Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, February 18

The hardware is good but the software is bad

Our last night in Hong Kong was spent with my old mate Ding Ding and his wife Budgie. There's a word, "cheng", in Cantonese that means "to invite" to something, but it's a super-invitation: if I "cheng" you to dinner, I not only pay for your meal and drinks, but I choose what you eat too. When we were last here, Ding Ding "cheng"ed us to dinner (which involved steamed yellow chicken with the head still on, and copious amounts of grey crab roe), so this time, to repay the favour, we super-invited them to a Thai restaurant - but this meant I had to order for the table. I hope I got it right.

It was superb to see them again. Someone wisely said, when we were leaving Dublin, "it's not the friends that you'll lose, but the acquaintances." I can't remember who said that, so forgive me if you're reading this, and I don't credit you. And it's true. Though many of the other people I knew living in HK have fallen by the wayside, Ding Ding really is a good friend, and even though we've only seen each other once every five years, here we were ten years on having dinner and enjoying a right old laugh as though no time had passed at all. Budgie was unusually effusive, too - last time, in 2000, she had been very quiet, apologising for her bad English. Both times, however, she said "you got fat!" It's not necessarily a rude thing for her to say, but it definitely hit home. She comes to Europe a lot, and sometimes Ding Ding accompanies her, so I hope next time they're there they'll get in touch: they didn't know about how cheap inter-European travel is these days.

After a lovely few hours in their company, we said goodbye, and they left for their rented flat in Happy Valley - they had bought a place in Causeway Bay a few years ago, and sadly had ended up in negative equity and lost a bundle on it. I hope their economic circumstances improve in the future. We went back to Lan Kwai Fong for a final drink, and sat amidst the revellers, where an old chap caught my eye. Though the buildings are huge and the lights bright, and for a vast majority of the city's inhabitants, life is sweet, the city doesn't have much provision for those who fall through the cracks. Public pensions don't exist, and nor does unemployment assistance. Thus if the strong family structure and feeling of obligation - that for the most part supplements these missing things, and supports those down on their luck - fails, then there's not a lot of prospect. This guy, in wellington boots and shorts, was wheeling a trolley laden with garbage bags up and down the steep lanes of the area, straining at absurd angles to avoid tipping over. He was elderly and infirm, though clearly very strong, and walked slowlywith a limp. Amidst so much money and success, few people even noticed him; his presence, weaving his trolley in between drunkards, is just a part of the scenery of the area, like the cobblestones and the kerbs. Though I am largely in favour of the low-tax, non-interventionist policies that make Hong Kong what it is, it does strike me as tragic and immoral that the poor, especially the elderly, haven't got a safety net to provide for them at the end of their lives, especially in the context of such opulence.

So the next day we went to the airport, where the ticketing agent gave us the words that every air passenger dreads: "Sorry, economy is fully booked..." And then immediately recovered our hopes by saying " we have put you in business class." Result. Bulkhead seats too, to give respite to M's extra-long femurs. After a mere hour on the runway waiting for a part of the plane to be replaced, we jetted off to north China. The night before, discussing our trip to Shanghai with our friends, they were telling us how modern the city is now, and how little hassle it would be. Budgie was saying, however, that the commercial parts were developing faster than the infrastructural parts. "The hardware is good," she said, "but the software is bad." Unlike Hong Kong, where the new airport didn't just involve one of the largest land reclamation jobs ever, but the building of two entirely new towns, a high-speed rail link, a new metro line, a 5-lane motorway and feeder roads, but also the second-biggest suspension bridge in the world (poor Hongkies had the biggest only for about a week, when a new bridge was built between Hokkaido and Honshu in Japan, so they have to be content with only 'largest road/rail suspension bridge', or 'heaviest bridge'), all within about ten years. Any one of these projects would have taken aeons, even in a European capital.

The hardware/software problem used to be true ten or more years ago when I used to come to the less developed parts of China - for example, in every hotel lobby there were six clocks, presumably by government mandate, and none of them ever worked, or showed the right time. Or the ATMs in the bank that were merely facades - if one went into the bank, there nothing behind them on the other side of the wall. And so it was at Pudong International Airport, a US$2 billion flashy building with absolutely no information in it whatsoever. There's a Maglev train to the city - at more than 300mph, the fastest train in the world, on which I was rather hoping to experience travelling 28 miles in seven minutes - and there were signs to it, but they didn't say exactly where it went. There was no ATM in the arrivals hall. The hotel shuttle bus service was signed in English, but with conflicting information on where to find it, and no buses visible. A taxi tout was hovering around us, and when we arrived at the Maglev entrance, he said "no train". We didn't believe him at first, but then saw a temporary sign saying "THE RUNNING IS OVER". It was, after all, seven PM, so why should all the flights that arrived at such an inconvenient time get any transport? Eventually we capitulated to the tout, after securing a Y120 (about €12) reduction, he took us to a clearly illegal cab with a young geezer at the wheel, who drove us not that dangerously along the huge new motorways, only having to stop once in the middle of an intersection to consult his map. And eventually we got to the Bund, the elegant old colonial buildings that the Brits, Germans, French, Japanese et al, built from the 1880s to the 1930s, when they got kicked out, and checked into our hotel which, despite our misgivings, actually had our booking.

Thence to the rooftop bar to see the view of Pudong, over the river. And... just wow. Where the skyline of Hong Kong is dramatic and quite relatively tasteful, Shanghai is vast, vertical, spectacular and tacky. Tacktacular. A spectackle. It's as if the new economically "liberal" regime looked at farm collectivisation and all that dour worthy Commie stuff, and raised an 88-storey finger to it. Several fingers. The buildings are vast and ugly, and teeming with advertising. On one skyscraper is the largest advertising screen I've ever seen: 14 storeys high, and the entire width of the building, beaming garish animated adverts for consumer and corporate products. Communism is truly dead here, and Mao would be turning in his grave. And I hope it hurts him a lot when he does.

It's cold here, just over freezing point. It took hours for our hotel room (at the "Captain's Hostel") to warm up, and there's no heating at all in the bathroom, leading to very fast showers. Last night it snowed, and this morning the high peaked roofs below us were white. I'm in the hotel cybercaff now drinking rather nice coffee, and soon we're going out into the familiar Chinese pandemonium to get proper quilted down jackets (because we'll be in Beijing in a while, and it's -10 there), hoping the "software" works for us.

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