Category Archives: China ’09

Typhoons howl… and Taiwan hurts

This week: a tussle with a typhoon; a book-ish breakdown; and fun with phrasebooks…

The forecasters got it right about that typhoon – 11.30pm last Saturday night was the (oh-so-perfect) timing for the T8 to hit HK Island. Given the rumours of shenanigans in the streets, four of us hunkered down in one of the Lan Kwai Fong bars and waited…

True to their word, the bars had started offering various inducements to keep the punters paying as soon as the warning of the T8 had been announced earlier in the evening. So when the typhoon finally hit with a vengeance at 11.30pm… well, you can just imagine. Spending more than a few seconds outside was to risk a serious drenching – but nothing ever really stops the Hong Kong hedonism. Scores of scantily-clad young ladies danced crazily in the street while being soaked by warm torrential rain as leering men looked on.

Despite the worsening weather, there were still plenty of enterprising taxi-drivers willing to risk their livelihoods to ferry the brave through the torrents coming off the Peak – this is Hong Kong, after all, and there’s a reputation to keep up.

Fin de siecle? You decide.

I left Hong Kong three days later, travelling up the old Pearl River delta trading route to Guangzhou. Despite the fact that this sea journey’s been largely superseded by an express rail route, there’s still something
romantic about leaving Hong Kong – and arriving in China – over the water.

The 12 days I spent in Hong Kong were great fun – not only were they a much-needed respite from China, but the length of the stay gave me a real sense of an intriguing city that’s entering a crucial phase in it’s history,
and a chance to catch up with good friends.

Now it was time to return to China…

Back to China with a bump

“This book is NOT GOOD for China. It is NOT GOOD book.”

It was only a few hours into my latest rail journey from Guangzhou to Kunming. I was feeling smug that my efforts with broken Chinese were forming a rapport with my neighbour.

But the mood changed when he picked up the novel I was reading (without asking, as if to demonstrate that property is still, very definitely, theft). To put it mildly, he was displeased.

“This is BAD BOOK. Why are you reading this book?”

I was somewhat taken by surprise. I tried to point out that it was only fiction (and good fiction at that) and that I had bought it in Shanghai, but the title “Death of a Red Heroine” – along with the subtitle “Murder in
Modern Shanghai” – had clearly got his goat.

After a period of further unanswerable barracking, another Chinese passenger in the compartment eventually came to my aid, pointing out that the book was, in fact, written by a Chinese literature professor (Qiu Xiaolong).

But my inquisitor was on a roll now. He picked up my Rough Guide to China, and turned straight to the map page. I had a horrible feeling I knew what was coming next.

“TAIWAN. Is in WRONG COLOUR.” He brandished the offending map – which suggested that Taiwan might not be Chinese – around the compartment to the approval of the gathering throng. (This is a very common complaint of China Guides, and one that actually results in Lonely Planets guides to China being confiscated by the Police at the Nepal/Tibet border).

As I had no wish to swim in the murky waters of international politics (and my knowledge of the issue is slight) I decided to keep quiet. There was very little I could do, so I just sat back and watched the sparks of righteous anger fly.

It’s hard to get used to the different attitude to information in all forms here. As I write, Google’s Blogger service is still blocked after a number of months, and Facebook has been blocked since the Xinjiang riots. Is there general disquiet in China about this? Errr. Nope. Whatever the reasons, free information, whether in written form or on the net, just isn’t as highly prized here. At the moment.

Having fun with phrasebooks

As quickly as the storm had arisen however, it blew over. I prized the novel and the guidebook from his hands, defusing the still charged atmosphere by replacing it with my less contentious – and most amusing – English/Chinese phrasebook.

This witty volume from Immersion Guides is ostensibly for overseas Beijing residents, but actually good for the whole of China. Instead of the normal trite phrases, IG give you such Q&A exchanges as:

Question: Do you speak Chinese?

Answer: wo liuli de shuo hen cha de zhongwen! (I fluently speak horrible Chinese!)

Question: Your Chinese is excellent!

Answer: Pimao eryi… (It’s all fluff…)

Question: Where are you from?

Answer: Ni cai ba… wo xiang shenme guojia de ren (Guess… where do I look like I’m from?)

Question: What kind of work do you do?

Answer: Wo shi tegong. (I’m a secret agent.)

Question: Are you married?

Answer: Wo zhang de tai nankan le, Zhao bu Zhao duixiang (I’m too ugly to find anyone.)

A superb way to break the ice.

And finally…

I arrived in Kunming yesterday, completing my 12,703rd mile on Chinese railways. Since arriving in China in mid-May, I have travelled entirely overland – the latest train from Guangzhou to Kunming took my into my 151st hour on the trains here. (I have also covered a further 36 hours and c. 2500 kilometres of bus journeys).

It has given my journey a satisfyingly complete feel – and let’s face it, it’s not often you get a chance to travel like that.

Tomorrow night I head on another train to Dali, from where I will be venturing to the Wu Wei Si monastery for 2 weeks of Kung Fu training, much needed after Hong Kong. As a result there will be a blogging break for a fortnight.



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Thundering Typhoons and Hong Kong hiking

The highest level of Typhoon warnings (called “T8”s) are bizarrely popular here in Hong Kong. But not for the dubious excitement of a tropical storm… it’s the free booze what does it.

If a T8 strikes (as it may do tomorrow), the bar of Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai will show their entrepreneurial spurs, and offer all kinds of inducements to get the expats venturing into their space. Lock-ins, free shots, offers of a free round if you can beat the barman at Heads’n’Tails, 4-for-1 deals.

This is, of course, the city where the nightlife frequently turns into “morning-life”, and for many visitors, the Hong Kong experience passes in a blur of crazy but all too-brief nights on Hong Kong Island, or in a couple of sleep-deprived hours in the impressive but sterile Chep Lak Kok terminal.

I had my share of blur in the first few days here, but for various reasons (see below) I’ve spent 10 days here. As a result, different sides of Hong Kong have emerged from the mayhem.

Restorative respite on Lantau and Lamma

“What do you fancy doing tomorrow? A spot of hiking?”

It was a Saturday morning. I peered up from my temporary blow-up bed and raised an eyebrow at Tom, a friend from cricketing days and my host in Hong Kong.

“Hiking? In Hong Kong?” I said, wondering if this was another of Hong Kong’s drinking metaphors along with the apocryphal “T8 warning”. It quickly became clear that it wasn’t – and that Hong Kong in fact boasts some excellent hiking – so I readily agreed, eager for some respite from the madness.

Despite Lantau being only a 15-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, it wasn’t till early afternoon that we made land-fall in the small main harbour town. (Lantau is the biggest island in the Hong Kong SAR, and dwarves Hong Kong in lateral and littoral, if not in vertical, size).

It was somehow fitting that the first person we spoke to was a clown (yes a real clown) on his way to entertain some kids. His laid-back demeanour, sprouting hair, goofy teeth and Aviator sunglasses made a refreshing contrast to the crisp dress and urgent energy of the main island.

Given that the guidebook had decided to spend the day on the sofa, we were reliant on local knowledge to get us to the start of the trail. Our taxi-driver clearly had a sense of humour – within minutes of him driving off, we were in the thick of steamy jungle on a trail that is officially closed.
In a show of traditional British fighting spirit, Tom and I battled enormous spiders, valiantly protecting Tom’s French girlfriend (that’s how we saw it anyway) from certain death. The trail was fabulous, and after a couple of hours we arrived at the 34-metre high bronze Tian Tan Buddha, eventually descending via cable-car with a unique opportunity to look down on the Hong Kong airport from above at sunset.

A few days later I also visited Lamma, Hong Kong’s third largest island just across from Aberdeen, the main island’s second largest town. With no cars and beautiful beaches, Lamma provides more rapid relief for Island fever.

The island has hippy colony aspirations – the irony of the huge glowering coal-fired Lamma power-station not lost on residents, who have installed a huge wind-turbine for their own needs.

Modern Metropolei” – linking Hong Kong and Shanghai in the popular imagination

Hiking’s not the only distraction for residents here – there is also a flourishing arts scene.

Two exhibitions are currently riding high – one at the Hong Kong Art museum with a superb display of contemporary art with contributors from Gilbert & George to Richard Prince, promoting Louis Vuitton’s new Frank Gehry-designed Jardin d’Acclimatation which is being built in the Bois de Boulogne.

The other, at the History Museum, is even more interesting – a six-room temporary exhibition drawing parallels and links between the respective 20th century histories of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Exhibitions like this always involve a certain amount of weaving of facts into a coherent story, but the narrative construction here is fascinating. The story presented is one of ‘adoption and incorporation of the Western ways” into Chinese life, of “infusion of western artistic techniques with Chinese painting styles”, of “sinonisation of Western cuisine”.

This is a picture of a progressive and ancient Chinese civilisation that sees the 200-year period of foreign influence as a mere blip on its journey – but one that the Chinese can learn from, adopt as necessary, and move on from.

Now, so the story goes, both Hong Kong and Shanghai will rise again to offer a “cosmopolitan life, offering residents a diverse array of choice and lifestyle”. I wouldn’t bet against it.

And finally…

My efforts to learn Mandarin in China have been of nil benefit here, given the gulf between the mainland Mandarin and Hong Kong Cantonese languages.

Anyone who knows the city is familiar with the harsh vowel sounds of the Cantonese and the effect his has on spoken English, immortalised in the constant “BA-BA!” valediction you get whenever you leave anywhere.

Simple phrases like “Your cappucino is on the counter. Thank you,. Bye bye!” become the grating full-volume “YA-CAPPACHEENA-AS-AN-THA-CANTA-THANK-YA-BA-BA!” And I thought Mandarin was hard…

I leave here on Monday to go to Kunming, and thence to a monastery north of Dali, where I will be attempting to learn Kung Fu with some Buddhist monks. You can read about someone else’s visit here.


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Quarantined on the Friendship Highway – the rap video

I mentioned in a previous post that I was lucky to escape the clutches of the quarantine forces of darkness on the Nepal/Tibet border. The group behind us weren’t so lucky, detained because one of their number had a temperature one degree higher than normal. They ended up spending 6 days holed up in a hotel at the Chinese government’s pleasure. Unsurprisingly, they got a bit bored. So they made a rap video to keep themselves ( and now you) amused. You can see it by clicking here.


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