True story. In 1994, after a year of Hong Kong flat sharing, I went to an electrical emporium called Johnny’s, in the Furama Hotel, in Central, now long pulverised, and bought my own telephone. This, you understand, was a landline phone. It was also a fax and answering machine, and was about the size of three toasters.
After I’d carried it back to my new flat in Sai Wan Ho and plugged it in, a strange thing happened. Friends reported that when they rang at certain times, a man would pick up, announce in BBC English that no one was around and suggest leaving a message. My calls were obviously being misrouted to another number but as I was the only Westerner in the building, and maybe the entire street, I couldn’t think where he lived.
Older readers will remember the sky-high cost of ringing overseas back then. My intercontinental communications were mostly conducted via aerogrammes; I’d buy them in the General Post Office, in Connaught Place, under a portrait of the queen, who was already disappearing from Hong Kong’s coins yet still reigned within government buildings. Local calls were free but I was worried the perfectly spoken mystery man might be hijacking my phone line to ring the UK.
Eventually, Hong Kong Telecom, which then had the franchise for all domestic phones in the colony, sent round an engineer. Naturally, I couldn’t speak Cantonese so someone in an office was lined up to translate what was bound to be a complicated diagnosis, and it was she who told me I hadn’t changed the pre-recorded tape with which the answering machine was thoughtfully supplied. To this day, I can remember the HKT guy’s face: his disbelieving expression exactly mirrored that of a flatmate when I’d burned my neck ironing a shirt collar while wearing it.
I could say, in my own defence, that it was a weird time. In the run-up to the handover, the city’s psychology – its whole internal wiring – was being replaced. RTHK had a Sunday morning phone-in programme that revolved around two topics: passports and expat sales. Everything was in flux. There was talk about MI6 removing “listening devices” so China couldn’t get its hands on them. Who knew what was going on in the atmosphere around us?
But, really, I was a technical moron. I’d never learned to drive, or to operate a washing machine, or an oven or a video recorder. Hong Kong, with its efficient public transport, its laundries, its takeaway noodles, its social life, suited people like me perfectly. It was a place that had sprouted because of transients, both Western and Chinese, who hadn’t intended to linger. As I didn’t intend to stay long either, there was no point in acquiring any of the white goods (sic) being sold over the airwaves on Sunday mornings. In the 20 months I spent in that Sai Wan Ho flat, I never had a fridge.
Until I arrived here, I’d also never used a computer. In London, I’d handwritten articles on yellow legal pads, which I’d then typed and, depending on deadlines, either faxed (from a special shop) or posted. On urgent occasions, I’d read stories aloud, including every punctuation mark, to copy-takers. But even I could see that era was departing and I’d have to adapt. Getting to grips with word processing – with its daunting language, its arcane procedures, its reboots – would run in tandem with the Hong Kong experience.
Having bought one traumatising telephone, I wasn’t about to rush out and buy another. Mobiles had already arrived in Britain in the early 1990s but they were still faintly flash – a greed-is-good accessory, chiefly useful for yelling at on trains to annoy everyone else in the compartment. The British public hesitated; experts warned that mobiles were brain-frying and (a later tweak) gonad-grilling.
Hong Kong people hadn’t got this medical memo or, if they had, they had greater concerns so didn’t care. They were enthusiastic adapters. The night I arrived (with a skewed lurch onto Kai Tak’s runway), I was walking down the steps by the Bank of China when a lone man stirred in the shadows, hunched and muttering. I sprang back with London nimbleness. He continued chatting into his mobile. I couldn’t believe that urban reversal – his blithe vulnerability, the indifference to public harm.
At the same time, you could make free landline phone calls from many unlikely spots. In those pre-Sars days, it was easier to find a phone than a clean public loo, which was useful because I was always looking for somewhere to make a call. It became a way to chart the city: mapping out a path via telephones casually placed on stools outside cha chaan teng, or in shops, or hotel lobbies, or police posts (once, in Repulse Bay, when a typhoon signal went up) or clubs.
Not, of course, that I was a club member. The business model – pay to join, pay a monthly fee, then start paying for what you actually consume – struck even this Luddite as ludicrous. But to be a Westerner in Hong Kong, then, was like having an access-all-areas pass even if I hesitated at the threshold of the Hong Kong Club, where female membership was forbidden. Had Twitter been invented, women would have been tweeting that the dinosaurs had called and wanted their watering-hole back #BritishLastGasp, and then set up a social movement. But, instead, they had to wait until the Equal Opportunities Commission arrived in 1996.
The year before the handover, I moved to Kennedy Town and bought a second-hand fridge. I planned to leave in 1997. Living in K-Town – as exactly no one referred to it, since the possibility that it would become the Notting Hill or Brooklyn of Hong Kong was undreamt of – involved frequent journeys on red minibuses mostly driven by maniacs. Because the routing, like the fares, could be random, I rarely saw other Westerners. No one sat next to me until there was no other choice, and sometimes the drivers, nearing the end of the run and wanting to double back for new passengers, would simply turf me off.
These daily excursions were part of the reason I still didn’t buy a mobile. The whole point in moving to Asia had been to travel through a city’s backstreets, watching and inhaling everything (cigarettes, mothballs, Pak Fah Yeow, the drivers’ noodles picked up en route), and to write it down in a notebook. This was the sort of word processing that mattered but it required a purist’s focus. Carrying a phone was, surely, like being in two places at once, and that was cheating. It would have been as bad as the passenger I heard one morning crying loudly, in English, into his mobile, “I’m in the car! I’ll ring you from the office!” as the driver hopscotched us along while occasionally consulting the newspaper he’d draped over the steering wheel.
How (I was asked, with wonder, as the years passed) could any journalist function without a phone? Here’s the answer: with considerable ease. I’m not a news reporter and my professional life revolves round strictly scheduled appointments. Early on, I’d realised mobiles were really an excuse for others not to make arrangements or to arrive anywhere on time. If people know in advance they can’t get hold of you to cancel, they’ll concentrate on the agreed hour.
Being obsessively punctual, I’d often arrive in Central long before these interview slots. In the latter half of the 1990s, Joyce, the fashion store, used to have a restaurant in Exchange Square, where the Kennedy Town buses came in. It had a cheaper express café section, although hardly anyone seemed to use it in the mornings; and this, with its free phone and newspapers, became one of my offices. (Coffee culture took a while to establish itself in Hong Kong. Starbucks didn’t arrive until 2000.)
Because I sometimes conducted interviews in the café – a nun travelling the world with a metre-high statue of Our Lady; an expat woman who’d contracted Aids from her roaming husband and wanted to warn other wives – the staff knew my professional habits. One morning, in April 2002, Lita, who waitressed there, gave me a present of a Coke bottle. Except it was a cunningly disguised radio. (“Because you’re always interested in the news, Fionnuala”.)
Later that same day, I happened to walk past Chater Garden. It was five years since the handover; I still lived on Victoria Road, not far from Queen Mary Hospital, and the Kennedy Town minibuses still passed the Prince Philip Dental Hospital. On the surface, you’d hardly notice the difference. But in 1999, the Court of Final Appeal had ruled on the right of abode. The court had stated that children born in China to a Hong Kong permanent resident could stay in Hong Kong, even if that parent hadn’t been a permanent resident at the time.
The Hong Kong government hadn’t liked this ruling, fearing an influx of people from China. It asked Beijing to interpret the judgment. And word came back: control-alt-delete, a reset of the “one country, two systems” programme. Soon, the police began rounding up children and sending them across the border. I’d visited one of them, a teenager, while he was being held in Victoria Prison (no mobiles allowed but no problem, I had my notebook), his fingers pressing palely on the glass like a gecko clinging to a slippery surface.
The families had been protesting at Chater Garden, on and off, for weeks, and as I glanced in that afternoon I saw that the police had started removing them by force. For the first, and only, time, I decided I’d better ring the South China Morning Post news desk. As it happened, another one of my in-town offices was the ladies’ cloakroom in the nearby Mandarin Oriental, which, as well as a phone, had little boudoir chairs to perch on, plus paper and pencils.
I ran to the hotel, up to the second floor, thinking, “If only I knew what was happening.” But (sudden realisation) I had a radio! I began twiddling about between the Cantonese stations. In the cloakroom, I saw a Hong Kong-Chinese friend, refreshing her make-up prior to a social engagement. Out of the corner of my eye, I was aware of an older American tourist watching the unfolding scene with alarm: the elegant Chinese woman with a Coke bottle being pressed to her head by a frantic Western woman yelling, “What’s it saying? What’s it saying?”
Of course, the news desk knew the situation. The police had, in fact, made a particular point of trying to corral the press first – shoving, dragging and, in a couple of cases, handcuffing and arresting reporters – before tackling the protesters. The afternoon was one of those tiny notches, the frog-in-the-saucepan’s nano-increase in temperature, that marked a post-handover shift.
You’d think I’d have rushed to get a phone then. But no. I definitely thought about it but I also thought I’d be leaving pretty soon. (The only permanent feature in an expat’s existence is the constant speculation about departure.) I didn’t want to enmesh myself in the contractual coils of the telecommunications companies that had proliferated since the old monopoly days of HKT.
By now, most Hongkongers had mobiles and when Sars sprang, invisible and ferocious, upon the city in 2003 the providers sent citywide consoling messages into the unhealthy ether. Friends would read these aloud (“Never give up!” “It is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” “The greatest test of courage is to fight against Sars together without losing faith”) and I’d write them down; and so, 14 years later, I still have a record of them and they don’t.
In the same way, I’d keep cuttings about the latest phones and, a few months later, those highly recommended mobiles had – appropriately enough – moved on. I imagined flocks of them filling the sky (dodging the Cloud that everyone had started talking about), probably heading for sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, I was in a holding pattern. I’d tell my friends I was about to buy a phone; and these individuals – these same people who never failed to express exasperation that I couldn’t be contacted – insisted I wait until the next version came out.
Actually, I already had a mobile. For family reasons, I was spending time in Northern Ireland with no access to a landline so my brother had kindly bought me a pay-as-you-go one for £12 in Tesco. We called it the Bourne phone, after the films, because it’s the sort that Jason buys when he’s obliged to make a call and then chucks, with unecological paranoia, into the bin.
Jason could relax in the remote area where I was, in Tyrone, because it has no phone signal. (Now that tech-detox holidays are all the rage, may I recommend the village of Gortin, in the lovely Sperrin mountains?) Occasionally, if I climbed a hill, my moribund mobile sparked into life to state I was in the Republic of Ireland and would be charged in euros. The dotted line dividing Ireland had blurred in recent years; but the telecom companies were still on border patrol, monitoring division in the air.
Each time I left, however, I’d miss the Bourne phone. It was, really, very useful for telling the time. I don’t like wearing a watch and, despite the millions being spent on watch advertising in this city, no one else here – at least on public transport – seems to wear them any more, either. Everyone has a phone instead.
At this point, a few of the long-suffering friends bought me a mini iPad. Steve Jobs may have been a visionary man but he hadn’t foreseen the kind of person who’d have an iPad without a phone. When I went to the Apple Store in IFC Mall to get a SIM card, whatever that was, I was asked for details of my plan. Plan? There was no plan. There had never been a plan. A large self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh hung nearby. A man who’d sliced off the part of his anatomy most relevant to phone use didn’t strike me as encouraging.
In the end, it was Occupy that made me buy a mobile. (“At least they achieved that,” someone remarked. The students hadn’t had a plan either.) The Kennedy Town buses couldn’t get into Central and running late was making me hyperventilate more than the thought of being contactable. One night, just like that, I went to Wan Chai and bought a pay-as-you-go Nokia for HK$200.
When I got home, I realised the instruction manual was in Bahasa. It turned out the only people who bought old-style Nokias in 2014 Hong Kong were Indonesian helpers, and so it took a while to switch it on. (This isn’t a joke: I literally had to ask someone.) Texting seemed – and still does – about as convenient as carving oracle bone script. Predictive text isn’t. The phrase I used most often, in those early days, was “on bus”, which, without fail, appeared as “on cup”. Appallingly, my own name – from a land of centuries-long, anti-imperial struggle – came up as “colonial”.
Honestly? Working from home, still in Kennedy Town, I hardly ever use it. But here’s the funny thing: every time I produce it, people smirk. And then they want to hold it. At first, I thought it was part of Hong Kong’s longing for the recent past, its muddled grasping at heritage. But when Nokia announced this spring that it was bringing back the 3310, first launched in 2000, the story made global headlines, so perhaps it’s the zeitgeist – the spirit of the age forging its retro way through the world’s cluttered airwaves.
The other day I was in Apple’s IFC store again. I’ve had a blameless Mac for years and, on a recent morning, Word suddenly wiped out a story I’d been writing. All my notes were handwritten, of course, but still: major tech trauma. While I waited for my Genius appointment, I stared out over the city, marvelling at the jostle of buildings behind where Kai Tak used to be and at the government headquarters, where the sea used to be, and where the last British governor had sailed away two decades ago.
It was sunset. I was thinking about a recent early evening journey, standing jammed onto the lower deck of the Kennedy Town 5X bus. At that time of day, heading west, you can feel as if you’re being sucked into a solar flare: the whole city is lit up with extraordinary passion and beauty. I thought, as I do every day, at least once, without fail: “This is what I came to see.” I’d looked round the bus. No one lifted their eyes from their flaming screens.
The young Genius might have been the son of that HKT technician in 1994. He said my memory was almost full. When he asked if I had an iPhone, I said no, but I had a Nokia. He looked at it with the sort of rueful grin I’d come to recognise. His exact words were – I scribbled them in my notebook so I’d remember such an unlikely moment – “Wow, that’s really cool”.