馬灣 Ma Wan: an abandoned village

In the name of modernisation the matchstick flat blocks stand in unison on the north-eastern edge of Ma Wan. Park Island is the name, or perhaps the concept, that was plastered onto the purpose build housing estate and “theme park” looming above the old town.

Decrepit and sinister, loose planks and crumbling bricks are collapsing into the sea. Windowpanes are shattered and gardens matted with overgrown weeds, five years is enough time to remove most traces of the former seaside dwellers.

There is a specific eeriness to the abandoned kitchens, though they are gutted, cupboards ripped off and wall and floor tiles shattered, in some the crockery is still lined up as if ready for the next meal.

 

And the boats are still tied in the alcove of the harbour, dwarfed by the enormity of the Lantau link bridge. Both an eye sore and impressive, the building of bridges has always confused me. At its grand old height 41 meters above sea level it manages, somehow, to even dwarf the sea.

Apparently many jumped at the chance to leave and set up house in a new shiny box, others protested and still do. It’s a simple feat of development but still peculiar that the buildings stand untouched by no more than a spray can and creeping foliage.

The sea air has done a good job at rusting individual fences placed around each property; in fact it seems to be persisting more than the government ban. There’s one light on in all the village – the patriot who just would not leave.


 

An Alternative Neighbourhood: Sham Shui Po

Hong Kong lacks diversity on the scale of London say, or other ‘world’ cities. It has its own delights true, of old China, of a port city, and too the uniqueness of a so recently postcolonial country. But it’s stead fast in its limbo between china and the west, and in some ways is defined by this – with little room for much else. Sham Shui Po however, is a pocket of multiculturalism in outer Kowloon.

A neighbourhood patched together from the cities minorities, an undercurrent of organised chaos bathing in neon red. Some say it’s reminiscent of the Island in times gone by, a vibrancy that can only be achieved through multiculturalism, the cities poor and an influx of new ideas.

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There’s a visible diversity in Sham Shui Po unlike any other neighbourhood in Hong Kong, a prominence of west Asians but nonetheless ethnicities a plenty milling about. The eclectic and unpolished feel of the area is refreshing; it goes against the grain of the citywide move toward the modern, and dramatically against the pretentious haunts of Island.

It is a haphazard combination of hawker stalls, 20-dollar bargain bucket shops and street drinkers. The locals buzz about their daily lives to the continuous chatter of different Asian languages. Many shop shutters are down until at least early afternoon, the bustle increases when the bubbling broths and steaming dumplings fill the hot and dense air with a confusion of aromas.

By night as you weave around the streets truck-fulls of knock off goods, used household wares and broken electronics are laid out in the streets. Everyone’s a seller, and everyone has something to sell. Be it a food blender with one missing fitting, Mao’s little red book in 3 different languages, carefully placed film cameras, or dog-eared, smutty Asian porn. It’s a rummager’s, and an anthropologist’s, paradise.

Poor neighbourhoods have long become the culturally alternative epicentres. It is almost testament that the creative types gravitate toward the nastier areas of a city, the run down, ex industrial, usually multicultural.  As the artistically oppressed search for the grit and grime to inspire their creative flows, the once local no-go areas become overrun with the young, trend – and wallet – conscious.

 

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It’s neighbour Shek Kip Mei, is now so beyond being the shantytown that housed the first waves of refugees. In the 1950s a fire destroyed the ramshackle community and the government created an abrasive jungle of public housing. Now, in typical fashion, the greying area has been hailed as one of the new art scenes in Hong Kong.

While it’s tidier neighbour has been given a lick of paint from government money, it seems that Sham Shui Po is still finding its way up the to do list. And although there is an oriental-fusion charm to the slightly decrepit buildings and old-China traders, there is a more sombre side to this ragged little zone.

The presence of makeshift mattresses in almost every subway, though disturbing as is always, is a reminder that the billion dollar developments are squeezing all the poor into areas like Sham Shui Po. Not just the artists or alternatives looking to betray the norm, but the homeless and marginalised.

But don’t dismiss Sham Shui Po, visit for a few hours in the evening, get amongst the global grime and a bustle. Eat the street food, buy something to collect dust, and export yourself out of glossy Hong Kong for a little while.

 


 

Kangding 康定市 · དར་མདོ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར། to Tagong ལྷ་སྒང་

Tagong, or Lhagang ལྷ་སྒང་ in Tibetan, is a small town of almost Tibetan entirety, surrounded by mountains and grasslands. Beautiful.

Much to our surprise, the way to travel as a foreigner in western Sichuān is by car. The same price as the bus, at least half the time, blasting Tibetan music, and a throaty serenade by the driver thrown in.

We left Kangding at 8:30am and began the descent out of the town and up through the mountains. Turning corners and climbing a few hundred feet higher, the air is thin, the sun is blinding. The peaks rise high above the eye line, the crevices between the mountains widen to the brilliant blue sky not visible from Kangding or the snaking roads of the valley.

A stop off half way:

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Half-way to Tagong

 

We passed traditional settlements, shells of new houses, endless prayer flags, and when the grasslands began to stretch across our views…yaks. So many yaks. The big black beasts look like pin pricks in the scenery, the scale of the landscape – whether mountains or plains – was immense.

Tagong itself is a town based upon a monastery in the shadows of Mt. Yala (Zhara Laste), now it’s dual purpose seems to be a road side town for the lorries that storm through the area towards Tibet. And of course the tourist.. like us.

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Inside the monastery at Tagong

At the Khampa Cafe , we drank butter tea (a sour tea from Yak butter and barley), ate delicious Tibetan dumplings, and then got sunburnt on a mountain.

After a day of cultural enrichment (mostly sat in silence , in awe of what surrounded us) and curious stares from Tibetan monks and cowboys, the journey back to Kangding. A change of driver to his brother, with gold jewellery in abundance and a clapped-out, old school white Honda.  In our wagon we head back through the grasslands to Kangding.

A bottle of Tsingtao in hand, a day of climbing hills at altitude, and that sleepy post-sun burnt feeling: probably on of the most beautiful car journeys ever.

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Grasslands of Tagong: one the 10 holy mountains of the Plateau in the distance

Journeys through Sichuān: done.

ChengDu 成都市 to Kangding 康定市 · དར་མདོ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།

Bus stations in China are generally more chaotic than train stations, ChengDu was a calm-ish surprise. (By Chinese standards) 

After edging out of the city, through industrial suburbs and hectic flyover junctions, the visible land spreads and buildings were in huddled settlements with vast farming land between. 

Much of the journey was the same, though you couldn’t see a great deal through the foggy windows – dripping with condensation. The soundtrack to the 6 hour journey was the gutsy jibber jabber of the Sichuān dialiect, and empassioned love songs blasting from the speakers.  

Entering the two lane road on an unfinished “freeway” through the mountains, the Chinese style of driving is terrifying. After the 5th near death experience one learns to shut your eyes and put your faith in the ballsy little bus driver’s game of chicken.   

  
The mountains were stunning, bare and brown but beautiful in an ominous way. Lakes of a luminescent turquoise green (unromantic but most definitely due to pollution) had been damned all the way up. It was a steady climb up the valley, with a growing chalkiness to the air: mines. And along the route we saw some more reminders of China’s impending desire to cash in on the surroundings. 

A convoy of Chinese army vehicles, gigantic green lorries with red stars plastered across the front. Numbers 278-309, 31 lorries wiggling through the mountain road. An awe-inspiring and equally depressing journey toward Kanding. 

In the eighth and final hour of the approach to one of the western most cities before the Tibetan Plateau, the sky is the bluest we’ve seen for a while, the faces are changing and the air is thinning. 

The initial swarm of locals trying to flog you a taxi left us bumbling around like little lost boys. But when this is where your journey has taken you…. 

   

Next stop: Tagong ལྷ་སྒང་

II) ChongQing 重庆市 to ChengDu 重庆市

Being at the front of a lengthy queue of Chinese, in a packed out train station with absolutely no Mandarin, is not an experience for the easily unnerved. Throaty curses and irritated jesticulation were flying in our direction, Mandarin ignorance slapping us in the face consistently.

Fortunately with a calm enough exterior and the ability to jut say yes and nod, us two stereotypically traveller-clad white girls boarded a train to ChengDu. 

    

   

Journeys with 289km/h scenery (a fuzz of green swooshing by) inevitably end up with rained-off camping games, or a lesson in Origami Cranes much to our neighbours amusement. 

Against the odds and quick 318 km later, there is no record of the hostel booking. In broken English with an almost-sorry look on her face we were shuffled on down to a Chinese only dorm, in which we were met with “how did you find us?”…

On the second day in the fastest growing city in China: an accomodation change to the Loft Hostel, copious amounts of tea in the People’s Park, dancing with old Chinese ladies to pop-fusion traditional tunes, meeting up with the 3rd musketeer, a nervous shuffle around the army manned Tianfu Square, and a hot pot that steamed the ears: ChengDone.

Next stop: Kangding 康定市 · དར་མདོ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།

I) Shenzhen 深圳市 to ChongQing 重庆市

A not so monumental border crossing at Shenzhen and and 4 hour flight delay. 

Sheet rain battering the runway, definitely not going anywhere. You’ve never seen a waiting room turned on its head quite as quickly as when presented with four boxes of free pot noodles and a tin of jelly. Shout out to Chongqing Airlines for the free food.  

Patience is virtue, in China it’s a necessity. 

A selfie request and some points and stares later, we boarded a flight to the middle of Mainland China (nowhere). 

A soggy touch down at 4am in a pitch black city 2 turbulent hours later…

Nǐ hǎo ChongQing !

If you ever find yourself in ChongQing in need of a lovely Chinese man with solid English and an excellent bed: the Only backpacker hostel and cafe is a basement of dreams in downtown.   

  
 Not a bad coffee either. 

Next stop: Chengdu 成都

Journeys through Sichuān 四川省

On the road in the home of the giant Panda, spicy hotpot and the Chinese gateway to Tibet.   
We spend our time rushing to destinations, flitting from a to b and often not considering how we get there to be any more than a mode of transport. In China it seems to be the journey is more of an experience than the destination. 

As we embark on a 12 day plod around the Sichuan Province, hours will be spent on transport… or waiting for it. 

So as pictures of monuments and beautiful scenery dominate the travel blogging sphere, we bring to you more than just the destination but the journeys through Sichuan.

As Ferris Bueller says “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it..”  

For updates as regular as the China firewall allows and prophetic wisdom such as the above stay tuned. 

First stop: ChongQing  重庆市

 

I) The Fish Ball Protests and the Hong Kong Street Hawkers

Part II of II

As the thousands gathered in Tsim Sha Tsui for the most extravagant Lunar New Year festivities world wide, of which Hong Kong’s parade and firework display are famous, there was an immensely less celebratory gathering brewing in the streets of Mong Kok. The uncharacteristically violent protests, engaging many of Hong Kong’s politically conscious young, ended in a bloodied mess of impassioned locals and baton-wielding police unable to control the situation.

The plans to eradicate street vendors from the iconic Mong Kok streets were leaked and social media took its modern day vigilante role to organise what became dubbed as the Fish Ball Protests. Without spending time in the city it’s hard to see how culturally ingrained street food is. It is without doubt part of the history of Hong Kong, China even, a marker of cultural heritage.

Mong Kok: 街頭小販 (Street Hawkers)

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But more importantly, it’s non-discriminatory, unlike the influx of gentrified restaurants and ‘food concepts’ that have flooded the alleyways of the Island. And therein lies another issue, a country stuck between wanting western style freedom but perhaps not everything that western brings.

Politically, it is an interesting time to be living in Hong Kong; there is insecurity for the future of the country. The one country two systems ideal is threatening the freedom that its citizens have enjoyed. A Pseudo-democracy essentially being threatened from both sides: A tightening grip from Beijing, and a louder calling for autonomy from the Localist movement.

There are conflicting views throughout the population, some claiming that the Localism argument is defunct because China is the only way forward – even if they get dragged kicking or screaming, others – especially the young political activists- are claiming their stake for Hong Kong’s identity and concerns for a China led future. Student involvement in politics, now termed Scholarism ( 學民思潮 ), has become a forerunner in political discussion since the Umbrella Protests in 2014. So much so that the growing support for the movement, and for student age campaign hopefuls is causing a stir.

So despite the slightly comical name, the Fish Ball Protests represent a lot more than a local delicacy -but the current fragility of Hong Kong’s social problems. This cluster of politically intertwining issues was described as coming to a head in the New Year Fish Ball Protests, witnessing the attitudes that are circulating in the city however, could suggest it’s only just started.

If you’re interested…

The Guardian Protest Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bm3DwLBlaOc 

Hong Kong Free Press: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/02/19/violence-in-hong-kong-inevitable-say-citys-new-activists/ 


 

 

I) Food as a way of life.

Part I of II

 

Grease slathered ducks hanging in windows, all crooked at the neck and burnt-out beaks, and the ‘stinky tofu’ – the local term for the pungent soy bean tofu sold by the bucket load from street stalls – the smell surrounds you, knocks the air from you, it is to me revolting… but now I know when I approach those stalls to hold my breath and quick step-past the queue.

What is obvious to me now that I have eaten with locals, in dingy little restaurants and their own houses, is that a dish, or style of food, can represent a blessing or a well wish, to sit and eat is to be in company, to be invited into a home to eat is an honour. Food is culture.

Dim Sum 點心

Traditionally from Guangdong (southernmost China) and Hong Kong, the quintessentially Chinese bamboo steamers are filled to the brim with steamed delights. Washed down with free flow Chinese tea, locally, going for dim sum is also known as yum cha: to eat and to drink. The characters have a literal meaning – when placed together grammatically – of “touching the heart.”

Reunion Meal團圓飯

There are many other foods considered lucky, or a blessing, and hold a particular meaning. Especially in light of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, the ‘reunion meal’ –held on New Years Eve and is considered to be one of the most important occasions of the year, often bringing generations of family back together in their hometowns. Not dissimilar to the gargantuan Christmas dinner we’re used to.

Tang-Yuan 盤菜

Sweet Ginger Soup was given to me recently as the final course of a traditional Chinese dinner. Sweet syrup from brown sugar and ginger with glutinous dumplings filled with black sesame paste, the host said, “for you to leave my house with good blessing.”

Fish Ball 魚蛋 

The Fish Ball is typical Hong Kong street food; the white rubbery balls of fish paste in every vendors stall, plain or with curry sauce, served skewered onto thin sticks or in bowls of noodle soup. (As you may see people chomping on a Gregg’s Sausage roll: a poor and only semi-fitting comparison…) But it is not for their taste they’re mentioned but for what they have come to represent. Though it may be a tangible link, the nooks and crannies these stalls inhabit are swarmed with customers nattering away, they represent the street hawker community: the lifeline of the cities street culture, which is at present in danger.

Not just an act of filling a hole, eating for hunger. A communal intention to be satisfied and enjoy food, something that is left behind with lunch to-go and TV dinners – of which many of us are guilty.

[On a slightly less thoughtful note: you’ve never quite experienced a pot noodle until you’ve had an Imperial Big Meal Beef Noodle Bowl…honest]

Next: The Fish Ball Riots & Hong Kong’s Street Hawkers.


 

 

Half way to native…

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Whilst ‘going native’ isn’t a term you’d normally use to reflect on six months in Hong Kong, adapting to the differences in a new environment – wherever it is and however long you are there – is essentially on the way to going native. A very long way it may be but still on the way.

In anticipation of arrival, a year feels like a long time when you’re faced with the unknown- a new city, country, continent even, new people, and no familiarity. But, predictably, the last six months has shot past at light speed.

Half-way there, over half way done. Either way, six out of twelve months completed. I’m not sure that I have any ground-breaking revelations, epiphanies or insights that characterise my stay so far. But I do know that chicken feet, herbal tea to solve any ailment, and noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner, are more than normal now.

It’s an innate ability to normalise things that seem odd at first. Some more able to than others, understandably not everyone can adapt to the questionable meat and public throat clearing… nonetheless as we stabilise our surroundings, certain things you’d never capture on a two week tourist-site binge begin to surface.

So in light of being in Hong Kong for six months there are a few things that have either fascinated, unnerved or interested me:

[Each part to be continued in the coming weeks… also in a bid to make my writing less sporadic]

I) Food is a way of life.

Hong Kong is often referred to as a cuisine lovers’ destination. From the rickety street hawkers – that were the centre of the recent New Year ‘fishball protest’, an uncharacteristically violent protest-come-riot focusing on localism and the hardship faced by the cities original street sellers – that sell an obscure combination of Hong Kong ‘delicacies’. In quotations due to the definition of delicacy: highlighting the point exactly.  Not to forget the Dim Sum and fine dining in abundance.

II) Cultural Identity Crisis?

Hong Kong is clearly a modern country, with diversity, evident social classes, institutions, a booming economy, etc.… It identifies with so many ‘western’ sensibilities yet many seem adamant that it is in no way western – that I am western and they are not. And too, the young especially seem to want to be far away from the Mainland Chinese stereotype. So where is Hong Kong on the East to West spectrum?

III) Poverty – Relatively hidden but by no means is it non-existent.

There are three marginalised groups to look at in particular, the Filipino domestic workers – who are never able to claim citizenship unlike other nationalities, and who are subject to awful pay and no level of respect. Secondly, the 1/3 of elderly people living below the poverty line. The elderly of Hong Kong are stuck in the middle of the opposing views of family obligation and welfare, resulting in abject poverty that forces them to manual labour. Lastly, the McRefugees – dubbed this by locals and media as hoards of homeless, poor and isolated individuals gather in the cities 24 hour McDonalds throughout the night, every night.