Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book-o- ween: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!

We have a lot of Halloween parties in Hong Kong but the book-o-ween party at Tori’s school is everyone’s favorite. This year we went as our favorite book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Or at least our favorite thus far. (We are now on Prince Caspian, book four). The kids went dressed up to school for a costume parade. We decorated pumpkins to match our costumes for the school’s library. And we re-read bits of Narnia on and off all day. That would have been the perfect day for me but wait there is more!

Once again we braved trick or treating in our high rise apartment building. It was do-able but only just so. The trick is that every block, with 60 plus apartments, two on each floor, is serviced by two elevators. Lots of holding elevators, long waits etc. But with candy as motivation we pushed on. In fact, we used the stairs for our trick or treating. The only problem there is that the stairs only stop on the odd floors and not everyone is participating in the event. Once we trick or treated on the 17th floor in one building and then walked down to the 3rd for our next candy stop. I had a couple break through ideas on how to revolutionize this process. Stay tuned for next year!

We emerged from that craziness to cross the street and partake in Halloween activities at the American Club. With a nice cool (upper 70’s) evening, we lounged on the lawn. We had face painting, music and a moon bounce, plus a haunted house. When all was said and done and the kids were counting their candy, Royce asked if this was “real” Halloween. With all the parties today and all the parties last week (we even did trick or treating at a Consulate party last week), her confusion is more than justified! But it was Halloween, it was real and it was real fun.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Tram Party!

Contrary to many of my “in Central with the kids” moments, we just had the best time down there. We were invited by friends to tour Central via an antique tram they rented out for a couple of hours. I am not sure what I thought of this event prior to going but knew anything based around transportation would be a hit for the kids. And it was. Sitting on top of a double decker tram and looking out at the congested markets and the immense brightly lit buildings proved to be the best way for all of us to experience Central. We saw it all and we heard it all but were never lost in the crowds.

Hong Kong is one of only three places in the world (others being Blackpool England and Alexandria Egypt) that operate double decker trams. Hong Kong wanted to go electric way back in 1881 but this was vetoed. Finally they got their trams running in 1904, after the passage of the 1902 Tramway Ordinance. The tram was set up to run around Hong Kong Island, along the northern coast of the island. Until 1967, all tram tickets were imported from England.

Today, 240,000 commuters still use the trams. Tram fares are inexpensive at $2 Hong Kong dollars (25 cents) for an adult. Each tram holds 15 people and waits between trams are only about a minute during peak hours. The tram route remains about the same as a century ago, running along the north side of the island from the Whitty Street Depot to Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan to Western Market to Causeway Bay and looping back around Happy Valley. Happy Valley is well known for its large racetrack which holds races on Wednesday nights. Being a Wednesday night, the crowds were there and the lights on. My kids did not notice any of that but instead said “Mom, look at all that grass!”

Up top our antique tram, we waved at the walkers and generally felt like we were at the top of the world. We ate pizza and played a fun tram bingo game our friends devised for the kids. I watched amazed as my kids quickly identified very Hong Kong things like subway signs, post office boxes (green here and not very postal looking), which color cab goes to which island and major buildings. The only one who had a problem was me. I kept referring to the tram as the trolley, based in part on the fact that we were frequent visitors to the National Trolley Museum in Silver Spring Maryland. Tori looked at me a bit embarrassed and said that they are called trams here, “trolleys are so long ago!” As we partied on the tram in Central well after kids’ bedtime, it did seem our more staid trolley museum visits a year ago were ancient history.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Green Space: the Wong Nai Chung Gap Trail

Prior to moving here, we worried about the lack of green space in Hong Kong. (Ashamed, Phil and I remember how Baby Tori did not know what grass was while we lived in Romania. She fell in love with it once on vacation and asked us the name for it over and over again). Here, we do find it hard to get outside and throw the ball around or ride a bike. Hard in the sense of packing up, riding the elevator down and then find a space in our common areas big enough to accommodate us. But oddly, it is not hard to find green space to explore. Our views here on the south side of Hong Kong island are pretty much only of rolling green hills and sea. And these hills are covered with trails which we are finally trying out.

This past weekend, with continued “fall” weather in the 80’s, we all hit the new Wong Nai Chung Gap Trail. Open just over a year ago, this is the first real battlefield trail in Hong Kong, marking pivotal points of World War II’s Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. The trail has 10 stations of interest with signs in English regarding key aspects of the fighting. The trail slopes downwards the entire way, which quite frankly makes it very appealing to us and our four year old walkers. Starting from a nearby apartment complex, we walked along a catch water drainage system, which apparently past British Governors of Hong Kong used to ride their horses along. Phil and I tried to understand the fighting that took place here while the kids gathered pinecones. We brought home about 50 pinecones. I couldn’t say no as they were our first pinecones ever seen in Hong Kong! And the kids had specific craft projects in mind for each and every pinecone.

Along the trail, we often came across cement structures that were marked to have some WWII significance. Mostly, these structures were overgrown and hard to imagine in their original purpose. Eventually however, we came to two pillboxes, machine gun strongholds, in the hill. It was immediately understandably how the pillbox, a concrete bunker with a periscope, functioned. As the kids climbed over the pillbox, I read that the Japanese invaded from Kowloon across Victoria Harbor on the night of December 8, 1941. This particular pillbox was attacked with Japanese soldiers coming up the hill and then on top of the pillbox, trying to drop grenades down the periscope. The fight over this pillbox lasted close to 24 hours and almost all involved died. But the site was marked, kept clean with some flowers planted nearby.

As this trail looped down the hill, we were able to look out into Central and down immediately to the Happy Valley racecourse and the cricket grounds. A little further along, the trail went behind an apartment complex. This complex had an exercise area for elderly people, with a few pieces of typically Chinese equipment (and benches and chairs with armrests for the elderly us). The kids played at this area for hours. We all enjoyed being outside and oddly, listening to the bagpipes being played at the cricket grounds. It was hard to reconcile this peaceful afternoon with the horrors seen here decades ago but clearly, Hong Kong and cricket have both survived.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pandemonium: Ying Ying and Le Le are here!

Earlier this year, Ocean Park ( the rides plus animal shows venue close to our home) received two young pandas. Ying Ying and Le Le arrived from China with much fanfare. The new pandas were much anticipated as the current pair of pandas An An and Mei Mei are both twenty plus years old and rather inactive. The new pandas came to Hong Kong in April, were passed to Ocean Park in July and were only recently made available to the public. We viewed the pandas over Ocean Park’s webcam, waited for the results of the panda naming contest and finally got over to see them this week, courtesy of a couple school holidays. As usual, Ocean Park and the pandas did not disappoint.

China gave the pandas to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on the occasion of the ten year anniversary of the hand over of Hong Kong to China. We were out of the country for the actual ten year anniversary celebrations this past July but read many of the articles reflecting on the occasion. The general consensus is that while nothing disastrous happened, nothing fabulous has happened either. Companies that moved their headquarters prior to the handover have done well as have companies that voted for Hong Kong and stayed put. Regardless of its overall fate, Hong Kong welcomed the new pandas. The media carried many stories about them, demonstrating the continued strength of China’s so-called panda diplomacy. Through the gift of pandas, China has long sought to make and keep friends around the world. It definitely seems to be working at Ocean Park, though of course many of the visitors there are tourists from mainland China.

Ocean Park definitely whipped up panda excitement with a new panda habitat plus plenty of other extras. The kids immediately noticed that all the horses on the merry-go-round had been replaced by pandas. The kids also could not help but notice the many more panda toys, trinkets and t-shirts for sale throughout the park. I noticed that the new panda habitat has relaxed some of its old rigidness. The old habitat enforced a strict no talking rule. The new panda habitat, while patrolled by workers holding signs that say “no talking,” was full of visitors, including us, talking excitedly about the pandas.

We looked at the new pandas and tried to see who was who. It was hard as they were both asleep. But the old pandas were in rare form. An An, the male panda, perhaps sensing a little competition, sat up, ate bamboo and ambled over to look at us. An An came over to the glass right in front of us and then pressed his face up against the glass. We were as close to a panda as we have ever been in our six plus years of zoo going. All kids, remembering previous reprimands in the old habitat, asked me, and then the workers, if An An was allowed to do that. It appears he can show an interest in his audience and we are now happy to show an increased interest in him. (I did not take a photo as I was too shocked by his closeness and the kids kept telling me that photos were against the rules!)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Hainan Island: double the fun with two sets of twins and one big sister!

We are back from a fun weekend on the road with another family of twins, the Pelayos. While we might be a little prejudiced, we now think that travel with twin families is the only way to travel! All the kids were laughing or making us laugh the entire time. Questions from hotel staff regarding sitting and sleeping arrangements were fairly humorous too. At various points, other travelers would look at Royce and Ally, the daughter of our friends, and ask “are they twins?” Well, while they are not sisters, they are both twins. The easiest answer in Chinese was definitely yes! Things became a little clearer when both families bought matching island outfits, in keeping with a local tradition for Chinese visitors. Thus color coded we were discernable into two families but then more clearly getting attention for the very lucky boy-girl twin combination.

We all hit Hainan Island, China’s recently made tourist island destination. At the same latitude as Hawaii, Hainan has great weather year round, nice beaches and a desire to please. The new airport terminal we flew into looked like a lodge with high wooden ceilings, pineapple shaped lights and a large aquarium. The airport was so nice our kids asked if this was the hotel as we stood in the customs line.

We stayed in the northern part of Hainan called Sanya, home to China’s “end of the world,” a big rock marking the end of China. We picked our hotel (many many thanks to our friends!) over the usual line-up of Marriots and Sheratons primarily based on their water park and their extensive use of Chinese language. Neither of these categories disappointed us. The water park was huge. Many pools, a river, water slides, a rope swing. And the limited English was a bit of a shock after Hong Kong. The kids definitely got to practice their language skills, often helping out with ordering food.

Beyond the hotel pools was the beach. Our beach was lovely and clean. Just swimming and seeing fish was a treat for all of us. Last year in Hong Kong, the Pelayos got our family onto a banana boat, an inflatable raft pulled behind a jet ski. Once again, their wild ways rubbed off on us and we were bouncing along in the South China Sea and loving it. This time the jet ski driver did not show much caution with all the kids on board and tried to flip us, eventually succeeding. Everyone was fine, though fairly far out from shore. As I pulled Royce’s face out of the water, she quickly said “Mom, I am fine. How is Adam?” That pretty much summed up the weekend. A lot of laughs, a lot of playing around, but really a lot of caring. Adam asked me if we were related to the Pelayos. I couldn’t quite figure out what he meant. He elaborated a bit more about their family having twins and our family having twins. It is a fun connection and definitely a fun weekend.