Hong Kong Nature and Typhoons

Last year I blogged about Typhoon Hato and how much damage there had been. Well, this year we had Typhoon Mangkhut and it was so much worse, although weirdly no one died. We had been warned for about a week before it hit Hong Kong and we watched its path as it moved over the Philippines and into the South China Sea. The Hong Kong Observatory warned us that this would be one of the worst typhoons we had ever seen in HK and thus it turned out to be. For me, it was an annoyance more than anything. I was due to fly to Korea for work on the 16th of September, the day the typhoon would hit and the day before I was going to Shenzhen to see my first ever NHL game between Calgary and Boston. I had been so looking forward to the game, but as the typhoon came closer, I knew there was a risk that if I didn’t take an earlier flight, I may not be able to leave HK and would miss my job and my very rarely received paycheque. On Friday I finally decided I had to leave earlier and so moved my flight to Saturday. It turned out to be the last flight to Korea until Monday, so I made the right decision. A decision that was hard to swallow as I missed sports! My family however had to stay and when the typhoon hit, they messaged me, called me and sent photos and videos about what was happening. The whole building shook and my wife said she actually got seasick. Around HK, many buildings were damaged, there was a ton of flooding and the airport was completely shut down. I can’t even imagine how many people were affected by that alone. On top of all this, the most terrible thing to happen to HK was the loss of trees. According to the South China Morning Post, some 55000 trees were uprooted or destroyed. While HK has a lot of trees, the places where this was worst was in the many parks in the urban areas of Hong Kong. My own local park is a shadow of its former self as all the tall trees have vanished and our own street which was once lined with trees, now only has small bushes at the side. It is hard to imagine what will happen. I can’t see how they will replace the trees and I fear that we will be left with such a different landscape in our city where parks no longer provide shelter from the sun or privacy for people who want to get away from it all. The forests around us also have been hard hit and I worry about the animals and what happened to them during the storm. One HK wildlife website reported far fewer bulbuls in their area (the bulbul is one of the most common birds in HK). I can only hope this is only temporary.

When people first come to HK, they are often shocked by the amount of green we have. I love that about my city too, but every day I am out walking in the parks, I am saddened by how much has changed.

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Hong Kong Life

It’s been a long long time since I blogged. I need to change this. I’m going to start again now.

I moved to HK on June 23 2017. I did go to the US for 3 weeks the week after that, but I’ll say that was the day I started my new life with my family in Asia. That was 16 months ago now. Hard to believe that time has gone so fast. Life is so different from my life back in New Zealand, least of all because I am still unemployed and have to rely on my wife to keep us afloat. I did have an opportunity to get my dream job a few weeks ago, but it fell through and I am still looking.

Life in Hong Kong is amazing. Even with the lack of job opportunities for me, I still love living here. It feels like I am in the centre of the world here. Things are always happening and with China on our doorstep we are certainly the place where the new century will be driven from. With many countries now gaining traction with inward looking policies, China is still very much focussed on internationalism and I enjoy that openness that comes along with it. Not that China doesn’t face many problems.

I finally visited China last weekend after 28 years or so of not having been there. I only went to Shenzhen, which is the city on the border of HK, but it was very eye opening. For one, it is a huge city. Estimates put the population between 20 million and 25 million, depending on how you count the large migrant population. Compared with HK’s population of 7.5 million, I am living in a tiny village compared to that city! It was sort of like visiting another HK, except no one spoke Cantonese or English. There was smoking everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE. There seem to be no laws about smoking inside and Chinese people took advantage of that. Also, on their subway system (called the Shenzhen Metro) they have security checks at each entrance. We had to put our bags through X-ray and go through a metal detector. It was so strange. My Chinese friend who I was with said it was for our own security, but if that was the case it would mean that China was a very unsafe country indeed. I didn’t feel that at all and suspect the reasons are not for a our safety at all.

The final thing that was different was how people in Shenzhen pay for things. No one uses cash anymore. There are two phone apps called Alipay and WeChat Pay. People connect them to their banks or credit cards or even top them up with money at a convenience store and then if they want to pay for something, they pull up a personal QR code on their phone, the shop keeper scans it and the goods are paid for. It’s so simple. We saw a mother and her daughter selling some home cooked fried spring rolls on the corner of a street and even they pulled out two cards with QR codes on it and we paid them the same way. It is truly the way of the future when it comes to payment. I love it. We have these two apps in HK, but as yet our system is not compatible with China. Hopefully soon!

Shenzhen has an enormous electronics market. It is the largest in China and therefore I suspect it is the largest in the world. Prices were cheap, but you also needed to be wary of fakes. There were fake iPhones and I so wanted one. It would have been fun to show my friends, but it was pretty awful as an actual phone.

So, that’s enough for now. I will talk more about HK and China in future posts and I expect to post soon.

Fog and My Approaching Fear

I’ve been away in Korea for a week doing some work and it was zero degrees Celsius there. That’s 32 F for Americans. It even dipped to minus 7 at one point. I’m terrible at knowing how to dress for cold, so I just did the normal thing of t-shirt, jeans and a jacket. In a nod to the cold, I also wore a beanie. It was nice to experience some real cold for a change.

Winter in HK is nothing that people from America or Europe or many other parts of the world would even think of as winter. It is dry and only drops to a low of 12C during a handful of days. Overnight it might get colder, but not by much. It’s laughable, but I’ve become so acclimatised to temperatures here, that I joined the masses and headed to my local department store to invest in a heater. I’m ashamed to admit how weak I’ve become in HK!

On returning to Korea, I instantly regretted what I had worn on the plane. HK winter is OVER. It was already 22C when I arrived and by the time I had reached home, I was a hot sweaty mess. 22C doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, how does 99% humidity sound? Therein lies Hong Kong’s problem. It’s humid as hell. Actually, it may be more so. Why not? Last Saturday my family and I crossed the harbour by ferry to find a place called Hover Land (don’t even ask). Even though the distance between HK Island and Kowloon is not far, we couldn’t see the other side at all. I took this picture above as we sailed across. Fog horns were crying and everyone was taking their time carefully plodding around the harbour. I don’t think our ferry was that careful, but I’d like to imagine the captain wasn’t intent on wrecking us. I’ve never experienced fog like this that hangs around all day. And warm fog! I’ve never known fog like that.

Which brings me to my approaching fear. Summer. It’s coming. I can’t avoid this fact. As much as I want to put my head in the fog and imagine that this is as hot as it will get, I know that it’s going to get much worse. The humidity is acting as a warning signal. It’s telling me to get out. Run for the hills! I won’t listen though. I can’t. Summer is coming. 80%+ humidity everyday with temperatures of 35 day and night. It is coming and my greatest fears will soon be realised.

I call this 3 t-shirt weather. Save me. Please.

The Politics of Language or Why Cantonese is Important

Where have I been the last many months, you ask? Well, I’ve been in school. Even though I am very very old, my move to Hong Kong meant that I could go back to school. What I wanted to do, and had wanted to do since I knew I was coming to Hong Kong, was learn Cantonese.

For a more detailed description on the language, you can Wikipedia it, but the most important facts to know about the language are these:

1- It is a tonal language like Mandarin (now pushing to be called Chinese)

2- While technically not the official language of Hong Kong (that would be Chinese – see above), it is spoken by 90+% of the population

3 – It is traditionally the language of overseas Chinese communities and has until recently been the Chinese language you would most likely hear

4 – It is not taught in schools

5 – It is dying

I actually wrote more than I was going to with my points. I think the most important point is the dying point. Why is it dying? Well, it’s not taught in schools. That’s a great way to make sure you kill it off. While Mandarin is compulsory in all public schools in Hong Kong, there is no provision for the teaching of Cantonese. Even though a majority of schools teach classes spoken in Cantonese, they will never teach students anything about the language they are conversing in. It is almost like the language is being ignored, and that is just how Beijing would like it. Kids learn from their parents at home and from generation to generation, this is how the language survives. With more emphasis on Mandarin in the SAR, Cantonese seems to be fighting a losing battle. Baptist University here in Hong Kong actually requires all students to pass a Mandarin class in order to graduate. This has caused conflict at the school and there is wider concern as this is seen as an erosion of Hong Kong identity.

This is the very essence of what I believe Cantonese means. While it is named after the province of Canton (Guangdong), the heart of the language is in Hong Kong. It is here that the language is kept alive through movies, music, opera and mass media. It is what makes Hong Kong different from the rest of China. It is Hong Kong’s point of difference. Without the language, Hong Kong is just another city in China. But for anyone who has been to both places, you will know that Hong Kong is not at all just another city in Asia. Cantonese is a major element in this fight for identity.

Which brings things nicely to me. I’ve always believed in the power of language. Before I could speak any other language, I knew that my words had meaning. That you could solve fights with words and you could bend people to your will with what you had to say. As I began to learn other languages, I grew to learn that a language is more than just a way of communication; it is a way of thinking. When we speak another language we change the way we see the world. The language moulds our ideas. To understand Hong Kong and to understand the people of this city, I strongly believe it is important to know their language.

It’s a weird thing here where if someone doesn’t speak English, they will try to communicate with me in Mandarin. There is an assumption that foreigners either cannot or will not speak Cantonese. Even when I’ve attempted to speak Cantonese, they’ve already decided I can’t and so don’t seem to even understand what I’m saying. Frustrating!

So, back in October, I started Cantonese classes. Usually it’s about 2 hours a day and I’ve been studying right up until Thursday. Now I’m on a break for a month as I head overseas for work and my classmate heads home for a holiday. It’s a tough language to learn and I haven’t been a great student, but for the Year of the Dog, I’ve decided to be a better student.

I want to be able to speak Cantonese because I want to show that it matters as a language. I don’t want it to die. I want to show HK people that I value them and their culture. I feel it’s the thing to do since I live here. I’m excited to learn Cantonese and I hope that one day I’ll be able to blog in Cantonese even! I’m sure my readership will go from 5 to 0!

Typhoonarific

Barely a month into my new Hong Kong life and I have been beset by two typhoons. I like the word “beset”. It implies that I suffered through them. I really didn’t, but Hong Kong and Macau certainly did.

The first was Typhoon Hato. Hong Kong Observatory has a great app that I use, which gives up to date weather and also warns of coming weather. It possibly is a bit over the top. Each time I reach a new station on the MTR, it has to update for that area. I think the organisation is also regarded as over cautious and people tend to ignore them a lot. The standard “boy who cried wolf” scenario. The app pinged me to let me know there was a typhoon brewing. It said it was possibly bad, but wouldn’t speculate. I like an app that doesn’t want to commit, so I was in. I told my wife and she told me that people at work weren’t taking it seriously. Well, they soon would.

The rating for typhoons is rather strange. First there is a 1. This means the possibility of one. Then there is a 3. That means one is on its way and you should be careful. Life is still normal at these numbers, but at 3, people may start to think about getting home as soon as they can. The next number is an 8. This means we have a typhoon! Shops close and public transport starts to run barebones. Ferries no longer run and people are advised to stay inside. Then there is 10. A 10 has only been given by the observatory on 15 occasions in 70 years. It’s a typhoon, but a typhoon plus. It’s a bad bad thing.

In front of our apartment we have a typhoon shelter. That is a safe harbour for boats in times of impending typhoon. It normally looks like this:

All tranquil and empty and stuff. There are some boats in front of us loading up on recycled paper and the occasional police boat rushes into our little place for some reason, but other than that nothing. However, the night before the typhoon was due to hit, this is what our typhoon shelter looked like:

So full of boats. It was amazing to watch them all stream in and all park up. It was about then that I knew something big was going to happen.

When the 8 was sounded, we knew we weren’t going anywhere. We hunkered down and read books, surfed the web and watched movies. From our windows we could see rain lashing Hong Kong and the wind was terrifying. Perhaps thanks to the typhoon shelter, things we relatively mild for us. Our house sprung leaks from numerous places, but generally we were ok.

WhatsApp is a big deal here in Hong Kong and I belong to a local group. My phone pinged all day with stories of what the weather was doing and I kept up to date with radio news and the South China Morning Times website. It seemed that what I was seeing was nothing compared to what was happening elsewhere. The next town along from us: Heng Fa Chuen was suffering big time. Before we had moved into our current apartment, I was very keen on Heng Fa Chuen, It is right next to the sea and I loved the community feel of it. My family weren’t such big fans and so we didn’t take the apartment there. On this day they were able to tell me “We told you so!”

Heng Fa Chuen was hit hard. The entire area flooded and while no one was seriously hurt, the typhoon caused quite a mess.

The next day when the rain had stopped, we took a walk outside and viewed what had happened. Our own area didn’t seem too bad. There is a footpath in front of our building which is covered by a glass ceiling. Branches had been thrown into the glass and some of it had smashed down onto the footpath. It was safety glass, so nothing too bad. There were also leaves and branches strewn all over the road. I did not envy the people who had to clean this. As Heng Fa Chuen was the place which we had heard had been hardest hit, that’s where we walked to. It was quite the sight. Sand had been washed over everything. You couldn’t see concrete anymore. Mud and sand were all there was. Big trees had been felled, and benches and rubbish bins had been thrown about. The playground was a mess and the sports facilities were covered in litter. I took a number of photos. Even the photos can’t really give you an idea of the mess. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even now, more than a week later, there is still so much to clean up.

The most surprising thing was that no one in Hong Kong was killed. It proved that the warnings put in place work. Macau was not so fortunate. At least 8 people died there. Big questions were asked of their observatory as they chose not to issued the 10 warning until it was too late. Our own “boy who cried wolf” Observatory rocks! I felt so bad for the Macau people. I had only visited days before and it was heartbreaking to think of all the damage to that tiny SAR. I really hope they can recover.

A few days later we got typhoon Pakhar. This was only an 8. Nothing to us 10 experienced people! There was a ton of rain and then it was gone. Nature can’t defeat us!

Hong Kong has a typhoon season. It’s a fact of life here. People cope. They stay home when it’s happening and then they carry on. It makes me appreciate Hong Kong even more to realise how they deal with this. In many other places I can imagine people would panic and not be able to do anything. People here take it in their stride and I appreciate that.

The Wet Market

Since I am currently unemployed in Hong Kong, there needs to be some sort of belt tightening. What that means is that we need to eat local. If we carried on with our decadent Western lifestyle of steak everyday, we would quickly be headed to the poor house. Or the Hong Kong equivalent. I’ll look for that and blog about it at a later date.

This is where the fabled Wet Market steps in. Each neighbourhood I have been to seems to have this sort of market. Generally it is a multi levelled building which houses a myriad of stalls selling fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and any number of random shops selling whatever you could possibly want. Why is it called a wet market? Apparently back in the day they used to wash down the floor of the place constantly to keep it clean. Not sure why they don’t do it now. Maybe there were slipping related lawsuits?

Our local one is about 5 minutes walk from here. Due to the heat it feels like a 5 hour walk, but I do it anyway as I sacrifice for my family. I haven’t fully explored what is in there. I was lazy and just approached the first stall I found. It was run by an old lady who is impressed by my basic attempts at Cantonese and has many weird and wonderful vegetables. The first time I chose vegetables I recognised: bok choi and lettuce, but each time I go back I try to be more adventurous.

Thanks to my good friend in Maine, I was introduced to the following book:

It is so useful. Indispensable for someone living in Hong Kong who really wants to eat like a local. It has helped me figure out all kinds of weird vegetables I have found. This includes my favourite weird one:

The bitter gourd (melon). I really had no idea what to do with this but once I had figured out what it was (thanks to Maine and the book) I was courageous enough to buy one and try to cook it. It lives up to the name in its bitterness, but I think the added texture and taste profile it gives to my cooking is welcome.

Nearby my first stall there is a stall which is run by a Filipina. Her stall is the best because it has so many types of mushrooms. I love mushrooms, but back in NZ we are not spoiled for variety. Here though… wow…. It’s mushroom heaven. Mushrooms are my crack and the Filipina is my dealer!

I’ve walked through the fish section and it is crazy. I have no idea what fish I’m looking at and what even to do with them. The book helps of course, but fish really are intimidating. Not to mention the live toads they sell there too. What would I do with one of those? I feel like channeling my inner Elliot (from ET) and setting them all free. There is a chicken section too, but I haven’t been brave enough to venture there as I am afraid my little snowflake heart might break.

Pork and chicken here are cheap. I think they are probably as far from free range as is possible, but on a budget it’s hard to think about this. I usually buy pork mince which I use in my stir fry. There is a weird market/supermarket place that I found where they sell the cheapest meat and where I can buy balls. Balls? That’s another post!

My gondola life

This week seems to be filled with gondolas. I can’t escape them! Two different gondolas is difficult to escape, right? As far as I know, there are no more gondolas in Hong Kong so I guess I have escaped them. I have digressed!

On Sunday morning we made our way to Lantau Island where we climbed aboard the Ngong Ping 360 gondola and travelled for close to 30 minutes up high into the clouds.

It’s right next to the airport, but as you travel through the hills, the airport melts away and you begin to see the object of your destination:

The big Buddha! I’d heard a lot about this place and I have to be honest: I was underwhelmed by the statue itself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s big and impressive. I think what I really wanted was something historic. This statue was built in the 90s and so lacks that certain history that I crave for in my tourist attractions. Hong Kong does lack the history that Mainland China, but if you really look, you can find it. More on that in another post. For now, what I can say is the ride on the gondola was amazing and we are considering getting annual passes so we can go quite a few times. Annually. We took a gondola at 9.30am and it was a quick walk through an unpopulated line to the ticket booth and then the gondola. When we descended around midday, we were shocked. The line was so long and people were in for hours of waiting. That’s one lesson that I have learned again and again in this city. GO EARLY. If you wait until lunch time then you are destined to deal with Mainland China tourists who seem to come to these places in their droves. Great for the Hong Kong tourist economy, but terrible for almost anyone else.

On Tuesday I took my son to Ocean Park. I had promised him for months that we would go there and finally I had to deliver on my promise as he is due to start school in 2 weeks. Ocean Park is Hong Kong’s version of Disneyland before they had Disneyland. Did I mention they have Disneyland? I LOVE THIS SO MUCH! Anyway, we finally got there yesterday. I had actually seen it way back when I was a kid but my mum refused to take me there as we didn’t have the money. A 30 year dream finally fulfilled for me?

Ocean Park has the standard fun park type rides and also a lot of different animal exhibits. I’ve been spoiled by Disneyland, so I am often unexcited by non-Disney rides. However the animal exhibits made this park worth doing. We got to see pandas, arctic foxes, penguins (to make us feel homesick) and a plethora of other animals. The park was worth it for just that. We probably arrived a little bit late (despite what I just told you I had learned about arriving late somewhere in HK) and so soon the lines of tourists had begun. We managed to get on 2 rides: a log flume, which we waited 35 minutes for, and a wild river ride which my Ocean Park app gave me a bonus fast pass for. The whole point of this post was to talk about gondolas right? Well, Ocean Park is built on 2 levels. To get to the second level you have two options. You can either take the underground train or a gondola. Needless to say I took the gondola! Well, actually I didn’t. I took the train… I thought it was a ride and buy the time I was up the top of the hill, I realised that it wasn’t a ride but it was too late. I was up. When we were done for the day, we did take the gondola back down. As we were queueing up, we could see the difference between Hong Kong locals and Mainland Chinese people. I suspect that Hong Kong people had 100+ years of British people telling them how to line up and as a result they are masters at the art of a fine queue. Mainlanders on the other hand have no respect of the art. At every opportunity they tried to push in to the line. They tried and tried. All ages tried. Hong Kong people are obviously wise to their cousins and there were staff posted all over telling them to stop; pointing out where the end of the line was. It was quite something to watch!

Then we got on the gondola and it was the best part of the day really. Well, apart from the panda and the arctic foxes…

Another long ride through the hills with great views of the ocean to the south of Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong sure knows how to do gondolas right.

Ocean Park used to be a little inconvenient to get to as it was on the south side of Hong Kong Island and wasn’t serviced by the MTR (Hong Kong’s rail system). However in December of 2016 the South Island line was completed and now there is a direct line. The South Island line is pretty fun as it is the only line where there are no drivers for the train. It is all automated and feels very futuristic. It’s a really short line too. Only 5 stations. I think I need to blog about the MTR soon. I really really love it. A LOT.

But right now, just know that I really love gondolas and I’ve ridden on the best two of my career of riding gondolas!