From the Balcony
Asia/Hong Kong
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From the Balcony

As the aeroplane door closes, with its reassuring ker-thunk heralding the end of another little trip to Hong Kong, I cannot help but indulge in a little retrospective. Hong Kong is a place that seems always to pull me different directions. The views from the rooftop bars are inspiring, but the pollution wearying. The opulence of the big-name shop fronts is dazzling, but the relative limits and expensiveness of the place for ordinary shopping become boring. The markets still retain a little of their grubby allure, but distinctiveness has become smudged into an endless array of tat, the same across Hong Kong and, really, across China.

Yet the wealth and the poverty, the order and the chaos, the tidiness and the dirt, the crowds and spaciousness: these are the contrasts that bedevil (or enliven) every city and they are not the true source of my unease with the place. For there is something else, a more particular story, that is being told in Hong Kong. A peculiar unravelling of a social story that, as I sip a long drink on a balcony overlooking the Johnston Road in Wan Chai, I may not be able to see, but I can yet still feel.

For Hong Kong is a city where its government has become something that is at times seemingly truly unrepresentative of, and unmotivated by, its people. Though the government may claim to be responsive, it feels at times it is only responsive when responding to local concerns aligns with responding to high politics. For many of the locals I meet, futures narrow and hopes dim. Yet a vibrancy still remains, be it corralled into ever smaller pens.

On Saturday 2 December, a demonstration took place. It was cheerful and orderly; the police were out in force with metal barricades, berets and their little whispering plastic earpieces, but there was no anger or animosity in the crowd and the uniformed youngsters (as they seemed) just looked a little silly when they ran with their backpacks full of banners, ready to unfurl messages of warning, dismissal and, even, imminent arrest to the collection of students, parents and grandparents.

It wasn’t a large march, though they carried their placards determinedly. Perhaps a thousand; perhaps five hundred? It is always so hard to judge numbers just from a casual untrained look. Joshua Wong was there, out on bail and awaiting his next sentencing. And this was what the protest was about: a shout at the authorities that Hong Kong should not be a place with political prisoners, that Hong Kong should not be a place that fills its prisons with young citizens merely because of the workings of their conscience. But for the people in the march, this is what Hong Kong has become. Through the courts, the political parties opposing increased control by, and harmonisation with, Beijing have been shattered, their members either imprisoned, awaiting sentence, or banned from running for office. By-elections have been delayed until March 2018 (the seats fell vacant in July 2017) amid on-going appeals, leaving the pro-Beijing camp with a veto-busting majority in the city’s Legislative Council.

Of course, the government denies any undemocratic tendencies, but it is hard to take their spokesmen seriously when their playbook is so artlessly copied from you-know-who. Court judgements that talk of social harmony and worrying trends of civil disobedience: of the importance of citizens obeying the law (but not of the law being just). Government officials that deny government interference despite it being the government that has called for retrials and more stringent penalties. There has even been talk of retroactive application of the to-be-implemented law penalising ‘disrespecting’ the national anthem with imprisonment. And everything cloaked in Beijing’s ultra-shriek that any comment by a foreigner is an insult and interference that is not to be borne.

This shriek has been heard much less than it should have been. Britain has been powerless and voiceless, perhaps also spineless; the EU apparently simply uncaring; America distracted by an executive with priorities quite different from championing the rights Americans are meant to cherish. The voices within Hong Kong have also been muted. The city’s system of functional constituencies (also known as entrenched vested interests) grants real power to various business groups that look beyond what might be right to what might merely be profitable. The executive too, mindful that ultimate promotion and success are increasingly in the gift of Beijing, look beyond the city’s shores for guidance. Everything is wonderful, officialdom smiles fatly. Only the young, the elderly, or those with families might wish to worry about a future they are in danger of being priced out of.

In the first-floor dining room of a shabby branch of a once favourite dim sum restaurant chain, I found an odd parallel with Hong Kong’s wider malaise staring at me from my food. I remember my first trip to Dim Dim Sum, with its delicious dumplings and cute pig-faced custard buns. I remember too my second and my third trip. But over time the delight faded, and this last time will likely have to be the very last. For while the pig-faced custard bun was as cute and piggy as ever, I couldn’t help but notice the encrusted grim and filth that coated the dish they were served in. The table too was stained with dirt; the ceiling low and the room cramped. But most of all, it was the dried (but now soggy) detritus of dumplings long past lurking at the base of the serving dish that made me think that this was a restaurant living on a reputation borrowed from an earlier time. Walking through Causeway Bay, reading the desperately formulaic English of the supposedly spontaneous anti-Falun Gong and anti-Japanese street protests (exhibitions that dripped with an arms-length official hand), one cannot help but wonder if Hong Kong too is living on a reputation borrowed from an earlier time.

But now my time has ended once again. The door is shut, the aeroplane is pulling away from the gate. My phone, switched off, is no longer bleeping incessant warnings about the toxic air I spent hours taking great lungs-full of as I walked along the streets. Soon the aeroplane will turn onto the runway, take off and climb into (or is it out of?) the dingy, dirty, grimy, noxious air that has coated the city throughout my stay.

Oh, Hong Kong! Until next time?

Comfort food
Asia/Hong Kong
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Comfort food

Sometimes before a long journey, a little comfort food is needed.  Few cultures do comfort food quite as well as the Cantonese in Hong Kong.

Dim sum for lunch but pork for dinner.  And not just pork: a feast of pork. Four different types of pork for dinner: minced pork with beans, fatty belly with preserved vegetables, honey glazed barbecued pork, and crispy roast pork.  For there is something quite alluring about a restaurant with piles of glistening pork stacked up in trays or hanging from hooks in the window.

Ten thousand Buddhas
Asia/Hong Kong

Ten thousand Buddhas

If you travel north of Mongkok you can pretty swiftly leave the Hong Kong of insane crowds, bars and shops, and enter quieter, more residential areas. Indeed, for normal everyday shopping, these can actually be the more useful neighbourhoods. Not only are the crowds thinner, but the Gucci and Prada stores are replaced with useful shops actually worth entering.

Sha Tin is just such a one of these places. Three stops north of Mongkok East on the East Rail Line, it is a world away from the bustle a stone’s throw from my flat. There is a village feel to the place and a far quieter air. But that was not the reason for my visit. I was here for the Temple of the Ten Thousand Buddhas.

Waiting for the unwary tourist is, at the bottom of the stairs, a would-be monk. Unbidden he presses beads to your forehead, bestows a kiss of blessing, and tries to force a bracelet on you. He is easily shaken off and left behind; I bounded up the first flight of steps away from the false monk and past the first of the ten thousand Buddhas.

The way to the temple is steep. A staircase cuts up the hillside, through the trees. It is lined with golden Buddhas, each in a different pose (or would these be Buddhavista or Bodhisattva?). They smile and frown, read books and play music, ride animals and stand alone. All the way up they go to the temple itself.

In truth, there is nothing very special at the top. The temple is as temples are. But the setting and the views and the entrance make it well worth the visit.

Back the other side of the MTR station is the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, an apparently politically contentious museum that Beijing is using to try and educate Hong Kongers about mainland history (and instil enthusiasm for a shared sense of nationhood).

I wandered through an exhibition focused on a single room from the Forbidden City that was important in the Qing Dynasty. The exhibition was lighter on actual exhibits than it was on videos but the effect was to inculcate a sense of mystery and excitement around the Qing. Quite why the Communist Party should want to evoke such feelings for the last imperial dynasty is less clear. But perhaps the ambiguity Hong Kong feels towards the museum is shared by its curators. Who knows?

Prelapsarian fruit
Asia/Hong Kong

Prelapsarian fruit

Fruit can so often be a dull affair.  “Is it sweet?” is asked almost as a forlorn hope with an orange.  Bananas too often taste of just so much old mash.

There is a hierarchy to the fruit sold in Hong Kong.  At the bottom is produce from the Mainland.  It is cheap, it is ok, and it is shunned by a chunk of society fearful of toxins in the food.  Then there is fruit from Southeast Asia, or even further afield.  Perhaps a British apple in Marks and Spencer, or something from Australia or America.  But at the top, at the very pinnacle, is fruit from Japan.  It doesn’t come cheap, but it is good.

It is, though, infinitely inferior to the real thing.

A friend returning from a trip to Japan brought with him some fruit.  Grapes so intensely sweet and flavoursome that they could only be eaten one at a time and savoured slowly.  To guzzle these grapes, popping them into the mouth with gay abandon as one might at home, would not just be a waste, it might even lead to some neuralgic shock.  The melon too was of a succulence and taste that I have never before experienced.

Is this what fruit was like before the Fall?  Is this the way all food should taste?

What has happened to our food, and to our palate?

No questions, please
Asia/Hong Kong

No questions, please

There is, I don’t think it would be too unfair to say, a certain type of Hong Kong expat that views Kowloon as ‘the dark side’, and possibly anything outside Central as ‘a bit far away’.  Wan Chai at push, because one must have a taste for the exotic.

What surprised me was where else I should find this brand of ultra-parochialism.  Attending a conference billed as international, I was left wondering just what Hong Kong meant by that word. At one point, mention of the New Territories seemed as un-local as it was going to get.

But that isn’t entirely fair.  There were presenters who had come from outside Hong Kong, even if not really from another country: there were Mainlanders.  Wonderfully, one senior researcher from the Mainland appeared to have been briefed not to answer any questions at all.  No matter how concise and precise the question asked, this particular researcher would ask for clarification.  With the obviousness of the question then unavoidable, he would look around the room panic-stricken, waiting for someone else to answer for him.  Perhaps even he felt slightly embarrassed by his performance; once the question had been dealt with he would come forward to ask if he might add a few words himself, only to mumble on some unrelated topic until confident we had all been put to slumber.

The last walled village
Asia/Hong Kong

The last walled village

When I tapped ‘Kowloon tourist ideas’ into my ‘phone’s Google, not too far from the top of the list came Nga Tsin Wai Tseun, billed as Hong Kong’s last walled village.  Since I arrived in Hong Kong far too late to bear witness to the Kowloon Walled City (demolished in 1993-4), I thought catching a glimpse of the last remaining walled village would be worth the trip.  I read that the village had a history of more than 600 years and was easy enough to get to; it seemed all to the good.

Different internet search queries return different lists.  I had searched for tourist ideas and was pointed to the village.  If I had searched for the village itself, I would have been pointed to a set of articles about its demolition.  But I hadn’t searched for that so I didn’t know about its demise.  It was with some disappointment that I arrived at the village only to find a chain-link fence, notices telling me to keep away, and a glimpse of half demolished buildings.

So much for Hong Kong’s heritage, for its local character, and for low rise buildings.  In a city run (it feels) by and for a handful of landlords, development is all that matters.  A patch of land without a tower full of tiny flats is a patch of land that is wasted.

As I stood outside the fenced-off village remains, I wasn’t alone.  A group of old men sat at a little table beneath a large red board covered in signs.  I could read not a single sentence beyond one with the village’s name, but it was clear what is was about.  So sat the remnants of the village’s action group, there to watch the slow destruction of the life they had tried to save.

Eating out in Hong Kong
Asia/Hong Kong

Eating out in Hong Kong

The restaurants in my immediate neighbourhood are dismal, despite Hong Kong’s reputation for great food.  There is the local Japanese restaurant where the tempura prawns are so soggy they go splash in the mouth. There is the local Cantonese meat restaurant where the waitress makes no effort at all to hide her contempt for me. And there is the friendly looking breakfast cafe where the food would probably be improved were it to come from a tin of dog food.

So it was a nice change to journey across to the island to sup with a friend. Where else can one drink white wine/antifreeze and munch on a luke warm slice of oddly flavoured pizza?

Where else indeed?

The tourist trail
Asia/Hong Kong

The tourist trail

If Mainlanders had rushed to Hong Kong in the early 1950s and set up home in Sham Shui Po, they went elsewhere as well.  On the far east of the island is Chai Wan, which used to be home to six little Hakka villages.  The refugees led the government to embark on extensive land clearance and development for new public housing. The villages were demolished.

All that is left is a single house now: Law Uk Hakka House, a designated monument.  The house had caught my eye on the internet last week when I had gone to see the Han Dynasty Tomb.  I rather feel that I should do a spot of tourist stuff from time to time.  So today, I took the underground to the end of the line.

It wasn’t, perhaps, quite worth the journey.

Sitting alone in a small public park by the edge of a housing estate is the single story, five roomed, white-washed house.  Despite an uncurated air, the rustic wooden furnishing somehow still bestow a romance of poverty on the place.  I am reminded of the line from Sense and Sensibility, ‘I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them’.

One suspects, of course, that there is nothing of the sort.  If the Law family, who owned the place, were poor farmers, their elegant and comfortable cottage would have likely been cold in winter and crowded all year round.  And judging by how difficult it is to keep my flat dust and dirt free, the place would have been slightly less immaculate and ordered than as displayed in museum form.

Go and visit if you live in Chai Wan. For those coming from further afield, you can be forgiven for tarrying.

Lei Cheng Uk Tomb
Asia/Hong Kong

Lei Cheng Uk Tomb

Sham Shui Po is an area of Hong Kong with history, distant and modern.

In 1955 a Han-dynasty tomb was uncovered, getting on for two thousand years after it was sealed up.  The interior is brick lined, and though a sheet of glass prevents one from actually entering the tomb, decorative engraving can still be seen on some of the bricks.  In the museum attached are pieces of pottery and bronze work.  The bronze has mostly disintegrated; the pottery jugs and containers have a quality that, though simple, belies their age.

The tomb was discovered during levelling and construction work to build new public houses after a fire swept through the area of Shek Kip Mei on Christmas Day in 1953, killing scores and leaving homeless over fifty thousand.  Most were refugees from the Mainland, fleeing Maoist excesses; their destroyed homes had been rudimentary and makeshift.  By 1954, the first of Hong Kong’s public housing estates had been built, but as more tower blocks were thrown up, and more land developed, the tomb was unearthed.

But ten minutes’ walk from the tomb is Sham Shui Po Park, which stands now where an old British Army barracks once was.  Where now stand trees and little plaques, the Japanese had their main prisoner of war camp in Hong Kong.  There is nothing left of the barracks or the camp; that slice of history has been removed, but across the road is the barbed-wire surrounded shell of an old factory that could serve well as prison in any nightmare.

Saying hello to the year of the rooster
Asia/Hong Kong

Saying hello to the year of the rooster

What are you doing for Chinese New Year, came the message on my telephone.

Lying languidly on the sofa, I look out of the window at a grey sky, dirty buildings and the rain. I wonder if it would not be too inappropriate to reply “drinking tea, reading French novels, and listening to possibly romantic Japanese songs that I cannot hope to understand”.