Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Dear HK

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Vital stats:
Format: talk about Hong Kong, but mostly talk in Hong Kong, from two chatting 23-year-old friendst
Episode duration: 30m-1h
Frequency: weekly, but with gaps

I read quite a bit about Hong Kong, not because I have any business there, nor because my fascinations in Asia incline that way (I’ve invested more in Japan, and far more in Korea), but because the place has proven a rich object interest for some of my favorite writers. Dated as they may now seem, books like Jan Morris’ Hong Kong and Christopher Rand’s Hongkong: The Island Between have put in my head all manner of captivating images of an omnisensorially vibrant entrepôt, bustling beyond bustle, where East meets West with both a time-worn casualness and a constant hum of undissipating commercial energy. Then again, other favorite writers regard the place more guardedly; Pico Iyer’s description of “a dream of Manhattan, arising from the South China Sea” has gained traction with the tourism bureaus, but I also remember him calling the place what you’d get if Manhattan’s financial sector completely absorbed the cultural one. Hong Kong, then, perhaps falls under the category of places you just have to go see and judge for yourself, but until that day comes for me — sooner, surely, than later — I figure I’ll prepare myself with podcasts.

Hong Kong’s English-language podcasting industry, while hardy mature yet, has produced a handful of intriguing shows. Dear HK [iTunes] in particular pitches itself by invoking “Stinky Tofu, Smokin' Tai-Tais, and a Smashing Harbour,” declaring a mission to “talk all things Hong Kong.” Having smelled (though not eaten) stinky tofu last summer at a night market here in Los Angeles, I decided to start downloading. I must have done so before reading the unfortunate second half of its blurb: “Join Charlotte and Felix in their weekly random ramblings!” Oh dear. To ultimately devolve into aimless, unstructured gab has by now become a standard podcast syndrome, but what to make of a show that out-and-out declares it as a form? Most discerning podcast listeners would, I imagine, preemptively chuck it onto that enormous and ever-growing heap of probable time-wasters, atop the shows by 23-year-olds, the shows made up of nothing more than a couple of friends chatting, the shows produced in a parent’s basement, and the shows whose hosts talk about nothing of greater consequence than whatever they happen to have watched or eaten lately.

The content of Dear HK, to go into greater detail, comes out of the often movie- and food-related chatting of a couple of 23-year-old friends living with their parents. On the very surface, then, we have almost a parody of a classically unappealing podcast, a near-Platonic ideal of the form’s detritus, but for one striking factor: the Hong Kong thing. Even though its young hosts go so far as to call one episode “Random Ramblings”, and indeed even suggest it from the jump as a more truthful title for the show itself, how dull a listening experience could it possibly offer if they record it in as exotic a city/state/city-state/Special Administrative Region as Hong Kong? Felix Tsang and Charlotte Raybaud live in just such a place, and perhaps if I did too I wouldn’t pay much attention to their observations of, complaints about, and jokes on daily life, but I don’t, so I do. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve arrived on the brink of a theory about free-form podcasting as the most revealing gauge of a foreign land. Or maybe I could dial that in a little and say that those podcasters’ personalities provide that gauge: get to know the podcasters, as I’ve come know Tsang and Raybaud after listening to episode after episode, and you get to know their home.

And yet I experienced many moments, especially during Dear HK’s first few episodes, where, references to the MTR aside, I’d forgotten the show had anything to do with Hong Kong at all, moments where the conversation turned toward fast food, zombie apocalypses, the latest Iron Man or James Bond or Hobbit movie, or the disorienting void of life after college, moments where Tsang and Raybaud might as well have been podcasting out of Van Nuys. This, needless to say, renders “exotic” inapplicable, though I suppose the place in which one lives, let alone the place in which one grows up, never really qualifies for that adjective. Still, listening to the hours and hours of these two voices coming from 7000 miles away, I can’t ignore one faintly troubling quality: they even sound American. This goes more for Tsang, who tends to refer to his female co-host as “dude,” than it does for Raybaud, whom I gather comes from a family divided between Britain and France. This grants her the sort of faint, drifting, context-dependent accent with which American girls hope to return after six weeks’ studying abroad in England.

But seeing as both modern Hong Kong and America emerged from British colonies, I guess I can’t begrudge the similarities between our podcasters’ manners of speech. Hell, I don’t know what I would have expected Hong Kongers to sound like, apart from the millions of Cantonese-speakers and the occasional Blimpian leftover. And you meet more than just Tsang and Raybaud on the show: they at some point decide to begin bringing on guests, putting themselves into conversation with a film critic (part one, part two), a nightlife reporter, and an entrepreneur whose business has something to do with making it easier to prepare dinner. These two-on-one interviews have done the most to enlarge my own conception of Hong Kong, and I thus look forward to more of them, although Tsang and Raybaud seem to regard guestless episodes as the purest expression of their concept. I understand, given the rapport these two friends since school days display on their many episodes without a third party, but hear enough from them and the same curiosity sets in as when you’ve hung out with a new friend a few times: you want to see how they interact with other people.

Even without other people in the room, Tsang and Raybaud have endeared themselves to me, especially by the standard of early-twenties gab podcasters. Part of it has to do with the fact that they utterly without embarrassment have the conversations about Life, the Universe, and Everything — the state of the generation, positions on marriage and childrearing, anxiety about not having “accomplished anything great” by 23 — which we compulsively make fun of ourselves for having conducted back in our dorm rooms. (They even use the word “deep,” which in Asia may not yet have succummbed to the debilitating poison of American-style irony.) Good to know that they have just the same ones across the Pacific as well, and that the podcasting of place — place, in any medium so often providing a suitable nexus for a dense variety of subjects — can incorporate them. I’ve come to realize that we distance ourselves from those grand bull sessions not because we grow so much wiser, but because we’ve grow somehow weaker, stripped by time of our will to explore and reflect. Though a few years older than the hosts of Dear HK, I find I haven’t lost that will yet. I certainly still want to visit Hong Kong, which I now suspect would, framed correctly, offer today’s twentysomething Jan Morrises or Christopher Rands more than ever to write about.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall, who has four Podthoughts to go before retirement, also hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail, follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall, or like his brand new Facebook page.]