Blessed to be a witness

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Thursday, February 10


After our mammoth breakfast, we rode the Star Ferry to Hong Kong island. There are a hell of a lot of new buildings that have sprung up since my last two visits in 97 and 2000. Other changes I note initially are the flashy new double-decker buses, and the introduction of glass walls with sliding doors at the MTR (the superb underground Mass Transit Railway, a paragon of efficiency).

When I arrived here in 92 the buses were huge lumbering dinosaurs belching black smoke as they hurtled around the streets. One one memorable journey the driver, who had charmingly invited me to sit at the front of the bus and refused to take any money off me, took a corner at 45 mph and narrowly avoided spilling the water out of the bowl full of goldfish that he had stuck to the dashboard. Now they appear to be sleek, air-conditioned, and very much cleaner.

As for the MTR wall-and-door arrangement, I remember a very indignant editorial in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post mocking the same arrangement in Singapore's MRT stations as nanny-statish, and why shouldn't people be allowed to throw themselves under the trains if they wanted? I guess suicidal Hong Kong residents will have to confine themselves to chucking themselves off the top of buildings like they always used to.

We walked to Statue Square, where we observed the Filipina maids gathering in huge numbers, as they do every weekend and holiday season when their employers kick them out of the house. On this occasion, presumably for the New Year celebrations, there was a Christian rock band that was speaking tagalog, apart from "Hallelulia, praise the Lord, and kung hei fat choy."

Then jetlag (or breakfast) got the better of M, and we bought "Octopus cards", multi-purpose rechargeable tickets that work for most forms of transport here, and caught the MTR back to our hotel for her to sleep it off.

During my time living here, I picked up a bit of Cantonese. I was never fluent, but by the time I left I could make myself understood, even if I could only understand about 50% of the reply unless it was in context, since making the nine separate tones in the language is easier than interpreting them.

At first it was banging my head against a linguistic wall - I simply couldn't get the tones right. I couldn't even say "hello" correctly for the first year. Then one day I realised that each word and its tone was actually akin to learning a little bit of a tune. Once that happened, I stopped trying so hard, and just remembered the sound in its entirety, rather than both the syllable and the correct tone to apply to it. I found that learning conversationally gained better results than the people I knew who were learning the tones academically, which always sounded artificial to me. Not that many western people bothered to learn - widespread English and laziness meant that the majority of ex-pats didn't feel the need.

For all my effort, however, and even though I could get by when talking to strangers in certain fixed scenarios, my Chinese mate Ding Ding always took the piss out of my pronunciation - and the longest sentence I ever constructed was "if you get me a black coffee I'll pay you back by giving you a cigarette".

But being back here is having an odd effect - long-forgotten vocabulary keeps springing into my head just by being here. When I spilled some miso soup at our enormous breakfast I reprimanded myself for being "lum tzun" - clumsy - and making a mess: "woo juk".

I understood a very basic conversation at the airport too - a small child said "Mummy, where's the toilet?" and she replied "There's one over there, but I can't take you because it's the gents and I'm a woman."

And this morning at Statue Square I got more confident and ordered "yat boing dong gah feh tong yat boing soi" (a can of cold coffee and a bottle of water) at a street stall, and was amazed that the bloke gave me exactly what I'd ordered without batting an eyelid. I'm sure overconfidence is going to embarrass me eventually, but I'm enjoying having a go.

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