Saturday, November 25, 2017

Reinventing Thanksgiving


There used to be a little song based on a piece of sentimental verse that was believed to sum up Thanksgiving. "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go," it began and went on to sing about horses and sleighs and white and drifted snow, ending with "Hoorah for the pumpkin pie." It was a fine accompaniment to the Norman Rockwell magazine covers that showed a plump little grandmother proudly bearing a turkey that was at least half her size to a table filled with her well-scrubbed, beaming family.

When my sisters and I were small, we sang that song with a strong feeling of kinship. Although our one surviving grandmother was a continent away, we had a horse and a harness that was occasionally attached to a kind of toboggan and whisked us through the white and drifted snow. There were always guests who managed to get to our house for dinner, over the river and through the woods. And there was always pumpkin pie.

It was a day that held no expectations, except for the food, and that was more time-consuming than it was difficult. It's perfectly true that anybody can come up with a decent Thanksgiving meal with enough practice and doggedness. I know because eventually even I was able to do that--and I enjoyed it. There was something very wonderful about making the same meal every year, as my mother had done and hers before her, all the way back to the Pilgrims.

But now we know better. Those Pilgrims and those Native Americans never came together in that collegial gustatory truce that we've been replicating since the good old days of Plymouth Rock. And that decent Thanksgiving meal, over the river and through the woods, Grandmother's house, those Norman Rockwell covers?

Assuming there are grandchildren, Grandmother is more likely to live in a tiny apartment with no on-street parking than she is in a snow-covered family home. For 364 days of the year, she probably cooks as little as possible and has lost her touch in the kitchen, while the daughters of the house have been at work the day before and probably will be on the day after. Getting up at dawn to make the stuffing and fist the turkey is about as attractive a proposition as a raging case of the bubonic plague.

Besides, that decent Thanksgiving meal just isn't the way many families care to eat anymore. Even if they manage to clear a plate of stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, butter, and turkey, they now have days of leftovers to contend with. One feast becomes a week of reruns, ending in nobody's favorite--turkey soup.

There are people who manage to recreate a traditional Thanksgiving, I know there are. I've seen them on Facebook and I salute them with all of my heart. For the rest of us, to rest and be thankful is the untarnished core of that third Thursday in November, and that can take any form we choose to bring to it.

For me? It turns out the one food that means Thanksgiving to me is pie, and this is the one day of the year that I like to make it. They are ungainly objects that never show up on social media but they reflect my heritage--Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie and New England cranberry pie. To hell with that grandmother in the kitchen before daybreak, to hell with those apocryphal Pilgrims, to hell with Norman Rockwell. On Thanksgiving and the days after, I eat pie and never once groan about the monotony of leftovers.

There is pie, and I am grateful.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Voyage End


There was one last ferry route from North Point that I hadn’t yet taken and I had deliberately saved it for last. It went to Hung Hom, an area of Kowloon that I’d always thought was a bit bedraggled, but from there another ferry would take me back to Hong Kong Island. The ferry to Wanchai was a longer route than the Star Ferry but had much the same view of the skyline, with the same expansiveness of the other North Point seascapes. If I made a complete round trip, it could take hours perhaps and I couldn’t think of a better way to end the day.
The sky, water, and distant mountains had all taken on different shades of blue, from azure to cerulean to the pale and smoky navy of spectral shapes silhouetted against the horizon. When I stood on the open lower deck of each ferry, I was wrapped in a brilliant monochrome, broken only by buildings and the surprise of green hills that rose behind them. A sailboat with a black sail floated in front of me, followed rather improbably by one whose sail was pure white, and suddenly I realized the day I was living had become visual poetry.
Then the ferry pulled into Hung Hom, where I learned there was no other route. The ferry to Wanchai had been discontinued several years earlier.
Drowning my sorrows in a drink from Starbucks, I looked at where I had ended up. There was a luxurious hotel in a park-like setting that was edged by the waterfront walkway that every neighborhood seemed to provide, but this one was studded with signposts that said the Hung Hom Promenade would lead to the one that ended in the Star Ferry.
One reason I rarely went to this part of Kowloon was because it seemed so cut off from the rest of the world, broken and scarred by highways and railway lines. My walks there had never been ones I’d cared to repeat or expand upon, so this promenade was an unexpected present. It was a wide and almost empty path with an unfamiliar sense of space that gave me a fresh jolt of energy, until it came to an end.
A sign directed me toward a new walkway that curved up a tree-covered hill and I obediently followed. Suddenly I was above the harbor, with the entire Hong Kong skyline on my left and a thick screen of greenery on my right. Beyond that was the ugly elevated highway that Hung Hom had turned into an asset.

It ended in construction when the path descended into the harbor neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui and the Star Ferry.  Even so, I was delighted by the unexpected beauty of a neighborhood that I had been quite certain had none and the promise of an expanded harbor walk to come. Kowloon was capitalizing on its gift of space, turning that portion of Hong Kong from a grim and dingy sprawl to a destination point that would match its more sophisticated neighbor across the harbor. Although many of the area’s changes made me queasy, this was one I looked forward to watching.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Joy of Small Voyages, Part Two


In the first half of my Hong Kong visit, I stayed in a building with a doorman and an elevator that was bigger than any of my Hong Kong bathrooms. There were four apartments on my floor and the carpeted hallway was immaculate. The building was new, sandwiched between shops and facing a street filled with market stalls. The tram clanged its way through shoppers and delivery carts all day and into the night and my twelfth-floor flat gave me a fabulous view of the whole scene.
Unlike any other place that I’d stayed in Hong Kong, this one didn’t shrink from light. Its outer walls were banked with windows and my bed was wedged against most of them. It had to be. The main room was in the shape of a hallway, rectangular with the door at one end and windows at the other. A spattering of basic furniture lined the facing walls: a wardrobe and shelving unit flanked off against a desk and a refrigerator that were separated by a shoe rack. Two doors had been placed on the inner wall, one leading to a tiny bathroom with the smallest bathtub that I was too claustrophobic to spend much time in and a kitchen that was just big enough for one person at a time. Beyond that was a covered balcony for drying laundry that I would have washed in the tiny machine placed under the kitchen counter if I hadn’t been afraid of breaking it.
If my efficiency apartment in Seattle were partitioned into two rooms, each half would be approximately the size of this flat. But my place rented for what amounted to 6000 Hong Kong dollars and from what I’d read over the years, this spot was probably closer to 20,000 HKD a month. Its market street setting was humble but it was on Hong Kong Island, and down the block from it were two new, spiffy-looking hotels. Although North Point wasn’t chic yet, it wasn’t cheap either.
I knew I could never afford a place as palatial as the one I was staying in now but I was curious. What would my Seattle rent yield me in Hong Kong?
I went to Craigslist and discovered that the answer was not much. For 800 US I could rent a room with shared bath that had probably been partitioned off from a larger room and would have just enough space for a bed. Quite a few of these Spartan domiciles were in North Point, which was the only advantage I could see.
One of them was in one of the many Hong Kong neighborhoods that I’d never heard of and, curious, I looked it up online. To Kwa Wan was a place in Kowloon which wasn’t yet on the subway system. It was a low-income, industrial neighborhood with a waterfront. In fact, it was one of the destinations that I could reach from the North Point pier.
The ferry docked near a public pier where a family was busy with poles and nets in search of their Sunday dinner. A walkway led past land that was fenced off with chain metal but held unmistakable signs of habitation: clothes hung on lines that were tied to bushes, a smattering of children’s toys, a bicycle. Just beyond that was a phalanx of parked buses and many, many people, all in motion.
Off to the side was a huge building with a sign that identified it as a shopping plaza but none of the other markers were evident. It held no Starbucks, no MacDonalds, no Watsons or Sasa or Cafe de Coral but it was busy. I followed a crowd inside where I hoped to find a restroom.
The shops were filled with merchandise that looked quite a bit like the stuff for sale in my North Point marketplace and the shoppers all looked familiar too. They were arranged in separate throngs, each led by a person carrying a colored flag.
Beyond the shopping center things got eerie. The crowds bustled behind their flagbearer down a main street that was otherwise vacant. The buildings that they passed were closed and had the distinctive Brutalist architecture of Hong Kong's small industries, glass bay windows that ran the entire length of a structure from top to bottom and held elevators, objects that looked like exterior baskets but were actually ventilation systems, placed near huge white numerals from one to four that identified each floor of the building.
Lanes that led from this thoroughfare were the magnet destinations. Here were small shops that sold food, traditional Chinese medicine, small electronic items, their windows filled with beckoning ceramic cats of varying sizes. Above these shops laundry hung from metal window frames. A grim diner on a corner that was locked and barred bore a sign in Chinese and English. The words I could read said Cafe de Joy.
Squatting on the sidewalk outside a more hospitable dining option was a large group of women, all with shopping bags, all wearing clothes that had seen better days. Each of them had the unmistakable look of people who were ready to go home. Others with more energy were following their flags to the North Point ferry.

How did this part of Kowloon become a shopping mecca for ordinary people, I wondered, and how did the ordinary people who lived above the beckoning cats react to the weekend invasion? The only way to find out would be to rent my own set of metal-framed windows and hang out my laundry--but I’d have to do it fast. The street of industrial buildings where I’d followed the crowds had construction barriers running down its center. The MTR was on its way and Starbucks wouldn’t be far behind. I would need to take up residence while the ferry to North Point was still the quickest way to leave Kowloon.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Joy of Small Voyages, Part One



The Star Ferry is perhaps the most famous in the world, beating out even the one to Staten Island, and like its New York counterpart, it’s always filled with residents and tourists. For decades, it and other ferries were the link between the island of Hong Kong to its country cousin, Kowloon, Macau, and the smaller islands. Even now, it’s the most picturesque way to cross Victoria Harbor and hundreds of passengers forgo the more rapid and efficient subway system or a bus to catch a breeze, feel the waves, and ogle the Hong Kong skyline.
It’s a speedy little voyage, taking less than ten minutes, and is at the top of the list of ten things to do in Hong Kong. In a place where time is money, it mirrors the city that it serves, being both beautiful and efficient.
I love being on the water and after a trip or two to Hong Kong, I ignored the Star Ferry in favor of the less photogenic boats that would take me through the harbor to the port and beyond. I never grew tired of seeing ghost mountains looming like dreams behind jagged green hills and the prickly little islands dotting open water that seemed limitless and was always a different shade of blue. These small journeys were my reward for learning the crowded maze of city streets that I roamed through every day of my time in Hong Kong; on those rolling tubs, I had space and solitude. My mind no longer needed to chart landmarks and fit neighborhoods into a mental map. This was hydrotherapy and nourishment too.
On my latest trip to Hong Kong, I wandered around North Point, vaguely aware that a ferry terminal was close to my apartment. Since this journey was dedicated to making the island a coherent and navigable place for me, I ignored the signs that would lead me to time on the water. But each weekend the streets I walked every day were filled with tour groups, crowds of shabbily dressed people led by flags of different colors, headed toward fresh markets, clothing stalls, and food shops.
Hong Kong island and the edge of Kowloon are both thronged with shoppers from mainland China, but the ones I usually saw were on their way to luxurious shopping malls, international supermarkets, Cartier and the other fabulous names whose stores glamorized the streets  of Kowloon near the Star Ferry. They were the reason why I stuck to the eastern part of Hong Kong when Saturday and Sunday rolled around, but here they were, in another form that I’d never seen before. Where did they come from?
I had a map that, when unfolded, took up enough floor space to hold a bed and nightstand. It charted Hong Kong from the river that separated the New Territories from Shenzhen to the coastal communities of Aberdeen, Stanley, and Shek-O. It was detailed enough to include portions of open water that were designated for future reclamation and it was segmented by dotted lines that showed the region’s many ferry routes. The ones that led from North Point to portions of Kowloon were as long as many that led to the outer islands and they went on my list of things to do before I left.
On a morning so bright and sparkling that it could only take place in a city that lies near saltwater, I got on the ferry with the longest dotted line. Hong Kong’s skyline dominated my journey as completely as it did when I viewed it from the Star Ferry but here it was less compact, less carefully planned, sprawling in more space than it was allotted in its postcard setting. It was clearly an evolving masterpiece that was almost matched by the buildings that faced it on the Kowloon side. This voyage was a spectacle of human hubris on a mammoth scale, dwarfing even the phantom mountains that usually claimed my attention.
When I disembarked in Kwun Tong, I was surrounded by new glass towers that reeked of Blade Runner and old industrial buildings that could have inspired Charles Dickens. The older buildings still held small manufacturers with workers visible in ground floor spaces that were open to the street while the new towers were all shrouded in ultra-modern privacy. The sidewalks were a mixture of delivery carts and workers rushing toward lunch; long lines had formed outside tiny diners and mammoth restaurants whose signs featured whole roast pigs.. This part of the city was so closely related to Manhattan’s Garment District of my teenage years that I instantly fell in love.
Beyond the crowds and the buildings designed for various versions of labor, there was a gleam of color and I walked up a sloping street to see what it was. There waited another cityscape from another time, low-lying buildings painted in soft colors and in eccentric shapes, bowed like steamships or curved inward in the softened enclosure of the letter C. This area was equally crowded but the pace was slow and people of my age sat in pocket parks shaded by small groves of trees.
When I walked back toward the water, the area beneath the elevated highway was brilliant with painted concrete pillars that held the weight of the traffic above. Each set held a different color, another pattern, a unique mood. A small building encased in bamboo held public restrooms and facing the waterfront were benches and covered shelters. A single food truck sat beneath the overpass with a sign in English;  it claimed to have chocolate-covered frozen bananas. A young white guy wearing a dashingly piratical bandanna that held back his mane of hair apologized. “This is our first day and you’re our third customer. The bananas aren’t completely frozen yet.”
Without other customers, he was in a mood to chat. “When I first came here, three years ago, this area under the highway was covered with all kinds of scrap, waiting to be recycled. Things change fast in this city.”
Near the water, next to the long promenade that had been built on the shoreline were abstract constructions, squares that tilted on edge or rectangles that claimed a patch of ground. Many were built from wood and were covered with glass windowpanes, in memory of the recycling that they had replaced. After dark those windows gleamed with light, sending small signals to the ferries that docked nearby.
I passed a woman in full bridal dress, her attendants holding a wide train of white fabric that struggled to join the harbor’s wind, and a community of old men on benches, chatting and scrutinizing the marine traffic that dotted their view. Less than a block away was an old Victorianesque shop front that now, in gilded letters, announced Cafeholic; a long line of chicly clad office workers waited outside to eat Italian pasta dishes.

“They say it’s going to become the new Central,” a young businessman said, and I shuddered. Right now Kwun Tong was known for illegal loft-dwellers and independent music clubs. It was a pretty safe bet that condos and chic nightspots weren’t lagging far behind.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Take A Picture, Why Don't You?


Six tiny gingko leaves flap in a stiff breeze this morning, clinging to a skeleton of branches that only last week held a full bounty of gold. Sunlight suffused their color one morning not long ago and as I stared at them, a young man walking down the hill stopped, pulled out his phone, and snapped a shot of them.
This is an action that is almost a reflex in our time but when I was little, it was unheard of. Snapshots took place during occasions, a school picnic, a wedding, a family excursion. Bringing out the camera, and there was usually one per family, sealed a moment in time and made it temporarily solemn. Families had albums with stiff black paper pages that held faces of past relatives, parents when young, ancestors in strange clothing, their faces stiff with formality. That was where photographs went when they returned from the developer and had been culled to single out the ones suitable for posterity.
Otherwise photography was an art of black and white and shadows, practiced by figures under a hood, behind a tripoded camera. Kodachrome was just beginning to take hold in ordinary living and Madison Avenue was bringing a sense of lightness to photographs through advertising. But it would take time before the Polaroid camera came to households with its weird magic and its sense of play, and even then each of its photos was twenty-five cents apiece. That wasn’t small change in those days and the instant photo never really gained a true foothold.
But now taking a picture is like blinking. We do it rapidly and almost without thought and because we do it so often, some of them are bound to be okay. We peer at our own faces through the lens on our phones and snap; the camera is becoming our mirror. We make our own postcards when we travel and put them on social media instead of buying stamps. We bear witness at crime scenes and disasters. We are all photographers now.
And because of that, we all pay attention in a way that we didn’t in the past. We’re attuned to the beauty of the world, the drama of everyday life, the unintentional humor that emerges on the streets. We see, we stop, we record, and then we keep walking with another image stored on a piece of plastic that holds a minute computer.

Once pundits envisioned untold amounts of leisure that the ordinary person would enjoy in the coming century--and we do. But we snatch our freedom in tiny chunks and in that little segment of time, for a second or two, we are, all of us, leisured people making art.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Airbnb Crash Landing


   No matter how short the flight may be, changing from one country to another is always disorienting--for me at least. The air time between Bangkok and Hong Kong wasn't much over a couple of hours but even so, I was at the airport three hours before my scheduled boarding time and that made for a long day. By the time I called my Hong Kong Airbnb host from the MRT station near my new home, I had logged nine hours in transit, if you count the long taxi ride to Bangkok's airport and I certainly did.
   An efficient woman answered to my host's name (Tm Chan) and told me an old man would come to the MRT exit to guide me to my new Hong Kong room, "It's all right," she reassured me,"He's around 75 years old."
   Eventually a very old man showed up, bearing a scrap of paper with my name scrawled on it. Taking my suitcase, he led me across the road and down another to reach the building where I would be staying for the next ten nights. When we got to the door, he punched in a code. The door remained locked.
  Fortunately another tenant was exiting the building and we entered in his wake. A long staircase led to a small elevator. "Press nine," the old man said. I obeyed. The elevator door remained open and we stood still.
   Repeated button pushing yielded no better results and the old man pulled out his phone. "She'll come soon," he said with no further elaboration. Meanwhile another man came up the stairs, grocery bags in hand. "Oh, no. Not again," he groaned.
   He called another number, explaining the problem and turned to us when he had finished. "It's Friday night. Who knows if anyone will show up? What floor are you going to?"
   When I said "Nine," he grinned. "I'm on the eighth. Looks like we both have a long climb ahead of us."
  At this point another man pulled himself up the stairs. He was on crutches, wheezing audibly, and was clutching his chest by the time he paused in front of the open elevator door. "This is shite," he said, "I've been here two days and this is the second time the damned elevator stopped. I should have found a room in Kowloon. This place is horrible and I have another week to go."
  "What," he asked, "would happen if it stops working when we're in it?"
   This is one of my leading phobias, even when in a building not as dirty and ramshackle as the one we all were standing in. Silently I vowed never to set foot in this elevator once my suitcase was on the ninth floor, just as a Filipina lady approached our merry little throng. She ignored our complaints, stepped in the elevator, pressed the button, and stepped back out. The door closed, the elevator went up, and returned when she pushed the Down button. With a generous amount of trepidation, I followed her inside along with the old man and my suitcase.
   We made it up to the ninth floor, then walked down a half-flight of stairs. The old man lifted up the filthiest doormat I've ever seen and extricated a key. Along with it came the stench of mildew. He opened the door and turned on the light, beckoning to me in a welcoming fashion.
   The room I had seen in photographs had clean white walls, a bed with a substantial mattress, and a small but clean bathroom. The one I stood in had dingy walls, a dirty floor fan, a dodgy-looking air conditioner, and a thin pad that posed as a mattress. The pad was covered with a covering that may have once have been white but now was close to pearl grey. When I pulled it back, the sheet that appeared was stained and dirty.
   I could barely glance at the bathroom, I pulled up a window shade and covered my nose as a fine miasma of dust issued from it.
  "I can't stay here," I muttered and the old man looked concerned. He was only the guide and all I wanted was for him to leave so I could think about my next move. I handed him 50 Hong Kong dollars and closed the door. At least the lock appeared to work.
   Within a few more minutes, there was a knock at the door. A woman stood there and told me she was Tm Chan's assistant. I struggled for poise and coherence before I spoke. "I can't stay here. Chungking Mansions is better than this place."
   "You get what you pay for," she said breezily, "and this room is very cheap. This is Hong Kong."
   "No," I told her, "I paid for small and I expect that in Hong Kong. I didn't expect filth. Look at this bedsheet."
   "I'll bring you a clean one but I won't be back for an hour. Stay here for one night. You're not going to find another place to stay in Hong Kong on a Friday night."
   She left and I made a quick decision. Picking up my suitcase, I made it down the nine flights of stairs to the street, got on the MTR, and was at the entrance of Chungking Mansions within minutes. There a man led me to a room that was very old but very clean and there I remained for that night and the next.
   Airbnb gave me a full refund for that hideous room but my simple faith has been badly shaken. My first Hong Kong Airbnb was everything it purported to be, and I had left wishing I could live in it forever. The second one was far from that. Luck of the draw...and caveat emptor! I hope the old man on crutches survived his stay at 126 Connaught Road West in the On Shun Building.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Back in Bangkok, Slightly Changed


I expected nothing from Bangkok on this trip, while all of the ones before had been weighted with memories and longing. I had already seen how malls were crushing the city, along with a squeaky clean version of gentrification that was doing its best to turn chaos into uniformity. The eradication of markets and street food carts had been well publicized in the two years that I had been gone, and a planned riverside promenade threatened areas that were the original core of the city. I knew where I would be for two days would no longer be the city I’d loved for twenty years, that mad, swirling, cornucopia of freewheeling entrepreneurs, hawking everything from food to silk to motorcycle rides twenty-four hours a day.
This stay was the shortest I had ever made, a two-day visit made only to see people I care about. I was staying in a hotel, a standardized European cookie-cutter model that was only differentiated from others of its kind by being set on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, that muddy, crowded, water-hyacinth-clogged heart of the city. The view from my room took in a glittering temple and a “ghost building” still unfinished long after the 1997 financial bloodbath but which was now swaddled in a covering that proclaimed the glories of Coca-Cola.
I tried not to think of the gallons of Coca-Cola I had been offered when I taught English to chemists at the regional bottling plant. Instead I swallowed food from the breakfast buffet, puzzled that the kitchen had managed to come up with inedible fruit in a country where trees laden with bananas and mangoes grew even in parking lots.
I watched pale bodies at play in the nearby swimming pool and wondered when and how I had become a lady tourist in a city where I had lived close to the bone for years. But that time was long passed and I no longer loved Bangkok, I told myself, viva La Turista.
I walked out to the main road beyond the hotel, one that I’d traveled often on my last trip, and there to my great relief and jubilation, was the breakfast I should have had, stretching for blocks on the sidewalk. I crossed to the other side on an overhead footbridge that was draped with pink and fuchsia bougainvillea and gave me a stunning view of TV antennas on rooftops and lines of laundry. My spirit perked up a bit at this Bangkok hallmark view that combined beauty with utility and damned the consequences.  
I beckoned for a motorcycle taxi and rode off to the Skytrain stop with just enough speed to banish the morning’s gloom, thrilled that I hadn’t been forced to wear a helmet and that my fragmentary knowledge of Thai was still serviceable. When I reached the central shopping area where a friend’s bookstore was, the sight of food on the street made me wonder if reports of Bangkok’s death might be exaggerated.
“They all disappear when they hear the police are on the way,” my friend told me. On my walk to his store, I’d seen the face of a woman who had sold baked goods on the same corner for at least ten years and a large orange tomcat was still sleeping in the basket of a motorcycle that he'd been tethered to for years as his owner cooked nearby. Beyond the sidewalk the street was still filled with unmoving buses, taxis, and motorcycles; later in the day when we went to dinner, my friend and I wandered with no urgency through stationary vehicles to get across the street. The air had the fragrance of fried garlic and auto exhaust and it was making me high, long before I had my first beer.
There was a lot of beer with our dinner and soon after leaving the restaurant, I realized I probably should have visited the restroom. When I got off the Skytrain on the other side of the river, I quickly found a taxi and was soon in my room. It wasn’t until I came out of the bathroom that I realized I’d left my laptop bag in the taxi.
It wasn’t as disastrous as it might have been. My passport, cash, and credit cards were all in my purse, which had made it up to the room with me. The only valuable thing missing was my ipad, which was enough to make me very annoyed with myself.
I went back to the lobby and told one of the receptionists about my stupidity. “Maybe the driver will find it and bring it back here,” I said, “I’ve read about that often in the Bangkok Post, how taxi drivers have returned thousands of baht that they find in their cab.” She smiled sympathetically and wrote down my room number, just in case a miracle happened to occur.
Back in my room, I was preparing to brush my teeth without my newly purchased toothpaste that was traveling around the city on the backseat of a taxi when the phone rang.
“Can you come downstairs,” a voice asked, “the police are here and they have your bag.”
I grabbed 500 baht as a potential reward and went to the lobby. There was an old man who had been my taxi driver, in the company of two brown-clad policemen. One of them handed my bag, asking “Is this yours?” My reply was immediate and enthusiastic, quickly followed by “Thank you! Please take this,” as I tried to hand the money to the taxi driver. He refused it.
“Check and see if everything is still in your bag,” a policeman said. There was my ipad and my newly purchased toothpaste, along with a book I’d bought at my friend’s shop that afternoon. “It’s all there,” I said and again stretched the money toward the cabbie, who once again refused.
“Thank you all,” I said and turned toward the elevator. “No, wait,” a policeman said, “we have to take your picture.”
My heart plummeted. I’d seen those photos in the Bangkok Post, the grateful tourist, the virtuous taxi driver, and the triumphant policemen. I am not photogenic at the best of times and it had been a very long day. Obediently I moved into line, silently cursing and trying to smile.
Before he left with the policemen, the cabbie accepted my 500 baht. I'm sure that we both had the same hope--that he was allowed to keep some of it for himself.

“If you see me in the Bangkok Post, never tell me I was there,” I told my friend the next day. But I knew that somewhere in the Thonburi police files, my image was frozen in time as the clueless tourist who had been rescued by Thai culture, a phenomenon that, as a foreigner, she would never understand.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

On a Grey Beach, Far From Home


When I travel to other countries, I think of how my life would have been if I had spent it in this other place. Sitting on a boulder that had been set with others upon mowed, tough beige beach grass, I was positive not only did I know what it would have been. I had lived it.
This was no past life fantasy, it was very real. On my first, and only, morning in Korea, I had found my first fifteen years, lived in Anchor Point, Alaska.
I had chosen my overnight hotel because it was near “a private beach.” Photos on a website had shown fishermen under a grey sky, standing on grey rocks, poles immersed in a grey sea. This was not the typical Asian beach that I’d done my best to avoid over the years, filled with colorful canvas chairs and revellers. This was serious shoreline and my only worry was that it might turn out to be some distance from the hotel.
But when I went outdoors, there it was, down a slope and stretching in either direction toward points of land, each a mile or so away from where I stood. The tide was out and the sea was a narrow grey ribbon that seemed to have reached the horizon, with white ruffles of breaking waves. The ribbon was bordered by mudflats, then a strip of sand, and finally a rock-studded beach.
There was just enough wind to give my face a thin skim of salt, but not enough to pierce through my insubstantial coat. It carried a smell that I usually only find in my dreams, of saltwater, seaweed, dead things washed up on the sand along with random gloves, socks, and several lonely shoes. Lying in picturesque coils near a cluster of boulders taller than I was a hawser, triggering my Alaskan upbringing to note that most of it still looked usable--a shame I’d come without a knife.
Any good shells would be where the mudflats met the sea. What I picked up were oyster shells, clam shells, whelks, and broken pieces of delicate, fragile construction. Some of the pebbles gleamed like agates and they went into my purse as well. With each acquisition came a small amount of coarse sand, every grain an eroded rock with the consistency of rock salt, and that made me happy. I wanted to bring away as much of this morning as I could.
The sky had become a streaked mixture of opalescent morning light and clouds that were darkening rapidly. The trees on the shoreline were the indomitable, tenacious, dwarfed ones that battle against salt-filled air and crippling winds all across the Pacific coast. There were no visible houses, only buildings that seemed to be untenanted resorts that were closed for the season. Perched on a tree-covered slope far down the beach was a four-storey building that rose like a pagoda above a rock seawall, its exterior painted in varying patterns of red and black lines. It was surrounded by a tall fence that had been set in concrete, rose as high as the third storey, and was topped with billows of razor wire. Its final storey had a wall of windows facing the sea and an antenna jutted from the roof, making me wonder if this was a lighthouse.
The coast in this part of the beach was covered with large stones that had been placed just in front of the trees in a way that looked like a protective barrier, Just beneath them was a white line of plastic bags and battered styrofoam, and then there was the pebble-strewn, pebble-spawned sand. Tiny tidepools lay between rocks frosted with barnacles and dots that were almost microscopic darted in the puddle of trapped seawater.
The sky began to brighten, the distant points gleamed with sunlight, and the blackened clouds began to give way to soft white puffs against patches of pale blue. The mud flats were shrinking and bare poles that had protruded from them were gradually becoming invisible. I quickened my steps, knowing that my time here was almost over, stopping only to scrawl my name with an oyster shell in the wet sand.
And then I saw it, an ombre shade of grey with small spikes partially buried close to my name. I scooped it out and held a perfectly formed, unbroken shell, almost the size of my hand, looking like a drab cousin of the pink conch shells found on Caribbean beaches. I knocked it against my palm. Nothing emerged from it but large grains of sand. I sniffed it and smelled nothing that was dying inside.

It was too big for my purse but I was certain there was room for it in my laptop bag. Clutching it tightly, I walked past dark grey rocks that were layered with parfait streaks of pure white, past slabs of brown that had once been clay, past little dumps of garbage, up the slope toward my adult life, reluctantly leaving my first fifteen years behind me, on a beach I had never seen before.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"This Marvel of an Elephant is Mighty Like a Wall..."


For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking of the blind men and the elephant, each one convinced that his portion of the animal was the whole pachyderm. I’ve been coming to Hong Kong for eight years, with each stay being at least a month long. In those periods, I’ve wandered around Central Kowloon from the waterfront to the area where the old airport used to be, on foot. I’ve spent a monkey-plagued three weeks in the New Territory hills above Shatin and have made a cursory exploration of nearby towns that lie on the MRT route. I have a familiar itinerary that I follow on every visit, while finding new areas of concentration every year. I’ve enjoyed the city that I’ve discovered with one exception--the heart of the place, or as I’ve often thought of it, the belly of the beast.
Hong Kong Island is what most people think of when Hong Kong comes to mind: its dazzling skyline jammed up against a high green hill, its restaurants that can be found on every street, its stores  that make it a worldwide shopping mecca. To me it was conspicuous consumption gone mad in a spiderweb maze of crowded streets where I got lost without fail, and I went across the harbor from Kowloon as rarely as possible.
There were neighborhoods that were exceptions, Quarry Bay, Chai Wan, at the end of the subway line. There the buildings were old, the shops were utilitarian, and the streets were bordered by salt water on one side and jagged, looming hills on the other. They were mixtures of industrial and residential use and Starbucks was often hard to find. I loved these parts of Hong Kong. On the few times that I was there, I felt as though I could breathe. But I had little reason to go there; these districts were ones that were for the people who lived in them.
Then along came Airbnb. Suddenly even areas where hotels were almost invisible offered temporary homes for people like me--the kind who wanted neighborhood total immersion. At last I was able to choose a neighborhood away from Hong Kong Island’s overstuffed core and for a month or so make myself believe that it was mine.
Having a home base on this island has made it livable for me. On a market street in North Point, which is ungentrified enough that I have to go to another part of town to find an “international” supermarket, I’ve been walking the length of the subway line from Chai Wan to Kennedy Town, seeing how the different districts flow into each other. What seemed incoherent when hopping from one subway stop to another is much less jarring when I walked those distances. The changes from blatant affluence to ordinary living blend gradually as I pass between neighborhoods and I’m beginning to appreciate this island as a whole.
There are still wild surprises. The day before I took the bus from the center of the city to Aberdeen on the southern tip of the island, which is still dusty and charming simply because, except for its harbor, there is no charm. I popped into a public restroom and there at one of the sinks, stood a woman in her underwear, giving herself a shampoo. Clothing was draped over the adjacent sink. Some of them had just been laundered.
This was not a feature of Hong Kong living that I’d ever encountered before.
Yesterday a friend took me to another part of Hong Kong that lies within full view of neighborhoods that I’ve recently walked through but which is actually part of the New Territories. We came out of the subway to a harbor vista that was stunningly close. Once covered with buildings that housed small industries, this spot of prime real estate is soon to be the site of highrise residential towers that will gobble up the waterfront and obliterate the sight that greets commuters every day.
We walked through an open, bright shopping area where designer coffee could be sipped while roaming through the shops. Towers rose above that space, all residential and a large amount of it public housing. Smaller, more humble buildings were older versions of that housing, with larger windows, shops beneath, and a closer view of the streets below.
My friend led me through the town to its harbor where a long promenade was bordered with park benches and little roofed shelters where people could find shade. This melded into a covered market, which was like an aquarium, with big glass tanks filled with sea life. The fish were large and many were patterned in different colors. The crabs and shrimp were big enough to be the creatures that nightmares are made of. We watched as a man hooked a mammoth crab from one of the tanks, positioned it on the tile floor until he could safely grab one of it legs, and carried it into the kitchen of an adjacent restaurant.
“You can buy seafood here, give the vendor your name, the name of the restaurant you want to patronize, and the number of the table where you’re going to eat it, as well as how you want it cooked. Your purchase will be delivered to you, ready to eat,” my friend told me.
The market began to blend into houses, small cottages with cement walls, tiny windows, and tin roofs. Occasionally one came into view that had rock walls, “Cooler than cement,” my friend observed.
The cottages were only feet from the harbor, and when the big typhoon swept in last month, they were flooded and in some cases badly damaged by mammoth waves. “Preservationists want these houses left in place but many of the homeowners are waiting for a buyout from the city that will allow them to move into housing that isn’t so vulnerable to the storms,” my friend told me.
I could well understand. The cottages were small and even with an air conditioner making them cool enough to live in, they were still dark cement boxes with little natural light. Although the beauty of living near a harbor with a generous amount of public seating could perhaps replace a living room, the unpredictability of the current weather patterns had to trammel that advantage. If you had to evacuate because of a coming typhoon, unsure of what you would return to, or if you sweltered for months in temperatures that soared to almost unlivable heights, an apartment in a tower would begin to look better every year.
At the end of the pathway, a little scarlet temple, built to court the protection of the sea goddess, Tin Hau, ended the community. Across the bay were the crowded highrises of Hong Kong Island, with the skylines of the Island and Kowloon etched on the horizon, the future of this small village closing in on three sides.
There is so much to see, so much to swallow, in this city that stretches far beyond the island that I’m exploring now that it may be my sole focus for the next ten years--and even then, I will die knowing that I haven’t seen it all.






Sunday, October 1, 2017

In the Mood for Meals


I am in Wong Kar-Wai territory. He grew up here in a North Point that was a neighborhood of Shanghai residents who had moved to Hong Kong after Mao’s ascendancy. In the Mood for Love and 2046 shows that world, although much of those films were shot in Bangkok, which looked more like Wong's childhood home than North Point did by the time he made the movies.
A surviving vestige of those Shanghai expats is found at the end of my street, on North Point Road, where the food has more heat and flavor than I’ve usually found in this city. The precisely pleated little dumplings that I ate yesterday had a rich, dark vinegar on the side and the plate of fried green beans were heavily laced with ground pork that was a deep red from chili oil. A few steps away is another place with chili-laden dishes on their menu and on the corner is a larger spot that is said to serve Sichuan food, although its name has been changed from Little Chilli to Harbin.
That morning a Time-Out article had appeared on Facebook, with suggestions for restaurants in Sham Shui Po and North Point. Three of them were on the same street, the one I walk on every day, so I went out in search of them. The first one is so close that I almost overlooked it in my quest, a Thai hole-in-the-wall that was filled with Southeast Asian maids on their day out. Although my luck with Thai places in Hong Kong has been dismal, this was small and bare-bones enough that the only thing that could draw people would be the food, so optimism continues to flicker.
Further down, in a market with a cooked food center, is an Indian place called Clay Pot that Time-Out says is “rough around the edges.” That description gives me hope for the future. And lying in between them is a beer and burger joint, for those days when I hit the wall; apparently it’s a big deal to Time-Out that the burgers are Canadian.
Along the way, I passed more places to eat than I could sample in ten years, including a spot that calls itself New York Diner and serves authentic diner fare like grilled salmon, pasta, and ribeye steak. No. Probably not.

Whatever cuisine I decide to try, in this neighborhood it is probably going to be food that is fresh. The market that lies outside my apartment is lined with glistening fruit and vegetables and fish and meat that carries no odor. The fish and chicken aren’t as fresh as the ones I’ve seen in New Territory markets, meaning they aren’t still alive, but since I come from the land of meat packaged in plastic, I can live with that.