Sunday, 28 December 2008

Thoughts on Hong Kong

Five weeks is quite a while to spend anywhere as a transit point on your travels. It feels a bit different, making a run at setting up a life in a city and seeing how settled you can get. It's been exciting, and has helped me get ready for what's coming up - at least 22 flights, 10 countries and three months before I can think about going home.

What's struck me the most - and Soleil has picked up on it too in the week she's been here with me - is the pureness of the city in terms of function. Everything's thought through perfectly in terms of A to B. Covered walkways for the rain, which pass through shopping malls on the way to your destination. Escalators for the hills. An elaborate one way system. A lot of your paths feel very set, so much so that even when we tried to get lost, we found ourselves back on the way home before we had time to wonder where we were. In terms of logical thought, this is a marvel. I can see why this place is conducive to business, and the palpable workhard-playhard ethic seeps out of the streets.

The flip side of this is that it's a hard city to feel creative in. Early on I went to a arts networking event. There was a lot of talk there about how amazing it was to find something like this in Hong Kong, which I largely took for slightly childish backslapping at the time. I see something in it now. I'm finding it harder to express myself in writing here, harder to think emotionally rather than logically and harder to go beyond the functional. If Shanghai as a city felt characterised by aggression and anger, Hong Kong feels steeped in cool logic and dollar signs, exciting, dynamic but (I worry) soulless. The effort to set up an artistic, collaborative movement here may have seemed unimpressive at the time, judged by London standards (or even possibly Cambridge standards), but in hindsight I can see how difficult a challenge it must have been.

This is probably my last chance to say this, since I'm going to Thailand tomorrow, but I've never been in a place where prostitution is such an obvious and accepted occurrence. Local women go to check out the prostitute bars out of curiosity, there are accepted nights of the week when they can enter posh Lan Kwai Fon, while the area of Wan Chai is synonymous with them. It's barely even shrugged off, it's just a fact of the city. In Beijing and Shanghai you may be offered a girl by a dodgy leather-coat wearing pimp on the street, but you rarely ever saw a working girl. It's a shift I'm not entirely sure how to contextualise.

Finally, this city is a lot of fun. With so many people passing through, so many hardworking bankers blowing their cash in the evenings, so much energy, money and music crammed into so small a space, you're rarely at a loss for things to do. I've mostly gone out on my own, and the mix of people is unbeatable. For a traveller who hates backpackers - the kind of people who sit around in hostels drinking with other backpackers until it's time to switch cities - every night has brought something new, and usually refreshing.


Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Croc Shock

Last night I was in a photoshoot for Crocs shoes.What started off as a bit of a joke for me - I agreed to the shoot before realising who it was for - turned out to be a bit of a revelation. I'm hardly Crocs' biggest fan. I think the whole neon rubber swiss cheese look should have been strangled at birth actually. Still, the shoot took me by surprise. Not only were the shoes as comfortable as everyone has told me, a weak justification to slip them on in my book, they had some new and varied styles that were actually - I'll whisper it - pretty damn cool. For guys, material beach shoes that could go well with jeans or on my boat, for girls some credit-crunch beating rubber highheels, and several other designs besides. I can't help but recommend them, although the original designs still feel inextricably linked to hybrid-driving vegetarians with bald spots and greying ponytails.

The shoot itself was fun, if quite long, with long periods of waiting around, and there was a lot of joking around with the other models. It also gave me a chance to have a bit of a think about Hong Kong in general, and how I'm settling in here. What occurs to me now, after three weeks, is that this has been a sort of dry run for moving to a new city, a plunge-in experience with the safety net of a ticket out at the end of the month.

It's given me a chance to see the city as an outsider working in, making friends and contacts, using every night out as an opportunity to meet new people, hear new stories and places to go and try and get myself into new situations. It's also meant I've had a lot of downtime. I have three nominal jobs (interning at a literary agency and Time Out Hong Kong and tutoring English GCSE), but they don't take up too much time in the mix of the global financial meltdown and the run up to Christmas. Still, with three different potential bosses to be hearing from each week, I'm not rushing out to find more to do.

The thing I've had to learn to do most urgently is to try not to force too much, advice Soleil gave to me in the midst of a mini-breakdown. After about four days with nothing to do, noone to call and only the companionship of the TV and skype, I was feeling a bit lonely and done in. Two weeks of going out constantly, meeting everyone I could, getting phone numbers, facebook, business cards and, on one occasion, an unpronounceable female Thai name written on a bar napkin in swirly characters that may not be English, had left me with no real sense of a friendship group in the city, and I was too tired to try again. I broke down, called around and complained about how I had no friends. Soleil's answer was the most calming. "Just relax J". I shouldn't expect too much from just two weeks in a new city. We chatted a bit more and I felt a bit happier, but still slightly lonely. Just then my phone beeped.

"Sorry Sols, I've gotta run. Thanks for chatting, but I just got a text from a girl I met last week, I'm gunna go meet her in a club."

The irony of the situation was not lost on me. It was from another unexpected email the next day that I heard about the modelling job. Clearly Soleil was right, but it's a lesson that's going to take some work to make stick, especially for someone who craves attention as much as I do.


Saturday, 13 December 2008

Santa Cruising

It will always amuse me that this was my most successful cold approach tonight...

Me: Hey, could you do me a favour?
Girl near the entrance to the club (wearing a daffy but cute fur hat inside): Um, yeah, guess so.
Me: Great. I'm just waiting on a friend. When he turns up could you let him know I'm in the other room?
Girl: Okay.
Me: Fantastic. Okay, he's about this tall, bit chubby. He'll probably be wearing a big red suit. He's got a large white beard. Umm... Oh yeah, he'll probably be wearing a hat, like you. His is red with a big white bobble.
Girl (laughing): Is his name Santa?
Me: You know him? Great. Send him along, I think he's got a gift for me.


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Wan Chai

"The thing you have to understand about Asian women," I was told here, "is they have a different concept of love to Western women. Here, it's very pragmatic. 'You pay for my apartment. I love you. If you don't pay, I'll find someone who will, and love him.'"

Knowing this, I'm not quite sure how it was I found myself explaining my mildly feminist, mildly self-preserving views on gender relations to two Hong Girls, D and K, over wine. Try telling a HK lady that it is somewhat seedy, archaic and above all disempowering to women for men to always pay for a date and they'll stare at you like a dog that's been shown a card trick. What started as a night out was quickly becoming a dismissal of my character and chances out here.

"That may be okay in the West, but over here you'll have to change your views or stay single," was K's decided opinion. She should know. Soon after we left to find her current sugar daddy in a bar, before heading out to one of the pricier establishments in town. K's paying boyfriend, a Canadian pilot, seemed a nice bloke, and generous with his cash, buying drinks all night for D and me as well as his girlfriend. After a while he suggested heading over to Wan Chai, the red light district, to meet some of his friends.

This is how I found myself standing in the corner of Neptune, a bar famous for Thai girls on working holidays in Hong Kong, sipping a beer and trying not to catch the eye of too many of the prostitutes, as they all tried to catch mine. D stayed close, not out of any moral objection but because she genuinely feared for my safety. On the way in I asked loudly and indiscretely whether this was in fact the prostitute bar. Apparently this is a big no-no, and is the second fastest way to get beaten up in Wan Chai. The first, although it probably depends on stamina, is refusing to pay afterwards.

K, meanwhile, was dirty dancing with her date in the way that drunk girls think they can get away with. After a while he came over, clearly knackered, and asked me to take over. We moved and shook for a while, and then she put her lips on me. I tried to back away, aware of her man standing in the corner watching us. I can't remember his name now, but at the time I felt a small pang of loyalty for a number of Hong Kong's more expensive beers. Still, the pang was quite small. K tried again and I gave in. Her boy stormed off, and when she realised she went looking for him. D, anxious for her friend - who was far too drunk to be walking on her own round a hooker bar at this stage of the night - told me to stay exactly where I was and took off after her.

So now I'm standing slightly helplessly in the corner of Hong Kong's most famous prostitute bar, sipping the rest of my beer (which I'm savouring in the absence of K's kindly benefactor) and wondering what to say to the two Thai girls who are walking my way. Together they stand real close to me and proceed to give me what I can only describe as the 'hard sell', rubbing themselves against me as I try and protest (it only seems to spur them on). I drink my beer like this, wondering if I've ever been in a more seedy situation (and, okay, actually slightly enjoying it). Time passes. I finish my bottle.

"You want another drink?" one of the girls asks me.

"I'm okay."

"You want to buy us drinks?"

"Actually I don't buy girls drinks. You can get me one if you want."

This, as it turns out, is the fastest way to get two prostitutes to leave you alone. I never saw the girls again, and soon after was rescued by D, worse for wear perhaps but richer for the experience.


Thursday, 4 December 2008

Hong Kong

I don't think I can begin to describe what an amazing time I'm having in Hong Kong. There are indications. The fact that I can compress all my stories into a list, and they still sound pretty damn cool, is a good one. The fact that I'm writing this at five thirty in the morning is probably another.

This is the place that everything feels like it's coming together. The last six weeks helped me shed my insecurities, self-consciousness and fears, but it is here, nurtured by the positive energy and hints of possibility I find coming my way from everyone I meet, that I really feel like everything has truly slotted into place, and I can feel myself embodying the person I want to be.

When I was wandering around Italy with Alisa in the summer, as we walked past the train station at night in Florence, we talked about traveling, and how you can develop through it and become a bigger person, but you are best off having someone next to you to witness it, and whose development you can witness too. It's a funny thing, but the place where I feel the strongest, happiest and most secure so far in my travels is the place where I miss the people I left behind the most, and wish they could see the me I've uncovered, the bolder and badder me who is unfazed and unafraid. Just as I'm surprisingly able to meet new people with apparent ease, I'm spending more of my spare time on the phone or facebook or skype, checking in on people half the world away.

Like I said, it's hard to let things worry me here, it's just funny to recognise this in myself. I think it's natural to have a blip of homesickness around the two month mark (53 days and counting), but it's also a nice feeling, I feel like there's something I can go home to when I do go back (not for a while at least).

As far as what I'm doing in Hong Kong?

- A few days a week in a literary agency
- Two nights a week studying Mandarin
- One morning (at present) tutoring a boy for GCSE English
- (Hopefully) an internship at Hong Kong Time Out (waiting to hear, otherwise I'll be in touch with the free equivalents)
- Several gym sessions a week
- Arts networking events (slightly self-indulgent, but fun) (although I kept losing at the last one by greeting new people with, "Hi, I'm new to this networking thing, how do you win?") (which I hoped would prick the bubble of their pretensions with a debonair charm, but frequently left me propping up the bar looking like a billy no-mates)
- Kraftwerk tomorrow
- Checking out what TimeOut says is cool

Finally, this blog's been accepted to appear on Check it out, it features the best of all aspects of blogging in relation to travel, exploring and backpacking.