I’m back (not really with a vengeance) in the city with which I have a love/hate relationship. Hong Kong, if you must know. I love that this place is a pastiche of cultures with a diversity of culinary options, that my best friends are from America, Australia, Canada, England, and Nepal, and that patriotism is more or less a non-issue here. And who can resist basking in the cityscape’s warm glow (both literal and figurative), most recently immortalized by this remarkable, nostalgia-inducing time lapse film?
These are a few of my favorite things to be sure, but there is also something I hate about this Special Administrative Region. Although I can’t quite describe it, if you look closely you can see it sliding down some of the buildings, especially on Hong Kong Island, in a thick, putrescent, fecal sludge.
The film Michael Clayton begins with a pitch-perfect monologue by Arthur Edens (below), delivered by the beguiling Tom Wilkinson. The apex of Edens’ monologue refers to a “stunning moment of clarity” and while I can’t say I’ve experienced so epiphanic a moment personally, I strongly empathise with the monologue’s primary sentiment that if we’re not careful, our humanity can be covered in a “patina of shit” to the point of destruction. Lately, as I wander the corridors of this city that I have 17 years worth of memories in, this sentiment has been so thoroughly ringing in my ears that the crappy (!) sentence at the end of my second paragraph essentially wrote itself.
As is probably the case with most manicured and well-to-do cities, Hong Kong has more than its share of people, businesses, and even churches whose most visible preoccupation seems to be either maintaining status on some imaginary ladder or climbing further up it. A truly wine-loving friend recently made as much plain to me when she said that she would be as likely to help those in need as she would be to give up drinking. As if this wasn’t enough to erode humanity, Hong Kong is the only place I’ve experienced where money talk is so pervasive that even pleasantries routinely involve questions about how much you make and how much rent you pay. The scary part is that it’s so easy for these social values (if they can be called that) – once so foreign – to seep into your skin and become normal.
Last week, I came close to a real Arthur Edens moment and almost started to hear the sounds of people being churned into the cogs of a twisted machine. After leaving the office where I work on Hong Kong Island, I headed to a nearby train station and when I arrived at the entrance, I was engulfed by the post-work masses decked in monochromatic office garb. We shuttled trance-like through the concourse and as we proceeded towards the train, it was as if I became part of some automaton herd, seeing no one, feeling nothing, and going nowhere.
Who were we and how did we become so vacant?
There are times when I long to smash the rungs of this city’s ladders and see its bank notes bow in white heat. Maybe then we’ll trade our metallic spines for real ones, stop gaping stupidly at the screens on various forms of transportation, begin dreaming about a better way and a better world, attend to and be present to one another, and start living again. Maybe then we’ll learn what it really means to be human.
And Michael, the time is now.