Causeway Bay

iTunes’ party shuffle is playing: Feels like home – Bonnie Raitt – Michael: Music from the Motion Picture

I feel like the guy in Lost in Translation. I feel like the guy in The Notebook. I feel like the guy in In The Mood For Love. I feel like the guy in 2046.

There was a point during my stay in Hong Kong that I wondered if I would feel like myself, or some semblance of what I thought I was. Then I thought, wah lao, damn cock lah! And I went out of the Wong Kar Wai flat, took the lift downstairs and shopped, ate, walked around, and mostly felt un-lost around Causeway Bay, Admiralty, Central and Lan Kwai Fong.

There were things to do: Helping the ex buy her accessories for her wedding costumes.

There were things to eat: An aunt in Hong Kong took me to dinner, and it was one of those eat to death hotpot places.

There were people to meet: Cowboy Caleb was in town also, so we went and tried to drink Lan Kwai Fong dry, but the bugger cannot drink and neither can I; and there was Lucy my friend the bored housewife who doesn’t mind a drink or two.

Then there was the grandest, most beautiful wedding I have ever attended, and appropriately so.

Then in the cab on the way back to the ex’s apartment in Causeway Bay, everything looked like something from Chungking Express.

Rear Window
View from the shoebox apartment, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. The ex held the lease for two more months so I could stay for six days last week and save money on a hotel room.

Eating to death in Macau

There are few things for a tourist to do in Macau. These are gambling, whoring, eating and walking around looking at Portuguese colonial ruins. There wasn’t much time in my day trip from Hongkers, so I ate and walked around looking at Portuguese colonial ruins.

And they are really old ruins too, seeing as the Portuguese had already set up a trading colony on this little outcrop of the Pearl River Delta by the 16th century. By the 1840s however, the Portuguese were waning as a colonial power, and focus shifted east to Hong Kong, where your first ferry services already operated on a daily basis, with fast multi-oared craft known as centipedes plying the route between British Hong Kong and Portuguese Macao. Apparently, gambling, whoring, eating and walking around looking at Portuguese colonial ruins were the things to do then as well.

Today, I took the Turbojet operated by the Shun Tak China Travel Ship Management Limited from Chinese Hong Kong to Chinese Macao. Upon landing at the ferry terminal, I was not so much accosted by touts and peddlers offering all sorts of tourist activities on all forms of transportation – trishaws, buses, taxis and pirate taxis – than whispered at. The Macanese authorities must have clamped down on such things. I whispered back at the touts and jumped into a taxi and asked to be taken to St. Paul’s, you know, that Portuguese colonial ruin that everyone poses in front of to take a picture with?

St Paul’s facade (which is the only thing left of St Paul’s) looks over the city of Macau from the top of Rua de Santo Paolo, which really is a bunch of steps they recently re-paved. It was a little too sunny for my liking, so I didn’t stay long after taking a few shots and trying to listen to a tour guide explaining things in Mandarin to a bunch of Chinese tourists. I managed to comprehend something about a fire and many people die and fire and only the front is left, something something. My handy map (you can get this from the ferry terminal) did tell me to select Hutchison Mobile on my mobile so I could #83 SEND and REPLY #8324 and wait for a recorded message to tell me how St Paul’s was left with only its facade. I only managed a #83 SEND, then ERROR dunnowhat, before I made my way up some more steps to the Forteleza Monte (where I could also have #83 SENT). The fort is home to an artillery battery that used to protect Macau by firing its big cannons over the city and into the harbour, hopefully hitting some Dutch and Spanish ships wanting to have a piece of Macanese action.

Then I remembered I hadn’t had breakfast, so I traipsed down the Rua de Santo Paolo to eat some Macanese food in town. Before I got to the town centre proper, I passed by a whole row of confectioners, all touting themselves as the original purveyors of Macanese confectionery such as egg rolls, egg rolls with seaweed, egg rolls with pork floss, egg rolls with peanuts and those delightfully shiny and translucent tiles they call pork lard candy. I accepted samples of the egg rolls from every shop along the way, declining only the pork lard candies. Some of the quieter shops were quite aggressive in shoving samples into your hand, sometimes grabbing your hand and putting an egg roll or two in it, and then looking at you quizzically when you don’t go, ‘mmmm’, and ask ‘gei dor cheen yat hup’ and buy three boxes for your mother-in-law.

I was quite full by the time I got to what I thought was the centre of town. It wasn’t the centre of town, and there weren’t that many restaurants around, and I was beat. So I settled for one of those ubiquitous cafes and had a distinctly non-Macanese brunch of Beef Innard Noodles in Soup (Ngau Chaap Tong Meen), after which, I looked at the map and decided to walk around looking for more Portuguese colonial ruins.

I ran through another array of confectioners down another Rua. But this time, they were peddling bean-flour cookies, bean-flour cookies with seaweed, bean-flour cookies with pork floss, bean-flour cookies with almonds and peanuts and plain egg rolls. I ate one sample of each and was sufficiently weighed down to want to stop for a much needed coffee, and I was much pleased when I found I was on Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, which in Chinese, is simply called ‘Xin Ma Lu’, or New Road. This avenida leads to the harbour, where the kitsch-looking Casino Lisboa sits. So there’d be many cafes and restaurants along the way, so I thought. Nup. Just the one cafe, and many, many more confectioners.

This thoroughfare is quaint, though, with its two crowded lanes carrying the type of buses I haven’t seen in Singapore since the 70s. So cute. So I took many photos. After my coffee break at the cafe (which also sold egg rolls and bean-flour cookies), I made my way down towards the harbour, and passed Senado Square, where there were more tourists milling around an ordinary looking fountain, taking turns to pose for photographs. By the time I got to the Casino Lisboa, I was tired enough not to want to even venture inside the gambling hall. Instead, I waited in the taxi queue for a cab, which there were many, but they seemed to keep dropping off very ‘glamourous’ looking young Chinese women, and then pick up other ‘glamourous’ looking young Chinese women who had no qualms about jumping queue.

When I finally got into a cab by uncharacteristically jumping queue, I was zipped across the skinny bridge spanning the strait between the Macanese peninsula and Taipa Island. All I said to the cab driver was ‘I want to eat water crab porridge because my friend says I should eat water crab porridge in Macau’.

The cabbie dropped me off at the entrance to a pretty little enclave in Taipa, and told me to look for the water crab porridge place inside. So I went and looked. There were more confectioners and more egg rolls and cookies to be had until I finally came to a brightly lit restaurant with pictures of Andy Lau, Leslie Cheung and a slew of other Hongkie celebrities, dead and alive, all smiling over their porridges. This had to be it.

I asked for three of their signature dishes, and was told these were the Water Crab Porridge, the Steamed Eel with Black Bean Paste, and the Deep Fried Fish Balls. Within a minute, a large basin of orange congee with a crab’s shell and bits of claw peeking from under was placed on my table. The Eel and Fish Balls came soon after. I was about to eat myself to death.

The porridge is sinfully tasty, if you like the taste of crab and crab roe, that is. A large amount of roe is mixed into the rice porridge, which gives the congee its colour. The Fish Balls weren’t too bad either, and they had bits of fish meat sticking out of it. (Think of really good otak, only rounder, and you get the picture). The Eel dish wasn’t too pleasant, but mostly because there were too many bones to pick out from between my teeth. Still I managed to down most of the stuff on the table, thinking that if I really ate till I burst, they’d probably take a picture and put it next to Leslie Cheung’s.

The rest of the evening was quite a blur as I stumbled back to the main avenido, eating more confectionery samples along the way, and was convinced by one of the spruikers to buy two tubs of bean-paste cookies to eat on the boat back to Hong Kong, no matter if I was burping crab roe the whole Turbojet ride.

Estabelecimento de Comidas Seng Cheong
Rua do Cunha, Taipa, Macau SAR
$$ (HKD 200 for three dishes like above)
Food: Not Bad.
Chill factor: N/A

Other foods to try and buy in Macau:
Macanese version of Cincalok and Belacan (Macau, Malacca, same, same);
Oyster sauce;
Pork Chop Sandwich.

Paddling the seven seas

I tell people one of my favourite pastimes is kayaking, but I hardly ever get to kayak these days.

Back when, then and all that time ago, I didn’t kayak all that often either. So I suppose kayaking is a favourite in the sense that I remember liking it a lot when I did do it.

I like kayaking for the quiet solitude it affords, though I don’t mind having a companion kayaker who shares the same sentiment, and who might be able to help you out if you don’t execute a kayak-capsize-drill properly. I dislike any motorised water sport, which I think to be the domain of clueless landlubbers who think they love the sea. And don’t even get me started about wakeboarding. If you really love the sea, you’d love kayaking, and perhaps sailing. But…

A kayak can go almost anywhere in practically any weather. In the right hands it is probably the most adaptable and seaworthy vessel afloat. Kayaks have been paddled across the Atlantic and through the Caribbean and up the Alaskan Coast and down the Nile and the Amazon….

…There have been paddlers in kayaks at the (Cape) Horn for as long as there have been humans…. Four hundred years later the kayak is still unchanged in its basic design, because for its size it is as near as possible to being a perfect boat.

~Paul Theroux, Paddling to Plymouth, Fresh Air Fiend

I haven’t paddled even the shortest stretches of the Atlantic, the Caribbean or Alaska, but I have, with a friend, paddled from Singapore to Tioman in a double Klepper kayak, similar to the ones the British and Australian commandos used to blow up Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour. Made of maple and canvas, it is the most seaworthy craft I have ever paddled, even if I haven’t paddled many.

The trip took twelve days from Changi Beach to Pulau Tioman, and according to my kayak journal, which I fortuitously found while trying to tidy my room (and which prompted this post), we set off from Changi on Wednesday 7th of August 1991:

0700 Arrive at Changi Point. Ate breakfast. Bought water. Forgot bread.
0720 Changi Beach. Assemble Klepper. Load up.
0800 Leave Singapore.
0900 Paddle past Tekong.
1100 Arrive at Tanjung Pengerrang Immigration checkpoint.
1630 Arrive at Tanjung Datok, set up camp, dinner, rest.
Total travel 30km, 8 hours paddling. Current and wind against us.

The rest of the journal gets even more sketchy as tiredness and boredom set in:

9th August 1991:

1600 Land on unknown beach. Super seasick.

And then there’s one long journal entry about how Jason’s Bay (Telok Makhota) is extremely depressing. The whole beach is littered with cowdung. And our greatest challenge is combating boredom. , followed two days later by:

Most nervous moment of trip so far when storm blew up gale force 6 winds. Made it to Sibu after 8 hours non stop paddling.

That is a classic understatement. I remember shitting bricks when the storm hit. I remember throwing up on both sides of the kayak. I remember the sizable shark circling us after probably overdosing on the scent of my vomit. The journal ends with these entries:

Pulau Tinggi, Thursday 15th August 1991:

…Have decided to push for Tioman tomorrow. Will be toughest leg so far (>50km) and will take 12 hours or so.

Friday 16th August 1991:

Woke up late. Decided to postpone crossing till Saturday 3am or later, maybe 8am. Bored to tears. Word has gotten around the island that we’re two Japanese commandos.

Saturday 17th August 1991:

Rained heavily in the morning. Have to postpone crossing again. Decided to slot midnight as departure time. Didn’t get to sleep last night because of the wedding party on the island.
Sunday 18th August 1991:
Left Pulau Tinggi at midnight as planned. Couldn’t see anything in the dark but our slipshod navigation skills managed to see us through till dawn, when a storm broke. Got terribly seasick. Barfed twice. Sighted the island at 0745hrs but paddled like mad to arrive at Tioman at 1300hrs. Total time in the saddle 13hrs. Sore bums, hunger pangs and physical exhaustion norm for the day. Booked into cheap resort (RM15 a night), relaxed. GAME OVER.

This is the one trip I’d love to be able to do again, for whatever vainglorious reasons which I won’t admit to. Why, me and my kayaking friend even wrote the leisure article for Straits Times Life [Saturday, November 16, 1991, Leisure, Page Ten] and got paid $200 for our effort – writing and the trip. Cheap adventure. But for some fucked up reason, the editor decided to omit my name from the story, so it would sound like it was an almost solo adventure but the adventurer decided to ask a friend along.

But these days, I find that a good kayaking day consists of two hours or so of paddling through scenic waters, and the only place available with kayak rental and scenery is Pasir Ris Park, where you can rent a kayak for $15 an hour and paddle to Pulau Ubin and back. There are creeks on Ubin which are worth exploring for their flora and fauna and grumpy fishermen living in huts with big dogs that threaten to leap into the water and take a chunk out of your paddles. Forget the sharks, these marine dogs can be real mean too.

Back in Sydney, I paddled Middle Harbour , where you have to fight traffic as if you were on the road. I once paddled in the middle of the channel without knowing there was this passenger ferry bearing down behind me. The ferry pilot must’ve thought it was funny to wait till the last moment to sound his damned loud horn, startling me to the point of my bum leaving my seat. Good amusement for the 100 plus passengers on the ferry. Later that same day, a deranged seagull attacked me while the same ferry was making its return journey through the channel, so the passengers had the benefit of watching me fight off the seagull with my paddle.

I think there’s something nagging me to return to the sea. (Duh. You think??) I want to do the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Alaskan fjords and maybe the Cape. I might start off easy again and go do the Pasir Ris to Ubin leg. But please don’t leave any comments about it being a mid-life crisis thing, all youse landlubbers.

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Short the distance: Hainan, Part One

There is Hainanese Chicken Rice on Hainan Island [海南岛]. Only it’s mostly crappy and the recipe’s most likely garnered from what Singaporean and Malaysian tourists tell the Hainan Islanders. The same goes for Hainanese coffee, Hainanese kaya and Hainanese mutton soup.

(The original Hainanese Chicken Rice is actually a steamed/boiled chicken dish from the city of Wenchang [文昌](‘Voon Sior’ in Hainanese) on Hainan, known as Wenchang Chicken. The chicken flavoured rice bit is a Singaporean invention).

I travelled to Hainan with my uncle and two cousins in 2002. My uncle was born on Hainan [海南] (as was my father), and this was his first visit in 70 years. He was very excited about returning to our family’s ancestral village, and from the moment I met him at KLIA, he was decked out in a three piece suit the entire trip. Very much the dapper returned emigre, he was. This trip also happened to be my first proper China visit, a madcap daytrip to Shenzhen from Hong Kong notwithstanding.

A group of around 90 odd ethnic Hainanese pilgrims organised this tour, which entailed chartering a Hainan Airlines Boeing 737 to and from KL, a guided bus throughout the entire island, and full meal and board for five days. Having taken bus tours of Taiwan and Hong Kong before, I expected the five day itinerary to be very hectic. And I was right.

The flight from KL took off at two in the morning, and once on board, the flight attendants gamely tried to present themselves as an international carrier with international standards of service. Heck, there even was a short, plumpish, blonde attendant who sounded Russian. The pre-flight announcement was made in Mandarin, parts of which I understood; and attempted again in English, abruptly stopping when the attendant struggled with the pronounciation of ‘Kuala Lumpur’. Not many people care about in-flight, pre-flight, post-flight and safety announcements anyway, and a plane load of mostly elderly Hainanese hobbits weren’t going to be much different as they carried about chattering away in that gutteral tongue which sounds loosely like a bunch of angry turkeys. We weren’t going to get much shut eye on this flight. Might as well enjoy the food. If only we could enjoy the food. The food came in styrofoam boxes and was exactly the same thing as what I might have ordered for lunch from Ah Tan’s Economy Rice stall at Amoy Street Market for $3.

Three bites from the three dish and rice meal, and I reached for the moist towelette, the cover of which featured the airline’s logo with a most memorable tagline:

‘Short the Distance, Together the People’.

The four hour flight wasn’t short enough for ‘together the people’, especially me, as I had to fly from Singapore to meet my uncle and cousins at KLIA earlier. We landed at Sanya [三 亚] on the island’s south coast, much to our surprise, because the tour operator had told us we were flying to the provincial capital Haikou [æµ· 口](which is nearer to our ancestral village) instead. Never mind. I had read that Sanya boasted the nicest beaches and resorts in the whole of China. ‘China’s Hawaii’, so the official tourist boards trumpet.

And so, at 6.30am, but sufficiently excited about the trip, we stumbled out of the airport terminal (more like a bus station), and into a waiting tour van, greeted by a pugnacious little Mandarin speaking tourguide, who happily announced we were only checking into our hotel at 7pm that evening because our tour of Sanya and its environs would commence immediately.

I tried to sleep again on the van. But the tourguide spoke non-stop, and mostly about herself, how she was born there, grew up in Guangzhou, came back to Hainan and how she loved the island, its people and its culture. With lunch hour came a much welcomed respite. We stopped on one of Sanya’s strips of beaches. With clear blue skies, pristine white sands, coconut palms and salty sea air, it was hard to imagine this being part of China, the only other strange thing being that there was practically nobody on the beach. No sunbathers, no windsurfers, no lifeguards, no ice cream vans, no nothing. Eerie, almost.

A barely passable lunch was taken at a hotel, not the hotel we were to check in to, but which allowed me to grab as many tourist related brochures and maps as possible, just so I could get my bearings. From the brochures I discovered that Sanya used to be (and to a certain extent, still is) an official Communist Party retreat venue, with hefty discounts (but of course) for government officials and dignitaries from what’s left of the Communist bloc. There were German, Russian and Korean versions of the brochures.

Back on the van for the afternoon, and on which I stupidly sat on the sunny side of, the tourguide took it as a personal slight that her charges were dozing off, and recommenced her chatter while we travelled to a dozen tourist traps disguised as ethnic minority villages of the indigenous Li (Hlai), Miao, Hui, Ah Beng, Ah Lian, Sum Seng, et al. She even broke into song at one stage, a-capella. Thankfully, we didn’t have one of those vans equipped with an infernal mobile karaoke machine.

When we finally did check in at our hotel, a rather well-appointed four star set up, so it seemed from the outside, I was ready to collapse on my bed. And that is when I made the discovery that coconuts were a major Hainan Island commodity. I thought nothing of flopping onto the hotel bed and falling fast asleep. And so I flopped onto the bed, and hit the coconut husk mattress hard.

Apparently, they make almost everything out of almost every part of the coconut plant. There was even a coconut husk ashtray next to the coconut husk covered hotel directory (one of the room service menu items included ‘Fresh Hainan Coconut Drink Product’) . It made sense for me to check where the fire exits were before sleep took hold and I finally rested for the night.

[to be continued… next instalment: our plans to hijack the tour van]