Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Farewell to Hong Kong

25 February 2015

We left Hong Kong on Monday, and are enjoying Hanoi again, where spring has arrived and the temps are warm.  SO nice after our chilly time here and then chilly time in Hong Kong.  And we both agree that we need to get back to Hong Kong, because it's huge and fascinating and we didn't get to see everything.  Our last two days there ended up rather rainy.  Neither of us wanted to walk around sightseeing in the cold rain.  And we never made it to the Peak, the top of the highest point on Hong Kong Island, because it was always too foggy or smoggy for a decent view.

I did find all kinds of interesting signs about the New Year.  Many businesses had one of a series of signs or posters saying something about the dates they'd be closed for New Year celebrations.  It seems as if the business would write in the dates, since there was always something handwritten.  I just liked the variety of designs - dragons, fish, boats, people.  And of course the goats.  Or sheep.

Plus I found lovely trees with the charms and messages and envelopes.  Amazing how photos taken through big picture windows can turn out so nicely!

I noticed that several buildings had small shrines built right into the structure, rather intriguing.  Not every building, but every so often I'd notice one built into a special alcove.  Or the small bas relief pillars and central space for a small altar.

Flower markets continued, despite the rain and cold.  As did the trinket markets.  A popular item seemed to be the small jade animals for all the zodiac signs, on a red silk cord with a decorative knot.  I haven't seen these on orange or peach trees, so I don't know if people possibly hang them in their homes, or carry them around on their person.  I'm guessing it's good luck to carry the animal of your personal zodiac sign, since we know red is lucky and protects us from the "age gods" who make your zodiac sign year unlucky for each of us.

One business, a furniture and interior design shop, had the cutest ceramic dragons guarding the door.  Really, there were two little dragons inside the closed store, one on each side of the entrance.  They don't look particularly fierce, but maybe they scare off demons or evil spirits or something.  (I haven't seen any for sale.)

One of the traditions I read about in Hong Kong is that on the 15th day of the New Year, which would be the first full moon of the year, everyone hangs red lanterns outside their home or business.  The streets are apparently full of red lanterns glowing in the night.  Would love to see that, but we won't be around, we'll be back in Vietnam.  Anyway, several places had their red lanterns in place and lit, ready for the 15th day.  And of course there were stands in the markets selling gold and red lanterns, making beautiful displays.

We've met all kinds of interesting people while in Hong Kong - our hosts (who left for the holiday, so that we were alone in the apartment for a bit) are from Europe, but working in Hong Kong as engineers or architects; the regional supervisor for Google, newly relocated here; the lovely Italian man from Verona, home of Romeo and Juliet, and owner of Pausa, our hang out spot; and the dude from New Jersey, manager of Motorino, another good pizza spot on our street.  Part of the reason we travel is that we always meet interesting people, whether travellers, expats, or people native to the place we're visiting.  Everyone has a story, you know?

We had two Chinese flatmates for a few days, who like us rented the room through airBnB.  They were interesting, a mother who is a teacher, and her daughter.  Both spoke English quite well, so we were able to communicate.  But just like we are in a new place and a new culture, often confused and not knowing how things work or what is acceptable behavior, they were a little confused.  I think two things stand out: neither knew how to use a shower curtain.  I know, it seems minor.  But imagine reaching 40 or so years old, and being confused about a shower curtain; moving the curtain outside the shower stall, and then wondering why the floor was so soaked after a shower.  (I explained that keeping the curtain inside the stall also keeps the water from pouring out all over the floor.)  It seems like such a simple concept, but for someone who hasn't encountered a shower curtain, it's as confusing as we are when we first encounter, oh, maybe the subways of Tokyo.  Or the grill restaurants of Seoul.  I know, they aren't equivalent - a shower curtain seems self-explanatory.  But we often come up against something that seems simple and equally self-explanatory to the residents of that location, and we're baffled.  Or confused.  So we could sort of understand the confusion of how to use a shower curtain.  (Sort of.  Obviously it made an impression on me.  Especially since they both used smartphones, which compared to a shower curtain seem way more complex, right?)

The other funny incident with the two woman was that the mother was convinced they had a key to lock the bedroom.  And at one point locked the door from the inside, then closed the door.  So they were locked out of their room.  With our hosts abroad.  Richard and I got back and, as the pro-active and fix-it people that we are, both tried to pick the lock.  Well, Richard tried to pick the lock, I just tried to jimmy it with slipping things around the door to open the latch.  Richard finally found the keys in the silverware drawer and opened the door for the ladies.  I just found it funny that we had such different reactions, possibly based on culture - they were trying to text the hosts, or contact the person who met them and handed over the keys; while Richard and I, maybe having larcenous tendencies, immediately jump to action.  It made me laugh.

Anyway, I discovered that Passion, the restaurant I mentioned once, has fabulous "chocolat chaud," very thick rich hot chocolate.  Not milky and thin hot chocolate, but the thick rich kind you eat with a spoon.  Only had it once, but oh wow it was fabulous on a cold rainy night!  (After the coq au vin, mais certainment!)

Last thing - there were lion dancers at the airport!  They had a stage, complete with drummers, and crowds gathered to watch.  And then the lions danced around the airport, up and down past the restaurants and gates - it was thrilling!!!!!  We were upstairs having lunch, but could see this going on below the balconies.  Couldn't get a photo with the crowds, but it was really exciting!

Okay, we're back in Hanoi, doing mundane things like laundry, re-packing, planning and booking our travel for when we leave Vietnam.  Things like that.  Plus we'll go off on our side trip to Ha Long Bay, which should be much nicer in warmer weather!


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Hong Kong Lights Up!!!

21 February 2015

 Last night was fireworks night, and it was amazing!!!!!!

The Chinese invented gunpowder.  And then the Italians added various powdered metals to add colors.  And then the Chinese took that idea and ran with it, making all kinds of absolutely amazing fireworks, just for the beauty of it.

No, these aren't my photos, they are from the internet (but they are from the fireworks we saw last night).  I tried taking a few photos, but they were horrible, so I gave up and just enjoyed the show.

We decided to stay on the Hong Kong side, rather than going over to Kowloon, where it gets even more crowded. 

There were three barges set up in Victoria Harbour, so that the fireworks would be visible through most of Kowloon as well as Hong Kong.  We went down to the area between the ferry terminal at Wan Chai, and the new building that isn't finished.  Perfect place to view - the area by the water was packed, but we stood a little way back on the driveway, which was perfect!  We had a fabulous view of the fireworks from two of the barges and a partial view of the third set.

So, everyone was standing around waiting, and all of a sudden there was the triple blast of fireworks, only multiple triples!!!!!  Bam bam bam bam bam and the sky lit up!  The opening volley was like the grand finale anywhere else in the world!!!  Then on and on, for almost half an hour, all kinds of colors from golden yellow to magenta and hot pink to jade green and bright turquoise!!!!  Even electric blue, lavender, periwinkle!  Unbelievable colors, and some explosions had two or three colors all in one!  

And you know how some fireworks explode, and then the parts flying off explode a second time?  Well these had third level parts flying off and exploding!!!!!  There were the silver hot white explosions turning into gold glitter fading into the night, then hot pink fading into turquoise, then bright red exploding into little white dots like snow fluttering down!  And big white explosions with a red goat outline!!!!

But I think my favorites were the white flowers, that truly looked like three-dimensional petals coming out from various colored centers!  Really, unique fireworks unlike anything I've ever seen before!

The grand finale was like a grand finale on speed, just a non-stop explosion of light and color and sound, boom boom boom for a minute or two!!!!!  I've never seen such an exuberant set of fireworks as that last blast!!!!  Unbelievable!!!!

We were close enough to get the percussive blast that you feel resonating in your stomach, which I love - and we could hear the blasts echoing off the tall buildings in back of us!

For those who have the patience, I've added the youtube video that the Intercontinental Hotel posted, which seems to be the best quality video I found.  Really captures the beauty of the night!!!!


Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Year Is It, REALLY?????

 20 February 2015

I tried to find what number year it is in the Chinese year system, but the years aren't numbered.  The name of the year is definitely the Year of the Goat (or Ram, or Sheep) plus the name of a celestial body, though I can't seem to find that info right now.  Anyway, so it isn't something like the Jewish year which makes this 5775.  It might be the Jupiter Goat, or the Big Dipper Goat.  I'll keep trying to find this info.

We're in a small building that has several stores and a bakery at the street level, a storage room between the ground floor and the upper storeys, and four apartments, one on each floor.  We're on the top floor, with access to a terrace on the roof. 

The people in the first apartment have this trash can outside their door - we came home one evening to find them burning paper, in the can, upstairs in the stairwell, on their landing.  With the fire extinguisher nearby.  The lady apologized, we told her it was okay, rushed around the flaming can, and hurried up the stairs which were quickly filling with smoke and bits of ash.  Just what one needs, right?

Then there was the day the apartment one level down from us had incense going in all three of their little shrine things outside their door.

It's an experience you don't get in a boring old hotel, that's for sure!!!

The New Year's Day parade was schedule for 8 PM over in Kowloon, sort of near the ferry terminal and where the cruise ships dock.  We figured it made sense to take the ferry in the late afternoon, and walk around a while just enjoying the people and the crowds before getting a bite of dinner and then watching the parade.  We had a little brochure from a tourist center, complete with a map of the parade route, so we were fairly confident we could do this, no problem.

We enjoyed the people, many of the young children dressed in traditional Chinese clothing of silk brocade (or maybe polyester brocade) - boys almost always in blue or red, and girls nearly always in pink or red.  Red is the color of the young in much of this part of Asia, not necessarily gender related.  The little boy wasn't happy with his outfit, he really hated the hat, and he wasn't happy with his dad encouraging him to pose for the crazy tourist lady.  I don't know if he was reluctant about the photo, or just irritated with the whole thing.  But I love the way the photo turned out, it just reflects the whole situation of his father putting the hat on, the kid grabbing it off his head, over and over.  Poor kid!

The little girls were happy to pose, and their mothers thanked me for taking their photo, LOL!  And the little girls all said "Happy New Year!" in unison.  

So we had a great time with the crowds - it was really packed around the shore area of Kowloon, where people were gathering for the viewing stands (tickets were pricey, but sold out), or to watch the troupes get set up for the parade.  I caught the dragon as the group ran over to get organized!

So the parade route was to start near the clock tower at the Kowloon coast, head north on Canton Street, turn east on Haiphong Street, and then head south on Nathan Road, the big shopping street.  We had walked around Nathan Road with our friends last week, so we kind of knew where to go.  We walked, looked, enjoyed, and watched the sun go down.  Had a quick light meal at a coffee shop, and settled down to watch the parade on Nathan, sitting on a retaining wall right by the road.  Couldn't quite find Haiphong street, but the road here was closed so we figured this was part of the parade route.  We waited.  And waited.  And more waiting.  

The parade was due to start at 8.  About 9:15, we heard music, but nothing came by.  I finally started looking up and down the street, and realized that we could see float crossing Nathan several blocks downhill!  So we hurried down to the intersection, and jammed ourselves into the crowd, eventually working our way to maybe three people away from the barriers at the intersection.  Not the best view, but we could see bit of the parade.  

We got there just in time for the lion and dragon dancing, and caught a few of them.  Since this was toward the end of the parade route, they weren't really dancing, especially the back half of the lions.  It must be difficult to do an entire parade route bent over being the back end of a lion or dragon!

Then a giant balloon sheep came around the corner, followed by girls and young women dressed in blue, with sheep headdresses.  The floating sheep was great, but the sheep headdresses were just too funny!

There were a few bands, including one from Moscow.  I preferred the local band with glow sticks around the sax and trumpet mouths, and LEDs lighting up the Sousaphones!  (Richard and I sang along with a few of the melodies, like "You're Just Too Good To Be True."  We got some strange looks from the other parade goers, since we were the only ones singing, but we had fun.)

A few dance troupes in silver and black, or all gold glitter, and then the mocko jumbie ballet ladies!  Okay, stilt dancers - but in the Caribbean, stilt dancers are called mocko jumbies, so that's what they are to us, after 20+ years there.  There were maybe eight or ten women in floaty chiffon dresses, on maybe three meter stilts (maybe 9-10 ft tall), towering above the crowds and they gracefully pirouetted and tiptoed down the street.  They had ballet shoe designs on the ends of the stilts, so it really looked as if they were en pointe.  With the arm movements and the twirling and the floating dresses in rainbow colors, it really did look like they were a ballet troupe hovering over the road!

Our second favorite group came next, a few "Queen of the Bands" from St. Lucia, in the Caribbean!  The Queen and King of the Bands are performers in troupes who wear the most elaborate costumes, often with wings and tails and cantilevered architectural projections that are covered in feathers and glitter and beads.  These costumes are so heavy that the wearer is actually in a small cage with wheels, and the costume is attached to the cage, so it rolls along as the wearer dances inside.  And of course this makes the wings and tails and layers shimmy and shake with the dancing.  The three ladies were gorgeous, like giant glittering butterflies dancing down the street!  We cheered for them, our neighboring Caribbean Islanders!  (And Mr Dour Policeman kept getting into all of my photos!)

There was also a great African dance and drumming troupe, with a few African men and mostly Hong Kong residents in African cloth (mostly wax prints from either West or East Africa) - and strangely, a bunch of women in fake grass skirts, a few dancing in a more African style but most doing more of a Pacific Islands hula type of thing.  They were pretty funny, but the drumming was great and resonated down the street as they continued along the route.

Then the final float turned the corner, sort of a stack of gift boxes with a few rams and ewes in all kinds of cheerful bright colors, smiling at us.  The little kids all around started shouting "Baaaaah baaaah baaah" noises every time there were sheep floats, and so they started up their chorus again.  It was hilarious, between the children and the blue or orange or fuschia or emerald green sheep, some with leering gazes and some with long curly eyelashes.  We were surrounded by anthropomorphized sheep!

About this time Richard pointed out that we were on Humphrey Street.  This was where the parade crossed from Canton to Nathan.  On Humphrey Street, not Haiphong Street.  Unless Humphrey is English for Haiphong.  But we have no way of knowing, as is often the case.

We walked with the crowd (more like we were pushed down the street along with the crowd), and finally made our way to the ferry.  Only to learn that the ferry to Wan Chai stopped running about 8 minutes ago.  So we took the ferry to Central, and figured out how to get to the train, took the subway to our neighborhood stop, and slowly walked back home, exhausted.  We walked over seven miles, and still had the five floors to walk up to the apartment.

Other than waiting for the parade in the wrong location, and not having a great view, we had a great time!  It was bright and colorful and a little crazy, the way parades always are!  We were our usual New-Yorkish selves, discussing the floats and troupes, cheering or applauding the ones we liked, and singing along with music even though no one else was.  And yes, it was jam-packed with people, but we both had our money safely under our coats, and we're both quite willing to push back if people push around us.  (Hey, we're from New York!  We don't take being messed with.)

We may just name this the Year Phebe And Richard Can't Find the Parade!

Today we're resting a bit, then heading out for the fireworks tonight!  And there are three barges with fireworks in the harbor, so we're assuming we'll have better views!