Delusions of grandeur

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Brett Myers challenged me with “Once I touch it, there’s no going back.” and I challenged Bewildered Bug with “One is the loneliest number.”

Looking out through the glinting sands, I stopped, unable to contain the creeping doubt another second. Digging into my pocket to pull out the digital compass, I squinted into the sun. Yes, this was the right way. I sighed, wiped my brow and trudged on.

There was nothing to see except hill after hill of sand. I could see myself as if from above, as an eagle would see me, or worse, as a vulture watching in wait. I would look no more significant than a lizard, I thought. Or perhaps like an ant to a human? Or, I continued with the line of thinking, maybe even as small as the inside of a cell. What am I after all, I mused, than a small colony of cells?

Which of course was why they wanted me on this journey. Surely they wouldn’t let me die out here? I, human – one of the last in the land – and they so in need of a coorperative, live specimen. I knew it was a dangerous idea to try and work with them, but I reasoned that billions of people had already tried to fight. The small pockets of life left on the planet remained resistant.

It hadn’t been hard to pack, or get away. Nobody much seemed to notice my presence anyway. Not since Dayna.

It wasn’t my fault, I said again to myself. As if someone were listening. Watching. Maybe even waiting. Well, they were supposed to be waiting, weren’t they?

Where the bloody hell are they? I played in my mind the scene where they would appear. I’d run toward them, hands outstretched. I knew that once we touched, there would be no turning back. I’ll be forever theirs. A sample. An outsider that will never belong.

Outcast to humans too. Not that it mattered. None of it mattered. Not any more…….

Dayna. It really wasn’t my fault! Her face flashed in a collage of images. Smiling sweetly, posing for a photograph in the sun by the sea – before they’d come. Her morning face, flushed from sleep and crumpled from the pillow. Her blood stained skull, and a gaping hole where her cheek used to be.

I gripped the GPS tighter in my pocket and grit my teeth. Why hadn’t anyone listened? It all just seems so unfair. Well I’ll show them. I’ll show them all. I’m going to be a god. Spread my seed and cells from one end of space to another. It will be mine. And then we’ll see who you want to talk to.

I’ll be the KING of this land. I’ll be the creator. Thor of thunder! Titan of the sea. You’ll see. You’ll see me and weep. All of you.

Den of Thieves – Six Word Saturday

He says I’m a biscuit thief!

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Sailing Paper Boats

For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Mare challenged me with “It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since it happened”, which is a very timely challenge, as this week was exactly one year since my father died of brain cancer.

The salty breeze blew as the girl carried a cardboard box toward the lake. She was escorted on either side by two women, one older, and one younger, and there was a sense of purpose in her step that loaned gravity to the box. Poking out the top were the harsh lines of triangles in a multitude of colors, glossy and firm.

The younger girl was crying. Tears streamed down her face as her long blonde hair whipped across her cheeks in the wind, sticking in places where the damp salt penetrated. She reached up and brushed it away, but the slow stream of warmth from her eyes continued like an elegant waterfall.

The older lady held her chin high. Her eyes were wild, like the colours of the sky as it began to fill with the dying embers of the day. Her crisp white shirt gave her a polished and professional appearance, at odds with the natural beauty of the surrounds. Those who knew her could see the signs of the immense stress of the situation, but a lifetime of caring for others facing similar circumstances kicked her actions into auto-pilot, and she smiled through the pain.

A small group was gathered on the wooden jetty over the lake, as if witnessing some sort of ritual, a rite. The wind blew stronger, and as it gusted, the sounds of birds filled the air – chorusing the fading sun.

The girl with the box reached the end of the jetty, and took off her thick winter stockings. Despite the cold, she lowered herself down the steel ladder into the black briney water, the colour of deep space and equally mysterious. They were only a few meters from shore, and from this vantage could see right across the bay to the other side of the lake, where tiny houses began to turn on lights in their even smaller windows. Surely it would take all day to swim that far, and at least an hour’s sailing?

“Ahhh it’s freezing!” the girl said, her cheeks ruddy in the wind.
“How are we going to do this? Does someone want to pass them to me?” she said, gesturing toward the paper boats in the box, while holding on to the steel ladder with the other hand so that she wouldn’t fall in the water. Her question gave away the spontaneous nature of the event.

“I’ll pass them to you,” said the older lady. The blonde girl was standing with her arms wrapped around herself in a hug. On the shore, the last glowing warmth hit the land, highlighting the bare Jacaranda tree and the verandah. “This is exactly what he would have wanted,” the girl on the ladder said, taking the first boat in her hand, and holding the eyes of the older woman, who looked like her mother, so striking was the resemblance.”Yes, I think he would have liked this,” she replied, smiling and frowning at the same time.

The boat traveled through the air to the water, where it sat high up on the surface, bobbing expectantly. The girl gave it a little push, and it began to sail, solo, into an unknown future. Soon it was joined by another, then another. A line formed when a fourth entered the water, and the second boat tipped on its side but continued to float. They spread out, forced by unseen currents and eddies.

“They might end up in the channel and go right out to sea!” said the mother-woman wistfully. “That would be nice,” she added, passing another boat carefully. “Yep, they might. Who knows where they’ll end up? Some might cruise to the island and make a landing there, only to sail again with the next tide,” said the girl as she prodded the paper boat in her hands forward.

One after another, the fleet set sail. “What are we up to now?” said the girl, eyeing the box contents. “Well, there’s only 5 to go. So we’ve sailed 50. That’s most of his life,” she said. “Here you go. We could say this one is his early years, just going off to school, or it could be the last few years we spent together, the holidays to the islands, or out fishing, depending on which way you look at it” she said, pausing to gaze out toward the middle of the lake, and biting her lip as if trying to concentrate very hard, or to remain stoic.

“Last one,” she said, passing a white boat into the hands of the girl. “I guess this one’s both birth and death. Happiness and sadness. Joy and grief. The full circle,” she placed the glossy paper boat in the girl’s hand. The girl spun on the ladder and sent it sailing, salty tears running off her nose as she leaned forwards, joining the huge pool of tears they’d already cried, as big as a lake and as deep.

“We love you Dad,” she mouthed, wiping her nose with her skirt, and watching as a seagull swooped down to inspect one of their creations.

The jetty fell silent, entranced, watching as the boats floated away. “It’s hard to believe that a year’s already passed,” someone said, words blowing on the wind, scattering over the waves through the huge blue expanse.

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I challenged Jen O with “Listen to your heart: You are standing outside a room but can clearly hear what is happening within. You cannot enter the room”.

90-day Mainland Mothers

China’s one-child policy is changing Hong Kong’s future at a speed that is out of control. Recent changes have looked to halt the run-away train, but is there enough being done to prepare for the future?

A Typical Chinese New Year Poster

Recently I was out speaking with a group of women in Hong Kong, one of whom was heavily pregnant. The conversation turned to the best place to give birth in this well developed city. “Any place that I can get a bed,” replied the soon-to-be mum. What? I thought, expecting that like in other countries, booking a bed in a hospital would be a routine affair. Apparently not.

“I’ve been trying to book a bed since I knew I was coming to Hong Kong 5 months ago,” said the mum. So what’s the trouble? I wanted to know.”They’re all booked. Chinese mainland mums have taken over the availability and now it’s really hard to get a bed,” she said in a matter of fact tone.  I searched the faces of the other women in the room to gauge their reactions. None registered any surprise. So I decided to find out more.

Why would mainland Chinese mothers would want to cross the border to give birth? My guess: that Hong Kong has better facilities, and that the treatment standards are higher, hasn’t been corroborated.  A study by The Lancet conducted from 1996 to 2008 showed that China has been encouraging women to give birth in hospitals instead of at home, which has resulted in infant mortality dropping by 62% in the study period, which shows that the facilities are keeping the babies healthy and should provide some confidence to mothers in the country.

However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) administration has more than one reason to encourage mothers to attend hospital to give birth – the one child policy is still alive and well in most regions. The Economist recently reported that the Guangdong region – China’s most populous- has applied to relax the family planning rules.  Guangdong shares a border with Hong Kong, so it seems more than a coincidence that the provincial official’s plea to relax the rules comes at the same time there is rapid increase in the amount of women giving birth in what is essentially another country.

The web is crawling with accounts of the heavy price a mother must pay if she is caught pregnant with a second child under the one child policy. In 2007, Annie Hung Tsz Bun  reported an account of a Guangdong Province woman that chose to give birth in Hong Kong. One of the reasons she gave for choosing Hong Kong was that she knew of a 7-months pregnant mother of one being caught by the authority, retained in custody and given two options.  Either receive an abortion or be fined 180000 RMB.

“Now as long as you pay HK$39000, you can give birth here legally. It is better than giving birth in the Mainland,” the mother said.

So outmaneuvering the People’s Republic is one reason for border hopping births. The more attractive reason is the right of abode given to any child born in Hong Kong.That means free education, health care, social welfare and the ability to fly to over 130 countries without a visa. With such an attractive proposition on offer, it’s easy to understand why in 2010, about 41,000 women (half the total HK births) decided to invest in the future of their child by giving birth across the border.

Typically mainland mothers need to plan carefully to give birth in Hong Kong, as they must attend at least 3 check ups in the city during their pregnancy. With this cost, and the actual cost of the birth (around 39,000 HKD for a public hospital) many mainland mothers check themselves out after only 2 or 3 days. This has raised concerns about follow on check ups for both the mother and the newborn infant, particularly for those that decide at the last minute to check in to an accident and emergency instead of planning ahead.

For this reason as well as the ever increasing strain on the healthcare system, not to mention the lack of planning in the education and welfare sectors, in April the Health Authority put a halt on any new birth arrangements from mainland mothers for the rest of 2011. Unfortunately for mainland women married to local Hong Kong residents, this broad brush approach included them, much to the outrage of community action groups.

Was this action timed precisely to avert the potential 2012 ‘dragon baby’ boom that I covered in a previous post? Or is it simply a measure to allow the system to play catch up, on what appears to be a run-away train of knock-on effects, that have not been well considered since they first began allowing right of abode to children born in this city?

One can only assume that as the children mature, and take advantage of this opportunity, the challenge for parents will be extreme. I’ve contacted multiple charity organizations to inquire if they provide any support services to these families – who ostensibly don’t speak the local language, and are not well informed about the kind of public or infrastructure support available to aid them. To date, I have not been able to find any evidence of a functioning support service for what locally is referred to as ’90 day mothers’ – i.e. Mothers with a 90 day visa for Hong Kong, but who have children with a right to abode.

Unless the government works diligently to provide enough resources within education, healthcare and also for support services, and unless charity organizations prepare to take up the slack where there is danger of people falling through the cracks – there may be considerable social, health and welfare implications for the children in the future.

I’ll be watching this space.

The Trend & The Tailor

Women across Asia are eyeing fast fashion. Will this signal the demise of local tailors?

There’s a lady at a sewing machine across the border from Hong Kong, in the special economic zone of Shenzhen, China. By midday every day, she has 6 or 7 customers sitting at her cluttered desk that’s covered in magazines and drawings of clothing, tape measures and scissors. She is aware of the trends as her customer’s requests change, but what she may not realize is that another trend may be about to have a major impact on her business.

Seamstress Working Daguerreotype 1853 by Daguerre Posters

Fast fashion is spreading across Asia, as retailers set up shop to capture growth in the emerging middle class markets. Brands such as Zara, Mango, and H&M already have a large presence in Hong Kong and Gap is looking to join them within the next month – the scaffolding outside their Central store is already tempting the busy pedestrian walkway with their wholesome American images.

It’s good news for the companies involved, and bad news for local Asia brands such as Esprit, Uniqlo and Girodano. Esprit has seen its share price fall to 9 year lows due to a weak outlook as analysts’ lose confidence in the business’ ability to compete in the new market conditions. But what effect will the spread of fast fashion in Asia have on a more macro level?

If we look at more well developed markets as an indicator, then we can assume women will buy a lot more clothing than they used to. As closet space is more of an issue for most of Asian women’s closets than their western counterparts, it’s also safe to assume that they will be turning over goods at a higher rate.

Yes, it means they’ll be buying more, and throwing it away at the same rate.

Between 2001 and 2005 in Britain, fashion spending grew 21%, yet the individual cost per item in the same period decreased by 14%. This allowed women to effectively consume half of their body weight in clothing on a year on year basis.

In Asia, there isn’t a well developed culture of recycling clothing, and apart from a few notable exceptions, there isn’t a well developed charity infrastructure to distribute used clothing to those in need. Every day on Victoria harbour I watch large ships leave the docks filled with rubbish, on their way North to create landfill. It’s my guess that a lot of the fast fashion purchasing will eventually end up as part of that cycle – especially given the low quality of the goods. T-shirts become stretched, stained or grow holes. Shoes wear thin after only a few months of wear, and seams rip or tear, rendering the item unwearable. These factors have fed into the fast fashion counter campaigns in other regions of the world.

In Hong Kong, I don’t think the plethora of Indian tailors toting custom suits will be affected. They regularly receive orders from across the globe, and canvas hard for new sales from the tourist population. The market for an affordable custom made suit could be more readily analysed by global jobs figures and the performance of the financial markets than the fast fashion expansion.

I do fear for the future of the thriving tailoring marketplace geared toward women’s clothing. Across the border in Shenzhen, China, the tailors I frequent will custom make a dress for around US $15, around the same price as an item at a fast fashion retailer. I regularly trawl through the huge selection of fabric at the markets, choosing something to have made up based on photographs I provide, or a hand drawn image. The tailor I go to (Shop number 19, Western Style Clothing) has a good eye and the quality of the goods are satisfactory.

Like fast fashion goods, the quality isn’t exceptional, for that money one doesn’t gain access to an ‘atelier’ service, but unlike fast fashion, what one does end up with is a perfectly serviceable well-fitted item of clothing that lasts well, if you choose your fabric carefully. It’s also a totally affordable way to access what should otherwise be considered the luxury of having tailor-made clothing. I’m also quite certain that the more you frequent the tailor, the quality of the workmanship increases, which cannot be said for fast fashion.

There are hundreds of tailors across the border, and plenty more here in Hong Kong that deal with women’s clothing. When I go into Zara, or H&M, I think of them. As a result, I simply note down some of the features I like about an item rather than purchasing it, and continue on with design ideas in mind to take to ‘MY tailor’, who can sometimes make it up that day. Or I shop for patterns instead, some kind people even give them away for free!

It's easy to smile when a tailor makes you a lovely dress from a pattern you got for free!