Monday, 31 January 2011

'Hurry up, we'll miss the ferry.'

Ah! The ferries in Hong Kong!

People think Hong Kong is all shopping mall and skyscraper. Not at all. There's a lot of water here. Water, and 150 islands. Some you can live on, and some are lumps of vertical hairy rock which stick out of the water.

Most of the islands that you can live on are connected by ferries. These are an especially important subsection of Hong Kong transport, because if you live on an island without road or tunnel access and you get it wrong, you're stuffed. Although I hear tell of an old lady with a cackle and a sampan who lives in Aberdeen. She'll ferry you across the harbour for $500 and your soul.

If you want to avoid her and catch the ferry instead, here are some rules.

Pin up a large timetable of ferry arrivals and departures on the front door of your house, then look at it.
With timetable assistance, you are sure to catch the ferry!

Without timetable assistance, consider what disasters can happen. For example, the household breadwinner may suffer a heart attack or run out the house waving $500 and looking for the old woman.

Indeed, there may be complete meltdown and disaster! Like, any given day, if the breadwinner has been co-opted by the Russian World Service to talk about commas, but realises too late that there's no ferry for another 40 minutes, then adds the extra 30 minutes sailing time, they are bound to clutch their chest and turn pale. Now they will never make the BBC cupboard! They immediately regret their island lifestyle! All their plans are pfffft!

Arrive in good time to catch the ferry.
I know this is a hard rule to follow.

Travelling Aunty, have you noticed the general mayhem in every room of this house up to an hour before the boat departs?

You'll note how Shark is quickest to get ready. She can walk to the pier gates in 6 minutes 40 seconds if you don't get in her way, but needs 50 minutes mental preparation. Squirrel must find every small item under 3mm to put in her handbag, and Tiger must lock herself in the bedroom and refuse to come out. That occupies me in parental management schemes for a good hour.

So I never manage arrival at the pier without hufferypuffery red-in-the-face panic! Then on the way I must drop off the laundry, put the plastics recycling in the right bin, and shop for emergency buns to shovel into my handbag! How many activities can a woman do and yet arrive before the gates shut?

Be considerate. Remember the ferry is there for everyone.
Don't bloody forget it. And don't pity the old woman hobbling towards the gangplank. The gate shutter might be a soft hearted sissy, but our fellow passengers are not. They are a ruthlessly competitive tribe who will stare at the elderly late arse upsetting their plans for domination of Hong Kong by means of professional graphic design. They will shame the old woman via their preferred channel for official complaint.

Tomorrow, a poster reminding us of our social obligations regarding punctuality for the ferry timetable will go up in our faces. Make sure it doesn't have your mugshot displayed for island contempt.

You can run your Octopus pay card twice through the pay machine, but obviously not at the same one! Dumbo.
A technical note. All visitors please note, the Octopus pay card cannot be blipped twice at the same terminal, one after the other. That is very sensible. It makes sure you do not pay twice for the same journey.

Except I have triplets and a mean streak. Of course I try and scam the ferry system by passing the Octopus card back and forth between the kids over the head of the supervising guard who is there to ensure we all play fair. Shark has a 100 dollars credit on her card. Squirrel is down to -3, so what do you expect?

Look at the mayhem we can cause at peak time by passing back the non-transferable card, entering the turnstile just used by a sister with that card, causing the machine to scream, then reversing, standing on the feet of the people behind us, pushing our way into the next terminal, getting stuck, having to be rescued by the hapless guard, then eventually being led round the back of the pay booth having screwed up the entire paying system and knocked over three Chinese.

Avoid any ferry at school chuck-out time.
This is very important. The ferries are used by school kids. It is just like the school bus back home. Would you travel on that?

If you must travel at peak school ferry hours, sit outside. Do not sit next to Dig when you get there. He is constantly tutting and complaining about the behaviour of the expat offspring.

Actually, he is right. The graffiti that appears on the backs of the seats will peel off your eyelids. And the noise! Take ear plugs. These kids have been locked up all day and they are not allowed to run at break time or lunch time because 'there isn't enough room'.

See? I can be so helpful! If you come to Hong Kong and are foolish enough to live on an outlying island, keep to these very sound ferry rules, I urge you. I bet they are useful. I'm sure I could think of some more.

And such an engaging diary entry today! Nearly as interesting as the dinner conversation we had last night about telephone dialling codes in the Newcastle area 1958-1964.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Meet the people who run Hong Kong

Here they are. On Sundays they live along the walkways in cardboard houses.

You should see these houses! Flooring and walls are the bare minimum. Some walls are stitched into place with cut outs for doors. Each house contains maybe a dozen people.

These houses are built each Sunday morning by the Filipina maids who work in Hong Kong. They're dismantled, flat packed and wheeled away each Sunday evening.

During the week, their occupants do the difficult and dirty work. Look after the baby, do the school run, wash the laundry, cook the family food, fetch and carry, clean floors, scour bathrooms and scrub toilets.

The social network is impressive. The women congregate to cook and share food, exchange letters and news of home, hold prayer meetings, take language lessons, give each other hair cuts, wire money back to distant families, sew clothes, play cards, host parties, celebrate birthdays, dance, listen to music, tap away on laptops, and talk.

They sit along all the walkways, in public parks, along roadsides and, best of all, under the HSBC building, the cathedral of financial power. Their voices echo right up into that central space. Everytime I pass, I hope they remind everyone how Hong Kong wouldn't exist as it does without them.

Of course they don't have many rights, so they can't interfere in the actual management of Hong Kong, even though they make up a large chunk of the population. They can't apply to be permanent citizens, their employment contracts can be fierce, they must live in the house of their employer, and the visa applications to work here are expensive and demanding.

People are people, huh? regardless of their who, what and where. I'm sure there are many kind employers in Hong Kong who make sure their maid is rewarded, has time off and enjoys their home. I'm sure there are some crap employers too. People who use unscrupulous employment agencies, who remove passports, set the maid to work long shifts and don't worry too much about minimum wages.

The low social status of the Filipinas troubles me. I wonder what is the support for them, outside of their own Sunday networks, when they need to escape an employer. I wonder about wages for migrant workers, employment conditions, and freedom of movement. I wonder too about a culture where a mother must pass over her child to another, then travel to seek work in Hong Kong to wire money back home.

Given all that, I don't like to see the Western men, cruising along the cardboard cities, peering in, elbowing each other. I don't like the way I hear the women talked about, the way they're written about, the way I see their role and status easily linked online to sexual availability, the way they are assumed to be at everyone's beck and call, and the way they sometimes seem hidden, in broad daylight.

I have to take a lot on trust. I find myself trusting that private employers don't make a jump in a relationship from fair paid service to exploitative and abusive slave labour. I have to trust that employment contracts from commercial chains, hotels and service industries are honourable and transparent. I have to trust the Hong Kong government to deal honestly with one of Hong Kong's largest employment sectors, and to treat female migrant workers fairly.

Some might say, these Filipina women, they don't do themselves any favours. They come from a service oriented culture. They seem keen to please, work hard at the jobs they have, avoid confrontation, smile, and readily over share their feelings. I sat on the ferry the other day, and was startled to hear a young Filipina girl fall quickly into describing her emotional life to a Western man who sat next to her. I thought, language like that gives any chancer the opportunity to take an advantage. But he didn't. He merely listened and said 'I hope you have a better day tomorrow'.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Return to Cheung Chau

I look at that title and feel a little sad. It would be much more interesting if Return to Cheung Chau brought you a narrative that contained dismembered body parts tied to lumps of rock. The phone would ring, then a sinister voice would say, 'We are returning your Triad overlord. Mr Chang will dispose of his left limbs in Cheung Chau. This is the beginning of the end.' Then the line would go dead. It would be a tale of betrayal, money lust, and revenge.

It's not going to be anything like that, obviously.

We took Travelling Aunty to Cheung Chau and had a perfectly lovely day out on this fishing island a ferry ride away from Hong Kong Central. We toured the lovely temples, ate frozen fruit lollies, and bought handbags shaped like fish.

Well, I say perfectly lovely. I kept fondling myself. All the way round. Dig says that's what it looked like to everyone.

It did not. Dig, if you are going to keep walking ten paces ahead of me, I won't include you in my perfectly lovely day out. As I told him, I can't go up to every surprised Chinese face merely to explain how, in one of my many pockets, I am sure I have a wodge of unused toilet tissue suitable for a dribbling English nose. I just have to find it.

Unfortunately, the only bits I ever locate are the disintegrating fetid fragments which I bundle together with my care-worn fingers to have the fibres explode around me thanks to my detonating hooter. Mind you, you should see those folks run. You want some personal space in Hong Kong? Sneeze into the only emergency lint you can find in your pockets.

And when I say perfectly lovely, I obviously exclude Travelling Aunty, who stands around looking a little like her spirit has been hit by a truck. I'm not sure why. She is adopting quite a regretful appearance after only a few days en famille. Cheer up aunty! Only three weeks to go!

I also obviously exclude Tiger, who gets out her grumbling gear again, even though it's only a little tourist temple tour. We're only doing three after all. Not so bad she has to go round with that long face threatening to throw herself into the sea. But of course we give in and start souvenir hunting.

At which point, perfectly lovely means Shark disappearing again in her ever increasing wandering-off confidence, sparking family panic just short of an emergency call to the local police station.

Then Squirrel. She cannot choose between a perfectly lovely fishbag in pinkypurple or purplypink.

After an hour of deliberations, opening and closing every bag, and 'Should I? Shouldn't I?', the elderly stallholder can't take any more. She reaches out, grabs a bag from under Squirrel's grasp, and starts dramatically rearranging her entire fishbag stall with much huffing and puffing while shouting in Chinglish something which sounds like It's only a bleeding fishbag! They're all the bloody same. Now sodding well stop opening them. You're messing up the fucking stall.

So there you have it. No dead bodies, Triad gangsters, drug smuggling or tales of madness and revenge. Cheung Chau is a very pretty island with quite a holiday atmosphere. And you can go safe in the knowledge that we don't visit everyday.

Friday, 28 January 2011

I wasn't there, so I don't know

Dig takes Travelling Aunty and the gritlets to the Hong Kong History Museum today. I need to record it, even though I wasn't there. I don't know why. Maybe to remind myself how exciting a time she had.

I stayed at home staring at household squalor, dabbing at my nose with forty-two toilet rolls, and snivelling sorrowfully and self piteously, wondering if the Deathly Swine Flu Chicken Disease had finally found me.

By way of emotional comfort, Dig reminded me that if I was sick and not going anywhere, there was a bit of work I could do to earn my slice of a Hong Kong crust, and that was twenty-seven pages of corrections from an academic author who I don't like very much.

Typing that, I just remembered why I saw the first set of incomprehensible corrections, lost the will to live, and spent the afternoon lying down and drinking hot chocolate instead.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Slowing up

Having family stay with you is always very exhausting, isn't it? There are so many sights to take them to see, and so much to tell them, you barely have time to provide three nutritious meals a day, sweep up, attend to the laundry, take out the recycling, engage them in exciting niece-led opportunities, and slam the lumpy custard down over dinner in a temper tantrum before exiting without dignity. I maintain it is the result of a head cold the size of Wales squatting in my forehead, and an Asian mangrove swamp dribbling out of my nose.

I confess that it all makes other lifestyles feel suddenly attractive. Like becoming a recluse, or living as a hermit in a cave for the next twenty years. Either that, or taking up fishing on the island pier. Next week, I might be the one in the middle.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Everything's fine, really.

Travelling Aunty! I have an anxiety. I need to reassure you. I need to show you how well our normal home ed life is proceeding.

If I do that, I might be able to avoid giving you an overwhelming sense of disappointment - the one that I can so easily convey regarding our virtually non-existent educational provision here in Hong Kong.

So let's attend the Home Educators Chinese New Year Party! See, Travelling Aunty? I can show you that we do have friends. People who really speak to us!

I didn't even have to follow them. Not for more than a little bit. I've done only a small amount of pleading too. It shows how generous they are! I hid our horns and tails. Everything went okay from then.

And look at this, Travelling Aunty! We know people who live in decorated upscale Hong Kong apartments like these. That should give you confidence. I didn't really send the kids off to live with the old bloke on the beach. That was just a flippant remark. I didn't mean anyone to take it seriously. Here, you'll find lots of lovely ladies sitting around talking about biscuits while kids run around, traipse in and out of toilets and clutter up the chairs in front of Discovery TV. It'll feel just like our home ed back home. See how you can trust us to make everything feel normal for your little nieces!

Outside there's a craft activity to do. Making lanterns out of red envelopes. What could be more child friendly than that? I'm not scarpering. It's just that I've had experience of one stapler and three kids and I still bear the puncture marks.

Anyway, look over here! Thanks to these lovely ladies in Hong Kong who know what they're buying, we can try smiling mouth pastries. They're deep fried pastry parcels filled with peanut and sesame. Delicious. Three thousand calories each, and counting.

The children can sit over on the craft table and I'll photograph their happy smiles for you. Sorry about the blurring on the lens. My fingers are soaked with deep fried nut grease.

Look at the craft result! Brilliant! Especially as I have escaped it all by hiding behind the cakes and nut selection to work my way through the garlic peanuts. I think I got away with it.

There. I feel better now. My anxieties are laid to rest. I showed you how smoothly our non-existent educational programme is proceeding, reassured you as to our lovely social circle, led you by the hand through the home ed life of normal, and provided you with a set of flat-pack stapled lanterns to take back home. I bet now you're almost thinking of putting away the Social Work Care Plan Clipboard, taking off your shoes, and drinking a glass of wine.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Dead pot horse to resin willy in one post

It starts off as the sort of air-polluted, miserable, cold day that Travelling Aunty would almost certainly prefer to spend passed out on the sofa under an unread copy of the South China Morning Post.

No such luck for her. She is frogmarched over to the Hong Kong Museum of Art, propped upright on the escalators and taken off to see a two thousand year old funeral horse, a length of old scroll, and a joke map of Canton.

No, I don't like the great snorty beasts but I admit it's beautiful.

This is what you get if you pass over the organisation of the cultural tour to the gritlets. I instructed them to pick one China art item each, tell Travelling Aunty all about it, then test her listening comprehension with pertinent questions about what year the horse was buried in, etc. etc.

Anyway, if she failed to answer correctly, she must have dozed off. Keep her awake and tell her again, louder. Funeral horses were very popular items to bury with the dead, along with houses, guardians and cooking pots.

Grit's choice is Touching Art. This is a fantastic exhibition, because you get to stroke semi naked men in art galleries when you're not normally allowed to. The resin that makes up these exact replicas from the classics of European art is shockingly accurate. Ten minutes in, and I'm half thinking that all the marble statuary we see in the British Museum is probably fake, because unless I tapped those thighs with my knuckles, I wouldn't know. I certainly couldn't tell in dim light.

I take my opportunity, and go round fondling it all, or most of it. Chests are especially thrilling, but that could be just me.

After I pull myself away, I think that the exhibition should properly be called Touching Art but not brave enough to touch the naughty bits, especially on the fighting warrior. It's not the laser-cut resin that puts me off. Neither that everyone else stands round wondering exactly the same thing as me. It is mostly because the poor fellow is sculptured with so much expression - fight or die - that he looks to be in enough effort already without my exploration of his vulnerabilities. Like the last straw of a really bad day. I just couldn't be that ungenerous and bad spirited to him, even if he is resin.

I'm not rambling, really I'm not. I miss filling my eyes full of European art and naked men, that's all. Anyway, touching art is better explained over here. Well worth visiting if it's in a town near you.

Even Travelling Aunty perked up a little and agreed.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Worth travelling several thousand miles

Travelling Aunty has arrived! We introduce her to the excitement of our island life. The island you can't escape from after midnight unless your spleen explodes, you take a machete to your own limbs, or the gas bottle outside the kitchen window blows up. Something like that. They're not getting out the emergency helicopter for a bruised knee. We already told Squirrel that.

We gave Travelling Aunty five minutes to slurp a cup of tea, then we took her on a two hour walk. No matter that it's three o'clock in the morning in her head. This is my cure for everything, whether it's jetlag, too much beer, mild depression, family crisis or contemplation of divorce. A nice long walk.

Anyway, we only have three weeks of her company, and we need to point out the local sights, which I do here for you too, dear reader, if you got this far.

The rock of hazard, doom, general mayhem, painted yellow and black as a precaution. Beware! Danger! You might trip over it. We can't think of any other reason why they painted it yellow and black, unless it is in homage to hornets.

The excitement of village life, en route to the beach. There are so many things we can do here, Aunty Dee, if we avoid being knocked over by a village vehicle, licked by a savage hound, or - unlike the art teacher - miss out on falling into one of the holes in the road while they install the new drainage system. Look, we can kick a stone around the street!

The fish farms, situated between the sluice and the concrete factory. I know the picture makes it all look lovely. That is because you cannot see the litter in the sluice, the concrete factory, or the fish farms.

General ineptitude, while I put my finger over the lens. You'll see a lot of this type of thing Aunty Dee. Ineptitude, bickering, furious staring, rage-filled breathing, Tiger who shouts IT'S ALL POINTLESS. All the characteristics of a happy and normal family enjoying each other's company.

The busy and industrious mainstreet of Sok Kwa Wan. The one with the seafood restaurants where you get to pick your fish, clams and crabs from the tanks, while Shark stares at you with undisguised loathing. People say there is a shop here somewhere. I haven't found it myself.

The ferry to Hong Kong Island. Lucky we made this one! There isn't another for three hours. A ferry ride is a perfect opportunity for us to explore our favourite topic of conversation. How many life jackets there are, how many passengers there can be, and how many of us are going to die, either from immersion in cold polluted harbour water, or by being chopped into pieces from propellers.

Welcome to Hong Kong, Travelling Aunty. Tomorrow we can pass through Yung Shue Wan where we can show you the butchers, the power station and the new sewage pipe.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

I can take my proper place in the order of wacko

For years I have mocked the assumption that if you home educate it must be because you are profoundly religious. And because it's just too easy to jump that step from knowing someone has a deep-seated belief to the conclusion that because they also chose home ed, they must be a religious fanatic, isolating their kids from any corrupting influence to better indoctrinate them with a single world view.

Usually, my take is to say yes, there are parents who home educate for religious motives and their kids probably attend the tennis club with everyone else. Yes, there are parents who put their child in a single focus faith school and their kids probably come out into a world to meet the non-believers. Yes, there are parents whose religion at home puts their child in direct contradiction with the culture of school - watch a child of Jehovah's Witness face the school build up to Christmas, and you'll know what I mean. Yes, there are oddballs; the ones of singular eccentricity regarding the divine - but education can't be a reliable barometer for their peculiar degree of wacko. On that, I have an extended family as evidence.

Mostly, I have felt on the outside of all those opinions. Until today. When I discover what looks to me like a makeshift shrine to a unicorn and the offering of a sacrificed cat called Bubbles.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Someone is coming to us, from over the borders

For that, we must plan. I make my usual move. I set up military base in the ice cream parlour in downtown Central. From here I covertly control operations, manoeuvre my armies, and plan my campaigns.

Today, I invite my three leading generals to sit with me around the circular table to discuss objectives and strategies. We must plan our three week strike with great care. There must be a goal. To win the hearts and minds of the population coming to us from over the borders; the population of one called Travelling Aunty, who will soon drop into our territory.

General Tiger wisely suggests that capturing Travelling Aunty is a good first move. We can escort her to home base, then feed her. But, she adds cautiously, feeding Travelling Aunty with Adzuki bean paste ice cream on Day One would be a culture shock too soon. Vanilla would surely be better. 'Or Chocolate' suggests General Shark. 'Maybe Strawberry' adds General Squirrel.

After some intense discussion, the generals all agree that Wildberries should be Operation Aunty Step 2. Then the campaign should unroll in this precise order: Nutella, Ginger, Mango, Sesame paste, and Green tea ice cream. Cones, not cups.

Then the generals very sensibly added that the ice cream campaign needed background support. Education is a primary means of power. It was decided that Travelling Aunty should be taught how to say thank you in Cantonese, then produce a selection of origami birds to give back to the ice cream lady from the ice cream wrappers.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Different and all the same

I spied graffiti in Hong Kong. Modest, isn't it? No colour, no unnecessary wastage of paint, no spilling lines, no jumbling letters. It's so neat; it stays within its borders. Black spray lines on a white background - an echo of the Hong Kong skyscrapers - then careful letters underneath, printed as a caption. They read: Art is not everything / But we need it.

If I saw this in England, I'd imagine it was the sort of fashionably minimalist graffiti that might be drawn by the artsy and intelligentsia middle-class teenagers who live around Clapham. Maybe hand-sprayed by Josh, who is desperate to carve out some creative facial hair for himself, and who is on a campaign of rebellion against his mother. I bet she works in financial accounting and underestimates the social significance of graphic design.

I guess in England, I'd find that message - Art is not everything / But we need it - difficult to take as a wise and incisive nugget of public information. After all, we're surrounded by artists exploring the merits of graffiti. When they're not nailing sticks of celery to walls, or decapitating sheep. In fact, if I did see this in England, it wouldn't come as any surprise to discover this section of wall was sprayed deliberately for an art portfolio, or that Josh drew it there with his heart pounding especially for Jilly who's taking the urban photographic course.

But here in Hong Kong, it's different. We're almost a graffiti free zone. Expressing your resistance by daubing the walls doesn't seem to be the Chinese way. This black-on-white presence feels like something that shouldn't be. A public slap in the face. Then the message. I assume the spraycan artist intended the message to be incisive and political (even though I might give it 7 out of 10 for the creative line). From the sprayer's point of view, I guess there's no point in making a risky late-night anti-social strike to tell the world that Kev is a knob. Straight off then, I'm thinking about the corporate development of urban space and the place of art at street level. The spraycan artist achieved that at least.

But these youthful wall art enthusiasts? I feel old. I bet Josh and Jilly or the Hong Kong activist are basically the same, whether they live in Hong Kong or Clapham. I bet they're otherwise industrious and scholarly, and expect to pass all their exams with an A grade.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Exploring human, not seeking happy

A polite question was asked of Dig. Because he is polite, he asked me. 'Are you enjoying living in Hong Kong, Grit?'


He looked a little taken aback. Well, it's a truthful answer. Let's face it Dig, you didn't eye-spy me for my qualities of social diplomacy and tact.

Anyway, the answer's still no. Enjoying the Hong Kong living experience wasn't on the list.

Health? Yes. Having the family breadwinner live thousands of miles up in the sky on a plane between high-pressure situations is not a good idea. Unless the insurance is entering the millions. It isn't. Of course I had the idea that living a life without the constant threat of deep vein thrombosis would help. Well that was a crap idea. It didn't. We just changed one type of stress for another.

Education? That was on the list. It's still a reason to be here. It's a reason to be anywhere, actually. I cannot understand people who say, 'We took Tinkerbell round the world but decided to come back to Preston because she starts school next week and we don't want her to miss out'. Or people who say, 'Yes, we're going to research volcanoes in Peru. We asked permission of the headteacher and he said it would be alright if she took the spelling booklet with her'.

There is a more rounded real-world education to be had out here than sitting in a packed classroom worrying about the weekly spelling test. We accept it's just part of the deal that the lessons might not be revealed for another ten years or so. Who's to know? Tiger could yet explode out of St Martin's clutching sketch pads splitting from the innards with her inspired designs from Cantonese opera costume.

Education of any description is an act of faith. It requires vision, sacrifice, and knuckle biting. There's very little enjoyment to be had in that mixture, I find.

And experience? I'm sure it was there, on the list, when I sorted out my priorities and expectations about agreeing to come here. We all know the word experience is code for 'crap awful bit of life that you could put in the shredder'. So we'll 'put it all down to experience' and say that living in Hong Kong has had its moments of misery, challenge, anger, confusion, dismay, regret, frustration, sadness, disappointment, and loss. There was some fun on the way. I laughed.

Which sort of makes my point. I didn't put happy, enjoy, or amuse on the bloody list as any sort of priority. I came here because I thought it was the most pragmatic way to help stop a man dropping dead, to mash the kid brains, and to put myself in a different situation from which I could experiment. Expand the elastic bits of me that are ordinary human feelings. Find out which of them stretch, and which of them snap.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Money, thinking aloud

So I bought the red envelopes in preparation for New Year.

In a week or so, I'll slip a clean, folded note into each envelope, then hang them on the door. Unless something disastrous happens, like the envelopes are torn open in unseemly haste, the kids can run off to spend their sudden gained dollars in any way they want.

I feel I should do a little of this, 'when in Rome', even though I'm not sure what I'm doing and why.

Take the red envelopes. I don't know why they came about, or why I should put in money and not, say, a length of string and a picture of a man wearing a hat. My cultural ignorance of New Year preparation probably extends to other things too. I bet that I hang scrolls honouring dead grandmothers the doomed way round; that I shovel the equivalent of chips and pineapple into my rice bowl, or generally commit all manner of unsocial acts in public everyday.

But I can see cash is a gift in itself. It's not considered vulgar, or thoughtless, to hand over money, especially to children. Accepting it readily is not considered greedy. While we have this problem talking about money in the west, there's no such issue here. Maybe that's pragmatic. There is a cultural assumption that you save for what you need, that you are wise in managing money, and that it is a resource to be shared around family and friends.

Anyway, I have an excuse with the dollar bills in the envelopes. I'm learning by doing. I'm just sharing the experience publicly. Thinking aloud. But don't hold me to it. On most cultural observations I make, I accept I can be proved wrong. It's not like I've married into here or have been folded into the China bosom. I'm watching, and trying to make sense of things. I accept I have only a tiny pin-prick of a viewpoint here in Hong Kong. Skewed too.

Take this thing about money. In England, don't people have a cultural suspicion of large amounts of money acquired through commerce? Maybe that's a snooty social thing: should I blame the Normans? Was it they who brought in a system that means we divide everything up, top to bottom, then somehow expect to keep it the same and pass it on down the centuries? Maybe we get to one thousand years down the line, and that's long enough for us to think it's okay to pass money on like that.

But to go out and make money? Acquire a lot of money, suddenly? Within a life time. Maybe there is a feeling of discomfort about that. Why, I don't know. Blame the socially obsessed Victorians or Henry VIII for helping kick-start England's protestant history.

Wherever it's come from, there's a feeling that acquired wealth - unless it's through demonstrably working class heroics of hard work, honest graft and sacrifice - well, sudden acquired wealth, more than you need, especially with any display, or ostentation and 'showing off', it's all perhaps a little disreputable or dishonest. Money comes with an unspoken suspicion. Is there exploitation, sacrifice of moral principles, mean spirits, a less than honourable person involved?

And do the English show much generosity of thinking if anyone suddenly acquires money by chance? If the good fortune came by way of buying a ticket and matching some numbers, maybe that shows a fundamental character of speculation and idleness. You just got lucky, no hard work, no skill there.

Maybe you just can't win in England.

In China, money doesn't seem to come with the same discomforts. I'm struck by how the issue of wealth and wealth creation is linked into ideas about personal success, happiness, well being. People seem genuinely to wish wealth, fortune and prosperity without the social daggers of resentment and suspicion. I'm surrounded by expressions which tackle the acquisition of money head on, pull no punches. Expressions which translate ideas such as 'Get rich good luck', 'Make money good fortune' 'Get money first and accumulate blessing', The luck is coming, everything's done'. They sit alongside businesses who promote themselves freely as 'Big Profit Company'.

I think I need to take my western ideas about money, then turn them on their head. In Chinese culture, acquiring money quickly shows your virtue, not your vice. It shows how prosperity is coming to you because you're a good person: you've done all the right things, behaved with due respect for your ancestors, have forethought for your future unborn families, generally lived well with your fellow human beings. For all of that, material reward and wealth is truly deserved.

What can you do with your wealth? I think this expectation I can turn upside down too. Here, there is the cultural assumption you will share your wealth around the family, clan, wider society. Your good fortune, brought about by your good nature, will show itself in the good that you will bring to others, the loans you make, the social funds you commit to, the charities you begin. Whether that truly happens in practice, I wonder. I read that the gap between rich and poor is increasing in Hong Kong, that social injustice is evident in housing policy and employment opportunity, and that over a million people here now live below the poverty line.

Hmm. I'm only thinking aloud. I have other things to do. I've spent long enough thinking about money, considering that I have only a few dollars in my purse. I resolve to spend them soon. I shall go to a street trader and buy New Year red lanterns. On the lanterns, don't ask me why. But I'll hang them all around the house, probably just on the day that to do so, brings bad luck.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

People who help us

Oh look, there's a member of the station rescue service calling through to the Central Control Room. Yes, he's seeking authorisation to enter the train track by means of a three metre pole with a hook on the end. Thanks, Shark. Thanks for testing the train system of Hong Kong by ejecting your 'sketch book of bamboo' out the train doors onto the live rails below. At ten minutes to rush hour.

Thanks to mama too, I feel, for hunting up and down the station platform trying to locate the man with the pole to retrieve the sketchbook, when her rudimentary Cantonese language skills start with the number three and end at the word for toilet. But I can make dramatic hand gestures, and point, which helps.

I suppose I could turn it all into some sort of personal and social education in a lesson called 'People who help us'.

I would also have to include the passing gentleman in the park at Sha Tin, merely one hour beforehand, who waded knee high into the turtle pond to gallantly retrieve Tiger's bracelet - the one she managed to bounce off a turtle head into the waters below, possibly by enthusiastic bracelet squeezing in delight at seeing turtles in the first place.

I may also have to thank the man who let Squirrel out of the turnstile when she got stuck, the young woman behind us at the 'add value to your Octopus card' machine who couldn't take any more of us faffing around and simply did the job for us, and the entire population of Lamma, who still manage to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the yelling and screaming that emanates from the house when ownership of the yellow crayon is in dispute.

Thank you all, people of Hong Kong. You are most helpful. (I'm still not sure about the elderly woman with the bottle and hanky though. I think she had good intentions.)

Monday, 17 January 2011

What do you people want?

Oh I'm sick of hearing the blah blah complaints about Chua. All I can say is, look at yourselves. You schizophrenic English. What do you want from your educational system?

Chua is doing nothing more than a logical extension of what you've been trying to put in place for years. Exam glory. Social oneupmanship through a quadruple A* pass at A level followed by a first. Prestige potential earning power.

You're now allowing people like Graham Allen to talk about school year grades starting from birth. Tell me, what's that about if you're not madly obsessed with 'exam performance' as the measure of your child's success? What are you letting him do that for if you really don't want the culture of 'my baby's smarter than yours', SATs glory and ten GCSE exam passes?

Isn't Allen ultimately promoting the same school exam culture as Chua? Formed round the idea that parents must be doing something wrong if their child's not excelling at school?

If you don't want that culture, tell me, why the fussing and fretting about whether the four-year old is 'school ready' or whether the toddler is showing signs of 'school preparedness'? And if someone starts Tinkertop at school age five, my goodness, it sounds like the sun exploded. Aged five? What? Three years of 'missing out' on the Einstein nappy curriculum? You can forget about college.

But of course you're going to deny all that. You're going to say, School isn't about exam passes. It's about being a part of society!

Oh please, do me a favour.

Having spent four of my earth years living with the English tribes who inhabit the land called classroom, I think I can be a little impatient with that line.

For a start look at the regime you set up already. You lock them up in airless rooms in batches of 30-plus, then you prohibit movement, timetable the living daylights out of them, require homework from the age of five, grade them from the day they arrive to the day they pass out, stop them speaking without permission, ask questions of them to which you already know the answer, pressurise them to succeed in the prescribed manner, then prevent them from letting off steam and run screaming about the 'playground', preferring medication for another brain disease the experts suddenly discovered, like AAODAHHD.

If you seriously want to reject Chua and dump Allen, then you got to stop driving kids to exam passes, let teachers come away from that model, let them spend their professional day job communicating passions, following ideas and interests with no automatic guarantee of success and yes - hit and miss for their wilder ideas and approaches. You simply must trust them to bring experimentation and inquiry into the classroom, and preferably take the kids out of it.

Now, do you people want school as a controlled exam system or not?

What you can't do, it seems to me, is whine on and on while simultaneously allowing successive governments to set up exam-focused teaching factories for which Chua is a natural conclusion and Allen is just another step on the way.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

I'll get back to you

When I have another life - the one after the life where I am a fantastic shit-hot photographer on the cover of Time magazine - and the one after the life where I am a hard drinking womanising bloke (hey, I want to know what that feels like), then I am going to come back as an anthropologist. I am going to study all this worship, fruit and incense at Wong Tai Sin, then I will be able to tell you what on earth (or elsewhere) is going on. Until then, I can only look.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Every type of hike

We go for a hike today. Hike. It's one of the words that caught me out when I arrived in Hong Kong. It means such different things.

In England a hike means, to a particular type of outdoorsy person, quite a bit of preparation. You have to wear the right type of green waterproofed and waxed walking gear, get the Labrador in the Audi and drive to the Lake District, saying 'it's only a spot of drizzle'. You must arrive at a destination away from the tourists to perch the car just off the road, change into the right kind of walking boots and woolly knee socks for the terrain, then double-check the contents of the backpack before setting off. The hike proceeds without problem (thanks to proper planning with walking stick/water/maps/compass/Kendall mint cake/dog/dog bowl/torch/GPS/emergency flare) until you have completed the three-mile trek, when you return to the car, wipe the dog down to maintain the clean interior, remove the boots and drive home happy, quoting Wordsworth.

Grit's hikes never worked like that, ever. I have fond childhood memories of the Sunday outings to the Derbyshire dales in the 1960s; the ones which probably introduced me to the great outdoors. We'd arrive at the village car park, thronging with day trippers from Nottingham and Derby, to disgorge from the family Zodiac with the Jack Russell terrier who ran off almost immediately. My brother and the dog would spend the day chasing each other about, my dad would point and say 'We're going over there', and my mum would gamely follow behind, clutching her handbag. The best sight, apart from the massive limestone outcrops, were the ladies with wobbling bee hives who looked like Barbara Windsor, tottering up the path towards the nearest rock pile in their high-heeled sling-back sandals and a woolly cardy, accompanied by a red faced man with an Elvis haircut, huffing and puffing in a patterned shirt. They'd reach a particular point on the hillside, turn round and come back down again to complete the turn in the fresh air by sitting in the pub beer garden, smoking. That is a 'hike up a hill' from where I come from.

Dig, on the other hand, interpreted a hike to mean suddenly swerving off a totally isolated road over the back of Northumberland, jumping out a beat up old car that looked like a van (don't bother locking it), clocking the position of the sun, then walking for three hours in a terrain with nothing to mark out one track from another, except maybe, the sheep droppings. Take a coat. It gets chilly on the moors. Don't fall down the holes. I'm not sure whether that was called a 'hike' or a 'walk'. Anyway, I was deeply impressed and probably unwisely fell in love at that moment.

A hike to the Chinese means something quite different again. You take this signposted, fenced and concrete path located between the managed slope (registration number 2345/R) and the storm drain. The path leads up to the hill to the photography point (clearly signposted, one of three) where you may buy an ice lolly from the legally registered trader. As you begin, note that this section of the concrete is provided by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. The hazardous rocks en route are painted yellow and black. Observe the fire beaters, placed at regular intervals. Emergency phones are marked at 500 metres. The trail is approximately one hour ten minutes in length, contains three information panels, and the first point where you may turn around and return to the nearest public beach is the traditional viewing pavilion from where you may observe the power station.

It has a sort of charm. You don't need any special clothing, and you can behave in a silly manner on downhill slopes to see if it will provoke disaster.

Today, we blend a little of every type of hike. It is strangely satisfying.

Dig, leading the way, suddenly plunges off the path to follow a trail that may or may not be a river gully while I trip along behind, clutching my handbag, stumbling over the stones and regretting the lack of sensible walking shoes. I only know which route to follow because Squirrel dashes ahead of me, wearing her pink cardy, and she occasionally pauses to find out if I am still following (thanks, Squirrel).

The tracks are suitably remote, even though the beach at Lamma is the same as every weekend - crowded - being just far enough from the town on the rural trail (15 minutes). We never spot another person on these mountain tracks all day long. It seems that no one except the confident and hardy come up here, without a care for walking gear or planning, to this directionless and unsigned landscape.

There is a strange absence of animal, and I keep wondering about the sheep. The vegetation changes to a type of scrub, and the rocks I think are granite. But, thanks to the absence of map, lack of water, and the remonstrations of Tiger, our resident Health and Safety Supervisor who is convinced we are all about to die on the mountainside (and have we bought flares?), we decide to turn back before the sky sinks into total darkness.

It is probably wise. Lamma's volcanic mountains are great lumps of dark shapes, and they don't get any brighter overnight. The path going down is hard on the feet, especially if you're wearing soft shoes. But as we come down the mountain path to complete our hike, we are rewarded with a lovely clear view of Lamma Island, Hong Kong. In particular, the glorious, coal-fired power station.