Friday, September 20, 2013

post office problems

I live in one of the leading financial capitals of the world, a global trade center, a city known for its technology and industry, often dubbed “Asia’s World City” or “the NYC of the East.” 

But step into a Hong Kong post office and you feel you have traveled back a hundred years, into colonial days: aging white concrete walls, thick dark-brown molding, glass windowed counters, green lettering and design.  Some have low ceilings, dim lighting, dingy windows, and a lazy ceiling fan rotating above.  A low wooden counter holds pens attached to chains, coin-operated postage machines, and a wet sponge for dampening envelopes and stamps.  Employees use dime store calculators to figure postage amounts, then open a cardboard book held together with rubber bands and Scotch tape.  Each section of the book holds particular denominations of perforated stamps, torn out one by one, until the correct postage is collected in a neat pile for the customer to affix.  Further calculation is done by hand, scribbled on scraps of paper or on the package itself.  No self-adhesive stamps or digital scales.  No computerized printing of package postage.  Credit cards not accepted; cash in small denominations only.

Most of my post office experiences are exasperating and time-consuming, leaving me wondering why the technology and fast-paced digital age of the financial district has not reached the postal department.

An example of an encounter with this entity:

I arrive at the central post office of Kowloon-side, located on Nathan Road, which consists of a long, narrow, dim room with numbered windows and counters along one wall.  Signs are posted along the windows, apparently in an attempt to help the customer determine where to go: packages, packages and small matter, large packages, letters, pay-thru-post, philately, etc.  I have two small packages to mail—one box and one large envelope.  Determining that I need to approach the counter labeled “small packages,” I wait my turn in the queue.

Pushing my small packages through the opening in the glass, I tell the postal employee that I want to mail them.  “By air or ground?” he inquires.  By air, I reply.  Do you need insurance or registration?  No, I say.  First, he tells me that I am at the wrong counter and that I need counters numbered 1-5.  The oversized envelope would have to be mailed from the “letters” counter because it was not, in fact, a package.  Then he places the small box on the scale and states that the price would be $151 HKD if I mail it from one counter and $149 HKD from another counter. 

“Which one is cheaper?” I ask him. 

“Air or ground?” he asks again.  Air, I tell him.  “Ground is cheaper.  But it’s a different price.  It’s $151 or $149, depends on how you mail it,” he explained.

“Okay, but which one is cheaper?”  I repeat.

“Ground is cheaper than air.”

I realize this.  What I’m not grasping is the fact that the same package could cost a different price, depending on which counter it’s sent out from.  Just tell me which counter is cheaper.

The poor gentleman behind the glass makes a valiant effort to help me, but I still leave his counter thoroughly confused, with two un-mailed packages in hand.  I am an educated person; why is this so difficult?

After another queue and wait, I approach counter number one, thinking I can at least take care of the large envelope.  However, the postal employee there—perhaps sensing that I am an ignorant foreigner—accepts both of my packages, weighs them, scribbles the postage amount on each package and hands me a pile of stamps in varying denominations.  Yes, in this city of cutting-edge financial structures and state-of-the-art shipping systems, we still have to lick and stick individual stamps (or opt to use the bacteria-laden wet sponge) for a weighty package—six to ten stamps per package.  The customs form likewise requires moisture, but the airmail labels are actual adhesive stickers.

Upon finishing my licking and sticking, I must locate counter number twelve, where the packages will be re-checked by another employee and dropped into the appropriate bin.  I am weary and worn, but my small packages are on their way—hopefully by air—to their respective destinations.

My mother had better enjoy her birthday gift.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

ode to the umbrella

The umbrella in Hong Kong.  All sizes, shapes and colors.  Advertising for companies or businesses, or swathed in polka dots and flowers.  The bright orange, green and white stripes of 7-Eleven, or feminine butterfly-covered purple nylon.  Canopies depicting nature scenes, cartoon characters, animal patterns, or mere solid hues.  Kids’ parasols topped with Mickey Mouse ears, frogs’ eyes or other 3D figures.

Compact enough to fold up and fit in the purse or pocket; large enough to serve as a cane or hiking stick.  Rubber tips added to the end of the shaft to aid the elderly in walking.  Some shaped like swords.  Manual or automatic opening mechanisms.

Rain or shine.  Parasols pop out in the bright daylight, perhaps not even waterproof.  Dainty lace-covered portable shade, or thick nylon labeled with UV protection level.  Available for sale in shops, malls, department stores, convenience stores, and vending machines in the train station.  A well-dressed businesswoman regally carrying a matching black parasol; a gentleman huddled under a pink frilly canopy.  Fashion statement or practical necessity.

Plastic-sleeve dispensers stand at the entrance of malls and shopping centers; use one to keep the floors dry.  Buckets, trashcans and umbrella holders of all sizes and shapes litter doorways.  Deposit your sunshade as you enter, take one when you depart, and hope it doesn’t belong to another patron.

Piles of dead bumbershoots on the sidewalk and in the gutters, destroyed by strong winds and heavy rain.  Bent metal, ribs askew, strips of nylon soaking in puddles.  A $30 HKD device with a short lifespan, but the canopy fabric may be rescued and repurposed as a waterproof cover for a straw hat.

The umbrella.  An essential we cannot live without here in the subtropical climate of Southeast Asia.

City of Dreams