Hong Kong


Moments before departing for Hong Kong, on the side of the road by our beach in the Mount

Moments before departing for Hong Kong, by our beach in the Mount

It was with heavy hearts that we said goodbye to our blissful existence in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand.  We departed for Hong Kong on April 1st, and it almost felt like an April Fools prank to be leaving such a lovely home away from home.  How strange it felt to once again pack our belongings into our individual duffels, reacquainting ourselves with stuff sacks and packing cubes, small toothpaste tubes and limited clothing options.  We shipped home NZ treasures like school memorabilia, souvenirs, and some new clothing items not necessary for travel through Asia. We sold our car, donated our scooters and bikes to the girls’ schools, and said many wistful farewells to teachers, classmates, and new friends from the Mount community who helped make our stay so warm and wonderful.  We left with one bag each, but a treasure trove of happy memories to carry with us through Asia and home to New Hampshire.

Upon arrival at the airport, a colorful welcome to a new continent!

Upon arrival at the airport, a colorful welcome to a new continent!

Clearing immigration

Happy to clear immigration after our overnight flight

A first glimpse of this incredible city

Winding through the streets of Hong Kong, we soon realize we are far far away from New Zealand!

For the girls, the saving grace of a reluctant NZ departure was the knowledge that after a 3-hour drive to Auckland International Airport and a 12- hour flight to Hong Kong, we would reunite with Blair’s parents, “Mumsy” and “Pops,” who were bringing along 11 year old cousin, Haven Low, for a special 10 day visit with us.  

Together with Mumsy, Pops and Haven at our Hong Kong hotel

Together with Mumsy, Pops and Haven at our Hong Kong hotel

Hong Kong, now officially a “Special Administrative Region” of China after the 1997 hand-over from Britain, is an impressive city to say the least.  With 7 million residents and a land mass of just over 500 square miles, it is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and ranks as the third leading global financial center after New York and London. The combination of so many people with extreme scarcity of land has resulted in some unusual architecture (Jeff was in heaven).  The buildings are constructed on impossibly narrow plots of land, and stretch up and up and up, using the vertical space rather than horizontal. 

Sleek, modern skyscrapers like this one juxtapose run-down cement apartment blocks, crammed together within the city

Sleek, modern skyscrapers like this one juxtapose run-down cement apartment blocks, crammed together within the city

Many families will share one-room apartments in these narrow buildings

Many families will share one-room apartments in these narrow buildings

JEFF: I was particularly struck by the use of bamboo for the city’s scaffolding.  Almost everywhere you turn there are bamboo poles jutting out of pick-up trucks, in piles on the side of the road, and of course, snaking their way up the sides of buildings under construction. Why bamboo over steel?  Because contractors have found that when using steel for scaffolding, it is increasingly impossible (and expensive) to find a place to store it all due to space constraints.  Bamboo scaffolding, once used, is repurposed to make chopsticks and other household items and therefore does not consume additional real estate for storage.  Genius. This renewable resource is masterfully erected by skilled scaffold builders using plastic lashing or strapping, and is arguably more stable than steel given that it is more forgiving under wind loads.  It is not uncommon to see this scaffolding up the side of a 50-storey building in Hong Kong. 

Bamboo scaffolding

Bamboo scaffolding at a construction site

The majority of Hong Kong’s residents are ethnic Chinese who speak Cantonese.  Unlike English, Cantonese is a “tonal language,” wherein a word can be pronounced the same way but the meaning of the word is dependent on which of the nine different possible tones you use to say it.  For example, the word “Ma” can be spoken with very subtle tonal inflections in nine different ways (none of which we were able to discern as English speakers) to create nine different meanings!  Many Asian languages are tonal, but Cantonese takes the prize with the sheer number of tones available to choose from for each word.  This makes it one of the hardest languages in the world to learn.  We could barely master ‘hello,’ and ‘thank you’ was way beyond us. 

With only one full day all together in H.K. before we were due to depart for Vietnam, we packed in a lot of sightseeing with our fabulous tour guide, Randy.  In addition to his English name, Randy has a Chinese name which means something fabulous like “King of the Universe” or “Handsome Smart Man,” but the slightest tweak in tone would render him “Worm” so he preferred that we call him by his English name. Understandably.

The eight of us started our day together with a stroll along a street bursting with shops that sold traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients.  We were introduced to sliced deer antlers, dried lizard skins, fish intestines, and the list goes on.  Welcome to Asian health products!

Randy points out various ingredients for herbal medicines, most of which the girls have to cover their noses for

Randy points out various ingredients for herbal medicines, most of which the girls had to cover their noses for

Assorted delicacies for sale… very smelly

Assorted delicacies for sale, like squid and octopus

Sea Cucumbers are very important in herbal medicine

Sea Cucumbers help with arthritis, and also can be an aphrodisiac (really?)

Sea Horses are used to make medicinal tea

Sea Horses promote liver and kidney health

Baby shark fins, shown on the right, are a common ingredient in soups and medicines

Baby shark fins, shown on the right, are a common ingredient in gourmet soup and are believed to provide innumerable health benefits. The soup has become more expensive and controversial as shark populations have dwindled due to the high demand for fins.

SCHUYLER: Witnessing the variety in color, texture, and odor of the dried foods and herbs was so interesting. I saw some of the strangest things with Uncle Randy, things that seemed to have come from mythical creatures from the deep and beyond.  In one particular store there were lizard skins in a jar.  When I asked what they were used for, I was told that they helped with asthma, which I take medicine for every day. I think I’d rather take my inhalers than sip lizard skin tea.  

ZOE: Seeing the dried medicinal ingredients was grossly fascinating. I had to hold my nose pretty much the whole time, it was so smelly!  I saw some crazy things like: stretched out lizards, whole sea horses, shark fins, lots of dried seafood (clams, mussels, oysters, squid, sea cucumbers), and a lot of dried veggies and herbs. I was so surprised to see the variety of ways to use all the ingredients for healing teas and medicine.  Normally the teas don’t taste good at all, so it is amazing to realize how much people have to push themselves to drink them for their health. I don’t think I would ever want to try this medicine unless I was really desperate. I mean, really, really REALLY desperate. 

Gross!

Dried mussels, gross!

After getting our fill of pungent odors and strange delicacies, we learned a bit about the family customs and religious traditions in Hong Kong, incorporating a mixture Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.  Many Chinese believe strongly in ancestor worship, and shrines with offerings can be found in most homes (and many shops) throughout the city.   One way in which the Chinese pay respect to their ancestors is by offering food, money and gifts as a way to communicate and maintain good relations with them.  Randy showed us some shops selling paper items for the purpose of ancestor offerings.  For example, if you think your great grandmother is unhappy in the spirit world, you can buy her a paper Gucci purse and then burn it at your alter as a gift to her.  iPods, Nike sneakers, cell phones, cameras, bundles of fake money (and then safe deposit boxes to store it all in), a winning lottery ticket, designer clothing — all of these are for sale in paper versions throughout H.K.  When we tried to buy something as a souvenir to bring home, we were told this would be bad luck and that the shopkeeper would not allow it.  

Hanging paper offerings, for ancestor worship

Hanging paper offerings, for ancestor worship

Another important religious practice in H.K. is burning incense at local temples and shrines.  Randy took us into a beautiful temple in the heart of the city, tucked into a side street, and introduced us to this practice.

The girls standing in front of doors built to keep evil spirits out of the temple

The girls standing in front of doors built to keep evil spirits out of the temple

Inside the temple, lanterns provide a warm glow

Inside the temple, lanterns provide a warm glow

A worker polishes the brass

A worker polishes a brass cauldron for incense

One of the many traditions for worshipers here is to light incense on behalf of ancestors or to promote good fortune in their own lives.  Beautiful big cones of incense line the temple ceiling for this purpose, and people pay to have a cone lit for a certain period of time (one month, one year, etc.) to keep their wish or prayer alive.  The temple’s workers will keep those cones lit for that amount of time, so there is a very strong smell of incense throughout the temple and it’s quite smokey inside.

Incense hanging from the temple ceiling

Incense hanging from the temple ceiling

Randy invited the girls to participate in a fortune telling tradition while in the temple.  First, they had to silently come up with a question or wish that they would like to have answered, and they had to light an incense stick and think hard on this question for a few moments. 

Haven and Zoe make their silent requests for a fortune telling...

Haven and Zoe hold their incense and make silent requests for a fortune telling…

Next, Randy handed each girl a jar filled with bamboo sticks inside, almost like a container of chopsticks.  Each stick was stamped with a number. The girls had to shake the jar, holding it parallel to the floor, until only one stick dropped out.  Easier said than done — the first time Schuyler tried, the entire bunch fell and scattered all around her feet and she had to start again.  Patience!  

Haven shakes the jar of sticks, waiting for a single one to fall

Haven shakes the jar of sticks, waiting for a single one to fall

When a single stick revealed itself, Randy picked it up and read the number written on it.  Each number corresponded to a particular fortune.  The girls followed him over to the box of fortunes, and he found their individual numbers and read the Chinese inscriptions.  Haven fared the best with her result.  She is (somewhat reluctantly) moving east from Seattle to Portland, ME this summer and wanted to know if this was going to be a good decision for her.  We were all relieved when Randy read her fortune, exclaiming that indeed her future looked very bright and that her parents’ decision to move her family east was going to bring great things her way, particularly new friends waiting to welcome her.  

Pops celebrates as Haven's fortune is read - good news for her impending move to the East Coast!

Pops celebrates as Haven’s fortune is read – good news for her impending move to the East Coast!

SCHUYLER: Unfortunately, my experience with this endeavor was not quite as positive as Haven’s.  In the first place, I didn’t really understand the whole process or what kind of questions we were supposed to be asking.  So I asked if I was going to live a long and happy life. I think the Chinese Gods’ interpretation of this question was slightly different than my own vision of what I was asking, because my fortune revealed some rather unlucky and negative Chinese characters.  Randy read out what it all meant, and it said that I was going to lose a lot of money and be unlucky in my career (which I don’t have yet).  It figures, because I keep leaving my purse on the backs of my chairs this week at restaurants and in cars and some nice person (or Mom) comes running after me to return it.  As it turns out, Randy said not to worry because the fortune only lasts for the remainder of this calendar year, which clearly I didn’t realize at the outset but was a relief to find out.  He told me that I can burn my despicable, evil fortune paper on New Year’s Eve and start over. So I put that paper in my purse (which I’ll try not to lose), and I’ll carry it home to NH with me for redemption in 2015. 

ZOE: My fortune was a great fortune for me but it is a little bit complicated to explain what I asked for. So I’ll just tell you that my fortune told me that everything takes time – don’t take short cuts, be patient, and it will all work out.  I was really happy with it. 

THAYER:  I made my wish, a wish to get a bunny rabbit.  My fortune said that no, I would not get a rabbit, because this is not the right time.  I was a little bummed because I wanted to have something to play with on my travels. I guess I’ll have to stick with my sisters and my stuffed animals. 

Moving on from the temple, Randy escorted us to the top of Victoria Peak, the tallest mountain in and around Hong Kong, for a stunning view of the cityscape below.  As we began our ascent on the winding road, he pointed out one of the only cemeteries in the city which is completely full now.  While most people bury their loved ones in plots outside the city, some still try and get a place in this cemetery, but you can only use your plot there for seven years and then you have to evacuate it and move the remains to a cemetery on the outskirts like everyone else.  So there is a seven year rotation on many of these grave sites, if you can imagine that.

Cemetery within the Hong Kong city boundary

One of the only cemeteries within the bounds of H.K. city

Once atop Victoria Peak, we indeed had a wonderful view of the city below us.  In the nineteenth century, wealthy European residents used this peak as a residential area and had to be carried up the steep slopes on sedan chairs by their servants.  By the late 1800s the Peak Tram funicular was built and exists today, carting over 7 million tourists up and down on its rickety rails and steep tracks every year. We had the pleasure of a ride down on the tram, and at some points the angle was so steep we said silent, fervent prayers that the brakes see us through to the bottom!

Atop The Peak, Hong Kong city below us

Atop The Peak, Hong Kong city below us

From Victoria Peak, we moved along to an area of H.K. called Aberdeen, where we boarded a traditional sampan boat for a short cruise through the local floating village.  Hundreds of junks (old-fashioned boats) and sampans serve as floating homes for thousands of people here, crowding the narrow harbor while modern skyscrapers dwarf the nearby hillsides.

All aboard the sampan boat

All aboard the sampan boat

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View looking out from our boat, H.K. skyline in the distance

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Traditional Chinese “junk” boat, used for both home and work (fishing)

Wealthier fishermen now live in these larger houseboats, each of which will house 3-4 generations of one family

Wealthier fishermen now live in these larger houseboats, each of which will house 3-4 generations of one family

The gals, enjoying our harbor cruise

The gals, enjoying our harbor cruise

The boat deposited us at an enormous, floating restaurant for a traditional family style Chinese meal, including delicious dim sum and local specialties.  Adjacent to the restaurant was something akin to a miniature aquarium, with big tanks of water containing every imaginable variety of seafood to be plucked from their aqua dwellings, cooked, and served upon customers’ requests.  The girls had fun peeking into all the tanks and pointing out which fish or sea creatures they would NOT eat (all of them).  

Ever seen a floating restaurant this big?

Ever seen a floating restaurant this big?

Checking out all the lunch options

Checking out all the lunch options

Perhaps this big guy was being saved for a large group celebration

Perhaps this big guy was being saved for a large group celebration

SCHUYLER:  The lunch served was very unexpected. There were a lot of different colors and textures that looked kind of unappealing but we tried as many as we dared and most were actually tasty.  In the center of our circular table there was a “lazy Susan.” If you don’t know already, a lazy Susan is almost like a spinning plate or platter, often used to help get food to every person sitting around the table.  This is important for family style meals in China. I loved this experience because I learned a lot about Chinese etiquette and what kinds of manners parents teach their kids here. For example, you receive 2 sets of chopsticks at the table, one with gold on the end and one with silver, and you have to use one set to serve yourself from the lazy Susan, and then switch to the other set for eating (like no double dipping).  Once you touch food on the serving tray with your chopsticks, you have to take that food and put it on your plate.  It is rude to poke around many things and not take them. Also, it is important to chew with your mouth closed and keep your elbows off the table (sound familiar?).  

After lunch we finished our H.K. exploration with a tour of Stanley, a quaint town that once served as a small fishing hamlet and now has over 6,000 inhabitants.  Stanley also has a meandering street market, which was the real purpose of our visit there.  Souvenirs!

Haven chooses a fan from hundreds of colors and patterns

Haven chooses a fan from hundreds of colors and patterns

We had t-shirts made with the girls' names written in Chinese characters

We had t-shirts made with the girls’ names written in Chinese characters

For Thayer!

Thayer’s finished product

After so many adventures in just one day, we tumbled gratefully into our beds when we got back to the hotel.  

relaxing after a long day in the city

relaxing after a long day in the city

Although we only had a short stay in Hong Kong, we got a good taste of the city and its many wonders, ancient and modern alike.  Hopefully some day we will be able to return and take advantage of all that Hong Kong has to offer.  For now, it’s on to Hanoi for a 10-day tour of Vietnam… see you there!  

As always, thank you for traveling along with us…

 

Categories: ASIA, Hong Kong

14 comments

  1. Great post! Have fun in the rest of Asia!

  2. As always, lovely to be invited to travel with you. It must have been a real ‘culture-shock’ to change New Zealand for Hong Kong. What an amazing place…and we could smell the dried items by just looking at the pictures (and the facial expressions) Happy trip to Vietnam. Looking forward to more, more, more… Love from us, surrounded by flowering tulips.

  3. Wow!! The difference between NZ and Hong Kong! That must have been such a wild feeling! I loved hearing about and seeing pictures of all the different creatures and their medicinal properties. Fascinating. Can’t wait to hear more from Asia!! Love Beth

  4. Thank you for sharing your day in HK!! To see everything close up and I knew it was small but not that small with all those people and colors!

  5. Love it! XO

  6. Dear all!
    Thank you for another great post! I’ve send you some replies, but unfortunately they didn’t arrive so I’ll give it another try! First of all: I love travelling around the world with you, guys. Every time it’s a joy to read a new post on your blog!
    What a great day you’ve had in Hong Kong! I bet it felt like you were wandering the streets for a week as you’ve seen so much. Great that Randy could show you all around and tell you everything, you’ve learned a lot and taught me some things as well! Too bad that you’re fortune isn’t looking that great Schuyler, but luckily you know how to get rid of it! Hope you and your Mom will look after your purse. Even better than usual! I had to laugh out loud seeing your faces, when you smelled the bad odours. I think you’ll see some more of those dried animals in Vietnam!
    Oeh and I love the T-shirts with your names written in characters, it looks so cool! Will be so fun to open up all your presents back home. I think you’ll have forgotten lots of souvenirs that you’ve sent home.
    Oh, and I’m so curious what Jeff’s new work will look like after he has seen so many different styles of houses and buildings around the world these last months! Must be impossible to combine all in a beautiful building, but maybe you can design many more!
    Wanted to reply on the girls’ blogs about their time in the Mount as well. Thank you for sharing your great stories! You’ve all written it so well that I could imagine how I would scooter to school, play and learn on bare feet in the class rooms (very nice that you had round desks!) and swim almost every morning with your class! And then for you Zoe and Jeff….finish the day with a final splash in the ocean. Did you stick to your promise until the very last day? Oh and Schuyler, NZ sunshine has turned you into a blondie! Looking good. You’re so tanned! Thayer, I was very impressed with your dancing skills. You got a great feeling of rythm, it was fun to look at!
    Hoping that Vietnam is giving you another great experience for more great memories…..Looking forward to read that story! You’re doing a great job Blair!
    Love, Linde

  7. You reminded me of the heavy heart, borderline tears we had when we left NZ the 1st time. Thank you for teaching me so much about Hong Kong! You made me even more excited for our fall trip to Asia! Enjoy the adventure and thank you for letting us live vicariously though you Demers family!

  8. Love the post. Photos are fantastic. I’m especially smitten with Jeff’s flowing locks in the photo with view of Hong Kong and Zoe with the smelly market stalls. So glad to hear of Haven’s good fortune. Missing you all!

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your adventures with us, I know the work that it takes for all your wonderful post, that it brings me to tears. Safe travels to your next destination. Love you all. JOJO

  10. I am so happy to see you with your cousin. It must be nice to have another family member in your travels. Thanks for all the details about the food, and smells in HK. Safe travels to your next adventure. Thayer you are looking soooo big with the big girls. Mums and Pops are looking good too. XOX Love you guys.

  11. What fabulous enriching experiences! You will have to refer back to throughout life. It is comforting to see how well you all look!
    Happy that Haven could join you. Great memories for the cousins!

  12. Hi. What a great trip in HK. That must have been excited. Most people say HK has a thousand of faces.
    Take care all the time. Good luck!

  13. Hi gang,
    What an education you are giving me–now you are my teachers. I am amazed at Hong Kong–intrigued by the medicinal herbs, the architecture with the bamboo scaffolding, and the temples. Just love the photo of the girls in front of the temple doors–the body language says it all–sweet and loving sisters and cousin. Also wonderful photo of Blair with the girls on the Harbor cruise and the exquisite Haven with her fan. Great to see Jon and Lee sharing in your journey. So looking forward to Vietnam–I have the most precious Vietnamese great nephew !

  14. Thayer, I bet Auntie Heather would LOVE to buy you a bunny when you’re back in NH! 🙂 XOXOX Ashley

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