Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tai Po and Macau

We woke up the kids and walked over the Tai Po Hui Market for breakfast. We headed straight up to the third floor to Cooked Food Market. Two very wide corridors joined in the middle like a big H. Each wall is lined with twenty or so 10x10 foot stalls with a small counter facing out. In the stall stood two people chopping and cooking with a third person working the floor. In the middle are white round metal tables for five with attached stools. We wandered around looking at what people were eating and settled into an empty table. Although the waiters at restaurants seem to have limited or no English, a lot of menus do so you can at least point stuff out if you can’t indicate meals that other patrons are chowing down on. We got a small order of deep fried chicken wings, deep fried pork chops, a bowl of rice noodles with wontons and chinese broccoli and another with Shanghai noodles with spicy minced pork. A guy from another stall came and offered us drinks and we settled on five cups of hot milky tea. Yet again, we walk away from our meal wondering why people in the West insist on sweet and starchy for breakfast. The broth and noodle savoury option leaves you full of energy and feeling light.

After our delicious breakfast, we went down the escalator one floor to see the fresh produce and clothes and then to the ground floor to check out the meat and fresh fish. Similar in some ways to a Mexican market, the bits of animal they choose to display are so different. Stacks of pig snouts, fish cut open like an anatomy illustration to reveal the bloated entrails. Freshness seems paramount in Hong Kong. Most of the fish on offer is alive until the moment you buy it. Each stall has a small selection on ice but a vast collection of see-through containers or shallow stainless tanks with an elaborate hose system to water & aerate the fish, keeping them happy(ish) until they get clobbered over the head. Eels, lobster, razor clams, toads, more varieties of fish than I’ve seen in any aquarium. We wandered around outside the market going in and out of local shops before heading back to the house to pick up Abby & Alistair before heading off to Macau for the night.

Down to the ferry station for our one-hour jetboat over to Macau. James had a shared djing gig at a Macau Club for the night and we were thrilled to tag along. Mild-mannered investment guy by day… We settled into our hotel room and then headed out to check out a bit of old Macau. Handed back to China in 1998, the colonial past far more present here than in Hong Kong. The garish flash of the casinos and the new money they bring clashing with the muted pastels, delicate mosaic tilework and narrow alleys snaking off in every direction. The historical element here is a far cry from the unsentimental modernity of Hong Kong. After losing track of our destination, a request for directions landed us a private guide most of the way. The presence of Portuguese on all the street signs and commerces a vestige of old times but if anyone speaks Portuguese here I didn’t hear a word of it. The handover of Macau meant China being able to fully develop the casino angle of a local economy that was tanking. And develop it they have. It seems the Macanese welcomed the end of Portuguese dominion slightly more than the Hong Kongers the British. The visitors here are predominantly Asian, as is the staff, but none speak the same language so Malay, Philipino, Chinese and Japanese struggle in an inelegant but charming English devoid of pronouns and conjunctions.

We walked up to the Fortaleza de Monte to see the mounted canons and walls and watched a woman practicing her martial art/fan-dancing in front of the closed museum’s mirrored windows. The skyline is colourful, the landscape uneven. If it weren’t for the sampans in the harbour I’d say almost mediterranean but its charm almost negated by the spectacularly ugly Hotel Lisboa.
As Wil says, the building permit must have been issued before the inspector saw the plans. We wandered around trying to get lost, Alice bowing her head three times and making a wish at every little shrine along the way. One or more characters in Cantonese painted on a red backdrop, a little red pot of sand at its feet with a few sticks of burnt incense sit near the doorway of almost every building. Scooters zipped by and old ladies hustled past pulling carts of folded cardboard into alleys too narrow for all but the smallest cars.

We were a little late getting going but after a nice dinner and a couple of bottles of Albarinho at a Portuguese restaurant, we tucked in the kids and jumped in a cab to head to the club. We went across the bridge to the southern section of Macau, on a piece of reclaimed land called Cotai between Taipa and Coloane. The Cotai strip is like Las Vegas but because the roads are so wide and the buildings so far apart it has less of the Disney feel of Vegas where the behemoths lose something in stature standing shoulder to shoulder with other giants. The casinos here stand alone and really feel mammoth. I later discovered that in terms of floor space, the Venetian, Macau’s largest casino, is the world’s sixth largest building. That might explain it! We pulled up in front of City of Dreams, the rain of an incoming typhoon starting to pepper the windscreen. We raced through the building, James up front with his record bags, finally finding Cubic (“Macau’s Largest and Most Prestigious Club”). The doormen were frosty until James announced he was the DJ. The velvet rope hit the floor with apologies and we were escorted inside. The place was huge. A semi-circular space with a three-tier stage on the span end. There was some question as to where the DJ booth was until we finally noticed James’s fellow DJ, Roy, on the middle section of the stage behind the turntables. Bars lined the walls with creative displays of champagne bottles, small standing tables stood near the back and a dozen or more round black leather-upholstered booths formed a semi-circle facing the stage. One elevated booth sat front and centre, all red velvet, lit from above, its opening leading directly on to the dance floor at the foot of the stage. On the table of each round booth was a huge, oval, illuminated ice bucket decorated with Perrier-Jouet flowers. Champagne flutes for ten sat nearby. Between each booth stood a waitress, primed for the crowds we worried might fail to appear with a forecasted typhoon wreaking havoc on jetfoil schedules from Hong Kong and mainland China. On the second floor of the club were a series of private rooms leading on to their own balconies overlooking the action. We visited one and it was like walking onto a movie set. Low ceilings, bright red upholstered banquettes, overstocked bar, everything else molded glossy plastic or glass or gold and garish detailing. Ornate doesn’t even begin to cover it. I tried desperately to take stock of it all but it was just too much to take in. Suffice it to say, if you’re ever looking for the perfect set for a mafia party, Cubic is your place. The evening’s theme was 80s and 90s so my foot was tapping to every song but it was a bit strange realizing that Wil, Abby, James, Roy and I weren’t just the only ones who knew any of the tunes but were probably the only ones alive when they first hit the charts. We were almost alone in the place for a long time, sipping the bottle of champagne that was opened when we sat down. The only other table was occupied by a group that could have passed as extras from Blade Runner. Let’s just say cartwheels would not have come as a surprise. The club staff fawned over Abby, a music biz celebrity in this half of the world.

The music blasted, the lightshow flashed, the champagne flowed. An hour or so later a foursome of girls dressed in fishnet and hotpants materialized on the surfaces between the booths and started gyrating. After four songs, they crouched down and scurried off back stage. James and Roy stood facing the growing crowd, screens of lights flashing above and below them. On either side of the stage was an illuminated staircase. The next time the dancing girls came out there were ten of them, the four Asian girls from before and six western girls dressed Like a Virgin. The place filled up. The marketing manager who shared our table assured us that every table in the place was fully booked between two and four a.m. Groups of people were led in by the hostess who installed them in a booth. The delivery system for drinks was a ceremony — a procession of male staff arrived holding a champagne bottle and a giant sparkler overhead in each hand. Once at the table, the champagne and sparkler were transferred to the waitresses who stood facing the patrons. The sparklers were half an inch across, a foot long and burned at least three minutes long. When the last one burned out, the girls installed them in the ice bath and started pouring. Every single champagne bottle, magnum or otherwise left the bar with a lit sparkler. The appeal of ordering champagne suddenly lost its charm for me but obviously had the opposite effect on the clientèle as the drunk patrons tried to outdo each other. Soon enough, the place was ablaze with sparklers, with tables of two ordering ten bottles of champagne (at 2500 HK$ a pop!).

The clientèle in the booths was almost exclusively Asian which Abby guessed were mostly second-generation cash and Triad. The booth between us and the stage held five near-teenage couples who postured and pumped their arms in the air… until the bill came and they scurried around the table trying to come up with the cash. Ten kids, ten iphones. There were more photos posed for, taken and posted in the space of an hour than I’ve ever seen. At times all ten heads were hunched over, fingers tap-tapping at their little screens until a fresh outburst of hand-pumping and photo taking. The table right beside theirs held a group of ten older mainland Chinese, nine men and one woman who also had ten bottles delivered to their table. The attending waitress half-filled their flutes, the ten knocked their glasses together and downed the champagne in a gulp. Champagne shooters?! Sacrilege!!! They worked their way through all ten bottles that way. It was painful to watch. Sadly, that is how all the champagne (except ours) in the club was consumed. Some tables moved on to Cognac after their run of champagne was done. I kept thinking of wine-makers the world over turning in their graves. When the drinks list or the bill was presented, a staff member magically appeared wielding a little flashlight to help the patron see just how much it was going to hurt. Abby and Wil estimated that on a good night, the club probably pulled in over a million dollars. The highlight of the evening was, without a doubt, watching James at work, surrounded on all sides by dancing girls shaking their booties in his general direction.

Just as we were leaving (at 2:30) a group was finally shown to the red velvet booth. The marketing woman told us it cost 50,000HK$ (7,000$ Canadian) a night to book (just to occupy the space mind, NOT with drinks!)

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?”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hong Lok Yuen and Kowloon to Hong Kong Island

A quick drive to the Tai Wo metro station and down to Kowloon on the very clean, modern metro. The metro cars are articulated but there is no separation between cars so you can see from one end of the train to the other whenever it straightens out. It is surreal, like the endless reflection in face-to-face mirrors. When we emerged, the boardwalk was lined with schoolkids in uniform hamming it up for photos on their end of year trip and university graduates in robes, matching black pumps clutching their mortarboards to keep them from flying off into the bay. We hopped onto the Star Ferry that runs from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, paying with the handy-dandy Octopus Card, the perfect combo between a debit card and a bus pass which works for everything in this town — bus, metro, the ferry, even buying treats in the local candy store. The view across the bay is spectacular — a line of green peaks the backdrop for an intense array of skyscrapers of every description. This land-strapped city, much of which is built on reclaimed land (or newly-made sand bars trucked in from elsewhere), is growing further and further into the water by the minute. Waterfront properties aren’t for long, as new skyscrapers pop up between them and the bay. Piles of steel i-beams, undoubtedly being readied to sink into the ground as ballast for the towering structures lie around in massive rusty piles. Downtown Hong Kong, known as Central, is unbelievably dense. What Montreal has in underground, Hong Kong has in aboveground. Covered walkways go off in every imagineable direction and they’re packed with a full range of people, hunched over old ladies with grandkids strapped to their backs with colourful fabric, tall Western men in suits and pointy shoes hustling to their next appointment. In one section of town endless escalators take you up block after block, all a floor or two above ground level, which has spawned a whole new slew of businesses benefiting from the newfound visibility. This city is all contrasts — skinny ladies decked out in the latest fashions teetering on their skyhigh pumps stride by little humpbacked grannies squatting by their food stalls, the narrowest alleys full of sweaty kitchen staff on their smoke break tucked in behind ridiculously high end retail stores, ultra-modern glass and concrete highrises ringed with rustic bamboo scaffolding. the narrrow bay and the tropical mountains have created a city, squeezing it into dense and dizzying heights. After a nice walk through Central, we got on the tram up to the Peak for more spectacular scenery. The tram line is implausibly steep. Even the views couldn’t keep thoughts of cable failure out of my head. We headed back down to find lunch. Aiming for the Cheung Wan Market, along with thousands of workers on their lunch hour, we settled for the food stalls on Stanley Street. The charming owner of stall number 5 convinced us that his homemade wonton soup was the ticket and we were happy to oblige. We perched on colourful plastic stools around a little white table in a long line of little white tables and wrestled the piping hot noodles into our mouths. The way home was a comedy of errors as Henri forgot his new toy in the pharmacy, we got on the wrong bus and ended up walking much further than we needed to in the now blazing sun. A half hour of navigating the maze that is Abby and James’s neighbourhood later we raced to get in the pool.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hong Kong

After a short night’s sleep in an airport hotel we pulled ourselves out of bed at five to get the quick leg to Toronto. I was more than a little daunted by the flight to Hong Kong. The prospect of 16 hours trapped in an airplane seat was a bit scary but it was totally painless. Giving up on the idea of getting any kind of sleep helped. The more experienced flyers were snoring away well before the plane took off, getting their Hong Kong night’s sleep in early. I nodded off once but as soon as my chin hit my chest I woke up with a start and was wide awake for the rest of the flight — three feature length movies, four episodes of Downton Abbey, a few chapters of my book and a couple of cooking shows later. Hong Kong has got a new airport (which, thankfully, no longer involves flying a hairsbreadth from towering apartment blocks and looking into people’s windows). It is still impressive to drop down into the South China Sea, chock-a-block with sampans and container boats. There were no questions at immigration, just a quick smile and stamp. Big James was there, behind the crowds at the arrival gate, standing a good head taller than everyone else. We stepped outside into a wall of grey humidity, the jagged, lush mountains hanging like a curtain around us.
We crossed over some of the longest bridges I’ve ever seen, past a sea of lego-like containers and a long line of the cranes required to move them from land to sea. In the New Territories James took us through the maze of streets that make up his neighbourhood. The white, narrow streets are all concrete and stone, metal gates and walls with the trees and gardens all tucked in behind the houses. Once we were settled in we took a short walk up a long series of mossy stairs leading up into the green hills right behind the house. We climbed past a garden carved out of the hillside by the Hong Lok Yuen elders where they gather in the morning to drink tea and play mahjong. Gasping in the heavy humid air we made it up the first peak, where the paths weave their way along the crests, reminding me a lot of the hills around Los Angeles. The slick terracotta-coloured soil is the only place not exploding with lush greenery. The views changed as we went — Hong Kong Island, Tai Po, and nearby Shenzhen. We wound down the day with a delicious supper and a long swim.
Everybody slept all the way through the night which, apparently, is a big deal. Frances is nine today! Abby drove us down to nearby Tai Po to the Mega Mall to get our pictures taken for our visas for China. The air is heavy with rain. The mall is actually a series of malls. There is some question about the format of the photos for the visa but after the question is setttled, we take turns sitting at the back of the narrow store posing for the young woman holding the camera. The man at the front of the store’s english is perfect. The woman taking the photo, on the other hand, mimics us and points to bra straps to get us to adjust for the pictures. Our mutual sign language makes me all the more grateful to be with Abby; a dozen Cantonese words is not going to get us very far. After the photos, we wandered around and then Abby took us into the mall’s Dim Sum restaurant. The massive room was all mirrors, crystal chandeliers and hanging red tassles. The big, round tables are all packed with Chinese families. There are no carts in this place. Abby pores over the all-Cantonese menu and chooses without a word. We sip our tea and watch the ladies in red jackets wander from table to table with little steam baskets full of goodies. Through the huge plate-glass window we watch the rain come down in buckets. Soon enough, the ladies are bringing the baskets to us. Barbecue pork buns, steamed dumplings with shrimp and pork, deep-fried squid, barbecued pork belly, radish cakes, green beans in a mushroom black bean sauce, Chinese broccoli in nuts and the lightest, freshest noodles I’ve ever tasted. Each dish comes with its own yummy dipping sauce. Everything is ho ho sek (really delicious!). We don’t even come close to finishing it all. We’re all completely stuffed. After lunch the girls find an arcade
and all the students that are just getting out of school. Pairs of girls in chinese-collared uniforms hold hands and clusters of students in matching pants and white shirts stand in circles giggling or bunched around the air hockey table. We pick up a birthday cake for Frances and head back to Hong Lok Yuen.