Streets of Gold

Young and Arab in Land of Mosques and Bars – NY Times

A couple of months ago, when Machao, my Thai friend who worked in Dubai with Siam Cement (and is now in Sweden doing his MBA because higher education is free there, even for foreigners, but it’s about to change soon, I remember reading), came over to Hong Kong for a holiday, we grabbed dinner and drinks together with some friends and he started talking about working in Dubai. No tax, money flowing, company-provided car and accomodation, huge salary, beautiful infrastructure, money flowing, swinging lifestyle, freedom, money flowing; this was just the tip of the iceberg. When he was done with the whole iceberg, there was an impressed silence at the table. And when Machao talked about the big sums of money teachers make there – well, let’s say Jane and I never thought that life in the Middle East could be that attractive.

Then the food came. That was in an Italian restaurant in Central – not cheap by my standards and is reserved only when overseas friends (and parents with credit cards) come over. Machao’s seafood pasta relatively looked like the most expensive (and it was) and we started ribbing him about how much his dinner was going to cost him, and he said that an ordinary meal in Dubai would cost the same anyway.


Then Machao started talking about how there really wasn’t anywhere else to go aside from the city and how the city lifestyle was and the heat and the ambition oozing out of everyone and other expatriates who got on his nerves, among other things.

So I was reading the article this morning and was even more convinced that Dubai was sounding like the Hong Kong of the Middle East. Full throttle develpment, the same dizzying, suffocating intensity, no god but money (The Holy Trinity of Hong Kong are the Bank of China, the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation, and the Standard Chartered Bank. Those are the cathedrals we show to our tourists), a place that is similarly unified not by identity or culture but by ambition. 

Don’t get me wrong; the past month has been the happiest and content I’ve been in HK (in a more constant manner).  I think I’ve finally adjusted. But there really is no escaping the crowds and the materialism. It feels as if everyone, even the trees, are on crack in this city. Nell and I would usually go for lunch together after church every Sunday, and we would usually linger in the church discussing where to go for lunch, because once we stepped out of the place it was back to that threatening feeling of being eaten in the streets and our tempers would run short, which is not conducive to any amicable feeling when both of you are hungry and are undecisive about where to go for lunch.

And the thing is it’s really nobody’s fault. You can’t fault anyone for wanting a better life for themselves; that’s what everyone who works in Hong Kong is here for. And of course there will be ambition and competition, and in such a tiny place as this, even when it comes to lining up in for the MTR, it’s understandable that standing still would be a fatal step behind everyone else. And it’s not malice that turns people cold to one another – it’s  what naturally happens to your priorities when you have to compete with everyone else just for a step in the escalator. I’d assume it’s similar in Dubai. It certainly sounds like it. Instant gratification is not hard to find in these places and people get too used to it.

My high school friend Gori wants to be an architect in Dubai; apparently the market for architects there is huge, given all the construction they do (and the money that comes out of it). Jane, who was staying with me when Machao came over, is still skeptical about working in a Muslim country, given her experience as Indonesian-Chinese and having to flee to Malaysia when the riots happened, but money is hard to ignore for someone who will be a fresh graduate looking for work soon.  As for me, should be sticking around here till the end of my contract. After which depends on how the wind blows.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Dubai at some point in my life, to see if the streets really are paved with gold. :p


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