Alongside my thirty thousand neighbours, I live with my family in a high-rise complex on the south side of Hong Kong Island. Thirty-four towers, ranging in height from thirty-eight to forty-two storeys, overlook the South China Sea. Along the waterfront is a U-shaped boardwalk. It is wide and level and the vistas of ocean and island are spectacular. Residents by the hundreds stroll the boardwalk at all hours of the day and late into the evening. The air is considered just about the cleanest in Hong Kong.
Walkers, joggers, kids on bikes and old men fishing the sea carry on beneath the outer ring of high-rises. I go for runs there most afternoons. My route obliges me to jog in the shadow of several buildings and thus in the path of any objects that might fall from a window overhead. A dropped flowerpot can easily split open a skull. A plummeting coin apparently lands like a hammer blow.
Then there are the bodies. Hong Kong has a notorious suicide rate, and leaping is the means of choice. Newspapers bury accounts of these tragedies in the news-item pages, expressing sombre admiration if the jumper has waited until the off hours, thus sparing pedestrians unpleasantness or danger. It takes a celebrity leap, like the suicide of pop star Leslie Cheung during the recent SARS crisis, to grab a headline. Cheung swanned off the top floor of a five-star hotel on the first day of April. But even he was careful to choose an innocuous side of the building and to wait for a pause in the traffic.
Still, pass beneath enough high-rises where residents routinely position plants on sills and hang washing out to dry and one is bound eventually to encounter on the asphalt a pair of pants or a smashed pot of palms. I step over plenty of socks on my runs and catch water from leaking air conditioners. Nothing bigger or heavier has fallen on me so far, but it could, anytime. I am forever startled by the sight of Filipino maids stoically balancing on a ledge while washing windows two hundred feet above the earth.
There is, in other words, a degree of risk involved in even the most mundane of activities here. It’s not a big risk, and Hong Kongers abide by a vertical-dwelling code of civility and safety, but it is real.
Over the past year in Southeast Asia, I’ve had occasion to think hard about the issue of travel and risk. Last fall, a bomb in Bali killed two hundred people, half of them Australians. Two American teachers living in Papua, an eastern province of Indonesia, were executed in August, possibly by rogue military elements, while a missionary kidnapped by Islamic rebels in the southern Philippines died during an army raid to free him and his wife. Even sleepy Laos hasn’t been spared. Gunmen believed to be linked with a separatist movement there staged a roadside ambush in February, killing ten, including two Swiss cyclists.
My wife and I like to travel with our daughters during the holidays. In September we booked flights for Christmas in Bali. On October 11, two bombs went off in Kuta, a popular beach strip outside the Balinese capital of Denpasar. The largest device was stored in a van in a nightclub district. Two expatriate bars were incinerated, and many of the victims were blown to bits. The bombs, planted by terrorists belonging to an Islamic fundamentalist cell based in neighbouring Java, were aimed at Westerners. Because of this, a number of nations, including Canada, immediately issued travel advisories against visiting Bali. The island cleared of tourists and their cash.
For weeks we followed the debate about whether or not Bali was “safe.” I found the tone depressing. The island is special, a rare contemporary society where people live by, and for, their faith, without the distorting fury that seems so often to accompany deep religiosity. All the relevant details about the culture, including its reputation for gentleness and tolerance, or the fact that the Balinese are Hindus, were lost to one admittedly graphic headline: Westerners had been targeted, and killed. That made the place dangerous, in certain eyes.
Southeast Asians had already begun questioning the politics of travel advisories. Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, used a regional conference to lash out at the United States and Australia for their post-9/11 warnings to their citizens. Mahathir resented Malaysia’s inclusion on various lists, calling concerns about tourist safety “baseless” and a kind of economic sabotage.
How, Asians argued, could the American government declare Malaysia unsafe but not New York? Within weeks of the attack on the World Trade Center, campaigns were encouraging tourists to return to the city, both to reinvigorate the economy and deny the terrorists satisfaction. Yet the State Department then turned around and warned Americans away from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur?
The dispute revolved around perceptions. New Yorkers couldn’t understand how anyone could think their city was dangerous, despite the three thousand dead. Balinese felt the same about their island, despite the bombs. Each side, I suspected, was right, from its perspective at ground level.
In the past, while writing a book about Belfast, I had made several trips to Ireland. Almost inevitably, my visits would coincide with a bomb or a string of sectarian assassinations. Friends, thinking of the newspaper and television reports, would advise me against boarding the flight.
But I was always thinking of people I knew in Belfast. The morning after an incident, they would be getting up, making tea and going to work. Newsworthy tragedies, I began to understand, freeze-frame places, insist the victims remain in pose until the rest of us have taken a good look. The poses are inevitably grotesque, suggesting extreme emotion, including, for all the viewer can tell, permanent distress.
These images aren’t unreal as such. They just aren’t in real time, where individuals, even those in shock, are still carrying on with their lives. What choice do they have, being still alive?
In the end, we flew to Bali as scheduled and spent ten days there. The island was subdued, but otherwise as gracious and welcoming as ever. Our kids played with monkeys at a temple and had their hair braided on a beach. In Sanur a waiter named Wayan launched into an unprompted soliloquy on, of all things, Hong Kong’s reputation for suicide. Wayan had two small children and a sick wife. His brother had recently died. His grandfather in Java was terminally ill, and he desperately wished to see him again. But he had no money and business was very slow. Still, he couldn’t fathom why anyone would jump out his or her apartment window.
Karma suggests that all you can do is behave honourably in the incarnation you have been given. Wayan prayed for the bomb victims every morning, and his restaurant’s daily offerings included rice and flowers for the dead.
In the town of Ubud, a woman named Putu said our ride in her clapped-out van was her first scrap of business since the tragedy nearly three months before. Her souvenir shop had burned down, and she’d been getting by ever since as a driver and tour guide. She had three children and was the family breadwinner.
Because it was New Year’s Day, Putu decided our four-dollar fare was auspicious. She believed that everything happened for a reason, and we must accept this. The bombs had been a challenge to her faith. She had needed weeks to get past the shame she felt on behalf of her community. Daily trips to the temple with offerings for the victims had helped her to abide. She felt no anger, only a lingering sadness.
While in Bali I read a novel whose climax bore an uncanny resemblance to the bombings that had devastated the island. It is called Platform, by Michel Houellebecq, and it was first published in France in 1999. In the climactic scene, Westerners are relaxing at an Asian resort when men burst in and spray them with gunfire. Moments later a bomb goes off in a bar also favoured by expatriates. The device is hidden inside a sports bag stuffed with bolts and nails, and the force of the explosion collapses the building. The date is January 2002, and the terrorists, who’ve already kidnapped and executed a mixed couple for contravening Islamic laws, are described as “wearing turbans.”
Among the wounded is the novel’s anti-hero, Michel. He is a Parisian civil servant with a bad case of “millennial lassitude.” Racist and nihilistic, alienated from all creatures living and dead, Michel is offered up as a prototypical European, reeking of “selfishness, masochism, and death.” Worse, because he is French, he broods at length about his diseased soul. “Society,” he admits cheerfully, “could not continue to survive long with individuals like me.”
Joyless copulation is Michel’s one abiding passion. When Platform opens, he has been reduced to pleasing himself through peep shows and pornography. His luck changes during a holiday in Thailand, where he meets a sexy “good predator” named Valerie. She works in the travel industry. Back in Paris the couple initiate a romance grounded in S&M and public fellatio. At work, meanwhile, Valerie and her boss devise a can’t-miss scheme: organized sex tours to poor countries.
Their thinking is simple. The first world has a narcissism parasite and plenty of cash to feed it. In the third world, people have “nothing left to sell except their bodies.” Why not offer packaged tours to those pot-bellied Germans already groping Thai girls in bars in Bangkok and Pattaya? Why not extend the fantasy to include fulfilling the needs of moneyed gays and lesbians as well? The appetites of morally bankrupt hedonists are a market begging to be exploited.
Isn’t this how capitalism operates? Isn’t it, moreover, what chronic affluence and spiritual vacuity have done to the West—left it decadent and brutal? All that remains now is to impose our “values” on the rest of the planet.
Michel Houellebecq is practiced in the French literary art of provocation. He aspires in Platform to enrage and offend and perhaps even earn himself a fatwa. The novel is one part satire and one part screed, with a hefty dose of self-loathing tossed into the mix. It is also in rhetorical fifth gear from page one, a speed it cannot maintain on its small tank of inspiration. By the time those turbaned extremists lay waste to the resort, Houellebecq has little bile left to expel. Michel himself is calm in the end. Death, he predicts, “will do me no harm.”
Reading the novel in Bali proved enlightening. Though I was in the heart of it, I barely recognized the Asia the author described. Though I was Western, I was unfamiliar with his characters, except from other similar-minded movies and books. Bali, it was true, wasn’t the first port of call for Asian sex tourists. In Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia, in contrast, affluent adults could, and did, pay a few dollars to have sex with impoverished women and men, and sometimes with girls and boys. Some came all the way from Europe and North America. Most actually hailed from nearby China and Japan.
Wherever they are from, however, they constitute only a fraction of the international visitors to any country. In my experience, people like Michel and Valerie are the detritus, equally likely to do damage at home as abroad. There, too, they are in the minority, and they probably aren’t your, or my, neighbour.
The same holds true, I suspect, for religious fanatics. They hardly represent Islam. I would hazard a guess that many of them occupy the same low character rungs within their own communities. Houellebecq writes about creeps and predators and then declares their actions indicative of broad cultural attitudes and behaviours. Fanatics—both fictional and real—blow up a bar in the name of Allah and everyone wonders if all Muslims are zealots.
Thus deepen the distortions and the paranoia. I’m extreme, you’re extreme: behold the dangerous new world we are fashioning.
Since 9/11, commentators from troubled countries have been rolling their eyes at North American fears of the present instability. Welcome, the commentators have been saying, to where the rest of us have lived all our lives—a sour but truthful observation. Chronic affluence has bred a certain aloofness from the larger storm out there in the proverbial ROP—the rest-of-the-planet.
That feeling has extended to circumstances where North Americans or Europeans dwelling in the ROP have found themselves caught up in a local crisis. There are few sights more ugly than worldly diplomats, international businessmen and the rest of the global crowd fleeing a city where they have lived for years, generally in the highest comfort, at the first hint of political violence. It happens over and over; I have myself twice been offered the “option” of bolting from a messy circumstance because, in effect, I could.
Maybe now the likes of me can’t bolt quite as easily. Maybe none of us can avoid sharing the risk of these tumultuous times. Personally, I welcome the opportunity to assert—in real time and through real action—a shy faith in the essential goodwill of most people I may encounter, or be affected by, in the course of going where I need to go and doing what I need to do.
Accidents, of course, are another issue, and invoke other philosophies. But I am happy for the chance to jog afternoons beneath those apartment towers in Hong Kong—confident (or perhaps simply hopeful) that no one will aim an ashtray at my head. Extremism is a minority view: tawdry, pitiable and sad. Remind yourself of what you already know. Namely, you know yourself and your friends and neighbours. None of them plan to drop that flowerpot or blow up that bar. We’re regular people, you and me. Why should any of us be afraid?