Category Archives: SpikeLife

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London and Me

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July 1st, along with its massive protest march in Hong Kong, has come and feels long gone. I’d meant to write something on it, but I kept stumbling and life got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. Ultimately I ended up on a very hastily arranged business trip to London – a trip with very mixed results from a business perspective but also a trip that further enhanced my love affair with London.

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(Forgive me if any of this repeats old stuff.)

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In the summer of 1972, I’d just completed my first year at college (university to you Brits) and was working an awful summer job – pushing a hot dog cart at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. A school buddy asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to London and my parents gave the okay for me to spend my Bar Mitzvah money on the trip.

We stayed in England for about 3 weeks, starting off in bed and breakfast places that cost only a pound and a half per night – though the beds were so uncomfortable that we ended up sleeping on the floor. Our days were divided between doing all of the standard sight seeing stuff and hitting every record store we possibly could. (I remember buying Roxy Music’s first album and spending weeks staring at the cover wondering what it could possibly sound like.)

Nights were for music - at one point I figured out that we saw more than 70 bands in those three weeks. David Bowie doing Ziggy Stardust at the Rainbow. Yes’s world premiere of Close to the Edge with opening acts that included Mahavishnu Orchestra. Renaissance playing for free in a pub before their first album came out. The Chelmsford Folk Festival, which included The Strawbs, Al Stewart, and Sandy Denny. (Sandy offered us a ride back to London but my idiot friend was too scared to get in her car with her two large dogs.)

We also went to Torquay for a weekend for reasons I can no longer recall – long before Fawlty Towers – where the only thing to do at night was go to a Mungo Jerry concert.

We just about ran out of money long before the end of the trip. We stayed in some park where they’d set up tents with double decker beds, 50 pence per night, one concrete building with lockers and showers, and basically existed on a diet of lentils.

My second trip didn’t happen until 12 years later. My first wife and I were tipped off about the hotel where all the bands stayed. So we’d go see Echo & the Bunnymen in concert and then the next morning we’d be having breakfast with them. This trip was also – believe it or not – the first time I ate Indian food.

In 1990 I started working for Barclays Bank in New York. This is when I first learned about the concept of business travel. I managed to get myself into a position where I spent large chunks of 1992 and early 1993 in London in a service flat in the central City (according to the guest register, the previous occupant of that room was J.G. Ballard). I got to see a lot of great live music (Julian Cope was a standout) and fell in love with a bi-polar poet whom I met at a party one night – my American accent came in handy in a variety of situations.

I knew I wanted to live in London and my boss at Barclays tried to make it happen for me. There were no suitable openings and then she found something in Manchester. I’d never been there but figured with Manchester’s fame as a music center, I’d be okay. The deal fell through at the last minute and I ended up leaving Barclays for the job that would eventually bring me to Hong Kong.

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For the past 20 years and across several jobs, I’ve traveled to London often enough to know my way around and feel extremely comfortable there. Of course these are business trips and I’m staying in nice hotels in central locations (this trip I was staying just off Trafalgar Square) and my expenses are all covered so it’s not quite the same experience as actually living there. This last trip I had lunch with my friend Kevin Westenberg, an American who has lived in London for 30 years, and I got to hear about how crazy expensive London can be when you live there.

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At any rate, I found myself with a decent amount of free time during this trip to London. I walked at least 5 miles each day, usually on a circuit that included Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and Soho.  I got up to Camden Market, got to the music stores on Denmark Street, spent time in Forbidden Planet and Foyles and browsed in some of the few remaining record shops.

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And as I walked around, I found myself constantly comparing London to Hong Kong.

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Of course there’s the big stuff. The beautiful architecture, monuments and parks everywhere. On the one hand, one might say it’s merely reminders of Britain’s history of empire and imperialism, the spoils of war and conquest. I think it’s more than that. There was an aspiration to greatness, individually and collectively. And to let everyone share in that aspiration, at least by surrounding people with beauty, even if their own lives were drab.

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Hong Kong has none of that. There are no world class museums here. There are very few buildings left to reflect the 150 year history. Skyline? Yeah, it’s a bunch of drab office buildings gussied up with neon and lasers that is only impressive because of the water in the foreground and the mountains in the rear.

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(Tacky, right? But a step up from the fake Buddhist monks scamming for change all over Hong Kong.)

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The cultural diversity of London is staggering when compared to Hong Kong. You see this walking down the streets, you see it in shops, you see it in the selection of restaurants everywhere you go.

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And then there’s the commercial aspects of daily life. Everything from banks advertising their credit cards based on competitive interest rates and telephone companies advertising no additional charges for data when roaming globally (HK’s Three is one of those companies; meanwhile for HK Three customers, one could buy a special “deal” for roaming data for HK$198 per day). This is what happens when you have true competition and a level playing field – something Hong Kong does not offer on almost any level.

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(Outdoor seating at a pub in central London. This is actually illegal in most of Hong Kong.)

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The buses are hybrid buses – the seats are set a decent distance apart (seats in Hong Kong buses mostly offer less leg room than economy class flights) and the windows are not covered with ads. The trains may be old but at least they do not have video screens blasting advertisements at a captive audience.

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(Here’s a minor pet peeve – as a photographer who follows dozens of photography blogs, I always see the companies whose equipment I use offering rebates and cash-back offers. These offers are never valid in Hong Kong.)

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I think the things that get to me most are the lack of choice and diversity combined with the second rate status of ordinary citizens.

Yes, mass transportation is pretty darned good here – it’s cheap and runs on a predictable schedule and the consumers of the transportation system are for the most part treated as captive targets of loud advertising that isn’t even clever.

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Taxes are low. That’s thanks to the revenue the government collects from real estate transactions and also, perhaps more importantly, because Hong Kong doesn’t have to support an army, navy or air force. We get that from China – it’s an army that has already proven once that they will fire upon their own citizens when so ordered to, and the odds are increasing that one day it will be used against Hong Kong citizens for daring to request that they might have a say in how their home is managed and getting fed up with receiving nothing but meaningless sound bites in return.

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Oh, new flats measuring all of 200 square feet are going on sale in Tai Po this weekend and expected to sell out. And Monday I’ll go back to the office and have to make my way down the streets in between hordes of mainland shoppers dragging suitcases behind them. And that’s after waiting 20 minutes for the bus standing in the blazing sun or the pouring rain because a simple thing like a decent bus shelter is a joke here.

I live in a town of 250,000 and there is only one supermarket out of dozens here that sells simple things like dijon mustard or Italian salami or bacon not made in China or a crusty baguette. (Said supermarket is a mile from any bus stop and offers all of 8 parking spots.) The only place in this town that has a half-way decent hamburger charges US$20 for it and the pizza is mostly embarrassing. Thai, Japanese and Korean food around here has been localized to an extent that renders it almost unrecognizable. I’m exasperated not by the fact that the only interesting new restaurants open in Sheung Wan or Kennedy Town but by the fact that there seems to be practically no demand for them almost anywhere else.

Look, I get it. If there was a utopia, everyone would move there and then it might not be so utopian after that. I always say that every place has its issues and compromises and if you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where you live, then you choose the compromises you’re more able to deal with. And for many years, Hong Kong was the place for me.

But right now I feel that today is the best that Hong Kong is ever going to be. And by that I mean that I feel that the quality of life in Hong Kong is devolving to the point where each day is going to be worse than the day before. Each day will bring its share of corruption, greed, humiliation and assaults upon the daily existence of every day people.

There are days that I give serious thought to living almost anywhere else except here. Well, I never consider a return to the U.S.  But the list of places that I think I would enjoy living in more than Hong Kong seems to grow almost daily.

It’s a funny thing. The grass is always greener. I’ve got this friend, he’s American, he used to live in Tokyo and travel throughout Asia. Now he lives and travels all over Europe. And half the time he blogs about wanting to get back to Asia and posts Facebook comments about being jealous whenever I mention anything on bars (and women) in Wanchai or Lan Kwai Fong. I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.

Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood today? I won’t say it’s impossible. I am a moody bastard, you all know that.

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Weight

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Graham Elliot, chef and one of the stars of the US version of Masterchef, has lost 155 pounds. I may have found some of them. My trip to the U.S. tomorrow won’t help matters. Diet starts once I return from the U.S. – and after I finish off all of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups I’ll probably be bringing back to Hong Kong.

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Please Don’t Make Me Fly Philippines Airlines Again & Other Tales

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And it’s not because they’re a bad airline. It’s because they fly into and out of Manila’s NAIA Terminal 2, which is a disaster.

See, my Manila trip this week was a business trip. My company normally books Cathay Pacific for the route.  Cathay Pacific flies into and out of NAIA terminal 1, as do most international flights. So it’s not only a crappy old terminal but the lines at immigration can be ridiculously long and slow moving.

I asked my company if I could fly Cebu Pacific instead. It flies into and out of Terminal 3, which is a new terminal and not heavily used. You zoom through immigration. Plus it’s the closest terminal to where I’d be staying. And it’s a “budget” airline. The ticket price would have been at least HK$1,000 cheaper than CX.

But I was told this is against company policy. We are not allowed to book our own travel. The company only uses a single travel agent and that agent can’t book Cebu Pacific. And, no, they can’t make an exception for me, even if it would save the company money.

As it turns out, there were no available flights on Cathay for my return flight, so they booked me on Philippines Airlines instead. Same price as Cathay.

Hong Kong to Manila

Philippines Airlines doesn’t get to use Terminal 1 at HKIA, it uses Terminal 2, which is not really a terminal, it’s a series of check-in counters surrounded by a crappy over-priced shopping mall. After you check in, you have to go down two sets of escalators, walk under the train tracks, and up three sets of escalators to get to Terminal 1 to go through immigration and security and go to the gate.

On arrival at NAIA Terminal 2, it took one hour to get my luggage.  The staff said the bags were being x-rayed, and apparently this was one bag at a time, and I don’t know why this was even necessary. Weren’t the bags x-rayed before they were put on the plane? Did they think that terrorists somehow snuck on the plane in mid-air and hid bombs in the suitcases?

Oh, and there was no air conditioning there either. Finally one woman, Asian, started screaming at one of the staff there. She was holding her young son. “How can you do this to us? Look at the babies! Look at the babies!” Well, she may have been right, but she was screaming at a guy who just worked the luggage belt.

So someone else, Caucasian with an eastern European accent, started screaming at her. “Don’t use that bad language! What’s wrong with you? You come here and you think you can yell at people because this is the Philippines? You wait like everybody else!”

Bags arrived, entertainment over.

Then you walk past customs and you’re immediately outside.  Where there are no ATMs. There are only currency exchange counters giving you crappy rates. I changed just enough to cover my taxi ride to the hotel, since I already knew there’s an HSBC in the same building.

And then there are no meter taxis. Only “coupon” taxis, which charge on average 2 to 3 times over what a metered taxi would cost for a ride into town. And even if I’m getting reimbursed for the taxi fare, something in me won’t let me pay those kind of stupid rates. So I had to schlep upstairs to the departure area and grab a taxi that had just dropped people off.

Manila to Hong Kong

The World Economic Forum is meeting in Manila. Roads are closed and there’s gridlock everywhere. Even worse than usual. But I know this in advance and so I head to the airport plenty early.  At one point, when the taxi was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on EDSA just before Makati, the driver turned to me and asked me what time is my flight. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “We’ve got plenty of time. You can see I’m sitting here relaxed and not nervous.”  It ended up taking 90 minutes, which was the exact amount I thought it might take.

But once I got to the airport, it took more than an hour to check in and go through immigration. And yes, you guessed it, no air conditioning.  It was 35 degrees outside and within 30 minutes I was a sweaty mess. I think I would not have wanted to sit next to me on the plane.

So you line up to check in. Then another line to pay your airport tax, because apparently they can’t figure out how to collect this when you pay for your plane ticket, like almost every other airport in the entire world. That was a short line.

Then onto the miles long line for immigration.  The sign simply said “Immigration” with an arrow. After 10 minutes on the line, a guard told me that line was for FIlipinos only and not for foreigners, and that I had to go all the way to the other end of the terminal. “Where’s the sign that says this line is Filipino only?” I asked. I knew it was pointless, he’s just the guy standing there, not the guy in charge of signs.

The foreigner line was even longer. I’d say easily 100 people on the line for just two counters. And then for some reason they let a tour group of about 20 people cut the line. All I could do was stand there and sweat.

The only saving graces were that once I finally got through immigration, the security line moved fast and there was a well-air-conditioned smoking room right next to my boarding gate.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. I know the Philippines is a poor country, the government is rife with corruption and a lot of people avoid paying their taxes, leaving precious little left over for decent infrastructure.

But on this trip I also went to the new SM Aura mall at the Fort, which was huge and modern and everything worked perfectly. I went to Greenbelt, which is always a great place for shopping, eating, drinking, hanging out.  And at the SM Mega Mall they added an entire new higher end building and even though it wasn’t finished yet, the bits that were working were all world class.

Maybe what they need to do in Manila is let SM and Ayala build the airport?

Telephone

Oh, since I was asking about some roaming alternatives in a previous post, I guess I should let you know that I went the path of least resistance and decided to only go with a local SIM card. The problem then was that I had to go to 6 different 7-11s and Mini-stops till I found one that had the nano SIM that fits the iPhone 5s. It was from SMART and half the time I couldn’t connect to the Internet at all (even with good reception) and when I could get online, it was mostly so slow that it was next to useless. So a waste of money, but just a couple hundred pesos, around US$5, no big loss.

A Fun Taxi Ride

Taxi rides in Manila are always fun. Actually I never have a problem getting a driver who will use the meter (except when it’s raining). Mostly they’re nice and we have good conversations.

Thursday night, I waited to go out until almost 9 PM. I was hoping that the traffic around Ortigas and along EDSA might have died down by then. But with the World Economic Forum and lots of road construction, it was still seriously bad. I had to wait 15 minutes for a taxi, and the driver told me it was gridlock everywhere and that I was lucky to get a cab in just 15 minutes, at the malls they’re waiting 2 hours.

So, yes, he hit the meter right away, but he didn’t want to take EDSA and he didn’t want to take C-5. He took me through back streets and barangays, down roads filled with kids playing ball in the street and cats lying out in the middle of the road scratching themselves. Every time we’d hit a main street he’d cry out, “Oh my god, traff-eek!” But I had to say to him, “You really know Manila!”

And then we got to Rockwell. And all of a sudden he practically started crying. “My stomach hungry, sir! My stomach hungry!”

No, he wasn’t trying to hit me up for money. He wanted me to get out of the taxi in Rockwell and switch to another so he could go eat. “So many other taxi here sir, easy for you. My stomach hungry!” At first I refused. I tried telling him that I hadn’t had dinner yet either. That didn’t mean anything to him.  Then as we turned onto the road that leads from Rockwell to Burgos, and it was bumper to bumper, he started up with the “Oh my god, my stomach hungry sir!” again. So finally I paid him and got out.

So I get another taxi and finally reached Greenbelt. There was a massive line of people standing there at 10 PM waiting for taxis. I felt lucky to have reached there while some restaurants were still open. I had no idea what I wanted to eat and ended up having some surprisingly good pasta. Then I thought I’d go and have a drink or two over at Sticky Fingers, but the cover band there seemed to have received a list of all the songs I hate and by the time they got to 99 Red Balloons, I couldn’t take it any more and got out of there as fast as I could.

Fortunately, by midnight, things had gotten somewhat back to normal.  I had to fight off the swarm of ladyboy hookers who congregate around Landmark late at night, as always,  and the first taxi driver that stopped for me had no idea where I was going but the second one was the best driver I had the entire trip and I told him that, handing him 200 pesos and telling him to keep the change (the meter was at around 113).

Anyway, I’m glad to be home.

 

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Random Thoughts on My 60th Birthday

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I always thought that by the year 2014 I’d be rich, famous or dead, or some combination of those. Instead I am poor, unknown and still alive. Then again, I’ve just passed my one year anniversary at a job that actually does not suck, just passed the five month mark on my marriage and have a few good friends on whom I can absolutely rely. So I suppose it’s not a total loss.

Thursday May 1st and Tuesday May 6th are holidays in Hong Kong, so I decided to take the 2nd and 5th as vacation days, giving me a 6 day weekend. (Ha! So far I’ve spent a decent amount of time working on the 1st and 2nd, albeit from home.) However, it would not be possible to get on a plane and go somewhere because my wife couldn’t take off from her job.

I don’t drink alcohol very often any more.  Go back a decade and I was getting drunk 6 nights a week; these days it’s a big deal if I drink more than 2 or 3 times a month.  I often note that some of my Facebook friends’ timelines seem to be a celebration of inebriation and I find that less than inspiring. However, just for the hell of it, I declared that I would celebrate my birthday via “Six Days of Drunkeness,” one day for each decade that I have walked the earth.

Wednesday night was bar-hopping around Wanchai. I ended up at The Wanch where Tommy Chung was playing. If you don’t know Tommy, he’s a rousing blues guitarist and I always enjoy his playing. I’d even go so far as to say that I enjoyed what he was doing more than I enjoyed Robben Ford’s set the previous night.

But after the second song, I got a message from my wife telling me she’d finished working and needed my help to carry stuff home. I zipped over to TST to find that some friends were drinking at her restaurant, I of course joined in, and that stretched out into another couple of hours before we hopped a taxi home.  This was a night of a lot of Jack Daniels and Coca Cola.

Thursday we had a BBQ party at home – hence all of the stuff that we needed to carry the night before. My wife was able to buy a lot of the ingredients for our party wholesale through the restaurant and the chefs there gave her some preparation tips. So we served our guests parma ham with melon, pasta salad, potato salad, pancit, lumpia and fried chicken wings, followed by BBQ steaks, pork ribs and chicken. Not a bad spread although in what I’m told is true Filipino tradition, we probably had enough food for a small village. One friend baked a cheesecake for me.  As soon as the cooking was over, I bypassed all the bottles of wine and cans of beer and grabbed a bottle of Patron Anejo tequila, double shots with ice, and I found that a most pleasant beverage for passing the rest of the evening.

Friday was more bar hopping in Wanchai. (Seriously these days you practically have to drag me kicking and screaming to get me to go to Lan Kwai Fong or Soho.) I had this idea that I wanted the sizzling chili prawns from American Restaurant (a really old, old school Beijing style place)(I know, the place was probably never great to begin with and it ain’t what it used to be but I have a real fondness for this spot).  But then a pick-up truck pulled up in front of Spicy Fingers. They had a charcoal BBQ on the back and started grilling up – and giving away! – cheeseburgers, and really good ones at that. They were all gone in well under 30 minutes, long before any police might pull up and chase them away. It was a promotion for a new burger joint that will be opening in Wanchai in around 2 weeks and these were tasty burgers indeed. It was a welcome novelty in a place that so foolishly bans food trucks. So no chili prawns necessary. I’d thought this would be a whisky night but somehow I got started on Jack Cokes again and so Mr. Daniels remained with me for the balance of the night.

We spent a long period of time at the Wanch, about ten of us at one of the two outside tables they’ve got. Later, we were headed to Thai Hut for a late supper but we got tagged by one of the staff at Rio, a guy we’ve known for awhile, and he insisted that the food there was good and we should try it. We descended into the basement of this place and, okay, the food was decent enough. But they were playing the kind of disco music I stopped listening to ten years ago and at ear-shattering volumes. There were hardly any people in there and I suspect this is the kind of place that doesn’t get busy till after 2 AM – assuming that they do get busy at some point.

Tonight, day 4 of 6 and my actual birthday, I met my wife after she finished working and we went to a nearby favorite, Brick Lane Gallery, where I’d booked an outside table. Brick Lane (two branches in TST, one near Admiralty) is sort of a British gastro pub and their Gallery branch is on a quiet dead end street that has several restaurants and late night clubs. We had a long leisurely late dinner with a nice bottle of Italian red wine. (As I get older, I find that beer and wine hit me very fast and can leave me with a headache, whereas I can go all night with no problem on distilled spirits. Tonight was no exception. I wasn’t wasted from half a bottle of wine but I was really glad I’d left the car at home.) We then scooted over a couple of blocks east to Sticky Fingers for another few drinks while listening to their not-horrible cover band.

So two more days to go. I’m going to try to hit Picex, a photography exhibition at KITEC on Sunday afternoon and suspect the night will be spent sitting out on my deck with a bottle of bourbon I’ve been saving for awhile. Monday will be a few more bars, then Tuesday to recover from all the madness and Wednesday back to work.

I’m not certain that it’s entirely sunk in that I’m 60 yet. That’s one of life’s great jokes, isn’t it? Inside I feel the same way I felt when I was 20. My mother will be 93 in a few weeks and I know she feels the same way.

Maybe this is one reason that I consider Henri-Pierre Roché a personal hero. He wrote two books in his life, the first was Jules and Jim and it was published in 1953 when he was 74 years old. The book was not a success until Francois Truffaut found a copy in a second hand book shop and made it into one of the greatest films of all time in 1962 – since then the book has never been out of print. Maybe if I make it to 70 I’ll finally finish my semi-autobiographical book but with my luck if it then gets turned into a film, said film would be directed by the guy who does Adam Sandler’s movies.

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A Hard Act to Follow

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One thing about getting older, when you get some minor sickness it hits you much harder. I’ve been feeling like crap for 5 days now and not certain I will go into the office on Monday or not.

I’ve been doing this blogging thing for close to ten years now – my first blog post was December 4, 2004. Back then I was writing about something a bit different and I was getting pretty high numbers, for whatever that’s worth. Then a couple of years later the blog assumed its current haphazard form and the numbers dropped down and I’ve always been quite okay with that. I get around 15,000 visits per month (not uniques) and I’m always surprised that the numbers are that high. Oh sure, like everyone else, I fantasize about writing something that goes viral and brings me fame and fortune but I know it’s not likely to happen. My posts are written relatively quickly and I spend zero time on SEO. I like writing, I like communicating, and I do it for its own sake.

Then I get something like my last post.  If I normally get 15,000 views a month, that post got more than 14,000 views in about 5 days. Clearly it resonated with a lot of people. Biggest referer? Facebook, by far.

It’s not my first time ranting about conditions in Hong Kong and it’s probably not my best rant either. I would ascribe a lot of the views of that post to the general sentiment one encounters every day – which is one of increasing unrest and unhappiness with the way things are going here. I think some people share my view that the quality of life in Hong Kong is noticeably decreasing and nothing is being done about it. Other people of course do not share this view. That’s life for you.

So one might think that now I’m feeling the pressure to continue in that vein. But the fact is that I won’t. I’ll keep on doing what I’ve been doing – a little bit of this followed by a little bit of that – blogging as the mood strikes me. And I don’t see myself filling up the sidebar with ads or running a lot of sponsored posts (you wouldn’t believe how many inquiries I get every week to run that kind of stuff).  And I’m sure that in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have more rants, so stay tuned if that’s your thing.

Going off on a slight tangent here …. Big Lychee, Hemlock’s blog, infamous in certain circles, right? Well, he’s certainly got his followers. At the moment comments are broken on his blog and his RSS feed isn’t working (I suspect he doesn’t even realize the latter).  Hemlock’s been blogging longer than I have and his posts are more consistent than mine. Every day, 5 days a week, excluding holidays, he writes a thousand words of usually good analysis of what he perceives to be the issue of the day, often served with a side order of how much better he is than everyone else. (He has this annoying habit lately of attacking fashion models in ads for not looking the way he believes people ought to look. I think he believes that’s him being “snarky,” similar to the way he will occasionally go after dogs and dog owners.)

I kind of feel bad for him. I mean, just imagine, waking up every morning, almost every day for more than 10 years, and feeling it’s his mission to find something to be pissed off about (not that that’s so hard in Hong Kong, to be honest). He’s even written a book about Hong Kong political and economic scene, currently at #3,207,282 on Amazon’s best seller list. And then, having written so well and written for such a long period of time, he’s managed to change absolutely fucking nothing, at least not as far as I can tell.

He and I come from a different place and a different era. My experience is of battling the Vietnam War and Nixon and kind of being proven right and yet having lost at the same time. Hunter S. Thompson put it best:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

I remember that wave breaking. Thompson wrote that book around ’71 so he’s referring to events in the mid 60s.  For me, I think it broke and rolled back in ’72 when despite everything we knew to be true, Nixon was re-elected. Even with eventually managing to drive both him and Agnew from office (and leaving America with a president that no one had voted for), well, things just weren’t the same after that. I guess it’s fair to say that I hunger for a similar wave in Hong Kong and that I’d like to be riding the crest of that wave. But I don’t really expect it to happen.

Anyway, for all those folks who discovered me via my last rant and are looking for more of the same and will get tired of waiting for me to revisit that theme, by all means do check out Big Lychee. There’s certainly no other English language blogger in Hong Kong who is as consistent as him in attacking the status quo.

 

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What Does This Mean?

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I’ve got this friend who goes by the name of William Banzai Seven. I’ve written about him here once before.  WB7 does these vicious satirical political images, here’s his latest:

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He gets his stuff published on this site and all of his images are embedded from Flickr.  The result is that he’s getting upwards of 2 million views of his images per day.  In his case, this is how he earns his living, by selling posters of his stuff. And so, most excellent for him indeed. He’s found his niche and found a way to exploit it and he’s doing very well and I’m extremely happy for him.

We had lunch a couple of days ago and he said that he would do a post embedding one of my photos. Tonight he sent me an email with a link and the words “blast off.” He embedded my Flickr photostream into one of his posts and here is the result after just 30 minutes:

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The image is small so let me explain to you. I don’t pay a lot of attention to my Flickr account. I only upload randomly to it. That means that I usually get somewhere between 0 and 100 image views per day. A few days ago, when I uploaded the photo of the (tastefully) nude tattooed lady I shot over the weekend, I got almost 1500 views that day. This was organic as I did nothing to promote this photo on social media or anywhere else.

So within about 30 minutes of his posting the link, I hit 6,175 views. I don’t know enough about embedding frames from Flickr to be able to say that 6,175 people actually viewed or paid attention to my photo on that page. But if you check these stats:

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you can see that roughly 500 people out of those 6,175 appear to have actually clicked on the photo and scrolled through my photostream – or at least the first 8 pictures, which are my recent uploads (I think this batch represents my first uploads there in at least a month, maybe two).

What do all these views represent to me? Right now I have no idea. I mean, it’s nice.

But the thing is – I don’t really expect any of those people to start visiting my Flickr page on a regular basis. (I haven’t gotten a single email so far “x is now following you on Flickr.”) I’m not selling images through Flickr. If it got people to come to my web site, that would be nice I suppose – the latest images are all watermarked with the URL spikesphotos.com. I don’t have any ads on that site. I don’t have any affiliate links (click here and buy this Leica and I’ll get 10 bucks, that sort of thing). But the stats for Spike’s Photos aren’t showing any bump.

I am selling “me”, my services as a photographer, I suppose. But in the past year I haven’t really done any promoting of those services due to limited time.

So what do all these views mean? Will I get emails asking to buy prints of my pictures or asking me to shoot something on a professional basis? Time will tell. I’m not counting on it.

I don’t want to come off as ungrateful because it’s quite the opposite. I’m thrilled so many people are looking at my images and I hope at least some of them like what they see. It’s just that if there’s a way for me to seize this opportunity and build on it, so far I’m not seeing what that way might be.  Anyone have any suggestions?

I kind of feel like Barkhad Abdi must be feeling at the moment. Everyone probably thinks he’s riding high right now. After all, he went from never acting at all to stealing scenes from Tom Hanks and getting an Academy Award nomination. But he was paid just $65,000 for his efforts and is living in L.A., unemployed, broke, crashing at friends’ places and hoping that something will come of all this newfound fame. Will he get a second acting job that confirms his talents soon? Or will he go back to being just another chauffeur?

So I think I’ll head to bed soon. I’ll check my stats in the morning of course. (I’m approaching 11,000 views after 1 hour, with over 800 views apiece for those 8 most recent photos).

Oh, postscript – I’ve had a number of responses to my previous post seeking more tattooed women to pose for me. I hope to schedule some more shoots in this series soon. I do feel that this could go somewhere but even if it doesn’t, it feels nice to have come up with a theme for the year, rather than just doing the random stuff I’ve done in the past.

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How I Started Smoking Cigarettes

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Just a coda to my previous post, Maybe interesting for some.

I never smoked cigarettes as a teenager and I never thought I would start. I did sometimes smoke a pipe, but rarely. I can remember being 19 years old and in this girl’s dorm room and the deal was pretty much sealed and then she lit up a cigarette and I told her to put it out or I was leaving and, well, the deal was unsealed. So how did I end up a smoker just one year later? It’s a long and maybe a funny story. I blame Mickey Jackson.

My first two years of college (university to you Brits) was spent at NYU. During my sophomore year I met David Peel in Washington Square Park. He liked the photos I took of him and so I ended up hanging out with him and his crew a little bit. If you know anything about David Peel, it may not come as a surprise when I say that I don’t remember a lot of the time that I spent with him.  Here’s one of the photos I took of him as it appeared in Mojo Magazine just last year.

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Anyway, I left NYU after the second year and transferred to Emerson College up in Boston. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed at NYU, but at the time I felt I really needed to get away from NYC and living with my parents. At Emerson, I lived in a co-ed dorm and the partying was pretty much non-stop.

So one day in my senior year I’m walking into this room and there’s this party and in this party there’s this HUGE black guy who stands up and walks over to me, very slowly, with this look on his face that said, “what did you just call my mother?” and I thought I was a dead man. And he finally stood in front of me and the look changed to a huge smile and he stuck out his hand to shake mine and said he knew me from David Peel. His name was Mickey Jackson (and people who called him Michael Jackson didn’t last long on this earth).

Mickey was well over six feet tall and at least 250 pounds. He had a huge black Great Dane named Shaft. We’d go on the Boston trains with the dog and he’d walk in and yell out, “Sit, Shaft!” and everyone would scatter – we’d get seats every time.

By this point I had my own room in the dorm and Mickey would stay at my room a lot. The room was long and narrow and he’d sleep on the floor next to my bed … and he’d bring women back to my room and have loud and smelly sex with them on the floor next to my bed while I was in my bed. Yeah, not really a lot of fun for me.

Anyway, you get the picture. Mickey was a big guy and people who didn’t know him were usually scared of him. Mickey was the kind of guy who’d go up to people and ask for a cigarette and they’d give him their entire pack and run away. And he’d smoke one from the pack and decide he didn’t like that brand and leave it in my room. I had enough packs of cigarettes sitting by my bed to open my own tobacco shop.

So many nights I’d be sitting there, studying, alone, and I was trying to stop smoking weed. So I’d reach over and grab one of the packs and light up. And pretty soon I was a cigarette smoker. I was hooked before I even had a chance to realize it.

(Whatever happened to Mickey? One day he just took off and didn’t return. And apparently he’d taken stuff from just about every other room in the dorm except mine. I never saw or heard from him again.)

Coda to the coda. I credit cigarette smoking with helping my career. In 1990 I got my first suit and tie job, as a database administrator at Barclays Bank in NYC. Back in those days, you couldn’t smoke at your desk but there was a smoking room on every floor. The guys around me didn’t smoke. They sat at their desks for 8 hours a day, heads down, working hard. I got up every hour or so and went into the smoking room. I met everyone from every department – well, at least the smokers – from secretaries up through VPs. And when it was time for the bank to start on its first client/server project (remember those days?) and they were trying to figure out who to assign to this project, I was the one everyone knew and everyone asked for. So I was the one who got to be DBA on the project and got to spend huge chunks of time in a company service flat in London (according to the guest register, the previous occupant of that room had been J.G. Ballard), which is how I got the idea to become an expat and get out of the U.S.  (I tried for London first, almost got moved to Manchester, and all of that fell through and somehow I eventually ended up in HK instead of the UK. No regrets on that one.)

I never thought I’d smoke for decades, as I have. And I still think about quitting, for many reasons. Maybe this is the year when I’ll give it another shot.

 

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The Smoking Gun

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(A late-night-I-can’t-sleep-so-I’m-gonna-blog-but-make-no-sense-rant.)

I smoke cigarettes. A lot. I know that many of my readers are anti-smoking and some of them may feel impelled to leave comments about how bad it is for me and everyone around me and how I should stop, but there is no need. I know I should stop. You don’t need to tell me. I’ve tried hypnosis, acupuncture, the Allan Carr method, going cold turkey. Nothing has worked, at least so far.

For those of you not in Hong Kong, up until yesterday cigarettes cost HK$50 per pack. That’s roughly US$6.50.  In the U.S. and Europe, cigarettes cost well over US$10 (or the local currency equivalent) per pack. In many other places in Asia, cigarettes cost far less.

The word was that the HK 2014 budget would raise taxes on cigarettes so that they would cost as much as HK$84 a pack – which would bring the pricing in line with most other developed nations.  Now that might have got me to stop, or at least cut back. Instead the price increased to HK$54 per pack (I paid HK$55 in a 7-11 tonight). HK$5 is US$0.65. Do you think that would have any impact on smokers at all?

You don’t have to search too far to find articles about how incompetent HK Financial Secretary John Tsang is. I’ll leave that criticism and analysis to people who are far more knowledgeable than I when it comes to financial matters.

The point is, this increase makes no sense whatsoever. “I wish to emphasise that this is not a budgetary measure to increase revenue,” said Tsang when he announced the new budget. So if it’s not enough of an increase to be a deterrent to anyone and it’s not meant to raise revenue (something HK has plenty of), then what exactly was the point of the increase?

Well, one can make a guess. Tsang probably was going to raise the taxes higher. But those who earn their living from cigarette sales protested loudly in advance. All those people with corner newsstands said that such an increase would put them out of business. I’m sure that 7-11 (which in Hong Kong is owned by Dairy Farm which is in turn owned by Jardine which is one of the six companies that really owns and runs Hong Kong) complained, as did the various cigarette companies that operate here. More than likely Tsang bowed to pressure but figured he had to do some kind of increase since it was expected and he’d lose face if he kept the price flat. That’s my guess anyway.

I know, there’s worse things to get upset about, not the least of which is the violent attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau – regardless of what motivated that attack or who paid for it (and someone surely did), it is a horrific blow to the rapidly declining freedom of the press in our little SAR. (In one index, Hong Kong is now ranked at 71, alongside East Timor. In another, a smidge better at 61, putting HK in between Mauritania and Senegal.) The thing is, this kind of thing is just too depressing for me to contemplate this late at night, this sober.

Or what about the report earlier this week that says that key urban areas of Hong Kong had dangerously high levels of air pollution for 184 days last year – the worst in 18 years, since they started measuring? What about the fact that our fearless idiot leaders make empty promises while things just keep getting worse and worse? It’s one of the reasons I live in the New Territories, I suppose, where the air is noticeably less sucky.

“Asia’s World City.” It’s a fucking joke, right?

So with all this depressing shit, I choose to rant about the prices of cigarettes? Well, I don’t wanna be up all night, I’m hoping I can get some sleep.

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Yes, I Bought a Guitar

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And here it is:

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It’s a Fender Standard Stratocaster Satin in “Ocean Blue Candy”. The “satin” in the name is because of the satin urethane finish.

So I went to the main Tom Lee store (in Tsim Sha Tsui) where a guy named Nitro helped me out. (Nitro also showed me the huge AC/DC tattoo on his forearm and told me he’d been drinking for three days straight to celebrate Chinese New Year.)

When I showed him the guitar I was interested in, his suggestion was that I should consider the Fender American Standard instead.  With the current sale at Tom Lee, the one I wanted was under HK$4,000 while the American Standard was going for exactly HK$8,000. He grabbed both guitars and a cable and brought me back to a room where I could plug them in and try them both out.

To me, this was borderline funny. I’d already told him that I hadn’t touched a guitar in 40 years and basically remembered nothing. So I had no idea how to really compare the two guitars. I played the two chords I remembered on each of them and really couldn’t feel or hear any difference. I called Nitro back into the room and told him, “With my skill level, I can’t tell the difference and I’m just starting out so I’ll go with the cheaper one please.”

It turned out that there was no stock in the store for that particular model in that particular color. I’d have to wait four days for delivery. Argh! (Yeah, I know, first world problem.)

Over the course of the next four days I also bought:

  • Soft case for the guitar
  • Some guitar picks
  • A cheap guitar strap
  • An electronic guitar tuner
  • A guitar cable
  • A thingie that lets you plug your headphones into the guitar
  • A Pignose Legendary 7-100 practice amp (because it’s tiny and I’ve always loved the way these things look)
  • A book called “Guitar for Absolute Beginners” and a book called “Guitar Exercises For Dummies” (I’m also looking at some videos via Youtube and, um, other sources)

Finally the guitar arrived at my office. I pulled it out of the box and the pickguard looked scratched. How could this be? The box was definitely factory sealed. I frantically called two guitarists I know and asked them how much this might matter. After all, within a few weeks the pickguard would be all scratched up anyway. Then I finally realized there was a super thin layer of plastic over the thing – peel that away and it looked perfect. Duh – but do keep in mind that a couple of other people also looked at it and didn’t spot that it was a plastic cover either.

Anyway, the first thing to note is how good this feels in my hands. The weight and balance are just beautiful. The sound, whether through headphones or the Pignose, is pure rock and roll.

My plan is to spend at least 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, as I get started. I’m not even close to thinking about chords or songs yet. I’m doing very very basic beginner exercises to get used to holding my hand and fingers in the correct position. It does take some getting used to, but of course one can instantly hear if one is doing it right or not and then make the needed adjustments. I need to strengthen my left hand and I need to toughen up my fingertips and I know this isn’t going to happen in a day. It will only come through repetition. I may spend a week or even two doing “lesson one” before I even take a peek at lesson two. At my age, the human body is a lot slower to bounce back. It’s three hours since I stopped playing and I can still feel my fingertips tingling.

(Check out this terrific article: How to play music faster: ideal practice methods for adult musicians by Dick Hensold – “The secret is this: the speed of your technique will increase on its own, on its own time, if it’s properly cultivated. I use the word “cultivate” deliberately, because you have to understand that the effects of practicing correctly will not be apparent in the current practice session, but will show up sometime in the near future.”)

For more inspiration, you absolutely MUST watch this short video on Vimeo. It’s Ira Glass talking about what it’s like to start out down a creative road, the tremendous frustration one feels because one has great taste and so knows that what they’re doing is absolute crap. I think this may be one of the most important lessons – patience is a virtue (and of course practice makes perfect, duh).

What I also do know now is that when I’m doing it right, my god it sounds fantastic. And that encourages me to keep on going, because I have this tiny bit of insight into where I’m going to end up, even if my goal is just to be able to strum rhythm guitar to some Springsteen songs.

I won’t kid you. This is hard work. I’m not used to holding my hand in that position. I’m not used to moving my fingers that way. But so far I feel really motivated to do this. I think this is also one of the main reasons I bought an expensive (for me) guitar rather than some cheap, crappy thing. If I bought something that cost a couple of hundred (HK$), then it would be too easy for me to put it aside. “Oh, I only spent 200 bucks, no big deal.” But HK$4,000? (That’s around US$520 or so.) No excuses. Play that funky music white boy.

Overall, I know what the biggest difference is between 40 years ago and now. 40 years ago I was looking at music as a possible career. I decided I wasn’t good enough and so I walked away. Now, I’m doing this first and foremost for myself. I’m doing it for its own sake; for the pure enjoyment of it. That’s a HUGE difference.  I don’t really care if anyone else ever hears me play or not. Well, maybe one day I’ll try showing up for an open mic night at the Wanch, but that one day is months away at the very least.

Tomorrow I will hopefully get out of the house early and head back to TST. Nitro promised me a free initial set-up on the guitar (one friend told me of someone who charges HK$1,000 per set-up; another told me about someone who charges $200; free is good).

Anyway, so far I’m feeling really good about this. I hope this feeling will continue.

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SCRAPED – Coming Next Week!

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SCRAPED, a photography exhibition, is coming. (Click on the image above to see it larger.) I’ll be joining with seven other Hong Kong photographers for an exhibition.  The exhibition is free and will be at Culture Club, 15 Elgin Street, Soho, Hong Kong.  The exhibition runs from February 5th through March 1st. There’s an opening party on February 5th, starting at 6:30 PM and open to all.

The photos on display will all be for sale, and a share of the proceeds will be donated to SoCO (Society for Community Organization).

SoCO (Society for Community Organization) was founded in 1972 and is a registered non-profit making non-governmental human rights organization for the underprivileged.

SoCO is active in lobbying for an improvement in the lives of the 1.3 million Hong Kong people who live below the poverty line – predominantly comprising the cage and cubicle dwellers, the single elderly, new immigrant women, children living in poverty, street-sleepers, people with mental illnesses, low-paid workers, refugees and ethnic minorities. SoCO also undertakes original social policy research, lobbies Hong Kong decision-making bodies and organizes direct action events.

The other photographers in the exhibition are Jonathan van Smit, Liam Fitzpatrick, Lai Yat Nam, Yolanda van der Mescht, Timothy Cheng, Kenny Yung and Scotty So.  It’s a small gallery so I’m told there will only be one photo from each photographer on display.  You can see more details at the Facebook event page here.

Here’s a collage of my work that the event curators put together to help publicize the show.

collageI hope you’ll all have time to come by and check out the show!

 

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