The People’s Physiognomy

Hongkong hostessesLantau IslandKowloon’s Nathan StreetHongkong Island by night

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

I can tell that I’m living in a communist country, (only!) because everybody gets a week off for May Day, the international workers’ holiday. I spent some of that holiday in Hong Kong, the second part of the “one country, two systems” duality, rampantly capitalistic, but not without its charms. I resisted the street offers of “Rolex” watches, but watched a lot of street people, and am prepared to offer some cheap generalizations. Unlike my town of Hangzhou, the Fragrant Harbor harbors a variegated ethnic mix: a few hold-out Brits, Indians who seem to be more ensconced than touring, Africans (or at least African-something; in short, Blacks), the mobile American college set with stuffed backpacks moving in and out of the hostels of Kowloon. Not to mention the majority indigenous and imported Chinese. Actually I will make mention of two characteristics of that Han population: many seem to evidence an ageing population; many are obese. These all, of course, are eye-ball demographics, which any of you can check out in your stuffy libraries. I liked my open-air approach.

On the subject of obesity, I offer Hangzhou’s streets as baseline, where the number of people I would classify as obese is miniscule. America pegs the other end of the scale. Last year in southern Africa we observed, Zambians and Zimbabweans were thin as rails; obesity set in by Cape Town. The Hong Kong populace leans, as it were, more towards the plump end of the scale, but with many, notable and noticeable exceptions. There is doubtless some profound relationship between alimentary and economic systems, but I’ll stop with a bumpersticker distillation: socialism is healthier; or maybe you prefer the Republican version, poverty is good for you.

These paragraphs are just by way of preamble to my observations on physiogonomies in the People’s Republic. I begin by dispelling any Occidental notion that “they” all look alike. Scanning the thousands of faces emerging from a Hong Kong subway station, each for a fraction of a second, I could pick out the familiar face of my friend with the same acuity as I have often done with the crowds rising from the Hartsfield Hobbit Hole. Jet black hair is still the rule, but henna-toned exceptions are many. Most Chinese women are really good looking. Most Chinese men look either like hoodlums or gangsters, depending somewhat on age, but more, I think, on disposible income. You may write this opinion off as that of a suffering celibate, but you would wrong (I mean with regards to the opinion, not the opinion holder.) And, of course, there are exceptions. For examples, the plumber repairing the leak in my bathroom is a truly handsome man, and my friend Zhu Hongyue, who gives me lessons in Chinese cooking, is kind of spirit and handsome of appearance (as are his ginger-and-scallion steamed fish.)

Without your grant of objectivity there is no point in my attempting to analyze these phenomena, so I continue under that assumption. The Chinese readily use the expression “putting on airs”, perhaps because commonplace behavior necessitates a ready phrase. Though I’d like to know where these airs come from. Presumably from the prevailing westerly winds. But that’s a dead-end for me, since the last American composers I’ve looked at are Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, and they appear not to be the objects of this emulation. Maybe it has to do with the boy-child preference of the one-child Chinese family and its resultant gender skew. The guys need to prove themselves real peacocks, while the girls can afford to be natural, nonchalant, practical — all told, not stunning, but attractive.

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