I have never been tall. Unlike some of my ‘willowier’ friends, I have never had to complain about short men or had to eschew heels for a pair of flats. Instead, I have spent a life-time cursing the standardised 34 inch leg: I mean WHO, apart from stilt-clad cirque de soleil performers actually has legs that go on that long? And while I’m beside the point, I have never been able to properly enjoy stadium concerts either. Since periscopes are not yet a fashion accessory (N.B. If it ever catches on, you first read about here on Viveteria) it is simply not fun when your view is restricted to other people’s arm-pits (and especially after they’ve been ‘moshing’ for a couple of hours). In my view (and for the view of every other vertically challenged person) tall people ought to just stand at the back or get onto their knees or something.
BUT travel (and not love) changes everything…
What struck me as I embarked upon my first pedestrian journey in Hong Kong, was that I had grown. And not just a little bit either. As the throbbing throng of Kowlooners (people who live in Kowloon, a district of Hong Kong and who I have, for expediency shortened to ‘Looners’) swept me along the roadside, I found that I could actually see; see the tops of most people’s heads (actually not as great as it sounds); and peripherally, the phalanx of sky-scrapers that saluted me to either side. I had graduated. I no longer had auditioning potential as one of Santa’s little helpers. This was a place where I could be properly tall. It was, I am embarassed to say, quite a magical moment.
For those of you, who were hoping for some slightly more erudite cultural epiphany, I hate to disappoint you. Whenever people asked me for my ‘initital perspectives’ on Hong Kong, I sensed - by the ensuing polite smiles and long silences – that they were after something a little more meaty than my increased stature (and you know how pointing out any physical difference between races is so not the done thing). The trouble is, whenever I am submerged in totally alien surroundings, it’s the silliest, most obvious things that strike me first. And out of this albeit trite observation, came a valuable lesson in vanity. It was on Nathan Road in Kowloon that I learnt that tallness is not, contrary to my preconceptions, closer to Godliness. It is speed, not height that counts in this part of the world.
No-one (not even dedicated moshers) can pretend to have experienced crowds until they’ve been to a major Asian metropolis. Back in London, people used to complain about compact tube compartments. Personally, I had actually quite enjoyed the raw, anonymous, kinship of being pressed against my fellow citizens for a stop or two. Having so many beating hearts so close together made me feel somehow more alive. But even I am not innured to other people’s elbows, and heels, mouthfuls of their hair, throat fulls of their bodily odour and being relentlessly pummelled like a piece of pastry dough. No one else seems to care, except me. And now, a year on, I hardly notice when someone brushes against an intimate part of my person (in the street, I hasten to add, lest my husband should misunderstand that comment.) Accidental over-familiarity is just an unfortunate by-product of perpetual motion.
I love the awesome energy of the Chinese. It’s contagious and, as my pavement experience aptly demonstrates, you can’t help but be swept along by it. Progress in their sights and they have a voracious appetite for it. Everyone, but absolutely everyone is in a hurry. It’s as though someone is standing over them with a stop-watch and a whistle, urging them on to the next lamp-post in record time. People you would normally expect to be ambling are just… not. Ladies as old your grandmother are lugging cartloads of goods down traffic-clogged streets; waves of school-children are racing (not dragging their feet or avoiding the cracks in the pavement) to school. There is no tolerance for slouches; anyone who can’t take the pace, must get out of the race. But when I first arrived, I found it very terrifying. It is more or less completely impossible to negotiate the city with a double-pram. I remember trying desperately to find a door-step where I could stop, tap someone politely on the shoulder and say ‘I’m frightfully sorry to trouble you, but where will I find Marks and Spencer?’
Maps are no help at tall (unless you manage to find one with English street-names) but even thirteen years after the Hand-over of Hong Kong to the Chinese, street-signs are still written both in Chinese and English. Only after spending time in Tokyo, have I have felt like hugging the ghost of Captain Charles Elliot (the first Brit to pioneer the existence of Hong Kong) and then hugging the Hong Kong sign itself for being so fantastically helpful. In Japan you simply cannot count on any English signs and resorting to any sort sign-language can get you into a awful lot of trouble. But here, you can see that there’s an effort to anglicise things, evident in shop names like Fat Burger! and perhaps, to a lesser degree, in Wanko!
The second, not-so-terribly-exciting realisaton that day, was that in this part of the world, I am horribly large. It’s never good for a woman’s self-esteem when the shop-lady has to send her number two to down the road to the warehouse, to see if they have anything in extra-extra-large. Having had three children in four years, the subject of my size is naturally a tender one. Even elastic bands can’t take that kind of usage. And so, after the fifth shop attendant wagged her finger at me and cried, (as though I was about to tear the garment apart and tie the fabric around my frame) “No! Too small Missy! I gave up altogether and went in search of a bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, I found myself in a tiny, airless lift, heavily decorated with graffiti on my way to the 11nd floor. It was the sort of lift that made me want to ring someone I knew before entering, just to tell them where I was, incase they never heard from me again. Somehow I reached my floor without hyperventilating and let myself into the bathroom, which was prreciously protected under lock and key. I’m afraid I can’t bear to dignify the experience by reviewing it here. There is nothing much to say, except perhaps a tentative suggestion to the management on this point: the purpose of a flushing loo is to render the water clearer after flushing. If the flushed water is itself the colour of burnt umber, then my advice is to dispense with the whole mechanised process altogether and go back to a bucket.