Sunday, January 31, 2010
Friday, January 29, 2010
I am the first to admit, quite happily, that I travel on my stomach, as I think Napoleon said about his army. I love to wander before I have eaten very much at all and then sample everything in sight.
I'm especially lucky because my friend Albert is Hong Kong's answer to Calvin Trilling. the sort of man who says "first we'll have a snack" and then feeds you so amply that hibernation is the only possible response. I met Albert one morning to roam through the oldest portion of Hong Kong island before having tea, and because I knew eating would be part of our expedition, I brought some sweetmeats from a Pakistani foodstall in Chungking Mansions, which I thought would be pleasant to nosh on when we stopped for coffee.
I had eaten a small scone when I had my wake-up jolt of caffeine and on my way to the subway, I ate one of the little Pakistani cakes, which-- as my friend Elizabeth Briel says about moon cakes--was "like eating a truck." It settled firmly into my stomach and when Albert asked me if I were hungry, I quite honestly said no.
Albert however had not yet had breakfast so off we went in search of sustenance, stopping at a bakery where I gasped with pleasure at the sight of the spiced flatbread I ate every morning in Beijing. "Yes, it's from the North," Albert said as he bought that for me and nothing for himself.
I thought it would be rude to eat when Albert was the one who was hungry but the flatbread was irresistible so I nibbled away at it as we looked at shops that sold bird's nests and shark fin and dragonfruit and oh my god the teashop...
It sold dried roses and violets and jasmine and unidentifiable blossoms, each in its own jar and each retaining its original appearance, waiting to be steeped. Labels in English told what each one would cure or ameliorate--one jar of leaves promised to banish irascibility and I knew I should probably buy some.
"Have you ever had coffee with tea?" Albert asked me, and took me to the "porkchop place" where he finally had breakfast and I had a creamy, aromatic glass of mingled tea and coffee and a little condensed milk with what was left of my flatbread. Feeling comfortably replete, I followed Albert up a hillside, down some stairs, and into an open place with a few chairs and tables, a glass case in front with lizards and snakes inside, and a long wall of drawers, each one, I knew from Blair Dunton's wonderful photographs in Lost & Found Hong Kong, holding at least one snake. Albert spoke to a lady of more than middle years, she disappeared and returned with a bowl that she placed in front of me. "Snake soup," Albert told me.
My appetite was lurking somewhere in the very back of my consciousness but the minute that I tasted the soup, the sheer comfort of it made me know I wasn't going to move before every spoonful was gone. It was a thick, clear broth, gently aromatic with ginger, and full of thin slivers of snake meat and what tasted like julienned woodear mushrooms. It had the same soothing quality as the traditional post-Thanksgiving turkey soup and serves the same function of keeping a body warm in the cold season. Unlike in Thailand, snake is not a gender-specific, guys-only dish--both men and women enjoy its warming properties in Hong Kong where it is a winter staple.
Then of course we had tea--but high tea with smoked salmon sandwiches and lemon curd tartlets and artisan chocolate that has spoiled me for any other kind forever. I returned to my room that night with the strong desire to have my stomach bronzed, because it would never receive that sort of nourishment again in one day--at least not until the next time that I had the chance to explore Hong Kong with Albert.
On my own I'm a bit more Spartan and the next day when I explored Kowloon's Nathan Road, I fed my eyes and not my stomach--until I passed a spot with a row of beautiful, golden, gleaming egg tarts, which Albert had addicted me to in my previous visit. I bought one and it was so warm and flaky and creamy and melting that the minute I finished the last crumb, I retraced my steps quickly and apprehensively because I had bought the next to the last tart. But a whole new row waited for me-- I bought one more and succumbed to the pure joy of eating my way through Hong Kong.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
If you want to make a grand entrance into Chungking Mansions, it's easy. Just let yourself be scammed by an airport taxi driver and then divulge the amount he took you for when talking on your mobile. That grabs the attention of everybody within earshot right away--trust me. I know.
Suddenly the man who had become my impromptu bellhop and the elderly African gentleman standing nearby as we waited for the elevator both looked incredulous, outraged and a bit nauseated all in the same facial expression. Quickly they began to assure me that nonono, I wasn't stupid at all in tones that held absolutely no conviction--only that deep kindness used when speaking to an obvious half-wit.
It just might have been worth the sum I had been bilked out of for this alone--an immediate warmth and concern from people who looked as though they had seen it all and then some. Up until then I had felt a little intimidated by the glare and noise and hustle of Chungking Mansions. It's Times Square, I thought as I entered and men rushed forward to suggest that I stay in their own particular guesthouse, but not post-Giulani Time Square--the real one of my teenage years where Travis Bickell flourished.
And the next morning as I read the SCMP over coffee, I found out his counterpart had lived in Chungking Mansions--an American "kungfu enthusiast" who was jailed for keeping a store of three Japanese bayonets, three masks, two gravity-operated steel police batons, two stun guns, two pepper sprays, forty metal balls, one bulletproof jacket, twenty folding knives, and two knucklebusters, three fake grenades in his room.
When I told the staff in my guest house about this, Hari from Nepal asked "What block did he live in?" while a lady from Aruba who was waiting for a room wanted to know what country he was from. I was chagrined to admit he was my compatriot, while Hari shrugged and identified the block from the name of the guest house that was reported in the paper. Neither of them seemed very taken aback by the news that an arsenal had been found in the small nation that exists in the middle of Kowloon called Chungking Mansions.
A day or two later when I got out of the elevator on my floor, I was accompanied by two little boys wearing white shirts and blue shorts, each carrying a tennis racket. As I went toward the entrance of the Holiday Guest House, they went toward a gated door on the other side of the elevator. "Yes, a family lives there," Hari told me when I asked.
There are two elevators per block in Chungking Mansions, one for the odd-numbered floors, one for the even, and they take only seven people at a time. The lines are long and at night it's the only time I see people standing still in this place of perpetual motion. Women are a minority here--like Alaska when I was growing up--and I am grateful to be old as I stand among a United Nations of men, all of whom show a lovely respect for the elderly.
At night, through the tiled walls of my room which make me feel as though I'm sleeping in a large shower stall, the delectable odor of curry wafts into my room as I fall asleep and I wake up feeling happy and at home.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater but there are times when my Western bias shows loud and clear. I am a very large anti-fan of surprises in my food and the night that I bought potato chips in a can in Beijing and found out their flavor was blueberry was the lowest gustatory point in my life until tonight.
I am off my feed, as they say--not sick but feeling distinctly unenthusiastic about eating anything. After picking my way through some green curry and some pork slices with little success or fervor, I decided yogurt was what I needed and grabbed some quickly at our Tesco-Lotus Express.
When I opened it at home, the fragrance of corn unmistakably wafted from the container and I almost retched. Corn and yogurt are not foods that belong together in my opinion--but I decided that was Western bias on my part and forged ahead, miserably swallowing the kernels and trying to pretend they weren't there. As I finally got to the bottom of things, I saw a large, plump, red object that resembled part of a strawberry so I happily spooned it up--wrong! It turned out to be a big relative of a kidney bean, accompanied by a generous dose of tapioca. I may never eat again...
Saturday, January 9, 2010
When I wrote my last blog post a few minutes ago, on the outer margin where ads lurk was a notice that bloggers can turn their posts into a book--hardcover or paperback--and I shuddered in what was almost a spasm.
I use several blogs, as a notebook, as a way to show and tell my friends and family what I have seen, as a private, invisible Hyde Park, as a place to put book reviews and publicize my own book. A blog is a place where writers can chat, quickly, off-the-cuff, and without revision. There is little sweat involved, no blood and rarely tears--all of which are prodigally spent when a book is written.
This new enticement to people who blog makes a vanity press look good. At least finished manuscripts are submitted in varying degrees of competency to those who are paid to publish them--not a rapid outpouring of quick thoughts on a multiplicity of subjects served up in a few words.
I know there are books--and good books--that have been born from a blog, and that many good writers use blogs as a tool. I also know that before those books go out into the world, they have been written and rewritten and shaped and burnished and torn apart and put back together. This is what writers do--this is what writing is. Blogs are a valuable five-finger exercise but they in their raw form do not make a manuscript, and anyone who implies that they might should be locked in a room with only bound and printed blog posts to read for the rest of his or her natural life.
A cluster of people were staring intently at a grassy hillside in Beihei Park, so I stopped to look as well and there was a colony of fat, peaceful, sleeping cats. There were dishes of food put out for them and they seemed quite pleased with their lot in life, while everyone looking at them seemed quite pleased to see them.
The profusion of healthy, well cared for domestic pets came as a big surprise to me--not because I buy into the stupid jokes about pets served up as lunch in China, but because attractive, pampered animals are still exotic in Bangkok. The cats that live on my soi are skinny and slinking and savage, while the kitten I have had since Halloween still bites me with great pleasure and monotonous regularity. The white, fluffy kitten on the neighborhood street that I saw in Beijing I would never see here, or the spaniel perched proudly on his post above the lake, or the man with his magnificent Siamese cat taking the air at sunset. When I think of why I love Beijing, I think of these pictures.
"Beijing is not China,"I've been told and I'm sure this is true--Bangkok is not Thailand, New York is not the United States, Seattle is not Washington. These are all places that define the countries--or states--that they are in, however, and are where the country's culture thrives, and where people who live in that country want to go--if only for a little while. In their singularity, they nourish an ideal view of what life can be.
And in Beijing, the life I saw was a life I yearn for. I miss the stoneware jugs of yogurt that persist among the Pepsi bottles in stands across the city, I miss seeing people browsing at book carts and reading wherever and whenever the mood strikes, I miss the fast-moving. crackling, kinetic energy of the place and the open-hearted generosity of the people who shared their city with me.
One night as I walked down the neighborhood street where my guest house was, an old man fell into step beside me and asked me if I spoke French. Painfully resurrecting the years of French from school, I held a conversation with a Beijing man whose accent and vocabulary were infinitely better than mine. Later in a park a man of the same vintage asked if I spoke Spanish. Since what I know is the hillbilly variety of Puerto Rico, I was reluctant to place it beside what was undoubtedly his pure Castilian. But their desire to connect and communicate makes me eager to learn Mandarin.
It's interesting to me that many foreigners in Beijing seem to have made an attempt at that language while few foreigners in Bangkok have a proficiency in Thai. I--who speak Thai to the housekeeper, food vendors and taxi drivers only-- chalk it up to the friendliness and curiosity of Beijing people as opposed to the taciturn treatment foreigners receive in Bangkok. If nobody speaks to you, why the need for language? Whereas if people search for a common language to hold a conversation with a stranger, then learning Mandarin is not just a courtesy but a kind of passport to entering a culture.
When I return in March, a Mandarin tutor is high on my list of priorities. After all, if I'm going to entice kittens on the street or sleeping cats in a park, I'd better know how to extend blandishments that they will understand.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Like most people who live far from their families, I do not look forward to Christmas and usually run from it as fast and as hard as I can. Laos, a country that is both Buddhist and Socialist, seemed a good sanctuary from all Yuletide trappings. Last year in Paxse I was thrilled to see no vestiges of any holiday but New Year's Eve-- which was being heralded by many brightly colored balloons that were all taken down well before the midnight countdown because they were so wizened. My kind of decorations, I decided, and was eager to return to Laos for more holiday austerity this year.
At first Vientiane seemed an extravaganza of temples with a healthy dash of bookshops and I roamed through both. I tried to imagine the city the way it was when Marthe Basseme arrived well over a hundred years ago, after Vientiane had been vigorously sacked by Siam and was a site of ruins and jungle with only Wat Sisaket still intact. It amazed me that so many temples had sprung back up so quickly in a country that is not wealthy, and that they had survived the revolution that turned Laos from a monarchy to a republic.
On Christmas Eve, I drank one too many Beer Laos and watched the sun set over the riverside marketplace. Perhaps that was why the following morning seemed less contemplative than the day before and why my walk through the streets of Vientiane was filled with Christmas trappings that I had managed to ignore until now.
I went back to Kosila Books near That Dam, thinking if Christmas was going to haunt me, I might as well give a present. Bearing a collection of stories by Minfong Ho that I had read on the train, a book published by ThingsAsian Press--To Vietnam With Love--and the Alan Rabinowitz account of environmental adventures in Thailand that I had bought and read after my arrival, I gave them to Sam, the dedicated bookseller who owns the shop.
"Then you must have this," he told me, turned to the nearest shelf and handed me Laos: Culture and Society. "How did you know this is the one I would have chosen for myself?" I asked him and he smiled at me and said, "Oh, I know these things." "You're a bookseller," I said and he nodded.
And then Christmas was alive and well and as it should be, in a bookstore, where the best presents are always found and bookloving people are able to find a common ground of understanding and perception . "Merry Christmas," we wished each other and suddenly, in the midst of plastic tannenbaum and overheated faces under polyester Santa Claus hats, it was.