I miss my
and grey towers
light of a thousand
the feeling of
running and forgetting
where you’re going
and that being OK
cos running was all
you’ve ever wanted anyway
for Hong Kong
I miss my
and grey towers
light of a thousand
the feeling of
running and forgetting
where you’re going
and that being OK
cos running was all
you’ve ever wanted anyway
for Hong Kong
It was the first New Years Eve I spent at home in three years. I was making my way home from the other side of the city—it was about late afternoon. I decided to take the ferry– one of the few stable details in this shape-shifting city. During the ride, the sunset was saluted by a cacophony of fake shutter sounds as people raised their phones in cult-like unison.
Getting off the ferry, I was injected into a flow of humanity. It was as if some underground civilisation suddenly decided to join us at the surface. As it turns out, everyone had the bright idea of arriving a few hours earlier to get good spots for the fireworks display; the operative word there being everyone, meaning that they’d have gotten the same spot if everyone decided to come later. As it were, these people would have to spend the next five hours just… standing. At least it wasn’t summer.
One would be hard pressed to find a more fitting metaphor for Hong Kong. Everyone, everywhere (or at least, the parents of everyone) is possessed by a Nietzchean urge towards raising the next ubermenschen. In other words, everyone is finding ways of getting ahead since the natal care unit. One stellar example is a tongue operation some parents are putting their kids through so they will have a better accent in English. By removing a tendon connecting the tongue to the base of the jaw, said tongue would be ‘free’ to fulfil its full phonetic potential, resulting in a more convincing ‘th’ sound in English. I wonder if they’ve th-ought th-ings th-rough th-oroughly.
Tutorial classes, piano/violin lessons that shorten the lifespans of all involved, cram schools (which are different from the first item) etc. In the heat of the race we forget that the world is relative, and more often than not find ourselves lost in one throbbing mass of humanity, pushing forwards in search of a raison d’etre.
I gave up on land transport, and decided to walk home. On Nathan Road (one of the main roads in Hong Kong– most of the older and more important roads have names reminiscent of pomp, governors and Ceylon tea. Much like the self-styled elite in many former colonies.) On the way, I walked past a rabble of people surrounding a stage, on which teenagers (about my age) were doing half-hearted dance steps in time to an equally half-hearted chant of ‘yuud! yi! saam! sei!’ They were obviously rehearsing for tonight’s show. Unfortunately, Hong Kong doesn’t allow the luxury of preparation, and their performance was subjected to the harsh limelight of the world like a pre-mature birth. A fellow performer tried to salvage some dignity by beat-boxing, but his efforts died against the jagged edge of a dispersing crowd.
Walking along, one is reminded of the earlier protests that took place on these very streets. Faded posters with sketches of umbrellas and slogans– arresting details in a dream you can’t quite remember– were now plastered over with posters of concerts and ‘massage parlours’ (wink wink). Momentarily, it seemed that the schisms of a few weeks ago were plastered over. Such were the healing powers of a festival.
Then again, maybe not. In an act of unintentional symbolism, an old man in a wheelchair stood up and pissed on a wall plastered with protest posters. In the adjacent street, a group of yellow-clad protestor were amassing, which prompted a similar congregation of policemen. The standoff formed two islands, which people flowed through like water. What the two groups didn’t realise was that the real division lay between those who cared, and those who did not. In that sense, they were on the same side.
But there is hope. I was supposed to meet my friends later that night, but was running late. By the time I got onto the metro, it seemed likely that I’d enter 2015 in a dark underground tunnel. Everyone in the carriage was checking their phone, and there was a collective sigh when 23:59 ticked by and we were still in a tunnel under the harbour.
But then someone said. ‘Oh fuck it, next year then!’ and started a countdown. People joined in, smiling and murmuring, united in this unlikely collection as we hurtled into the receding darkness.
Sorry mom for not writing back
there were sparrows by the
bar I was at
remember the time
we found a baby
on the ground its
feathers fluffy grey
‘may we keep it?’ I said
(I’ve always wanted a pet)
you said yes
so we brought it back
but dad thought no
the bird had to go
we argued and you put me to bed
the next morning
I was yanked out of sleep by
weak squeals as sharp as
breaking a harp sound travels well
and I could just tell
it was from outside—
I asked if you threw it away
you said ‘I wouldn’t do that,
it’s still alive! All I did was put it outside!’
but as you said it you
avoided my eyes
and that was when you taught me to lie
so (,) sorry
I can’t write back now
the sparrows are here
and they look confused
the sun’s back anew
the rain’s blurring the view
they never learn
by now they should know
love’s behind murder and lies
As I minced along the aisle of the u-bahn, I felt a burgeoning sense of self-consciousness, as if I was in one of those weird Japanese prank reality TV shows, where they send a fake T-rex running through an office with one unsuspecting employee and show the results on national television.
To be fair, I am more self-conscious than the average person, so half of those burning stares probably came from my head. But I had reasons to be paranoid. I ripped my jeans around a particularly awkward area, and was trying to find a store that sold a sewing kit. Mincing was my temporary solution, which, combined with the bag full of sauce bottles (I was cooking at a friend’s place), which tinkled just like alcohol bottles, must have been a strange sight.
On the carriage was the average Berlin crowd, which by definition was anything but ordinary. It was a particularly hot day, so people were either wearing things that had lots of holes in them, or nothing at all. Thai pants, ripped jeans, shorts, tank tops with ironic slogans written on it, and a Chinese tattoo that translated into ‘mad diahorrea’. This was a city that reverted back to the dress code of the Garden of Eden, post-original sin, where coverage is achieved in a last minute scramble. It a long shot from the Berlin I knew through my history textbooks, where, swamped by political crises, West Berlin was touted in those black and white photographs as the ‘city of freedom’.
Having spent most of my time in places where your personal worth is often judged according to your appearance, this was both a relief and a bit of a shock. Relieved, because for once I’m never underdressed; shocked, because I am constantly amazed at what the urban catwalk that is the after 10pm u-bahn has to offer. Unfortunately, adjustments take time, and I wasn’t ready to display a gaping hole in my jeans just yet.
At long last, I got off at Friederichstrasse, one of the many city centres, thinking ‘there has to be a store here somewhere that sells needle and thread.’
The first store I went into was a big cosmetics chain. The moment I walked in I realized how hard this is going to be. What section does a sewing kit come under? It seemed unlikely that there would be a specifically sewing/knitting section. Where could it go then? With makeup? Maybe girls do some emergency sewing during make-up sessions? I wouldn’t know. Scouring through the make-up section—an impressive sight by itself, with more shades of colours than your average art supplies store— it was sewing kit free.
Maybe underwear? Seems reasonable. Those always need fixing. As I coursed through lines of lingerie I realized how out of place I must have looked, mincing down the lingerie aisle with a tinkling bag of what most people would assume to be alcohol. Panicking, I turned into the next aisle, which turned out to be for condoms.
Although nobody was looking at me, it felt like I was marked out by a hundred floodlights. Maybe they do put needles and thread here. Maybe they sew after sex over here. But alas, that aisle was sew-kit free as well.
Losing hope, I asked one of the shop assistants, who was wearing a pair of ripped jeans herself.
‘Excuse me, do you sell sewing kits?’ I tried to mime sewing by doing a twirly hand-motion, but it probably looked like I was trying to cast a spell. The woman looked at me as though I asked for her address. A terse ‘no’ saw me scurrying for the door.
It was a similar story in the other stores I went to. At the end, I was forced to draw the conclusion that either people just threw clothes away whenever they started having tears, or they just keep wearing them with pride. Given the display I’ve seen around the city, I’d say it’s the latter.
But I wasn’t ready to give in just yet. Dejected, I got on a tram to go back home, planning to try again in another part of town the next day. As I sat there, cross legged, watching an assortment of teens ranging from shaggy-dreadlocked to fresh-out-of-punk-concert, I noticed a man next to me cradling a baby. His tattooed arms were swinging back and forth gently, coaxing the baby into a slumber. As I shifted my attention away from his ripped jeans, I noticed what he was singing under his breath as a lullaby.
… numa numa iei…
Then everything clicked. If a dad could sing a decade old viral pop song to lullaby his baby to sleep, nobody will care if my jeans were slightly torn. Most people obviously don’t mind ripped garments anyway. Uncrossing my legs, I felt a surge of relief as a cool breeze passed between my legs. I finally felt I belonged to Berlin. So defiant. So free.
‘and so it came to pass…’
‘don’t speak like the people
who say “Alas!” we’re young–
you’re only a hundred and one’
‘Sorry babes I’m just worried
about father I’m afraid
he’s losing it’ Ham and Bethany
were nestled in a cave
as they did for many a day.
it was far away
from their village,
on a ridge where his
wife Nahalath would never
visit. It’s been going
on for a while now
these gentle rendezvous
ending in passionate scuffles.
Beth keeps asking him
‘What is your wife not able
to do? Why me?’ to which
Ham only says ‘it’s neither her
nor you, it’s me. If anything,
it’s her goddamn name
it’s so long and lame’
‘Anyway father thinks
there’s gonna be this flood
apparently the world can’t be fixed
and this is the last tactic’
Beth frowned, this didn’t sound like
the God she knew
but she kept this to herself
a principle that meant
a lot of wise words were left unsaid.
‘So what’s Noah going to do?’
‘Well you must have heard
he’s building this ark-
it’s all a bit absurd-
that’s going to mark
a fresh start.
all the animals will go
in that huge vessel
and we’ll brave the storm
and won’t even bother to mourn.’
‘will you take me with you?’
there was a pause
the weighted kind where
thoughts briefly linger,
steam-like as he glanced towards the fading light
My most ambitious project yet– re-writing Noah’s Ark in modern verse, with added twists. Like and follow to support.
Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more no more no more…
The muffled voice of the busker filtered through my memory-foam headphones. Like filtered tap water, it was free of additives, coming through as a mechanical recitation of fake enthusiasm. Unlike filtered tap water, the experience was not improved by this process. If anything, the incongruity between the subdued voice and the enthusiastic hip swinging of the busker left me feeling a bit guilty, as though I just refused to buy the program notes to a classical concert, thereby refusing to fully appreciate what the performer had to offer.
Notice I didn’t use the term beggar. Beggar implies that the person has nothing to offer you. Most people asking for money on the street nowadays do have something to offer.
Indeed, sometimes these people can tell you more about a city than any guidebook. In the Netherlands street ‘beggars’ come up to you directly and ask for money. This seems unlikely in any other country. In Berlin, some just sit in on the street-side with a cardboard sign proclaiming ‘MONEY FOR BEER AND WEED’. In both cases, they’re offering something that is in scarcity— honesty.
This busker was no different. Despite his knee length dreadlocks flailing around his head like a shipman’s whip, the expression on his face was unmistakably defiant. Here was a man who was proud of what he was doing— namely, playing the first few bars of the trumpet introduction, singing the refrain from Hit the Road Jack, and rocking his hips like he was trying to draw an invisible perfect circle. By not calling him a beggar, one acknowledges that his misfortune was not because of him per se, but because we didn’t have the capacity to give what he had to offer due appreciation.
I was faced with two problems at that moment. First was whether to pay him at all. A friend of mine— she’s the kind of person who would raise questions about scientific grounding when you mentioned the 5 second rule – once told me that ‘beggars’ sometimes operated in gangs, and if they see you’re willing to give money, they would target you for a robbery. But before I could worry about that, I had to decide whether or not to take off my headphones. If I did, the reality of his performance would hit me and I’d probably feel guilty enough to pay him, and I only had a 50 euro bill on me.
The way I saw it, I had three options, none of them appealing.
Option 1: Hey, love your work—do you have change for a 50? Say… 48?
Option 2: Hey, love your work—sorry man I don’t have change
Option 3: Leave the headphones on and ignore him when he comes to me with his plastic cup
Some would say that I could take the headphones off, enjoy the music, and wave him away when he comes over. These people obviously don’t know me.
As a self-professed audiophile (albeit a poor one), I belong to a generation who has their own backing track to reality. Of course, I don’t listen to music when I’m with other people. But when I’m alone, which I usually am, you can be sure that there will be something playing in my ears.
Sometimes this can be for dramatic effect. The break-up I witness feels all the more intense with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A playing— the scalding words coming out of their mouths become inaudible, the scene fades into a polaroid black and white, the grainy surging strings joins the tentative piano introduction, and I sit back for the show.
Other times it makes a serious situation comical. A man who was obviously high as a kite provokes two policemen and gets shoved to the floor. His silent screams were dubbed over by an all time classic— where were you when we were getting high…
With the click of a button, I can create my own backing track, or block out whatever I don’t want to hear. It’s a habit of mine to put on headphones even when nothing is playing. If people are saying bad things about me I won’t have to hear them; if I’m bored and want to people-watch, I can put words in their mouths.
Unfortunately, I’ve gotten so used to my own version of reality that taking my headphones off is like when I go back to Hong Kong after spending a long time abroad and have spicy street food for the first time. I can no longer handle the unadulterated version, and end up becoming a sweaty blob.
The train was nearing a stop, and the busker stopped playing to do his rounds with the passengers. Some people looked away, others smiled and gave him some change. As he approached me, my iPod decided to cue Hans Zimmer’s Dream is Collapsing from Inception. Each step he took was accentuated by a tuba blast.
He glanced at me, and in a panic I smiled and took my headphones off.
There was a frozen moment— the kind of silence you get when two people start talking at the same time and stop, both hesitant to be the one to start again.
There was a large hiss from the train stopping, and the busker was singing again, his voice fading away as he moved down the carriage.
Now baby, listen baby, don’t ya treat me this a-way
Cause I’ll be back on my feet some day
Still feeling slightly guilty, I put my headphones back on. The memory foam creates a perfect seal; one moment the roar of the train starting, the next the dull throbs of muffled sounds. The setting sun paints everything a rosé pink, and everyone sways to the rhythm of the train. I put on Joseph Arthur’s In the Sun, and the strumming guitar hits my earbuds like a heroin shot.
May God’s love be with you… always…
All traces of guilt vanish, and I sit back for the show.
‘1 euro very cheap!’
the dreadlocked male
knocked down stall
at a bundle of
‘you collect stamps?’
a blind date
I hate those
they’re for my mother
I picked two
DDR era letters
they were written
by the same person
looks like a girl’s
green on the paper its
from its fight
I don’t speak
German so it could be
a love letter
that outlasted love
ich liebe dich
(in faded pink)
maybe it was
the last one
was it’s not
you it’s me
maybe I’m just
into it maybe
they were just friends
maybe one was
which would be ironic
they’d never had known
that their story
would be sold to
for a euro
i wanted to
for its deadweight
down to hate
it better but
the patter of
water and laughter-
a child’s smile
as his father
showers him from
a pump outside-
cooling his (its)
hands; and I
found that time
can slow down
she keeps silent
(alone) on her
as he passes
opposite with the
Baby in his
with the young
into the sunset
55… 56… 57… 58… 59… 60… Change.
I was staring at the time displayed in my train from Amsterdam to the Hague, trying to prove that what I was experiencing was not just sense-perceptions fed to me by my own brain, and that I wasn’t slumped in a coffeehouse somewhere. As you might have guessed, I was high as a cloud.
It started with an impulse trip to Amsterdam on the last day of a conference. Having wandered around the Hague with some friends, I decided on a whim to buy a return ticket to Amsterdam, thinking, I’d regret it if I came to the Netherlands without visiting Amsterdam.
As it were, Amsterdam was a buzz of strange smells and people with even stranger outfits. A man dressed up as a cannabis plant with a loosely rolled joint waltzed down the street reminiscent of the somber scene in Waltz with Bashir, as though there was a loop of Chopin’s Waltz playing inside him. But instead of dodging bullets, this gentleman was dodging a combination of people, inanimate objects and mostly his own feet. As he lumbered past a police vehicle he gave the people inside a deft wave. They waved back.
One thing led to another, and after bumping into another group of friends who happened to be there as well, we ended up a coffeehouse. This was not before a short walk through the cobbled streets, each of us stealing quick glances at the various sex toys displayed in all their multi-coloured glory, thinking ‘What on earth can that be used for?’. It was as if a porn director took over a Lego store and insisted on doing the window dressing.
At the coffeehouse, pleasantries were traded with the staff and one of them started to prepare our vaporizer. For a person who’s never had more than the occasional puffs from a friend’s joint, this was probably not a wise choice. Before long we were all staring wistfully into the distance.
I’m not sure why but I still had enough sense to check the time. 10 pm.
Shit. If I don’t go now I’ll miss the last tram to the hostel back at the Hague.
So I said my goodbyes and made my way to the train station. The moment I stood up I realized how much trouble I was in.
I need to catch a train like this. This means getting on the right platform.
I started walking towards the train station.
Am I really walking though? That sign seems to never get closer. It feels like I’m walking. Focus on that sign. OK, it’s getting closer. Kind of. Oh God I’m in the station.
Thankfully there was another group of friends at the station and one of them guided me to my platform. But the worst was yet to come. Once I was on the train, the THC really hit, and the Cartesian demon came in the form of Lord Baelish a la Game of Thrones dressed as Postman Pat.
In soothing tones he asked whether or not I was really just slumped in the coffeehouse unconscious. Every single philosophical skeptical argument floated into the horizon at once.
Imagine a powerful demon. He can conjure up sense-perceptions in your brain, make you think that you’re experiencing things, while in reality you’re just a thinking thing, floating around in god-knows-what.
As it turns out, the full force of the Cartesian skeptical argument can only be appreciated when high. They should put that into the philosophy program.
Panic set in. Desperate for proof that I was indeed on a train, I started to look for signs that we take as evidence for reality.
Like time. 60 seconds. You can do this. 1… 2…
And so I began counting, starting when the numbers changed on the screen. To the others in the train I must have looked possessed. Muttering the seconds under my breath and eyes fixed on the screen.
The numbers changed. Relief.
But the demon would have wanted you to sense that.
Fuck you Demon. Your moustache looks ridiculous.
Doesn’t mean I’m wrong. And that was uncalled for.
The gravity of the situation dawned on me. Every single thing that anchored me to reality had been turned against me, in virtue of its familiarity. They were exactly what the postman-demon would want me to perceive.
We’ve got it all wrong. Reality isn’t grounded in the familiar. It’s the unfamiliar that makes existence real. I should write that down later. I need something that is so outrageous, so ridiculous that I can’t have possibly come up with it myself.
Unfortunately I’ve just been to Amsterdam, and saw a lifetime’s worth of things that were ‘outrageous and ridiculous’. The waltzing cannabis plant flashed into vision.
The train stopped suddenly. A group of rowdy teenagers boarded. Scuffles. Shouts. Sounded like someone was starting a fight. I sank deep into my chair.
If only I could be a chameleon. I’d have bigger eyes. How cool would that be.
A jerk snapped me back to my predicament.
I need proof.
With trembling hands I fished out my pen and started scribbling furiously onto my palm.
What about God? I think Descartes said something about him guaranteeing our… Oh no that argument doesn’t work. At least I know I exist right? The cogito. Oh no Kant rejected that. Hume said something about our mode of being forces us to trust our sense perceptions. But right now my mode of being makes me doubt them. WHY DIDN”T I PAY ATTENTION DURING LECTURES
The train stopped again. More scuffling. Stern voices. The lights dimmed.
DEMENTORS. THIS CAN’T BE REAL.
As it were, it was couple of policemen who came to break up the fight.
This is too dramatic. I must be making this up. Too many coincidences. How could I have bumped into a friend randomly in the station?
I need proof. Something that cannot be conjured up by my brain.
This continued for a good ten minutes, until a group of men boarded the train. One of them was topless, wore pink tights and a pair of blood-red angel wings. I stared at his reflection in my window, transfixed at his bulging beer belly.
As if to answer my prayers, he projectile vomited.
Thankfully one of his friends had to good sense to catch it in a plastic bag. But that didn’t stop the stench that wafted over to my seat. It smelled like cheap beer and regret.
No way I could have imagined that. Thank you my guardian angel.
I fought the urge to embrace him, to thank him for bringing me back to reality. The train stopped. My stop. I stumbled out onto the platform and made my way to the tram station.
As I stood there, the world zoomed in and out of focus. Ears ringing, I leaned against a lamppost. Descartes and every skeptic before and after him flashed across my mind. It was further away than it’s ever been, but I’ve never felt more secure. I smiled, the smell of fresh vomit lingering like a first love’s perfume.
On a more serious note, thanks to everyone who helped me get back to my hostel safely. Sincerely.