Bus stops

Today’s article goes nowhere important. I offer no sweeping generalizations or insights, just a few snapshots of Hong Kong daily life, linked (tenuously, I admit!) by bus rides.

Many newcomers to Hong Kong wonder how elderly people here, especially the ladies, manage to remain so fighting fit, even in their 70s and 80s. If you take public transport in Hong Kong more than occasionally, you’ll know what I mean, e.g. as you’re pinned to the side of a moving escalator by a phalanx of merciless grannies on their way to yum cha. How do they stay so tough?

A severe blow to my head brought enlightenment. I was on the upper storey of a bus, trying to make my way to the stairs, when the driver slammed on the brakes, knocking me off balance, and propelling the side of my head directly into one of the solid steel vertical handrails. This collision sounded like a bell ringing – or so it seemed to me. You’ll have to ask the other people on the bus whether the noise was emitted from the railing or my cranium. This shouldn’t be hard, as the whole lot of them were staring at me with that look reserved only for stupid foreigners who can’t do simple things like get off a bus without suffering near-decapitation via safety device.

You never see 85-year-old ladies in paisley jammie suits bashing their skulls like this, unless they’re head-butting their way into crowded market stalls. My theory, therefore, is that decades of riding buses maintains their cat-like reflexes and sense of balance.

Now let me tell you a tale of two sidewalks.

The other day I stood waiting for a bus on one of Hong Kong’s old poured-concrete sidewalks, which was being jackhammered and dug up for some kind of pipe or cable-laying project (this is the default condition of a Hong Kong sidewalk). The noise was deafening, it was dusty, and the gentleman running the jackhammer did not seem to be having a personally enriching experience. (I can relate to this, having spent many unhappy hours running one when I was doing summer work in my student years.)

Contrast that scene with the sidewalk I stepped out upon as I alighted from my bus: newly paved with nice terracotta-colored bricks, it was being partially dug up, too, but this time the process was almost silent, save for the gentle melody of workmen sucking on their cigarettes, counterpointed by their occasional wry observations about each others' parentage.

I've heard complaints from a few people about these paved sidewalks – e.g. they use different kinds of paving stones that don't always match; they're pretentious attempts to achieve a 'Mediterranean' look that's inappropriate to Hong Kong – but I scoff at such demurrals. The streets of Hong Kong are so much quieter than they were 10 years ago that I'd support this practice even if our sidewalks were paved with interlocking Hello Kitty-shaped stones.

I was thinking about public behaviour again a while back when I read an article in Time magazine on ‘the future’. It was wide-ranging, but the section that struck me had to do with how technologies were changing the way people conduct themselves in the USA. One of the contributors said:

You have people walking down the street listening to iPods, seemingly oblivious to the world, singing. More and more, we're alone in public.

I immediately thought of a little scene I witnessed recently on another bus ride.

There was a young woman talking on her mobile phone, using a hands-free attachment. (I know, dear reader, you’re thinking ‘Yes, and the sun came up this morning, because the earth continues to spin on its axis.’ Please bear with me!) Not only was she talking very loudly, she was gesturing broadly and frequently, with both hands. She laughed loudly and unselfconsciously. Her very gaze and posture seemed focused on an invisible person in the empty seat next to her. And she went on and on and on . . . .

In all the thousands of mobile phone conversations I must have witnessed in Hong Kong, I’d never seen anything quite like this performance. This girl’s telephone partner seemed to be just as fully ‘present’ to her as a real flesh-and-blood person. There was no difference between the way she talked and acted, and the behavior you would expect in a conversation between two people sitting next to each other in a crowded bar. The medium of the telephone had become transparent, and the private world of her conversation had utterly displaced the reality of that bus.

Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or something we don’t care about? If you haven’t signed off this article at the first sign of philosophizing, then allow me to suggest to you it might just be a bad thing.

Look, I like mobile phones for their convenience. I’ve had one for years, and wouldn’t want to be without mine. I’ve even avoided ragging on about mobile phone rudeness in Hong Kong here on batgung.com, although Lord knows examples of it could fill many boring volumes.

But this girl’s conversation bothered me. It wasn’t so much that she was disruptive and annoying – she was, but I really am accustomed to this – it was more that I felt oddly sorry for her. I hoped she was on her way to meet the friend she was talking with so passionately, but something told me she was not.


I had to interview four

I had to interview four people for a job last week. During the course of the first two interviews mobile phones rang - AND were ANSWERED by the interviewees! I told them to leave immediately.