Sunday, 11 December 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 15 - Getting Around

Hong Kong is a pretty small place - 382 square miles  to be exact.  Hong Kong Island, where we spend the vast majority of our time is only 31 square miles. For a Texan, that's the average distance to the corner shop. For a place this small, Hong Kong offers any number of convenient ways to get around.  Public transportation is very good, and taxis are abundant and ridiculously cheap compared the generally outrageous cost of living in this city.

When we moved here, I did the maths and decided that buying a car, insuring it, paying for petrol and parking simply wasn't sensible.  We could each take 2 taxis across the island every day for two years and still spend significantly less than the costs resulting from car ownership. Besides, where would we drive it?  It's not like a car is handy for weekend escapes. To where would we escape?  Drive south and in 1 mile you hit the sea.  Drive north and you hit China, and you aren't allowed to take your car into China. Anyway, most people want to escape FROM China, not to it. So why then, do so many people in this city own cars? Where are they all going? Do they really use their cars to get from Central to Wan Chai, a distance of about a mile? Even if they did, they would still have to park a mile away.  And the traffic would be so bad, it would take them about 30 minutes to do that one mile.  They could most certainly walk faster. Most of my ex-pat colleagues have cars. Some have two. They use them to drive the kids to school (Sadie takes the bus), go to the supermarket (we walk), and get to work (taking twice as long as I do on public transport) and who knows what else. One of my friends here (who shall remain nameless in this blog) has been habitually late  every single time I have ever met up with her to do anything, including her daughter's sports events. Every single time, she blames the traffic.  It's not like the traffic suddenly got bad, and "oh, what a surprise-we are delayed".  The traffic in Hong Kong is horrific every minute of every day.   I once suggested that she and her daughter take the MTR (the Hong Kong underground) to a netball game in Kowloon (probably about 8 miles away as the crow flies) that would take about 20 minutes to get to by MTR. You would think I suggested that they walk through the sewers to get there.  I feel compelled to point out here that the MTR is immaculate, dirt  cheap, easy to use and you never have to wait more than 3 minutes for a train. More on that shortly.   This same woman (whom, by the way, I adore) once got so badly stuck in traffic and was so late for a netball game that she abandoned her car about halfway there and hailed a taxi to find a quicker way to get her and her daughter to the match. They were still late.  She still insists, however, on using the car.

Not only does everyone have cars in Hong Kong, it is illegal to have anything other than a very expensive sports car or a very expensive four wheel drive. This, in a city with tiny roads,no place to go and no place to park. For the life of me, I can't figure it out.  When you walk through the car park in our building, the cheapest car is a cute little Mini Cooper, which I guess just gets by on kitch value. There are Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Porsche's,BMWs, Mercedes and one poor unfortunate sole who appears to be slumming it with an Audi.  They can't drive these card fast; the traffic simply doesn't permit an average speed greater than 20 MPH. And because traffic is so mad, the driving can get a little crazy with people slipping into spaces in the next lane that are smaller than their actual car.  It is sort of like that crazy bus scene in one of the Harry Patter films, where the bus contracts to 1/3 its width to squeeze between two other cars.   It must be done with mirrors, because I can't figure out any other way it could be managed.  Now here though is the really surprising the whole year we have been here, I have only seen one car accident, and that was a fender bender.   Maybe all those really expensive cars have some fancy electronic gadgetry that keeps them from hitting other really expensive cars.

To get to work every day, I take a shuttle bus from our flat to Central, and then get on the MTR to go to my office 2 stops away in Kowloon.   The MTR is brilliant. The trip from Central to my stop  costs about 90 pence and takes less than 10 minutes.  The trains are spotlessly clean and no one is permitted to eat, drink or smoke anywhere in the whole system.  The only down side is that the Hong Kong Chinese have not really figured out the concept of "let people off before you try to get on" When I first arrived here, I was regularly pushed to the back of the train when I was trying to get off by the flood of people trying to get on. These people are ruthless. Five foot tall grannies will take you out at the knees to get to a seat.   Mothers will use their toddler in arms to poke you in the eye. It is a daily battle that, if you don't engage in it, you will find yourself at the end of the line wondering how you got there. So every day, I take up battle stations by the train doors and use my superior height and weight to rugby tackle pregnant women and shove the disabled out of the way, simply so I can get to work. It is truly Darwinian.

Taxis in Hong Kong are also brilliant. A taxi from Hong Kong station to our flat takes about 30 minutes and costs about £6.  I have never really struggled to find a taxi when I need one, and they are universally clean and in good condition.  Like taxi drivers everywhere, the ones in Hong Kong are a mixed bag. Some are safe and considered drivers; others drive like lunatics.  A good percentage of taxi drivers have four or five mobile phones mounted on their dashboard, but I have never been able to ascertain why. They all appear to work and they all ring (and are answered) on our journeys.  There is clearly no hands free law in Hong Kong. What are all those phones for?  One for wife, one for girlfriend, one for mother?  Who knows? Sometimes the drivers want to chat. Sometimes they want to chat to me in Cantonese, although it is abundantly clear that I can't say anything in Cantonese beyond "dai baa cho".  They often laugh when I say this and then say "oh, do you mean Tower number 8?" as if my feeble attempt at a few words of Cantonese is only worthy of a guffaw.  When chatting away to me, I always suspect that they are amusing themselves either by making obscene sexual remarks or issuing a diatribe on stupid, ugly Western women. Either way, I just not my head and smile.

Probably the best thing about getting around Hong Kong is that it is one of the safest places in the world.  There is virtually no street crime and crimes against ex-pats are pretty much unheard of.   Sadie takes taxis everywhere with her friends and by herself, and I am not the least bit worried about it. It will certainly be a shock to her system when she isn't permitted to go anywhere on her own in London!

Probably the worst thing about getting around Hong Kong is being a pedestrian. The pavements are incredibly crowded, and nowhere in the world are people less aware/respectful of those around them. There are no acknowledged rules of what side of the pavement to walk on, and you can frequently meet a wall of people coming at you from the opposite direction, leaving you a choice between being mown over on the pavement, stepping into the street to be mowed over by the traffic or throwing yourself to your knees and praying for the Rapture to lift to up into the sky to avoid being mowed over at all.   People have absolutely no consideration for other pedestrians. None.  They will walk down the street, texting their mates, not looking up and expecting everyone else to walk around them. If you are walking up or down stairs, people will think nothing of pushing you out of the way, stepping in front of you or cutting you up. The other thing that drives me absolutely nuts is the number of people who will stop at the bottom of an escalator to chat with their friends, completely oblivious to the 30 person pile up that they have just caused behind them.  Or the number of people who will stand in front of the entrance to an escalator to chat with their friends, completely oblivious to the 100's of people who now can't get on the escalator at all. It has been a counter cultural thing to do, but again I have learned to take advantage of my superior weight and height, and I steadfastly refuse to move out of the way.  This has led to many, many people plowing into me and then looking up in a surprised fashion as if to say "How did you get here? I thought I was the only one on the planet".

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 14 - Ocean Park

Ocean Park is Hong Kong's largest theme park. In fact, it is Hong Kong's only theme park. With its 35 (!) attractions and rides, the park has won several awards, including "The World's Seventh Most Popular Amusement Park" and "33rd Most Visited Tourist Attraction in the World".  These are not statistics that I would necessarily brag about, but maybe that's just me.

Ocean Park is a 10 minute taxi ride away from our home, and Sadie has been at least a dozen times with her friends.  In fact, her school did a trip there earlier this year and attempted to sell it to the parents as a physics lesson. Right.  I am reasonably informed that watching a teacher get spun around until they puke is the height of entertainment for a teenager. Anyway, I had never been before. I'm not sure why this is, but I guess that it is partly to do with David's lack of interest. I guess I can understand that. Any roller coaster becomes Space Mountain when you are blind, and although I love Space Mountain, I'm not sure that I'd want to spend the whole day riding on it. David is in the UK though, and I thought it might be a fun thing for Sadie and me to do.  This is the latest in a long string of my attempts at mother/daughter bonding. I try to kid myself that Sadie and I really have a close personal connection, that she loves and respects me as much as I do her, and that she actually enjoys my company when in reality what I perceive as bonding is probably just Sadie playing along to get something she wants. Regardless, if that's all I can get, I'll take it. 

So, off we went to Ocean Park.  I had to queue up for the ticket as Sadie already had a season pass that paid for itself if the first month. The price was comparable to other them parks - about £20 for the day. Now it is time for me to fess up about the real reason I wanted to go to Ocean Park. It has two different sections, one of which has animals, an aquarium and kiddie rides and the other which has thrill rides. The animal section has PANDAS!  For a long time, seeing pandas has been on my list of 100 things to do before I die* and I was finally getting to do it!

I am marginally embarrassed by my passion for pandas. I have seen Kung Fu Panda three times and that is really not something of which to be proud.  I am completely suckered in by their furry, fat cuddliness and those big black circles around their sad eyes. To be fair, I was also completely suckered in by Pete, the dog from the Little Rascals too. Something about a black circle around an eye. I like to think of myself as mature, urbane, sophisticated, cool and more than a little cynical.  Loving cuddly panda bears blows that image. It's like Henry Kissinger saying he loves "My Little Pony". I guess I am out of the closet now.

Anyway, back to Ocean Park. I decided to prolong the expectation for as long as possible, so we visited the aquarium first. It is a pretty good aquarium as these things go - maybe even in the top 50 aquariums in the world.  I couldn't really contain my excitement much longer though.  I had to see the bears. I spotted the Panda House from several hundred metres away. I knew it was the panda house because there were 10 metre tall plastic pandas waving to us from the roof. For one brief moment, I actually thought that they were real and waving just at me.  We walked up the ramps and into the house. There are three panda enclosures, each with its own panda.  They are solitary creatures and don't like to mix much. Thank goodness. The sight of two pandas cuddling or playing might just might be more cuteness than an ordinary human could bear (ha ha - I swear that wasn't on purpose).   There are two parallel ramps in front of the enclosures, and you are encouraged to stroll down one and up the other, giving everyone a good chance to have a look.  Good manners went out the window as soon as I walked in the door. I stopped, creating a domino effect of panda watchers behind me. I couldn't move. I was spell bound. There in front of me was a giant panda sound asleep on a wooden platform. He was on his back, mouth open and with all four paws up in the air. I couldn't hear it, but I am absolutely sure he was snoring.  It is not terribly mature or sophisticated to jump up and down and shriek "OOOOH! LOOK AT THAT PANDA! HE IS SOOOOOO CUTE!", but that is what I did. Sadie,even more than usual, pretended that she didn't know me.  Finally, someone behind me gave me a good push and forced me to carry on.

The second and third enclosures were empty, so I hurried down to see snoring panda again. Then, just as I was about to go past window number two, out came a beautiful female panda bear. I know it is unspeakably rude, and I am really not proud of it, but I simply would not budge from that spot.   Parents tried to push their eager children in front of me, but I wasn't having it. I figured that I had less time to do the 100 things to do before I die than they did.  I took photos and watched her amble around for a good 10 minutes. I probably did more to damage Chinese/Western relations at that point than Tienanmen Square, but my wish was fulfilled. I have seen pandas. I am also the very, very proud owner of a cute, overpriced  panda cuddly toy that we have named Bing Bing.

Back out into the sunlight, no other event that Ocean Park could offer could possibly live up to the panda experience.  I have to tell you though, that in the dozen or so time Sadie had visited, she had never  before seen the bears. She comes for the rides. So, off we went to the other part of the park. This can be accessed in one of two ways. There is a cable car that offers magnificent views over the southern part of Hong Kong or there is a train. The trip up is unbelievably steep. There are stairs, but it would probably take me the better part of my life to get up them. I don't think that they are even open for public use. We took the cable car, and it was lovely, but I certainly wouldn't recommend it for anyone with height issues.

Once at the top, Sadie said she needed food.  There were a number of food options, most of which involved some form of squid. There is something not quite right about eating something that was one of the attractions we had just visited.  I am just trying to imagine how this menu would go down at Alton Towers or at Six Flags.

Thankfully, there were other options than munching on Squidward and Sadie was very happy with her french fries and diet coke. This is the ultimate food oxymoron.

During her feast, Sadie had been eyeing the temporary tattoo parlour. "No", I said, "Don't even ask". Of course, a few minutes later we were sat on the chair inside the booth whilst Sadie got her Panda tattoo.  Giving in against your better judgement is a big part of the bonding process. As foreigners, we are used to being stared at sometimes despite the fact that Hong Kong is one of the most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse cities in the world. Just recently, I was accosted on the MTR by about 20 teenagers demanding to have their picture taken with a foreigner. Of course, I obliged with my goofiest grin.  Sadie actually attracted an audience whilst her tattoo was painted on. There was a crowd of people gathered round, pushing each other out of the way to get a view. When the tattoo lady was finished, Sadie stood up and the crowd actually applauded!

We then moved onto the arcade. This time I was really going to hold firm, and I set about telling Sadie how all the games are rigged and that it is virtually impossible to win a big prize. Then I saw the shooting gallery. OK, it was a Nerf shooting gallery where you shot plastic pegs with suction cups onto a plastic target, but it was still a shooting gallery. My resolve crumbled and I became the world's biggest hypocrite.  When I was about Sadie's age, I went to a summer camp. It was altogether a miserable experience, except for one thing. I discovered that I was really good with a 22 rifle. I've been hooked ever since. I would NEVER shoot at a living thing (I won't even let Sadie go to BB Gun parties when EVERYONE else gets to go), but boy do I love shooting at a target. I bought 10 rounds and sidled up to the bar counter. Everyone around me was doing rapid firing, but I took my time to line up that bullseye in my site. I felt like Clint Eastwood, Annie Oakley and John Wayne all wrapped up into one. Slowly, I pulled the trigger. Bullseye!  I took my time with the rest and managed 5 bulls eyes and 5 in the next circle out. God, I'm good.

On to the rest of the park. It was time to do some rides. We headed off to the log flume. On our way, we saw large groups of mainland Chinese wandering around in packs. Some of them had on matching hats. Others had perky little matching bandannas. All of them had little tags around their necks which I can only presume said "If found, please return to Hunan Provence".  Hong Kong tourism is big business in mainland China, and the groups are typically made up of older couples. It's sort of like visiting the Florida of the east. These groups, with their bad teeth, worse clothes and what I can only imagine is the Chinese version of a hillbilly accent,  are treated with complete and utter disdain by the local Hong Kong community.   I rather like them. I can only imagine what they must have seen in their lifetimes, yet they retain a certain child-like innocence in the pleasure they take in places like Ocean Park. Then we got to the queue for the log flume.  All innocence was gone as these old folks pushed and shoved like they were in the queue for the last kilo of rice at the state rice store. I'm not kidding, they were vicious. They cut in front of as many people as they could, tread on toes and elbowed their way to the front. Then once on the ride, they looked miserable when they got soaked to the skin.  What were they expecting?   We got soaked to the skin too, but it was fun.

Then I had a really strange experience (as if being jostled by old Chinese people wasn't strange enough). We were in the queue for another ride (Raging Rapids, if you must know), and I spotted someone I knew in the queue. I knew I knew him, but for the life of me I couldn't thing of how. His was not a face I would forget as he looked like a youngish Paul Newman. I stared for about 10 minutes before he looked up and nodded at me and smiled before he turned away to talk to his very young Thai wife/girlfriend. It finally came to me. It was a close friend of one of my exes whom I like to call Lucifer (No Grizz and Billy, that is not a nickname I have for either of you). It was driving me crazy because I couldn't remember his name. I remembered that he had been born with a really bad name (Malcolm Pratt), but he changed it by deed pole as soon as he was old enough. Who could blame him? So, although I could remember the old name that he changed before I even met him, I simply could not recall his new name. Then it came to me. Pat. His new name was Pat. Just to test out this theory, I yelled out "Pat" to see what would happen. What happened is that Sadie nearly died of embarrassment and the bloke didn't even turn around. I'm  certain it was him though. I had heard to had moved to Asia a few years ago for the women to teach.

After a couple hours of different rides, it was time to head back down. This time we opted for the train.  We were waiting for the train in a sort of holding pen with a bunch of mainlanders.  Several of the women were staring at me and giggling. I smiled at one lady and she came over to me and poked me in the chest several times. Then, she gave two big thumbs up. All the other ladies then started smiling, nodding and pointing at my boobs like they had just won an academy award. I swear to you this really happened.

* Actually, the list only has 43 things on it as I couldn't think of any more. Lest you are worried that I might work my way through the list quickly and be left with no reason to live, don't worry.  One of the things on the list is to read James Joyce's Ulysses, and since I've tried about ten times and failed I expect I could live to 110 and never get through it.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 13- Ode to Gao's

Hong Kong is the world's centre for beauty treatments. It seems that every building has dozens of places that specialise in everything from pedicures to hair replacement.  There are ads everywhere for bust treatments (big business in a place where a C cup is considered massive)*, facials, nail extensions, threading, waxing, Thai massage, Indian head massage, hot rock massage, lymphatic massage, sports massage and, in certain areas, the kind of massage that isn't really a massage. You really are spoiled for choice, especially as most of these places charge less than half you would pay for a similar service in the UK. Actually, I don't know about the "massages" in Mong Kok (how is that for the name of an area with a reputation for vice!) that aren't really massages, but I expect that the rates for those are pretty competitive too. 

I think I have mentioned before that whilst some areas in Hong Kong have an active commercial life at street level, many shops, restaurants, beauty salons and other businesses are located in high rise buildings.  You would never know about these places unless you happen to be in a lift and the door opens onto a toy store or a flower shop and someone else gets out. This happened to me not long ago when I was on my way to the ninth floor of a building to get my hair done and the door opened on the sixth floor to reveal a fully kitted out party shop complete with a wide selection of paper plates/plastic cups/napkins/decorations and other party accoutrements.  Who knew? Anyway I filed the knowledge away for a time when I might have enough friends here to have a party.

Anyway, there is a building that I frequent regularly on D'Aguilar street in Central.  The basement is home to a Watson's Wine Cellar and the ground floor has a Starbucks.  The rest of the 16 floors are taken up with beauty treatment places, including several dentists specialising in teeth bleaching and several doctors who offer botox and silicone fillers. One of my favourite things about this building is a sign in the front for the "Advanced Hair Studio" which features big photos of "Australian Cricket Legend", Shane Warne before and after his hair transplant. It also features a profound and insightful quote from Shane - "The decision for me to do something about my hair loss was simple, I didn't want to go bald." This never fails to bring a smile to my face. 

As you might imagine, I don't head to this building for hair enhancement.  I push the button for the 15th floor and travel upwards filled with anticipation and impatient with those getting off on lower floors for the Elemis Day Spa or Josephine's Bust Beauty. Finally, the doors open and paradise awaits.  I am at Gao's Foot Massage Parlour.  The staff at the front desk greet me loudly and enthusiastically. I feel like Norm walking into Cheers. It's so nice to be somewhere where everyone knows your name. And the location of your callouses.  I can say without any reservation that Gao's is absolutely, positively my favourite place in Hong Kong.

The number of treatments is fairly limited. You can get full body massage or a Shanghai Pedicure. This involves the shaving of dead skin off your feet and is surprisingly pleasant. Honest. But the main reason to go to Gao's is the foot massage.  You can get 35, 65, 85 or 120 minutes.  I usually go for the 65, but occasionally I will be feeling particularly self indulgent and go for the 85 minutes.  I even have an account there where I have pre-paid for 1000 minutes and then got 200 extra for "free".  Each 65 minute massage costs the equivalent of about £12.  I therefore do not feel guilty about going once a week. Ok, sometimes I go twice a week.

I think the best word to describe the decor is eclectic.  In many ways it is like stepping into a dusty old aunt's living room. There are four main rooms, each of which has between 6 -12 leather "barcaloungers".  For those of you who don't know what a barcalounger is, they are reclining chairs that are featured in many American sitcoms, usually occupied by a man with a beer watching football on TV.   The walls are covered with a most unusual collection of artwork including some pretty good Chinese pop art, some oil paintings of landscapes that look vaguely Constable-ish", tapestry wall hangings, Chinese calligraphy and a few paintings that look like they were picked up at a yard sale for 50p. Of course there are no yards in Hong Kong, but these paintings must have come from somewhere.  There are also loads of nicknack's scattered around including a plaster of paris eagle's head, vases of silk flowers, brass sculptures, potted plants, and china kittens.  One room has a large upright piano and another has an enormous goldfish tank. There is also an in-house audio systems that plays and endless loop of bird song. Whoever feng shued this place was clearly on drugs.  However crazy it sounds it all comes together to make you feel relaxed and right at home.

Of course, you don't go to Gao's for the decor. That's just a little bonus. The real prize is the treatment itself. At the front desk, I give them my account number and tell them which masseuse/masseur I want. My favourite, Tony, recently moved back to mainland China, but I have a new favourite, Hugh, who seems just as good (maybe even better, but don't tell Tony).  Hugh leads me to my barcalounger via a quick stop at the magazine table to pick up the latest Hello, OK, Heat or People magazines.  I don't know how, but they always have the most current UK or US editions.  A lovely lady then brings me a special mug of tea. Special because the mug is divided, with one third filled with flowers and herbs and other lovely tea things that seep into the water in the other two thirds.  It even comes with a lid to keep it warm.  

Next, the tea lady brings a huge tub of hot water into which I place my feet after turning around to sit on a sort of ottoman facing the lounge chair.  Hugh then spends about ten minutes massaging my head neck and shoulders. I don't know how, but he always is able to find exactly the right places to work the kinks out. I am already well on the journey to bliss-town when I turn around and sit on the chair again.  He then takes a heated beanbag that is also filled with lavender and places it around my neck. He lifts my feet out of the water and gently places them on the Ottoman and dries them off. He even dries between my toes!  The foot massage that ensues is unlike anything I have every experienced. He starts by rubbing oil all over my foot and lower leg. He then starts to apply increasingly firm pressure to the bottom of my foot. When I first started having foot massage, it really hurt. It still hurts a bit, but in a good way. You know what I mean. He then works his way all around my foot and ankle before really digging into my calves.  After an hour of this, I am almost comatose. I have even been known to fall asleep and drool on myself a little bit.

According to the rules of reflexology, every part of your foot corresponds to a different part of your body.  For example, your kidney is related to the bottom left front part of your left foot. I am now a total believer.  For me, foot massage has cured a headache, eased my asthma and helped digestion. It really does work. Even if it didn't, I would still go back time and time again. It is truly the most relaxing and pleasurable experience you can have with your clothes on. Actually it may be the most relaxing and pleasurable experience you can have full stop, but don't tell David I said that.

*As an aside, there is a lingerie shop in HK called Bubies.  This makes me laugh. I went in one day as they had some pretty bras in the window.  They just laughed at me.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 12 - Shopping

Hong Kong must surely be the shopping capital of the world. In what is really a very small geographic area, there are multiple Armanis, Guccis, Max Maras, D&Gs, Jimmy Choos, and every other designer venue you could shake a stiletto at. There are also hundreds of high end jewelry shops on Hong Kong island alone, selling magnificent diamond, jade and other ludicrously expensive sparkling creations.  These shops are the domain of the "tai-tai".  A tai-tai can be defined roughly (although there is absolutely nothing rough about them) as a "lady who lunches", but a broader definition says that a tai-tai is a woman who is married to a wealthy man, loves to shop, and goes to spas. You see these women in droves in Central Hong Kong in the afternoon. A tai tai NEVER gets up before 9:00, and it takes several hours to achieve the grooming these women uniformly achieve in even the hottest weather.  I honestly cannot figure out how they do it. Maybe they have their sweat glands removed. They are always immaculate, with perfectly coiffed hair that is never dripping with sweat or frizzed from the 100% humidity that is a Hong Kong norm.  Their clothes are clearly chosen for style rather than comfort in the heat. An unlined dress is unheard of. Without exception, they are wearing 4+inch heels, and their hands and feet must be mani/pedi'd at least three times a week.  These women are also of a fairly uniform physical type.  Generally under 5'5'', they are very small boned,physically fit and the owners of very small, but perfectly formed little boobies. Being a tai-tai is a full time job, and these women take it very seriously. They keep the high end stops in business.

Hong Kong caters not only to the upper end of the market, but to a wide range of other shoppers as well. There are hundreds of beautiful little boutiques selling one off creations. There are loads of mid-range boutiques selling beautiful little knock-off creations.  There are British department stores like H&M and M&S, which strangely are considered extremely fashionable in Hong Kong. Go figure. Every neighbourhood also has a street market where you can pick up fabulous bargains in everything from underwear to sequined clutch bags. Hong Kong is indeed a shoppers paradise, but there is a little catch. And I do mean little.

If you are a US size 12 (UK size 10), or, god forbid, any larger, you are considered a grotesque freak who should not be darkening the door of any respectable fashion outlet.  Even Marks & Spencer here does not carry above a size 12!  I have a friend here who is 5'8'' with a body that would make most women weep with envy and most men tremble with lust.  She is totally fit with no significant body fat. She actually had a shop assistant laugh at her when she asked if they had a particular dress in her size. No, Hong Kong is not friendly to anyone larger than a C cup.

But....there is a wonderful solution to this problem.  Hong Kong is also home to hundreds, if not thousands, of tailors who can make you up anything in any size faster than you can say "copy this".  Hong Kong itself is home to many of these custom made clothing manufacturers, but anyone in the know avoids Hong Kong and takes themselves off to Shenzen.

Shenzen is a major city in southern China's Guangdong Province, located just over the border from Hong Kong. Using the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Hong Kong's equivalent to the Tube, you can easily get from central Hong Kong to the border in under an hour. If you have a Hong Kong ID card and a Chinese Visa, it takes just a few minutes to cross from Hong Kong into China proper. Even if you don't have these things, it is still a pretty straightforward border crossing.  Once you emerge from the customs and immigration building, you are facing an enormous (think 5 stories of 20 football pitches each) building filled with shops. Actually, for the most part, these are less like proper shops and more like covered market stalls.  Before you even cross the road to get to the shopping city, you are accosted by dozens of young men grabbing at you to try to get you to go with them to "their" shops.  Over the years, I have found that it is best simply not to engage at all with these types of hawkers. Do not say "no thanks" or "leave me alone" or "bugger off".  Do not make eye contact. Do not kick or scream. Just ignore. They will eventually leave you alone. This is sometimes very difficult for polite westerners to accomplish (especially the British). Please believe me when I say, that ignoring completely is the best way to avoid purchases of unwanted DVDs, pashminas and fake Rolexes. The hawkers will not think you are rude. They will respect you for not being the complete mug that many of your fellow countrymen/women indeed are.

As you make your way through the maze, people will emerge from all the shops and stalls to grab your arm and say "just looking missy".  It took me a long time to figure out that this might be the only English they know, and it has been gleened from the thousands of embarassed Western shoppers who claim to be "just looking". It cracks me up.

I usually start any visit to Shenzen by going straight up to the fifth floor. This is because, appropriately, the top floor is close to heaven. This is the floor devoted to personal tailoring. This is an Aladdin's den of textiles with row after row after row of silks, wools, jerseys, linens, cottons, latex (yes, even latex) and every other fabric imaginable. There is even a section devoted just to lace!  Around the edges are dozens of little stalls owned by individual tailors.  My tailors are Cindy & Nancy who were referred to me by a friend whose clothes I admire. Nancy takes the orders and helps you find the best fabrics. Cindy takes measurements and writes up the design instructions.

I prepare well for my trips to C&N. First I find a few items of clothing that I already own and love. I pick out new fabrics and say "same same".  Cindy even knows that you might lie a little about the perfectness of the fit and makes you try them on so she can see what she needs to do.  But even better than "same same" is getting stuff made from the pictures you have cut out from magazines or printed off the Internet.  I have had three "Diane Von Furstenberg" wrap dress made up in different fabrics, and I will. probably get several more made before I leave. This is honestly the best work outfit EVER. It is comfortable, flattering and you never have to think about matching top with bottom. You can dress it up with heels and a jacket or dress it down with flats. It has no buttons to lose or zips to break. It also doesn't care at all if you are having a "fat" day. I love this dress!  I have had several things made in Shenzen, and for the most part have been very pleased with the result.  A couple of times, a few items have needed adjustments but you would expect that with something made from scratch.

After the frenzy of fabrics and fittings, it is time to explore the rest of the shopping village. Mostly, this consists of shop after shop of brand name watches, electronics, shoes, handbags and accessories.   These "brands" come in a couple of different categories.  The top category is the real thing.  As you are probably aware, China manufactures a huge quantity of the world's consumer products. Sometimes a few of these either fall off the back of a truck and end up in Shenzen. Sometimes, a few of these have very minor flaws and end up in Shenzen. These goods are high quality, and usually cost about 30% of the official item. So, for an Hermes Birkin bag for which you might pay £800 in the UK, expect to pay around £250 in Shenzen.  The second category is the "GradeA" knock-off.  These are very, very high quality copies that use the same materials as the original, e.g.proper leather.  That same Birkin bag as a Grade Acopy would cost about £100.  You can then look at the Grade Bs and Cs.  They typcially look good at first glance, but the materials will be inferior and the quality of workmanship not so good.  For that same Birkin in a lower quality, expect to pay anywhere from £10 to £15.   These categories typically hold true for all goods in Shenzen.  I think it is fair to say that if someone offers you a Rolex for £20, it is probably not the real thing!

Sadie's favourite shop in Shenzen sells "fell off the truck" versions of Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, Paul Smith and Diesel shorts, t-shirts, trackpants and other teenage goods of desire. We bought her entire summer wardrobe for under £50.

The best thing of all in Shenzen is, of course, the shoes. Yang Yang Shoes Shop sells nothing but Laboutins.  These shoes are not only works of art, but also of mechanical engineering. I haven't yet mastered a six inch heel, but I am in training.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 11 - The Cleaner

The cleaner referenced in the title of this blog does not get rid of bodies* nor does she clean up blood spattered crime scenes for the mob like “The Wolf”, the cleaner in Pulp Fiction.  She is actually a rather petite Sri Lankan woman named Josie (not her real name) who comes to clean our house every Tuesday and Friday morning. Josie is actually filling in for her cousin who is currently in Sri Lanka awaiting a new work visa so she can return to Hong Kong to work for us and another family after we convinced her to quit working for the abusive family she had been working for. But that is another story.

Josie’s English is not so great, but it is significantly better than my Sinhala.  Because her vocabulary is somewhat limited, we frequently have communications challenges, and we both sometimes just have to remove all extraneous words from a sentence. To the uninitiated, this can sometimes sound a bit harsh and dictatorial.
Josie - “I Friday come 8:00!”
Josie - “Vacuum broke. You fix!”
Lisa - “Drink tea!”
Lisa - “Where hide bra?”

Josie is a devout Christian and scrupulously honest (not that those two things always go together).  We keep a small bowl of sweets on the sideboard in the dining room. After a couple of weeks, Josie worked up the courage to say “Please I have sweet?”  “Of course, you may have sweet. You don’t need to ask. Help yourself”, I responded. She then proceeded to empty the bowl into her handbag.  I now make sure to buy a bag of sweets for Josie whenever I top up our own.  She clearly needs them more than we do.

Josie struggles to understand many things about our household, in particular our non-conformance to gender stereotypes. As Josie usually comes to the house when I am at work, it is David she typically deals with.  There are times she finds it really difficult to talk to him about important matters like toilet cleaning products.  Instead she will repeatedly batter him with requests such as “Must speak to madam about broken vacuum” or “Is madam happy with my work?”  Regardless of how many times we ask her not to, Josie refers to me as “madam” and David as “sir”. 

Despite the fact that I don’t even know where the vacuum is let alone how to fix it, and that I am happy with anyone’s cleaning work when it means I don’t have to do it myself, Josie still insists on speaking to me rather than David about this stuff. According to her, it is not “man’s work”.   She once caught David emptying the dishwasher, and practically wrestled him to the ground to make him stop.  Last week, she insisted to David that she would come in  on Monday to cook us a curry.  He told her that he would speak to me about it.  She shook her finger at him and said: "You are husband. You decide."  Deciding what to have for dinner clearly falls into the category of "man's work". I suspect that she is worried that if I am not in charge of household cleaning then I probably don't feed my family properly either.  She considers it her duty to compensate for my womanly incompetence. 

It seems that Josie also believes that, in addition to my full time job, I should also do my own ironing. We have a stack of it for her to do every week. Every week, David's shirts are beautifully pressed and hung up.  My clothes remain in an un-ironed heap on the floor.  Sadie's clothes are always in an un-ironed heap on her bedroom floor, but that is nothing to do with Josie and everything to do with Sadie. I have asked David to speak to Josie about the ironing thing, but I think he finds to too amusing to have a serious conversation with her about it.

A few weeks ago, Sadie's dad, Grizz, came to visit her for a few days. We have a very modern family arrangement whereby Grizz stays with us when he visits Sadie.  This not only saves money, but also allows Grizz to be a proper "at home" Dad for a bit i.e. Sadie can challenge someone besides me for a few days. This usually works just fine except when ex-husband, current partner and daughter all gang up on me at once and I have to lie down in a dark room with a cool cloth on my head muttering "sweet Jesus, what have I done?". There is also the occasional time when David and I are sitting on the sofa and Grizz plops himself between us, but David and I have learned over time to find some humour (only a little) in this.   Anyway, we took the decision that Grizz would take the spare bed in Sadie's room as her room is huge, our spare room is tiny and both David and I use the spare room as an office. 

Of course, Josie came to clean whilst Grizz was here. Given the language difficulties coupled with her rather prim approach to family life, we had never explained to her that Sadie isn't David's daughter or that we aren't (gasp!) actually married.  David figured that this was as good a time as any to try to get those difficult points across.  Josie let herself in that Friday to find herself being introduced to Grizz as Sadie's father. Dead silence. Without saying a word, she took herself off  to the kitchen and busied herself by making lots of noise involving plates and pans. Knowing that Josie was upset, David followed her into the kitchen and tried to explain. 

"Grizz is Sadie's father. I am not her father. I am her step-father". It took Josie a few minutes for this to register, and eventually a big smile broke out across her face.  "Ahhhh!", she said. "Grand father!".  She nodded her head, seemed very pleased that she understood and carried on with her work. David walked away wondering if she thought he was sharing a bed with his daughter or daughter-in-law. Whichever, she seemed happy.

* You might find it interesting to know that the apartment complex in which we live was actually home to a famous murder a few years ago.  Ex-pat wife, Nancy Kissell, fed her investment banker husband a spiked strawberry milkshake and then bludgeoned him to death whilst he slept.  She rolled his body up in a carpet (a rather expensive one, so I’m told) and had the building’s maintenance staff carry what must have been the very heavy rug to a basement storage area.  The body was only found after the storage room began to stink.  In her defense, Nancy described her husband as a “work-crazed and controlling husband, who had succumbed to habitual and regular cocaine and alcohol abuse since going on an MBA course”. If the wife of every investment banker who exhibited this behaviour had done what Nancy did, we almost certainly could have avoided the whole financial crisis.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 11 - Team Building

I sometimes struggle to think of an amusing and/or interesting topic for this blog.  Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least reduced humour and surprise. Having said that, I am occasionally handed my topic on a silver platter, and such was the case when I was requested to attend a recent "off-site" for work.

For those of you who are not corporate whores, an off-site can be anything from a formal, highly structured, ultra-professional meeting to an alcohol fuelled, demented invitation to a sexual harassment party. The invitation to this particular off site provided no clue as to which part of the spectrum on which the even would sit.  It just said "Please join Irene Tam (Head of the division) for a one day off-site at the Ocean View Hotel"  It provided further details around start/end times, transportation and other logistics, but no agenda, pre-reading requirements or other topical information.  Given the many organisational changes that were taking place in the bank, I made the assumption that this would be the sort of off-site where the participants watched senior managers stand up at a podium and tell us stuff that we already knew.  We would then ask non-confrontational questions to which they would give bland, non answers and then we would all go home.  I was glad that I had remembered my i-phone and grateful to Sadie for having downloaded the Angry Birds app. At least I'd have something to do.

The invitation also told us that the dress was "smart casual". Smart casual is a term that used to cause my palms to sweat as soon as I read it.  There is a smart casual uniform for guys--chinos and a button down shirt. Some blokes even go really outrageous and wear a shirt in a rebellious colour, maybe even hot pink if they are 100% sure of their own masculinity.  Some women can also get away with wearing the male smart casual uniform.  These women are usually very thin and have no breasts.  The uniform can look really good on them. Unfortunately for those of us fuller figure girls, chinos and a button down make us look like new recruits at butch girl boot camp.   We could go with nice black trousers and a suitable blouse, but this is veering very close to professional work wear, and we could then be perceived as uptight and unable to relax and be part of the gang (which, of course, would be true).  Smart casual is a very, very tricky thing to get right, and I have spent many, many years working on my own uniform.  In summer, this typically involves  a simple, unlined sleeveless linen dress that comes to  just below my knees, bare legs and either strappy sandals or ballet pumps.  I always bring a little cardigan to go over it in case I get cold or (god forbid) everyone else ignored the dress code and went a little more formal.  This uniform has generally served me well, and I trust it. Well, I did until recently.

As instructed, I met up with my colleagues at the designated location for us to pile into the coach hired to drive us to the hotel.  The first think I noticed is that in Hong Kong, smart casual means jeans and trainers. The second thing I noticed is that I was the only person on the coach NOT in jeans and trainers.  "That's OK", I sniffed. "I'm one of the more senior people here.  I'll just set a good example of professional grooming".

We pulled up at the hotel, and we all piled out of the coach and into the conference centre. It looked pretty much like every other conference facility for every other off-site I had ever attended. I queued up for coffee, and that was pretty much like every other off-site I had ever attended. So far, so familiar. Then, after the coffee, where one normally picks up a little breakfast, there was nothing. Not a croissant, a mini danish or even a cookie that looks/tastes like cardboard.  Very disappointing.

It was soon time to meander into the auditorium, where I took a seat next to some of my colleagues.  We still hadn't seen an agenda so I had no idea who our guest speakers would be. Then two young, very chirpy and cheerful people introduced themselves as our facilitators and started to explain how the day would pan out. As they continued to talk, my heart began to pound. Waves of nausea swept over me. I felt dizzy and faint. The realisation hit me.....yes, this was a team building day.

I cannot even begin to describe the depth of my loathing for these sorts of events. In my experience, they are filled with a false bonhomie, and they never accomplish anything more than re-enforcing all of your pre-conceived notions of people.   In my 25 years of corporate life, I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed a team building workshop nor have I learned anything or had one contribute to any greater good. My worst fears were confirmed when they revealed that not only was the a team building workshop, but it was a PHYSICAL team building workshop. I have had to endure many of these things in the past, involving everything from mountain climbing to raft building, fire walking and hand standing.  These should not be called team building events.  They should be called humiliation events. Or breathtakingly scary events. Or events where your moron boss gets to show off that his pectoral muscles are bigger than his IQ.

I was highly conspicuous, and there was no place to hide. I had to grit my teeth and get on with it. The first exercise was the old favourite, "dollars and cents".  Every man is worth $1.00. Every woman is worth 50 cents.  No, I am not making this up.  The facilitator shouts out an amount, say $6.50.  You quickly have to form groups of people (teams?) that equal that amount. Anyone left over is out. Insulted by the lesser value, I herded all the women together. This wasn't difficult as there weren't many of us.  That way we could form our own groups without the use of the guys.  Soon, the guys  resorted to physically dragging us away into their groups like cavemen at a prehistoric orgy. It wasn't pretty. Those guys who got out were made to select a piece of paper from a box.  On the paper was a question that they had to answer.  The questions included "who is the person you most respect at HSBC" and "tell us a secret".  OK, please keep in mind we are in Hong Kong with about 100 Chinese people.  How do you think they are going to answer those questions? Are they going to say the most respected person is their secretary because she is hot? Are they hell. This might happen in the UK (not in the US where you might get sued). Without exception, the most feared respected person was always named as Irien Tam.  What a surprise. Were the secrets things like "I am a ladyboy" or "I have an opium addiction" What do you think? The most exciting secret we heard is that it was someone's birthday the previous week. Wow. Those Chinese guys really lead a wild and crazy life.

The next activity is too difficult to describe in detail.  Let it suffice to say that it involved four colleagues holding on to various parts of my body whilst I leaned over to grab a coloured ball that was about 4 feet away. For the life of me, I can not imagine a scenario at work where I  am standing on one leg, someone in my team is holding me around the waist whilst another person is holding my other leg up in the air. While I am wearing a dress. I have experienced security alerts, massive cock-ups, epileptic fits and power outages, but in 25 years,  I have never experienced anything in a bank in that required me to shave my legs and ensure that I had on nice panties.  This was a first.

Many other similar events followed, and I have to say that my colleagues appeared to be having a blast. I could  feel teams being built with every humiliating stunt. Maybe there is something to these events after all that mimics real life at work.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

notes from Hong Kong 10 - Health Care

One of the many things that I didn't have a clue about when we moved to Hong Kong was health care.  I had some vague idea that it would be sort of like the National Health system, but maybe with some powdered rhino horn or snake tea thrown in for good measure.  I didn't expect that we would have much need for it other than for our regular prescriptions for things like asthma medication, valium,  percodans and the other occasional mild opiate so I didn't really give it much thought before we moved.

On my first day at work, I had to have an induction.  This scared the life out of me, because the last time I had one of those, I had 19 hours of excrutiating pain followed by being cut open with a knife and a screaming alien being removed from my belly.  The work induction wasn't quite so painful, but sadly it was also ultimately not so rewarding.  Anyway, I went along to the induction, and I was grateful to see that it didn't involve anyone sticking things up my privates, but rather was an informative session about things like health care in Hong Kong.  I was given little cards for David, Sadie and I to carry around at all times in case we ever needed a doctor.  I was also given little cards for us to carry if we are ever outside the country and in need of health care.  I was told that wherever we were in the world, it was now safe to be ill. What a relief.  I was also given a list of "panel doctors" in Hong Kong.  This mystified me at first, as I thought it was a list of experts we could use to fix the woodwork in in flat, but it turned out to be a list of doctors that we could use. Yes, we had private health care.

A few weeks later, I learned a very important lesson.  It is a very stupid and painful thing to put your foot between the gangplank of a ferry and the pier. The gangplank goes up with the waves and then down on your foot.   If you ever want a good laugh, try to picture 200 Chinese people trying to get on a boat, a screaming Western woman, an almost teenager who is trying to get as far away from the screaming western woman as possible and a blind man who can't understand why his girlfriend is swearing,  why the almost teenager has run away and why 200 Chinese people are trying to push  him into the harbour.  I managed to get David onto the boat and me sat down.  I also managed to yell "Get your ass over here. NOW" to the almost teenager.  Although most of the people on the boat did not speak English, I expect that they knew what I was saying. The mothers did at least. 

The pain had subsided somewhat when we got to Lamma Island for our planned stroll.  By this time, my foot was pretty numb so the 3 mile walk wasn't too bad.  We even managed a lovely seafood lunch before our return ferry journey.  By the time we got home, I wasn't even really that worried about my foot. I thought I might have a brusie or something until I took off my shoe and noticed that my white sock was no longer white, but bright red. And wet. That's when it REALLY started to hurt (my foot, not the sock).  It took me a while to wash off enough blood to survey the damage, but there it was.  A smashed toe.  Is there anything more pathetic than a smashed toe?  Smashed toes really hurt, but for some reason are not really viewed as deserving of sympathy.    "Daviiiiiiid, my toe is smaaaaassshhhhedd", I wailed.  "Really?  That's a shame."  "Saaaadddiiiieee, my toe is smaaashedddd."  "Really? What's for dinner?"  David and Sadie looked at one another and sniggered.  I couldn't tell which one of them it was who muttered "it's only a stupid toe" just loud enough for me to hear.

The next morning, I was unable to put a shoe on, and my toenail had turned black without the aid of any gothic style nail polish. A panel doctor was just what I needed.  So, I consulted the handy list from induction day and called up "Quality Health Care" (QHC) for an appointment.  I was a bit concerned that it sounded like a discount brand that you might find at Costco or on the Home Shopping Channel, but was pleased nonetheless when they told me to come on in.  

QHC is located on the 5th floor of an office building across the street from my office.  Everything (restaurants, hairdressers, massage places, book stores) in Hong Kong is located in an office building; there is very little at ground level).  When I arrived, it looked like a proper medical centre.  I checked in with reception, and they told me that because I did not have an appointment, I might have to wait a bit.  I said "no problem".  The receptionist said "Are you sure you don't mind? It might be 10 minutes or so."  I was too astonished to speak.  To me, waiting a while to see a doctor without an appointment meant several hours.

Five minutes later, I was called into the office of Dr. Cheung who  took a look at my toe and gave me all of the sympathy I had been craving for the past 24 hours.  He cradled my foot, gently prodded my toe and looked terribly concerned when I winced.  "It must be very painful", he said with a sympathetic nod of his head.  I fell in love with him then and there.  "I'm afraid I must refer you to a surgeon".  I felt a surge of rightious vindication.  Yes! My toe was so damaged that it required a surgeon!  It may only be a toe, but it was in need of SURGERY! I was so greatful for an appropriate level of concern that I didn't even consider that the surgeon might be required to amputate my foot.  Who cares? Someone was acknowledging my pain.

"How long will it be before I can get an appointment with the surgeon", I asked, expecting a date sometime next summer.  "It will be about 20 minutes" he said. "I hope you don't mind waiting".  It turns out the surgeon was located just down the hall and QHC was all kitted out to perform surgery right there on the fifth floor of an office building!  I limped down to his office, and sure enough he ushered me in 20 minutes later.  Dr. Poon was only slightly less sympathetic when he announced to me that my toenail had to come off. My first thought was to wonder how on earth I would get a pedicure without a toenail.  Then I remembered the great progress that had been made in recent years in nail technology, and I was pretty confident that a nail prothesis was a distinct possibility. 

So, I was shown into the operating theatre and told to lie down on the table. Dr. Poon then got an enormous syringe and told me to relax whilst he injected a local anaesthetic into my toe.  Now, I know that it was the Japanese during WW2 who were infamous for torturing people by sticking sharp things under their nails, but I couldn't help but imagine Dr. Poon in a camouflage uniform trying to get me to confess to blowing up a bridge. Oh my god, did it hurt.  After the first injection he tried to start the nail removal, but I was screaming so loudly he thought I would frighten the other patients so he gave me another injection.  Maybe he was used to dealing with tiny little Chinese toes, but it took him four injections for him to numb me enough not to beg for mercy and confess to everything from the Cultural Revolution to the Cold War.

Once the surgery was over, he apologised for causing me pain and sent me on my way with proper pain killers. Yippee!  When I go home, Sadie did not comment either on the large bandage on my foot or my exaggerated limp. I chose to interpret "What's for dinner" as her version of "Poor, mommy.  Are you OK?"  My toe is now fine, although now that summer is almost here I really am going to have to address that pedicure issue.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 9 - Nanjing

One of the things that most excited me about moving to Hong Kong was the opportunity to visit Mainland China.  My ideas of what it would be like have been strongly coloured by growing up in America during the 60s and 70s and by reading books like "Wild Swans" and "The Last Emperor".  I have, of course, also been influenced by Bruce Lee,  "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Kung Fu".   In other words, somewhere in the back of my head I was expecting row after row of Communist women in olive uniforms with bound feet doing martial arts whilst lifting burning cauldrons out of doorways and flinging themselves into the snow to cool their burns before being shot for behaving too intellectually.  I feel vaguely disappointed that during my recent trip to Nanjing, I didn't see anything like that.

The bankis about to sign a contract with a company to supply some Software.  As we haven't signed the contract yet, I shall refer to this company as "Sino Systems" - not its real name.  It is owned and run by two Taiwanese brothers, and they have offices all over the world.  Their major software development centre is in Nanjing, and as I am running the programme that will use their software, I don't need a fortune cookie to tell me that I will be seeing a lot of Nanjing in the future.  I made my first trip there last week in the company of one of my four bosses, a colleague and two members of my team.  My boss, colleague and I travelled out together on the evening flight from Hong Kong, arriving at about 9:30 into Nanjing airport. 

The airport looked pretty much like any other airport, with people waiting outside international arrivals to greet colleagues, family members and loved ones (in many cases in China, these are all the same people). We were met by a young man holding a sign printed with "HSBC" in tiny little letters. It is always so reassuring to be greeted at the airport by someone with a sign. It makes your feel confident that you are actually in the right place.  Even when there is no chance in hell of someone meeting me at an airport, I still always look out for a man with a little sign. Even though sign-man spoke not a word of English, we managed to convince him that we were the people he was looking for. He also managed to communicate that we should be patient as we needed to wait for one of the Sino Systems owner/manager/brothers to arrive so he could drive us all into town together.  Luckily, my colleague was from Hong Kong and although he only speaks Cantonese he seemed to do better understanding our Mandarin speaking driver than I did.  Actually, maybe he didn't and just made the whole thing up.

Anyway, we were standing around waiting when I heard a terrible explosion behind me.  My boss and I jumped (colleague had gone to the loo) and quickly turned around to see which way we should flee.  Despite the horrific blast we had heard, we couldn't see any carnage or destruction.  No one else seem the least bit perturbed. How odd. A few minutes later, we hear it again. Again, we did the jump and spin move and saw nothing.  It was really starting to freak me out.  Then it happened again whilst I was facing in the right direction to see it.  What I thought was a medium sized incendiary device was actually a rather large man sneezing, coughing and spitting simultaneously. I am not exaggerating when I say that the sound was akin to Concorde firing up for take-off.  I think I would rather have been hit with shrapnel than the stuff that came out of this guy's facial orifices. It was disgusting. All I could think about was that film "Outbreak" with Dustin Hoffman that used animation to chart the progress of a deadly airborne virus.  I really thought I could see the germs hitting me with each explosive roar.  Well, I'm still here so I guess the germs did not have an immediate impact.

When the owner/manager/brother finally arrived, we all piled into a car and headed towards our hotel.  I was so excited to be in CHINA! The first thing that struck me about Nanjing, a major city of five million people, is that it was dark.  What few street lamps existed were very dim and I was wondering where all those people were.  Maybe everyone just goes to bed and turns out the lights very early in Nanjing.  The second thing that struck me about Nanjing was terror.  I have driven/been driven on some of the most chaotic roads in the world, but nothing compares to the sheer insanity that is driving in Nanjing.  Cars share the motorways with cyclists and pedestrians. No one indicates their next movements. Lanes are fiction and there appeared to be no rules at all about on which side of the road one should drive.  I have never been so frightened in my life. 

When we finally arrived at our hotel, we all needed a drink so we agreed to meet at the hotel bar in 10 minutes after dumping our stuff in our rooms.  One of the most important things to know about China is that British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and the China National Tobacco company are all alive and well there (unlike their customers). EVERYONE smokes and there are none of those snotty, annoying little rules about non-smoking restaurants, offices or rooms.  I made my way to the hotel bar, hilariously entitled "Danny's Irish Bar - Nanjing's first and only Irish bar".  I could barely see two feet in front of me for all the smoke, but I managed to grope my way in.  Not only could I barely see, I couldn't hear over the sounds of "Nanjing's only Colombian band" who were blasting classic hard rock with a passion that I have only ever seen matched by other fourth rate hotel rock bands from Columbia. The only thing more excruciating than the music itself was the couple attempting to slow dance (on "Nanjing's biggest dance floor!") to Marilyn Manson.

Whilst I mimed conversation with my boss (there was absolutely no way we could hear each other speak), I noticed that there were many other working women in the bar. I was, however, the only one not wearing a mini skirt, halter top and stilettos. I felt really overdressed and decided to call it a night.  I later found out that the private karaoke rooms on the same floor as Danny's offer very special services. And I thought those guys just wanted to sing along to Tom Jones tunes.

The next day was spent at Sino Systems who are based in a new "tech park" along with several other technology companies.  If you are thinking Silicon Valley, don't.  In this case, the park was more concrete than grass. We walked into the office and saw that it was bright with big spacious rooms empty except for desks, chairs, cardboard boxes and cigarette smoke. The walls were completely blank. In sharp contrast to Hong Kong offices, the desks were completely devoid of any personal adornment. The developers, none of whom appeared older than twelve, were all sat at their desks bundled up in their coats (the developers were bundled, not the desks), even though the heaters were going full blast and the cigarette embers could have warmed a small country.   I found all of this very strange; very temporary. "When did you move in", I queried, expecting an answer of "last week". "Three years ago" said the proud development manager. I nearly fell over in shock.  You would think that in three years they might have managed to hang a poster on the wall - maybe one of those big eyed puppies that everyone seems so fond of.  It honestly looked as if they were all ready to evacuate the building with a moment's notice. Aha, I thought.  I have finally found the evidence for the dull uniformity that is life in a Communist regime. Excited now, I looked around for evidence of starving children (those ones I was told about when I didn't finish my dinner as a child), water torture and Chairman Mao's little red book. I never found it.  I guess that people in China just don't like to decorate their offices with posters of David Beckham and Hello Kitty paraphernalia.

Our Chinese hosts were very keen to treat their new customers like royalty. Well, maybe not royalty, more like valued party members. We were taken out for both lunch and dinner. For lunch, we walked about 10 minutes to what looked like another office building.  We were assured that it was indeed a restaurant, but it only had private rooms.  Maybe if I hadn't been there, the guys would have been offered a karaoke singer. After lunch, I excused myself to find the ladies room. It was there that I made a startling realisation. I am now too old to find any novelty in a squat toilet. Sighing heavily, I locked myself into the stall.  I then realised that there was absolutely no place to hang my handbag, and I sure couldn't put it on the floor.  Given that I needed both hands for what I was about to do, holding it simply wasn't an option. The strap wasn't long enough to go over my head, so I did what any girl would do in that position. I gripped the damned thing between my teeth thanking all the gods above that I had had the good sense to remove my laptop earlier.   I then had to undo and lower my trousers to the precise position that would allow me to pee but not so far down they would slip to the ground and touch the unspeakable floor and position myself appropriately over the hole.  I then had to crouch down low enough to minimise splash back but not so far that I risked losing my balance.  I then had to reach between my knees and pull my knickers/trousers forward so that they wouldn't get wet.  It's not a pretty picture, is it? Keep in mind that my handbag was still between my teeth.  I did what I needed to do and then realised....that's toilet paper.  Stymied, I was temporarily paralysed. I had tissues in my handbag, but I needed one hand to keep my trousers/knickers pulled forward out of the drip zone and the other hand to manage my balance. I managed to release one handbag handle from my mouth (this really should be an Olympic sport), thus allowing it to open just enough for me to use the balancing hand to fish around for the tissues.  By this time, my squat angle was way off and I was dripping on my other hand.  I just did the best I could, stood up and exited the stall in as dignified a manner as I could. With no hot water and no soap, I reminded myself that urine is sterile when it comes out of the body and that Shirley Maclaine even drinks her own every day (allegedly).  Like I said, I am simply too old for this.

 For dinner, we went to the trendy part of town (it has lights!) to a fancy restaurant where we also had a private room.  I had the honour of sitting next to one of the owner/manager/brothers who spoke very limited English and has a real fondness for pork products.   We did not order; the food was simply brought to the table and placed on a giant Lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Everyone just spun the wheel and helped themselves. The food was not like anything I ever experienced in any Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world.  Here is some of what was on offer: shredded jellyfish, pigs ears, beef cartilage, chicken feet, duck tongue, drunken shrimp (served live, swimming in wine), smoked snake and pigeon head.  I know I have a tendency towards exaggeration, but I swear to you that every last one of those dishes was on the table.  The worst was the pigeon heads with their pointy beaks and beady eyes that looked at you as you popped them whole into your mouth.  I couldn't actually bring myself to do it.  The only one of those things I managed was a bit of pigs ear which wasn't too bad.  Next time I go to China I am bringing some granola bars and a couple of cans of baked beans.

Even with all of this, I am looking forward to going back again.  I was struck by the similarities between Nanjing in 2011 and Bucharest in 1994.  The feel of the places is the same.  Growing private enterprise in the midst of concrete bureaucracy. A huge gulf between exceptionally rich and heart breakingly poor. Beautiful women and ugly men.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 8 - Furniture

I never in my entire life thought that I could write a sentence about furniture, much less an entire blog. I only hope that that the blog is far more interesting than the experience itself (you should be hoping this too, readers!).

Before we moved to Hong Kong, we were informed that we were to work with a company called EC Harris for all our housing related needs.  Before we arrived, they ensured that our chosen flat was clean, everything was in working order, the phone was installed and there were sufficient bars on the windows in the "helpers" room.  Given that the helpers are forced to live in a space smaller than the average bathroom, I guess the bars are to keep them from hurling themselves from the 12th floor window.   ECH also provided us with a link to the website for a company called "Home Essentials", a local furniture rental company with whom ECH have a contractual relationship.  We were told to log onto the website and choose the furniture we wanted for our flat.  You are given credits for the furniture depending on what your grade is in the bank. The more senior you are, the  more credits you get and therefore the more/better furniture you get.  We were told that whatever we ordered would be delivered within four weeks so our flat could be fully kitted out by the time we arrived. How nice.

We dutifully logged on to the website with a real sense of anticipation.  We were expecting Conran, Heals, Roche Bubois or at the very least, Ikea. I am a Band 3 Senior Manager after all. Our expectations were quickly dashed as the furniture on this website looked like something out of "Tatty Reproduction Furniture Ltd". The website is divided into rooms: bedroom, living room, dining room and other.  For each room you have three style choices: dark brown, light brown and fake Chinese orange.  Feeling rebellious, we went for the dark brown option and chose a double bed, 2 single beds for Sadie, 3 chests of drawers, a dining table with red (!) chairs, grey sofas/armchairs, 3 bookcases, a sideboard and 3 desks.  With the few remaining credits, we went way out on a limb and got some lamps. We could now have a flat that looked EXACTLY THE SAME as everyone else's who is on a secondment for HSBC. I think they allow you to express some individuality by choosing your own light bulbs (regular or energy saving), but that's pretty much as far as it goes. Anyway, if you choose energy saving light bulbs, you are probably considered just a bit too left wing for career advancement.

When we arrived at our new flat, there was a lovely man from ECH to let us in and show us around. He proudly pointed out the air conditioners in each room, but he looked a bit embarrassed when I asked about heaters. "No heaters", he said, "but look at the lovely air conditioners"  "They are very nice, but we can see our breath", I said as I watched David and Sadie shiver. He made a quick exit and left us to our own chilly devices.  We had a look round the flat and found one double bed (used), one single bed (used), two chests of drawers (very used), one beige sofa (used), two beige armchairs (used), one dining table (very used) and six beige dining chairs (used). "Hmmm...I don't remember ordering beat up old furniture in beige".  It was very late at that point, so we were just grateful to have beds, used or not, and off to sleep we went.

When we got back in touch with ECH, we were told that Home Essentials was having a few problems with their suppliers and our new furniture would arrive "soon". Several weeks later, we still didn't have the furniture we ordered and I was weary of losing Sadie and David amongst all the other beige things in the flat. Thank god they wear clothes, or I never would have found them again.  David established a close personal relationship with a young woman at Home Essentials and managed to get them to deliver one more bed (used), two bookcases (very used), one sideboard (very very used) and 3 desks (two of them fake orange Chinese and so short that neither David nor I can get our legs under them).

David and I then started a good cop/bad cop routine (yes, I was the bad cop) with both Home Essentials and ECH. I tried the "do you know who I am" tactic (they didn't), and David tried the "I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but I have a terrible illness and my only wish in this life is to have furniture" tactic. This finally resulted two weeks ago in EC Harris telling us that Home Essentials would probably never be able to fulfil the order and that we should go to a shop called Indigo and buy our own furniture. We would have to give back what we had from Home Essentials (I am really going to miss this desk, but it will be nice to not have cramp in my legs anymore), but they would give us HK$40,000  (about £3800 or US$5500) to buy new furniture.

Now, we had been to Indigo the week before, and we knew that HK$40,000 would maybe buy a table and a couple of chairs. It is eye wateringly expensive.  So, I (the Bad Lieutenant) rang up our contact at EC Harris and explained that this simply wasn't enough to furnish a three bedroom flat. (By the way, our contact is called Man Kei, which the way she pronounces it sounds like Manky.  This goes some way towards mitigating the Kafka-esque situation in which we find ourselves). We were then informed that we could only have HK$40,000 but we were permitted to shop at Ikea (pronounced Ick - E - Uh) if we wished.  This resulted in our second trip to Ikea in a month.  It was heaving, and I had a major panic attack when I had to figure out the 943 separate items required to make up the entertainment centre we wanted. My heart was beating, my palms were sweating and I seriously considered abandoning both my boyfriend and my child in a dash for air. David managed to talk me down (it was like talking someone off the roof of a 85 story building not someone in between the Besta TV Benches and the Hulska Sofas) and we managed to make a get through the shop and make a list of all of our required furniture items.

On the Monday, I emailed Man Kei with our choices and said that they came to under $40,000 but some of it wasn't very nice and could we mix and match Ikea and Indigo furniture.  After consulting with her boss, Man Kei informs us that she will need to come inspect our furniture to see if we can keep any of it. The fact that this makes no sense whatsoever  and has absolutely nothing to do with what I asked is, I guess, beside the point. She comes to inspect the furniture (or maybe she just wanted to inspect David) and decides that we can keep the beds, the bookcases and the chests of drawers but the rest are indeed too manky (sorry) to keep. She needed to speak to her boss about how much money we could now spend on new stuff.  A few days ago we had an email informing us that we could keep the beds, the bookcases, the chests of drawers and the lamps, but we could buy new sofa/chairs, dining table/chairs, desks and sideboard.  They would now give us HK$70,000 to buy the required items.  This is almost twice the amount for half of what we thought we had to buy! I felt like I was on "Let's Make a Deal".  Everything is a negotiation in Hong Kong.

David, Sadie and I made our third trip to Ikea yesterday. We are going to Indigo this afternoon. Tomorrow, we will place our final order with Man Kei so ECH can buy the stuff we want. None of it is beige.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 7 - Kung Hei Fat Choi

The Chinese lunar new year is now being celebrated here in Hong Kong, and the sound of "Kung Hei Fat Choi" rings out everywhere you go.  This is the Chinese phrase for "Happy New Year" or literally "Wishing you prosperity and wealth".  This is so typically Hong Kong, where wishes for wealth are far more prevelant than wishes for health, happiness, world peace or a cure for cancer.

It has been a fun, but stressful, time leading up to the holiday that rivals Christmas/Thanksgiving/Groundhog Day in its magnitude here.   There are so many traditions to follow; there are so many things to get completely wrong. 

The first thing to worry about is when to start saying Kung Hei Fat Choi. Is it like Christmas, where you can start saying "Merry Christmas" just after Halloween? Or, is it one of those bad luck Chinese things where the world will come to an end if you say it before the actual event?  I'm pretty sure it's the latter, but I slipped up and said it to someone a few days early last week.  That may be the root cause behind the massive winter storm in North America, the Egyptian uprising and Andy Murray's tennis loss.  Really sorry everyone.

The next things to worry about are the traditional Chinese New Year's foods. For several weeks now, the Chinese restaurant in our building complex has been selling hampers chock full of new year specialties.  These include four different types of "delicious puddings":  turnip, taro (a small starchy tuber that is toxic unless well cooked) and glutinous rice, as well as sesame balls (tasty balls of glutinous rice flour filled with red bean paste and rolled in sesame seeds and fried). It's a long way from the stilton, port and shortbread in my familiar holiday hamper. I had the opportunity to try some of the turnip pudding recently, and it was surprisingly delicious, once I got past the textural issues.  Here is how you could make something similar at home (well, at least if home is in the southern United States).  Cook some grits. Add tiny chopped up pieces of ham. Spread it in a pan. Put it in a fridge until it is completely gummy and congealed. Eat it. No turnips, but I swear the taste and texture is the same.  Other traditional foods include oranges or tangerines with the leaves still on (entire trees are often given as gifts), jai (a combination of food that allegedly represents good forune which includes ginko nut, black moss, dried bean curd, bamboo shoots, noodles and green onions) and whole chicken and fish to represent prosperity.  When I say whole, I do mean that quite literally.  Chickens, ducks and geese are all served comlete with head, tail and feet. MmmmMmmm.

I manage a large team of people in Hong Kong, and I am expected to sponsor (i.e. pay for) regular social events.  We try to give these events a cultural theme, so last week I hosted a holiday party in the staff restaurant. We all took part in a traditional new year activity, using Chinese caligraphy to make small banners with four word new year wishes. It was great fun, sort of like being in Kindergarten again as all the tables were covered with newspaper and we were warned of the perils of indelible ink. First you take a red piece of paper that is about eight inches wide and 15 inches long.  You then take a special paint brush and dip it in a glass that has some cotton in it that has been soaked in black ink.  You hold the brush sort of like a chopstick and then paint your Chinese characters. These characters can be incredibly complex, and there are strict rules about the order in which you draw the different brush strokes. It is painstaking, but very relaxing work. We were given a choice of "sayings" to draw.  Most of these, as I have come to expect in Hong Kong, have to do with wealth and professional success.  They include: "May you have great wealth", "May you be promoted", and "May you be very successful".  Actually they could have all said "Lisa is a complete idiot". I would have been none the wiser. 

Every social event in Hong Kong includes prize giving, raffles and other things focussed on winning stuff. The new years party was no different.  The caligraphy teacher had to award prizes for the best work.  As always in these events, I won. I assure you this had nothing to do with the quality of my painting and everything to do with kissing up to the boss. The HK$50 voucher for a local supermarket went some way towards compensating for the HK$2000 I had to shell out for the party in the first place.  After the prize giving, everyone lines up for a group photo and then several people ask to have their picture taken with me. I am not sure if this is a sign of respect or an opportunity for them to show their families pictures of themselves with that very large western woman and have a good laugh.

The trickiest custom related to Chinese New Year is something called lee see or red envelope.  It is customary to give lee sees stuffed with cash to a wide variety of people during the holiday season. The rules around this custom are a complete minefield. The first group of people to receive lee sees are children.  This is pretty straightforward.  First of all, because I don't know a lot of children here and secondly because they won't refuse to speak/serve/work with me for the rest of the year if I get the amount wrong. I have filled a number of red envelopes with HK$20 (about £1.80 or US$2.50) to keep handly in case I run into any threatening looking children. The second category of people to receive lee sees are people who provide a regular service to you. This includes the Uni-Barry doormen (now also known as Dominic, William, Philip and the one who doesn't wear a nametag).  It also includes our various shuttle bus drivers as well as Fong, my favourite supermarket check out lady.  You have to love anyone named Fong. These people all provide excellent service, and I am very happy to reward them for it. But how much? Do we give the same amount to all the Barrys even though some are around a lot more than others? Do they compare notes?  Will we be causing grave offence? If I give to Fong, but she has the longest queue to check out in the future, will the other check out ladies spurn me if I haven't given them a red envelope? It is so challenging.

The final dangerous category of lee see recepient is people at work. I have over 50 people who work for me in Hong Kong alone.  I am expected to give them all red envelopes.  Even with the minimum spend of HK$20, this is going to get very expensive.  I need to give even more to certain people. My PA will require at least HK$100 if she is to continue providing the excellent support that she has historically. I don't really have an issue with the money per se. I am far more worried about the logistics.  The problem is that I don't actually know the names of everyone on my team or recognise them by sight. This means that when I greet people at work next week, I will have a very hard time knowing to whom I should hand the envelopes.  Even worse, I am very likely to forget that I have already given someone an envelope and I will then end up giving them two. I have solved one problem by asking my PA to print out a list of the people who work for me. I have now labled 54 red envelopes.  The problem remains, however, of knowing who is who. I am in a complete panic over this, but I'll let you know how it goes.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 6 - The Office

I have a desk in two different buildings in Hong Kong, and both locations are interesting for very different reasons.

My official desk is located in HSBC Tower in Kowloon.  Kowloon is to Hong Kong Island as Brooklyn is to Manhattan.  Try as you might to pretend it's the most happening place on the planet, it isn't. It's where the bank homes its IT, operations and other back office staff too poorly dressed to be put in front of a real live customer or senior manager. I can assure you, however,  that the collective IQ in HSBC Tower is exponentially higher than that in the head office location.

The building is a short two stops on the MTR (subway/tube/underground) from Hong Kong station (think Brooklyn Heights). The area is called Olympic. I'm betting that the neighbourhood hasn't always been called Olympic - I could be wrong, but it doesn't sound like a very Chinese name. O Lim Puk maybe. Anyway, there is a big shopping mall next to the office with the original name of Olympic City. It is ever so slightly downmarket. Somewhere between Wood Green Shopping City and Brent Cross, but probably closer to Wood Green.  I have so digressed.

When you first walk into HSBC Tower, you immediately smell a newsagent in front of you. That's right. You smell it. In addition to all the usual stuff you would expect to find crammed into a space the size of a taxi, the proprietor also sells the most foul smelling little balls of something that he keeps in watery looking juice in a crock pot. I am not kidding when I say the smell actually gags me some days.  It's kind of a cross between a nursing home pee smell and that smell you get when you haven't opened a cupboard for a while and you suspect something has died in the back but you don't want to look.   I have not yet worked up the courage to ask what those balls are. All I know is that there is usually a queue out the door of people willing to part with their hard earned cash to purchase those nasty little soupy spheres. I'll let you know if I ever discover what they are.

Up on the 11th floor where I sit, it is a big open plan office with row after row of desks, the size and location of which provides a not so subtle clue as to the occupants' seniority and status. I have two desks, kind of angled next to one another next to a window. I also have four (!) cupboards that are empty except for my shoes. I must be a very important person.  Irine Lim, who is my local boss (she is worth at least 2 blogs by herself), has an huge office with a door. She is off the scale important.

The open plan office in HSBC Tower is unlike anything you will ever see in the West. Everyone makes a huge effort to customise their space. Some desks are so completely covered in photos, trophies, plants, souvenir snowglobes and other tschatchkes that you can't even see the desk itself.  My PA, has even framed her computer screen with a furry wrap and pictures of David Beckham. That's if you can find it amongst all the Hello Kitty paraphernalia.

It is quite noisy in this office.  That's not because people talk loudly. For the most part, no one talks at all. That's because they couldn't be heard over the sound of farting and burping.  I KNOW that this is perfectly acceptable in China, but I can't help but giggle every time it happens.  The guy who sits nearest me belches so impressively that it sounds like he downs a litre of very fizzy beer about every 20 minutes. I honestly don't know how he does it.  Every single time, I look around to see who else is laughing. No one else ever even looks up.

On the dot at noon, the lights are switched off for an hour. I have not yet figured out if this is an effort to be ecologically sound or siesta time. Given that several people in the office pull out a pillow from one of their cupboards, lay it on their desk and start to snore, i suspect it might be the latter.  This really does happen, I promise.

One of the most interesting things about this office is the ladies room. It looks and performs just like any other ladies room you might have run across. Toilets, sinks, mirrors, etc. Then you go into one of the stalls and you see loads of little purses lined up on the shelf behind the toilet. Each one is a different size, shape and colour.  I wasn't sure it was the done thing, but I took the liberty of investigating.  Every one was filled with sanitary towels.  I'm reasonably certain these weren't laid on by the bank. I can only assume that each woman brings in her own personal selection and leaves them in the loo to use when and as required.  I guess they are way too shy to be seen carrying sanitary products in public.

I usually arrive at the office just before 8:00.  All the locals arrive between 9 and 9:30.  Between 12 and 2, they either take a nap or disappear for lunch. Most people go out for long lunches. It is very common for people here to go out for lunch. I wish I knew where they were going, but then again maybe I don't if it involves those disgusting news agent things.   The building has a staff canteen, but I can't figure out how to use it. There appears to be a very complicated system involving knowing exactly what you want to eat before you see it, paying for it and then queuing up to have it dished up. I would ask someone to help me, but every Chinese person who works for me looks terrified every time I look at them, much less speak to them. They are deferential almost to the point of obsequiousness.  It makes me desperately uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as it makes them when I try to be "just one of the gang". Imagine how you would feel if the queen asked you for lunch recommendations.  Oh lord, I just compared myself to the queen. Please don't think I'm succumbing to the ex-pat disease of thinking I'm better than I am. I was just trying to give a helpful analogy. Really.

My other desk is in the bank's head office at One Queen's Road Central. This is known as QRC. The building is an amazing work of architecture, with all of the banks infrastructure on the outside of the building. Does that make it an extrastructure?  The only problem is that you can't actually take a lift where you want to go.  My desk is on the 23rd floor.  I have to take a lift to the 20th and then up three escalators. It is all very confusing. 

Everything is very different at QRC. About 50% of the people who work there are ex-pats. About 50 % of those are English Public School Boys. If you close you eyes, you might think you are at Eton or Marlborough. The bank has a programme called the International Management (IM) Programme. It takes English public school boys out of university and gives them important jobs all over the world in two year stints. There are very, very few women IMs. These guys, for the most part, stay long enough in one place just to screw it up before moving on to the next challenge. It is a completely closed club--almost like a secret society. They eat together, drink together, protect each other and show utter contemp for those not in their club. For them, it's all about title, who you know, what clubs you belong to and maintaining their ownership of the world.  Just in case you haven't guessed, I loathe them. I am sure the feeling is mutual. Yah.