Update from Hemlock

My day officially begins, as it so often does, with the first refreshing sip of hot, black, water-flavoured liquid at Pacific Coffee. Customers are so few this early in the morning that they are outnumbered by staff. My coat and bag occupy the seat next to me. We all know what that means: go away and sit somewhere else. It is a simple and universally understood signal from the human in the adjacent chair that at this hour of the day a little personal space is appreciated. Sadly, a certain sort of intensely imperceptive inadequate does not seem to get it.

Typically, they start by hovering. They sidle up and survey all the unoccupied seats available. They hover some more, and maybe turn around 360 degrees – maybe twice – rather like that stupid thing dogs do before they lie down. Then, with a dozen empty spots to choose from, they point at my coat and bag and ask some dimwitted question about whether someone is sitting there. I say ‘intensely imperceptive’ because not only do they ask, but they fail to be affected by the withering look I give them, starting with a blast of gamma rays straight into their eyes, followed by a slow and disbelieving sweep of the rest of their pitiful form. On a charitable day, I move my things with what must be visible incomprehension and disdain, verging on pity, that someone could be so cretinously gauche.

The late-20s marketing floozy who occasionally makes me go through all this often decides at this point to go back to the counter to collect her order, and then… goes and sits somewhere else anyway, where she fiddles with her iPhone. Do the gamma rays take that long to sink in? Is this her way of trying to pick me up? Is she mentally diseased? Most peculiar.

The fresh-faced gwailo who commits this most egregious of faux pas is easier to read. He is new in Hong Kong and doesn’t understand the sacred importance of a few feet of distance from Les Autres. He feels exposed and lonely, and wants to be near a white man in case the natives turn out to be cannibals. (Also, he probably has hemorrhoids. This recurring nightmare of modern Hong Kong life takes place on the big soft easy chairs rather than the slightly firmer smaller ones. Since I only perch alertly, rather than recline like some idle slob, it makes little difference which sort I sit on, and this trial might not take place so often if I sat elsewhere – but, yes, it’s the principle.)

Today, a new example of these misfits appears, and he truly outshines his pitiful peers. From his manner of hovering, I instantly sense something a bit creepy. He is a slightly spotty 30-something Stanley from the mailroom who has worked his way up to assistant sales manager. After the idiotic and tiresome request, I move my things laboriously, surely leaving him in no doubt that he is causing a degree of annoyance that only the most socially inept could manage, but he is impervious. After sitting in his newly sequestered chair, he has to find somewhere on the little round shared table to put his drink and croissant. He has not thought this through. He then starts tentatively rearranging my newspapers and coffee. Big mistake.

Many right-thinking citizens would simply strangle him, but I am classier than that. I make the sort of tutting sound normally reserved for dull-witted children, and I glare. Then, muttering an appeal to the almighty, I gather up my paper and drink and nod to a row of 10 empty seats and five empty tables a few yards away.

“If I go and sit over there, are you going to follow me and start moving all my stuff around?” This delivered more in the tone of “Move one step in that direction, and I chop up your entrails with a meat cleaver and feed the bits to pigs.”

I don’t wait for any blinking, spluttering or head-shaking. But after I complete my removal and arrange my belongings to form a suitable buffer zone, I see him bow his head, make a sign of the cross, and pray. Then he tucks in to his breakfast.

The babies thrown from rooftops, the passers-by frenziedly chopped in wet markets, the late-night defenestration of furniture and spouses, the impulsive branding of maids with irons. This is how it all starts – inconsiderate and obtuse strangers create unceasing, niggling irritations, slowly piling on the frustration and pressure, before eventually sending normal, decent people insane. Luckily, I can now declare the weekend open with it all off my chest.



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9 Responses to Update from Hemlock

  1. Bela Roquentin says:

    ” A man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.” (Sartre – La Nausée)

    If this was Algeria in the 1940s, Meursault would read you every day before going to the beach, to get in the mood.

    Camus once read all of L’étranger on tape, and I have listened to it. His achievement in reading it aloud was almost as great as writing the novel. Most authors cannot read their work aloud for sustained periods. It chokes them up as the empathy for their characters is recreated. I’m not suggesting you read your journal intime onto tape.

    There are no auto-didacts to bother you in Hong Kong so you can’t be in a Sartre novel.

    He ended up as a one-eyed recluse dictating his correspondence and doctor shopping for his next fix of illegal drugs.

    Willingly drinking “Pacific Coffee” Ersatz Blümchenkaffee is probably the first stage of such moral degeneration. Struggle along to PRET which has real coffee and real food served by real people. The clientele was also 98% European the last time I went. Just saying…

  2. Property Developer says:

    There are at least two PhDs to be written on the use and abuse of space here and on interactivity/gwanhai/making a connection. The two come together notably in secret tunnels, incrementalism aka flower-pot syndrome and running backwards through doorways.

    George Adams may have codified the glares, the stepping on toes, the calculated drip-drip of social aggression, the underlying aims, in his excessively schematic but illuminating early work.

  3. Stephen says:

    FFS – Why not take the Coffee and Pro-China back to “The Gwailo’s Lair” ? I do…

    On the few occasions I’ve had to sit in Starbucks or Pacific Coffee i usually get bothered by youths doing their homework and saving seats for half the school. I have a filthy temper and use words unsuitable for their English oral examinations.

    Nearly beer o clock.

  4. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Stephen

    Hemmers probably does not take his coffee back to his home in a plastic cup because he may feel and fear – as I would feel and fear – he might be mistaken for an American

    Starbucks has a lot to answer for ( as does McDonalds)

    PS : PS tip for the day : if ever you are taken short in almost any country in the world – except India where they don’t eat beef – ask for the nearest McDonalds. Their toilets are free and nearly always very clean. And certainly much more plentiful than public toilets

  5. Maugrim says:

    Having been here for a while now there are still some things I simply dont ‘get’. To wit, HK style BBQing where a half frozen chicken wing is consumed, after having been seared on on the outside via the use of carcenogenic and foul smelling heat beads, why University graduates pose for photos anywhere in an academic gown carrying a ‘kung jai’ or plush toy of some description, who is also wearing a mortar board and last but not least, the fact that in a Starbucks, every seat can be taken for hours by people not actually buying anything. You can conduct insurance business, a tutorial school, a cramming session, all day and the management not once will tell you to leave. I just don’t get it. /rant.

  6. colonelkurtz says:

    Simple answer Maugrim, HK flats are tiny and offer no quiet or privacy being overstuffed with siblings, parents, maids and maybe grandparents. That’s why kids and uni students congregate in Starbucks to chat, moon over one another or study. The not moving them on is worldwide policy in Starbucks, the idea being that, if it becomes your substitute living room, you’ll go there rather than a competitor.

    The gung jai thing is just mawkish Asian pop culture encouraging excessive heart on your sleeve emotionalism. Karaoke videos of boyfriend/girlfriend romances, (a bit dated now but) mobile phone ads usually on the same themes and awful TVB/ATV dramas that feature whining/emtionally childlike gong neui princesses and their pussy-whipped boyfriends/husbands all have something to do with the seeming emotional immaturity of many local youngsters. They’re a product of the culture rammed down their throats which is often the only role model for how to behave.

    Anglo expat kids get excessive binge drinking and general surliness to model themselves on.

    Which is worse?

  7. gunlaw says:

    Kai Tak Airport “arrivals hall” was usually lined 9 months of the year with students swatting textbooks rather than mozzies, the aircon and space being preferred to lack thereof in Kowloon govt flats

    Same applies to Western Games Hall: the oldies from Sai Ying Pun get free seats and aircon all year round

  8. There are free study rooms in public libraries for those students who want to use them. They even have free Wi-Fi.

  9. Joe Blow says:

    Same applies to Taikoo Place: the geriatrics enjoying the couches and the free aircon.

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