Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tai Mei Tuk to Sha Tin

Abby has very kindly taken it upon herself to educate us about Traditional Chinese characters and the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese. I hadn’t realized that Mandarin, now the official language of this nation of over fifty ethnic groups each speaking its own dialect, was once the language of a handful (by Chinese standards) of people from Beijing. A very powerful handful as it turns out. The simplified characters used in most of China is basically a bastardization of Cantonese — a dumbed-down version developed in the 50’s and 60’s to promote literacy nationwide. The pictographs were streamlined to make them easier to learn but, in the process, have lost much of the charm and innuendo that Abby and all language-lovers cherish.

Woke up the kids to get an early start on our bike ride around the New Territories. We got to Tai Po Waterfront Park at 8:30 only to realize the bike rental place only opened at 10. Our sign language exchange with the security guard (with me pedalling in air and then pointing to my wrist to indicate the time) only highlighting the fact that we’ve been very lucky to have encountered as many English-speakers as we have to date. I know we won’t be so lucky in Beijing. We had an hour and a half to kill so we wandered up to the lookout where the breeze offered some relief from the already stifling heat. Scattered about the park were groups or individuals doing exercise of all descriptions — a traditional dance class for the ladies, a few Tai Chi practitioners solo or in pairs here and there, an older gent waving a sword around.

Most people had a little portable music device set up alongside them, pumping out tinny Chinese tunes. My favourite exercisers were a pair of women in their fifties standing on the end of a jetty facing the bay doing some seriously cheesy dance moves to traditional Chinese music. Age is definitely no obstacle to fitness here in Hong Kong and the early morning cool is definitely the time for the older set to socialize and get moving together. In what seems par for the course in Hong Kong, every single tree and plant in the park is meticulously identified. Happily, the Insect House opened at eight so we had a poke around, having a look at the local critters and the giant koi before settling into a history of China lesson for the kids. Wil did a pretty good job of synthesizing the country’s 5000+ year history in about twenty minutes.

While we waited for the bike rental place to open we encountered some kite flyers in the park. Most were men in their seventies, wielding what looked like retrofitted bike wheels to leash their kites. One man deposited his reel at our feet, chatting away to us in Cantonese, and walked several hundred metres away to position his giant koi on the lawn. Back at his reel he patiently waited for the gust of wind to get it airborne. Ubiquitous ladies in sunwashed coveralls, glow-in-the-dark vests and bamboo hats draped with all sorts of patterned fabric wandered around the park with wheeled carts, sweeping the leaves off the pathways with massive bamboo brooms. By ten, we were ready to ride.

The bike path snaked alongside the bay, initially shooting inland through an industrial park, past massive bakeries and waste treatment facilities, then along tree-lined streets near the shore. We shared the bike path with old men wearing broad woven, hats draped with dishclothes to protect them from the sun, packs of giggling university students, many of whom rode bikes with training wheels. The kids couldn’t get over adults with training wheels in the same way they couldn’t understand adults in Mexico who couldn’t swim. The highlight of the ride, for me, was hearing a man playing what I later found out was an erhu in the distance. As we approached, we caught sight of him in one of the shelters by the path, pulling his bow across this haunting instrument. Gorgeous, haunting sounds.

The sun was out for the first time. 30 degrees and 70% humidity but the breeze off the bay was constant and refreshing as long as we kept moving. We headed north along the shore toward Tai Mei Tuk, past villages squeezed between the road and the mountains jutting up to our left. Highrises line the coast in every direction. We took a couple of breaks, paying for the cold water bottles out of vending machines with the Octopus card. The girls visited with one shop owner’s Pomeranians and three caged cats. At another stop we watched tablesful of shirtless labourers hunch over their summer melon soup before digging in to their main course. Hong Kong is a prosperous town but more than half of its inhabitants live in subsidized housing — towering matte gray concrete structures dotted with colourful lines of drying clothes hanging from every window.

Most of my pit stops involved visits to the local toilets. This town is like a dream for the bladder-impaired. The variety at one’s disposal is fantastic. Most bathrooms have a selection of at least two types of toilet (as indicated with some interesting pictograms on the door), the Western standard sit-down and the Eastern standard squatter. This morning’s visits unearthed a third option — a mini toilet that only went up to Alice’s waist for pint-sized patrons. We opted to return the bikes at a different kiosk, making for a longer-than-expected 35 km ride. We stopped at the Science Park for a quick lunch, wolfing back some food before the kids ran off to play by the Park’s fountain, one that ran a close second to Bellagio’s. Back through more urban settings, we finished our ride along the Shing Mun River into Sha Tin where we dumped the bikes.
We got to see a couple being primped for photos minutes after tying the knot at the Marriage Registry and then hopped on the MTR back up to Tai Po. The network of bike paths in this town puts North American cities to shame.

Abby and James later took us out to the China Club for dinner. The building is unremarkable from the street, except that it is dwarfed by the giants around it. The height of any building seems a quick way to determine its age in this town. At a mere 15 floors, this former Bank of China Building is positively ancient. The elevator whisked us up to the thirteenth floor (unlike our Western superstitions, as a near homophone to the word for death the Chinese instead avoid the number four).

The 1930’s Shanghai décor makes it feel like a club right off the bat — lots of wood panelling, slightly cluttered with lots of lumpy upholstery, muted lighting and a extraordinary collection of artwork lining every available inch of wall. We started the evening on the rooftop overlooking the bay, lights on the façade of the new Bank of China building flashing beside us. The I.M. Pei building, long the tallest building in Hong Kong, replaced one of the oldest surviving buildings in Hong Kong, a colonial beauty that was taken apart brick by brick and relocated to Stanley on the south of the island. We continued in the diningroom with a fantastically delicious spread. If you’ve never been lucky enough to taste Peking Duck, I hope the China Club is your first experience of a dish that has been served in China since the 14th century. The waitstaff first emerges from the kitchen displaying a platter of perfectly roasted duck. Hanging as opposed to sitting in a pan as it cooks, much of the fat drips away and the skin is perfect and evenly crisped. Everyone oohs and aahs before they whisk it away. Then it’s back, in the form of a plate of thinly sliced meat with the skin on, alongside plates of sliced cucumber and spring onion, little bowls of hoisin sauce and a large plate of translucent pancakes. The idea is to fill the pancake with duck, veg and sauce and enjoy the combo of smoky, savoury, sweet and crunch. Round two is a bowl of duck broth that is too flavourful to describe. A new platter appears with fresh and oh-so-tender hand-shaped tofu curd (the look and texture of fresh mozzarella), seared baby bok choy and smaller but thicker slices of duck on the bone. All of it can be added to the broth, which really doesn’t need any addition to be perfect. The final round is a plate of perfectly round iceberg leaves and a heaping platter of minced duck to be mounded and rolled into the leaf and eaten. Another plate of mini bok choy appeared, this time pan-fried in garlic. Mmmmm. The Club’s creator, the Tang behind Shanghai Tang, cleverly offers up much of the dinnerware and table accessories at his nearby shop. Might have to go have a poke…

Can you say “consummate hosts?”

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