Ode to the Fragrant Harbour

hk harbourjpgWhen we swapped our humidifiers (bone dry Beijing) for dehumidifiers (perpetually soggy Hong Kong) I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Hong Kong was the antithesis of Beijing in every way. Beijing was dusty and barren, Hong Kong lush and dense and evergreen. Beijing sprawling and confusing, Hong Kong neat and contained and manageable. Beijing perplexing, Hong Kong recognisable and familiar. Beijing had spit-infested pavements, in Hong Kong spitters can be fined. In Beijing I was starved of English (or any) media, Hong Kong has book stores galore.

We didn’t do Hong Kong justice though; we were too sleep deprived. And when we hightailed it out of there two years later we were still a little weary from the rigours of new parenting. Looking back, here’s my take on the Kong – a mishmash of loves, loathes, anecdotes and regrets:

  • It’s a money town. People come for the big bucks – inflated salaries, tax breaks, cushy expat lifestyle. Locals and foreigners unite in their worship of Hong Kong’s gods – career, money, status, labels.
  • It’s a city of extremes. Louis Vuitton clad corporate types, Dior on every corner, people begging on the pavements outside. Old people with backs crippled from years of hard labour hobbling alongside white collar workers in immaculate suits. Central district is a shrine to capitalism yet wandering out to the remote islands feels like stepping back in time, lives untouched by the frenetic pace and consumer madness of the city itself.
  • It’s a city of contradictions; tradition and modernity clash and blend at every turn. Sleek high-tech buildings that adhere to feng shui principles (think a giant hole in the center of a modern skyscraper to allow a dragon to fly through).
  • It’s an insanely efficient place where things get done so swiftly it makes living anywhere else feel disorganised and very very slow.
  • It’s a small place but , as photojournalist Tom Carter puts it, Take a stroll around Tsim Sha Tsui…and you can see the entire human race in one square-block radius.’ Despite this multicultural mix, it feels segregated. There isn’t just an expat-local divide but foreigners from different parts of the world colonise their corner of the city. Western expats converge in the highrises of midlevels, Filipina helpers can be seen en-masse in public squares on Sundays, their one day off.  
  • It is, surprisingly, a very green city with awesome hiking trails. I left having spent way too much time in air conditioned malls and far too little time exploring the trails.
  • It’s also smoggy. Horribly smoggy. Cleaner than Beijing but enough to get down in the dumps about the state of your lungs on a regular basis. Combine this with ridiculous humidity levels and it’s little wonder people tend to stay indoors.
  • The escalator is so unique to Hong Kong – an outdoor escalator that takes you from the bottom of a steep hill to the top, dotted all the way  up with cafes and restaurants packed with beautiful young things. Surely one of the best places in the world for people watching.
  • While heavily pregnant, I was queue-jumped in rush hour while trying to hail a cab. It was one of my pet hates so all sorts of filth poured out my mouth about said queue jumper. Witnessing this, an old Chinese man ran up to me, lurched into the road and did a spot of queue jumping himself to hail me a cab. He gave me an apologetic smile and said I’m sorry about that, it’s just the Hong Kong way, you have to learn to fight’. Too true.
  • We lived in such an expat bubble it’s hard to fathom triad activity anywhere in the city. But apparently this is a thing. I guess way beyond the plushness of Central, in the city’s underbelly?
  • Not quite as sterile as ‘Asia lite’ Singapore and less edgy than Beijing but still with an edge of it’s own, Hong Kong strikes a good balance between being liveable but also fun and culturally rich. (It always makes Monocles ‘Most Liveable Cities’ list).
  • If I had to do it over: I’d check out Chungking Mansions, the big Buddha (shocking I know), I’d hike the more remote islands, explore armed with a camera and have at least one completely debauched night in Lan Kwai Fung.
  • Best bit – as always – the friends we made (and the foot massages!).

So much in life is about timing and for us the timing was a little off. I was immersed in nappies and night feeds and so in a sense could have been in any city. Which is a pity really as Hong Kong is one kick ass city – with an unrivalled night life, super glam expat scene, incongruities everywhere that simultaneously frustrate and fascinate. It was a strange time in my life, where nothing and everything happened, like a stop on the way to somewhere else. Yet as the place where I married my love, had a blissful pregnancy and became a mother, it’s forever close to my heart.

Mighty Middle Kingdom

Vipassana
In Feng Shui, the door is the mouth of the home, allowing chi to be drawn inside. Red doors, very common in China, symbolise good luck and happiness.

I’ve written about the severe culture shock I experienced when I packed up my life and moved to Beijing with my husband. I hated it at first, probably because I knew so little about it; I arrived with very little knowledge and a truck load of misconceptions. Here’s some of what I learnt after three years of muddling through:

  • Culturally, China is very heterogenous. Though the majority of people, about 90%, are Han Chinese, there are about 56 different ethnicities.  A friend gave me the most beautiful book called ‘China: Portrait of a People’ by photojournalist Tom Carter, and I never tire of paging through it, enraptured by the faces.  From the Islamic Uighurs to the matriarchal Miao to the Yi and (depending on where you stand politically), the Tibetans and Taiwanese, the diversity is truly astounding.  People always talk about ‘the Chinese’ as if they’re a homogenous mass, and when I’d try imagine China before living there, I’d picture a sea of indistinguishable faces.  Such a huge misconception. What’s interesting is that my Chinese colleagues would tell me that – to them – all westerners looked the same. I guess cultural reductionism works both ways.
  • The food is mind-blowingly delicious and completely diverse – it’s certainly not all chow mein and chop suey. Different parts of the country have very different cuisines. During our time there my husband would attend elaborate Chinese banquets where he sampled delicacies like sea cucumber, jellyfish, camel’s hump, camel’s paw and live lobster shashimi.  He always said the food he liked most was the ‘peasant food’ – the wholesome simple food that ordinary Chinese people ate. The fancier the banquet and the more the hosts tried to impress, the more unpalatable the food – and I totally agree.  I still salivate thinking of hotpot in the winter, spicy sichuan fish with its tongue-numbing pepper, Xinjiang kebabs, dofu, refried beans.
  • It’s not all zen and yin and yang. I was bumped and pushed and shoved and queue jumped. I was surprised that ancient Chinese practices like feng shui and traditional Chinese medicine didn’t seem very prevalent, not on the surface anyway. I learnt this is a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was hell-bent on eradicating all traces of traditional Chinese beliefs — he regarded them as backward and a threat to progress.  If you look hard enough, you can find corners of peace and tranquility and the quaint China you imagine, but on the face of it it’s noisy and in your face and dog-eat-dog.  In competing with a billion other people in the race to modernise, I get why it’s like this; still –  I always took it as a personal affront when someone pushed in front of me or into me.
  • The incredible ethnic diversity has resulted in different dialects – linguists say somewhere between 7 and 14. Most expats tackling Chinese are not brave enough to learn Chinese characters, and opt for pinyin instead.  Pinyin is the romanisation of Chinese characters, using punctuation to denote the tones. And tones are very important. The example always given to beginners is that of ma – which, depending on which tone you use (first tone maaa or fourth tone mah), can mean either ‘mother’ or ‘horse’ (a faux pas waiting to happen basically).
  • The government may have loosed its grip somewhat, but when we lived there censorship was alive and well. Our first experience of it was while watching BBC – a segment on China had just begun when the TV screen went blank. Social media sites are blocked and unblocked randomly and don’t even try and google Tiananmen Square or Tibet. I once managed to find a copy of National Geographic from a tucked away kiosk in a mall that stocked foreign language magazines (English magazines were always a treat!). It was the run up to the Olympics so China was getting lots of coverage. Inside was an article on China and every reference to Tiananmen had been manually crossed out with a black marker pen. The diligence of the censorship police seemed to know no bounds. The few times I did try engage my colleagues on the leadership of the country I was met with blank stares and stony silences.
  • The geographical diversity is huge. China has mountains, rivers, lakes, plateaus, karsts, snow and sunshine. It’s like a dozen countries in one, though with just one time zone! The winters in the north are subarctic and the summers in the south are tropical. A vivid Beijing memory is of streets jam-packed with bodies wearing full-length padded jackets, not unlike duvets. With temperatures of -10 not uncommon, warmth definitely trumps fashion. A trip to see the famous Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin (a town in the very north of China, close to Russia) was a highlight, admiring the giant ice sculptures, in below thirty temperatures, with frozen nostril hairs and layer upon layer of thermal wear.
  • The Great Wall, I was surprised to learn, is not one long wall but rather a series of connecting walls built over centuries and – contrary to local belief – I don’t think you can see if from outer space.  It’s a truly spectacular sight though and if you’re ever in that part of the world, try and do a weekend trip with William Lindesay.  He’s a Great Wall researcher whose claim to fame is being the first foreigner to walk the entire length of the wall.  His knowledge is incredible and he’ll take you to some remote sections of the wall miles away from the crowds. www.wildwall.com

There it is, my version of China for Dummies. Years ago, I remember reading in the Lonely Planet that India is a complete assault on the senses and I found that to be true. I also found the same to be true of China. It’s hard to be indifferent about it – you love it, then hate it, then both at the same time. It’s just completely impossible to ignore.

(*This post was written years ago. Even though we’re now happily ensconced in the suburbs of Cape Town, putting down some roots, sometimes, in and amongst all the domesticity, I still get an itch, to pack it all up, move somewhere new and be presented with that wonderfully exciting clean slate. For now, the closest I’ll get to that are flashbacks to our expat days).

Energy guzzlers

grasses1jpgIt’s a small, seemingly insignificant thing but the absence of a machine or contraption whirring in the background to regulate the temperature or clean the air is one of the things I’ve loved most about moving back home.

In Beijing there was a constant hum in our apartment – of the air conditioner in summer, the heater in winter (who knew Beijing was sub-arctic) and the air purifier most of the year. Hong Kong was not much different (this is a city where department stores open their doors wide to pump cold air onto the hot sticky streets outside). In London it was the central heating for what felt like the better part of the year.

In Cape Town the air is beautifully clean and the temperature just so, so that you’re always comfortable, and it’s felt so good to be less of an energy guzzler. Moving home has coincided with a gradual awakening on my part – of a planet in peril as a result of our unrelenting quest for comfort and convenience. Maybe it’s having kids, maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s having lived in such artificial city environments for close to a decade.

I do wonder though, if I moved back to any of those concrete jungles, would I just revert to my old ways? Crank up the aircon after a day in the insane stickiness that is Hong Kong? Or seal myself in my apartment, air purifier going full-tilt, after an afternoon breathing in the noxious Beijing air? What are the alternatives? Learn to be a little (or a lot) less comfortable?

I can feel smug about ditching the temperature control machines but I now live in a suburban house with a thirsty garden, and I haven’t used public transport in three years. I’ve swapped out one set of conveniences for another – if I did one of those carbon footprint calculations and compared life then to life now, I’m not sure I’ve progressed as much as I think.

It does feel though that once awareness has crept up on you, once it’s got your attention, it starts demanding more of you. What you know becomes compounded so that you’re forced to continually refine and adapt your thinking. You recycle furiously and feel great about keeping waste out of landfill, then investigate a little more and realise recycling is a sticking plaster, not a solution, and that what you actually need to do is stop accumulating. You become water-wise, flick those switches off and compost your food waste but then watch Cowspiracy and feel like you’ve had blinkers on all this time – gorging yourself on meat whereas in fact ditching meat could have a bigger impact that all your recycling efforts combined. You browse the sites of zero wasters displaying their entire years waste in a small glass jar – and then, feeling inadequacy creep in, you step away from the screen, go for a walk and get some perspective!

Learning is iterative and it’s hard to overhaul your life in a day, a week, a few months or even years. But you can always start and do what you can when and where you can, with the wherewithal you have at the time – and you can rejig things as you go along. And I think a journey of sustainability should be a joyful one – moments of outrage and maybe even exasperation at times yes, but ultimately something that brings you a semblance of peace in a crazy beautiful world.

“Little by little, one travels far”
– J.R.R Tolkien

Airpocalypse

A decade ago, footloose and fancy free, I followed my husband on a posting to Beijing. I figured that as a well-travelled anthropologist, adjusting would be a doddle. Turns out I was woefully underprepared and suffered a severe case of culture shock. I was a terrible China basher and couldn’t understand the love Sinophiles had for the country. To me, it was dusty, barren, ugly, unforgiving, brutal and incomprehensible.

Beijing is one of the world’s megacities and boy do you feel it — the heaving mass of people, the congested highways, the asphalt, the skyline crammed with cranes, the retail mania. And worst of all, the pollution. We arrived in this insane city in the run-up to the Olympics. Construction was in overdrive, choking the already filthy air with dust particles, making it difficult to breathe.

When we lived there I seldom bothered to check the pollution index –  just by looking out the window I’d know it was through the roof. Breathing the air was so toxic, many of the international schools had sealed outdoor domes where kids could play sport. And those face masks that people wear? Apparently useless at keeping out the really nasty particles.

Pollution - mini rant
A daily ritual in Beijing. Pull back the curtains and suss out the air quality. This is a bad, though far too common day
Pollution - mini rant
A good day
Pollution - mini rant
A (very rare) pristine day

It all felt very post-apocalyptic. I’ve never felt the disconnect between man and nature as much as when I lived in Beijing. Everything felt artificial, even the rain – which, sometimes, it was. After particularly dry spells, the government would shoot chemicals into the sky to make it rain – it’s called cloud seeding and it’s a thing.

During international conferences (when foreigners would stream in) factories would be shut down and the change in the environment would be almost immediate – you’d see the bluest skies, and actual clouds. The international delegates would leave, the factories would power up, and you’d be enveloped in a soupy smog within a day. It was super depressing – and very disconcerting how governments play God with the weather.

Living under perpetually leaden skies was by far the toughest part of our China stint. Tougher than the culture shock and the language barrier. I was in a slightly more forgiving space by the time we left, having made many wonderful friends and learnt so much. Bereft of any natural beauty, I was forced to seek it out elsewhere – to scratch below the surface and uncover some of the idiosyncracies of life in the Middle Kingdom. And, although I didn’t need much convincing, Beijing reminded me of the rare beauty of home. In Cape Town we’re blessed with the most exquisite blue skies almost daily. You do notice a yellow band of pollution when the Cape Doctor stops blowing and air gets trapped by the mountains. But everything being relative, I still like to gulp it in.