marjorieinchina: (dragon)
[personal profile] marjorieinchina
(Holy verbosity, Batman, this entry is LONG. If you want to skip the words and just look at my pictures, you can hop over here.)

I have to make a confession before moving on with this narrative, this story about my travels all over Asia: I'm not really brave enough to go traveling alone all over Asia. Try to send me on a solo trip through, say, Vietnam, and I would probably discover some urgent other thing I had to do. What I really did was a tour of the former British Empire in Asia. This meant that I got used to looking right before crossing the street, but mostly it meant that there was widespread English everywhere I went traveling.

I spent a moment feeling slightly guilty about this imperial manner of travel and how it stuck, if not within my comfort zone, then as close to it as I could reasonably get on this side of the world. But I got over it as soon as I arrived in the Hong Kong airport on Friday morning, after a sleepless overnight trip from India, and found a place to buy a blueberry muffin and a pot of Earl Grey.

The western food in Hong Kong was more or less the best thing that had ever happened to me. I've been eating Chinese food pretty happily since October--there is weird food, but it's hard to get tired of rice and noodles; the dumplings are always decent, vegetables are plentiful, and I've gotten rather fond of some of the more distinctly Chinese flavors even though I don't know what to call them. (Just today I had some tofu in a sauce that tasted kind of...caramelized? Weird, but good.) And the food in India was marvelous, except on the couple of occasions when it was too spicy for me. But I didn't realize how much I missed pastries and the coffeeshops where you can just sit and have a slow cup of tea and read your book or check your e-mail and everyone else is doing the same thing. As I recount this part of the trip, you can assume every day starts with "First I went to Starbucks/Delifrance and had a muffin/scone/croissant and it was amazing."

So, I went to the Delifrance in the airport and had a muffin and it was amazing. Then I stared blearily at my Lonely Planet China and the train schedule and took the train to my hostel. I did this entirely wrong, changing trains at least three times and then walking kinda far and discovering there was another subway stop that would have taken me much closer to where I was going. But the trains were very efficient (Hong Kong has an amazing public transit system, even though I managed to get lost coming out of the subway station almost every day) and I made it to bustling Jordan Road, into the correct building, and up to the seventh floor where my hostel was located. It was minuscule and was probably one of a dozen hostels in the same building. My room was not yet ready when I arrived, so I used their computer to compose a few sleepy e-mails, and when they let me into the room I dropped into bed and fell asleep for a couple hours. The room had no windows, so sleeping in the middle of the day was easy. I did set an alarm, so I wouldn't miss the whole day, and when it went off I got up, made myself presentable, and went out to look at the city.

Looking at Hong Kong can take a long time, and if you are tired, it will not make you less tired. It will make you more awake, though. I was staying on Jordan Road, which is a gigantic commercial street running north-south through Kowloon peninsula. I went out and walked down this street and--I think this is the technical term--gawked. The crowds were unbelievable, but I can deal with crowds. Lots of people were stopping to look in the windows of the jewelry stores--there were jewelry stores on every block, and they were full of special items for Chinese New Year. I kept going south until I got to the harbor, just in time for the nightly light show, so I stopped and watched that and found it frankly pretty great. The show had a couple very enthusiastic narrators--both speaking entirely in English, which was telling. "Welcome to Hong Kong!" they said, "Asia's world city!" Hey, thanks! I thought. Of course, I took lots of pictures, and I have deleted most of them because they were photographs of moving lights on a dim and foggy evening.

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Saturday was my first proper day in Hong Kong. I made it a museum day, spending the morning in the art museum and the afternoon in the history museum. I learned rather a lot in both places. The art museum had a special exhibit called "New Vision New Colors" that focused on Hong Kong artists' visions of the city. It was an interesting first look at Hong Kong, as the artists all seemed to have different impressions and proposals for the city's space. I was especially taken with one of the first pieces, a set of hand-crafted metal folding bed units for an imagined rich family turned homeless--there was a looped slide show that depicted them waking up and living and dancing in a city park somewhere, all in tuxedoes and evening gowns. The jazz soundtrack from that video could be heard all over that floor of the museum. A lot of the pieces seemed to be on a similar theme of carving out personal and unique space in an extremely dense and crowded city.

I looked at traditional paintings and calligraphy; I looked at porcelain, including the fencai style with the deep colors that I like so much. I looked at materials from 18th-19th century Canton, and some paintings by the "New Literati" of the twentieth century who used traditional techniques in really fascinating modern ways. I wrote pages and pages about all of this in my paper journal--the last exhibit was particularly interesting to me because I've seen very little modern art in a Chinese context--for understandable historical reasons; while artists elsewhere were developing modernism, China had a lot of other things going on. Hong Kong filled in the gap.

It was well past lunchtime when I left the art museum; I found some sushi in a sort of underground shopping center and moved on to the Hong Kong Museum of History. This was fascinating--if you go, take at least two hours, as there's a lot to see, including short films I sort of skipped in order to get through the museum before it closed. Gained a beginner's familiarity with the Opium Wars, which I hadn't really known much about. (3-second version of the Opium Wars: England wanted to buy Chinese tea and silk and China didn't want to buy anything from England, so the money was all going in one direction; England addressed this by bringing in opium from their colonies in India and a lot of Chinese got addicted; a Chinese official had a large shipment of opium destroyed, England called it an act of war and called in the ships and boom, you've got Hong Kong.)

I was determined to have Cantonese food for dinner, so I went wandering the streets and and ended up getting pork and rice and some kind of vegetables in a cheap place I couldn't have found again if I tried.

Sunday it was rainy when I first went out, but then it stopped raining, and I had gotten the impression there was very seldom a really clear day in Hong Kong, so I decided it was as good a time as ever to go over to Hong Kong Island and take the tram up to Victoria Peak. This...was not a good call. The ferry ride itself was nice enough, as I'm nearly always happy to go ride a boat, but the rain started again on the tram ride, and when we got to the top this was the view:

The view from the top

The Victoria Tower boasted a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and some candy stores. I bought some gummy worms and got back on the tram. Back at the bottom of the hill, I went looking for the Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware. I eventually found it, and walked around dripping on their floors, looking at tea cups, and gradually realizing I wasn't as interested in this as I wanted to be. I went back out, hailed a cab, and went to SoHo, where I found a burger restaurant and had the best hamburger of my life. I stayed in there until I'd dried off a bit and then went wandering SoHo. There was an English-language bookstore there that had such a familiar and lovely bookstore feeling that I could have kissed the floor. Instead I contented myself with looking at the books and sighing a lot. I didn't have any space for more books in my luggage, but being there still made me happy. I went into a number of unabashedly Western stores--H&M, for example, and Marks & Spencer, which had a grocery section that smelled exactly like an English grocery store, a biscuity smell I didn't think I remembered but apparently did. I had dinner at Life, a vegetarian restaurant with books on the walls. Restaurants with books on the walls hold a special place in my heart. This one was exquisite.

On Monday, I went back to the art museum in the morning to hit up the galleries I hadn't seen, and then I took a ferry to Lantau to see the Big Buddha.

First glimpse of the Ngong Ping Big Buddha

I really liked the Big Buddha.

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When I went back down I tried to get a picture of me at the bottom of the steps to the Buddha, but this plan kind of backfired. Well, now I have a picture of me next to a giant urn.

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The Big Buddha is adjacent to a monastery, with a very lovely and peaceful temple complex and a vegetarian restaurant where, by showing my ticket to the museum, I got the only dim sum I ate in my whole time in Hong Kong. I know, I know, I am properly ashamed of this. But if I was only going to get a little dim sum, this was a nice way to do it. I like monasteries. The whole place, in fact, kind of put me in the mood to be in China again, which was something I needed.

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On Tuesday, I went to Macau! For anyone who's not aware (I wasn't), Macau is a lot like Hong Kong in that it used to be a colonial possession and it's now a Special Administrative Region of China, with a different currency and political system from the mainland. The foreign power controlling Macau was not England, however, but Portugal. Yes! Portugal had colonial territories besides Brazil! Macau is pretty close to Hong Kong--an hour's ride on a fast ship. Because I went to Macau and returned in the same day, I went through customs four times on Tuesday: leaving Hong Kong, entering Macau, leaving Macau, and entering Hong Kong again. I am becoming a pro at filling out arrival cards.

I brought my Lonely Planet guide with me and basically did exactly what it said to do in one day in Macau. First, the ruins of the Church of St. Paul:

Ruins of the Church of St. Paul

Then the Museum of Macau, which was really interesting although I'm not sure why the Lonely Planet called it one of the best museums in Asia. (When you are traveling alone, you start doing things like arguing with your guidebook.) It seemed like Portuguese and Chinese cultures had blended together in Macau much more than English and Chinese culture had done in Hong Kong. I don't know why--perhaps it had something to do with how long the Portuguese had been around, or the fact that Macau is not such a huge international city.

After the museum I trekked down the west side of the Macau peninsula and found somewhere to eat lunch. I had minchi, a local specialty, chopped beef with spices and a fried egg on top. Not half bad. After lunch I had a look at the A-Ma Temple and then found a bus that would take me to the little village of Coloane.

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Coloane was tiny and sleepy and a world away from the glitzy new Macau. Much of the village seemed to be shacks built on stilts. I strolled down the street to the town's church, which i loved instantly--like the town, tiny and sweet, with the ceiling over the chancel painted sky-blue with clouds. I looked in at one of the town's temples, too, and then ambled back toward what passes for downtown in Coloane and had some tea and an egg custard tart at Lord Stow's, which claims to have invented the egg custard tart. Whether they did or not, it was delicious.

Also spotted in Coloane: a purple dog.

Purple dog

I grabbed a bus back to Macau proper and it gradually became very crowded as we drove through the Cotai Strip, the new land filled in between the peninsula and islands, which is where the new casinos are. They have a Venetian casino there that is apparently a perfect replica of the one in Las Vegas--canals and gondolas and all. I got off at the Grand Lisboa and went in to have a look around.

Grand Lisboa casino

The Grand Lisboa looks something like a pineapple. It is gigantic and ridiculous. There are at least two ballroom-sized gambling floors, and the lobby is full of displays that exist for no apparent reason, like giant sculptures in semiprecious stone and an antique sculpture of a horse head and a diamond and an emerald in display cases.

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When I left the Grand Lisboa, I meandered up the streets and hung out in the Largo Senado, or senate square, eating noodles and looking at the Chinese New Year's decorations before catching my ferry back to Hong Kong.

Wednesday was my last day in Hong Kong. I took the subway north to where it became an above-ground train and took me to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. The guidebook had mentioned 400 steps, but I didn't realize what this meant until I was climbing them. It was a surreal climb, flanked by golden statues of what I guess were different Buddhas or Boddhisattvas, all men and all with different faces and attitudes.

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When I reached the top there were more Buddhas there, and a huge statue of Sakyamuni Buddha--the original Buddha--and the traditional temple guardians. The temple itself was lined with small statues, the actual 10,000 Buddhas, each with a flickering orange light bulb underneath it, and a very brief and repetitive chant being played on speakers. There was something relentless about the whole place. In the front of the temple there was a glass case containing what looked like a statue but had a placard on it that said "Corpse of Rev. Yuet Kai." It most definitely said "corpse." I was creeped out. Internet research tells me this was the body of the monastery's founder.

When I went back down I found the train and took it one whole stop to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. I meant to just have a look and then find someplace to eat, but the museum was better than I expected, with exhibits variously about Cantonese opera, interior design, a traditional painter from the 20th century that I liked better than any of the other Chinese painting I've seen (I found his name! It was Chao Shao-an); also a huge wing of Chinese art to which I didn't do justice, and a New Territories Heritage wing that I sort of breezed through because it covered the same ground as the history museum I'd already seen. I left feeling very edified and hungrier than I was before; fortunately the train station had a 7-11 of all things, with sandwiches. I refueled and hopped back on the train to visit the Chi Lin Nunnery.

I was getting kind of tired of temples by this time, but the nunnery was different: completely serene, flawlessly composed, and the statues were leagues beyond most of the statuary I've seen. Best of all, there were detailed signs in English. I found myself going around the temples in sync with two other visitors, and we all gaped, open-mouthed, at the huge golden statue of Avalokitesvara (known as Gwan Yin in most of China) sitting casually with one knee drawn up beside her, contemplating the reflection of the moon in water. Stunning. There was a feeling of great thoughtfulness to the whole place, the art and the plaques and the sacrifices of oranges and incense in the temples. I was equally impressed by the gift store, which had a used-book nook with a wide selection of scholarly works on Buddhism, a row of Western philosophy, and a bunch of contemporary scholarship on related subjects. I wish I could meet some of these nuns.

I went back to SoHo for my last dinner and found a place to have a pizza and a glass of wine while watching the crowds go by on the street. The waitress asked me where I was from, and I told her how I was teaching on the mainland. "Oh," she said, "so you're going back to China?" Yes. I finished my pizza and went to the hostel to pack my bags, so that I could get up at five and go back to China, whatever that means from Hong Kong.
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marjorieinchina

July 2010

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