Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Checking out a new library: the Hong Kong Central Library

We loved our libraries in Maryland and were sad to say good bye to them when we moved to Hong Kong last year. Luckily, our main children’s librarian moved to Hong Kong with us! Well not directly with us but her husband works at the US Consulate and she is here directing us to good Hong Kong libraries. This week we ventured down to the main branch of Hong Kong’s library system in Causeway Bay (near- ish to Central, where Phil works). The 12 story building is new and beautiful with numerous literary statues and fountains out in front. We loved the steps leading up to the library that had both English and Chinese quotations carved into them. To be honest, I loved the quotes and the kids loved the flashing lights on the library’s floors and the cool 180 degree view elevators inside the building.

Once we finally made it to the children’s library, we were a little underwhelmed but only because the building looks so big and grand and most of their collection is of course Chinese language. The English materials were fine, though mainly English as in British. Royce and Adam scoured the English language stacks to find the titles that we knew. Tori pulled the Ancient Egypt books once again. We did read and laugh, quietly, without incident. Our closest branch of the Hong Kong library system is in Stanley, just minutes from our apartment. Despite it proximity, we never use it due to their very strict silence rules. Reading out loud, even to yourself as a beginning reader is not allowed. Roycie was once reprimanded for laughing and then of course started crying. Anyway, the central library was a much better reader friendly environment and well worth the trip into town.

The library we use throughout the year- and the one that is closed this summer- is Tori’s school library. They really have a great collection and a somewhat lax 25 book limit rule. We have enjoyed the librarian picking out books not only for Tori but also for Adam and Royce. It is a smallish room with comfortable chairs, puzzles, coloring paper and about everything we need to spend a good Friday afternoon. Before our sea shipment of belongings arrived and books were sparse around our house, we survived off the lower primary library’s collection. And I will always remember them fondly for that.

The only complaint we have with the Hong Kong Central Library is its one parent- one child rule. For example, if a kid wants to attend a story hour, one parent must attend with one kid. This rule has always been an obstacle for us with the twins. At the Central Library, we had reservations to be admitted to the Library’s Toy Library. I didn’t know what it was but it sounded good (it was again underwhelming). The librarian in charge was not going to admit us due to the 3 kids and 1 adult thing. We were all pressed against the glass of the toy library looking in at all the toys. Tori very bravely told us to go ahead and go play and she would wait for us. Then she realized this would not work either. I think her very dramatic "our family just wants to play but we are too big!" was just what we needed. We were admitted and we played for our full 45 minute session.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Stanley Dragon Boat Races as seen from afar

This week, Stanley, our little part of Hong Kong, was front and center in the annual dragon boat races. Every year on the Tuen Ng Festival (Tuen Yang in Mandarin) dragon boat races are held with locals and expatriates squaring off in friendly competition. The Stanley races, enjoying their 40th anniversary, are a huge event, with over 2,000 paddling participants and all their friends and family cheering them on. The US Consulate has a dragon boat team and Tori’s school fields a couple teams. It all sounded very exciting and crowded and we stayed far far away.

However, on the day before the races, we wandered around and tried to get a feeling for what was going on. We have been watching the dragon boat teams practice for months now. The teams have been out there in the rain and in shine. As we watch them, they row great distances, across the entire harbor in front of us. When we walked around Stanley Main Beach, where the races start from, we were surprised to see the shorter courses marked off in the water. I had been thinking of the dragon boats races as an endurance event but really they are a sprint race.

The boats themselves have dragon heads on the front and tails on the back and have a drummer who beats out the rhythm for the oars. The boats hold 22, including the paddlers, steersman and drummer. Some dragon boats are much larger, with up to 80 paddlers, but this 22 person boat is the competition size. The Stanley residents association owns the actual boats, and with a recent addition now has a regatta of 22 boats.

Smaller races have been going on all month but the Stanley race occurs on the actual holiday, the Tuen Ng Festival, which falls on the 5th day of the 5th month (early June). It is a national holiday and most everyone is off work (again we were got flat footed on this holiday!). The holiday itself is fascinating, basically a fesitval for my old anti-corruption work. As far as I know, in the Ancient Kingdom of Ch’u, a honest statesman named Chu Yan served the Emperor. He advised the Emperor on all matters and was well thought of by the people. Chu Yan grew frustrated with corruption in government and wrote a poem entitled Li Sao about his frustrations with bureaucracy. In 288 B.C, Chu Yan drowned himself in the Mi-Lo River in what is now Hunan Province. His friends and followers leapt into dragon boats and raced out into the river to save him but arrived too late. The entourage in boats then beat drums to scare away the fish and stop the fish from eating Chu Yan’s body.

Because of all this, and perhaps because June is the middle of the typhoon season, the fifth month is considered an unlucky and unhealthy month. Locals collect various herbs and put them up in the home to promote health. Needless to say, I did not know any of this and we are all nursing bad colds and a case of pink eye. Perhaps next June we will stock up on the appropriate herbs in addition to chloramphenicol eye ointment. We definitely need all the help we can out here, especially now that we know it is the unhealthy month!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Everyday logistics: bike riding!

Many things in Hong Kong are beautiful and lovely and if not that, at least efficient and technologically advanced. And then there are the things that are none of the above. Like riding a bicycle. Getting the kids out the door and on their bikes is so arduous that it is comical. At least we try to laugh, if only to divert ourselves from the exhaustion of the relaxing weekend afternoon family bike ride.

First off, we must get out of the apartment. Royce keeps her bicycle in the apartment as it is a "new" Christmas present and she likes to keep it near her at all times. We squeeze her bike on to the elevator and journey down to where the rest of the bikes are. The other kids are forced (by us and the demands of space) to lock their bikes up on the P2 level of our building, sort of terrace level that connects all the apartment blocks and links to the pool, playground and parking lot. It is an okay space to ride except that you have to ride in a small circle, passing through a narrow hallway. Awhile back Adam crashed onto a cement ledge in the hallway, causing half his face to swell to about 5x its normal size. For this reason, no one is too interested in riding circles on P2 anymore.
From the P2 level, we must negotiate down three 30 yard ramps. Ramps that are too steep for the twins to ride down and only semi-safe for Tori. Usually Phil has to carry two bikes down while I keep a hand on Tori’s bike as she makes her descent. We have, of course, sustained two head concussions on this ramp since moving here. We then emerge into the parking lot, get past incoming and outgoing cars and begin the big load up in the minivan.

Often we ride our bikes along a paved path near Tai Tam Tuk reservoir. It is 5 minutes from our apartment, all green and with beautiful views of the reservoir. However, for unknown reasons, bikes are not allowed there. We have only been stopped twice (by park police in cars!)but in an effort to be legitimate we tried a new bike area today. We drove and found a residential circle (of about 1.5 miles) that has minimal cars and a sidewalk! We parked and got everyone going. The twins were slow and unsteady as they don’t get much bike practice here but Tori was fast and smooth. And then the rain started. Undeterred on our mission of fun, we pushed on in the rain and came to a small American run bakery right off our new bike path. With bagels and Peet’s coffee in hand, we could almost imagine we were on a family bike trip in the states. Except of course for the incense burning outside and the fact that our 1.5 mile journey felt epic.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A room with a view: clean air in Hong Kong

After just saying that the air in Hong Kong is never clear enough to see very far, I have been proven wrong, blissfully wrong. For the past week, we have had very clear skies. Prior to this great weather, we had a week of solid rain. Now we have a breeze. It is my feeling that both of these factors contributed to the increased visibility we have now. Really it feels as if we are living somewhere else. A typical taxi ride along a windy road we always travel now has the power to take your breath away with its stunning views. Everywhere you go locals, rather than tourists, are staring out across the harbor, out to neighboring islands, out to passing ships. Our apartment looks out on to a little island (actually, two islands, one behind the other); see photo above. While we will can usually see these islands, they are mostly hazy. And what we usually cant see are the islands on the horizon, far behind the first.

Air quality in Hong Kong is a big issue. The air quality is poor and getting worse. Visibility is declining over the years as well. Sometimes it is impossible to see across Victoria Harbor, only a kilometer or so. In the continuum of Asia cities, Singapore and Tokyo have the best air with Hong Kong in the middle and Beijing, Mumbai and New Dehli, ranking poorest air. Air pollution is often blamed on mainland China. A large amount of pollution does come from the Pearl River Delta in southern China, particularly from coal fired plants. On holiday days when the plants in China are not working, the air in Hong Kong is noticeably improved. Of course, much pollution is home grown as well. Traffic congestion is high and traffic pollution accentuated by the "street canyon effect" of so many high skyscraper buildings.

This past week the air pollution index has been at record lows of 16. Much more typical is around 50 plus and upwards to 100, which then triggers warnings to stay inside. There are no government run pollution check points on the south side of the Hong Kong Island where we live. Typically the air is thought to be better on the south side and on the peak, though contrary reports say that the large number of tour buses on the south side and indoor mold at the Peak counter whatever positive these locations might have.

Whatever the reason and whatever comes next, these past few days in Hong Kong have been glorious. The views of the South China Sea on one side and the deep green of Hong Kong’s rolling hills (called dragon’s back) on the other make for the perfect feng shui. While I have never gone much for this wind water equals harmony concept in the past, all of our good moods over the past few days might just convince me.