Contrasts.

HK
Sheung Wan – Hong Kong Island

The philosophy of Yin and Yang speaks of opposite forces complementing each other, granted the great philosophical minds probably didn’t have a blog post about culture clash in mind. Regardless, it’s a grey and dull day today but no amount of drizzle will hide the worlds that collide in Hong Kong.

It is a city of contrasts; the skyline is dominated by shining towers -that confirm its place among the modern metropolises of the world. Flaking walls of traditional Chinese buildings nestled between the monstrous new builds. Dior sharing a pavement with a fruit stall. Ornate temples poking out behind those famous golden arches – Mc Donald’s is near enough a dietary requirement here.

Often you can walk down one road and go from the winding alleyways of old China to a towering world city. For me, the charm of Hong Kong is that it’s kept a grip on it’s past and although the western influences are in abundance, there’s pockets of the traditional alive and thriving.

The iconic streets of Mong Kok are a sensory overload; you could walk for hours – in circles, through the same intricate streets and never get bored of looking up. Thousands of people passing through the same chaos: dazed and slightly cross-eyed.

The blinding shop lights jutting out above the pavements are almost hypnotic, herbal medicine dispensaries and street food hole-in-the-wall’s everywhere you look. Anywhere else the mass of flamboyant neon lights could be tacky but here in the pulsating Kowloon district they’ve become part of the character, the epitome of the Hong Kong people travel to see.

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Mong Kok – Kowloon

Then there’s the glitz of the designer clad streets in Causeway Bay or Central, the presence of high-end shops is overwhelming. Always empty, bar the obsessively well-groomed staff. Still, there’s a sense of glamour to it, one that couldn’t seem further away from the bustle of Mong Kok.

Just two MTR stops away are the impossibly steep stairs that guide you through Soho. A culmination of antique streets, independent cafés and bars, and market stalls. Soho embodies the different sides of Hong Kong culture, and highlights (as with so many popular cities) that gentrification is swarming in; you can get your gluten free-organic-nothing-slightly-fat-related-brunch in too many places. Places that neighbour the wall-to-ceiling tiled dim sum houses, where what you order probably isn’t what you’re going to get. Generally the more clinical and depressing they look, and the more amused the locals are at you trying to figure out a Chinese only menu, the better the food will be.

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Central – Hong Kong Island

Yes there’s much more to Hong Kong than architecture, culinary adventures and blinding lights. I’m almost four months in and getting lost is still a regular occurrence, Google has never been such a trusted companion and every time I head out I’m bound to stumble across something new to wonder about…but the contrasts in this city create an unbeatable feeling and that’s definitely a good place to start.

For now the duality works – a Hong Kong Yin and Yang. 

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Mong Kok Station Interlink – Kowloon

 

Guimaras – The Philippines

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There’s something about being on an island. Guimaras, Iloilo, in the Western Visayas of the Philippines, in this case.

The ultimate escape, where the only thing between you and real civilization is the ocean, the vastness of which terrifies and excites me about the same.

And the latter was justified, as we narrowly avoided two typhoons during our stay.

A fifteen-minute pump boat ride from Iloilo city, Guimaras, in the Panay Gulf, takes less than half a day to motorbike around. Had we stayed any longer than six days I think all accessible roads would have been memorised.

Overshadowed by its hot spot neighbor Borocay, promising cheap accommodation, buzzing nightlife and karaoke a plenty (exactly what we wanted to avoid), Guimaras hasn’t quite yet been held in the suffocating grip of mass-tourism. This was among the several reasons the sleepy, relatively unknown island caught me hook, line and sinker.

It’s flaking primary colour shop signs, showing years of family dedication to the small businesses that serve the population. Crumbling concrete structures with a lick of paint that hide the haphazard infrastructure beneath. The roadside stalls promising the catch of the day, or fruit from trees less than 500 yards away. The smiling faces, continuous genuine welcomes, and the overwhelming generosity that floods out of the humble people that live there. The white sand beaches, fresh home-cooked meals, and less-than-£2 bottles of rum were simply an extra bonus.

It seemed, as with many lesser-developed destinations, to be stuck in a time warp. The ‘capital’ city Jordan was a cross roads no more than a few kilometers each way. Its supermarket, to which we ventured to by tricycle in torrential rain, was like a snapshot from the 60’s, row upon row of tinned goods – reminiscent of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, an incredible variety of powdered sauces and artificially square bread. Corned Beef, Nescafe and two kilo’s of rice were the items we left with.

For less than £10 per night we were treated like royalty, a welcome change to the grotty hostel-dwelling trips budget travellers must become accustomed to. Our seven-strong group of Europeans was greeted with bemusement and excitement everywhere we ventured on the 15km wide island.

But most of all there seemed to be a purity to the people, that comes from a sense of community you can only get from island life. A life more detached from the influences that can change the way a person sees the world. Having what you need…no unnecessary indulgence. Simplicity, or poverty I’m not really sure. Whether I am naïve and what these warm, generous people desire is the life I lead I do not know.

What I do know is that in its multi-coloured, slightly dilapidated state life seemed good, and people seemed happy. Beyond an archipelago that is characterized by its devilish typhoon season, there is a place of tropical charm. In fact, I think I’ve fallen in love the Philippines.

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CHINA II – The Tourist Paradox

ON THE SEARCH FOR AUTHENTICITY. 

6:00am at the top of a mist-shrouded mountain, overlooking the Lonji Rice Terraces, a bundle of silhouettes are clambering up the path to Scenic Point 1 – selfie sticks clutched in their hands and phone lights on full beam… We look at each other disappointed; “It would be so nice if there were no tourists here” … “hmm but we’re tourists.” And therein lies the paradox.

Being tourists on £2 rent-a-bikes
Being tourists on £2 rent-a-bikes

The constant search for “authenticity” when travelling – what does authentic even mean in a world where tourism is one of the highest grossing industries worldwide? Well, by definition:

…of undisputed origin; genuine.

And by tourism board definition:

…triple the price.

I’m sure, like in any country, there are hidden away corners of China that would satisfy even the most intrepid explorers craving for the unknown, original, authentic experience. But the Guangxi province certainly is not one of those corners. Yangshuo is a holiday destination; the Chinese are visiting this little city over National Day public holiday to have a taste of the good (western) life. The finest delicacies, pizza, pasta and Hoegarden, are available in abundance. Western food?! Heaven forbid, we want noodles, chicken feet and dingy back-street restaurant pronto!

What they had on offer, a ‘family friendly’ restaurant with stripper poles per table– scantily clad Pilipino girl included with Set Meal A. It was like a twisted Benidorm of Southern China. Semi-naked Karaoke and happy hours by the bucket load. Shit. Could we escape the bright lights of the aptly named ‘West Street’? Alas no, we were sweaty, sunburnt, and white: the perfect tourist target.

Everywhere, the pointing and mandarin mutters leading to fits of laughter, the bemused looks on leathery faces as we cycled through farmland in Yangshuo, the constant harassment to buy souvenirs; take a moto-taxi or ride a bamboo boat up the Li River, that isn’t real bamboo and costs more than a 8 hour journey across the province, It’s all part of the experience no?

To a certain extent it’s hypocritical to huff and puff when locals wack out a smart phone and snap your mid sentence face. I mean, what’s a holiday photo album when you don’t have a shot of a traditionally dressed local engrossed in their daily tasks? So we embraced the giggling groups who wanted pictures with the westerners, the amount of Weibo (Chinese equivalent to Facebook) profiles we’re on must be quite impressive.

Still, we go to these places knowing that we will be as much of a spectacle to them as they are to us, and that we will be approached every other step by someone trying to sell something to enhance our experience. “Hello bamboo” seemed to do the trick for modes of transport, food and drinks. Nonetheless getting ripped off for two packs of cigarettes and a bottle of water, I guess he charged at least double, is annoying, yes.

All jokes aside, it’s impossible not to wonder what will come of the serenity of the rice terraces. In only three years the DaZhai village has gone from unknown, to custom built coach parks being carved out of the mountainside. The traditional wooden houses are being replaced by concrete block structures, ugly and dominating, paid for by Europeans of course. In the tiny village where we stayed, of no more than 25 houses, there were at least 8 new ‘hotels’ in one stage of completion or another. But who can blame them? Gaungxi and surrounding provinces are some of the poorest in China, with an opportunity to make money year round, as the seasons supply ever-changing scenery, they’d be foolish not to. And it is beautiful.

The most astounding revelation, that literally shoved the tourist paradox 3 inches away from my face, took place at the Yangshuo Impressions Light Show. (Self confessed – leaving my search for authenticity at the door) An auditorium with a backdrop of the incredible mountains of Yangshuo, in the world’s only natural theatre – the plummy English voiceover really went to town on that. So here we are, about to be taken on a colour rich journey through the folklore of Gaungxi… At least 60% of the audience were watching the performance through their phone screens, I thought that the light effects were being reflected onto the audience, no just camera flash. For what purpose would you film something like that on your 5 megapixel phone camera? Other than to prove you were there? So in true ironic fashion I took a picture, of people taking pictures, in a place were no one was supposed to be taking pictures. Subsequently leading to an emblazed conversation about a ‘potentially very damaged generation of young Chinese’ – but then who am I to judge, being in censored China was probably the first time I haven’t been on social media for longer than 10 days since MySpace.

Regardless of my moans, from the 10 day whistle stop tour, this region is a jewel of Southern China, I am airing my cynical thoughts for the purpose of writing something interesting, beyond praising the magnificent landscape, incredible street food and traditional accommodation.

After all, that’s information you can get on the Lonely Planet website.


CHINA I – Guangzhou

MADE IN CHINA NEW BARLUN

It was amusing to question the quality of a £1 product, then remember nearly everything you own is made in China anyway. Shoes, clothes, phones, car parts so on… maybe 60-70% of your personal belongings will be made in, or of, things from China. The pinnacle of modern day mass production: cheap work force, cheap materials, and endless consumers.

It was clear that Guangzhou was a hub for foreign traders, finding myself in a Turkish bar, with Spanish music, German beer, two South African ladies, and a crew of Columbian blokes on the first night in Southern China. Not quite the glowing-red, straw hat spectacular I expected for a Chinese public holiday… but a city defined by little white labels reading ‘Made in China’.

One district is dominated by bulk-buy shops, from Korea’s latest fashions to rip-off sportswear (Reecok and New Barlun were all the rage), shop after shop of packet crisp clothes piled to the roof. At first glance not too dissimilar from the neighbouring markets selling traditional dried fish and questionable looking ingredients for Chinese medicine. Still, there is a feel of mass consumption everywhere; nothing is singular, only available in kilos or shed-loads.

The streets were lined by grotty buildings with flaking walls and exposed pipework, with a dozen sweaty topless men heaving plastic-wrapped crates of your new oversized-slogan-tee into the back of an ex-military lorry. Supply and demand, in simple terms. Goods are filtered on through the bartering, bulk-buy frenzy of a wholesale area just like Guangzhou, all the while sharing a building with fermented snake egg’s and dried seahorses… Welcome to China!

Guangzhou Shisanhong Market is considered as South East Asia’s main distribution area for wholesale clothing. The cheapo destination for retailers worldwide, who, without doubt, will at least triple the price when they add an aesthetically pleasing label – also available in 1,000,000 different shades of off-white in the alleys on Guangzhou.

The rip-off clothes also provided some laughs. China is the home of the garish t-shirt. Rhinestones, inspirational life quotes, and brand names are obligatory… and often something gets lost in translation. My personal favourite was GOOCHI, although To Love Oneself Is The Beginning Of A Life Long Romance” was pretty good too…

(Just to clarify, there is much more to Guangzhou than just plastic bags and labels)

Next destination: GUANGXI


Appreciating Art, or the Art of Appreciation?

(pretending to be part of the Hong Kong art scene) Made in Hong Kong - Above Bar

Tucked away towards Aberdeen is the self-proclaimed ‘South Island Cultural District’. It is definitely south. And if distressed walls in decrepit industrial buildings are as token ‘cool’ in Hong Kong as they are in London, then yes it is the epitome of cultural district.

The South Island Art Day saw 22 galleries and studios open their doors to the public to promote the districts artistic network. The district in question includes the relatively undeveloped areas of Wong Chuk Hang, Ap Lei Chau and Tin Wan. Away from the tourist glare and with an MTR station in construction, the general consensus is that the area is set to change a lot in the coming years. So, it is the perfect destination for an art day, unknown enough to still be cool.

Art exhibitions are an odd one, generally there’s always the 40 something with a top-knot and thick rimmed glasses admiring the social meaning of the thicker brush stroke, the family trying to raise ‘open minded’ children by trawling around art galleries with food bribes, the faux culture vultures who ooze with deep meaningful conversations but really just want to Instagram everything, and the minglers who are semi interested but actually more concerned with the liberally poured free drinks and canapés. (I fit into the last category and have absolutely no shame)

The majority of galleries were housed in said factories, with the heavy industrial lift doors that make you feel like you’re in a 90’s cult film, or the mafia. Then there was the sparkling new builds, ostentatious and glowing with foreign investment. Then there was the French. French everywhere. French artists, French galleries, and French cheese. Somebody told me recently that there’s a lot of French in Hong Kong and that locals think they’re rude… as they keep to the French, in a little French bubble. Well I found them; they’re all in a warehouse in Wong Chuk Hang.

I don’t know a lot about art and won’t reduce it to my personal observations, as some of it was definitely impressive and my opinions are pretty irrelevant to the contemporary Asian art world but here are some of my favourites.

“good day good night”  South Ho Sui Nam

“good day good night”  South Ho Sui Nam

A collection of black and white photography from last years Occupy movement in Hong Kong.  Blindspot Gallery  www.blindspotgallery.com


 

“Scholar Stones” Kirsteen Pieterse Studio

“Scholar Stones” Kirsteen Pieterse Studio

Scottish born, living between Hong Kong and Australia, her steel sculptures are inspired by traditional Chinese ink landscapes alongside engineering and construction. Her studio looks out to mountains in every direction, her inspiration is clear and her work is incredible.  www.kirsteenpieterse.com


 

 

“A Serious Bluffer” Shozo Shimamoto

Purely the fact that this guy was throwing balloons of paint at giant canvases at the age of 80 and dominating the Tokyo art scene. A vital artist in the beginning of the Gutai Group in 1954, and clearly a sense of humour with a name like ‘A Serious Bluffer’.  The location of the gallery was pretty special too. whitestonegallery.co.jp

 

The Round Up: places and faces of the week [1]

One: Sai Kung Country Park

Sai Kung: I certainly didn’t picture the serenity of Sai Kung when obsessively scrolling through webpages of ‘Top 10 things to do in Hong Kong’. A postcard perfect landscape, calm blue(ish) sea, rolling green mountains, a truly majestic scenery only an hour and a half from the skyscrapin’ centre of Hong Kong. Well, only an hour and a half if you don’t piss about trying to find a bus stop that is clearly signposted on exiting the MTR. Regardless, HK$100 to rent Kayaks all day and float about the Hoi Han village bay. Come 4pm we were the only group out on one of the many secluded beaches, worlds away from the madness of the city. AMAZING.
Sai Kung: I certainly didn’t picture the serenity of Sai Kung when obsessively scrolling through webpages of ‘Top 10 things to do in Hong Kong’. A postcard perfect landscape, calm blue(ish) sea, rolling green mountains, a truly majestic scenery only an hour and a half from the skyscrapin’ centre of Hong Kong. Well, only an hour and a half if you don’t piss about trying to find a bus stop that is clearly signposted on exiting the MTR. Regardless, HK$100 to rent Kayaks all day and float about the Hoi Han village bay. Come 4pm we were the only group out on one of the many secluded beaches, worlds away from the madness of the city. AMAZING.

Two: Mr Wong’s 

Mr. Wong’s: Slightly more authentic than your local Chinese takeaway. Apparently a favorite among locals but clearly targeted at foreigners, a neoprene wall with “welcome”, “bonjour”, “歡迎 ” so on… sprawled across the wall in a blinding bright orange. Why we loved it, the HK$60 (less than £6)all-in price tag for plate after plate ordered for us four “soo beautiful girls” by Mr. Wong himself. Oh and free beer, a clear persuader. A bit seedy yes… but a very cheap, endless mountain of tasty food, cheers Mr. Wong I shall return.
Mr. Wong’s: Slightly more authentic than your local Chinese takeaway. Apparently a favorite among locals but clearly targeted at foreigners, a neoprene wall with “welcome”, “bonjour”, “歡迎 ” so on… sprawled across the wall in a blinding bright orange. Why we loved it, the HK$60 (less than £6)all-in price tag for plate after plate ordered for us four “soo beautiful girls” by Mr. Wong himself. Oh and free beer, a clear persuader. A bit seedy yes… but a very cheap, endless mountain of tasty food, cheers Mr. Wong I shall return.

Three: Mong Kok

Fish Balls
A local’s choice: Charity shopping and fish ball soup in Mong Kok, shopping for bargains and eating good food, easily two of my favorite things. Shown around by a lovely local Yannie I discovered Mong Kok’s second hand shops, giving Hereford Martha Trust a run for its money, shell suits and denim by the bucket load. Also, the local delicacy of wanton and fish ball noodle soup is pretty good. Strictly no English anywhere, tucked underneath a stairwell on a back street in Mong Kok, so you’re only really going to have success if you have a Cantonese speaker in tow. Once you get passed fish balls having the texture of an old boot, it tastes amazing.

Four: Protest

Protest: Solidarity, or a chance for the socialist action party to spring a campaign slogan? Nonetheless the message is the same, solidarity for refugees. Aside the main focus of the EU’s almost total failure of humanity, the heckle of choice being “SHAME ON YOU EU”, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong seems to be equally depressing. I don’t know the full story so can’t embark on a government shaming expose but wealth and inequality is at large in Hong Kong, and of course, those leaving troubled home lands behind get the brunt of social injustices.
Protest: Solidarity, or a chance for the socialist action party to spring a campaign slogan? Nonetheless the message is the same, solidarity for refugees. Aside the main focus of the EU’s almost total failure of humanity, the heckle of choice being “SHAME ON YOU EU”, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong seems to be equally depressing. I don’t know the full story so can’t embark on a government shaming expose but wealth and inequality is at large in Hong Kong, and of course, those leaving troubled home lands behind get the brunt of social injustices.

Out of the comfort Zone, in to the err… wok?

Turning up to a country to live is a different ball game to backpacking. For a start the infinite pre-departure to do list is dull, so dull that I apparently didn’t do very well (emergency package of forgotten stuff on the way – cheers Mum).

You also have to mentally prepare yourself for total daily change, not just bed bug-slumming for two months then home to a fry-up and a PG Tips. Full on change: getting a Hong Kong ID card full on, realizing you wont touch down on soggy English ground for almost a year full on, on a Thai beach for Christmas full on… I won’t go on.

Luckily for me, I’m a firm believer (possibly too much so in some situations) of getting out off your comfort zone in order to get the best of your self, physically Kowloon Tsai Park

Not wanting to sound like a flip calendar of inspirational quotes, I’m trying to do something/learn something/try something new everyday. Granted, I am including disgustingly overpriced drinks in the highest bar in the world as out of the comfort zone.

On that note, here are some of the attempts, with less fruitful outcomes:

Participating in organized fun: University halls organized activities that make Sunday school look like a school years house party post spirit cupboard revelation. Ok maybe slightly harsh but my inner cringe is uncontrollable plus I was the only student in the halls to not have bought the T-shirt on registration, an actual hall T-shirt…

Trying to get ‘Thank-you” down in Cantonese: Nearly three weeks and I still can’t remember the difference between the two options, ‘m̀hgòi’ for a service, ‘dòjeh’ for a gift, it’s harder than you think… Not helped by the fact many of the locals seem pretty intolerant towards westerners trying use their shoddy knowledge of the language. Equally they want to use English for there own improvement, the blessing and curse of being a native English speaker.

The taxi: No getting a taxi is not a groundbreaking new experience. The 80+ local geezer who brought us home in the early hours last week was. Hunched over at a 45 degree angle, forward and sideways, he couldn’t read the map from his phone on the dashboard, definitely couldn’t see the road markings, and looked as if he was going to kick the bucket any second (bless him). On the other hand we got back to the other side of the city for the equivalent of £9, it was the most anxiety-inducing pissed up cab ride ever.

A 8:30am three hour philosophy class on the meaning of life: Nothing will ever prepare you for that one.

Next stop: less chat about socially awkward situations and more pictures.

View from The Peak

Alriight Hong Kong!

Disclaimer: I intend on writing on here regularly, with no particular topic and probably not the best grammar.

So friends and family, if you do want to see what I’m up to then this is the place.

In 18 hours, across 3 time zones and in 2 planes… here I am in Kowloon, Hong Kong, or Nine dragons as the Cantonese translates– (Kowloon: ‘gua’ meaning nine and ‘lung’ dragons).

I’m in a shared room not dissimilar from a minimum-security prison cell, on the third floor of a 19-story tower block on mainland Hong Kong. It is most definitely a world away from one; a terraced house in Peckham and two; a bungalow in Malvern. Comparably I have a (tiny) view of greenery, and lots of neighbours. I am however almost 6000 miles away from home, 5944 miles to be exact, a daunting number to some but in theory if I went any further away I’d be on my way home.

I’ve come here with little expectation and a slightly ambitious list of aims. Some of which are the little things, also found on page one of the Lonely Planet book, Dim Sum, Markets, Temples etc… Others more ambitious, to challenge myself, my perceptions of a country I know little about, and to explore. Explore everything and everywhere I can (safely of course…), however it pans out I am willing myself to document it in some way.

Until next time  x