Tuesday 30 September 2008

How we live

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Here's a map showing all the stuff we like here in HK

Mount Austin Road

Gweilo by Martin Booth is an excellent autobiography, which recalls the years Booth spent in Hong Kong as a small boy. It's a really interesting read, even more so once you've spent some time here. I read it on the plane out here, and I think I'll want to read it again in 6 months' time!

On Sunday afternoon we went for a walk up Mount Austin Road, which starts at the Peak Galleria, just underneath this view:

It got me thinking about Gweilo again, as I remembered that he had lived in an apartment on that road. Once we got home, Ross found the bit in the book which talks about them moving to "Mount Austin Mansions", so we tried to find out where the building was. Google Maps weren't very helpful because the buildings have been renamed. However, we did finally work out that Martin Booth must have lived in what is now known as "The Mount Austin". Here's the mildly amusing bit (I know you've been waiting) - The Mount Austin is one of the places I visited with the estate agent dudes a few months back. Cool huh? Here's a view of the complex from above.

Also in the book, Booth mentions a little building the size of a shed by the side of Mt Austin Road where he found a policeman sitting with his cup of tea. I think we walked past it:

If you walk right up Mount Austin Road you get to a park, which is inside the Governor's Walk. Here's a view from there down across the island, with an arrow pointing to our tower.

The park is lovely, and quite unknown. There's plenty of space, and not too many people. You can just imagine it all being laid out as a lovely formal garden by the Governor's wife once upon a time. It's a bit wilder than that now, and feels quite tropical.

Body Jam!

On Saturday afternoon I went to a Body Jam class at mYoga in Causeway Bay, with a friend who is a member of the club. It was hilarious...a great, extremely high energy class with good music. However, there were a few things that took me by surprise. Firstly, the Instructor, along with his 5 sidekicks, did a little dance performance before the class. This provided ample opportunities for the 50 or so people attending the class to take lots of photos of the gang. I was slightly taken aback by the whole 6 instructors thing too - the class was in English, because the instructor had flown in specially from Holland to launch the new class. I was the only other gweilo, so good job he was there or I would have been quite lost. So we had 10 mins or so of this Dutch guy leading the class, then each of the other members of the gang had a go instructing too. The instructors all had a kind of uniform on - a hat or cap (preferably worn backwards) big baggy white tshirt, big baggy white shorts, knee-high white socks and white trainers. Apart from those who had tin foil style trainers. I should probably add at this point that all the instructors were male. We had a little chat with the Dutch guy afterwards, who told us that they've got "a new release coming up" - luckily my friend understood this as Body Jam-speak for "a new class starting soon".

It was rather surprising in many ways, but I really enjoyed it, and got an excellent workout. Think Tim Westwood leading a funked-up, air-conditioned version of the aerobics classes I used to do at Borehamwood Municipal Leisure Centre.

Monday 29 September 2008

Race Night at Happy Valley

We've seen two evenings of racing now, it's pretty exciting! I'm really looking forward to watching it from the stands when someone's visiting us (hint, hint). Here's a vid of what we can see from our flat. You can see and hear the TV commentary at some points! The course is minuscule, and the races are usually just one time round, and last about 1 minute 10. You do hear the horses' hooves thundering as they go past, as well as the roar from the crowd as they approach the grandstand.

The Glasshouse

We went to an unusual restaurant on Sautrday night, The Glasshouse. It's quite out of the way up Braemar Hill Road, but it's a good Chinese restaurant, with a bit of decking, and comfortable space to eat outside (no mozzies and not too many buses roaring past!). They do hot pot, but I'm not brave enough for that yet, I think it involves fish head soup.

Ocean Park

Ocean Park is Hong Kong's most popular theme park. It is currently undergoing serious expansion, doubling the number of attractions, partly to compete with Hong Kong Disneyland which opened in 2005 on Lantau. In fact, Ocean Park is ranked 7th most popular theme park in the entire world, I guess that Chessington World of Adventures occupies the top spot, followed closly by Dreamland Fun Park in Margate.

Apparently we visited Ocean Park back in 1980-something, but I can't say that I recognised anything. Here are my learnings from this visit:
1. The pandas are rather sweet, and you can see why they are so popular. They're kind of like animated toys.

2. Chinese sturgeons are not at all sweet. I think fugly might be a more appropriate description. The info boards told us that they were bottom feeders, so of course Ross wanted to make sure they weren't going to feed on his bottom. Ha ha.

3. Sticking some sturgeons in Ocean Park is not really going to make up for the habitat loss inflicted by the damming of the Yangtze river.
4. Beijing bestowed a gift of 5 sturgeons on Ocean Park in August, to mark the opening of the Olympics (5 sturgeon, 5 Olympic rings) However, the smallest one was found dead the next day, after being attacked by a barracuda. Poor sturgeon! Ocean Park management were criticised for this, but insisted that the two species had been put in the same aquarium on the advice of Beijing experts.
5. The rides look very cool. I think after a few beers they'd be even better. The rollercoaster kind of hangs out over the ocean, nice and scary.

6. The Leafy Sea Dragon has narrowly pipped the seahorse to the post in the race to be ma favouritest sea creature. We saw quite a few of these in the aquarium. Actually I'm pretty sure it's the best aquarium I've ever seen - cow-nosed rays, reef sharks, barracuda, a turtle, banner fish, angel fish, moray eels, loads of fascinating beasties.

(Thanks to Nat Geo for the pic)

Thursday 25 September 2008

First day of term - Riding for the Disabled Association

Today was my first proper day helping out with Riding for the Disabled Hong Kong. I went to a couple of training sessions last week, but today it was for real.

The riding school at Pok Fu Lam is run as a regular riding school by the Hong Kong Jockey Club (them again!), and it is also the base for RDA in Hong Kong. There are two RDA sessions (10-11 and 11-12) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The rest of the time the ponies are used for normal riding school activities. The idea is that a group of disabled riders come along from their school, usually with parents or helpers and sometimes a physio. Each rider is assigned a pony, a leader and a side-helper. Then they take part in an hour-long session, led by an instructor who, in true BHS style, stands in the middle of the sand school and yells instructions (which are then translated into Cantonese - most instructors are Western, and most riders are Chinese).

I arrived at the riding school about 9.30, and tacked up Kimberley and Dimity, two of the little pocket-sized ponies. They have a simplified tack arrangement for RDA; they wear their bridles (with the noseband removed) over a headcollar, and they are led from the headcollar. They also have special, coloured reins which clip onto the headcollar too, so the bit is not really used. We use little toecaps on the stirrups to stop the kids' feet slipping through.

About 6 or 7 children arrived at 10 o'clock with a few helpers and parents. They were 5-6 year olds, with a variety of disabilities. I was side-helper for a little boy with hearing difficulties and Treacher -Collins syndrome. It's easy to forget that many of these children have never seen a horse, let alone sat on one! It must be quite frightening, especially as the children are rather alone all of a sudden, after being used to having carers or parents right next to them all day every day. To get on a horse and be led around by Westerners speaking a language you don't understand is quite a challenge! We spent about half an hour walking around with our little boy and the group did a few simple tasks, like clapping their hands, and holding a toy up in the air - however his favourite thing was to watch himself in the mirrors at the corners of the sand school!

Half an hour in the full sunlight was plenty for all of us. Just time for a quick drink before the next group started. The 11 o'clock group were quite a lot older, maybe 12-15, and we had a fresh batch of ponies, tacked up by the mah fus (sorry, don't know how to spell that, but they are the guys who work full-time at the stables) I was leading Bobby, a rather grumpy mare with a biting habit. The girl riding had Down's Syndrome. She had excellent balance, and responded very well to the instructor's directions. Judging from her huge smile and positive reactions, I think she really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to more next week.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Moon cakes

Now, I know you're all dying to hear about the mooncakes. Let's start from the very beginning....

Traditionally mooncakes are rather pork pie-like in shape, but have a pretty swirly design (usually the Chinese character for harmony or longevity) on the top. However, the folks over at GOD, being somewhat subversive, came up with 4 cheeky (see what I did there?) designs: Spread my Cheeks, Mind the Gap, T-back (otherwise known as G-string) and Full Monty. The joke being that they are all in the shape of, um, derrieres.

We got two, see the vid below for Ross's reaction.

Mooncakes usually have a filling made of lotus seed paste, with a whole salted duck egg yolk inthe middle. This is just the sort of unannounced sweet/savoury juxtaposition that I find so hard to deal with here, but seems completely normal to most Hong Kongers. Flavours are diversifying though, and Haggy D's make some delicious-sounding ice cream ones.

It is said that in the Yuan Dynasty, Ming revolutionaries used mooncakes to co-ordinate their efforts to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China by hiding secret messages inside the dense filing of the cakes.

Mid-Autumn Festival - 中秋節

Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar (September 14 this year). It's a time for farmers to celebrate the end of the harvest, and for families to get together under the full moon and spend some time with each other. The occasion is also marked in various ways in different regions of East Asia. Here, lots of mooncakes are eaten, and lots of kids (and adults!) carry around lit lanterns, or in a slightly more 21st century style, neon glowsticks. We went to a Mid-Autumn Festival at Victoria Park on Sunday night and saw lots of these lanterns and brightly coloured displays of illuminated flowers.

There are, as Commandant Lassard would say, many many many many legends surrounding the Mid-Autumn festival. They all involve Chang'e, who flies to the moon (and lives there) and Houyi the archer. Wikipedia has more than enough info on this, and I recommend you have a read if you're interested, and pick whichever version you prefer.

I bought myself a little goldfish lantern - he's called Leonard, and he came from this rather superb-looking shop.

When you're gone...

This past weekend saw a night out of legendary proportions. Mr K. Narayanan, aka BA's best customer, was in town for two nights only. It was only fair to start the night at Zuma, where Matteus treated us to a veritable feast of unsurpassed scrumptiousness. Our discreetly located table allowed us to indulge in all manner of speculation, and downright gossip. We rarely managed to see Krishnan in London (see the frequent flyer status mentioned above) so we made the most of this opportunity.

We then moved on to the infamous Dragon-i, where we were joined by several BA air hostesses, as well as a (unfortunately limited) number of our friends who could make it. From this point on, drinks were drunk, dances were danced, phenomenally large bills were paid...an average Saturday night in Hong Kong.

The next morning, feeling somewhat the worse for wear, we stumbled to The Pawn, in Wanchai, where we had superlative Virgin Marys and excellent roast chicken.

Over brunch we hatched an extraordinarily good plan, involving Meryl Streep, 2 1/2 hours of darkness and plenty of potential for a nice kip. Yes, we bought tickets for the cheese-fest of the year, Mamma Mia. It's quite a way from Wanchai to the cinema at Admiralty by HK standards (about 700m) so we stopped on the way for a little rest at Habitu. It's a rather nice cafe chain here (sorry, "lifestyle driven Italian caffe and bar"), Lizzie, you'd love it! Infinitely better than Starbucks. Beverages of varying popularity were consumed, or not, and we moseyed on over to Pacific Place.

Having bought our tickets (sadly our seats were so close to the screen that we could see Colin Firth's nose hairs) we were left with a bit of time before the chocolate-popcorn could decently be purchased. So we went to Lane Crawford, an uneccesarily swanky HK department store, which had an abundant supply of ludicrously overpriced sofas and the like. A perfect place to while away the minutes before the kitschery began. Ross favoured a rather suggestively shaped seat, known simply as "The Dickie". I'd like everyone to note that in the interests of cultural integration, Ross and I have started to display the obligatory HK-style V sign pose for all photos.

Anyway, the film was quite simply a joy. And Mr N was so moved by Brozzer's power ballad-style rendition of SOS that he iTuned post haste and bought the track that very afternoon. I thought Pierce had something of the Ronan about him, don't you? Or don't you?

Thursday 11 September 2008

The Edge of Love

Went to see this film last night, it was pretty good actually. Not enormously eventful, but very evocative of how destructive love can be. It's about Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys), his childhood sweetheart (Kiera Knightly) and his wife (Sienna Miller). I think there were about 8 people in the cinema - it has been on here for ages, and yesterday was the last showing. I discovered chocolate popcorn, so that made it all worthwhile.

We also discovered the foodhall in the basement of the Silvercord centre, on Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. It's reminiscent of a sanitized version of Oriental City in Colindale, which can only be a good thing.

Monday 8 September 2008

This one time, at BarCamp...

barcamp Hong Kong 2008

I spent Saturday at Geekfest (term of affection, I promise), aka BarCamp HK. BarCamp is an unconference, where anyone who has any interest in the Internet goes along to debate, learn, and chat. We all turned up between 9 and 10, and after introductions, we had the opportunity to add a topic to the board. It could be a topic that you know all about, something you want to find out more about, or simply something that's happening in the industry. The “camp guides” then organise all of these topics into sessions and rooms. Some of them end up as mini-presentations with slides and timelines and everything, some of them are guided but much more informal, and veer off onto a related subject, and some of them a seat-of-your-pants, improv style. No prizes for guessing which mine was...

I came up with a rather snazzy name I thought, “Online Marketing for customer acquisition”. Mine was one of the first sessions, which was lucky. I mostly talked about what I did at Eurostar, and in the process I realised that we were actually quite sophisticated in some respects. Affiliate marketing here still has that slightly shifty, dodgy image it had in the UK 5 years ago – punters setting up crap websites and bunging a shedload of banners onto them in the hope that someone would a) miraculously find their crap site and b) miraculously click on a banner and c) miraculously buy something when they finally reached what they were looking for.

Anyway, there were about 200 people there. Here's a photo of 20% of the women present, along with Jimmy.

Topics were hugely varied, ranging from Drupal, Open Source and Creative Commons to iPhone apps, via Flex 4 SDK (?!)

At the end of the afternoon (before we retired to the bar – I got there first) we had 13 startup pitches. Each project had 4 minutes to sell itself, no laptops, no slides allowed. The idea with the most votes won an Xbox, so there were a few non-ideas, trying to wing their way to a free games console. However, for me the clear winner was a real-time public transport info system, or www.whereismybusrightnowdude.com.hk! I think we all voted for the URL really.

The day was pretty hard going to begin with as I arrived in a room full of 190 male, Cantonese-speaking geeks...but I met some great people by the end of the day, it was well worth going. I think in future, it would be good to try and make contact with at least one person before I go!

The Man in Seat 61

Now, I know there are a few of you out there who know what I mean by The Man in Seat 61. Imagine my joy when I saw this impressive tome in our local Dymock's bookstore:

Admittedly, it's of limited use to those of us currently residing in the Asia-Pacific region...but that doesn't stop me grinning! Mark Smith, Eurostar's super-affiliate, is going to be (even) rich(er). What's next in the Seat61 licensing plan? Ticket wallets adorned by pics of Mr Smith? Life-size cut-outs at Ebbsfleet? You've got to hand it to him though, the man is a walking international train timetable. He's also a very nice guy, who has clearly worked hard to acquire all this information.

Breaking News

A small item for those “Mr and Mrs Jones reversing out of their driveway” fans amongst you (that's Oliver and Bink!) Thursday's news headline was “Leaning tree in Kowloon Park removed”.
According to the Government news site:

The leaning tree's base showed signs of movement and the trunk could no longer support its load. Experts said the tree had no chance of recovery.

That ends on a slightly tragic note, no? However I'm pleased to add that the lebbeck tree in question had enjoyed elevated status on the Old & Valuable Trees Register before its demise.

The gee gees are coming

Racing at Happy Valley runs from September to June, and the first race meeting of this season is in just 9 days. According to the HKJC website, we can look forward to a “spectacular day of vigorous races”. Can't wait!

The course is looking great, the turf is absolutely immaculate – Isa, it's smoother than all the quads in Oxford! The white fency things have gone up, there are new posters around, and they've been testing the ginormous floodlights. There was some kind of gala event at the weekend, when there were actually some horses on the track for the first time since we moved in, all very exciting. They didn't race though, just pranced around a bit. For future reference, Wednesday and Saturday are the race nights here, so when you come and visit make sure you build that into your plans.

Saturday 6 September 2008

Water quality

We just bought ourselves a new water filter. Frankly, the old Brita just wasn't up to the water quality here. We're told that the water out of the tap is drinkable - and even if it does look pretty awful, I haven't got ill doing so. I guess they pump enough chlorine in the water to drop a buffalo.

It really doesn't taste great though and, as I alluded to before, it looks awful. I don't know if it's rust in the pipes or what, but take at look at this:

One of the glasses is filtered by our super-duper Philips filter (which fits over the kitchen tap to filter your water as it comes out the tap), the other is unfiltered straight from the tap. No prizes for guessing which is which.

Sai Kung

Last weekend we went for a hike in a place called Sai Kung. It's a lovely area in the New Territories, about an hour or so from us by underground and minibus - they have little 16 passenger minibuses plying some of the routes instead of normal double-deckers, although I have no idea why.

The New Territories are an extra bit of Hong Kong that the British negotiated for themselves in 1899, to help protect Hong Kong harbour from the French and Russians who were causing trouble at the time. It stretches all the way up to the Shum Chun river - the other side of which is the city of Shenzhen (they're actually pronounced almost the same). This map shows Hong Kong island in the centre, Kowloon just above that, and then everything to the North of that is the New Territories (apart from the built-up area to the left at the top, which is Shenzhen).

Believe it or not, 70% of the area of Hong Kong is either farmland or countryside, and 40% is protected country park land. And some of it is really stunning. A couple of hours into our hike (it was only 7.5km, but in 80% humidity and 32C I'm ashamed to say we struggled!), found a couple of lovely deserted beaches - one of which even had clean (ish) water! I'm afraid if you really want clean water to swim in you really have to get on a plane.