Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Honkers, Bangers, Singers, Gaggers and some greased palms

My new weekly column for Coconuts is called Palm Oil. It pertains to Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore - Asia's spoiled, pouty problem children - not necessarily in that order. Each column comes with a piece of Insta-Art created on my iphone. The original appeared here: http://bangkok.coconuts.co/2014/05/14/introducing-palm-oil-best-and-worst-times-bangkok-hong-kong-and-singapore-0


Cities are bitches. You can't live without them, and sometimes you can't live in them. In the case of Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore, the bitchery begins as soon as one member of this bizarre love triangle leaves the room.

Like fickle teenage 'besties' or insta-net frenemies, the three cities most right-thinking people would consider the best in this part of the world are constantly at each others' throats.
Sometimes two gang up on the odd man out – Hong Kong and Bangkok laughing at Nanny State Singapore, with its vast unseen police force, the chewing gum fatwah that was, and a government shagging subsidy to save the population, plus bonus national holiday to celebrate “Business Time,” as Flight of the Conchords smirkingly sang in singlets and socks.

Singapore and Hong Kong whisper behind their hands about Bangkok Dangerous, a seething hotbed of bent cops and twisted robbers, defrocked monks and befrocked blokes, itinerant elephants, amputee alms-seekers and unfettered monkey business.

Bangkok and Singapore gossip over the border fence about the latest “bus uncle” to melt down or seize up in Hong Kong's unforgiving social crucible and pressure cooker, a slow chemical reduction that boils people down to their base elements, all burn out, rust and oxide pangs.

Speaking of burn-outs, welcome to Palm Oil. It is my new weekly column for Coconuts, a voice in the social media wilderness, a scream in cyberspace that no one will hear, a manifesto for the metropolitan Everyman, and an accusing finger pointed –or middle finger unfurled – at the messes, excesses and unsightly excrescences of the bodies politic of this fine trio of towns which for two decades have been my backyard.

What qualifies me to comment on such matters? Not a thing, excepting the editor's indulgence, an opinionated nature, and a decade apiece living in Hong Kong and Bangkok with frequent side trips to Singapore, mostly while committing various acts of journalism.

The Lion City. City of Angels. Fragrant Harbour. A trinity, a trilogy, sometimes a tragedy. Sometimes farce. Singers, Bangers and Honkers. It sounds like a long-forgotten union for entertainers, maybe some ambulance-chasing law firm in a seedier part of town. Pay the piper, pay your dues. Better call Saul.

I've known Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong in the best and worst of times, seen them when the going was good, and when they were breaking bad. I've seen a lying city, a city of angles, and a flagrant harbourer of life low and high, mired in states so rotten as to make Denmark, with its festering herrings, pickled kippers and squirting mermaids, smell like attar of roses. And I've seen each city transcendent. Each, on its day, is the best city in the world.

I do not work for any tourism bureau. I don't want to engage or crowd-source you, get on your cloud, leverage your synergy or deep link your low-hanging fruit. My only agenda is to call it like I see it, write it like I think it, and hopefully entertain, never ignoring The Dickensian Aspect.

Tourism boards rarely know their boarding pass from their elbow. Hong Kong is “Asia's World City,” whatever that means. Greybeards are still scratching their heads in the ivory towers of academia over the meaning of “Unseen in Thailand,” the one-hand-clapping of destination branding campaigns, and pure poetry compared to the tautologous banality of the current slogan: “Amazing Thailand: Always Amazes You.”

Singapore, meantime, has no doubt lavished squillions on the repositioning of the Lion City from “Uniquely Singapore” to “YourSingapore,” a stroke of genius which pooh-poohs punctuation while guaranteeing resonance and engagement with an audience of at least one: the nanny state's big daddy, Lee Kuan Yew.

The goalposts keep shifting as the game changes. This is the age of unconventional wisdom. Singapore is a bore – except that it's not, with better nightlife than Bangkok, Berlin-style clubs in clapped-out power stations and real sex shops, not the tawdry sidewalk simulacra of Sukhumvit and Silom roads.

Which city is on top depends on who, when, where and how you ask. Last year, Mastercard was touting Bangkok as the hottest destination of 2013, beating out London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore, with 16 million in projected tourist arrivals.

Tourism sage Bill Barnett called Bangkok the “Soho of the region” with a magnetic draw and value proposition. “Hong Kong has been marginalised by Shanghai, whereas Bangkok offers a bit of everything on the menu. When did you last dine out and say 'Let's Have Malaysian',” trilled Bill, minutes before the latest political “put up or shut up” spawned the Bangkok Shutdown.

Conde Nast Traveller ranks Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok at 4, 7 and 9 of the world's best cities to visit. CNN splashes 50 reasons Singapore is the world's greatest city. Hong Kong has jumped from the fifth to the third most liveable city in Asia, according to ECA International's expat living conditions index, providing you are an expat who sleeps like a baby while your kids gasp down a fag pack or two of pollution each day.

The Economist Intelligence Unit puts Hong Kong at its top of the pops, based on the EIU Liveability Index, taking into account urban sprawl versus green space, city geography, cultural assets and pollution levels. It also puts Singapore at 22 and Bangkok at 49, behind Manila, New Delhi, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Shenzhen, telling you all you need to know about the real world intelligence of that particular exercise.

In any case, bugger these rubbery figures and indecent indices with their lies, damp squibs and skewed metrics. It's time to  clear the slate, reset the clock, prime the pumps, and declare Ground Zero and Year Zero. Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore can consider themselves on notice: sin and ye surely will be punished with Palm Oil, amidst wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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