Sunday, June 21, 2009

Coming here I knew Asian parents were competitive abut their kids, but this takes things new new, err, heights. We were doing some shopping in our complex today and we saw this in the main atrium. You gotta love competitive toy racing.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

"What Doesn't He Eat?"

I have learned I need to be concerned when people start asking "what doesn't he eat?" My wife's uncle turned 54ish this Saturday, so the family trekked out to Lau Fau Shan, a fishing village on the edge of Hong Kong. The restaurant is owned by a grade school chum of my uncle's who hooked us up with a private room.

Before the food arrived, we took a tour of the village fish market. There we saw the typical five semi-stray dogs, one of which is pregnant, living in surprising harmony with a fleet of cats who are convinced they're in heaven. The part that surprised me was the freshness of the fish for sale. I'm used to fresh seafood, but an aunt tells me all of the local restaurants will let you pick your prey, buy it, bring it to them and pay a nominal fee for them to cook and plate it. Apparently you can also pick which cut of the fish you want, judging from the half of a fish I saw lying on a chopping block, its now exposed heart still beating.

Back inside the restaurant, I was treated to steamed crabs, razor clams, scallops, abalone, breaded shrimp, a whole steamed fish, and a very large shrimp whose name literally translates to "pees its pants shrimp." While I loaded up on the vegetable dish when it came around, my generous relations made sure I had at least two servings from each of the other dishes.

In the end, I caught the bus home nursing a bit of indigestion, but none the worse for wear. The person suffering is likely my uncle. In Asian generosity, its his birthday, his party, his bill. Unfortunately for him, school chums don't cut deals; I think he shelled out around 3500 HKD for the meal. Ouch.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Getting Ahead

I once heard a story that went something like this.

Two men are at work on a road in Africa when a lion begins to chase them. One man immediately turns and starts to run while the other kneels down, tying his shoes. The first turns around and yells back to other, why aren’t you running? Aren’t you afraid the lion will catch you?” The other man, now running as well says, “I’m not worried. I only need to outrun you.”

This story, while rife with stereotype, expresses a very common theme here in Hong Kong. In a variety of settings in Hong Kong life, you get the feeling the people around you are constantly trying to be one step ahead of you and each other. It may not be a lion chasing you but waiting at the platform for a train is a prime venue for seeing this attitude. Riding the train home yesterday, a teenager and I were standing at a doorway when my stop came. As the train rolls the last few feet, a man walks up behind both of us and begins to edge closer to what he perceives as a gap between us. I got the distinct impression the man hoped one of us would become uncomfortable, move to the side and he could step out of the train between us, thus, getting ahead. Other days, you will see people literally run to be the first one onto the escalator off of the platform, even though they return to walking once they are upstairs.

You can see the desire to get ahead also in everyday business dealings. Hong Kong’s corruption laws have increased significantly in the last decade as a reaction to a perception that all too often the average citizen was being cheated by their neighbors. The ICAC, Hong Kong’s anti-corruption organization, regularly runs public service ads, has posters printed across town and occupies some imposing real estate in the city center, all to send a message. But in Hong Kong, lots of signs prohibiting an action mean that, in reality, the action is widespread. (The best example being the no spitting signs.)

Wanting to get ahead isn’t bad necessarily, but it becomes counterproductive when people are paranoid that someone is always trying to pull a fast one on them. I saw this all the time when we were choosing an apartment and furnishing it. Each time we would purchase something, we were advised to bring a local or we would be “cheated.” When we told friends how much we paid for our sofa, bed, microwave, etc. we heard the refrain again: “You’ve been cheated.”

The result is that I have started to feel a little of this contagious paranoia. I have to confess, in the above story about the train, I and the teenager did not budge because we both wanted to be the first ones out. Not only that, all three of us were standing at that one particular door because that door is the closest door to the escalator nearest the exit. At least I haven’t started running yet.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

And Now For The Weather

Funny thing, it’s humid here. Actually, it has been humid (read above 90%) all week. This isn’t all that surprising to me, as I have lived in some rather muggy environments prior to Hong Kong, most recently, Boston. This is different though. Boston’s average humidity peaks in September at 77%, but Hong Kong’s peak is a full 10% higher, and it achieves that figure four months out of the year (it has average humidity above 80% eight months out of the year). The humidity in Hong Kong runs your life.

The weather here has four seasons, just like many other parts of the world; only, Hong Kong has different parts. Season #1, Winter, lasts for about three months – Dec-Feb – and it mostly consists of cold, dry nights. Season #2 is the Rainy season. Beginning in March and continuing through May, the Rainy season is characterized by … do I even need to tell you? The 3rd season is the Typhoon season, covering the middle months of the year. During this period, Hong Kong receives the highest amounts of rainfall, peaking in June and ever so gradually declining to August. To help you understand the daily realities of Typhoon season, locals advised us to stock up on DVD’s beforehand so you can stay busy when the sideways rain makes it unsafe to leave your apartment for a day or two. Season #4 is, well, Rainy season #2. It basically rains for another three months, until the typical wet weather system collapses out of breath and goes somewhere else in the Pacific to recuperate.

I mentioned the suggestion that we procure DVD’s to forestall homebound boredom, but that is not the end of the weather related advice we have received. A friend described the means she uses for fighting off Hong Kong’s absurd humidity. She and her husband started by putting dehumidifiers in every room of the house to keep the walls and upholstery from developing mildew. When the paper started growing stuff, she bought a scanner for important documents and gave up trying to save most physical copies. When they had guests over and noticed the extra bedding in the bottom of a drawer had grown things as well, they started putting charcoal packets in every drawer. Just for good measure, the two of them put charcoal in the closets too.

Reader, I’m not sure where you are as you read this, but chances are it is less humid than here. I tried to find places in the US rivaling Hong Kong’s humidity, but the highest was still 2% lower than Hong Kong’s annual average of 81.83%. I began by telling you this humidity was a funny thing. The funny part to me is that as I look out my window, two things catch my eye: first, the next hill from me is obstructed from view because of the fog/cloud/virga; second, some poor soul a floor above me is hanging a shirt out to dry.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"Were Those Cops?"

It did not seem strange to find our favorite video store with the gate only half open when we approached. After all, we had arrived before 6pm. The strange part was the odd green ribbon draped across the doorway and the man loitering out front. Assuming the loiterer to be in the know, we asked when the shop would open today but the man said nothing. A discreet smile found its way to a corner of his mouth as he pointed over his shoulder at the dodgy looking green ribbon. Fluttering in the wind as we approached, the words on the ribbon had been hidden from us, but they soon gave away the inside joke the man had enjoyed: “Customs and Excise Department.”

Reader, Hong Kong is a great place to live and this is one more reason why. Allow me to set the stage. When I lived in the US I knew a lot of people (too numerous to count, let alone mention here) who downloaded music, movies, and programs from the smorgasbord that is the Internet, but I only knew a few who bought their pirated items from an actual physical vendor. Only on street corners in New York’s East Village and LA’s Chinatown did I encounter the stereotypical guy with DVD’s laid out on a blanket. Even there, the proprietors were shifty-eyed, and vigilant for a thief or a cop. For me, I enjoyed watching movies for free, but I just couldn’t get past the whole breaking the law.

Fast-forward two years to an after dinner walk in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay area. Seemingly by chance, as all well-chosen retail shops are, we found a video store, selling entire seasons of American TV shows as well as classic movies. This was a gem because we had searched high and low these and not only did we find them, we found them for cheap. You could by the first four seasons of House for $300 HKD, all of 24 for $350, and the complete works of Akira Kurosawa for $200. This must be too good to be true, we thought, as we hurried home to pop in 24. But it was not; the DVD’s played fine.

The next time we were in Causeway, we made sure to stop by the store only to find it under investigation by Hong Kong Customs and their little green ribbons. As we hurriedly walked away, I kind of felt like a junkie sent away by the undercover drug dealer. Nothing like asking a cop when they will leave so I can go back to purchasing my counterfeit items. Needless to say, we were a bit embarrassed but mostly amused.

The best part of the story is that after spending the morning walking through the Hong Kong Park, we found ourselves in Causeway, so we thought we would check to see what ever happened to that shop. We rounded the corner, passed the guy selling roasted chestnuts and there it was, bustling and humming as if nothing had happened. When we stepped inside, I wondered if the seemingly bootleg copies of shows would have been replaced by more expensive and likely more legitimate movies, but their selection had not changed one iota. I was still able to buy 18 films for just $248 HKD.

I realize the legal theorist in me may ache at the thought of this, but the citizen in me rejoices that the authorities have seen fit to allow this establishment to stay open. So if you’re ever in Hong Kong and you would like to borrow a movie, just give me a call. I have every movie Will Smith has made since Bad Boys.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

On the Waterfront

I once joked to a friend that I didn’t think I could live I a place that didn’t have access to some sort of major waterway. In the years since that seemingly offhand comment was made, I have yet to stray from it, with exception of two summer stints. Hong Kong has made it reputation as one of the great ports of the world, linking China with the rest of the world.

I live along a little section of waterfront in Tsuen Wan, which neighbors the main shipping terminals, but thankfully, local leaders saw fit to finish off the area surrounding the city’s lone ferry pier with a park. In a fit of developing largesse, the main section of the park was completed concurrent with the city’s tallest building, yet it stretches along the waterfront for a good two or three miles via a jogging/bike path and isolated stretches of grass.

Tsuen Wan's waterfront shares a certain ubiquity with most modern harbors: a jogging path, outsized granite boulders used as a seawall, plaques honoring former city councils, etc. As I walked along the path, a few bourgeois types jogged past in running kit, interspersed with dogs on walks and elderly people engaged in the slow methodical walk, hands clasped behind their hips, one sees frequently here. Along the pier and at another deep part of the waterfront, fishing is the activity of choice, reel or not. It came as a surprise to see four people plying the waters with only fishing line anchored to a bucket or the railing. The more endowed and industrious fishermen stuck plural poles in the granite crevasses and reclined nearby.

The harbor itself is merely an elbow of channel between the main peninsula and Tsing Yi, one of the most developed of Hong Kong’s islands, housing a portion of the container terminals and new residential developments. Not surprisingly, the harbor is a parking lot for tugboats of various sizes and superfluous ferries.

In the background is the famous Tsing Ma Bridge, notable as the longest bridge to carry road and rail traffic. The bridge’s main span is 1,377m (4,518ft) long and exceeds all but six in the world, including the Golden Gate Bridge.

The last place I lived had a waterfront with multiple historic markers, commemorating the settling of the region via the coast’s natural harbors. The Tsuen Wan waterfront was little more than swampland a generation ago, but for the moment it possesses all the requisite pleasantries for this water-bound dweller.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

High Tea, Monkeys and other Cultural Activities

Like most cosmopolitan cities, Hong Kong says its has something for everyone. Parisians, Romans, and New Yorkers may not go around saying they wish their city was more like Hong Kong, but the locals here have done an excellent job of providing for cultural institutions during their brief rise in the ranks of international cities. My personal view is that museums form the backbone of any cities claim to cultural prestige by exposing the general public to great work in all its varieties. Hong Kong’s museums were too late to the game to rival the British Museum, Louvre, or even the New York Met, but they have responded by catering to local history, idiosyncratic niches, and education. Let me walk you through a few examples.

One of the best examples of playing to local idiosyncrasies is the Flagstaff House Museum of Teaware. Here’s a question for you: how can a former colony make use of colonial buildings used to generate wealth for the colonizing country, sometimes at the expense of the local populations? Hong Kong’s answer is the Teaware Museum. Housed in the oldest colonial building left in the city (built 1844), the museum “holds regular demonstrations, tea gatherings and lecture programmes to promote ceramic art and Chinese tea drinking culture.” Also of note is the Hong Kong Film Archive, which collects any and all cinematic depictions of Hong Kong, and screens them for the public.

Many elements of local Chinese culture survived the British only to be obliterated by developers and urban expansion, but Hong Kong has selected a number of quality suites to be preserved as historical parks. I visited two former residential areas which have been partially restored and now serve as parks, the Kowloon Walled City and the Sam Tung Uk Museum. The Kowloon Walled City park rescued 31,000 m2 of land, which had fallen into tenement status since the Second World War, and used it to rebuild a 15th century Chinese imperial outpost. The Sam Tung Uk Museum, built in 1786, is one of the oldest walled villages in Hong Kong and was used as a clan residence until 1981, when it was turned into a period museum, depicting the traditional home life and farming practices of the Hakka people.

Hong Kong has made a few forays into the generalist museums, with only middling success. The two examples that do well are the Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Science Museum, both of which emphasize educational programs for kids. There is, however, one type of general cultural endeavor which is hard to screw up, and that is a nature preserve. Hong Kong 7m or so inhabitants cram themselves into only 60% of the available land, devoting the other 40% to country parks, which, I might add, is a very convenient arrangement for the thousands of monkeys living in Hong Kong. Last but not least, the Hong Kong government sponsors an annual, month-long Arts Festival, featuring local and international music, dance, theater and opera.

All this amounts to a respectable cultural scene for a city that went from a backwater re-supply station, was conquered by two foreign powers, and overcame the devastating outbreak of a deadly disease in the last 250 years. What's even better about Hong Kong's cultural achievements is that admission to most only costs 10 HKD.