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Three men posing with a tiger skin. India or Burma?

Our Prime Minster's new soundbite 'global Britain' sounds like some utter bollocks generated by one of those humorous online joke slogan generators, but there's more to it than that I fear. 

It is a calculated pandering to the English nationalist myth of oppressed smallness. The subtext is "we are small but brave and clever; just free us from the yoke of the corrupt foreigners and we will show the world just how great we are." Substitute 'foreigner' for 'Jews' or 'immigrants' and see it for what it is.

At the heart of this is the deeply held English nationalist belief that Britain isn't global currently and, more astonishingly, never has been. Yes, history-buffs, you read that correctly. In order to make this seem true the entire British Empire period has been blanked out. This may be difficult for readers outside the UK to believe, but this monumental piece of 19th century world history does not feature at all in our populist nationalist narrative. You have to understand that it never happened. Okay? History started in 1914. Everything before this was merely a series of costumed theme parks. This is precisely how my daughter is taught history at primary school. A bit of the costume stuff, dressing up as Victorians and Tudors, then two whole years studying life in the trenches in WW1, followed by an entire year of WW2. And when I say WW1 and WW2 I mean specifically Britain fighting Germany during those wars, forget Japan or any other participant. The defining feature of our nation's history is that it fought two wars with Germany in western Europe during the 20th century. Nothing else. That's our government-approved state history syllabus for our children, preparing them for the big wide world.

Politicians (and presumably that crucial voting demographic of baby-boomers) in recent decades have been very keen on this 'British history' as they call it. There's no room in it for India or Australia or West and South Africa, let alone colonial America. Ireland isn't in it either. If it didn't happen right here, or nearby, or happen directly to white British passport-holding people, it isn't British history. Possibly the only exception to this in living memory has been the Falklands War, and in order for that to become a national event history had to be re-written, making the Falkland Islanders into British citizens before the conflict (fiction) rather than afterwards (reality). In the same period Britain agreed to hand several million non-white Hong Kong citizens, all holding the same passport as the Falkland Islanders, over to communist China as a kind of human gift. That wasn't British history though, so it didn't matter.

What is at the base of this psychosis? It seems tied to the end of the British empire as a formal entity. Right up until the 1950s (when the baby-boomers were children) British people were fed the most extraordinary fictional racist propaganda concerning the empire. It was the greatest thing that had ever existed. Wonderful, civilised, beloved, and at the core of it was a quintessential English superiority; English exceptionalism. What's painful to the English nationalist is not that the empire ended but that it simply carried on without the English. That it didn't even need the English. The English nationalist cannot tolerate this. The English nationalist does not want to know that hundreds of millions of Indians live in a democracy and speak English. The nationalist does not want to know that vast London-based multinationals are carrying on business as usual in Hong Kong and Singapore. The English nationalist is not even interested that the British government continues to support extractive neo-colonial agendas in the former empire. If he were to know these things then he, personally, would cease to be exceptional and, worse still, the last 200 years of British history would have to be re-written as global and involving billions of non-white non-English overseas British. And that would be too much to bear. 

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Camp barber. Kai Tak North refugee camp. Hong Kong. 1984.

Several years ago I scanned and posted some photos my mother took in the 1980s at Kai Tak North refugee camp in Hong Kong, where she worked as a nurse. She took me and my sister with her sometimes, to give us a taste of reality. This camp was a former British Royal Air Force base that had been converted for use by economically and politically displaced Vietnamese 'boat people'. It was a situation a bit like that of Cubans making their way across the sea to Florida except that, unlike Florida, Hong Kong was a dead-end; a small, overpopulated enclave. Families ended up in rat-infested 'open camps' like these for years, scraping by, hoping for a visa to go somewhere else with more prospects. Canada and the USA took most of them in the end. The building in this photo has now been redeveloped as a plush art college. The rest of the camp was demolished to make way for luxury apartments. So, this picture is now a piece of history. The self-employed outdoor barber at work in the midst of this little community of exiles.

See that little girl in blue sitting by herself? I received an email this morning from a woman, aged in her 30s, in California. She had found this photo online. She told me:

"The three girls in the background are my sisters and me (blue shirt sitting on a stool watching the TV with my back toward your mother's camera). We lived right behind the wall with the 2 small blue buckets. My mom cooked right outside of that building. The barber in the picture used to cut my dad's hair, and we still know that woman carrying the orange bucket. We left Hong Kong in 1984. My dad had to throw away most of our pictures in the Hong Kong airport when we moved because we had weight limitations on our luggage."
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I've discovered that I can get the South China Morning Post on my iPad and I found this story in it today. A school on Lantau island has been charged by the Noise Control Authority for emitting 'more noise than permitted in the area'. This is even funnier when you consider that Lantau has an international airport built into one side of it.

A lawyer acting for the school said "asking a child not to make noise in a playground is like asking them not to blink or a rabbit not to eat lettuce."
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Well, no and yes, sort of. Here in Britain it has only really caught on in recent years, an American cultural import. Pumpkins aren't even native to Europe! As a child in Hong Kong I was more exposed to it. The English-speaking community there were more US-oriented than 'back home' in England, and the norm in Hong Kong is to embrace any excuse for a festival, regardless of origin. In fact, upon returning to England as a teenager in 1986 I was quite disappointed by how lame the Christmas decorations were. Hong Kong does it better.

Anyway, I now have a three-year-old daughter, and so have rediscovered Halloween vicariously. Our housing estate is traffic-calmed and well-disposed towards children, and generally participates in trick-or-treating so, in a few hours, I will sally forth with the child to extract chocolate from the neighbours. Hoho.

I've bought glow sticks!

As a festival for adults, I don't quite see the attraction. I mean, dressing up as a skeleton? Yawn. It's just yet another excuse for boozing.
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A fantastic discovery from a collection of glass negatives of photos taken by a Royal Naval officer, found by a Flickr user in Canada. The white ship covered in awnings is the base ship, HMS Tamar. Letters associated with the collection suggest it was taken in 1905.

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Some photos from my mother's collection of the Vietnamese refuge camp where she worked as a nurse, operating a clinic/hostel with a rather broad baby, women's shelter, psychiatric and geriatric remit. She took me to work with her a couple of times.
More photos here...... )
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I stole this photo from somebody else's blog. It's the last building I occupied as a teen in Hong Kong. We were about half way up on the 8th floor, though this was not high enough to prevent a burglar coming in through the balcony doors. As luck would have it, he happened to have chosen a steaming hot night when my Dad was suffering one of his attacks of insomnia. So, Mr Cat Burglar didn't see the completely nude, paunchy gweilo sitting in the darkened living room as he entered. He certainly did see him when when Dad turned the lights on and ran at him bellowing and waving a foot stool. He escaped swiftly with insect-like agility down the drainpipe. I slept through the whole thing. We all thought it was really funny the next day, which shows what a cheery, non-paranoid city Hong Kong was in the 1980s. The police were really dumb. They came to the flat and kept going to the balcony and looking over the edge. (Why?) The district police commissioner lived on the second floor. He was livid. Haha.

This was such a weird building. Like Hong Kong itself, it was brash and confident, yet rubbish at the same time. It's in a prime location, right next to Wanchai and overlooking Happy Valley racecourse. We could actually see the horses. I'm not sure what it costs to rent a flat in it now, but it's probably nearly three times my total income. However....
  • Even the floor numbering was a cock-up. There were four carpark levels, numbered CP1 to CP4, then no ground or first floor, it just went from CP4 to 2. That made the top floor a nice lucky 13.
  • As well as the lifts there was a main staircase and two back staircases which were interlaced so that they visited alternate floors. Very confusing if you got trapped in the wrong one. They were redundant anyway, a design fossil from a time when it was unacceptable for servants to use the front door. The flats had maids' quarters. Dad kept a dismembered motorbike in ours.
  • The CP4 lobby had hideous brown and white marble floors, but no natural light. Also a plywood built-in desk that had no function.
  • The toilets were of a 'luxury' rectangular design and they never, ever flushed properly. No plumber could find the correct parts for them, so the cistern lids never fitted properly either.
  • The gas water heater never, ever worked properly; it extinguished itself as soon as you turned the hot tap on. No heating engineer could ever work out why.
  • The kitchen had bodged walls with big cracks that were colonised by a very hard species of red ant that could not be eradicated by any poison. Even if you cut one of them in half the front end would walk away, apparently unconcerned. My sister's terrapin ate many of them.
  • The balcony doors were exposed to the wind so, during typhoons, rain water was forced under them and spurted, bizarrely, in to the living room under pressure.
  • They could never settle on a name for the thing. It's called 'Stubbs Villa' now, which is its third name.
I notice from this photograph that they've turned the roof into some sort of garden. There was nothing on it back in 1986, just tiles and the lift winding gear. We used to go up there and chuck paper aeroplanes into the city.  Have they built a penthouse apartment or just knocked a hole and invented a new staircase so that the 13th floor can have a roof garden? I hope they did their calculations; I'm sure the roof wasn't supposed to bear that much weight. Jesus.

P.S. There were two girls in the flat below us. One of them has just read this and emailed me saying: "Oh, you forgot to mention the great view of the cemetary and the 2nd floor neighbours jumping off their terrace into the pool 3 floors below"
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Spent another long night shift working with my entertaining maniac Mauritian colleague who enjoys addressing me as 'darling' all the time. Occasionally he would laugh nervously and wonder aloud "what if people could hear me calling you darling? They would think I am a gay or something!" He continuously and severely criticises my sloppy workmanship while trying to keep a straight face. "You gotta learn how to iron your patients, darling" he insists. 'Ironing' is surprisingly effective at making unconscious patients look comfortable and neat, and involves pulling sheets tight underneath them and folding away any loose cloth, a bit like wrapping a parcel. I'm getting better at it now. Still, I had the last laugh, because he got stuck looking after the 135kg patient, hoho.

Waking up this afternoon I noticed that an old Hong Kong classmate of mine was on-line. She moved to Mauritius some years ago when her husband's bank relocated him there. I started quizzing her about life on the island. I work with dozens of Mauritians but they rarely discuss life 'back home'. It doesn't seem to interest them much. "Well, my husband loves it here" she told me "because he can play golf every day, but I do so much pine to be anywhere in ASIA again". It's a small-town sort of place, she explained. Like being trapped on holiday in Bali all the time. "Nice beaches, but just how many T-shirts can you buy before you get bored with them?" Poverty and petty thieving are rife. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

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I was leafing through a collection of old Richard Scarry stories with my daughter and couldn't help noticing that a rather fanciful story about an anthropomorphised panda in Hong Kong includes a fairly accurate impression of the old Kowloon station building, which was demolished (apart from the clock tower) in 1978.
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I found this on YouTube; clips of the Hong Kong police raiding a leftist hideout during the 1967 riots, overlaid with an ebullient Chinese communist propaganda song. What disturbs and excites me about this is that find myself cheering, with some passion, for both sides, although I can't rationally justify either stance.

On the one hand, the police in their British-era colonial uniforms, so familiar from my childhood, seem so calm and disciplined; struggling to keep the city from slipping into a cultural-revolution-style bloodbath of foreigner-lynching, teacher-baiting and baby-eating. On the other hand, I'm with the leftists, crammed into tenements and squatter colonies, living on crap wages and their lives run by a small group of unelected millionaire magnates and British civil servants. I'd have been pissed off too.

In truth the 1967 affair was extremely unpleasant for everybody. Over 50 people were killed, including children. Things got so bad that the Royal Navy were mounting helicopter raids on the city from aircraft carriers (you can see one in the clip), Mogadishu style. It made British rule look like a heavy-handed police state (which it was) and ultimately made the leftists unpopular too, to the extent that Beijing eventually sent orders to desist. Strange times.......

Some more riot scenes below, with sinister music. The burnt out VW beetle near the end of this clip belonged to anti-communist radio DJ Lam Bun. They show his photo afterwards. He was ambushed by leftists and burnt alive in the car.
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Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

To my Norwegian readers. Have a nice 17th May, and don't drink too much.

This picture depicts a Norwegian constitution day event I attended in 1981, thanks to my  Norwegian-speaking (non-Norwegian) mother, on the roof of the consulate in Hong Kong. I'm the child standing by the cordon in the white-sleeved T-shirt. 
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Oh God, this is cool. I used to love flying into there and watching all the first-timers die of fright. Sweet nostalgia.

Kai Tak was closed in 1998 and replaced with a new bigger airport which didn't involve deadly cross winds and turning dives to avoid mountainsides and rooftops.
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In the deep recesses of my childhood Hong Kong memories there lies a tube of toothpaste bearing a name and logo so incredible that I had convinced myself that I must be mistaken. I must have imagined it, or maybe time had distorted the details. Anyway, yesterday I mentioned it to a Filipino nurse I work with and she said no, my memory was accurate, they sold the exact same brand in her country. It even has its own Wikipedia page here.
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Another curious slice of Hong Kong cityscape, literally. A friend sent me this photograph which he took there the other week. Here is his description:

"whilst on a brief sojourn in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui area,  I noted a couple of floating trees looming on the horizon. It would appear that what was previously a small hill with a colonial building on it had been razed to the ground. For some reason, the trees had been shored up, one had had the ground dug out around it and the other the same (but also from under it and replaced with steel girders to form a HUGE plant pot). The trees appeared in good health and were massive! You can clearly see daylight beneath the tree in the foreground...."

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I just received this postcard from an old friend, another white British man with whom I shared part of my childhood in Hong Kong. His mother and brother still live there, so he still visits the city at irregular intervals. I think he must have chosen this view deliberately, because it is more or less what we could see from the large windows of our school. My maths classroom enjoyed the highest elevation and probably the best vantage point in the whole complex. I hardly did any damned work at all in maths classes, because I was so busy watching American warships in the harbour.

I think my friend also chose this view because it includes the huge corporate phallus of a building which hadn't even been thought of when I left in 1986. Even more amusing, down there in the bottom right with the round windows, you can see the former Connaught Centre. When I first arrived in HK in 1978 as a small child, this was the tallest building in the city. It towered over everything else (see this old pic taken in the 70's). It was the tallest man-made structure I'd ever seen in my life. I thought it was magnificent. Around 1980 they made a (now long forgotten) spiderman film in which the hero ascended the outside of this famous landmark. Not so famous anymore, eh little boy?
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As many of you will know, I lived in Hong Kong between the ages of 6 and 14. Ex-students from my old school out there are organising a large reunion in Norwich this year. One of the committee (who reads this blog) challenged me to write down some childhood reminiscences. I couldn't actually think of anything funny to say about my time there, so I decided to write something about returning to England instead......

Difficulties encountered upon return to the mother country:

1. Having to suppress laughter whenever a shop assistant quotes you a price over eight times the actual value of the shoes, toy, gadget etc. on sale.
2. Having to explain that Hong Kong is not in Japan and isn’t ‘near’ it either.
3. Having to explain that yes, ‘Monkey’ was on TV, but it was during ‘Japanese hour’, because Japanese is a foreign language in Hong Kong.
4. Getting used to anybody of Indian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan descent being referred to as ‘asian’.
5. Getting your head round the concept that all of the above are an ‘ethnic minority’, and you’re not.
6. Discovering that the kids who speak other European languages live in a different country, not just a different school next-door to yours.
7. Discovering that the word ‘European’ means ‘suspicious foreigner’, and isn’t just a generic term for a white person.
8. Discovering that only a tiny percentage of British people are Scottish, and not all the classiest shops and biggest companies are named after them.
9. Walking in streets full of people the same height as you, or taller.
10. Having to accept that San Miguel is a sophisticated imported Mediterranean drink, not the locally brewed gnat's-piss.
11. 10p coins. They’re the ones that look like dollars, right?
12. So, why is the 10p larger than the 20p coin exactly?
13. Being unable to navigate yourself through cities by simply locating the mountains on one side and the sea on the other.
14. Accepting that commuting to your mountain-top primary school by cable car was not a ‘normal’ existence.
15. Understanding that you may actually be a child abuser if you let your 13 year old walk around the centre of a major city, at night, unaccompanied by adults, like you used to.
16. Accepting as absolute fact that any country with a hot, sweaty climate is ‘paradise’.
17. Understanding that the monarchy is not important at all.
18. Discovering that most British people don’t actually speak like your teachers.
19. Understanding that in London the greeting “orwight?” isn’t a question.
20. Visiting Chinatown without crying.
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My old Hong Kong schoolfriend, Matthew, has just returned there for a little holiday and took this picture from his hotel window. This road junction was almost within sight of my bedroom window when I was a teenager. I used to walk past it often on the way to school. That yellow box was a great place for car crashes. I remember once going down there and finding several smashed up vehicles, including half a taxi with a (whole) driver still sitting in it, totally unscathed, looking really pissed off and talking into his CB radio. He was polite enough to give us a little blow by blow account of the whole incident. Haha. Happy days.


13/7/06 17:17
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I am addicted to the new livejournal of an ancient Australian classmate of mine [ profile] tinkytyler. I haven't seen him in the flesh since 1986 and I had not heard his voice either until he unexpectedly called my on Skype the other day from Guangdong, China, where he has just started teaching English. I tracked him down via the wonder of the internet a couple of years ago.

The private British school in Hong Kong we both attended was, well, a pretty damned exciting and privileged melting pot to grow up in (just to eliminate any confusion here, I am a white English and [ profile] tinkytyler is white Australian). Possibly not as useful as it could have been; a more concerted attempt to teach us Cantonese would have been useful, but we were being groomed for universities in the UK and USA not, odd as this may sound, life in the city or continent we actually inhabited.

Anyway I remember [ profile] tinkytyler as the 15 year old class golden boy (no joke). A great wit; articulate and well read to a level I reached only in my twenties; intimidating when the ocassion demanded it. He was popular with the teachers for his brains, popular with us because he was a benevolent natural leader, so far removed in behaviour from those aggressive bullshitters who THOUGHT they were natural leaders. I was shy and socially awkward and, damn it, I confess I did idolise him a bit.

I think I've embarrassed him enough now.
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I spent a complex weekend with my old Hong Kong school friend James doing the following:

1. Camping on the site of the Battle of Bosworth (1485) in Leicestershire with members of the ‘Routiers’ medieval re-enactment society, including Matt, another old HK classmate.

2. Tolerating a modified car convention at a drag racing circuit in Northamptonshire, because James had arranged to meet his mate there.

3. Being driven great distances by James in his wedge-shaped silver car, with air conditioning.

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