Friday, January 30, 2009

Hong Kong Hiking

Here is my cousin Paul. He is Hong Kong hiking.  Looks pretty rough, huh? A paved trail. Wrought iron rails. Gosh if you happened to be in spiky boots, a fitted blazer, your do done just right, face full of makeup and a big Gucci purse, real or fake, you could still Hong Kong hike. How egalitarian, right?
What would a Hong Kong hike be without taking the tram uphill first?  The second day I was here, out of the Shanghai cold, a week after the Nanjing chill, Paul and Tom accompanied me Hong Kong hiking by first taking the Victoria Peak Tram. Here we are on the ascent of our hike.
Can you tell we're hiking upwards because of the slight tilt? At one point, hike/tram feels like everyone is at a 45 degree angle. You really have to hold onto something during this part of the hike.
And once we make it to the top of the hike, we arrived in time for our 12:45 pm lunch reservation at the Peak Outlook restaurant. We had to rest after that grueling hike upward. It was a perfect day.
Here's one of the many trees with red envelops found all over the restaurant (and the whole city for that matter) for the new year. The oranges represent nuggets of gold. The Hong Kong folks are super superstitious but for this year, they are gonna have to turn up the lucky talismans (talismen?) a few billion megawatts.
You can see the orange bushes in the background of our perfect lunch. Tom kept telling me how lucky I was to be here during perfect weather. I'm thinking Hong Kong is always like this, just like back home in LA. I already feel more like myself here, with Hong Kong being super mod and polite and civilized and efficient. China proper is another frame of mind. I guess I was thinking that Shanghai would be more like Hong Kong. Paul says give it another 15 years.
And so, exiting the Peak Outlook, with all its good new year's tidings, Paul and I continued to hike--downward, back home toward the Mid-levels.
Here's proof that I put in the Hong Kong hiking time.  The worst part was, I forgot my canteen. Good thing we were mostly in the shade.

Now when my sister Su came to visit a week later, the hike became more--mysterious. Shrouded in fog and cloud, it gave off an eerie delight. So now I understood what Tom meant. Last Saturday was perfect and this is what Hong Kong is usually like--gray like Shanghai, but with less hackspitting. Now, Su and I would take a fresh hike for Chinese New Year day.

My sister Su is unique. She is one who would rather walk uphill and then take the tram downhill. Because of her knees, she says. So Su and I do the reverse of my original Hong Kong hike. And on this particular day, it is fortunate that it is cooler, even on the brink of raining, because going uphill, no matter how well it's paved, requires some good cardio conditioning, particularly at the pace we were going. A sunny day would have taken the Hong and the Kong out of this more athletic version of the hike.
We went a good thirty minutes uphill, by foot yes, and arrived to our destination much sooner than we expected. Su is used to hiking in Los Angeles, where you hike dirt trails, step atop rocks, and when you arrive to the top, it continues to be nature. Well on this Hong Kong hike, imagine her surprise when we arrived to the top and she saw the Peak Lookout restaurant with all of its lucky orange bushes, and also saw that it was across from a huge mall that was then connected to the Victoria Peak tram where folks lined up like a Disneyland ride, with lots of cantopop blaring and happy people eating Haggen Dasz. Su was puzzled. It's safe to say that it was anti-climactic for her. But hey, that's Hong Kong hiking for ya.
Here we are at the top. 

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Super Superstitious

I never realized how super superstitious Hong Kong is. Yes there are many dictums in Chinese culture. For instance the number '8' and '9' are good because they sound like 'prosperity' and 'longevity,' respectively. So if your bank has the address of '8' or '88' or '888,' that will get you lots of Chinese customers. But you never want the number '4,' because that sounds like 'death'...unless, well I don't want to go into that.
So this morning's headline in the South China Morning Post: Short Straw Dims New Year Glow. Turns out the chairman of the rural affairs body drew stick #27 on the city's behalf in the Taois ceremony at the Che Kung temple. A fortune-teller (yes this is front page headline news) at the temple said the short stick showed that the city could not isolate itself from economic turbulence, but Hongkongers could be 'cautiously optimistic.' Feng shui masters differed, one reading that there would be possible conflicts between the government and its people, while another reminded that 'only a harmonious society with people staying united can enable us to get through our challenges.'

That same night, one of the fireworks barges launching spectacle in Victoria Harbour caught on fire. No one was injured.

My first hint of super superstitious Hong Kong was when Tom, just Tom, a friend of my cousin Paul told me that his Hong Kong architecture firm has a fortune teller on their payroll, who makes monthly reports of what should be done. For instance, Tom was born in the year of the Goat and this new year of the Ox will be very difficult for Goats, but a golden Rat will deflect all of the bad fortune. Tom is a Belgian, raised in Sweden, and not particularly superstitious; but when all around him, when the payroll speaks, better go with the flow. Tom soon after bought a tiny gold coin with a Rat embossed on it.

Inquiring about a nicely renovated building that remained empty, a real estate agent suddenly looked glum. 'That street...' My cousin asks, '...has ghosts?'  'No,' replied the real estate agent. 'It's...' he couldn't find the word in English, but took the back of his business card and drew a coffin. 'They make...on that street. So no Chinese wants to buy that building.' He said he used to play on that street as a little boy, this real estate agent, and didn't feel anything. But the air around his telling of the story...perhaps it will remain a permanent listing, until some foreigner comes along.

Speaking of super, the ritual of this week's Super Bowl is not lost on the Brit view from here. The U.S. must be pumped, what with having two national events within 2 weeks--the Inauguration and now the Cardinals vs. the Steelers. New Franchise vs. Legendary Franchise of the 70's.

It's seen as a celebration of friendship, an event celebrated with friends instead of family. It's a moment when American becomes one, especially in this download/tivo age when a giant chunk of the nation is doing the same thing at the same time. The proof of unity comes from the fact that fewer Americans kill themselves during the Super Bowl than other Sundays at this time of year (perhaps the Inauguration too, as a national experience gives vulnerable people a sense of belonging.)

It also celebrates the U.S. of today, whereas Thanksgiving celebrates a semi-imagined rural history, Christmas celebrates Christ's history, and Independence Day celebrates the Founding Father's history. And to mark the occasion: a plethora of newly unveiled commercials, especially designed for this huge demographic--the bud bowl, the exploding tobasco fly, underdog Budweiser clydesdale high-fiving canine trainer to Rocky theme, firebreather impressing first date with lighting candles, only to be allergic to her cat.

A celebration of winners, of TV, of masculinity...'The players are gods of young masculinity, the head coaches are gods of middle age, and the cheerleaders goddesses of femininity designed for males.'

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Happy New Year of the Ox

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dublin Jack

Went to Lan Kwai Fong, the drunken ex-pat bar section of Central Hong Kong for the Inauguration of Barack Obama. A spot called Dublin Jack. It was hosting the Democrats Abroad viewing party. Got there around 11:30pm. The Big Guy was gonna put his hand on the Lincoln Bible at 1am. As we all know, he became president as Perlman and Ma were pulling the bows unto their strings. And how auspicious is it that the Chief Justice led the eloquent and prepared Prez astray? And that Cheney pulled his one last dis, not being able to 'stand' in respect for the New Guy? 
Here's my cousin Paul, the super host of Hong Kong. Everything always goes smoothly with Paul--we got to Dublin Jacks and immediately found comfortable seating in front of one of the wide screens of the Irish bar. Paul was gracious enough to accompany me--he had an early morning, but gosh, he caught the spirit of the event.

Haven't been with so many Americans in a while. I forget how loud and free they are with speech (have I become the Ugly Chinese? Oh yeah, I was in a bar, abroad, for an American event.) I forget how handy the punchlines are. Is there not a minute, a thought, not sought in laughter (have I become an old fogie?). I guess I want these types of special moments without a dude saying into his cell phone over and over again: Dublin Jacks (pause 5 seconds). Dublin Jacks (pause 5 seconds) Dublin Jacks (Pause 10 seconds) I'm at Dublin Jacks, etc. That was during the VP oath. I guess its standard American jam. I forgot about the sports tone of enthusiasm.

O -  ba - ma!
O -  ba - ma!
O -  ba - ma!

Na-na-na-na, Na-na-na-na, Hey-hey-hey Goodbye!
(yeah I joined in that one to bid adieu to Bush, too).

Some folks dressed up. One gal had super red wig and a star-spangled outfit. A black dude came in with his Obama shirt. He was the one who started the O - ba - ma chant. There was lotsa bubbly around. The Hong Kongese who allowed me a spot in their booth had a coupla buckets of it. In the middle of the Inauguration speech, there was the proclamation of 'I love you Obama' uttered, because that white American needed to--

A black gal standing next to us kept telling her girlfriend not to cry. Cry, I told her, Cry! This is the time--let it out!

I feel lucky to have a president like this. Valiant, knowing how to cull the characteristics of a hero. Having eloquent words, but also showing action, compassion, clarity. Have to see how these actions hold, before he can actually be heroic, instead of just seem it. But most of all, someone to show us what it is to be an adult. To not whine. To use metaphor. To speak simple and sincere. To complete sentences with ideas. To be patient with the petulant. To be stoic in a heated moment. To be lively in an unexpected one. (Like at the first ball--How good-looking is my wife?--how dear was the First Lady to obediently applaud along until she heard the words and waved it off, embarrassed and faux-pissed at the Prez for touting her?)

We saw the First Lady's inaugural outfit in chartreuse. It was actually golden (though I thought the chartreuse looked good, bold indeed, but a bit clashing with the green gloves--ah yes, with the golden, it was fine). So the screen was off, made the subtle more severe, the color knob tampered with, the tone maladjusted. Didn't matter. Still came through. 

May not be able to trust exactly what you see, but gosh you can hear when it rings.

Before Dublin Jacks, Paul's friend Cheryl gathered friends at a private kitchen on Ship St. called Ying Yang. Cheryl is originally from Texas but has been in Asia for 12 years. She is the kind of American that you don't get to see often--one who is happy to leave all the loud sports behind and enjoy subtler dispositions. 

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Monday, January 19, 2009

HK: 180

En Route to Hong Kong

Mr. Bi rings my apartment at 7:50 am. He's taking me to the Hongqiao airport for my flight to Shenzhen. By road its 120 yuan, by freeway, 140. My flight to Shenzhen is at 10:10 am. 

Because of traffic, we get to chat for over an hour. This is the part where I get to improve my Chinese speaking and listening. Mr. Bi is from Anhui, the province west of Shanghai. He has 2 kids. I'm all, one child policy? He tells me that the countryside is still very feudal, and so...I finish his sentence...gotta keep trying until it's a son. Mr. Bi asks me what I think the population of China is. 1.3 bil I say. With all of the countryside activity, he thinks it's 1.6 bil.

He asks where my own family is. I tell him I'm not having one, that I'm a writer, that I need time. It's good that his phone has rung, so we can go off topic when he finishes his call. He is a very cool dude. Though as he talks on the phone, I feel like just told him that I was gay. Which lines up. Gays and solo women--they derail patriarchy's reproduction.

It's always funny how Mao gets to be a subject. Mr. Bi, like every other Chinese that is asked about it, has an opinion, an impassioned narrative of how Mao exists in China. Of which I get 60% of it. The first part of the sentence I comprehend and then the last 4 crucial words, hmm. I'm not so disclosing about being a halftard in this case--I don't ask what this and this and this and that and that and that means. Sometimes, you just wanna experience the flow of the language, the energy. Meanings are overrated, yes?

We talk about American and Chinese economy. It goes to spending habits. Mr. Bi tells me that story, you know the one about the American old lady and the Chinese old lady. The Chinese lady saves cash her whole life and when she's about to die, she can finally purchase a house. The American old lady takes out a loan and spends her whole life paying it back--she finally pays it off just before she dies.

I get to the Hongqiao airport at 9:15am. Don't worry, Mr. Bi, you only need to be there 30 minutes early. I breeze through the airport cuz I have no checked luggage (fyi, if you need to check luggage, you need more than 30 minutes). I'm worried about liquids, 3.0 oz. what what, but my bag goes through and the security dude says I have a knife in my bag. Right the black swiss army knife, engraved with Alice T. that my pal Rod gave me years back.  Do I have to leave it? It's a sentimental gift. Will you be back here within a month. YES! Then register it over there. So the knife stays in Shanghai.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nanjing de Er Bo Bo

Yes, Er Bo Bo.
That would be Er (second) Bo Bo (uncle who is older brother of father). He's the uncle who is philosophical, who is traditional, who is open-minded, who is curious, who has taught economics at Nanjing University, who has endured 9 years in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, who has lived in New York City, who has now returned to Nanjing in full splendor. Here we are at the front gate of Nanjing University. The old professor visiting.
I am always thrilled to see Er Bo Bo. The accessible wiseman. A sage to hang out with. He has told me stories of our family, his father who is my Yeh Yeh, of China's radical histories, of how food doesn't taste like it used to, of his observations of the U.S. Of late he is happy to describe to me, in his high enthusiasm and booming Chinese, about how he courted he second wife, at the age of 73.
His first wife had passed away in New York and so he returned home to Nanjing. He wasn't planning on a younger woman, but I'm not surprised at all, considering the vitality that I've always known Er Bo Bo to have and since he showed me this picture of himself, climbing to the top of a mountain just before he met Teacher Lu. (You have to tilt left to view it.)
In this photo, Er Bo Bo had arrived after tour season to Guilin, so there were no more tours. He hired a private guide who showed him up one of the mountains and was able to take the photo of an exuberant man who would never let life weigh him down. He is the winner.
And so now, after 8 years of marriage (past the itch, he smiles) he and Teacher Lu have been granted a blissful companionship, where they have homes in Nanjing and Zhejiang (about a 1/2 an hour away). They also winter in the south, in Guandong, where her daughter gladly welcomes them to live during the cold months. He is now 82, she almost 70...they make fun of each other like teenagers, like the same foods and accompany each other wherever the other one goes. Their old people's passes allow them to ride the bus for free and enter museums for free or half price.
My Er Bo Bo hardly goes to campus anymore (he's hardly in Nanjing anymore, what with new digs) so his colleague, Professor Zhou, another economics dude, also teaching at the same business school, also retired, wanted to invite us for a stroll on campus leading to a most delicious restaurant, where we ate soup dumplings, tender reads, and scallion/ginger steamed fish. Here they are at the steps of their teaching grounds. Prof Zhou has a buddhic quality to him. Very quiet and peaceful. At the restaurant, when my uncle was trying to find the other chicken leg in the soup, asking where is it?, I looked at Prof. Zhou and said, maybe it ran off. He chuckled with a most glorious grin.
This lovely track, new and plastic, used to be the center for criticism for all of Jiangshu province during the Cultural Revolution. Right-leaning, bourgeoise government officials were forced to their knees by Red Guards and beaten so hard that bowels came out.

It was cold and soulful in Nanjing. As always. I had visited here 22 years ago, when I taught for the year in Guangzhou. A valley girl in the depths of Nanjing winter, I don't think I took my coat off for a week. Even so, I was finally feeling Chinese, not having spoken English for a long stretch of time, 'roughing it,' empathizing with each Cultural Revolution story, seeing my face as a majority. It was then that Er Bo Bo, one night, kept talking about 'You Americans don't save' and 'You Americans spend as you like' (this was 1986) and 'You Americans use beyond your means of resources,' and 'You Americans...' I told him then, I'm not American I'm Chinese, and he kind of snickered and said, 'Huh, you have no idea what it is to be Chinese.' Now looking back, he did me a favor setting me straight--he had no idea about this 'sensitive identity situation' that Americans usually get laughed about by the old country. It couldn't have come from a kinder person. That night, though, I still spun in disorientation and cried 6 hours 'til the wee hours of the morn.

This time I come to Nanjing, fully knowing. By dint of the English language being the form that I experience depth of life in, I am american. Also by dint of freedom. Also by dint of privacy. No matter the progress, I will always know Nanjing as being so so so so so so cold. The better to warm onself, yes?
Front of the Presidential Palace. As Nanjing (meaning southern capitol) was the spot for the father of Chinese democracy, and first President of China, Sun Yat-sen. And also the spot for Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist Government in 1948. Until the People's Liberation Army, well, liberated it and switched the capitol back up to Beijing (nothern capitol). BTW Tokyo is known in Chinese (and Japanese) as Dongjing, which means eastern capitol.
This is the grand hall running through the center of the Palace. Suffice it to say, a lotta power has stepped through this corridor. In the 1850's, during the Qing dynasty, there was an anti-feudal movement from the south, in Guangxi province, called the Taiping Tianguo (Taiping Heavenly Kingdom). Led by Hong Xiu Quan, they made their way north, en route to overthrowing the emperor in Beijing, but decided to build their own palace at this site (which was used by emperors of past dynasties as retreats or strategic pens).
Lots of gold and beauty, secret rooms, meeting places, concubine lounges, just like Tian An Men. The thing is, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (which was based on many Christian principles), never really overthrew the national power, and got distracted thinking that they conquered up to Nanjing, no prob, were happy with their successes and got cocky. After 10 years, the Qing dynasty crushed them and remained in power. So one wing of the Palace documents the Taiping...
...and other wings show the meeting rooms during Chiang-kai shek's time. Zhou En Lai, the Premiere during Mao's reign, met frequently in this room as the Communist envoy, when the Nationalists and the Coms agreed to cease fire on each other in order to fight the Japanese.

The rape of Nanjing has been documented widely, introduced extensively to the U.S. by Chinese-American historian Iris Chang. It was a particularly brutal and inhumane attack on the city during the Sino-Japanese war.
This is Chiang Kai Shek's Presidential office. It ain't oval. It's at this time I get the facts about Yeh Yeh straight. In my play, I made him a full general in Chiang Kai Shek's army. I knew he was actually a Lt. General, but didn't realize he wasn't in contact with Chiang Kai Shek. Er Bo Bo told me that Chiang had sent Yeh Yeh a photo of himself, but they had never met. Yeh Yeh was actually in command of troops as delegated by the provinces he was assigned to. My play is even more wonderfully fictional now.
This is a famous 4-word quote by Sun Yat-sen--Tian Xia Wei Gong--under heaven for the people. Sun Yat-sen and his democracy movement did finally overthrow the Qing dynasty and ended China's 4 thousand years of feudal past. Interestingly, Sun was schooled at the University of Hawaii, where Obama's folks met.
I had to get Er Bo Bo to model his hot 10 yuan gloves that had the olympic Bird's Nest stadium imprinted on them.  He was also really stoked that his hat was 15 yuan.
There is this imperial tradition where only the Emperor (and Chiang Kai Shek) enters through the center doors; everyone else enters from the sides.

I kind of wanted to go to the Nanjing museum that documented the Japanese occupation, but Teacher Lu was not into it. It was a horrific time, and for those who lived through it...besides my Er Bo Bo told me, it's just pictures.

So we went to the Confucian Temple instead.
Of course when we were at the Confucian temple, Er Bo Bo would ask me about Confucius' most famous saying: When people are born, their nature is benevolent. Er Bo Bo asks if I believe this to be true, or is it that when people are born, their nature is corrupt? I think about this, as we are surrounded by a huge mall of stores and he states that the Confucian flavor at this temple is no longer present. I believe that people are born with benevolent natures.
On the way to the Imperial Testing Site, where the mandarins would take their exams, there are statues of the refined and literary figures of the past. Here is Wu Cheng'en, who wrote the famous Journey to the West that features Monkey King and Eight Pig. He was alive from 1500-1559, during the Ming Dynasty.
Here are some more scholars.
This is the front of the actual Confucian Temple. It costs 20 yuan to get in, so I just hung by the lion to get a feel for it.
This is a little theater behind the temple and down the corridor of souvenirs. Teacher Lu, who is super thrifty, sprang for some beautiful polished stones that she puts in her planters in Zhenjiang. It was 10 yuan for as many as you could grab with one hand. I bought two decks of cards: one with all of the emperors and the other with all of Mao's cultural revolution quotes.

Nanjing folks are known as Big Radishes. They are plain, not slick, actually sincere. They see the Shanghainese as slick and superficial. They say when a Shanghainese person falls, they worry not about their injury, but rather if their clothes are stained. There is something very wholesome about the Nanjingese. When I was buying some jade knicknacks, I was quite the Big Pumpkin myself. One small jade backscratcher was 10 yuan and the bigger one was 15 yuan. The shopkeeper was talking about how she didn't have room for them anymore so they were already discounted. I'm all, one small one and one big one for 30 yuan. Er Bo Bo's all, it's only 25. And then I'm all two small ones and one big one for 40 yuan. Er Bo Bo's all, it's only 35. He tells the shopkeeper, artists can't bargain.  I manage to walk away with the 3 for 35. Duh.
And so here is the proper front gate of the Confucian Temple. Haagen Dasz, KFC, and Mickey D's to greet.
This is my favorite spot to chat with Er Bo Bo in his apartment.
In this room is a cabinet, where he keeps his archives: writings, recordings, all meaningful memorabilia, organized, easy to access at any time. He loves to bring out old photos, of his daughter Tina, of his grandson Peter, of the time he first visited the U.S. in 1980, when he was reunited with his mother and father, my Nai Nai and Yeh Yeh, after being separated for 30 years. 

I always thought that he wanted to follow Mao. It turns out that he was already a college student and didn't want to be another mouth to feed in Taiwan. Also he was ill at the time and didn't want to burden his family. Politically, he really didn't think that the family could escape; he also didn't know that the door to China would be slammed shut by the communists. So he stayed by himself in China. His older brother was already married and in another city. Through a series of lucky turns, he was assigned to teach at Nanjing University, where he now has this apartment free of rent and a comfortable pension.
Photos of Nai Nai, and also a picture of me with Su--I was 15, she was 8. Nai Nai was so thrilled to see her son after a 30 year separation. Er Bo Bo tells the story of how he was staying at our house, and sleeping in the guest room next to Yeh Yeh and Nai Nai's room. In the middle of the night, Nai Nai came into his room and made sure the blankets were covering him so he wouldn't be cold. 
Yeh Yeh at the center, surrounded by his descendants.
Er Bo Bo celebrating his 53rd birthday in the U.S. in 1980. He was assigned to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution from the time he was 40 until he was 49. At the prime of his life, he did not resist or become embittered with the simple life he became assigned. He is a jovial yet unsentimental man. He is content to be able to think things through, and as he says, put things down.
And so, even more robust at 73.
The new Nanjing train station is super cool--it is right on Xuanwu Lake.  So I got to say goodbye to Er Bo Bo next to the lovely, natural, historic lake.
From the train station, there is a huge plaza leading to the lake.
And it is open, no railings. You can fall right in.
I always see more life, a clearer, brighter life having visited with Er Bo Bo.

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