Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Friday 28th November 2003

I was in Tokyo for two days and scratched the surface only to the extent that a piece of raw fish being dragged over Sony's latest plasma screen would. But, sitting on the train during the long journey from the airport to the city, the hoards of dark-suited businessmen and short-skirted schoolgirls (complete with knee length white socks) I glimpsed on the passing platforms tempted me to think that perhaps I did know the place in a way, that perhaps the cliches were true.

And then of course, as soon as I got into the city, even in its appearance Tokyo surprised me. For me, and perhaps my fellow travellers, it was, at least for a couple of days, the perfect antidote to Hong Kong. The weather was cold, a gently crisp wind lightening the air - a relief from the pollution-heavy humidity back in China. The atmosphere was relaxed and placid - although the streets thronged with people there was a calm quietness to them: for example, on the underground, as in London, no-one spoke. The Japanese cars hummed smoothly by with none of the chaos and belching fumes of Central. And the city itself reminded me of a modern New York or Paris, with wide boulevards and street cafes, complemented by intriguing alleys and lanes.

It was down one of these that we wandered searching for supper. After several tentative but ultimately cowardly attempts to choose a suitable restaurant I eventually took the initiative and slid open the door of an establishment - I should add this was only because I had been peering through the window and noticed two kimonoed women laughing at me. I had no idea, even when we were being led into the place, whether this was even a restaurant. Luckily it was, and we were shown into our private room, where we sat at our table which was only a few inches from the matted floor. We pointed at a set menu on the basis of the price, since there was no English to give us an indication of what we were to have, and then spent a couple of leisurely hours eating, amongst bowls of food I couldn't identify, sushi, sashimi, tempura and sea snail, neatly accompanied by sake.

Then it was off to Rappongi, via the underground. Despite the hideously complicated tube map, which looks like the vomit of someone who's eaten a bit too much multi-coloured spaghetti, we arrived without any trouble. Actually finding somewhere to drink that wasn't a grotty American style bar playing over-loud cock-rock or cheese was more of a difficulty. After trying various places we moved onto Shinjuku and it was here, in the underground station, that we met Hero.* Nicely suited, in a three-piece and with a grinning but mute sidekick, Hero was a young professional who liked the English. He told us he knew a bar nearby, and although a slight reluctance had begun to set in, we followed. Fifteen minutes later and still walking, the patience of some was being tested. But Hero had excitedly called his wife to join us, and he was so polite and friendly, that we persevered. The bar we arrived at was plush and quiet and a pleasant change from the ex-pat dross of Rappongi. Unfortunately there was also a high cover charge that led to a boycott of the bar and three of the group escaping to the hotel. The three of us remaining were eagerly led by Hero to a nearby sports bar that he promised would have drinks. But sadly, despite it being relatively early, they had stopped serving. Hero was devastated - he couldn't go on. He warmly shook our hands, repeating, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry'. I'm sure I could see the tears start to prick his eyes as he left. We briefly discussed the possibility of him committing Hari-Kiri, before heading for the nearest clutter of neon signs, which turned out to be the Red Light District.

After a few more drinks and futile attempts to find off-the-wall Japanese weirdness, as shows like Adam and Joe Go Tokyo had entitled us to expect (there was an especially concerted effort to find a mythical 'Cabbage Bar' which to my relief we never stumbled across) we headed towards the nearest Capsule Hotel.

Spending the remaining hours of the night in a rectangular box was a peculiar experience - the two-high rows of units lining the large room reminded me of photos of chickens encased in battery farms. Having piled my clothes in a locker, and avoided the tipsy businessman swaying back and forth, I crawled into my capsule and pulled down the blind. It was slightly too short for me, but the ceiling was just about high enough to semi-sit up in. On my right a little control panel gave me a light switch, a radio and an alarm clock, as well as control of the compact television suspended from the ceiling. There was also an enigmatic coin box near the opening of the capsule. I didn't try it, too tired and newly hungover to do anything but sleep, but the next morning I was reliably informed that it made pornography (albeit censored) come on the T.V..

The following day and a half brought further confirmation of some cliches (four streams of pedestrians crossing an intersection under giant neon signs, cameras the size of a flashbulb in the Sony Centre) and further fascinating and novel sights (a procession of men with Samurai Swords, the park and moat surrounding the Imperial Palace, Mount Fuji just visible as a silhouette through the clouds), as well as a considerably more successful night out, fuelled undoubtedly by a glorious rugby match.

As I rushed through the underground system, trying to work out how not to miss my flight back to Hong Kong, I realised that it was the first time I had felt under pressure or harassed in Tokyo. I've no idea if the Tokyo I briefly experienced was anything like the real thing, but hopefully before too long I'll get the opportunity to return for a bit longer and find out.

[*June 2006 Edit: On reflection this gentleman's name was probably the common Japanese name 'Hiro' and not the unheard of 'Hero'. However I choose to believe, despite seeing no written evidence and contrary to rational thought, that the latter was accurate in this case.]

39 - posted at 09:57:39

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Wednesday 12th November 2003

Despite the threat of a crocodile on the loose, The Rolling Stones finally made it to Hong Kong last weekend. The menace of SARS had scuppered earlier attempts to visit, and for a while it didn't look as though their rock 'n' roll pantomime would be passing through town this time either.

Perhaps this was why I was fairly indifferent to their visit, and hadn't really registered they were playing on Friday night until someone mentioned it to me on the day. After a moment's contemplation spent considering my current plans for the evening - slouched in front of the television watching a couple of DVDs and snacking endlessly on pistachio nuts and raw pasta - I decided to head out at lunchtime and buy a ticket. By the time I was leaving work I was quite excited - this was, after all, the legendary Stones, a band whose music I'd gone through a short phase of listening to constantly when I was about 16 and who could lay a credible claim to being one of the biggest live bands in the world.

On entering the Harbour Fest open-air enclosure I noticed that this was the only gig I'd been to where the bouncers outside the venue openly carried guns (they were the police), ironic perhaps for a Rolling Stones concert, when you think about their past mishaps with bouncers. Unfortunately by the time I was settling into my (very expensive) plastic chair, the support act, an Elvis impersonator, had more or less finished his set. The seats around me gradually filled up - mainly with 'westerners', mostly middle-aged Americans, such as the moustachioed man over the aisle to my left, tapping along to the 60's folk songs blaring out of the speakers, in his stone-washed blue jeans and brown brogues, or the German guy behind me, apologetically bringing back drinks for his friends ('Sorry guys, the queue for beer was like you don't want to know, so I went for coffee'). This was to be a gig where the only smokey fragrance floating over the crowd was the smell of cigars.

I waited happily. On the stage, behind which rows of skyscrapers pushed into the night air, roadies pretended to fiddle with equipment, while powerful lights surged on and off. Would Keith Richards crumble into dust during the set? Would Bill Clinton, rumoured to be in the audience, join them on saxophone? Would they play Cash and Carry? Where is Barry? Before I could give much thought to these vital questions, a Knight of the Realm pranced onto the stage, wearing a thigh length sky-blue coat and very tight trousers. The arena erupted into life and the show started.

In my part of the arena everyone was standing on their chairs by the first few bars of Brown Sugar, the opening number. Moustache-Brogue man started double-punching the air and occasionally clapping out of tune (something he would persist in doing throughout), while I abandoned my seat in an attempt to get a bit further forward. Sadly, my progress was blocked by another armed policeman, so I scuttled back and hopped on the seat. The view was great, as were the band. They motored through the hits, as they have done thousands of times before - Start Me Up, You Can't Always Get What You Want, Satisfaction, Paint it Black, erm, Angie and the rest, but, for me, the musical highlight was an excellent version of Sympathy for the Devil. Mick attempted to speak Cantonese (such a shame that the majority of the audience, including me, only knew their address in that language) while his English between-song chat was disappointingly uninspiring for a band who spend most of their time playing live - 'Are you having a good time? I said, are you having a good time?'...

But as well as sounding great and coasting through the set with confidence and ease, not once lacking momentum or verve, they were also hilarious. Mick's trademark dancing, all arms and hips, Keith's terrible solo spot, the ridiculous projected cartoon of a naked woman riding a giant tongue during one song (the image eradicates the memory of which tune it actually was), the excessive use of saxophone and the band's rock posturing kept me smiling until the end.

The encore consisted of just the one song - Jumping Jack Flash - during which large squares of multi-coloured confetti were sprayed into the arena - it looked stunning - and then, they took a curtain call, and were off, presumably to their hotel, to enjoy a mug of cocoa or perhaps a Mars bar or two.

A memorable gig, but I suppose, nothing less than I expected. As I wandered into Wan Chai to find a bar I reflected on the fact that those men have the same energy they had 30 years ago. It's slightly worrying, as I don't have the same energy I had 30 minutes ago.

38 - posted at 01:38:47

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Tuesday 4th November 2003

Eschewing the delights of a Canto-Pop spectacular in Hong Kong stadium, with special guest Jackie Chan helping to welcome Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, back to Earth, Saturday saw me heading up to Kowloon to wander around a couple of markets. Although the Star Ferry is up there in my three favourite things about this city, I chose to take the MTR up to Mongkok - I wasn't in the mood to negotiate the Indian tailors who descend on any male gweilo emerging from the ferry terminal on Kowloon side.

The MTR itself (Mass Transit Railway), Hong Kong's underground railway, is worthy of some comment. It is clean, efficient and fast. It's also air conditioned: at first glance it seems like every Londoner's dream for the tube. But it's a lot more expensive than the tube, and also has a major flaw that would make many Londoners reject it out of hand as an underground alternative: Not only does every one chatter throughout their journey, but somehow, deep underground, mobile phones also work. Here, the fundamental rule of silence on the tube is simply a myth of 6000 miles away.

The shop and advertising signs in Kowloon thrust from the sides of the buildings, stretching across the road, often meeting the signs from the other side, creating multi-coloured bridges of metal and plastic, peeling paint and neon lights. The further north I walked up Nathan Road the less bilingual they got, until I was surrounded by signifiers, which to me signified nothing. I found the remaining English letters leapt out at me: 'International Federation of Shaolin Kung Fu', 'Ja Wah Chinese Massage'. Luckily all the street signs have their English names on, and, as I was looking for the flower market, I was particularly grateful for the functional name of its main street, Flower Market Street. Here the heavy air of Hong Kong, often containing foul odours, is replaced by the smell of pollen and baby bio. I wandered down the street - every unit is a flower shop (oddly apart from one, trapped in the very middle of the street, which sells motorcycle helmets) containing anything that is greenish and growing, from miniature cacti to fully grown trees.

As I progressed down the street the traffic disappeared, its rumble replaced by the restless hum of the crowd watching a soccer match in Mongkok Stadium, adjacent to the market. Then towards the end of the street the pagoda like green roof that marks the entry into the bird market appeared.

I've been to the Hong Kong bird market before - but then, over six years ago, it was hidden away in a dark and narrow street. It has now been re-housed in a purpose-built Chinese style garden. Here, the football supporters have their work cut out. The air is full of the continuous high-decibel cacophony of discordant birdsong - whistles, squarks, telephone rings and occasionally a brief melody. Over twenty stall-holders stack their limited space with cages of birds - so many different types, I wish I could name at least five of them. Mynah birds, parrots, canaries...cockatoos? - and there my knowledge fails me. As well as functional wire cages, piled 10 high and 10 wide, more ornate wooden cages hang from the ceilings. It was up here I noticed one parrot, see-sawing on its perch, and chatting away in Cantonese - quite happily it seemed, until I noticed the chain attached to one of its legs. Feeling a faint pull on my shirt I turned to find another, quieter parrot, making tentative bobs towards me. Next to it, in a cage, was the most colourful bird I think I've ever seen - It had a blue-black head that merged into a vivid violet collar, which was fringed with tinges of yellow. Its face and breast were bright red while the bulk of its body (its wings and tail) were emerald green, except for a splodge of red in the centre of its back. The bird's legs were also violet and its beak, which let out a rather disappointing croak considering its appearance, was orange.

I headed out of the bird market, passing the stalls selling plastic bags of grasshoppers and maggots. Apparently these are fed to the birds with chopsticks - which, although I didn't see any evidence of it, considering some of the things they pick up with chopsticks here, doesn't surprise me.

A guidebook took me to my final market of the day, the Goldfish market. Although Tung Choi Street is dominated by shops with aquariums on the inside and plastic bags full of fish tacked up on the outside, it seems to be more of a general animal market. I meandered through some of the shops, debating whether or not to buy a fish to keep me company (I chose not to, doubting my ability to keep them alive - the flush on my loo is weak as it is and I don't want to break it through overuse) when I found the shops selling mammals. Glass tanks full of mice, rabbits, hamsters and chinchillas tested my resolve. The hamsters were so sweet and fluffy, and like their feed, bedding and cages, so cheap. I watched a shop attendant put a couple in a paper bag for a customer and imagined myself on the ferry going back to the flat, showing my new friends the twinkling lights of Central. Certainly a mouse would be a much more appropriate pet than the giant toads I saw l crawling around in a food market the other day. But, I'm such a terrible hypocrite. The next shop along the street brought me to the dogs and the cats, and I got quietly self-righteous, as well as nostalgic, staring at the morose spaniel puppy pretending to ignore me, the cats stalking up and down, the large husky - all encased. Short of buying them all, what was the point? In London it's dangerous for me to have a couple of drinks and stray past a record shop with money in my wallet. I'll just have to make sure that here, when drunk, I avoid the pet shops.

37 - posted at 04:58:41

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