Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Monday 27th February 2006

It was odd, arriving back in Hong Kong after two years. I stepped off the Airport Express and joined the line for taxis. At once I was hit by forgotten sensations - but when they made themselves known, they were so familiar. Simple things: the smell of the Airport Express Terminus, the constant circulation of air conditioning and the accompanying hum, the sound of the red taxis' tyres on the road as, one by one, they pulled up and took people into the city. And how could I have not thought once, over two years, of the way the taxi doors magically swing open to greet you?

The taxi took me into the evening, through Central and Admiralty, into Wan Chai and then up onto the flyover. The harbour and the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club fell away to my left, while on my right, a wall of sparkling skyscrapers drew closer, their water-facing sides still covered with New Year decorations, where glittering 20 metre dogs barked at Kowloon.

My flat is in Happy Valley. When I say flat, I mean serviced apartment and when I say serviced apartment, I mean serviced room. What greeted me, at about 8:30pm after I had left my details with the concierge, was a hotel room with a small kitchen tacked onto the side. The building is in Upper Happy Valley, which basically means it's a steep walk uphill from the supermarket. Having previously lived in Mid-Levels, I'd only been to Happy Valley on the occasional Wednesday, and then I limited myself to the race track, where Hong Kong gambles obsessively under flood lights whenever it can. Most of the residential area is to the south of the track and it has as much of a villagey feel as anywhere on the north side of Hong Kong island can. It's also, apparently, fairly affluent - a friend told me it was, "the Hampstead of Hong Kong." I'm not sure about that, but there are a lot of cake shops.

It was straight into work the next morning, but God bless assumed jet lag. The presumption of colleagues gave me a pleasant week to gently settle in, and, less attractively, attend to admin. A letter from my employers and HK$2000 got HSBC to start the process of opening a bank account for me. A flying visit to a corner shop got me a Hong Kong SIM card. A slightly tortuous internet search revealed my bus route to work. I had managed to dig out my old Octopus card from the recesses of a London cupboard and was delighted to discover it still in credit to the tune of HK$30. Unfortunately the same cupboard hadn't, as I thought it might, turned up my Hong Kong identity card, a micro-chipped photocard, much like the one everyone's making a fuss about in the UK. Obviously, it's worth pointing out here that Hong Kong is technically part of a dictatorial one-party state, while the UK technically is not.

An ID card in Hong Kong is vital - it's needed to do almost anything and the law says that it must be carried at all times. Luckily I had a record of my ID card number. Unluckily the cards cost almost HK$400 to replace, so after making an appointment I headed to the efficiently named Immigration Tower in Wan Chai. Applying for or renewing an ID card in Hong Kong is a protracted wade through red tape and would aptly be described as Kafkaesque if it weren't taking place in a humid sub-tropical zone where all bureaucracy, however mind-numbing, is tinged with comedy.

Upon entering Immigration Tower I headed to the busy 8th floor and joined a long queue entitled "Appointments". The queue next to us, for those lazy and inefficient enough not to have made appointments, consisted of a person strolling in every few minutes, going straight to the counter, processing his application and going away again.

I finally reached the front of the queue to be given a ticket stub with a number on it and a form to fill out, before being pointed in the direction of a waiting area. The plastic chairs were overlooked by monitors which intermittently flashed up a number. I filled out the form. After a while my number came up indicating that I should go to booth number 38. This I did, and gave the woman seated in it my form. She looked it over before energetically stamping it and waving me to another waiting area, also in the thrall of monitors. After 10 minutes or so, the monitor above my head indicated I should head to cubicle 15. Again I obeyed and found myself in an office style cubicle, seated opposite a young woman sporting thick lensed glasses. She peered at a computer, then at me. She took my ticket and asked me to put my left thumb on a small square of glass in front of me. I did, and then, in accordance with her wishes, rolled it around a bit. I did the same with my other thumb, and then saw my two thumb prints blown up on her computer screen. I felt a sad pang for home noting the tear of skin where Gladstone had attacked me over Christmas. Bloody cat.

Once my prints were taken I had to sit on a small stool in the corner of the cubicle, like a dunce, and stare into a lens. One tap on the speccy woman's Enter key, and my image was staring back. She asked me if the picture was OK. I told her it wouldn't get any better and she produced a print out, which included the snapshot. This was to be my temporary ID card. I was then directed to a third waiting area, where I alternated between admiring my temporary "card" and checking the obligatory monitor. It finally flashed my number - another cubicle, another bureaucrat, this time wearing quasi-military uniform. Rather curtly, he demanded the fee for the replacement card. I paid him. Then, unexpectedly, I was free to go. At least until tomorrow, when, as the temporary card reliably informs me, my new ID will be ready to collect at Immigration Tower.

86 - posted at 15:52:51

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Monday 20th February 2006

The other Saturday afternoon I put on my suit. Just the jacket and trousers - none of the trimmings. Underneath, I wore a dark grey M&S shirt, with a pair of trainers poking out below the trousers. No tie, no stiff collared shirt, no cufflinks, no polished squeaky shoes. But I was wearing a suit nonetheless and felt a bit smart.

I had spent the previous 48 hours ticking boxes on a protracted To Do list. At work, I cleared my desk, tying up loose ends and palming off various files to less than appreciative colleagues. I got my hair cut (badly) and packed a large bag of possessions, giving it to a man who came calling on Friday morning. He put it in the boot of his car. I haven't seen it since, but am still optimistic that somehow it'll make the journey halfway across the world to my side.

Two of my suits were with that elusive bag. With the third hanging off my shoulders, I headed to Heathrow, accompanied by my better (in every way) half. Sadly, she was only coming as far as Terminal 1. My flight was due to leave at 10:20pm. It was 7:40pm and there was no queue at check-in, so I swaggered up to the desk, pleased with my earliness. This flight wouldn't be so bad. Not only would I be relaxing in "World Traveller Plus" but, seeing as I was this early, I'd also be able to bag a window seat. I was looking fairly smart too. I hadn't worn the suit to be upgraded - I just didn't want it creasing in my bag - but if it got me into Business Class, that would bode well for this whole trip, the wisdom of which I was starting to seriously doubt. I felt lucky.

I thrust the bag onto the conveyor belt, slapped my passport on the desk, and told the check-in attendant that I was flying to Hong Kong at 10:20. She slowly lifted her head, weighed down as it was by multiple layers of foundation, eye liner, lip gloss and blusher. This make-up mask expertly conveyed the image of the aging stewardess, looked over by multiple pilots and shortly destined to be waving passengers onto a big orange plane (...can you see where this is going?). Without a dreg of warmth, let alone charm, she dragged my passport towards her and started listlessly tapping away at the keyboard.

"Please could I have a window seat?" I smiled.

"I'll just see, sir. It's a very busy flight tonight": her best officious receptionist voice.

She spoke for a while on the phone. She replaced the receiver, tapped on the keyboard a bit more and pushed a boarding card towards me.

"Right," she said, in the same soulless monotone. "You've been downgraded for this flight sir. Boarding gate 52."


What the fuck?

I looked at the boarding card. Involuntary downgrade. In an aisle seat.

13 hours to Hong Kong in economy. During a night flight. How dare she try and act as though this was the most normal thing in the world - actually, as though it was more than I deserved? Doesn't she, or anyone in British Airways, care that the full fare has been paid (yes, yes, not by me, but let's not dwell on that at the moment)? Doesn't anyone care that I'm going to have to fold my 6 feet and two inches in to a miniature metal frame loosely covered by some mite ridden canvas? She didn't apologise, she barely explained - she only snapped at me for getting angry. Of course: no-one has any rights in an airport because everyone's so bloody sensitive. You can't even raise an eyebrow in dissent, without the risk of a trigger happy policeman pushing you up against a wall, his assault rifle in your face and his eyes twinkling with the memory of Stockwell.

"Poor Rob," you may be thinking, your mind oozing with sarcasm, "he had to travel cattle class, how will his delicate soul cope? And he's not that bloody tall."

To that, I say, fuck you. Fuck you, fuck the bitch at the check in desk, fuck the piss smelling old gimmer from the ground staff who informed me that compensation was a measly £75 presented in the form of a cash card (have you ever tried getting £5 from a cash machine? Fuck 'em) and most of all, fuck British Airways, who overbook their flights and downgrade decent punters not because they're last in the queue to check in, not because they've chosen to take a downgrade for a decent pecuniary reward, not because they look like shabby cunts (you should have seen some of the smug bastards in World Traveller Plus) but because they're not members of the manipulative BA air miles club or other such exploitative scheme, designed to keep travellers away from the better airlines. Proper fucking bastards.

Although, having said that, the flight wasn't too bad.

I ended up sitting at the front of economy, and I could stretch my legs under the curtain in front, giving my feet a taste of the high life. At least until, irritated by the constant bumping of my seat by the passenger behind, I turned to see a gargantuan German freak trying to make himself comfortable. I had to swap with him: I felt too guilty not to - he really was huge, about 6 foot 5. So I moved seat and tucked myself into a little gap for 13 hours, dozed for about 5 minutes, and suddenly I was on the Airport Express, heading to Hong Kong island.

85 - posted at 13:04:04

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