For me, there are two types of travelling. One involves waking up early, strapping on a backpack and spending the day walking around town from attraction to attraction with a map in one hand and a camera in the other. The other type involves waking up late, carrying nothing, and spending the day eating, shopping or chilling out. You know how people come back from a holiday and say they need a “holiday after the holiday”? Well, that’s what Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur were for me – three weeks to relax after being frozen alive in Europe.
When I touched down around noon, Eric came by to pick me up from the airport. We made a short detour and drove past the entrance to the new Disneyland Hong Kong. Although operational, the theme park still has two phases of construction to be completed over the next few years. It seemed pretty quiet, actually.
Hong Kong, the most densely populated (or perhaps second most densely populated) region in the world, is anything but quiet. Everywhere people cram into gigantic high-rise apartment complexes and the streets are continually swarming with people. As such, there’s no concept of a rural/urban divide in Hong Kong at all hours of the night. Nonetheless, Eric’s three storey house sort of near Yuen Long, in the New Territories, is pretty much as close to rural status as the former British colony will allow. There are still multi-storey buildings everywhere, but there is at least much more greenery and a bit of agriculture around. Most of all, it’s strangely peaceful. Apart from the occasional hoon trying to do his best Takumi Fujiwara impersonation up the road at night, it’s silent.
It only takes 45 minutes to get into the CBD on HK island via a bus, KCR (light rail) and MTR (subway), which by Sydney standards is reasonable. However, for the more urbanised locals, that’s an eternity. In the sticks it may have been, but I liked it there.
The flight from Rome to HK crosses seven timezones. The way to get over this jet lag is to not sleep on the plane and stay awake so there’s no problems with getting to sleep when it’s the proper time to at your destination. Unfortunately, despite a brief afternoon nap, I was crashing badly by the time dinner came. For dinner, I went out with Eric and some old HK school friends of his to an area bristling with seafood restaurants. Displayed at the front of each restaurant were banks of glass aquariums which gumbooted waitstaff scuttled over in order to scoop out fresh, wriggling, seafood. Touts were out in full force, thrusting menus at us and screaming out daily specials and other incentives in Cantonese (it’s a language that’s really well suited for shouting, and combined with the typical Cantonese culture of being direct and somewhat abrupt, explains why Cantonese restaurants are always so noisy). After we had run the gauntlet once, we decided to go back to one of the first restaurants we had passed. We were sufficiently traumatised that a small debate took place about whether or not we should circle right around the block instead of just turning around to avoid being accosted again. Only HK$240 (AUD/HKD = 5.8) bought lobster, crab, scallops, sea snails, fish, prawns and these things which looked similar to Balmain bugs but with a spiky shell.
The next day, Vivian joined Eric and I for a trip to Macau, only one hour away by ferry. There are no casinos in HK and many Hong Kongers use it as a gambling getaway (sort of like how Genting Highlands is to Kuala Lumpur). Grabbing a hearty breakfast of macaroni, eggs and spam(!), we hopped on to the ferry. Eric described Macau to me as, “Hong Kong in the 70s,” which makes me wonder what the Portuguese did differently to the British in administering their respective colonies.
We spent the morning wandering around the streets. Signs are still marked in the peculiar combination of Chinese and Portuguese and remnants of Western influence show up in the form of colonial-style buildings and churches – now all World Heritage listed. “Hong Kong in the 70s,” was a very apt description of Macau. Lots of high-rise buildings, but just lacking that modern sheen and polish. The prevalence of casinos turn parts of Macau into a budget version of Las Vegas.
We walked up a street lined with snack stores. Vendors stood outside with trays of almond cookies and ba gua to sample. By the time we had walked up and back, we had successfully gorged ourselves full on these freebies. This posed a problem, if only because it was now lunchtime. We ate at a Portuguese restaurant and had a dessert which was called, when literally translated, “saw dust cake” (or similar). I was assured that the light brown bits on the cake were not actually dead tree, but biscuit crumbs.
Then we hit the casinos. Eric brought us to one holding a rather dodgy promotion. In exchange for surrendering some of our personal details (name, address, passport number and so on), we got to play two games. The first was a scissors, paper, rock one (we entered our choices into a computer). If we won that, we would be allowed to play the second game. But only after they took an electronic copy of our identification (in my case, a passport) and, most strangely, a photograph of our hand. Viv and I never made it past the first game.
Eric had won both games on a previous visit and proudly carried the mugshot they had taken of his hand in his wallet. Unfortunately, on that previous visit, he was wearing a pair of badly ripped jeans, including one sizable hole in its backside. Before Eric could claim his prize, a Cantonese-speaking Indian security guard had sighted his gross dress code violation and yelled, “What the hell? I can see your underwear!” He grabbed Eric roughly by the arm and tossed him out on to the road.
Today, fashion wasn’t an issue, although something about Eric must have said, “I am in desperate need of money” because while we were watching a Blackjack table (keeping a distance as the minimum bet on all the Blackjack tables was at least HK$200!), a loanshark slithered up to Eric and started soliciting. After Eric had made it clear he wasn’t in need of money, the loanshark continued (in Cantonese), “Oh, if you want to yai yai, I can also arrange that for you.”
The literal translation for yai yai is “being naughty”. I learnt a new Cantonese phrase that day.
Monday saw Eric commence a two week internship at a city law firm. Being his first job in an office environment, he was visibly nervous about things. Nonetheless, we had arranged to meet up with him, along with various other friends from UNSW for lunch. After enjoying a nice sleep-in, I walked downstairs.
Eric’s grandfather was there eating lunch and watching TV. An amazing man of 95 years, he lives on the house’s top floor so he was obviously still very mobile. Unfortunately for me, he only spoke Cantonese.
My family is Cantonese. My mum speaks Cantonese (among other dialects), my dad speaks Cantonese. Two of my grandparents don’t speak English. All of my aunts and uncles speak Cantonese. But I can’t. I attribute it to growing up in rural Sydney, but whatever the reason, it was proving to be quite a liability. Through a steadfast refusal to speak Cantonese when I was young, I learnt how to listen to it through pure osmosis, but have major trouble stringing together a sentence when speaking. Even then, my Chinese is mangled by a thick gwei lo accent. Yes, I’m a true banana.
Anyway, I said good morning to Eric’s grandpa. The following exchange took place entirely in Cantonese:
“Are you going out?” he asked me.
“Yes, I’m going out,” I replied.
“Are you going out to eat?”
“Well then, do you know how to speak Chinese?”
“No I don’t.”
He sort of grunted and said, “Well how are you going to [something I didn’t understand] if you don’t know how to speak Chinese?”
“Wait till I finish lunch, and then I’ll help you.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
Not having a key, he let me out of the front gate. I assumed he was going to lead me to the bus stop, but when he turned the other way, I realised he was actually taking me out to lunch and stopped him.
“Uh, sorry, I need to take the bus.”
“Huh?” he replied sharply.
“Uh… take the bar-see,” I clarified.
“Oh! bar-see!” he paused, thinking. “But you don’t need to take a bus to have lunch.”
At this point, I needed to convey that I needed to take a bus to the city to meet Eric for lunch. The problem was, I didn’t know the words for “city”, “meet”, nor “lunch” (I told you my Cantonese was bad). So all I could do was keep repeating, “Eric” and “need to take a bus”, while gesticulating in the general direction of the city. He patiently listened to me but we weren’t getting anywhere.
“You want to see Eric? But Eric is working!”
“Yes, I know that… but… uh, take bus… Eric… uh… uh…”
After a few more repetitions of this (and steadily feeling more useless as time past), Eric’s grandpa tried to help and offered perhaps the only two words in English he knew: “Eat! Food!” he said, motioning he hand towards his mouth.
I looked down at my watch. It was noon. If I didn’t get the message through to him, I’d be late. Finally, I blurted out, “Eric! One o’clock!”
A light dawned. “OH!” he said. He led me to the bus stop, asked if I was okay to pay the fare, and went home. He was amazingly sharp for someone of that age.
I got into Central and somehow bumped into Kit among the throng of suits. Kit was now working his butt off for an investment bank and we arranged to meet for lunch the next day. (“Hm, no dinner is not good any day this week.” “Work commitments?” “Yeah.”)
Lunch was at a Japanese restaurant, and when I walked in, the place was awash with businesspeople. Whoever had organised the lunch had rounded up a bunch of law students on vacation internships. Everyone was dressed in suits. Being decidedly underdressed, it was a little intimidating, but luckily Jason was there – fresh from exchange in Toronto, on holidays, and suit-free.
Only a few hours into his first day, Eric was already feeling a little stressed after work. Unlike Sydney, lunch hour is standardised and inflexible in HK. It’s taken from 1-2pm. I arranged to meet Eric after work at 6. By 1.55pm, the restaurant had abruptly emptied, leaving just a relaxed me and Jason to finish off our tea. Jennifer (also suit-free) arrived and joined us until the restaurant closed an hour later.
That afternoon, Jen took us around the CBD. We started at the newly built IFC (International Finance Centre) Tower 2. As we strolled among the expensive brand-name boutiques and eateries, Jen, having worked at several large law firms both in HK and Sydney, filled us in on the work culture in HK.
Solicitors make around 50% more than their Sydney counterparts at a much lower tax rate. However, it sounded like that’s where the benefits ended. It’s three years before a graduate becomes a solicitor, unlike the six or so months required in Sydney. Long hours come standard, and with local firms having an official 5.5 day work week (Saturdays are half-days), “long hours” really means long. Internally, firms tend to be much more hierarchical. Whereas Australian partners are quite approachable, HK partners tend to take a closed door, hands off, figure-it-out-for-yourself, “don’t bother me unless it’s really important” attitude. Even once a student has received a vacation placements, the placement experience itself is competitive, with firms setting a variety of assessment tasks for interns to complete. Jen related how she had to give a simulated pitch to an investment bank client (a role which happened to be “acted out” by the firm’s head partner) in order to become their globally preferred legal adviser. Another task involved producing an analysis of all the issues pertaining to fending off a hostile takeover. Not quite your 9-6pm deal that Sydney firms provide. In fact, interns tend to put in 12 hour days there.
Jason and I became increasingly disconcerted as we moved through the shops in Central. All screamed extreme wealth (an A$35,000 mobile phone, anyone?) and after seeing several Pradas, LVs, etc, I declared that though every other city in the world only has one Tiffany store, HK seemed to have about ten. Sydney has one. Even New York has one. What was HK doing with so many? (It turns out that actually several cities have several stores: London has 4, Seoul has 5, HK has 6, but Tokyo has around 9.) That’s a materialistic culture for you.
When we had had enough, we stopped by Lan Kwai Fong for a bowl of sour grapefruit mango sago soup (the Chinese name is a little more elegant). Eric SMSed me at 5pm: “solicitor gave me work, meet you at 8 instead”. Jen chuckled knowingly, “I told you 6 was optimistic!”
For dessert that night, Eric took us to a shop called “Australia Dairy Co”, which as far as I could tell, had no connection with Australia whatsoever. When we arrived, the place was swarming with people and there were no spare seats. We didn’t have to wait long though. A waiter lead us through the labyryinth of bodies and to a table where a couple were enjoying their tea. The waiter scribbled out a bill, chucked it on the table and within 30 seconds the couple was kicked out and we took their place.
We’d barely sat down when another waiter came to take our order and plopped three glasses of tea on our table. We considered the menu while the waiter looked increasingly agitated, although once he realised Eric was explaining the menu to us in English, he looked more bemused than anything. “When it gets busier, I can order something on this menu and have it arrive before the next person has put in their order,” Eric commented while I wondered how it could possibly get any busier. “This is real Hong Kong service.”
I ended up ordering a french toast, which is a thick piece of french toast filled with peanut butter, drenched in butter and drizzled in as much honey as you want. Unfortunately for Eric, work had noticeably taken its toll on him. He’d lost his appetite, taken on an uncharacteristically subdued demeanour, and was seriously doubting his place in an office environment. “It’s so quiet! No one talks there!” he lamented.
Kit mysteriously failed to contact me and was not answering his phone, so I had lunch with Eric instead while Jen took me out for shopping around Causeway Bay. I’m really not a shopper – especially if I’m not looking for anything in particular – and the sales people in Hong Kong scare me. They’re really in your face, always hovering over you, always inquiring whether you need another colour, or more help, or if you’re ready to buy. So, we ended up having an extended afternoon tea until Eric finally got off work. We went to Sha Tin for dinner (pigeons!).
By this time, Eric was a broken man. Everyone knew it. Everytime someone mentioned work, he’d glumly grimace, sigh softly, shake his head and look down. The quietness, the isolation and the lack of sunlight he was experiencing was hell on earth for him. And it only took 48 hours.
Luckily his appetite had partially returned and we went out to dessert at… some place next to a big stormwater drain. I think it was in Yuen long. I don’t know. Anyway, we’re working our way through a large fruit salad when Kit called at 11.
“Uh… mate… I’m so sorry, I totally forgot about lunch! I only just got your message!”
“Busy day at work huh?”
“Yeah um… actually –” his voice turned sheepish at this point, “I’m still at work.”
“Oh, that’s rough. How about lunch tomorrow then?”
“Actually, something big has come up, I can’t do lunch this week either.”
“Tell you what, I can do coffee.”
“But I’m guessing you can’t guarantee that.”
Jen was grinning again. “What did you expect? He’s an i-banker! Working in Hong Kong! That’s what you get for working in Hong Kong!” she said when I put the phone down.
Eric grimaced, sighed, shook his head and looked down.
The next day, I had Yum Cha at lunch with Viv. Eric dropped by, but could only stay 15 minutes before he had to rush off. Jen took me around shopping again, but we ended up eating again instead.
We met up with Jason, Jess, Yorkie and a couple of their friends for dinner. Dinner was organised for 6. By some miracle all the lawyers finished work on time (except Eric, who via a distressed SMS wrote, “Don’t know when I finish. Assume I’m not coming. Eat first”).
Later that night, I decided to go to Felix, atop the Peninsular Hotel. I had tried to venture in three years ago, but was rejected by a hefty New Year’s Eve cover charge. This time was better and we eventually made it into the toilets.
It was worth the trip. One wall of the restrooms is entirely made of glass, behind which the expanse of Kowloon sparkled. Three individual urinals behind a translucent plastic curtain faced out. So there we were, Jason, Eric and I, pissing over Hong Kong, gazes firmly fixed out the window.
“This is just so wrong.”
“Yeah, SO wrong.”
“So very wrong.”
There were two bathroom attendants manning the sink. When I went to use the sink, one held out his hands, palms up, as if he was presenting the sink as a gift to me. His, uh, hand action must have tripped off some automatic sensor because the water started flowing. As I saw other people use the sink, I started sniggering… it was all too ridiculous for me.
I followed Jen and her aunt to Shenzhen on Thursday. Although Shenzhen, through its Special Economic Zone status (which entitles foreigners to a Shenzhen-only discounted HK$150 visa), has developed rapidly, it is still unmistakably mainland Chinese. The squad of men squatting beside the street gutter give it away. And of course the drab mainland concrete architecture.
Shenzhen operates in some sort of anarchy zone for intellectual property violators. They copy everything. The new Shenzhen MTR system has a logo which is exactly the same as Hong Kong’s, except for an extra line. Like HK, there’s a Causeway Bay district (despite the absense of any bay). And one of the most blatant ripoffs was a “Ukarmani Limited” store. Guess what its merchandise looked like. Shenzhen is the place, therefore, to go for knock off handbags, knock off electronics (“iPob”?!), knock off clothes, knock off software and knock off DVDs. Counterfeits bags actually come in different grades of quality (from AAA and AA+, down to C or lower) and are priced accordingly. Bring a local if you don’t want to get ripped off.
Shenzhen is also a great place for massages. One place offered three hours for HK$90, or one hour for HK$48. We could only stay for an hour. I have never had a massage where I’ve actually been able to communicate with the massuer/masseuse due to language difficulties. But my suspicions were confirmed that they do make fun of me to other masseuses while they’re rubbing away. But it was gooood. So good, in fact, that I accidentally fell asleep.
Back in Hong Kong, the final dinner was in Yuen Long for Hong Kong’s culinary pièce de résistance: pig oil rice. Get some rice, some soy sauce, and some pig lard. Mix. Eat. Delicious. Really. (Incidentally the restaurant is owned by a chap that, unsurprisingly, has a waistline like Officer Plod from Noddy.)
Eric drove us to Sai Gong for dessert to a place which was divided into four seating areas: smoking and durian, non-smoking and durian, smoking and non-durian, and non-smoking and non-durian. After some debate, we ended up in the non-smoking and durian section. Durian is that foul smelling and foul tasting material that passes for an edible fruit. Jason and Viv love it. Eric and I hate it.
Somewhere along the line the night turned late and judgments became impaired and a challenge was put before Eric and me to eat half a Durian Pancake (a fresh chunk of deathfruit embedded in cream and a durian flavoured wrapper). It was not pretty.
Still reeling from the durian mingling with the pig oil in my stomach, we set off to find a good view of HK that we didn’t have to pay for. As conversion turned to swapping ghost stories (much to Viv’s dismay), we arrived at the foot of “Flying Goose Mountain”. Turning off the main road and up a winding, single-laned path, we set off up the mountain.
Within minutes, a thick mist had suddenly rolled in and Eric was reduced to a slow crawl. Visibility was 5 metres at most. Eric mentioned that although he had never been to the mountain before, we should lock our doors as he heardthere might be illegal immigrants from China living on the mountainside who might not take kindly to our intrusion at this hour. Things were starting to get a little unnerving. The road was too narrow to turn around so we had no choice but to forge onwards. Finally the mist got so thick that Eric had to keep an eye on the rockface to our right to figure out where the road was. Since the headlights were reflecting straight back off the mist, Jason suggested that switching off the lights would make things better, and suddenly the car plunged into darkness.
“Yeah, I think this is better,” Eric agreed.
From the back seat, Viv and I could only see an inky blackness. “No no no! Turn it back on!”
After about a half hour of crawling up the mountain, we finally reached a lookout, but no one wanted to get out of the car. So we drove onwards and back down the mountain. After another eternity, we emerged back onto a main thoroughfare and approached a traffic light.
“Guys? The brakes aren’t working.”
“Yeah Eric, pull the other one.”
“No, no! I’m serious!”
He pumped the brakes, but surely enough the car continued to slide forward. There was a burning smell coming from somewhere that was growing steadily stronger. Luckily, the handbrakes were still operational, and we pulled over to give the car a chance to cool down. HK was really the last place I expected to get lost on a mountain.
Car troubles greeted me in KL as well. I arrived in KL Sentral at night. Dave and Justin once again picked me up.
“Okay dude, we’re going clubbing! But first…”
“But first what?”
“But first, I need to fix up my car… radiator is having issues.”
KL was even a lazier experience than HK. Slept late, woke up for lunch. Went to Zouk. Won at pool. Got my revenge on Justin in snooker. Lost to Dave. Mixed results with DotA and Three Corridors. Still hate volleyball. Was made to feel linguistically inadequate. (Ni hee! Ngai mm hee!) Ate lots and lots of mamak food. Ate more Ramly burgers than is healthy. Wikipedia says:
“Despite its popularity among Singaporeans, the Ramly Burger is banned in Singapore … However, several stalls have smuggled the burger, albeit illegally, into the country. In particular, Ramly Burger stalls are rampant in pasar malams, which are harder to track due to their itinerant nature. Some have expressed health concerns over the Ramly burger, due to the liberal amounts of condiments typically lathered on the burger.”
I brought over some American mustard from San Fran and we added mustard to the burger. It’s good shit!
The main event in KL was Chinese New Year. I haven’t had a CNY in Asia since I was little. In Australia, celebrations are fairly subdued. Normally we have a reunion dinner together with any relatives we have in Sydney.
CNY is a public holiday in Malaysia and it’s traditional for people to make their way back to their family hometowns for it. Since most people working KL came from other parts of Malaysia, KL itself is extremely quiet during it – the roads are empty, the shops are closed. CNY falls either on the second or third new moon after the winter solstice (when the nights are the longest in a year).
We went out to see Fearless on CNY eve. Jet Li’s last movie, I observed.
“Choi! It’s not! It’s only his last martial arts movie!” Dave chided.
“And when was the last time Jet Li acted in a non-martial arts movie?” I said without skipping a beat.
“Oh yeah lah… you’re right. Shit. It’s his last movie.”
Too bad the movie was dubbed into Cantonese with Chinese, Malay and English subtitles (which only appeared for 90% of the dialogue). Otherwise, it was a decent watch.
Nighttime was quiet, just the “reunion dinner”. The TV was broadcasting a lot of Chinese variety shows (just like they like to hold in France, it seems).
The tradition for the first day (out of fifteen) of CNY is to go visiting relatives, in order of the eldest and then working downwards from there. I tagged along with Dave’s family (and picked up a whole stash of those wonderful red packets along the way).
They say that Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups are each linked to a different vice: gambling, sex and alcohol. Chinese are undoubtedly gambling crazy, and barely half a day has passed before mahjong sets and decks of cards are brought out to convert respectable houses into instant illicit gambling dens. Ironically, it is actually all illegal, but naturally no one gives a toss. Justin told me how a few years ago, a friend had set up a virtual casino in his house – almost ten tables, including a real dai sai table. The house (dealer) was literally the house!
Dave’s sister, mum, aunt and grandmother (the “gambling granny”) seemed to have a set up a permanent (Chinese) poker game downstairs, and the numerous times I played I came away burnt. (Something about that saying, “Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill”?)
Over the next three days, we pretty much did nothing but gamble. Hours and hours of it. Mostly Texas Hold’em and some variant of Blackjack. We made rounds at four other houses. At Douglas’ house, someone set up a large game of 21. We were playing RM10/20 hands. After losing a chunk of my red packet money, I decided to sit things out and watch the “big boys” game (ie, parents) of texas hold’em. The men were going crazy on it. The blinds were only RM5/10. One hand in particular escalated rapidly.
“Ok lah, what’s your bet?”
“Yee baht!” ($200)
“Wahhhh lun eh… ok, ok, seong chair! Seong chair!” (literally, “get into the car!” as in “I’ll get on board”)
“Call, and I raise you another 200.” (flicking through a large wad of fifties)
Everyone went in and stayed in. By the time the river came, there was over RM2000 on the table. (Which to be honest, probably wasn’t that much money to them.)
At Jason’s house, Justin, Douglas and I were joined by this crazy girl who would bet every hand, and often raise to the limit. Most of the time it was a bluff, but since I was already down by quite a lot, I just couldn’t follow (and was too scared to go all-in). I kept getting bad cards and in the end I got blinded out of the game. Meanwhile Dave was suffering on a 3-deck blackjack game where Eugene, the dealer had made off with over RM600 of other people’s money by the end of the night (despite having to pay 2 to 1 on a blackjack). Incidentally, it turns out he was the son of one of Malaysia’s top 10 richest men, so I guess some people are just born to be lucky with money.
Contrary to Dave, Justin had been on a two and a half day winning streak. He put it down to wearing his “lucky clothes” – a special t-shirt, pants, and underwear. The day I left KL, he declared that he would be wearing those clothes for the rest of CNY. This posed some obvious sanitary concerns which his girlfriend took particular offence at several days later.
5/02/2006 3:18:15 PM Justin: well, someone, shirley told me to get them changed or not she wont come near me
5/02/2006 3:18:20 PM Justin: so i changed the shirt
5/02/2006 3:18:26 PM Justin: and i lost all my winnings
5/02/2006 3:18:36 PM Justin: and i’ve retired from gambling ever since
5/02/2006 3:21:03 PM Stu: HAHAHAHHA
5/02/2006 3:21:19 PM Stu: washed all the luck away
5/02/2006 3:21:23 PM Stu: evil woman
5/02/2006 3:21:34 PM Justin: aih
5/02/2006 3:21:40 PM Justin: all they think about is themselves
5/02/2006 3:21:40 PM Justin: jhahaha
5/02/2006 3:21:41 PM Justin: oh well
5/02/2006 3:22:00 PM Justin: my winning streak ended
I am still convinced that the person who has the motivation to open a late night mamak stall in Sydney will be very lucky with money.