In Washington to try and sort out some paperwork, I had nothing to do but wait. Wait for clerks and wait for breakfast and wait for lunch.
Founded in 1856, the Old Ebbitt Grill describes itself as a tradition. Certainly, it had the American tradition of a barman with something in common with every single customer. As I eavesdropped on his patter, if he didn’t come from the same state as his interlocutor then one of his ever multiplying sisters surely did. As I was leaving a woman began coo-ing over a little dog. “Oh, that is so cute!” she said. “Isn’t he just adorable,” she said. “Isn’t that the sweetest thing,” she said. I looked around for the dog but couldn’t see it. Locking eyes with the woman, I flushed a little as I realised that I was the sweetest, cutest, most adorable thing. The waitress next to me could barely suppress her laugh. I felt it time for a dignified exit.
At the Smithsonian museum on American history, I walked through a couple of exhibitions to kill time away from the sun. One was on the treatment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War; the other was about the invention of the incandescent lightbulb. Yet in truth neither was about their advertised topics. Both were at heart about American greatness. The exhibition on the internment of over seventy-five thousand citizens for the crime of ethnic ancestry was really about how great America was for apologising forty years later. It was as if the entire episode was merely a vehicle to demonstrate a people’s commitment to working for an ever more perfect union.
As my wait stretched into the evening I went to find a hotel for the night, checking into one I had been to before with nothing but my computer, book and a couple of sheets of paper. I sat in the park across the road from the hotel to secure my discounted on-line booking. Almost as soon as I hit the confirm button a fight broke out. Two huge men threw themselves at each other, fists finding their mark with surprisingly definite, if squishy, sounds. As one bolted for the gate the other, in a phrase I didn’t know existed outside Hollywood films, shouted “I’m gonna #$%& you up every day if I see you in this park again. I’m a gonna #$%& you up ever-day!”. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a mistake in my choice of hotel.
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?
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?
When there are blue skies, the water and the mountains give Kunming a peaceful even graceful feel. Sit beneath the quiet sun and one can, for a moment, forget the cranes that dominate the route to and from the airport, along which endless blocks of flats are being built, their dark little windows staring blankly out at yet another building site.
From my first trip to Kunming I remember the stone pagoda; from my second, just a few of months ago, shaded alleys and picturesque restaurants. This visit, for a conference at which I was the only Westerner and at which the presentations were perhaps not even meant to be heard by Westerners, was dominated by the modern grandiose. China still builds to impress, not in details or flourishes, but in size. The building was monumental. Such was the size of the pillars, they would not have been out of place in Pharaoh’s palace. The entrance was three four five stories high. Kunming is a city with a message.
But what that message is was softened over dinner by the province’s vice-governor who dwelt in his speech on the flowers and the sun, and one his hopes for our health. It was a message that was also far overtaken by my dining companion’s own story, for he had been a political prisoner in Burma for eleven years. And it was a message that was reduced to irrelevance when, after dinner, a door to another room opened and I was enveloped by the welcome of my Yunnanese friends as they smoked and drank and gossiped.
Through the window, I could see a warm rich dark orange light stripe the sky. A beautiful end to a marvellous weekend. A weekend back in that most wondrous of places: Taipei.
That sense of quiet, relaxed comfort never leaves me when I walk the streets. Though I may not understand what is said, it is hard to doubt the warmth and sincerity that one meets. And though nothing I did was very special (a haircut; a little shopping; a dinner of snacks in the local night market) everything was special (the haircut was really very good; the sales assistants were incredibly helpful; the night market didn’t just serve up fresh Korean-style fried chicken, but also the wonderful Taiwanese sausages, fresh seafood – and oysters, and a whole range of unidentifiable local delicacies).
It must be boring to be always told that other journeys and visits to other places are never quite as good. But what can I say? Taiwan simply is the best.
Guangzhou. Canton. It is a name with resonance, but a place I have never been to before.
Today China’s third largest city, it couldn’t be more different from neighbouring Shenzhen despite their similar size. While Shenzhen was still the little fishing village of Baoan before 1979, Guangzhou’s history stretches back rather further, stretches back before the days of Canton, to a city of Panyu as old as China itself. Yet though I shunned modern Guangzhou, and left Guangzhou Tower and its as-standard modern city centre to another time, it was to Canton that I headed.
Tucked to the side of the Pearl River and bounded by a moat, Shamian is the original foreign concession: a place where the French and British were able to set up their factories and trading posts. The place still retains its colonial feeling. The buildings are unmistakably European in form; quite different from their Chinese counterparts, and the island is beautiful. Beautiful and tranquil. Despite the number of people sitting beneath its trees, ambling along its semi-pedestrianised roads, or sipping at its bars, the area retains a quiet, relaxing and welcoming feel.
Leave the island and the European influence begins to fade in intensity, though it is still there in the Customs House and the French Catholic cathedral and much else besides. But China proper, at least my romanticised view of an end-of-Qing-China, seems to reassert itself. There are the narrow streets lined with shops the wares of which spill out over the pavement. There are the bags of the dried and unidentifiable in the medicine market, the cacophony of glazed colour in the pottery shops, and the dark wide flat-seated furniture that would not look out of place in a Qing palace. There are the tea shops and fruit sellers lining pavements that are themselves shaded by overhanging first floors. And in the back streets, adventitious roots trail from the branches of fig trees, draping green and brown above the crowds.
Though it is just two hours away by train, this slice of Guangzhou (and I am sure there are others) is a far cry from Hong Kong. Perhaps not better or worse, but certainly different. Although the railway ticket office in Hong Kong accepted only cash, one bar in Guangzhou placed signs on every table prohibiting the playing of chess while another served almost comically disagreeable drinks. Yet Guangzhou too gave us an impromptu table-side magic show that started with a man pulling a flaming wallet from his pocket and ended with a trick in which rubber bands were made to physically pass through one other. Guangzhou too gave us a dish of pork belly that was so delicious, so tender, so soft, so juicy and so sweet that eating it seemed almost a waste, for how could it be enjoyed once swallowed? Guangzhou too gave us stalls selling scorpions and (what I hope were fake) animal legs covered in red and black striped fur, with curly claws and straggling tendons.
But most of all, it gave a respite and a break. A step into something else, just a step away from Mongkok.
It is a glorious day in Beijing. This is what summer should be. The sky is blue; the sun is hot.
A mass of slowly-shuffling people chatters quietly as they queue to pass through the security checkpoints and enter the vast concrete wasteland of Tiananmen Square.
A man is watering the plastic plants arranged outside a department store. The plastic petals are garishly colourful; the plastic leaves, wetly bright.
Later, lunch is delicious, but it is in the wrong restaurant. My hotel is in between two with the same name. I turn right and head to the wrong one. After I get to the restaurant and realise my host is elsewhere, I do the twenty-minute walk to the correct restaurant as a four minute run and make the meeting hot and late, but in time for the first course. We discuss tea and temples. He asks me my religion. I ask him if he is a Buddhist. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘A Communist.’
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.
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.