In a bar, in China…

There was a story doing the rounds a few weeks ago about a newly-married couple in China. While going through old photographs, the woman found one taken fifteen years earlier of her posing next to a statue. This being China, the statue was a gaudy, red monstrosity, but that’s another story entirely. In the background of this photo there was one other person: a man, also posing with the statue. This man, it turns out, was the man that the woman would go on to marry over a decade later. He went back through his family’s snaps and found the ‘matching’ photo of him at the statue. The angle at which his photo had been taken meant that his future wife wasn’t in shot, so the story is missing that perfect resolution, but still.

It got me thinking that, while that was a lovely story and all, perhaps it happens more often than we think it might. This couple just happen to have photographic evidence of it. Last night, in Guilin, China, I met someone who had grown up in the same town as me. He was seven years younger, and we had gone to different schools, but what were the chances that our paths hadn’t crossed before? Our home town isn’t such a big place. When I was, say, fourteen, and he was seven, did we ever pass each other in the street? Did we ever sit at the next table over in McDonald’s? Ever sit behind one another at the Odeon? Ever stand next to one another at the Bonfire Night fireworks display? I’d like to know the odds.

And what would the reaction have been, had I been able to tell my fourteen-year-old self that I would meet that kid over there, the one chomping on his Big Mac, seventeen years later in Guilin, China, where I was spending a week travelling and he was just entering his second year as a teacher? Admittedly, us both growing up in the same medium-sized Scottish town boosts the chances of us having met pretty drastically. The Chinese couple from the story had taken their pictures at the statue while on holiday. They then went back to their hometowns, many miles apart, and got on with their lives for many years before meeting again properly. That’s much more remarkable than my theoretical McDonald’s scenario.

So let’s take it a step further. As I’m writing this, in a bar in Yangshuo (China again), there is a couple sitting in front of me. They’re French, I think. In their early sixties? I’ve been to France several times stretching back to when I was six or seven. Imagine seven-year-old me going to a restaurant with my family – we’re in 1993, now, or thereabouts – and at the next table are this couple, back in their mid-thirties. Maybe they’re with their own little seven-year-old enfant? Pierre, or Claudette (or any other suitably French name)? The chances are wildly remote, I know. But I like wondering. I enjoy not knowing. It’s fun to imagine us all as drops in a huge pot, constantly swirling against one another then away, away, away, until one day, for a brief five minutes in a cafe in south-east China, we are reunited without ever knowing it.

The French couple have gone, now, and have been replaced in their window seat by a younger, English girl. I’ve been to England many times – lived there for three years, in fact – and so I wonder…

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Walks 12: Lantau Peak

Hong Kong is a small place, and you can get from anywhere to anywhere in an hour or two. But living here skews the way you perceive distance. It’s like how the US is huge, so Americans think nothing of driving hundreds of miles to the nearest drive-thru. Or how the UK is medium-sized, and you could drive the length of it in a day if you really wanted to, but nobody really admits that you can. Well, I know some people in Hong Kong (*cough Island people*) who think 4 stops on the MTR to Mong Kok is an expedition. So trekking all the way out to Lantau Island is something you save for the most special of occasions.

Such as Chinese New Year! For the 5th edition of our annual CNY Hike, we conquered Lantau Peak – Hong Kong’s 2nd highest summit. We cheated, as you will probably want to do too, by taking the bus from Tung Chung to Pak Kung Au (as seen in the sign below).

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The cloud was so thick and the wind so relentless on that day that we might have been halfway up any hill, anywhere in the world. All you could see was the path and a couple of feet of shrubbery on either side. It made the hike seem easier, I think, what with the howling wind and intermittent rain distracting us from the long trudge up the slope. We did see a very regal looking mutt, though, making its slow way down the path. An auspicious omen in the Year of the Dog, I’m sure.

The views from the top are supposed to be among the finest in Hong Kong: the Big Buddha and the airport on on side, Hong Kong Island and the South China Sea on the other. Our views were a little more limited. We didn’t linger long, what with the hammering rain and the stinging wind in our faces.

But, the very second that we started our descent towards Ngong Ping, the mist began to break. A glimpse of ocean here, and speck of distant mountain there. And then, suddenly, we were on top of the clouds. It made the hour and a half spent in a sodden grey bubble worth it.

By the time we were halfway down the other side, the weather had changed completely. The sun was out, and there was the Big Buddha in the distance. You can, of course, do the hike in reverse, starting from the Buddha or even Tung Chung. I think the climb is even more severe coming from the south, though. You have been warned.

And there it is, Lantau Peak later that same afternoon, having cast off its cloudy shroud, gazing benevolently down on the tourists milling around the temple at Ngong Ping. There’s an interesting vegetarian restaurant nearby, serving things that look like meat but aren’t, or there’s a traditional Chinese Starbucks on the way to the cable car. From Ngong Ping, you can either tread the additional few kilometres further down to Tung Chung or, if you happen to be a little numb from all the rain and wind, like us, you can get the bus.

‘HK24’ – Twenty-four Hours of Hong Kong Stories

I have just spent the best part of a year editing the latest Hong Kong Writers Circle anthology, ‘HK24’. Available at the Prince’s Building branch of Bookazine (for those of you in Hong Kong) and on Amazon Kindle (for those not), this collection will take you through 24 hours in the city. And I quote…

“Delivery drivers living double lives, street-sweepers with dark secrets and teachers teetering on the edge all meet and mingle on the sweaty streets, along crowded MTR lines and in rowdy cha chaan tengs. Behind doors and windows, in taxis and on the ding-ding, below dark underpasses and on breezy Sai Kung verandas, lives are being lived. Some of the characters within these tales see their past in this present; others look to an uncertain future. Others still are reminded why they remain in such a beguiling and bewildering city.”

It’s a very good read – if I do say so myself – and the perfect taste of Hong Kong for those who live here, have visited, or who dream of coming one day. You’ll also be supporting local writers and grass-roots creative fiction at a time when they need you most. So, thank you. And do jeh.

 

Adventures in Cantonese Cuisine Part 26 – Poon Choi (ps. Happy New Year!)

It’s Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Dog! May you live long and be prosperous!

Last night, I had a poon choi – literally a ‘feast in a big bowl’. It’s kind of like a hot-pot, of which I have espoused the virtues in earlier posts, but with all the ingredients pre-added. You heat it up for a bit, then transfer it to a table-top gas hob, and tuck in.

It’s a type of cuisine unique to Hong Kong, and is eaten mainly at festivals: marriages, birthdays, New Year… It’s origins are lost in the mists – one theory is that it was invented by 12th century villagers who wanted to welcome a Chinese Emperor at short notice (he was fleeing the Mongol hordes and hadn’t called in advance) and so shoved all their best foodstuffs in a washbowl.

Modern poon choi is pretty far removed from this – no washbowl, thankfully – but the premise remains the same. Now, though, and especially at New Year, the ingredients are specially chosen for their symbolism, and for the way their Chinese names sound like good things. Kind of like eating lots of McVities Rich Tea biscuits because it might make you rich.

The poon choi in the picture has, let me see… abalone (for fortune), scallops (for new opportunities and luck)… don’t ask me what the actual Chinese words are… dried oysters (for luck in business), a kind of vegetable that looks like black hair (for prosperity), lotus (for having money all year round). The chicken and duck, or any other winged creatures, symbolise family returning to the nest. There are also scallops, mushrooms, fish stomach, sea cucumber, prawns, pork… I’m not sure of the symbolism of all these items – if I were a betting man I’d say they’d have something to do with prosperity and fortune. Chinese people are generally quite concerned with prosperity and fortune.

Under all the big-ticket items lie vegetables, taro and turnips that, by the end are the tastiest part of the poon choi, having absorbed all the sauce from several hours of slow-boil. Legend has it that the vegetables in a poon choi are limited or hidden at the bottom because the original villagers thought they weren’t fit for the emperor that they had had foisted on them. For an especially auspicious feast, people should apparently make sure that the bowl contains eight items (or a multiple of eight) because 8 is very lucky in Chinese culture. DON’T, whatever you do, have 44 items in your poon choi…

Chinese New Year food symbolism goes way beyond poon choi. Over the next week or so you could eat lettuce (for prosperity, again), noodles (for a long life – kinda obvious that one), sticky rice (to ensure a better year than the last one), and dumplings because… I’m not sure why dumplings are in there. People just love their dumplings.

Whatever you happen to eat over CNY, may the Year of the Dog bring you prosperity, luck, new opportunities, fortune, health and happiness. Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Public Art

Lai Tak Tsuen Estate, Tin Hau.

Hong Kongers love to take photographs. That is a given and indisputable truth. And while many of these photos involve posing next to bizarre installations in shopping malls (the one near my work currently has a ‘Glamping’ installation where people can lounge across a fake campsite), there are many more interesting places in this city to snap.

5 of the 10 best Instagram spots in Hong Kong are actually public housing estates and, while I normally scoff at the cult of the Instagrammer (mainly because I lack both the patience and the finesse to be any good at photography) I spent last weekend having a gander at 3 of the most famous…

Public Housing in Hong Kong, as with any kind of living space in this city, needs to cram as many people into as small a space as possible. And while there are plenty of dull, depressing estates around the place, there are a few gems, such as Lai Tak Tsuen. Opened in 1976, it is – you’ll be fascinated to hear – Hong Kong’s only bicylindrical public housing. Now, I know next to nothing about architecture, but surely building square towers would be a lot simpler than building cylindrical ones, no? Luckily for us this particular architect persevered: the design won awards in the ’70s and allows for photos like this (looking up from the ground floor):

…and this (looking down from the 14th floor). I felt a little queazy I have to admit, whether from the height and low barrier, or the hypnotising spirals, I don’t know. We were heading towards the 24th floor, right at the top, before a security guard advised us to move along, probably bored that his weekend shift was yet again interrupted by amateur photographers.

Through the lattice work around the exterior walls you can glimpse the harbour, Kowloon and the ICC in the background.

Earlier that day we had been to Pink Shek Estate, built in 1970, where you can get photos with a similar effect, this time in a very stark, very Cubist kind of way. I was left a little disappointed that we missed being there in a downpour by ten minutes or so – imagine standing in the middle of that hole as rain pours in – but the tiled floor was sodden and the balconies running around the sides dripped as we took the photos.

Ping Shek Estate, Choi Hung.

And then there’s perhaps the most famous housing estate in Hong Kong, just next door to Ping Shek. One of the oldest estates in the city – dating from 1962 – and once the largest housing estate in the world, Choi Hung (or ‘Rainbow’) Estate lives up to its name with different coloured panels running along the outside of every floor. The palm trees lining the basketball court lend a bizarre, Californian-pastel vibe to what is a densely populated (it’s apparently home to 40000 people) in one of the more deprived areas of Hong Kong.

Which brings us on to the moral dilemma of this particular story: the ethics of well-heeled students and young professionals trawling around public housing estates, home – let’s be honest – to some very poor people, looking for the perfect Instagram shot. While they aren’t taking pictures of the residents shuffling in and out, for some kind of weird anthropological exhibition, and while the buildings are undeniably eye-catching and historical (Hong Kong standards dictate that any building over 30 years old is a historical monument), it didn’t sit right with me.

Residents were coming and going as we took our pictures and I half expected them to tell us where to go. But none did. And who knows – maybe the other people taking photos last weekend (and we weren’t alone in any of these spots) lived in similarly deprived but less photogenic tower blocks? It is a very Hong Kong thing, after all, turning overcrowding and deprivation into art, making the most of this tiny territory’s space and resources. But should it be used as means to boost your Instagram likes…?

If you like half-hearted and somewhat rushed photography, not exclusively involving public housing estates, follow me on Instagram at whatididinhongkong. I can assure you that I am 100% #nofilter.

Cosmic Ordering

‘Designer handbags’ in a Sheung Wan shopfront…

One of the big problems I have when attempting to believe in ‘the afterlife’ is that ‘the afterlife’ can’t be proven. It’s a very abstract concept. If I could confirm what was in store for me after death –  could choose my own eternity even – then that would be great. But it’s all currently a huge leap of faith.

This, apparently, makes me agnostic, rather than a full blown atheist. But surely to God (so to speak) anyone who doesn’t believe in the afterlife – heaven and hell and whatever – is an agnostic. If Jesus does somehow make another comeback, with a set-list crammed full of classics like ‘Water into Wine’ and ‘Loaves and Fishes’, right in front of our very eyes as well as on Twitter and Facebook Live, then who the Hell (so to speak) would still say “Nope. Not buying it”?

Thus, as someone who can’t believe in something unprovable – AKA a rational human being – I can appreciate the very literal approach that Hong Kongers (at least those who follow local religious practices) take towards remembering, nay helping, the dead. They buy new clothes, new accessories, new shoes, toiletries, food and drink, cars, iPads, houses, boats, among many other things, to ensure their deceased’s comfort in the afterlife. They bring these gifts to the graves of their loved ones and burn them as an offering. They’re made of paper, you see, those handbags in the picture, and their ashes float up into the sky and somehow find the right recipient.

I like this approach. I like the idea that you can actively alter your afterlife, rather than trust that it will be a lovely place full of great people having a brilliant time. However, I’m not sure that I believe in this form of afterlife either. Not yet. Though I might start ordering some paper bottles of gin and paper Frasier box sets, ready for when I need some relief in the great unknown. I’ll think of it as a new kind of cosmic ordering – a very literal reimagining of the term. I’ll leave a list behind. It’ll be worth a try.

 

Chasing the Dragons

Dragon Boat Festival, Sai Kung, 30th May 2017.

Every May I paddle up and start training for the dragon boat festival, with our work team. This year, at the fifth time of asking, and after lots of sweat and sunburn, we placed a podium finish, got a trophy, medals and, most rewarding of all… a suckling pig (looking very fetching above in his red sack)!