Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival: Our Year Two

Being our second time around, we had some idea the mid-autumn festival was coming up, whereas last year we were totally unaware. This year it actually felt like a holiday to me and I had answers when people asked me what we had planned. This year we knew work and schools were closed. This time around we knew the basic outlines of the legends and we knew the holiday customs (much thanks to Adam and Royce and their preschool education). We also knew that Stanley Main Beach (the closest beach to our apartment complex) was where we wanted to be to celebrate the mid-autumn festival.

This holiday is called many things, sometimes the lantern festival, sometimes the moon festival but mainly the mid-autumn festival. It falls on the 15th day of the eight lunar month of the Chinese calendar (somewhere between mid-September and mid-October based of the Western calendar) and is the second most important Chinese holiday behind Chinese New Year. It is in part a Chinese harvest festival with some interesting add-ons. There is one legend of a woman Chang swallowing immortality pills and going to live in the moon forever. There is another tale of three fairy sages coming across a fox, a monkey and a rabbit and begging for food. The fox and the monkey gave the fairies food but the rabbit had nothing to give. Instead, he threw himself into the fire as an offering. The fairies touched by his devotion turned him into the Jade Rabbit, who now resides in the moon with Chang. The rabbit story was fine for the girls but a bit gruesome for Adam, who kept insisting that it was a “pretend” legend.

At various school parties over the last week, the kids made lanterns. The custom is for families and friends to go outside to beaches and parks on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month with these lanterns and picnics and moon cakes to enjoy the night. In years past, candles were burned but this has been outlawed for safety reasons. We went to Stanley Main Beach and were admonished by lifeguards on loud speakers and by many signs “not to burn wax.” Though this seems like a major part of the holiday it proved not to be. Cheap little electronic light devises (unfortunately many of which also played cheap little mechanical music) have filled in for candles. And of course there are day-glo sticks. While we started with only a few such sticks, we ended the night with hundreds, left by kids who went home before us. Between our homemade lanterns and our day-glo sticks we were as festive as can be imagined without “real fire.”

Really, we had a great time tonight. The weather was great, a breeze and not humid. It felt like autumn, while not here, was at least close. We played in the sand, saw friends and even got a soft serve ice cream (uncommon here) on the way out. The only thing lacking with this Chinese holiday was anything Chinese. Even Tori, looking around our predominately expatriate populated beach, said with a sigh “I thought more Chinese people would be celebrating the holiday.” While it might not have been authentic, we were at least doing better than we were a year before.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Wong Nai Chung Gap: history with pedal boats

After a quiet day of apartment cleaning, Adam suggested we all head out to the pedal boats. This is a good outing for our family, really a mini-outing and perfect for a Sunday afternoon. The beloved pedal boats are located in Wong Nai Chung Reservoir, about a 15 minute drive from our place. Typically, the pedal boats are used by us as incentive to get everyone out to the grocery store. The pedal boats are located right by (as is almost everything) a large housing complex and a very large, almost American-size, grocery store. But today the refrigerator is stocked, things mainly in order and the afternoon is free to pedal in the murky waters of the reservoir unhindered by chores.

The reservoir runs a little business with a snack shop and a café but it is mainly there to rent pedal boats to outdoor minded folks. The place is never crowded and boats are always available. We load precariously into two boats and set off, slowly and without full steering ability. And the kids just love it. They feed the fish and turtles who are flinging themselves out of the water to eat whole slices of bread. We explore the little coves of the reservoir. Invariably, someone drops something into the water and someone else has to perform a rescue. We watch huge kites (some sort of water bird of prey) swoop overhead. And we do all this while gazing at many high rise apartment complexes just outside the little pedal boat area.

Prior to the pedal boats and the Taste grocery store, Wong Nai Chung Gap, between Mount Nicholson and Jardine’s Lookout, was well known as the connecting point via multiple roadways from north Hong Kong Island to the southern part of Hong Kong Island. Now there is the Aberdeen Tunnel which runs through a mountain and is the main connection between the north and south island. Wong Nai Chung Gap is still used by some commuters wary of tunnel traffic, including Phil.

In December 1941, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong on December 18th and reached Wong Nai Chung Gap on December 19th. There Hong Kong and Canadian troops defended the Gap until December 23. In fierce fighting over 600 Japanese were killed there. After the loss of the Gap, the Battle of Hong Kong quickly ended with Hong Kong’s surrender on December 25 and the start of the Japanese Occupation. Last year, the Wong Nai Chung Gap World War II Trail was opened, essentially leaving from the pedal boat area and looping through various relics to an end point at a former bunker complex. We have not tried it yet but hope to as soon as I figure out the trail signs (which are slightly complex here).

For today, the pedal boats were just the pedal boats. The kids know a number of hikes start from that area and are too savvy to be tricked into a hike before or after the boats. We simply fed the fish and turtles and enjoyed it. As I maneuvered clumsily in for a closer look at a large turtle, Tori exclaimed with joy, “This is the closest I have ever been to a turtle in the wild!” It might seem like a detour on the way to the grocery store to me, but to little people we were out in the world and exploring it. All in all, a good reminder that there is more than one way to look at anything, even a little reservoir off the side of a major highway.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

At the start: the twins at St. Teresa's preschool

With some pomp and circumstance (added namely by the accompaniment of two parents and one big sister), Adam and Royce started preschool last week. They are going to a small local preschool, 3 mornings per week. We take our apartment building shuttle bus into Stanley, the nearest town and from there we have a short walk to school. Adam and Royce know or at least recognize most of the kids in the class, a mix of many expatriates here but mainly French kids. And of course they have each other but we are finding this is not as much a comfort as we anticipated.

While the first week has been an adjustment for all of us, Royce is taking it in stride. She sits with other girls and does her own thing. Adam tries to sit with her but it squeezed out by other girls –and perhaps by Royce herself. Adam tells us that he spends a good part of preschool just looking at Royce. While this breaks my heart, he has come up with a plan. His plan is to “orbit” Royce. On the playground- and at times in the classroom- he runs in circles around Royce, semi-protecting her and semi-frightening the French kids. I am not sure this is a long term solution but Adam loves to run and he does seem happier.

Preschool in Hong Kong, and perhaps the world at large, seems to start very early. Kids here typically start some sort of school right at two years of age. Being all of four years old and late comers to this education thing, St. Teresa’s expressed some concerns about how the twins would fit in with the class. So far, Adam brings chapter books (as opposed to picture books) to class on a daily basis and Royce is surprised to find the class studying “pets” this week. She told the teacher she is more interested in Ancient Greece. So the concerns remain but are slightly adjusted from temperament to subject matter.

One of Adam’s concerns is his cubby and it is a well-founded concern. In a class of about 12 kids, there are 3 Adams (two of which happen to have twin sisters!). Our Adam is concerned another Adam will put his things into his cubby. Royce volunteered the use of her cubby and this seems to work for now. We are really hoping that all these Adams will spur our own Adam to learn how to spell and write his last name!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Cheung Chau: biking and lucky buns!

With our summer’s good weather continuing (meaning limited humidity!), we ventured out to a new outlying island this weekend. Prior to departure, we knew nothing about Cheung Chau Island except the usual no car policy on the smaller islands and something about a bun festival in the summer. Usually, limited prep work is fine as the islands are very small and can be covered quickly. Cheung Chau was bigger than we expected and definitely warrants a return trip to see the sights. We saw no sights but we played all day and loved it.

Cheung Chau, which means long island in Cantonese, is about 10 kilometers south of Hong Kong Island. While definitely a fishing island, the island now has a population of 30,000 with tourism quick becoming a second industry. We took a hour ferry boat ride in from Central, riding in “deluxe class” which got us air-conditioning and big tables for our packed lunch. As the ferry passed through the busy harbors to get to Cheung Chau, the boat traffic (huge tankers and little sampans all together) never really died down but what changed was the view. All of a sudden we were close to the mountains ( mountains in the New Territories, the part of Hong Kong that connects to mainland China). While nothing was pristine or even natural, there was definitely the sense that we were just a bit closer to the wilderness that Hong Kong might have been.

Cheung Chau has a number of impressive temples, sandy beaches, old time pirate hide-outs and ancient rock carvings and a fair number of local and expat tourists going to see them all. We were waylaid by bike rental stands and never got further than that which was reachable by flat road. We started out with 2 adult bikes that pulled benches for the kids to sit on. We cruised the main promenade in style, but slightly apprehensive as the signs were unclear as to whether bike riding was allowed on Sunday. Finally on a more open stretch and with the policemen giving us not a second glance, Tori decided she wanted her own bike. She rode for awhile and then Adam and Royce rented bikes as well. Now with five bikes, we rode along the water front, down little narrow city streets, past all sorts of vendors selling very Chinese things. It all did seem rather yesteryear mainland China-like, when they all rode bikes instead of driving cars.

As we rode, we often saw little gifts (purses, book marks, pillows, and tons more) in a puffy white shape with red Chinese characters on the front. We finally realized these trinkets were meant to be buns, reminding all of Cheung Chau’s annual bun festival. Apparently, every May towers of buns are built as gifts to ancestors. Men race through the streets and up the huge towers of buns. I can’t quite visualize it yet but we are determined to go back next May. We all wanted to eat a bun, though we are not even sure that is acceptable. We could not find a bun anywhere and settled for an ice cream cone. Even without the lucky bun, we were lucky with the weather (it stopped raining), lucky with timing (we just got a returning ferry boat) and lucky enough to spend a day outside in Hong Kong with three good little travelers.