Friday, 25 January 2013

small pleasures

A few days ago, my friend Terence invited me to a buffet lunch at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club today. Terence is my oldest friend in Hong Kong, although I’ve lost contact with him a couple of times over the years, the most recent when we moved to Fanling in 2008. However, back in May, Paula and I were strolling along the bank of our local river early one evening when I saw a tall man with a distinctive mop of white hair.

“Gosh!” I exclaimed. “That looks like Terence.”

And so it was. It turned out that he’d recently moved into the village on the other side of the river from our house. I encountered Terence for the first time when he came to work as an instructor at the Outward Bound School in 1974. Within a few weeks of his arrival, he had sustained a serious leg fracture after skidding on a wet tram rail on Hong Kong island and falling off his motorbike. He was sidelined for eight months, which didn’t go down well with the school’s principal, who had been described in a local newspaper article as ‘a stubby, no-nonsense man with a mind of his own’. I would have been more inclined to describe him as a bombastic bully and bullshit artist.

Terence was eventually (unjustly) fired while I was on leave in the UK in 1976. Had this happened while I’d been in Hong Kong, I’d have walked out immediately, which may be why the principal waited until I wasn’t around. I suspect that the principal thought that Terence wasn’t up to the job, despite a solid background as a climber and mountaineer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more egregious error of judgement.

Terence is in fact the most remarkable man I’ve ever known. A few years after leaving the school, he set off to sail around the world, single-handed, without telling anyone. And he did too: no wimping out by passing through the Straits of Magellan either. He went the hard way, around Cape Horn!

Anyway, Terence needed to go to Aberdeen, on the south side of Hong Kong island, so he dropped me off near the yacht club to amuse myself for a couple of hours, which I did by taking a few photographs of reflections on the water of the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter. However, there is one famous Hong Kong tradition that, despite living here for so long, I’d never seen: the firing of the noonday gun.

I hadn’t planned to watch the gun being fired, but it is very close to the yacht club, and it would have been remiss of me not to see what happened. As 12 o’clock approached, a small knot of about thirty tourists began to gather around the railings that surround the gun platform. A small man in a commissionaire-style uniform appeared from a cabin, unlocked the gate and entered the enclosure surrounding the gun. This turned out to be quite a performance, one executed with military precision. First, the man checked that the ropes securing the flags at the top of two flagpoles were tight. These flags betray the origins of this ceremony: one is a stylized thistle on a white background, the corporate logo of the so-called ‘princely hong (company)’, Jardines; the other is the Scottish saltire. Next, with exaggerated movements, seemingly to show it to an unseen commanding officer, the man loaded the explosive charge. Then, as noon approached, he rang a large brass ship’s bell. Finally, he fired the gun (see picture).

Then it was off to the yacht club to meet Terence. The club’s main building dates to the nineteenth century; its granite walls, four feet thick, are a reminder that it was originally constructed as an arsenal for the Royal Navy. It was at one time located on a tiny island a couple of hundred metres offshore, but it is now possible to walk there. The club is the only institution in Hong Kong to retain the ‘Royal’ appellation (whether it should was decided by a vote by its members, but only in the English name); the Royal Observatory, the Royal Hong Kong Police and the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club dropped it after the handover in 1997 (I still instinctively refer to the Hong Kong Observatory as the Royal Observatory).

The verandah of the club’s main restaurant, which looks out over the harbour, is an extremely pleasant place to enjoy a relaxing lunch, and there were some unexpected and unplanned distractions. As we enjoyed a cold pint of Stella Artois before checking out the buffet, I couldn’t help but notice a young man who was attempting, with absolutely no success, to extract some ketchup from a bottle. He thumped the bottom of the bottle repeatedly, banged the neck of the bottle on the table and thumped the bottom of the bottle again.

“That chap over there is definitely not a scientist,” I said.

I explained about a property of some viscous fluids called thixotropy. A thixotropic fluid, which ketchup is, is one that shows a time-dependent change in viscosity: the longer it undergoes shear stress, the less viscous it becomes. In simple language, if you shake the ketchup bottle vigorously for about ten seconds, the ketchup will flow easily out of the bottle.

Then I noticed a sparrow hopping across the floor. Not a lot of birdlife around these parts, I thought to myself. But then, is that a heron at the end of the breakwater, and a greater egret? And a black-eared kite swooping in to perch on a white-painted post? I often see kites riding the thermals out in Fanling, but I’ve never seen one perched.

“Look! There’s a kingfisher on the edge of the breakwater,” said Terence.

It is impossible to identify the species (there are seven in Hong Kong) at a distance of 25 metres, a range at which all you appear to see is a little black dot, but even at such a distance the profile is unmistakable.

Finally, a pair of black-collared starlings appeared in a tree no more than five metres away. They were astonishingly quiet. These are the birds that Paula still refers to as ‘noisy buggers’, and they can be relied upon to kick up quite a racket when they appear, as they frequently do, in the tree in front of our house in Fanling.

Now that’s what I call lunch. Thank you Terence.

Not noisy buggers.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

the green, green grass of home

The most significant part of the recently concluded general election in the United States was not the contest to decide who would be the country’s next president but the decision by voters in the states of Washington and Colorado to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. It is far too early to predict how this decision will work, given that possession of this drug remains a federal crime, that federal law takes precedence over state law, and that, according to the federal authorities, marijuana is as dangerous as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

This view has changed little since the 1930s, when the official attitude to marijuana was articulated by Harry J. Anslinger, who was commissioner of the US Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, in testimony to a congressional committee:
How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the young, can only be conjectured…. No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a joyous reveller in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer….
Even the term ‘marijuana’ was part of the government’s effort to demonize cannabis, by deliberately associating it with possibly illegal Mexican immigrants and black Americans in the South. Another quote from Anslinger is relevant here:
Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.
There are other myths associated with cannabis use. The most persistent of these is the notion that cannabis is a ‘gateway’ drug, and that as a result of smoking cannabis users will eventually move on to heroin or crack cocaine. There is absolutely no evidence that this is the case, but it is a widely held belief among junior and middle-ranking police officers in the UK. As a member of the Cumbria Police Authority in the 1990s, I was appalled to hear this hoary old myth trotted out by a chief superintendent who had been given the task of showing me around police headquarters when I joined the authority.

However, there is one theoretical situation where users may move on to more dangerous drugs. A new user of cannabis will quickly discover that official government propaganda is wrong; the drug is nowhere near as dangerous as they had been led to believe. It is not addictive for a start. There is a possibility that they might assume they are being misled with regard to drugs that are as dangerous as they are claimed to be, such as heroin and cocaine.

When David Blunkett was home secretary in 2003, he engineered the reclassification of cannabis from category B to category C, which meant that, in effect, possession would no longer be an arrestable offence. Unfortunately, the government’s pompous drugs czar, Keith Hellawell, an alleged expert who usually had no idea what he was talking about, claimed that this move “sent out the wrong message” and resigned in protest, and a later Labour Party home secretary returned cannabis to category B, reiterating Hellawell’s comment as he did so.

This is a clear demonstration of the muddled thinking that is endemic in almost every government. The UK’s drugs classification system was designed to reflect the potential harm that an individual drug could cause, and ‘sending out a message’ should not be a part of that system. The UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was set up under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act to provide the government of the day with science-based advice on drugs, so when its chairman, Professor David Nutt, notorious for suggesting that riding a horse was more dangerous than taking the drug ecstasy (a statistical fact), was sacked for complaining publicly that politicians were ignoring scientific advice, that certainly sent out the wrong message.

Clearly, all drugs have the potential to do serious harm to the user, but if harm reduction is the intention of governments, most do a poor job. By pontificating on the dangers of smoking cannabis, say, politicians invariably achieve the opposite effect, because part of the attraction, particularly among teenagers being exposed to the drug for the first time, is the thrill of defying authority.

Moral disapproval is no basis for a drugs policy, and any responsible government should consider the health implications of cannabis use before anything else. This is clearly not the case in the United Kingdom, where most of the estimated five million or so cannabis users, invariably through ignorance, smoke either marijuana grown in illicit ‘factories’ (otherwise empty houses rented by criminal gangs for the purpose) or ‘soapbar’.

This noxious substance has supplanted genuine hashish, which is virtually unobtainable in the UK nowadays. I wonder how many of those five million users have any idea what it contains. Researchers at Edinburgh University recently subjected samples of soapbar to analysis by mass spectrometry, and their average findings were as follows: 4 percent flowers or cannabis resin; and up to 80 percent ground-up fan leaves (the large leaves that sprout from the main stem of the plant and have no psychoactive properties).

The remainder consisted of various unpleasant additives. The most common of these were glue, dyes, toluene and benzene (both of which are strongly carcinogenic), henna, turpentine, pine resin (to mask the smell of the above), plastics such as polythene and PVC (usually derived from re-pressing or remixing bars using petrol or diesel), and a medical or veterinary drug such as ketamine (to provide a ‘stoned’ effect). Among other ingredients found were bitumen, beeswax, shoe polish, condensed milk powder, instant coffee, brick dust, sand and dried animal turds.

Soapbar is often made in Spain or England, and it may have been re-pressed or remixed under heat several times before it reaches the end-user. It first appeared in Britain in the mid-1980s following the loss of Afghan and Lebanese sources of genuine hashish as a result of armed conflict in those countries, and although the street price of soapbar has fallen in real terms since the 1980s, the profits to be made are so large that the criminal gangs involved will not import or knowingly allow real hashish into the country.

The obvious question to ask is this: would you smoke this rubbish? I do wonder why anyone would, but some coffee shops in Amsterdam now stock soapbar, because they are being asked for it by British visitors, and a friend told me of a recent encounter that he had with a man on a beach in Jamaica who was smoking it (having brought it with him from the UK despite the easy availability of cannabis in Jamaica). Some people are too stupid for their own good.

The ‘herbal cannabis’ grown in the UK is not a lot better. Brick dust and sand are often added to bulk up the end-product, and cases have been reported of tiny glass beads also being added. These are particularly dangerous if inhaled, causing serious lung damage, and there has been at least one fatality as a result. Neither the health of customers nor the quality of the end-product is a consideration for the people who grow and sell this stuff, so cannabis plants are frequently harvested two or three weeks too early; they are dried rapidly using an external heat source (usually the lighting rigs used to grow the plants), which produces a harsh smoke; the end-product is never cured, which increases the amount of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and reduces the chlorophyll content; and the latest trend is to cultivate what are known as ‘autoflowering hybrids’.

A few years ago, cannabis breeders discovered that if they crossed established varieties with Cannabis ruderalis, a common weed in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there was no need to cut the amount of light reaching the plants to 12 hours per day in order to induce flowering. C. ruderalis flowers automatically from the third or fourth set of branches but has one drawback: it is not psychoactive. However, that is a minor concern when a crop can be ready in nine weeks from germination, cutting costs to the growers and reducing the risk of a crop being discovered before it is ready.

It should be obvious that the primary goal of any control measures must be to drive this rubbish off the streets; only the nature of those control measures need be debated. At one extreme, motivated by moral judgement and egged on by a moralistic tabloid press, are the politicians who believe that the problem can be eradicated by more draconian penalties and more robust enforcement. At the other extreme are those, usually outside mainstream politics, who advocate a laissez-faire free-for-all. Neither option is likely to be successful.

What is needed is some form of regulation, and this would need to be as robust as the present regimes for regulating the sale and consumption of tobacco and alcohol. The bonus for any cash-strapped government would be that such a regime would allow tax to be collected. Commercial growing and sale should both be allowed under license, with possible exemptions for amateur growers cultivating five plants or fewer, perhaps with a special license that includes an age restriction. However, there are a few obvious caveats.

First, any attempt to impose too high a tax on the newly legitimate product risks driving demand for unlicensed and therefore untaxed cannabis, which already happens in the UK with tobacco and alcohol because of the crippling levels of excise duty imposed on these products.

Second, there are several grey areas. Should it be legal to smoke cannabis in public, for example? What should the minimum age be before someone is allowed to purchase and smoke cannabis? How does one keep cannabis out of the hands of children? What is the maximum amount that a user should be allowed to possess before they are prosecuted?

Third, the most compelling case for legalization is with respect to cannabis smoked or otherwise ingested for medical reasons. Cannabis is an effective analgesic, and it does not have the problems with addiction that are associated with other strong painkillers such as morphine. The active ingredient here is cannabidiol (CBD), which is found in the greatest concentrations in C. indica varieties. Other medical properties of cannabis include its ability to combat nausea—useful for patients undergoing chemotherapy—and use as a vasodilator, which makes it suitable for treating poor circulation and high blood pressure.

There is likely to be more support in the UK for legalizing cannabis for medical purposes than for recreation, but opponents of both measures are likely to claim that allowing the drug for medical use will be ‘the thin end of the wedge’, leading to its legalization for recreational use at some point in the future. This, of course, is the well-known ‘slippery slope’ logical fallacy; pointing out the fallacy to the type of person who routinely uses it is usually futile.

Fourth, should there be either an outright ban or strict controls on cannabis with a high THC content? Several modern varieties have a THC content in excess of 20 percent, and it is these varieties that pose the greatest risk to susceptible users, who may develop the kind of symptoms usually associated with schizophrenia. Although the Netherlands has an international reputation for tolerance, which especially in the case of cannabis has boosted tourism, the country’s government decided to ban all types of cannabis with a THC content of more than 15 percent in 2011. However, the only viable control measure is increased taxation on stronger varieties, for reasons that have already been outlined: a ban is an open invitation to criminals, because demand for stronger cannabis will not disappear. In fact, before the ban, Dutch coffee shops reported that the stronger strains were their biggest sellers.

It will not be easy to achieve consensus in answering any of these questions, but reform of some kind is essential on both practical and moral grounds. Although the electors of Washington and Colorado may not have been thinking of the eighteenth amendment to their country’s constitution when they cast their ballots, the most ill-judged, misguided social experiment in history does offer a crucial lesson for the present day: prohibition doesn’t work!

It is not my usual practice to explain my post titles, but older readers may recall one of the most cringe-inducing #1 records of the 1960s, and its perpetrator, Tom Jones, who was also responsible for one of the most fatuous comments ever on the use of illegal drugs: ‘anyone can take drugs, but it takes a real man to hold his drink’. I do not deride a man’s choice not to smoke marijuana, which is what Jones probably had in mind, but associating with virility the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol without making a spectacle of oneself is so breathtakingly crass as to beggar all description.

Although Jones’s song refers to the stuff that cows eat, ‘grass’ is also one of many slang terms for marijuana. The UK is my home country, and, as I have pointed out above, the ‘herbal cannabis’ sold there is never cured, so it retains a high chlorophyll content and is therefore very green. Like the song, it is rubbish.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

more door gods

I explained the origin of the Chinese custom of posting ‘door gods’ at the main entrance to a building in Leaping Dragon, and I presented three examples from my local area in Guardians at the Gate, so without further explanation here are three more examples, which I photographed yesterday in the village of Shui Mei, near Kam Tin in the west of the New Territories (see the map at the end of this post; the red asterisk marks the approximate location of my house).

Cycling from Fanling to Kam Tin is an adventure in itself, following a complex maze of single-track roads, dirt tracks and narrow, sinuous, crumbling concrete paths, which I will describe in a future post. The buildings where these door gods were photographed are all next to each other: the Tang Kwong U Ancestral Hall, the Cheung Chun Yuen Study Hall and a small temple to a deity whose identity I have been unable to discover.

The study hall would probably be better described as a martial arts academy, unlike the more conventional study halls, which in earlier times were used by candidates for the imperial examination, the passing of which was a requirement for those wishing to join the civil service. It has a large adjoining courtyard, where students practised, and an even larger garden, but sadly both these and the outbuildings are in a ruinous condition.

As required by convention, Yuchi Jingde is on the left and Qin Shubao on the right in all the following images, although only where they are guarding the martial arts academy are they carrying their conventional weapons. The temple guardians have a cartoonish quality that I find delightful, while the ancestral hall guardians show a depth of detail that is distinctly unusual and that reflect the individualism of the artist. On a technical note, the glare that creeps in from the sides of most of the photographs is unavoidable, because they were taken when the doors were open but still partially illuminated by the light outside. The temple doors had been opened 180 degrees, so this fault does not occur.

Guarding the Tang Kwong U Ancestral Hall.

Guarding the Cheung Chun Yuen Study Hall.

Guarding a small temple.

Because the images of the door gods in Guardians at the Gate were montaged in a way that juxtaposed images of the same guard, I reproduce below the door gods from that earlier post montaged in the same way as the new images, for ease of comparison.

Guarding the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall.

Guarding the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall.

Guarding the Tin Hau Temple, Lung Yeuk Tau.

Location map.

other posts in this series
More Door Gods #2
More Door Gods #3
More Door Gods #4

Saturday, 12 January 2013

the cat man’s hut

If you’ve read Hong Kong Country, you will know that the area where I live just outside Fanling has a lot of tin and wooden shacks, many of which are still inhabited. Most of the more substantial buildings—Lee Ming Sang’s house, Koon Garden, the millionaire’s house—have been demolished, presumably by agents of Uncle Four (Turf Wars). Until a year ago, the shack in the picture below was home to an old man, who could usually be seen in his doorway sitting quietly and watching the world pass by.

Like several Chinese men that I’ve seen over the years, he had a severe stoop, so that his head was level with his waist, a condition that I attribute to an absence of dairy products in the typical Chinese diet. He kept a lot of cats, perhaps a dozen or more, none of which appeared to have been spayed, and the only time I saw him walking around was when he was feeding them.

About a year ago, the old man disappeared. The tiny hut in which he lived, which must have been stifling in summer, was carefully locked up and abandoned, and I’ve not seen him since. He may simply have died, but he may have been rehoused; I don’t expect to find out which of these possibilities is the right one.

However, while I was away last summer, an anonymous artist decided to ‘decorate’ the hut with images of a cat and a dog as farmers (the area is still used to grow vegetables). It is probably a coincidence that this artist chose to paint a cat on the old man’s door, but it seems entirely appropriate. Looking at the images, I suspect that the artist meant to portray the dog as resting on its rake, but the impression I get from the folded arms and the closed eyes is that the two have just had a quarrel, so on this basis I would like to invite readers to provide possible captions to the photograph below.

street art
Dog: “How dare you call my mother a bitch!”

update: 24/12/2015
The hut was demolished some time ago, probably by agents of Uncle Four, although the door on which the cat was painted is still on display nearby. However, further paintings of a dog and a cat have appeared recently on the concrete footpath that runs beside where the hut used to stand. It will probably be a long time before the cat man is forgotten.

Friday, 4 January 2013

photographic abstraction #5

This is the latest in my series of abstract photographs; links to previous posts in the series are provided below. Although I am attempting to make artistic statements with these photos, it is more important to stimulate the individual viewer’s imagination, so you can ignore any messages that you think I may be trying to convey and substitute your own.

Based on what you see in the pictures, you may want to suggest alternative titles. These images were created by cropping, altering the tonal balance and increasing the contrast; however, any creativity is in the taking of the original photos and not in any subsequent manipulation.

Given that previous posts have proved popular with readers, I plan to add new posts in this series quarterly in future.

other posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction.
Photographic Abstraction #2.
Photographic Abstraction #3.
Photographic Abstraction #4.

criss cross


interstellar overdrive

night and day