010

On Seduction and Modesty

Becoming teen models may be considered the triumph of feminism. As we glance through the gossip magazines, we should bear in mind that this profession offers substantial female confidence. Instead of regarding their bodies as areas of potential shame, women are finally able to display their physical candour and identities through various styles of bikinis and lingerie, mitigating the tension of the equality between men and women. However equal they may get, feminism is in violation of the fundamental law of seduction, forcing us to give away a vital ingredient of love, namely, romance.

Seduction is an art that is never easy to master. The irony is that it seems easiest to seduce those we are least attracted to instead of the ones we actually like, because the ones we desire elicit in us a sense of inferiority as compared to the perfections we have located in our beloved. What makes seduction difficult is that it lies not in revealing our character as a whole, far from offering a sense of intimacy, it is founded on the display of our finest qualities, because the desirable versions of ourselves are often not ours to summon at will. But how may we carefully administer the correct dosage of our admirable virtues? How can we ever be sure this or that virtue may appeal to our beloved?

The usual solution, and often an effective one, is to be modest. But as long as modesty stems from our crippling sense of inferiority, we often appear to be extremely reserved, and on some occasion, have the need to lie. Hence the experience of seduction is inevitably bound up with that of an actor. It’s because we need to take on a self that is not entirely our own in order to seduce the angelic face we happen to be dining with. All of a sudden, we are stripped of a sense of individuality and reminded of the anthropological wisdom that we are all social animals, that our existence is critically dependent on the others.

But what does it mean to be modest? One common answer often comes from fashion. But it is often an ambiguous one. The traditional view of how to modestly dress aims to unearth the desirable parts of skin textures yet cover some of the most intimate parts to assure masculine blindness until one is, perhaps, granted intimate access to one of the most sensitive and softest tissues among our sensory organs. To be modest is therefore to temper our modern need to be nude. The evolution of fashion, however, suggests there is no proper distinction between nudity and modesty today. What is modest in women's fashion constantly involves with the active participation of a desirable form of nudity. Wearing bikinis and lingerie get on fashion runways as much as those who conform to the traditional dressing code.

Of course, modesty suggests far more than that. Aside from fashion, we may also need to be modest in our manners and behaviours. As for a man, besides a constant need to display his wit and humour, he may need to suppress his usual tendency to swear and engage into conversations regarding pornography and a rather superficial appreciation of feminine physical beauty, and instead be drawn to offer fine knowledge of various types of wine and the like. Whilst for a woman, she may refrain from being far too outspoken, though occasionally may be permitted to ventilate bits and pieces of her intelligence, and suggesting a belief in the openness in sex. How could one be oblivious to the fact that men are highly deluded by the concept of virginity.

This leaves no room for modern teens in Hong Kong who aspire to spend their nights in bed as often as eating meals, change partners as often as they change underwear, and speak with an ardour as vulgarly as those from the working class. The current trend of acclaiming feminine identity through becoming teen models therefore risks harbouring an opposite sentiment that does away the romantic conception of love and inspiring an unfair neglect of the merits of being reserved and modest. Not only it ignores the vital role seduction has to play before embarking on a romantic journey, it also renders love impossible, because many are seduced just because of the absurdly reserved behaviours mentioned. Small wonder why Hong Kong is a loveless city, let alone the fact of it being unromantic.

Perhaps it’s time to readjust the values advocated by feminism. The limits of feminism make a case for the impossibility of romantic love and seek to destroy some of the best qualities possessed solely by women. One of the best parts of civilisation lies not in promoting the equality of both sexes, but instead in how to express their inequality in a desirable, democratic way.


08 November 2010

Please give me a prison break, would you?

One night I was watching a new Government ad whose ending is so familiar that I thought it was a re-run of the old ones.

Employees' Compensation Insurance Protects Employees and Employers

So I searched the website of the government’s mouthpiece and happened to find its many brothers.

Penalty on wage offences

No flytipping

Anti-illicit Cigarettes

Oh yeah. Whenever our Government wants to warn us about what is illegal, they think showing us an actor turning into an inmate is frightening enough. And this thinking happened to sweep across different departments in our Village. They are so confident of this brainwashing that they keep repeating it all the time. Fact is, we grew numb to such drama already and treat it as a washroom break in between our favourite TV series.

I just wonder, do they outsource their marketing tasks to the same uncreative advertising agency because it’s cheap enough? Or they, as clients, keep killing their contractors’ creativity because they want their ads to be as literal (reads boring) as possible?

I never blame our TV channels for their lack of ground-breaking works because they’re free and mainly for people of no other entertainment choice (i.e. children and desperate housewives). But for government ads, I pay my tax money for them. Don’t I deserve some value for money?

I miss the Lap Sap Chung (Litter Bug) in our old Clean Hong Kong government ad.
It appeared belore Shrek and Monster Inc. So original!