Asia/Hong Kong

Hiking

Hong Kong is not just an island of bars and banks and a Kowloon side of chaotic bustle. There is the great outdoors as well.

Hiking is a popular activity, and the New Territories have some fantastic scenery to walk through. Having done little to escape the grind of settling in and making house, I felt that a walk amongst greenery was becoming an imperative.

A friend suggested a simple three hour walk: stage one of the Maclehose Trail. And simple it was. I did the six mile, three hour walk, in two hours and ten minutes. Alas,on reaching the end it proved impossible to get a taxi back out of the national park. 

There was no alternative. I turned around and walked the six miles back. This time in an hour and a half.

Asia/Hong Kong

Gin

It was with almost schoolboy delight that I bought my first bottle of Gin in Hong Kong. Who, really, could resist? To not only find it on the shelves after prohibition Riyadh, but that it should be so very much cheaper than in England. So I indulged and bought a bottle.

But friends, too, knew of Riyadh’s attitude towards Gin, and perhaps also felt that the price out here wasn’t too bad. And so, as two friends visited over the weekend, suddenly I went from no bottles to three.

It is a whole strange new world I find myself in.

Asia/Hong Kong

The lift doors

I cannot really say why it happens. But happen it does.

There are lifts and lift doors in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Indeed, everywhere on the Mainland has them and people seem to use them with no bother at all.

Not so in Hong Kong. In a trait apparently peculiar to Mainland visitors, the opening of lift doors in Hong Kong leads to a look of total bewilderment. They stand immobile at the entrance: blocking anyone’s egress. It is a stand-off that ends only when those already in the lift sharpen their elbows and push. For no one will actually step out of the way to let one leave.

Asia/Hong Kong

High security loos

My new office is on the forty-sixth floor. It is not the sort of place that suffers from passers-by. Oddballs from the street don’t wander in to reception and then take the lift to the very top floor. 

The only people on the forty-sixth floor are those who work there. It puzzles me, then, that the loos should be locked. One needs a key-card to gain access. Each office has them, but why? 

Who are they afraid will slip in for an illegal pee?

Asia/Hong Kong

Moving again

Moving to a new country always feels a little different from just visiting. The one way ticket. The drive from the airport knowing that, this time, there is no going back. The need to find shelter and food. The realisation that ‘this is it’.

I remember landing in Thailand and being met by an agent to fast track me through immigration and get me to the waiting car. I remember landing in Riyadh, seeing the scrubby-desert through the aeroplane window on the interminable taxi to the gate, being dragged the wrong way through an immigration post and then waiting hours for my luggage to catch up with me. I remember, too, my first taste of compound security.

Moving to Hong Kong was not like either. For a start, I have been here many times before. But it was different too because there was no one to meet me. Perhaps even more than in moving to Riyadh, I somehow felt that I was on my own.  It didn’t help that within hours of my landing it had begun to rain. All Tuesday it rained and all Wednesday too. On Thursday the ‘Black Storm’ warnings were removed, replaced by a typhoon warning. The rain didn’t stop, but it did pause. Friday was torrential.

Through the rain I squelched, looking at flats to rent. It is one thing to know that flats in Hong Kong are tiny, it is quite another to stand inside one ad witness it first-hand. Bedrooms that are literally the size of a bed – and a Hong Kong bed at that: apparently they are six inches shorter than normal ones. Floor area must be used judiciously. There is no space for that extra table or rather pleasing occasional chair. And forget the walls of bookshelves. They can all stay in storage. Even the tiniest of places carries a price tag that can only numb one to any sense of the value of money.

But very quickly these thoughts recede into the background. One gets used to the new place and the new normal. Life moves on, just this time, it is in a new country.

Asia/Hong Kong

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden

No trip to Hong Kong is really complete without a visit to the bird market. That is something so weirdly alluring and repellent about it. But it is also, a little window into the soul of a city that has long been glitzy on the outside, but perhaps less so on the inside.

It isn’t the sounds or the smells that grab ones attention first. Weirdly, it is the stacks of little orange plastic cages. They are placed, one atop the other, perhaps ten high, and the columns are packed against each other. Inside each one of these little cages (and they are no more than eight inches in any dimension) there hops a bird.

The bird might be as small as a sparrow, but it might not be. Some birds seem engaged in a demented dance, like a perpetual motion machine. One must pay attention, for the moves are sudden and quick. But there it stands on its perch, now clinging to the front bars, now facing backwards, now hanging from the rafters, now on the ground, now back on the perch. Again and again and again.

Larger birds take the moves more casually, perhaps for fear of bumping their head. Wonderfully, the most casual of all, the biggest of all, are in no cage at all. The great parrots with their fine red, blue, yellow and green plumage stand arrogantly on the open air metal perches to which a leg is manacled. As if the world were but a moment’s entertainment, one parrot before me lazily picked a pumpkin seed from the bowl beside him, cracked it open with his beak , swallowed the kernel and left the empty husk to fall away. This one deigned to let me watch. Others did not. Though one bird greeted me with a hearty “Hello”, I was soon told my welcome had been overstayed. “Goodbye now,” he barked.

If the birds and especially the parrots are the showy, flashy side of the market, there is a side too that tells of heritage and craftsmanship, perhaps of hard work. The little plastic cages might suffice for the market, but they are not quite the thing for a display cage in the sitting room. What about a cylindrical cage, worked of wood or wicker, with Victorian-esque curves and adornments to the bars? What about a tiny china bowl for the water and the seed? What about a hand-finished perch? Chinese craftsmanship goes hand in hand with the Chinese love of birds.

Of course, there is a third side too. Pumpkin seeds might be nice to pass the time with if you are a parrot, but sometimes something meatier is called for. Locusts, crickets, maggots: all can be bought live and all are grown, cared for and hand harvested in the market.

The market, then, is Hong Kong in miniature. The birds are the star attraction, the Gucci and the Burberry of Central. They are nice to look at, but how many does one really need? The cage makers find their counterparts in the glass and steel cages of Hong Kong’s financial centre. It is all very impressive, and no doubt hard work, but perhaps a little irrelevant to many who pass on by. 

And the meal worm handlers? They, perhaps, are the ones left behind.

Asia/Hong Kong

The perfect antidote

I rarely get to come to Hong Kong these days. The arc of work has curved away, and I miss it. I read about it in the papers, and I worry for it.

But when I am here, it is just like old days. My school friend of old (of course, all grown up). Dinner at the tapas bar on Ship Street. The walk into Central. A gin and tonic at Alfie’s. The sight of the Peak. The view across the water.

It is all there. The perfect weekend package. An antidote to drabness. An antidote to dryness.

Asia/Hong Kong

Eating out

IMAG0561 (800x451)IMAG0557 (800x451)IMAG0560 (800x451)What do you want to eat? Chinese? Japanese? Western? If Chinese, what sort?

Do you want a drink? Then were shall we go? A roof-top bar? A penthouse with a panoramic view? A chic, low-lit comfy room? An upstairs parlour? A den with a deafening din?

Going out in Hong Kong is effortless. There is always choice and it is poor-luck to find something really bad. Locals may complain that Hong Kong is always herding after a trend, that a new restaurant is packed for the first few months and then empty, that good establishments always go the way of the Dodo, and that traditional character is being squeezed from the place. They may draw parallels between what they think is the superficiality of Hong Kong consumerism and what they fear is the superficiality of their life.

But Hong Kong isn’t so bad at all. There is always somewhere within walking distance. The lights along the way brighten up the evenings and make a splash against the wine-dark sky.

It isn’t so bad at all.

It is great.

Asia/Hong Kong

Glorious meat

They served not a single vegetable and spoke only marginally more English, but if you could find your way to the little restaurant, speak Cantonese and pick up a vegetable dish en route, a treat was in store.

The food was served in a polystyrene container. It hit the table with a thud. Inside was a mountain of roast pork, with a thick layer of fat and ever so crispy skin. There was barbecued pork, so slowly cooked that it was one tender delight-filled bite after another, the fat and juices suffused through the meat in all their liquid glory. There was roast goose: thin strips of meat with scrumptiously inviting glistening skin. It was meat to be gorged on. Enough to leave you groaning from over-eating.

And round the corner a traditional herbal tea of dubious taste but much believed-in health giving qualities was there to restore one. To undo the damage of the feast of fat, and render one ready for a walk through Kowloon.

Asia/Hong Kong

Putting down roots

IMAG0432 (800x451)Where the Lady of Democracy once stood, calling out for a greater voice in a city’s future but harking back to a earlier appearance when a previous generation of students gathered in another city to act as witness to a new future, are little rows of vegetables. The pavement has been dug up and cultivated nature has been let back in. But this swapping of a temporary statue with what might be viewed as a symbol of permanence, of the putting down of roots, is likely to be the protest’s last gasp.

It was called the Umbrella Movement, but while the young huddled under umbrellas to shield themselves from the tear gas, pepper spray and truncheons of the police, it is questionable whether it was ever really a movement. There was passion and fervour and belief, but it was hard for an observer, however sympathetic, to discern the strategy for protest coupled with engagement that could lead to a clear set of objectives. Yes there was a call for a true choice in the city’s leader, but there did not seem to be a plan for more proximate goals that could lead to that ultimate objective. Nor was there a plan to navigate a route to compromise. So nothing happened. A government that people complain doesn’t listen to or care about ordinary citizens continued not to listen or care. CY Leung probably didn’t really have time to do either; he was engaged in a full time campaign to provide the international press with as many gaffes in as short a space of time as possible. Still, it tells you something when the man in charge, with clear pro-Beijing and likely pro-Communist Party leanings, explains that proper democracy would be a disaster because with so many poor people getting a voice it might be difficult to continue to protect the rich.

As the protests straggled on and weariness amongst bystanders grew, the leaders replaced not having a plan with pulling stunts. One set of leaders said they would hand themselves in for arrest before changing their minds and then later finally committing to the deed. Alas, the police turned them away. Their tearful, public farewell was not a prelude to a show trial and imprisonment, but a prelude to bathos. Then another leader announced that he would go on hunger strike to force the city authorities to negotiate. A ballsy move that could capture headlines and the moral high-ground. But doctors were swift to allay the government’s fears: don’t worry, they said, he has agreed to start eating again when he gets too hungry (though they put it more politely: when his health demands it). The hunger strikes were over 142 hours later.

The students and school children are still there. They have a study area where they congregate to do their homework and give each other classes. There is a spot to give speeches and share stories. When I visited, one student demonstrator was singing, his quiet melody in front of a young audience capturing the melancholy of the moment. This isn’t a movement and, from those that spoke to me, it is clear the students know it. They have created something wonderful: a community in the streets that has driven away Hong Kong’s restless and often impolite, uncaring bustle. Yet the police are waiting to crush this calm order and restore the chaos.

Like the plants that will soon be plucked from their new tilled ground, the protest’s roots will be ripped up and the encampments cleared. What will happen next? Much may shrivel up and wither, but some seeds may yet be caught on the wind. Will Hong Kong face a more truculent future, as the young continue to chafe against constraints they see as unjust, unnecessary and un-modern. As one student told me, he knew they would never win, but he knew he had to fight. He had never been interested in anything political before, but this protest had for him proven a clarion call. While at first he had been terrified as the police lashed out at them, now the experience only saddened him. He feared the death of the city he loved. He flashed me a smile and told me he had to leave. He could not bear to stay and see Hong Kong shackle itself ever more tightly to a mainland polity it could not agree with. Now, what could I tell him about moving to Britain?