Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Lining up at the Pearly Gates

This article featured in Hong Kong's BC Magazine in May 1997.

The idea of joining a long queue might not have struck a favourable chord with our Neanderthal forbears, but in today's hurly-burlied world there is a strong and rising surge of opinion in favour of the concept. Everyday, through hail, shine, wind and snow, men, women and children assemble in their thousands to line up and wait in an ever expanding number of queues. It is estimated that today there are some four hundred and eighty queues in operation at any given moment in Hong Kong alone. In 1847, General Gough, then Commander of the British Forces in the region, claimed that the island and neighbouring territories were virtually desolate of any people whatsoever and could find no queues to speak of. There has clearly been a significant change over the course of the last fifteen decades. Should the number of queues continue to multiply at this heady pace, it is expected that there may be anything up to two thousand queues commencing every minute by the end of the millennium.

Long Dong Shak (96), Professor of Icelandic Literature at Hong Kong Polytechnic says the people of Hong Kong will have much to look forward to over the coming years. "This is indeed exiting news", Professor Shak told us in an interview shortly before he died, "and I believe it will provide a new lease of life for the City as a whole. Joining a queue is a stimulating and healthy break from the norms of Hong Kong society. Everyone is racing around doing so many things at once that they often forget who they are. If, as the figures suggest, there is to be an even greater increase in the number of queues over the coming years then, yes, I think this is very exiting indeed. An increase in queuing outlets - not to mention the size of the queues themselves - would encourage the people to slow down and take life a little easier. It is a very simple philosophy. Join a queue, forget about your worries and your strife, as that funny bear sings".

The craze is, by all accounts, catching on rapidly. A famous example of recent times was that of the five day queue along the public walkway to the GPO on Connaught Place in late January of this year. A government initiated policy specifically designed to entertain the population during an otherwise trying month, the elementary idea of releasing a new set of postage stamps was a resounding success. "It made one proud to be a Hong Konger" recalls Ying Yang Ng (6 and three quarters), a closet schizophrenic who was given three days leave from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to join the happy throng. " I arrived on the Thursday morning and it took me until late Saturday night to get my new headless stamps. I don't think I ever moved more than one metre in an hour. I didn't actually talk to anyone - noone was talking, of course! - but there was definitely a terrific buzz in the air. At the beginning I thought it was just us but then we realised that everyone could feel the excitement". Winifred Ping, a mainlander who hitchhiked from Guandzhou especially for the occasion was elated. "You really had to be there to understand how incredible it was. I got there on Wednesday afternoon and for a while I thought I'd arrived too early and it was all going to be over before I'd had time to think, but thankfully the queue was so slow that I didn't actually get my new stamps until Saturday". Miss. Ping, blushing coyly, went on to confess that she had cheated a little bit. "Well, I suppose it was rather naughty but it was just that the queue started moving quite quickly at one point and I thought, oh no, the end is upon me, and so I pretended to be asleep and let about fifty people go past me. I mean, why hurry when you can wait?"

Miss. Ping's sentiments are echoed by Ivan Ho (24), a part-time film extra. "I know quite a lot about waiting around doing nothing as that is my trade, and so I would say to anyone interested in queuing, choose your timing carefully. I cannot stress that enough. Getting there too late or too early might mean that you have no option but to saunter up to the front of the queue and make your purchase without any hassle whatsoever and, I assure you, that can be a real drag." There is a school of thought that suggests actually going to sleep in the approximate vicinity of the queue the night before the queue itself commences, thereby maximising the amount of time you wait around. The late Professor Shak dismissed this as an absurd philosophy. "It drives me absolutely demented to think of all these poor, lost early birds setting up camp purely for the purpose of being at the front of the queue when it begins. Time and time and time again, they find that have in fact completed their business long before any satisfying queue has developed. Where, one might ask, is the sense of fulfilment? Of achievement? Of pride? Some people simply don't get it. Queue-bargers for instance. Queue-bargers are quite are clearly missing the point. The whole concept behind queuing relies entirely upon people who are prepared to stand in some roughly symmetrical line for several hours, possibly even days, occasionally shuffling themselves forward half a foot".

Pak Au Krep (46), a floor-cleaner at the Immigration Tower, has been a queue-spotter for many years. "Well, if you were asking me how to go about it, first of all I'd say, bring nothing with you. I've seen young lads and ladies coming out here, waiting for their turn, and they pull out a book or a walkman or a rubex cube, maybe, and they start getting all caught up in this gadgetry. Then, before they know what's what, their number's up and the magic moment of waiting has been lost forever. One bloke even tried to play his accordion, but the crowd soon put a stop to that, ushered him up to the front of the queue and he was gone before any serious damage had been done. Queues aren't an occasion to be sidling up to strangers with funny tricks like that. It's all about keeping Mum. Saying nowt. I know down in them video stores and outside discos, young people like to talk amongst themselves a little, but we at the Immigration Tower pride ourselves on the way our clients still maintain black angry scowls and say nowt to nobody."

"The only other thing I'd say" added Mr. Ho, who is launching his own Dial-a-Queue service later in the Spring, "and this goes to non-smokers in particular is, if you haven't got a child with you when you're queuing, then go out and buy one. Children are great for the industry. They run about all over the place screaming their heads off and being very rude to everybody and, I think many people would agree with me, that this is the icing on the cake. That is why Ocean City is so packed out all the time. Older people get such a high from being abused and jeered at by little toddle-something's while they're standing stationary for seven hours."

Sum Yeung Gui (18), an apprentice chef, is cynical. "Personally, I'd rather put toothpicks under my toenails and kick walls for a living". Nonetheless, whatever you may think of them, queues are here to stay. The escalating supply of queues is being readily catered to and the six million strong population of Hong Kong are taking to them like fish to water. As one participant put it : "Queuing is … like Heaven on Earth". One wonders whether Heaven might not, in fact, be a queue.