Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hong Kong Halloween

When we first moved here, we wondered if the kids would get to celebrate Halloween, as it is primarily a US inspired holiday. We need not have worried. Halloween was celebrated in Hong Kong this year with enthusiasm, excitement and endurance. After about a week of solid Halloween, we can all say it was fun, even though our costumes ordered from the states in September never arrived.

The costume snafu was not a major one as Stanley (our nearest neighborhood) has tons of costumes for sale every day of the year. We easily picked up Adam’s Batman costume. Royce’s Firebird (Russian ballet that we saw this year) was easily assembled out of red devil costumes and red fairy wings. In keeping with Tori’s Ancient Egypt phase, her Cleopatra costume was pretty much put together from things she already wears on a regular basis. We are pleased to note that Egyptian style beaded headdresses are for sale in Stanley and already procured for Tori’s upcoming Ancient Egypt birthday party.

While Halloween has only been celebrated in Hong Kong for the past 5- 10 years (this according to my more recent taxi drivers), we all had plenty of venues for Halloween fun. Our apartment building had a couple parties. The American Club (our gym/restaurant across the street) had parties. The US Consulate hosted a big party with crafts and trick or treating. And Tori’s school had Book-o-ween where students came as characters from books. Not everyone understands the holiday, and I can’t say I do anymore either, but most blame the Americans for the extra shot of candy and sugar.

Trick- or –treating in the heat and in high rises added a little extra trick to the whole event. The practice here is to put up a common sign on your apartment door if you are participating in Halloween. Kids then travel up and down two elevators to the apartment floors. Each apartment floor has only two flats per floor, so lots and lots of elevator congestion. Our kids were forced to take the stairs a couple of times, only to find that the stairs don’t always stop at every floor- and of course not every floor has participating trick or treat families. Exhausted but with candy, Tori declared that when she is a teen-ager, she will live in and trick or treat only in houses!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Star Ferry Crossed

We finally did it! We have become star crossed travelers on Hong Kong’s famous Star Ferry. The kids have long been intrigued by the idea of the ferry and we have long been wary of the heat, humidity and crowds. However, when we finally got there in late October, it was perfect. It is still hot (around 30 C) but not so humid and breezes off the water cooled us down a bit. And the ferry runs every five minutes, meaning the crowds are not bad at all.

The Star Ferry is an institution around here. Established in the 1890’s, the Star Ferry Company has been taking folks across Victoria Harbor for over a century now. The Co. operates 12 double decker ferries leaving from Hong Kong island and heading over to Kowloon, and beyond (Macau and mainland China). Prior to 1972, when Hong Kong’s MTR or subway opened, it was the only way to go. And with prices in the range of $2 Hong Kong dollars or about 30 US cents, everyone takes it. Commuters, shoppers, tourists and people with boat crazed kids.

We took the Star Ferry, I believe the Night Star to be exact (all the ferries have the word “star” in their names) from Central Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbor to Kowloon. While this sounds like a big trip, we were probably on the water about 5 minutes with both departure and arrival terminals visible at all times. On the Kowloon side, we debarked at Tsim Sha Tsui Pier. As this was our first time off Hong Kong Island since arrival (everyone except Phil’s) it felt monumental but in the end was not. Like most things in Hong Kong, the destination is a mall. We quickly walked from the pier into the huge Ocean Terminal, a large large mall anchored, at least for our family, with a California Pizza Kitchen, a Toys R Us and a Starbucks.

We took the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong, this time to Wan Chai, a slightly different pier. It was great fun being out on the water with the other ferries, the tug boats, the old junks and the single fishermen row boats. When it was all done and we asked the kids what they liked best about the day, Adam quickly replied “Hong Kong Disneyland!” Clearly, we have a couple more Hong Kong destinations to hit until everyone is happy.

The great bed search

Dr. Seuss says it best. “I do not like my little bed. This is not good. This is not right. My feet stick out of bed all night.” And so it has been for us, those of us over 6 feet tall anyway, for the past two months. We came to Hong Kong set to inherit a bed which was an American queen size. We purchased new linens, arrived and found nothing fit. The bed was too small. And so in August, the great bed search began.

It is now the end of October and the search is not yet done but so close to done that I feel emboldened to jot it all down. Hong Kong has IKEA and lured by the sense of Swedish efficiency, we went to find a quick fix to our bed problem. We ordered a bed. We ended up waiting a couple of weekends for our bed to be delivered, meaning we waited at the IKEA appointed time but no delivery. (When Phil complained to colleagues of wasting another weekend waiting for delivery, he got no sympathy. That is what helpers are for he was told.) Finally, the bed arrived and was again too small! This of course was our mistake but I personally blame the metric system.

The IKEA bed was switched into Adam’s room, his bed moved out and the search continued. As a backdrop, all of the furniture (except now the IKEA bed) belongs to the US Consulate and in particular to Phil’s commercial division. The bed we didn’t want, as well as other furniture we didn’t think necessary, had to be taken out and stored in a Consulate warehouse.

Finally, we discovered the Horizon Plaza in Ap Le Chau, a neighborhood on our side of Hong Kong Island. The Horizon Plaza is a large (25 stories) warehouse with mainly furniture dealers but also bookstores, kids’ clothes and an Italian deli. We wandered around trying to get a handle on what was available. Basically, everything is available and it is all beautifully carved wood. It was at Horizon Plaza that we understood the size issue. Essentially, all Hong Kong beds are slightly different in size than American beds but are still listed as queen and king etc. For example, the Hong Kong California king bed is still a couple of inches shorter in height and width than a US queen.

So in the interim we have two single beds (unwanted by another Consulate employee). We have custom-ordered a mattress pad to make them into one bed- to be delivered in 3 weeks- and are hoping to forgo the expenditure of another bed frame. And spend the savings on pillows! A quick survey of pillows at department stores had the going price of about $60 US dollars a piece.

On the plus side, the kids’ rooms turned out perfectly. Adam has plenty of room in his new big bed and the girls love their bunk beds. Now if we can just get people to sleep in those beds!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ocean Park Fun

We are just back from another great trip to Ocean Park, our local amusement park (10 minute taxi ride from our apartment). Ocean Park is what Hong Kong had before they had Disneyland and it is pretty good albeit somewhat modest. Ocean Park is something like a very good state fair but a bit wackier. They have amusement rides divided into categories of toddler and young adult, but not much in between. They have got mascots like Professor the Turtle and Whiskers the Sea Lion, who walk around in full costume despite high heat and humidity. They have omnipresent souvenirs and snack food like fried squid legs, though sadly they also have a McDonald’s counter. Ocean Park also had full Halloween decorations up by late September and staff dressed as witches passing out candy. We got Halloween candy in September and we got Halloween candy in October and some little people in this house are hoping for more of the same next month.

In addition to all that, Ocean Park also has animal shows. On our first visit, we attended a wild Amazon bird show. The park staffer talks first in Mandarin and then in English, which seemed fine to me but put our kids at a disadvantage for raising their hands and being chosen to come on stage. All in all, with fears of bird flu floating around we decided not letting the huge parrots land on our children and take money out of their hands was okay. We have also hit the sea lion show a couple of times but have not yet made the dolphin shows. We did mistakenly wander into the dolphin tank area and watch the dolphins being feed. We were close enough to put fingers in the water, which some of us did to no reprimand whatsoever from the staff!

Ocean Park does seem to be aiming for an ecological conservation theme, perhaps to set it apart from their new big Disneyland competition. The conservation angle is new and somewhat odd. We came out of a good shark exhibit, where we could walk underneath the shark tank, to an area that admonishes us over and over not to eat shark fin soup! My kids unfortunately came away with the idea not to eat soup at all and just after we were okay with tomato soup.

The real surprise and treat of Ocean Park is the cable car ride which takes park goers from the lowland kids’ area to the so called highland adult area. It took me a couple visits to get up my nerve to attempt this, both in terms of the height and the corralling of kids. I don’t know how high but the ride is a high one with impressive views of the South China Sea. From your view up there you can see past the smaller “junk” fishing ships to the massive tankers moving slowly across the horizon. The cable car itself has no safety belts but it is an enclosed space. As I grasp onto my seat, the kids reassure me and even pat my leg. This last time, we stopped for five long minutes in the middle of the ride for unknown reasons. As we swayed hundreds of feet above a rocky beach and the sea, Tori quickly said “let’s sing a song…Miss Mary Mac Mac Mac, all dressed in black, black, black.” Oddly, it was such a funny role reversal that I actually did feel fine despite my well-known fear of heights.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Green space: Our walk about day

After many weeks of heat and extreme humidity (like 90%), the weather has suddenly changed. While still warm and indeed summer like, the humidity is much decreased. It is possible to be outside and it is possible to be walking outside. And so that is what we did this weekend. Like anywhere, there are crowds out walking on the holidays but on regular weekend or week days, the trails are pretty empty.

Our first walk with kids was from Deep Water Bay Beach towards Repulse Bay Beach. Both of these beaches are on our side of Hong Kong Island, the south side. Deep Water Bay Beach, like most of the beaches, has a roped off swimming area, many lifeguards, showers and a BBQ area. We got there around 10 am, which counts as early morning in late sleeping Hong Kong culture. It was only us and a few elderly Chinese getting in their morning swim. We walked on a paved path towards Repulse Bay, which is a bigger jazzier beach. So jazzy, it had a Pizza Hut which of course we ate at. Oddly, the entire Pizza Hut staff was already dressed for Halloween and many other patrons were only dressed in swimsuits. By the time we finished lunch, tourist buses from Mainland China were pulling in to the beach. The kids will surely be featured in many vacation photo albums and I am pleased that my two Mandarin language lessons allowed me to accurately state the kids’ ages.

Our second walk was sans kids and much steeper, though still entirely paved. We live very close ( a 5 minute taxi ride) to the southern part of Tai Tam Country Park. Our southern section connects to the larger Tai Tam Park, which altogether makes up about 1/5 of the land mass on Hong Kong Island (and an even greater percentage of the island’s green space). There are 4 reservoirs in the Park and I think we hiked past the Tai Tam Upper Reservoir and the Tai Tam Tuk Reservoir. Signs stated that the reservoirs were conceived in the 1870’s, stalled because of economic depression and then started again in the 1880’s. To increase capacity, various extras were added until around 1917. The signs mentioned various engineering firsts accomplished here in Hong Kong but I forget them all and only remember dates.

In World War II, this Tai Tam area was the scene of a big battle, where the British fought the invading Japanese. Wartime forts and camps are still found throughout the park. After the war, the area was totally burned out and destroyed. Recent conservation efforts have resulted in the densely forested and green park we enjoy today. Pine and acacia trees cover the rolling hills, which include a couple hills over 400 meters tall. It seems fitting of course that our main hiking view is of the hills called Tai Tam Twins. The area really is beautiful and lush. Hong Kong’s two major hiking trails, the Wilson Trail and the Hong Kong trail, both cross through Tai Tam Country Park.

After we went uphill for awhile, we came to a reservoir dam’s wall and a lone man resting against the wall. On one side we could gaze down to the water and on the other to a wooded valley. We were just about to keep going when the man started to feed the fish. Actually he threw a whole loaf of bread into the water. The ensuing feeding frenzy was incredible. Little fish pushed the bread into shallow water so that the huge golden carp could not manage to get over to it. Little fish took bites and then hopped away on top of the water so that other fish could not steal their bread. The entire loaf was gone inside of one minute. I don’t think I will ever be able to casually feed Clifford our beta fish again.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Our first Golden Week: National Day and the Mid- Autumn Festival

We are just finishing our first Golden Week, a week with two major holidays and a couple extra days off thrown in as well. And despite it all being done now, we have very little understanding of what we were just celebrating. When talking about the week, Roycie said “I love staying up late” and Adam said “bunny rabbit to the moon.” And that really sums it up. We all stayed up late on a couple occasions and on one of those late nights we followed a man in a bunny costume as he walked around a swimming pool.

The golden week concept, I think, is a recent one, dreamed up to promote local tourism. And in fact many people do travel domestically or abroad. As China’s economy grows, more and more Chinese can take an annual trip, possibly to Hong Kong. Fellow expats also travel at this time. We were caught a little flat-footed on this holiday. We did not know it existed or that Tori would have a week off from school. But we enjoyed some quiet time around our new neighborhood, including taking advantage of no lines at our local amusement park, Ocean Park (lots of rides, an impressive cable car ride, marine animal shows, and of course pandas).

For National Day, October 1st, we went down town for dinner and fireworks. As our kids have never stayed up to watch 4th of July fireworks in DC, they were pretty excited about the prospect of it all. At their request, we took a double-decker bus to Central. This bus ride was big fun for them and for everyone else on the bus as the kids were wearing fairy wings and singing loudly the entire way. As we got closer to our destination, a building (I think the National Bank of China) had an electronic flashing displaying saying “1949-2006”. This was the first and only indication that we were indeed celebrating something linked to the People’s Republic of China. We later found out that October 1 was just decreed the National Day and not a date coinciding with something else (except our wedding anniversary). And that the celebration of National Day is much more elaborate on round five year intervals. Despite not knowing much, we enjoyed the fireworks, all at eye-level, as we were on the 49th floor!

For the Mid- Autumn Festival, we had more chances to learn about this holiday via what Tori repeated from school, a puppet show in the building and a dinner/culture show we attended across the street at the American Club. Still it took much collaborating and clarification to get a bare bones sketch of what was going on. I attribute this to the fact that the holiday and the accompanying legends go back thousands of years. All the way back to the Xia and Shang Dynasties around 2000 B.C. Loosely, the legend tells how the goddess Chang ascends to the moon. She and her husband are to drink a life eternal potion but he is murdered and she ends up drinking it all. A rabbit also fits into this legend but I don’t know how yet.

The Mid- Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month and is all about spending time with family and friends while enjoying the full moon and eating moon cakes. Moon cakes are a little like fruitcake and have a great history. Apparently, when China was ruled by the Mongols around 1200 A.D, Chinese insurgents successfully organized a rebellion by hiding their military plans inside the little cakes. Tori brought home from school a paper lantern and told us all we were to light a candle in the middle of the lantern. I was sure she had this part of the festival wrong but no, people do use fire to illuminate paper lanterns and then walk around the beach and parks. We substituted day-glow sticks and this worked fine too.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Our slow boat to China

The slow boat to China with all of our sea freight proved not so slow after all. Our sea freight, all 1,200 pounds of it, arrived late last week, just about 6 weeks after it left DC. Prior to moving here, we unloaded tons of toys on unsuspecting neighbors, packed 12 huge carry on bags, sent 800 pounds via air freight, rented our house, sold the lucky caravan and put a few things in storage. The rest of our belongings were put in 64 boxes and sent via boat. We all loved the thought of something traveling by boat in this day and age. We tried to track the boat’s possible route on maps. Anything that was lost over the past six weeks was always said to be in the sea freight. And now after all the anticipation (and white lies), our stuff is here!

Gone are the days of the sparse apartment. We now have toys in every corner of the apartment. Unlike Eastern Europe, apartments here have closets and extra storage spaces are ingeniously fit into various spots. We also take advantage of an amah (live-in helper which most folks here have) bedroom and bathroom (both very small) off our kitchen as extra storage space/time out room. And while the kids are thrilled to have their toys again, the boxes themselves are just as good. As a compromise to box madness, we let each kid keep one big box, which they have decorated extensively and intensely. Tori and Royce have even spent the night in their beloved boxes.

Apartment living is tight on space as any city dweller knows. But the high rise aspect of life here adds an extra element to the equation. Every day in our apartment complex and in the one across the street, various families and individuals are moving in and moving out. We have watched in amazement as men across the street raised a large dining room table up from the ground level to far above our heads (which are on the 22nd floor). To do this, there was a team on the ground pulling a rope, the dangling table and then a couple guys on the roof with a fixed pulley device, not to mention many people walking underneath without a glance up. After watching this table event and many more like it, Adam and Royce both decided not to grow up to be lawyers. The twins now want to be “rope guys.”

Sunday, October 01, 2006

School Days

To much anticipation and some hype, Tori started kindergarten in Hong Kong last month, Actually, she is in Reception 2, which is what kindergarten is called here, at a large private school in Repulse Bay (about 10 minutes from our apartment). Tori had a great first day. She loved wearing the uniform and riding the bus but was none too pleased to realize she had to go back the very next day. “How will I recognize my new best friend?!?!” she sobbed, not remembering who was who in her new class. Since then we have had some school acceptance lows but seem to be on the rebound now.

I have not yet figured out much about education in Hong Kong. It seems that most children start preschool at around 2 years old. It is definitely considered odd that the twins, now 3, are not yet in school. Preschool and kindergarten are private and pricey here, with nary a multiples discount in sight. Public education starts in first grade. That being said, all education seems to be private or at least uniformed. As we go about our day, we are commonly stopped behind long lines of buses dropping off uniformed children.

At Tori’s lower primary school, she takes the usual subjects plus music, art, p.e, Mandarin and chapel. The electives are all on a rotating basis, which we are suppose to keep track of via a chart. While Tori talks very little about school, the tea leaves we can read are her phonetically spelled written notes all over the apartment. I can say her writing is much improved in only a few weeks even if all it says is “No moms in mi bedrom” and oddly, “No smoking,” on her bedroom door.

We knew to expect the educated and driven culture here but nonetheless were surprised to hear most Chinese students are reading well by the start of kindergarten and many attend all day Saturday school as well. At a parent orientation meeting for the Mandarin curriculum, we listened with zero comprehension to a heated discussion of whether or not to teach traditional or simplified Chinese characters. And to the follow-on arguments as to why or why not this was important for the new Mandarin AP exam. And we were just thinking it was nice she was exposed to something new!

We all miss Tori much when she is gone and celebrate her arrival home with a little ritual of dressing up (the twins not me) to greet her from the bus. The bus drops Tori off right in front of our apartment building block. To date, Adam and Royce have gone down to get Tori dressed as cats, fairies, mummies, witches and of course, naked.