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.

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