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Whitefella Australian learning how to be gwai lo (鬼佬) in Hong Kong

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Scaffolding the Hong Kong way...

Is this a thing of beauty?
I know I tend to blog a lot about bamboo (竹), but then it is very dear to my heart. And I've been thinking a lot about this iconic 'Hong Kong' approach to scaffolding. I'd originally thought this would be the case across the whole of China, but it's not, as a simple trip across the border to Shenzhen will prove, with all the metal scaffolding that's you see there.
It's easy to fall in love with the simple beauty of such a fundamentally functional form of construction, which is why it was so wrong to see this metal scaffolding over in Central (photo left). It's lines are too straight, too precise, too square. It lurks, blockishly, on it's square metal feet, looking like it may be there to stay. It doesn't soar, it doesn't silhouette itself against the sky, in a strange ethereal blend of nature and culture, like its bamboo cousin.
A model of a Cantonese Opera theatre
It so happens that M. and I visited an exhibition in our local neighbourhood, in the Hong Kong Discovery Centre, a little and lesser known museum in Kowloon Park, which was hosting a display about the art, or perhaps craft, of Hong Kong bamboo scaffolding. Apparently there is a long and illustrious history of this form of construction, with scaffolding being a sideline, alongside other bamboo construction projects, such as the iconic temporary theatres for Cantonese Opera. These structures are apparently all built under the eagle eye of a Master Builder, who doesn't use any plan, just working from their long sense of practical experience of designing bamboo structures, presumably through a sort-of apprenticeship model. One of the more interesting aspect of this exhibition was all the scale models (which I love!) of  different theatre buildings, showing how they are each adjusted to particular sites, with unique topographies, and according to the size needed for each theatre production. Naturally, in Hong Kong, where there is a lot of very steep land, it is particularly useful to be able to fit a building onto steep plots of land, such as a piece of rocky coastland (as illustrated in one of the models). What has always fascinated me about the bamboo structures is that they don't worry about having a flat base for each bamboo pole, where it rests on the ground, because the stability of the structure is related to the ways that it is all tied together into one stable unit. I'm sure the lightness of bamboo helps also, in making it less critical to have really solid foundations.
So having been enlightened a little about some of the history and culture of bamboo building in Hong Kong at this exhibition (there was more, but I'll spare you the details), I was fascinated to see a variety of bamboo structures being built in Hong Kong park for the Tri-ciprocal Cities exhibition. With my new understanding in mind, I was able to see how the structures had been tailored specifically to those sites, and as you can see in the photos, even the particular plants that were on the site. So instead of being a liability, the natural environment became incorporated into the structure, becoming a sort of indoor garden. Like I said, they're beautiful! I thought the exhibitions were interesting, and I learnt some things I didn't know about the Hong Kong and Taipei architecture scenes, but really I spent much of my time admiring the bamboo structures.
It all makes me curious about whether you could use such structures for temporary housing? Could you build a large structure of bamboo, with a very lightweight but waterproof wrap on the outside, and another perhaps reflective lining on the inner surface, with some low cost insulation in between, perhaps loosefill straw? I mean, you might have to watch the fire risk aspect, but it seems like you could make a large, but quite well insulated structure relatively fast, with this sort of bamboo know-how. These are the things I muse over, as I wander (行吓) around Hong Kong!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Gobi 65, or Why I'll never make it as a food blogger

Blurry Gobi 65
This is really not a perfect picture, but then neither was the dish. The other day I was reading this post from my friend Johanna's great food blog, and it made me long for a great Gobi 65, or more specifically, the great Gobi 65 from Malabar Hut.
Now I can find some excellent Indian food here in Hong Kong (if I haven't already recommended Brantos, let me do so again) but they DON'T make Gobi 65, and that's a great shame, because it's the best entree (appetizer for those of you in the US) ever.
A long while back I'd tried to replicate the dish at home, and it was a miserable failure. I figure it'd been long enough that I should give it another try. Actually, I gave it two tries, and they were both vast improvements on my long-ago effort, but still not as good as I had hoped. Tasty, but not drop-down-delicious.
As I'm not a real food blogger, I'm not going to go into great details about making the dish. I used this recipe, which I have to say, is probably pretty close to the techniques that must be used in the hallowed original, though perhaps I just need twenty years more practice. I used the recipe as it was, but I did put in garlic, and I didn't have any saffron. On my first attempt, I didn't think my batter was spicy enough, and perhaps my marinading time wasn't long enough. The second time I prepared the batter before lunch, so it could marinade all afternoon, as well as upping the spice quotient, and this seemed to work well. My small problem the second time was a classic frying problem - I mustn't have got the oil temperature quite right, so my cauliflower was a bit too oily, which always takes away a little bit of the joy. Why, oh why, did I leave my cooking thermometer back in Australia? (Okay, yes, so I have a very small kitchen here, but it would still be handy!)
My only real wisdom to pass on about Gobi 65 is this - isn't there a fundamental mismatch between the size of a cauliflower, and the perfect size for a serving of Gobi 65? I found the very smallest cauliflower I could, and it still made two much-too-large servings, for our family of two. So by my reckoning, you'd probably need to have a family of about eight, to really make the most of a cauliflower without fried-food overload. So perhaps I'll be putting my Gobi 65 ambitions aside for another year or so, and settle for just a little bit of food nostalgia instead.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

The concrete jungle...

Though I love Hong Kong, living where we do in Tsim Sha Tsui you can feel very distant from any idea of 'nature'. Not only is most of the land that constitutes TST artificial, reclaimed from the harbour over time, but all that is on top of it is a triumph of the built environment, with the smallest buildings being about ten stories high.
There's a lot of convenience to all this, with shops and cinemas and restaurants all within spitting distance (as they so charmingly say in Australia). The downside is that sometimes the most natural thing I am in contact with is my houseplants, which have been bred, crossbred, grown by a nursery, and then bought deep in the urban jungle, in Fa Yuen St (花園街).
So it was an unexpected pleasure to have an incursion from 'the wild' (as Bob Graham might call it!). As I was typing away, working on my thesis, I realised there was a large, rather dignified beetle, on my water bottle. I don't really know what it is, though a quick websearch suggests it may be from the Pentatomidae family. I'd be happy to be enlightened about this... Now if I were back in Australia I'd just put any bugs I found back in the garden (with the exception of mosquitos, for whom this is a mandatory, though conscious-stricken, death penalty), but what to do in my eight floor apartment? I didn't know what the bug ate, but I was fairly sure it's diet couldn't be easily sourced in our small apartment. Eventually I realised that if it got up here, it must be fairly competent about getting around, so I gently put it on the ledge outside my window (ahh, the wonders of terminal velocity - no fear of heights for bugs), and got back to my work, reassured that the message from the wild had been heard...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fix or flick?

Our repaired handy-vac, happy again...
Picking up on the environmental thread of this blog, after a long delay, I need to say that there is one green area where Hong Kong excels.
Back in Australia, it was defeating whenever an appliance broke down. If it was a small appliance, you knew that there was no chance of getting it repaired, and if you were lucky, it was new enough that you could take it back to the store and get an even newer replacement. However with no electronic waste (e-waste) program, you knew that it was likely to be bound for the dump.
If it was a large appliance, such as a washing machine, you had a genuine desire to get it fixed, because the pain and expense of replacing it was a lot harder than taking something like a toaster or electric kettle back to the store. But even then it was hard to find someone to fix it, and when they did come out, there seemed to be little guarantee that the thing would actually be fixable, and if it was, it often cost most of the price of a replacement machine.
Now, I had thought that this was simply the modern world, and that the relentless search for cheap labour, and the driving down of manufacturing costs, had made things not worth repairing. It turns out that this is not actually true, or at least, only true for Australia.
For in Hong Kong, everything and anything seems to be repairable. This is A GOOD THING. A repaired item doesn't need to be replaced entirely, or even very much at all. It doesn't need to be condemned to landfill, and only make the world that little bit more polluted. And best of all, when it is repaired you don't have to relearn how to operate a new make or model - you have your old 'friend' back in place. Nice.
Now even though I'm writing this I find it hard to believe, but it has turned out to be true, time and time again. The last twelve months has been a bad year for stuff going wrong. I guess if you want to have bad karma, it's much better to have it with electrical goods that with your health. Bad stab-mixer or bad stabbing pains in the heart? I know which one I'd choose!
Let me see all the things that have broken... Hmmm... Hand-blender, handheld vacuum cleaner, the toilet cistern (three separate problems), the air conditioner, the microwave, and the electric kettle. So I am now quite experienced with getting stuff fixed now, especially toilets (, 先生 - Thanks, Mr Chan!).
The latest to go was the hand vacuum cleaner, which we bought because we didn't have a vacuum cleaner at all, and it seemed like it might be a more suitable size for our small apartment. It has, it's been perfect, but the other day, while lifting up the bed platform to access the under-bed storage (a must in a small apartment), the cord to the vac got caught as we put it down, and completely severed. So our poor little vac gradually got less and less charged, a pathetic low-pitched whine, until we noticed it's power source wasn't actually connected to any electricity grid.
Now this had been our mistake. I assumed I would have to buy a new charging base, so I headed to my closest listed repair store, which turned out to be just near the Star Ferry terminal, in Tsim Sha Tsui. I took the broken charger to the repair counter and explained, in English (as I wasn't up to this nuance in Cantonese) that this had been our fault, and was it possible to buy a new base. The very helpful staff-member said, 'Do you have your warranty with you?' (I didn't, because I hadn't even thought this would be covered). He said, 'Don't worry, I can see the manufacturing date here, let's just see if they'll repair it for you, just sign here, take this receipt, and come back in a week.'
I came back in a week, receipt in hand, to find that the power-cord had been replaced, and even better, I wasn't being charged anything! Is this some secret conspiracy by Hong Kong appliance manufacturers to create good will? Is there really that fierce a competition for business in Hong Kong? Whatever the reason, I love it! It may be a pain when something breaks, but I am made endlessly cheerful by the need NOT to have to throw things out, and relieved when the repair cost has been minimal, or nothing.
So clearly the Australian situation is not normal around the world. Perhaps the consequences of high labour costs, and great distance from the centres of manufacturing, makes the Australian marketplace particularly prone to the chuck-and-replace approach? So for all those who might be reading this, and living in a 'repair' culture, rather than a 'replace' one - celebrate! And perhaps be extra nice to your next repairer - they're saving the world, one repair at a time...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The poetry of Special English

Well, it's been a long time between posts, mostly because I've been in Australia, and I don't feel any great need to write about that.
It was lovely to be back in Hong Kong, and as I was wandering around on my first full day back, I noticed this sign, on the scaffolding where a row of older buildings (唐樓) have been knocked down to make way for some (presumably massive) new building.
Now I recently read a book called 'Oracle Bones' in which the author talked about a type of English with a more limited vocabulary, of about 1500 words, called Special English which was used by the USA in their worldwide radio programs to be more accessible to their listeners whose first language was not English. As someone who had taught English in China many years before, he was still in touch with many of his former students, who liked these programs, because they were a good accessible way to keep up their English skills.
I liked this idea. There are a lot of jokes made by English speakers about the way English is spoken by native Chinese speakers. This is probably because there aren't enough examples of how badly Chinese is spoken by native English speakers, because so few of them actually try. Being in the process of learning Cantonese myself, I have great respect for how well many HongKongers speak English. I hope my Cantonese is that good some day.
But for now, I am liking the idea of Special English, because it conjures up the distinctive perspective that comes through when someone speaks a language not their own. For example, it makes a lot of sense when Chinese people substitute the words she and he for each other in English, because why would you distinguish between them when in Cantonese there is a particular word, such as for she, he or it.
Which, getting back very slowly to my original point, is why I loved this sign. No native speaker of English would talk about an undulating pavement, and what a terrible shame that is. Undulating is a beautiful word, a poetic word, conjuring up the Latin root, undis, waves. It made me imagine the rolling curves of the pavement bearing down on me, sweeping me away into a land where all public notices were written poetically, and life was just that little bit more humane.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hong Kong Tropes

Hong Kong image from here under Creative Commons licence
In homage to my new favourite way to waste spend time on the Interweb, this page is a shout-out to TVtropes, a site that despite its name, covers all manner of popular culture. It does not, however cover cities, though I am not going to let that stop me here.
Sadly, unlike the original, which relies on the wisdom of crowds, this one will be based on my poor isolated grey matter, and will be all the poorer for it, although perhaps that is the true fate of all homage.
Nonetheless, I will forge on, confident in the knowledge that a true fan knows no bounds! Some will surely disagree with these, or maybe just think that I don't know what I'm talking about. Having only lived in Hong Kong a short while (個月), I cannot be sure I have these tropes nailed, but I'll give it a go.

Floors are dirty
Now if you come to Hong Kong from far enough away, you quickly learn that something is up with the floor. Either it's dirtier than where you came from, or we're all much cleaner. This is easy to notice at restaurants. You walk in, get seated, dump your bag on the floor (no!), and before you know it, the super-efficient staff will pick them up, pull up a chair, and seat them next to you, like a crowd of small, but surprisingly silent children. Sooner or later, you eventually get it, and you start to look for a table with enough chairs for your party, plus one.
This is not just about good service at eating establishments, it's EVERYWHERE. A great example, from the other day, was a group of young men, perhaps in their late teens, early twenties, handing out flyers. Now, this is not an age-group or a gender that I associate with hygiene, but nonetheless their bags were all piled up on some carefully laid-out sheets of newspaper. Now, I am sure it can't be because the whole population is really worried about germs, so where does it come from. Knowledgeable Hong Kong friends tell me that there is a class element to it, because everyone knows you just don't sit on the floor. Now, obviously there is a reasonable element to this, as you wouldn't want to spend too much of your time eating food off the floor, and yet, so much of what was normal in my former life was about sitting/putting things on/lying down on the ground, all without a care in the world. An associated trope is bag hooks, those indispensable items for keeping your precious possessions off the filthy floor.
Whacky photos
This one is a tricky one. Presumably many of the photo-takers I see are actually tourists, and so not from here, but then why do I see it here all over the place, and not so much elsewhere. Is it something in the air? You know what I'm talking about. It isn't enough to actually be having your photo taken - you have to do something whacky! Hey, maybe you could look like you're resting your hand on the head of that Giant Buddha in the background? Perhaps you need to act as if you're not just happy to be on holiday, but ecstatic! At the very least you need to make some effort, like making the classic double 'v' sign. You know it's the rules.
I wonder if this is something that you just normalise over time, into you find yourself doing it without thinking. I know I've been tempted to do it in photos lately, out of a sort-of ironic homage, but it could be easy to slide from that into seeing it as normal. Contrast this trope with German Photo, where everyone is very serious and self-contained.

Can you see how seductive this whole process is?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

De Natura Lavatorium

Just a quick post today, as I am still mulling over a longer one. Making good on my promise that this blog would talk about design, I was pleased to come across this very stylish hand basin in the washrooms at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, on the waterfront at Tsim Sha Tsui.
I had always thought of Norway as the epitome of child-centred societies, and perhaps they do a better job across the board, but if you just want to look at the material culture of this one public toilet, then you'd have to say that either the designer, or the ones preparing the brief, should get top marks for considering the needs of those small in size or age.
My curiosity was piqued firstly by the sign on the door. Now once upon a time I would not have paid attention to the signs on the toilet doors, but after a very memorable Women's Studies lecture about fifteen years ago, I have never looked at a toilet door the same again. I could go on at length about how gender is 'created' in both the signs themselves, and the normative choice we must make, out of two very limiting options, whenever we use a non-unisex bathroom, but I will leave it at that, for the sake of brevity and sanity (however I will say thank-you to Dr Annamaria Jagose for one of the few genuinely memorable lectures of my educational life). So back to the sign, or signs (because they always come in matching pairs); they were fairly typical stick figures (i.e. two generic humans, one in pants/trousers, and one in a skirt), but on each sign there were two figures, one larger and one smaller. A nice touch. I suspect you are supposed to read this as good for both adults and children (they being a large category of generally small people), but really it could just as easily be a shout-out to anyone of small stature.
And in a rare instance of cohesive design, this small-friendly sign was borne out by the design of the rest of the bathrooms, which were organised to make everything easy to access, whatever your height. As an added bonus, the sinks were a sterling example of practical industrial design, with clean lines, good materials, and all teamed with water pressure moderate enough for washing without precipitating a fountain!
If only all toilets could be so satisfying...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fire dragons and website design

Find some better photos here...
If there's one thing that Hong Kong people seem to love, it's a festival, and almost anything is an excuse for celebration. Some are late additions, like Halloween, which is big here at the moment. Others, like the Fire Dragon dance, seem to have a longer and richer history. I could go into detail, but you're much better off looking at the website, which you will NOT want to miss (how could you not love the Tron aesthetic?)
We seem to miss far too many of these, so we thought we would make the effort to get along and see this Fire Dragon that we'd heard so much about.We turned up pretty close to the advertised time, but perhaps we should have been a bit more skeptical - we had to wait a long time for the Fire Dragon to appear. Still, this was an 'Event', so I suppose they needed some build-up. This consisted mostly of a platform on wheels, which contained a big sign, lots of fairy lights, and a succession of very energetic drummers, old and young, female and male, getting us into the right mood for the night.
It is very much a community effort in Tai Hang, and it looks like everyone who wants to can be involved and find a role. Some of the children got to march around with lanterns on poles, many of the elders of the community marched in a dignified fashion up and down, and the energetic helped put together the fire dragon, which involves thousands upon thousands of sticks of incense. Perhaps it goes without saying that it can be a bit overwhelming being downwind of the dragon, which is partly why it needs to be held up nice and high!
The best of a bad set of photos...
Part of the long delay was the coordinated effort to get those thousands of incense sticks lit and pushed into the body of the dragon - this is impossible to do quickly, but needs to be done quickly enough that the first ones won't have burnt down before the procession ends (actually, I think at one point they stopped and replenished a whole lot that had gone out). Something we hadn't calculated for, was the way at a certain point in the night, when the dragon was almost ready to go, they closed the few pedestrian accessways across the roads that had been open, leaving us stranded within a small block of streets with no way out. This would have been okay, but the crowds were pretty intense, even by Hong Kong standards - you wouldn't have wanted to have a panic attack. So we resigned ourselves to going with the flow, and settled in for another half an hour or so.
The dragon is pretty cool, very very long, and ablaze with incense sticks. I can imagine this would have been much more impressive by comparison back in the 1880s (when it started), before we had all become jaded by neon lighting, CGI imagery, the wonders of smartphones, etc.
More puzzling to my mind, and never explained, was the full 'Scottish' marching band, with kilts, bagpipes, the works. I thought Tai Hang meant 'big water channel', not 'Scotland in the South China sea', but then translation is such a complicated affair. If someone can set me straight on the connection that would be great. I mean, I like bagpipe music, perhaps more than most, it was just hard to see how it fits with all the rest; the incense, the lanterns, the tradition.
When it was all over, we were glad we had gone, but next time we will make a better exit plan!