I had a great conversation the other day with a friend Joe Alvaro, a longtime Canadian expat who has lived in China and Hong Kong for half of his life. I was telling him about the Mui Wo swimming pool showers. They are fairly clean, but they are really ugly. The shower stalls have small square beige flat tiles and white shiny square bathroom tiles. Then there are small squares and lines of navy blue, yellow, mint green and powder pink designs. The cabinets are minty green. It's fairly industrial, but it's mostly that it's just ugly. And due to its ugliness, it's depressing. This does not mean that the swimming pool isn't clean, that we haven't enjoyed this pool over the years, that the workers keep it quite tidy and everything, but it just means that it's ugly.
And I got to thinking about this. What does it mean to be surrounded everywhere by ugliness? To have things be so aesthetically unappealing? How does this shape a society? An individual? Aesthetics mean a lot. What do people note when they come to a new country or place? The beauty of it, the design, the appeal and harmony with nature, color, sounds etc...
Joe said this to me: "It's violence. It's a violent act to be surrounded by ugliness."
And I have to agree.
So I'm doing my laps in the pool and once again, I hear that tape of announcements. Cry for help when in difficulty. Don't swim on a full stomach. Watch your children. The list goes on. And it is played over the loudspeaker and plastered on the walls and as it played for the third time (I'm going underwater to drown out the sound) I thought to myself: I CANNOT TAKE THIS. THIS IS ABSURD.
So after changing in the ugly dressing room, I go out and have a little chat with the front desk folks. All young. I said, look, do you have to keep playing the tape over and over again? There are only 5 people in the swimming pool! If there's a problem, tell someone. (there was a kid in the pool with a parent). Don't keep playing the tape.
I was met with dubious looks.
And then, I resorted to what only can be called the Hong Kong divisive pride angle. "Look, this is NOT MAINLAND. This is Hong Kong right? We're not in Wuhan, Beijing or anywhere. You can tell Hong Kong people something and they listen. You don't need to play this over and over and over again. This is Hong Kong. This is NOT MAINLAND."
And suddenly. A lightbulb. Click. And they agreed to tell the people controlling the recording. Hard to say if it will happen, but I felt like something registered. We don't have to, or HK people don't have to live with an ugly audio tape blasting in their ears, do we? Can't we just enjoy our swim? What does this say if we keep playing this? That we are like Mainland people who need to be instructed on basic courtesy and protocol?
Small aesthetic victories.
I've never really been an aesthete, but I am really starting to pull more in this direction as time goes on. If nothing else is right, at least can we enjoy a bit more of a pleasant environment for a few hours? Can things look a little better? Can we hear more beautiful sounds? What might this do to our society? What is beauty's power? Of course, people will argue that what is one person's idea of beauty is not another's and rightfully so, but I don't think anyone would argue that a loudspeaker loop of directions played continuously is attractive. As for the bathroom tiles, it is highly unlikely that they were leftovers and making do, and as for arguing about colors and conformity, guess what, people are not flocking to copy the latest bathroom or style designs from Hong Kong! That's okay, instead of getting insulted by this, just concede this and look to what is most pleasing for the largest amount of people and go with that.
Beauty is a community and public service.