September 2010

Roma e San Pietro

On the way home from the evening airing we give ourselves to try and beat the jetlag, a brilliant gypsy band playing by the Trevi Fountain: percussionist, with bass drum slung around his neck supporting wood block, cymbals, hand drum and snare; tenor sax man; bass sax man; upright bassist, bowing as well as plucking; and a bandoleon player. Not looking like Roma at all. Although all of them strange body shapes, especially the bassist, no fat on his face and limbs, but a huge belly. All of them looking like they’d just got out of bed and thrown on whatever was closest to hand. All of them could’ve been Kiwis, pasty-faced geek Kiwis pretending to be gypsies, except that they were all great musicians, with that special slightly detuned sound you get from knowing exactly how much to punish your instrument. In an enormous evening crowd at the Trevi, they were out of place and didn’t look like they were going to sell any discs. Which were beyond our budget today, at 10 Euros. And the only coin we had to give them would’ve been an insult.

The morning we went to Peter and the Catholic Factory. Thankfully early enough that the queue to get in through security did not reach beyond the embrace of the colonnades which come out like great callipers or ice tongs. By the time we left the basilica, it did. The security check a reminder you are entering a separate state, signs were posted to say what could and could not be brought in, knives and penknives being an obvious no no.

But I had in my backpack a whole melon, so we’d put a sharp knife in, from home, to cut it open for morning tea. We debated as to whether this was going to be sufficient for the guards to make an exception. They’d probably laugh. A knife? for a melon? Go on through! It’s only dangerous knives that are prohibited. Not melon knives for morning teas.

There would also be the delicate problem of the presentation. Unless I could get in quick with a punchy and effective explanation in Italian, it would be unlikely that they would not try to wrest the knife from us, manhandling us to the ground, or worse.

We ditched the knife. For the rest of the day a tempting melon in my pack. Which was not remarked on by the smoking guard with his head in a shade box whose job it was to watch the bags going through x-ray, or whatever it is that shows their contents. He didn’t leap to his feet and demand, A melon?! How in God’s name are you going to cut that up for morning tea?! The guards were in fact all quite grim and solemn about their duty. Removing the choices of ordinary people as to what they might enjoy for morning tea.

I’m still not sure quite what damage you’re supposed to be able to inflict on St. Peters with a penknife. Carving your name in a column? So long as its not marble. Prying loose a piece of mosaic?

Or threatening the person of il Papa … by brandishing your short blade in the middle of enormity that is St. Peter’s. Attacking the Pieta is one thing but an axe was involved. And I can understand the need to restrict the brandishing of knives on planes, since pilots are susceptible to them, since there are pilots in overall control of the destiny of potentially several hundred passengers. However even if the Pope should show and be threatened with a knife, I can’t imagine the assailant asserting his control over the Catholic Church and flying it into… hell? OK, Papa, now I’ve got you, I want you to say yes to the rights of gays, yes to abortion in the last resort and yes to contraception. Ha ha ha ha! What’s more I want you to allow priests to marry! And admit women as priests. And you really gotta spend more on improving the lots of Catholics in this life. Take away the excuse that in the next life they get to inherit a world from which in this they’ve been excluded, marginalised. A penknife could do a lot of good. A melon knife would be good to cut melon.

The basilica is too too much. So so much that it has the effect of self-phasing, operating on so many different frequencies at once that it becomes a negative space, cancels itself out, cancels out its own preposterous extravagance, becomes humble. It has that strange intensity of a negative space where what is unseen is all, is that to which the sensible effect can be attributed. The fervour of the millions of believers works like a spiritual marinade, softening the material support of the architecture so the light shines throw it. Like TV again. And the Church has no qualms about committing its psalms to media. Or to plain old kitsch. Even unto the sentimental variety of rosy-cheeked children replicated in ceramic in Chinese studios for sale in Vatican souvenir shops. Were better a Chinese superhero pope reading the book of nature.

There’s something about St. Peter’s that doesn’t stick, doesn’t quite hit the mark. It inspires awe. But after standing around in it or queuing now to climb the cupola it’s something like the scale native to the building being the most lasting impression it makes. An internal St. Peters. Perhaps it’s because it is unassimilable in total the overall sweep of it is recomposed in the memory but as feeling of space … even more so than an airport. There is to my mind at least also the 19th century quality to it. I wonder if anyone could claim to have taken taken on the place in the terms in which it addresses itself to us?

We rose to a great height by lift to visit the cupola. And went no further than the beginning of the dome, while the other thousands went right on to its top. Vertigo, certainly but also the press of bodies in narrow stairwells, their cumulate ectoplasm, like the prayers downstairs, a presence felt if not seen, or seen in series but felt in sum. As if all those even that day who had and would go further up the tight winds of stairs were there all at once, even with their encouraging words, Don’t worry! If I can do it you can! And something about having made the decision being unable to retrace one’s steps if one changed one’s mind. And chickened out.

We chickened out. Went out onto the roof. Where we assured ourselves the view was just as good. As if good views are what you can really use in Rome. Where there were the odd things that roofs of great buildings have, like light vents, windowed towers poking through the skin of the roof to take the light back downstairs.

Got into trouble here for eating, despite there being a cafe and souvenir shops, with a postbox outside for Vatican State’s own stamps. Understandable I suppose. Imagine if all took their picnics up to the roof of St. Peter’s. We posted a card and headed back down, were deposited back into the basilica and had to walk away from it to find a convenient spot to stop and eat.

That done we headed off to find the Sistine and perhaps take in some of the other attractions of Vatican State, museums, galleries, etc. Around the corner away from the now fat long queue to get into the basilica another just as hungry and loud and unpleasant to get into Vatican State. We walked away.

Got ourselves by Metropolitana to Villa Borghese park, which resembled where the exit we chose came out a post-apocalyptic landscape with a gelateria. Everything dusty with dry weeds.

Here we hired a risco, I think the spelling’s correct, a multi passenger adult pedal car. This thing also had its own means of locomotion. Electric aided pedalling. Certainly helped on the hills. Was fun in actual.

I wanted then to visit the villa Medici. Which we found. Doors not being unlocked one way. Having to turn around and try again. And discovering on finding our way in that the rooms decorated by Balthus were not accessible and only the gardens and ginoteca(?) were. Disappointed. We descended the Spanish Steps where there were thousands of tourists visiting it as a place to visit. Because on the list.

Bought some delicious roast chestnuts. Found out that another desired rendez-vous with the past was not to be since de Chirico’s museum closed at 1 pm which was now several hours past.

Walking the intervening distance back to our Trevi pad did us in. Even though so close on the map. And shots of espresso had to be had along with the ritual splitting of the melon at home before we were able to venture out again.

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Roma e il Flavio e pantaloni di Garibaldi

Awoken early by bells tolling the hour. The bell tower within a stone’s throw of the balcony. Not I suspect advisable.

Jetlag exacerbated by headcold/sinusitis. But the day warm and bright, the sky blue, and Rome on our doorstep. Which is overstating our proximity to all of the city. As we found out, having walked half the area covered by the map. And coming home realising that it was the nicest area, with the best prospects for idle wandering, or flanerie.

Olive oil and crusty bread for breakfast. On the balcony. We chose to walk to the Colosseum today. Through Quirinale, where, in the square on top of the hill with its grotesquely overendowed statuary the Polizia and Cabaniere were out in force, in front of the Pontiff’s city house. Protecting a important personage the precautionary measures surrounding whom seemed to follow us right across Rome.

Stopped in to the portico of San Vitale, Frederico Severino’s sculptures.

Il Flavio or the Colosseum by the time we arrived had queues of half an hour so to get in in the unreserved and unguided lines. Black T-shirted con-artists roved down the central column touting for tour-joiners, saying why wait half an hour when for a mere 4 euro extra you could be walking straight in?

We took the bait. And hopped over, defected. The ticket booth guy was completely over it. Speaking English when spoken to in Italian, and demanding DID I GIVE ALREADY? What does that mean? I asked. THIS ONE. He held out a sheet of stickers. No.

YOU MUST STICK THEM ON YOUR SHIRT. The stickers had 10:45 printed on them, presumably the time the tour started, still an half hour away. So, as the turnstile was unmanned, we failed to wait and simply progressed. Into the arena.

Huge. Huge and the thousands of tourists thronging up the stairs, ripide, hardly making an impression, their presence mere dots around the outside of the middle terrace.

I hadn’t realised exactly what it was about, this theatre in the round, having an ‘editor,’ in Rome, the emperor, who decided what events to stage, an art department, for the hunts, whose job was to replicate the natural environments of the animal or animals involved, and a mechanism involving trapdoors, lifts, tanks to flood the arena for nautical battle scenes, a whole special effects capability, and sideline trickle-down businesses, literally, feeding off the main event, since human blood was regarded as an effective medicine with certain ailments, a heath drink, or smoothie. Stupendous that the events were staged for free. And the citizens were then able to take home with them choice bits of meat as an exotic sort of party or loot bag. Imagine how that expanded the palates of the citizenry: barbary lion giblets again, ostrich eyes, hippo flank, elephant gizzard, dolphin too? There is the possibility that the Romans were first in this too: aquatic contests, dolphin versus shark, and so on.

It all ground to a halt in the sixth century or so, the understage having been filled with dirt, the contests limited in scope to dowsing wrong-doers with spirits, setting them alight and making them dance themselves to cinders. Expanding the vision of Romans to include new forms of interpretative and modern expression in dance. Whence of course butoh.

When the party was finally over for the Romans and the city had been sacked the structure of the Colosseum was plundered for building materials. And continued to be for another thousand years or so. A family did move in and set up residence. And a use was found for the vast stable like complexes of the lower levels as stables. For horses exclusively.

Not until the 19th century were the depredations brought to a halt and the building ‘frozen in time,’ as the notice put it. (Note: the tour we missed out on fell into the category of ‘didactic’ tour. which makes one think of our over-it ticket-seller getting to enforce his message with the liberal use of public torture.) And only in the 20th were fully ‘informed’ decisions made as to how most effectively to preserve it.

The name the Colosseum is known by comes from the scale of the bronzes outside the theatre, as they were seen in the middle ages. The ancients must really appeared as giants then, there having been lost in the meantime the knowledge that enabled its construction, and the knowledge that it was knowledge in terms of technical skill or technology. To the extent obviously that the building was seen as a resource, a mountain of bricks. Leading one to question why what was left behind was. Was it too big to shift? Reinforcing the notion that whoever had put it together must have been big; it was not for the little people to take apart.

And this is precisely what is odd about the Risorgimento as it is represented in the most extravagant fashion by the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II. But of course it is not ‘to’ but ‘of,’ since VE II provided in the equestrian statue representing his gargantuan person on his mighty mount – so big that there are pictures of a table seating approximately ten men celebrating its construction inside the horse, in its body – the centrepiece for what was supposed to have wider and further reaching significance, the unification of Italy, the forging of a national identity. So: the tomb of the unknown soldier; the museums in the monument itself to all Garibaldi’s men, and as much to him as to VE II, even down to his trousers, pantaloni, a bandage he wore, a scrap of his writing, the cult of Garibaldi. And the scale of monument and its symbolic placement within the magic circle of the works of the colossi, the ancient race of giants, Romans, but of Italians first.

The Monument is monumental and monumentally kitsch. Whether the aspirations behind its construction were truly civic-minded or not, it dominates in its pristine form a landscape of ruins, only ruins because of an intervening millennium or so of … of what? Of decline, in order that what was fallen, colossally, could rise in the Risorgimento just as colossally? If so then a colossal failure. A feature of the imperial dreamtime.

When we arrived yesterday at our apartment, A_______ who met us said, when asked in the context of what to do while in Rome, that she didn’t like Peter. The reason she gave was that when you rang him up, as often as not the person picking up the phone would say not Vatican City on the line but Vatican State. One might say the imperial pretension survives in Rome but only in God’s city. The failure might then be put down as a failure to reconcile Church and State. No. Not even reconcile, but harness one to the other.

The material bigness of the past. A sense of scale missing and sometimes missed in NZ, even when only talking architectural volume. If we assayed to replicate the bignesses of the colonists would we reproduce the same kitsch? Well, we do. But normally limited to the screen and immaterial cultural sphere. Isn’t there a circle in Dante’s hell to which those condemned forever to make bad art find belong?

The touristic experience of the Colosseum was the usual despair that any person ought to inflict on themselves experiences for the sake of self-betterment, because the others are doing it. This is the depth to which didacticism in terms of civic culture as sunk, the received – anaphoric – message that being a tourist is good for you, ought to be, you can be improved … SO LONG AS YOU VISIT THE SITES RECOMMENDED IN THE BROCHURE.

I think we fall prey to this too. But would do in some form or another. Even if it were the holistic tourism of immersion in the culture and society; or the micro-tourism of taking a limited area and learning to know its nooks and its crannies. Like A_______ said, to the question as to what apart from the tourist venues we should be visiting, you must see as much as possible while you are here.

It was in this spirit that we ascended to the top of the Museum of the Risorgimento to find an old lady who perhaps had not been visited for a hundred years standing guard over a series of academic portraits of the Garibaldis. They had clearly grown as dear to her as her own skin, and it was charming how she simply said he was very old when that portrait was painted or pointed out the ludicrousness of the wig on one of Garibaldi’s sons. She was like a perspicacious Granny, in love with her grandchildren but just as quick to point out their laughable foibles, their laudability taken foregranted.

Leaving the steps the endless steps of VE II’s Monument we were tried to see the Temple of Vesta, a perfectly preserved little bijouette of a Roman landmark. But it had scaffolding and skirts all around it. Behind it a couple were getting their wedding photos done, in front of another building, one that looked like a Roman spaceship. We crossed to the Tiber and walked along its banks before passing back into the already more familiar territory of our micro-tourism.

Evening and we dined at the Little Orange near our place, dining such a little … Care for the little things a great deal and for the great not a hell of a lot, to crib Wilde. We shared fried artichoke flowers and zuccini flowers in batter and then I had Trippa Romana, tripe Roman-style. The set-up at the restaurant is worth quickly remarking upon in respect of the way a little snowball grows. So grows a clientele for the evening. Other restaurateurs might be ought desultorily surveying their empty tables, but the wise maitre d’ knows that a crowd attracts a crowd. After us not the deluge but one or two more tables goes a long way. They did. Up almost to the territorial limits at which space crosses from what is fair game for this restaurant to what is fair game for that.

The Trevi clogged as we made our way through for the daily gelato dosage. People holding their cameras above their heads to get the shot of something, like the Colosseum, not worth photographing for having been so much and better before. By giants for postcards.

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Hong Kong, Munich, Rome

the endless night in which eight hours were lost is over. We are in Rome.

what seems morning was night and midday in Munich. Although, it was still, after the 3 hour delay on the tarmac at HK Airport, early morning, when we arrived there. The delay due to a thunderstorm of such violence it shook the plane where it sat still.

the last powder rose cloud has fallen into ash. I look out over rooftops, unsurprisingly roman-tiled, the pretend roof of the local church with its unencumbered upright facade like a Hollywood backlot – the belltower free-standing and utilitarian on the flat roof – towards the Trevi, il Fontano di Trevi, a corner of it visible from our balcony. I say a corner as if it were a small thing. But we are directly in the middle of one of the world’s great cities.

now a scattershot of voices in the alley, the Vicolo, below, the sound of people taking stock in a peculiarly theatrical way, Pulcinello and his friends. The light having dropped away. A particular Victorian-ness to the scene of TV aerials set at an almost uniform height. A flock, literally, of gulls passes over, just as the voices have moved away.

a splatter of water in the backstage of Trevi, where the clowns come to apply their make-up. It is not necessarily my insight that they are clowns, the performers of the freeze-frame dotted all over, distracting attention away from the actual monuments. Freeze-frame clowns. Or, clowning has really gone to a dark place: a state-man frozen in the act of being a drunk bum, wearing dark grey make-up, almost metallic.

These lanes around the back are where the street-‘performers’ come to put on their make-up. They detract from the monuments because in playing statues they exactly are not. That is the fascination. Living people next to marble people. Those for whom time stopped, those for whom the jingle-jangle of coins in their cans proves the obverse, that they are getting ahead. Making a living.

It was strange today to leave Hong Kong in a lightning and thunder storm and wait and wait and wait, arriving in Munich’s award-winning airport, to revisit after HK’s definite form of impersonal liberty Germany’s indefinite form of personal liberty. And to have flown with a plane-load of complicit Chinese, farting, burping, hawking up phlegm, at peace with bodily function, into a the cultural clench of Bayern. Thereafter to travel a load of Bavarians into the liberated definitions of personal liberty and its opposite of Italy.

quite dark now. A scooter revving down the lane. Distant jazz. Cutlery chiming against ceramic.

I sat on the aeroplane from Munich on my own, since we had missed our connecting flight and had to make do. The flight to Rome being full. I was between two types: the laconic and the extrovert. Although the seats were more comfortable than on the 15 hour leg from HK, it was impossible to relax with these two. We didn’t strike up any kind of conversation except for the former gloating on our arrival in Rome, ‘Eine schone lange Warteschlange.’ About the number of aircraft lined up to take their run-up into flight. Like primary school children waiting in line.

Now Rome. We have walked past the Trevi Fountain an half-dozen times already. And before dinner wandered as far as Piazza Navona, dropping in at the Parthenon on the way. The impression gained that at least being so central we are not going to miss out on those things only accessible to most by public transport.

I slept and woke up. My eyes are droopy now. The Frascati we bought for under 5 Euro calls me. My only complaint so far on this part of the trip, the inability of the Italians to let me labour away that they in incomprehensible English put a stop to my even more incomprehensible Italian.

it occurs to me in the night, when things make a kind of sense that does not necessarily translate into the daytime, to ask: what is the most postmodern?

While HK may be dedicated to the maintaining of a present materialism, I think, on the basis of systems of logistics which work, is that basis increasingly immaterial? or senseless?

And Rome, I think, may be dedicated to preserving the presence of the past while embracing the material benefits of a Universal Tourism, is not that very materialism increasingly immaterial? or like TV sited in a technological space which is necessarily immaterial?

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HK & Stanley Bay

Where does it all tend, the constant movement? Is there a pattern to this chaotic activity from which you could draw a character of the city?

Or is it better to ask how the city chooses to express itself? I don’t mean in the Symphony of Lights, the show of energy and strength, creativity and power, it might want to show the visitor, but what it can’t help but be: an impossible constellation of mundane facts that has not usefully been a universal orientation but which in as a whole may be singular.

The surprise of HK is that it works. And you can draw attention to the primitive – hand-implement, hand-basket – in the service of the postmodern – the multiplication of visual sites throughout the city, the chief example of which postmodernity would once more be the Symphony of Lights. Since consider the way the presentation presents itself. The various contributing buildings are introduced under proper nouns, like: the HQ of the People’s Liberation Army AND the American Citibank building.

Giants walk the carefully constructed vistas of the island. Acting out, maybe, but acting nonetheless. In the manifest drama each participating tower or building makes its signature gesture, as inimitable as, say, Joan Chen, stagey, yes, and also endearing.

The Bank of China Building has dancing white neon strips which form triangles and zig-zag across it. Another tower, whose name didn’t stick, comes alive in gradations of colour, waterfalls of puce, teal and jade. But in the light of day what the city cannot avoid showing is how these great players on the world stage, these brands, keep up their performance night after night, the dressers, the window-cleaners, maintenance men and women, the maintainers of the postmodern condition that there is a condition worth maintaining.

What then does the city maintain apart from its theatrical viability?

It’s not a question of upholding the cultural values inherited either from colonialism or acquired since 1997 from China. HK Chinese are at best ambivalent about the benefits that have accrued to them, Hong Kong Syy. They are even resentful of the influx of the better-subsidised and more-kindly-looked-upon because dearer-to-the-heart-of-the-revolution mainland Chinese.

If the city were a machine you might say it works beautifully but what does it serve? A cash-cow for China?

What seems to be in latency is an injured pride to the HK Syy Chinese: they got everything working, the transport systems, the trams – since 1904 – the MTR with its brilliant and intuitive ticketing machines – systems that extend throughout the territory, so-called, which work – like the crowd that can pass without collisions as if each individual element in it knows immediately where every other is – and I call it working all the more so when these systems of organisation do not set out to humiliate or otherwise belittle the people who use them. They got everything working so that it could be and would be maintained then there was the small matter of for what?

The arterial road that connects Hong Kong Island runs along the front of it, the sea-front, on stilts in the sea, an organ of communication pushed to the physical edge of the ground on which HK stands – while land is still being reclaimed, cobbles stacked ready to pave between buildings yet to be built. What other city would come to that kind of answer to the problem of where to put the road?

The Peak Tram had to reserve 2 seats of its original 30 until five minutes before departure in case the Governor should show up wanting a ride. Now, without a governor, is there a governing principle?

Today we went to Stanley Bay by bus, via Deep Water and Repulse Bays. The market famously attracts millions of leisure-shoppers. We didn’t buy in. So much of it a rip-off. But the buses kept arriving and with people from every nation, who, while they were there, might take in Tin Hau Temple, and, less likely, the Carmelite Monastery.

As usual we proceeded to lose our way, ending up on a small beach where suddenly there was nobody, some guys building a bamboo scaffold on a row of traditional beachfront houses to reconcrete the double-tiled, double-concreted HEAVY roof, and a few others in the shade of big trees, three girls in bikinis on the sawdust sand in the hot haze. But relative to the madness of the market, nobody.

Rubbish had collected at the hightide line including two puffer fish and the leg and head of a plastic Chinese superhero, red and gold. The head wore a red helmet and moustaches and a beard.

Beside the row of houses was an antique shop specialising in life-size copies of the buried army. I took a snap of one, not thinking how the head resembled the small plastic head on the beach, with its face hair. It was only later, when spotting an eagle out to sea, that it occured to me. Upon the appearance of the third head.

An old guy on the bench under the trees who’d been giving us the eye, as if wanting to make contact, or wanting not to, staring us out, to make us feel uncomfortable, annoying foreigners. On seeing our interest in the eagle he struck up a conversation. Then I made the link.

He too had moustaches and a beard. He looked like the living original of the ceramic warrior and the plastic superhero. He told us where to look for the eagle’s nest in the trees above us. Then, warming to his theme, he became the wise old HK Chinese guy. We were grasshopper.

‘All the years of my life I been coming here and every day different. Nature…’

His answer to the question of where the constant movement of this city tends was that HK ran on and for materialism. Then came his critique of religion. Every religion that does not first look to nature for its scripture was missing its ground.

‘Sad. So sad,’ he said. Man is living the wrong ‘true’ and reading the wrong ‘scrib.’ Now only in memory does food have a taste. Since genetic engineering. Now diseases from animals cause plagues among men. What’s next? Spider flu?

The eagle’s nest looked like a stork’s, and in scale was more a treehouse than a nest. A great raft of sticks had been brought together high in the tree.

We ate well with the locals at the second Stanley Restaurant, the one in the backstreets with no outlook, where our mixed-meat dumpling soup cost HK$18 and the proprietor kissed his child on both cheeks. The other Stanley Restaurant is a faux European affair charging as much for a small dish as we were charged together.

Having eaten we were satisfied twice, first by the food, second by the price.

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HK & Lamma Island

Sweet savoury breads for breakfast. There is a specifically HK style of baking. I don’t know if it extends to mainland China. The sweet bun is also available salted. With raisins. Red bean. Coconut. With cream, of some description. Or pierced by a short sausage, also sweetish. Although, I guess, the categories of sweet/savoury don’t sit with the cuisine or the palate. Maybe sweet/sour, which are complementaries. Salty. Also complementary.

We ascended from the end of Jubilee St. by a series of covered elevators, some flat, some with small steps, some with big, to Conduit Rd. It’s supposed to be 800 metres. But in the heat, as Q. said, felt like a spaceship into the sun. Halfway up, we got off to have a look at Soho, and you never know this with HK, whether you’re seeing the recommended or authentic view of a street or place or have gone slightly sideways along the vector of place into a view which may not be yours alone but which will not meet the consensus as to what that place was meant to be like.

HK offers this experience of many-faceted place over and over. Then there’s downright error. What I thought was the Norman Foster Building is not his at all. His looks like a series of meccano spans stuck on the front of an otherwise conventional and modestly sized block. Not far from Central. It is supposed to feature the longest single span escalator in … perhaps a long time? … and is cooled by circulating seawater.

The Soho we saw had food markets, fresh fish and crabs and prawns and clams and abalone, fish like catfish, and surprisingly big fish, some like cod, or gurnard, and rockfish, red and horny, displayed in polystyrene boxes with a network of aerator tubes keeping them fresh, although some, losing ballast, had gone belly up. At least they were alive upside down. It had vege and fruit markets, and pickle and fresh herb stalls all down both sides of several streets, steep streets, with cats, the first we’d really seen here. Pickles in open barrels of large artichoke-type things in a slime of chilli-red. And salted prawns and dried tunny fish, similarly open to the air and available in bulk. Along with the now familiar DIY hardware shops, which sell everything, from coasters for the ubiquitous trolleys – used to ferry stuff about the streets – in every size imaginable, to tap fittings. (Strange that the building-sites use handled buckets more readily than wheeled buckets or boxes or even wheel-barrows.)

Soho also boasted cafes of various sorts and burger bars, but it was the stalls of primary produce that were most compelling.

Having reached the highest point of the Great Escalator, we had to find our way back down again. We had decided should the weather be good we would take a ferry to Lamma Island.

The journey to the ferries took us through a tree-filled gully, with apartment blocks on one side elevated above the steep incline on concrete stilts, maybe twenty metres of stilt before building, and, above the gully, a series of interlocking overpasses, with walkways depending off them, and in its middle, the old gothic-arched hillroad, a bridge over a stream from high in the hills behind HK, the stream coming out of its pipe, and staggered stairs down the water course, and a sign announcing the danger of flash flooding. We followed the stream until it entered a grate, disappearing under the city, along, apparently, with a great many others, to debouch finally into the sea.

We had come to Lan Kwai Fong, just a lane really, but renowned for restaurants and bars. Which the area seemed to be full of, precipitously balanced, as ever, on top of each other, sticking their signage and their aircons out into the streets. Although here there was also bunting advertising brands of liquour and a persistent smell of expensive tippling.

Lamma Island took us away from the eternal stand-off between Hong Kong Syy (side) and Kowloon Syy (side) to the Waiheke of the harbour. Odd to do this. Mad, in the midday sun. Which is appropriate for the sort of place it is: a colonial retreat the Chinese haven’t quite cottoned on to. We were later told that with 1997 many of the Brits went home, but the island still retains an unhealthy number in its overall population of around 10 000.

We were going to Yung Shue Wan because it had been recommended that we walk over the island from there to Sok Kwu Wan, the latter having the better fish restaurants. The recommendation hadn’t reckoned on 32 degree blazing sun. So, after an half hour of warm sea air we set off blindly away from the village at which we’d just arrived … going up one side of the hill to a series of deadends, then down again, and away in the right direction this time, until we discovered that our destination was a further hour away on foot.

It was a beautiful place, chaotic, carless, with path-works ripping up the narrow pavements and half-quad-half-truck things, powered by oversized lawnmower motors – with pull-cords – racing up and down, hither, thither and tooting madly, at pedestrians – on the paths – and further, bicycles, it being an island of bicycles, except that a bicycle is no good for carrying dirt or pipes – and you could see that the drivers of these crazy things were enjoying themselves, cowboys.

Black butterflies flitted across the path to feed on a red honeysuckle. We changed our plans and went to the beach instead.

Hung Shing Yeh beach boasts a full contingent of lifeguards with a lookout made of concrete, rather deco, its colour coordinating with that of the lifeguard building and the two-storey changing rooms, massive, with showers enough for fifty or sixty at a time downstairs. The beach may have been poorly attended, but the uniformed guards kept careful watch over those few who were there. And on the shark net stretched across the bay only a hundred or so metres out.

Thankfully here was some shelter, a belt of trees growing out of the sand, frondy sort of trees. Q. and I swam, J. hid from the blazing burning sun. Wading out through the bottletops, plastic bags and spoons and other objects was slightly offputting, but no more than the warning of the Spanish woman we had passed that there were many little white fish. Are they nibbling? I asked. Naively. Of course she meant jellyfish. Or lice. Or jellyfish invisible like lice.

But I saw no little white fish, felt only the silky swish of plastic bags as they brushed over my calves, and jumped at the slightest indication of a bite, while Q. happily fished out of the sand a series of mystery objects, including a plastic bag and a cable-tie, from the murk. A four-foot murk at most. With waves so predictable as to seem artificial. Simply the wake of a passing… What was that spider type boat? arms out both sides? Was it sucking sludge?

The ambience was further qualified for the beach being overlooked by Lamma Power Station, its three massive chimneys the first thing you see of Lamma Island. A coal-fed plant it powers all of Hong Kong Syy, including its many islands. Lamma Island does however have the ‘territory’s’ first wind-turbine, behind a hill from the beach where we were. The second landmark on approach. 71 metres tall. ‘It is expected that 350 tons of coal could be reduced annually when the turbine starts operation.’

Having almost an hour before our ferry back to HK, we had an excuse not only to dine early but enjoy the cooler air of early evening looking out over the bay at Yung Shue Wan. I had Szechuan chicken with dried fried chilli as a a vegetable. J. fish noodle hotplate. Q. the local fish and chips. And we sipped our gin and tonics. And grilled the waiter about the cost of electricity and the changes brought about by the handing-over of HK to the Chinese. His resentment was mainly towards the Chinese for slapping an extra 20% on energy costs on Hong Kong Syy while subsidising those costs Kowloon Syy.

Ferry and MTR home. Overshooting our destination and having to walk our final night more blocks and blocks of Quarry Bay … again. The street like a moebius strip: landmarks repeating at intervals down it but transferred to the other side. A characteristic of the city to derange sense of place.

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HK 2

Kowloon Peninsular is accessible from HK Island by virtually every form of transport known; not, however, by the famous and fabulous HK tram: a tunnel links the two under what seems a shallow harbour, though its waters are plied by very large boats. We got there by ferry – after making the discovery, at HK Central Station, that you can check in for your flight out of HK at the station, an hour’s drive from the airport. This seemed so extraordinary and untrustworthy that we spent a while watching the system work. Others had no such trouble with the oddness of this action at a distance and happily consigned their luggage to it.

The ferry was like those in Sydney – a slow old tub with upper and lower decks, and like the trams, at $2 an adult, only slightly pricier. (NZ$ to HK$ is about 5 to 1, respectively.) Awe-inspiring to be on the water between the Island and the Peninsular, their towers in the haze of humidity and their architectural moments, like the Norman Foster tower, massive, next to a building which looks like a transformer, while behind us, the Bank of China Building and the Exhibition centre, the latter’s roof like a badly flipped pancake, folded onto itself. At the other end, a sailor type clipped a fluoro harness onto his belt to make the ropes secure to the wharf and was very self-conscious about its colour clash with his navies.

The Cultural Centre, Art Gallery and Space Museum make an impressive collection of buildings. Their principal material is brick; seen from a distance, it gives them a softness and textural interest belied by being close to them, when they become rough and grainy and monumental. Again, walking among them was like Sydney, around the Opera House.

Nathan Rd. heads away from the sea, more like a boulevard, with banyan trees on one side, and HK’s Mosque and Islamic Centre, and a great number of men standing out trying to lure, tempt or bully you in to one of the many electronics shops, watch shops, and other men, either Indian or Pakistani, wanting to tailor a suit or shirt or blouse or something for you, or show you their watch or pen which is supposed to make arouse envy? lust to buy? I don’t know. I told them my watch was much nicer than theirs. Nathan Rd. had a familiarity to it, possibly due to the number of rich-looking Europeans, and arrogant-looking Eurasians, that made it impossible for us to like.

We were about to give up on Kowloon when it came a bolt: Mong Kok! That’s where Sports-wear St. is and Electronics St. and Flower St. and Ladies’ Market. Beside the Park Lane row of shops we decided to hop on a bus. Read the timetables and directly after our bus had passed came to the conclusion we needed a 259B. Apparently there is only one. Because no other came. So on impulse we flagged down a taxi.

Mong Kok is on the extension of Nathan Rd., in a straight line from Kowloon. The area we wanted lies between Argyle and Dundas St.s, taking in Nelson St. The surrounds became more interesting en route, messier, with profusions of neon and excrescences of aircon units and colours and signs and bamboo scaffolding and everything scintillating under a full sun. With a dull sheen. The taxi was cheapish, probably a few dollars difference between it and the bus. It was one of the fleet with red body and white roof, like a child’s depiction, boxy.

Plunging into Mong Kok we found we were constantly repeating ourselves, the same products coming up on sale again and, after a series of variations to throw us off the trail of the blatant cribbing of material, again. I did find a camera to covet, but having seen it couldn’t bring myself to committing to purchase anything else. It was a Leica digital, simplicity, looking like the very oldest models, looking like my Zorkii at home! But digi therefore better, in practical terms, convenience terms, and 100 times as dear.

We ate ramen and Chinesified accompaniments, meaning we shared the ramen to enable us to buy accompaniments that the waiting staff was embarrassed to tell us could not be ordered on their own. And having had enough of ‘shopping’ – J. with Nikes, me with headphones, Q. with a new soccer strip featuring the name of one of the players he ‘liked’ from the World Cup, meaning a shirt and shorts, silky, entirely appropriate to the climate here, and his third set! – we went underground into the MTR, the subway. Brilliantly easy. A reminder that another world was going on beneath our feet. As we later discovered it was above our heads, when, tramming home, we could see into the third and second floors restaurant after restaurant where we had not been able to find anywhere to eat at ground level.

Later means venturing out into the evening to catch the Guinness Book of Records record-holder for the biggest sound and light show in the world. Stopping at Central we came upon Marketplace by Jasons, a highclass supermarket, where we bought pizzas in three flavours to eat while watching the show. The pizza was great. We watched from where we’d been earlier today the show, which was if anything could ever be Super-kitsch.

(Between day and night, Kowloon had been invaded by men, more men, men standing out on the streets, men taking back the night from the women who had outnumbered them ten to one yesterday, and among the men, another ethnicity was in evidence suddenly, African men, two of whom were sitting in their fine white pants on a planter’s edge swigging back on bottles of bubbly rose.)

First, the introduction, coming at us without echo straight across the harbour. Tonight the commentary will be in English. A list of the participating buildings. Including the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army and American Citibank. I may be guilty of mild error in the nomenclature, but I am not joking.

Then the music, faultlessly synchronised to lights and lasers and zig-zagging up and down the real upstager – China Bank, of course. What was the music? Pop Classical TV theme tune pastiche. Symphonic in possessing movements, meaning the music moved from being reminiscent of one theme tune to the next and from cliché to cliché. In other words, bombast and all, it was magnificent.

We ferried and trammed home, misjudging the tram and being led in a circle through the ghost market, a deserted backstreet, the stalls a patchwork of corrugated iron, plastic and cardboard, and delivered up short of our destination by four stops. After a long wait, another tram finally got us home: an hour from Central to Quarry Bay.

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Hong Kong is awesome

Hong Kong is awesome. We first saw the city through the diffusion gauze of a rainy morning. We’d had a flight that despite being marked by turbulence came in at an hour under time. A tail wind, apparently. An easy flight, once we’d set to the side the extraordinariness of warmly living bodies committing themselves to being slotted into the most utilitarian spaces – like battery hens – to be conveyed at enormous speeds inside steel cigars through freezing zones of the atmosphere, setting sides the curious question of why they started doing so in such enormous numbers – our flight was full – and the ingenuity that anyway is ordinarily taken fore granted behind the strange greedy fragile machine permitting them to do so.

We’d slept, eaten, moved around as much as we were able, and seen The Girl Who Played With Fire. And a bit of some doco. One, The Man in or With The Hat… who was the last person to play with fire. But I suppose McLeavy did, in his way. The doco was however remarkable for lacking any kind of drive or fire of its own, in despite, giving him the benefit of the doubt, of its subject.

Arriving at HK, we were warned of bad weather, which would at least be warm, and rain did lash the plane on the tarmac and pelt down on its roof, but the wave of tepid air that greeted us on the skybridge or walkway was wonderful. Redolent of that mystery by which one day we are in early spring’s crisp air and the next in late summer’s wet warmth.

The airport also came as a reminder of something you forget after a long time stuck on our islands: architectural scale. How exciting it is to come across an interior vista that almost reaches the vanishing point of perspective. We were confronted with how large the terminal really was when we had to board a fast train, inside, to get to the immigration and baggage claim areas. And in keeping with the sense of scale, people generally whispered when they spoke, a hush prevailed, especially from the frowning woman directing with clear hand gestures which queue to join to have our passports checked. A process that had more to do with data collection than a check.

No sign upheld for us to make our transfer, we asked a short and happy official for directions. He pointed us towards the nearby desk belonging to our hotel. We were soon wearing colour-coded stickers and following a relay of different guides through the terminus to our bus. It came as a surprise to one man, whose wife had gone for a wander, with what expedition the process of transfer was conducted, since he had to be left behind, his wife not being back in time.

The bus had that particularly Chinese, and once Eastern Bloc, character: fake wood arms, fake leather, underpowered engine, rough riding on a highway that can’t have been as pocked and holed as the suspension made it seem. And HK soft-focus behind the windows. Cranes looming out of the rain and hot fog, islands and boats, and enormous suspension bridges, and towers of apartments – rather than apartment towers.

They shot up thin and often in groupings, like asparagus, and organic, somehow, with unexpected colours, pink, teal, blue, shoot-green. But it was also odd how colonial the mess of buildings and desperate greenings of tiny spaces, sometimes epiphytes hanging off walls of stone or concrete, and roadage, how homely it seemed. Like Auckland, the official buildings rounded at the corners, paint peeling: it produced that same sort of feeling of bureaucracy fallen into disuse and the architecture of bureaucracy fallen into picturesque disrepair as a New Zealand city. Clearly the hills were from Wellington.

We had been fooled, by the time we got to our hotel, that the bus’s air-conditioning reflected the actual air temperature and again had the shock of stepping out into soup. The concierge became more concerned at there being a missing envelope, which we had been told to expect by the guy whose business it was to run the bus transfers, than he really ought to have, but managed to upgrade our room to one with a harbour view – true – taking our pre-booking forms from an ancient cardboard concertina file in the largely swanky though over-perfumed – frangipani? – surroundings of the lobby. I was a little concerned at how difficult his accent was to understand. And this was the general pattern: English is not widely spoken and when she is, it is broadly, with an accent.

Having checked in, even got into the room, despite the early hour, we had to come up with what to do with our day not knowing a great deal about the city. So we jumped on a tram and headed into central to find the Peak Cable Car to take us up to the top of HK Island, the idea being that this might help us get our bearings. The trams are double-deckers. I got tangled up in the turnstile on the way in but luckily was tall enough for it not to do me any damage. Tall enough also to be a finger away from the wood of the ceiling. But the trams are magnificent. Tall narrow and windows open threatening to remove limbs. No air-conditioning. We wondered if this accounted for the demographic using them, Sunday, mainly women, not speaking ‘Chinese’ but possibly Filipino, Malay? Many of them wore headscarves.

The women of HK were taking back the pavements and steps and in fact anywhere there was room for them. They brought umbrellas, raffle tickets to sell, agendas to promote, pamphlets to hand out, diaries to fill with networking details, food to eat, food to share, food to sell, produce to share and sell, plastic sheeting to sit on, lie on, share with friends, in groups of two, three and ten, in their millions, is how it seemed. They found shade and we first saw them in real numbers where we disembarked, under the flanks of a commercial building, like bag-people, but obviously on more of an outing, because of the umbrellas, the parasols. They resembled a sit-in. As if the women who worked at the building wanted to protest sexist working conditions.

Going up the hill, the Peak, a little way, to the cathedral, there were more women gathered. Perhaps that’s it. There wasn’t room in the church to keep up with the demand. But what about all those wearing headscarves? Mysterious.

We took the Cable Car. It not only climbs at almost forty-five degrees, it varies its incline in a way that is quite disconcerting. One minute on the level, the next at a ridiculous angle to the skinny upright towers that process up a ways into the green park which covers the peak. And it climbs. Climbs again. Levels off, takes a corner or two, climbs. Until we’re at the Galleria, a multi-storey shopping centre with a head like an adze, which, on top of the collection of rip-off and kitsch stalls and stores, Starbucks, Gumpy Shrimp American something, occupying the tower, boasts a perfectly preternaturally sheltered viewing platform, or roof. With views back over Kowloon Peninsula, over the Norman Foster building, whose work we’ll be encountering again, I hope, in the Millau Viaduct. And out the other side, over islands and junks and villages of small craft and container ships: both views still hazy from the rain, clearing.

Out from the Galleria there was an authentically charming cobbled area with an expensive restaurant on it. We didn’t. Though starving, we were carried on an endless looping cable back down the hill. When it was first built, the Cable Car reserved two seats for the Governor until five minutes before departure of every car, just in case he might turn up.

A series of beautiful buildings. Arranged so that even on foot new vistas are constantly opening up, new facets to the towers on show, other towers beyond them revealed. Back down into the market zones looking for a bite.

From the tram we’d seen Hay Hay Kitchen Hay something. Succeeding in finding it, they did the best black bean chilli squid on flat noodle, and the best sweet and sour pork, and Singapore noodles ever. Then, we were ridiculously jet-legged. And the sun was out fully now, beating down on our heads, making every store with a cool breeze blowing from it attractive. Did a little light shopping. Brilliant.

And on our way back to the hotel, women filling the footpaths, thousands. I asked one group whether they spoke English. No. Another, no. Same thing a couple more times until I struck a woman lying on her side, long shirt dress, pants, head-scarf. Why? I asked. Protest?

No, she answered. It is my holiday.

But just for women, ladies?

No. We do this every Sunday. Anybody can.

Maybe the rooms in the endless serried ranks of towers are so small that released on Sunday, everybody takes to the streets, changing them into one vast living room. Could be the case were there not a predominance of women, were it not belied by a sense of urgency in the women, despite their relaxed bodily attitudes, as if more were at stake.

We got lost. We got blisters. And too much sun. And HK is awesome for being so idiosyncratic in its mass-orientated-ness. For having such bizarre elements clash in it, especially the very large and the nearly microscopic. Love its lost spaces, and mad back ends of businesses, often brought around their fronts, or contesting which deserves to be out front, nowhere more so than in the arena of smell. Smells we’d relegate to back ends waft out like banners from apothecaries, butcheries, teashops, fish shops, even building sites, smelling of burning concrete, and other sulphurous smells advertising who knows what.

We ate fresh broiled chicken with chilli ginger garlic paste on rice for dinner and a vege soup on the side. It was excellent.

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announcing a change in direction to everywhere, or sww on tour and available for comment

I agree there are still some things wrong with the following post, and the PAGE called Dear Visitor, things that might eventually get fixed, missing links, and so on. (I’d like the black circle itself to be live to the cursor, for example, and not the surrounding square, to be able to say: ‘…indiscernible. Feel its edges with your cursor.‘) It wasn’t exactly a rush job but what began as a simple and playful statement of position, critical, theatrical and poetic, itself bifurcated and split into its timely and untimely parts, into its various impositions. Blame the pink mist.

It wasn’t exactly a rush job, but there was a deadline. Since tomorrow we fly away from the picturesque and pacific islands of NZ for a trip of approximately eight weeks duration, including in our itinerary Hong Kong, Rome, Berlin, Paris, and Barcelona.

I hope to be able to write and post images along the way. You are welcome to contact me through the contact form provided locally, here, in fact. That’s the sort of easy legerdemain of which I am capable. You will of course have to elbow your way in through the bots, who, even at this place, given this unpromising fare, are still numerous, and say, No at the bar, when you might possibly mean yes.

Trans-European Express

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tyranny of the imagination permits time travel given certain conditions

fear took hold of him, or rather tightened its grip and entered his body.

– Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas, trans. Chris Andrews, Picador, London, 2010, p. 127

operating outside space and time, at the dawn of a new age, as it were, in which spatio-temporal perception is undergoing transformation and even becoming obsolete.

– Ibid., p. 133


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