Thursday, April 19, 2012

One Week in Honk Kong

Getting the Hong Kong blog post going has been a real struggle. As our next destination was India, for the past week we've been completely swept off our feet, swamped, overwhelmed, exhausted by all the sensory overload that a first visit to India entails, that we crashed every night in our hotel room, with little to no time for computer activities. In addition to that, reliable Internet access in India has also been a scarce luxury.

So, Hong Kong... I will spare you the details on history, food, people, blah blah... as probably many of you have been there, have seen tons of movies that took place there or tons of documentaries/lifestyle/shopping TV shows. Hong Kong is accessible, a shopping mecca, a modern metropolis, an extremely livable city and thus gets a lot of coverage. I will resume my post to a brief description of what we did in Hong Kong in a week: we ate some Chinese food, we watched *hella* movies at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, we met up with friends, we got our portraits sketched by a street artist, we got our futures told by a fortune teller in a night market, we took some ferries, we visited some islands, we ate some street food and deserts and we rode a lot of public transportation. Now on to some visual representations of the above:

Above: an apartment building on Hong Kong island. From what I heard, each apartment is really tiny. I wonder how many people live in each of these buildings. I like to call Hong Kong a concrete jungle. Despite the intimidating name, Honk Kong is not intimidating at all. It's so logical, well-structured and safe to navigate, that it offers full independence and freedom of movement. Taxis are cheap and reliable, but you rarely need one, as most public transportation is fast, well-connected and runs almost round the clock. The subway is amazing. And the ferries are pretty fast too. Hong Kong is like the reliable mechanism of a Swiss watch. While I didn't quite get "wow-ed" by this city, I can appreciate its modernity and smooth way of functioning. If only San Francisco or LA had public transportation systems as good as Hong Kong's...

We arrived late at night in Hong Kong straight from the beach, from a small and quiet tropical island in the Philippines. We woke up to this (image above) - the view from our room's window. One day you're in a beach bungalow, diving and swimming, next day you're in a tiny room in the big city, surrounded by high-rise buildings. It reminded me of one of my favorite books growing up: Heidi, The Girl of the Mountains. In this book (in case you don't know it), a little orphan girl living with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps is taken to the big city to live in a mansion with a paralyzed girl, Clara. When Heidi gets to the city, she looks out of the window and tries to see the mountains, but she can't. There are too many other tall buildings around, so the visibility is not that great. She can't see the mountains anyway, as they are far away from the city. Heidi longs for nature, the great outdoors, the life she was used to - and she slowly loses excitement in life, until she gets really homesick and bed-ridden. Looking through my window in Hong Kong, I felt a bit like Heidi. I guess I'm just a small town girl, after all.

Electrical wiring on the hallway of the apartment we rented.
Accomodation in Hong Kong is very expensive. Luckily, Anne found us a cute and cozy room on Airbnb that was cheaper than the average Hong Kong price for travelers. By cheaper, I mean "only" 50 USD/night for our own room, where beds in hostels cost about 35 USD. The apartment where we stayed was decorated very tastefully with old Hong Kong memorabilia. It reminded me of the movie In The Mood For Love. The owner of the place was what I'd call a Hong Kong hippie-nerd. Smart, with a taste for vintage things and somehow quite similar to us. We tried to hang out with him a few times during the week, but sadly our schedules never synced.

Mailboxes in the apartment we rented.

Day 1 threw us right in the middle of a scavenger hunt. We had bought tickets to see 7 movies at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and we had 3 movies scheduled on Day 1. Armed with Google map directions and a compass, we had to find the venues for the movies and have enough time in-between movies to travel to the next venue. Hong Kong was the first place in our travels where I really wished I had an iPhone with real-time directions on it.

It feels like HK is fully built, with no more room for anything else, but somehow they're still building.

HK is famous for its deserts, so we tried a bunch of different street sweets. Here, Anne is trying a special mango shake with all sorts of things inside.

I tried green tea mochi with durian inside. I can eat durian without throwing up, but in the end I'm not too crazy about it. It's not something I would crave, but it was interesting to try, at least once.

We walked through the Temple St. night market and saw a lot of corner food stands where people eat directly on the street. This is old Hong Kong. For sanitary reasons, many of these places have been banned, but you can still find a few during night markets.

The merchendise at the night market was not that great. Mostly kitschy souvenirs and lousy t-shirts. The most entertaining thing we did that night was getting our palms read by a fortune teller. I got mine first and some things he mentioned about my personality were quite spot on. Others sounded like generalizations based on my nationality, ethnicity, age, marital status and profession. Anne hesitated getting hers future predicted, as she was afraid she might find out something she wouldn't want to know. But then she got hers read too, and it sounded a lot like mine. I wouldn't say the guy was a scammer, but he definitely had a pattern which he slightly adjusted from one customer to another. Everyone wants to hear they're smart, that they will advance in their careers and make a lot of money, right?

On a different day, while killing some time between movies (we felt like students in-between classes,) we walked on the Avenue of Stars in Kowloon, where all the famous Chinese actors have their names and hand imprints on the ground, much like Hollywood Boulevard in LA. During this stroll we got our portraits sketched by a street artist, and we also got the caricature of us that crowns our blog's header image.

It looks like me, right?

At one of the venues of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Vintage Chinese babes, a print I liked in a book at the Art History Museum.

The cockpit of an American rocket at the Space Museum.

Hong Kong skyline during the 8pm light show. It wasn't as impressive as the one in Singapore. And just like the one in Singapore, it made us crack Burning Man jokes.

One night we met up with Jason, a friend of my dear friend Matthew Veloz. Jason is from Columbus, Ohio and now lives and works in Hong Kong. He took Anne and I to a traditional Chinese hot pot dinner. I've never had one of those before, and it was pretty exciting. It was also my first time to try frog legs.

A Chinese hot pot is basically a big pot of water boiling in the middle of your table, in which you dip either meat or vegetables to cook them yourself. You then dip the meat/veggies in your own little bowl, where you've previously mixed a personalized concoction of spices. We got a pot that was split in half: one half had regular water, while the other half had spicy water. We dipped various things such as thin slices of lamb meat, frog legs, prawns, clams, different types of veggies, tofu, etc. We got carried away and racked up a big bill, but I don't regret it; it was delicious!

After dinner, Jason and his friends took us on a night ride on the tram, during which we drank cans of beer. Drinking on the street in Hong Kong is legal and a lot of people do it, because it's cheaper than drinking at bars. So apparently a lot of young people just buy beers at a corner store, then go in an alley or little public area and hang out with their beers. Another cool thing is that you can use the Octopus card (used for subway and public transportation) to pay for your beers at a 711 or at drink/snack vending machines.

One morning in Mong Kok (the neighborhood where we stayed) we tried to get dim sum and all they had was Chinese menus. It was a true moment of  "lost in translation" because the waiter didn't speak English to explain to us what the menu said and there were no photos we could point at. But we finally managed to order.

We took the double-decker tram for a long ride to one end of the line and back. It's a great and cheap way to see Hong Kong for only 2.3 HK dollars (~30 cents USD).

Some of the streets in Hong Kong are narrow and steep, lined up with antique and souvenir shops, which reminded me a lot of San Francisco's Chinatown.

The roots of this tree remind me of a Banksy grafitti.

Old Peak Train tickets.
One day we took the Peak Train, which, as the name says, takes people to the top of the highest hill behind all the skyscrapers, from where you can take that picture-perfect photo of Hong Kong's skyline. The train is a more sophisticated version of San Francisco's cable car. It is pulled by cables on a steep hillside, offering some crazy disorienting views of tall buildings that seem to be jutting out of the ground at weird angles. The buildings stand vertical, of course; while you are going at an angle. It feels even weirder when you go back down and you are sitting facing away from the direction in which the train is going.

Anne on the Peak Train.

As we got to the top of the mountain, this is what we saw: nothing. It was a foggy, rainy and extremely windy day, with zero visibility. Again, it reminded me of San Francisco's weather, and got me thinking of all the poor tourists I always see walk across Golden Gate bridge on one of those foggy days when you can't even see a few feet in front of you. I don't feel too regretful for not seeing Hong Kong's skyline, I can always go a Google image search and find a million identical photos taken by a million other tourists who have been there. Enveloped by fog, with a huge white wall around us, we had nothing better to do than treat ourselves to a hot coffee and goof around with a few silly photos like the one above. Oh, not to forget to mention that the Peak is actually a full-on, multi-story mall, with cheesy souvenirs and electronics. You have to pay to get to the View Deck. Hong Kong is the heart of consumerism. It made me think of how much money San Francisco would make if they built a 5-storey mall at the top of Twin Peaks and charged all the tourist buses a cover fee for the privilege to drive up there and see the city from above... (Disclaimer: I"m obviously being ironic. I am glad and proud that the city I live in is not money-crazed and not turning every beautiful spot we have into a business.)

At the top you could write a note on a paper heart and tie it inside the frame of a giant metal heart. Sanju obviously loves Chinu quite a lot.

One night we met up with Anne's friend Laura and her boyfriend Lawrence. It just so happened that both Anne and Laura had almost the same shade of nail polish, a great reason for the girlie shot above.

Laura and Lawrence had been living in Hong Kong for 3 years. They took us to one of their favorite Chinese food joints where they go so often that the waiter knows their usual order by heart. The food was amazing, especially the breaded fried squid (located in the foreground of the image above). It was probably the best fried squid I've ever had in my entire life. We washed that down with some good cheap Chinese beer.

The bottles beautifully displayed in the image above are all sorts of organic herbal teas for sale at a shop in one of the subway stations. Most subway stations in Hong Kong are like mini-malls, loaded with clothing, cosmetics and food shops. Apparently the company that owns the Hong Kong MRT (subway) is one of the richest in Hong Kong, renting out all these underground malls.

Anne and I both tried out one of the teas on display at the subway herbal tea shop and they were quite good, but not that special.

Tired of the Chinese food options, we were happy to find this sandwich joint that makes its food with so much passion that it takes their employees three months of training to master the art of slicing veggies. Word, their sandwich was pretty good.

Hong Kong was the place where I happily unloaded some of my possessions, presents, old books and souvenirs into a box bound via sea mail to San Francisco. We happened to be in HK during the Holy Week weekend (Catholic Easter) and it was difficult to find a post office that was open. We finally found the main post office in HK where we saw isles after isles of hundreds of mailboxes.

A view of Hong Kong from the double-decker tram.

A grapefruit as big as Anne's head.

I think she's chopping up ginseng.

Roasted chestnuts at the produce market.

Dried star fish and some long ass fishes.

Just a regular crosswalk in Hong Kong and probably a quarter of the people that crossed the street in the interval of a minute or so. Beats New York for sure.

These fishes were carved in half in such a way that their hearts were still beating. They use this method to keep them alive as long as possible, thus keeping the meat fresh. At least fish don't scream when they're in pain.

All sorts of cute fish for sale in HK. If I lived there, I'd probably shop at the market and cook new dishes every day. All food and produce is so fresh.

Fish seller at the fish market.

Crowding up for the subway.

Somehow, we started craving a lot of food from back home, so one night Anne ordered a Pizza Hut delivery. NERD ALERT: we spent the night in bed, eating a whole pizza and watching Ted talks via StumbleUpon Video.

We took the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong. The ferries are old and old-school, packed with people and run every day. The ride is only a few minutes and you get to see the skylines of both Hong Kong and Kowloon from the middle of Victoria Harbour.

A massive Chinese container ship crossed our path while we were on the bay. There is just as much traffic through Victoria Harbour as there is on a freeway: ferries zipping back and forth, fast ferries rocketing by, big cruise ships, containers ships, small navy patrols, etc.

On Sunday morning we went to see the Filipino domestic helpers get together in the public areas of HK during the only free time they have to socialize. Apparently there are 500,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong. They come with a "domestic helper" work visa. They are basically cleaning and cooking staff for the busy and rich people in Hong Kong, much like live-in servants. Most of them are women and they get paid about $300/month. On Sundays, their only day off, they come to meet and socialize in a pubic square or on the steps or passages near a bank in Central. They sit down on cardboard boxes, eat food, play cards and chat. It's their own Filipino time. The weekend we were there was even more special, as it was Catholic Easter, a huge holiday in the Philippines.

Filipina domestic workers celebrating Easter the only way they can.

We met a few ladies from Cebu, the island in the Philippines that we had flew from into Hong Kong. They were all smiles, warm and friendly. It made me really miss being in the Philippines. The people in that country really got under my skin.

There were also some ladies from Malaysia and from Indonesia, also domestic workers. Here's Anne posing with a Malaysian girl.

A beauty contest for Filipina migrant worker girls was going on in the square as well.There were tons of girls trying to outdo each other in sexy mini dresses and high heeled shoes. I wish I could've told them that's not sexy and classy and that their photos might end up on some shady websites.

This is one of the most popular Sunday gathering spots for Filipinas in Hong Kong. It's under a bank that was built on stilts because some dude advised the architects/developers that it's better for the feng shui of the bank.

Some of the Filipina ladies were practicing for various synchronized dance routines, such as this one. With long red skirts and fans flapping in the air, their dance reminded me of flamenco, maybe a reminiscence of Philippines' Spanish colonial past.

We took a ferry to the small fisherman's island/village of Cheung Chau. I envisioned the village to be idyllic, traditional and lost in time, but it turned out to be a mega tourist-destination, with tons of restaurants lining up the harbour and a ferry packed with maybe two thousand people. We were slammed from all directions like sardines, much like you'd be if you took a bus in Chinatown in San Francisco. I think the Chinese really like to push and touch when it comes to getting on and off public transportation.

 Just a little screenshot of the map, just to show you where Cheung Chau is compared to Hong Kong. 

The Cheung Chau harbor.

Old ladies hanging out in a park in Cheung Chau.

Anne and her fluffy new friend. This was in a cat clothing store in Cheung Chau. The store had 2 resident cats and 1 dog, to demo to customers how happy and comfortable your pet can be if wearing pet leather chaps, pet cowboy hat or pet tutu. The secret is to start dressing them up when they're young. In time, they'll get used to wearing clothes and not try to take them off all the time. I still think of it as animal torture.

 Street scene in Cheung Chau.

We ate some delicious pot stickers that were assembled and fried on the street by this lovely couple and their son. Fast forward one week to India where I am now: I could never eat anything on the street here, it's so dirty and gross.

 Shrimp set to dry on the street in Cheung Chau.

 On the ferry back to Hong Kong.

View of Kowloon from the ferry.

 A poster I liked in one of the bars we went to one night.

We spent an awesome night of dancing and drinking in a bar in Hong Kong, where we met a nice couple from England/New Zealand who'd been living in HK for 6 years. There was a band playing live music and the guitar player was amazing - great stage presence and good voice as well. It turns out he was Filipino, who are probably the best in the world at playing and singing covers.

 On the fancy (and pricey) express train to the airport.

View of Hong Kong from a bridge the express train to the airport went over.

At the airport, a bunch of Indian men were waiting to check in their heavy luggage. It seemed like each of them had four or five of these huge bags. I asked one of then what are they all hauling and he explained they are buying undergarments and clothes for cheap from China and are selling them for a profit in India. 

The Hong Kong airport is probably one of the most picturesque in the world. From one side of the airport you can see the beautiful green hills of Lantau island. From the windows on the other side you can see the ocean.

Here we are on Sri Lankan Airlines, flying from Hong Kong to Bangkok, where we had a short overlay before flying to New Delhi on Philippines Airlines. All the flight attendants are hottie Sri Lankan ladies wearing their colorful saris with peacock feather prints.

Sri Lankan Airlines is trying to be classy - they are giving us printed menus of the food and it all sounds so fancy on paper, as if you're about to dine at a fine restaurant. I don't even know what some of those things are.

Onward to a new destination.... India, here we come!