In 2017, we’ve spent six weeks in Hong Kong with the most recent trip being three weeks in November and December. Hong Kong is a city of many words, and cannot and should not be covered in one blog post. I will start with a series of glimpses into this modern, ex-colonial jungle of hills and skyscrapers.
Caption: The Hong Kong jungle from The Peak
A Hong Kong Christmas Panto
“Neih hou ma!” shouted Wishey Washey from the stage, starting off a Cantonese-English Christmas pun.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” the audience yelled back – Good! Good! Good!
Madame Twankey then waded onto the stage to expound on her 16 husbands (four richer, four poorer, four better and four worse) and the madness of traffic in Wan Chai at rush hour. There were no racist jokes about Asians, which made it less authentic than a UK-based Christmas panto, though also more enjoyable. There were plenty of jokes about the French however, so not entirely off-script, plus many about the mainland Chinese for good measure.
Boiled sweets were thrown into the audience, making it perhaps more authentic than in Britain where health and safety rules have ended the practice…
Christmas Fete in Stanley
As ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ filled the Christmas fete sprawled across St Stephen’s sports ground, thirty belly dancers warmed up. Many wore castanets, which sounded surprisingly Christmassy. Most of the women were from Hong Kong or mainland China and were members of a local belly-dancing troupe. The costumes ranged from quasi-burlesque to Hawaiian but with Christmas wreathes instead of grass skirts. One older white woman was part of the group, but looked trepidatious and hung back, only joining the performance halfway through their last dance and sticking close to the back. Rehearsals are one thing, but jiggling in front of 200 parishners and the vicar…? She suddenly had doubts.
Caption: Click to enlarge...
Another Plane of Existence
The fluffy grey cat in Stanley Market is not bothered. It sits in the middle of the aisle and focuses its mind on matters not for this world. It does not react when shoppers bend to pet it and rustling bags are inconsequential. It lives with the man who runs a tiny jewellery stand, and they both have one foot in another dimension; in the case of the cat, perhaps two paws.
Caption: His expression never changed, over several hours and visits. He knows something.
The Sea is Bountiful
Sheung Wan is one stop past Central and is the wholesale Chinese medicine district. In the chill November twilight each shop glows like a beacon, yellow and visually impossible to categorise. Dried items spill out of plastic sacks and cardboard boxes out front, hang from the ceiling and are stacked up the walls in an Aladdin’s cave of fermented mussels, dried sea cucumbers, coiled black algae and preserved lizards. Those are the identifiable items. The smell is strong and thick like low tide; my Japanese brother-in-law says it is the best smell in the world ...but he’s mistaken.
Caption: Click to enlarge and try to guess what is in the bags...
Art in the Park
Skyscrapers stand like a crown of thorns around Hong Kong Park. In the decorative lake, next to the sign admonishing would-be terrapin abandoners, there is a late-November drive to install flower statues. The artists have bundles of flowers and a range of metal frames. At one end, they are feathering a wire swan and her gosling with baby’s breath; at the other, there is an interlocking structure of boxes being outlined in stems of orange bird of paradise. One volunteer’s coffee cup is nestled into the box hedge while they wade around the frames with cable ties. It is cold enough that most of the workers are wearing waders, but one man has gone in with bare legs and his calves are whiter than the carp that investigate his toes. Nearby, three brides wait in the queue to register their marriage at the kiosk tucked off to the side; there’s a Just Married trellis where photographers and couples fill the time. Everyone is shivering but happy.
Caption: Click to enlarge. Sadly no picture of the brides.
We have just reached the end of Hollywood Road, showing my parents the antique shops. Each artifact in the windows has an age certificate – this lacquer is 1400 years old, this glaze is from 900 AC. My father had read that after the Communist Revolution in mainland China, antiquities had flooded into Hong Kong (the British are famously known for preserving things without regard to the original owner's rights, just not sea cucumbers). Since then, fakes have become increasingly common and antique vendors must provide indisputable evidence of how old their wares are. There is a world-wide inverse parabola of age-price for any good, and these shops were far along the rising limb. Maybe next visit…
My brother-in-law stops for a cup of cold sour plum tea to drink on our perambulations. I look inside the fluorescent café and see its young cat hop into a man’s lap. He opens his cardigan and the kitty climbs inside. He zips it up until only the cat’s face is poking out; he continues working on his laptop.
One street over, a restaurant is closing for the evening. The waitress comes out to stack the plastic chairs and unclip the leads to two orange cats who were tied up at the entrance. Freed, both trot inside to their basket in the back and start batting each other about the faces before curling up to go to sleep. Fitting that we have almost reached Cat Street.
Caption: Click to enlarge and see how painfully cute the orange cats are
Birthday Beach BBQ
Last year for my 30th birthday, some wonderful friends of ours threw me a backyard birthday brunch BBQ. December in Aldershot meant we were bundled up in quilts and rugs and had a festive time in the frost.
This year, we had a barbecue at the Shek O beach overlooking the South China Sea. It was the first time in six years I was with my parents for my birthday, and the first time ever with my sister, brother-in-law and nephew. Our pitch was just next to the water; the pre-booked visit included briquettes, tongs, hot dogs, fish balls, marshmallows and soy sauce among other essentials. We spread out two of my mother’s quilts for a soft seat, popped open a prosecco and spent the next few hours grilling and eating in the sun. The hot dogs were perfectly unhealthy, the beer just cold enough, the cole slaw nicely crunchy, the chicken wings succulent, the sardines full of sweet eggs.
Unaware that marshmallows were included, we had brought the only ones we could source: extra-large white monstrosities. In place of Graham crackers (entirely unobtainable outside of the US it seems), we had almond thins, and in honour of Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with America we had Cadberry’s chocolate. Unsurprisingly, Vien ended up with a face full of white gooey sugar, and unsurprisingly, gave my sister a big smooch on the cheek.
Caption: Click to enlarge and make your mouth water
My mother, nephew and I had a cartwheel show-down on the beach face; although my form was sloppy my starting position was first-rate. My father was the bravest of us all and went body surfing in the not-nearly-warm-enough South China Sea. A family at another pitch played rock versions of Christmas carols and my brother-in-law painted in the shade. We donated our fish balls to the group next to us, and a few minutes later they came over to give us foil-wrapped parcels of vegetables to slide into the coals. One hot dog escaped the grill and the beach dog refused to eat it.
Later, as the sun started to fade, we wandered back along the beach to car park and peaked in on a Chinese opera being performed in a large pavilion. We loaded up the taxis (somehow still with the same number of bags??) and headed home, sleepy and sun-drenched. A new birthday tradition.