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)--


hana said...

Han Yan-- thanks for posting this. How do you feel about Pico's description of Hong Kong? Or do you feel like it's more about the modern lifestyle?

hy said...

You're right, it's probably just modern lifestyle, and I think it's the modern lifestyle of expats mostly, but one that is extreme, and made possible by HK's dominat financial industry, our 'free-est economy', our race/class issues.

What do you think?