Saturday, 22 January 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 6 - The Office

I have a desk in two different buildings in Hong Kong, and both locations are interesting for very different reasons.

My official desk is located in HSBC Tower in Kowloon.  Kowloon is to Hong Kong Island as Brooklyn is to Manhattan.  Try as you might to pretend it's the most happening place on the planet, it isn't. It's where the bank homes its IT, operations and other back office staff too poorly dressed to be put in front of a real live customer or senior manager. I can assure you, however,  that the collective IQ in HSBC Tower is exponentially higher than that in the head office location.

The building is a short two stops on the MTR (subway/tube/underground) from Hong Kong station (think Brooklyn Heights). The area is called Olympic. I'm betting that the neighbourhood hasn't always been called Olympic - I could be wrong, but it doesn't sound like a very Chinese name. O Lim Puk maybe. Anyway, there is a big shopping mall next to the office with the original name of Olympic City. It is ever so slightly downmarket. Somewhere between Wood Green Shopping City and Brent Cross, but probably closer to Wood Green.  I have so digressed.

When you first walk into HSBC Tower, you immediately smell a newsagent in front of you. That's right. You smell it. In addition to all the usual stuff you would expect to find crammed into a space the size of a taxi, the proprietor also sells the most foul smelling little balls of something that he keeps in watery looking juice in a crock pot. I am not kidding when I say the smell actually gags me some days.  It's kind of a cross between a nursing home pee smell and that smell you get when you haven't opened a cupboard for a while and you suspect something has died in the back but you don't want to look.   I have not yet worked up the courage to ask what those balls are. All I know is that there is usually a queue out the door of people willing to part with their hard earned cash to purchase those nasty little soupy spheres. I'll let you know if I ever discover what they are.

Up on the 11th floor where I sit, it is a big open plan office with row after row of desks, the size and location of which provides a not so subtle clue as to the occupants' seniority and status. I have two desks, kind of angled next to one another next to a window. I also have four (!) cupboards that are empty except for my shoes. I must be a very important person.  Irine Lim, who is my local boss (she is worth at least 2 blogs by herself), has an huge office with a door. She is off the scale important.

The open plan office in HSBC Tower is unlike anything you will ever see in the West. Everyone makes a huge effort to customise their space. Some desks are so completely covered in photos, trophies, plants, souvenir snowglobes and other tschatchkes that you can't even see the desk itself.  My PA, has even framed her computer screen with a furry wrap and pictures of David Beckham. That's if you can find it amongst all the Hello Kitty paraphernalia.

It is quite noisy in this office.  That's not because people talk loudly. For the most part, no one talks at all. That's because they couldn't be heard over the sound of farting and burping.  I KNOW that this is perfectly acceptable in China, but I can't help but giggle every time it happens.  The guy who sits nearest me belches so impressively that it sounds like he downs a litre of very fizzy beer about every 20 minutes. I honestly don't know how he does it.  Every single time, I look around to see who else is laughing. No one else ever even looks up.

On the dot at noon, the lights are switched off for an hour. I have not yet figured out if this is an effort to be ecologically sound or siesta time. Given that several people in the office pull out a pillow from one of their cupboards, lay it on their desk and start to snore, i suspect it might be the latter.  This really does happen, I promise.

One of the most interesting things about this office is the ladies room. It looks and performs just like any other ladies room you might have run across. Toilets, sinks, mirrors, etc. Then you go into one of the stalls and you see loads of little purses lined up on the shelf behind the toilet. Each one is a different size, shape and colour.  I wasn't sure it was the done thing, but I took the liberty of investigating.  Every one was filled with sanitary towels.  I'm reasonably certain these weren't laid on by the bank. I can only assume that each woman brings in her own personal selection and leaves them in the loo to use when and as required.  I guess they are way too shy to be seen carrying sanitary products in public.

I usually arrive at the office just before 8:00.  All the locals arrive between 9 and 9:30.  Between 12 and 2, they either take a nap or disappear for lunch. Most people go out for long lunches. It is very common for people here to go out for lunch. I wish I knew where they were going, but then again maybe I don't if it involves those disgusting news agent things.   The building has a staff canteen, but I can't figure out how to use it. There appears to be a very complicated system involving knowing exactly what you want to eat before you see it, paying for it and then queuing up to have it dished up. I would ask someone to help me, but every Chinese person who works for me looks terrified every time I look at them, much less speak to them. They are deferential almost to the point of obsequiousness.  It makes me desperately uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as it makes them when I try to be "just one of the gang". Imagine how you would feel if the queen asked you for lunch recommendations.  Oh lord, I just compared myself to the queen. Please don't think I'm succumbing to the ex-pat disease of thinking I'm better than I am. I was just trying to give a helpful analogy. Really.

My other desk is in the bank's head office at One Queen's Road Central. This is known as QRC. The building is an amazing work of architecture, with all of the banks infrastructure on the outside of the building. Does that make it an extrastructure?  The only problem is that you can't actually take a lift where you want to go.  My desk is on the 23rd floor.  I have to take a lift to the 20th and then up three escalators. It is all very confusing. 

Everything is very different at QRC. About 50% of the people who work there are ex-pats. About 50 % of those are English Public School Boys. If you close you eyes, you might think you are at Eton or Marlborough. The bank has a programme called the International Management (IM) Programme. It takes English public school boys out of university and gives them important jobs all over the world in two year stints. There are very, very few women IMs. These guys, for the most part, stay long enough in one place just to screw it up before moving on to the next challenge. It is a completely closed club--almost like a secret society. They eat together, drink together, protect each other and show utter contemp for those not in their club. For them, it's all about title, who you know, what clubs you belong to and maintaining their ownership of the world.  Just in case you haven't guessed, I loathe them. I am sure the feeling is mutual. Yah.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

notes from Hong Kong 5 - Lea

I have been friends with Lea for over twenty years now. We have been there for one another through all kinds of ups and downs.  We have giggled about curry farts in Saturday morning aerobics classes and laughed until we wept about the antics of our families/boyfriends/pets/mutual friends.  Lea was the one who came over every single day when Sadie was a colicky baby, and held her for an hour so I could have a bath and a rest.  I got on a plane from Romania to London within 3 hours of hearing that her boyfriend of may years had left her. She is Sadie's godmother. I went with her to visit her mother in a nursing home.  Our lives have been linked for many years.

After years of romantic ups and downs, Lea is getting married. I honestly could not be any happier for her and Jack, her fiance.  Lea and I used to have long discussions about the nature of love.  Lea is a complete romantic. She always believed that there was someone special out there just for her. I said "don't be ridiculous".  There are lots of people out there who could be right for you.  I would say that I could fall in love with someone whom I didn't necessarily fancy if I loved their personality and intellect.  Lea would say "no way - it has to be the whole package".

I would shake my head as she rejected one date after another.  "Too short". "No chemistry".  "Wrong shoes" .Yes, she really said that.  She would shake her head as I would jump from one bad relationship to another.   We finally decided that love was a little like scrabble.  Some people make lots of shorter words using whatever letters they have. That's me. Others hold out for the X or the Q to put on the triple word score. That's her.  Both types of play can win, but they are completely different styles.

The "Mr. Right" (her letter X) that Lea held out for did not come in the expected package. I think we both thought she would end up with someone quite different. Jack was my gardener. Lea and I used to stare out my window with our diet cokes watching him pull weeds and mow the lawn with his shirt off.  He was/is gorgeous. Looks quite a lot like Jude Law.  Pretty soon, Lea had Jack in to do her garden. I don't mean that euphemistically - at least not yet.  Pretty soon, they were "an item".

I had heard a little about Jack's somewhat colourful past (like I'm one to talk) from his fellow gardeners, and I have to confess that I was a little concerned. I told him that if he hurt Lea, I would kill him. I meant it. Well, over the years, I have grown to love Jack and realise what a truly wonderful man he is.  He is smart and worldly and both innocent and sophisticated at the same time. He is studying for an engineering degree whilst running a successful building and gardening company. He is a fabulous father who has done more for his son than I can imagine any man every doing. Most of all, he is a mench (look it up all you non-Jews), and I couldn't be happier that my dear friend is planning to spend her life with him.

What's all this to do with Hong Kong, you might ask. Well, only that Lea is in London and I am here, and I am disappointed beyond words that I am not there to plan this wedding with her. Sadly, Lea's parents aren't with us any more and I want to be both her surrogate mother as well as her friend.   I want to shop for dresses and visit venues. I want to consult on menus (I have been helping her plan dinner parties for years) and argue over flower arrangements. I feel almost physically ill that I am missing all this and green with jealousy over her other friends who will be sharing this with her.

Anyway, this is a happy time for Jack and Lea and I am joyful for/with them.  Neither volcanoes, blizzards nor striking air traffic controllers will keep me away from the actual wedding. I shall swim there if I have to.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 4 - the technology one

I have moved country a few times in my life; I am pretty experienced at it. Relatively speaking, I am an expert.  I haven't, however, moved in the last 10 years, during which a whole new dimension of complexity has entered into the process. Technology. That thing that is supposed to make our lives simpler. That thing that this week has driven me to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Actually, truth be told, I may have actually fallen over that edge tonight when I was completely stymied by my inability to access this blog in anything other than Chinese. I actually threw a bowl of ice cream across the room in sheer frustration. It must have been pretty bad for me to waste ice cream.

Anyway...I'd say we are a pretty normal modern family (well, in the technology sense at least - I'm not sure most people would consider us normal by any other standard). We have the following technology portfolio:
  • Sadie's PC
  • Sadie's new school PC
  • Lisa's personal PC (just in case you are interested, the one I am using now)
  • Lisa's work PC (the UK one; I will soon get a HK one too)
  • David's PC with super duper fancy magnification software
  • Lisa's personal  iphone
  • Lisa's UK work blackberry
  • Lisa's HK work blackberry
  • David's phone with super duper talking software
  • Sadie's personal phone (my old work blackberry that she uses in lieu of the 2 previous phones she lost, then found, then lost again)
  • Home phone (with encrypted answering machine!)
  • Lisa's office phone
  • Cable TV  and Internet
As I write this I realised that there are at least 194 ways to communicate with us, if you also include facebook, skype, windows live messenger,Scrabble chat, telegram and smoke signals.  This depresses me. Firstly because so few people have contacted me and secondly because so many people could.

I haven't even mentioned the technology involved in door entry codes, programming dishwashers, microwaves, washing machines, hot water heaters, and the building's intercom system all of which are new to us and mostly in Chinese (I think- to be fair it may just seem that way). EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THESE THINGS HAS CAUSED US SOME SORT OF PROBLEM OVER THE PAST THREE WEEKS.  Can you see why the ice cream had to die?

I will share with you one of the many technology stories as my PC would probably run out of ink if I tried to describe them all.

The Internet
Because we are all terrified that there may only be 77 ways to contact us, getting the Internet up and running was a top priority on arrival.  You may remember Ivan the cable guy from NFHK2.  The one who seemed ready to propose?  Well, in Hong Kong, cable and Internet are intrinsically linked into the virtual monopoly that is the monster telecomms company known as PCCW (this stands for pathetic company can't wire). I can't decide if Ivan is a pitiful victim of the this evil conglomerate or if he is actually a willing participant. Anyway, the engineer showed up right on time to install the whiz bang fibre optic thingamajig that will deliver our emails so quickly that they arrive before they are even sent. David supervised as Mr. Engineer poked around the wall for a few minutes before declaring "too fool no loom" David said "what?".  "Too fool no loom" he said again. After a few minutes of Q&A (hand gestures are not much use to David), he ascertained that the conduit behind the wall was too full and that there was no room for our fibre optic thingamajig. In order to fix this, the building would have to be razed to the ground and re-built with a bigger conduit. Not really, but the engineer indicated that it would involve significant building work. At least we think he did.

Anyway, we called Ivan who spoke to the engineer who confirmed what we feared. Too fool no loom. No cable TV. No internet and  the neighbour who had foolishly not password protected his wireless system would soon be on to us. So, we called EC Harris, the contractors hired by HSBC to manage bank owned and rented properties.  Their engineer came to visit, stuck his finger in the wall and declared "lotsa loom". David says "typical man - sticks his finger in a hole and declares it big enough". So, we had a few days caught in a Kafka-esque hell with both parties declaring (in Chinese) it was the other person's fault.  David, bless him, was finally able to deny his Britsh roots and start yelling at people.  He finally got the woman from E C Harris (whose name, Man Kei, always makes me giggle) to talk to Ivan and sort it out. So, last Sunday(!) a new PCCW engineer arrived with the engineer from EC Harris. After lots of poking wires in walls, he finally ripped the side off the conduit, declared us lucky and installed the bloody fibre optic thingamajig.

Hurrah! Ivan and David were now best friends and we had cable.  David, however, says "never let a woman choose your sports package".  It seems it includes something called Man U TV.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 3 - the IKEA chapter

Sadie started school today and I started work and the whole jet lag thing is not going at all well. It was 9:00 last night when I  gave Sadie a valium to help her get to sleep. How many bonus points does that get me in the bad mother’s club? Thank god one of the new school mums emailed to tell me that the kids will all be wearing their PE kit to school.  Can you imagine showing up for your first day at a new school wearing the WRONG THING? 

Yesterday was another fascinating day.  We all slept until almost noon, but the new espresso machine soon had me raring to go again.  I knew it was risky to attempt a trip to IKEA so early in our stay here; I am well aware that 74% of all relationships break up following a trip to IKEA. I just felt like a gamble. I also felt like buying wine glasses.  We took a taxi to an area called Causeway Bay.  There is a shuttle bus from our apartment complex into town, but it’s HK$17 per trip and a taxi to the same place is about HK$40. No contest for more than one person.  Anyway, the shuttle bus doesn’t stop anywhere near IKEA. Perhaps the residents’ committee asked the stop to be removed from the route to help decrease the local divorce rate. Anyway, it was kind of nice not to fight the traffic on the north circular and threaten GBH to someone trying to nick my parking space – my typical IKEA experience to date. 

The taxi was getting close to our destination, when I saw a most peculiar sight.  There were literally thousands, maybe tens of thousands, very small women swarming all over Victoria Park and all the surrounding pavements and verges.  Many of them were sitting on blankets or sheets of plastic, sharing a picnic. I am not kidding when I say that there was not an inch of space visible underneath these women.   It reminded me of an old Star Trek episode I saw once about a planet where population control had really not worked and everyone had about 2 square feet of space to exist in. That’s what it was like. Really. And I swear to you, each and every one of these women was shorter than Sadie.  Shorter than Sadie three years ago. I then remembered reading that Sunday is the day off for all the “helpers” in Hong Kong.  These are the poor (primarily) Philipino women who leave their own children to come to live in a cupboard in Hong Kong and look after other people's children. I will write more about them later.  Anyway, the amah army had taken over Causeway Bay, and I found out today that they pretty much take over the north part of the island every Sunday.  Good god, think of the power these women could have if they organised themselves.  I guess they are too busy wiping the bottoms of other women's babies.

At first glance, IKEA in Hong Kong looked pretty much like IKEA anywhere else - swarms of couples with glazed donut eyes, stroking sofabeds and fondling entertainment centres. Like other IKEAs, it was filled with hundreds of unneccesary plastic items and tea lights.  What is it that has compelled every single person I know to buy a pack of 2000 tea lights? Sometimes more than once. Anyway, I quicly sensed that something was amiss. "What is it", I quizzed David.  "It's IKEA, but not as we know it".  David was as puzzled as I. We couldn't quite put a finger on it.  Here were the Billy bookshelves. There was the Malm cutlery. In fact, I was looking at the Malm cutlery when a man in a yellow shirt with blue lettering came up and said "do you need help with anything?".  Bingo! The lights went on!  That's what was different.  The staff in Hong Kong IKEA were not only visible, but they also spoke Engish. I never found anyone in IKEA London who was available, much less able to communicate. I had a little panic as I feared he must have thought we were about to shoplift the forks and knives; I couldn't imagine why an IKEA employee would speak to me for any other reason. But no! He was just being helpful! David and I both stood slack jawed with wonder like any other gormless westerner would have done in the same circumstance.   We managed to buy pillows, wine glasses, dishes, towels, and several unnecessary plastic items, but we escaped without tea lights.  A man in yellow and blue helped us load up our trolley, and he even escorted us outside to a taxi rank. No, Toto, we are not in London any more.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 2

We have been here now for five days, although still so jet lagged that we have trouble remembering what day it is.   The first thing that I want to tell you is that the new espresso/cappuccino maker has already brought me much joy and happiness.  The filling of the filter device, the tamping down of the coffee, the sound of the pressurised water forcing its way through the precious brown stuff (the noise alone is enough to wake the dead) and best of all, the frothing of the milk, are all delightful additions to my new life here.  Granted, these pleasures have absolutely nothing to do with Hong Kong, but my early days here will always be associated with spluttering liquid - the coffee and the sniffles/coughs we all seem to have had since arrival.

Yesterday, David and I left a tired, grumpy Sadie at home, and we ventured into “Central” to open Hong Kong Bank accounts.  Our arrival in the branch was greeted with not only with enthusiasm and a warm welcome, but also free jelly beans. I have never been any other financial institution that uses confectionary as a customer incentive. I’m all for it.  I am confident that the staff of the main HSBC branch in Hong Kong were genuinely thrilled to make our acquaintance.  They were so enthusiastic about our very presence that I came extremely close to signing up for  the platinum/diamond/enriched plutonium account that they were offering me for only 50% of my annual earnings per month.   It came with not just a chequebook and debit card, but also FREE INTERNET BANKING! Luckily the jelly bean sugar rush wore off just in the nick of time, and I signed up for the coal dust/manure account which doesn’t do anything much but won’t require me to sell my daughter into slavery just to pay for it.   Bank account sorted, we headed out to buy a TV.

I get a bit panicky when I enter electronics retail emporiums.  I think Chinese is pretty difficult, but it’s nothing compared to the foreign language of Audiovisual-land.  LCD or Plasma, Full HD or HD ready, Supported Broadcast Signal Type, input connectors, built-in DMB TH Tuners, Display Resolution, Picture Frame Transformation output modes, Blu-Ray, DVD, external card slots, optional blow dry accessory....I just want to watch “Come Dine With Me”.  Unfortunately, Fortress Electronics didn’t have a “just watch come dine with me” section.  This shop is aptly named; it is completely impenetrable.   David, being blind, isn’t really much help in assessing TV screen quality, but being a bloke, he couldn’t help but offer his opinion.  “Sony”, he said. “Sony” is the best brand. So, we looked in the Sony section. Every single Sony TV was 547% more expensive than the comparable Samsung, LG or any other brand.  “Well, you get what you pay for”, stated David knowingly. I said “I think I’[d like to get a little less, thank you”.   We ended up with a medium Samsun, a little Samsung and a Blu-Ray/DVD player.  The sales assistant assured me that both TVs will show “Come Dine With Me”.   David, of course, is sure that they will both cease to function after 2 weeks as they are not Sonys.  We’ll see.   

Of course, the TVs will be no good without a suitable cable TV package. I looked up the recommended cable provider on the internet, and found that I was able to make an enquiry on line. I found this less daunting than ringing the toll free number and attempting to order cable in Chinglesh.  Within 20 minutes (!) of making the enquiry, I received a phone call from Ivan Ching, the cable guy.  I told him that I wanted the “come dine with me” channel.  He said that they didn’t have that, but he could do me a deal on 865 other channels, 4 of which were even in English!  Ivan and I quickly became close pals.  He is a Manchester City supporter, and always wanted to visit the UK.  He asked how I was liking Hong Kong, and he seemed very happy to hear my positive response.  He wanted to know if I had met the queen. I said that she was my next best friend after him, and of course I would send him pictures from the wedding. We chatted about non-cable stuff for so long, that I think we might technically be engaged. Several hours and not a few call backs later, we negotiated a package which does not have any of the Fox channels.  I was willing to pay for anything, as long as it didn’t include Fox.   I’ll have to meet Ivan, the cable guy’s parents at some point but I’m pretty sure that neither he nor they will mind that I am a 50 year old, divorced mother with a current live-in partner.   The cable and broadband connection will be installed on Wednesday.  It will be interesting to see if Ivan shows up to do it himself.  I think he will find having David answer the door will be quite a shock.