The Long Jie sails gracefully into the harbour, the easterly wind rising off the ocean dancing in millions of silver ripples as the sun breaks free of the dawn clouds. A red design runs around the middle of its blue body, a green dragon on the chimney. Where does the ship come from? Has it sailed the vast waters of the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea? What islands has it skirted? What revellers does it carry on board, splashing out recklessly on a little cruise? Does the pigtailed little slave still fan his foreign master in the claustrophobic little cabin; does he slog in the kitchen, bending over a fire and stirring the stew, and then come up on deck for a breath of fresh air? Of course not- those days are gone, we have better things to do than long for the uninspired, plain-and-simple, comfortless past.
People walk on the bridge overlooking the sea, self-absorbed, conscious, staring straight ahead past the tops of other people’s heads. They don’t turn to look at the thin plumes of grey smoke billowing out of the Long Jie’s chimney, spreading across the cloudless blue sky. Or do they wonder at the secrets of this delightful backdrop to their family photographs, a souvenir of their trip abroad where they did all the proper touristy things religiously and deviated not a step from what the guidebook said? The sea-breeze is an intruder, it ruins painstakingly created hairstyles, puffs out and wrinkles clothes hideously. Mechanical lives, the steady walk to office, a cup of coffee slung on the wrist, a newspaper tucked under the arm, ambitions- how do they differ from one another? The salty tang is overridden by pungent odours of exotic food from the mall at the other end of the bridge. Round the corner, the familiar arches of the M and the names from drive-ins all around the world conspicuously push themselves to the fore. How do you even know which city you are in?
Not far from the harbour, hills dotting a little island look out over the sea; once the main defence against foreign attack, it is now a target itself- that of crass commercialisation. The large guns and cannons, remnants of bitter wars and bloodshed, are also now miniature pieces sold in the souvenir shop at the foothills. The men- masters and slaves alike- have been reduced to faded photographs and mannequins. Immortalised? More likely forgotten. The harsh, condescending voice of the soldier and the deferent tones of the native are recorded tapes played in chambers on the hill. Adventurers like Joseph Conrad have come and gone, written stories, been moulded into statues. The shacks and hovels have made way for cold, impersonal, tightly-packed skyscrapers that soar ambitiously into the sky. Change rolls in, endless as the waves. It obliterates memories or casts them in new, unrecognisable moulds. The skyline varies; where glass towers are juxtaposed against tiled and gargoyled pagoda roofs today, a few decades on will stand agonisingly precise structures of unrecognisable materials. When we’ll be written into history with our vanities as relics of an uninteresting past.