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So near, yet so feared: safety last

Cecilie Gamst Berg

 

Hey, people who haven't lived in Hong Kong for long - did you know there was once a time when you could cross the street wherever you wanted without having to do a 200-metre detour because of railings?

These hugely irritating barriers hardly existed before 1997, but ever since Hong Kong was handed back to mother, restrictions on your freedom of movement as a pedestrian have proliferated - all out of concern for "your own safety", understand.

Little effort, it seems, has been spared to inconvenience Hong Kong's walking public.

In the mainland, railings were rampant in the bigger cities even when I first arrived there, in 1988. Only a curmudgeon would suppose their purpose is to restrict the movement of citizens; but all the same it's puzzling that so much store is put in their "safety" role: after all, the words "safety" and "the mainland" are improbable bedfellows.

Take the guy in the photo, (right), which was snapped in Lanzhou, Gansu province. There he's perched, a mere head popping out of a manhole in the middle of a six-lane thoroughfare, completely oblivious to trucks and taxis thundering past.

"Danger? What danger? Can't they just drive around me? I'm talking on the phone here!"

In the northern provinces people regularly walk backwards as a form of exercise, well aware that manholes are often left uncovered because the iron lids have been stolen. "So what? I'm walking here!"

Workers cling from air-conditioning units 10 floors up with nary a harness or a helmet. "Are we not men?"

In remote gorges such as Tiger Leaping, children skip to school along the narrowest of paths hacked out of the almost vertical mountain face; often accompanied by ailing grandparents.

I find this attitude, this unperturbed response to danger, refreshingly different to Hong Kong's hysteria-like obsession with safety. (A shark skeleton washes up - so we close down all the beaches on the south side of Hong Kong Island for eight weeks.)

It may be communist, but on the mainland people are left to look after themselves. That's why, when workmen have to dig a hole in the street, you won't see barriers or warning signs. There is just the hole, and you're supposed to not fall into it.

And if you're blind? Well, in the mainland guide dogs have been around for ages - unlike in Hong Kong, where using one to get around is deemed (you've guessed it) too dangerous. Here it's considered better for the blind to sit at home, alone and, of course, 100 per cent safe.

 

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