Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Territory, New Year

Hong Kong is the most compressed big city I've ever seen, filled with layer upon layer of buildings and a spiderweb of crazily intersecting streets. Kowloon has more space, which I love, but both places are crammed with more opportunities for conspicuous consumption than I feel comfortable with over the long haul. My antidote for this has been street markets that sell fresh food and utilitarian clothing to local residents, until the day I got on a bus near one of those markets, that took me into the hills and beyond.

The area beyond Kowloon stretches into mainland China and is still called the New Territories. Satellite communities to house the overflow from the cities are sprouting up here, in the middle of dazzling natural beauty that still gives the impression of wilderness. There are hills behind the highrises that are dramatically shaped and gloriously green. There are islands within spitting distance of small coastal towns that are vacant--some of which are just slightly bigger than a postage stamp. And in front of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum on the banks of a sparkling river, there are trees full of white egrets, watching the nearby fisherman reel rather unimpressive catches up onto a bridge.

In Sha Tin park near the river, old ladies ballroom danced to outdoor karaoke while old men watched from a vantage point on the hill above the dancers. Suddenly I was in Beijing again, until I found a foodcourt on a busy street where all of the food was Japanese. In Sai Kung I scrambled onto a bobbing sampan from a steep staircase with the help of people I'd never met before and was carried to a silent island with rocky beaches that took me back to my Alaskan childhood. I needed this kind of time.

This beauty is a quick ride on the MRT or in the case of Sai Kung, an MRT ride and then a spectacular bus trip that winds across the hills. The journey is so brief that it's hard to believe it transports me to another universe, where a child's lost festively pink balloon floats along a grass-green river as egrets watch it speculatively, or to a pier that will take me to an island that I can almost believe once sheltered Robinson Crusoe.

I've learned in the past few months that places like this and I aren't meant for longterm relationships but are quick restorative flings to sustain me when I go back to my crazy crowded kinetic city that I love and leave and always return to. They stay with me as small places of quiet and beauty, to be remembered when I most need them, gifts of light and silence.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

From Shanghai Street Art Space

Christmas Was Really Here

Starbucks was open this morning in the only spot in the world where I enjoy going to Starbucks--Isquare across from Chungking Mansions--and the very nice older couple who sat near me spoke Thai, so I was able to misuse the language I love for a little while. There were mangos and pomelo from Thailand in the supermarket so I took them back to the Holiday for a taste of Bangkok along with a little bottle of Bailey's for a taste of Christmas. Two of the people who tasted with me were from Chiang Mai but originally from NYC and Seattle--and since they had been to Nepal, which is where Hari and Jun come from, there were no degrees of separation on Christmas morning.

I went off to find a religious observance of the birthday, since I knew there was often spirited hymn-singing accompanied by drums on the fourth floor. But the Christian Center was closed for Christmas, which I thought was rather delightful, so I went to the Turkish kebab place instead, where the second course of my holiday brunch was mint goat's milk ice cream and Turkish coffee, both of which are definitely drugs and definitely delicious.

Riding my sugar/caffeine high, I left CKM and went off in search of a baby tuxedo at H&M, where I discovered a cast of thousands all shopping the sale racks at the only H&M in Hong Kong that carries no baby clothes. So the infant girl whom I just met will probably not sport the Annie Hall look this season, latida, latida.

Shanghai Street is my favorite Kowloon thoroughfare so I escaped the aerobic shopping of the malls near Nathan Road and headed down past cooking supply shops that have really lovely wooden molds for I don't know what and gorgeous little wooden spoons and mesh things with handles that would look really pretty hanging on a wall.

I was stopped in my tracks by a sign hanging on the door of the Shanghai Street Artspace that said essentially Kids, don't bring your peanuts in here anymore. We've had to sweep up shells everywhere. This isn't something I've ever seen posted on a door of an art gallery, so I had to go in, saying as I entered, "I didn't bring any peanuts with me."

A young man came over and began to tell me why the sign was there--the space is to encourage neighborhood children to come in and make art, which they do but the peanut shells they left behind were becoming a nuisance. The space had once been an art gallery, but is now a place that encourages creativity--and as it turned out, much more.

Flowers made of bright, iridescent paper that are attached to bamboo frames covered the upper wall. These once covered the walls of businesses in Kowloon in geometric and intricate traditional patterns, handmade by artists, when the enterprise first opened and would remain in place for a year. A black and white photo of a building on Shanghai Street shows what this looked like, much like the ceramic flowers on a Thai temple, with the walls covered with designs made of handmade flowers, which must have been dazzling.

The art space has an artist in residence, a man who spent his life making art on buildings with these designs. When the young men who run the space found out the artist no longer had work, they asked him to be with them. He creates his designs and teaches children who want to learn how to do what he does.

But that's not all that goes on here. The director of this amazing community resource is an activist and uses art to make his points. Today is the one-year anniversary of the imprisonment of this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner and the windows of the art space are emblazoned with the face of Liu Xiaobao wearing a Santa Claus hat and a smile. His face is also attached to an empty stool that stands on the sidewalk near the open door.

Yau Ma Tei is not a wealthy area and gentrification is not yet its hallmark. The Shanghai Street Art Space is near the Kowloon Asthma Center and the neighborhood Immigration Office. The Yau Ma Tei Public Library is close by, and it looks as though it still exists in the 1950s. A large fresh market fills an area only blocks away and it is for the community, not for tourists. It's a neighborhood that needs the creativity and energy of the people who run this space--and Hong Kong needs their irreverence and imagination and freedom of thought. Please stop in and chat with Lee Chun Fung at 404 Shanghai Street. He's a man who can make December 25th feel like Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Chungking Christmas Eve

Before I went to dinner tonight, Hari told me, "Tonight the streets will be full of people. There will be no cars, only walk, walk, walk." There were "No loitering" signs in the subway that hadn't been there earlier in the day and notices said, "After 6 pm waiting for friends in this area will not be allowed."

When I came home at 9 pm, I came up to a neighborhood that was engulfed with pedestrians. A river of people coursed down Nathan Road and along the waterfront, admiring the Christmas lights, taking pictures, shopping. There were families with their children dressed in festive red outfits, teenagers dressed to the teeth, people wearing Santa Claus hats and reindeer horns and cardboard top hats with glitter script that said Merry Christmas. There were Indians and Africans and Westerners and Chinese, all torrenting along streets that usually belong to vehicles, all punctiliously following police crowd control instructions, all having fun. Carolers stood in the middle of the road and a brass band swept by, playing a jazzy version of Hark the Herald.

"This happens three times a year," a security guard told me, "On Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Chinese New Year." He and his colleagues were pulling gates over the entrance to Chungking Mansions at 11 pm, leaving one small open doorway that was just big enough to allow one person to enter the building at a time. The halls were almost empty and most of the lights were already turned out.

Families were headed toward the subways, a pop concert was in full swing on Canton Road, and the holiday spirit showed no signs of ending. "After midnight there is singing and dancing," Hari told me, but sensory overload claimed me well before then. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Kowloon Christmas

It's sweater weather in Kowloon on Christmas Eve, with a crisp breeze giving an autumnal touch to midwinter. There are hordes of shoppers in the subway and on the streets but there always are shoppers in this community. People in clothing that is far from haute couture wait in roped-off lines to get into Chanel and Louis Vuitton, gleefully taking photos of each other as they stand under the designer logo. Crowds mill along a sidestreet filled with fake watches and Birkin bags and in the downmarket Yau Ma Tei area, women scrutinize stalls crammed with polyester clothing and infant garments that look highly flammable. Even Chungking Mansions has put out bins of gilted keyrings with Hong Kong scenes and little plastic trees and gaudy Christmas balls. Tis the season after all.

Westerners decry holiday commercialism in their home countries but I do think Hong Kong has a deathgrip on that particular talent. Why just commercialize a holiday when you can strike directly at the heart of it--the Christmas tree?

A prominent public square in the heart of Hong Kong has a mammoth Christmas tree that is purportedly made of Swarovski crystals--at least that's what all of the nearby signage proclaims. And in my own temporary neighborhood of Nathan Road, Christmas has been brought to us by Chula Pops, with a tree decorated with gigantic versions of these confections, which "make Christmas sweet." There are probably far more co-opted trees all over the city, but I don't have the energy to hunt them down.

Yesterday a friend and I went to Lantau Island's Big Buddha, a statue so glorious that it transcends all of the hype that surrounds it. A "village" dedicated to shopping and Starbucks was what we walked through before climbing the 200+ stairs to reach the Buddha, and suddenly we were surrounded by snowflakes. As Johnny Mathis crooned over a "white Christmas," a snow machine blew bits of dandruff onto passersby. Before I could indulge in my usual cheap cynicism, I caught sight of the very small children who were transfixed by what was coming from the sky and suddenly the snowfall was real and the carols were sweet and Christmas was really and truly in the air.

Merry Christmas to all--even (or perhaps especially) to those who manufacture a phony snowfall and make little children happy.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Goat's Milk Ice Cream and Politics: Chungking Morning

This morning I had almond goat’s milk ice cream for breakfast, found in a Turkish kebab place in Chungking Mansions. The guy who sold it to me said rather mournfully. “America is not safe. They go to other countries because they say they want to make those places safe but America’s people are not safe in their own country.” It was a heavy dose of reality to swallow first thing in the morning but I agreed with him, having lived in my country as a woman alone, struggling not to live in fear, but always cautious.

DVDs and perfume are an unlikely combination for a retail space but that’s what one shop in CKM has for sale. Another counter sold cotton candy machines and chocolate fountains, with photos of a middle-aged blonde happily presiding over free-flow chocolate from a fountain presumably purchased from this spot. An Indian grocery sells fruit and vegetables from cartons on the floor outside the shop, which don’t look as fresh as they probably were a week ago. A little boy rested one foot on top of a pile of potatoes as his father chatted at length with the shopkeeper; fortunately they’ll be cooked at high heat or peeled before someone eats them.

Clothing designed for infant ballerinas, all pink and tulle, wait to identify babies as undeniably female with a shrine to Bob Marley and Tupac, their faces emblazoned on tank tops and tee shirts, next door. African fabric is everywhere, in prints that are visual celebrations--if not orgies-- sold in bolts that would upholster an entire living room set.

I have found one Chinese food stall and one Chinese souvenir counter in Chungking Mansions—and no Christmas trees or canned carols. For the lack of Christmas commercialism alone, I would love this place.

Yesterday a jackhammer tore through the air and through the old tiles outside the apartment across from the Holiday Guest House. This morning the new tile lay clean and glistening and firmly in place, while a worker waited for the elevator with chunks of the old floor. Project completed, peace restored and I not for the first time have respect for a country without OSHA. Without regulation, people have jobs and the jobs get done. Fast. It’s no accident that it was Chinese men who made it possible for the US to have a railroad.

There is a community in this five-building monolith. “You were here before, this is your second time,” a man at a Pakistani foodstall remarked last night. And yes I had, once in April, and was astounded that he remembered. Chungking Mansions is no place to behave badly; memories are long and time holds no statute of limitations. I wander about this small town, watching and eating and looking, realizing that now on my third visit, I am no longer a stranger.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

666 Words about Penang

666 Words About Penang

And of course there is sunlight today, not profuse and glorious but more than I’ve seen in a week. I have to remember that if the Brits settled somewhere in SE Asia it was because it tended to be cloudy. I wonder why they never made it to Hanoi; they probably avoided it because it lies inland, gravitating toward the small and misty islands with bad climates instead. The woman who wrote Morning is the Whole Day pointed out the similarities between England and Malaysia. I should have remembered.

Jessie said yesterday that she had been horrified at the change between the woman she first met and the one who had spent two months in music hell. “Your face was so different from when you came,” she said. Ah yes, and I rarely burst into tears in a public place either, as complete strangers walk past.

I’ve read in novels and memoirs how people—usually women-- weather times of crisis without wavering and then become masses of quivering nerves when all is well again, Post-traumatic stress disorder is the term our time and place reduces that to, an envelope of clinical words for the near-panic state that comes from having what is accepted and demanded as normalcy being shot directly to hell. The Vietcong reputedly sent blasting music for hours into the jungle nights as torture for nearby American troops and I can testify that it is extremely effective. I would rather endure 24 hours of something truly horrible and then have it over and done with than ¼ of my waking moments consumed with sound that I can’t abide, when I’m winding down for sleep, for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Lack of sleep plays hell not only with emotions and sanity but appetite too. I know the food here is good; I loved it when I first arrived but now I associate tamarind and shrimp paste and even the lovely fresh orange juice with throbbing amplifiers and bellowing singers and my stomach closes shut.

When the music was going on every night, I found ways to keep from screaming but once it ended I was shocked when I discovered that I couldn’t sink into silence at night. Somewhere inside I waited for the noise to begin, even though it was after the legally bound time of silence, after midnight.

“It will start again,” Jessie said, “You never know when. It depends on the deity.” And another woman told me, “It’s much worse in August, and it goes on longer.”

I know that if I stayed here, the minute I saw a blue plastic structure go up indicating that stage-building is in progress, inwardly I would start to scream and wouldn’t be able to stop.

This is done to benefit Chinese temples. The music doesn’t burst into full glory until after the final call to prayer fades into the night, at around 8 pm. Since the concerts have ended, that last call to prayer has become longer, louder, and more pronounced. It makes me wonder what the Moslem population thinks about the deity concerts and if they ever attend them? I didn’t see a bescarved head among the concert-goers the night of my investigation. Unless it comes up in fiction, or I ask Jessie, I will never know.

I look at the decaying houses that I had dreamed of living in. They stand waiting for renovation or destruction in the part of Georgetown near the historic area and now I know that within their grace and silence lives vermin. I’ve seen rats swimming down the open drains and I have learned in this city exactly what a thriving bed bug colony looks like. Even here in the modern splendor of Symphony Park, I received a spider bite that took over a week to heal. I’m only grateful that I escaped the experience of lice—but then of course I do face another 36 hours or so in Georgetown...

Noise, clouds and vermin. Hello/goodbye, Penang.

Early Resolutions

Hong Kong is easy. I have stories to find, work to do, people to visit, and miles of sidewalks to walk. With fewer than thirty days in that city and with still so much of it unexplored, I simply plan to succumb to its rush and energy, absorbing as much as I can.

I’ll return to Bangkok at the perfect time, after Christmas and New Year’s with their emotional weight and well before Chinese New Year, which I love with an ignorant passion. It’s still cool there in January and the light has a winter cast to it, but there will be sun. After two months of Penang’s clouds, I’m hungry for Bangkok’s sunlight.

I will have avoided the knots of Christians who sing carols on the Skytrain and the frantic commercial frenzy of lights and Christmas trees that glitter in the shopping malls. I won’t be there for Starbucks’ marketing of eggnog lattes or hotels serving up hearty winter meals in a city that has never known a winter.

When I get back, even the holiday hangovers will be old news and Bangkok will be getting ready for the return of blinding, blazing heat and a spurt of holidays that have nothing to do with the Western calendar. The exception of course is Valentine’s Day where the streets are full of stalls selling little pink garments for miniscule Thai girls and hordes of flower vendors take to the open road.

I need to find my new home, but after the domestic disaster that I blundered into in Malaysia, I’m going to look for my Bangkok spot with all deliberate speed. I’ll find a place where I can work and then I’ll reclaim my life in Thailand.

I did that rather badly over the past two years. I tried to step back into the past and let the present annoy me far more than I should ever have allowed. I took a place I loved for granted and then wondered where its charm had gone. I whined a lot. I was a true pain in the ass.

In the past two months I’ve become acutely aware of what I walked away from. When I go back, the things I will be grateful for will far outweigh the things that are less attractive to me. I won’t list them here; I won’t fail to write about them as I re-experience them; I won’t forget how it has been to live without them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Homeward Bound

Last summer I returned to my home in Bangkok to find few traces of the unrest that had turned the downtown core to a battleground and no hints of any sort of reconciliation between the government and the Red Shirts. The burned shopping centers were already being rebuilt. If I hadn’t read the news articles about the battle that had consumed the end of April and much of May, I would never know that my city had been full of smoke and gunfire a week or so before I returned after a three-month absence.

There were ripples on the domestic front. Tensions that had to have been exacerbated by the political debacle had come to a flashpoint between my housemates and the woman who had been our housekeeper for fifteen years. She packed up her meager belongings and left in tears.

The man who sold coffee on the main street of our neighborhood now brought his baby son to work with him every day. One of my favorite restaurants had been closed for a month because of the street fighting outside its walls and now was almost empty every time I went to it.

Adrenaline surges during times of crisis and ebbs away after, leaving exhaustion behind. What I returned to was a post-adrenaline Bangkok, and since I had never seen it in an exhausted state before, this was more disturbing than the burned-out buildings.

I left it. I was certain I could make a home in another Southeast Asian city, and in Penang I found what I was sure I needed. I was mistaken.

Since 1995 I have lived off and on in Bangkok. I was never completely sure of why it continued to pull me back. Now I know.

It’s the people who bring their energy and creativity to that place from all over the Kingdom of Thailand. They make this a kinetic city, constantly moving and changing and redefining and adopting and absorbing. Bangkok is a city that is never going to be completed and that makes for some rather stunning dissonance within its continually expanding borders. But it has, as my friend Elizabeth observed recently, “great infrastructure.”

And I agree, although the infrastructure I salute isn’t the Skytrain or the Underground or the new train to the airport. It’s the stall only feet away from a shopping center on Sukhumvit that sets up tables every night to serve one dish only—the best chicken rice I’ve had anywhere in Asia. (Yes, Penang roasts the chicken they use for this dish—which is terrific—but the sauces from stall to stall all taste the same, and that’s where the excellence of this meal resides.)

It’s the network of trucks and motorcycles and riverboats that will get you where you want to go, anywhere in the city, far beyond the newer forms of mass transit. It’s the man from Chiang Rai in my neighborhood who makes fabulous food from the north of the country and the thousands of women who have made papaya salad and grilled chicken Thailand’s national dish. It’s the exquisite manners that children are taught from the day they can bring their chubby little hands together in a wai. It’s the markets that sell fresh food still, all over the city, even though supermarkets are everywhere nearby. It’s the shining, glossy, clean hair and the well-scrubbed bodies of people who live in one of the most polluted cities of the world but who never smell bad themselves. It’s the temples, still supported as social centers, providing education and shelter for people who might not otherwise be able to afford these things.

Yes, it’s the bookstores that draw me back as well and the eccentric and original expats I’ve met who have lived in this place far longer than I. And the lovely, nondurable shoes for sale on almost every corner, and jasmine garlands and fruit stalls and beautiful blazing sunsets. But these things exist because of Thai people and the way they have chosen to shape their capital city.

I will have days and even weeks when I complain about the trendiness of my home in the world—Krispy Kreme anyone?—and the insanity of its politics. But those things aren’t the core of Bangkok—that’s the coffee-slurping that causes every long-term relationship to quaver and scream. I will take off when I need to, for the rest of my life, but Bangkok is where I choose to be and will choose to be, over and over, because of the people who live there and how they live their lives.

Thank You Note to Georgetown--It's Been Fun!

For the past two months I’ve lived in a very lovely little city. I’ve posted photos and tried to write lyrically about Georgetown. God knows it deserves all the adjectives I could possibly bring to bear upon it.

I’ve met some unbelievably kind people, all of whom speak my native tongue, and have found several gorgeous little spots to relax in. Here are my favorites.

On the backpacker oasis of Chulia Street is a hotel that up until recently was one of the disheveled examples of decaying grandeur for the frugal traveler. It has been renovated to financial heights far above my own fiscal capabilities but I found that its breakfast buffet is like a tutorial in Penang’s culinary history. The Yeng Keng Hotel was built in the mid-1800s as an Anglo-Indian bungalow and became a budget hotel in the 1900s. Now 5 million ringgit and over a century later, it is a stunning place to sit and ease into the day. Manager Jacky Cheung takes great pains to bring in the best of the BabaNonya delicacies that travelers might otherwise never taste, and the coffee he has chosen is almost the best I’ve had in Penang.

It would indubitably be the best if the guy at Fatty Loh’s Chicken Rice on Nagore Street hadn’t told me about siTigun Café, where Indonesian Tigun Wibisana retired from backstage work on Broadway to roast coffee beans in Georgetown. (Tigun is beyond a doubt still a New Yorker—he knows his smoked salmon and you should not pass it up when you’re there—comes with a very good croissant and just the right amount of cream cheese on the side.) Sinking into the faded comfort of an aged sofa, surrounded by Broadway posters and listening to jazz, I go there every week religiously. I buy beans to take home and have lunch and sit in one of the prettiest spots I’ve found in Penang

It would be the prettiest if a debonair little dog hadn’t lured me through the door of the place she is in charge of—Amelie Café on Armenian Street. It is incredible how much beautiful stuff has been artfully arranged in a dark and delightful little room that is certainly bigger than a breadbox—but not by much. The owners are clearly artists and are fabulous conversationalists and also make the best lassi in the city. It’s almost my favorite drink on the island of Penang—with absolutely no sugar involved.

It would be my favorite if I hadn’t ended up one day at the Jolly Café on Masjid Kapitan Keling or Pitt Street. I went in because of the name and because it is open-air on two sides with a great view of sidewalk strollers. I go back as often as possible because of the nutmeg juice, made from fresh nutmeg fruit and more aromatic than sweet. No other place has measured up to that standard of nutmeg juice for me, and although the Jolly Café isn’t as pretty as my other refuges—oh hell it is not pretty at all—it’s been another once a week staple in my Georgetown incarnation.

As has been the Trois Canon Café on Chulia Street, because the lady behind the counter is one of the kindest people I have met in my wanderings through this city and because it is one of the few diners in a classical mode that I’ve found in SE Asia, and because the hot buttered toast with kaya (coconut jam) is superlative comfort food. And who doesn’t need comfort once in a while? Even in Georgetown