Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Ubiquitous Peak

This holiday I've been going through the tourist brochure doing all the things I haven't had the time for because of the work, the family and the commute. If I'd known what to notice, I could have gotten an idea about the flavour of Hong Kong from the first when I picked up the tourist brochure in the airport. It's thin enough to fit in a purse or breast pocket. It's full of succinct descriptions. And it includes detailed instructions on how to get there at the end of each paragraph complete with what exit to take out of the MTR. So I've been dutifully following instructions and checking off each attraction.
Here is my required picture from The Peak at night. There's the white "bearclaw" of the IFC that is the terminus for my ferry commute. There's the incredibly red Panasonic sign that makes the harbor glow. There's the "lightning" building which is the new Bank of China building. Somewhere in the foreground is the apartment in which I'd spent an hour of my vacation, tutoring to pay for a loft bed.
The Peak is in a nutshell what I understand Hong Kong to be. It's historic - the tram's been running since 1888. It's full of high end shopping - you are funneled out of the tram into a five story shopping mall. It's kitschy - there's a Ripley's Believe It or Not and a Madame Tussaud's wax museum with local celebrities like Jackie Chan. It's bright and electric - there's a multi-coloured light display on the ceiling of the Peak Tower. There is free fun - a big EA electronic game centre for the kids. It's sporty - lots of nature walks going off in all directions. And it's crowded.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


In Turkey I made gingerbread cookies and molasses chews with pekmez. I could buy pekmez, a black sugary syrup, made from grapes, dates or mulberries. Mulberry pekmez I found to work best for cookies, though date pekmez was the thickest. We also used pekmez mixed with tahini for a couple of the years when we couldn't get decent peanut butter and hadn't brought any in. Tahini cookies became one of our Christmas cookies, too. They're not so pretty, but they are delicious. Roll the balls in sesame seeds before they're pressed with a fork like peanut butter cookies.

But pekmez is too thin to use without any modifications to the recipes and I was looking forward to finding the HK equivalen. Now that it's Christmas time, I have been able to buy everything I'm used to: Libby pumpkin in the can with the recipe on the side, Carnation evaporated milk in the size can that goes with the pumpkin, fresh Oceanspray cranberries, Pepperidge Farms stuffing mix, Swansons chicken broth and a 12 pound frozen Butterball turkey. It's not exactly the frontier. If I were British, I could get prepared mince, the mince pies already made or all the nuts and dried fruits for the pudding. But for some reason, there was no molasses.

The kids and I went to a store called Gateway that's in the basement in a local part of town on the recommendation of a guy who knows. It's there, he said, that you can get all kinds of N. American products. It was a wonderland full of products straight from Costco - in Costco sizes! We reveled in the beauty of huge jars of spaghetti sauce, quadruple packs of beef jerky, enormous boxes of cereal, gallon jugs of cranberry juice, kilo packs of coffee, bags of craisins and raisins that were bigger than my purse. We bought Kirkland pecans, cranberry juice, dried apricots (a concession to homesickness for Turkey) and chocolate chips.

But delightfully enough, there was no molasses and I was obliged to go looking for treacle. There's nothing quite so Dickensonian. Here is a picture of the can of treacle I bought. I found it in a fancy supermarket that sometimes sells fresh oysters on ice flown in from Brittany. This beautiful can was only about $2 US, though and so beautiful. It is thick, slow, sweet, black and altogether treacly! That word is so Alice in Wonderland!

If you look closely at the can, you can see in the logo the quote, "Out of the strong came forth sweetness." That is a biblical reference from the Samson story - as in Samson and Delilah. Here's the story: When Samson went down to take a wife, he killed a lion with his bare hands. A few days later, on his way home, he saw that bees had made a hive in the carcass. Samson ate some of the honey and took some to his parents, but he didn't tell them where it came from. When he went down to marry his wife he posed the riddle to the the guests. Out of the eater, something to eat, out of the strong came forth sweetness. If by the end of the feast, the brides guests couldn't guess the riddle, they would have to give linen robes to Samson's guests. For days, they couldn't figure it out until they told the bride to find out. She cried for three days that Samson didn't love her because he wouldn't tell her the answer. He said he hadn't even told his parents, but finally he did tell her. She told her people and Samson had to pay out the linen. But that made him mad, so he went to another village, killed 30 of the men there and took those linen robes to pay off his debt. Then he went home and his wife was given to one of the men who attended him at the wedding. Hmmm, treacle.

The Helpers Celebrate Christmas

Every Sunday on the above ground walkways (in Canada they call them plus 15's) helpers gather. These are the women from the Philippines, Indonesia and Nepal who work as domestics in everyone's houses. I am one of the few people I know who doesn't employ a helper. On another post I'll explain how much easier my life would be if I did, but that's much too bitter a post for Christmas.
Almost all of the helpers have Sunday off, so they gather to sit together for the day. This pictures is of early in the morning when the first ones arrive and stake out their area with flattened cardboard and picnic boxes. They bring cards to play, music to listen to and of course, cell phones. I've seen people trading manicures, women practicing dance routines, others selling plastic crafts. Walkways all over Central are full from early to late on Sundays. On the way home from shopping this Sunday I saw that under the HSBC building was packed with people. I'm going to go back and check that out another time because it looked almost big enough to be a church service.
Sunday is the days you can see how many helpers are in the city. There are church services in parks; the $10 stores are packed with shoppers; the buses back from Stanley and Repulse Bay are packed with women speaking Tagalog. But it is the walkway picnickers who intrigue me the most. This last week it was almost cool, too cool for me to want to sit on concrete all day. I remembered long days of sitting around Eugene, Oregon waiting away the day, chilly and without the money to choose to hang in a coffee shop. That was the season that lunch cost me $1.10 every day. It was fifty cents for a bun at the sandwich shop and sixty cents for a half-pint of milk. I was making about $650 a month at the office, plus money from being an artist model and from selling quilts at Saturday market. Not a lot to support two people.
The minimum wage for a full-time life-in helper now is $3783 HK. Divide that by 7.8 to get the equivalent in US dollars. There was an article in the paper last week explaining how the loss of the US dollar buying power has made it so the helpers can send much less home each month. The HK dollar is pegged to the US dollar, so their pay is worth a lot less against any of the relevant currencies. The women who were interviewed said that the change in conversion rates made it so they were sending home a lot less money. The families depend on this money, so the woman said that she doesn't eat lunch on her days off and waits to get back to her employers house to get supper.
But this Sunday, you couldn't see the falling dollar anywhere. There were boxes and boxes of foods and around the corners of every territory, piles of Christmas presents waiting to be exchanged. Merry Christmas, helpers. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Because the format changed and I can't write Html

All of you who look at this blog from time to time (aren't I feeling optimistic,) will notice that I lost my big picture in the header. I am bereft and may have to spend the holidays learning to write Html. It's not one of the happier prospects on my horizon. I want to write about orchids, the city's night time breath, how Venus doesn't have a magnetic field, the prettiest mall Christmas tree and how one night last week "The Raven" in its entirety came back to my memory. And here I am fighting with formats.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Diner

Adventuring out on Saturday to Kowloon, we went to the Night Market for the first time. It was a delight! I bought jade, pearls, antiques, knock-off watches, t-shirts, chopsticks, change purses, rocks, toys and lighter fluid. It was enough to make anyone hungry. One of the best things about that market is the whole sections of street that become restaurant as the evening deepens. We saw people eating piles and piles of clams, mussels and crabs, but I was hungry well before they had set up. So we went into a diner advertising Coke and Black and White evaporated milk. We had roast pork over rice, roast duck over rice, and roast duck and chicken over rice. But Kestrel tried the peanut and papaya soup. I stuck with Tsingtsao beer. The old ladies at the booth behind shoveled the rice from their bowls into their mouths with a rhythm of ages past. Next time I'll order the steamed fish that they did. It was the best corner restaurant I've found in Hong Kong. The owner and waitresses were nice. They all but pinched Kestrel's cheek since she ate the soup. It was as satisfying as wandering for hours in Ulus and having nice pide at the end. And actually it was not much more expensive: dinner for four came to $13 US.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The fog creeps in on little cat feet...

Every morning there are views from the ferry that are so inexpressibly beautiful. Some days it is the quietness of the water. Some days it's how every ripple stands alone. A tiny two-person fishing boat away in the mist balances against a container ship whose rust catches the morning sunlight. One of the fast hydrofoils coming in from Macau leaves a trail of white that curves far off into the distance. It cuts the water so deeply that even after it is out of sight, the deep bubbles hold together under the water and there is a cloud of green where it passed.
I take picture after picture. It's so great having a memory card that holds over 500 pictures. I want to sit you down and make you look at all of them. And I would if I could think of some excuse to post them all. (There's a photo album of commuting pictures on my facebook page for anyone who is interested.)
I especially love how the mist colours the light in the early morning and leaches the colour out of the light the rest of the day. It makes everything look like the memory of the colour of water. I've really been enjoying the misty days that are still warm even now in mid-December.
But I've been coughing for three weeks now. And at lunch time the grumbly ones who hang out in the staff room too long pointed out to me that there is no mist in December. This is the dry season. It doesn't make the sunrise any less beautiful to know that it's all smog.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Mission Spotlight on Pitcairn Island

Sunday morning, I ran down to the pier to capture this picture of The Bounty setting sail. Then I ran, camera in one hand, nano in the other up around the point of Lantau that we live on to see it moving quietly through the mist. I don't know if you can see how the light crossed the water and held each ripple still. It looked like the ship was lying in wait and it wouldn't be good to attract its attention.

Recently, Pitcairn Island keeps coming to mind. A couple of weeks ago in the HK Magazine (like The Weekly,) they had an article describing where to go to be alone. It said that HK is the most densely populated city in the world with 16,000 people per square mile, though it doesn't look like that from my window. Pitcairn Island was the first place mentioned with 33 people per square mile. Apparently, to get there from here, you have to fly from here to Japan and then to Tahiti and after that take a 30 hour boat ride which leaves only once every several months. Final line, "But remember that leaving the island is a lot harder than getting there."

The next time it came up was when, in response to seeing The Bounty from my window, a Kiwi friend was talking about the relatively recent news stories that were big in New Zealand. She brought up how, of the 50 inhabitants who are mainly in-bred descendants of the mutineers, six were supposed to be kept in the newly built local jail for rape and incest, though they were still out on appeal because they didn't think British law applied to them. And apparently dancing, public displays of affection and consumption of alcohol are still banned on the island.

That last bit triggered my first memories of Pitcairn Island. I remember watching a slide show in church as a kid. Mission Spotlight came once a quarter with a taped sound tract and "bings" to tell the AV guy to advance to the next slide. It was all about the success of the church on Pitcairn Island where following the arrival of missionaries 100% of the residents had been converted to the three angels messages. Even now the island shuts down for the Sabbath and "everyone lays down their tools for the only day of rest the island knows." If you want, you can even see pictures of Pathfinder Days at the church in the Pitcairn Photo Album at What a success story for the gospel.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

No Pumpkin!

I spent all day Saturday on a quest for canned pumpkin and stuffing mix. The kids and I went to four grocery stores, pushed our way through the crowds on the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, wandered through the nine floors of the Japanese department store to find the food court and jumped off the tram on the way home when we saw another store. That was in addition to our local Park 'n Shop (that even has mincemeat mix for your Christmas tarts,) but there was no pumpkin. It made me feel so much happier not being able to find it. Now I have to make do. Now I have to do without. Now it's so much more exotic and so much more of a struggle to have a belated Thanksgiving dinner with no pumpkin.

Sure, I did find the stuffing mix. Yes, there's gravy mix. Yep, and sweet potatoes. And fresh Ocean Spray cranberries in a bag with a recipe on the side. Not to mention spices labeled in jars and brown sugar. But there is no pumpkin and so I can feel like an adventurer again.

The house is clean, the table laid out and the turkey is sizzling. (It's a Butterball from America.) I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving, too.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Apartment living

The other day I was going to hang out the clothes when I found that I'd been sent a present from the gods. Caught on the clothes line was an iron bracket just the right size to hang a candle lantern from the grill on the window.

I haven't passed on the blessing in like form; the underwear below came from our house. It's remarkable how long it takes for a clothes pin to clatter 18 storeys down.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Lack of Thanksgiving

I’m sitting at the ferry pier, looking over at the big cruise ships, drinking a pint of Stella and thinking about not having Thanksgiving. I don’t mean deciding not to have Thanksgiving, but what has already happened – I didn’t get Thanksgiving this year. I didn’t have Thanksgiving because at Canadian Thanksgiving no one like Elizabeth said, let’s have all the Canadians over to your house, it’s the biggest. And no one invited us over. And there are too many people to do all-acad invitations. And it was too hot to think of baking. So there was no Thanksgiving. Now American Thanksgiving has come and gone as well.

All weekend I thought of those I know in North America. I thought of the first Thanksgiving dinner I ever made. My dad, Doug, Tymi and Gary were there. I religiously consulted the “How to Make a Thanksgiving” scribbler my mom had filled for me with shopping lists, recipes and time lines. Before that was the first Thanksgiving abroad in France; one I ate with Bradley and Shelby and all hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Gutekunst so we wouldn’t feel homesick. It was perfect down to the accordion-folded tissue paper turkey from Hallmark. There was the Thanksgiving I made in Korea. Shelby was at that one, too and I made him eat pumpkin pie. We made everything one thing at a time in a toaster oven we got at our wedding. And then of course were the Thanksgiving dinners in Turkey. They were the best dinners ever for friendship, abundance of food drink and laughter, both the Canadian ones at our house and the American at Michelle’s.

Over the years I’ve learned the rhythm of the dinner, the chilling of the cranberry sauce, when to make the pie and peel the potatoes how to cope when there are no mixes and how to cope when there are. Seventeen years of practice, usually twice or three times a year, two Thanksgivings and a Christmas, to get the turkey dinner figured out. It is the only domestic task I feel that I’ve perfected. I don’t mean it’s always perfect (because there are always lumps in the gravy,) but I do prefer my candied yams, stuffing and pumpkin pies to anyone else’s. Ingrid’s brussel sprouts are the best, though.

It’s a school night; we don’t have enough plates; I was sure they have other plans, I hadn’t gotten paid yet. Truth is, I didn’t know how missing it would be like. There we were on Thursday evening having smoked turkey and cheese sandwiches for supper. Sure, we could have gone out for a turkey dinner at a bunch of places in town, but what it comes down to is that we didn’t. I wish I could describe for you the dislocation in time and place that comes from missing Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just a symptom of not knowing where I am, but over the weekend I thought repeatedly of all of you sitting down to dinner either just now or last month. It makes me wonder how much I’ve given up and what I think I’ll gain from the sacrifice. What essential and lonely questions come from an absence of cranberry sauce.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Dark Things

Their life story and the history of the world,
Dark things seem to stir feebly in there,
Each were written by the same hand,
In the awful green a bird hangs limp in a snare.

Paths follow along the water’s way,
A clump of trees makes a waiting spot
Danger catches the eye in a red altar,
And incense stands where they rested and fought.

It was something that could only happen to others,
Quietly to their own gods, they swear.
She is tired of the story of herself,
Words hang hotly in the air.

A line of sticks is split and drying,
Echoes of conversations walking by with beer,
The air is heavy and holds onto her,
There is so much unspoken that she must fear.

The air is heavy and moves with her,
Words hang hotly in the air,
A clump of trees makes a shady spot,
Dark things start to stir feebly somewhere.

September 21, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Rosemead, California

I miss an Islamic skyline. I miss the call to prayer. I miss the silhouette of minarets against a sunset. Sometimes I can hear the bells from the Trappist monastery over the hill, but only when the ferry isn’t coming in or the buses aren’t starting their route. The things that are ubiquitous here are less beautiful and less sensual. In the same way you couldn’t give directions, “It’s next to the mosque” in Turkey, you can’t give directions by Seven-Elevens. Every corner has one for buying noodles for breakfast, fish balls for snack, to charge up your Octopus cash card, to pay your phone or electric bill, to buy the beers you can drink at any park or playground.

Here’s a picture from Discovery Bay, the suburbs where I live. If you look closely you can see helpers from the Philippines herding kids around and Brits with tables full of empties in front of Seven-Eleven. In the evening the lights that are embedded in the plaza floor sparkle with changing color lights. There are orchids hung in pots from the trees and crested myna birds that sound so loud and sudden in the trees, you’d think that they were taped bird song.

I don't think it looks like Hong Kong here. It’s landscaped, groomed and new like Disneyland. It’s easy to feel like you’re in Rosemead, CA just a road or two from Chinatown in a new subdivision. I think there is exotic under the skin. I think I may see it soon. I know there is wild just around the edges.

Mutiny on the Bounty

The city was nonchalant this morning. Each building looked with blank face towards the harbour while a red sun rose over the peaks and between the buildings: the HSBC, the Bank of China building and the IFC high above them all. I wasn’t feeling so jaded because soon after the passage where the full container ships steam off towards the open sea, we passed the Bounty. It wasn’t the 1787 original Bounty which was sent with breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies of course. But it was the full-scale replica! For you who know movies, it was built in ’79 for the movie The Bounty featuring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. I had my peanut butter and jam breakfast in one hand and missed the picture, but its flags were flying along the rigging and it was beautiful in the red light. She’s going to be in the Central pier during December and then will eventually be berthed right here in my suburb. I think it'll be just off the pier so we can look at her while we eat mediocre Mexican food to the sound of a mariachi band.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The first thing is the commute

Every time I get a new notebook, after writing my name on the front and flipping through the pages, feeling their tooth, I want to put something cool on that first page. Maybe I'll copy down a quote or maybe I'll glue in a picture that will set the tone for that notebook. But invariably my printing looks immature, the picture is not centred or most often, I write something pretentious and dumb to begin. Every notebook I spoil in the same way. So this blog is really intimidating to start.

Here I am living in Hong Kong, or sort of living in Hong Kong. There are so many things I want to tell about adjusting to being here and not needing to adjust because it's so much like California. But this first post has me stymied. So, I guess I'd better start with the commute.
I've never liked boats really, but taking the ferry across the Hong Kong harbor each morning and afternoon is my favourite part of the day. In the morning the mist is sleepy on all the mini-cargo ships that wait to unload the big ones. Even the dogs on the decks are lying still and waiting for the day to begin. The water is still silver. Besides the anchored ships and the ferries I watch every morning for the little island that has egrets perched in the tree tops and I watch the black kites circling and diving for fish.
I always sit with the kids in the same place, as do all the regular commuters. We recognize all of them and no one who usually rides that ferry sits in our seats. We'd started doing it posh (port outbound, starboard home) but there were some annoying teenagers from the Swiss German school, so we moved to the starboard side for our trip to school. That means that every day I ride along the waterfront and see the sun coming through between the skyline of Central.
This picture, though, is of the way home. The ferry I usually take is open on the top deck and that makes it glorious. The water changes as water does telling the story of the sky's day. I'd expected that. But the whole city does the same.