The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of creeping disorientation. Hong Kong’s underappreciated and overtaxed middle class passes through surroundings that seem extremely familiar, this after all being the route by which they commute down into the central business district five industrious days a week. But today something is different.
As we descend the hill, it becomes increasingly apparent that something in our landscape has changed. It’s the fact that we can’t quite put our finger on it – can’t identify what part of our daily sensory routine has been disturbed – that causes unease. Someone or something has interfered with the natural order of things, and we feel defenceless, even molested in some way. We’re not superstitious on this side of the harbour, but you can see why the less-educated would start to worry about feng-shui or ghosts.
It’s as if your home has been entered and something rearranged, and you can’t tell what. My neighbours agree. “I feel strange for some reason,” says Mrs Chan the marketing manager. “Someone has been here,” Mr Ng the banker says, looking around, “and done… something.”
Reaching the end of the last moving walkway, just above Queen’s Road, I see wild American friend Odell further along the footbridge, just before the entrance to the old Central Market. I ask him if he thinks something’s not right, and he nods angrily.
“I’ve worked it out,” he tells me. “It’s these fucking white signs! They’re everywhere! There must be dozens of them tied to the handrails right the way up to Caine Road. Like, who the hell did this?”
The monstrous intrusion into the functional but generally pleasant aesthetics of the world’s most miraculous piece of urban public transport infrastructure suddenly reveals itself all too plainly. And if the medium is vandalism, the message is an assault on the intelligence and very spirit of Hong Kong’s most beautiful people. And Odell, too. Whoever did this has to be stopped.
My ex-Mormon friend runs his fingers along the abbreviation at the bottom of one of the banners. “E,M,S,D,” he recites. “What’s that mean?”
Oh shit. I look him in the eyes. “It means serious trouble. It’s the Embarrassingly Moronic Signage Department. When those guys come into a district, that’s it – they take no prisoners. There’ll be posters warning you not to gargle with Nitric Acid, stickers saying “I Love Green”, flags flapping in the breeze for Central and Western Anti-Sex Festival Day, you name it. If it doesn’t move, it’ll have government propaganda plastered all over it.”
Odell points down to a van parked on the road below. “Wow look – it’s them! Come on, we’ve got to stop them.”
We all run down the steps and surround the EMSD vehicle. One man in overalls is in the driver’s seat, lost to the world and leering at a magazine with blurry pictures of schoolgirls sitting in such a way that you can see up their skirts. Odell gently tries the back door. It opens, and he sifts through all the publicity materials urging citizens to protect their personal data, keep the streets obstruction-free, be a smart internet user, and not to inconvenience reversing trucks by being run over by them. He finds a roll of nylon rope and a sharp knife.
Within seconds, the four of us have dragged the Banner Nazi out of his cabin, gagged him with a crumpled ‘Stop all family violence’ poster and tied him up. Mrs Chan switches off the idling engine, while Odell crouches next to the struggling civil servant’s head. “I’m gonna cut off one of his ears and mail it to the government with a note warning them to stop putting this crap all over our neighbourhood.”
The rest of us have doubts. Eventually, we decide to bundle the wretch up in something and lock him in the back, where the authorities will find him in due course. Probably. Mr Ng removes a ‘Removal of this barrier shall endanger public safety’ barrier from the sidewalk and pulls off the day-glow lime green sheeting. We wrap it round the hapless official and leave him incapacitated and petrified among the piles of slogans he was planning to unleash on our innocent and harmless community – Ketamine is a dead end, Beware of deceptions, Say no to illegal file sharing, Be a responsible parent, Well maintained windows keep us safe, Follow three rules to eliminate rodents. It is time for the people to send a message back.