Tuesday, 30 March 2010

we are reliably informed

It is said that we live in the information age. Unfortunately, we’re not vouchsafed any guarantees as to the veracity or accuracy of the information on offer. And, paraphrasing C. Northcote Parkinson, to make matters worse, information increases in volume to fill the means available for its transmission. It has always been so.

All forms of primitive communication over distance, from the bullroarer, known throughout the world, to African drums and Native American smoke signals, have one thing in common: lack of bandwidth. This means that any message that is to be transmitted must be both simple and important. Clearly, there is no point in a message being capable of more than one interpretation, so there is no room for subtlety, and complex messages are impossible. Everything must be direct and to the point. I leave the question of who adjudicates in matters of importance for the moment.

Now look what happens with the invention of the electric telegraph. First, it becomes possible, thanks to Morse code, to transmit messages that are precise in meaning; second, there is a huge increase in the speed and range of transmission. And both greater precision and faster transmission mean that more messages can be sent in a given time. It is inevitable that some messages will be less important than others, and as the technology spreads, it also becomes inevitable that some messages aren’t important at all, whatever criteria you choose to adopt.

As new means of message transmission have come on stream, the trend towards unimportance and/or irrelevance in messages has intensified exponentially and has now reached the point where it has become almost impossible to avoid being swamped by what can only be described as ‘noise’. Only a very small proportion of the messages being transmitted in the modern era have content that is useful.

What I will call the information pyramid succinctly describes the current state of play. At the base are the billions of messages that are ephemeral, irrelevant or simply pointless. The messages posted on social networking sites and published in celebrity gossip columns fall unequivocally into this category. The next step in the hierarchy can be described as ‘information’ and has this characteristic: that it is useful beyond mere amusement or titillation. However, if that information is used only once before being allowed to sink back into the background noise, then its potential may be wasted.

On the other hand, translating this information into ‘knowledge’ requires a level of intellectual engagement that has become ever more difficult to sustain in the modern climate of triviality and superficial discourse. It also requires the ability to discriminate between the merely useful and the genuinely important.

Attaining the apex of the pyramid, which can be described as ‘wisdom’, is a lonely endeavour that few will attempt and that requires a superhuman effort. And, in a bizarre reversal of definitions, the attainment of such wisdom is likely to be seen by those who cannot distinguish between noise and information as pointless and irrelevant. Unfortunately, wisdom is always denigrated by people who do not or cannot understand it. Clever people are invariably viewed with suspicion.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

mystery

People are strange. To illustrate my point, I’d like to describe a phenomenon that I first noticed about ten years ago in a small shopping mall adjoining Tsuen Wan station. The Luk Yiu Galleria is like any other out-of-town shopping precinct. No fancy atrium, no escalators spanning more empty space than you want to think too closely about, no glass-walled elevators. In short, no flash. Just two longish corridors with shops on each side, and at each end two pairs of double glass doors that hinge both ways. Any door will remain open if opened to precisely ninety degrees, but the default position is that the doors are closed.

Outside the end nearer the station there is a small open square with flows of people to and from the station, the galleria, the top of a flight of stairs leading up from street level, a bridge crossing the main road, a walkway that skirts the station and gives access to other bridges crossing the road, and the foot of stairs leading down from the upper level (luckily, just a supermarket). I’ve never seen the square really crowded. Everyone is free to walk at whatever pace they choose to adopt. However, as you may have noticed, given the possible permutations of exit and entry points, flows of people must be moving in at least three and possibly four independent directions. But guess what? Nobody breaks stride. They instinctively plot a course through the gaps in everyone else’s trajectories. Naturally, this has the makings of a splendid game. Moving quickly through crowds is a keen test of mental and physical agility, and this is somewhere to practise your skills, not learn them.

However, that was a digression. The other end of the galleria leads to a housing estate, so there is quite a lot of traffic through the doors, but not so much that if you see that someone is approaching from the opposite direction you can’t easily choose another door to go through. Which is what happens. Nothing unusual so far.

For reasons that I’ve always assumed were completely arbitrary, one of the outer doors would occasionally be left in the open position. Straight away, the game changes. Now when two people approach from opposite directions, both go for the open door. And whoever reaches the door second politely waits for the other to pass through before proceeding. Why not immediately choose another door? It’s what you would do if all four doors were closed. It’s what I always do. I’ve never been able to answer this question to my satisfaction, although I do have a theory.

People think only when they think they need to. Which, when you think about it, is a serious waste of resources.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

unsympathetic magic

During my recent illness, my wife has steadfastly refused to allow me to drink coffee.

“Coffee makes you cough,” she says, citing some arcane point of Chinese medicine.

“In that case,” I suggest, “eating toffee should make me tough.”

My wife laughs, but the result remains the same.

No coffee.

Friday, 26 March 2010

birdsong

I bought an MP3 player a couple of years ago, because I listen to music all the time at home, and I thought it would be a good idea to be able to listen to music while on the move. I hardly ever use it. For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t consider using it while cycling, but even when I’m merely out walking I’d rather listen to the birds.

In fact, I’ve heard it argued, plausibly, that birdsong was the inspiration for the development of music in primitive human societies. However, I’m not suggesting that Fanling is awash with natural melody, because it isn’t. My conjecture is that had early music been inspired by the birdsong around these parts, we might have ignored Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and the Beatles, and all other intervening steps in the development of music, and jumped straight to Michael Tippett, John Cage and Harrison Birtwistle.

One thing that is certainly absent is an authentic songbird, a local equivalent of the English blackbird or thrush. Instead, every bird around these parts has a disappointingly brief, albeit distinctive, call. Some are more mellifluous than others, but most are shrill and at least slightly discordant. I’ve found it impossible to formally identify any of the main ‘players’, which tend to remain well hidden in the foliage when they kick off, so I’ve taken to giving names to birds based solely on their calls.

The ‘demented referee’ is a typical example: I’ve never actually seen one, but I’ve given it this name because its call sounds like a sequence of perhaps four short, sharp blasts on one of those old-fashioned whistles with a pea in it. It is almost possible to hear the pea rattling round inside the whistle, and you can sense the red card being pulled out as the referee rushes to the point of some particularly nasty piece of foul play.

Another is the ‘swanee whistler’. This ‘performer’ has a call that sounds like a swanee whistle as the plunger is pulled out. This is usually repeated between five and twenty times at roughly one-second intervals, and the amusing part is that it starts quietly, almost as if the whistler is tuning up, but then gets progressively louder. It is as if the bird thinks “not loud enough; try again”. And, as often as not, as the calls grow louder the note cracks, as if the swanee whistle is being overblown to produce a higher harmonic rather than the natural note.

Did I mention that the birds around here are LOUD? And none is louder than the ‘telephone ringer’. This bird’s call sounds like a higher-pitched version of the two-note ringtone of a 1970s telephone fed through one of those old-fashioned reverb amplifiers that used to be popular in the 1970s. If you were to hear it for the first time from fifty yards behind you, you would turn around and exclaim:

“What the hell was that?”

It is that loud. In fact, I suspect that some plant in the neighbourhood is a natural source of amphetamine, which then gets into the local food chain by being eaten by cicadas (which are also extremely loud). These are then eaten by the birds. Even the spotted doves, which are also common, coo three or four times louder than I’ve ever heard doves coo anywhere else.

There is also a bird that sounds like a malevolent cross between a kookaburra and a rooster, and another that sounds as if someone has inadvertently triggered a burglar alarm, although this latter may be the telephone ringer in panic mode, so I’ve refrained from giving it a name. And then there are the birds whose calls are not especially distinctive but that grab my attention because they usually turn up in groups of three or four in the tree in front of our house and sound as if they’re arguing over something or other, perhaps over who is loudest. When they appear early in the morning, they are as likely as not to drown out the alarm clock, which does make me wonder, on some mornings, why we bother with such a device in the first place.

It is sometimes said that birdsong is the music of the gods, but if this is the case, on the evidence of my own ears, then the heaven inhabited by these gods is the same heaven that was reduced to a state of chaos by the Monkey King in the well-known Chinese legend. Monkey, with his famous ‘as-you-will’ cudgel, would have felt right at home in the countryside around here.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

in defence of pigs

The English language contains a lot of words and phrases that include the name of an animal and are, as such, intended as metaphors for specific types of human behaviour. Most of these hinge on a key aspect of the perceived character of the animal in question. Thus, to fox is to outwit through guile or cunning and clearly derives from the long-held belief, reinforced in children’s literature, that the fox is a creature that achieves its goals by deception.

In the same way, to parrot is to spout words to which the speaker does not attach any real meaning, in the same way that a caged parrot can appear to have a huge vocabulary but actually understand none of it. The sloganeering nature of politics is fertile ground for parrots. To dog is to follow relentlessly, whatever obstacles are thrown in the path of the dogger, and alludes to the ability of a pack of wild dogs to track its prey for days, if that is what it takes.

All of these examples bear some resemblance to the animal in question. But what about the various phrases that reference pigs? Why are they all so negative? For example, if you were to call someone a pig, you would be implying that they are greedy and/or extremely messy in their eating habits. This association of greed with pigs is best exemplified by the common caricature of the über-capitalist, the grande bourgeoisie in Marx’s classification, as a pig in a top hat smoking a fat cigar. It is probably no accident that George Orwell chose the pigs as leaders of the revolution in Animal Farm. It will be remembered that the pigs eventually subvert the revolution to their own ends.

On the other hand, if you were to call someone a swine, you would be suggesting that they had shown some degree of moral turpitude. And even though pigs are known to be extremely intelligent animals, more so than dogs and cats, we insist on ‘casting pearls before swine’, suggesting that these much maligned beasts are incapable of judging beauty. Well, so is every other animal, as far as one can tell. Why single out pigs as the vehicle for such an insulting metaphor? In this case, it would seem that an unwarranted degree of prejudice against our porcine friends is at play.

What about the phrase ‘to hog the limelight’? Is this behaviour either typical of or confined to pigs? ‘Snouts in the trough’ does have some basis in reality, but this metaphor, while accurate when applied to politicians, also has its roots in the notion that pigs are greedy. And why, if we make an almighty cock-up of a task, do we claim to have made ‘a pig’s ear’ of that endeavour? Finally, it is a well-known fact that ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’. I have news for you: you can’t make a silk purse out of an elephant’s ear either; and you can’t make a Savile Row suit out of empty breakfast cereal boxes. Neither of these statements is any more fatuous than the one about sows’ ears.

In fact, it is difficult to find any positive references to pigs anywhere in popular culture. The nearest is probably Porky Pig, the shy, mild-mannered hero of many Warner Brothers cartoons. It is clear that the characterization is an affectionate one, but Porky is still the straight man to the lunacy of characters like Daffy Duck.

However, it is worth noting that this negative stereotyping of pigs is not mirrored in Chinese culture. The most recent Year of the Pig (2007), which coincided with the element gold or metal, an event that happens only one year in sixty, spurred a rush of young couples into marriage, anxious to take advantage of this propitious conjunction. And if you believe such tosh, people born in pig years are kind, loyal and trustworthy.

But I won’t boar you with further details. “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!”

Sunday, 21 March 2010

cotton trees

One of the things I like most about Hong Kong, especially in springtime, is the sheer number of ornamental trees. Blue jacarandas (a native of South America) and royal poincianas (a native of Madagascar and frequently described as ‘flame trees’—you will understand why if you see one in full bloom) are quite common, but both of these flower in late spring. However, there is one native species that is even more spectacular and is flowering as I write: the cotton tree.

Cotton trees are also among the largest trees in Hong Kong, with the oldest specimens reaching 30 metres in height with trunks up to 3 metres in diameter. The tree seen in silhouette at the bottom of this page is a large cotton tree. The morphology of the cotton tree is also unusual: like pine trees, several branches split from the main trunk at the same height, and this is repeated all the way up the tree. And, unlike most other Hong Kong trees, cotton trees shed their leaves during the winter.

However, the really interesting characteristic of these trees is that flowers appear before the leaves in spring. And when these flowers eventually drop, they are so heavy that they hit the ground with a thud. Last year at this time, my wife fell into conversation with a fellow passenger on the minibus taking her to the station.

“Aren’t the cotton trees looking beautiful at the moment?” she remarked (there are a lot of cotton trees around these parts).

The reply stunned my wife, which is why she told me about the conversation:

“But they leave a mess on the ground!”

Some people have no soul.

However, because I've felt a little better today, I decided to take a few photographs, so you can judge for yourself.

Three small cotton trees, with typical Hong Kong countryside in the background.

Cotton trees are commonly found on roadsides.

Looking up from directly below the tree in the previous picture. The distinctive branching structure can be clearly seen.

“They leave a mess on the ground.”

At this point, you may be wondering why they are called cotton trees. The next photograph will explain.

A single cotton tree seed.

Friday, 19 March 2010

game of death

One of the more interesting minor news items of the past few days—so interesting that I felt it necessary to ignore my own illness in order to comment—concerns a French TV documentary, Game of Death, which was aired recently on a major terrestrial channel in France. The program used eighty participants, each of whom thought they were taking part in a pilot for a new game show. It was filmed in front of an audience.

Each contestant, in turn, was led out before the audience and told that their role in what was to follow was to administer an electric shock to a man in an adjacent cubicle, whom they believed to be a fellow contestant and whom they could hear but not see, every time he gave a wrong answer to a question, the voltage being increased each time. The truly horrifying part of this story is that only 20 percent of the participants refused to continue before a potentially lethal final shock was administered.

What none of the participants knew was that there was no electric shock, and the man in the cubicle was an actor whose job it was to scream in pain as and when required. I have no wish to condemn those participants who were prepared to torture, even kill, another human being whom they did not know, especially as they were under pressure from a glamorous presenter, a man in a white coat (the universal code, even in porn movies, for a ‘scientist’), a studio audience baying for blood, and dramatic background music.

In fact, I can afford to be a little smug here. When an advance trailer for this item appeared on BBC World News, our TV had been set to ‘mute’ and all we saw were images of a slider being pushed up to maximum and a man writhing in agony. I was immediately reminded of the experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961–62, purportedly to investigate how ordinary people can become mass murderers. The trial, in Jerusalem, of Adolf Eichmann had begun three months before the first experiments and probably inspired them, but in addition the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in occupied Poland during the Second World War were just beginning to be more widely known; nevertheless, only professional historians and book editors are likely to be aware of that story, and only students of psychology (and book editors) are likely to be aware of the experiments, so any smugness on my part is simply not justified.

There are several points to be made here: first, in Milgram’s experiments, only 65 percent of participants went ‘all the way’; the higher figure in the TV program is likely to have been influenced by peer pressure and the widespread infatuation among the public with so-called ‘reality’ television and celebrity.

Second, no university ethics committee would countenance this type of experiment nowadays, because there can be no guarantee that participants will not be traumatized by their experience. Milgram’s experiments were controversial at the time for precisely this reason. Unfortunately, TV companies are not constrained by such niceties; viewer figures are the only yardstick of success. And it is almost certain that some participants in the bogus game show will have continuing psychological problems as a result of their experiences.

Third, in both cases the experiments established that people can behave in appallingly inhumane ways given the right circumstances, but this was already known, and the much more important question of why people do behave in this way remains unanswered.

Finally, it should be noted that extreme public humiliation is a key ingredient in all successful reality shows, whether it be The Apprentice, Big Brother, America’s Next Top Model, Survivor or countless others. It is what the audience expects. And what participants are more than happy to endure in the pathetic belief that they will become ‘famous’. Personally, I find it all not just depressing but actually disgusting: prurient interest provided for and regarded as somehow important. Nothing could induce me to watch a single episode of any reality show, and I’ve never even heard any of the winners of The X Factor, Pop Idol or American Idol. I have much better things to do. And I certainly don’t take kindly to crude efforts to manipulate my emotions by pernicious nonsense that belongs in the garbage.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

sick note

I think I was being much too optimistic in my last post. After two weeks, I feel worse than I did when I first fell ill. I don't normally seek medical advice for something as trivial as an upper respiratory tract infection, but the worst symptom has been generalized muscle weakness/tiredness and a total inability to concentrate on anything, so I'll be paying a visit to my local doctor tomorrow. And I have a horrible feeling that I won't be the full shilling again for at least a couple of weeks. I hope that those of you who have been following my ramblings will bear with me. I am keen to restart regular posting just as soon as I can shake off this debilitating malaise. At least I have a few ideas in the pipeline.

Monday, 15 March 2010

more reasons to be cheerful

Regular visitors to this site will have noted that not many posts have been made this month. There is an explanation: I've been ill for almost two weeks and have been unable to focus on writing. I've not yet fully recovered, but I'm optimistic that normal service will be resumed quite soon. Thank you all for your patience. The following post will probably be expanded once I'm feeling better.

I was born in a small market town in the north of England in August 1946. I was smart enough to be able to attend the local grammar school and thence to go to university—a mundane background that has allowed me to do more or less what I have wanted to do throughout my life. In other words, I’ve been more fortunate than the average. But what if I’d been born in another part of the world, into a different family?

I could have been born in southern Appalachia (Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama or Mississippi), in which case I may still be addressing African-Americans as ‘Boy’. I probably believe that science is a cult and that the theory of evolution is a conspiracy to subvert the word of God. I may even think that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Worse still, I might be looking forward to voting for Sarah Palin in the 2012 presidential election.

I could have been born in China. Although I would now be enjoying some degree of economic prosperity, I would probably be parroting government slogans such as “The Chinese People Love Tibet” without understanding their significance or questioning whether the Chinese presence in Tibet has any legitimacy.

I could have been born a Muslim in British India. My family may have decided to remain in India after independence, in which case communal violence between Muslims and Hindus would be a constant threat. If my family had moved instead to the newly created Pakistan, suicide bombings would now be an even greater threat.

I could have been born in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin and at the age of twenty months seen almost my entire family massacred by Irgun and Lehi (aka Stern Gang) Jewish terrorists. I could now be rejoicing because my grandson has just blown himself up, taking with him several Israeli civilians.

I could have been born in the Belgian Congo. I’d probably be dead now.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

sweet and sour

The history of kung fu is littered with stories, probably apocryphal but with some credibility, of old masters, on their deathbeds, lamenting that they hadn’t passed on all they knew to at least one of their disciples. Not all teachers were like that of course: I studied wing chun for five years in the 1980s with a teacher who said he would consider himself a failure if he didn’t have at least one student who turned out to be better than him.

That wasn’t me; I was fairly useless, but I did gain some invaluable insights into one aspect of the Chinese psyche. Many Chinese sifus, while talented as martial artists, are obsessed with their own importance, which is why they expect to be addressed as ‘sifu’ (teacher). My teacher asked his students to address him as ‘Hong Kor’ (Brother Hong), ‘brother’ being the usual form of address between fellow students in the same school. In other ways, however, my teacher was almost the archetype of the traditional Chinese teacher: strict, quick to criticize and slow to praise (although I did work out how to not let that bother me).

I was reminded of all this on a recent visit to an upmarket Chinese restaurant with two friends. I’d only been there once before (not surprising given the prices it charges), and one of its signature dishes is sweet and sour pork, so I was keen to try that. You might think that sweet and sour pork is no big deal; everyone makes it. But you would be mistaken. This dish is a lot harder to make properly than most people realize; it is one of the dishes that is used to test the ability of a chef applying for a job in a top restaurant.

We were informed that the old head chef was no longer with the restaurant, but his former assistant was now in charge of the kitchen. He came round in person to talk to diners during our meal, and we asked him about his old mentor.

“He taught me everything I know,” he answered.

After sampling his sweet and sour pork, which was good but not quite the best, I couldn’t help but wonder whether his teacher had taught him everything he knew.

Friday, 5 March 2010

reasons to be cheerful

Depressed? Feeling run down? Life is crap, right? Fate threw you a raw deal? I feel like that sometimes, but then I remember:

I don’t live in a war zone. Those who do rarely have any other choice.

I’ve never had the experience of going without food for days and still not know when I will eat again.

I don’t live in a country where the chance of being blown up by a suicide bomber is a significant consideration as I go about everyday life.

I don’t live in an earthquake zone. Unfortunately, for most of those who do, they again have no choice.

I don’t live on the slopes of an unstable hillside or in the shadow of an active volcano.

I don’t live in fear of the midnight knock on the door. I’ve always lived in societies and communities with plenty of rules, but rules are rules, and rules are meant to be followed. And if they’re not, there are yet more rules to deal with the situation where the rules are broken. In a police state (and there are still quite a few out there), there are no rules.

I’m not a member of an ethnic minority living in a neighbourhood where a brick through the window is a regular occurrence, although I do happen to be the sole representative of the only ethnic minority around these parts. However, nobody notices except my wife, although she claims that it’s a useful characteristic for me to have because she can see me coming through a crowd.

I don’t live in a region of the world where the probability that I might contract malaria, schistosomiasis or other horrible parasitic disease, or one of those nasty haemorrhagic fevers, is about the same as the probability that I might catch cold where I do live.

I don’t live in a region where the onset of a hurricane or typhoon places me at serious risk of physical injury, even of being killed. I do live somewhere that is affected by typhoons, although direct hits on Hong Kong are uncommon. But if one does hit, the worst that could happen is a few broken windows. Our house is made of reinforced concrete, so our only worry is the quality of the concrete. You might think that I’m worrying about nothing in that case, but then you haven’t seen a modern village house being built. On the other hand, the house remains standing after almost two years, so my hunch is that it would take a direct hit from a Chinese army helicopter to inflict terminal damage. Mind you, the risk of this happening isn’t entirely negligible—there’s a People’s Liberation Army base across the road.

I don’t live on the floodplain of a major river in a house that an out-of-control cyclist could knock down. I do live on a floodplain though, but it’s very small, and in any case, all the rivers around here have been canalized. I’ve often speculated as to what frequency of flooding event would overwhelm this level of defence, and I’m sure it’s at least 100 years. You’ve seen the pictures (Hong Kong Country): I don’t think I would want to be around when it does happen. On the other hand, I do know which way to run if I’m lucky enough to see the flood wave coming.

When I remember all these things, whatever petty inconvenience or annoyance I might feel aggrieved about seems utterly trivial by comparison. There is always going to be someone much worse off than me. Real shit happens to other people. I have no grounds for complaint.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

chopsticks

An old Chinese story tells of a wise and virtuous man who was granted a wish before dying: that he be able to visit both heaven and hell and judge for himself the difference between the two places. When he arrived in heaven, he found it to be a massive banqueting hall with long rows of narrow tables that were laden with dishes and pots of the most mouth-watering delicacies that could possibly be imagined. Every table was lined with diners, their smiling faces and light-hearted chatter demonstrating beyond all doubt that this was indeed heaven. The old man looked more closely, and he saw that everyone in that happy throng held a pair of chopsticks. And the chopsticks were more than three feet long. He looked more closely still, and he saw that in each diner’s hand, the lower chopstick was strapped securely around the thumb and could not be removed.

“I’ve seen enough,” said the old man. “Now show me hell.”

If you were expecting fire and brimstone at this point, I’m sorry to disappoint you, because when the sage arrived in hell, he found exactly the same scenario: banqueting hall, tables groaning with food, diners with three-foot chopsticks strapped to their hands. But there was one crucial difference: the diners weren’t smiling; they were scowling, glaring and arguing. And, unlike in heaven, no one was eating. The old man knew why this was the case. Do you?

In fact, variants of this story occur throughout East and Southeast Asia, and the details vary from teller to teller (I added my own embellishments), but it seems likely that it has its origins in Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. However, this is not about religion: it is about chopsticks.

How good is your chopstick technique? You will probably be surprised to learn that a lot of Chinese people aren’t very good, probably because it’s possible to get away with a very rudimentary technique. The giveaway is where a person holds the implements: the skill level is directly correlated with the distance of the hand holding the chopsticks from the business end: the further away, the greater the efficiency, and some tasks are impossible if the chopsticks are held halfway down. And when you see someone stab a siu mai (steamed prawn and minced pork dumpling) instead of picking it up, then you know that you’re dealing with a rank amateur, yet this is a remarkably common sight.

To be considered an expert, at least by me, you should be able to perform three tasks with panache and a pair of chopsticks. First, you must be able to scoop the rice from a bowl into your mouth in a continuous circular sweeping motion. This one is easy: all Chinese can do it, but not necessarily with the stipulated panache. And you’re not supposed to leave a trail of dropped rice grains on the table either, which is the likely outcome if your technique isn't up to the standard required.

Second, and considerably harder, you should be able to cut up a plate of cheung fan (rolled-up, steamed rice-flour pancakes that are usually about 15cm long and come in threes) into bite-sized pieces. Of course, chopsticks cannot be used to cut up a sirloin steak, but soft pancakes will yield if the chopsticks are correctly applied. However, the majority of Chinese achieve the desired end-result by using one chopstick in each hand, which I regard as very poor.

Now for the real test: pick up a straw mushroom. Like peeled quail eggs, these are oval in shape, but unlike quail eggs, which are hard enough to pick up, they are also slightly slimy on the outside. If you can do this every time without the object of your desire squirting across the table, you will not only impress your friends, you will also impress any Chinese who happen to observe your performance, not least because they probably can’t do it.

And if you can’t do it either, you can always take a leaf out of the bad worker’s manual and blame your tools, especially if you’re using Japanese chopsticks, which are entirely blameworthy. The Japanese have a long history of ‘improving’ items without considering the ergonomics of their use, and chopsticks are no exception. Like a modern digital camera with its LCD viewscreen, which is less efficient in use than a camera with a traditional viewfinder, Japanese chopsticks, the ends of which taper to a rounded point, are not as effective as traditional Chinese chopsticks, which have blunt ends. No doubt the Japanese would retort that it requires more skill to use their chopsticks, but I refuse to use implements that I think are badly designed deliberately just to make gaijins look silly.

So why not use a fork? Surely western cutlery is more efficient than either design of chopstick. As an Englishman, I lean towards this point of view, at least for food prepared in a typical western style. But what about noodles? If you were to watch my wife (who is Chinese) and I eating bowls of noodles at home, you would notice that one was using chopsticks, the other a fork. Nothing contrary to expectations there then. But who do you suppose would be using the chopsticks?

Monday, 1 March 2010

cycling in hong kong

To use a biological analogy, there are four species of cyclist in Hong Kong. By far the most numerous in the northern New Territories are regular cyclists, the people for whom a bike is the principal mode of transport, at least over short distances. They are very common around Fanling, partly because there is an extensive network of dedicated cycle tracks here, although not all sections are contiguous. The average skill level of regular cyclists is not high—they frequently have to push their bikes up the short and not particularly steep slopes that lead from subterranean interchanges to street level, for example—but apart from the odd situation that will be described later, they represent little threat, except to themselves. Many ride ramshackle machines that are badly maintained: these can be heard approaching from some distance away, even when you can’t see them.

A second type is also common around Fanling: the recreational cyclist; most of those we encounter on the main cycle network ride expensive bikes with small wheels, which are the latest fashion here, although those that ride past our house at weekends are usually on conventional mountain bikes. However, the majority of recreational cyclists who make it this far north do not live in the area, and it takes a lot of skill to ride along the narrow country paths that connect Fanling to Taipo, the next sizeable town to the south. At one point, the only route crosses the railway at a footbridge, the entry to which involves a very tight hairpin bend. If you’re coming in the opposite direction, there is a three-foot drop from the edge of the path, so you can’t afford to botch the turn; regular cyclists get off and push here too. The bridge itself is no pushover (unless you’re a regular cyclist): seen from a distance, there appears to be a flight of steps leading up to the bridge, but closer inspection reveals a bewildering alternation of short but steep and longer, more gentle gradients. It is terrain like this that prevents incursions of the other species of cyclist north of Taipo, albeit for opposing reasons.

Looking north from the footbridge with the 'steps': the path to Fanling can be seen beyond the railings.

Sports cyclists usually come out in herds containing as many as thirty individuals, and because speed is their principal raison d’être and because they ride narrow-wheeled racing bikes, they rarely venture away from the main cycleways south of Taipo. They seldom pose problems, although on narrower cycle tracks it can be intimidating to see a demented peloton approaching from the opposite direction, because they do tend to encroach on your side of the road. There is an arrogance about the way they ride that suggests they think they’re the ‘best’ cyclists around. They aren’t.

But they are a lot easier to live with than the fourth species: the weekend cyclist. As the name implies, these morons are only ever seen on weekends and public holidays; their skill levels range from not very good to downright incompetent. They don’t actually own the machines they ride, but bikes can be hired for the day from many places without prior proof of ability. They are the reason my wife and I never go cycling on a Sunday, and also why we don’t dally in Sham Chung on a Saturday morning after visiting our friend Tom.

Most cycle tracks here are wide enough for two cyclists to ride abreast in each direction, but south of Taipo, as far as the Hong Kong Science Park (about 7km), the track is wide enough for two double-decker buses to pass without either having to slow down. And it is marked out like a conventional road, with a central dividing line and occasional directional arrows to remind cyclists which side of the road they should be on. Both are ignored by weekend cyclists. When this section is busy, my wife likens it to Space Invaders, with the crucial difference that you have to miss the targets, not hit them.

One example of the dangers posed by weekend cyclists occurred on Christmas Eve, 2008. China Light and Power was digging up the road, so the untouched half was divided by a line of plastic cones. I was heading south, and it was clear ahead, so I was probably travelling at about 30km/hr when a small group of weekenders appeared coming in the opposite direction. I didn’t take a lot of notice, assuming that the cones provided sufficient guidance as to which side of the track they were supposed to be on. Unfortunately, the last rider in the group suddenly decided that the cones would provide an interesting slalom course. He pulled directly into my path when I was less than three metres away. Only my own fast reactions and the fact that the kerb on the left was a mere 6–7cm high, and bevelled, enabled me to bump up on to the footpath and avoid what would have been an inevitable collision for most cyclists. However, had the kerb been at a conventional height, this escape route would have been denied to me. I can still remember the six-word tirade that I launched at this idiot as I continued on my way: it included the words ‘you’ and ‘stupid’, but the other four words would be deemed unsuitable for sensitive ears.

A similar situation often crops up while we cycle through Taipo itself. Side tracks join the through route at regular intervals, and all have markings at the junctions that exactly parallel those on regular roads. In other words: ‘give way’. Not only do some regular cyclists ignore this exhortation; they come barrelling out of the side road without even looking. My theory is that these people don’t drive cars, so they’ve never learned what ‘give way’ markings on a road actually mean. At least they’re predictable, which is more than can be said for the typical weekend cyclist.

Finally, the question arises: is the quantity ‘four’ the total of all possible species? No it isn’t, because I have excluded a fifth type from my general classification on the grounds that these cyclists are only ever seen on roads. And it can be argued that they’re merely a subspecies of regular cyclist. However, let me introduce you to the lunatic cyclist, and an extreme example of his (they’re always men) typical behaviour.

I’d just dropped my wife off at Fanling station. My route home takes me along Sha Tau Kok Road, one of the main freight routes into and out of China. It is quite beautiful, for a road, with a long avenue of mature paper-bark trees in the middle section. It is also a two-lane dual carriageway, so traffic flow is quite brisk, despite the 50km/hr speed limit (there are no speed cameras, but there are two roundabouts and four sets of traffic lights). Anyway, I was coming off the second roundabout; the road curved to the left, and a high barrier protecting the cycling and pedestrian underpass below obscured my view forward.

That shouldn’t be a problem, because all the traffic is moving forwards anyway. Wrong! What should appear but the aforementioned lunatic, peddling furiously towards me. I barely had time to react. There are two points to make about this lamentable tale: first, the road beyond fans out into five lanes, and I was aiming ahead for lanes three or four (straight on). Had I intended to turn left at the lights, I’d have been aiming for lanes one or two and therefore a lot closer to the protective wall. I don’t think I could have missed at that range. Second, let me remind you what this fool couldn’t see (in addition to me and my car) because of the protective barrier: an interchange of dedicated cycle tracks! I often wonder what kind of deranged halfwit rides the wrong way down a dual carriageway when he doesn’t need to be on the road. Unfortunately, I have no answer to this perplexing question: the problem with stupid people is that they don’t know they’re stupid; people who only think they’re stupid are invariably pretty smart.

My wife negotiates a quiet cycle track on the eastern outskirts of the new town of Ma On Shan.