Tuesday, March 6, 2012

More than you would ever want to know about Irene and Man Yung's Trip to Hong Kong

Sunday street market crowd in Hong Kong, North Point Chun Yeung Street

Everyone has been asking us about our trip to Hong Kong.  However, instead of saying “Fine, thank you,” like an ordinary civilized person – and letting people go merrily on about their business, I’ve been replying in the following manner:

Question: “How was your trip?”

Reply: “IT WAS TERRIBLE!!!!!”

…and indeed, some of it was quite terrible and I am enjoying telling everyone about it.


1.         RAIN

Firstly, it rained every day.  The sun didn’t come out for the entire trip.  Every morning I’d open the curtains of our hotel room and I would be confronted with the same foggy, misty, dark, dreary street scene. 

Quote: “And guess what – we were dressed in raincoats and rainhats (umbrellas are completely useless because there are so many people on the street your umbrella will end up knocked out of your hand or stabbing someone in the eye) but the rain still got to us.  It was such a fine, spraying rain with wind it came not just from above but from sideways and underneath.  On the plus side it made my skin dewy and moist.”

For Canadians who usually care about the weather (and they must do – flocks of us go down to the sunny south every year just to get away from winter) rain every day on a trip is akin to vacation Armageddon. 

 Rainy wet "Stairs" street in Central.  If it looks like I'm ready to hurl - well, the post below will explain why


Secondly, I got food poisoning right after landing.  My grandmother (who is in her late eighties – to think about it, she’s still younger than some milongueros we know) can’t walk very far and unfortunately, the only restaurant within walking distance for her was not a good restaurant.  The food was spectacularly greasy and made me queasy (hey, that rhymes!).  Then, the next day, I had some food that had been left out for about seven hours.  I had to eat it… because it had something to do with “ancestral worship”.

¡Hola food poisoning!

Quote: “The food I ate did not agree with me, so Man Yung gave me some Chinese herbal tablets to clean out my system.  It made me go to the washroom.  But since we had to go out to meet some people, so Man Yung gave me some Chinese herbal tablets to stop the washroom going.*  We went out, met up with Man Yung’s friends – but shortly after the meeting I gave in to the imploding/exploding effects of the Chinese herbal mix and threw up in the subway car!  All the Hong Kong people gave me a wide berth of about 20 feet!  It’s refreshing to have so much personal space because Hong Kong is a really, really crowded place and people are usually standing shoulder to shoulder in public places.”

* Man Yung says, “Hey Irene, the medicine worked fine for me!  You didn’t see me throwing up on the subway.  And don’t exaggerate, you threw up in a plastic bag and the people just backed up about one meter, not twenty feet!”

TERRIBLE!  No, just joking - this isn't terrible, this is normal.  And not unsanitary (really!  really!) - when we lived in Hong Kong we bought our meat in open air stalls like this all the time.  This particular butcher's stall is at the Chun Yeung Street market in North Point.


We got a haunted hotel room.  Yes, HAUNTED!!!  We had to book the swanky new North Point Harbour Plaza because it was located right across from my grandmother’s apartment – but the prime location of the hotel meant that the building was next to the famous “Hong Kong Funeral Home”…

“No big deal, it’s just a Funeral Home!” all you unsuperstitious Western people say.  “We live in houses right next to cemeteries all the time – we like it because it’s more peaceful!”

You Western people are very brave, because that’s not how it works in Chinese culture.  Chinese people are terrified of inauspiciousness.  For example, Chinese people avoid living in houses or apartments with the number “4” in the address – just because “4” in Chinese sounds like the word “Death”.   So in Hong Kong (and now in Toronto too) you will find apartments without the 4th floor, the 14th floor, the 24th floor… the entire 40th to 49th floors missing – and definitely no apartment number “4”!  There’s only three funeral homes in the whole of Hong Kong for a population of 7,061,200 (as of 2010 census) – just because people are so superstitious they would start a riot if someone tried to build anything so unlucky as a new funeral home in their back yard.  I assure you, those three funeral homes have brisk business, no fear that they would go bankrupt anytime (and no need to renovate or make them more modern, ever – so they are super creepy with the creepiest glaring white fluorescent 70’s lighting ever!)

Quote:  “We didn’t think that it would matter, being in a hotel right next to a funeral home… but we kept on receiving signs from the beyond.  The first thing was the shower stall – no matter how carefully we splashed in there (we turned the shower down real low), water would leak out of the stall and all over the bathroom floor!  And the sink – the water would not drain and kept on backing up ominously.  We thought,“Heck, just another crappy cheap-ass Li Kar Shing cut-corner construction problem” but there’s more!  Every time we returned to the hotel room, there was a persistent odour of boiling pork and chive dumplings.  We had to turn up the air conditioning to super high to get rid of the smell.  But every time we went out and came back, there was the smell again.  We thought at first that perhaps it was a neighbouring hotel guest from the Mainland who insisted on cooking his own meals in his hotel room – but EVERY DAY?  TWENTY-FOUR HOURS a day?  I tell you, our room was HAUNTED!”*

* And the bed was so hard, it was like sleeping on a stainless steel countertop... "Like an autopsy table!" offers Man Yung unhelpfully.  Shut up!  Shut up!  That's REALLY HORRIBLE.

No, this ancient decrepid building is not our hotel - it's the famous "Blue House" on Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai, typical of Hong Kong 1920's Tong Lau architecture.  The residents were allowed to continue to live in the building even after it was declared a historic monument.  Look at all the colours, it's La Boca in Hong Kong!


We thought we were ready for a hike with our Crocs and all – but we (and I mean Man Yung) was sorely mistaken.

They weren’t even brand new Crocs – he’s worn them at least twice to Buenos Aires without a mishap.  But come day three of our trip and Man Yung is hobbling – he’s got blisters on the back of not just one, but two feet!

Quote: “For walkers, I think Hong Kong even beats Paris!  When our Hong Kong relatives say “It’s only a short walk to the bus stop,” they mean a 25 minute sprint through housing estates, pathways, byways, malls, concrete landscaped areas, roads, etc.  And don’t get me started on the walking you need just to take the subway – it took us twenty minutes to walk from the Airport Express line to the Hong Kong Island line at Central Station, and fifteen minutes to ascend from the subterranean platform at the North Point station to ground level… Man Yung tried to get around town wearing his tango shoes instead of his Crocs but that was not really an improvement – with his blisters and tight tango shoes he wobbled around like he had hemorrhoids.   Conversely, for me all that walking (and vomiting on the subway) was a great way to lose weight.”

Here we are following Man Yung's 88 year old best friend back to his apartment after lunch through the markets around Temple Street in Jordan.  He said it was a "short" walk - ha, it took us half a hour to get there from the restaurant.  And look, the 88 year old is walking faster than us!  (See point 6 below for explanation)


Hong Kong Star Ferry

For the sake of nostalgia, Man Yung suggested that we take the Star Ferry from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui.

I remember back in the olden days (late eighties) the Ferry was just steps away from the Legislative Council Building.  So that was our starting point – Statue Square.

“Where’s the Ferry?” we said after fifteen minutes of walking towards the direction of Hong Kong Harbour. 

We ended up having to ask for directions – and even then it was another twenty-five minutes until we reached the NEW location of the Ferry Pier.  That was how far out to sea the land reclamation has gone.  Before, the Ferry was a convenient and economical way for the masses to journey from the island to the peninsula (and it cost only 5 cents back when Man Yung could remember from his youth) but now with the Pier’s new location god knows where far away from the commercial centre, the only people taking the Ferry are mostly tourists. 

So that's where the Star Ferry Pier is!  About thirty minutes further out to sea than it used to be.  In the sixties, they raise the price of the Ferry fare by 5 more cents - and there was a riot

The old places in Hong Kong have disappeared or are disappearing faster than your eye can blink.  Man Yung took me to all these places he used to frequent in Wan Chai when he was a kid… of course, in place of the restaurant, store, market, etc. that used to be there, there are commercial buildings and residential condo complexes.  A whole city block right next to my Grandmother’s apartment is being shut down and demolished just so a sparkling new development can go up. 

The only places where you can still glimpse a bit of old Hong Kong and its traditional  neighbourhoods is in the side streets and alleyways.  On the main throughways, you’ll find mainly banks, chain jewelry stores, chain fast food joints, chain fashion stores… and 7 Elevens.  Because only big businesses can afford to pay the sky-rocketing rent.  Sad.

Lin Heung Tea House in Central - the last traditional Tea House of its kind in Hong Kong or just about anywhere in the world.  Here's where the waiters are all old and you pour out your tea from a big tea mug with a lid instead of a teapot - but you can't get your rice wine in a bowl anymore like Man Yung used to (he asked waiter but the answer was they didn't do this any more). New residential developments and swanky commercial buildings are replacing the sites of all the traditional businesses in Hong Kong.

6.         HURRY!  HURRY!

…Because that’s the pace of life in Hong Kong, you slowpoke Canadians!

We are following Man Yung’s brother and sister-in-law in Wan Chai.  They look great – slender, stylish, and moving effortlessly and quickly through the oncoming crowds.  We look like stubby wet hobbling things drowning (or being swept in the opposite direction) in the midst of the sea of people.  Help!

Everybody is going supersonic speed – or they better if they aren’t!  When you cross the street, the pedestrian signal is blaring this sound “duck-duck-duck-duck-duck-duck!” rapidfire so that you don’t straggle.  You turn on the TV – and the show intros and the commercials rapid cut into each other and there’s this mish-mash of noise that sounds like a million different sounding alarm clocks are going off at once.

We suck and we are too slow from living in Toronto.  “Get up off your butts and move it - hurry, hurry!”

Hurry, hurry - get your seafood here!  Here's Chan Ho Kee Seafood in the Chun Yeung Street Market in North Point.  We bought two live grouper and four pounds of live prawns here to cook for lunch for relatives at my grandmother's house.  You think this selection of jumping swimming seafood is amazing?  Just imagine what it was like twenty years ago!  We talked to the proprietor, who told us that back then, all the choice seafood came to Hong Kong first, then Macau, then to Mainland China.  Now, Mainland China gets the best seafood, then Macau, and then Hong Kong.  Why?  "The inventory goes where the money is, and the deep pockets are in China now."  Take a look here: Corrupt Government Officials and their loot.


Hong Kong is shopping paradise… if you have the dough.  All the major fashion houses have flagship stores – perhaps even several stores – in locations all over the city.  There are more malls and department stores than you can count.  There are chain jewelry stores every thirty feet in Wan Chai, with poor standing beckoning sales assistants at the door trying to lure you in. 

Since we don’t have the $$$, no Hermes, Chanel or LV for us!  Instead we went to a street market and bought lots of cotton underwear.  The shopkeeper took one look at me, dug through her stash and brought out a stack of generously sized granny panties.

Man Yung frowned.  “Don’t you have anything sexier?” he asked.

“But these are nice and comfortable,” replied the shopkeeper.  “She’s not going to show them off anyway!”

“The problem is – I have to look at her wearing them!” said Man Yung.

Despite this conversation, the shopkeeper really did not have anything sexier to offer.

 Open air market around Temple Street, Jordan.  "You can't expect these places to have sexier underwear," I said to Man Yung.  "Look at all these Buddhist monks and nuns hanging around!" 

8.         TANGO

Despite being the fact I was sick and slow and wearing granny panties (Shoot me now! I’m an old nag!), Man Yung decided that I was still in good enough condition to go out dancing not only once… but FOUR times during our week-long trip.

Funny thing: in Toronto at any given milonga, you may consider me one of the younger tangueras present.  In Hong Kong however – I’m one of the oldest!  The milongas and practicas are filled with young, slim (must be from all that walking), beautiful and sensually dressed Tangueras.

The air-conditioning at some of these places were at full blast even though it was freezing and rainy outside.  The lovely Hong Kong tangueras didn’t even look cold with their strappy chiffon dresses and bare legs.  I’m wearing a long sleeved wool sweater from Lee Kung Man Knitting Factory and a frumpy almost ankle-length skirt – and still I feel like I’m going to get pneumonia.

What does Man Yung think?  He’s not thinking about the cold at all!  With all the beautiful and talented Tangueras in the milonga he’s been transported to Tango Heaven!**

** “The music at the places we went to was on the whole ok - except for that last milonga.  That music was awful!!!!!” [What, finally it’s Man Yung’s turn to complain?]  “The music within each tanda was never consistent – you would hear one thing and something completely different may lie in store for the next track.  And it was 80% music after 1950 – which is not really suitable for dancing as the music usually showcases the singer.  And the music sounded the same every tanda – loud and brassy.  The DJ was always wandering around on the dance floor, dancing or socializing – a new tanda would come on and the sound balance would be so off that the noise would literally pierce your ear drums!  It would take about 30 seconds to a minute after every tanda started before the DJ would go lower the damn volume.  Even the locals were complaining to us how horrible the music was.  One local even warned us that the DJ will play "La Cumparsita" about 45 minutes before the milonga ended - just to signal the beginning of the "Alternative" music.  You could bet that I made sure that we high-tailed out of there before that assault on the ear drums began.  Yeeesh!"

*** While I get a kick telling everyone that we had a "TERRIBLE!" trip, it wasn't really that terrible (except for the vomiting part).  In fact, we enjoyed the following:

-  The Cathay Pacific flights to and from Hong Kong - the service was good, the flight attendants "really pretty" (Man Yung's comment), the food was delicious and they gave us Haagen Dazs for dessert (bonus points!)
- We had nice reunions with our relatives
- We really did buy a lot of cotton underwear - and superfine merino wool sweaters from famous traditional/historic Hong Kong underwear manufacturer Lee Kung Man
- When I was able to eat (and there weren't too many days of that!), we had tasty traditional beef brisket and fish ball noodles - with crispy fried fish skin, and we had some really great dim sum in a little shop in Quarry Bay.  And we had yummy peeing shrimp!  It was the first time I tried it, I wanted to have some since Man Yung talked about having some with his mom a few years ago.  No, the shrimp didn't pee while you ate them - they already did their business before they were ready to eat.
- Man Yung was able to take me around his old neighbourhoods.  Although many of the places have changed, in some places, like the fishmongers, Lee Kung Man retail store, the markets and the little side street restaurants you can still talk to people and get a feel for what it is like to live in a neighbourhood with real neighbours, real lives.  This is a big contrast to impersonality demanded (yes, demanded - it is like people aren't human but cogs in a machine) of people in the slick modern commercial areas, the upscale malls, the big businesses...Tango isn't found in brand names and impressive packaging, even though these may be attractive at first glance.  Tango is an emotion, a feeling in the streets and the neighbourhoods and in the common people and the way they live their everyday lives.  That's where Man Yung drew his inspiration and spirit from, because he spent more than half his life in this kind of environment, the environment that Tango often talks about.  That's what we were able to still see - just a little - in the glimpses of old Hong Kong that have not yet been eradicated by relentless and ruthless modern development.

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