Part rant, part Chinese cooking factual, part cultural discussion on the history of Hong Kong.

Travel TV shows don’t often appeal to me, if only because getting a foreigner and self-proclaimed expert to explain someone else’s culture back to a foreign audience can be hard to stomach.

It’s so easy to make insincere comments, or phrase things incorrectly and thereby spread lies. Orientalism, imperialism and all their buddies rear their ugly heads.

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But I do love a good cooking show. So when I watched an episode of the Hairy Bikers’ Asian Adventure for the first time tonight about my native Hong Kong, I thought, hey, this might not be so bad after all.

Some of the guests they asked to appear on the show with them were all pretty cool people with pretty cool things to say.

One of these guests mentioned ‘wok hay’, or ‘wok qi’ in Mandarin. It means the heat of the wok, which is an essential characteristic in Chinese frying technique, where you really have to blast the heat up underneath the wok to bang them flavours out of your initial ingredients. Often that’s the garlic, ginger, onions and some chilli if hot spice is required.

wok hay ginger chilli garlic chinese
© Sum Sze Tam

They then moved onto what Hong Kongers traditionally have for breakfast. They met with guest Suzie Wong, who’s very famous as an agony aunt/lifestyle/voice of wisdom celebrity. I used to ride a pony named after her.

She took them to a funny old cultural product called a ‘cha charn teng’. The literal translation is tea restaurant, or tea canteen. I would describe it best as a fusion diner, and the food is bloody delicious.

As far as I can gather from what English-language travel writers have said, these came about in the 1950s-60s when the native Chinese communities in Hong Kong, still under British colonial rule, decided that they wanted more Western food in their dining experience.

The markets responded, and the cha charn teng was the result. It’s an experience where British food and ingredients like tea, corned beef, spam, sammiches and so on are re-purposed and recreated using Chinese ingredients and methods.

The result is deep-fried french toast, scrambled egg sandwiches with the most artificial and white bread, often crustless, a Cantonese take on the Portuguese pasteis de nata, and tea made with evaporated milk:

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There’s instant noodles with spam and fried egg:

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Buns with a crusty pineapple topping:

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I’m not currently in the country, so all the above pictures were from blogger whatshieats’s website.

Imagine my dismay, then, when the two Hairy Biker guys dismiss the cha charn teng experience that Suzie Wong so thoughtfully chose to show them, and are then seen bumbling off to the other side of the street in search of ‘more authentic’ Chinese food.

My opinion? There is nothing more fucking authentic than a cha charn teng!

It’s the most alive, and beloved symbol of Hong Kong’s colonial past. I’m not an imperialist, nor am I condoning imperialism, but Hong Kong has never ignored its colonial past.

I remember a Monocle travel writer saying (and I am paraphrasing here) that the fact that we still have trams on Hong Kong Island was a sign of how confused we were over whether we were Chinese, or a colony community.

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Photo: Calvin YC

We don’t have a confused identity – we learn from our past, no matter how recent or ancient that might be. We pride ourselves as Chinese, but we also pride ourselves as Hong Kongers – and though these two categories overlap, they are not the same.

Towards the end of this episode of the Hairy Bikers, one of them said that he loved Chinese food, for their fresh ingredients, cooked very quickly.

But what about our many stews, barbecues, baked products, or soups? Most of these take over a couple of hours to make.

In order to fit a relatable understanding of a foreign culture into a very short space of time, filmmakers are forced to be shallow, and only brush the surface of what they discover. I bristle a little at the thought of people settling on a perception of Chinese cooking as consisting only of stir-fries. But maybe that’s me assuming that viewers take these things at face value? I don’t know.

Travel presenters take from the places what they like and reject the stuff that they don’t like. It’s troublesome, and kind of annoying. But reading this, it might just sound like a proud/sensitive/defensive whitewashed Chinese girl ranting. I guess it’s up to you to decide whether to take that at face value or not either.

Art from anime cult classic Gurren Lagann, including Kamina Simon and Yoko
Some funky-ass art from a kind-of anime cult classic, Gurren Lagann

Anime and manga has a strange sort of reputation in the West. Many will have only heard of a antiquated, gimmicky genre called ‘hentai’ (i.e. kinky Jap porn) within this, if they’ve heard of it at all. But it’s an insult to all the wonderfully talented manga artists and storytellers out there for their work to be dismissed as trashy so quickly.

(I use ‘trashy’ objectively, and based on the assumption that many people see porn as such. I personally have no problems with a bit of smut, as long as it’s well done; or in this case, well-drawn.)

A lot of manga is lowbrow and fan-service – for example there’s what I call the manga version of Twilight, there’s an entire genre of manga for girls who lust after a dreamy romance with pretty boys, another genre about pretty boys getting it on with other pretty boys, and of course a huge proportion of manga page space is devoted to boobs and ass.

But if ‘lowbrow’ stuff isn’t your cup of tea, and you’re wondering why I’m making a case for manga, here’s why: there’s a huge range of more subtle, deeper, and amazingly told stories out there.

The manga I’m going to introduce you to today is called A Bride’s Story – or in romaji (when spoken Japanese is written down in English characters), Otoyomegatari.

Hand-carved wooden panelling from Central Asia. From manga A Bride's Story or Otoyomegatari

Just look at the sheer amount of detail in those carpets^! The patterns are brilliant, and gorgeous, and pretty breathtaking. This manga excels in many regards, but the first thing that really strikes you is the gorgeous handicraft and sheer effort the manga artist has put into this story.

There are moments when you turn from a regular page of fast-paced, but beautifully detailed action…

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…to a full-blown feast for the eyes.

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Is that breathtaking or what? I just want to reach out and touch it. Zoom in enough and you’ll find that you can see each of the manga artist (or mangaka, the Japanese term for a manga artist) Kaoru Mori’s individual line strokes.

Visuals aside, the story revolves around several families who live and cross lives, in 19th century Central Asia.

And with historical stories, it always helps to explore a little bit of the relevant social context.

Central Asia consists of that part of the world that spans from the Caspian Sea (which is east of Turkey) to China. It’s all to the south of Russia, and with the area being as dry as it is, it was difficult for the native people to find a good spot to settle down and farm the land properly.

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The natives would settle temporarily on one spot for a little while until they and their livestock had exhausted all the food the land had to give them. Then they’d move to a new patch of land. That’s where politics on the plains steps in.

One subplot in A Bride’s Story involves this difficulty, where a clan will have exhausted all of their own lands, with the next unsaturated patch of land being in their neighbour’s territory. The problem arises when those neighbours are less than friendly.

So it came to be that the people who managed to survive here were nomads. They mastered all kinds of livestock, with their mastery of horses eventually becoming the deciding factor in their prosperity and military power.

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Literally a sea of horses! Like waves, amongst the hills and grass and plains!

The story is set at a time when technology and civilisation had advanced far enough that the horse-riding clans no longer utterly physically dominated the area. Trade had given the settlers an edge.

The titular main character of A Bride’s Story, a young lady called Amira Halgal, knows how to ride and hunt herself. She learnt it from her family, an extremely patriarchal and traditional bunch who still lead a nomadic lifestyle.

She’s kind-hearted, strong, and despite being wedded off to boy half her age, she grows to love her new home and family very much. Her new home is a settler village that no longer completely relies on horses for a living, and she discovers, as we do, their beautifully crafted houses and the deeply-entrenched traditions and customs.

There seem to be a hell of a lot more girls in the villages than on the plains, too. I guess that’s because constantly moving and living off the land takes its toll on a girl’s health, especially when childbirth would have been a much more dangerous experience.

The mangaka takes us through the customs and traditions of these villagers: from building a house and carving out symbols and patterns in the wood, to the cuisine, to weddings and to dowries.

Marriage is a big deal, and many of these traditions are the vehicle that inevitably lead to marriage as a woman’s end goal in life. As you read you really get a sense of why something as mundane as sewing and embroidery is fundamentally important to a girl’s future.

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Just look at the gorgeous, gorgeous patterns – even just the ones on the sleeves on the ladies’ arms: suitably present, and perfectly understated. Imagine making all of that by yourself, by hand!

I’ve gushed on and on about Mori’s drawing skills, but that’s only one part of the equation. Her storytelling skills are also fantastic.

For starters, you get plenty of stories that are set in historical settings. And often, the only reason the storyteller will have made the decision to set it there is because some readers love romanticising that stuff, and also because it’s the easiest way to get rid of widespread social progress (gender equality, etc), so that the main character(s) stands out from the crowd just by embodying characteristics that are deemed normal today.

A Bride’s Story is as historical as you can get. The setting isn’t a plot device – it’s the main attraction.

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Being set in a specific time, rather than just a vague era as most historical stories do, Mori uses trends from the time to show Central Asia at a time when globalisation was just beginning to take root, and vastly different cultures were beginning to infiltrate each other.

For example, almost everywhere you go you hear about the ever-growing Russian threat. Some of the more warmonger-y clans have even acquired firearms (their most powerful weapon up until then were bows) in a trade deal with the Russians themselves.

Then there’s Mr Smith, the English explorer. He first appears to be a part of Amira’s new family, and frankly it’s with a lot of skill that Mori manages to make him blend in just enough not to stick out like a sore thumb, whilst using the subtlest of clues to signal to the reader that he’s not from around these parts.

Mr Smith's gear otoyomegatari a bride's story kaoru mori
Mr Smith’s explorer-y gear

There’s an awful lot of good things to be said about this manga, and it really blew me away. It may not be for the restless, or if you’re looking for a romance that sweeps you off your feet and makes your heat beat rapidly, this isn’t for you either.

But it’s just so beautiful. The art just makes its own case for itself.

And the characters are all really honourable and likeable, even in the social dilemmas that life throws at them. Amira has to choose between protecting her old family, or her new one. Mr Smith has to choose whether to maintain an social scientist’s distance from his subjects, or throw his lot in with a new culture he has come to love and understand and potentially risk his life.

Most of all, this manga is one of the rare ones that really bring you an understanding of the way of life on the steppes. There’s always an awful lot of work to do just to survive: no lounging about on the sofa, and no time to sit still and do nothing. For women there’s always either yourself or your daughters to wed off. For the men, they had to manage their lands and their territory wisely, and be mindful of politicking and power.

If that’s not enough to convince you then it’s also the singular most interesting way I can thank of to learn a little bit more about a culture that few know about. Not only will you appear smarter, but you will lower the risk offending anyone from the region. Only in January a journalist at the New York Times made a serious typo and resulted in the imagining up of a whole new country in Central Asia.

Definitely worth a read. And more than worthy to be the first instalment in my case for why manga isn’t as weird as you might think it is.

 

Back in the mid-2000s, I was an extremely acne-riddled, frizzly-fringed, gluttonous and stubborn girl. I’m still many of those things, but some of the sharper bumps of me have been planed off since, and I like myself a lot better nowadays. I’ve grown up a little.

But going back to before I grew up, there used to be this one word I’d use over and over and over again – a word that I overused so much it started to backfire on me, though I started using it as a trump-card defense tactic.

The word was ‘unique’. I had a special MP3 player when everyone started to listen to music on the schoolbus, during the iPod boom. It’s an odd experience seeing everybody within the four walls of a high school schoolbus holding the same product in their grubby hands, only to know that the one you hold in your own is different, outdated, and generally seen as inferior. It looked a little bit like this:

Creative MP3 player no longer in production
© Sum Sze Tam

It seems odd that I am spending so much time and words to describe a trivial, fleeting set of memories. But I was really, really sensitive and defensive – proudly so – of this MP3 player back as a tween. “I might not have an iPod,” I’d say. “But at least my music player is special. It’s unique.”

(And hell, would I really enunciate those italics.)

Eventually, those among my friends of a drier wit got tired of me being so adamant about this, and in their good-natured way would start to tell me that they too thought I was special. Special needs, that was.

Looking back, if I’d used all that time spent on telling people how special or unique I was on something more productive I might have gotten an extra leg up the employment pool-ladder I’m struggling to latch my ungainly feet onto right now. But I’m not not proud of the old me – it was the perfect preparation for other bits of me to get to where I am now. I’m proud that it was once a part of me, but I’m happy that it’s no longer there.

Looking back even more, I wish I’d taken a hint or two from old mid-2000s Sum Sze. Because in trying to become a better writer, a better journalist, a better everything – it’s taken me a long time to come back all the way full circle to realise that the secret to being good at creative stuff is to be unique.

Here are some examples:

  • The magazine I up until recently used to edit had great content – but amongst our best was an extended trip up to Bangor (that’s in North Wales) to interview an ex-ghost therapist. Or exorcist, as some people have called him.
  • The newspaper I help to produce has had some amazing stories this year – and amongst the best are those about our students’ union, their misbehaviours, and our students.
  • My partner has won quite a few national awards for his journalistic work, but some of his most widely recognised pieces are about his own experiences of homelessness, or mental health issues.

What all of these have in common is that they are exclusive in some way. Nobody else could have reported on any of these things better than these people, because they were in the best position to do so. Quench is the source of all things weird, wacky, and things that take a lot of words to express; that applies to the ex-ghost therapist story. Gair Rhydd is the official informant and unofficial scrutiniser of all the bodies that affect the student population. And though my partner is not the only one to have experienced such a harrowing lifestyle, he is one of the only ones who has the technical capability to make others understand how that life feels.

If you’re a social theory geek (like me), think of it as a bit like Bourdieu’s theory of capital, habitus and field, except it doesn’t necessarily apply to the individual.

So, in order for myself to become better at this stuff, I just have to be more unique. Great.

Where to start?

 

Life is the realest it’s ever been for me right now, and to be honest – it’s very overwhelming. More so because I know my own overwhelm-ment is overwhelming my partner, who I sometimes forget has the capacity to feel vulnerable.

But I devote enough of the hours in my day, at least right now, to what on earth I’m going to do over the summer to ensure that a) I get a job and b) I stay with my boyfriend, that it probably wouldn’t be very healthy nor dignified of me to splurge it out onto the internet. No matter how few readers this reaches.

Instead, on my numerous daily scrawls through LinkedIn, my constant stalking of industry contacts and past colleagues (which sounds odd, considering I don’t really think of myself as someone who has ever properly held down a real job yet) I’ve noticed a phenomenon that makes me a little bit sad.

This is, when people use their blogs and social media presences purely for industry purposes. Their blogs are no ‘blogs’ at all, but boring accounts of exciting developments within their particular field of industry (or service, or whatever). Their tweets all link to articles on LinkedIn, or other corporate sites, with listicles upon listicles upon listicles. Sometimes they link to what their fellow practitioners have said, and there is never anything short of lavishly unsubstantial praise for these writers.

They just don’t stop coming!!

Then you get instances like this:

I’m against it because I think blogs, social media, and digital platforms as integral to our identities are meant to be used for ourselves. And often, we are more than what we do. I think it should be about the things that really matter to us, about our hardships – no matter how domestic or trivial they seem – and about our bouts of euphoria. It should be the purest form of our self-identity, and just talking about how great the latest project management or marketing tool is just seems to corrupt that with its clear ingenuity and artificiality.

If you don’t talk about this shit to your friends who aren’t from work, then you shouldn’t talk about this shit to the mysterious, collective body of friends and strangers that is the Internet. It adds nothing to the democracy of that odd but extremely important part of society that manifests itself online.

Sometimes there are some people who are completely consumed by their work – and often the nature of their work requires such intense passion and love for it to be sustainable. Actors and actresses, politicians, journalists, doctors…

But I seriously doubt that everybody is like that. Many of my colleagues were people who were passionate about the most domestic of things: they took me to Chinatown, they loved their bands and their music and their pop culture. And yet, my only link to them nowadays is this quagmire of personal public relations material. It is fatiguing.

Facebook is different, because it’s made itself out to be such a personal platform – but why should blogs or Twitter be treated any differently?

I realise completely that people can do whatever they like with this stuff. I realise that I am probably simplifying the situation, or perhaps it’s because I haven’t quite yet gotten to the stage where doing such things have reaped massive benefits.

Perhaps it’s the liberal bias in me, perhaps it’s the journalism student who’s been groomed to dislike any sort of public relations – especially not that of a real person that I personally know. I believe that blogs and social media should be your space to freely express yourself and to talk about the things that mean most to you.

My criticisms sound as though they are directed at the people themselves, but maybe I should be looking elsewhere. Maybe it’s our unrelentingly capitalist, go hard or go home attitude towards our work, that all-consuming drive to achieve, and be successful. Sex gets thrown into that equation somewhere, or so a lot of TV shows and films tell me nowadays. Maybe when these people are blogging and tweeting and posting about work, they really mean every word they say, and it really is the thing that they would most like to talk about the most.

I have no body of scientific literature to support me – but I just don’t think everyone has been reduced to that level of (non)humanity just yet.

In short, if your blog or Twitter handle or whatever currently exists solely to make yourself look good to prospective employers, think again. I’d much rather get to know you via a deeper articulation of your thoughts rather than just a templated status update. And I’m sure any employer who really values you for the person you are would too.

Swansea Bay by moonlight
Photo: Dave Griffiths on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This evening my boyfriend, my boyfriend’s housemate and I sat around the living room and watched the BBC Storyville documentary about boot camps for teenage internet addicts in China.

Yes. In China, they’ve constructed these almost One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-esque hospital/military barracks/schools where middle-class parents who are at their wit’s end with children who spend months on the internet, or on World of Warcraft, without paying much attention to their health or their social life.

There are plenty of things worth discussing about this documentary, and I’m not about to go into all of it in one single blog post. But one scene struck a chord with me, and made my think about something else in my own life, which is unexpected since this film was as far removed from my own reality as anything could be.

The director of this institution holds a wired microphone between his thumb and index finger, speaking with operatic passion in imparting nuggets of wisdom to his audience – the fathers of the teenagers holed up in this camp.

His voice echoes around the classroom on bad reverb, and he pitches a question at this sombre, uncomfortable cohort of dads. “One of the biggest issues among these kids is loneliness. Loneliness. Did you know they feel lonely?”

At this, I’m reminded of my own upbringing. It’s important to remember that Hong Kong is vastly, vastly different to China – but we still have a shared heritage, and we were spawned from the same traditions.

I’m reminded because I see a similar sort of loneliness in myself. I never resorted to the internet for friends, I was far too sensible and obeyed my parents’ advice far too much for that – but as I got to my teenage years, I found myself watching TV shows and YouTube videos for hours and hours and hours on end. I didn’t feel like I had anything else better to do.

Person standing in the middle of the road holding an umbrella on a foggy evening
Photo: Jonathan Kos-Read from Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

I wouldn’t say that the way my parents brought me up made me lonely. Far from it – every summer my mum would irritate the hell out of me by signing me up to a huge range of sports and arts courses I didn’t really have an interest in doing, especially if I was going into it alone. They pushed for me to meet as many people as I could, by learning to do as many things as I could.

But everything was so rigidly ordered, and every action meticulously planned out with no room for emotional flexibility. No decision could be irrational, or impulsive, or made just for the heck of it. There was very little spontaneity.

I’m grateful for this mould of orderly living I was raised in; it’s enabled me to achieve a great many things I’d otherwise not have been able to. It means I like to keep a tidy bedroom, and a kitchen with clean surfaces, and a toilet with no mould. It means I like Google Sheets too much, and checklists on my smartphone.

But since living on my own – and more importantly, living with people who are capable of being spontaneous – I’ve found I no longer require those long hours of watching YouTube videos or TV shows as a daily part of my life. No more sitting in the same chair until my bottom feels numb, or waiting until I finally can’t bear the layer of thin, increasingly viscous sweat gathering under my armpits. (Lovely.)

I no longer felt so alone – because I was finally experiencing what it was like to be a human being. I’ve said yes to a Cardiff-Swansea-Cardiff drive at 3AM in the morning, opened my eyes to a whole new form of narrative entertainment, spoken about both really personal and really abstract topics until the sun starts to appear over the horizon of terraced houses, and cooked whatever the hell I’ve wanted to, whenever.

It’s liberating, this new way of living my own life – but even though the sheer quantity of people I spend most of my time with has gone down significantly, I feel like a much more wholesome person. Being orderly is great, but getting out there and experiencing things under the most romantic of circumstances is far, far greater.

I can’t say that this is the experience every person has or will have. But I know those hours of loneliness I used to endure, thinking that that was my lot in life, have now been replaced by so much hope for an exciting, novel-/film-worthy life. I won’t divulge the details – that’s too much to cover in one post – but let’s just say that I’m miles happier than I was before I started living on my own.

I hope I’m not alone in this, but the physical appearance of a person is something I don’t think I could ever really give up looking at. It’s wonderful thing! (Is this anthropological at all? I don’t know)

You could just take a really Sherlockian approach to it, by valuing a person’s appearance for all the things it could tell you, and all that you could deduce from it. Obviously, appearance isn’t limited to a snapshot, static image of them – it’s also their demeanour, the way they carry themselves, the way they speak to different people and their little habits and tics. It all tells you something if their past – both ancient and recent.

Sherlock approach deduction mystery benedict cumberbatch bbc

You could take a fashion approach to it, where you look at people’s outfits for inspiration – what combinations work and don’t work. You could take a behavioural approach and see how people perform the daily rites of etiquette, who does the spitting on the floor and who does the face-pulling.

In a sudden moment this afternoon, I found myself taking on a rose-tinted aesthetic approach. It was like a pair of lenses had been lowered onto the flat bridge of my nose all without warning: suddenly I found myself to appreciate everybody’s looks, of all shapes and sizes.

rose tinted glasses of a girl bench

There was a young lady smoking outside my academic building earlier, who I would have previously seen as conventionally slightly on the big side, and her outfit was plain, leaning into sport casual – but then I saw how her slender legs came together with her backpack (the straps as short as they can go, so her back isn’t sacrificed for the sake of some arbitrary style trend). How her jacket, ending at her stocky waistline, really complemented her short, curly bob.

Then there was the girl I saw running across the road right as a car was about to proceed through the crossing. She had a long face, and everything about her was a bit too long – her jacket, the hem of her skirt, her arms, her hair (too long for a bob), her boots. But then the magical lenses fell from the skies yet again, and I saw how there was a certain beauty in that cohesion, and that her clear skin, bright red lips and dazzling smile (and sort of Trelawney-like earrings waving in the wind) was like the statement piece out of a pret-a-porter outfit.

What is deemed sexy, or beautiful? But more importantly, what are the rules that define this? How do these rules come into being? My little epiphany today made me aware that so much aesthetic meaning can be taken from the most ordinary and everyday of people, and experiences.

I may be alone in this viewpoint – but if I’m not, please let me know.

(Note on June 27th 2014: Just been reading through 1984 for the first time – yes, a bit of a late literature bloomer – but there’s a part where Julia and Winston are staring at the singing buff woman who hangs up the laundry, and he has the exact same thoughts as me in this post! One of his lines really stuck with me, something like “She has her own style of beautiful”. I’m not aloneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!)

My boyfriend was looking over my shoulder just as I was about to publish my previous post about makeup. He then asked me, ‘do you actually want me to compliment you when you’re wearing makeup?’ Some context – he usually does, but he compliments me plenty even when I’m not wearing any.

It raised a really good question, though – what exactly do I want to achieve with a bunch of pseudo-feminist blog posts? Do I want boys to say that there is no use for makeup? Do I want them to appreciate how much skill is involved in the art of a make-up artist?

I can’t speak for all women, obviously, but personally I don’t like the idea of a fake me (and that’s kind of what a made-up girl is, really) being more attractive or like/loveable than the true me. It just tells me that I’m naturally ugly. According to this logic, then, I dislike it when my boyfriend tells me he thinks I look good with my makeup on. At the same time, though – if he doesn’t compliment me when I’m wearing makeup, I’ll feel a little sore. I put all this effort into making myself look ‘good’, even if that good is a little far removed from what I really look like. Yet, I don’t seem to be pretty enough – even with artificial help! – for you to comment on. Does this mean I’m so ugly even makeup can’t help? That’s a terrifying thought.

without makeup differences girl female beauty pretty

Obviously, both of the cases outlined above apply to any social situation, not just between lovers – although it is certainly more personal between lovers. But friends’ feedback can cause the same kind of insecurity.

So what conclusions can we draw from this? Are girls just finicky creatures who don’t know what they want? What conduct is deemed appropriate regarding how good someone looks?

Girls are finicky creatures who don’t know what they want – but so is everyone else, so it would be hypocritical to accuse girls of that. Conduct-wise, I think it’s a good idea to tell the made-up object that they look good both with and without makeup. Truth to be told, when it comes down to the technicalities, people just look different with and without makeup on. It’s up to societies’ standards, and the prevalent fashions of the time, to decide what looks better or worse – but it’s all arbitrary.

makeup clothes outfit analogy parallel clubbing edgy minimalist nude

Perhaps the easiest way to think about all of this is to think of makeup as more like an outfit of clothing – each makeup look is as different as the other, and expresses a different part of your multi-faceted being. And if you choose to go nude – well, that’s just another look (although it’s far more taboo if we’re talking about the nude body, and a discussion for another time) that is arguably the most beautiful of all.

When I first came to the UK almost two years ago, a certain line of thought in the discourse I found myself surrounded by was the really alienating, detached way the British spoke about ‘Americans’. Even the word ‘American’, when uttered by a British person, sounds awkward and incongruous, although maybe that’s just in my head. (Or maybe it’s the word itself spoken in an RP British accent).

There’s also something about the way Brits use the word ‘America’ rather than ‘the US’ – obviously I’m no expert on native American discourse (lol punz), I’ve never even been there – but I can’t shake the sense that Americans refer to their country as ‘the US’ a lot more often than Brits do.

Part of the reason why this phenomenon has struck such a chord with me is probably because I come from Hong Kong, where it doesn’t matter so much where you come from as it does what race you are. Despite its supposed position as a hub of cosmopolitanism, Hong Kong is actually quite racist in that anybody with white skin is automatically given an elevated social status. Even that supposed cosmopolitanism only applies to those rich enough to be trendy, well-educated and intellectual.

diversity in Hong Kong_white people

Based on that logic, all white people in Hong Kong are just that – white. Their nationality doesn’t matter so much, and we have the English next to Americans next to South Africans next to Australians next to Kiwis and so on. There are Scots next to the Irish, with a few Welsh(wo)men. Imagine my surprise, then, when I come to a country actually predominantly inhabited by white people, to find that these unions and boundary-less realities didn’t hold up.

For all that I get lectured at university about the limitations of nationalism and imperialism, a large part of the British population, and so many of the people I’ve met here, just blindly follow the belief that Americans are dumb, Americans are rude, Americans are vapid and get up to all sorts of strange things. They forget that America is a nation made up of 50 states, and that the sheer number of people that fill those up will indicate a massive range and diversity of personalities. You can’t just say that Americans are [insert deprecating adjective].

The moment somebody attributes something about Americans to their Americanism, especially regarding dislikeable characteristics, that person is no better than a racist.

As a girl growing up in the post-millenium period, I am very much a part of that demographic that is subject to unequal standards in almost all areas of social life; it’s become naturalised to everyone, and how do you pick out something that’s been naturalised and say, ‘oh, this is wrong’?

Makeup is a large package of those strange standards, but I don’t think it’s contentious enough in our everyday discourse. It’s one of the only things that still hasn’t quite crossed the male-female line the way pants have.

A lady is expected to put some makeup on in a professional working environment because it’s seen as an etiquette. A young woman is expected to make herself look ravishingly sex-worthy under the dark and dim lighting of a club – there are bouncers that turn girls away for not looking enough like bait. Even in a casual social situation (in the West anyway), a girl is expected to look pretty via covering up what she really looks like. What kind of message is that sending out?

make-up magic lamp aladdin mirror reflection beauty women Sum Sze Tam

There’s a really poignant quotation from a young lady who went through a really emotionally unjust experience, and wrote a most riveting post about it, though I don’t necessarily like everything she says (not because it’s wrong, but because it’s a very cynical view of the world): “How can I look beautiful? I’m wearing makeup.”

If you read the rest of her post, that quotation has a very different meaning from what it sounds like on the surface. I like what it sounds like on the surface. I like the idea that the “I” who people say looks beautiful is not truly “I”, because “I’m wearing makeup.”

My mother is as tentative about makeup as I used to be, so I never learnt that set of ‘womanly skills’ from her; I got it off the internet, and practised it in dressing rooms and during GCSE revision breaks. Maybe this is why I seem to be the only one I know who feels as vehemently about this; the fact that I wasn’t brought up on it the way many girls here in the UK are, or that I don’t feel the need to wear it just to show my face to other people. Or maybe I just haven’t been hitting up the right communities; maybe somebody else on the internet who feels the same way, or has opinions on the matter, will read this and tell me what they think. Maybe it’s just one of those things people find it hard to discuss face-to-face because it seems so petty and picky to get into a tizzy over something that’s such a big part of the everyday routine of most girls.

I intend to blog a lot more about this; like I said before, maybe I’ve just never met the right people or read the right blogs, but I feel like not enough people talk about makeup as a social phenomenon, and only talk about how to use it. I’m just a confused, self-pitying little girl who just cries about the injustices of the world all day, and I don’t claim to be an expert opinion. I’m just someone who thinks about these things.

Kevin Lau – an ex-editor and renowned journalist of the Ming Pao newspaper in Hong Kong (basically our version of The Guardian) – was recently stabbed in broad daylight. An uproar has exploded in the city since, and Hong Kong citizens from all around the world have joined in the fray.

Before you start to think, Oh god, what a load of boring ball hocks, here’s some context. China and Hong Kong have always had a very tense relationship regarding how much control the former should have over the latter. Nobody wants a reputation as a willing ally of China when you’re as dependent on the Western world as Hong Kong is.

But wait, I hear you say. Isn’t Hong Kong just another city in China? Trust me, if you want to earn brownie points with somebody from Hong Kong, don’t ask that question. Before 1997, Hong Kong was under the control of the British, which explains why the city is so, so, so much more westernised than China and other Asian countries. In 1997, in a treaty called ‘one country, two systems’, Britain handed Hong Kong back over to China, but stated that Hong Kong would be allowed to keep running the way it had been before, rather than changing to fit China’s economic and political system.

That’s why Hong Kong is technically classed as a Special Autonomous Region; that’s what the S.A.R. stands for when Hong Kong is listed in official documents, and not a reference to the 2003 SARS outbreak (which is what I believed up until a few years ago). This means we’re largely self-governing, but China is responsible for our military defences and foreign policy. It means Hong Kong runs a capitalist economy, alongside China’s socialist one. When you think about it, isn’t it amazing that we’ve managed to work out such a strange co-operation?

cock rooster Sum Sze Tam

But the system doesn’t really hold out forever – the agreement between the UK and China only lasts 50 years, and what lies beyond that 50-year threshold is a dark and murky mystery. I often wonder why people aren’t planning ahead for it, but the obvious answer is that a lot can happen over a decade, never mind multiple decades. Still, as of 2014, we only have 33 years of what could be relative heaven left.

Obviously the media have a big part in this; a free-flowing media and information system is one of Hong Kong’s most distinctively anti-China features, and if that gets contaminated, what do we have left with which to identify ourselves as ‘progressive’? Hong Kong media is almost a microcosm of the region itself, and it doesn’t bode well for the future of the city when the media is increasingly being taken over, inch by inch, by mainland Chinese interests. People are scared that this is an evil long-term scheme by China to take over Hong Kong in advance of when the 50-year ‘one country, two systems’ agreement stops.

Examples include the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s newspaper of record, where the encroachment of mainland Chinese politics can be felt when you look at the reshuffling of all the executive staff; the SCMP was owned by News Corp (Rupert Murdoch!!!) up until just before Hong Kong’s handover to China, where it has since been owned by the pro-Beijing Malaysian Kuok family.

ming pao daily news hong kong Sum Sze Tam

Ming Pao, on the other hand, has been relatively independent until recently, when Kevin Lau was dismissed under mysterious circumstances, and another pro-Beijing Malaysian tycoon has stepped into the Ming Pao scene. What is with all these Malaysians, srsly. Ming Pao is the newspaper my parents read from, like most most middle-class families in Hong Kong, and it’s our baby in the sense that it has a reputation for being reliable, and upholding professional journalistic standards. It’s the newspaper I’d read if I could read a word of Chinese.

Needless to say, people are hurt and angry over the whole Ming Pao debacle. For one, stabbings like these occur so very rarely, because the crime rate in Hong Kong is so low, it really comes as a shock when somebody as prestigious and in the spotlight as Kevin Lau gets targeted. It’s clearly a public message, which is being interpreted in many ways. And who is the message from? Who is the message to? There are so many questions waiting to be answered, and how (if?) they’re answered will have a profound implication on Hong Kong-China tensions.

One of my own friends from the London School of Economics has started a campaign (there’s a description in English if you click ‘See more’) with her fellow society members in protest of these recent developments. Great girl. There’s an ongoing social media campaign she’s doing too, and both have been quite successful. I’ve signed it, but to tell the truth I’ve always had mixed feelings about activism (this is the bit where you point at me and go HYPOCRITE, because of the Cardiff University Living Wage campaign I helped out in, amongst others), but that’s a post for another time.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Hong Kong politics – this is all pretty entry-level really – and if I got some things wrong above, then please do correct me. But it’s been a long time coming that I’d consolidate somewhere my own knowledge of the current situation, specifically for people who don’t know it.

Also, stabbings/choppings/cleaver attacks are terrible. Just imagining a stabbing makes me shudder.