Sunday, December 16, 2012

I'm dreaming of a sweaty Christmas

This year's winter has been the hottest I've experienced here.  This is what mid-December looks like in Hong Kong:  80-something degrees and unimaginable humidity.  

Santa's had a stroke and all of the elves are naked and panting on the beach.  And my sweaty bra is hung out to dry by the fireplace* with care.

*And by "fireplace" I mean "air conditioner."

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's the most wonderful time of the year

Fish balls roasting on an open fire
mosquitoes nipping at your toes
drunken K-pop being sung by that guy
and folks dressed up like rich gweilos...

Everybody knows some charcoal and a roasting spit
help to make the evening right
tiny tots at the next BBQ pit
will have nightmares of strange white people tonight...

We know the last bus is on its way
the driver won't wait for us at all
but there's still beer so we'll stay
and try to hail a red cab back to Central...

And so I'm spending another Hong Kong day
like expats since 1842
though it's been slurred many times many ways
"Where's the 7-11?  We need more booze."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cold, hard (and refreshing!) cash

In today's news from Shenzhen: a woman receives a phone call telling her that she owes 15,000 yuan to the government and she must pay by 5 pm.  But not to worry - if she pours coca-cola on an ATM it will spit out money!  So of course she immediately proceeds to the nearest ATM and dumps three cokes into it.  Shockingly, this does not work.  She is then arrested as she moves on and attempts to do the same thing at a different ATM.

Because China.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Clockenflap - you still have time!

If you missed Clockenflap yesterday, you still have time to get there today.  There are tickets still available and this year is infinitely better organized than last year.  Also with excellent food - tacos, pizza, noodles, dumplings, brats, pastries - get there now!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Just another day in the New Territories

Out grocery shopping on a rainy morning.  Stop at a sheltered bench to consult my list.  Beside me is an elderly man wearing a poncho and using a handsaw to cut a plastic cooler in half.  Parked nearby he has a shopping cart with a half-dead palm tree.  He's listening to a portable radio tuned to white noise at full volume.  And that's the news from Sai Kung.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Welcome committee

A bride and groom arrive home to a public housing estate on a rainy morning in Sai Kung.  Here you can see the boring side of the Chinese wedding - photos upon photos upon photos, the bride and groom posing for photos that will eventually be put in an album that no one will look at - similar to Western weddings.  Only five or six photographers for a wedding here is shocking - this must be a wedding on a budget:

And the dancers waiting in the rain for the bride and groom to arrive:

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Well, that wasn't quite what I was hoping for

In the past decade Hong Kong has discovered wine in a big way.  Wine auctions, wine bars, the "Food and Wine Month", wine tours, tastings, classes, etc. etc.  But good beer has been slow to catch on.  There are the standards available at almost every bar - Blue Girl, Carlsberg, Tsing Tao, and Hoegaarden - but good craft beers and microbrews have been difficult to find.  With a few exceptions (The Globe on Graham Street in Soho and last year's Beertopia festival) we've been starved for decent beer.

So you can imagine how I felt when I saw this post on the Beertopia facebook page - 

An American beer festival?  I'm in!  I called a few friends and we agreed to meet up to wallow in American beeriness.  Yessss!

It started at 3:00 and I was a bit concerned about getting in (Beertopia sold out quickly and it filled up the entire Western Market), but we couldn't get there until 5:00.  But we got in.  Oh, we got in.  It was deserted.  It was us, the employees and a tipsy beer distributor.

Okay, that's fine.  There are still good beers and maybe other people are coming later.  

As you can see from the flyer, it cost $150 to get in.  Essentially, that $150 bought you three tickets, each of which was redeemable for a beer (that's pretty reasonable for HK) but it also bought you a ticket to win one of the raffle prizes.  

Over the course of the evening each of the four of us bought two sets of tickets and nobody else came to the "festival".  So with eight tickets between us we felt pretty assured of winning some prizes and decided to stay until 10pm for the raffle.  Remember this for later.

While waiting we decided to order some food.  It was so horribly prepared that I only recovered from my shock enough to take one photo.  Behold the "nachos":

This consisted of about seventeen chips, only one of which had (about half a teaspoon of cold rubbery) cheese.  The chips themselves were greasy and chewy.  Chewy.  Chewy chips.  These "nachos" were accompanied by four small bowls, each containing appoximately 1.5 tablespoons of sour cream, chopped tomatoes, some watery "salsa", and something I can't remember because I was in a haze of disbelief.

Other dishes were the risotto balls (cold in the middle and relatively flavorless), and the "cheese fries" (decent fries that were covered in a watery orange sauce that resembled cheese the way that a stillborn kitten resembles a tiger).

Oh - and that raffle?  10:00 came and went so we wandered into the bar area to find the now incredibly drunk beer distributor and all of the employees had "won" the prizes.  

They scrambled around and gave us a six-pack of beer to split between the four of us.  

Overall grade: decent beer list, but go to The Globe instead.  In her drunken blathering the beer distributor told me that they have most of the same beers, and the Globe has better (actually, excellent) food.  

You have been warned.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Where to put your money

Worried about the Chinese property bubble?  Don't know how to invest?  Well here.

Problem solved - both for nervous investors and for the thousands of China's "leftover women."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Of sneaky waiters and rubik's cubes

Hanging with a Chinese friend, at loose ends and peckish in Taiyuan one night, we asked hotel staff for a good local restaurant.  True to form, they directed us to a two story monstrosity of the "Dragon Ate a Barrel of Gold Leaf Washed it Down with Some Red Paint Then Vomited on a Large Building" school of design.  But unlike the cavernous and generally deserted "best restaurant in town" tourist traps that we're usually sent to, this one was actually packed with locals and looked promising.  We looked over the menu - very reasonable prices! beautiful photos! - and ordered a few dishes (including fried bunny and stewed "wild chicken").

We were with Kelly, of course, so we ordered a few vegetarian dishes.  Some great tofu, some greens, and then - fatal mistake - we asked the waiter to recommend one other dish.  He described a fungus dish to us and said it was very good so we ordered it at once.  The food came and the waiter was right - some of the best mushrooms I've ever had!  It was quite a small portion - enough for each of the three of us to have a few bites - but they were tender, meaty, savory.

An hour later, full of bunnies and veggies and beer, we signaled for the check and the waiter brought it over.  Wow - that fried rabbit was only $38 RMB!  Those greens?  Only $20 RMB!  So reasonabl- SCREECH

That tiny dish of mushrooms was $340 RMB.  What. The. Hell.

We called the waiter back over and our mainland friend began a long and heated dialogue in Putonghua, which to me sounded like this:

Waiter:  Smiley smile smiley smiley SMILE
Friend: ANGRY!
Waiter (throws hands up): SMILE (wanders away)

manager wanders over

Friend: ANGRY!
Manager: Smiley smile point smile (wanders away)

Apparently our friend tried to get the dish taken off our bill.  No chance.  He then demanded a receipt, in the hopes that the university (we were at an academic conference) would reimburse us for the bill.  The manager said she couldn't give us a receipt, but directed us to an office in the basement that might be able to help us.  Okaaaay...

We trek down a dark stairwell to the basement and approach a tiny window, where more ANGRY/SMILEY negotiations take place.  I see the man in the window offer something to our friend, who shakes his head angrily and points at something else, and the man then hands something over.  Success!  We've got our receipt!

Apparently the man would not issue us a receipt but as compensation for our trouble we were offered the choice of a tiny rubik's cube or a mini flashlight.  Our friend drove a hard bargain and we walked away with both.

And surreal China rolls on.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hidden treasures

Yesterday at the Apliu Street flea market I found a three-LP recording of Camus reading his various literary and philosophical works. The rest of the stall, presided over by a dozing elderly woman, was filled with boxes and boxes of laserdisc porn.

Definitely worth the visit.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Halloween...sort of

"Jack O'lanterns" for sale at the supermarket.  Hong Kong hasn't fully grasped the concept yet.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Go-Go-Gadget Buddha

Nestled behind HomeSquare in Sha Tin is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, where you can find this guy.  And far more than ten thousand others.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Hiking in Sai Kung

One of my oldest friends recently came to visit me and, aside from the fact that apparently my hair looks awful and my friends "dress like they don't have money" (she can't help it - she lives in Los Angeles), she seemed to have a good time.  In only a week we covered most of Hong Kong - from museums to markets to dim sum to the Peak to lots and lots of shopping.

We finally got a day off from Prada and Hermès to go hiking.  I'd originally planned to take her to Lamma, but the husband didn't want to make the 1.5 hour commute so we tried a hike in Sai Kung, which we later realized is supposed to be one of the most scenic hikes in HK.

It's not too difficult and it ends with beer, so here's how to do it:

Take a taxi or minibus (though the minibus runs only a few times a day during the week) to Sai Wan Pavilion in Sai Kung Country Park.  From there you just follow the signs towards Sai Wan (about a two hour hike) and from there on to three more beaches.

We stopped at the second beach because the others were another hour-plus hike, but this is really all you need - white sand, blue water, and practically deserted during the week.

The hike was momentarily derailed when my friend spotted an abnormally large gecko (which I'm pretty sure was a leaf) and came barreling down the hiking path screaming something like "AWWWLBLARRWWLABLLLAWWSLLLLALLL", but that was resolved fairly quickly.

Once we made it to the beach there's a small restaurant/bar where we had some great noodles and many, many beers while waiting for the boat back to Sai Kung.

Oh  yes - the boat.  Rather than a ferry, there's a small speedboat that you can call from the restaurant to pick you up.  It costs $1000 HKD per trip and seats ten people, so you want to split it with fellow hikers if you can.  We stumbled upon some French students who were taking time off from studying in Taiwan, bribed them with beer to stay one hour later so we could share the boat, and then sat drinking and exchanging curse words in various languages until the boat arrived.

You wade out there, then zip back to Sai Kung in less than 45 minutes.

Bonus hipster photo of the sunset from the trip back:

If you're truly interested in hiking in Hong Kong, check out this book by my friend Pete - everything you need to know.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Consolation prize

I haven't posted in a while because I've been super busy.  So here's a cat in a box.

Found in Sai Kung.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Words of wisdom?

If you've ever caught a minibus at the Hang Hau MTR station, you might've seen one of these handwritten missives taped up around the bus stops:

Dealing with everything from work to marriage to family to religion, new ones appear every few weeks or so.  Does anyone know who posts these or why?

UPDATE:  Apparently several of these appeared on Lamma Island last year (here's a brief write-up about it) and some have been spotted in Soho as well.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Street food - it probably won't kill you

I owe a lot to my parents.  They were supportive of my odd interests and patient when I was a bizarrely overdramatic teenager.  

I tried to rebel by shaving my head - they thought it was cool.  

I got a tattoo - my dad loved it and got one too.  

Sigh - the troubles of a first world rebel.  

But the the best thing they gifted me was a passion for travel.  

Not only that, but my father told me that no matter where I go, the street food will always be better than anything I can get in a restaurant.  And after traveling to 20-plus countries over I-don't-want-to-say-how-many years, I can say that his advice has never steered me wrong.

Case in point - in Taiyuan I had one of the best foods I've ever had ever: a thin pancake cooked on a hot griddle; when it started to bubble, the woman tending the stall broke the bubble with chopsticks and poured in some beaten eggs.  She then flipped over the pancake and smoothed out the eggs, let it brown, then basted it in not one, not two, but three different chili sauces, and then wrapped it around shredded sour & spicy potatoes, lettuce, green onions, and cilantro.  

No matter where you travel, there will always be people warning you away from eating the foods sold by street vendors - never mind that there are dozens of locals lined up who eat there every day and have somehow evaded death - you mustn't do it!   Don't listen.  Eat whatever the hell you want, enjoy it and go on your merry way, dancing past terrified tourists at the local McDonalds.  (Unless of course your local McDonalds happens to be featuring the seaweed-flavored "shake-shake fries".  In that case, go there.)

This is the food of the gods.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

A visit to the Taiyuan Walmart

During my trip to Taiyuan one of my lifelong dreams came true - I paid a visit to a Chinese Walmart.  And it was a wonderland.

It looked much the same, but the products were slightly different.  For example, the tanks of frogs and turtles in the meat section:

Or the pile of cooked... crayfish?... in the deli section:

Actually, the deli section was beautiful.  Here's an area where you pick some noodles and sauce:

And your toppings:

And then grab some bread to go with it, and you're golden:

Monks shopping for new dinnerware:

Chinese flags hanging over all of the displays of Japanese electronics (in reference to the recent Diaoyu Islands dispute with Japan):

And some of the glorious snacks I came away with - Oreos, in grape/peach, orange/mango, and birthday cake flavors:

Potato chips in "Numb and Spicy Hot Pot" flavor:

Or cucumber flavor:

And my favorite - a Pabst Blue Ribbon "World War Two Edition in Memory of US Army":

Yes we can!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mainland bound!

I'm headed to Taiyuan and Beijing this morning and hope to return with bucketloads of interesting photos, including the holy grail - me eating grilled scorpions.  I have been told they can be found at night markets, so that's my mission.  I also hope to get some photos of the anti-Japan violence and vandalism that's happening now - I'm curious as to whether it's as extensive as the media is saying.

Until I return, here is a photo of fish drying in the sun.  Enjoy.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How to buy a copy bag

For the first time in over a month we don't have any visitors staying with us.  Today I pooped with the bathroom door open and it was glorious.

I actually really like having guests because we get to do all of the touristy things that we usually ignore - the Peak, a ferry tour of the islands around Sai Kung, the Star Ferry, etc.  And when people say that they want to buy gifts or souvenirs, I head straight for Temple Street Night Market to buy the most iconic Hong Kong souvenir of all - a copy bag.*

The way it works is this: you wander through the market, walking past the stalls, until you hear someone say "Copy bag? Copy watch?" and you know you're in the right place.  The bags aren't actually in the stalls because they're, y'know, illegal, so you look through a handmade catalog, pick the handbag you want to see, and the market lady dispatches a runner to retrieve the bag from wherever her inventory is kept nearby.

You then look at the bag, she points out all of the ways that this is a quality bag ("good stitching!" "zipper!") and if you decide you want it then she quotes you an absurdly expensive price.  DO NOT EVER pay this price.  Offer a third of what she's asking and go from there.  And don't be afraid to walk away (actually, this can be a pretty good negotiating technique) and head to the next seller.

Recently my father-in-law was visiting and wanted a gift for his girlfriend, so we immediately headed to Temple Street. (Protip: do not try to drive there - it's a nightmare.  Take the MTR.)  We wandered the market until we heard the magical "Copy bag? Copy watch?" and headed in to talk to the lady.  She had a high-tech operation and had photos of the bags on her iPhone rather than in a physical catalog - very impressive.  My father-in-law is - of course - male, so all of the bags pretty much looked the same to him, so I chose a black Chanel bag and she sent her runner off to fetch it while we waited for him to return.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally we got tired of waiting and decided to move on, walking away while she yelled at our backs "two minutes!  two minutes!" (which she'd been saying for the last ten minutes).

A block and a half later, she came running up behind us yelling "bag!" so we returned to her stall to examine it.  It was a nice enough bag but my father-in-law wasn't impressed, so we declined.  She started to show us other bags on her phone but got frustrated when we seemed indecisive, so - and this was new to me - she offered to take us to where the bags were stored to look at her entire inventory.  I was a bit sketched out by this - images of mainland tourists being held hostage in jewelry shops until they buy something were running through my head - but my sweet naive husband said "Okay!"  Sigh.

Then she pointed and said "Only two."  Okay, only two of us could go.  The husband cheerily agreed to stay while his dad and I walked into certain death.  (Thanks honey!)

She led us to an old walk-up building where we climbed five stories in 130-degree heat, being admonished the whole way for making noise.  Step - step - step - "SHHHH!" - step - step - "SHHH!" until we came to a small flat.  This is the type of flat that's called a "coffin home" because it's the size of a single bed - no bigger.  But there was no bed, only bags from floor to ceiling.  Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Miu Miu, and on and on and on.  

We're sweating profusely and she's wildly pulling out bags for us to look at, shoving bag after bag in our faces, until we finally choose one (I'm not sure if it was because it was the one we liked best or if it was because we were incredibly close to passing out, but I tend towards the latter).  Then she quotes us the price - $1300 HKD.  Ha.  Hahaha.  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.  Um, no.  We go back and forth a bit and I finally end up getting the bag for $500, which is probably still too much but hey - at least we're going to live through this.  

Then we walk back down to street level (complete with many more "SHHH!"s) and emerge with our copy bag firmly in hand.  To be honest I can't even remember what it looks like - the whole experience is a sweaty blur.  So yeah - that's how you buy a copy bag.  Now go forth and conquer in style.

* For the uninitiated, a copy bag is a counterfeit designer handbag.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Of course

There are two main supermarket chains in Hong Kong - Wellcome and Park 'N Shop. They generally carry the same stuff so there's no reason to choose one over the other, right?  WRONG.  Wellcome is almost always running a program where for every certain dollar amount you spend, you get a stamp.  Collect enough of these stamps and you can redeem them for various food- and kitchen-related things.  Over the years I've gotten a great chopping knife, some bowls, and a large soup pot.  Free stuff - nice!

The current promotion, however, is not exactly food related.  What is it?  The Angry Birds Happy Stamp Programme, of course!  That's correct - collect sixty stamps and receive one of these:

Yes.  An Angry Birds plushie.  

It also means that sometimes your husband will be out of town, you'll be too lazy to cook so you'll stop in to grab some sashimi and you'll find these guys blocking the entire sushi counter:

So you'll just grab a frozen pizza and a bottle of wine.  A couple of bottles of wine.  Whatever.

I have three of these so far.  I plan to collect all eight because I need more crap to take up space in my house.  

Now I'm sure you're saying to yourself, "But how can I collect them all?  These would go great with my Hello Kitty throw pillows and Doraemon bedsheets, but I don't spend enough to get all those stamps!" *sniff*

Two tips to get more stamps:

Tip # 1 - Spend over $350 on the weekends and get double stamps!  Buy all of your cheese and wine on Saturday or Sunday and come away with more stamps than you can count!  Saturdays and Sundays are also a good day to shop because that's when a lot of white tourists come to Sai Kung to picnic on the islands and they're all doing their shopping then.  Which leads me to the next tip...

Tip # 2 -  If you're behind a gweilo who (a) didn't bring his own cloth bag, (b) doesn't have an Octopus Rewards card, and (c) doesn't speak any Canto, he's probably a tourist.  When the cashier hands him his change, receipt, and stamps he'll take them, stare at everything blankly, and shove it all in his wallet.  Act quickly!  He has no idea what these stamps are and will simply throw them out when he gets home.  So ask if you can have them.  He's so overwhelmed with the intense pressure of trying to get everything packed up and out of there before too many people pile up behind him that he'll look relieved, shove them at you, and scurry away clutching his baguette and 4-pack of Heineken.  More stamps for you!

You're welcome and happy birding.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What took me so long?

I'm ashamed to say that after over three years in Hong Kong, I'd never once been to the beach.  If you've ever really looked at Victoria Harbour then you'll understand why.  I've gotten too excited too many times over seeing a jellyfish swimming by only to realize it's yet another plastic bag (when I can see past the oil slick on the water's surface). But friends assured us that there are gorgeous beaches to be found, so we spent Sunday afternoon at Hap Mun Beach in Sai Kung.  

If you walk down the Sai Kung promenade, especially on weekends, you'll see an endless line of colored umbrellas and will be continuously approached by people asking "boat" and twirling their finger in a circular motion (this is the sign for boat?  I dunno).

The line of sampan hawkers:

These are the operators of various private ferries/sampans that will take you to one of the islands or beaches in the area - anywhere from a 10- to a 45-minute journey.  We opted to visit Hap Mun Bay Beach.  Don't pay more than $30 HKD for your ticket, which should include the return journey, and make sure you remember which ferry you're taking and what time the return journeys are - they fly different color flags and run all day.


From Sai Kung promenade it's a gorgeous 20-minute ferry ride to the beach.  Our ferry stopped first at another beach (Sharp Beach maybe?), so make sure you know which stop is yours.  

View from the ferry:

It was hot as hell, as usual, so the beach was packed.  But we rented an umbrella and found a spot easily.  There are also BBQ firepits, showers, toilets and changing areas, a spot to rent various equipment (we rented an umbrella - $100 HKD and a $100 deposit), and a small refreshment kiosk (note: they only stock Tsingtao and - shudder - Blue Girl, so if you want something else then bring a cooler).

Hap Mun Bay:

I'd read a lovely article in the South China Morning Post that morning about the rising incidence of flesh-eating virus in Hong Kong and how it lives primarily in warm seawater so I wan't too keen on jumping in, but it was that or heatstroke, so in I went.  And the water was... clear?  Rubbish-free?  Not what I was expecting at all.

Hong Kong weather being what it is, a thunderstorm rolled in around 3:30:

But only lasted about ten minutes.  The sun emerging afterwards:

No funny anecdotes, no exciting stories - just a recommendation to check out the beaches if you haven't already.