Coffee & tea

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Starbucks window square

Familiar except the service

Coffee  Today started out on the main thoroughfare, King’s Road with the most mainstream of refreshments. There is nothing to distinguish this Starbucks from any other on the planet except the exceptional friendliness of the server. I ordered a Tall Black Coffee. She smiled broadly, “I will brew fresh, wait a minute.” I did. She produced the Tall Black Coffee and politely extended a hand toward the familiar napkin station. “You can add the milk.” And I did.

Where am I?

Where am I?

Tea  Further along in my ramble through North Point, I happened upon a marvelous thing: an old brick building on Oil Street transformed into a public space emphasizing design, peacefulness, and personal expression. None of this was normal. Inside the tea house, a perky youth explained today was a celebration of Imperfection. Had I been kidnapped and thrown into a time travel machine, ending up in Portland? All I had to do was write down one of my imperfections to receive a lovely mug of free tea.

What flaw did I reveal?

What flaw did I reveal?

So, I did.

 

 

Chungking Kong

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Chungking Mansions

I’ve recently been indulging non-tourist Hong Kong, taking a stroll through Chungking Mansions, a 17-story jumble of guesthouses, curry restaurants, and shops where traders from Africa and South Asia do business and back-packers find a cheap place to rest. 4,000 people are said to live in The Mansions. It is also a setting in Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express”. Last night, I saw Kar-wai’s directorial debut, As Tears Go By (1988) at the Hong Kong Film Archive (the gem of my neighborhood). This crime melodrama apparently borrows from Scorsese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wong_Kar-wai. Very violent! The woman next to me, at least 80 years old, never averted her eyes.

Kung Hey, Pony Boy

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Kung Hey Fat Choi!

The Cantonese greeting for Chinese New Year doesn’t translate to “Happy New Year” but I believe means something along the lines of ‘Congratulations on your Prosperity” (I probably got that wrong), assuming your comfortable position and perhaps hints this might be a good moment to share the wealth. It is the season of lai see (red envelopes with money), dumpling eating, and the sweeping away of past grudges. If I must!

Meanwhile, the horsey ride at Kornhill Plaza has transformed into another display. 2014 is the Year of the Horse. Those pretty ponies are starting to make sense.

No sponsor,  just The Horse

No sponsor, just The Horse

What is the Horse all about? Energy, speed, industriousness, leadership. While I’m not looking forward to this banking town turning ever faster, I am taking on some new writing projects so East, West will become more visual (less wordy). Faster? ‘KEEP UP, PLEASE,’ says Pretty Pony.

As it is also a Wood Horse year. Please note this wise investing tip: avoid the “water” and “metal” industries http://www.fool.sg/2014/01/19/year-of-the-horse-industries-to-avoid/

Kornhill red lantern

What will you be galloping toward?

An Amazing Thing about Hong Kong

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It is raining this week. Heavy rain. 60mm/day. Cold rain. 9-15 C. (A Cold Weather Warning was put in force at 07:45 HKT on 16.12.2013, source: HK Observatory.)

When it rains, up go the umbrellas—on the sidewalks we have a temporary roof over our heads and a high risk to getting your eyes poked out.

But when it rains we also remember An Amazing Thing about Hong Kong. That is, the umbrella cans and cover dispensers that are EVERYWHERE. Every store or restaurant will have a canister near the door where you can put your wet umbrella while you’re inside eating or shopping. No one every steals them and you can almost always find your exact one when you leave.

But when you enter certain other establishments, a grocery store, most any major lobby, a mall, (you get the idea) there is an amazingly simple machine that puts a plastic bag around your wet umbrella!

No drippy mess.

No drippy mess.

See the photo. Just slide your umbrella into the open bag top and pull it out again: covered! And not dripping all over the store and you. The machine I used today at the grocery store even had TWO SIZES.

Call me simple, but I find this to be an Amazing Thing about Hong Kong.

Joyful Time with Mentos

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Greetings, Ye Seasoners:

Welcome to my lazy (it’s a given) holiday post.

I’m writing to assure you that Hong Kong is no exception in the decorate-frenzy of modern holiday times. Even better, Hong Kong, unfettered by the West’s angst-ridden parsing out of holiday equality simply lets it rip.

Christmas is left to do what it does best: be pretty.

As a colleague explained to me, “No… we don’t celebrate Christmas, we just like the parties and decorations!”

Throwing off even a pretense of religious association allows for a level of unabashed dressing-up far easier to grasp than God in a wafer. In exchange, one gets all of the delightful certainties in an Asian city outsized for the holidays: reindeer pulling sleigh’s across iconic towers, cheerful greetings in garish lights, imported evergreens in lobbies, carols pumping through the polished veins of malls.

Then there are the local touches. Here is one, the display at Kornhill Plaza, the mall attached to my home.

Christmas Carnival at Grand Plaza

Christmas Carnival at Kornhill Plaza

Note the bold primary colors and prancing expressionless ponies. This merry-go round does not go round. It is symbolic of the joy of childhood without the loud, messy children to spoil it.

Hello, pretty pony

Hello, pretty pony

And this motionless, soundless piece of plastic is sponsored by mints.

Have a joyful time with Mentos

Joyful time with Mentos

And comes with the requisite Hong Kong rule, placed tastefully in plain view.

In case you were tempted

In case you were tempted

Why shouldn’t Christmas be a simple, happy time? There is already enough pressure in Hong Kong: six day work weeks, high rents, no social net, loud buses, rapid construction keeping the city in a perpetual real-time state, not to mention the academic pre-school pressure untold of in the halls of Harvard.

So to one and to all I say, Joyful Time with Mentos!

Ate, Played, Drove

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Very recently I had the good fortune to be invited to Bali to stay in a Villa, free of charge. This Villa had five bedrooms. The bedrooms were massive and romantic with mosquito nets over the beds, each with its own private bath. The kitchen had a staff of five and a long table to seat twelve. A rooftop overlooked the roiling sea. The long infinity pool lapped quietly under a flawless sky.

I am not making this up!

Bali makes one write like a foolish ninth-grader in love with adjectives.

villa surgawi

Villa Suragawi in Cemagi

We also had a driver for eight hours a day and “we” were six women loosely connected through the ring leader, my friend Annette, who won the trip in a prize draw. 3 Americans, 1 Italian, 2 Chinese spanning three decades.

What did we do, all of us together, in this paradise?  

Ate

The staff at our disposal presented a menu, more like a book. Each morning we told these smiling people what we wanted to eat so they could oblige us with fresh ingredients. We ate most breakfasts—simple omelets, fruit, yogurt—out in the fresh morning air under a covered patio by the pool.  Dinners were a sumptuous array of local dishes—noodles, satay, soups, fish, rice—and fruit again. MORE MANGO, PLEASE!

Played

In Bali, tourists are the economy; activities abound. We scuba dove, saw healers, had massages, learned to cook, shopped, and strolled museums. At night after eating in our sprawling kitchen, we swam in the pool. We even played pool (the Villa had a pool table, why not?).

But the favoritest event of them all was horseback riding. Early one morning, high-stepping along in a clump of equines and guides, we found ourselves on a pristine beach, waves frothing onto the sand, horses pawing the water as if on cue, our collective girl-hair blowing back while trotting along the sea. The horses were a novelty to the Chinese girls. Coral proclaimed, “I will live on this horse!” and Joyce shouted, “I finally believe in God!”

Missing Marta, Finding God

Missing Marta, Finding God

Drove

I must be wrong about this but in Bali there don’t seem to be any street names or signposts. We had some adventurous drives.  The first night from the airport, our driver took us to the town called Cemagi but did not know how to find the Villa. The method for acquiring directions is to stop at the side of the road and ask a random stranger sitting out in the hot night. Many times. The drivers have phones, phones that receive calls but never have enough money on them to make calls.

On the second day Joyce, Coral and I went scuba diving. We didn’t realize the dive spot was three hours from our Villa. A driver picked us up at 6:00AM and we barreled around curves at high speeds swiping past stray dogs and scooters. After a reasonable time, the driver confessed he had another job; he would need to get to the airport. No worries, though… he would drop us at his cousin’s and he would would take us! We could have been anywhere on the island. We had no maps and no clue and the dive spot was still two hours away. When Cousin Driver took over the wheel, he turned to me and said, “It’s OK, m’am. My cousin say you can get us back to the Villa.”

That was a rather long day.

But no worries. When we returned thirteen hours later, fresh food was waiting and another night swim under a starry sky.

Closed for Renovation (and Crowdsourcing Some Research)

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Tis the season. If you read the August 25 post on how My Bank Become a Cupcake Store I’d like to share a related Hong Kong phenomena. It is called Closed for Renovation.

Examples of Closed for Renovation are everywhere, all the time yet tend to increase in September and October. Last year the drug store near me called Mannings closed to become a Mannings Plus. When it reopened there were no discernible pluses. (Even) brighter lighting? A slight re-arrangement of shelves? Muji, the minimalist and calming Japanese home goods store, Closed for Renovation around the same time. When it re-opened, the wall paneling had been switched out from “pine” to a “walnut” fake wood grain.

Closed for Renovation can strike anywhere, anytime. Unlike the revolving shops, these are upgrades to existing places. Or purport to be. Closed for Renovation can be sudden, can be inconvenient, can be protracted, and can even leave you without your basic needs met.

On Saturday mornings I have a Mandarin lesson. Timing is everything. I have measured out exactly when to catch the train and when I will arrive at my stop and how long it takes me to get to Pret a Manger to pick up a quick breakfast and how long it takes to order, sit, and eat and then walk the three blocks to Beautiful Group Tower for my 10AM class. This is very important to maximize sleep time.

Last week I slipped off the train and dashed up the stairs to find that in place of the inviting racks of freshly-prepared, organic fast foods, was:

Just closed. Not even a friendly sign.

Just closed. Not even a friendly sign.

Closed for Renovation was going to send me into 120 minutes of Chinese with no breakfast. I did not have a back up plan. Cruel.

There is so much about this Hong Kong retail tradition that I don’t understand. Why are renovations so frequent? Why do they cluster around the fall season? And why do they seem to involve so little actual renovation?

I will be doing some research, rest assured this topic is not yet exhausted. And now for The Crowdsourcing: can any of you Dear Readers explain?

Lollipop Currency

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I visited a K-12 boarding school in China last week.

The school was in a rural area outside of a major city. The campus was large and well-equipped with sporting facilities, dormitories, a canteen, and a testing center, among other amenities. Like many of the private schools in Asia, fees are high, between USD 10K-20K a year.

Primary classroom before start of school

For two days we ate our meals on campus, Chinese cafeteria style, which means the food was plentiful, lots of dishes to grab from the serving line: vegetables, beef and potatoes, kung pao chicken, fried dough, mian bao, and of course rice. Typical of Chinese dining we did not have anything to drink though, no bottles of water or soda fountain, not even a pot of tea. The Chinese do not supplement their meals with large glasses of liquid like Westerners do (unless its beer), fizzy and full of ice, straws, a whole production unto itself.

In the hall outside the cafeteria was a long glass fridge/freezer with drinks and ice-cream together, the kind of contraption you see in convenience stores with the sliding glass tops. There was cold flavored teas but no water. I only once saw someone manning the cash register. At the end of a day of working with teachers, I was well fed but thirsty.

So on the way back to my room one night I stopped at the campus commissary. It was small, just a store front really, stocked with boxes of processed foods and more ice cream. In the cooler behind the register, I spotted cold bottled water of an indiscriminate brand.

I asked the cashier, a young girl, for one bottle. She told me it cost 15 kuai. I gave her a 20, which is all I had. She took the bill and disappeared toward the back of the store. When she re-emerged she held out to me a small wrapped lollipop. “Sorry, no change.” And she laughed a shy laugh.

Sorry, no change.

Sorry, no change.

I kept that lollipop. It is worth 5 RMB or about .81.