November 09, 2014

Halloween in Hong Kong

It all began with a Sailor Moon costume. I spotted it at stall at the Ladies' Market in Mong Kok, amid a sea of g-strings and fishnet tights.

I knew I had to have it. And so did the saleswoman.

"Two hundred eighty dollar.* Include glove and headband. Good price."
I remembered everything I had read about markets in Hong Kong and how they always overcharge tourists so you must firmly haggle them down to around half the price.

"Erm... that's a bit much, how about $180?"

The saleswoman began taking the costume out of the bag, modelling the gloves so I could appreciate the full effect.

"No no, too cheap, very beautiful costume, so nice. Ok, two hundred forty dollar. That is final."

I hesitated. The saleswoman, still donning the gloves, attempted something akin to a Sailor Moon pose. Or could possibly have been giving me the fingers.

You can't really say no to that.

Anyway, soon enough it was Halloween and I found myself with an excuse to get some wear out of my new purchase. The place to spend Halloween in Hong Kong is Lan Kwai Fong, a notorious expat party area, and apparently a bit of a novel attraction for mainland Chinese tourists, who seem to enjoy taking photos of all the red-faced, drunken foreigners. Handily, the area is located just a few blocks from my apartment.

Despite containing more than a hundred bars, eateries and shops, Lan Kwai Fong is actually tiny - it's basically a lane, surrounded by a maze of narrow, steep, cobbled streets. When you combine that with thousands of intoxicated revellers, it could well be a recipe for disaster. Twenty years ago, it was - on New Year's Eve in Lan Kwai Fong in 1993, 21 people were crushed to death in a stampede.

Ever since, police have been extra-cautious with crowd control during all major events in the area. Halloween is considered one of the biggest party nights of the year, so police erect barricades all the way from the MTR station to Lan Kwai Fong, controlling how many people go in and out.

My street was enclosed in the "barricade zone" (honestly, between this and Occupy Central I have never seen so many barricades), so what would usually be a three minute walk from my apartment to Lan Kwai Fong ended up taking half an hour, as I was diverted all the way down to the station and then back up and around, rather than being able to cut through the side streets and alleyways.

Even with all the blockades, I don't think I have ever seen or will ever see again in my life as many people in one place. You talk about a "sea" of people but to me that implies something calm; how I would describe it is like, a kid colouring a picture with a fat crayon in their fist, trying very hard to stay inside the lines but always scribbling outside them. It was an absolute scribble of people.

It was chaotic. But it was also incredibly fun. There were street vendors selling silly hats and glow-in-the-dark devil horns, and photographers snapping pictures of some of the more impressive costumes. There were even families having a look around, the children dressed up and carrying trick-or-treat buckets. It was a very safe, festive atmosphere.

I spent most of the night in a pub with a group of cool people I had just met through New Zealand networking drinks. Then, to my delight, about 20 Sailor Moon characters walked through the door - half girls, half boys dressed in fabulous drag. They adopted me into their Sailor Moon posse and we quickly bonded over our costume-buying experiences (they had hit up the Ladies' Market too).

But the night was over almost as soon as it began. The very next day, as if by magic, all the Halloween decorations had disappeared... and been replaced with Christmas ones.  

*$280 is Hong Kong dollars, don't worry. That equals about NZ$46. I ended up paying $40 (so my "haggling" saved me a grand total of $6).

Lan Kwai Fong, Halloween 2014
A view of Pottinger Street, with barricades
People heading into Lan Kwai Fong
People buying last-minute costumes at Pottinger Street, a stone step street with lots of costume shops
With my new friends, Sailor Moon (I want her wig) and Sailor Venus

October 29, 2014

Solo Dining Hong Kong

Last night I found myself marching up my street, brandishing a bag of McDonald's like armour against the neon lights, the pushy restaurant touts, and the naked corpses of barbecued ducks and chickens swinging in windows.

It wasn't until I was home unwrapping my hamburger and nuggets that I realised how sad it was to be eating McDonald's in my room when I am in one of the world's great foodie paradises.

But the thing is, it's actually quite stressful finding places to eat all the time. I love reading Hong Kong food blogs - but then there's the problem of too many choices. On the other hand, if you decide to wing it, you can never be sure exactly what you're getting yourself into. Like, the restaurant next door, it turns out, is famous for snake soup.

Another problem is I feel like a bit of an idiot eating alone all the time, even though at most budget eateries in Hong Kong you usually end up sharing tables with randoms anyway. I have grown to enjoy this table sharing culture, as I am nosy and like seeing what other people order. But there have also been occasions when wait staff have seemingly gone out of their way to ensure I had a table to myself, perhaps fearing some sort of disastrous gweilo (foreigner) chopstick incident. Just the other night I was ushered towards a single table disconcertingly close to the male toilets, very much regretting having ordered curry.

Despite the indecision, the self consciousness and the occasional (ok, frequent) McDonald's lapses, I have also had some very good dining experiences and been able to try lots of Hong Kong classics - wonton noodle soup, barbecue pork, milk tea (so much milk tea).

I have fallen in love with one particular Hong Kong style café, or cha chaan teng, called Lan Fong Yuen, which is steps away from my apartment and apparently quite famous, having been around since the 1950s. I had read about its legendary "socks" milk tea (named because it is poured through a strainer like a pair of stockings to make it extra silky), no-nonsense food and authentic atmosphere, and set out to find it. At first, I walked right past - it is quite literally a hole in the wall. But that adds to the magic of it. You slip behind a little stall and suddenly find yourself in this bustling old-fashioned café, surrounded by boxes of instant noodles and jars of Ovaltine. It's rather how I imagine Harry Potter felt when he discovered the Leaky Cauldron for the first time.

I can confirm the milk tea is indeed delicious - all cool and smooth and caramelly. I have also tried condensed milk toast, pork chop bun, and chicken chop instant noodles. It makes for a cheap breakfast; around NZ $5 for a tea and something yummy off the menu.

I was also very lucky to meet up with some lovely Kiwis from the Asia New Zealand Young Leaders Network who took me to Tim Ho Wan, which serves dim sum and is infamous for being one of the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Once I realized where we were going I became so excited that I entered a kind of pre-emptive food coma, eyes glazed over, tongue hanging out, etc. We ordered almost everything on the menu and it was all so good - but the highlight was definitely the char siu bao (pork buns), which were baked and crispy on top and the perfect mix of savoury-sweet inside. I am actually considering going back by myself and just ordering endless plates of buns.

But first, I must tackle the snake soup.

Lan Fong Yuen - the entrance is that little opening on the left
Some of the tasty treats
Condensed milk toast and milk tea 
Pork chop bun 
Chicken chop instant noodles
Angela and I at Tim Ho Wan
Char siu bao - best pork buns in the world
We ordered almost everything on the menu
Wonton noodle soup - from a place called Mak's Noodles
Rosebud-like wonton... so good.

October 20, 2014

The Peak is the pits

One of the must-see attractions in Hong Kong is The Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island. Basically you scoot up the mountain in a tram and admire the view of the city below - which travel writers have waxed absolutely lyrical about (this, for example, from Time: "you'll see one of the finest harbors on Earth and a skyline so improbable, audacious and lofty that Manhattan's looks provincial by comparison").

On Friday after work I decided I would congratulate myself on surviving a second week in Hong Kong by spending a lovely evening up at The Peak. I pictured myself sitting in a sophisticated bar on the mountain top, cutting a lone silhouette against the skyline. I would sip red wine (I don't actually like red wine) and write meaningful vignettes into my journal, pausing every so often to gaze broodingly out the window. 

The first moment this fantasy was destroyed was arriving at the tram terminus and realising that about 300 mainland tourists had the exact same idea as me (well, maybe not the tortured writer part). It took about half an hour waiting in line to get tickets for the tram. Then another 30 minutes as the tram went back and forth, ferrying tourists crammed like tinned sardines up and down the mountain.

When my turn came, unfortunately I was one of the sardines who didn't get a seat, and had to stand in the aisle. So I gripped on for dear life as the rickety old tram charged up the mountain, at one point, apparently, at a gradient of 27 degrees. The man in front of me was for reasons unknown doing a leisurely set of squats as we travelled. I caught a glimpse of this in the window reflection and, to my horror, with the angle we were at, I realised it looked as though I was the unwitting participant in a standing sexual act. Two girls sitting next to me clearly noticed this, too, and burst into giggles. I glared at them.

After making it up the mountain (having left dignity at the bottom), we emerged at what is known as the Peak Tower, a godawful conglomerate of overpriced souvenir shops (I love Hong Kong tshirts), international fashion brands (Crocs), restaurants (Bubba Gump Shrimp) and, worst of all, Madame Tussauds wax museum. There was also a counter selling tickets for the Sky Terrace 428, a viewing platform purporting to offer a 360 degree view (the 428 refers to the fact it is 428 metres above sea level).

Everyone else seemed to be coughing up the HK $40 (about NZ $7) for this Sky Terrace, so even though I thought it seemed a bit shit to have to pay for the view, I did too. I joined the throng snaking its way up the escalators to the top of the tower.

It was hell on earth up there. Every possible inch of balcony space was taken up by a crowd about four-deep. Selfie sticks were criss-crossed against the skyline, camera flashes went off at random, bouncing off the smog. I felt like I was at war. Blinded, dazed and disoriented, I backed away, promptly tripping up on someone's tripod. I turned in the other direction, and narrowly avoided a selfie stick to the face. I watched as tourists descended into selfie-taking monsters, pulling victory signs and duck faces and bunny ears. Amid the Cantonese and Mandarin, I suddenly heard a more familiar language - Japanese. "Jidori shiyo ka?" Let's do a... jidori... what does jidori mean... self... take... oh. There is now a Japanese word for selfie.

Finally a glittering opening appeared through the masses. I jumped in, pulled out my camera and aimed it at the scene below. Snap. I lowered my camera and considered the view. Yep. Quite nice.

Job done, I hoofed it out of there. I needed to find a bar - I no longer cared about writing meaningful vignettes into my journal, but I did care very much about a drink. Once I managed to escape from the Tower, I found myself at a ritzy shopping mall, the Peak Galleria. I looked wildly for the dining directory. There was just one very expensive looking bar and restaurant. I decided to go to a juice bar instead and settle for the cheap but unsatisfying option of lychee flavoured bubble tea.

Then it was time to get off the damn mountain, but that was also easier said than done. In the time it had taken for me to unsuccessfully search for a bar and slurp my bubble tea, all the other tourists had taken their billion selfies, dined at Bubba Gump Shrimp and marked the occasion with a brand new pair of Crocs. A massive line had formed for the return tram. I waited another 30 minutes. I crammed in like a sardine. And when I finally got out, I marched away from that mountain without looking back.

Postscript - I did actually look back, figuratively speaking. When I got home I googled variations of "The Peak sucks" to see if I was the only tourist in the history of the world to have not enjoyed the experience. But it turns out, I actually did the whole thing wrong and could have saved myself a lot of trauma. First, I went at peak (hah) time, 8pm on a Friday night. That's a no-no. Second, there is actually a less known and completely free viewing platform on top of the Peak Galleria. Third, there is also a 7-11 convenience store in the Peak Galleria and I could have bought booze from there and had my own wee sneaky BYO outside. And finally, instead of the tram, I should have gotten a bus back down the mountain.

I guess I peaked too soon.

The line for the tram.
The line for Bubba Gump Shrimp.
The line to take selfies.
The view (I mean, yeah, it is quite good)
Another, very slightly different view
The Peak Galleria
The line for the tram back down

October 17, 2014

Reporting the Hong Kong protests

In my last post, I mentioned that the protests seemed to be dying down, as the government had agreed to hold talks with the movement's leaders. Well, shortly after that the government cancelled the talks, and thousands of protesters marched straight back onto the streets.

This week I got the chance to head out into the field and help with some of the protest coverage. Now, when I say "help", my contribution has been absolutely miniscule - it has more been an observational exercise than anything else. At the New York Times, where I'm doing my internship, the reporters are working through the day and night to cover this event, which is constantly evolving and has no end in sight. Not only do the reporters have to be in three places at once (there are three major protest sites), but they are also working to deadlines across different time zones for various editions of the paper. Then of course there's the hungry beast that is the web, which has to be fed constantly. As do personal Twitter accounts. Then, after all of that, they've somehow got to find time to sit down and interview experts to get serious analysis on the whole thing.

It's exhausting just to think about. These guys are bloody troopers, and I'm learning a lot from watching their reporting and seeing how the final stories come together each day.

For me, it's been a surreal experience. As a national news reporter, I do most of my work from the office. Probably the last "event" I was involved in was the royal tour of New Zealand. I went to the airport when Prince William, Catherine and baby Prince George landed in Wellington, and interviewed royalists who provided quotes such as: "I do wish [George] had been wearing a hat in this cold".

Over the past couple of days I have found myself interviewing people about universal suffrage, the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China, and police brutality.

People have been incredibly approachable. Of course, it helps that for the most part the people I've spoken to have been protesters who have a bee in their bonnet and want the world to know about it. But there are also a lot of bystanders - and they are the really interesting ones to talk to, because you can never predict what they're going to say. How do they feel about the protests?

"At first, I supported them," said one retired man in Mong Kok. "But it's lasted so many days. I want to go to Tsim Sha Tsui for shopping and to see my friends. If I take the bus, it's $2. But the bus is cancelled so I have to take a taxi. It takes up my time and money."

I have seen insane bamboo barricades being constructed, attended a rally and rushed to the scene when there were rumours of police using tear gas again (it turned out it was pepper spray, and I was sent home when it looked like it was getting dangerous).

Half the time I have no idea what's actually going on, as most of the speeches and skirmishes are in Cantonese. Sometimes I ask people around me to summarise what's being said, and they're generally happy to oblige. Other times people have actually come up to me, offering to help (I have the "lost lamb" look down pat now) or just curious about what I'm doing here.

On one such occasion, I met a bizarre character. He was a Chinese businessman who lived in Milan and spoke with - I kid you not - a Tony Soprano accent.

"New Zealand, huh," he said with a sneer. "You're a fucking long way from home."

Occupy Central: Back in action
Tent city in Admiralty
Spot the creative "middle finger" gloves at the end of the poles
"Central Government and TRIAD offices"
Bored policemen guarding the Central Government offices
Construction of bamboo barricades on Monday night
These were pulled down the very next morning.
At a rally in Admiralty, my view of student leader, 18-year-old Joshua Wong
At the rally condemning police brutality hundreds of people held up these signs, saying "black cops" (I think)
This is me interviewing someone in Mong Kok. I gave him my business card and he later sent me this photo, which must have been taken sneakily by his friend. Only in Hong Kong.

October 10, 2014

Do you hear the people sing?

As luck would have it, I landed in Hong Kong right amid one of the biggest news stories in the world. Over the past two weeks, thousands of young Hong Kongers have taken to the streets, protesting for full democracy. China is offering a watered-down version, with its plans to pre-screen political candidates so it can essentially control elections

It is said to be China's biggest democracy movement since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing. This is something one of my colleagues back home took pleasure in bringing up before I left, helpfully advising me to stay away from tanks.

It seems like the protests are starting to die down now, so on Tuesday night I decided to head to the main site in Admiralty district, near the government headquarters.

Emerging from the station, the first thing you notice is the sea of posters, messages and artworks, haphazardly stuck to walls and posts. Some are simple, scrawled in pen, while others could have been created by graphic designers. "Keep calm and open your umbrella", says one. "Listen to our thought," says another. Yellow ribbons, which have become one of the main symbols of the movement, are everywhere, tied to fences and gates, pinned to the shirts of supporters. I even saw a baby on the subway playing with one, curling it around his little fingers.

It is eerily quiet and empty on the outskirts of the protest zone. First aid sites are abandoned, but remain stocked with supplies, in case the police come back with tear gas.

Round the corner onto the main road, and even now, with protester numbers dwindling, the scene catches your breath.

Against a backdrop of towering skyscrapers are hundreds and hundreds of people, dotted like little dark ants along the highway. Some are sitting barefoot on rugs, shoes neatly placed at the edge, while others are perched atop of the highway barriers. Along the way are ladders and crates so people can safely climb over. A man reached out to help pull me across to the other side.

There was suddenly a mild commotion - something set the protesters off, causing them to burst into song. They started singing happy birthday in both Cantonese and English, apparently to drown out their opponents.

Music is a recurring theme. A giant banner stretches across an overbridge bearing the words of the Les Miserables anthem, "Do you hear the people sing?"

On the opposite bridge is John Lennon's Imagine: "You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one".

Perhaps most eye-catching of all is the "Lennon Wall", covered in a rainbow of Post-It notes featuring messages of support for democracy. Markers and notes are provided so visitors can add to the wall, make their mark on history - however impermanent it may be. As one of the notes says, "everyone deserves freedom of expression!"

At the base of the wall is the striking "Umbrella Man" statue. He is made out of wooden blocks and carries a golden umbrella, bathed in the light of a street lamp.

As I spent the hour wandering around, I thought about what it all meant for Hong Kong, what it meant for China, and what it could mean for history. Then I thought about New Zealand's most recent election, and the "missing million" who decided not to vote.

I don't think they know what it feels like to hear the people sing.

Posters at Admiralty Station

A first aid station, stockpiled with supplies
Protesters singing happy birthday in the middle of the highway
Occupy Hong Kong artwork
"You'll never walk alone"
"You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one"
Lennon Wall of democracy

Overlooking Occupy Hong Kong, protester numbers dwindling
Umbrella Man statue
Note: Sorry these photos are so crappy quality, aside from my general lack of photography skills I don't have a proper camera yet so these were iPhone jobs.

October 06, 2014

Hong Kong: First Impressions

I remember reading somewhere that Hong Kong is like Asia for beginners. All the guidebooks harp on about the "East meets West" culture - most people speak some English, it's easy to get around, the food's great, the shopping's great... and so on.

So I came here with a smug sense of preparedness. I "practised" going to yum cha. I flicked through my Lonely Planet guidebook. I watched a few Cantonese tutorials on YouTube for good measure.

Three days in Hong Kong, and I am eating some very humble dim sum.

I'm not sure exactly when the culture shock set in. It could have been on the train from the airport, looking at apartment blocks so ridiculously tall that you wonder how they could have possibly been made by humans and not jenga-playing giants. It could have been reading the sign on the door of my hostel which said it was operating illegally and the owners of the building accepted no liability for anything that happened to me. Or it could have been during my first Hong Kong breakfast, when I found myself sharing a table with a stranger, eating a rather bizarre soup containing macaroni noodles, lettuce and ham.

As a result, I have at times descended to the ranks of my least favourite type of traveller - the creature-comforts traveller. I am ashamed to admit I visited McDonald's and Starbucks within the space of 72 hours.

But even those places had their own unique experiences. At McDonald's, I watched a waitress get into a heated argument in Cantonese with a woman, seemingly over the fact she was loitering at her table after she had finished her food (as I was doing the exact same thing trying to make the most of the free wi-fi, I paid close attention to the series of events).

Then as I was sipping my Starbucks on Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, a small Chinese boy was thrust upon me, followed by each of his parents, and I suddenly found myself the centre-piece of a family photo shoot.

I haven't taken many pictures so far because it's too overwhelming. I've just been wandering around, mouth agape at the sheer masses of everything. Skyscrapers, shops, people.

I do love the MTR, the subway which is so clearly sign-posted and easy to use I haven't gotten lost once. I don't love the sticky humidity, the random downpours, and the tiny wet bathrooms. Thanks to a combination of the three, I have already gone through about half the clothes I brought with me.

Then, of course, there are the democracy protests. I spent the first two nights staying in the centre of Causeway Bay, one of the hotbeds of the Occupy movement. On Friday evening, I heard yelling, screaming and sirens outside my ninth-floor hostel window. Too nervous to leave the building, I watched the situation unfold on Twitter.

A group of masked Beijing supporters had pushed through the barricades and started attacking the young protesters, trying to force them to leave. It was unbelievable hearing it all happening right below me.

Apart from that night, the protest area in Causeway Bay has a strangely festive atmosphere. The barricades have turned what I assume is normally one of the area's busiest roads into a complete pedestrian zone. While the number of actual protesters has thinned out, crowds of locals and tourists wander around taking photos of all the pro-democracy signs and messages of support.

I have now relocated to a charming apartment in Central, where I will be living for the next six weeks. More on that later, but so far challenges include how-to-wash hair-using-hand-held-shower-while-sitting-on-toilet, and how-to-not-disturb-resident-kitchen-cockroaches.

Support Hong Kong: Causeway Bay protest site
"If not us who?! If not now when?!" Signs and messages of support.
Umbrella Revolution.
Causeway Bay outside Sogo department store - turned into pedestrian zone by protests.
The world is watching Hong Kong.