Tuesday, 1 March 2011

It keeps our marriage together

Dig is back in Hong Kong. No more talk of crumbling houses and cellar mould.

I say instead, Aren't there are a lot of public notices in Hong Kong? Stand up on the escalators, Hold the handrail, Sit down, Do not climb, Do not sneeze, If you are going to sneeze, put a bag over your mouth, Stop it, Do it like this, Don't do it like that. They're always scolding you and nagging you.

Why are you looking at me in that funny way, Dig? Wasn't part of my magnetic attraction for you how social expectation brings out a defiant streak in me? Here in Hong Kong there are so many reminders about conformity that I might have to throw myself onto a railway track, just to be awkward.

I am sure he looked a little hopeful. Well next time I'm on the going-up escalator, I might deliberately try not holding onto the handrail.

Why is it like this? I ask Dig. Why don't people rebel against all this public instruction? Don't they feel impatient with being told what to do? Like this. It's only a bit of a ditch. Does it really need 15 public safety signs?

Dig says that I have got it all wrong. I am just not understanding Hong Kong China at all. Dig says, you can't read your relationship with Chinese authorities using the frameworks of an English person. You English, he says (Dig comes from Northumberland, so has debatable provenance) you think you're all individuals! You read messages from authority as if they are personal! When a politician in England says something, you interpret that as if it is meant for you. Politicians even try and use individual body parts like someone's ear as a way of relating to you.

But here in Hong Kong China, says Dig with a patient voice, the authorities couldn't care less about you as an individual. They're brutally honest about the relationship of the state to you. They tell you what you're going to do, and that's it. Be quiet. (I didn't like to say, I'm not interrupting.) If you as an individual do not fit, that's your look-out. If you fall down the escalator, why would the authorities bother? It's your problem.

Well then I decided I would put my hand back on the handrail, and sharpish.

But! says Dig, the authorities care if you take two hundred other bodies with you. They care about crowds. Do not forget there are seven million people stacked on top of each other here. So the signs are like big public statements designed for crowd control. That is how to read them.

Look, he says, what the Hong Kong authorities are afraid of. Direct confrontation with large numbers of discontents. Any direct conflict on that scale is embarrassing and threatening. Beijing would sit up and take notice, and that's the last thing anyone wants round here, because it might disrupt the business of making money. You have to see the bigger picture.

That is true, I say. It's just like when I say Stop burning the spaghetti sauce. It's like a direct confrontation to your cooking routine. No-one wants that situation, because it disrupts dinner.

Hmm, says Dig, then adds, it would be best not to assume the Hong Kong Chinese are passive. They like to show their resistance through demonstration, stern letters, public exhortation, and political non-compliance; and all of these are quieter, more understated ways than the protest you might be used to in England. (I totally deny any involvement in any violent activism, criminal damage, firebombing, window smashing, arson, and incendiary devices in the mail.)

But I figure Dig is right. This has opened my eyes to the politics of public signage. I may have to interpret Hong Kong in a whole new light. First though, I must be the individual English rebel I truly am and defy 15 safety instructions about a trench to put my foot in it.

Well, I had to report something for the day Dig returned. And the only other story I have is my sorry tale of cellar rot.