A Travellerspoint blog

Hong Kong - Measuring My Life With Coffee Spoons

sunny 31 °C

Sitting enjoying a nice mound of green beans, pork nuggets and rice

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it struck me how happy I am with this way of living in Hong Kong (and lucky to have it). Yes, I spend most of my days in libraries (a combination of the HKU Law library and the HK Central and Mongkok Public libraries) and work quite hard but I actually enjoy the ability to work at my writing without distractions. Walking around Hong Kong is constantly interesting, and my most enjoyable aspect is probably the people watching. I come from a place where it is cold and there are only ever about six people in town at any one time, so the combination of the heat and the thousands of people per square foot, all of whom seem to move in the most unexpected ways or simply stop moving at all to hold a family conference in a doorway can be a little confronting. That's pretty minor in the overall scale of things. I look at all of the enormous and in many cases rather shabby apartment blocks, and know the apartments are tiny, and start to wonder what it would be like to live in one with all those people.

Or, as I did in a Kennedy Town cafe, I wonder what its like to be a waitress - this one in particular caught my eye because when she was needed to serve food or take orders or clear tables, she was alacrity personified, and very helpful - she helped me sort out the menu - but when there was nothing for her to do, she'd stand, transfixed by the soap opera on TV, and start to bounce up and down and squeal if something (I presume) juicy was going on. In another cafe, I found myself having a race with another customer - she was very trim, well under half my size, but I noticed that we'd both received our orders for the same dish at the same time. I was not even handicapped by having to use chopsticks and thought I was motoring through my food while she was eating quite sedately, and yet I was only three quarters done and she was getting up to pay the bill. The food places are are a revelation - so many good, cheap places to eat, and many of them full of people at all hours: eating, obviously, but also just hanging out, reading the paper, doing whatever. Even McDonalds is a very social space, where people seem to sit for hours, not always ordering anything. I guess this is a consequence of the tiny apartments.

Mentioning Kennedy Town reminded me of a cafe I popped into after the conference one day. We've all seen cafes combined with other sorts of business, like books and music and garden centres, but this one had an odd juxtoposition: I was chowing down on a big piece of chocolate cake and drinking my cappucino amongst a fairly good range of outdoor sportswear.

When the conference finished, I made another hop - this time to a hostel in one of the most densely populated places in the world and the most expensive rent for retail premises in the world (this is apparently where the vertical mall was invented): Causeway Bay.

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[Stole that last one from wikipedia.] I was still on Hong Kong Island, about half way along its north shore. The hostel is almost on the coast so that while I could see nothing from where I slept, the common area had a great view of Victoria Harbour, really fantastic at night. I had an interesting encounter there with a violin student from the Shanghai Conservatory - she came in a bit tipsy from some club, and was very sweet and friendly.

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It seems that the main reason people go to Causeway Bay is to shop, which I couldn't do as there's no way I want to lug even more stuff around the world (I've already bought more than I ought). One thing that did interest me was that there was a sort of march - I'm not sure if it was a protest or celebration, as it had elements of both: someone bellowing catchphrases into a megaphone, a police presence and banners suggested the former, but the marching girls, the music and the dancers suggested the latter. One thing I do know is that one woman was not happy - she stood on the sidelines shouting at them and waving her umbrella angrily (it didn't have much of an effect, as t was one of those wee fold up ones and it kept flapping open).

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After spending the Saturday morning wandering around, I had not much more I wanted to do there (I am trying out a policy of staying local) so when I found the utterly wonderful Hong Kong central library, that's where I went by way of refuge/natural habitat. It has nine floors, all filled up with books and computers and people, and a near absolute silence prevails throughout. I tried to get good photos of the interior, but a security guard came racing over and was all "no photo, no photo". He didn't follow me into the lift, however.

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I found two really good coffee places - one, a tiny almost hole in the all place with just four constantly pacled tables (18grams) was just outside the hostel, and the other, Coffee Academics, I just found by randomly walking around - it was very swish, but its apple strudel was rather smaller and more civilised than the huge chunks I normally have on X-Files night.

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Posted by NZBarry 29.07.2014 09:35 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Week Two: Sheung Wan

sunny 31 °C

It has been an extremely busy week, but mainly because of work and so nothing particularly newsworthy. I moved onto Hong Kong Island, at first into a suburb called Sheung Wan - it is a sort of in between place: to the west of the flashier terndier parts of Central and Causeway Bay (more on this next time) and to the east of Kennedy Town, which just about to emerge as it awaits its connection to the light rail system. So there's a lot of traditional Hong Kong about Sheung Wan - older buildings with clothes and air conditioning units dangling out the windows, narrow streets, customary industries, men in nooks and crannies going about their business.

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Hong Kong Island is a bit like Dunedin, in that it is very hilly, but perhaps more like Wellington, in that the narrow streets twist and curl their way along and up the hill, with numerous sets of steps to link them.

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I don't know how google maps does it, but it seems to have got its head around these steps - so tonight, it told me to head right, then left, then down 23 steps to the same street I'd been on by way of short cut. Then it told me which bus to catch to get me back home. It is a bit of a thrill to be sitting up in the front of a double decker bus as it navigates these streets, even better in the little minibuses that race aboout. For a more sedate, and older, form of transport you have these:

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My particular street was called Des Voeux Road, which some signs translated as dried seafood street. I actually managed to forget that, so a couple of times I emerged from my hotel and wondered at the rather pungent odours. I have to say that none of the food tempted me.

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At the same time, there's a new vibe emerging in Sheung Wan - apparently quite a few artists and fashion designers have moved in, and there's a huge range of what you might call ethnic food - I've noticed most countries represented, including attempts at classic American burger bars, a true southern pulled pork outlet and a Dutch cheese shop in among the more traditional sources of food. There is also redevelopment - the flash buildings are coming in.

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Something dear to my heart: the coffee shops, which are popping up in side streets and odd corners. I came across several where I could have just as easily been in Auckland as Hong Kong - not just the style, but the menu: full cooked breakfasts. Here, it is way too hot to be wanting to eat anything at all, let alone bacon, eggs, beans, sausages... I was a bit annoyed to finally discover my preferred cafe just the day before it was time to leave the area.

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Just to clarify - that is two different cafes, the interior is a place called Open Door, just round the corner from my hotel, really. Something else which annoyed me - the IFC Mall. It is a very posh place, very high ceilings, glossy shops, wide thoroughfares and completely befuddling. I only went in because I needed to restock my teabags and being a teasnob, the only place that would do was in the IFC Mall. I found the tea place immediately, but there is a cinema and a couple of other places I wanted to see. There was a digital map with shop numbers - but all of the shops were far too precious to actually put a number up - I still haven't found the cinema. I did enjoy the roof, where I could look back across to the mainland - the buildings were all lit up, so the sky was still blue at 10:00 at night, but the water was this mysterious inky black, with a few boats bustling about. I took a photo with my phone but the result is a bit embarrasing. I had more success with this

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I was a bit sad to leave my hotel because, apart from the seriously weird wifi - it worked perfectly, but they blocked access to various sites for "security reasons": after I complained, they seemed to work out which sites I used most, then blocked them - it was well set up for working in and had a huge room
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but my conference beckoned at HKU. I stayed in Kennedy Town, because google had told me it was a 12 minute walk, which it was, if you can cope with all the steps in the heat - after doing it once, I took the bus. Kennedy Town had a few western looking bars in among the more traditional Hong Kong shops and restaurants but I'm afraid I was barely there - up and away at 8:00 for the conference, and not leaving until 12 hours later. Conference was very, um, edifying - many of th sessions weren't really my thing, but it was interesting to see how far from the practice of law people in my profession can get. The last couple of days, they freaked us out with talks of an Extreme Typhoon (it killed about 30 people in the Philippines) but apart from a bit of heavy rain and a cooling breeze, it was a non-event (thankfully).

Posted by NZBarry 23.07.2014 08:18 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (4)

Hong Kong - Tsuen Wan style

storm 32 °C

When I was checking in at Auckland, the ground staff were a bit worried that it was a one way booking, and wanted me to show them I had an onward ticket, warning me that without it, getting into Hong Kong could be tricky. If they only knew! I was ushered to a counter where the fellow was already talking - I don't know if he had some sort of ear-piece, if he was talking to his colleague (who did not seem to be paying any attention) or if he was just mad. In any event, he never stopped talking - just took my passport, ripped off the top cover of my entry card, put a small piece of paper in my passport (I have NO stamps at all) and handed it back - never addressing a word or even a gesture in my direction.

I've been here just over a week now, in a city in the New Territories called Tsuen Wan. A hundred years ago, there was a saying along the lines that if you want a golden life, you go to California; if you want to die, you go to Tsuen Wan. I came here because I was careless with my hotel booking - I found a decent room for a decent price and really had no idea where it was. I was a little perturbed to find it was actually on the same street as the first hotel I stayed in, then confused to find the two hotels are 6 kilometres apart. After the space of that first hotel, the size of this one came as a bit of a shock (I am pressed against the wall to take this photo)

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I grew quite fond of the hotel (the Silka Far East) and its cosy room, and the fact that if you came in around 10:00 pm, the foyer would be crowded with people off tour buses and it could take ten minutes or more to get on a lift. It had a brilliant bakery right next door (I was there when they brought out freshly baked loaves of raison bread - I had no way to deal with one, but they would have been great for an X-Files night back home) and a 7-Eleven behind it for when a craving for beer came on at midnight.

Tsuen Wan was originally settled by the Hakka (or guest people): back in 1662, the mainland Chinese emperor decreed that no-one was to live near the coast (it was a defensive measure but sounds a bit loopy as invaders would get a free pass off the sea), then when the decree was lifted, clans settled in the coastal areas and in Tsuen Wan. Apparently not much changed until land was needed for housing around the middle of the 20th century. The one museum in Tsuen Wan is one of these Hakka enclaves - it had maybe ten four bedroom houses, three halls and a central shrine.

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Things have changed - here's the view out of my hotel window, then a few random street scenes as I wandered around

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I have to say that I really enjoyed my week here, and could probably have stayed my whole month here (although that would be a bit weird as it would mean not seeing the rest of Hong Kong, a bit like going to Cambodia and not going to Angkor Wat - oh, wait, I did that). But it has been a good way to spend my time - I'm working, so I'd stay in my hotel room for that, but for each meal, go for a 2-3 hour walk. I did find that my path almost always took me to a McCafe - I didn't see anywhere else that sold coffee, only one was undrinkable and it was cheap. The menu price was $22 but they always charged me $12 - it might be an old person's discount, but it has been the same in five different McCafes (they really are plastered all over the place and all are very busy). My favourite eating option is the Tsui Wah restaurant - open 24 hours, decent food, nice people running it

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I've only once gone into a place that has no English menu, but it was pretty easy as I could point and get my favourite (duck)

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Other bits I've had to eat:

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The last was called Chongqing style chicken - I was in Chongqing earlier in the year and had chicken, but it looked nothing like this - but it was nicely cooked, tender, moist and had a startling level of heat dusted on to it. There have been a couple of other odd incidents - one day I was in the Tsui Wah and someone dressed like a naval officer came in and demanded to inspect their books (TV watching makes me wonder if she was actually a customs officer) and then another day a travel agency had what looked like a flashmob (do people still do that?) - about a hundred people descended on it, flapping bits of paper. I initially thought it was some kind of party and went in, but nah, no party.

I read in the paper that a typhoon hit Japan and coastal China Tuesday - that explains the weather we had: it rained steadily for about four hours, there was plenty of lightning and, most impressive of all, the thunder sounding like aerial combat in a war zone. I've also been reading in the paper about the long list of legislation to be passed before the LegCo goes into summer recess, the urgency, the accusations that those who oppose the bills (with what seem to me quite legitimate concerns - why wouldn't someone challenge a tripling of stamp tax?) of filibustering, the accusations that the government set agenda means that bills that are to protect people won't get dealt with - all a bit familiar, really.

I'll finish with some other pictures I took as I wandered around with my camera:

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The last is the only that might need explanation - it is a mah jong shop.

Posted by NZBarry 11.07.2014 08:16 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

The Long One

sunny 33 °C

I started this little effort several years ago because I was embarking on a six month sabbatical, my longest stint of travelling since they invented the internet. The years have now rolled around to provide me with a further opportunity for a sabbatical, this time for an entire year. Plans are not well formed - I have bookings which will see me hit Canada and cross it by rail, and then fly one of the more obscure connections, from Orlando to Oslo. But all that is far far in the future.

My last few days in the country were, unsurprisingly, rather frantic. I saw no sense in keeping a broken down car hanging about awating my return, so onto trademe it went. I listed with a $1 start bid, and for a couple of days was worried I wouldn't get my listing fee back, then worried that some bloke with no trading history from Te Awamutu would buy my car and not complete. Luckily there is more than one nice lady in Christchurch who likes elderly Hondas - my buyer was so keen she set her alarm clock for 2 a.m. to be awake when the auction closed (I somewaht foolishly just randomly listed it at 3:40 a.m. so that's when it closed) and then organised for a transporter to take it away. For a pretty much accidental buy four years ago, it was a great car and I'm a bit sad to see it go.

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There was really only one mishap - I managed to leave my boarding pass and a library book on top of my car when I left it at the transport yard. Oops. The rest of my time was a blur of marking, house and office cleaning, trying unsuccessfully to instal a house-sitter, a rather nice farewell dinner at Ombrelloes and two very late nights - so late that when I finally caught my flights out of Dunedin, I managed to sleep through both take-offs. Unfortunately one seat mate had irritating leg syndrome - at first I thought he was tapping along to his music, but then his whole leg would start oscillating and, horror of horrors, touch me. That kept me awake.

My last three days in New Zealand were taken up by a quick drive down to Tauranga to see my family and then two days locked up in a motel near the airport, to finalise the last of my marking. I did manage to find two nice meals - I took a drive over to Panmure to eat at a highly rated Malaysian place but it was closed for some sort of holiday. Luckily I found an enormous Vietnamese place where I could have a beer and curry and the next day popped over to Birkenhead for a great Malaysian curry. In between I dined on KFC burgers, to use up some vouchers I had.

I was at the airport in time for a relaxed departure, and the Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong was unexceptional. I've never been here before so caught the bus into town in order to sit on the upper floor and see what could be seen. I enjoyed seeing the lights of the high-rise buidlings lining the harbour and then the bright lights of Nathan Road. My digs are pretty good - in Hong Kong it is hard to get spacious rooms with free internet cheaply but by going a bit out of town I succeeded. The only real downside is that it is up a bit of a hill from the train station, and this June was the hottest Hong Kong has ever recorded (since about 1880). I had to have a bit of a sit down when I finally dragged myself and my bags into reception.

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The Heritage Lodge is part of an old (100+ year old) hospital compound (the rest is something called the Jao Tsung-I Academy, which is a sort of museum honouring the works of a local academic, Professor Jao Tsung:

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This really sets the bar quite high as a marker of academic achievement! I took a quick look round - it was mainly a collection of some calligraphy and paintings of his, but there was a nice group of photos of old Hong Kong. The security guard was cute - she saw me in the main exhibition hall, waved, told me to take no photos and dashed off. Then she waved again, came rushing up to me and said :welcome, I hope you have a nice visit".

The local area, Mei Foo, is very much a residential area, made up of a large high-rise private housing estate

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and a small central town (although each tower seemed to have its own little collection of shops)

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- lots of real estate agencies, banks and bakeries, and a quite pleasant local fast-food chain restaurant, Cafe de Coral. I've just read that it is run on Taylor's (i.e. Frederick Winslow) scientific management principles, which is a little scary. He invented the stop-watch based time and motion study and apparently believed that workers are not capable of understanding what they are doing, so all power is in the hands of managers. All I can say is that the people I dealt with seemed cheery enough and I didn;t see a stopwatch anywhere. I've also just read about Mei Foo - when built it was the largest housing development in the world, with around 80,000 occupants in 13,500 apartments. Mei Foo is the Chinese trading name of Mobil Oil, the former owners of the land. I can't say it is the most exciting part of Hong Kong, but it was a good relaxing place to spend my first three nights.

Posted by NZBarry 05.07.2014 20:02 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

On to Bangkok

sunny 27 °C

My last couple of days in Hanoi were basically spent wandering around without much of a plan, eating when I was hungry, popping in to look at things that looked interesting, sitting in parks and the like. The one specific place I visted was the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum. This did a good job of showing the historical development of local art, but I have to say that only about three elements of the collection really caught my eye. A large ground floor space was given over to the work of one artist: some of it was quite eye-catching.

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I couldn't quite work out the technique but assistance was at hand, in the shape of the artist herself. I had blundered into the space as they were getting it ready for the official opening (which I think means it was closed while I was there), and the artist came over to see if I was from the press. Even when I wasn't she gave me her card (if I had it with me here, that would be helpful as I have forgotten her name), so I asked her about the technqiue - lacquer. This is a big thing in Vietnam, which I would have learnt had I seen the rest of the gallery before I saw this work. Here is another, older, work of Hai Phong Harbour

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These just amused me

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and this one was vaguely intimidating:

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Early on Boxing Day, I was off to Noi Bai airport where I caught a Vietjet (totally innocuous) flight to Bangkok. Apart from a brief stopover between trains, I haven't been here since the late 1980's: it was the very first place that was not New ZealandI ever went to. My visit then was cut short by my need to flee (got caught up in something very dodgy, something that felt dangerous) so I had decided to spend a week exploring Bangkok. I had another reason: there was a particular hotel I wanted to stay in, not because it was flash, not because it was particularly charming but because it was an anachronism. Most people I am sure will be aware that Bangkok has a reputation for, shall we say, being a fairly easygoing sort of place, with Nana Plaza being one of the two most easygoing spots. My hotel was a mere block away, but it had a morals code, literally: long lists of do nots were posted on the wall (including "no catamites, junkies and degenerates") with the suggestion that if people did not like them - the rules I mean, not catamites, junkies and degenerates - they could go somewhere else. The poster went on to say that the staff may well be "sweet and ineffectual" so it might be up to guests to police the rules but reassured us that if we were not up to the task, people would be procured who could.

The hotel was originally a chemical factory, but in the 1950's its German owner turned it into a R&R resort (it had the first hotel swimming pool in Bangkok)

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for American soldiers. The owner died, the place went to the dogs and then in the 1980's the fellow who had inherited it visited and was shocked at what he found - hence the morals code. The outside was nothing special, the rooms were basic but its public spaces are a bit of a time warp. Here are the front and rear entrances

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the foyer

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I spent quite a lot of time in the dining room - I'd come home at the end of a day and relax here with a nice cold one, and use the internet. I had a couple of meals and snacks - I had thought that it was the sort of hotel that people would gather here and get to know each other a bit, but no. Maybe it had something to do with the staff - here is how one fellow describes them on tripadvisor: "However the staff are certainly quite stern, and any smiles in the restaurant seemed fleeting and strained, so it didn't feel that relaxed a place to eat for a solo diner."

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I spent my first morning in here making a long list of the things I would do during my week, and I did start off quite assiduously (I have a couple of posts for those things) but as the week went on, I moved more from an active sight-seeing mode into the hanging out not doing very much mode. But even on my first voyage to do something on my list, I went past this place

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and couldn't resist - the Scala is another piece of Bangkok history. 47 Ronin, by the way, would have to be the most ridiculous movie I have ever seen. It takes an actual Japanese historical event (Ronin are former Samurai, stripped of that honour), but brought in supernatural elements and, even worse, had a battle for control of Japan between north and south depend upon Keanu Reeves. I saw a much better movie at another cinema - I should have taken a photo. It had been a multi-story multiplex, but had not prospered so the building was largely abandoned - there was a go-kart track in the car park and a very nice arthouse cinema on an upper floor, simply called House. The movie was called "Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy" - based on a true story, a story told in 410 tweets. Mary was dropped by her parents into a boarding school and has no contact with them while she is there - the story is essentially of her adjustment, her being a teenager, the friendships she develops, the weird way that teachers have and a crush she has on a particular boy. I enjoyed it so much more than 47 Ronin.

Posted by NZBarry 03.02.2014 05:33 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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