Monday, February 25, 2008

Night Market Awards

Saturday night I went to the Night Market with our first visitors to town. It's always a different experience being one who is supposed to be showing another around. It was a rainy night and the vibe in the market was very subdued: stalls were half set up, stacks of socks were being shuffled around, plastic wrapped t-shirts were being wiped.

At the "Fiery Crab" outdoor restaurant the waitress was pushing the six scallops in garlic for $60. She gestured across the lane for us to check out how fresh they were. There the scallops sat on ice in the rain with live prawns lying around them weakly waving their legs. It looked a little too dangerous and a little too fresh, so instead we had duck and vegetables and all the other basic Chinese delights. The duck came chopped in half, including half of the head and one baleful eye. There was a girl dressed in a Heineken cheerleader outfit who was pushing Heineken, but we drank Chinese beer and were much the better for it.

The last time I was at the Night Market, I had to push through the crowds between each stall. As soon as I walked up to look at anything the seller would be there with the patter and the pressure, the bargaining and persuading, but Saturday the market was populated by sullen sellers sulking on metal folding chairs. The women and men sat in the driest corner huddled over food in styrofoam and looked resigned.

I saw much more tacky items, too. Here are my nominations for the Night Market Awards.
The award for the worst t-shirt saying goes to: Bruce Lee is my Homeboy. (Runner up: When I need a lift, God gives me a push) Tackiest belt buckle goes to: I Heart New York. (Runner up: Rocky Mountain High) Most confused English goes to the t-shirt: What the fucking are you ding? Worst toy goes to: the doll entitled "Banana is a snack?" (Runner up: the blond hula doll that is activated by squeezing her breast.) And winner of tackiest souvenir overall goes to the gold cats waving their hands.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


This week the cold broke. The feeling was in everything - the relief of the lifting of the cold. I could see it in the clothes people wore and in the lightness of their walk. It wasn't like when a chinook blows down because that has its own pressure; it wasn't like the softness of the first warm day of spring; it was more like the feeling you get at the end of a hot summer day when the pressure has been building up and finally the clouds pull together and the thunder hits. That feeling of relief that comes with the first rush of rain or whiff of ozone - the air was as different as that when the cold lifted. I know it's hard to imagine it matters so much. I know that it was only between maybe 6-12 degrees. I know that I've endured much colder weather than that for 6 or 7 months straight in Alberta, but somehow it weighed me down. And it weighed everyone else down, too. I didn't notice until they came back, but the crested mynas that sing so loudly above the ferry stop had been silent throughout the "cold snap." On the 18th the Meterological Society lifted the "cold weather" warning that had been effect since January 24th. The coldest CNY in 12 years, the longest cold spell since 1968; it made for a different energy in the city.

What I started to notice as soon as the cold lifted was that I could see shine of the buildings again. That cold air mass had been full of smoke and mist, curling around like the reeks of Mordor. In the last few weeks I kept looking for pictures and kept taking pictures even if I couldn't see any, but it was so frustrating how ugly everything looked. The air had become thick enough that I couldn't even see the reflections in the buildings.

Along with the cold breaking, it has gotten to the time of the year when the sun has come back. By Monday I think I'll see it shining past the Gotham City skyline to find our ferry on the commute. I think I've made it through another dark time of the year. It's one month until Equinox; hold on, you inhabitants of the northern climes.

Look. You can even see the reflection of the tower they're building across the water, Kowloon side. (The one on the header to the blog.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A stretch

Of course after a trip to Paradise, in this case the Philippines, I want to go talk about it. But how to justify talking about my holiday on a blog about Hong Kong? Well, I think I've figured out a connection.

The place we stayed was a remote quiet little spot with one restaurant, four bungalows and little else, so I spent lots of time talking to the other visitors and to the scuba teacher that came to certify my boy. He is a Swiss man who used to work for the police force. He specialized in organizing the security for big festivals and demonstrations, a logistics expert. Matt worried about being bored when he retired, so he moved to the Philippines and is running a tour agency. The impossibilities of organizing anything to run smoothly there are keeping him very occupied.

We talked about how the government policies don't encourage any sort of entrepreneurial activities or limits to the birth rate because the government runs on of all the money brought in by people, mainly women, working abroad. He said that the 10% of Filipinos who are working abroad are sending home more money than the wages of the 90% who are still in the country. I also didn't realize that the foreign workers are only allowed to keep around 10% of their income. It is a requirement of their visa that the rest of it has to be sent back to the Philippines.

A trained office worker on Negros Orientale gets around 200 pesos a day wages. That converts to $5 USD. Matt said that his office assistant supports five people on that. It's no wonder why so many Filipinas are here in Hong Kong. And it's no wonder that some steal from their employers. Ten percent of the monthly minimum wage is roughly $40 USD. I can't imagine only having forty dollars to buy day-off food, clothes and necessaries. I suppose room and board doesn't cover tampons. So that's the Hong Kong connection. It's a stretch to be sure, but there I was in paradise while helpers were freezing their butts off sitting on cardboard on the walkways of HK during the "holidays" they got over Chinese New Year.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Year of the Rat

We missed the Chinese New Year celebrations this year. Back in November, everyone said that CNY is a great time to stay in Hong Kong. They said it was cool, beautiful and not crowded. They also pointed out that it's the most expensive time to travel in Asia because everyone else is. We thought to vacation during Christmas and stay during CNY, but luckily, as it turns out, I didn't have enough money for us to travel at Christmas if we were to have any presents. So we booked early to go away CNY.

Up until a week before, I was a little disappointed to miss all the celebrations. The decorations were gorgeous all over town with "trees" of mandarin oranges or kumkwats on every corner. All the little shops that usually sell stationary, plastic bowls, buckets and perhaps some twine were packed with red and gold. I suppose the paper and plastic decorations would look tawdry in ones and twos but packed into a lit shop, they were really striking.

I discovered I needed to buy CNY clothes for my kids. The students at school wear traditional Chinese clothes for most of the week before the vacation starts, so I went out one drizzly night to "the Lanes." Right across the street from H&M and Marks and Spencer, an open market is packed into two alleyways. I tried to look and buy some clothes at the stall at the top of the lane, but women kept stepping in front of me and engaging the shop keeper. I wasn't feeling like using my pushy shopper skills I picked up in Korea and refined in Turkey, so the girl and I went down farther into the lanes. There we found another stall with a great salesman. He sold three or four different outfits while I was debating, but kept up the patter the whole time to me, too: "What do you want for you? What else? I can see you have a good eye? Make your husband happy..." After I'd decided on a hot pink cheongsam dress, I asked him what size I needed. I said that I usually wear a 38 or 40, but I wasn't sure. He told me to open up my coat. So I did and he said definitively that I needed a 40. I demurred that maybe a 38 would do, but he said, "No, when you open your coat, I see your hips. Not a 38. I am honest." So I bought the 40.

But when I went home, it was too big. I didn't begrudge at all the extra trip back since I got to tell the man off for misjudging my hips. I told him I wasn't as fat as he thought I was. For a moment he looked worried that I was really mad, but then, that consummate salesman came back with, "I just wanted to see you again."

We left Hong Kong a few days before the New Year. I wore three sweatshirts and shivered walking in the rain to the bus to go to the airport. It was hard to pack because it didn't seem possible that I'd need bikinis and sarongs. I bet a lot of people here didn't even go out to watch the fireworks; and plenty of boys were freezing their heads because of their short New Year haircuts. Next year maybe I'll get to see CNY, or maybe I'll just go to paradise again.