28 January 2010

Dolomite Contraction

I found this note in the mailbox today. At least it was something. In the age of e-mail and texting instead of letters, and junk calls (at 2:16 a.m. last night!) instead of bulk post, our home mailbox normally contains nothing but spiders.

The flyer perturbed me, though not because of its funny English. There are enough lowbrow blogs which rely on awkwardly translated English signs in Asia for a jab at cheap humor, and I don't do that. Though I'm not sure why anyone in crowded Hong Kong would pay for "Interior Contraction", and I'd surely like to know what Mr. Cheung means by "Dolomite Decoration". I love the Dolomites. I've hiked the mountains around Cortina, stumbled upon natural sparkling water springs deep in the forest and indulged in delicious Austro-Italian cuisine. But an Alpine chalet would be out of place in Wang Tong. Here they prefer fake Spanish villas. (Damn, I did do it. Sorry.)

What disturbed me then...? Well, did you notice something else about the language besides the grammar? No Chinese! It isn't even bilingual. Unless Mr. Cheung knows the nationality of each household in the village, I'm guessing that everyone got an English flyer. Is that what Wang Tong has come to? Has it reached the tipping point and turned into a white ghetto?

For the first 15 years that I lived here, the population of non-Chinese villagers remained pretty steady: a rotating population of Filipino renters and a handful of longterm expats, mostly English, plus this Yank, who all like to live tucked away far from the madding crowd. But in the last few years there has been a steady trickle of new houses being built and immediately sold or rented to young Caucasian families, who are attracted to the semi-rustic country lifestyle. There have been no Chinese newcomers. No Mainlander would be caught dead living in the countryside; too much a reminder of their recent past, and anyway, like crows, nouveau riche Mainlanders are attracted to shiny objects, like the brass faux Louis XIV kitsch and marble foyers of overpriced urban "luxury" apartments. Native Hong Kong Chinese would never move here from the outside; they're afraid of the trees (see this post). So the blanching of Wang Tong is, in the long run, inevitable.

I'm not some Lord Jim trying to defend my remote Chinese rural idyll from the ravages of western civilization. Change is unavoidable. Surely it can never go to the sickening extreme of other enclaves, such as Discovery Bay on the other side of Lantau, a dominion unto itself of such manicured Americanized suburban ambience that it feels as if a meteorite from Scottsdale, Arizona crash-landed there. Or could it?

Maybe Mr. Cheung just thinks that no Chinese would hire him, either because they have a cousin/in-law in the business or, more likely, he knows that no self-respecting Hong Kong Chinese would squander money on renovation that could be better spent on speculation in futures derivatives. For now, for the sake of diversity in one sleepy little village, I hope that's the message of the yellow funny-English flyer.


  1. Larry, great post, glad to see you're back.

    That Dolomite thing puzzled me too -- there is a whitish rock named after the Dolomites, but I wasn't at all certain how it could be used in decorating. So I did a search for "Dolomite Decorations" and came up with this site, which turned out also to be a Chinese webpage with its share of curious locutions -- it seemed to me as though these ornaments were being advertised for use in covering up holes you'd accidentally made in your walls!

  2. I was at a wedding where the Chinese bride and groom said their vows in English, even though the place was 99% Cantonese speakers.

    An auntie at my table grumbled about it.

    Then another explained: "Oh, that's because the odd gweilo here couldn't possible understand Cantonese. But we Chinese. We understand everything!"

  3. Joyce: I've been to such occasions! And there was the study published 15 years ago or so which alleged that Chinese have higher IQs than Caucasians. That may be true, but it doesn't extend to the linguistic ability of Mui Wo locals. Most long-term local Chinese speak 2 or 3 words of English, and most foreigners speak 1 or 2 words of Cantonese. That puts the Chinese slightly ahead of the gwailos, I suppose.

  4. The few times I went to Disco Bay when I got off the ferry I thought I'd arrived in another country - or fallen through some strange portal to some strange SciFi town.
    There was another weird place I once went to on a home visit. Somewhere in the eastern New Territories. I keep looking at maps trying to find it, but failing. It was this huge gated community with a guardhouse at the entrance and a ten-foot fence all the way around, full of westerners who voluntarily imprisoned themselves there. (shudder!)