14 Days

The Natural World has to do with this post only in as much as it was human interaction with bats that started the novel coronavirus that sees me – and many others – in self-isolation for the next couple of weeks. This post is to serve two functions: first, a mental health check for me, and second, to let others know the challenges they’ll face should they be so stuck.

Day 0: Australia to Self-Isolation

Started out, still drunk, at 4 a.m. for a ride to Melbourne airport, a short flight to Sydney, the inevitable hanging around, and 9 hours home to Hong Kong (wearing a surgical mask). There were no air traffic delays (!) and the airport was nearly deserted, but a couple of flights must have landed at the same time as mine. Hong Kong, being part of the hi-tech Greater Bay Area (Silicon Valley done by geriatric technomorons), gave me two forms to fill out by hand. To maintain social distancing, we were given densely packed tables to stand at. It turned out that, in this day and age, one of the forms was to be filled out in duplicate. I was tagged with a wristband, asked to download an app – “Stay Home Safe” – and told to expect an SMS “soon” to activate the app as I may be fined if I can’t be tracked with the app.

Got home. Wife still at the office to finish off some stuff as she’s banned from work until my own self-isolation is over. On the basis that coronavirus does not like it hot, I had a blistering shower, and threw all dirty clothes into the machine for an equally scorching wash. Phoned the Stay Home Safe hotline and asked for the activation SMS. The lady said to get in touch if it hadn’t arrived by tomorrow. Wife came home, we had dinner, I read a book, crashed on the study floor to minimise the chances of infecting her.

Day 1: Catching Up

Established while sleeping that our floor is hard. Really hard. Even with an exercise matt and another matt beneath that. Breakfast was toast with a tomato, and tea. It had rained overnight so the clothes I’d hung out to dry needed to be rehung. I took a long, sad look outside (our flat looks out over playing fields and hills), and decided not to endanger others and cheat by sneaking out.

The SMS for my tracking app hadn’t arrived. Phoned the hotline and left a message, only it hung up before I could finish. This was the first of half a dozen unanswered calls – it turns out that I’m far from the only one in the same situation. Meanwhile, although the HK Government (HKG) can’t get its act together to make a basic tracking app work, it can devote expensive resources to arrest a lawmaker – at 1:30 a.m. – for sedition. (Yes, in 2020, sedition is still on Hong Kong’s books as a crime.)

It turned out to be a useful day to catch up on all the stuff I hadn’t been able to keep on top of while I was on holiday. I help out with two organisations – the HK Writers’ Circle and Freemasonry – and I’d fallen behind. Wife cooked lunch – kimchee and leek soup with dumplings – very tasty. The afternoon’s assignment was to sharpen the kitchen knives, presumably to make sure that, when I go stir-crazy, she has something to defend herself with.

I’m editing one of my novels, and was able to give it the attention it deserved: good.

Dinner was spinach, udon (a thick Japanese noodle) in soup, and soup with tofu and seaweed. I read for an hour or two, but am still on Eastern Australia time so hit the hard floor feeling vaguely satisfied that I’d got through the day without whimpering about not being able to go out. Fit people are less likely to need emergency treatment: I wondered why HKG can’t let us out for half an hour a day in the local park to let us keep physically and mentally fit. The most likely answer is that they haven’t thought of that; the second most likely is they don’t want us that way.

Day -12

Sometime during the day, I realised that what matter is not how many days I’ve done, but how many I have to go. So the day numbering is a negative count-up from now on.

The floor is still hard. Breakfast was toast and a tomato, with a dash of olive oil and sea salt.

Today’s Big Task was to rehabilitate two razor handles. I purchased these in Indonesia a few years ago, along with about as many packets of razors as I could carry. Although the packets looked like five-packs from the outside, they turned out to contain two and only two razors per pack, so my hopes of a lifelong supply of the things were dashed. However, when I was there in early April, I sourced another few packets, so the razor handles had life in them yet. Half an hour in Dettol to clean them, and another hour in WD40, and their rehabilitation was complete.

The trouble with catching up on admin is that, once you’ve caught up, you’ve caught up. There were a couple of tail-end tasks, but nothing momentous, so I decided it was my turn to cook lunch: cherry tomato and Red Leicester salad: cut the tomatoes in half, sprinkle over salt, olive oil, balsamic (if it were me, I’d be happy with the cheap stuff – I’ve never understood the fetish for balsamic), and cheese. Didn’t quite work – needed mozzarella, or something else with more kick.

Main course: mother-in-law’s magic tomato gloop augmented with fresh tomatoes, sliced (but not chopped) onion, a local gourd not unlike a courgette, and lots of garlic. Stirred in spaghetti and parmesan: altogether pretty good.

Worked more on the novel. Remembered I’m supposed to be learning Bahasa Indonesian, so revised Chapter 1. Tried to read a book, but the internet at home browned out and I was delegated to phone the provider. I was all set to put it off as Tomorrow’s Big Task, but Wife gave me a look that made me wonder if she’d had me sharpen the knives for a specific reason. The hard part was finding the customer support phone number: by the time I’d done that, the internet was working again.

Wife cooked up a storm for dinner: a beetroot-like root that has no name in English, and a mushroom and tofu mixture. I realised I was so terrified of running out of material that I was rationing myself to a chapter here and a chapter there (I normally have four or five books on the go at any one time, but that’s ALL the books I have).

Day Minus Eleven

It sounds better if I spell it out. There’s an abstract aspect to digits.

The floor had not diminished in hardness this morning, but perhaps I had. It only took me an hour to stretch the stiffness out of my bones. I still haven’t adjusted to local time, so it was six-ish when I awoke, though eight-ish by the time I was up and about.

Breakfast. Same. Toast with tomatoes, enlivened – kind of – with olive oil and salt. There was almost no email – the norm for Saturdays – but what there was needed enough attention to fill an hour. The Big Task today was to clean the water filter, which I did. I wrote the post above, and decided it made more sense to write before bed, which I now am.

I had a decent run at the novel I’m working on, broke for lunch: vegetarian katsu (breaded pork chop) with scrambled egg on a bed of rice, with Japanese curry made from yesterday’s leftover vegetables. To my surprise, it all came together.

Today’s Big-To-Do-List item was to wash the windows – the better I can see that which I am denied – but it started raining, so it was back to the book, then to Indonesian. Wife made noodles and aubergine with fake pork and chili – excellent! – for dinner. Though in the almost complete absence of physical exercise, we’re both struggling to finish the food we cook for ourselves.

After dinner – brilliant! – I remembered a book I was supposed to review, so started on that.

I have noticed how much more time I spend on WhatsApp. I have even started following some of the links and watching some of the videos, both of which I normally skim or delete unseen. Part distraction, part desperation, but mostly the want of human contact. I don’t think I’m the only one – I heard from a friend in Oman who I last was in touch with about seven years ago – he was scraping his Rolodex, but it was good of him to think of me.

To sleep, perchance to dream.

Day Minus Ten

Either the floor is getting softer or my back is getting harder.

Breakfast: the usual. It was clean-the-house day, so I practised the skill I learnt in my first job and made myself useful by mopping the floor. Started on the book. At some point, I found myself bent forwards as an involuntary whine escaped me.

Our usual habit on Sunday mornings is to go to a local greasy spoon for breakfast. Wife cooked up something that was as good for lunch. I managed about another hour in front of the computer, then found myself pacing. I ended up circling the flat continuously for almost an hour, high-stepping and for a few circuits using books as weights for lifting. It wasn’t the same as a walk – didn’t come close – but pointed the way forwards for the next nine days.

Finished editing and read another stage of the book I’ve been given to review – the first Americans let into China, in 1971, since the revolution. It’s well-written and fun. I flicked through the final pages and saw photos of the China I remember from 1985. Wow.

Today’s to-do list was to re-arrange my books by category and alphabetically. I got the Tibetan section sorted. Philosophy or Greek tomorrow, depending on how things work out.

Wife cooked a lovely dinner. Read. Wasted time with Whatsapp – I’m not the only one struggling. Wrote this.

Looking down, I notice I found a set of guitar strings. Another thing on the to-do list! Whoopee!

Day Minus Nine

Whoopee! Into single digits.

Cold this morning. After squirming for a while trying to get back to sleep knowing it was too cold to do so, I found a fleece hanging on the door which did the trick. Breakfast was toast and tomato with tea. There was an email to answer, which was a pleasant surprise. I started drafting my thoughts on self-isolation, which morphed into an opinion piece for HK Free Press. They are taking a break upgrading their website, so rejected it. I cut it down to a letter for the opposition SCMP and, at last, it was down to editing the book.

Somehow the day was almost normal. I made lunch – kidney bean and cherry tomato salad with cheese on toast – and did more editing. Wife went out to buy some groceries, which gave me time to pace around the flat. Wife has some dumbbells – they’re not very heavy, but enough to burn some energy with various made-up movements as I paced.

I’d asked her to get some HK-style café builder’s tea while she was out. She added HK-style French toast, which was a pleasant treat. The next thing I knew, it was time to hit the to-do list: I sorted out the Philosophy section of my bookshelves. Dinner was pasta with pesto sauce and red peppers – yummy – then I cleared off WhatsApp – I’ve had it up to here with coronavirus jokes, so it didn’t take long. Read some books and wrote this. Getting there…

An Open Letter

An open letter to China’s new officials in Hong Kong: climb that wall!

Some Local Reads

A slew of Hong Kong novels has come my way recently. I’ll take them in chronological order of setting.

The World of Suzie Wong is a Hong Kong classic that leapt forth from a library shelf. The novel is a love story, but beautifully executed. Robert Lomax is an artist who checks into the Nam Kwok Hotel in Wanchai. The hotel is a brothel in all but name and, while Robert does not hire the prostitutes, he becomes friendly with them – and one, in particular, Suzie Wong. The characters of the girls and the moral norms of Hong Kong of the 1950s are sharply drawn, but the true strength of this book is Suzie’s own coming to terms with her past, with her feelings of inferiority both as a former prostitute, and later as a Chinese in Western society. By modern standards, the book is a little verbose and the internal monologues overblown, but it’s still a fine read.

The Road by Austin Coates was first published in 1959, and has been recently reprinted by HKU Press. The author was a district officer in the colonial government of the 1950s, and the other work of his I’ve been lucky enough to read is My Life as A Mandarin, an often hilarious, yet touching memoir. The Road is also set in the same era, but is a novel. Sylvia is a free-living novelist who marries a district officer in Hong Kong. Sylvia’s published novel is a fictionalised account of her passionate affair with an Indian in Tokyo: that she should cuckold her husband, be public about it, and with an Indian, sets her at odds with the village that is Hong Kong expat society of the time. Richard, her husband, is given the task of building a road to a remote part of Lantau, which sets him at odds with those who live there and don’t want the road, but there are rich and powerful people who see the road as an opportunity for self-enrichment. The story unfolds from numerous points of view, and some of the scenes are amongst the funniest I’ve ever read. A must-read before the current print run sells out.

Tiger Autumn by Jan Pearson is set in the tense atmosphere of China’s first nuclear test in 1964. The central part of the story concerns the escape of Dr Lin Dei from China, and his refuge in Hong Kong. He is assisted by Pearl Green, one of four society belles, and a cast of other characters, with layer upon layer of double-crossing and dirty dealing. Unlike Suzie Wong and The Road, there is too much action for this to be a portrait of its times – and too many anachronisms. We first meet Lin Dei wearing a T-shirt in 1964 in China, when everyone wore Mao suits, we seem to have IDD in an era when international phone calls, even for government officials, had to be booked weeks in advance. And the spy story sits rather awkwardly with the gossipy lives of the society belles. Nevertheless, the characters are well portrayed, and there is a fair bit of humour in the way the ladies in the book manipulate men who believe themselves to be in charge.

Jumping forwards three decades, the next was The Kowloon English Club by Stephen Griffiths. Joe Walsh heads east in 1996 and arrives in Hong Kong to meet up with his girlfriend – only to find he’s been jilted. Reluctant to return home, he finds a series of menial jobs before gaining employment in the Kowloon English Club. From this ensues a slow but growing entanglement with a cast of peculiar characters, and to some comic effect. Although set at the time of the Handover, this is barely a footnote to the plot – which is a missed opportunity. The novel has an autobiographical feel, which works well, and a quietly understated thread of humour runs through it. My only gripe is with the production – clunky font, typos, sentences that stop half way across the page only to pick up again on the next line – not the writing or plot: In this era of the self-published novel, these are easy to fix and, I hope, have been.

Hong Kong Rocks by Peter Humphreys, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle and – disclaimer! – a friend of mine, is much more action-packed volume. The book is well set-up, with the protagonist, Nick, describing his death. We then shift to the on-going lives of a group of friends, drunks to a man, and their reaction to Nick’s death. At times hilarious, the only problem I found was that, while the blurb emphasises that the book is set in an alternative Hong Kong reality (aren’t all novels set in alternative realities?), and although the Deportation Act which the characters both fear and are likely to become victims of, the alternative does strain the credibility in other ways. All the same, it was a fun read.

The last of the shelf was Bright Lights and White Nights by Andrew Carter, which brings us into this century. Troy, spurned by his girlfriend in England, arrives in Hong Kong, finds a job and tries to get his life up and running. He struggles to make friends, but does; the next step is to find a girlfriend. An old flame from home crosses his path and all seems to be going well, until it doesn’t in a very bad way. The next thing he knows, Troy is arrested, compelled into becoming a police informant, and is in over his head. I have to be honest: this book has great potential, but the current telling needs work.

So, a few for the bookshelf. It will be interesting to see what the last year’s protests inspire…

Island Hopping in Hong Kong

It’s been much too long since I’ve posted under this heading. I got into a rut. Not so much too much work as work that was fragmented. The gaps were too short to do anything adventurous with – I ended up plodding around the same worn hiking trails more to stay fit (well, slow the deterioration) than anything else. So when, over Chinese New Year, a friend offered to sail me around parts of Hong Kong that I’ve never sailed to, I jumped at the chance.

The first thing in planning any major sailing trip is, of course, charting a course and arranging supplies. We agreed on “wherever the wind takes us” for the former and, for the latter, I obtained a 3 litre box of white wine from the local supermarket, cooked up some chili con fake-carne, and we deemed ourselves planned.

There wasn’t much wind on the first morning, but we hoisted the sails for form’s sake and headed for Po Toi island, due south of Stanley. I’ve often been to the well-loved yachtie restaurant on the island for Sunday lunch, but I’d never explored the island itself. The restaurant was shut, so we anchored in the bay to the south (I hadn’t even realized there was one!), and took a dinghy to shore.

Next stop, the Philippines

That was the view south from the other side of the island – a clear sky, clear air away from the pollution of the city, and barely a thing in sight. Here are some flowers clinging on:


And here are some kind of cool-looking rocks

The next important thing was lunch: my host and I devoured a baguette and cheese, with tomato and, for a touch of decadence, a leaf or two of basil. But the wind was building, and there wasn’t time to waste. We hoisted sail, and set off:

That blip in the middle of the photo is Waglan Island, a barren rock which is home to an unmanned lighthouse. There wasn’t much of a hint as to whether landing was permitted, but, by the time we’d arrived, the seas were quite bumpy (too bumpy for my snapshot to remain in focus at least) and the wind was too good to waste, so we turned around, circled Po Toi, and headed to Lamma. Once anchored on the leeward side at Power Station Beach, we consumed my chili, found the wine to be quite drinkable after the first sudden shock, and then discovered a bottle of port in the emergency supplies locker.

Next morning was a somewhat slow start, but, warmed by about a kilo of porridge, we hoisted the sails and went west. There’s a small archipelago of islands known as the Soko Islands, which I’d heard of but never been to. After a glorious reach (reaching, for non-sailors, is the most comfortable of the three configurations of sailing), we arrived in time for today’s cheese, this time with basil and tomato and between two slices of, ahem, baguette. We then went ashore, found a way to a path, and arrived at the top:

And people pay to go to Thailand on holiday. We had this to ourselves:

Not that it mattered as it was too cold to swim. Anyway, back on board and, after rehydrating, we motored the small gap to the southern part of the archipelago.

In the 1970s, as the war in Vietnam was winding down, the communist government started reprisals against those who sided with the Americans – which meant a significant chunk of the population of South Vietnam. Many fled, nearly all by boat, and some ended up in Hong Kong. The HK government at first refused to accept those who arrived, but no other country would have them and the government was eventually shamed by the UNHCR into providing temporary accommodation while the refugees waited to be given a home. The built-up parts of Hong Kong had no space for them, and the government put many on these islands. This is all that remains:

It was a lovely spot on the day that we visited, but to be stranded there for year after year as the bureaucratic wheels of resettlement ground on…

We explored, of course. We found this enchanted marsh, probably cultivated in years gone past:

The bird life was stunning – I don’t have the skill, patience or equipment to photograph birds, but flocks of all colours swept through the foliage and across that abandoned field. The island is now completely uninhabited, and it would be a useful project to document this remote eco-system before the government decides to build something horrible there.

Back to the boat. Our taste buds were now accustomed to the white “wine” and it was the helm’s turn to cook – which he did well – as the sun went down

The wine evaporated all too quickly, so we decided to finish the port before it went off, only to find a bottle whisky that was similarly on the edge.

The next morning had great wind – from the wrong direction. Fortified by another necessary kilo of porridge, we set sail but, after beating (the least comfortable configuration) for the better part of two hours to make about a nautical mile of progress in the direction we wanted to go, we turned on the engine. The last day’s lunch was a welcome change – no basil so only cheese and tomato sandwiches – and we arrived back in time for my sudden re-immersion into Hong Kong: a family Chinese New Year’s dinner. The best Chinese New Year I’ve spent here for years.

The Child and the Well

The child and the well: can ancient wisdom show Hong Kong a way through an uncertain future?

An End to Hong Kong’s Protests?

The legacy of Hong Kong’s protest movement will be hard to erase


Our landlord’s brainwave: Hong Kong people are revolting, so replace the people

Our landlord’s brainwave: Hong Kong people are revolting, so replace the people

Truth and Reconciliation in Hong Kong

No whitewash and no witch hunt; Hong Kong needs a truth and reconciliation commission

Sunset Survivors reviewed on HKR Books

Sunset Survivors

Brainwashed? Indoctrinated? Both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy supporters act in rational self-interest

Brainwashed? Indoctrinated? Both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy supporters act in rational self-interest