An American Abroad

Hong Kong 2010: Signs of the Times

I have a habit of photographing signs when I travel. I find that they often communicate far more than their text conveys. So continuing with my series of the photos I took from an October 2010 trip to Hong Kong, here are some signs I saw there, together with my comments.

This one reminds me of the toilet wars between China and Hong Kong. Some Chinese people (especially those who until recently lived in rural areas and now live in cities – which is to say tens of millions of folks) have no problem with allowing their children to pee and poop on sidewalks and streets. Hong Kongers find this utterly uncivilized. A couple years ago, fistfights between mainlanders and Hong Kongers broke out over this practice. The mainlanders then thought they were being condescended to by the Hong Kongers, and briefly attempted to boycott HK.

Actually, Hong Kong has a fair number of well-maintained public toilets. Here’s one.

Signs that suggest delusions of grandeur and commercial religiosity often make me chuckle.

So do badly-translated signs. In fact, there are entire blogs dedicated to this genre. I try not to be too critical here; Chinese people do a lot better with English than Americans do with Chinese.

Then there are the signs that convey a public service message, like these.

Signs like these are essential for visitors from places where we drive on the right as God intended. I myself had several near-accidents stepping into roadways when I’d looked the wrong way out of habit.

Signs are an important part of the Hong Kong street scene. They help give the city its distinctive flavor. Here are some classics.

This one amused me. Where, I wondered, is the school for Bad Kids?

I was surprised to find this elegant old sign at the entrance to a mosque. Frankly, I was surprised to find a mosque in Hong Kong at all. But it certainly reflects the city’s deep-rooted cosmopolitan character.

After all these official and fancy signs, it was somehow reassuring to see something about as down-home as it gets.

Hong Kong 2010: HK Museum of History

In the fall of 2010, I took my first trip to Hong Kong and fell in love with the city. I wasn’t maintaining a travel blog then. I recently dug out my photos and notes from that trip and am posting them here.

Hong Kong: Leftovers

I’ve been back from Hong Kong for forty hours, but I can’t let it go. Here are a few more observations from my notes and my camera that didn’t fit into my earlier posts on my visa run and visits to Wan Chai.

• Top-flight tutors here dress and are paid like pop stars and advertise in the subway. This gladdens my little academical heart.
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• Speaking of the subway, the MTR is wonderful: efficient, clean, quiet and cheap. But why are Wan Chai and Chai Wan both stops on the same line? Doesn’t that threaten to rupture the space/time continuum or something?

• One reason to take the subway is because cabbies are fickle. I was refused a ride three times when I wasn’t going the way the driver wanted. If you want a cab going east, you’d better not try hailing one heading west.

Chunking Mansions is a decaying commercial building incongruously set in the upscale Tsim Sha Tsui where you will find Ivorians, Nepalis, Sikhs, Somalis, Indians, Saudis, Pakistanis, and many others manning food stalls from all over the world and selling all kinds of goods, legal and otherwise. I was urged to buy Nepalese karaoke CDs, a bed for the night, hot SIM cards, discounted foreign currency, DelMonte Kernel Corn, visas to anywhere in the world, ketamine, Japanese pornography, and the iPhone 7 (“not available yet, special for you, Sir!”), but declined all such offers. Instead, I got my Indian food fix: some yummy samosas and chicken curry. The strangest shop I saw sold both halal food and Hennessy cognac. I was a little reluctant to shoot pictures in this environment, settling for a stairwell shot of the wiring that powers the building.
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• There seem to be a lot of very tall white guys here. What is it about Hong Kong that attracts guys north of 6’5″? I’m not used to this.

• You gotta love a town where the Alpha Romeo dealership is next to the Maserati dealership is next to the Lotus dealership is next to the Lamborghini dealership. Makes those impulse buys so much easier.

• There’s something strange about a place where cigarette boxes are required to display large gruesome pictures of smokers’ corpses but Coke Zero is marketed as a sports/health drink.

Hong Kong: Wan Chai

As one wag put it, there are two primary modes on Lockhart Road: either you pay to get laid or you splay to get paid. The street runs like a vein full of Viagra through Wan Chai, the legendary home of Suzie Wong and her ilk.
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Suzie’s descendants circa 2013 are Filipina B-girls with big anime eyes, Asian/Spanish genes, and flexible ethics. They’re beautiful, but they don’t want their pictures taken; that would be like giving it away.
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For old times’ sake, I stop into the Wild Cat, one of the smaller ecdysiastical venues. Mama-san has worked there ten years and is expert at separating slightly buzzed and horny round-eyes from their dollars. Her girls rotate out every six months when their visas expire. They wire money home every week, fabricating tales of their profitable jobs as “receptionists” in Hong Kong. Then they return to Quezon or Cebu or Manila or Tagaytay.

A drunk blonde Brit is guided in by the street touts and almost immediately passes out on the couch by the door. This is prime real estate, since the area can be curtained off for costly lap dances and other more intimate activities. Mama-san gets the bouncer, a middle-aged accountant with thick glasses and a knuckle-duster, who gently but firmly expels the inebriate. A girl dances topless and bored on the tiny stage behind the bar. Her expression confirms that she knows she has the worst job in the place. The B-girls at least get a commission on the HK$240 thimbles of red wine they wheedle the clientele into buying for them, but the strippers get near zip.

A little later, I repair to The Old China Hand for ethanol and quiet reflection. It looks like a real bar, something familiar and comforting that I haven’t seen for ten weeks.
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But though it looks like a proper British pub, it can’t escape its environment. “You want a massage with a happy ending?” the barmaid asks me. I am amused: “Is that how this place got its name?” The barmaid looks embarrassed. She leans in close. “I’m just doing a favor for the girls outside,” she says. “You know.” Yeah, I know. A favor and 25% off the top. That’s Wan Chai.

I survey the crowd: mostly older Brits at this hour. I wind up talking to Geoffrey, who really is an old China hand, a merchant marine navigator who’s traveled all over the world and has lived in Hong Kong for the last 15 years. He’s obviously a regular here.
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He’s also a terrific raconteur, with stories of being chased by a mob through the streets of Jerusalem into the safety of the King David Hotel, of revenges visited upon nouveau riche and fatuous cruise ship passengers, and of his obsessive and psychopathic housekeeper here in Hong Kong. I left when he started nodding off.

The whole Wan Chai scene was intoxicating–and I don’t just mean the Carlsberg. The mix of old Britannia, the oldest profession, Filipina morsels and Cantonese cuisine is just right. If I’d had more time, I would have stayed. There are a million stories waiting to be written about such a place.

Hong Kong: Visa Run

I’m now back home in Yuxi after a four-day trip to Hong Kong. My business there was obtaining a Chinese work visa, something I had to leave the PRC to do. The Chinese are very clever about Hong Kong: it’s part of China when they they want it to be and it’s not when they don’t. Kind of like Puerto Rico. Or Guantanamo. For my purposes, Hong Kong is a foreign country, which makes it a perfect destination for a visa run. Of course, since Hong Kong really is part of China, my airfare, hotel bill and fees benefit the whole Chinese economy in a way that they wouldn’t if Hong Kong was a truly independent country. As I said: clever.

Early Monday morning, I left my apartment and walked through still-slumbering streets to the “Yuxi Transapertion Center” to hire an intercity taxi. My fellow passengers were an older rural couple dressed like field hands and a stocky twenty-something guy with a mod haircut and rhinestone-studded glasses. After the 80 minute ride to Kunming, I boarded an airport shuttle bus. Three hours later, I was wheels-up on a Hong Kong Express flight east. After clearing customs and immigration, I boarded the train that connects the airport on Lantau to Kowloon and Hong Kong island. At Hong Kong Station, I hailed a taxi. Thus by this declension of car, bus, plane, train, and car did I arrive at the South China Hotel in North Point.
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I was here:

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From my room on the 14th floor, I looked out (through dirty windows) across the eastern end of Victoria Harbor onto the Kowloon Peninsula.
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I’ve been to Hong Kong before, but never to North Point. It’s an old Shanghainese neighborhood of shabby apartment towers, wonderful markets, double-decker trolleys, and a few remnants of British colonial architecture. Redevelopment is surely coming; there are already some more contemporary and aesthetic skyscrapers here, and the abundance of construction cranes presages more to come.
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On Tuesday morning, I joined a long queue at the “China Resources Building”–essentially the PRC’s embassy in Hong Kong in all but name. The line was Chinese in length but moved with Hong Kongian efficiency. Soon I was handing a packet of 23 documents (passport, health certificates, visa application, diplomas, transcripts, teaching contract, CV, photographs, proof of insurance, criminal records checks, and Chinese translations of all the above) to a pretty young woman who examined and cross-checked each one with a meticulousness that made the 15 minutes I was there feel like an hour. Finally, she said she would be cancelling my old tourist visa and that I could pick up my new work visa the following morning. I left feeling largely relieved, a feeling that became complete when I returned on Wednesday. Mission accomplished: at long last, I now am the holder of a Chinese work visa.

A Banker’s Kindness

Closely following my experience at the tea house, when I was struck by how friendly the people of Yuxi are, another incident yesterday confirmed my positive impression.

I’ll be heading to Hong Kong on Monday on a visa run and wanted to exchange Chinese yuan for Hong Kong dollars. I went to the main Yuxi branch of a large and well-known commercial bank. The first teller I talked with couldn’t help and directed me to a station labeled “Channel for elder, handicapped, pregnant, foreigner and journalist.” (So I guess I am classified with the lame, the halt and the subversive.) The teller there looked stricken when I told him what I wanted. He pulled out his cell phone, dialed a number, and slid the phone to me through the security drawer that separates customers from staff. I picked up the phone and a voice on the other end told me, in very good English, that he could help me and would be there in five minutes.

Not long afterward, a well-dressed young man walked into the bank and introduced himself as one of the managers there. He told me that the he had been directed not to exchange yuan for Hong Kong dollars for foreigners anymore. His disdainful expression told me exactly what he thought of such a policy. But, he went on, he could help me himself. He offered to withdraw the Hong Kong currency against his own bank account and sell it to me. I thanked him, but said I would not want him to get in any trouble. He assured me that he had done this before and insisted that he wanted to help.

My first thought was that this was a money-changer scam and that the guy would take my money and disappear. Still, he had official bank identification and seemed eager and honest. I agreed. I gave him the money. He went to the same teller I had tried earlier, deposited my cash into his account, withdrew Hong Kong dollars, and gave them to me. I counted the bills, did the math, and confirmed that he had given me a very fair exchange rate. We chatted for a little while and exchanged business cards; he encouraged me to contact him again. And I will.

I don’t know if the no-exchanges-for-foreigners rule comes from the government or the bank. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference. I do know that this man helped a foreigner he had never even met before, possibly at some risk to himself, and that I am grateful.