Getting rat faced in Cambodia Reply

I confess that over the years I have got drunk in some strange and somewhat seedy places. When I was in Cambodia, journos like myself used to hang out at the Gecko bar in USSR Boulevard. It was easy enough to find, if only because of the two metre tall concrete Gecko standing outside the bar. It had red unblinking eyes, which were not unlike my own, after a serious session there. In those days, we used to get around town on cyclos; three wheeled pushbikes with a cane armchair attached to the front, so that the passenger could travel in comfort.
The Gecko was set up on the footpath, so the cyclos could push right up to the tables. You could sit in your cyclo armchairs; drink steadily in the steaming heat, until enough was too much. You could then give the driver US$1 and be cycled seamlessly and safely home.
Or mostly safely. I remember an incident one night when we were heading back to the Cathay, a local one star much favoured by Australian freelancers, SAS hit men and the occasional drug merchant. (Intrepid Japanese and American journalists stayed at the Cambodiana, Phnom Penh’s only five star which not only had a swimming pool but which also sold bacteria free bottled water!)
We were with the other cyclists streaming down the main street, passing our bottle of Quantro from cyclo to cyclo, and savouring the scent of the Frangipanis, when a fellow got popped in the street in front of us. He was lying with his shattered head in a spreading pool of blood with his nemesis standing over him, AK 47 in hand. A Japanese TV crew emerged from a restaurant, camera running, lights flicked on. Our pal with the AK 47 just turned his head towards them. They got the message. They genuflected and retreated back to their sumptuous dinner.
Our drivers wheeled about the blood pool and pedaled us home. The incident definitely took the gloss off the evening. Back home at the Cathay Hotel, I asked the night manager, “What does the Cathay do about security?” He was a young man who appeared to have been much scarred by shrapnel at an even more tender age. He was wearing shorts and watching American wrestling on satellite TV.
“Security?” the night manager said as he pulled a cut down AK from under his desk. On the screen a wrestler with golden curls howled as a fat man in a mask pretended to jump on his stomach. I thought of the Cambodian war veterans who would gently tap their stumps on the restaurant windows, as they held out their palms

I must not have looked reassured. The night manager reached down again and produced a rocket grenade. I thought about what a weapon like that would do in the confined space of the Cathay foyer.
It didn’t bear thinking about. Sometimes its better to stay drunk.


Jaguars in gilded cages Reply

It’s free to go to Hong Kong Zoo. It’s run by the Hong Kong government. The cages of Lemurs, Toucans, Chinese crocodiles and Burmese Pythons are housed in immaculate architect designed cages surrounded by meticulously gardened jungle. The resident Jaguar has a mid levels pad which includes its own gym, spa bath and sun deck. It’s true that his accommodation is not as big as he might have had back home in South America, but hey in Hong Kong he gets to eat prime quality, imported beef and gets to look at the city lights every night.
The Hong Kong humans drive down from their apartments to gaze at the caged Jaguar while he gazes back at them. They both breathe the same Hong Kong air, and its choking them all.
The Civil Service led Hong Kong government is doing a fine job on the small but important elements of the urban environment. The streets are swept clean. The parks are mass planted with flowering trees. Even the public toilets are spotless. This all a bit of a shock to anyone who has recently been to under developed countries like England, which used to run Hong Kong. It’s hard to believe that he former colony’s slick public transport and its gleaming airport were designed and built by the same folks responsible for the odd and dysfunctional bus service to the shambles at Heathrow.

But the Hong Kong civil service government hasn’t the strength and perhaps the insights needed to address the larger issues. It’s good at gardening but is struggling with air pollution. As an unelected body, it lacks a democratic mandate to take on the literally filthy rich…Hong Kong’s government sanctioned but privately owned power stations. A Hong Kong government agreement protects these gross polluters from competition in this tiny but exclusive market, in doing so feeding them continuing profits.

China Light and Power‘s website has a nice green frog and it boasts of its environmental awareness. CLP even claims that by 2010 , five percent of its generation will come from renewable sources, which seems a negligible if not laughable proportion. Particularly since CLP is powering up its dirty, coal fired stations to export even more electricity to China’s polluting industries. (45.7% increase last year). Hong Kong Electric meanwhile smugly says it strives to exceed its customers environmental expectations. HKE has commissioned a wind generator of Lamma Island even as it expands its conventional generation capacity. Both companies are politely resisting calls to quickly clean up their corporate acts.

Their shareholders, are after all the whos who in Hong Kong’s real zoo .

Ten things to like about Tunis 1

Sitting on the hilltop where Hannibal planned to humble Rome.

Watching the President’s security men holding hands

Meeting Taxi driver, Mohammed Ali (not the boxer he says) who found my camera when I left it on his back seat and who drove like a demon to find me.

Catching the breeze under the trees on Bourgiba Boulevarde

Having an excellent four course meal at Restaurant Carcassone for A$4.50.

Drinking ice cold mineral water at the blue and white hill top village of Sidi Bou Said.

Breaking my glasses and having a new pair delivered within two hours.

Riding the rattling, TGM tramway with Tunisians having a day at the beach.

Getting a visa at the airport and being told to leave the restricted zone to withdraw the required ten Dinars from a local bank.

Seeing the young fellow in the Souk who stopped to help a woman tourist get a wheel chair across a curb.

Venice wants your Euros! Reply

The Venetian approach to tourism was set by a couple of ninth century, local business men who stole the rotting corpse of St Mark so that it might be brought back home for a basilica which attracts tourists to Venice to this day. At least in those days, Venice had real industries; even if it was trade with the Orient, which generated fantastic profits after Venice left its Christian business rivals in Byzantium to be exterminated by the Turks.

Venice today is a beautiful theme park, where even the locals can’t afford their own prices and commute in daily from the mainland. Instead of wearing Mickey Mouse suits, they dress up as gondoliers, itinerant artists or marble statues.
They only have one thing in common. They want your Euros.

Take the case of the rather rude granddad and grand mum, who according to the guide book, run an authentic family eatery. They shout at you, “No restaurant!” which means there is no menu with set prices so that the tapas they sell you cost as much as a full meal.

Modest restaurants that do have a menu, serve even more modest meals, with entree size, main course servings. Tiny glasses of wine there, cost as much as a whole bottle of the same dubious vintage sold at a nearby store. The store meanwhile sells cans of coke which cost three times as much as at the hard to find supermarket. At least the store sells things you can consume or use, which is more than the hundreds of stalls which offer identical paper Venetian Masks and innumerable coloured glass bottles allegedly crafted on the little island of Murano.

Murano itself is a carefully sprung tourist trap. Most new visitors to Venice head straight for Saint Marco Square of saintly corpse fame. Before they have made it half way across the square they are approached by a nice man offering a free water taxi ride to Murano where, as a special, one day only tourist attraction, one can see the famous Venetian glass being made. This seems a great deal because the water taxis, driven by muscular men wearing gold chains, are far too expensive to be hired as taxis, and seem to be mostly the preserve fat Americans rubbernecking at the apparently deserted palazzos. At Murano, the newbies are ushered straight into a Fornace (furnace factory) where they can see a worker making a glass dolphin. After depositing a “tip” for the maestro, the tourists are ushered upstairs to see the unique masterpieces. Only today, (presumably today is saintly stolen corpse day) the glass can be bought at a special forty percent discount. At this point, I realised I had seen similar, unique masterpieces before… back in rural Australia for a sixth of the price! The “guide” who was wearing a very snappy, Italian linen suit, could see I was hesitating. I was thinking that a man who wore such a suit , crease free, could not be working too hard making too much glass.

“We can ship your Murano glass anywhere in the world for free!,” he said. This did not seem to be particularly efficient to me, rather like flying bricks to Australia.
As I headed for the door, our new friend the “guide” was offering even more special discounts. Too late!! Outside I discovered a row of little shops selling “similar, unique masterpieces”. In fact, the further one got from the Fornace, the cheaper they got. Indeed it seems that the really unique feature of Murano glass, is that the further one gets from Murano, the cheaper it gets.

The same goes for Venice. The further you get a way from it, the more you can afford being a tourist.

Don’t talk about the war! Reply

One is told to forget any preconceptions of war museums when it comes to the Imperial War Museum North at Manchester. “You’ll never have seen anything like this before!”, wrote the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

They were right!

In fact, what there was to see was very strange indeed. Most people who went there seemed to agree. An interactive display at the museum recorded that most visitors felt it had not increased their knowledge about the war. Even fewer felt that their attitudes to war had been changed by the museum.

Why is this so?

At the Imperial War Museum North, visitors find only a few wartime artifacts on exhibit. There are hardly any attempts to explain or contextualise what has been selected. War is presented as a series of personal experiences rather than what silly, old fashioned modernists saw as a result of imperialism, colonialism, competing economic interests or just plain loony tune ideologies.

The War Museum is located what had been bombed out dockland, a place where real people died defending democracy. It is housed in a vast new European Community financed building designed by the “world renowned architect”, Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind said that his work tried to “address a multidimensional problematic”. “The exhilarating aspect of such a trajectory, at least for those engaged in it, is that its goals are unknown and its ends indeterminable and uncertain,” he said. I interpreted this to mean that he didn’t know what he was doing. This seemed to be confirmed by his Museum in Manchester.

Sadly this very strange and very, very expensive construction seems as empty as the heads of those who curate it. Inside, the building has no straight lines and innocent visitors such as my self become quickly lost. A helpful guide told me that this effect was intentional. “People get disoriented in wartime,’ he said. “The building helps visitors share this experience”.

“People also get killed in wartime, and some of them deserved it” I thought uncharitably. Being naieve, I thought that people went to museums to learn something but this was clearly old fashioned thinking. The guide directed me to the wartime multi media experience. On the walls bombs fell, guns banged and lights flashed, momentarily illuminating displays, which included a British 17 pounder gun, a Hussar’s hat and a nurses uniform.

War had been uncoupled from history to create an entertaining show. Maybe the curators had read a post modernist cartoon book which told them that all history was opinion and all opinions should therfore be treated equally, however mis-informed, deluded or as they say here,”balmy”. The museum and all it contained was a gigantic intellectual fashion statement.

When the lights came on, I found that there was an East German Trabant motor car at the centre of the room. Losing it, I remarked that “Trabants have about as much as do with Imperial war history as my left boot!”. “Exactly!”, replied my post modernist pommie companion, gesturing triumphantly to a large but previously unobserved window display of left boots.

At this point, I noticed that the nice men with radios and uniforms were moving closer. They helped me find the exit which thanks to Daniel Libeskind’s multidimensional problematics, was well hidden. Maybe in wartime, many people cannot escape from other’s silly ideas. Was this intentional?
Confused, I launched myself on a trajectory to the pub.

The expat life 3

You know you have been an expat in Hong Kong for too long when ;

• The smog clears and you look out your mid levels window and you see a place across the harbour, which your maid calls Kowloon
• Your children are speaking English with a Filipino accent
• You have to burn your photo albums when your Chinese ex-girlfriend is appointed as your CEO
• Your Chinese mistress dumps you for a CCP princeling, because his Ferrari is classier than your Beamer
• You stumble into a supermarket and find that some people still cook their own food
• You visit your mum at her place in Sydney at Christmas and you have an agoraphobic hissy fit when confronted by a tree
• You expect to have your underwear ironed
• You go to an Alumni dinner and learn that in Australia, people catch the bus to work
• You think that Lee Kuan Yew’s ideas about democracy are really quite sensible
• You hear the term “creative industries” and think it applies to Banking and the Law

Further suggestions would be appreciated.

Golden Week shopping in Hong Kong 2

Hong Kong used to be a place where you would go to shop. My Dad got a very fine Japanese Transistor radio from here back in the sixties when cruise ships disgorged thousands of heat affected westerners looking for a bargain.

A host of seedy little shops flourished, stacked with the latest cameras, radios,electric shavers and later CD players, pagers and mobile phones. There were no fixed prices. Perspiring Australians could haggle, confidently believing that almost any agreed price was a good one because they didn’t have to pay Australian sales tax. The salesmen, who earned less in a week than a decent meal cost in a tourist hotel, were always keen to come to a deal.

This was what Business schools call a “win-win” situation. Certain Australian tourists felt good because they thought they had saved money by browbeating an Oriental. The local salesmen felt good because they knew that these ugly foreign devils were usually willing to pay more than the fixed price in the department store around the corner. Everybody went home happy.

These days, many of the tourists come from mainland China, particularly during “Golden Week” which in Hong Kong, is curiously celebrated on May Day, as well as the National holiday in October. According to the People’s Daily, “The mainland’s tourism golden week has become a prime consuming week in Hong Kong, and purchasing in the so called “shopping paradise” has already become a major destination for many Chinese
mainland tourists, as visiting scenic spots has become their spare time programs.”

But what would hard working mainland factory workers buy during their visit? A little less than usual it seems. According to the South China Morning Post, Golden Week went a little leaden this year with business dropping by twenty percent, as a result of high hotel prices and unscrupulous business rip offs turning mainland tourists away.

Maybe they should have shopped at Hong Kong’s huge air chilled malls where you can buy anything from to HK$3,000 flourescent sneakers to shaggy Shetland Island sweaters. Such items would be unique on the assembly line!

Shoppers can meanwhile look up to gigantic wallposters of pouting, naked, sixteen year old super models, clutching Italian, crocodile skin hand bags. I could never understand why a teenager should want such an expensive accessory but then it dawned on me that just everyone needs something chic to hold one’s credit cards,
particularly if one is going commando in extremis in the Orient.

Joyce Boutiques are regarded as Hong Kong’s fashion leaders. The Joyce chain was founded by Joyce (get the connection) Ma with a little help from low profile, retail and property tycoon, Walter (get the connection) Ma King-wah. Adrienne (get the connection) Ma, managing director of Joyce Boutique Holdings, told China Daily that fashion was becoming much more accessible in Hong Kong. Ma Junior described the new Hong Kong consumer as “still very brand
conscious, likely to be wearing US$500 Hermes jeans and carrying a bag that could be an unusual piece rather than just big brand”. This may be so but Joyce fashions seem to be designed for other than the common herd. The Joyce store in Central recently featured a window display with stick thin mannikins clinging to an upturned grand piano, suspended from the ceiling by wires.

Meanwhile, Joyce, the matriarch, never lost her common touch. She spoke movingly of her relationship with a 93 year old woman “who spends her days kneeling by the ferry pier on Lamma Island, asking disembarking boat passengers for their recyclable Coke
and beer cans”. “I see her every time I travel to eat at the big restaurants on Lamma”, Joyce told Timemagazine. “When we see each other, we shriek like a couple of long-lost sisters, and give each other big hugs. She calls me hergod-daughter and often takes me to her home nearby.”

Maybe Joyce should have lent her a handbag and taken her to lunch some time. She could have kept the empty cans.

Marching on Filthy Lucre City Reply

May Day has always been a great day for contradictions.

Consider the case of the Capitalist loving Communist unions who are not nearly as popular as they were in the heroic days of the Cultural Revolution when they could fill Hong Kong streets with chanting Red Guards. Many of those revolutionaries have since moved into Italian suits, flashing Swiss watches as they speculate on the stock market. Only the diehards march on May Day in Hong Kong these days. As disciplined Communists, they support the Chinese Communist party’s local front group, Democratic Alliance for the Development and Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). DAB loyally supports the Beijing appointed Hong Kong leadership; a group of senior civil servants and billionaires who believe that workers wages and conditions should be suppressed for the good of their family companies and, of course, the economy. This leaves the local communist activists in a rather tricky position when it comes to attracting oppressed members of the working class.


A chip off the old blockhead 1

The Chinese woman on my television appeared to be screaming abuse at the warm and fuzzy face of Stalinism, China’s Premier Hu. Hu Jintao plodded on regardless, delivering his official speech in the brilliant spring sunshine on the White House lawn. Next to him stood President George Bush, looking like he had suddenly realised he was mistakenly wearing Laura Bush’s underwear again. The CNN commentary droned on. “The Chinese won’t like this but they won’t know about it because it won’t be shown in China!” the Washington journalist said.

Wrong on two counts. Firstly, I was watching the live broadcast in China, about four hundred kilometers north west of Hong Kong. Secondly, the Chinese people don’t speak with one voice, and it certainly isn’t that of the senior bureaucrat of the capitalist, Communist Party. Chinese people have many different opinions just like Americans do. Even the Communist Party of China recognises this individuality, actively recruiting billionaire businessmen as well as the occasional worker to join its ideology challenged ranks.

But the party is still fighting a rearguard to censor international news. I couldn’t publish this blog on the mainland because sites are usually censored there. So I am inside China writing this report on my lap top, fact checking with the BBC which streams in on broadband. Censorship isn’t stopping the flow of information to Chinese citizens. Even jailing the odd blogger hasn’t intimidated Chinese web users. Meanwhile the Chinese government is disrupting legitimate web traffic, hampering the modernisation Mr Hu says he wants.

The US Secret Service dragged the protester away. Mr Hu went off to have a nice lunch with Mr Bush. Did they talk about freedom of speech, do you think?

Learning and earning in Australia and Asia Reply

A Hong Kong student asked me, “Why does the Australian government want to shut down student associations?” “Even Beijing isn’t doing that!”
Maybe the answer to the question is that while Beijing seems to be becoming more pragmatic and less ideological, Australia is heading in the other direction.
In Hong Kong, students are able to learn about democracy and build networks by joining any of dozens of university backed clubs and societies. In Australia, the Howard government has legislated to effectively close down all university students
because Ministers believe they contain critics of government policies.
It’s certainly true that some Australian university staff and students question government actions such as:

• the signing of a free trade agreement which has shifted the trade balance even further towards the US,
• anti union legislation which effectively makes strikes illegal
• anti terrorist legislation which allows detention without trial
• anti sedition legislation which makes Article 23 proposals look tame.

Australian government ministers are angry that their policies have not been embraced by what they dismiss as “intellectual elites”. After all, they received rapturous support from the Murdoch dominated, mostly US owned Australian press! The Australian government stays ahead in opinion polls, in part thanks to an economy bouyed by booming coal sales to China, a well nourished fear of terrorism and a hopeless and helpless parliamentary opposition. But after ten years in office, the government parties gained control of both houses of parliament and they feel they can abandon restraint. So now its payback time! Perceived enemies such as conservationists, unionists, students and universities are high on the policy hate list.

But there is a snag here. Education makes big money and has become Australia’s fourth largest export. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has been trilling about all of the money to be made in Asia, in particular China which is Australia’s largest source of foreign students. But when you see how much better resourced Hong Kong Universities are than their Australian counterparts, you have to wonder how long Alexander’s gold rush will last.

In Australia, ideology has won over pragmatism. Education is seen as being about profit and private gain rather than public good. The government has slashed real spending on universities, forcing them to live on domestic fees and export earnings. As a result, only the very best Australian universities have facilities comparable to nearly all of Hong Kong’s universities. The worst Australian universities have campuses which are converted office blocks, provide empty libraries and employ mostly part time teaching staff. The rest of Australia’s declining tertiary sector can’t compare with the new Chinese institutions springing up not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in regional cities like Zhuhai or Shantou.

Professional Australian academics are more experienced than many in Asia, but they are getting older, with most of them in their mid fifties. With increasing political interference in teaching and research, even more funding cuts, the stacking of university councils with business people, new industrial relations restrictions and poor salaries, many of these Australian academics will be opting for early retirement. The smart ones will be seeking work in Asia.