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.