Thursday 28 August 2008


I joined the YWCA yesterday, which organises lots of courses here that range from the useful (Beginner's Cantonese) to the frankly baffling (Funky Felting). The good news is that annual membership covers you, your spouse, any children, and your helper. So, among other things, your helper can learn how to make Christmas Canapes. Do you think I'd be allowed to go to that course? Anyway, I haven't quite decided what to sign up for, but I can pretty much guarantee that Power Crochet will end up top of my list.

Typhoon Nuri

Typhoon Nuri arrived on Friday 22nd August. It was a direct hit on Hong Kong, and the HK Observatory raised Signal 9 (of 10) for the first time since 2003 - it was hoisted for 11 hours, the longest time ever for a signal 9.

As with the last typhoon, Kammuri, nothing happened for a long time, but we were happily ensconced watching 24 (yes, I gave in!) and pottering around in the flat. Late in the afternoon, about 5 or 6, the winds really started to get up, as the southern hemisphere of Nuri passed over Hong Kong island. In fact, it had become a severe tropical storm by this stage. There was quite significant damage to many of the trees around the racecourse, some of which are at the bottom of our tower. It was strange to see huge trees frantically waving about as their boughs cracked off, while we were inside, with our hardcore glazing and soundproofing. The destruction felt very remote.

There was quite a lot of debris all over the roads, several scaffolding structres ripped off buildings (not as bad as it sounds, since they're all made of bamboo) and some shop signs fell off too. Being crazy gweilos, we ventured outside in the evening, just out of the door of our building, and I can testify that, yes, the wind was strong. It reminded me of standing on the deck of a cross-channel ferry, thinking that the wind could probably keep you upright if you leant too far over.

All the vegetation on the ground used to belong to the trees...

The Kooks

We went to see The Kooks last Thursday night, at the HITEC in Kowloon Bay. It was kind of weird...Alcohol was banned in the hall, so everyone was milling around drinking outside, having relieved the local 7-Elevens of all their warm cans of Blue Girl imported beer. There was no support act, so The Kooks came on unannounced about 9, so people started drifting in. The hall was only about half full, which was a shame. They only played for about an hour, then off they went adn the lights came up. No encores. It was a bit atmosphere-less. However, it was still very good, and I enjoyed it lots, it was just a bit...weird.

We got a public light bus back to Causeway Bay, which was heaving as usual, in spite of the Typhoon signal 3 which was in force. Then we walked back to Happy Valley and braced ourselves for Nuri. Several of the flats in our building had taped up the windows, we should probably do that next time!

Home Sweet last

So we are now properly settled into the flat, we've got broadband and TV, figured out how to work the aircon, sorted out all the keys. I haven't quite mastered the washing machine yet though...there's no hot water inlet, so it can only wash cold. Mind you, the tap water is not exactly cold here! Anyway, I'll work it out somehow.

I've taken a couple of pics from the flat to show you the view, which is gorgeous. We have a superb view of the racecourse, and across to Central where all the massive towers are. Also a little vid to show the panorama - it starts looking up towards Happy Valley proper, then you see the stands of the racecourse, with views up to Magazine Gap Road beyond, then past the Hopewell Centre (the big round one) and then you get a glimpse of the pointy Bank of China building, and of course IFC 2.

The racing season starts again on 17 September, can't wait! The course is pretty quiet and deserted at the moment, apart from the joggers on the Ambulance track. Racing is something of an obsession here, partly because it is the only legalised form of gambling. Actually, you can also bet on selected overseas football matches, but the Hong Kong Jockey Club holds the monopoly on betting.

The HKJC makes an incredible amount of money, but they are obliged to use the money for public good - they are a non profit-making organisation. The tax paid by HKJC makes up almost 12% of Hong Kong's total tax revenue - it's a big organisation! They have donated over HK$1billion a year to good causes over the last decade. As a result, their logo is everywhere - many clinics and hospitals are funded by HKJC.

Here's where we are:

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And we're back!

Dear readers,
Sorry about the long silence - last week was pretty busy. The results of note are that a typhoon has been and gone, and we have a new address. It would be foolhardy to publish it here, but I think you should all know if...if not, email me and I'll let you know.

I spent the day last Wednesday on the Peak with a friend, which was lovely and very relaxing. It was kind of strange not to hear Cantonese all day. For your info (I know you're always on the lookout for juicy cultural titbits - or should that be stereotypes?) Cantonese sounds like people arguing, and Mandarin (or Putonghua as it is known here) sounds like someone chewing on a whisky tumbler full of wasps. If you saw Hu Jintao's speech at the closing ceremony of the Olympics, you'll know what I mean.

I got a call from AGS Four Winds to say that our stuff had successfully docked, and cleared customs, so we managed to schedule delivery for Thursday afternoon, not least because Typhoon Nuri was due to arrive on Friday.

I spent Thursday morning in cabs between the serviced apartment in Wanchai, and the new apartment here in Happy Valley. Luckily we hadn't accumulated too much stuff in our first six weeks! The shippers turned up on Thursday afternoon, with 48 boxes, including our bed and sofa. They unpacked very quickly and efficiently, or at least as efficiently as possible in a minuscule flat! They were very good, and friendly. Don't know how much they cost, because HSBC paid, but the service both here and in the UK was very good. I've just about finished unpacking the last few boxes now - there were 6 boxes of books, rather excessive in retrospect.

The thing about professionals doing the packing is that you prepare stuff for them, then ask them to pack everything in this drawer, or whatever's left in the bathroom, something like that. So you inevitably end up with some random stuff that you forgot about in the back of the drawer. The prize for most useless item to have travelled 6,000 miles is a rather nice, brand new (still packaged) brass window catch that we never got round to fitting in the house in Sawbo....

Anyway, it's lovely to have all our belongings back, our photos, books, decent knives, peeler, that sort of thing. Oh, and the Pilates mat, phew!

Tuesday 19 August 2008


We went out for a hardcore karaoke session with lots of Ross's colleagues last night. Having never been before, I didn't realise that only a very small minority of the songs actually show the original video as they play. However, I do now have unexpected urges to visit Greece, New Zealand, and the changing of the guard in London.

If you pick anything that doesn't have the MTV video, then you are treated to a Tourism Board style video of a random destination. There are a few rules: the location must have nothing whatsoever to do with the song.; the "models" in the video have a limited variety of expressions, "wistful" being the most popular; and lastly, the video must have been shot in the early Eighties.

Home Sweet Home...nearly

No sightseeing this weekend (we thought we'd better slow the pace a bit) but Ross has collected his first batch of tailor made shirts, so more ironing for me, hurrah! We also spent quite a while shopping for furniture on Queen's Road East, and at GOD in Causeway Bay. I would go so far as to say that GOD is as cool as all the other stores we've been to , combined - lots of elegant furniture, quirky home accessories and some kitschy gifts too.

We got the keys to the flat on Saturday evening, and spent a while there running about, getting excited, and planning where all our stuff will go.

We've managed to get a TV and broadband sorted out - it's pretty simple here because everything is open till 9 or 10pm from Monday to Saturday, and until about 7pm on Sunday. And it's completely normal for your estate agent to call you at 9pm on a Sunday evening. Handy!

A couple of views from the flat

Friends Reunited

Friday night saw a slightly unusual Ven-diagram-like combo of reunions. We met up with various old friends of Ross's, from two different schools and college, one of whom he hasn't seen since he was 14. A great night, which started in Le Jardin, an uncommonly laid-back bar in Lan Kwai Fong, followed by drinks at M Bar at the Mandarin Oriental, and then onto the rooftop terrace at the Fringe Club. Home by 3, which explains Ross's Facebook status the next day...

Will it ever arrive?

Ross has found a pretty nifty site which tracks the progress of vessels such as the OOCL Atlanta, which, among other things, is currently carrying three lamps, a sofa and a bed belonging to us. I'm relieved to see it's very close now, especially as there's a typhoon to the southeast of us, which is heading this way over the next couple of days. Check out Atlanta's current position at the Vessel Tracker site. It's due into port today, meaning that we will h0pefully get all our stuff delivered on Friday.

PS: make sure you take some time to view the fascinating picture gallery.

Monday 11 August 2008

Ancient and Modern

Lantau the ancient

The area we went to this weekend, Tai O, is what is charmingly known as a “low-rise village”. (You get there on bus 1 from Mui Wo ferry pier – it might be a good idea to knock back a few sedatives before you make this journey, it's a tad on the hairy side). It feels a bit more authentic than many places here, and life has clearly continued here largely unchanged for a good few decades. Tai O doesn't tart itself up for the visitors, so we got a glimpse of village life, warts and all. There are some excellent pics of Tai O here, but I detect a touch of the Photoshop here and there....

Historically Tai O was the seat of the Imperial government's never-ending battle against piracy around Hong Kong. However, if stories are to be believed, plenty of piracy and smuggling actually began here. It's the perfect location for it really – the village is very sheltered, there are lots of little lagoons around, and the police station is way out on the promontory. In fact, we went there on a tip off from Time Out Hong Kong, which recommended visiting the old Tai O police station, which was built in 1902. It looks intriguing – from the gate. There's no way to get close to the building, you can just peer through the undergrowth and make out bits of the colonial architecture. It looks pretty dilapidated, so probably for the best.

The stilt houses of the village are not as romantic as one (= I) might expect. As Ross pointed out, it's hard for anywhere to look romantic when the tide is out and the village is basically suspended above a stinking muddy swamp. His words, not mine! The fact that it's known as “The Venice of Hong Kong” says it all really. There are basically two sorts of dwellings – sweet little “village houses” which often have really pretty gardens and bonsai trees; and stilt houses. Some of these stilt houses are absolutely minuscule. They line the seafront, and are all painted silver, which lends them an odd futuristic look. As usual, I would have been much happier if everyone was out, so I could be a bit nosier looking into the houses!

We queued for ages for some accurately-named Yummy Yummys. A guy on the main street had a big waffle iron type thing, and a bucketful of custardy-doughnuty batter. With the aid of a charcoal fired hot pot, he produced these snacks, which were truly scrumptious – hence the queue.

Anyway, back to the slightly less toothsome... Shrimp paste is made here, and the overbearing smell and taste of it lingering along the streets took me right back to Kukup. The shrimp are ground, then fermented in big barrels (hope you can imagine the smell now...) then spread out of wide shallow baskets to dry in the sun.

We also had the rare opportunity to wander around the empty Yeung Hau temple, I'm not sure photo-taking is strictly condoned, but I made a generous donation...

Check out the super-dooper Chinese opera - for which I have not yet acquired a taste. This was in the village hall. All day.

Lantau the modern

On the northwest coast of Lantau sits Hong Kong International Airport, which started operations ten years ago, replacing the infamous Kai Tak airport. The villages of Chek Lap Kok and Lam Chau were taken over and levelled in order to build the new airport, but the existing land only provided about 25% of the total area of the complex – the other 75% was created through good old land reclamation. The airport is one of the busiest in the world, which makes it all the more remarkable that it has won several Best Airport awards. It also makes Heathrow look a bit like an olde worlde reconstruction of what airports used to look like. Must admit though that it was plagued by Terminal-5-type issues when it first opened – happily resolved now.

The historic fishing village of Tung Chung has been completely transformed by the Airport Core Programme – it is now the first New Town to be built on an Outlying Island, and has fully embraced the 40-storey glass-and-steel tower block look.

This side of Lantau is also home to Hong Kong Disneyland, at Sunny Bay.

Time for a bit of culture

After lunch we fought our way through the touts offering "copy bag, copy watch" or "gentlemen tailor sir?" and headed to a tailor who had been recommended on Batgung, our favourite site about daily life here. Danny's Fashion Shoppe is pretty well hidden, but I think he gets a lot of business on recommendation. I'll let you know how the shirts turn out, watch this space.

Hong Kong Museum of History was our chosen cultural destination this weekend. As we walked in we spotted the Hong Kong Observatory's temporary exhibition - 'Weathering the Storms for 125 Years' which was all about how the observatory was set up, how their techniques have improved and how invaluable their observations have been to both the shipping and aviation communities. It was very interesting actually, and had some details about Typhoons Mary and Alice, as well as the old-school typhoon warnings, big metal jobbies that were hoisted by jolly brave people in terrible conditions.Here's an idea of how devastating Mary was, in particular. You might have to zoom in...the columns are no. of deaths, no. of injuries, and no. of missing.

The museum also has a very large section on the history of Hong Kong (no big surprises there) - I'd recommend skipping through the geological bits and moving straight on to the later parts which tell the story of Hong Kong developing from a handful of fishing villages into an entrepot for global trade in a remarkably short time. There are also some interesting exhibits on folk culture, as well as the Japanese occupation and of course the Handover.

We ran out of time to see everything, but I think it's well worth revisiting.

A little bit about SARS

We got our strength up for Saturday afternoon with a very fine dim sum lunch at the House of Tang restaurant at the Metropark Hotel in Kowloon, near Mong Kok. The surprise added bonus was the big screens showing the men's gymnastics from Beijing. We learnt (by being the dumbass tourists who ask stupid questions) that when you have two sets of chopsticks each, the black ones are Public, for ferrying stuff to your bowl, and the white ones are Private - the ones you eat with.

The Metropark used to be called The Metropole, but in 2003 it was the first location in Hong Kong to be connected with the outbreak of SARS. There's an extremely interesting Wiki article about the progression of the epidemic here. If you read only a few lines of this, you'll understand why there are hand sanitizers everywhere, and lift buttons often have a little notice saying how often they are disinfected. It may also be the reason that public rubbish bins (of which there are very many more than in London) have to be emptied 5 times a day. Old books and websites about Hong Kong (and China in general) often comment on the frequent spitting and, frankly, snotting that goes on. While it does still happen, it is very much reduced here, perhaps thanks to the sheer quantity of public notices exhorting everyone to "Observe coughing and sneezing etiquette".

Monday 4 August 2008

What's so cool about Hong Kong Park?

There are lots of cool things about Hong Kong Park.

  1. it's the only place I've ever been where it's cooler inside the conservatory than out
  2. they have lots of plants with really descriptive names like "mule's foot fern" and "bat flower"
  3. there's a Fighting SARS memorial, which reminded us of how lamentably little we know about how SARS affected Hong Kong
  4. there are loads of terrapins sunning themselves on the rocks
  5. it's home to Flagstaff House, now the Tea Ware Museum (which, inexplicably has no tea room) It is a beautiful colonial building, Greek revival in style apparently.
  6. it's almost entirely populated by Chinese people posing for photos, who, again inexplicably, always pose with a grin and a V sign.
  7. you can see some of the biggest buildings in Central framed by lush green tropical foliage. And what's more, on a really sunny day, they reflect off each other in an extremely cool manner.

Here's the IFC2 and AIG tower, looking like they are in the middle of the jungle

Also an updated pic of the nosehair trimmer of the gods, this one's a bit clearer:

And some more of the reflections, and of Ross, looking, um, rather discombobulated

There's an unidentified building behind Ross, and to the right there's a building that goes (*those of you who know me well can sigh heavily as you imagine me doing my manual impression of the light sculpture on top of the Hayward Gallery) Anyway, the one with white criss-cross bits. It was designed by I.M.Pei, and was a serious affront to feng shui's chief geomancers, not least because of its knife-like edges. It is said that it has rather a meat-cleaver-like appearance when viewed from the HSBC tower - unsubtle I'd say. BOC Tower sits on the old site of Murray House, which I saw in Stanley the other day.

Anyway, I digress. You can see the BOC on the right hand side of the picture, then to the left of BOC is the House of a Thousand you-know-whats, and just at the bottom (no pun intended) of that, you can see the dome of the Legco, or Legislative Council building. To the left of the House of a Thousand... is the Mandarin Oriental, recognised by many as the best hotel in HK.

Cheung Chau

We ventured over to Cheung Chau on Saturday. It's a little island to the south west of Hong Kong island, 35 minutes away by fast ferry. Cheung Chau is famous for its annual Bun Festival, and there are various faux bun towers all over the place for gullible tourists to buy. Can't imagine quite what you do with one of those things when you get it home, if, indeed, Cathay Pacific will let you get it home...

The streets of Cheung Chau are pretty tiny, so there are no cars - just Toy Town-style ambulances and police cars, which were specially designed for Cheung Chau, cute huh? (thanks to Michael Hansen for this pic)

We went to the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre to try our hand at a spot of sea kayaking. It was v good - Ross and I managed quite well (although he's a pretty rubbish cox - I can just see Trudi shaking her head sadly at "two right!" which was the extent of our steering). The sea was pretty calm, we still got soaked though. We paddled across the bay, around the headland to another little beach, populated only by a canoodling couple until the simultaneous arrival of two double sea kayaks...

Haven't encountered any lush beaches yet, I must admit - there are loads of beaches, which often have reasonable facilities for changing and showering, but as I have mentioned before, there's quite a lot of crap in the sea. Maybe that'll be the next trend in UK TV - "Cash in the Beachcomber's Attic", or "The Antique Stuff-from-the-beach Roadshow". Unfortunately you usually only find half of a pair of slippers, the bottles are always empty, and the fishing nets are a bit hole-y.

Anyway, sea kayaking was really good fun, maybe we'll venture a bit further next time. Definite scope for jolly japes and finding secret caves. Which will probably be home to all manner of ruffians and pirates. I might add at this point that it's just impratical to sea kayak within the shark net (where would the swimmers go?) so we were conspicuously outside the buoyed area. But we did have life jackets on. I'm beginning to think that in the event of a shark attack you'd want it all over quickly, no? maybe the life jacket isn't such a good idea.

Enough gruesomeness. We got back and had a shower, then gins and tonics at the Windsurfing place cafe. It is very cool and laidback - kind of gave me the impression of a little Padstow in the South China Sea. The hot sun was setting, the mozzies were biting, and the ice was melting in our G&Ts - it felt undeniably holiday-ish. As Ross pointed out, when we look back at our photos, we'll wonder for a minute which holiday they were from...

After a bit of chillaxing, we got the ferry to Chi Ma Wan on Lantau - or at least tried to! the ferry semi-stopped at what looked like a completely deserted pier in the middle of nowhere, then carried on to one of the main towns on Lantau, Mui Wo. We met some people on the boat, one of whom taught English Lit to spoilt brats on Lamma (the hippy island) She has a 2 year contract, but she's breaking it a year and a month early because she can't bear it any longer.

Anyway, I'm kind of glad we didn't get off at Chi Ma Wan, slightly terrifying...We eventually got the bus from Mui Wo to Lower Cheung Sha beach, and The Stoep restaurant. It is virtually impossible to find, but luckily I heard some French people on the bus talking about it, so asked them about it - she had asked the bus driver (in Chinese) to stop at the right place, phew.

The Stoep is well known here for its chunky loaves of bread, and big braai selection. It's in a lovely spot right on the beach. Probably better for lunch - we eventually managed to get a taxi back to Mui Wo, and ran onto the ferry with about a minute to spare. A lovely, long, pleasantly tiring, relaxed day.

Looks like there's a storm a-comin'

There's something coming which might turn into a tropical storm, and it's headed this way...Read all about it on the HK Observatory site.

Friday 1 August 2008

A dark night indeed

We went to see Batman yesterday - well, at least Ross went to see it. I mostly carried out an extensive and unusually intense scrutiny of the exit signs...It was WAY too violent for me, yes, pathetic I know. What's really sad is that I just checked the certificate, and it's a 12A! that's appalling. It was so scary it gave me a nightmare.

What I saw of the film, I really enjoyed, it's just that I didn't see all that much! Must get braver.

There's a great bit when Batman is in Hong Kong, and (this isn't giving anything away, promise) he jumps off the top of IFC2, which, at 415m tall, is over twice as high as the HSBC tower in Docklands. It's quite queasy-making just watching it.

I saw the IFC 2 Tower referred to the other day as "The Nose Hair Trimmer of the Gods" which seems quite appropriate.

Chillin' in Stanley

I took myself off to Stanley yesterday afternoon, part of my recovery plan after Wednesday night. We went out for sushi with friends, then as it was our wedding anniversary, we insisted on going to Gecko for a bit of jazz to celebrate. Gecko is very hard to find, but is (deservedly) often cited as the best bar in Hong Kong. While I can't say I've been to every bar here, I'd be impressed if anyone could beat a Wednesday night at Gecko.

Stanley was lovely, really quiet because it was a mid-week afternoon, and the weather was perfect - comfortably warm, but without the intense direct sun we have had recently. I explored Murray House a bit too, which houses some interesting-looking restaurants (German-themed dinner anyone?)

Time Out says:
The neo-classical Murray House stood for a century and a half in Central (at the spot now occupied by the Bank of China Tower) until 1982, when it was dismantled, the granite blocks numbered (still visible if you look closely) and put into storage. It was only recently that it was reassembled here. One of the earliest colonial structures in Hong Kong, it dates to 1843, when it was used as a mess for British army officers.