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