Saturday, February 24, 2007

Our new favorite beach: Shek-O!

Slowly, we gravitate away from the old standard beaches, like Stanley, Big Wave Bay and Chung Hom Kok (a name I just love to hear the kids say) and try something new. Over Chinese New Year, our meanderings paid off big time in the discovery of Shek-O. On our first day there, we eased our minivan into the last available spot in the municipal parking lot and thus entered Shek-O buoyed by a sense of good luck. And oddly, over the next two solid days we spent there, that feeling never left.

The beach itself is quite nice, in between a peninsula of land with the village of Shek-O on one side and vertical green mountains on the other side. Like all beaches here, it is well groomed by beach keepers with machines and rakes but in addition to the grooming, it did actually seem clean. The beach and sand were so nice that it held our attention for two full days, with no side trips to the playgrounds near the parking lot. We did backtrack to the kiosks near the beach for mint chocolate chip ice cream (never before seen by us in Hong Kong) and a couple kites. We flew the kites far and wide and high, until Tori got scared and cried that the kites were too high to possibly be safe.

In addition to the beach, Shek-O has a small village as well. The village has one street for cars and the rest are more narrow passages for foot traffic only. One day we ended up eating lunch at Black Sheep Pizza, a place that would have counted as a very good bohemian type restaurant anywhere let alone in a little village on the edge of Hong Kong Island. We ate by and later explored the village’s own Tin Hau (goddess of sea travelers) temple. While many people were praying over Chinese New Year’s, no one did anything other than smile at our little kids crouched in the temple, watching everyone say their prayer, light their joss sticks (to carry their prayers to heaven) and bang the gong afterwards. Inspired by all this good will, we even convinced the kids to go on a short hike through the village, past beautiful mansions with even more beautiful gardens, out the peninsula and up to a small look pagoda. Good will prevailed. We all made it out and back.

Back in the village, we continued to hear the drum beat of the lion’s dance. At times, it was quite close to us and others far away. We watched shopkeepers tied long strings in front of their shops with money (even $1,000 Hong Kong dollar notes- that I have never seen before. Tradition is to give new money, crisp clean bills) and lettuce. While we don’t know the full significance, we have seen it enough recently to know that the lion dances in front of the store and grabs the money and lettuce while doing all sorts of jumps and tricks to get the rewards. It was all very holiday like and festive but we didn’t stay to watch the actual dance. The lion dance is very loud and pretty much terrifies Roycie. Full of beach and holiday, we left. Only to have the kids enact their own lion dance at home, run into the wall and knock Tori’s loose tooth out! After all the drama, tears and blood, the Shek-O lion dance might have proved tamer in the end.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Chinese New Year: Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Lately, Hong Kong has been even more of a visual treat than usual. Chinese New Year has to be one of those most photogenic holidays around with many red banners and lanterns, tangerine trees, new clothes for everyone and of course, lion dances. We have wandered around admiring it all and understanding very little. To remedy this cultural deficiency, the kids and I actually signed up for an arts and craft class all about Chinese New Year.
The class was great for me, giving me the factual framework to understand the odd little bits and pieces Tori has told us from school. In a nutshell, Chinese New Year celebrates the lunar new year which is from February 18 through March 4 this year. This new year will be the year of the pig, specifically the golden pig or the fire pig! Throughout the holiday, red banners are hung up with greetings and wishes. All the red is to frighten away Nian, a legendary sea monster, who comes on New Year’s Eve. Of course, many special flowers and foods are out at this time. Dragon dances are to encourage rain and lion dances are to promote good health. Most interesting to the kids were all the things one is suppose to do or not to do throughout the holiday. For example, on New Year’s Day one is to wear red, wear new clothes, eat vegetarian food and give away lai see envelopes with lucky money. One is not suppose to cry (or whine- we added that), cut hair, use scissors, buy shoes, tell ghost stories, etc. Many times today when I was on the verge of doing a taboo action, Tori quickly covered for me, which we all hope helps!

At Tori’s school, the kindergarten students had different study groups all week to learn various aspects of the holiday. The twins and I volunteered at the dumpling making table. (Half-way through the week Adam asked me when he was going to get to see the eggs for the ducklings...) Tori’s class did its own lion dance, and that is indeed Tori under the lion’s head. Seeing all the kids in Chinese costumes and greeting their friends with the traditional saying; Kung Hei Fat Choi!, was enough to make me think we have indeed learned something this year.
We rushed home from the school party to our apartment building’s party on the same day. While the management has sort of shuffled through Halloween and Christmas parties, they shone on the New Year’s Party. They hired an expert lion dance crew and the same Chinese acrobat that performed at Tori’s school assembly. After an hour of lion dances, the acrobat performed some handstands and balancing tricks on a raised board. It might sound tame but it was far from it. The crowd was going wild and Adam and Tori were called up to volunteer. Tori did a nice cartwheel and Adam did an assisted handstand on the board. Since he was in a Chinese robe with shorts underneath, the robe fell down exposing his big belly. Being the good big sister, Tori quickly reached over and held his robe up over his stomach for the duration of the trick. Chinese New Year togetherness in action.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Something else new (for us) in the New Territories: the Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree

On our drive back from Kadoorie Farms, our adventurous and astute friends pointed out that we passed by a Chinese New Year institution on our way to the farm. We passed unawares the Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree, to which many people journey each year to make wishes for the new year. We rectified this mistake by stopping at the famous large banyan tree on our return trip home. The tree is right off the main road and situated in front of the centuries old Fong Ma Po Temple to Tin Hau, goddess of sea travelers. With cranky twins in the car, we skipped the temple and focused on the tree, specifically on getting Tori her wishing opportunity.

As we try to get up to speed on Chinese New Year, we have checked out a number of books on the subject from Tori’s school library. It just so happens that one of our favorites is entitled the Wishing Tree and involves a fictional account of a boy and his grandmother making wishes at the tree through the years. The book tells us that the tree became famous after one boy dramatically improved his school grades after wishing at the tree and how a wealthy visitor was brought to the town to see the tree and then financed public works. The book mentions a little stream and other features of the village. Tori anxiously scanned for these little details while I kept directing her attention to the huge tree in front of us.

Fact and fiction aside, the tree was impressive, even in its gated and guarded form. The tradition is to write a wish on red and gold paper, tie it with a mandarin orange and then throw it up on to the tree’s branches. If the wish package catches, then the wish is suppose to come true. Sadly, in 2005, some of the branches broke under the weight of many wishes and fell on bystanders. In deference to the injured, wishes are no longer to be thrown up. Wishes are pinned on large wooden boards near the tree, with each person pinning their wish under their Chinese zodiac sign.

The visit to the tree was beautiful and seemed very Chinese, whereas many of our moments here are not. The kids, Tori and friends (the twins were still in the car), bought red and gold incense papers from a vendor and wrote their wishes. With incense burning, mandarin oranges everywhere, and thousands of wishes pinned all around us, it did seem like the perfect time to wish for something. Peeking over Tori’s shoulder, I saw that she wished for happiness. In our book about the tree, the grandmother always wishes for her grandson’s happiness. Tori, while sweet and wise, is also a reader and a stickler for following the plot line.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Something new (for us) in the New Territories: Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Gardens

Spurred on by friends and the visit of Phil’s mother, we recently headed out past Kowloon to the New Territories, the part of Hong Kong that borders mainland China. We were lured to the New Territories by Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Gardens, a highly spoken of green space haven in urban Hong Kong. As we drove further and further away from Central’s (downtown Hong Kong’s) skyscrapers, the views of the lower lying suburbs were appealing in and of themselves. A gray apartment block of only 20 -30 floors with a little river running by looks downright quaint these days (not to mention, very Soviet).

After a few missed turns, we arrived at Kadoorie Farm and parked in a parking spot we previously reserved, one of about 10 parking spots for the entire place. The farm looks to be forested hills, all surrounding the largest mountain in the area, Mount Tai Mo Shan. We entered through the organic market place and were quickly subsumed in nature art and craft activities held on the first Sunday of every month. We then wandered through beautifully manicured gardens and past animal enclosures of all kinds and I began to realize this was only a farm in the loosest definition of the word.

Actually, Kadoorie Farms started out as a farm back in the 1950's and only more recently morphed into a biodiversity habitiat and exercise in sustainable agriculture. In 1951, the brothers Lord Lawerence Kadoorie and Sir Horace Kadoorie started the farm as an aid association aimed at helping refugees from mainland China (and later decommissioned Gurkha-Nepalese- soldiers) learn farming techniques. The early farm provided technical assistance, agriculture inputs and interest free loans. Early focuses were on livestock, particularly pigs and chickens. Certain breeds were developed to exist in Hong Kong’s specific climate. Over the past 50 years, Kadoorie Farms worked with 300,000 farmers and developed agriculture extension services in the area. The occasional picture of Prince Charles overlooking a chicken coop reminds one of the high visibility and scale of donors the Kadoorie brothers brought to the refugee issue.

As we wandered around, we viewed some growing things with awe- mainly those with great huge flowers or the recognizable bananna trees. But what really caught our attention were the animal enclosures, full of animals that had been rescued from the local area. The birds of prey aviary had impressive owls and hawks and finally, the black kite. The black kite is the bird we see every day outside our apartment windows, diving and swooping into the sea, but have never known what to call it. We don’t know much after six months in Hong Kong but now, at least, we know the name of a local bird!