Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Coming in from the cold.......


…well, technically I’m now already back in the frozen tundra that is my apartment (the weather outside is pretty nice, though, in the low 40s in the afternoon). The bright side is that I’m saving electricity by turning off my refrigerator – the kitchen is colder than inside the fridge anyway. The down side is that this state of affairs breeds laziness: why bother putting leftover soup in Tupperware, cleaning the pan, then a day later putting it back in the pan for reheating, cleaning the Tupperware and rewashing the pan, when you can just leave the soup in the original pan on the counter, no worries of spoiling?


Actually, all of the unheated rooms in my apartment are getting a bit cluttered and dusty, because I just can’t stand to stay in them long enough to really pick things up. There is nothing unfortunate growing in my kitchen mind you – it’s not as bad as all that – but the whole place could use a thorough scrub down that I daresay will not happen until the weather is warmer. I can’t help but wonder if this doesn’t shed some light on the origin of the phrase “spring cleaning.”

My trip to Hong Kong and Macau was mostly fun and games, with a bit of conferencing thrown in. The trip down was a bit of a headache – to save money, I flew from Nanjing to Shenzhen, and then took a cab to the border crossing at Lo Wu, walked the border, then took a train to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, then a cab to the university guest house where I spent the first week. For two weeks of traveling within what is nominally “all one China,” I spent a lot of time waiting in immigration lines (and filled two pages of my passport with stamps for leaving China, entering Hong Kong, leaving Hong Kong, entering Macau, leaving Macau, entering Hong Kong, leaving Hong Kong, entering China… each of these is a separate line with its own forms and formalities). Not only are the entry and exit procedures governed separately, but each territory continues to have its own currency. I left Nanjing with renminbi (China’s currency) and US dollars, figuring I’d get some Hong Kong dollars at either airport or at the border crossing – I’d heard the Shenzhen side sports a train station, bus station, and shopping center with banks, so no worries, right?

I think that what makes China at times both incredibly fascinating and interminably infuriating is that things you can count on anywhere else in the world – like having a currency exchange counter at an international airport or a bank situated ten feet from an international border crossing – are simply not true here. My requests to change renminbi for Hong Kong dollars at the airport, at the train station, and at the bank all earned me blank looks. If I have some Hong Kong dollars – or, better yet, US dollars – they’d be happy to take them off my hands and supply me with renminbi. But replace renminbi for a foreign currency in use on the other side of this wall? Forget it. I finally changed a hundred renminbi with a watch/cell phone/Louis Vuitton suitcase (yeah, right) salesman, but I kept it at a hundred because I had a sneaking suspicion that the Hong Kong dollars he gave me might only be as genuine as the LV logo luggage lining his shop walls.

The border crossing itself is what sparked the whole “coming in from the cold” analogy. Granted, China is open. The Chinese Communist Party is now recruiting capitalists for membership (er, and Long Live the Proletarian Businessman!). We are no longer in a Cold War, and anyway, Hong Kong is no longer the Last Stand of British Imperialism in Asia, but a Special Administrative Region of China, like Tibet and all the other SARs (hmmm, perhaps an unfortunate acronym, but proof that proper capitalization matters).


Shenzhen itself is a Special Economic Zone, where even the last vestiges of a socialist economy no longer apply. It is, instead, a testament to the sort of garishness that comes from overnight modernization – with no time gradually to build up the infrastructure and sense of superiority inherent to the sleek sophistication of New York or London, it is instead a jumble of glass and metal skyscrapers, cement block laundry-adorned apartment high-rises, neon signs promising future riches and overworked factories producing dense smog. Add to the mix a few international hotels, open-air markets, the occasional out of place bit of classical Chinese architecture, and one decommissioned-Russian-aircraft-carrier-turned-tourist-theme-park ( www.minskworld.com No time to go this time around, but the advertised singing and dancing performances by the Russian Navy seem worth a special trip…), and you have Shenzhen. The scene at the border crossing demonstrates the frenzied sense of urgency in the place – hundreds of small stands selling every possible thing, people pulling on your arms to come in and buy, other people pulling on your suitcase hoping to annoy you into giving them tips, offers for cabs and train tickets, souvenirs and calling cards.

Two immigration lines later, you emerge in the Hong Kong Lo Wu Train Station, which has the quiet aloofness of a suburban shopping mall. Sure, you can buy things, but look yourself and then take them to the cash register. No spitting or shouting, no selling bread off a cart or sweaters off your bicycle. Hong Kong has its share of hawkers and street merchants – a walk down Nathan Road at dinnertime will convince you that every single Indian restaurant in Asia has a guy there trying to get you to take a menu (take one and you’re deemed an easy target – and will be showered with paper for the next three blocks). A lot of people I know claim to hate Hong Kong for being too much the generically international city center – go down to Central on Hong Kong island, and you are in Anywhere, Capitalist World. As it is, I admit I like it less for its own uniqueness and more for being a near perfect mix of all the things I love about both Taipei and London. Up-market cafes and Marks and Spencer in the shopping malls, and baozi and tangyuan on the street in the night markets. Plus all the Chinese is in traditional characters, which I greeted as old friends after suffering through a few months of simplified characters on the mainland.

What brought me to Hong Kong was a pair of back-to-back conferences. The first one was a graduate student conference on Modern China – Ph.D. candidates from all over the world were presenting papers on various aspects of recent Chinese politics, economics, and society. It was dominated by sociologists, and let me to take the opportunity to say – at the risk of offending anyone with a bent for the field – that I don’t really get sociological research.


The point, it seems, is to collect a load of raw data and then perform an endless series of complex statistical analyses designed to prove statements that should be empirically obvious. For example, there was the paper demonstrating that “people with parents in the CCP are more likely to join than people with no family relations who are party members” and the one asserting that “people with close relatives abroad are more likely to receive remittances than people without relatives abroad” (and here I always thought remitters were just picking names at random out of the phone book).


The real prize, of course, goes to the 25 page treatise making the bold claim that “the Chinese Communist Party survived because the Chinese Communist Party survived.” I’m not sure I could expand that statement to fill a page, much less 25 (with charts!) but I have to say, hats off to the fellow who did and thereby reached new heights of academic frivolity. There were, of course, a number of excellent papers and interesting people… I just don’t seem to have the wherewithal to endure the lesser offerings.

A weekend in Hong Kong – especially in the winter – is made for hiking. On Saturday, the organizers of Conference One took all of us on an easy stroll through a mountain park in the New Territories; the ease of the “hike” is demonstrated by the fact that half of the Chinese students joined us straight form the library and completed the walk sporting their laptops. Scoffing at the elementary level of the venture (“hah, and they call that hiking”), three of us set off on Sunday for a five-hour trek through the wilds of Sai Kung peninsula. After three trains, two mini-buses, and a taxi (impressively complicated given how small Hong Kong is… on the way back we gave up on this unintentionally ascetic route and took one bus straight back to the original train).


Then an hour-long trek uphill, and it was time to begin the real hike. We scaled the side of a mountain on all fours, disregarding warning signs and keeping our eyes on the summit. When at long last, after arduous climbing, stopping frequently for rest, water, and mildly concerned discussions that if it was equally steep on the other side we were not quite certain how to get down (other than sliding, of course, which takes with it its own inherent dangers), we reached the top, ready to be rewarded with picturesque panoramas and fresh mountain air. What we found was… cows.


There was a small herd of mountain cows (mountain cows?) not only on top of the mountain, but lazing across the path, blocking our way. Here’s what bothered me: it took me about an hour and a half to reach these heights, often feeling at risk of losing my balance and tumbling back down again. The fact that the cows had done it first, and, truth be told, did not seem the least bit concerned about steep slopes, narrow paths, or dizzying heights, dug a bit into my overall sense of accomplishment.


Really, I had done no more than to experience a bit of your average Hong Kong mountain cow’s daily existence. I’m not going to lie to you: it stung. The way down proved to be much less steep, though we lost the path a few times to venture through waist-high bush (at which point Graeme started telling snake stories, which was, to say the least, unhelpful).

On Monday I packed up and journeyed all of four stops down the light rail to the City University of Hong Kong for Conference Two, the China/Taiwan/Hong Kong Fulbright Research Forum. The conference planners had told us to go to Kowloon Tong and take a cab to the international house at 32 Renfrew Road, but didn’t give us either the characters or the Cantonese for the address, which means I had quite a time trying to get a cab. After asking about five people if they knew the road – which earned me several compliments on my Mandarin, fat lot of good that was doing me, but no better sense of where I was going – I went into the subway, found an area map and copied down the characters for the address myself. It was an odd feeling to be in a Chinese-British city, able to speak Mandarin and English, and have no way of communicating with people without resorting to written characters, but I encountered so many problems with this that I bought a Cantonese book and CD to work up some basic phrases before I head down to Guangdong province next summer. Yeah, I’ll let you know how that goes.

The conference itself was uneventful – no papers, and not much of an agenda, just lots of talk about research, a few truly random documentary films, and two Chinese banquets. When the conference ended, about half of us were off to the ferry docks for a 24 hour “study tour” of Macau before heading back to Hong Kong and through Shenzhen, then back to Nanjing.


Macau
is a minor city, strategically unimportant, and in many ways, inherently fascinating. It was taken over by the Portuguese in 1557, and handed back to 1999, which would make it the longest running colony in Asia except that it loses out on a technicality – there was never any formal statement declaring it a colony. The Portuguese just sort of settled in, built some forts and, I suppose, after a few hundred years of not causing much trouble, their control over the territory was accepted as a something of a fait accompli, at least until Hong Kong was set to revert back to China in 1997 and the Chinese government started getting a bit restless about getting the Europeans out once and for all.


The Portuguese are generally not well known for energetic, impressive imperial accomplishments. A few hundred years of roaming the world and securing such territories as Brazil, Mozambique, Timor and Goa did little more than wreck general havoc and complicate matters for present-day phrase-book-toting tourists who go wandering around the world and suddenly encounter a pocket of Portuguese speakers in an area otherwise dominated by English, Spanish, Chinese, or some other local language. Growing up alongside of Hong Kong – and having a nearly 300-year head-start on the British colony there – you’d expect Macau to be something along the same lines; in fact, Macau is Hong Kong’s country cousin, with a broken-down economy driven almost entirely by revenues from casinos populated by Hong Kongers on weekend holidays. Even the Macau Tourist Bureau’s claim to be the “Monte Carlo of the East” comes off as little more than big talking and wishful thinking.

Something must have gone wrong in the “study tour” planning, because on arrival in Macau, they packed all of us and our luggage into a decrepit old school bus and took us on a bus tour of… well, I’m not actually sure what the tour was of. We went around the convention center twice and passed four casinos, crossed a few bridges in both directions and finally, having killed an hour or so (which I suspect was the true motivation behind the drive), pulled up to the Choc Van Conference center, which is a church conference facility on a reasonably remote island. They brought in dinner and a few large magnums of Portuguese wine, no doubt an attempt to keep us locked in the cloister and out of trouble. As one guy pointed out to the trip planner, however, if you bring 30 or so 20-somethings to Macau for one night, you must expect that whatever else they do, they will go out. We piled into a fleet of taxis and headed off for the bridge connecting us to civilization.

Upon arrival at one of Macau’s most famous casinos, the Lisbona, we immediately lost someone and spent the next 45 minutes forming search parties and fanning out to locate her (when I got back to the rendezvous point, however, I admit I was not impressed with the quality of the fanning, as about a dozen guys who were designated fan components spent the entire time clustered around a black jack table). With absolutely no “public health” statutes against indoor smoking and very low ceilings, the air was nearly blue with thick smoke and I was not enthusiastic about sticking around. Two guys felt the same way, so the three of us headed out to walk around a bit, promising to meet the others at the “Green Spot” (a bar/jazz lounge) a little later.


I should have realized we were in trouble when I asked Jonathan if he knew how to get there, and he said, “Sure, we just go out and turn left and go a few blocks,” while pointing emphatically to the right. Uh, which left, buddy? After a nice stroll and some ice cream, we struck out in a likely direction and started looking for signs of the bar. None came, however, so we circled back and checked the casino to see if the others were still there. They weren’t, so we went into the ritzy attached hotel and asked for directions. After an extended conversation with the porter, he wrote down the characters for the bar and walked us out and put us in a cab, telling the driver in Cantonese where to take us. The driver drove us around in two large circles and then came to a stop about a half mile away from the casino (its neon lights still visible) in front of not one but two seedy-looking karaoke bars. The Chinese name of the one on the right had a character similar to the one the porter had written down, but (sadly) it was not the same character. It was clear that the taxi had brought us to the wrong place, so we considered what to do.


When the two guys just stood on the street looking apprehensively at the karaoke bar and looking generally intimidated, I decided to take matters into my own hands and walked in to ask for directions. Upon my entrance, all activity in the bar stopped as everyone stared at the Random Foreigner. After a quick conversation with a waitress, she directed me to the seedy karaoke bar next door. Going out, I discovered the second bar was named “Queens,” which, to a non-native speaker of English, could possibly be mistaken for the “green” in “green spot.” Seeing the boys were determined to continue to be useless, I went into the second bar and repeated my performance, once again bringing all spirit and song to a grinding halt. This time, the waitress and bartender actually knew they didn’t have a clue what bar I was looking for and directed us to the nearby Mandarin Oriental hotel to ask again.


On our second 5-star hotel we learned an important piece of information: the Green Spot closed down a year ago. But it used to be in the lobby of the Emperor Hotel, and there is a new bar there now. Calling it the last hurrah before we gave up, we walked down the street to our third hotel. At this one, we struck gold in the form of a single location that could bring together all the themes of the evening: high class lodgings with marble lobbies and snobby porters, smoke filled casino halls, and… a seedy karaoke bar. Really. Located in the lobby of the Emperor hotel is one “Moulin Rouge Karaoke Club,” with appropriately seamy red lighting.


Walking into this one, I started to suspect that there is not a single karaoke singer in Macau serious enough about his art to carry on through the appearance of a Random Foreigner. I can’t help but think that in Korea, things would be different. We walked out again, found a quiet pub with outdoor seating, and ordered three pints of Guinness. We felt we’d earned it. After the long cab ride home (all the while wondering what wild and fascinating pursuits the others were up to), we discovered that everyone else, far wiser than we, had given up long before and was sound asleep. But they missed out on all the karaoke, and I know that, secretly, they’re a little bit sorry.

The second day of the study tour consisted of a panel of professors whom I began to suspect did not actually know as much about Macau as advertised, and a tour a few proposed UNESCO World Heritage sites. One involved us standing outside a big construction zone with scaffolding and barriers, being informed that there was a marvelous building very indicative of 19th century Macanese life hidden somewhere within. The highlight of the whole tour was afternoon tea before heading for the ferry back to Hong Kong, which is a bit unfortunate, but it was in all a useful reminder of the hazards of undertaking any sort of group travel tour.

After two weeks conferencing (which generally means all day in meetings, all night out playing with fellow conferencers), I was looking forward to heading home to relax a bit. I came back to found that it had once again snowed in my absence, that my package of tangyuan had stayed frozen in spite of my having unplugged the freezer, and that my favorite Taiwanese band had actually come to Nanjing while I was gone, but now that I was back, they were off to Hong Kong. It’s the sort of discovery that will try any fan’s soul, but overall the two weeks in the south were mostly worth whatever lost opportunities there were here. Mostly.

Frozen once more.


Copyright 2005 by Meredith Oyen

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