My Barber smokes.
I don’t mean he’s a smokin’ good barber, I mean he smokes, or at least he used to, while cutting my hair. These days, Hong Kong is a bit more ‘smoke-free’, and the poor fellow has to go outside to destroy his lungs. Still, I do love the pragmatic nature of Hong Kong Chinese. To him, in the smoke anywhere days, it was perfectly straightforward: I needed a haircut, and he needed a smoke. To do both at the same time was perfectly logical.
Have a think about religion – don’t worry, this wont be controversial – the Chinese, many of whom are Taoists, have quite a tradition. They burn things the deceased might need in the afterlife. I am guessing in the old, old days, this meant a cow or a goat might go up in flames, with a spear and maybe a loincloth – no need to be nude in the hereafter.
These days life is a bit more complicated, and so the pragmatists got the idea to burn effigies’. Brilliant. If you head to some of the markets around Queens Road West, you will witness one of the great sites of the Special Administrative Region. Paper and cardboard things to burn – literally anything you can think of. In 2 minutes, I jotted down just what I could see from across the road: A television, toaster, shirt and tie, dog, cat, Peking duck, pool table, car, boat, mobile phone, gas bottle, laptop, reclining chair, video camera, air-conditioner – (in case you head down rather than up), a racetrack diorama, McDonalds meal – (big mac, coke and large fries), drum kit – and for me the piece-de-resistance, a revolver. I suppose if you don’t have enough friends to send you all the goodies you need, stealing afterlife goods at afterlife gunpoint makes perfect sense.
This pragmatism even extends to businesses. Shops open and close; move and renovate; all at an alarming rate. If you leave Hong Kong for more than a week, watch out. Upon your return, things will have changed.
A recent family holiday saw us arrive home ready to greet our friendly neighborhood storekeepers. My first issue was the video store: it was now a gift shop. (Ummm, what about my deposit?). Our local foot-rub place (where we had decided to take the “fantastic deal” on a block of foot-rubs) was now a camera store (the man declined to do my feet). The most remarkable change was our local organic fruit and veg place – which had become a Real Estate agent – and was in the process of being closed down itself. Admittedly we were away for quite a few weeks, but still!
Hong Kong is an ever-changing landscape. That’s the beauty and the frustration of it. Buildings make way for bigger buildings; the harbour makes way for, well, more buildings (the Government promises: next time, they will build a park…) If you meet anyone who has been away for a few years, they may not recognize anything. The Island foreshore will undoubtedly be 100 yards closer to Kowloon, their favourite restaurant will now be a 7/11 and the 1 bedroom flat they rented in 1990 will now cost them five times as much.
But still, amongst all this change, the Chinese have some wonderful rituals and beliefs. Buildings, shops and smoking barbers come and go, but when it’s all said and done, the ancestors still need to eat. Burning a paper KFC effigy for the great grandmother will always get you in the afterlife good books.