Saturday, 5 February 2011

In transition

Gangmaster Grit marches Travelling Aunty around Aberdeen Market.

Mostly, we are disappointed, at a loss. Aberdeen Market is shut. The stall holders have closed up and gone home. Saturday after New Year is a public holiday. I might have taken that into consideration when happily planning the Schedule of Enforced Cultural Experience.

Damn. I deliberately timetabled today as an antidote to the luxury brands of the Pacific Mall. Now look. Travelling Aunty can't step through the time portal to peer into 1950s market lock ups, to watch wizened old ladies bent double over treadle-operated Singer sewing machines. They aren't here. They're gone.

We walk the market anyway. The flower stalls are open, and the live fish. The butchers, yes, but we avoid them to spare the assembled shoppers from my vegetarian youths who don't mind what language they choose when they make moral judgements. (So long as it's loud, and in public.)

The underwear seller is open. She's probably seeking refuge from the New Year family by hiding out next to her stall. She'd just laid out her classic beige elastic bras and her dusty girdles, then set a 1940s easy-listening vinyl LP spinning on a record player. She'd put her hat on, lifted her feet up, shut her eyes, and along we come, whining about boobs and shoe sizes and knickers while Shark rolls her eyes and tuts.

The stall holder doesn't mind. She fusses about the stall, opens up sock boxes, asks which child is oldest, claps her hands and pats the children, then hands round sweets for New Year. We buy two pairs of socks at a bargain price. I apologetically hand over the few dollars, yet feel like hugging her for the time she's spent with us.

You can find these moments all over Hong Kong. Treasure them. I can't help feeling, they're travelling fast into history. Girdle sewers, sock sellers, record players, shoe repairers, card printers, old lady tailors: all these trades tucked into single lots and units, hidden up side streets and seeking a living in suburban markets.

I'm told these trades are joining the traditional food sellers who rise at 5am to run the greasy spoons that serve three dollar meals. What's attractive about this employment for an educated aspirant youth surrounded by global branding?

It's like looking at the past, while standing in the present. Will they be here in twenty years? I can't imagine the youngsters thinking, 'I know what I'd like to do! Work in despairingly grubby conditions, scratch together the price of a bowl of noodles, then wait until compulsory purchase turns my hovel into another upscale retail opportunity!'

Change, transition, move between generations. It's all around us in Hong Kong. Land is manufactured from the sea. Buildings are knocked down and redeveloped. Construction is everywhere. Transport, utilities, they all must work together for maximum opportunity.

Nothing is sacred. The Star Ferry is slipping away from a commuter service to a tourist dash; why take the ferry when you can take the bridges, tunnels and road traffic links between Kowloon and the Island?

And the trams. For now, you can ride the length of Hong Kong island for two dollars. Not for much longer if the new tram service company has its way. The trams are headed upmarket - higher fares for air con and a captive audience for the ad-based TV which plays relentlessly inside.

I see, in Hong Kong, economy drives everything. Money is King. Decisions are made where the money goes. Is it financially expedient? Can we make a profit? Short-term is all. Everything else, go hang. Environment, history, culture, what are these against a profitable two-year plan?

There's no locally created, coherent strategic vision for Hong Kong. People don't take long-term decisions. They can't. Hong Kong is a colony of China. While everyone's making money, don't say anything.

But what about the knicker seller when the market's gone and the area's redeveloped in a new retail opportunity?

Dig says, Don't be so bleak. One of the tremendous assets of Hong Kong is its ability to transform itself quickly from one state to another. Come here in one decade and you'll find a centre for commercial print; within a finger snap this city-state has become a plastics manufacturing base; next, you'll find an administration and finance zone. Soon, a transit centre for goods exiting the Pearl River Delta - a front show room for China.

He shrugs, and says, What about an underwear seller? Markets always endure. We're living in an age where everyone sells something. Who's to say the girdle-sewers won't reinvent themselves in another generation? You women, don't you always want something like girdles? And don't you always love to find a bargain in a market?


sharon said...

All things change, some with enthusiasm, others reluctantly, but change they do. As to the girdle stall, enjoy it while it lasts ;-)

nappy valley girl said...

Brilliant post, so true of HK. But it was always like that. Stanley Market used to be full of grubby, quirky little stalls selling goodness knows what; some time in the late 80s, it transformed to little airconditioned shops all selling the same fashions. (God knows what it's like now -an extension of the Pacific Mall?).

And so many lovely colonial buildings were just knocked down and replaced by high rise in the 70s - and that was under British rule.

Big mamma frog said...

Aw...I love your descriptions. I could almost be there. (except that instead I'm here moaning about the grey British weather and the fourth cold we've caught since Christmas.)

Gweipo said...

I went on a historical walk with Jason Wordie, and one of the shops we looked at was a bone setters shop. His commentary from a commercial / historical perspective was that shops like this still exist in some areas which were developed in the 70's and 80's because at that time the ex-tenants were allowed to buy residential and commercial property back after the development. That means that this type of shop owner probably owns the property and is now in it free of rental. This is different to the redevelopment now, where the developers retain the commericial property rights and then lease it to the standard monopolies, leading to homogenous shopping experiences and any "quirky" shops get one short shot (perhaps) at a lease and then they get priced out of the market.

On a complete aside, my son was looking at your blog mast-head and had a hundred questions about the picture. Who made it, and how it was made being the predominant ones.

Rachel M. said...

It's so true, money rules in China! I agree with Dig on the issue that the people there seem skilled at reinventing themselves. Look at the youth today, they are quick to learn one trade in the sewing machines for garment factories but as soon as they find an electronics factory that pays more they jump ship. Now the only thing I'm really concerned about is the lazy youth that doesn't want to work and move out from their parents house. We've found factories filled with aging older folks who still have 30-40 year old's at home playing video games! Huh??? I guess there are the to extremes. I think I just went off topic a little bit.

Grit said...

you are right, sharon. i don't feel comfortable taking photographs in some situations, because i feel like i'm turning people into my tourist objects, but i hope someone is photographing this ordinary everyday. for it to slip away without record would be too cruel.

hi npv, and thank you. the government - whether british or chinese - has so very little political interest. they merely seem in place to balance out economic interests. that, i don't think, is changing from one generation to the next. my guess is that the family dynasties that rule hk do so regardless of the government in place.

the way hk people react intrigues me; there is a lack of political questioning and certainly an absence of ministerial accountability, but people don't seem to pursue that. maybe they have a living to make, and they are mindful of the alternatives. china is close by.

i think the shenzhen-prd development is interesting, and i wonder if hk will be overtaken by that huge megalopolis. the hong kongers have an idea that hk is the desirable place to come, and that maybe gives people here a sense of social superiority (have you been following the tour guide business?) but i'm not sure hk can hold that sense for many more decades.

aw, bmf, get well soon. i had a terrible flu in the first week of travelling aunty's stay. she began to think surgical masks were a good idea.

gweipo, thank you for that nugget. i see some architectural tours around the city. i've wondered about taking one. i bet if i do, i'll find them advertised in english then conducted in cantonese. then it's a lesson that i should learn cantonese, no?!

on the masthead pic... there is a table in the children's zone at snibston discovery centre, leicestershire, that is transparent. in the tray underneath is a collection of toys, bricks, craft items, fabric, plastic junk. I photographed it, then played about with the facilities on my phone camera - frosting, diffuse, that sort of nonsense. i then transferred the pic to the computer and uploaded it to the blog. it doesn't fit across the width on my screen. i'm not very interested in the technology of the blog unfortunately, so it stays there. and i forget now how to change the letters from pink. i hope he likes it. it would be the first positive comment i ever got for the look of this blog!

not off the topic at all rachel. i'm looking forward to hearing your observations. learning about this place is one reason why i'm here after all.