Roasted in a cultural stew

Image of Tyler Brûlé

Previously in The Fast Lane, I was just wrapping up week one of a two-week round the world tour and filed this column from the not particularly attractive Asiana lounge at the not particularly attractive Gimpo airport in Seoul. Stockholm, Helsinki and Tokyo had all been visited and I was returning to Tokyo for another few days of business and play. Seven days later I’m now 36,900ft over the South China Sea and the island of Jeju, off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, is just coming into view – that’s according to the moving map on the screen in front of me.

I hadn’t planned on being back in Korea quite so soon but Incheon is the pit-stop for the Singapore Airlines 777 flight to San Francisco and a handy place to grab a bit of wi-fi time to get these words back to London and also buy some Sulwhasoo face cream at duty free. Good luck trying to buy a decent magazine or book, however – next to impossible.

In a week when far too much air time and too many newspaper pages have been devoted to the IPO of a company that allows people to write mindless things about their daily routines and inhibits polite conversation and spontaneity, I was happy that in all my meetings and conversations from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Singapore the topic never came up – in part because it’s just not that interesting (how do you say bubble in Japanese, Cantonese and Singlish?); in part because most people are much happier finding common ground and talking about aviation.

On my return to Tokyo on Thursday evening I went to the opening of the Tokyo branch of the Oslo café-bar Fuglen (think mid-century Norwegian furniture, low lighting, excellent coffee by day and outstanding cocktails by night). Tucked away on a quiet lane, the small, converted house was packed with cool-looking men and women from in and around Shibuya, Norwegian expats and a clutch of government officials from the embassy and Oslo. While most of my chats started with positive reviews about the drinks and interiors, almost all managed to find their way to the topic of airports, why Norwegian should open a direct flight to Tokyo and what’s going to happen to Scandinavian Airlines.

A few days later in Hong Kong a breakfast, lunch, round of drinks and dinner all had aviation as a common theme. Did conversations move in this direction because people know I fly a lot? Or did they manage to chart a course of their own without me offering co-ordinates? Over drinks at the Shangri-La my hosts spent the better part of an hour celebrating and slaying various carriers in the region and around the world.

There was a quick appraisal of the commercial aircraft they loved (the 777 was a clear winner) and those they didn’t. Was the commercial airliner business finished in Russia after the crash last week outside of Jakarta? Why isn’t the food better on Cathay? Will China create airlines that find an international audience? We could have spent all evening debating these topics but my friend Ian had to whisk us off to a dinner up the hill.

Ten minutes later, on the 22nd floor of a skinny tower in Hong Kong’s Mid-levels, we were eyed up by security as we were shown into a private room at a boisterous Sichuanese restaurant. If the arrival had the feeling of Goodfellas on Victoria Harbour, the scene inside the room was a riotous collision of a Hong Kong action thriller, Canto chick-flick, ABC’s female-hosted talkshow The View and at least five different reality food programmes – with Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay both chopped up into tiny pieces and bubbling away in a cauldron of angry peppers and chillies.

As we settled in and tried to get up to speed with the five ladies holding court, our hostess asked me to comment on the state of the world while she sifted chillies from the pot in the middle of the table. Would a wrong answer land me in the pot? Or would the blazing contents be hurled at me to the delight of all assembled? It seemed that my comments found favour as another bottle of vintage Ruinart was opened and the discussion suddenly veered to helicopters over the Alps, poor hygiene in aircraft loos (our hostess made a film of herself cleaning the toilet on a flight and sent it to the chief executive) and the shockingly long security queues at its Hong Kong airport for non-residents.

So why do we love to talk about airlines and aviation so much? I pondered this question on the way back to the hotel and concluded that airlines and airports have become a proxy for topics that would otherwise be deemed too politically incorrect. It’s much easier (safer) to poke fun at an airline and its staff than take on a whole country. Heaven forbid we should dare to have a laugh at the expense of others any more. So Heathrow is really shorthand for having a go at the Brits. Alitalia jokes are in fact a comment on Italy Inc. And who can resist recalling their favourite crew names on Chinese carriers? “Frosty Ho will be your purser on this flight today.”

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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