Friday, 31 December 2010

loose ends

Looking back, a few of my posts during the past year left loose ends, which I will now endeavour to tie up. You can click on the title if you want to refer back to the original post.

a puzzle
I used to compile word puzzles because the ones appearing in newspapers were too easy to be worth bothering with. Some of these were posted in the early days, when I had few visitors, and I had no idea what kind of audience I would attract. I’m not planning to post any more, but I thought that you might like this one. It’s really just a question, but the answer has to be worked out, which is why I call it a puzzle. I ask only that if you do take a look that you do not post the answer in a comment. If you have the correct answer, you will know that it is correct.

fact or fiction
At the end of my assessment of the reliability of purportedly factual material in books, I described how I came across this sentence in the third edition of a standard university textbook on global environmental issues:
This was captured by John Turner in his paintings of the period.
The author was describing the famous eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and how the huge quantities of volcanic ash that were fired into the stratosphere affected sunsets around the world for several years thereafter. I commented as follows:
If you think you know what is wrong with this sentence, do leave a comment. My reaction was to delete it completely, which in retrospect may also have been a mistake.
One reader pointed out that Turner had died in 1851, which makes the sentence a nonsense, but nobody seems to have noticed that it is not common practice to include a first name. Painters, like composers and writers, are usually referred to by their surname alone. However, if you do include a Christian name, it’s a good idea to get it right. Turner’s first name was Joseph.

So why did I suggest that deleting the sentence may have been a mistake? I could have rewritten it, because the paintings to which the author referred were painted around the time of the eruption, in 1815, of Tambora in Indonesia. This was four times more powerful than the 1883 event, and in addition to the obvious and predictable consequences, one unexpected byproduct (nothing to do with global environmental issues) was Frankenstein, written the following summer, the year ‘when summer was cancelled’ courtesy of the eruption.

My discussion of probability ended with a description of a hypothetical television game show:
Imagine that…you are shown three locked boxes. You are told that one of the three contains $10,000, while the other two are empty. You are allowed to select one box, and if you choose correctly the money is yours. Let us refer to your selection as box #1. Now, before you are allowed to open your chosen box, the compere, who knows in advance which box contains the money, opens one of the other boxes (call this box #2) to show that it is empty. Now comes the offer: do you want to stick with box #1, or would you prefer to change your mind and choose box #3?

…if you know what you’re doing, you will choose box #3. Why?
If you haven’t come across this before, you may want to work out the answer for yourself, but if you’re interested in the answer but not in the working out, the answer is posted as a comment on the original article.

return to koon garden
After posting some of the photos that I’d taken in a ruined chee tong (spirit hall), I returned to take some more. I decided to add this one to the original post:

I’ve reproduced this photo here so that if you’ve already seen the original post you will not need to return to Koon Garden.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

I call myself…

The habit may not be universal, but large numbers of Hong Kong Chinese have adopted Western Christian names. Not a particularly noteworthy phenomenon in itself, but the choice of names does throw up some points of interest. The practice also seems to have become widespread among young Indian professionals, if my experiences with Indian call centres are anything to go by.

First, a surprising number of girls and women have adopted names that in the West are now regarded as irredeemably old-fashioned, such as Agnes, Florence, Gladys and Mabel. Second, males often take on the formal version of a name, for example Kenneth, Richard, Thomas or William, but if you were to call someone with one of these names Kenny, Dick, Tommy or Billy, respectively, they would not respond, because Kenny, Dick, Tommy and Billy are seen as different names.

Then there are the outlandish choices, one of which stands out in my memory as the most bizarre of all: in the early 1980s, Yamaha employed an organ tutor who called himself Moondoggy Lo. I used to wonder what kind of music he might play at home. Judging by the name, I don’t think it would be music I would want to listen to.

All this makes me wonder what name I would have chosen if I too had had a free choice. Actually, there is only one candidate in the frame. I’ve had the same name for more than 64 years, and I’m attached to it. I believe that most Westerners would make the same choice, because a name is more than a label. Your name is your identity, which makes all the more puzzling a story I read on the website of England’s Sun newspaper over the weekend.

Apparently, a fan of Liverpool football club has changed his name by deed poll to Fernando Torres, the team’s centre forward. I cannot imagine that this fool feels any sense of identity with the new name, and I would expect his wife to continue to call him Shaun. And one can only assume that he felt no sense of identity with his original name either.

That this is also the case with Chinese who adopt Western names I deduce from an experience I had when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 to work at the Outward Bound School here. On one of my first courses, I discovered that there were two trainees in my watch who called themselves Richard. In order to avoid confusion, I suggested to one of them, I proposed to address him as Ricardo for the four-week duration of the course. At the end of the course, he informed me that he preferred Ricardo and that he would not be calling himself Richard in the future.

In my own case, I’ve been called by a few names over the years, but nowadays nobody calls me anything but Dennis. I was Hoddo during my school days (a corruption of my surname) and Razz (short for Rasputin) at university, and I continued to attract tiresome beard-related nicknames (Jesus, Fidel) for a few years thereafter.

However, it wasn’t until I went to work at the Eskdale Outward Bound School in the Lake District in 1971 that I experienced anything new in the way I was to be addressed. I was ‘Den’, which I didn’t like much, but in a cultural milieu where Adrian was ‘Ade’, Alan was ‘Al’, Colin was ‘Col’ and Stuart was ‘Stu’, I had little choice but to grin and bear it. But I was surprised to find names that I’d never thought of shortening being routinely chopped in half.

I had a similar experience working in a warehouse in Bermondsey, south London, in the late 1970s. Again I was ‘Den’, but I expected it this time, given that to a Cockney Derek is always ‘Del’ (cf. ‘Del-Boy’, Derek Trotter, in the BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses) Gary is always ‘Gal’, and Terry is always ‘Tel’. In earlier times, this practice of transposing l’s and r’s may have been more widespread (cf. Prince Hal, later to become Henry V, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV), but in modern Cockney usage Harry is always ’Arry. I’m tempted to describe this transposition as ‘Chinese’, except that, contrary to popular belief, the Chinese are far more likely to confuse l’s and n’s. It’s the Japanese who confuse l and r.

Of course, there are some names that will almost inevitably be shortened in use: Christopher will be chopped to ‘Chris’, David will be trimmed to ‘Dave’, Michael will become ‘Mike’, and Peter will be clipped to ‘Pete’. However, I’m careful to observe whether a new acquaintance prefers the original or abbreviated version of their name. This is especially important with female acquaintances: addressing someone as ‘Elizabeth’ when all her friends know her as ‘Liz’ is going to sound insufferably formal.

It should be noted that a perceived character change takes place when someone shortens their name. Had we been introduced to Anthony Blair as the new leader of the British Labour Party in 1994, he might have been scrutinized more closely, but ‘Tony’ sounds matey and reassuring, and millions were taken in by his glib platitudes and shallow showmanship. And his lies.

So, are there any circumstances under which I might consider changing my name? Yes there are, but it would have to be something extreme, such as having a contract put out on me by the mafia or other criminal organization, in which case I wouldn’t be writing this blog, and I certainly wouldn’t be telling anyone where I live.

Friday, 24 December 2010

call my bluff #2

This post is for those of you who find yourself with nothing to do on Christmas Day (i.e. none of you) and have somehow found your way here. Please accept my sincere apologies. There’s nothing happening here either. However, I have been informed by the management that since we have guests, it is incument on me to provide some entertainment. As you already know, I’m interested in all aspects of language, so I thought a little quiz would be in order. However, I’m not looking for the actual definitions, because I assume that these are all words with which you are completely unfamiliar. Try making up an amusing or otherwise apposite definition instead.
 1: What is a deadie?
 2: If you had been manted, what happened to you?
 3: What is a factaxe (British English spelling)?
 4: What is happening if you mollize something?
 5: What is a notivist?
 6: If you describe someone as duriatic, what are they like?
 7: What is a chipsure?
 8: If you describe something as plingent, what is it like?
If you come up with some good ones, please leave a comment. You can of course be reading this at a later date, but you can still join in the game. For background, you may want to read Call My Bluff, which will inter alia explain the origin of the words I’ve chosen above.

Monday, 20 December 2010

christmas rapping

I don’t listen to rap music, apart from the occasional track by Eminem, Run DMC or the Beastie Boys, so fans of the genre will probably say that I can have nothing worthwhile to contribute on the subject. However, I note that rhyming is seen as a vital part of rapping, and that a rapper will boast of his or her ability to create the most unexpected rhymes and will challenge fellow performers on this score.

This needs to be the case, given that the musical accompaniment is invariably trite and adds little or nothing to the performance. This means, in effect, that the words should be able to stand alone, which is definitely not true of most of the rap music I’ve heard. I will therefore confine my comments to those rap lyrics that do feature clever rhymes and interesting use of words. Take this example:
We ain’t nothing but mammals. Well, some of us cannibals
who cut other people open like cantaloupes
But if we can hump dead animals and antelopes
then there’s no reason that a man and another man can’t elope
But if you feel like I feel, I got the antidote
Women wave your pantyhose, sing the chorus and it goes…

Eminem, The Real Slim Shady.
Overall, this song is an attack on modern pop culture, but I’m interested only in the rhyming involved. First, I note that the first ‘rhyme’ depends on the American pronunciation of ‘cantaloupe’ (the British English pronunciation would rhyme this word with ‘scoop’). Then, after two nondescript rhymes, Eminem switches to assonance (elope…antidote), which the average rapper appears to think is the same as rhyming. It isn’t. ‘Antidote…pantyhose’ is a neat piece of assonance, and a typically abrupt change of scene; the verse ends with another routine rhyme.

The staccato imagery that Eminem’s best work conjures up reminds me of a song released 35 years earlier, and the promotional video that accompanied it. The song was Subterranean Homesick Blues, the singer was Bob Dylan, and the video showed him holding up the key words for the camera, each written in block capitals on a separate piece of paper.
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles.
Dylan rarely uses assonance in this song (‘clean nose…plain clothes’, from the second verse, is the only clear example). But, although Dylan’s is a more overtly political song, the only significant difference that I can see between it and the Eminem track is the musical accompaniment. There is an illegitimate rhyme—‘manhole…candle’—but the rhyming skills evident in these two extracts are broadly similar. The point to note is that in both cases the need to rhyme creates a series of non sequiturs: there is no obvious reason for a given line, other than that it ends with a rhyming word.

And neither artist can hold a candle to W.S. Gilbert, the man who supplied the words to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music. It isn’t often appreciated nowadays, when a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is likely to be regarded as mere light entertainment, that these works were intended as satires on the English middle class. Even The Mikado, ostensibly set in Japan, lampoons the manners and mores of this class. And the barbs are sharper and more to the point:
And the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone
Every century but this and every country but his own.

W.S. Gilbert, I’ve Got a Little List.
However, Gilbert is seen at his best in I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance. The first point to note is the sheer breadth of education required to ‘get’ all the references. Second, every rhyme in this song is a three-syllable rhyme, which requires considerable linguistic virtuosity. And Gilbert was not afraid to invent words if required:
I’m very good at integral and differential calculus,
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous.

I can quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.
The italicized words are pure invention, but there is no difficulty in apprehending the intended meaning. That this song is partly about rhyming can be deduced from the ending of each verse, where Gilbert deliberately backs the singer into a corner and challenges him to find a particularly problematic rhyme. It is worth quoting the whole of the final verse, which is sung at a much slower tempo than the rest of the song, to see how this works. One can sense the inexorable build-up to the most difficult rhyme of all:
In fact, when I know what is meant by ‘mamelon’ and ‘ravelin’,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by ‘commissariat’,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery,
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy…
Dylan would be more likely to use the word ‘strategy’ than Eminem, although I can’t imagine either of them attempting to find a rhyme for it. This is Gilbert’s solution:
You’ll say a better major-general has never sat a-gee.
‘Sat a-gee’, meaning ‘sat astride a horse’, which is imaginative if not entirely legitimate. And the musical accompaniment, as it is for both the Dylan and Eminem tracks, is bland and does not intrude upon the song. I can envisage such a patter song being sung to a hip hop beat, but I do not believe that any modern rapper is capable of performing, let alone writing, anything similar. For this reason, I say, without equivocation, step forward Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, nineteenth-century rapper extraordinaire.

Friday, 17 December 2010

bah! humbug

I don’t hate Christmas, but I don’t hold any particular affection for it either: all that posing and pretending, all that false bonhomie. Fortunately, living where I do in a relatively remote part of the northern New Territories, I can ignore it—most of the time. The painful exception is when I have to do the daily shopping. Promptly on the first of December each year, all the malls and supermarkets start playing the hideous music that has somehow become attached to this festival over their PA systems. I do most of my shopping in the local wet market, but there are all too many items that are available only in the local ParknShop. That’s a local joke, by the way; apart from some of its branches in posh out-of-town areas, I’ve yet to find a ParknShop where you can actually park a car. You’d be lucky to find somewhere to park a bicycle at most of its stores.

Even pieces that might otherwise be tolerable lose their lustre when heard over a typical PA system. It reminds me of the bingly-bongly sound produced by an ice cream van. And some pieces would still sound horrible if played by a professional symphony orchestra in a hall with perfect acoustics. The most annoying are those that have been traditionally associated with Christmas but in fact have nothing to do with it: Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland and, worst of all by some considerable distance, Jingle Bells, which is a real turkey. I think that my own personal Room 101 would be a bare concrete cell within which I would be free to move but in which the only sound I could hear would be Jingle Bells playing on an endless tape loop through really tinny speakers.

Not that Christmas songs that actually mention Christmas are much better. I can well do without hearing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, White Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas at any time of year. On the other hand, perhaps I should be thankful that I am forced to endure this brain-numbing ‘music’ for but a limited season. The local birds are quiet at this time of year too, unfortunately, and the really musical ones won’t be back until March, so I’ll simply have to put up with this unwanted aural assault without compensatory back-up on my walk back home across the fields after shopping.

Not far behind in terms of the level of induced nausea but thankfully far easier to avoid are the various Christmas songs that have been released by popular singers over the years. It is as if once established they feel obliged to offer a Christmas song at some point in their careers, and some of the best singers have produced some of the worst songs. Aesthetic judgement disappears even more completely than the average one-hit wonder.

I’m not going to provide a comprehensive list though (too painful), but mention must be made of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, Elton John’s Step into Christmas and Wham’s Last Christmas. However, two of the offerings in this category would stand out as worthwhile songs at any time of year: Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. And an honourable exception must also be made of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? It made an important political statement (and it was a far better song than USA for Africa’s pretentious riposte).

We are on firmer foundations when discussing Christmas carols, although there are some horrors here too: I cringe every time I hear Away in a Manger, and Silent Night wouldn’t seem out of place at a funeral. On the other hand, it would almost be worth going to church at this time of year for the chance to belt out God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Come All Ye Faithful without someone telling me that I can’t sing, even though it’s impossible to take the words seriously.

Especial opprobrium attaches to O Christmas Tree, which must take the prize for the most banal lyric of any traditional yuletide song. And even though the melody is slightly better, I find it difficult to imagine that a self-respecting socialist could sing The Red Flag with a straight face, knowing from whence the tune of the song he is singing was filched. ‘Middle-class sentimentality’ would have been Lenin’s verdict. And, when I stop to think about it, I can’t imagine that a self-respecting socialist would join the British Labour Party, for which this song is an unofficial anthem, in the first place.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

what's in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, we used to visit my grandmother regularly in Newcastle. Towards the end of the decade, I became aware that ‘darkies’ had moved into the top of the street. I didn’t think much about this term at the time: it was the word that the grown-ups used. However, I slowly realized that by using it I was categorizing people solely on the basis of the colour of their skin.

Some people still use this label, but not Hawley & Hazel. This company used to market a brand of toothpaste in Hong Kong called ‘Darkie’, which had a picture of a black man wearing a top hat and a bow tie on the box, like the performers in the nineteenth-century minstrel shows. However, about twenty years ago, the name was changed to ‘Darlie’, probably in response to complaints, and the image was doctored (by increasing the contrast) so that it was no longer possible to deduce the ethnicity of the model.

Unfortunately, ‘darkie’ isn’t the only word that is regarded as offensive by those to whom it is applied, and coloured immigrants to the UK are not the only targets of such language. However, national and ethnic groupings are the most common focus of derogatory labels, and the English are among the worst offenders. Every nationality that becomes fully established in the English consciousness has an unflattering name attached to it: Chink, Dago, Eytie, Frog, Kraut, Pikey, Yank, Yid (the full list is a long one).

On the other hand, some of those on the receiving end of such English disdain refer to the English by equally unflattering names: Limeys by Americans, Poms by Australians and, best of all, rosbifs by the French. The object in all such cases is to belittle the nationality that is being labelled. And the English aren’t even particularly friendly towards their Celtic neighbours, nominally part of the same nation, whom they frequently label as Jocks, Taffs or Micks, depending on their actual country of origin.

There is a purpose to this name-calling: to emphasize the distinction between the in-group and the out-group. All cultures and societies do this to some extent, and by coincidence every generic term that I’m aware of for an out-group begins with the letter ‘g’: gaijin in Japanese, gweilo in Cantonese, gentile by Jews, gorgio by the Roma, and gringo by Latinos. The mention of Latinos highlights a difficulty in choosing an inoffensive name for oneself: for many years in the USA, it was perfectly acceptable to refer to ‘Hispanics’, and the term is still in use, but it is no longer seen as ‘politically correct’ because of its direct reference to Spain and that country’s colonial history in the Americas.

However, if these were the only examples that I could muster, there would be no point in raising the matter, but some ethnic labels have always been offensive and have been used intentionally for that reason. It is probably impossible nowadays to use the word ‘nigger’ in any context without causing offence to someone: I was pulled up recently in a pub in the UK for relating an experience that I had while working on an oil rig in the middle of the Sahara Desert in 1968. With two other Englishmen, I had asked that lamb be put on the menu from time to time (at least ten out of the fourteen main meals in a week were steak!). Our timid request was rejected in the most peremptory of manners:

“If you want lamb, why don’t you fuck off down to the nigger camp?”

Leaving aside the racial confusion that often affects uneducated people (all the roughnecks and roustabouts on the rig were Arabs, and they had their own living quarters and canteen), what this story illustrates is that reporting a conversation in which a dubious word was used is enough to annoy some people. This cannot be a good thing, because self-censorship is a weakness in any writer.

There is another angle to this tendency to label entire groups: in wartime, giving the enemy a derogatory name dehumanizes them and thus makes them easier to kill. For example, American soldiers were in Vietnam to kill gooks. Had they stopped to reflect that they were actually killing Vietnamese, the illegitimacy of their position might have dawned on them sooner. A similar process is at work in Iraq and Afghanistan now: referring to someone as a raghead makes it easier to kill them without troubling one’s conscience. Kipling knew what he was doing when he introduced his readers to ‘the Hun’, the German army, during the First World War.

Other groups that are often singled out in the same way include homosexuals and people with disabilities, although in both cases considerable progress has been made in my lifetime. When I worked at the Outward Bound School in Eskdale in 1971–72, I once ran a course for a group of ESN boys from a nearby residential school. ESN? It stood for ‘educationally subnormal’, which in those days was the official designation. Nowadays, children like these would be regarded as having ‘learning difficulties’, and they would be educated in mainstream schools, where the unhelpful epithet ‘retard’ is likely to be used by some fellow pupils. However, it should be noted here that ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile’ are acceptable, although only when directed at someone whose cognitive ability is regarded as ‘normal’.

Another group whose lot has improved is sufferers from cerebral palsy. The UK charity tasked with looking after the interests of such people used to call itself the Spastics Society, and ‘spastic’ was once an acceptable term, but it came to be used to describe a clumsy person and was thus seen as an insult. The Spastics Society changed its name to Scope, a word so neutral that it would be difficult to work out the charity’s purpose, in 1994.

As program director at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School in the early 1980s, I ran a series of courses for physically handicapped students. These were hugely successful, and as a result I was asked to lay on more by the government’s Sport and Recreation Service. But with one stipulation: they must be advertised as for disabled participants. I argued that ‘disabled’ means ‘without ability’, and that my operating philosophy accepted the concept of a ‘handicap’ but tried to find a way to circumvent the intrinsic disadvantages, but the government functionaries were insistent. ‘Disabled’ is nowadays what such people prefer to call themselves, despite the negative connotations of the word, so that is the term I use. ‘Cripple’ is not and never has been a polite term.

I can’t leave the subject of disability without mentioning the debilitating effects on general language usage of undue sensitivity to what can reasonably be regarded as purely descriptive terms. ‘Blind’ is a case in point. If people who cannot see prefer to say that they are ‘visually impaired’, then who am I to argue? However, I cannot understand why, having rejected the term for themselves, they resent it when someone refers to the blind spot in a car, another relates how he was sent up a blind alley, a third how she went on a blind date, a fourth how he turned a blind eye to illegal activity, and the blind side wing forward for the local rugby team how they had been robbed blind by the opposing side (a common loser’s complaint).

There is great danger in proscribing words merely because they may offend. And I don’t need to quote a fictitious example as a reductio ad absurdum: employees of Brent Council in north London were forbidden to ask for ‘black coffee’ in their staff canteen. The legendary West Indies cricket team of the 1980s had the appropriate response: after beating England 5–0 in one memorable series, they described the result as a ‘blackwash’. That’s the kind of creative language usage I like.

So what should you do if you are the subject of a pejorative label? If you’ve read all of my posts about Hong Kong, you’ll have noted that I often refer to myself as a gweilo. In fact, this would originally have been intended as an insult; there are polite terms, but they are rarely used here. I could be a Sai yan (‘Westerner’) or a Ying Kwok yan (‘Englishman’), but I’ve never been called anything other than a gweilo, or ‘ghost man’, in all my time here. Why should I care? It’s only a word.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

a brief history of time

Lost time is never found again.
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac.
It is impossible to say when humans first became aware of the concept of time, but the remorseless cycle of day and night must have provided an early clue, especially because it links intimately to the natural rhythm of sleep and waking. At the same time, they couldn’t have failed to notice the waxing and waning of the moon over a longer period. Observation of the seasons would have come later, as Homo sapiens spread into more northerly latitudes. For these early times, the day, month and year that these phenomena represent would have been adequate to communicate any time-related message, and it is unlikely that anyone would have considered how the three are related, let alone what caused them.

However, we do know that by the time of the first city-states, the development of arithmetic combined with crude astronomical observations to make it possible to estimate the length of the month or year in terms of days. The extreme example of this development is probably the Maya of Central America, who were obsessed with recording the passage of time, their central dilemma being that they had two calendars, and the two were never in step.

Meanwhile, a new and entirely arbitrary unit, the week, which has as its sole basis the creation myths of the Middle East, was making its first appearance. It has the distinction of being the only unit of time, other than the day, that imposes a cycle of behaviour on people. Religion was also the driving force behind the impulse to subdivide the day into smaller units (peasants toiling in the fields to support the city’s astronomer priests would have had no need for such fine distinctions).

Bronze Age civilizations of the Fertile Crescent used sundials to perform the task of subdivision, which means that the smallest unit measurable with any degree of accuracy would have been several minutes long by modern reckoning. The same can be said for the various mechanized water clocks built by the Greeks, Romans and Chinese, among others. It is only with the invention of mechanical clocks in Europe that the smallest measurable unit eventually shrinks to a minute. But this doesn’t happen straight away: the earliest clocks were not sufficiently accurate, and minute hands didn’t appear until 1670, by which time pendulum clocks with an accuracy of 10 seconds per day were being built.

John Harrison’s marine chronometer of 1761 improved that figure to one-fifth of a second per day, making it necessary to add yet another unit at the lower end of the measurement scale. The second, once defined as 1/86,400 of a day, has since become the only unit to have been given a rigorous scientific definition, relating to the oscillation period of the caesium atoms used in atomic clocks. However, back in the eighteenth century, when the second first appeared, there was still scope for individuality in the recording of time: every town and village that had a town hall or church clock kept its own time, but the railways changed all that. Not only did they flag up the need for a standardized time; they were also responsible for the concept of a timetable, which has been a constant bugbear for humanity ever since.

How tactless, therefore, of Albert Einstein to prove mathematically that time is relative after all. There is no celestial clock that always has the correct time. There is no such thing as the correct time. Two observers travelling at different speeds will be unable to synchronize their watches, because any communication between them will be constrained by the speed of light.

I wonder who first noticed that time went only one way. I don’t think that, even now, that thought occurs to many people. Time is a dimension of our lives in the same way that the three spatial dimensions of length, width and height are, and we take them all for granted. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, science had explained the arrow of time with the second law of thermodynamics, which can best be illustrated as follows:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

In other words, time progresses from a state of relative order to a state of relative disorder. There is no going back. You can put things back together again after a fashion, but it won’t be quite the same. You’ll be able to see the joins (even if you have to use a microscope).

One of the characteristics of science is that just when everyone else is comfortable with a new explanation, along comes another cabal of scientists to discover some phenomenon or other that cannot be explained by the existing rules. In this case, twentieth-century particle physicists were the culprits, discovering a particle that went backwards in time. They refer to it as a virtual particle. In optics, a virtual image is one that doesn’t exist, so I’m assuming that this particle is also one that doesn’t exist. So how was it detected? This seems to me a paradox worthy of any aspiring ancient Greek philosopher.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, there is much anecdotal evidence that time is relative after all. Ask anyone of my age and they will tell you that the years seem to pass faster and faster as you get older. What is less well known is that there is a rational explanation for this observation. For a 19-year-old, the coming year will represent 5 percent of their life to date. However, in my case, the coming year, if I survive it, will represent just over 1.5 percent of my life to date. In other words, the perceived rate at which the years pass by is more than three times as fast for me as it would be for a 19-year-old. But it does seem a very long time since I was 19.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

the fat man cometh

Imagine that you are driving sedately along a narrow country lane with hedges on each side. It is so narrow that, should you meet someone coming the other way, it will be necessary for both cars to stop and find some manoeuvre that allows each car to continue on its journey. Now imagine that you round a bend in the road. As you emerge into a long, straight section, you see in the distance another car, and it is travelling at a speed that you consider inappropriate for the type of road you are on.

You assume that the other driver will see you and slow down, but unfortunately this doesn’t happen. Do you then assume that the other driver hasn’t seen you but will slow down once he has? Or do you assume that the driver of the rapidly approaching projectile is a dangerous lunatic, prompting you to start looking for a potential escape route, such as a gate you can crash through into an adjacent field? This is an imaginary scenario, but it does have a parallel in the arena of geopolitics.

The ‘dangerous lunatic’ is of course the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known to the world as North Korea. It is dangerous because it is unpredictable, and its policies are describable as lunatic because there is no rational expectation that these policies will result in any material benefit to the regime. However, one must assume a reason for recent belligerence, such as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of the island of Yeonpyeong.

It is said that the stand-off on the Korean peninsula is a hangover from the Cold War, but this is only partially true. We need to go further back in history, to the period of Japanese modernization and expansion following the Meiji restoration in 1868. One target of this expansionism was the Korean peninsula, partly as a buffer against Russian designs in the region. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 was fought out in Korea, Manchuria and the surrounding seas, and it ended with the utter defeat of Russia, much to the surprise of contemporary Western observers.

Following the war, in 1910, Japan arbitrarily annexed the now moribund Korean empire, which subsequently remained in Japanese hands until 1945. Japanese imperial expansion continued with the invasion of Manchuria, which became a puppet state under Japanese suzerainty, in 1931. And both states became crucial sources of raw materials for Japan during the Second World War.

In 1941, Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, which benefited both sides: it allowed Joseph Stalin to focus on the developing threat from Nazi Germany; and it enabled Japan to prepare for its attack, later that year, on Pearl Harbor and to concentrate on its expansionist aims in Southeast Asia. However, at the wartime conferences in Tehran and Yalta, the British and American leaders urged Stalin to declare war on Japan, and they finally secured an agreement from the Soviet leader that he would do so three months after the defeat of Germany.

This declaration, when it came, can only be described as cynical. An atomic bomb had already been detonated over Hiroshima, and Stalin declared war two days later, hours before a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Elements of the Japanese leadership had been contemplating surrender before Hiroshima, but even after Nagasaki, Japanese leaders dithered for another week, which gave the Soviet forces time to occupy Manchuria and the northern half of Korea.

This is where Kim Il-sung, the self-styled ‘Great Leader’, enters the picture. He had joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931, and he had spent time in the Red Army, so he was the ideal candidate, in Stalin’s estimation, to head a puppet regime. Local communists were considered much too nationalistic and therefore unreliable (and many were ‘liquidated’, in the mealy-mouthed terminology of the time). At first, Kim had widespread popular support because of his fight against the Japanese, and one of his first accomplishments was the establishment of a professional army drawn from the ranks of former guerrilla fighters against the Japanese and the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalists).

It can be argued that Kim was provoked into setting up the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 by the proclamation that established the US-sponsored Republic of Korea (South Korea) earlier that year, but it is clear that he resented US interference in the peninsula. It was his decision to invade the south in 1950, but he would not have done so without the explicit approval of Stalin, who had already tested the resolve of the West with his blockade of West Berlin in 1948 and who probably reasoned that in both cases a response by the Western powers was unlikely.

Following the inconclusive end to the Korean War, Kim led North Korea until his death in 1994, during which time he established an all-pervading personality cult with myths about his military prowess that only the credulous could find credible, and then only because the unfortunate audience for this bullshit had no grounds for disbelief. However, what is certain is that Kim, inspired by the success of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, continued to believe that the reunification of Korea was achievable by military means, and it is possible that some cadres in the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Korean People’s Army still believe this to be so.

Although Kim continues to be president of North Korea, more than 16 years after his death, day-to-day running of the country has, since 1980, been in the hands of his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, who was designated as his father’s successor in that year. However, it was not until 1991 that he was appointed supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces, a vital step given that the basis of all political power in North Korea is the country’s military. It should never be forgotten that this tiny nation has the fourth largest standing army in the world, and the largest as a percentage of population.

Unlike his father, who had a distinguished military career even after the layers of mythology have been stripped away, Kim Jong-il had no military experience, so it is easy to imagine that some polite arm-twisting must have gone on behind the scenes in the eleven years prior to his appointment.

However, there is an interesting juxtaposition here: Kim Jong-il’s appointment coincided with the final collapse of the Soviet Union, which heralded the start of a long and probably terminal decline in the North Korean economy and the end to Kim Il-sung’s cherished policy of self-reliance as the true cost of the country’s ruinous ‘defence’ expenditure gradually became apparent.

It is clear that in the subsequent two decades, the ‘Dear Leader’ has consolidated his power in the country, but he knows that he won’t last much longer. And he has chosen a successor. One cannot fail to note that Kim Jong-un is his father’s third choice, and he does look a choice specimen. “Who ate all the pies?” is the question that springs automatically to mind. I know that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but he looks to me like a serial killer. And I can’t imagine that there are too many high-ranking officers who are happy to see a 29-year-old with no military experience made a four-star general.

So what was his role in the recent shelling of Yeonpyeong? There are only two possibilities: either he gave the order (perhaps with the explicit approval of his father), or he did not. If he did, then we have another dangerous lunatic to carry on the family tradition. However, if he did not, then there are elements of the army that are more than just pissed off at the idea of a bloated and presumably pampered young man telling them what to do. So will the ‘Fat Leader’ succeed to the throne on the death of his father. That may be a fat worse than death.

Monday, 22 November 2010

east is east

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West.
If I could point to one thing that I’ve learned after so many years of living among Chinese people, it is that if there’s more than one way to look at a situation or to perform a simple task, the Chinese invariably opt for the alternative to what I’d previously been used to. Take the turning of a key in a lock, for example. You may not realize it, but you probably turn it in the same direction every time. Of course you would, because you know which way works. In my case, having grown up in Britain, I turn the key towards the locking mechanism to lock a door. However, I’ve yet to find a door in Hong Kong that doesn’t require you to turn the key away from the locking mechanism in order to lock it.

Talking of doors, it is common practice in Chinese homes to leave the bathroom door open when the bathroom is not in use. However, Westerners tend to leave the door closed. I’m bound to say that the Chinese practice makes more sense: if the door is closed, then there is someone inside and you will have to wait.

It’s the same with long multiplication, a term that younger readers may not be too well acquainted with. In the UK, we were taught to start at the units column and work progressively through the tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. The Chinese, at least in Hong Kong, were taught to begin the process by tackling the largest denomination first and then to work towards the units. I have used the past tense because it seems that the electronic calculator has supplanted pen and paper, and even the abacus, which in skilled hands is faster than a calculator but requires an understanding of how numbers actually work.

In contrast to the Western model, in which applause for achievement often verges on sycophancy, Chinese men are reluctant to praise anything, even their wives. It can be unsettling for a Western woman to hear her Chinese husband describe her as “an okay wife”, which to Western ears sounds suspiciously like damning with faint praise. However, that same man, who may have reached his present position in an organization by dint of hard work, will attribute his success to luck, as likely as not.

My own experience of this tendency came in the 1980s, when for several years I was enrolled in a wing chun school. Although it is customary to address a teacher of kung fu as sifu, my teacher expected his students to address him as Hong Kor (‘Brother Hong’); however, in all other respects he was a traditional teacher, which meant that he never praised his students. I found this regime tough to take, given how hard we were expected to work, but I did find a way around the problem: the teacher always assigned a senior student to show someone the next move, and whenever it happened to me I reasoned that if I was being shown a new move, the teacher must think that I’d mastered the previous one.

And we all know about Chinese writing: it starts at what we would call the back of the book and reads in columns from right to left, finishing at what we are pleased to call the front. However, you may not know that the strokes in each individual character are drawn in sequence from top left to bottom right, the way we would instinctively read a page of writing. But this is a purely practical consideration, at least if you’re right-handed, because your hand moves away from what’s already been written, which explains why so many left-handers have trouble writing. A particularly egregious example of this is shown by President Barack Obama: as a fellow southpaw, I have an instinctively negative reaction towards people who write in such a cack-handed fashion, having myself been taught to write ‘properly’ at the point of a cane, which means that I can see what I’m writing without my hand getting in the way and without looking like an amateur contortionist.

On the other hand, my Chinese calligraphy is crap, because I’m often pushing the brush where a right-hander would be pulling it, which means that the shape of the stroke comes out wrong. I’ve been told that I need to learn to write right-handed. The point to note here is that Western books follow the instinctive left-to-right pattern throughout, while the Chinese option appears to be completely arbitrary. It is generally believed that the Chinese write in columns because the earliest characters were inscribed on bamboo, but this assumes that there is only one way to write on a long, narrow surface. An alphabetic language would have to be written along the long axis, but because Chinese characters are equivalent to discrete ideas, they can be written in sequence either horizontally or vertically. Starting on the right does seems to be an irrational choice though, because the hand tends to smudge the previous column when the writer moves to start a new one. So I’m left wondering whether there is a subtle practical reason for this counterintuitive choice, given that everything I encounter in Hong Kong seems to work very well, even if it doesn’t always work the way I expect.

However, this choice may be entirely arbitrary after all, given the next point of difference: when a group of Westerners sit down to play a card game, they deal the cards in a clockwise direction. This also applies when those same Westerners sit down to play a board game involving more than two players: the turn passes clockwise around the table. By contrast, Chinese players always deal cards in an anticlockwise direction, and when playing mah jong or dominoes the turn passes around the table anticlockwise.

Superficially, both options appear to be arbitrary, but it is at least possible that the European method is based on solar observation—in the northern hemisphere, the sun moves across the sky in a clockwise direction, and this would have been most easily seen in the shadow cast by the gnomon of a sundial. This movement would then have served as a model for certain types of behaviour, such as dealing cards. Yet the Chinese opted for the contrarian alternative, but then I’ve become accustomed to such differences, and turning a key the correct way has become instinctive. What is more, I never assume there is only one way to do something. Whether the alternative is better than my long-established procedure is another question, and one that I shall leave unanswered.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

return to koon garden

Yesterday was an interesting day. In the morning, I visited the wet market in Luen Wo Hui to buy meat and vegetables. The old lady whose vegetable stall I patronize speaks no English, but that isn’t a problem. I was in the process of asking for a catty (about 20 ounces) of pak choi when a young Chinese girl in some kind of uniform came up and offered to help.

Gei chin [how much]?” I asked the old lady.

Sze man poon [$4.50],” she replied.

“Five dollars,” the girl unhelpfully translated.

I tried to explain to the girl that the old lady hadn’t said “$5”, but I think that she had already assumed I couldn’t possibly have known what the old lady had said. The old lady seemed to be amused by the proceedings, but I gave her five dollars anyway. She gave me a ¢50 coin in change.

I then walked around to the other side of the stall and picked out two very large carrots (the carrots here are much, much tastier than anything I’ve ever seen in the UK). The same thing happened:

Gei chin?” I asked the old lady.

Sap man poon [$10.50],” she replied.

“Eleven dollars,” said the girl.

Again I tried to explain to the girl, but she kept repeating “eleven dollars” as if I hadn’t understood her the first time. The old lady had another ¢50 coin ready to give me, but this time I was able to give her the exact change. I’m sure that the girl thought she’d been very helpful to a ‘struggling’ gweilo, and to be fair her intervention was amusing rather than annoying.

Contrast this with my purchasing of meat (again, I always go to the same stall).

Sai see kwat, yau mo [have you any sai see kwat]?” I asked.

Sai see kwat is a cut of pork from near the base of the spine and is the only cut that falls apart in soup. Meat from any other part of the animal becomes hard and chewy when boiled.

Sai see kwat? Yes sir. How much would you like?”

Yat gan, m goi [one catty please].”

“One catty? Certainly sir.”

I surmise that this man has spent time working abroad, but as a butcher in one of the remoter parts of Hong Kong (I can go for days without seeing another gweilo) he doesn’t get much chance nowadays to practise his English.

In the afternoon, a friend came to visit, and like all first-time visitors to San Wai he was given the Hong Kong Country tour. However, until about ten years ago my friend had been a high-ranking government official, and he was able to provide a lot of additional information of which I’d previously been unaware. The focus of interest was Koon Garden, which I’d mistakenly identified as a house, not having looked inside. It is in fact a chee tong, or spirit house, the principal function of which is to honour a family’s ancestors.

This rudimentary shrine faces the main entrance and wishes blessings and prosperity on three named people, all of whom are presumably now dead.

The front of this shelf, located directly above the shrine, was once brightly painted, but the fading detail can still be made out.

The roof has gone, but the roof and ceiling beams are still in position in a side room (there was no second storey above the main hall).

A mirror remains hanging in the main hall, probably because it would have been seen as bad joss to remove a mirror from a chee tong.

A ruined outhouse on the north side of the building.

The kitchen. The main fire would have been lit under the cube on the left, and the wok used would have been more than three feet in diameter.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


Unlike the English, who had no qualms about the wholesale importation, where required, of words from a host of other languages, when the Chinese don’t have a word for something, they often combine existing characters to form a new word: for example, in Cantonese, a train is foh che (‘fire carriage’), leaving the way open, when motor cars first appeared, for these new monsters of the road to be called hei che (‘gas carriage’). Other concepts new to the Chinese are often named by transliterating (that is, by selecting Chinese words that are similar in sound to the equivalent English expression). Examples, again using Cantonese, include tik see (‘taxi’), bah see (‘bus’) and gar fei (‘coffee’). It can be confusing, however: foh shui (‘fire water’) is kerosene, not whisky, which is wai see kei.

It is seen as essential for foreign companies hoping to do business in Hong Kong and/or China to have a Chinese name, which is usually chosen with great care. The result can be either a disaster or a master stroke. Perhaps the best example of the former is Philip Morris. When this company moved into Hong Kong, its name was transliterated as Mo Lai See. It was badly advised: the same sound can be produced by different characters that mean ‘no lucky money’, lai see being the red packets, containing money, that are handed out during the new year period.

Coca-Cola, on the other hand, got it more than just right. However, Coke had the advantage of a product with four syllables, corresponding to the four characters in a traditional Chinese proverb. The only serious weakness in this approach is that traditional Chinese proverbs come with a back story. My own favourite is yim yee do ling (Cantonese, literally, ‘cover ear steal bell’).

The story goes that one day an itinerant beggar was walking through a village when he espied a shiny bronze bell hanging over the gateway to a house. He resolved to steal the bell, but he could foresee a problem: when he took the bell down, it would be sure to ring, thus alerting everyone in the neighbourhood that something untoward was happening. His solution was to cover his ears with a thick strip of cloth, reasoning that if he couldn’t hear the bell, it wasn’t making a sound. You can predict the rest. So how would you use this expression? If you see someone do something unutterably stupid, the appropriate response is yim yee do ling. Sadly, these four-character proverbs and their back stories are no longer taught in Hong Kong schools, and it seems likely that they aren’t taught in the rest of China either.

So what name did Coke come up with? It makes little sense in Cantonese (Ho Hau Ho Lok), but the Putonghua (Mandarin) version is remarkably close to the English in sound. It isn’t identical though, because then the company wouldn’t be able to claim that it tastes good and does you good (the literal translation is ‘good mouth (taste), good health’). I don’t think that Coke could get away with such a blatantly false claim in any Western country.

However, the most amusing aspect of transliteration is its application to people’s names. When Sir Edward Youde became governor of Hong Kong in 1982, he was given the name Yau Tak, ‘man of virtue’, but the same sounds can also serve as an answer to the question: can you swim? “Swim? Sure.” And his wife, Lady Pamela, was Pa Mei Lai, someone who keeps a suitcase packed (for a quick getaway). The first was a reference to the fact that until the so-called touch base policy was ended in 1981, most of the illegal immigrants entering Hong Kong did so by swimming across Mirs Bay, while the second referred to the uncertainty at the time over the projected handover in 1997. Whoever said that the Chinese have no sense of humour hasn’t been paying attention.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Signs are everywhere. We take them for granted, yet they are interesting objects in their own right. They are designed to convey a short message as directly as is possible, using graphics and/or words. Some don’t work very well, but we never think that they could be improved because we think we know what the message is. I’m not convinced.

When looking for a public toilet, especially in a hotel, I always look at both icons before deciding which door to enter. Some are obvious, but I’m often unsure until I’ve been able to see, and compare, the two. Some can be downright mystifying: a notable example in Hong Kong is Felix, a poseur’s bar at the top of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, the work of pretentious New York designer Philippe Starck. The two doors are alongside, but the letters ‘m’ and ‘f’ are part of the design, so you won’t spot them at first. This seems to me to breach the fundamental rule in all communication: to ensure that the information you wish to convey is clear and clearly understood by the recipient. Form over function.

However, for signs that totally fail to convey the intended message, or that convey an entirely different message, I present a few from my immediate neighbourhood:

Very slowly.

A difficult choice.

Stor in the name of the lop.

The next sign is interesting rather than misleading, although I do need to explain why I find it mildly amusing. It is located on the edge of a main road, from where it directs walkers along a narrow footpath across the fields to what at first glance might be the name of a village. But the only village at the end of the path is San Wai, where I live. It is in fact a legacy fossil. The literal translation is ‘horse shit area’. Note that I translated shi as ‘shit’; the Cantonese do have a word for ‘poo’, fan. The name cannot have had a polite origin. As to who kept horses here: it can only have been the British. We overlook a former British army camp, then known as Gallipolli Lines, so I’m assuming that cavalry regiments were once garrisoned there.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

rise and fall

The village of Sham Chung is located in the Sai Kung West Country Park, one of the wildest parts of Hong Kong. I first passed through it in 1974, and even then I was struck by some unusual features. For a start, it had two schools, and there was only ever one other school in the entire Sai Kung peninsula. The other oddity was the distribution of houses: in every other village in the area, the houses were clustered together, but here there were three separate clusters, on the north, south and east sides of a huge paddy field area.

The village is approached by the coastal path from Yung Shue Au, which happens to be the last place in Hong Kong where I saw rice being grown and harvested, in 1975. I wish I’d had a digital camera then. This village too was only approachable by the continuation of the path along the coast and over a narrow col, eventually reaching the fishing village (as it then was) of Sai Kung. The Sai Kung peninsula, in the 1960s, could truly be called a wilderness area. But everything changed in 1970, with the building of access roads to facilitate the construction of the High Island Dam Project, which was in full swing when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 (I often used to eat in the workers’ canteens).

After descending from Yung Shue Au, the path meanders through an area of wetland...

and follows the coast around the mangroves.

As Hong Kong expanded after the war, it quickly became clear that the territory’s existing reservoirs were inadequate, and it endured frequent and often severe water shortages during the winter months. This was addressed to a limited extent in the 1960s by the Plover Cove scheme, which involved building dams between a string of islands to enclose the bay of the same name. This reservoir can be seen across the Tolo Channel as you approach Sham Chung along the coastal path. It wasn’t enough.

The High Island scheme was breathtakingly imaginative: take the narrow four-mile channel between High Island and the mainland and build a big dam at each end. The water level when the reservoir was full would be more than 100 feet above the level of the surrounding sea. There is a question that should occur to the alert reader at this point: where was the water to fill the reservoir going to come from? This was the imaginative part: every accessible stream in the area had a dam built across it, hence all the access roads. These dams were designed only to take water from the streams when they were in flood (to safeguard village supplies). And every dam was connected, via a system of tunnels, to the reservoir.

The access roads meant that once-isolated villages, only accessible by sea or on foot, were suddenly thrust into the modern era. A building boom resulted, as indigenous villagers rushed to cash in on their ding rights (if you could trace your ancestry to a given village before the lease for the New Territories was signed in 1898, you had the right to build a 700-square-foot house in that village). Ding was a measure designed to encourage people to stay in their ancestral villages, but the vast majority of the resulting houses were sold on. In fact, the village where I used to live turned the ding system into a lucrative business whereby people with an entitlement were tracked down in Europe and told that a house would be built on their behalf and that the proceeds, less a generous commission, would be forwarded to them. This also explains why the houses in Sai Keng are much closer together than in any other village I’ve seen, to the extent that if your house isn’t on the outside, you will need to keep the lights on throughout the day.

One such access road reached as far as Yung Shue Au, which has since expanded. Sham Chung remained isolated, except for the once-a-day Tolo Harbour ferry, which linked it and other communities to the outside world. Its population, which had been 400 in 1970, quickly dwindled to almost zero. Many would move to the UK to work in Chinese restaurants. It is ironic that the govenment decided to install street lighting after most of the population had already left.

If you had been approaching Sham Chung on foot in 1920, you would have noted that the path was sweeping around the hillside into a small bay, at the back of which was a narrow channel between two low hills that led into a shallow lagoon. This channel was dammed by the villagers in the 1920s and the lagoon drained. The huge area of arable land that this created must have been a big factor in the village’s prosperity, hence the two schools and the ferry pier, which served a population that was well above the average for the area. The dam’s two big wooden sluice gates are still maintained.

The major environmental impact of the dam was that a substantial wetland area developed behind it. The villagers had enough land, and the area behind the dam was always flooding anyway, so they were happy to give it over to nature. The wetland flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, but this idyll was destined not to last.

The Sham Chung wetlands in 2006.

The same view (almost), a year later.

Many of the villagers sold out to a property developer in the 1990s, and Sham Chung was earmarked for ‘development’. Most of the wetland was trashed, in the benign guise of providing an organic farm that could be visited by disadvantaged children. Didn’t anybody tell them the area was always flooding? The farm is long gone, but the damage remains.

There’s more. Large ponds were dug as water hazards for a golf course. There was only room for five holes, however, and the greens were, shall we say, rugged, so nobody came. The developer’s plans for a spa resort, complete with helipad and organized outdoor activities, have been blocked, but you can be sure that they’ll try again. I have utter contempt for property developers. Greedy doesn’t cover it. All they see is dollar signs.

Into this bleak landscape stepped a native villager who had left Sham Chung in 1970 to work in a Chinese restaurant in Bristol. Tom Li subsequently emigrated to the USA, where he opened his own restaurant and became a master chef. He decided to return to his old family home and open a store, which is where I met him a few years ago, when we lived across the bay and I used to cycle to Sham Chung for something to do. He’s the main reason Paula and I still cycle there every Saturday, at least his noodles are, even though it’s a 45-mile round trip from Fanling. Actually, he’s so busy at weekends that we hardly get a chance to talk to him. Run off his feet. But he loves it.

Yesterday, though, he had only two customers. It poured with rain all day Friday and continued in the same vein. No chance of cycling down, but Tom was due to leave for Florida on Sunday night. He would be leaving Sham Chung on Saturday evening. So I drove down to Yung Shue Au and we walked through the rain (the water level in the first picture above was almost up to the path) to Sham Chung. He was sold out of fresh food, but somehow he managed to conjure a masterpiece out of the dry ingredients in his store, with a spring onion from his ‘garden’ (large flowerpot, actually). We can’t wait until February, when he comes back.

The houses on the south side of Sham Chung. Tom's store is the one with the big awning on the left.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

the emperor’s cavalry on parade

What value do you place on an object? Do you value it according to how much you paid for it? Or do you value it for the pleasure it gives you during your ownership of it? These twin questions are the reason I’ve chosen to discuss a narrow strip of batik that Paula bought for HK$1 in Stanley Market long before it became a ‘must visit’ tourist venue and no longer became worth visiting (and long before we were married). I discovered it neatly folded away in a cardboard box, took a look and said immediately that we should get it framed. It now hangs in the front room of our house in the UK, and over the years everyone who has sat in that room has commented on it, even the Jehovah’s Witnesses that I used to invite in when I felt like some cheap amusement. They don’t come any more. I wonder if the last time they turned up on my doorstep has anything to do with it:

“Do you read the Bible?” one asked.

A very poor opening gambit. You’d think they’d know better by now.

“Yes!” I replied, pausing just long enough before continuing. “But I think that the Revelation of St John the Divine is the ravings of a deranged lunatic.”

“Well, if that’s the way you feel….”

Anyone who is constantly pestered by these door-to-door salesmen is welcome to try this tactic. It worked for me.

But back to this flimsy strip of cloth. It depicts the emperor’s cavalry on parade, or so we think the inscription reads (this is an archaic script with which neither of us is familiar). Be sure to click the picture to enlarge it if you want to see the finer details.

There’s a lot to see in this picture. First, whoever produced this little gem has been able to capture movement with what are basically very crude shapes. The swooping lines of birds create the rhythm of movement, and the second pair of riders are clearly riding hell for leather. But what about the first pair? There is an unknown menace off-picture, and the leading riders are doing their best to stop. The horse pulling the first chariot is also trying to stop, although the charioteers don’t yet seem to have apprised the danger. Behind, the horses have got wind of something untoward ahead, but their riders/drivers are oblivious to it.

And then we come to the quixotic figure who brings up the rear. His horse is unsettled, but he trots serenely along, without a care and totally unaware of the hazards ahead. I wonder if this is a metaphor for the human condition. It is certainly more than a static representation of the parade. There is also a kind of luminosity created by the orange and white in contrast with the black of the figures and the background, which focuses the viewer’s attention on the action.

And the pleasure we've had from listening to people's comments: all for one measly dollar. Well, yes, the framing cost rather more, but who’s counting? This picture is priceless.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

comparative advantage

Ask almost any European about the history of their continent, and they will at the very least be able to tell you about some of the past rivalries between countries. The one between England and France has been ongoing for centuries. However, ask those same Europeans about rivalries, past and present, in Asia, and you are likely to draw a blank. The more knowledgeable will cite the rivalry, which often borders on outright hostility, between India and Pakistan, or that between China and Japan, but few if any will point to the understated rivalry between China and India. The 1962 border war that the two countries fought, over territorial claims with their roots in incompetent British surveying of the region in the nineteenth century, is largely forgotten.

They will be aware that both populations are of a similar size: these are, by a long way, the two most populous countries on Earth. They will know that both nations have rapidly expanding economies; and, if they are really switched on, they will tell you that both are ‘emerging superpowers’. But their powers of comparison will end there.

That this rivalry exists I infer from my own observations, two of which I present here. First, Hindu nationalists frequently claim that the whole of Chinese culture derives ultimately from Indian culture and traditions. It is true that Buddhism was a significant cultural export to China, and how it originally arrived in the country is the subject of a major Chinese literary classic, Journey to the West, but overall this claim is too obviously ridiculous to require further comment. And it is worth mentioning that Buddhism is now almost nonexistent in India, while, in typically Chinese fashion, this philosophy masquerading as a religion quickly acquired a local flavour in the form of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. And it should not be forgotten that Chinese ships visited India during the Han Dynasty, not vice versa.

Second, a few years ago I edited The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Eastern Philosophy, and I was amused to discover that several Chinese contributors referred to “the Chinese subcontinent”. If India is a subcontinent, the reasoning appeared to be, then surely China is too. An ex-geologist wasn’t going to let them get away with that.

However, the most interesting aspect of this rivalry is the way it pits ‘the world’s largest democracy’, with its fractious cliques vying for power, against a regime that is widely regarded as totalitarian, where dissent is not tolerated. And the question that this begs is which of the two will ascend to global hegemony in the twenty-first century as the United States inevitably declines. Or will each act as a counterbalance to the other?

Anyone who has played the proprietary board game Risk will be able to predict the likely outcome. This game quickly reaches a point where there are only three players, and at this point the two weaker players gang up on the strongest. And the US strategic alliance with India follows this pattern. However, in the game the strongest player quickly loses their superiority, at which point they join the weakest player against the new strongest player. So alliances are fluid and subject to change at very short notice, with each player having as their ultimate objective the utter defeat of the other two. Such cynicism is a factor in the alliance between India and the United States, although ‘defeat’ in the twenty-first century will be measured in economic rather than military terms.

Before moving on to a detailed comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of India and China, it may be instructive to examine how each country dealt with the irritation of a Portuguese enclave on its soil (both had been established in the early sixteenth century). Following demands that Portugal surrender Goa, which were rejected, the Indian army simply marched in and unilaterally annexed the enclave in 1961. Meanwhile, as it had done with Hong Kong, China negotiated a friendly handover of sovereignty regarding Macau.

The way in which China arranged the return of its territory reflects the legalistic Chinese mind and is straight out of the Sun Tzu playbook (The Art of War). By contrast, the way in which India reclaimed Goa probably had much to do with the entire country having been under colonial subjugation until quite recently, and the problem was tackled in the way it was for reasons of national pride. As a postscript, Goa is now the richest Indian state, although this may be a reflection of the reason for its seizure by the Portuguese in the first place. It is unlikely to be based on any legacy bequeathed by these former colonial masters, if Macau is anything to go by. It was allowed to develop as a seedy little town that relied on gambling for almost its entire income. And lax governance before the handover of sovereignty in 1999, in an echo of the control once exerted by the mafia in Las Vegas, allowed the casinos to be run (discreetly) by triad societies, and gang-related violence was commonplace. Unsurprisingly, this is now far less prevalent under Chinese rule.

Another point that suggests a fundamental difference between the two countries can be gleaned from the most recent ‘rich list’ published by Forbes magazine. There are two Indians in the top five, and a further six in the top hundred. There are no mainland Chinese in that hundred, although there are three Hong Kong Chinese. However, Hong Kong has always been a separate economic entity, and this has not changed since the resumption of Chinese sovereignty, so the contrast remains valid. Given that the Chinese economy is more than 2.5 times the size of the Indian, then inequality of wealth distribution is clearly more extreme in the latter. This seems to me to be a serious long-term disadvantage.

A third point of difference is how the two countries have dealt with local foreign invaders in the past. The Mongol and Manchu invaders of China were eventually assimilated, becoming culturally if not ethnically Chinese, but the Mughals, descendants of the Mongol Timur Lang (Tamerlane), brought their own culture with them, and it is usually Mughal architecture such as the Taj Mahal that is thought of as quintessentially Indian. They also brought a new religion (Islam), always a bad move, in this case because it created a tension between indigenous Hindus and the Muslim newcomers that persists to this day. Although tensions have eased in recent decades, there are still sporadic outbreaks of inter-religious violence, the most recent major incident being in Gujarat in 2002.

This introduces the most significant difference between the two countries, which lies not in their systems of governance but in their levels of ethnic homogeneity. While India is a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups, 98 percent of the Chinese population is Han Chinese. The relevance of this may not be obvious, but it must influence the ease with which it is possible to rouse nationalistic fervour: a large homogeneous population is more easily persuaded of a course of action because there are no competing loyalties; a heterogeneous population requires that compromises be made. However, whether this turns out to be a handicap depends on global events and trends in the next few decades: compromise can be a valuable tool in turbulent times.

India has the added disadvantage of its caste system: I assume that the situation has ameliorated in recent decades, but it cannot be a good idea to stifle talent at the low end of the social scale while promoting those with little or nothing to offer the wider community simply because of the family they were born into. There are echoes of the English class system here, although caste does seem to be a more pernicious discriminator. Of course, China does have its ethnic tensions, notably with its reluctant Tibetan citizens and with the Uighurs of Xinjiang, but these are peripheral areas that are not part of the Chinese heartland, and events in either place are unlikely to have a strategic impact on the rest of the country.

Having mentioned Risk earlier, it is appropriate that I point out two other board games that frame the most intriguing of all the contrasts between the countries: shaturanga and wei ch’i. The ancient Indian game of shaturanga is generally regarded as the forerunner of modern chess, while the Chinese game wei ch’i is now more widely played in Japan and is better known in the West as ‘go’. And while it is accurate to label chess a battle, go is a war and as such requires acute strategic vision in addition to tactical nous. It is in keeping with how the Chinese tackle any situation: they always play a long game, which is important to bear in mind when attempting to predict the aims, ambitions and future behaviour of their country. Chess, on the other hand, is a game with more short-term, limited objectives: as Francisco Pizarro discovered during his brutal conquest of the Inca empire in 1532, capture the leader and the game is won. There are no leaders in wei ch’i, making it impossible to achieve victory with a single stroke.

It is important to bear in mind that the Chinese have never, in their long history, had a say in the choice of their leader. In fact, it’s possible that, excluding a few much-publicized dissidents, they don’t even want such a choice: I recall a late-night conversation with a group of Chinese friends in which the consensus was that what the Chinese needed was another emperor! Indeed, it is likely that such an arrangement, with its roots in Confucian philosophy, is one reason for the ease with which the Chinese government has been able to secure the acquiescence of its population. They have an emperor, Hu Jintao, complete with his grand vizier, Wen Jiabao. But what sets this pair apart from the emperors of old is that in 2012 they will disappear from the scene. And I really do mean disappear. The era of the ‘paramount leader’ (Deng Xiaoping, who retained this pompous title even on his deathbed) is over. Jiang Zemin was a self-important imitation of his mentor Deng, but the blueprint for future leaders seems far more likely to be ex-prime minister Zhu Rongji, who retired in 2002 and promptly vanished from the radar. The West could learn a thing or two from this philosophy.

Meanwhile, although India is proud of its democratic traditions, this does come with disadvantages: the short-termism that is built into the capitalist system has repercussions, especially with respect to the speed and efficiency with which major infrastructure developments are planned and built. However, India has two significant advantages: it has a large pool of people who are completely fluent in English, which is likely to remain the world’s lingua franca for the foreseeable future; and it is a world leader in information and communications technology (ICT). Unsurprisingly, though, the Chinese are aware that this is the case and are already taking steps to remedy the situation. It is impossible to ride the Beijing subway, as an obvious foreigner, without someone coming up to you to practise their English. And thousands of Indian ICT professionals are currently working in China—teaching the locals the tricks of the trade. I’m irresistibly reminded of Lenin’s famous quote about the capitalist selling you the rope with which you eventually hang him.

In fact, India has earmarked US$3.4 trillion for infrastructure projects over the next five years, but this is dwarfed by what is happening in China, which inter alia is in the process of building a countrywide high-speed rail network at a speed that is little short of astounding. China already has the longest such network in the world, but within the next two or three years its network will be longer than that of the rest of the world combined. Budgets, naturally, are not disclosed, but one can assume that China can afford it, given its massive trade surplus.

Ironically, Hong Kong will be almost the last major Chinese city to be connected to the network. It is scheduled to be online by 2016, part of the delay being the result of widespread nimbyism in the territory and claims for compensation by those affected. Neither is a problem in the rest of China, for obvious reasons.

Short-termism is not a problem in China either. Take a look at the country’s activities in Africa: securing resources, certainly, but also buying influence. Cash in the bank a couple of decades down the line. This is what most alarms the West, because unlike the way European colonists ravaged and plundered the continent in the nineteenth century and gave nothing in return, China is giving something in return for what it takes out, notably in the form of major construction projects. The shadow of colonialism still hovers over Africa, and with this in mind it is not difficult to predict the direction in which most African countries will lean if it ever becomes necessary to take sides.

So, what is China’s global strategy? Its leaders are surely aware that the country will become top dog in the international hierarchy by mid-century, and I’m sure that every one of them has read The Art of War. It should be required reading in every seat of political power from the White House to the Kremlin. However, the one mistake we should not make is to draw global conclusions from its relations with its immediate neighbours. The spat with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands should be seen as a renewal of the age-old hostility between these two countries, dangerous possibly, but not part of a larger plan by China, except perhaps to put pressure on Taiwan (the islands are closer to Taiwan, which has its own claim to these barren rocks, than they are to the mainland).

Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea are more sinister. To make it clear how outrageous these claims are, I’ve included a map:

It can be seen at a glance that these claims are utterly without merit: most of the area claimed by China is closer to at least two other countries, and most of the southern half of the area claimed is closer to no less than five. However, unless you happen to live in the region, there should be no grounds for concern. The frontiers of the Chinese empire have ebbed and flowed over the centuries in time with the strength or weakness of the centre. But Chinese muscle flexing, because that is what it is, begs a wider question: why play the bully? You can be sure that there is a reason, but it’s the long game again. As is the highway that will one day connect India and China. China has already driven a major road through Tibet and into Nepal, which could be interesting: a poor Hindu country, nominally a cultural client of India, may well believe that its future prosperity lies to the east, which will offer more reliable transportation of goods and people to and from the outside world. And as that highway edges closer to the Indian border, I leave you with one final image: a few years ago, the BBC’s satirical show Have I Got News for You featured an opening animation sequence that included a train à grande vitesse screaming across the French countryside and entering the Channel Tunnel, only to emerge on the English side as a rattling suburban boneshaker that would not have looked out of place in a provincial railway museum.

Friday, 29 October 2010

toodle pip!

How big are your vocabularies? No, that’s not a misprint. Each of us has at least two vocabularies: one of words that we actually use (disregarding, for now, the possibility that some of the words being used are not understood by their users), and one of words we don’t use but know the meaning of if someone else does use them. I leave aside the specialist vocabularies, more properly called jargon, in use between professional people such as accountants, lawyers and scientists, because I am looking for universal principles in the way we use our language, and bar the odd word that escapes from these rarefied confines, professional jargon is too restricted to be relevant. In passing, I might note that escapees are invariably misused in their new surroundings. A good example is the legal word ‘alibi’, which in general circulation is often mistakenly used as a synonym for ‘excuse’.

I was prompted to think about the subject that I’m about to discuss by my friend Barry, who invariably says “Toodle pip” when leaving. Now, I do know what he means, but I’d never dream of using the expression myself. I usually say “See you”, or simply “’Bye”. However, there are quite a few others that are part of my secondary vocabulary, none of which I’ve ever used as a valedictory, although I might write ‘he said farewell to…’. And if you’ve read French Letters, you’ll know why I don’t say adieu or au revoir. As for ciao, how did the Italians get in on the act?

In straightforward descriptive language, we happily interchange ‘big’ and ‘large’ or ‘small’ and ‘little’, occasionally slipping in a more unusual alternative such as ‘colossal’ or ‘minuscule’. However, when it comes to naming everyday objects or institutions, we may know of quite a few different options, but (I’m speculating here) invariably we use only one. To test my theory, I’ll start in the toilet.

Actually, I only ever use the word ‘toilet’ when I feel that I’m in polite company. My preferred option is ‘the bogs’ and has been ever since I learned a word for ‘an installation designed to facilitate the comfortable and convenient performance of essential bodily functions’. English DJ John Peel championed a punk band called Bogshed in the mid-1980s, but perhaps the band made an error with its choice of name, because its fame was strictly ephemeral, like a fart.

There are many others: WC or water closet, lavatory and convenience are neutral words that can be used in any social situation, while ‘the gents’ and ‘the ladies’ are reflective of the once ubiquitous signs indicating a public convenience in the UK. On the other hand, if I were to find myself lost somewhere in an American city and ‘highly desirous of a snakes’, to quote Barry McKenzie, I think it would be prudent to enquire about the whereabouts of the nearest john, on the grounds that the more genteel alternatives may not be understood, and the risk of misunderstanding in such circumstances doesn’t bear thinking about. The same logic would impel me to ask whether a dunnee was suitably adjacent, should I ever find myself in a similar predicament down under.

The point to note here is that these are all euphemisms. It is as if we are ashamed. And the most egregious of all is that hideous genteelism ‘loo’. And if, as I suspect, it is a portmanteau word derived from ‘lavatory’ and ‘poo’, then I am even more scornful. And don’t mention ‘latrine’, unless you’re a military man and can use the word to describe a domestic privy while keeping a straight face.

Let us move on to something altogether more enticing: money. ‘Money’ may be the formal name for the stuff, but there are a surprising number of informal or slang terms with reasonably wide currency. Here’s a selection: bread, cash, dosh, dough, loot, lucre, moolah, the necessary, readies (banknotes, but mainly used as a generic word for money), simoleons, spondulicks, wad, the wherewithal. I use none of these; instead I would refer to ‘lure’, which is part of the local dialect in my home town, the point again being that I know many but use only one.

And what about the police? The definitive name for a law enforcement agency tends to be used mostly in formal contexts, otherwise its employees are variously bears, cops, coppers, the filth, the heat, pigs, rozzers or the Old Bill. Some of these are downright insulting, which obviously reflects the status of the police in some sections of society. Others, such as ‘bobby’ and ‘peeler’, are almost as dead as the man who inspired these terms, although the chairman of the Cumbria Police Authority when I was a member in the mid-1990s consistently used the first.

Me? I prefer ‘copper’, which doesn’t make any value judgements and has the clear advantage of being an agent noun (one who cops, or arrests), which makes it etymologically more dignified. On the other hand, if I want to be facetious, I’ve taken to referring to the local constabulary, collectively, as ‘Mr Plod’, after the policeman in the Noddy in Toytown books by Enid Blyton.

We move merrily on to the condition of being intoxicated by alcohol; there are several words for this that appear to be in use only around my home town, the current favourite being ‘gassed’. And it’s worth noting that some terms are clearly genteel euphemisms—merry, tiddly, tipsy—reflecting perhaps the strength of the temperance movement in Victorian Britain. There are even formal similes, such as ‘drunk as a lord’ (perhaps at one time only the aristocracy could afford to get really pissed), and poetic phrases such as ‘three sheets to the wind’, which will mean something to you only if you also know what it is to splice the mainbrace.

So these are my contentions: (1) we may know several slang terms for something, but we habitually use only one, or at most two; and (2) the number of slang terms for something is directly proportional to the importance we attach to that thing. As supporting evidence for the second claim, I present the following list of words, some of which betray a kind of naive arrogance when used self-referentially (with apologies to my female readers, who may not use any of them; I wouldn’t expect them to regard the object they describe as that important anyway): beef bayonet, cock, dick, dong, hampton, John Thomas, knob, mutton dagger, one-eyed trouser snake, pecker, Percy, prick, privy member, pork sword, sausage surprise, todger, wedding tackle, whang, wife’s best friend…. To quote Wellington: “Ipso fatso, my case rests.”