Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 9th May 2006

Cheung Chau is a small island to the west of Hong Kong. Originally a fishing community, the narrow strip of land at the centre of the dumb-bell shaped island is a well developed scrum of narrow lanes and houses, which gives way to forest and cliffs as the land opens up at either end.

Back in 1999 the island experienced unusually high levels of suicides. The doleful and despairing were drawn to Cheung Chau, perhaps attracted by its relative isolation. They focused on one particular block of holiday apartments, and, alone in their rented rooms, lit charcoal, slipping away amongst the fumes. The grim suicide statistics led the local residents and police to launch a Suicide Prevention Scheme and more recently, a councillor to propose the building of a Suicide Theme Park on the island. Given the slightly spooky circumstances of my first visit to Cheung Chau, it's a probably a good thing I didn't know all this back then.

The annual Bun Festival, which took place last weekend, hasn't yet been adapted to placate the charcoal infused dead, despite the festival being, in part, a ritual to commemorate islanders killed by pirates and appease their souls which still wander the island's paths. The festival is also a tribute to Pak Tai, a Taoist Sea God, whose beneficence is important to a community traditionally dependent on fishing. For three days the island turns vegetarian, before staging a long and colourful procession which threads past the thousands of day-trippers who descend on the island for the festival, which culminates in the Bun Scramble.

A long night in Lang Kwai Fong meant that, despite my eagerness to get out of my room, I didn't get to Cheung Chau until 3pm. I was just in time to catch a marching band parrumping down the main street, which runs along the front of the harbour. The place was packed, and it was only a height advantage that allowed me to see the band as they wheeled by. I pushed my way through the crowds to one of the narrow back streets and watched as the final third of the procession came through.

Old men in bright red religious robes passed along the street, followed by younger men blowing wildly discordant cornets or banging cymbals and drums to drive away evil spirits. These were followed by whirling dragon dances, believers carrying ornate sedan chairs in which statues of deities resided, strolling Buddhas wearing papier-mâché heads and waving their rattan fans at well-wishers (it was also the big man's birthday) and children, suspended on raised platforms to give the impression that they were floating through the crowd. The children were either dressed in traditional costume or done up to represent more contemporary characters - one hose carrying boy wore blue scrubs and a hairnet to look like a SARS hospital worker. A girl was dressed as a supercilious health official, the base of her platform scattered with chickens - the local government, in an attempt to prevent avian influenza has confiscated poultry from farmers without providing compensation.

After an hour or so, the procession dribbled to a stop, the heads that had been hanging out of windows along the lane withdrew, and the crowd disbursed. I decided to go for a walk around the coast. 20 minutes later, climbing a steep hill into the forest, I realised that this might have been a humiliating mistake. Over the last few weeks the temperature in Hong Kong has been steadily climbing, along with the humidity. Air conditioning units rattle away constantly and a few brave cockroaches have been seen lumbering along the streets of Central. I'd like to have been able to blame the rapidly expanding dark patches on my shirt on its linen material, but the reality is that I'm a sweaty white guy hopelessly ill-equipped to survive in this part of the world. The paths around the island were full of happy Chinese families enjoying the holiday atmosphere, clambering on the rocks and picnicking, not one of them breaking a sweat.

After trudging past the cemetery in the woods I spied a bench and decided to have a rest. I absent-mindedly watched a family of stray dogs optimistically trotting behind each walker who passed by, only to drop back dejected after 20 seconds. I wondered whether it was possible to give up exercise by simply sitting in the sweltering sunshine for half an hour, sweating off fat. I was roused from my thoughts by a slight tickle on my arm. I looked down on it to see about five black thick-bodied mosquitoes grazing. Disgusted I brushed them off, crushing a couple and leaving a smear of blood across my forearm. I stood up as both my arms started tingling and masochistically counted the bites. There were about 15 in all, on both my arms. I had been sitting there for three minutes. Irritated I walked on and was dismayed to see a sign depicting two large mosquitoes and the legend "Beware of Japanese Encephalitis and Dengue Fever".

Back in town I headed to the supermarket and stood over the freezer compartment, pretending to read the back of a packet of peas. Cooled down, I made for the other side of the harbour. Next to some fishing boats the air was heavy with smoke and ash. A large fire was burning before a 12 foot effigy of an angry looking Pak Tai. Old men and women were lighting bundles of incense and bowing before him and the row of cardboard holy men standing nearby.

Across the road on the municipal tennis courts, in front of the Pak Tai temple, stood the 60 foot high bun tower. Up to and including 1978, the bun towers were comprised of a bamboo frame covered with hundreds of sweet buns. Festival goers scrambled up the tower, buns flying, to the top. In competition with each other, they filled bags with as many snatched buns as possible. However, as grainy 1978 TV footage shows, this all ended as the bamboo gave way and the tower came tumbling down in a shower of fluffy dough and broken limbs. About 100 people were injured and the Bun Scramble was history. It has been revived in the last couple of years, but now the towers are made of metal, and only small well trained teams get to grab the buns, all the time attached to the tower with ropes.

Behind the tower, the festival was still in full swing. A small stage played host to Cantonese Opera, stalls sold bun shaped cushions and the temple rang with the repeated chimes of its heavy gong. As night fell queues formed at bakers' shops, stretching down the alleyways. I joined a queue, and watched as the buns were steamed in giant bamboo steamers and then individually stamped with a red Chinese character ("Peace"). Having finally reached the front of the queue, I bought a couple of buns and munched them sitting in the main square, having avoided the TV crews (TVB and MTV) interviewing Western tourists.

And then, I left. Although I was keen to see the actual Bun Scramble, it was scheduled for midnight and after 1am the ferry service back to Central was severely limited. Since it was three hours until midnight and since I didn't have anyone with whom to while away those hours or the ones that would inevitably be spent queuing for an early morning ferry, I jumped on the boat and watched the live broadcast of the Bun Scramble on TV. It looked fun, but I couldn't help wishing that I had seen it in the old days, when it was a free-for-all, without harnesses and crash helmets. It's such a unique and mad idea that, while clearly much more sensible, the sterilised Bun Scramble seems contrary to the spirit of the festival. I think Pak Tai and the itinerant spirits of the dead probably preferred it back then too.

Inspired by Matt, I have put some of my photos on Flickr. Selected photos from the Bun Festival can be seen here.

90 - posted at 16:31:10

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Thursday 27th April 2006

Hong Kong isn't known as a cultural hotspot - either for Chinese or Western culture. The common perception is that the latter is almost completely absent from these balmy islands, and that's not a surprise. The residency in Hong Kong of Western music, art and literature depends on the expats from that part of the world, who, along with their professional qualifications and reluctant families, must also bring a demand for it. However, the expat demographic in general doesn't care too much for cultural variety so unless you're fulfilled by U2 and The Da Vinci code (on which topic, what a fucking prick) don't come here expecting too much.

This isn't something of which we, as a group, are ashamed, and nor should we be. European and American culture is for Europe and America. Hong Kong is for making money and getting pissed. This week's issue of HK Magazine (a listings paper, a bit like a 6th form Time Out) opened its interview with a local aspiring poet with, "There's a million things to do in this city. Why bother writing poetry?" Therefore last month, while idly flicking through the pages of the same publication and wondering if I would go to any of the places listed if I had someone to go with, I was surprised to read about the Hong Kong Literary Festival opening in town.

True to form, HK couched the festival in apologetic terms, careful not to alienate its readers. The Nobel Lecture from Seamus Heaney was recommended for "anyone who wants to hear verse read in a Northern Irish brogue" while The Sea, the Booker Prize winning novel of John Banville, the other big name attending, was dismissed as a book no-one has read and "pretty much identical" to anything Kazuo Ishiguro has ever written. Although, I haven't read The Sea either, so perhaps that's fair comment...

Anyway, it turns out that, at least in part, the perception of gweilos as literature-phobes is bollocks, as is the idea of the city as a cultural desert. While I did get a few odd looks when I mentioned to people in the office that I was off to a literary festival event, all the talks I went to were well-attended, albeit mostly by academics, students and publishers. Hong Kong was, it turns out, an ideal city in which to hold this kind of festival. The place is small enough that any of the venues were easy to reach by foot or a short taxi ride. The events were popular but rarely oversubscribed. Entry was either free or fairly cheap. This meant that I could finish up at work, have a quick look on the website to see what was on, and 10 minutes later be sat in a little theatre listening to Ma Jian rattle on about sky burials (OK, so it wasn't all Western Literature), watching a panel of "experts" have a lively debate over what was going on in North Korea or wondering whether Nell Freudenberger only got a publishing deal because of her looks (she didn't).

I would of course feel a little short changed if I didn't come out of some of the events without a slight animosity towards my fellow festival goers, and so I developed an irritation towards the 'nodding-at-no-one' syndrome, which I noticed was endemic in middle-aged academic looking women who nodded knowingly at points although nobody was seeking their approval or checking that they had understood. To be honest, I think I was just jealous, sitting there like a lemon in a suit, realising that the majority of the audience spent their lives thinking about and working on things they were interested in, even had a passion for. For them the event was merely a complement to their daily lives, while I shoehorned it in at the end or very beginning of days mostly consisting of boredom, dull fear and incomprehension.

89 - posted at 15:53:21

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Thursday 30th March 2006

The notion of 'Hong Kong' varies from person to person, but present it to enough people and before long some themes will develop. Take your pick from a spread offering a neon city tottering with Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers, an oasis of fake designer watches and handbags, a belching fume filled metropolis crawling with capitalists in the brutal pursuit of a quick buck. Or perhaps a pearl of enlightenment and clarity perched on the edge of the confusion of China, a heady mix of clubby expat society, incense infused temples and dim sum. And this weekend, chubby rugger buggers vomiting barely imbibed beer over delighted fellow hedonists.

However, for most, verdant countryside and literary indulgence probably wouldn't feature in an imagined snapshot of the territory. But over the last month I've enjoyed both - but the literature is for later.

About three-quarters of Hong Kong is undeveloped. There are 23 country parks packed with jungle, rivers, small mountains, snakes, reservoirs and lots of monkeys. The majority of the 220 odd islands that, along with the Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories, make up Hong Kong are rural, often largely uninhabited. As a result the territory is full of hiking trails. With all this wilderness surrounding me perhaps I was lucky to stumble across a bookshop and pick up a book detailing a few of the routes.

I decided to head to Po Toi, one of the most southerly islands in Hong Kong. From the description in the book, half the effort was in getting to the place. As the ferry only left St Stephen's Pier for Po Toi on Sundays, this was the day on which I chose to go. Unfortunately the last ferry to leave the pier is scheduled for 11:30am and, as actually getting to the jetty required some thought, the first hurdle was getting out of bed.

This achieved, I set off on the bus. In the middle of Wan Chai, it took an unexpected turn, and so I alighted and wandered through the Sunday morning streets, to find the bus to Stanley. I walked up the narrower section of Wan Chai road. The butcher's were doing a solid trade and the street stank of raw meat. Cages bristled with chickens and recently fished creatures flipped vainly in buckets. Soon I was on the bus to Stanley, a pleasant ride to the other side of Hong Kong Island, past the tourist market to the terminus at the prison. From there it was a 15 minute walk to the quiet St Stephen's Beach and jetty. By the time I was standing on the jetty, my eyes straining to see through the haze sitting over the water, I wondered if I had done enough exercise for the day. But the ferry arrived before I had a chance to contemplate heading back to bed. A choppy 30 minutes later I was walking up to the only notable collection of houses on Po Toi, past piles of seaweed drying on the rocks around the bay. Most of the houses seemed deserted. I had read somewhere that the population had fallen in the last 30 years from thousands to only a few hundred, the inhabitants drawn away by the flashy promise of the city. I followed the path out of the village and took up the route recommended by the book, passing the first of many batches of twitchers, weighed down with telescopic lenses and bird whistles.

The path headed up hill through dense bushes and squat trees. Halfway up the hill, an animal track heading right from the path was blocked by a large red stenciled sign: 'You Will Be Penalized For Trespassing Private Property'. However, my book and recently purchased map indicated that this path was the quickest way to Mo's Old House (alternatively known as the Ghost House) an abandoned dwelling used by Japanese soldiers during the occupation. I gingerly ducked under the sign, and headed through the undergrowth, until I reached the dilapidated house. Windows and rooms were still intact, but the roof had largely fallen through and gaping holes in the masonry exposed the corners of dingy rooms. The final scene of The Blair Witch Project jumped into my mind, and I nervously took a couple of photos before heading back to the main path, pursued by the sound of a door banging in the gentle wind.

A bit further up the path and the undergrowth suddenly stopped and barren rock took over, covered only by thin green scrub. Reaching the top of the path, it was clear that the majority of Po Toi was similarly rocky. I could see all sides of the small island - back down to the village and to the other sides, where the sheer rock face smoothly descended into the foaming sea. At this point a signpost presented me with a choice. A 'Rugged Path' to the left, or a more leisurely stroll to the right. For some reason, although day tripping families were dotted along the right hand path, I chose to take it. Laziness I guess - along with the fact that this was the route the book suggested. Although the stark granite landscape was a pleasure to stroll through, the fact that the route was along a thick concrete path (and steps where steep) was a shame, as was the copious litter strewn along its length.

I passed families picnicking at the base of unusual rock formations, optimistically named after what they apparently resembled (Monk's Rock, Buddha's Hand Rock and the carelessly christened Tortoise Climbing Up The Mountain Rock). The path weaved down to a grassy plain. A few boulders had rolled onto it, and they sat in between about 20 unexpected tombs. Meanwhile huge freight ships slid past, cutting their way through the South China Sea, presumably heading up to Hong Kong harbour.

Despite the concrete and the litter I felt pleased with myself as I completed the circle and found myself back at the village. I was well exercised, and headed through the houses and restaurants up to the Tin Hau temple on the far side. A brief inhalation of the joss sticks' aroma and I was ready to try the Rugged Path, which both my map and a signpost told me I could join from here. I looked at my watch. 70 minutes until the last ferry headed back to Hong Kong Island. I followed the signpost, pulling myself up a steep rock face and around a corner. The path was blocked by a small electricity sub-station. I tried again, taking an alternative path. Suddenly I was walking on soft grass between low trees. The sun was shining. A black and white butterfly fluttered in front of me. This was more like it. I turned a corner. And was back at the village. Perhaps the electricity sub-station path was the right one - I don't know. I had lost 10 minutes and didn't want to miss the last ferry.

I found a busy restaurant, called Ming Kee, and shyly asked for a table for one. I was placed on a large empty table in between bellowing British come ashore from junks moored in the bay. I don't mind eating on my own, but a definite disadvantage is that you can't make conversation in order to drown out that of your neighbours. As I sucked down my seaweed soup and scallops I tried to ignore the hearty colonial talk of team sports and 5 star hotels across Asia. To be fair I'm sure that they, likewise, didn't appreciate the presence of a lugubrious young man frowning over a book.

While waiting for the ferry to take me back I bought a large circular pie of dried seaweed, which I ate profusely over the next few days. A subsequent night of desperately painful stomach spasms preceded by particularly noxious wind suggested that this may have been a mistake.

88 - posted at 15:43:24

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Thursday 9th March 2006

Being just off the boat, I couldn't really back out of my company's annual party. As a lazy, anti-social and shy sort the mere fact that I didn't know anyone and would have to head to the venue on my own meant that I was powerless to stop the vague feeling of dread building throughout the day. The event was meant to kick off at around 7:30pm with a drinks reception. The meal was to start at 8:30pm. I decided to avoid the drinks. I could stomach the idea of sitting safely at a table but mingling, spouting stinking chat and worrying about whether I was meant to be circulating were to be avoided.

So I remained at my desk, finding trivial little tasks to do, making sure I was too busy to leave the office. Finally I logged off and headed over the road to the Ritz-Carlton, barely allowing myself to hope that it would be OK. I didn't need it to be the best night of my life - or even fun. OK would do me. In the event, it was OK. And a bit fun too.

As the event coincided with the turn of the Chinese new year, each of the 20 or so round tables crowbarred into the Ritz function room was named after a breed of dog. At one end of the room was a small stage, and to the right of that was a projection screen which flashed through various office-related photos for the entire evening. True to Hong Kong's love of cameras and taking photos, over the three hours I was there, I never saw the same photo flash up twice. The meal was a Chinese banquet of around 13 courses. During the food various people got up on stage to sing songs. In between the singing there were games (match the person with their mutt, charades) and a raffle, the main prize of which was a large gold dog. I felt like I was at one of those weddings where you know no-one but to have anything less than the time of your life is sacrilege. With a perma-grin plastered on my face I began to drink heavily and became a little less curmudgeonly.

Luckily, as my resolve was beginning to falter, I was presented with an escape route: some colleagues were off to Karaoke. My relief at leaving with them was increased as someone turned up the cheese and fellow gweilos took to the dancefloor.

Causeway Bay is a vibrant shopping area, east of Wan Chai. It's more upmarket than Mongkok, but seems no less packed - squeezed in between the clutch of department stores, malls and restaurants are shops selling clothes, watches, luggage, electronics and mobile phones, from the lowliest corner shop to designer boutiques. It's always rammed with young Hong Kongers, and during the evening, when the neon flickers to life making the night brighter than day, the hordes don't let up.

At the top of a shopping mall in Causeway Bay is the Green (or is it Red?) Box Karaoke Centre. I followed my colleagues behind the reception desk into a warren of narrow corridors, past countless doors, through which muffled crooning filtered. We reached our door - inside was a dark room with a sofa running along one wall facing a large TV screen, at the far end a small bar and beyond that, a bathroom. The others quickly got to work, ordering drinks and nibbles and programming songs into the Karaoke system. Soon more people joined us, exiles from the party. As they passed the microphones around, producing pitch-perfect renditions of Cantopop ballads, I got stuck into what seems to be the latest fashionable drink, whiskey and green tea. I had been in this situation before, both in Taipei and Hong Kong, the only non-Chinese person in a room full of well-practised Karaoke singers, all of whom seemed to be flicking through the English language songs in the library, entreating me to sing. The last occasion had brought to an end any farcical notions I may once have entertained that could emit a sound which had any relation to Boethian notation, let alone sing. The only solution was to get even more drunk and jump in.

Naturally, it was a shameful display. In my defence, the choice of English language songs was hardly inspirational. I won't demean myself further by listing what I "sang" - let's just mention that at times I probably say it best when I say nothing at all and that there are still some lipstick marks left on a coffee cup. Oh, and I heard that Backstreet was back. Luckily, I had the videos to distract me from the horror. Invariably, when the others expertly motored through Cantopop, it was to a bland video of the relevant performer singing to an adoring audience. However, the English language songs were accompanied by bizarrely incongruous films. Boyband classics, old Beatles songs and cock-rock power ballads were accompanied by, amongst other things, footage of a dog show, a barge holiday in the Norfolk Broads and what looked like a tourist board promo for Southend-on-Sea.

Before I knew it, we were all out of whiskey and green tea, it was almost 5am and there were only 4 of us left. I have a vague recollection of most of the others leaving when I picked up the microphone to sing Sweet Child O' Mine.

87 - posted at 07:59:49

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Monday 27th February 2006

It was odd, arriving back in Hong Kong after two years. I stepped off the Airport Express and joined the line for taxis. At once I was hit by forgotten sensations - but when they made themselves known, they were so familiar. Simple things: the smell of the Airport Express Terminus, the constant circulation of air conditioning and the accompanying hum, the sound of the red taxis' tyres on the road as, one by one, they pulled up and took people into the city. And how could I have not thought once, over two years, of the way the taxi doors magically swing open to greet you?

The taxi took me into the evening, through Central and Admiralty, into Wan Chai and then up onto the flyover. The harbour and the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club fell away to my left, while on my right, a wall of sparkling skyscrapers drew closer, their water-facing sides still covered with New Year decorations, where glittering 20 metre dogs barked at Kowloon.

My flat is in Happy Valley. When I say flat, I mean serviced apartment and when I say serviced apartment, I mean serviced room. What greeted me, at about 8:30pm after I had left my details with the concierge, was a hotel room with a small kitchen tacked onto the side. The building is in Upper Happy Valley, which basically means it's a steep walk uphill from the supermarket. Having previously lived in Mid-Levels, I'd only been to Happy Valley on the occasional Wednesday, and then I limited myself to the race track, where Hong Kong gambles obsessively under flood lights whenever it can. Most of the residential area is to the south of the track and it has as much of a villagey feel as anywhere on the north side of Hong Kong island can. It's also, apparently, fairly affluent - a friend told me it was, "the Hampstead of Hong Kong." I'm not sure about that, but there are a lot of cake shops.

It was straight into work the next morning, but God bless assumed jet lag. The presumption of colleagues gave me a pleasant week to gently settle in, and, less attractively, attend to admin. A letter from my employers and HK$2000 got HSBC to start the process of opening a bank account for me. A flying visit to a corner shop got me a Hong Kong SIM card. A slightly tortuous internet search revealed my bus route to work. I had managed to dig out my old Octopus card from the recesses of a London cupboard and was delighted to discover it still in credit to the tune of HK$30. Unfortunately the same cupboard hadn't, as I thought it might, turned up my Hong Kong identity card, a micro-chipped photocard, much like the one everyone's making a fuss about in the UK. Obviously, it's worth pointing out here that Hong Kong is technically part of a dictatorial one-party state, while the UK technically is not.

An ID card in Hong Kong is vital - it's needed to do almost anything and the law says that it must be carried at all times. Luckily I had a record of my ID card number. Unluckily the cards cost almost HK$400 to replace, so after making an appointment I headed to the efficiently named Immigration Tower in Wan Chai. Applying for or renewing an ID card in Hong Kong is a protracted wade through red tape and would aptly be described as Kafkaesque if it weren't taking place in a humid sub-tropical zone where all bureaucracy, however mind-numbing, is tinged with comedy.

Upon entering Immigration Tower I headed to the busy 8th floor and joined a long queue entitled "Appointments". The queue next to us, for those lazy and inefficient enough not to have made appointments, consisted of a person strolling in every few minutes, going straight to the counter, processing his application and going away again.

I finally reached the front of the queue to be given a ticket stub with a number on it and a form to fill out, before being pointed in the direction of a waiting area. The plastic chairs were overlooked by monitors which intermittently flashed up a number. I filled out the form. After a while my number came up indicating that I should go to booth number 38. This I did, and gave the woman seated in it my form. She looked it over before energetically stamping it and waving me to another waiting area, also in the thrall of monitors. After 10 minutes or so, the monitor above my head indicated I should head to cubicle 15. Again I obeyed and found myself in an office style cubicle, seated opposite a young woman sporting thick lensed glasses. She peered at a computer, then at me. She took my ticket and asked me to put my left thumb on a small square of glass in front of me. I did, and then, in accordance with her wishes, rolled it around a bit. I did the same with my other thumb, and then saw my two thumb prints blown up on her computer screen. I felt a sad pang for home noting the tear of skin where Gladstone had attacked me over Christmas. Bloody cat.

Once my prints were taken I had to sit on a small stool in the corner of the cubicle, like a dunce, and stare into a lens. One tap on the speccy woman's Enter key, and my image was staring back. She asked me if the picture was OK. I told her it wouldn't get any better and she produced a print out, which included the snapshot. This was to be my temporary ID card. I was then directed to a third waiting area, where I alternated between admiring my temporary "card" and checking the obligatory monitor. It finally flashed my number - another cubicle, another bureaucrat, this time wearing quasi-military uniform. Rather curtly, he demanded the fee for the replacement card. I paid him. Then, unexpectedly, I was free to go. At least until tomorrow, when, as the temporary card reliably informs me, my new ID will be ready to collect at Immigration Tower.

86 - posted at 15:52:51

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