Summertime…

and the livin’ is, well, not exactly easy but manageable with the requisite forbearance needed when living in these parts. Yes, after a few weeks of very pleasant spring weather we were instantly swamped by the sweat-inducing, energy-sapping ambience of a Hong Kong summer, trademarked by sweaty armpits, sodden back and an unfortunately damp seat, but we needn’t go there. Not surprisingly, climate watchers warn, our locale is sure to grow steamier and steamier by the year.For indeed it is so and yes, you’re right, I do bang on about this every summer. Last year was ours – and the world’s – hottest ever, and this one is sure to trump that as temperatures soar constantly in the mid-30s with little relief in sight, there’s not even a promising rainfall break looming on the horizon; thankfully, at least, no terrifying typhoons have yet to whirr up this way. It’s the beginning of the end, yes, that’s another of my hackneyed seasonal slogans. We’re doomed as Private Frazer would proffer, probably right too in this case unless our wasteful lifestyles are exigently checked, but of course few pay heed so that’s the end of that I fear.

One benefit of searing heat though is that the banana trees at the rear of our house fruit at record pace, which presumably delights the cheeky little macaque monkey who scampers playfully across our roof. The bright red flame trees have been a picture this year while at home both our lemon and avocado trees have flowered for the first time ever; the surrounding summer wildlife entrances with the first snake sighting downstairs last week, so a timely reminder not to go out wearing flip-flops after dark.

Unexpectedly, thanks to the current downturn in human inspired trade and travel we are enjoying, albeit stood wilting in a puddle of perspiration, some of the best known Hong Kong views stunningly revealed, their colour and clarity unparalleled; such a shame that few international tourists will be able to savour this unlikely phenomenon. In normal times, for those readers unaware, an unfortunate compound of airborne pollution and thick seasonal humidity often puts pay to this simple joy; but not this year, do we have a friend in COVID-19 after all?

So, about our business we surge, slicing grittily through the heavy summer heat, face masks donned, dodging the virus as best we can. I still find it difficult to comprehend how long this health crisis has persisted, let alone that it even escalated from an epidemic to a pandemic. COVID-19, or the coronavirus as was, rocked-up here towards the end of January, more or less and Chinese New Year. Back then we never imagined it would go beyond Asia let alone spread to the extent it has, we honestly considered it would imitate SARS, affecting mainly here and eventually fizzling out once our sultry summer had made its mark – not so!

We are quite shocked at how badly some nations have dealt with the virus threat, the UK particularly, more so USA. Have heard many experts compare UK with South Korea, similar size populations but whereas UK has suffered 50,000-odd deaths South Korea kept it to about 200, mainly through quick action and astute prevention. We have suffered 14 deaths here so far.

Funnily enough I have also read a few articles regarding diet and how it may have influenced those low Korean and even German death rates. The answer, they reckoned, was pickled vegetables but mainly cabbage; kimchi for the Koreans and sauerkraut for the Germans. Consequently, an enticingly potent dollop of kimchi, a cabbage concoction precariously steeped in garlic and chilli, has now entered my daily food intake. Not for the first time either, I was introduced to kimchi while working in Japan in the 1990s but, being younger and thereby indifferent to its superfood status, I let the habit slip. Worth bearing in mind should you find yourself in just such a pickle as COVID-19! Another advantage of course is that kimchi doesn’t half stink, a convenient quality therefore if needing to test self for one of the virus’s alleged symptoms,

This would have been the ideal juncture to mention that here in Hong Kong we’ve done well virus-wise, fortunately the authorities acted quickly (January) in implementing border controls, temperature checks, mask wearing, track and trace etc. Consequently, we didn’t endure a serious lockdown scenario though some folk elected to work from home, bars closed as did schools. Cafes and restaurants, where possible, remained open though observed strict social distancing rules.

Also, we experienced none of the queuing seen elsewhere to enter shops and the like, that sector of the economy has clearly struggled but steadfastly continued – plucky folk! Things were thus looking promising for an expected return to normal, albeit a clean hands and face-masked normal, as the local infection rate fell to non-existent and the newly infected were only those returning from overseas, though still a manageable number. In conclusion, we’d played a blinder on these first and second waves.

But, unfortunately, an unexpectedly serious third wave has recently swept in comprising infected folk arriving from known virus hotspots together with a much higher number of local casualties, sources of which are proving difficult to ascertain. The authorities are on the case however and it’s more than likely we’ll KO this bout as efficiently as we did rounds one and two, though some effort will be required. Meanwhile, it’s a return to numerous stringent health precautions and restrictions, a troublesome bore but a necessary one that we’re all prepared to accept for the common cause.

Sadly, I’ve heard that in some countries, people of Asian descent are being ‘hate-crime’ targeted for allegedly bringing in the virus – dumb or what? With some irony then I can report that when on public transport here I, evidently a foreigner, have been the receiver of uncertain looks while some passengers have even moved quickly away, attempting to put as much distance as possible between us. And of course they’re quite correct in doing so, I certainly don’t blame them, after all, with the West’s disastrous response to the crisis you’re more likely, numbers considered, to catch COVID off a westerner than anyone else; and as they wouldn’t know my travel history, zero incidentally, I reckon it’s a reasonable precaution to take.

Flame trees in bloom

Changing the subject, yes there’s even more to report beyond excessive heat and a stubborn virus; Hong Kong you’ll have heard in the news has a brand new national security bill to contend with though it’s unlikely to have a significant impact on us personally. Some folk are getting jittery and talking of leaving, I remember a lot of colleagues doing similar post-Tiananmen and prior to the 1997 handover. Of course, many later returned once things had settled down, we suspect this will be the same. Many including us however will stay and make the best of it, after all the dividing line between risk and opportunity is narrow and Hong Kong is still an amazing place where much can be achieved. Incidentally, the Chinese word for crisis comprises two characters, the first indicting risk and the second indicating opportunity – how apt!

So what does it all entail? Well, the intention of the bill is to restore stability in the light of our recent social unrest; you’ll remember all those fiery, headline grabbing protests and riots of last year. Of course, in the rush our beloved authorities forgot that, if used, our current system already enjoys adequate qualities inherently capable of dealing with such civil commotion: common sense and humility. Never mind, in short this new bill is all about sedition and subversion, locking up the perpetrators and throwing away the keys. Nobody’s as yet too certain how this is going to work regarding charges and punishments to be meted out. It all depends on context insist our toady bigwigs, somewhat vaguely. The entire bill has been mainland orchestrated and is allegedly open to a lot of one-sided deliberation; you can probably guess which side.

One of the key issues is to legally persuade Hong Kongers from demanding independence, talking about it or even wearing t-shirts emblazoned with such inflammatory slogans. Although most folk here would accept independence to be an impractical outcome, a definite non-starter, it’s a notion which never fails to needle our much-respected cadres up north, so I’m sure it will gleefully continue if only for that reason; quite whether this will warrant time in jug remains unclear, once again it ‘depends on context’. Similarly, if in reporting one should unconsciously lapse into a state of conflicting contexts and refer to our clueless commie cadres or depict a certain autocratic bellend with Orwellian tendencies – perish the thought! – will you end up in an exclusive Beijing basement with goolies wired to the mains? Doubtless it will vaguely ‘depend on context’, but whose?

To this end, so to speak, I’m reminded of a popular joke existing in those once communist countries which lay behind the Iron Curtain – it goes something like this:
Foreign Interviewer to local activist: Why are so many people detained for calling government officials stupid?
Local activist to foreign interviewer: No no Sir, you are mistaken! They are not detained for calling our government officials stupid, they are detained for divulging state secrets!

I may not have told it quite right but you get the gist; we might well be heading that way.

Anyway, prior to all this security bill brouhaha we witnessed a serious trade spat between USA and China which might or might not be going on still; let me know if you find out! Under this climate of confrontation said security bill quickly materialised and we in Hong Kong suddenly discovered ourselves to be a political football. Several big-booted players oozed support for our tiny territory and although undoubtedly well-intentioned the sceptical suggest it was all cunningly devised as a convoluted smokescreen for their own current misdemeanours.

After all, they reason, the establishment of USA’s various pro-Hong Kong bills afford POTUS a certain points-scoring kudos at a time when all is crashing down around him; similarly it diverts or postpones any international probes in to Communist China’s unleashing of COVID-19. Even British Boris receives a leg-up with the recent dangling of full citizenship to Hong Kongers bearing BNO passports. You have to admit it’s convenient for them and intriguing for us!

So, during the past few weeks we’ve quite gotten used to following this high-level political brinksmanship, looking rapidly from West to East and back again with apprehension and amusement as if enthralled by a classic Wimbledon final. There’s so much cross-continental bickering on show. We now suffer political spokespersons scowling like gurning groupers – without the charm obviously – desperately attempting to out-rebuke each other. Corruption, incompetence and hypocrisy they say, only the flag changes. So now I sort of understand the recent call for independence (oops, mustn’t say that, slap on the wrist, charge up the goolies cadre!), anything for a quiet life, do we really want or need to be politically aligned with any of these twits, sadly we probably do; if only pro-Hong Kong people could run Hong Kong untrammelled, as per the original handover concept, now that would be novel.

What is really sad however is that after 23 years the magnificent People’s Republic of China has failed to capture the hearts and minds of the average Hong Konger, and I’m not convinced they ever will do now. Hong Kongers I’d say have absolutely nothing against the Chinese people per se, they’re simply used to a more open system of government, Western-style freedoms, laissez faire as the British termed it. The Chinese government claim to have done more for democracy in Hong Kong than the British ever did, but this I feel is a load of old bollocks, to borrow that versatile English expression.

And what of Great Britain itself? Currently in an awful COVID-19/ Brexit mire, it was only last week that I was chatting to a local lady who expressed her genuine dismay at how a once industrious and pioneering people, having bestowed numerous societal positives in the creation of modern Hong Kong, could ever find themselves thus. Aside ‘that was a long time ago’ I could think of no other suitable response, especially as we were already verging on the criminal in even suggesting that that particular colonial period may have produced some good and selfless acts, and you’re really not allowed to venture in that direction nowadays…

Indeed then, fun and games in Hong Kong right now. By the way, in the wake of last year’s social unrest the government gave either tax breaks or cash handouts of about £400 to us all, and a further £1000 this month as an economic stimulus package – very generous. Also, we’ve enjoyed subsidies with items like electricity and consequently we haven’t needed to fork out anything so far this year! So our government, clearly having some faults on the political front, are handling the virus and the resulting economic downturn extremely well. Of course you can’t have everything and two out of three isn’t at all bad – cue cautious applause!

After graduating in 1982 Ben worked throughout the UK before an unlikely adventurous disposition led him to Nigeria, India, Japan and Hong Kong. Between each of those overseas assignments he had attempted repatriation with varying degrees of 'success'; the last of which occurred in 2004 when he and his partner returned from Hong Kong for what they considered to be a permanent move, only to return to Hong Kong years later. The exotic misdemeanours inherent in that first expatriate period (1984-2004) together with various Asian sojourns and activities, contributed to a series of travel journal scribbles which eventually morphed in to the book Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad.
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