Thursday, June 03, 2010

Gweilo Power

If there's one thing that is surprisingly convenient about living in Hong Kong, it's that lots of locals are either not able or not willing to speak English. The consequence of this is that often you're allowed to do whatever you like, on the basis that stopping you would involve having to speak English.

At least I assume it's a desire to avoid putting themselves out, rather than a hangover of deference from the pre-1997 era. If I want to saunter into my friend's apartment block and not show any ID, nine times out of ten the guard will press the button on his desk and the door will buzz open for me. Although perhaps this means that I'm clearly incapable of committing any sort of crime, and therefore it's safe to admit me to the building.

One in every ten times, the mystical gweilo power will desert me, and an assiduous guard will have to look at my ID card, and then wave me onward, but that's by far the exception to the norm. Whereas my Chinese friends trying to get into the same apartment get stopped every time and questioned about where they're going and what they're doing.1

Some of my friends have managed to beat the system by pretending they can't speak Cantonese, but that doesn't always work, because it stands to reason that anyone of Chinese ancestry must be able to speak Cantonese. Whether they grew up in Bermondsey, Beijing or B-uh ... well, there's not many places in Hong Kong that start with a B, but you get the point. If you can't speak Cantonese, it seems to also reduce the chances of being stopped and questioned by the police. Well, questioned, anyway. There was some poor Nepalese guy who got shot last year after the policeman in question shouted at him in Cantonese, so there are exceptions to the rule.  (See also drunk men in Lang Kwai Fong on a Saturday night and annoyed policemen in berets2, but not, curiously enough, drunk men on Queen's Road on a Saturday night facing down buses and winning the contest.)

The problem is that you might assume this was deference, rather than a combination of indifference and a desire not to have to speak English. Then you make the mistake of thinking that the pasty complexion of your skin is what sweeps all before you, enabling you to swear at people who inconvenience your umbrella, or avoid paying attention to traffic ordinances.

This will, of course, trip you up sooner or later.  I had it almost in reverse last night; having demolished the wardrobe on Monday, we had to fetch it from the apartment and move it to our place in Happy Valley.  We hired a van, but he had to park twenty yards up the street, which meant I had to pile the panels of the furniture onto a cart and push it from the entrance to the building to the van.

The journey was uphill, and it was raining, and I was attempting to move what felt like my own body weight in finest quality pine-veneered-chipboard on a wobbly trolley, which didn't put me in the best of moods.  Then four people came out of a restaurant and stood there, looking utterly bemused, as I pushed toward them.

Well, not utterly bemused.  Kind of contemptuous as well. One, a tall gweilo in business suit and glasses, stood right in my path, not making any attempt to get out the way.  Manners, one would think, would suggest that if somebody is labouring under a heavy load you don't obstruct them unless you have a good reason to.  But he seemed to be staring at me, as if his brain couldn't process the data his eyes are providing.  There's a man bent over, pushing a cart with stuffed piled up on it. That's something the Chinese do.  Surely gweilo power should suffice in this situation, to sweep all and sundry from his path?

On I trundled.  Momentum was my only friend in the world at this point.  Finally he deigned to move sideways, at about the point that he realised I wasn't going to stop and thus despite him being taller than me, a wardrobe's worth of pain was about to be delivered to his shins.

Although now doubt sets in, and I'm not sure who was incorrectly adjusted.  Perhaps it was me, for expecting that he might move out the way, when experience has demonstrated that people in Hong Kong like nothing more than standing in the way of somebody with a heavy load, whatever the risk to their own person might be.  Or maybe I was guilty of reliance on gweilo power to herd people out of my way, and hadn't realised it didn't function on other gweilo, only on people who didn't really want to do the job they were currently presented with.

I have to be sure.  The only way to do it is to go and get a whole bunch more furniture and trundle it up and down Caine Road until I meet him again.  It's going to be like Sisyphus, but with a disassembled container of clothing named after a small town in Sweden rather than a big rock.

Bet those Ancient Greeks are wishing they could have lived in the twenty-first century and had my exploits to draw upon.

Although if they were living in the twenty-first century, they'd be pretty old by now.

Poor old Ancient Greeks.  If you see one, be nice.

1I'm not ruling out people thinking I really am a ghost, what with my pale skin and ghoulish demeanour, but then would you want to let ghosts into your building? Would that really be wise?
2Although I haven't seen any of them getting shot either.


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