Notes from the Road- a photographer’s Hong Kong

Notes from the Road- a photographer’s Hong Kong

Family, Wan Chai, Hong Kong-1-2. Fuji XPro-1

What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

~Oscar Wilde

I’m an
alien I’m a legal alien
I’m an Englishman in New York
I’m an alien I’m a legal alien
I’m an Englishman in New York


Kia ora tatou:

What better way is there to see a new place than through a photographer’s eye?

This is my first trip to the Far East, and I came with a suitcase full of preconceptions, misconceptions and probably a few prejudices that I don’t care to acknowledge. Fortunately, after a few days here, I have begun to acclimatise. In many ways it seems to me that Hong Kong helps to break the news gently: that European culture is on the way down and Asian on the way up. I have a nervous feeling that the European world has been well and truly passed. We really have no idea of the breadth of the achievement and the scale of the industry here, since we have had the luxury of having others learn our language. Now the shoe is been taken from under our noses, disassembled, examined, and replicated. For a fraction of the price. And it speaks another language.

I began to prowl, to wander the streets as invisibly as anyone my size can ever do. At first I felt as if I had just arrived from Dimension X, and for a time I contemplated calling the Mother Ship to come and collect me. I was totally out of my depth, an alien in an alien culture. The heat and humidity left me physically drained and I took to beer and coke, drinks I normally carefully avoid, to rehydrate. Water just seemed to pour straight out through my pores. Coffee just made matters worse. My muscles ached and the constant pressure of people on the move began to take its toll. The debilitating combination of heat and humidity left me breathless and sluggish, as the sweat poured down my spine and saturated the top of my underwear. My face felt on fire and I was constantly wiping the moisture from the LCD and my viewfinder. Every time I changed lenses I would have to wait for the new one to fog up and then carefully clean it before I put it on the camera.  At first I thought it was just me. Then I noticed that the camera shops (O, you want buy Leica? I do you very good deal…) sold small drying boxes, little black dehumidifier cabinets to keep gear dry. Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad.

Memo to self: never buy second-hand camera from Hong Kong…

Then I began to get cunning. If I got too hot and tired, I would simply slip into a camera shop and pretend to be interested. Or a watch shop. Hong Kong seems to have fetish for watches. I saw Jet Li staring down from a poster at least 15m tall, his left arm held artfully in front of his face so I wouldn’t miss the fact that he wore a Cartier or Rolex or a Panzerfaust or something. Perhaps I noticed it for the reason that I have a slight thing for watches as well… By appearing interested, as interested as you can be in a watch which costs $HK137 000 ( $NZ 25 000), I could lurk in air-conditioned sanctuary. And anyway, if I really wanted a Breitling or Tag Heuer, I only had to wait until early afternoon for the watch mosquitoes to come out and begin circling my wallet. After all, why pay $HK 40 000 for a genuine (if they really were) Omega from Yun Fook Jewellery, when any number of helpful people , usually from Bangladesh, would sell me one which looked just like the real thing?

I turned a corner, racing towards the next shrine to the Great God Air-conditioning, when he stepped out in front of me. You want to buy a fake watch? I stopped, stunned and looked down at him. Are you telling me you sell fakes? O, yes, but they are good quality fakes. Is that an oxymoron, I wondered to myself. What is your favourite brand, he continued. I quickly glanced up at the 20m tall poster across the road. Bell and Ross, I said. Ah, come to my shop and I will show you one.

I was in the mood to play. And anyway, he probably had air-conditioning.

Come-to-my-shop was a trip down an alleyway, and then up 5 floors in a tiny lift, then a long a narrow passage to a rented office space. I made mental notes of my escape route as we proceeded…

Farouq tried hard, and he might have got there, but my conscience suddenly coughed loudly and popped up a nasty thought. Every fake he sold someone was a small hole in the intellectual property of Rolex and Omega and Piguet. Every time someone bought a fake, the people at the originating company took a hit. How could I, an artist who had fought to retain my own IP, do this to someone else? I was being a hypocrite.

The light went out in my eyes and Farouq knew he wasn’t going to get a sale. I left and, as I got to the lift, another middle-aged European couple passed me on the way to their appointment with morality and Mammon.

I spent time in the glass canyons, surrounded by worker bees in suits and office chic swarming around the mirror-glass hives. I prowled the markets, where there were deals to be had. But not really. Everybody here knows the price of everything. I met a keen amateur photographer from China. He spotted the XPro-1 around my neck and struck up a conversation. Yes, I have a Leica, he said. He also had a complete Nikon outfit, a complete Canon outfit a Fuji GX17 (with all the lenses) and a Hasselblad H 4D….

So may I ask you a question?

Of course, he replied.

I gestured towards Hop Yick Photo and Camera behind me. Would you buy a Leica from them, I asked? He glanced across at the shop and smiled. I buy mine from the Leica agents, he replied, then gave me detailed instructions on how to get there.

I got the message. More IP issues…

Having shot my way through the obvious, I began to slow down and to look. The glitter was wearing thin. I was changing gear.

I did the unthinkable.

I went to Starbucks.

I ordered a latte tall, took it across to the window, directly under the aircon, and sat down to people watch.

Then something which had been nagging me, plucking at the corners of my awareness, snapped into focus. There, beyond the glass, out in the heat, a woman in shabby clothing was moving slowly, sweeping up the bare strands of rubbish that the wind was blowing across the forecourt.

This was a city of layers. Way above me, in the glass hives, deals were being done, large sums of money were moving effortlessly from one tower to the next, shepherded by young executives and people for whom stuff mattered, and success was directly proportional to ostentation and bank balance.

I was in the Ocean of Affluence.

Beyond the surface were people of such immense wealth that they were invisible, people who thought in terms of billions and millions. They didn’t come down here. They were the people who took a helicopter to the casinos on Macau, who made the rules in their own image.

Below them were the top feeders, who wheeled and dealed and made vast fortunes, but who were slaves to the machine, who played by the rules and broke them where they could. The subway signs spelling the evils of corruption affected them and were aimed at them. They had armies of young power-dressed drones to serve them.

Then there were the merchants, a class clearly revered in this nation of traders, who ran shops ranging from the garishly successful to the not-so-successful.

And, down in the streets, the bottom feeders, the smiling entrepreneurs who came out after midday, offering me fake watches and suits tailor-made in 24 hours. Made-to-measure shirts of the ‘finest quality’ for $HK 100 ($NZ18). They had come in from Bangladesh, India and Nigeria in the hope of rising further up the stack. Some would. Some wouldn’t.

But in the ooze at the bottom were the workers, the immigrants from the Philippines, who collected the menial tasks; emptying rubbish, digging up the roads, cleaning the streets, offering massages for $NZ 18 an hour. And probably offering services in the hotels which charged by the hour.

I wanted a travel charger. Where  should I go to get one, I asked the nice young man in the Apple Store, who had showed me the latest and greatest and helped me to realise that if I ever switched to Apple, it would cost the same in NZ. Go to Wan Chai, he said, so I headed for the subway station conveniently located in the basement of the mall. When in Rome…

I stood there in a side alley and looked again. A 7 Eleven at street level and Camera 7, offering me Canon and Nikon and the latest Samsung Galaxy Tab phone, far too big for a pocket. Then I looked up and saw the shabby apartments with decrepit curtains and no air-conditioning and washing hanging out the windows. The further up I looked, the grubbier it became.

I looked across the alley and realised that there was yet another layer beneath the ooze.

A family stood there, four men and two old people, waiting for Time to take its leave and them with it.

The older man was hunched over a Zimmer frame, mumbling quietly to himself and oblivious to the ambitious Young-Somethings passing by without a glance in their direction.

In a wheelchair an elderly woman was leaning back, her face contorted with pain. Her knees and legs were bandaged, and blood was oozing from it. Her hands were contorted and trembled. Her face was a shrunken mask of pain and suffering. One of the boys found a piece of cardboard from the pile put to one side of the alley for recycling, handed it to her and she slowly began to shred it.

The hopelessness of the group, the despair, was palpable.

Here were people who had less than nothing. Who were slowly drowning in the dark misery of their circumstances, sinking slowly into the primordial ooze.

When I passed Rashid and he offered me a Patek Philippe, I smiled and politely declined, and wished him well with his next customer. He was deeply aware that he he was only just above the ooze…

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