Saturday, May 24, 2008

Squatters' Village

Sitting here on my window seat I can see Disneyland when I look to the right. Space Mountain shows among the trees; the fast ferries pass on their way from Central Hong Kong to this perfectly groomed area that I live in.

But when I look to my left, I see the old ferries that go out to other outlying islands and a cement walkway leading to Nim Shue Wan. I suppose since there is a name for the place, it isn't only squatters living in the ramshackle cobbled-together buildings. But I know a lot of the places aren't titled. The first time I walked the path, it was pretty creepy. The path leads between houses with glass cemented into the top of the walls, around the awning cooking areas that have karaoke set up on Sunday, and in some places actually through people's houses.

In two places, people have a house on the right side of the path, then on the left they have a table and cooking area. The area is joined by a corrugated fiberglass roof, and the designated, cemented pathway to the Trappist Monastery (the kind of hike that is in Lonely Planet) goes right through. There are always two or three dogs lying in that shady area and no way to go around, so the only thing to do is just go on. I always think I should say "Afiyet olsun" or "Bon appetit" or something when the families are sitting eating dinner, but I don't know what to say in Cantonese. I've never taken a picture of the inside of the house because I feel weird enough walking through. Some time that no one is home, maybe I can, but I've never been by when it was deserted.

There are garden plots growing bok choi protected from the birds by CD's dangling from red cords. There are big banana groves. I saw a huge black snake on the path once there. The dogs that live in the houses sometimes follow us along as we leave their house and then go off exploring in the bananas. There's a Tin Hau temple and several shrines along the way towards the monastery.

All along the path there are also government signs. They say, "The areas in the vicinity of this sign are subject to landslip risk. Some squatter huts have been recommended for clearance. Locations of the affected squatter huts are available from the Geotechnical Engineering Office at 2760 5715. Please stay away from slopes and stream courses during Landslip Warning Signal, Typhoon Signal No. 8 or heavy rains. For location of temporary shelters, you may call..." I always thought it was kind of benevolent of the government to put up the signs, but this winter, the government did more. Along one section of this "village" the hillside climbs steeply up. So the government built retaining walls behind a bunch of the "huts." It was an elaborate project that took several months and required the boating in and landing of generators, corrugated iron fences, concrete mixers, etc. None of the homes were destroyed either: the workers just went around them. I don't know many governments that would do that for squatters.

Part of the village has been taken over by Filipino workers who don't live-in with their employers, or maybe workers that aren't under contract and so have a more tenuous existence. On Sunday morning (their only day off) great pots of food are started cooking in the open kitchens, and big TV screens with karaoke screens are getting readied for big afternoon parties. I can hear the music some nights from my room. From this sign it looks like lots of services are offered in that warren of buildings. On Sundays also there is an unofficial flea market on the way to Nim Shue Wan where some helpers sell clothes and shoes that have somehow come down to them from their employers'.

This little area to my left is a very different kind of life from the view to the right. Sometimes at the flea market, a helper has her little charge with her while she's shopping. I always wonder if the mom knows where her child has been and the different perspective the child has seen.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

This American Life

When I listen to re-runs of "This American Life" I experience the strange disconnect of a jetlag. You know the feeling, when your body doesn't know where you are and is confused, but not necessarily miserable about it. I don't mean I feel jet-lagged because I'm listening to this American thing in another country, though I haven't heard the program in the States for years. Except once last summer I was listening while driving up and down Pacific Coast Highway looking for a Supercuts (which is in itself a slightly surreal experience.)

I feel the jetlag because each program for me has been overwritten by the landscape that surrounds it. I don't know if overwritten is the right word. Remember when, if you taped a cassette tape too many times, you could hear the words you taped before? It's like that for me - there are story echoes of the landscape mixed with each episode.

If you don't know the radio show, "This American Life" you'll have to check it out at Each week they have an hour-long show around a certain theme. Some of the chapters are essays, others are interviews or fiction stories. The archives go far back. Some of my recent favourites are: Nobody's Family is Going to Change, Valentines Day 2008 and a horror story for teachers, Human Resources.As I listened to the podcast on my nano and ran through the hills in Turkey, the paths and stories became connected. I didn't know how tightly the stories had been attached to the setting until last week when I was climbing the stairs up to the ridge above Discovery Bay here in Hong Kong and listening to a last-year story. Stride by stride I could see sandy hills with thorn bushes and simultaneously jasmine vines with butterflies. It was like how a camera can focus on a reflection and a scene at the same time, but the eye's focus moves back and forth. I kept expecting tortoises around the next corner and just saw dragonflies. I took turns that were not there and slipped on moss I never would have expected. I'm going to have to watch out for re-runs, or else watch my step.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day High Tea

The Peninsula Hotel has been here for a while. On the third floor, on December 25, 1941, the Hong Kong Governor Sir Mark Aitchison Young surrendered the colony to the Japanese. It was the Japanese headquarters at the time. When my mom and I went to high tea, the wartime atmosphere had dissipated.

Going for tea is one of those things people still do in Hong Kong. There are nice high teas in various hotels, nice restaurants, even the Godiva shop. Little local restaurants advertise "tea sets" for the afternoon where you can get your tea or coffee and a dessert or a bowl of noodles cheaper than lunch or dinner time. But the quintessential, archetypal high tea is at the Peninsula, or at least that's what I'd read. It turned out to be as lovely as predicted. The lobby was elegant and quiet, but full of activity. The actual tea was lovely and so was the food.
There were finger sandwiches, little quiche, cakes, sweets, tiramisu with ground pistachios and other delights displayed on a three-tiered plate rack. It didn't look like that much, but with cups of tea, civilized talk and dainty bites, it was plenty. After, we wandered around and explored. The only thing we missed was the hotel shop. Apparently, it has all kinds of goods like a Harrod's store.

But the most fun was going out together. Last time we had high tea together was in London in 1990. That was fun, but we didn't have as much to talk about and I wasn't grown enough to enjoy the experience as much. Too bad my mom's not here today to celebrate on the day, but better early than never. Happy Mother's Day, Mommy!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Humid is...

On Sunday I climbed about 850 stairs that went 700 metres up the mountain, then looped around, came back down and went to the Rockpools for the first time this year. The sky was wonderfully clear. I don't understand how I could see so clearly or so far with that much moisture in the air. It was as wet and warm as a when you were a child and a fat adult engulfed you in damp cuddles and sweet breath.
I'm learning about humidity here.
Humid is:

When it's cool and dry in my bag compared to the outside weather.
When my camera steams up when I bring it out into the open.
When there is a level of dampness to the hanging clothes that is the new "dry."
When the dust won't come up with a broom or vacuum because it's stuck to the floor.
When the hassock smells of the house it lived in three years ago.
When I step outside at the end of an air-conditioned work day and my skin feels like I just put on lotion.
When the tops of the books feel wet in the book case.
When my brown wool pencil skirt I wear for interviews is growing mould in the closet.
When apartments float as mirages in the sky.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

May Day

First I really heard of May Day, (other than being a day to leave flowers on a person's doorway, ring the door and run away,) was when a Namibian colleague in Turkey complained that we had to work on the day. Here I don't have to. It's a public holiday and we decided to wander the town taking pictures. I had no idea how different it would look from an ordinary day.

Helpers were sitting all along the walkways as they do every Sunday. It looked like any holiday until we got right into the middle of the town. Thousands of domestic workers were sitting on the street by the Bulgari building, the Prada building, under the Armani walkway, everywhere. Down the street, there was a revival meeting. Hundreds were wearing "Jesus is Lord Church, Third Anniversary Hong Kong T-shirts." On blocked off side streets, other groups of people played drums and danced. Every weekend I've seen the groups of women on stools moving among the picnics and giving manicures. Every weekend there are groups of women practicing dance routines. Every weekend others are stringing together beads to made the most hideous plastic bead flower arrangements. But on May Day it was all this, and more.

Over by the trams, dozens of black T-shirted girls were waiting to get on. Their shirts listed the Indonesian domestic workers demands: 1. Stop underpayment. 2. Reduce agency fees. 3. Increase the two week limit to find new jobs. (An domestic worker who quits her job or is fired has only 2 weeks to find a job or leave Hong Kong. It's a rule that's used by many employers to keep their workers from complaining, quitting or refusing any task.) As we rode the tram towards Causeway Bay, I saw hundreds more of these T-shirts. None of these pictures shows how huge the numbers of workers were everywhere on the streets. It looked like another whole population of Hong Kong had been deposited outside, which is I guess what actually happened. All these workers who are usually indoors cleaning, shopping or minding children were outside with nothing they had to do.

Late in the evening we returned. The revival meeting had quieted down, but the picnics were still going on. Lines of empty San Miguel cans sat along railings and helpers picked through the garbage for aluminum cans and saleable items before going home to their employers' houses.
See better pictures than these at: