Guest Notes

Asian notes

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Shopping in the Asian capitals has long been a lure for tourists but I was taken a little aback when I opened the South China Morning Post that had been left hanging on the door of my Hong Kong hotel room to read of a mainland Chinese shopper who had been beaten to death apparently for expressing reluctance to make a purchase. Miao Chunqi had been visiting Hong Kong on a cheap deal in which tour group members are expected to spend up at selected shops. Mr Miao had not met the expectations of the shop or his sleazy tour leader. Hong Kong tourism officials disingenuously suggested he may have suffered a heart attack. Yes, bashings can do that, but it puts our Boxing Day sales scrums in perspective.

Half a century ago, Australian tourists visited the Orient to observe the quaint native cultures, today they go to see what the future looks like and learn how they might piggyback on the initiative and drive of our Asian neighbours. Sure, those who go to Bali or Bangkok on booze and sex tours have very different motives, but then their customs are regarded with uncomfortable curiosity by the somewhat disdainful locals. I wanted to see both the new and also embrace old friends in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Accompanied by my younger daughter, Tessa, we mixed informative briefings with forays along the fading paths I walked in my youth.

Though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve flown through Singapore, I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t been outside the transit lounge since 1968.

Reviled by progressives, Lee Kuan Yew managed to build his island state into the first of the Asian tigers and safeguard the majority Chinese population from the attacks they endured across the causeway in the Malay-majority Malaysia. Well-ordered, and set with beautifully tended public gardens, it is a model city with a well-educated and hard-working population housed to an increasing extent in huge high-rise housing projects built on reclaimed swamp land. A beach where I used to picnic has been moved six kilometres – fresh water is a huge concern with total reliance on the fractious Malaysians. A series of large reservoirs has been built and the Singapore River has been dammed to add to the storage capacity.

The nation’s 15 per cent income tax is hailed by expats and many economists but there are also rafts of hidden levies and taxes; not least the dreaded Certificate of Entitlement which must be held by those who wish to buy cars. Its value floats between $70 – $80,000.

That hasn’t stopped the wealthy, of whom there are many, as evidenced by the traffic on the island’s freeways. Singapore works, in part because the bar for progress has been set extremely high. Its high speed broadband network provider was just fined $450,000 for failing to deliver fibre orders to homes and businesses on time. It was the fourth fine the company had received after failing to complete its rollout three years ago. NBN executives don’t realise how lucky they are.Despite the success, older Singaporeans who have watched the transformation are not entirely sure that future generations will have all of the cultural and emotional equipment needed to live satisfying, fulfilling lives. One of my oldest Chinese friends said quietly that Lee ‘gave us the hardware to build a modern country but did he give us the heart-ware?’ It’s a disturbing thought.

Bearing in mind Mr Miao’s unfortunate experience, shopping was not high on the agenda in Hong Kong. The Foreign Correspondent’s Club and temporary memberships beckoned. A bust of Richard Hughes Snr, the legendary China watcher, now keeps one eye on those heading to the bar in the atmospheric old Ice House building. He and I last had a drink together at the now defunct Sydney Journalists Club, a sad place jammed with poker machine addicts. The FCC was always the best club in the world and the current board seem determined to keep it that way. One of the FCC’s vice presidents, leading Hong Kong barrister and senior member of the Australian expat community Kevin Egan, prominent lawyer Andrew Lam, and a number of Hong Kong-based Australian journalists whom I’ve worked with, wandered through. Interestingly, one of those toasted was former NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman, whose work clarifying Hong Kong’s formerly unwieldy anti-money laundering legislation is regarded extremely highly.

A quick side trip to Macau, which an active reclamation project has doubled in size, revealed that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption has hit the former Portugese colony’s casino revenues hard. The whales from the mainland don’t want to feature on the ubiquitous CCTV; facial recognition technology is making it very difficult for those who wish to use the casinos to launder their pelf. Despite indoor lagoons complete with operatic gondoliers and other attractions, the casinos remain decidedly naff. Slick traps to remove money from punters but probably not as brutally as Mr Miao’s tour guides.

We were warned in Singapore and Hong Kong that the food in mainland China would be inedible. It wasn’t. The standout meal though was served at Hong Kong’s Spring Deer restaurant around the corner from our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui where the Peking Duck was on a par with that presented at the HK Cricket Club.

In Shanghai, it’s ‘Beijing’ Duck and all the tucker was terrific. The city is, apart from a generally cavalier approach to traffic lights, simply stunning. I understand how bumpkins must have felt when they saw Manhattan in its heyday. Just don’t mention Mao or the Cultural Revolution. Only earnest Western comrades and indiscreet Australian prime ministers would be so uncivil.

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