Friday 31 October 2008

The Bledisloe Boys are in town

The Bledisloe Cup, the annual Rugby Union match between Australia and New Zealand, will be held in Hong Kong Stadium tomorrow. It's just around the corner from the flat, and the pitches in the middle of Happy Valley racecourse are packed with antipodean rugby players today, preparing for the big day.

We're back, and Hong Kong's not happy

We're back in the Big Lychee, arrived yesterday at Chek Lap Kok I think - it was so hazy that I couldn't be sure. It's lovely to be home, and top of my list of newly appreciated facets of HK life are a) clean toilets and b) the ability to pass through a public place without being the unwitting "celebrity" in several lucky bystanders' photos.

However, all is not well here. I met Ross for lunch today, check out the scene that greeted us outside Ross's office when we got back:

It was an orderly but noisy protest, which the police just about managed to control. I even got trampled on by a policeman, how exciting. The procession then headed off down the road to the Standard Chartered building (next to the main HSBC building), led by a big gong and a lady with a big microphone and a bigger issue.

I suspect it's due to growing anger among the citizens who purchased various investments linked to Lehman Brothers - allegations of mis-selling have been levelled at ABN Amro in particular - many of the protestors banners said RBS or ABN (I think they are in the process of integrating here).

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Just for laughs

A few amusing signs for your delectation.

Someone told me that this one was funny, but I don't know why. I'm very innocent you see.

Just in case you can't read this, it's an ad for Lisa Facial Hair Salon. I suspect that rather than whipping your 'tache up into a beautiful little quiff, Lisa offers both facials AND hair services.


It has come to my attention that the blog is rather light on depth if you see what I mean. Like how we feel about the people and place around us, and about being here. I guess there are a few explanations...

1) Everything has become normal remarkably quickly. We've been here for 3 months now, and (slightly sadly) I no longer marvel over the everyday differences between life in the UK and life here. I no longer expect to understand conversations that I overhear on the MTR or on the street, I am well aware that a fair number of the things we buy (particularly food and cleaning stuff) will have labels which are exclusively in Chinese. By the way, about 35% of the population speaks English as a second language. It isn't annoying any more that 3 of the 4 TV channels are in Chinese, and we have got used to reading the subtitled news as we hear it. Even Ross has (nearly) accepted that you can't walk fast, or in a straight line, in Central. And it's just sensible for shops to stay open till 11pm, estate agents to continue negotiating for you until 9pm on Sunday, and the handyman to come round first thing in the morning on a public holiday. Oh, and obviously if there's a hill to be climbed in the city (and there are plenty!) there'll be an escalator within 10 metres. And I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't get into town with a 13p tram ride, on a service that runs every one-two minutes and continues past midnight every night.

2) I am both a bit of a wimp and a monstrously bad judge of character. This combination means that I am simply too scared to make a doofus of myself by making any generalisations about the Chinese people we have met socially, or just encounter day to day. I am sorely tempted, but I think I might regret it later. 3 months is way too little time to really get any idea about the differences in aspirations, priorities and outlook, so for now I will keep schtum. But watch this space, I'm sure it'll happen eventually.

3) I do not have a job. This means that I have myself for company for most of every day, which is not really a terribly stimulating state of affairs. I think you all know that I am doing what I can to remedy this situation. I could also make some trenchant observations about the job market / general misleading / recruitment agents here, but I won't.

4) It's genuinely difficult to find anything new to say. Hong Kong must be one of the most over-exposed cities in the world. You have all seen a thousand images of the harbour (even before I got shutter-happy). You know that it's dense, hot, crowded, busy, incredibly noisy and smelly. For the record, 7m people live in the 426 square miles of the SAR (95% of them are of Chinese descent), about the same number as in the 609 square miles of Greater London. And a lot more of HK's territory is uninhabited, meaning that the residential bits, especially on the island itself, are super-dense. I'm not sure that even Hong Kong's “did you knows” are unknown any more. HK has lots of beaches; some of the landscapes and terrain in the New Territories are absolutely gorgeous; 60% of the island is green; it's remarkably easy to escape the city and get some fresh(ish) air.

I will allow myself one observation about something that amuses a linguistic geek like me. Considering we are in Asia's World city, a place that is often mentioned in the same breath as London, New York and Tokyo, HK is remarkably “small town” in some ways. I guess this is most noticeable in the news (printed and broadcast), and a lot of it is down to subtle distinctions in the use of English. It's a question of register. I just find it faintly amusing to hear the newsreader say that the guy arrested by police yesterday was “drinking from a bleach bottle and puking up everywhere.”. Can you imagine Huw Edwards saying “puking up”?! There's also the “Mr and Mrs Jones reversing out of their driveway” aspect. I like it, it makes the city feel a bit more friendly and inclusive.

What do I miss? Normal Pantene shampoo (not “anti-hairfall” or “straight & weighty”), Vogel bread, anything roasted, knowing about good, interesting books that are published (rather than the just the latest chick-lit blockbusters), halloumi that costs less than £7. On a less materialistic note, I miss a blend of people and place. I miss the routine of work (never thought I'd say that!) as well as my workmates. I am feeling rather nostalgic about long summer evenings, and Barbours, wellies and golden leaves on a crisp, sunny autumn morning. Walks on the North Downs, where Ross and I first talked about coming here, and it all seemed such a remote possibility. Coming downstairs at home with Daddy whistling and Radio 2 blaring. The little dramas of family life – births, marriages and deaths feel rather remote. It goes without saying that I miss family and friends very much, but I hope you will all come and visit soon, so I'm trying not to worry about that yet. It will be Christmas extremely soon after we come back from holiday, then Chinese New Year, then it's the summer again. Hope we will have some visitors for Chinese New Year, the fireworks are guaranteed to be spectacular.

What do I not miss? THE FRICKIN' TUBE! In particular the Victoria line. Commuting for an hour and a half twice a day. Not knowing what to wear every day – will it rain? Will it be freezing outside? Better take a jumper in case it's cold, different shoes in case it rains, and an umbrella. Drizzle.

Hmm, an excellent stream of consciousness post I think. I guess that will be the last one before we head off, see you in November!

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Indonesia, here we come

Just trying to finalise our arrangements for our holiday in Indonesia. Working out prices is rather complex, as we're trying to think in several currencies simultaneously. And since exchange rates are fluctuating quite a lot day by day, it's not easy.

So, broadly speaking:
US$1 = 9,055Rp
HK$1 = 1,265Rp
€1 = 11,500Rp
£1 = 16,700Rp

Alternatively, a million rupiah is US$102, HK$795, €75, or £59. Naturally. So I had lots of fun at Chung King Mansions on Nathan Road in TST yesterday, checking out the rates at all the exchange places (by the way, don't believe the boards!) Chung King Mansions claims on the outside that it is a "de luxe hotel" but in fact it's a complete dump. Loads of hostel-style accommodation, crammed into a rather insalubrious-looking building.

We want to travel around a bit between Java and Sulawesi, and Lion Air has the cheapest fares. However, tickets cannot be booked online, i have called the "friendly bilingual call centre" about 14 times today, and variously had the phone put down on me, got a message in Baha Indonesia, or the line just fizzled out. I can't buy tickets from the office in Singapore, because we need to collect them, there are no Lion Air offices in Hong Kong. Ross got through on the phone, but the only way to pay for your tickets is through an Indonesian ATM. Obviously, there aren't many of those here either. So, we'll just have to hope for the best and book when we arrive!

The idea is to fly to Jakarta, then fly straight to Yogyakarta to see Borobudur and Prambanan. Then we'll fly to Makassar on Sulawesi (oh, another complication, seems like most places in Indonesia have more than one name, or at least two spellings if they only have one name). Bus to Tana Toraja for a few days, bus back to Makassar, then fly to Manado, where we get a ferry to Pulau Bunaken for some snorkelling.

Slimly Cup, Hana Hana et al

City Super in Causeway Bay has a splendid "lifestyle" section, which is well worth an hour's wandering (IMHO). My faves are the Japanese beauty contraptions. Among those I saw yesterday are the "Slim Mouth Piece" made by Noble which is designed to give you a smaller, more refined mouth;

I also liked the Hana Hana, which looks suspiciously like one of those synchronised swiming nose clips, and promises to make your nose slimmer. Then of course there's the Kai Eyebrow guide which you hold against your face so that you can see where to shave (yes, shave) off your eyebrows.

The undisputed winner of the crazy award is the "Slimly Cup". The package proudly proclaims "It is a cupping in the anxious part. Let's beautifully tighten the body". Indeed. The idea is that you squish this thing onto an area of the body that you want to slim (upper arms for example) and then let it expand again, so that it sucks the skin of your upper arm into it. No, I don't get it either.

Haaaaarly vinimous...

Came across our first genuine snake the other day. It was a catchily-named Trimeresurus stejnegeri, known to his friends as Bamboo Viper, or Chinese Tree Snake.

We saw it as we were walking along Bowen Road, which is quite a narrow road above the top of mid-levels. It's a lovely, shady path which is mostly car-less. It's a great place to get an alternative view of Central and mid-levels, the back of all these buildings is arguably more interesting than the front. And you don't see this view on so many postcards! You get fascinating glimpses as you walk along of little colonial relics which have somehow survived - most of them are covered with moss and showing signs of 50+ years of decay in the tropical climate.

Check out the angel holding a basketball:

The way-too-many Buddhas Monastery

So we finally made it to 10K Buddhas. And there are a LOT of buddhas - more than ten thousand in fact.

You walk up the hill (this is possibly the first hill we've actually had to walk up - we were slightly outraged that there was no escalator) and the path is lined on both sides with lifesize golden buddhas, all in different poses. Several are reading, or showing off their lotus flowers, one is riding a crazed-looking deer, another one is surfing on a crab, a few have little kids crawling all over them.

Once you get to the top of the 400 or so steps, there's a large open space, or veranda. In fact, the complex is made up of 5 temples, 4 pavilions, and a pagoda. There was a serious landslip in 1997, so not all of these are open. Here is a choice excerpt from the leaflet for your delectation. All sic, by the way. The squeamish should probably look away now.
"Reverend Yuet Kai, the founder of the monastery, was a saga. He was not only a skilled player of Lyre, but also a talent poet. He was born in a welath family and then studied philosophy in a famous university in China. At his age of 19, he determined to embrace Buddha to consecrate his life to Buddhism, he flamed his small and the next fingers on left hand, and cut down a piece of flesh as big as a palm from his chest to light forty-eight oil lamps in front of Buddha for showing his aspirations [...] Reverend Yuet Kai passed away in 24th April 1965 at his age of 87. After eight months of burying, his disciples followed his will to take his body out from the coffin, unbelievable miraculously, just as he himself anticipation before death, the body did not change at all. [...] Up to now, the immortal body of the Reverend Yuet Kai has still been preserved perfectly and placed in front of the altar in the main temple for people to worship."
Which is nice.

Friday 10 October 2008

Po Fook Memorial Hall in Sha Tin

We went to Sha Tin last week, with the goal of seeing the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. We kind of ended up in Po Fook Memorial Hall by mistake...but it was really interesting, seeing all the many memorial halls, filled with small pictures dedicated to ancestors.

Tradition dictates that when people pay tribute to their ancestors, they burn paper offerings. These paper offerings come in many guises - it's possible to buy banknotes from the Bank Of Hell (usually in outrageously large denominations), but the more unexpected items are quite interesting.

The concept of Hell does not really have negative connotations in Chinese culture - allegedly the word "Hell" was introduced to China and Hong Kong by Christian missionaries, and the Chinese understood that "Hell" was simply the word for the afterlife.

People burn whatever they think the dead will need after life, or sometimes the things that the person had in life. On Queen's Road West, just near Sutherland Road, there are 5 or 6 shops which sell these items. A few examples: a motor boat, mobile phone, suits and shirts, cars, stereos, domestic helpers, plasma TVs and even foot massagers! They're all made with incredible detail from fine paper.

Anyway, after wandering around the Memorial Hall for so long that we ceased to need air and converted to incense-breathing, we eventually found the path up to the Ten Thousand Buddhas.

National Day Celebrations

We headed over through Victoria Park to Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter to watch the 23 minute firework display. It was a great place to see it, we had an excellent view of the fireworks, and of the big power boats that were cruising off into the harbour to watch the display.

The fireworks were awesome, I can only imagine what next year's will be like - it'll be the 60th anniversary of the founding of the nation.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

News from the Ministry of Admin & Civic Affairs

We're looking forward to tonight's celebration of the founding of the Motherland:
Celebrations set for 59th National Day

"A series of activities - including a flag-raising ceremony, a reception, a variety show and fireworks - will be held in Hong Kong October 1 to celebrate the 59th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The flag-raising ceremony will be held at 8am at Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai. Chief Executive Donald Tsang will join 2,500 guests, senior government officials, members of the youth uniformed groups and community groups in the celebration.

The public can watch the ceremony at a designated area with a capacity of 1,000 people.

The National Day reception will be held after the ceremony at the Convention & Exhibition Centre's Grand Hall. About 4,000 guests, including members of the Executive and Legislative Councils, consular corps, senior government officials and members of various community sectors, are invited.

In the evening a variety show will be held at 7pm at Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai. A spectacular fireworks display will start at 9pm"