John collected me from the ferry terminal. I had met him and his brother when horse trekking in Mongolia. Although Australian, he lives in Hong Kong at the moment with his wife, Linda, and two young children. He and Linda have both traveled in their younger years and moving to Hong Kong was a career choice designed to allow them to live in a different culture and to make short-haul trips to other nearby Asian destinations for their holidays. Having only seen him before roughing it in the wilderness or on a night out in Ulaan Baatar, it was strange to see him walk out of the lift in suit and tie and give me a business-like handshake, having come straight from work.
Hong Kong consists of more parts than I realised. Hong Kong Island at the south is where most of the big international business takes place, despite being mostly built on the steep slopes of the mountain/hillside. It is linked to the mainland by ferries and three major road tunnels. Kowloon is the busy-city mainland area and is more Chinese in culture than the international island. North of there are many outlying towns, villages and countryside. Their house was in a nice residential gathering near the small town of Sai Kung, by the eastern coast.
Although the international recession threatens the job security of all, including the family, they are doing well there and enjoying the 15% tax rate. This can be seen, for example, in the nice two-seater car we rode along in. Actually, I assume it was nice, but I don't really know about these things. But it was bright and shiny and John seemed very happy with it. A further example could be found at the house where they have not one but two (count 'em!) live-in Philipino maids; sisters Janet and Tintin. Infact, their mother would also come in to help on occasions and on my last day there was even another girl who came by to cook us all lunch. All of this is very common for the professional classes in Hing Kong. We spent a couple of early-evening hours at the house of their friends one day. As the guy, an English ex-pat, said when discussing a possible return to Britain: "Why would I want to go back to poverty island???".
After six months of bunks, buses and boats to sleep in, this was the first time I had stayed in someone's home since the first couple of nights away in June at Silvie and Leighton's apartment in Brussels. Joe, who was due to turn four on Christmas Day, was evicted from his room to make space for me and an air matress, whilst we carried his bed upstairs to sit at the end of his parents' bed for the duration of my visit. I felt a bit guilty about this but apparently he was very excited by the prospect. Tessa, whose second birthday was in early January, managed to keep hold of her room.
The final two members of the household were Slim and Dusty (named after Aussie country music singer Slim Dusty), the two dogs who slept wherever they needed to. They barked a lot when people came to the house, particularly at me as a stranger, so every time I came through the front door I nervously reminded them "Friend... Friend...". One night when John came home, one of them bit him on the neck, which he explained was just because they were so happy and excited to see him. Perhaps I should have made my entrance each time with "Foe... Foe..."?
It was funny to be parachuted into the middle of a family unit, and a good one at that. Things such as a family meal or the kids requesting a dance before bedtime which meant a Gorillaz track being played while the whole family boogied around the kitchen. Also, most days I had many car 'races' with Joe and others where we would attempt to roll our Matchbox* cars along the floor to see who could get theirs to rest closest to the far wall.
It wasn't all messing around though and I like to think I added an educational element to matters. I tried to get Joe fluent with the greeting phrase 'How's it hanging?". Although he would reply "Good, thanks" and politely ask me and sometimes others the same in return, I couldn't get him to learn that the correct reply should be "straight and true". I don't think John entirely approved, but he limited his intervention to when the lad starting making this inquiry to Tessa, telling him that he shouldn't be asking it of girls. Regrettably, he apparently never said it after I left, although I'm told that Janet had picked it up and was now using it.
John had a hospital appointment the next day. He had had a major heart attack a week after returning home from Mongolia in the Summer. Today's check-up was hopefully to give him the all clear that it would not happen again. Despite getting stuck in the traffic at the time as he was rushed across the city for treatment, he was surely lucky it happened in Hong Kong and not shortly before when we were horse trekking across the empty Mongol steppes. On the other hand, I watched an ambulance with sirens and lights come out of the front gate this day and was amazed to see it sit and wait in the queue with all the other vehicles. In fact, not only did no one make any effort to get out of its way, many were forcing their way in front so they could get to their own destination quicker. Was this a example of Chinese culture where no one gets out of the way or was this a Hong Kong variation, also influenced by the survival-of-the-fittest instincts?
We drove into town through one of the tunnels to Hong Kong Island and parked up at the hospital. John pointed me in the direction of an interesting shopping area, which I completely failed to find, before going inside. Despite not finding what I was looking for, there were still many other shops and shopping centres, although I wasn't really in the mood for it anyway. Back at the hospital, we waited in the pharmacy for a while for John's drugs before riding back home.
I came back in myself the next day in a better frame of mind. Maybe having a shave had helped. John and his brother Dan had complained vociferously when I shaved it off one day in Mongolia, so I had made sure I turned up at his place here with three weeks worth of growth on my face. After a day of this, I asked him if it would be OK if I got rid of it, which I did during a lengthy session in the shower that blunted two razors in the process. The kids were stunned at the change. "What happened Chris???".
It was Christmas Eve and I thought it was important to get something for the family to thank them for having me. Although telling me not to buy the adults any presents, John had suggested that chocolate would be good for the kids, which was easy enough. Indeed, noting Joe expressing a liking for hook-ended candy cane the day before, I got them one of these each as well. It hadn't taken me long in the house to learn that John and Linda liked a drink or two in the evening, so I got Linda a couple of bottles of red and tried to find some nice Belgian beer for John. After a great deal of looking around and asking for directions, I found a jam-packed supermarket in a shopping centre with a good selection. As I considered what was on offer, my eyes wandered up to a large, wooden display case on the top shelf holding a selection of Trappist Belgian beers and their correct drinking glasses. Ideal, I thought.
It looked pretty difficult to pull down without dropping, so I asked a member of staff for some help. She went off and returned a few minutes later with two other guys in tow, carrying either end of the only only other case they had in stock. One case was slightly broken and the other contained a broken glass. They didn't open easily without breaking the wood so we had a difficult job to simply get the broken glass out and to remove the corresponding good glass from the other case. They they took it away ready to wait for me at the till.
Come time to pay, it was brought back out then taken away again for safekeeping while I went off to complete my day's shopping elsewhere. By now, I think I was becoming something of a burden to their working day. The shop was very, very crowded, the staff were very busy and they surely had better things to do than to accommodate me. Returning some time later, they wrapped everything I had bought from them as part of their free present-wrapping service. Then they fetched the giant case of beer again and were surprised when I insisted that I wanted it wrapped in Christmas paper also. We took it over to the desk and three girls were assigned to the task. Finally, a guy was sent to carry it all the way to the metro station for me, including taking it down to the platform and holding it while I waited for the train to arrive.
After obstructing my fellow passengers on train and bus, I got this thing back to the house. By great fortune, the only residents at home when I arrived were Linda, who was in the shower, and the dogs who barked at me but kept my secret. I was able to get the bulky thing upstairs to my room and behind the curtains, ready to be taken down to the tree after everyone had gone to bed.
Back home in the UK, Christmas is forced down your throat from the start of October onwards. But out here, although I was dimly aware that many restaurants in China had had some decorations or lights up, this was basically the first time my mind had really been confronted with the fact that this was the festive season. And, I can't say that this was a bad thing.
The big day rolled around after just one more night's sleep. I laid in while the children's stockings were dealt with and rolled downstairs by mid morning in time to see the mountain of presents under the tree being demolished. Household policy was for all presents to be opened more or less as fast as they could be distributed out from under the tree. Tessa appeared to be the only one to be taking the time to enjoy what she opened, which meant she quickly had a backlog which she was urged to clear. Joe appeared to be forgetting about every present the moment each preceding piece of wrapping paper had fluttered down to the ground but, in fairness to the lad, by the end of the day he was displaying a detailed memory of it all and asking to play with presents he had received even though no one else was aware he had even got them. On each occasion, he was right though. I acted as court photographer for all of this although Linda had been kind enough to buy me a few things as well so I could join in the festivities. My other main contribution was to send a flute of champagne flying when I skewed an attempt to chip a football across the room - some things never change.
Christmas lunch was held on the rooftop terrace where the main joint of meat (and my Quorn substitute!) were barbecued as the oven in the kitchen didn't work. We were joined for this for two other expat couples, although the correct term from the locals for westerners to live in HK is "gweilos", which literally translates as foreign devil. The sun was glorious and I wasn't the only one to be worried that I was getting a sun burn. John and I contributed little other than drinking beer and taking a couple of trips into town . . . to buy some more beer. Linda, on the other hand, was busy for hours before a fine feast emerged from the kitchen which was greatly enjoyed by all. In fact, I'm hungry now just thinking about it.
Joe's big hero in his young life is Spiderman, so it was no surprise that a great number of his presents were merchandise associated with the webbed wonder. Included in this was a black spiderman outfit to go with the normal red and blue combo he already had. Tessa's equivalent present was a Supergirl outfit. Sometime on Boxing Day morning I found Joe in the living room. He found Tessa's costume on the sofa, held it up to me and said "I want to be Supergirl". I did what any responsible adult would do: I helped him into the outfit, took him downstairs for others to see and spent the rest of the duration of my stay in the house excessively and unnecessarily taunting John that his boy was "nothing but a flamin' woofter!". All of which won me no brownie points with anyone apart from Joe, who rather enjoyed staying in those sparkly clothes for the rest of the day.
I took a few trips into Hong Kong island and even Kowloon after that, including to apply for a new visa to get back into China. My next traveling objectives were Macau, which required no visa, and Laos. A Laos visa is apparently available at the border, but if I want to continue to avoid flying in this trip then I need to go through China again to get there (or anywhere else) overland. Boxing Day was immediately followed by a weekend so it was the 29th before I could even apply for it. New Years Day was another public holiday so it was then 2nd January before I could finally collect it. Thankfully, the bottomless hospitality of the McNamara household were happy to have me continue to stay there for what turned out to be thirteen days.
A typical city of skyscrapers might be built on flat land which would in turn be organised into square blocks of straight roads. Even more so in China where tradition dictates that those roads must run due north-south and east-west. Hong Kong island is mostly very steep slopes, so this is not possible. It means that each building is at a different height to the building next to it. Slopes are, of course, not uniform either. So, the roads are rarely straight and weave left, right, up and down as required. This means that the skyscrapers are positioned at different angles and distances from one another. Added to this mix-up is the fact that each new building strives to be an individual statement, unique from its neighbours.
Although they all play host to offices for some of the most important businesses in the world, most of them in the downtown area also hold shopping centres on their lower and basement floors. These are all connected to each other and the metro stations by a maze of interconnecting subways and undercover walkways crossing over the roads beneath them. All of which creates a futuristic city-scape setting different to anything I have come across before outside of sci-fi movies.
Heading higher up the slopes, I traveled by the 800m escalator which serves as an integral part of the public transport system. From there I looked for the start of the tramline to go to the very top. It look a long time of wandering and getting a bit lost. In retropsect, as I learnt my way around a bit more in the days that followed, it was actually a lot closer to the escalator's base than its top. The tram began life a hundred years ago as a key part of the island's public transport, opening up the upper slopes as a viable residential area. Nowadays with expanded roads, cars and buses, it serves just as a popular tourist attraction. Queuing up and finally getting aboard a carriage, I rode to the top. There wasn't actually much up there than some shopping malls, basking in the glory of their lofty location. The views of the city would be glorious but the smog frequently blurs it. It was a drizzly day which added to this lack of pristine visibility. What was perhaps more interesting was looking over the other side of the mountain. Contrasting with the towers and buildings on the northern slopes, the south was 99.9% trees and nothing else.
Most of the rest of my time in Hong Kong was spent relaxing or embedded in the family unit. John would keep me well supplied with beer and often took us into town in the evening for a quick couple of drinks or to meet after work for a night out in the city centre. On the downside, internet access was much more limited than I had been used to. Partly because a home naturally does not have wireless internet. Partly because a single telecommunications company has a monopoly on the wireless provided in all bars, cafes etc. What this means is you must first pay to have an account with these bastards before you can log in anywhere. Being a foreigner, I naturally did not.
All good things must come to an end though, so on Sunday 4th I moved on. The night before, Janet and Tintin took me out to the Beach Bar, which everyone had been raving to me about since I first arrived. There we were joined by a couple of their friends who were also Philipino maids earning money for families back home. We tried to make the best of the night and take some time on the dancefloor but the atmosphere was a bit lacking. Although a Saturday night, it was the first Saturday after many other big nights before and during Christmas and new year, so many people stayed at home. One of their friends, Soy, turned up at the house the next morning to cook everyone lunch as Janet was taking a day of holiday. She specifically requested a mention in the blog so I asked if she would prefer to be described as 'local dancefloor diva' or 'emergency chef'. She felt that both were good but space is limited so we agreed to call her a 'local emergency diva', which sounds a bit unsavoury, if you ask me.
After lunch, I took my last car race with Joe before John gave me a lift into Sai Kung. Tintin had described a combination of buses which she thought might take me directly to the ferry terminal. She wasn't 100% certain and I have to say I was highly dubious, but to my surprise it worked perfectly. We had also had some household debate about whether I would be able to buy a ticket to Macau if I just turned up on a Sunday. No problem though and they sold me a ticket for a boat departing just fifteen minutes later. So, there I was, sitting on a boat as it pulled out of the harbour and my travels were beginning again!
* - Do matchbox still make these cars, or am I showing my age here?