by Keith Addison
Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996
The Valley of the Lost Decade
How to Spend 12 Weeks in Bed
Pass the Doggie Bag
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
Stealer of Souls
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
The Neighbourhood Dragon
From 1994 to 1932 in Only Three Minutes
Singing and Laughing
Have Nose, Will Follow
Harrods to Sell Elixir-of-Life
Galahad's Secret Mission
Escape to Shangri-La
Put it in Your Pocket
What Johnny Should Have Said
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
I was sitting on the back deck of an evening ferry from Hong Kong to Lantau Island, leaving the city behind, as well as the city smog -- though the fringes of the dirty brown cloud hanging over the Peak reached Lantau these days. It didn't used to be higher than the Peak either.
___"I hate breathing that stuff," someone said.
___Me too, and I really noticed it since I didn't live in the middle of it anymore. I didn't exactly like it much when I did live in it, but then you can't afford to notice it too much. There was a related city-wide conspiracy of silence about the stream of minor colds and 'flu and non-specific ailments and sub-clinical infections and so on which also seemed to be a part of city life, and which vanished with the smog as soon as I moved to Lantau.
___"Too many cars," said another escapee.
___"It's a basic human right to have a car," said a third.
___"No it's not," said the first.
___"In Hong Kong it is -- a BMW."
___"We have to take the ego out of owning a car, or we'll all die of asthma like Teresa Tang," a green person said. The much-mourned Taiwanese pop star had recently died in Thailand of an asthma attack that stopped her heart. She was 42.
___"Teresa Tang died of car fumes?"
___"No, but car fumes cause asthma." She had the science to prove it -- recent research in Britain had proved that the fine particles in exhaust fumes increase the risk of asthma.
___"China banned Teresa Tang for causing 'spiritual pollution', and you say she died of air pollution?"
___"Maybe. But she'd had asthma for years."
___There was talk of one islander's daughter, a lovely healthy child until she started going to high school in Hong Kong, but now she had asthma attacks, and of another islander who had to move to the city because of his work and now his whole family suffered from asthma -- but not when they came back to Lantau for the weekends.
___"Bangkok's worse than Hong Kong -- no wonder Teresa Tang died."
___"She wasn't in Bangkok, it was Chiang Mai."
___"Oh. Anyway, how do you plan to remove the ego factor from buying a BMW?"
___"What? You want to start a revolution?"
___"That's probably the only way you could start a revolution here," someone laughed.
___"No Mercedes either, no Porsches, no Ferraris."
___"But I can still buy a Rolls?"
___"Not even if I have an electric motor fitted?"
___"No -- okay, no fumes, but you're still wasting energy."
___"What a purist! So the government's getting keen on electric cars, electric taxis are being tested and there's a plan to convert the whole fleet, but that's no good?"
___"It's better than nothing, I suppose," conceded the greenie.
___"Who needs a car in Hong Kong anyway?" someone asked. "Very expensive, parking is a nightmare, and public transport is good."
___"Exactly," said the greenie. "People buy cars for status, not because they need them."
___"So what kind of cars will be allowed in your grand scheme?"
___"I know what she wants," someone chipped in. "Trabants."
___"What are Trabants?"
___"Cheap and nasty wheels for the masses in the former communist utopia of East Germany. Nobody wanted them, but it's all there was. They stopped making them last year."
___Suddenly it seemed everyone knew about Trabants.
___"I read some Hungarians are trying to drive one to Nepal," someone said.
___"There's a Trabant Club in the US now, very trendy."
___"They stopped making the Zaporozhets too."
___"The Ukrainian equivalent, only worse. A new one cost about US$700, but the Ukrainians are so poor now they can't afford them anymore. Except the mafia, but they drive BMWs."
___"Anyway Trabants are filthy things, they belch fumes."
___"The Volkswagen Beetle was originally Hitler's version of the same idea -- Volkswagen means People's Car."
___"So we're all going to drive electric Beetles made in Shenzhen?"
___"Why not?" demanded the greenie. "Only Beetles are too big."
___"Too big? What isn't too big for you, a bicycle?"
___"What's wrong with bicycles?" at least three people demanded (there was a bicycle cult on Lantau).
___"Nothing, nothing," the objector demurred hastily. "Though I can't see Li Ka-shing riding one to work."
___"Everybody rides bicycles in Holland."
___"Holland is flat."
___"Anyway, not bicycles," the greenie said, stepping in. "But something small, cheap and functional."
___"Like a Fiat 500?"
___"Yes, great -- I had one in London," someone offered. "You could sneak it in anywhere. It was red, the same colour as the buses. It looked like a sort of little lifeboat you could take instead when the bus got stuck in a traffic jam."
___"But not for big people," said a big person.
___"No problem. One of the Cabinet Ministers had one, he used to drive it to Parliament. Not a small man -- an awesome sight seeing that big belly heaving up out of his little Fiat. Plenty of room, even for you."
___"What a nightmare," said the anti-bicyclist.
___"What's a nightmare, the idea of wall-to-wall electric People's Fiat 500s swarming all over Nathan Road like road lice?"
___"That too. But a Fiat 500 got me into a lot of trouble once. Missed the movie too."
___"What movie?" asked the greenie. "What are you talking about?"
___"It was the damned dog's fault. I was still a teenager, and we had a huge Great Dane named Tiny. Horrible beast -- the kind of dog that would sneak up behind a visitor and suddenly stick its nose up between their legs. That always got a very vivid response -- total loss of dignity, but of course we thought it was hilarious. Tiny was supposed to be kept securely in the backyard during my mother's bridge parties and so on, but one of us kids would let him out. It's not often you hear a blue-rinse lady whooping.
___"He was supposed to protect us against burglars, but he was too good-natured for anything like that. Well, dumb, actually. He'd probably've snuck up behind them and shoved his nose up between their legs. But I suppose the ensuing whoop would have roused us.
___"Anyway, it was a Saturday afternoon, and I was going to the movies with the other kids. I was late -- I had to catch a bus to the town centre, and there wasn't another bus for half an hour. So I hurried out the front door and down the steps -- and then the family conditioning took over. We all had to do this, and it had become ingrained.
___"The front lawn, you see, was where Tiny answered the call of nature. It was the only thing we'd ever managed to teach him, and it took a lot of insisting. So, at the edge of the lawn was a small bin with some soil in it, and a dustpan. On going out, all family members would check the lawn, and remove any unsightly objects to the bin by means of the dustpan.
___"So I checked the lawn, and there indeed lay an enormous dog turd -- Tiny was BIG. So I hastily grabbed the dustpan and scooped it up. But just then I heard the bus coming -- I'd have to run. I looked at the dustpan, and at the bin -- no time, so, panicking, I threw the turd into the hedge. But, not being well-practised at the hurling of turds, I was a bit too enthusiastic about it and it went clean over the hedge, and I heard it landing on the other side with an ominous-sounding 'plop'.
___"Appalled, I peeped over the hedge. The neighbour was an Italian, and one of the great joys in his life was his car, a little white Fiat 500, which he kept spotless. He lavished love and money on it, special Abarth conversions, racing air in the tyres, high-lift ashtray lid, you name it -- it was like a statement of national pride. And Tiny's massive doggy-doo had landed on the gleaming bonnet of the Fiat 500.
___"Just then the neighbour's front door opened and he emerged, holding his car keys, calling goodbye to his wife. I watched, locked in fascinated horror. He trotted down the front steps to the driveway, his eye fell on the car, and on the bonnet, and on what lay on the bonnet. He stopped in his tracks, stared -- and then he looked up into the sky! What was he looking for up there, flying pigs?
___"I broke up laughing -- I couldn't help it. Of course he saw me then, and went mad with rage. Not only had I despoiled his pride and joy, I'd caught him making a fool of himself. The bus, I thought, I can still make the bus -- but the bus went past without stopping, and anyway I was too helpless with laughter to run after it.
___"What a fuss. My parents emerged on hearing all the shouting, and we spent some time in abject apologies, trying to calm the poor man, and struggling to keep a straight face.
___"Of course I had to clean it all up, and then polish the car, and I had to mow his lawn for a month, and it cost me half my pocket money. He never believed I hadn't done it on purpose -- it was definitely an insult to Italy, not just to him. Still, it was worth it. I'll never forget him looking up like that."
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