Posted by: Sam Olsen | August 12, 2011

Taxi to the Sun

Taxi drivers round the world often act as a window on the local culture: just look at London cabbies to see the point. Oh hang on, that doesn’t work post-riots. You need to go to the zoo to see what London culture has stooped to these days. But you get the point. Here in Hong Kong the cabs are cheap, clean and efficient, just like Honkers. They also find it very hard to speak English, which once again is rather like here. As such, a local taxi-language has evolved to turn the mainly Anglo street names into something more resembling Cantonese. So Conduit Street becomes “Con-duc-do”.

This all works very nicely until you ask for a street where you don’t know the Canto-name, as this morning proved. Lawrence and I were off to see the museum of Dr Sun Yat-Sen – the man who kind of overthrew the Empire in 1911 – on Castle Street. We waited patiently until a taxi drew up (they are easy to spot, all being red Toyota Comforts with a light on top that illuminates if free) and we hopped in. “Castle Street please”. “Huh?” “Castle street”. I groped for the Chinese version but realised to my frustration that it eluded me. I reached for my iPhone to show the location on the map, whilst buying time with the standard British way of making myself understood by speaking louder and louder. The driver was by this stage getting a touch agitated, waving his arms so that he accidentally caught his hand in his drooping spectacle string, which of course worsened things.  The address eventually loaded up on the phone and I pushed it under his nose to show him, but this wasn’t good enough so the automatic door opener clicked, the door flew open and the driver shouted something no doubt rude. Larry and I stepped out into the 32 degrees street to start again.

I have no idea what you are saying

Eventually we found a driver who knew the English version of Castle St, and he deposited us safe at Dr Sun’s museum. Now this is an interesting man, and not just because his name sounds like a James Bond character. I won’t go too much into the history, but he was born in China just over the water from HK, and was then educated partly in Honolulu and partly in HK. He spent most of his adult life trying to overthrow the Empire, which was actually run by a non-Chinese aristocracy (they came from Manchuria) that forced the whole country to dress like the them. This involved shaving the pate (i.e. the front of the head) making all the men look like Lloyd Grossman, and as if this wasn’t humiliating enough, ordered them all to sport a ponytail – or queue as they termed them.  However, you may be surprised to note that whilst fashion anger was important in overthrowing the Emperor, there were other factors too (Gok Wan, the interesting bit is over). China had been declining for a while, the previous century and a half characterised by “humiliating” dealings with the outside world. When looking for a reason for the regime change led by Dr Sun, this decline was a biggy, with foreign powers forcing concession after concession – both in terms of trade and territory.
In fact, everything the Emperor and his cohorts did in turning around the weakened country seemed to turn to dust. A tragic example was the attempt to modernise the armed forces, which was found to have been a complete waste of time during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5. The Chinese had spent decades modernising the fleet, which was then totally sunk during its first engagement with the Japs. In retrospect this wasn’t entirely unexpected given that, as Wikipedia notes, “The [Chinese] Fleet was the dominant navy in East Asia before the first Sino-Japanese War. However ships were not maintained properly and indiscipline was common. Sentries spent their time gambling, watertight doors were left open, rubbish was dumped in gun barrels and shells’ gunpowder was sold and replaced with cocoa. At the Yalu river [the battle where the Japanese sunk them], a battleship had one of its guns pawned by Admiral Ting”.

Dr Sun glinting in the sun

But we digress. The museum was a thorough assessment of Dr Sun’s life to say the least, even having a scale model of a boat he may or may not have sailed on. A common theme of the displays was to push the idea that Dr Sun rescued China by modernising it, which he did by making it more Western. There were a series of quotes attributed to him explaining the reasons why adopting the Western way would make China great again. One of them is of particular interest given the last week of violence at home: “During my brief visit to Hong Kong, I recognised the beauty of western architecture, the tidiness of the streets, and the stringency of law and order. The effectiveness of their rule of law reminds me that the westerners should not be looked down as barbarians as we did in the past.” Oh, how times change.

On a happier note, Lawrence spent the entire time squeaking in pleasure (at what, who could say) which made it rather embarrassing watching the videos, but seemed to enjoy it nonetheless. (He’s got a lot of museum browsing to come in his life so he may as well sit back and enjoy the ride.)

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