Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 27th June 2006


"They look like Bond villain henchmen," I remarked to Claire as I stared from the plane window onto the runway at Narita airport. Hard-hatted airport workers were driving forklift trucks up to the plane as it disgorged our luggage.

Although I like to think of my self as fairly well-travelled, a bit cosmopolitan, my comment suggested that perhaps this visit to Tokyo should consist of a bit more than getting pissed in the red-light district and staying in a capsule hotel.

Overland and subway trains took us to Asakusa, a district in the North East of central Tokyo. As we emerged from the bowels of the subway station, the cool bright afternoon was a refreshing change from the heavy humid air we'd left behind in Hong Kong. We found our hotel with ease - a Ryokan down a quiet side street. Our traditional Japanese room at the top of the hotel was authentic down to the rattan flooring and paper screens. Unfortunately its authenticity extended to its lack of a private bathroom - we had to use the very pleasant but small traditional communal baths next door.

After making certain bathroom related enquiries at the reception desk, Claire and I wandered the area before eating at a Shabu-shabu restaurant. Diners cook their own food by dropping thin slices of meat into a boiling broth. We were placed in a room on our own and had to phone for the bill.

The next morning, bathed in the traditional Japanese style, we hit Nakamise-Dori, which was next to the hotel. Nakamise-Dori is a long pedestrianised market street lined with stalls selling tourist tat, Japanese sweets and assorted kitsch. At one end of the street a huge red lantern sits under Kaminarimon (the Thunder Gate) while at the other is Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo and the location of the pagoda glimpsed from our room. After taking in the temple, we ambled down the busy market and were approached by school children on a field trip. Obviously with orders to stop Westerners and practice their English, they handed us information about the part of Japan they were from, told us their names, asked us where we were from, asked for my signature and then requested a photograph. We asked their teacher, who was loitering nearby, to return the favour, hence this:

On Nakamise-Dori

Then we dived into Tokyo, starting an energetic and wide-ranging three day tour of the city. It started in Marunouchi, where we took a turn in the Imperial Gardens. It was here we first noticed the preponderance of jungle crows in Tokyo - large, fat creatures, insistently cawing and languidly flapping from tree to tree. Then we struck out for the swanky shopping area of Ginza where we mucked around with camcorders, digital camera and other assorted gadgets in the Sony Centre, which also features a Playstation 3 in a glass box, complete with ineffectual looking security guard.

From Ginza we walked to Zojo-ji temple, a Buddhist centre overlooked by the Tokyo tower. Perhaps the most remarkable (and moving) thing about this temple are the rows of hundreds of small Jizo statues. Jizo is a Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva associated with, amongst other things, aborted and miscarried foetuses. Here, each of the red bibbed and hatted statues (which look more like babies than Bodhisattvas) commemorate a deceased baby, and each one has its own plastic windmill, which rattles in the breeze.

I was ambling the around the grounds of the temple, trying to take a photo of a small shrine, when I heard a shriek and an accusing shout. Claire emerged from behind a tree claiming to have been the victim of a crow attack - she had been standing around, supposedly minding her own business (a likely story) when, after only the briefest of warning caws, she was dive-bombed. It transpired that she hadn't actually seen the offending creature, but we swiftly left the temple grounds after that, wishing to avoid an Omen type scenario.

That evening we wandered the neon soaked streets of Shinjuku and ate conveyor belt sushi. It was in Shinjuku that we first succumbed to the lure of the arcades - not the deafening packed pachinko parlours, but the places full of computer games and machines offering cutesy animals teetering invitingly on ledges or large stuffed pigs ready to be scooped up and dropped into the hands of the dextrous deserving. Here I developed a passion for the Taiko Drum Master, and bashed away to various songs including the Doraemon theme tune and YMCA, while behind me, Claire addictively continued her quest to pick up as many winsome trinkets as possible.

We started the following day at the Meiji shrine, a large shrine in the middle of extensive gardens dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, which like so much of Tokyo was destroyed in the Second World War - what's there now was built in the 1950s. Then we crossed the train tracks into Harijuku and wandered down Takeshita Dori, the Tokyo equivalent of Camden market, except with more French maid costumes for sale. We eventually found ourselves at the large Kiddyland toyshop. In the course of the day, at Kiddyland and then department store Tokyu Hands in Shibuya, I ill-advisedly spent thousands of yen on assorted off-the-wall Japanese toys and other quirky collectibles. Studio Ghibli phone fobs, weird Bandai figures and armoured bears now sit in my desk in Hong Kong. I have no idea what to do with them.

Shibuya was endlessly fascinating - hundreds of shops, restaurants, arcades, bars and clubs provide the backdrop for some of the best people watching in the world. Disorientated we veered up and down various streets, in and out of shops and past a television studio where an incomprehensible game show was being filmed. We poured more coins into arcade machines and then, as night fell, found ourselves at the Hachiko crossing, the centre of it all, surrounded by bright neon clad buildings and huge blaring LCD screens.

Then, armed with a list of recommendations in the Time Out Tokyo guidebook, we decided to seek out a love hotel, Tokyo's quintessentially Japanese short stay hotels. We ended up at P&A Plaza, one of the best known of these establishments. Shuffling coyly through the frosted automatic doors, we were confronted with a wall mounted electronic menu showing pictures of the various rooms available. It was around 9pm, but many of the rooms we already taken. We chose a room, and pressed various buttons, muddling through the Japanese prompts. Eventually the machine spat out a key card. In many respects the room was like a regular hotel room - bathroom, bed, sofa and television. But in others it was not - the porn menu on top of the TV, the "minibar" of sex toys, the swimming pool...Then again, not many regular hotels have a fish tank full of jelly fish in the lobby.

The following morning was our last in Tokyo. We had reserved tickets on the Shinkansen up to Sendai in order to visit a friend of ours who is a Sensei at the university there.

The trains in Japan never leave late and they never leave early. Apparently if the subway trains are delayed in the morning, the rail operator gives out apology slips for the Salarymen to show their bosses. The Sensei told us of an occasion when he saw the rail staff come onto the platform and bow to the passengers on a delayed Shinkansen in humble apology. Therefore we were conscious that we had to be queuing for the train in the one neat lanes painted on the platforms by 3:02pm.

We headed to Ueno park, and strolled around there, avoiding the crows and visiting the Toshogu Shrine, a beautiful old (17th century - it has withstood wars and earthquakes) Shinto shrine, the grounds of which are covered in large elegant stone lanterns.

Emerging into the quiet and attractive neighbourhood of Yanaka on the other side of the park we made our way to the peaceful cemetery before heading back to Asakusa for lunch in a Korean restaurant (where once again we cooked our own food - this time marbled beef on a grill in the table) and to pick up our bags. But as we made a beeline for the Shinkansen station at Ueno we passed an arcade. In unspoken agreement we headed in, the waiting Shinkansen suddenly losing its importance.

After feeding various machines (including the Drum Master) with cash we decided to give the Purikura booths a go. In our various visits to arcades around Tokyo, large portions of the places were dedicated to Purikura and they were always full of giggling schoolgirls. One arcade had a sign at the entrance to the Purikura section declaring that only women and couples were allowed into the area - no single men. It took us a while to work out how to use the things, which included figuring out that once the initial photos are taken you head into a second booth to mess around with the images - shove hearts all over them, or a cartoon pig's head for example. The end results were colourful, jolly and incomprehensible. Obviously I would post a picture of them here, but sadly I can't get a good enough image to put on Flickr. Shame. However some selected pictures can be found here.

91 - posted at 18:07:39

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Tuesday 9th May 2006

Cheung Chau is a small island to the west of Hong Kong. Originally a fishing community, the narrow strip of land at the centre of the dumb-bell shaped island is a well developed scrum of narrow lanes and houses, which gives way to forest and cliffs as the land opens up at either end.

Back in 1999 the island experienced unusually high levels of suicides. The doleful and despairing were drawn to Cheung Chau, perhaps attracted by its relative isolation. They focused on one particular block of holiday apartments, and, alone in their rented rooms, lit charcoal, slipping away amongst the fumes. The grim suicide statistics led the local residents and police to launch a Suicide Prevention Scheme and more recently, a councillor to propose the building of a Suicide Theme Park on the island. Given the slightly spooky circumstances of my first visit to Cheung Chau, it's a probably a good thing I didn't know all this back then.

The annual Bun Festival, which took place last weekend, hasn't yet been adapted to placate the charcoal infused dead, despite the festival being, in part, a ritual to commemorate islanders killed by pirates and appease their souls which still wander the island's paths. The festival is also a tribute to Pak Tai, a Taoist Sea God, whose beneficence is important to a community traditionally dependent on fishing. For three days the island turns vegetarian, before staging a long and colourful procession which threads past the thousands of day-trippers who descend on the island for the festival, which culminates in the Bun Scramble.

A long night in Lang Kwai Fong meant that, despite my eagerness to get out of my room, I didn't get to Cheung Chau until 3pm. I was just in time to catch a marching band parrumping down the main street, which runs along the front of the harbour. The place was packed, and it was only a height advantage that allowed me to see the band as they wheeled by. I pushed my way through the crowds to one of the narrow back streets and watched as the final third of the procession came through.

Old men in bright red religious robes passed along the street, followed by younger men blowing wildly discordant cornets or banging cymbals and drums to drive away evil spirits. These were followed by whirling dragon dances, believers carrying ornate sedan chairs in which statues of deities resided, strolling Buddhas wearing papier-mâché heads and waving their rattan fans at well-wishers (it was also the big man's birthday) and children, suspended on raised platforms to give the impression that they were floating through the crowd. The children were either dressed in traditional costume or done up to represent more contemporary characters - one hose carrying boy wore blue scrubs and a hairnet to look like a SARS hospital worker. A girl was dressed as a supercilious health official, the base of her platform scattered with chickens - the local government, in an attempt to prevent avian influenza has confiscated poultry from farmers without providing compensation.

After an hour or so, the procession dribbled to a stop, the heads that had been hanging out of windows along the lane withdrew, and the crowd disbursed. I decided to go for a walk around the coast. 20 minutes later, climbing a steep hill into the forest, I realised that this might have been a humiliating mistake. Over the last few weeks the temperature in Hong Kong has been steadily climbing, along with the humidity. Air conditioning units rattle away constantly and a few brave cockroaches have been seen lumbering along the streets of Central. I'd like to have been able to blame the rapidly expanding dark patches on my shirt on its linen material, but the reality is that I'm a sweaty white guy hopelessly ill-equipped to survive in this part of the world. The paths around the island were full of happy Chinese families enjoying the holiday atmosphere, clambering on the rocks and picnicking, not one of them breaking a sweat.

After trudging past the cemetery in the woods I spied a bench and decided to have a rest. I absent-mindedly watched a family of stray dogs optimistically trotting behind each walker who passed by, only to drop back dejected after 20 seconds. I wondered whether it was possible to give up exercise by simply sitting in the sweltering sunshine for half an hour, sweating off fat. I was roused from my thoughts by a slight tickle on my arm. I looked down on it to see about five black thick-bodied mosquitoes grazing. Disgusted I brushed them off, crushing a couple and leaving a smear of blood across my forearm. I stood up as both my arms started tingling and masochistically counted the bites. There were about 15 in all, on both my arms. I had been sitting there for three minutes. Irritated I walked on and was dismayed to see a sign depicting two large mosquitoes and the legend "Beware of Japanese Encephalitis and Dengue Fever".

Back in town I headed to the supermarket and stood over the freezer compartment, pretending to read the back of a packet of peas. Cooled down, I made for the other side of the harbour. Next to some fishing boats the air was heavy with smoke and ash. A large fire was burning before a 12 foot effigy of an angry looking Pak Tai. Old men and women were lighting bundles of incense and bowing before him and the row of cardboard holy men standing nearby.

Across the road on the municipal tennis courts, in front of the Pak Tai temple, stood the 60 foot high bun tower. Up to and including 1978, the bun towers were comprised of a bamboo frame covered with hundreds of sweet buns. Festival goers scrambled up the tower, buns flying, to the top. In competition with each other, they filled bags with as many snatched buns as possible. However, as grainy 1978 TV footage shows, this all ended as the bamboo gave way and the tower came tumbling down in a shower of fluffy dough and broken limbs. About 100 people were injured and the Bun Scramble was history. It has been revived in the last couple of years, but now the towers are made of metal, and only small well trained teams get to grab the buns, all the time attached to the tower with ropes.

Behind the tower, the festival was still in full swing. A small stage played host to Cantonese Opera, stalls sold bun shaped cushions and the temple rang with the repeated chimes of its heavy gong. As night fell queues formed at bakers' shops, stretching down the alleyways. I joined a queue, and watched as the buns were steamed in giant bamboo steamers and then individually stamped with a red Chinese character ("Peace"). Having finally reached the front of the queue, I bought a couple of buns and munched them sitting in the main square, having avoided the TV crews (TVB and MTV) interviewing Western tourists.

And then, I left. Although I was keen to see the actual Bun Scramble, it was scheduled for midnight and after 1am the ferry service back to Central was severely limited. Since it was three hours until midnight and since I didn't have anyone with whom to while away those hours or the ones that would inevitably be spent queuing for an early morning ferry, I jumped on the boat and watched the live broadcast of the Bun Scramble on TV. It looked fun, but I couldn't help wishing that I had seen it in the old days, when it was a free-for-all, without harnesses and crash helmets. It's such a unique and mad idea that, while clearly much more sensible, the sterilised Bun Scramble seems contrary to the spirit of the festival. I think Pak Tai and the itinerant spirits of the dead probably preferred it back then too.

Inspired by Matt, I have put some of my photos on Flickr. Selected photos from the Bun Festival can be seen here.

90 - posted at 16:31:10

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Thursday 27th April 2006

Hong Kong isn't known as a cultural hotspot - either for Chinese or Western culture. The common perception is that the latter is almost completely absent from these balmy islands, and that's not a surprise. The residency in Hong Kong of Western music, art and literature depends on the expats from that part of the world, who, along with their professional qualifications and reluctant families, must also bring a demand for it. However, the expat demographic in general doesn't care too much for cultural variety so unless you're fulfilled by U2 and The Da Vinci code (on which topic, what a fucking prick) don't come here expecting too much.

This isn't something of which we, as a group, are ashamed, and nor should we be. European and American culture is for Europe and America. Hong Kong is for making money and getting pissed. This week's issue of HK Magazine (a listings paper, a bit like a 6th form Time Out) opened its interview with a local aspiring poet with, "There's a million things to do in this city. Why bother writing poetry?" Therefore last month, while idly flicking through the pages of the same publication and wondering if I would go to any of the places listed if I had someone to go with, I was surprised to read about the Hong Kong Literary Festival opening in town.

True to form, HK couched the festival in apologetic terms, careful not to alienate its readers. The Nobel Lecture from Seamus Heaney was recommended for "anyone who wants to hear verse read in a Northern Irish brogue" while The Sea, the Booker Prize winning novel of John Banville, the other big name attending, was dismissed as a book no-one has read and "pretty much identical" to anything Kazuo Ishiguro has ever written. Although, I haven't read The Sea either, so perhaps that's fair comment...

Anyway, it turns out that, at least in part, the perception of gweilos as literature-phobes is bollocks, as is the idea of the city as a cultural desert. While I did get a few odd looks when I mentioned to people in the office that I was off to a literary festival event, all the talks I went to were well-attended, albeit mostly by academics, students and publishers. Hong Kong was, it turns out, an ideal city in which to hold this kind of festival. The place is small enough that any of the venues were easy to reach by foot or a short taxi ride. The events were popular but rarely oversubscribed. Entry was either free or fairly cheap. This meant that I could finish up at work, have a quick look on the website to see what was on, and 10 minutes later be sat in a little theatre listening to Ma Jian rattle on about sky burials (OK, so it wasn't all Western Literature), watching a panel of "experts" have a lively debate over what was going on in North Korea or wondering whether Nell Freudenberger only got a publishing deal because of her looks (she didn't).

I would of course feel a little short changed if I didn't come out of some of the events without a slight animosity towards my fellow festival goers, and so I developed an irritation towards the 'nodding-at-no-one' syndrome, which I noticed was endemic in middle-aged academic looking women who nodded knowingly at points although nobody was seeking their approval or checking that they had understood. To be honest, I think I was just jealous, sitting there like a lemon in a suit, realising that the majority of the audience spent their lives thinking about and working on things they were interested in, even had a passion for. For them the event was merely a complement to their daily lives, while I shoehorned it in at the end or very beginning of days mostly consisting of boredom, dull fear and incomprehension.

89 - posted at 15:53:21

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Thursday 30th March 2006

The notion of 'Hong Kong' varies from person to person, but present it to enough people and before long some themes will develop. Take your pick from a spread offering a neon city tottering with Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers, an oasis of fake designer watches and handbags, a belching fume filled metropolis crawling with capitalists in the brutal pursuit of a quick buck. Or perhaps a pearl of enlightenment and clarity perched on the edge of the confusion of China, a heady mix of clubby expat society, incense infused temples and dim sum. And this weekend, chubby rugger buggers vomiting barely imbibed beer over delighted fellow hedonists.

However, for most, verdant countryside and literary indulgence probably wouldn't feature in an imagined snapshot of the territory. But over the last month I've enjoyed both - but the literature is for later.

About three-quarters of Hong Kong is undeveloped. There are 23 country parks packed with jungle, rivers, small mountains, snakes, reservoirs and lots of monkeys. The majority of the 220 odd islands that, along with the Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories, make up Hong Kong are rural, often largely uninhabited. As a result the territory is full of hiking trails. With all this wilderness surrounding me perhaps I was lucky to stumble across a bookshop and pick up a book detailing a few of the routes.

I decided to head to Po Toi, one of the most southerly islands in Hong Kong. From the description in the book, half the effort was in getting to the place. As the ferry only left St Stephen's Pier for Po Toi on Sundays, this was the day on which I chose to go. Unfortunately the last ferry to leave the pier is scheduled for 11:30am and, as actually getting to the jetty required some thought, the first hurdle was getting out of bed.

This achieved, I set off on the bus. In the middle of Wan Chai, it took an unexpected turn, and so I alighted and wandered through the Sunday morning streets, to find the bus to Stanley. I walked up the narrower section of Wan Chai road. The butcher's were doing a solid trade and the street stank of raw meat. Cages bristled with chickens and recently fished creatures flipped vainly in buckets. Soon I was on the bus to Stanley, a pleasant ride to the other side of Hong Kong Island, past the tourist market to the terminus at the prison. From there it was a 15 minute walk to the quiet St Stephen's Beach and jetty. By the time I was standing on the jetty, my eyes straining to see through the haze sitting over the water, I wondered if I had done enough exercise for the day. But the ferry arrived before I had a chance to contemplate heading back to bed. A choppy 30 minutes later I was walking up to the only notable collection of houses on Po Toi, past piles of seaweed drying on the rocks around the bay. Most of the houses seemed deserted. I had read somewhere that the population had fallen in the last 30 years from thousands to only a few hundred, the inhabitants drawn away by the flashy promise of the city. I followed the path out of the village and took up the route recommended by the book, passing the first of many batches of twitchers, weighed down with telescopic lenses and bird whistles.

The path headed up hill through dense bushes and squat trees. Halfway up the hill, an animal track heading right from the path was blocked by a large red stenciled sign: 'You Will Be Penalized For Trespassing Private Property'. However, my book and recently purchased map indicated that this path was the quickest way to Mo's Old House (alternatively known as the Ghost House) an abandoned dwelling used by Japanese soldiers during the occupation. I gingerly ducked under the sign, and headed through the undergrowth, until I reached the dilapidated house. Windows and rooms were still intact, but the roof had largely fallen through and gaping holes in the masonry exposed the corners of dingy rooms. The final scene of The Blair Witch Project jumped into my mind, and I nervously took a couple of photos before heading back to the main path, pursued by the sound of a door banging in the gentle wind.

A bit further up the path and the undergrowth suddenly stopped and barren rock took over, covered only by thin green scrub. Reaching the top of the path, it was clear that the majority of Po Toi was similarly rocky. I could see all sides of the small island - back down to the village and to the other sides, where the sheer rock face smoothly descended into the foaming sea. At this point a signpost presented me with a choice. A 'Rugged Path' to the left, or a more leisurely stroll to the right. For some reason, although day tripping families were dotted along the right hand path, I chose to take it. Laziness I guess - along with the fact that this was the route the book suggested. Although the stark granite landscape was a pleasure to stroll through, the fact that the route was along a thick concrete path (and steps where steep) was a shame, as was the copious litter strewn along its length.

I passed families picnicking at the base of unusual rock formations, optimistically named after what they apparently resembled (Monk's Rock, Buddha's Hand Rock and the carelessly christened Tortoise Climbing Up The Mountain Rock). The path weaved down to a grassy plain. A few boulders had rolled onto it, and they sat in between about 20 unexpected tombs. Meanwhile huge freight ships slid past, cutting their way through the South China Sea, presumably heading up to Hong Kong harbour.

Despite the concrete and the litter I felt pleased with myself as I completed the circle and found myself back at the village. I was well exercised, and headed through the houses and restaurants up to the Tin Hau temple on the far side. A brief inhalation of the joss sticks' aroma and I was ready to try the Rugged Path, which both my map and a signpost told me I could join from here. I looked at my watch. 70 minutes until the last ferry headed back to Hong Kong Island. I followed the signpost, pulling myself up a steep rock face and around a corner. The path was blocked by a small electricity sub-station. I tried again, taking an alternative path. Suddenly I was walking on soft grass between low trees. The sun was shining. A black and white butterfly fluttered in front of me. This was more like it. I turned a corner. And was back at the village. Perhaps the electricity sub-station path was the right one - I don't know. I had lost 10 minutes and didn't want to miss the last ferry.

I found a busy restaurant, called Ming Kee, and shyly asked for a table for one. I was placed on a large empty table in between bellowing British come ashore from junks moored in the bay. I don't mind eating on my own, but a definite disadvantage is that you can't make conversation in order to drown out that of your neighbours. As I sucked down my seaweed soup and scallops I tried to ignore the hearty colonial talk of team sports and 5 star hotels across Asia. To be fair I'm sure that they, likewise, didn't appreciate the presence of a lugubrious young man frowning over a book.

While waiting for the ferry to take me back I bought a large circular pie of dried seaweed, which I ate profusely over the next few days. A subsequent night of desperately painful stomach spasms preceded by particularly noxious wind suggested that this may have been a mistake.

88 - posted at 15:43:24

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Thursday 9th March 2006

Being just off the boat, I couldn't really back out of my company's annual party. As a lazy, anti-social and shy sort the mere fact that I didn't know anyone and would have to head to the venue on my own meant that I was powerless to stop the vague feeling of dread building throughout the day. The event was meant to kick off at around 7:30pm with a drinks reception. The meal was to start at 8:30pm. I decided to avoid the drinks. I could stomach the idea of sitting safely at a table but mingling, spouting stinking chat and worrying about whether I was meant to be circulating were to be avoided.

So I remained at my desk, finding trivial little tasks to do, making sure I was too busy to leave the office. Finally I logged off and headed over the road to the Ritz-Carlton, barely allowing myself to hope that it would be OK. I didn't need it to be the best night of my life - or even fun. OK would do me. In the event, it was OK. And a bit fun too.

As the event coincided with the turn of the Chinese new year, each of the 20 or so round tables crowbarred into the Ritz function room was named after a breed of dog. At one end of the room was a small stage, and to the right of that was a projection screen which flashed through various office-related photos for the entire evening. True to Hong Kong's love of cameras and taking photos, over the three hours I was there, I never saw the same photo flash up twice. The meal was a Chinese banquet of around 13 courses. During the food various people got up on stage to sing songs. In between the singing there were games (match the person with their mutt, charades) and a raffle, the main prize of which was a large gold dog. I felt like I was at one of those weddings where you know no-one but to have anything less than the time of your life is sacrilege. With a perma-grin plastered on my face I began to drink heavily and became a little less curmudgeonly.

Luckily, as my resolve was beginning to falter, I was presented with an escape route: some colleagues were off to Karaoke. My relief at leaving with them was increased as someone turned up the cheese and fellow gweilos took to the dancefloor.

Causeway Bay is a vibrant shopping area, east of Wan Chai. It's more upmarket than Mongkok, but seems no less packed - squeezed in between the clutch of department stores, malls and restaurants are shops selling clothes, watches, luggage, electronics and mobile phones, from the lowliest corner shop to designer boutiques. It's always rammed with young Hong Kongers, and during the evening, when the neon flickers to life making the night brighter than day, the hordes don't let up.

At the top of a shopping mall in Causeway Bay is the Green (or is it Red?) Box Karaoke Centre. I followed my colleagues behind the reception desk into a warren of narrow corridors, past countless doors, through which muffled crooning filtered. We reached our door - inside was a dark room with a sofa running along one wall facing a large TV screen, at the far end a small bar and beyond that, a bathroom. The others quickly got to work, ordering drinks and nibbles and programming songs into the Karaoke system. Soon more people joined us, exiles from the party. As they passed the microphones around, producing pitch-perfect renditions of Cantopop ballads, I got stuck into what seems to be the latest fashionable drink, whiskey and green tea. I had been in this situation before, both in Taipei and Hong Kong, the only non-Chinese person in a room full of well-practised Karaoke singers, all of whom seemed to be flicking through the English language songs in the library, entreating me to sing. The last occasion had brought to an end any farcical notions I may once have entertained that could emit a sound which had any relation to Boethian notation, let alone sing. The only solution was to get even more drunk and jump in.

Naturally, it was a shameful display. In my defence, the choice of English language songs was hardly inspirational. I won't demean myself further by listing what I "sang" - let's just mention that at times I probably say it best when I say nothing at all and that there are still some lipstick marks left on a coffee cup. Oh, and I heard that Backstreet was back. Luckily, I had the videos to distract me from the horror. Invariably, when the others expertly motored through Cantopop, it was to a bland video of the relevant performer singing to an adoring audience. However, the English language songs were accompanied by bizarrely incongruous films. Boyband classics, old Beatles songs and cock-rock power ballads were accompanied by, amongst other things, footage of a dog show, a barge holiday in the Norfolk Broads and what looked like a tourist board promo for Southend-on-Sea.

Before I knew it, we were all out of whiskey and green tea, it was almost 5am and there were only 4 of us left. I have a vague recollection of most of the others leaving when I picked up the microphone to sing Sweet Child O' Mine.

87 - posted at 07:59:49

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