Sunday, August 10, 2008

A poem on Hong Kong

Left-wing political poet W.H.Auden and his partner Christopher Isherwood came to Hong Kong by boat in 1938.

He wrote,
"Here in the East the bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the Comic Muse."

Goodness, was Hong Kong already full of bankers back then?

", a war
Thuds like the slamming of a distant door" even a visitor like Auden saw Hong Kong's political apathy.

by W.H. Auden

The leading characters are wise and witty;
Substantial men of birth and education,
With wide experience of administration,
They know the manners of a modern city.

Only the servants enter unexpected;
Their silence has a fresh dramatic use:
Here in the East the bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the Comic Muse.

Ten thousand miles from home and What’s-Her-Name
The bugle on the Late Victorian hill
Puts out the soldier’s light; off-stage, a war

Thuds like the slamming of a distant door:
We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.

The poet was probably attacking Europeans who were apathetic to the wars in Asia (this was pre-WWII), who were still erecting their banking temple in the safe haven of this British colony while a bloody war is going on in the rest of Asia.

The poem was set in a particular time. Nowadays, we're no longer a colony, "we" are no longer Europeans, but the general feeling of unapologetic capitalism and political apathy still seem to have some truth in today's Hong Kong.

HERE is a mention of the poem in the Far East Economic Review's blog.

And HERE is an article by Stuart Christie, a scholar at the Hong Kong Baptist University, who is more skeptical of Auden's observations on Hong Kong, and who probably will not agree with my simplistic understanding of the poem.

In his article, he said, "In other words, the colonial exceptionalism that had prompted Auden's mockery of Hong Kong and Macao had become his own: far from gaining a better purchase on Chinese alterity through his writing, he had merely confirmed his credentials as colonial short-timer, a redundancy in terms that made the poet's many protestations to the contrary sound hollow."


Sunday, July 8, 2007

Rethinking Hong Kong Documentary Series

Rethinking Hong Kong - an RTHK documentary series on the identity of Hong Kong


Friday, December 8, 2006



Lung Yingtai , celebrated essayist and cultural critic, with a total of 15 published titles to her credit in Chinese.

She accepted the appointment as the first Cultural Minister of Taipei in 1999, during her term, she has designed as well as practiced a new concept of cultural policy, which has had a great impact on contemporary culture in Taiwan and greater China.

Lung's poignant and critical essays contributed to the democratization of Taiwan. As the only Taiwan-born writer with regular columns in major newspapers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, USA and Southeast Asia, she is one of the most influential writers in the global Chinese language world.

I'll try to translate the following article later.















Tuesday, December 5, 2006

"Letter to Daniel", by BBC Correspondent, then working in Hong Kong

Written in 1996, Letter to Daniel, a piece addressed to his newborn son, is written by BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane, then working in Hong Kong.

The piece prompted an emotional response from audiences.

"When you're older we'll tell you that you were born in Britain's last Asian colony in the lunar year of the pig and that when we brought you home, the staff of our apartment block gathered to wish you well. "It's a boy, so lucky, so lucky. We Chinese love boys," they told us."

To read the piece:
Click Here

To listen to the piece:
Click Here

"In a world of insecurity and ambition and ego, it's easy to be drawn in, to take chances with our lives, to believe that what we do and what people say about us is reason enough to gamble with death. Now, looking at your sleeping face, inches away from me, listening to your occasional sigh and gurgle, I wonder how I could have ever thought glory and prizes and praise were sweeter than life."

"And it's also true that I am pained, perhaps haunted is a better word, by the memory, suddenly so vivid now, of each suffering child I have come across on my journeys."

Fergal Keane's reflections, 10 years after he wrote the letter:
Click Here


Monday, December 4, 2006

Sun Yat Sun: Hong Kong is the birthplace of my revolutionary ideas

Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
The revolutionary who ended China's dynasty rule.

A speech given at the University of Hong Kong in 1923.
Original speech given in English.

"Where and how did I get my revolutionary and modern ideas?" The answer was, "I got my idea in this very place; in the Colony of Hong Kong."

"Hong Kong impressed me a great deal, because there was orderly calm and because there was artistic work being done without interruption. I went to my home in Heungshan twice a year and immediately noticed the great difference. There was disorder instead of order, insecurity instead of security."

"I compared Heungshan with Hong Kong and, although they are only 50 miles apart, the difference of the Governments impressed me very much. Afterwards, I saw the outside world and I began to wonder how, it was that foreigners, that Englishmen could do such things as they had done, for example, with the barren rock of Hong Kong, within 70 or 80 years, while China, in 4,000 years, had no places like Hong Kong."

"Why I Became a Revolutionist?"
~ Extract from The Hongkong Daily Press, February 20, 1923 ~

Dr Sun Yat-sen's Address

Dr Sun Yat-sen, who received another ovation on rising to speak, began by saying that he felt as though he had returned home, because Hong Kong and its University were his intellectual birthplace. He had not prepared a speech but thought he would like to answer certain questions which had been put to him many times and which, no doubt, many present would also like to put to him. He had never before been able to answer it properly, but he felt to-day that he was in a position to answer. The question was "Where and how did I get my revolutionary and modern ideas?" The answer was, "I got my idea in this very place; in the Colony of Hong Kong." - (Laughter and applause.) "I am going to tell you," continued Dr Sun, "how I got these ideas. More than thirty years ago I was studying in Hong Kong and spent a great deal of spare time in walking the streets of the Colony. Hong Kong impressed me a great deal, because there was orderly calm and because there was artistic work being done without interruption. I went to my home in Heungshan twice a year and immediately noticed the great difference. There was disorder instead of order, insecurity instead of security.

His Own Protector

When I arrived home I had to be my own policeman and my own protector.
The first matter for my care was to see my rifle was in order and to make sure plenty of ammunition was still left. I had to prepare for action for the night. Each time it was like this, year after year. I compared Heungshan with Hong Kong and, although they are only 50 miles apart, the difference of the Governments impressed me very much. Afterwards, I saw the outside world and I began to wonder how, it was that foreigners, that Englishmen could do such things as they had done, for example, with the barren rock of Hong Kong, within 70 or 80 years, while China, in 4,000 years, had no places like Hong Kong."

Interesting Autobiographical Details

After he had studied all this, Dr Sun continued, he went home to persuade the village elders to do the same thing, on a small scale, - at least to clear the streets and make a road to connect with the next village. The elders approved but said, he have not got the money." He replied, "Labour can we had. We young men can start the work." During his stay at home he applied himself to sweep the street and clean the road. (Applause.) And many young men followed him. Immediately they began work outside the village, there was trouble and at last he had to give up his idea of getting Hong Kong on a small scale. - (Laughter.)
Later, he approached the magistrate of the district, who was very sympathetic and promised to help during the next vacation. But when that next vacation came round he found that there was a new magistrate - a man who had paid $50,000 for the post and so the previous holder had been removed.

Studying the Principles of Government

Such cases, one after another, impressed him and he returned to Hong Kong and began to study the government. He found that among the government officials corruption was the exception and purity the rule. - (Applause.) - It was quite the contrary in China, where corruption among officials was the rule. - (Laughter.) He thought the Provisional Government would be better and went to Canton. He found that the higher the government the more corrupt it was. - (Laughter.) Finally he went to Peking, but he found things there one hundred times more corrupt and rotten than areas in Canton, and he was forced to the opinion that, after all, village government was the purest government in China. - (Applause.) He was told that the good governments in E ngland and in Europe were not at first natural to those places, but that men had brought years ago there was just the same corruption, just the same forgeries in the Courts, and the same cruelty. But, he was told, Englishmen loved liberty and that Englishmen had said. He shall no longer stand these things, we shall change them." Then the idea came into his head. "Why can we not change it in China?" - (Applause.) We must imitate the same thing; we must change the government first, before we can start anything. Without good government a people could do nothing and in China "we had no government" and were miserable for many centuries. "Immediately after I graduated I saw" added Dr Sun "that it was necessary to give up my profession of healing men and take up my part to cure the country. ?(Loud applause.) That is the answer to the question, where did I get my revolutionary ideas: it is entirely in Hong Kong. - (Laughter.)






「略云:此次返香港,如返自已家鄉一式,因為從前在香港大學讀書,其教育是在本港得來。今日乘此時機,答覆各位一句。此句云何? 即從前人人問我,你在何處及如何得到革命思想 吾今直言答之:革命思想,從香港得來。回憶三十年前,在香港讀書,功課完後,每出外遊行,見本港衛生與風俗,無一不好,比諸我敝邑香山,大不相同。吾於每年放年假,必返鄉二次,每次約數禮拜。覺得在鄉間在本港,確大不相懸別。因在鄉間要做警察及看更人方可,因斯二者有槍械在手,晚上無時不要預備槍械,以為防備之用。由此可想到香港地方與內地之比較,因為香港地方開埠不過七八十年,而內地已數千年,何以香港歸英國掌管,即佈置如許妥當因是返香山與父老斟酌,各父老莫不謂然。吾有一次返鄉,遂主張由我個人發起親自灑掃街道,為清道夫。(哄堂及鼓掌)。在村內有多數少年,贊成如此做法,極有進步。後面見香山知事,解明來意,欲仿效香港,整頓地方。知懸亦喜,且云:極願幫忙。不幸放假完滿,再要返港。迨第二次返鄉,欲再求縣官幫助,始悉縣官已離任多時,其缺己為繼任者用五萬圓購買之。此等腐敗情形,激起我革命之思想。又見香港之腐敗事尚少,而中國內地之腐敗,竟習以為常,牢不可破。始初以為我敝邑香山一縣如是,及後再到省城,其腐敗更加一等。




Friday, December 1, 2006

Ghost in Central

On the lives of expats in Hong Kong.

By Pico Iyer. Travel writer and essayist. Regular contributor to Time, Harper's, The New York Times etc.
My favourite writer!

“Hong Kong,” I said, “must have been a lot more English when you were a boy.”
“A lot more Chinese, too,” said Basil.

Almost everyone who lives in Hong Kong—6 million of its 6.2 million people—is 100percent Chinese...

...the fact remains that a foreigner can spend days—the better part of years—in Hong Kong and hardly take this in. If you fly Connoisseur Class, if you stay in a fifteen-thousand-dollar-a-month apartment like my friend’s—if you’re a Global Soulthrown this way and that by the global marketplace—you dwell in a kind of floating International Settlement where you never have to worry that 98 percent of the people around you can’t understand a word you say. The word for foreigner in Hong Kong, gwei-lo, famously means “ghost”.

The Global Marketplace –The Global Soul

In Hong Kong recently, staying with one of my oldest friends from English high school, Ifound myself in a flat furnished almost entirely with suitcases. My old friend Richard and his wife, Sharon, were as kind and individual a couple as I knew, but they’d set up their flat—like the city around them—for people passing through. So there was a box for a Worldwide Power Adapter in the room where I slept, a set of Chinese Standard Version 3.2 diskettes and a box of matches from Rick’s Café down the street (where expats could collect a partner for the night). And everywhere there were suitcases.

“The thing about this place, “ Richard said to me as I slipped in and out of timezones, “is that you’ve got a miniairport on the ground floor, where you can check in for all Cathay flights. There’s a Seibu department store on Level Two, where you can buyeverything you want. My bank’s next to the elevator, and the Immigration Office is next to my office. You never really have to leave the building.”

“It’s an odd life you lead here,” I said to Richard, whom I’d always thought of as a Victorian district officer transferred to a digital age. “It is,” he said, not without someglee, and, with that, he proceeded to pull out his phone bill for the month just past. It was only one of the five he paid every month—and the smallest, as it happened—but still itcame to seven hundred dollars. “I have twelve telephone cards,” he said, fishing them out, one by one, from his wallet.

“The thing is, I always carry at least five plane tickets with me everywhere I go, so I can use segments sometimes.” He drew out a stash of half-completed, worn, and foldedplane tickets, for almost every itinerary he might take tomorrow: Hong Kong—London, Hong Kong—Madrid, Boston—Tokyo, London—Boston.

The thing to stress here is that Richard is by no means extravagantly rich, and certainly no jet-setter; he’s just an extremely hardworking international managementconsultant in a global market that asks him to move as fast as it does. He’s also one of the most human people I know, loyal ad affectionate and strong enough to root himself insomething other than the circumstances of his life.

But he works—more and more of us do—in an accelerating world, for which theideal base of operations was the international Home Page of a city. There were four cinemas in the Mall where we were sleeping, more than twenty places in which to eat,and fully ninety-seven boutiques (Gucci, Guess, Valentino, Vuitton; Boss, Hugo Boss, the Armani Exchange). There was access to the MTR subway, to the Far East FinanceCenter, and to a car park. There were the great department stores of Britain, Hong Kong, and Japan. “A world of delights,” as the literature announced, “under one roof.”


The clock beside the bed read 2:23.

I flicked the remote beside me, for what was here known as “terrestrial television,” and stock-market listings came up on Channel 4. Listlessly, I flipped throughPearl TV, Jade TV, Phoenix TV; through CNN International, BBC World, CNBC Asia. I caught Asian music videos on Channel V, some intimate Kanto drama on NHK-1, aCantonese show on ATV-Home. I decided to walk off my confusion in the darkness.

Slipping out of the apartment, I went down in the elevator to the lobby, where twosecurity guards were watching me on rows of monitors. Outside, through a set of electric doors, I passed into an open glass elevator and descended into the Mall below, the names all around the same ones that I’d seen on the other side of the planet that morning (Florsheim, The Body Shop, See’s Candies).

I took an escalator up to the second floor, and walked through the brilliantly lit corridors of the empty arcade—Timberland, Lacoste, DKNY, The Athlete’s Foot. Signsled me up steps and out into the night, to a sixty-story hotel.

Inside the lobby, the clocks showed the times in major centers of the world, whilemachines flashed and hummed in the Business Centre. Outside, in a small banyan-tree garden, two lovers (made of concrete) embraced, a bag of potato chips (also made ofconcrete) between them.

Looking for something to ground me—or simply to sustain me—I began walking down the main, deserted street, till I came to Lockhart Road, where heavy bass rhythms were thumping out of the Express Club and what looked like Moslems were gathered outside apita and kebab stall called Midnight Express. A pretty young Filipina in a Dallas Cowboys jacket sat on the stoop of the New Pussycat club, while other of hercompatriots, flouncily done up in pillbox hats and gold-chain bags, chucked and fluttered past noisy holes called the Lady Club, Hot Lips, and Venus. Upstairs, in a loud Westernbar, where I tucked into a burger, a man in a jacket and tie was running his hands along the bare arms of a small dark girl with a baseball cap on backwards, while a five-a-sidesoccer match unfolded on-screen. A few hefty British traders in gray suits were wailing, “I would do anything for love,” in time to the record, at the bar, pumping their fists and steadying themselves against one another’s shoulders.

Back out on the street, as I tried to walk off my restlessness, a man bumped intome, slipping out of a 7-Eleven with a package of Pro-Fil condoms in his hands; another, in a straggly leather jacket, was clutching a chubby new girlfriend to his chest and roaring, “But she’s in England—thousands of miles away!”

It was getting light by the time I returned to the room where I was staying, and thephone was ringing—from New York—while faxes continued to chug in through the night.


Basil suggested we meet at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, on Lower Albert Road, inthe heart of the area still known (on the maps) as Victoria, and when I opened the heavy institutional doors, it was to walk into my school again, decorated in the local styleknown as “Anglo-something.” The notices on the board offered club ties and cuff links and umbrellas; the crested letter paper reminded members to place their orders soon formince tarts with rum butter and sliced smoked Scottish salmon: this part of Hong Kong belonged to Graham Greene’s Abroad.

But the characters living and working within this museum case belonged, more and more, to the Empire that had made all this redundant.

Scholarly old women and pink-faced colonial types resettled themselves withtheir faded copies of The Times in thick leather armchairs.
“Hong Kong,” I said, “must have been a lot more English when you were a boy.”
“A lot more Chinese, too,” said Basil.


I suppose one reason I had been drawn here was the same reasons that had pulled theFilipinos: namely, that it was the rare city that had been built up almost entirely by people from abroad, and so had become a kind of Platonic Everyplace, the city-state as transitlounge: for foreign businesspeople at least, Hong Kong felt like a hyperconvenient luxury hotel, a shopping mall-cum-conference center-cum world trade center where there wereno taxes, few real laws, and no government other than the freest of markets. English was spoken, even minor credit cards were accepted and, just around the corner from me, therewere three 7-Elevens and a Circle K, open at 4 a.m. Entering Hong Kong could feel a little like going on-screen, into a world buzzing with options and graphics, itself a kind ofrough diagram of the digital city of the future.

The place meant something very different for the Chinese who swarmed throughits back streets and outlying villages, of course, but for outsiders at least, the perpetual colony remained a curious artifact: less a capital of empire, increasingly, than an empireof capital, which, with a survivor’s versatility, had managed to change identities to fit the shifting of history’s tides.

And unlike most places, which grow organically into themselves and settle intotheir grooves as a person does, Hong Kong had based its identity on everything it wasn’t. For generations of British FILTH (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”), it had simply been an alternative marketplace where black-sheep sons could find the opportunities unavailable to them at home (not least in the company of pretty Filipinas); for the Chinese who’d poured in after the ascent of Mao, making it by some counts the fastestrising city in history, it was a perfect counter-China, as free of politics as the Mainlandwas drowned in it. For the Filipinos who came here, it represented a job market unimaginable at home—especially with so many foreigners around, in need of domestic help—and for the more than 200,000 Vietnamese who had fled here on boats, it was simply—irresistibly—not Vietnam.

And what was the result of all this willy-nilly multiculturalism? Pure mismash, till I felt, sometimes, as if I were in a city whose local tongue was Esperanto (or “fusionculture,” as Concierge, the magazine of the Hong Kong Hotels Association, more optimistically put it). Wasabi Mousse Cavier and Crème Brulee flavored with lychee andpomegranate and mago; Matin in Mandarin at St. John’s Cathedral, and Holy Eucharist in Filipino; “HK/British system when addresses given in English script,” as my map carefully informed me (distinguishing between ground floors and first floors), “American/ Japanese and also the Chinese system when address in Chinese characters.” Hong Kong was the portmanteau city par excellence, identified by people called Freedom Leung and Philemon Choi and Sir Run Run Shaw—the perfect site for “market-Leninism” and all the other improvised hyphens of the age.


The next morning, when I followed Richard to his home from home, I found, as he had warned me, that he really did have no office other than his head; his only workspace, asthe Asian head of a booming American company, was a tiny desk jammed against a window, with a map of Tokyo posted to his wall and a laptop somewhere under a pile offaxes from Coca-Cola Vietnam (transmitted, I couldn’t help but notice, by AT&T Easy Link Services Australia, Ltd.)

I also couldn’t help but notice, as an unbeliever, that most of the messages he received seemed to have to do with the difficulty of receiving messages—the state-of-the-art communications facilities seemed to be adept at communicating communications mishaps. “Resend” reverberated around the office, and “abort.” “Your call is beingdiverted,” said his phone; “Your call is being transferred.”

Outside, as the lunch hour approached, the whole amped-up, fast-forward, quick-cutting music video of a city seemed to be going into overdrive, and I felt myself all but overwhelmed by the press and push of bodies, signs, beepings as I threaded my way through crowds ten times denser than in jam-packed Tokyo. I climbed a flight of stairs to a central walkway, linking tower block to tower block, and walked along a pedestrian bridge leading to a mall in which a moving staircase transported me to another walkway,and then down a ramp into another overpass, with people streaming everywhere in all directions all at once, out of Kodak Express, into Maxim’s Express, through a While-U-Wait color photo stall, into a place that sold Time Express (my employer turned into a monthly in Chinese).

This sense of abstraction, of moving through a city of ideas and images where the faces faded into the background and the people became units in some higher (and unseen) equation, was intensified by the allegorical nature of its names. The Chinese like to name their buildings after sturdy Confucian ideals, and when these are translated into English, they give main streets, often, the feel of a modern pilgrim’s progress, as one walks past the Sincere Insurance Building and the Efficient Building, with buses that say Double Happiness and Prosperous Holidays on the side, streaming past Filipinas and their grinning Englishmen, taking out their Happy Meals. On the same block, the Wesley Hotel, with the Methodist Book Store attached; down the little alleyway next to it, the Lofty Virtues Publication Centre.


That night, with Richard away and Sharon in the office, I went down the street to Wanchai, the area where foreign Hong Kong relaxes after work. The savory old domain of Suzie Wong and her sisters had been radically refurbished for a multinational age, and most of its habitués now were not would-be artists sketching Hollywood backdrops, but traders used to foreign homes. The street gleamed with new establishments made for every kind of business: Joe Banana’s, Carnegies, Big Apple, open all night, often, and spilling out blond party girls and tie-loosened stockbrokers into the early hours; “pubs and discos” called Neptune and Strawberry, with sliding entrance fees posted outside their entrances (“Lady $50; Guest $100, Armed Forces $100, Non-member $300”) so that the boys on bar stools could decide whom to let in and keep out, whom to call “Guest” and whom “Non-Member”; the more discreet and elegant nightclubs down the streets catering to a more punctilious kind of expense-account being called Kitty Lounge and Club Cherry and with a large neon sign of a geisha above them (The Wall Street bar was in Kyoto Plaza); and, most conspicuous of all, jammed into Lockhart Road between streets named after forgotten dignitaries—Fenwick and Fleming and Jaffe—gaudy little bars called New Makati, San Francisco, Waikiki, some of them with video monitors at their entrances so you could inspect the goods inside without pulling back the blackvelvet curtains.

The dances, on almost every stage, in skimpy bikinis and smiles, were Filipinas, and the deejays, very often, were American or Australian; the customers were in many cases Brits, murmurously talking of Unilever in their suits; and the ones behind the cash register were nearly always Chinese. The global marketplace in mufti, practicing supply and demand as ever, though with need inflected differently than in the daylight hours; the age-old transaction—unchanged since Maugham or Kipling—whereby the Third World gets its own back on the First once the lights go down.

The next day, at lunch, I would hear the aftermath: “He came over here straight from Oxford, to work for Jardine’s, a bit wet behind the ears, father this classic cod-fishtype who was a fellow of some Oxford college. She was thirty-five, a mother many times over, from the Philippines. He only wanted to be loved, of course. Never really had a girl before. Now they’ve got a child, so there’s more to be broken up if they do break up.”

Englishmen sipped thirty-dollar drinks in the Firehouse and spoke in the language of school again (travel always a shortcut for moving back in time). “Get a look at those legs!” or “Even the wedding ring looks good on her.” A girl got up on tiptoes to wipe the lipstick off her customer’s mustache, so he could return in tact to the missus. Another, pouting, turned her back on a man in a shabby jacket, who sat alone at the end of the bar, looking at her. Men in striped shirts and silk ties talked about closing prices and what might be a reasonable opening bid.

I didn’t have the heart for much more of this, and as the night wore on, I knew, the smiles would grow more plaintive, the ones that said, Be kind to me, please, and I’ll take good care of you bouncing against the ones that said, How ever did my need bring me here?

I’m sure the girls in though-high boots and G-strings were still circling lethargically to “You can ring my be-e-el, ring my bell...” when I woke up the following morning, in my hotel-room manqué, where Phil Donahue was discussing extramarital affairs on Channel 8 and another channel showed the building’s lobby.


Almost everyone who lives in Hong Kong—6 million of its 6.2 million people—is 100 percent Chinese, and yet, I realized, I have written all these words without very much acknowledging that Hong Kong is a Chinese place. To this day, many local businessmen pay more than $1 million for auspicious license plates, and even the managing director of Cathay Pacific moved his office four floors because of a geomancer’s warning. In one temple alone in Hong Kong, there are 12,500 Buddhas, and on the streets of Kowloon there are 350 jade vendors. Two-thirds of the land in Hong Kong is parkland, and much of it is a bird-watcher’s paradise.

And yet the fact remains that a foreigner can spend days—the better part of years—in Hong Kong and hardly take this in. If you fly Connoisseur Class, if you stay in a fifteen-thousand-dollar-a-month apartment like my friend’s—if you’re a Global Soulthrown this way and that by the global marketplace—you dwell in a kind of floating International Settlement where you never have to worry that 98 percent of the people around you can’t understand a word you say. The word for foreigner in Hong Kong, gwei-lo, famously means “ghost”.


Richard and Sharon, I knew, were solid and inwardly rooted enough to live with any change; now, in any case, they live in London with a son, as firmly grounded as anyone I know. But what of the others who don’t have their gift for adapting, the ones I knew who called their own answering machines several times a day, to be greeted by their own voices, or were crowding in, even now, to Jolly Air Cargo and the Pansy House and San Tropez to send remittances back to Manila? I thought of the friend who’d called me up once to say, “Yesterday I was driving towards the Hollywood sign, and I had a cell phone in one hand and a laptop in the other. And I thought, What am I doing? Who is this? It’s not even like I had anything to say.”

That same friend had once flown so many miles that he’d won the ultimate frequent flier award—thirty days of unlimited flying around the globe—and had told me of a dream he’d had under jet lag which was “not a ‘Where am I?’ dream, which you’d expect, but a ‘Who am I?’ dream. I couldn’t remember who I was.”

It was no surprise to me that nowadays he was spending much of this time (as I was, too) on retreat in a monastery.

My last day in Hong Kong, I celebrated my birthday together with Richard (born on the same day of the same year—my global twin), as we had done almost every year for a quarter of a century.

A little later, I had to get up to go to Bombay, where a cousin of mine was getting married.

“You know where you can find me,” Richard said.

“I do. I can call you up from anywhere.”

“Eighteen countries,” he reminded me. Just in case, though, he gave me his number in Tokyo and his office number in Tokyo. He gave me his fax number “at home,” his fax number “at the office” and his home and office numbers in Hong Kong. He gave me his fax number in both places, an 800 number for his voice mail, his mobile number, his mother’s fax number, his office fax number in London, and his E-mail address. He even gave me a toll-free number for calling his voice mail from Japan.

Somehow, that left no room in my address book for his name.
Article from "The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home" Published 2001. Article abridged.

One version of the article on NYT (1998)--