Friday, November 30, 2007

(Dis)pleasing (a)symmetry

One of the first places I visited upon arriving in Hong Kong, even before I'd really explored the central part of the city, was Stanley, a village-like expatriate haven on the southern coast of Hong Kong island that I embraced for its proliferation of charming pubs and climbable rocks. Stanley was also where Babyccino and the Hot Perfections - the band name adopted by some of the first people I met from my exchange program - was born. It's one of my first memories from Hong Kong, and set a tone for the early weeks of my stay here. Today, having entered my last week in Hong Kong, I returned to Stanley. Comparing and contrasting the two visits offered me an interesting perspective on how my time here has gone...and how it's sort of gone off the rails.

Today's trip to Stanley was made not with the Hot Perfections, but with two other cohorts from the exchange program, Matt and Vic. While I still interact with each of the Hot Perfections individually, the band essentially broke up under the stress of our trip to Cambodia at the end of September. You might call it creative differences. You might also call it massive personality conflicts and semi-open hostility. I would call it the latter.

September's trip to Stanley took about an hour and a half, and involved taking a bus into Central, then changing to another bus that went around the far side of the island to make it to Stanley in the south. But we've become far more savvy since then, and learned that a bus that passes directly in front of our dorm - going around the island in the opposite direction - goes to Stanley directly in about 40 minutes.

My first excursion to Stanley was a trip of exploration and discovery...seeing and learning more about Hong Kong, immersing myself in the fact that I was in Asia, visiting my first ever Buddhist shrine, getting to know my fellow exchange students. Today's trip was made because we received word that an expatriate bar called "Main Street, U.S.A." was showing the big Cowboys-Packers game live by satellite.

The first time down there, the trip seemed charmed. Everything was interesting, everything was fun, everything was successful. The seemingly simple Nautical Museum was bizarrely fascinating. The food tasted great. The people were nice. Today, it seemed like nothing could go right. The satellite feed for the game was going in and out, and even when it was working, the international carrier had commercials cutting off the first couple of plays of every drive. The breakfast was delightfully cheap...and that's about all I can say in its defense. For everything that didn't go right at the bar, the guy running the place had a distinctly not-my-problem attitude, which was highlighted by his continual explicit assertions that things were "not our problem."

I took advantage of the touristy Stanley Market to purchase a necessity...a hokey Hong Kong shot glass for my travel shot glass collection (I get one from every city I visit, if I can). But even that had lost its charm, as I found myself staring depressedly at a ridiculous, bedazzled American flag pin, wondering, "Who would buy this?" before a lady with a distinctly southern U.S. accent started eying the thing interestedly. All of us more or less allowed ourselves to be fleeced on the souvenirs we purchased, too exhausted from months of bargaining to put up a fight to save $2.

To be fair, all in all, I mostly had fun. The game was interesting, the company was good, and even if the food didn't taste great, grease and coffee made for a lovely hangover cure. But still, I am clearly viewing Hong Kong through different eyes now than I was in September. Annoyed, deeply embittered eyes. Less than a week to go.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chinese rumor mill

When Planning Your Next Trip to Beijing... Beijing is known for having god-awful pollution, but the whole time I was there, it was remarkably clear and fresh out. It was a massive upgrade from Hong Kong's air at the time (Hong Kong has improved a bit as the weather has cooled), and I couldn't understand what the usual fuss was about. I just chalked it up to good luck. But about a week after I returned to Hong Kong, I discussed this with Aaron, who was in Beijing shortly after I left. He, too, had great luck with the air for the first 3 days of his visit (and loved the city as a result), but he woke up on the fourth day to find the city so overrun with smog that he couldn't see all the way across Tiananmen Square. The next two days, he lamented, were almost totally spoiled. What had changed? Aaron brought a report from the locals: the People's Congress had been in session during the time I had been in Beijing, and for the first few days of Aaron's visit. When the People's Congress is in session, the Chinese authorities allegedly turn off all of the factors in the region (I have a potent mental image of an enormous lever that controls every factory at once, being switched into the down position), and as soon as the congressmen all leave, the factories come back online (same mental image plays in reverse, plus some cackling by the man pushing the lever). The assumption is that the factories will all be turned off during the Olympics, and for a few weeks on either side while the tourism rush is on. If you're visiting Beijing and don't have dates planned, though, I suggest you research when the People's Congress is in session next.

I Wonder How Much It Costs When You Break It Down Per Musical Note. Another report comes from Kathleen, a friend from high school and college and a well-placed source in Beijing. One of the ongoing storylines in Beijing is the construction of the National Theatre Dome, and within it, the New Beijing Concert Hall. The complex is destined to become the new cultural center of China, a sumptuously luxurious and completely cutting-edge shrine to the arts. The project is sort of an enormous boondoggle, though, and rumblings suggest that, when it's completed, the cost per seat in the new Concert Hall will be equal to the cost of building an entire school in one of the rural areas.

Maybe There's a Little Counterfeit Version of Me Running Around There Somewhere? If the amount of intelligence and ingenuity that the Chinese put into knocking things off went into actually creating new products, the American economy would be doomed once and for all. There are all kinds of cultural reasons I could blather about to explain why they've chosen to be the best copyists in the world rather than the best innovators - Confucian traditions about interaction with the past, and the like - but instead, I will just marvel at some of the amazing things they've been able to copy at lower cost. For example: eggs. Eggs are one of the cheapest staple foods to produce, and somehow, the Chinese have succeeded in synthesizing them artificially for even less than it would cost, in China, to get the real ones. Also, vodka. Have you ever seen the Mythbusters where they put cheap plastic-bottle vodka (they call it "rotka," but that is a ridiculous word) through a Brita filter 13 times, effectively purifying it to the quality of good vodka? This works, but in the U.S., it doesn't make any sense: purifying an entire bottle of vodka 13 times costs more in Brita filters than the difference in price between cheap vodka and good vodka. In China, though, they've perfected and cheapened the process, so they import cheap wine, purify it for pennies on the bottle, and reseal into empty Stolichnaya bottles. This explains why I was able to go to a club in Shanghai, pay 120 yuan (about $15), and get open bar service of Stoli vodka all night long (still not sure how they fake the Jameson whisky so well). Of course, it's not all so harmless as eggs and vodka. Latin America is always dealing with counterfeit medicines made in China. One story I heard involves a cough medicine in which the Chinese manufacturer switched out the glucose syrup for some industrial solvent of comparable consistency. A few dead Latin American kids later...

Kids Who Date-Rape Themselves! For all the talk about lead-contaminated kids toys coming from China, my favorite story is this one. Some toy manufacturer was selling little metal toys that were supposed to be coated in a (non-toxic) chemical that, when wet, magnetized the metal. The idea was that the pieces were just plain and inert, until a kid got them wet, and then they would stick together. The Chinese manufacturer discovered, though, that the non-toxic chemical used to magnetize the metal could be replaced with a cheaper alternative that just so happened to create GHB (a popular date-rape drug) as a by-product when combined with water. Unfortunately, the children's preferred method of wetting the toys was sticking them in their mouths. Which basically led to a series of kids putting their toys in their mouth, drugging themselves, and mysteriously passing out.

Are all of these stories true? Some I've seen verified in the news (date-rape toys), some are just conjecture (People's Congress and pollution). Personally, I believe all of them. But in a way, what does it matter? The fact that these absurd stories about China are even considered plausible tells you all you need to know.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Anthropology

Sometimes it feels like I'm still learning how it is that adults interact with each other. Every time I reach a new life-stage - high school, college, graduate school, soon graduating from graduate school - I feel like I'm just a kid playing a role. I still remember watching episodes of Saved by the Bell when I was in elementary school and thinking, "Wow, high schoolers! They're so grown up!" And the actors were even mostly age-appropriate, unlike Gabrielle Carteris on Beverly Hills 90210, who was practically on Social Security by the time that series ended.

I was sitting in my office yesterday, a.k.a. my beloved Brunch Club, when I started eavesdropping on a group of people talking beside me. I described the scene in an email to a friend as it was happening: "I'm sitting in Brunch Club listening to a Canadian-German-South African artist-model-photographer-actor-designer discuss web design and art direction work with a girl who just started a Hong Kong-dedicated website, having recently sold her last self-made website for an undisclosed sum. The web girl was previously talking to a fresh-faced USD grad, who just moved to Hong Kong last week to look for publishing work and excitement, about the newcomer contributing stories to the website. The new arrival is now talking to a lifetime Hong Konger who lived in the United States and Japan before returning to Hong Kong to live a life that, as far as I can tell, involves wearing absurdly funky clothes, working a desk job, and surrounding herself with creative people in an effort to feel creative herself (she probably has no talent of her own). And the faux-creative is friends with the C-G-SA artist because they previously met at Brunch Club. I'm 'reading' the Economist but I'm just listening to their conversations. It's fascinating."

Then I had a Thanksgiving dinner that I believe represents my ideal vision of life five years from now. We had a dinner party for six, two men and women from our exchange program (myself included), and a lovely couple from the United States that I know through one of my friends at school, and who moved to Hong Kong about 4 months ago.

An aside: this couple, Jeff and Jennifer, are about the cutest thing I've ever seen. They're both business school grads from the midwest who met in college. They've lived and worked in New York and London, and he's now doing banking in HK while she experiments with not working and taking arts and craft classes, language classes, etc. They have the only non-boring "how we got together" story I've ever heard, which is a testament both to their storytelling skills and their relationship. They've been married for 7 years, have no kids, and a fantastic lifestyle. I've gone to a bar with Jeff while the missus was out of town, and while he was totally in guy mode, there was no seething sense of suffocation there, no sighs of "this is my day out while the wife is away." It's got to be the healthiest relationship I've ever observed, other than my own parents. Just as this Thanksgiving dinner represents what I want my life to look like in a few years, I think that is my model for my ideal eventual relationship situation.

Anyhow. It was a total collection of yuppies, who I am increasingly come to recognize as my people: two business school grads, three law school 3Ls, and one JD/MBA joint degree guy. Everyone was dressed nicely, but not too nicely. Cocktail dresses, collared shirts with nice jeans. I wore my preppy sweater from Express that always gets compliments when worn anywhere outside of New England (and did again). The apartment was great, and decorated in a style that was very consistent with my own design sense...light-wash hardwood floors, track lighting, lots of reds and blacks, contemporary, a little bit sparse, but a clean look. We drank large quantities of not-too-expensive-but-still-kinda-expensive wines from specialty stores, and ended up working our way through a well-constructed progression: apertif champagne, white, rosé, lighter red, darker red, and after-dinner sparkling white. The spread came to one bottle per person, which was just the right amount of wine for the right kind of buzz. The conversation was flowing and loud and well-integrated, and seemed to cover every imaginable topic. Everyone took turns telling stories, everyone responded to everyone else's stories, and the only moment of silence came right as we hit our eating stride in the middle of the meal...and even that was interrupted by the well-received observation that it was totally that Thanksgiving mid-meal moment of silence. At one point, the three men walked to the bedroom to look at our host's suits and watches, and to discuss men's luxury items in general. The women stayed behind at the table and talked about I don't know what, but I can only assume that it was gender-appropriate in that moment.

After dinner, we played Charades, which is a game I have an inordinate amount of affection for. Like Halloween, Charades was cool when you were a kid, then stopped being cool when you became a disaffected adolescent, and then became cool again when you were old enough to drink, make well-placed obscene gestures, and stop worrying about looking cool. Naturally, the game was organized into men vs. women, and there were various moments where one spouse would get an incredibly obscure clue easily because he or she recognized it as something the other would come up with. And when the game ended, the party did too, cleanly, without feeling dragged out or hitting an awkward low at the end. I went home and, still just wine-soaked enough, fell asleep immediately (around 1 am) and had one of my best nights of sleep in weeks.

Thinking about it now, it again feels, retroactively, like I was playing a role...in this case, slightly pretentious, effete coastal intellectual, with a dash of social consciousness from a comfortable distance. But at the time, it didn't feel like a role. It felt totally natural. So go ahead and mock me, for I see now what I want life to look like. And it's a little bit shallow, and it's totally worthy of your mockery, but it looks so very good to me.

Fuel for Facebook paranoia

On the way to Shenzhen, I stopped in a 7-11 for supplies, and noticed a tabloid-looking magazine whose cover sported a picture of two early-twenties Asian girls kissing, a bunch of Chinese characters I couldn't read, and the word "FACEBOOK" splayed across it all. I looked to the Chinese-fluent Wilson for an explanation.

Like personal space, privacy isn't really a recognized concept here. Hong Kong tabloids are as ruthless as those in the United Kingdom, but even more invasive, and not as constrained by the strong defamation laws that control in the UK. The girl being featured on the magazine cover was not even a celebrity, but the daughter of a local television star. She's attending college in the United States (University of Colorado-Boulder, I think, which is a lovely little party school), and she's acting, well, like someone who's attending college in the United States. The magazine editors simply went on her Facebook profile, started downloading pictures, and printed them (apparently, they respect copyright about as much as they respect privacy).

As Wilson explained all this to me, I thought about all the people I know who removed or sanitized their Facebook profiles before going through OCI (I stubbornly refused to do so, reasoning that any firm that wouldn't have me because of the content of my Facebook profile was not a firm I wanted to work at). I also thought about the roughly 700 drunken pictures of me available on Facebook. It's a good thing I'm not a celebrity...or related to one, evidently.

But can you imagine the phone call that girl got from her irked mother in Hong Kong yesterday? Awesome.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Over the hills and through the woods to Shenzhen we go

When I got my visa to go to China in October, I requested a double-entry visa, planning to visit Yunnan province in southern China as part of my December travels. Yunnan is considered one of the most beautiful natural areas of China, and is said to be the location of the legendary Shangri-La. But when it became clear that wasn't going to happen, though, I decided to trade culture, nature, and history in Shangri-La for bargain basement shopping in Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is a Special Economic Region, and provides mainland China's border with peninsular Hong Kong. Certain nationalities (but not Americans) can obtain 24-hour shopping visas for short-term visits, and if Hong Kong is a city that evolved into a mall, Shenzhen was simply built to be a mall all along. The border crossing from Hong Kong to Shenzhen opens directly into a 6-story mega-mall, which is more or less the only real tourist attraction in the whole area. I didn't even bring my camera, and was never made to regret it.

Shenzhen's factories are the source of (1) most of the pollution in Hong Kong, and (2) basically every counterfeit product sold in Asia, if not the world. Counterfeiting in Shenzhen isn't a business, it's the business, and it's 100% conspicuous. Nobody even maintains the fiction that they're selling authentic goods, but they extol the quality of their wares by referencing how close they are to the originals. If anything, I found the easy availability of Dunhill, Armani, and the surprisingly-popular Paul Smith to be a detriment rather than a draw. There were plenty of perfectly good, well-priced products that I rather liked, but declined to buy because they so prominently featured these luxury logos. It made them overly ostentatious, and begged for trouble from people who could spot the fakes (or who are smart enough to realize that debt-ridden middle-class law students probably aren't rocking the real Guccis).

The Chinese view of luxury products is distinctly nouveau riche. They strongly favor the designs that splay famous brands as conspicuously as possible...cufflinks shaped like the Mont Blanc star, for example, or ties with the Louis Vuitton "LV" as the focal point of the pattern. Sadly, these are often reproductions of real designs, but these tend to be the cheapest, entry-level designs under those brands. If their pricing scheme is any indication, the luxury brands agree with me that true luxury, class, and refinement means buying the versions of those products that are only recognizable as such to people who know.

Fakes aside, Shenzhen is also known for reasonable-quality, high-value tailoring, and that was the mission on this trip. In the end, I purchased 6 tailored shirts - 4 for suits, and 2 for casual wear - in pretty good fabrics, for a total of about $120. I probably could have knocked at least $20 off the total cost with a little bargaining, but both my shopping partner (Wilson) and I were shockingly docile with the tailor, particularly in light of how aggressively we bargained with the other vendors for the rest of the day. This may or may not have been related to our hangovers, which lingered until we ate lunch, immediately after our tailoring order was placed.

It's amazing to me how immediately palpable the difference is between mainland China and Hong Kong. All we did was take a 40-minute train ride and cross through an immigration checkpoint, but there was no mistaking the change. The slightly different physical features of the locals, the drab collective fashion sense, the extra-hazy sky of indeterminate color, the immediate chaos of the sales environment. It was far more Beijing's Silk Alley than Hong Kong's Mong Kok.

And like the rest of mainland China, especially shopping in mainland China, it is completely bloody exhausting. The only thing that stopped me from falling asleep on the train back was talking with Wilson. And when he and I parted ways, and I was on the bus alone, I immediately fell into that most blessed state which has so evaded me over the last few weeks, sleep.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanks, Internet

My tile rack in 0ne of my Scrabbulous games (Scrabble on Facebook) just came up, "IMSADOK." I didn't order the tiles that way, that's just how they came.

No longer living a lie

Alright, for some time now, I've been living a lie. I've been telling people I'm one way when I'm really another. I've let certain people in on it. I've tried to casually drop hints of it here and there, even on this blog. But the lie is exhausting to maintain all the time and I don't want to anymore, so here I go. I am going to use the comfortable distance of the Internet to say things that I'd probably never be comfortable saying to someone face-to-face.

I hate Hong Kong.

I hate Hong Kong because it is the shallowest, most superficial and culturally immature metropolis in the world. For a city of its size, it is remarkably devoid of art, culture, and music, or any awareness of the fact that it is lacking art, culture, or music. The cultural scenes here range from nonexistent (music) to embarrassingly immature (art). The best museum exhibition in town, by orders of magnitude, is a loan of items from the British Museum. The city is, as I have said time and again, a giant shopping mall. Every MTR station, every bus depot, every office building, and I suspect most personal homes, are malls. If you want to shop, no matter where you are or what time it is, and never tire of that, Hong Kong just may be the place for you. I have to assume that Internet merchants do very little business with Hong Kong, because if they did, the residents here would apparently have no reason left to go outside. It's such wasted potential. People here are so unaware of their remarkable place in the world, in history, so politically and intellectually inert. Yes, I hold Hong Kong to a high standard. Because Hong Kong wants to put itself in the same sentence as Los Angeles, New York, and London (with Boston, the cities where I have spent the most time), and if it wants to compare itself to those cities, then it cannot complain when I inevitably find it wanting. Hong Kong may still be a so-called "world city," but it is a world city of the past. As far as I'm concerned, the city has done nothing to demonstrate itself worthy of the future.

I hate Hong Kong because of the lack of social variety. Why do I complain so much about Lan Kwai Fong? Because there is so little else to complain about. I am trying, I really am. Salsa night, the occasional jazz show that I can find. These are activities that would probably be considered "niche" anywhere in the world, but here, the very desire to seek any of them out is apparently considered "niche." Every bar and club seems to be a minute variation on the same theme. I like some better than others, but I'm utterly exhausted with the one theme. And the theme was never for me in the first place. The generically cool room full of status-obsessed drones who seem to be concerned about everything but having fun. I said back in October, "I'll know I've truly reached maturity with living in Hong Kong when somebody says, 'Hey, Ken, we're going to Lan Kwai Fong, wanna come?' and I finally say no." And I have reached that point. But that just means that more often than not, I just go home early. I've embraced the islands and rural areas - which, in all fairness, must be considered part of the total Hong Kong equation - as my primary means of staying sane, but by themselves, they just haven't been enough.

I hate Hong Kong because of my own living situation here. I have discussed this at length (and even that selection of links is woefully incomplete). I realize that the university and the halls are not synonymous with Hong Kong, but at the very least they are cultural indicators, and they are so very central to my experience. This was in large part my fault...I chose to be cheap and stay in halls rather than seeking out the costly comfort and privacy of my own accommodations. I regret this and take full responsibility. But I still blame the pollution for my bout with bronchitis, the first time I've even gotten the disease.

I hate Hong Kong because of the people. With locals (whatever that means), I just don't feel comfortable. I feel like I have next to nothing in common with the local students, no shared experience or sense of joint understanding. The way I feel with other Jewish people, where we all seems to draw on the same bank of neurosis? It's the exact opposite of that. We just don't see eye to eye. And as far as cultural differences go, I am a cultural relativist in the sense that I don't think that my culture should be imposed on other people, but I am a cultural objectivist in the sense that I don't think that all cultures are equally good, at least not for me. And I find the local culture to be inscrutable and rude (important note: I don't think American culture to be perfect or even best, but I find much more in British, continental European, and Latin American culture to be admired than I do here). Sorry, political correctness. Marie has eloquently noted the frustrating conundrum of being a white person in a non-white culture: that no matter how deftly we internalize and apply the cultural idiosyncrasies of our host country, we will aways be distinctly, obviously, physically foreign. I share this frustration, but I really don't feel particularly compelled to embrace this culture, so it isn't as strong for me. And as for the ever-dominating expatriate community, my friend (who shall remain nameless, lest this person appear as judgmental and curmudgeonly as I) and I have a theory that Hong Kong appeals most to people who can't quite cut it in their home country. Whether they be successful but just short of the pinnacle in their industries or careers, or somehow socially or personally lacking such that it would just be easier to buy coolness with foreignness and whiteness, the people who seem to be the real HK diehards are not people that I would surround myself with at home. I typically find them at best mildly bemusing, and at worst actively off-putting.

But most of all, I hate Hong Kong because of how it makes me feel. As I've said, I don't truly know if my recent mental state has been a product of my Hong Kong experience or a cause, and I suspect it's both. And the same question would exist if I were overwhelmingly happy too. London is perhaps my favorite city in the world, and my time there was one of the happiest periods of my life. This is probably not a coincidence. But does it even matter what the mechanism is? When I came back to London, 3 years later and in a totally different period in my life, the city was so firmly entrenched in my psyche as synonymous with happiness that I was walking around with a moronic grin on my face for the entire week, contemplating life plans that would let me call it home again. When I'm here, I feel anxious and stressed and yes, depressed, actually depressed, constantly depressed, clinically depressed, in a way I don't feel in other places and have never felt before. My trip home for my sister's wedding was supposed to recharge my batteries for the stretch run, but all it did was remind me what it feels like to be happy, to feel like myself, and bring into stark relief how often I am not happy here and how much I don't feel like myself.

I hate Hong Kong for making me think like this during a period of time that should be a celebration, of my exploitation of Harvard, of my own internationalism, of the end of everything in my life that comes before becoming a working adult. I hate Hong Kong because in the end, it doesn't matter if people disagree with me or if any of the things I said above are even true, because they feel so true to me. I hate Hong Kong because even the faint optimism of posts past rang false to me at the time it was written, and there is no doubt on my mind that this is the defining journal entry of my time here. And that is a tragedy.

Law nerd interlude

From the moment I first heard about Showtime's David Duchovny vehicle, Californication, I have been waiting for the Red Hot Chili Peppers to file a lawsuit. And, at long last, the legal shoe has dropped. I am the least surprised person in the world.

My 1-minute legal analysis? The unfair competition claim is dead in the water, the unjust enrichment claim is redundant and is just there because claiming it is easy, and the dilution claim has just enough merit that this will inevitably end with Showtime paying the Red Hot Chili Peppers an undisclosed sum of money and including a mostly inconspicuous disclaimer somewhere in the Californication credits. And that's assuming that the case settles out before the series is canceled after one or two more seasons.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A deafening castrophony of silence

This quote simultaneously captures what my insomnia has felt like over the last three to four weeks, and why I haven't discussed it in greater detail here:

"All good nights of sleep are alike. Each miserable night of sleep is miserable in its own way. You either close your eyes and, many hours later, open them, or you endure an idiosyncratic epic of waiting, trying, failing, irritation, self-sabotage and despair, then stand up at sunrise racked with war stories you don’t have the energy to tell."

From the New York Times Magazine.

And a gold star to Olga, my de facto sleep counselor, for showing me the article, and predicting in advance that I would love that quote.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Picture overload!

If you're someone who looks at - or downloads - pictures from my Picasa page, be aware that I'm coming up on my 1 gig storage limit, and I'm already going to have to remove some old albums to make room for the long-overdue Shanghai photos. Now's the time to get the things from the early parts of the trip, while supplies last!

That's one big freaking Buddha

Continuing my furious flurry through the islands of Hong Kong, I spent yesterday with some close HKU exchange allies on Lantau Island. As my critiques of Hong Kong have grown ever louder and more vociferous, I've been advised that one cannot truly consider Hong Kong Island and the hyperurban parts of the city in isolation. Rather, Hong Kong must be viewed as a whole, with the easy accessibility of all of the islands taken into full account. And I have to admit, when I consider the islands, I have to think a bit better of Hong Kong.

Like basically all of the islands I've visited around here, Lantau is primarily fishing-based. But it has its own bits of character. It's the largest island other than Hong Kong Island itself, and features, alongside its fishing villages, some tastes of its big brother. It's the only other island accessible by metro rail and houses both Hong Kong International Airport and Disneyland Resort. The fishing villages themselves feel a bit older and more wooden, yet more urban, than their cousins on Lamma and Cheung Chau.


This is Tai O, a bustling little town that's known for the 19th-century stilt houses still used by the locals who live in town (though many of these homes were destroyed by fire in 1997). In addition to being a bit bigger and busier than the similar fishing villages on the other islands, it feels more like a real place where people actually live. Especially on Cheung Chau, it seems like the village exists largely in service of the people who are visiting the island on day trips. Other than tourist shops and seafood restaurants, it's hard to identify how the community actually sustains itself. Tai O, on the other hand, feels more like a real village that has opened itself up to curious visitors than a village that has been put on for the benefit of foreign eyes and wallets.

When we first arrived, we walked in the alley behind one of the seafood markets rather than through the market itself. In so doing, we discovered just how a fish goes from something an clearly-identifiable living creature to the foul-smelling dried-up pile of meatwads that fills the bins in the seafood markets: clothesline. I am not yet certain how this affects my Basin Theory on Perceived Social Prosperity, which is based primarily on the visibility of clothing on clothing lines. A fish-based corollary may be in order. Still, unlike most things in Hong Kong, the conspicuously-drying fish smack more of culture than of class and commerce. I can appreciate that.

The main attraction on Lantau Island is Tian Tan, the Big Buddha. He is, as you might guess, a very big Buddha on the top of a hill. He is, in fact, the largest outdoor freestanding bronze Buddha in the world. You'll recall that one of my first observations about Hong Kongers - and really, all of China - was about their love of superlatives, however many qualifiers are necessary to achieve that biggest/longest/oldest status. I'm sure I included more adjectives about Big Buddha than were necessary, but I trust he'll forgive me. I mean, he's Buddha, right? As my companions and I stood and gawked at the imposing Buddha, one of them remarked, "I wonder how he got up there..."

"With a big crane, 15 years ago," I answered, with not too much bitterness in my voice. One of my most consistent experiences in Asia has been seeing things that look really old, but are in fact totally new (remember the Batu Caves in Malaysia?). Era confusion aside, he's still pretty impressive, and we were lucky enough to have a pretty clear day for visiting him. I've heard that, on a badly polluted day, you can't even see the top of his head from the base of the hill on which he sits.

Also of note is the pavilion upon which he sits, which features an exhibition about the life of Buddha and about the circumstances of Tian Tan's construction. Among the pieces of history from the unveiling ceremony is the text of a speech given by a mainland Chinese official. In hailing the spirit of cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland that made this project possible, the official extolled without a hint of irony China's history of religious freedom and tolerance. I scoffed as loudly as possible.

It was another welcome side-trip, though I'll admit that I did allow some solemnness to invade my mood, even on this island haven. I don't know if Hong Kong puts me in a bad mental state, or if I'm in a bad mental state that just happens to coincide with my time in Hong Kong. Probably some mutually-reinforcing combination of both, a perfect little case study for an ambitious amateur psychologist. Still, sitting lazily on a bench at the top of the hill, looking out on the view over a wide expanse of Lantau, listening to some distinctly California-sounding Phantom Planet on my iPod (no, I was not listening to "California"), I felt pretty good. I just need some more of that.

As my new desktop background, I've adopted this macro photo of incense burning at Po Lin Monastery, which sits at the foot of Big Buddha's hill. In the Buddhist tradition that dominates around here, you light incense to send your thoughts, prayers, and messages to the heavens in a wisp of smoke, where your ancestors can hear them. Even without being a remotely religious person in any tradition, let alone southern Chinese Buddhist, I usually like to light a few sticks whenever I pass through. To a good rest of my trip:

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Best day in Hong Kong in...ever?

I'm sitting in the Brunch Club, which is already my favorite little spot in Hong Kong. It's a Western-style café/coffee shop in Soho with an extensive wine collection, free magazines on the walls, and free-and-fast wireless internet. The staff speaks excellent - in some cases, surprisingly unaccented - English, and everyone who comes seems to be a regular.

I'm reading this month's issue of Harper's, which may be an even more self-consciously, self-righteously hyperintellectual publication than my beloved New Yorker. I finish a reprinting of a Hunter S. Thompson piece that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1973 when I peer over the top of my magazine and see a fratty-looking American guy at the table across the way. Apparently he is from South Carolina and is a student/fan of the university therein, because he is wearing a red t-shirt that reads across the chest, in big, bold letters, "COCKS."

As I turn away to chuckle, I find a gorgeous golden retriever behind me. I pet him and talk to the man sitting next to me, a charming English fellow who introduces me to Bonnie, his (male) retriever. This highly cultured dog apparently has a taste for The Economist, licking its the pages of his owner's magazine (I offer the new issue in my backpack for seconds). We discuss briefly how there are two kinds of people in the world, those who like dogs and those who don't, and how there is no room in our lives for the latter, as they have something seriously wrong with their priorities.

At that point, I realize that I am overwhelmingly happy, and that this is already the best day I've had in Hong Kong in probably two months. To memorialize it, my iPod soundtrack for the day. What do you mean, it looks like a mix album from The OC?

Patrick Park - "Life's a Song"
Peter Bjorn & John - "Young Folks"
South - "Paint the Silence"
Eberg - "Inside Your Head"
Death Cab for Cutie - "Blacking Out the Friction"
Electric President - "Metal Fingers"
Feist - "I Feel It All"
Delirium feat. Sarah McLachlan - "Silence"
Incubus - "Dig"
Postal Service - "Sleeping In"

As my friend Daniel just noted, Brunch Club is good food, good prices, nice environment, and slightly slow (let's call it "relaxed") service. And they keep my water glass full for hours, without being asked. In other words, it is Los Angeles. No wonder I love it so.

To close, I have resolved (in consultation with Ben, proprietor of the tragically defunct Hot Girls and Explosions) that I will now blame global warming for everything. "Pacific Ocean is getting super cold, making it hard to surf." Global warming is melting polar ice into the oceans! "Man my breath is terrible." Fucking global warming! "These boxers are riding all up on my junk." DAMN YOU, CARBON EMISSIONS!

Simple solutions to simple problems

Second to last bathroom stall. Third shower stall from left. Sink on opposite site of divider. Salsa dancing in North Point instead of clubbing in Lan Kwai Fong. Little things, but cumulatively, it helps a bit.

See previous post for context.

Friday, November 16, 2007

It's all been done

I was preparing to write a post about how I've been in a more-or-less perpetual state of deja vu for about 6 days now, from last Friday night to the present. But as I've thought about it more, deja vu really isn't the right way to describe what's going on. Deja vu implies some kind of irrationality...inherent in deja vu, to me, is the impossibility of having been in a specific situation before. Or at the very least, an inability to trace the precise source of a feeling.

That's a sensation I know well. I've always found that I'm unusually prone to deja vu. It's not uncommon for me to get that feeling multiple times a week, and often times, very intensely. Sometimes, the sensation of having deja vu is part of the deja vu itself. That is, it feels as though I've been in a situation feeling as though I've been in that situation before. But normally, it's all very short-term. It's usually keyed very closely to some part of the environment - a certain smell, a certain song - and, as that passes, so too does the feeling.

What I've been going through, though, is something different. It's the reliving of real experience. It is tangible, identifiable. Every one of these feelings I can trace back to some other I've already had. An incomplete list of moments:

After-dinner drinks with someone I've barely met. Hanging out lazily at someone's apartment. An asinine argument about running late with my stressed-out parents on the morning of the wedding, with my mother passive-aggressively complaining to my father about what a horrible person I am, knowing that I hear it, intending that I hear it. Helping my sister's soon-to-be-husband put on his tuxedo in an isn't-it-weird-how-we're-all-so-calm environment. Driving my sister to the wedding while she had her one and only butterfly. Dancing with a grandma at the wedding. Dancing with someone's cousin at the wedding. A vaguely hung-over brunch the next day. Listening to my dad tell stories about me to my new brother-in-law's step-dad. Every moment of the flight to Hong Kong. That bit of turbulence right after the descent starts. Glaring at a flight attendant behind her back when she makes me bring my seat back to the upright position for landing. Leaving my iPod on as a minor act of rebellion. Being just slightly hunched over as I stand in my row, waiting to exit. Shuffle shuffle shuffle through the airport. Second bathroom stall from the entrance. First shower stall on the left. Furthest sink on the right. Lather rinse repeat.

None of these is remarkable on their own. But I'm just letting my neurotic tendencies run wild lately. My tendency to compare every present experience to a past one has gotten out of hand, to the point where everything I'm doing seems done, and therefore totally unworthwhile. Routine, which is normally comforting and pleasant, is becoming stifling. Then there's the legitimate moments of deja vu throwing me out of sorts to boot. The total effect is one of complete, uncompromising futility. Which is a really horrid feeling to carry you through the day.

Say hi to the newest blog tag, "Cheer Up Emo Kid." I hope to use it sparingly.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Emergency

I realized yesterday that I haven't gotten a new album since I got to Hong Kong. I suspect this has something to do with my ever-increasing stir craziness.

Help! Suggestions! Samples! Help!

Updates and observations

I'm feeling very stream-of-consciousness. Here's a series of updates, observations, and thoughts from the last few days, in various levels of detail and coherence. I'll try to put them into vague categories so that things make some level of collective sense.

Visiting Home

- There is no worse immigration process than that involved with entering the United States. I am convinced that we have created criminals simply by treating people like we assume they are. I apologize to every foreigner that has ever had to deal with an American immigration official.

- The goal was to go home to California and come back with two things I didn't have before, a brother-in-law and a commitment to one job. Mission accomplished.

- God, I love California. I love Los Angeles. I know this, and it it is a constant source of joy and comfort.

- My sister's wedding was lovely, thank you for asking. Without exaggerating, it was just the best wedding I've ever been to. She's been planning it actively for over a year, passively since she was 7 years old, and if she was happy, then everyone should be happy. The wedding singer was a former Russian pop star who was the frontwoman of a popular band from Azerbaijan during the Soviet years. Then she moved to the United States and married some guy who my parents say was the Incredible Hulk, but apparently not Bill Bixby or Lou Ferrigno. Kinda cool.

- Best evidence that the wedding was a success: when it was time to do the bouquet and garter toss, my sister looked around, decided that the party was going too well to interrupt with more ceremony, and passed on it.

- I'd been low-level stressing for about a week about my impending wedding toast. I didn't write it on the plane, thought about it throughout my time in LA, and never committed anything to paper until the morning of the wedding. I was called to the stage by the wedding singer with no warning, but just seconds before it happened, I had pulled the printed-out speech out of my jacket pocket and looked at it skeptically. On my way up to the stage, I balled up the paper, banished it to my pocket, and talked off the cuff, using some of the material I had already come up with but reordering everything and mostly improvising. Nevertheless, the speech was well-received, with all of the laughs and "aww"s coming in at all the right times. When I got back to my seat, my already-drunk friend leaned over and said, "Now that is a wedding speech that gets a man laid." Not sure who he was suggesting help with that, but it was a nice sentiment.

- You know, I actually just like weddings. If you like free alcohol and dancing with every woman you see, what's not to like about weddings? Under the right circumstances, even the guy throwing up in the bathroom is charming!

Life

- For the first time in my (generally pretty successful) life, I made a final decision between two options and was immediately confronted with a screaming gut check feeling that I was making a colossal mistake and that, in one to two years, when I was fixing that mistake, I would look back on that moment and think, "I knew." I'm still seeing it through...doing something contrary to what I would normally do was part of the whole point. But damn.

- Odd experience: within an 18-hour period, being told by my father and by a law firm partner with whom I'll be working closely that they're impressed with how well I hold my alcohol. These were in reference to two separate drinking sessions.

- I've basically been in an extended state of deja vu since, oh, last Friday night. I think I will explore this more fully in another post.

- I am forcing myself to memorize the following stanza of poetry and recite it to women as an act of seduction: He bore her away in his arms, / The handsomest young man there, / And his neck and his breast and his arms / Were drowned in her long dim hair. - W.B. Yeats, "The Host of the Air."

Thoughts While Traveling Back to Hong Kong

- Esquire magazine is basically Maxim for guys who think that a joke about boobies is funnier than the word "boobies" itself.

- I am a better writer than the people who write for Esquire (I am looking at you, Tom Chiarella). I am a worse writer than the people who write for the New Yorker. I think that this is an appropriate intellectual balance for the world.

- To buy the New Yorker as an income-less 23-year-old is a willful act of pretension.

- Flying business class has severely damaged by ability to happily fly coach. Luckily, I'm cheaper than I am dainty.

- I've always wanted to be that guy who talked to strangers sitting next to him on airplanes, but for that to happen, I need to start sitting next to people who either look interesting or attractive. I've tried a few times now...my flight to LA worked out alright toward the end, though the guy and I were both sleeping through most of the flight. But I've just never found an airplane neighbor that could command my attention for more than 10 minutes.

- Looking at Hong Kong, at night, from a plane flying overhead, is oddly fascinating. The different parts of the city are so distinctive...you can really pick out every feature, every landmark building, every neighborhood. Playing the "I live there" game is incredibly easy. You can see the way that the city shares space with the uninhabitable wooded hills of Hong Kong Island. You can trace the class distribution across the island so clearly.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

There's no place like it

I depart now on a sorely-needed 5-day trip home to California, where I will attend my sister's wedding (after writing my toast on the plane), sort out my firm situation once and for all, and recharge my severely-drained batteries for the stretch run. Note that I will be departing from Hong Kong at 11:40 pm on Wednesday night, and arriving in Los Angeles at 8:30 pm on that same Wednesday night. Wacky.

A picture I took of my home beach in August 2006:

Crisis averted by vanity

So I'm preparing for my trip back to the U.S. tonight when I realize I can't find my passport. I always keep it one of three places here: in my top desk drawer, in a certain concealed pocket of my backpack, or in my pocket. Always one of those three places, and it wasn't in any of them.

So I start thinking. When was the last time I used my passport? Easy! Macau.

And what was I wearing? Equally easy! Pink shirt, matching tie, gray slacks.

So I pull out the gray slacks - which have already been packed into my suitcase - and sure enough, in the still-buttoned back pocket, there's my passport.

Crisis averted just by being so vain that I remember exactly what I wore on a given day, because I had picked the outfit specifically for the occasion.

The Basin Theory on Perceived Social Prosperity

I'm developing a theory that the apparent prosperity of a society is an inverse function of the visibility of clothing drying in public. In short, the widespread proliferation of dryers seems to be the hallmark of a truly prosperous society.

I am not yet sure if and how to reconcile this with the Toilet Paper Theory of Society, which holds that the prosperity of a society is directly proportional to the quality of toilet paper it uses. In Ecuador, for example, the currency was so devalued at one point that it was literally cheaper to wipe one's ass with the money than it was to buy actual TP. But the viability of that theory has been called into question by my trip to China, where three-ply toilet paper abounds.

Also worth noting is an observation that I am certainly not unique in having made, but stand by wholeheartedly: as you travel the world, rich is the same wherever you go. What defines a place more is, how poor is poor?

Definitely not hot

The last two and a half months have proven to be the most absurdly illness-and-injury-prone period of my life. I started with an ignominiously-sustained sprained ankle. While that was healing, I added an infected mosquito bite. Next was a two-way stomach ailment that I mercifully spared you all any detailed discussion of. More recent has been my bout of bronchitis. And now you may add to the list a scratched cornea.

Like the ankle sprain before it, this injury was sustained in as moronic and unglamorous a fashion as possible. Was I, as Ben suggested, struck in the eye by a stripper's pasties in Macau? Unfortunately, no (I don't even think they have strippers in Macau, party town that it is). Was I masturbating furiously, as Marie postulated, when my hand flew off and poked me in the eye? Thankfully, no. Was I chewing on a straw when I pushed it against my teeth, bent it, and poked myself directly in the eye with the bent point of the straw? Tragically, yes.

My first reaction was a totally reasonable one, I think: a solid 3 minutes of pounding on my cabinet and shouting obscenities into a towel.

Then came a 15-minute phase when I feebly attempted to do something responsible, creating quite a mess while fumbling aimlessly for gauze left over from the mosquito bite surgery, 800-mg ibuprofen (my beloved "man-uprofen"), and single-dose saline solution droppers I conveniently acquired the day before my trip. My effectiveness was hampered severely by the fact that even opening my good eye caused horrendous pain in the injured eye (still better than trying to open the bad eye, which generated stomach-turning volumes of pain).

I re-purposed the blindfold from my overnight Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong into an eye-patch, and then moved into phase 3: 30 minutes of slouching in my desk chair in self-pity. This phase included a darkly funny phone call to my parents inquiring as to the availability of eye-patches, consuming an embarrassing volume of not-quite-as-good-as-I-wished-it-was dark chocolate, and contemplating what my sister's wedding pictures would look like with me appearing as a tuxedoed pirate (as Marie noted, "actually sort of awesome, in a not-happening-to-me way").

Realizing that even trying to look at my computer screen with the good eye was making things immeasurably worse, I moved into the fourth and final phase of the evening: an hour and a half of laying in my bed with the lights off and the blindfold covering both eyes, listening to incredibly masculine Coldplay music on my iPod, worrying about packing for my trip to the United States in less than 24 hours, and tossing and turning in pain-and-caffeine-induced insomnia (not to be confused with the regular ol' insomnia that has been haunting me for much of the last 2 weeks). This phase was also dominated by the incredibly strong and completely unfulfillable desire to be hugged.

I awoke this morning to discover that my eye was capable of opening, but only half-way, giving me a decidedly Paris Hilton-like appearance. It occurred to me that this was actually worse than going around as a pirate. At this point, I'm up to about three-quarter eye openage, and it seems that my eye will be okay, although I will probably have gained about 4 pounds from that not-really-worth-it chocolate binge. I leave you with a nice email I received from Marie this morning:

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Blast from the past: Malaysian dining adventures

Through all the blogging adventures, I realized recently that I never recounted my favorite thing that happened to me in Malaysia. Knowing that I've only gone through about half of my China trip, and none of my Cambodia trip, I'm going to finish off Malaysia once and for all! Pre-apologies to Marie, whose account of this story I've already read, for any passages that are unintentionally very stylistically similar to yours. I know that subconscious plagiarism is still plagiarism. I'm too lazy to ensure it doesn't happen.

During our day trip to Melaka, after a fair amount of touring, Ryan, Karinne, Marie and I got into lunch mode. Our guidebook recommended a particular satay restaurant as exceptional, and after a whole lot of aimless and not particularly enjoyable wandering, we found it. We also found another pair of western backpackers sitting dejectedly in front of it, frantically reading through their guidebook to find a Plan B, because it was closed. Damn.

So we just kept walking until something looked clean and edible, which took about 30 minutes. We were seated by a jolly-sized Indian woman carrying a baby with all of the grace and care of a lineman carrying a football (note to all sports illiterates: linemen don't normally carry the football). Our first attempts to order off a menu on the wall met with little success. Chicken tandoori? No, don't have that. Naan? No, don't have that either. I started wondering what the hell kind of Indian restaurant we were actually in. Our waitress started wondering when the hell we were going to actually order.

Our increasingly impatient waitress/candidate for mother of the year started throwing out recommendations with increasing urgency. Chicken with rice! Lamb with rice! A brusque statement that was hard to understand, but may or may not have been "Order already!" Frightened by the waitress's suddenly stern stance, Ryan and Karinne opted for one order of chicken with rice and one order of lamb with rice. I noticed that most of the other tables in the restaurant had plates set up at each seat with a stack of samosas, pakora, and other fried treats. I pointed at one and and just said, "That!" Who knows what Marie was about to order, because the waitress had given up on her altogether and just stomped away after I made my request.

About two minutes later, the waitress returned with two banana leaves, which she inexplicably placed in front of Ryan and Marie. Without explanation, she scooped heaping stacks of rice, condiments, salads, and pappadums onto the banana leaves. She deposited metal bowls filled with chicken and lamb in the center of the table, along with a large plastic serving contraption filled with miscellaneous indistinct fried things. And with that, she was off. With no utensils on hand, Ryan and Marie cautiously picked at their stacks with their fingers, while Karinne and I began serving ourselves fried goods (with no apparent controls on what and how many we took) and contemplating why we had been deemed unworthy of banana leaves of our own.


Eventually, we mustered the courage to stand up for our rights and demand banana leaves of our own! We were granted half-sized banana leaves befitting our evidently second-class social status. Ryan got a free refill on his stacks-'o-food, probably because he is much bigger than all of us. But as we started digging in, our confusion and concern gave way to the realization that, whatever the hell we were being given, it was really good.

Then, without warning, at least two tour buses' worth of Indian tourists streamed into the restaurant and filled out every available seat. Karinne and I had our backs to the door, and wee began laughing aloud as a seemingly interminable stream of chatty visitors passed into our field of view, having no idea just how big the group would turn out to be. The function of the plates of fried goods at the other tables became immediately clear, as the whirling dervish-like mass of diners sat down, annihilated the pre-set plates, and vacated the premises within about 15 minutes. Transfixed by the scene, we barely made a dent in our plates...err, leaves...as the carnage unfolded. The restaurant emptied out as quickly as it had filled, and we were left with our suddenly high-spirited waitress, who sat near our table joking as we absolutely ravaged the contents of our leaves, leaving a trail of delicious destruction in our wake.


Fully-stuffed, we sat back and decided that this was the greatest meal we'd had in a long time, even before we received our bill and discovered that the whole feast had come to about US $2.40 per person. Fantastic.

Marie and I take different lessons from this experience. She understands it as a lesson against judging people. She had written off our waitress and the rest of the restaurant staff as rude, she says, when in fact they merely knew something we didn't - that the restaurant was about to be descended upon by hordes of ravenous tourists. "So, the next time you think people are being rude to you, consider," she admonishes in her account, "you may just be ignorant."

I look at things a bit differently. Honestly, the waitress was being rude. The fact that lots of people were coming doesn't change that, it merely explains it. I just took it as a cultural thing and wasn't that put off by it in the first place, though it was a pleasant surprise to see her warm up to us after the tour group had passed. To me, the rudeness - and the presence or absence of rudeness - isn't the issue.

Instead, I take it as another reminder of the awesome foibles of travel, and the malleable attitude one needs to bring on the road. I consider our banana leaf lunch the highlight of our trip to Malaysia, and it seems like it should be nothing. A Plan B! A half-assed reaction to not getting to do what we actually wanted to do! And when the food came out, plunked onto banana leaves sans silverware, I think the main thing that kept us from just getting up and leaving was morbid curiosity, not an expectation that things would work out. But that's where the adventure was: in adapting to a little adversity, doing something random and unexpected, and powering through a situation that wasn't necessarily ideal long enough to discover that it was actually awesome. And I remember that $2.40 lunch far more vividly than any "tourist attraction" Malaysia had to offer.

Political awareness, Hong Kong style

Earlier this week, I was walking down the street near campus, when I came across the first overt display of political awareness I'd ever seen in Hong Kong. The lack of any discernible political vibe here has been something of a disappointment.

Don't get me wrong, I consider being away from the U.S. during the run-up to election season, which is just way too active way too early, to be one of the unexpected boons of studying in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong occupies this fascinating geopolitical niche between China and the West, and has this interesting Special Administrative Region status, and a very unique relationship with China regarding the appointment of some political leaders vs. the election of others. I thought that, as a result, there would be some simmering political awareness to befit Hong Kong's unique place in the world.

In practice, not so much.

So I was very excited to see a crowd of supporters on the street, campaigning for a candidate for one of the local offices. I watched for a while as they set up shop at an intersection and waved signs in support of their man. Oddly, the crowd didn't make any noise at all...the whole thing was pretty polite and antiseptic, really. But I was genuinely pleased about this development as I walked on toward lunch.

About one hour, one meal, and one haircut later, I passed by the same intersection, and I was stunned to see the same intersection buzzing with political activity, but now for two candidates. The sea of green shirts for candidate #1 on the ballot had been joined by a yellow-shirted group that was carrying signs for candidate #3. Immediately, I was psyched up. Political discussion! Confrontation! Exciting possibilities swirled about in my head. Maybe they'd have a debate! Maybe they'd have a shouting match! Maybe they'd break out in choreographed dance-fighting a la West Side Story! The very prospect of watching some Sharks vs. Jets action unfold before me, however far-fetched, was thrilling.

But then I looked more closely. In a very orderly fashion, the green shirts were taking down their signs. In an equally orderly fashion, the yellow shirts were setting theirs up. Nobody exchanged so much as a pleasantry, let alone an insult or political point.


Apparently, the public demonstration was so carefully planned, so constrained, that each group had a designated time block during which it was allowed to demonstrate for its candidate. And as I've learned in the days since, passing that intersection over and over again, each group is always in the same location, always at the same time. Exit polling after this election would probably reveal a strong correlation between candidate of choice and work/shopping schedule.

The whole thing is so orderly and inorganic-feeling. I guess it makes sense. Can I really complain about them being organized and demure? And it's more political awareness than I saw before.

But I'm still a little disappointed.

It's not just the air!

Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor is so polluted that the producers of "The Dark Knight" have scrapped a scene in which Christian Bale was supposed to have jumped into the water. Nice.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Escape from Hong Kong Island, Chapter XXVII: Lamma Island

As part of my ongoing campaign to preserve my general sanity and my California soul, I recruited a classmate and made another island excursion this week, this time to Lamma Island. In spite of being the third-largest island in Hong Kong (behind Hong Kong and Lantau Islands) and less than 30 minutes away from the main island by ferry, it is a relatively undeveloped oasis. Buildings are capped at three stories in height, and cars are nominally banned from the island. In their place, though, are hordes of little flatbed carts used to truck around supplies and construction materials. These actually bear a remarkable resemblance to the goofy little carts that the dreaded campus security at my high school (the "yellowjackets," so named for their outlandishly bright windbreakers) drove around to chase us when we left campus for lunch.

Side-note: one of my friends, caught repeatedly over the course of two years without a valid sticker on his student ID that would authorize him to leave campus for lunch, gave his name to the guards as "Robert Paulson" every time. There were never any consequences for this. Hooray, public school.

Side-note #2: Sadly, as I stepped off the road to dodge the third such cart in as many minutes, I thought back to the first day of law school, and the first hypothetical my classmates and I ever faced. It was a law school classic: "A sign is posted in a park that says, 'No vehicles in the park.' Interpret it." Of course cars can't enter. But what about bicycles? Or baby strollers? Or goofy little flat-bed carts? Leave it to me to take the comparative peacefulness of Lamma Island and introduce the vagaries of statutory interpretation into the situation.

As far as recreation goes, Lamma Island is essentially a larger version of Cheung Chau. Where Cheung Chau had one fishing village and strip of seafood restaurants, with a hike through the hills on the periphery, Lamma Island has two such villages and restaurant strips, with a hike through the hills in between (the southern village is depicted here). As a result, it's charming in more or less the same exact way, although because the charm is more dispersed, it's somewhat less effective. Also, there is no quote-unquote "pirate cave" with a refreshingly honest explanatory sign, so I did feel somewhat deprived.

One of Lamma's more unique features is a massive coal-burning power plant that generates most of the electricity for neighboring Hong Kong Island. Nestled on a lagoon on the western edge of the island, from afar, its smokestacks rise through the forest canopy, casting their smoky industrial shadow over the landscape (well, more figuratively than literally). They seemed to appear out of nowhere as we curved around a hill, and as they emerged in the otherwise picturesque scene, it was as though the island was telling us, "Enjoy yourselves, but don't get too comfortable. Remember where you are."

Like Cheung Chau, Lamma Island featured a number of public beaches, though far more sparsely occupied than those I'd encountered on the former. As we wandered aimlessly through one of the beach areas, I came across an advertisement for a local brand that has long captured my imagination:


Somebody please bring me the marketing genius who walked into a board room and said, "Guys! I've got the perfect name for our new brand of bottled water: Pocari Sweat!" Every time I see a marketing or business choice as obviously asinine as this, I stop to contemplate how many layers of decision-making it had to pass through, how many people had to look at the sample bottle and say to themselves, yes, yes, I think we can make this work. The number of signatures it must have taken to bring Pocari Sweat to a store near me is probably staggering. And maybe they're quietly geniuses, and making me think about this and talk about this was their master plan all along.

But I doubt it.

There's little else to relate in terms of storytelling. We hiked, we talked, we ate delicious seafood at firesale prices. There is no better way to feel assured of the freshness of your fish than, upon ordering it, watching a chef select a fish from a tank and kill it on the spot. As I took my first bite, I honestly thought to myself, you were alive so very recently, little friend. As I took my second bite though, I mostly just thought, yum.

I'll leave you with one more photo from the beach, reflecting what has now become an outright obsession for me. Ever since snapping that first awesome picture of myself jumping in the air at Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, I've taken my photographic jumping stylings on the road, going airborne at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and at the Great Wall of China. Latest stop? Lamma Island, baby. Rocked the place.

It's the little things

I originally set out to write a short list of "little things" about Hong Kong that I love and hate, the sorts of things that would never command a post of their own (like my hatred of pollution and Lan Kwai Fong) and don't seem to sneak into unrelated posts (like my love of char siu bao). But as the list took shape, it became abundantly clear to me that this wasn't a list of "things I love" vs. "things I hate," but a list of "foods I love" vs. "people I hate." So here you go. My list of awesome foods and asshole people.

The Foods I Love

- Char siu bao: Often have I sung the praises of this delicious dim sum treat, a kernel of sweet, barbecue pork in a doughy steamed vessel that is perfectly suited to nurture the delicate goodness within. If you haven't listened to me by now, you probably never will. But I shall sing char siu bao's praises for as long as I'm here. In a culture whose culinary tradition "is based on clean, clear flavors" (read: is bland), they are a revelation.

- Yun yeung: Coffee mixed with tea, served with milk and sugar, authentically Hong Kong-style. It's so obvious, I have no idea why I never thought of it before.

- Bakeries: Ever since I started traveling in Europe, I've believed that American culture will always be somehow lacking until we have bakeries available on every corner serving delicious freshly-baked buns, bread, and pastries. This, of course, will never happen, because it would make fast food and convenience stores, as they are currently understood and used in the United States, essentially obsolete. Food that is fresh, delicious, and just extravagant enough on fats and sugars to be enjoyable without being totally guilt-inducing. It's exactly the kind of brilliant idea that's too good to catch on in an America that's convinced itself that food should usually taste mediocre.

The People I Hate

- Minibus drivers: Minibuses are much less strictly-regulated and organized than their big bus counterparts. As a result, unless a stop has been requested, minibus drivers tend to drive in the fast lane, so that they're boxed away from the curb by other cars and buses and just race past when you try to flag them down. Of course, even when there are no cars blocking their access to the curb, the position in the far lane allows them to pretend they don't see you. Even when they look directly at you. And have plenty of open seats. And just keep driving. God I hate minibus drivers.

- Minibus passengers: Most of the seats in minibuses are little 2-person benches, and anytime a local minibus passenger has a bench to him or herself, they sit in the aisle position (for whatever reason, this does not hold true on the big buses). When the minibus fills up and the window seats need to be filled, though, the seated passengers make no effort to accommodate incoming riders, whether by moving toward the window or standing in the aisle to let them pass. The thing that confounds me is that it's not just a lack of consideration for other people's comfort or well-being, it's a total disinterest in their own! I take a mini-bus back to my dorm from the dry-cleaners whenever I pick up my things, which is inevitably after school. That means that I'm boarding the bus with a big backpack and a massive stack of hangers, usually around 6 shirts and 5 pairs of pants by the time I get around to doing my cleaning here. In attempting to pass people and get into the window seat, I am inevitably smacking them in the face with the backpack or whipping them across the head with the clothes on the hangers. When a driver starts moving before I'm settled, I'm sometimes surprised that severe injuries don't result. But no matter how incredibly uncomfortable it is for both of us, no passenger has ever yielded the aisle seat to me or stood up to let me pass through. As a result, once I sit down, I actually actively hope that I also have to get up before them, so that I can (still accidentally) smack them in the face again on my way out. Because of the close proximity of my cleaner to my dorm, this is almost always the case. And just like when I'm getting on the bus, no passenger has ever made any effort to accommodate me on the way off. Serves them right.

- Pedestrians: I have no idea how pedestrianism works when a local is trying to pass another local on a narrow sidewalk here, because I would estimate that 4 out of 5 locals I pass on foot make zero effort to move or angle their bodies to in any way accommodate my passing. Inevitably, I find myself either contorting myself into awkward positions along building walls or sidewalk railings, or shoulder-checking a passer-by as a simple act of defiance. I find this behavior particularly egregious in the case of pairs who are walking down the street. People who walk in pairs typically walk side-by-side, that's fine. But the sidewalks here are usually only about 2.5 people wide, meaning that when 2 people are walking on a collision course toward me, something's got to give. In the U.S., the etiquette on this is clear: one of the people in the pair must either file in front of or behind their compatriot, so that traffic in both directions has a channel through which to pass. Not everybody abides by this in the States, of course, but those who don't are clearly assholes. Here, I concede that it's probably a bona fide cultural difference. But just because it isn't a personal slight or an individual act of rudeness when people monopolize the sidewalk doesn't mean I don't find the entire cultural practice to be categorically rude.

Hmm...minibus drives, minibus passengers, and pedestrians. That covers an awful lot of people. I've clearly been feeling great about Hong Kong lately.

Return to Halloween

Another longer anecdote that I think is worth your while. During my initial account of the Halloween festivities last week, I basically skimmed past the part of the evening involving fighting. But after telling the story a few times, I've decided it's absurd and entertaining enough to be worth recounting, as long as I change names to protect the embarrassingly drunk.

When my story cut off, I was leaving the dreaded Insomnia for Beijing Club, a member's club in Lan Kwai Fong where I know a couple of members. As I approached the building, I noticed a friend who shall henceforth be known as Bob (named in honor of Bob Ritchie, a.k.a. Kid Rock, the unofficial modern king of drunken fighting). I immediately recognized Bob by his costume and approached to say hello. When I did, he told me in a very serious voice, "We've got a problem here."

At that moment, I looked to my right and saw an unfamiliar Asian girl who was beyond the point of stumbling drunkenly, all the way to "straight-up passed-out." Accompanied by three friends - two girls and a guy who may or may not have been her boyfriend - she was complete deadweight, an inanimate sack of alcohol, flesh, and designer clothes being propped up by her friends.

"Uhh, she's got a problem," I observed. "What's ours?"

"No, I really care about this one, man," insisted Bob. It was only later that I found out that passed-out girl had, in fact, already been out cold at the time that Bob and company arrived, and that he had somehow formed an irrational attachment to her in the brief stretches of consciousness she enjoyed between passing out again and vomiting on his shoes. Anyhow.

As passed-out girl and her comrades stumbled past us toward an adjacent street, where they could call a cab, Bob approached and insisted on helping. He physically maneuvered himself under one of the girl's arms (forcing out the female friend who had been in that spot), as the friends plead with him, "Thank you, we've got it. Thanks. Really, we've got it. Really, thank you, we have this." I stood back and watched this unfold with detached bemusement.

Eventually, though, passed-out girl's (boy)friend grew impatient, and physically pushed Bob away from her. Ironically, in pushing Bob away and shifting himself to execute the push, passed-out girl was left with no support and slumped helplessly to the ground, where her female friends tried desperately to scoop her off the pavement. In the meanwhile, the conflict between Bob and the (boy)friend escalated from one push, to a shoving match, to punches flying (though mercifully, none of them connecting, thank you for that much, alcohol). I threw myself between them and held them apart as best I could, while each continued to hurl insults and occasional swings at the other. Thankfully, they not only missed each other, they also missed me. As I held my outstretched hand to Bob's chest, he insisted, "I'm not drunk! This asshole is drunk! Tell this drunk asshole to stop attacking me!" Meanwhile, both tried to maneuver around me to get back toward each other. As this unfolded, dozens of other people stood in a circle watching the carnage unfold, passed-out girl's female friends made half-hearted entreaties for (boy)friend to calm down, and two policemen stood about 20 feet away with their backs to the scene, looking at nothing at all, apparently adopting a policy of, "If we don't see it, we don't have to do anything about it."

After about 30 seconds of this, another friend of mine appeared out of nowhere, having coincidentally come down the elevator to retrieve me. He bear-hugged Bob from behind, upon which Bob very calmly, very intensely, asked, "Who is hugging me?" Given the tone, I suspect that the complete question would have been, "Who is hugging me, because if I don't know you, I am going to elbow you in the face." With Bob properly restrained, I turned my attention to keeping (boy)friend at bay, as he still wanted to pick a fight with the now-immobilized Bob. This, of course, spurred Bob to struggle against his friend's bear-hug, and threatened to re-escalate things altogether until, finally, (boy)friend turned, helped prop up passed-out girl, and guided her into a cab.

As they drove away, Bob seethed with rage, insisting that when he had been in the elevator with them on the way outside, passed-out girl had lurched in the direction of (boy)friend, as though she was going to throw up again, and he had punched her in the face to prevent it. Then and now, I'm skeptical...why would that be the guy's response? No one can think of a plausible mechanism by which punching someone in the face would stop them from throwing up. I suspect it was more of a light face slap, as in, "Get it together, wake up." Whatever actually happened in the elevator, Bob paced back and forth anxiously, worried that (boy)friend would continue beating passed-out girl in the cab. To calm him, we (falsely) claimed that she had gotten into a cab with her girlfriends and that the guy had followed behind.

A few more friends eventually showed up, and we parted companies. One group, including Bob, headed toward a nearby noodle bar to get some late-night snacks, while the rest of us went back into the club for another round. I'd never been in Beijing Club, and wanted to check it out. The bouncers - who had also watched the skirmish unfold without intervening - recognized me from my peacemaking efforts and waved me in without protest.

25 minutes and a vodka-cranberry later, we decided that we, too, were hungry, and would head to the same noodle bar to which we had sent our compatriots. As soon as we arrived and climbed the stairs, though, we were confronted with the sight of our friends, lightly holding back Bob, who was once again face-to-face with a livid-looking Chinese youth. I assumed my now-familiar place between Bob and the person who wanted to punch him in the face.

"What the hell, man?" the local shouted over my shoulder. "You're coming to my country and making racist slurs?"

What the hell, Bob?, I thought to myself.

As Bob and his antagonist continued to lob vague machismo challenges toward one another, I coaxed the story from the local while our other friends kept Bob back. It seems that, in the men's room, standing at a urinal, penis in hand, Bob had turned to the gentleman as he entered the restroom and declared, "You Chinese people treat women like shit!" This had understandably inflamed the man's passions, and was probably a particularly imprudent thing for Bob to say in a restaurant at which we were the only westerners in the house.

"I'm just trying to have a good night out here, man," insisted the offended party.

"I know," I said, genuinely sympathetic. "And the best way for you to do that is to just ignore him. That's pretty much our strategy."

As the altercation subsided, one of our friends was dispatched to accompany Bob back to the dorms, while the other one that had originally accompanied Bob to the noodle bar, distraught that he never got to eat, stayed behind with us to get that long-delayed meal. That's when I had my delicious French toast, although of course, we were seated at the table next to our offended friend from only moments earlier.

And naturally, when Bob and our other friends stood in front of our dorm complex at the end of the night (I had already retired for the evening), Bob still seething in impotent rage over the perceived injustices of the evening, that same guy from the restaurant got out of a cab, and strolled past the group and into one of the buildings, looking cautiously - and recognizingly - at Bob and company as he entered.

And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

My roommate the spy

Things at the dorm have taken another turn toward the tragic, or at least the weird. At issue has been the evolution of my roommate, and what must be generously termed, for lack of a better word, the “relationship” between us.

I am proud to report that the roommate appears to have broken his addiction to World of Warcraft. In so doing, he has demonstrated far more strength of will than many people I know in the States. At first, he seemed to fill the void in his life with studying and actively participating in hall organizations. While neither of these are activities that I feel particularly compelled to pursue, I can certainly respect the impulse to do either. And as I've reported, we started experimenting with real life conversations!

But more recently, he has taken up an electronic version of Magic: The Gathering. If you don’t remember Magic, it’s a collectible card game where you amass decks of spells, creatures, and the like and then fight your friends. It’s pretty great. I mean, I loved it when I picked up at age 10, was damn good at it when I peaked at age 12, and felt real pangs of nostalgia when I sold all of my cards for cold hard cash when I was 14. I didn’t even know it still existed, though I suppose I had heard something about it going digital. In any event, Magic seems to offer my roommate the key function of World of Warcraft – interacting with people via computer intermediaries at odd hours of the night rather than doing so in real life – without distractions like “story” or “graphics.”

I would consider that a weird enough development, if my roommate hadn’t taken on a bizarre, vampire-like lifestyle. Several times over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come home late from my own evening activities to find that – in spite of demonstrating no verifiable social life for the first month and a half I was here – he’s not even there. I might go to bed at 5 am in an empty room, and awake at noon to find him asleep face-down, fully-clothed, with his blanket only covering him from the shoulders up.

The obvious conclusion would be that, somehow, this once mousy, demure kid has taken up an even more hard-partying lifestyle than my own. But the nights I’ve stayed in and stayed up late seem to contradict that. He’ll be here till 3 am, happily tapping away at his computer game. Then, without word or warning, he’ll get up and walk out of the room. At 4 am, he’ll return, silently reclaim his spot on the computer, and that will be that.

While I’ve always looked at my tendency to listen to music from large headphones while in the room as a great excuse for avoiding the pressure for meaningful interaction that I know wouldn’t happen even if the headphones weren’t there, I’m getting increasingly curious about what’s going on, and have taken to developing elaborate theories with little or no basis in reality. The prevailing one right now is that he’s an ingeniously-concealed spy/assassin of the mainland Chinese government who’s going off on assignment at odd hours. Perhaps the Magic games are an elaborate communication and assignment system. I will investigate further and report if there’s anything worth reporting. If you suddenly don’t hear from me again, you know what happened.