Roman Sturgis Take care of each other and make good decisions.

March 2, 2009

Hong Kong Part II (Jan 2009)

Filed under: Blog — Roman @ 12:17 am

Photo courtesy of Earl Wan.

The next day, Joey drove us to Fotan. A few years ago, artists started moving into the empty textile manufacturing buildings and converting them into studio spaces. Every year, the co-op invites the public to come visit open studios. Joey’s mother, Evelyna, is an artist and professor in Hong Kong. She and Joey have been going to Fotan from the very beginning and because of this they have lots of friends who have studios in the towers. They shared with me how the scene has grown, and highlighted a few dozen studios to pop into and check out, rather than having to sort through hundreds of them.

We met up with Joey’s friend, Cindy, and spent a few hours wandering through studios admiring the work. Do you know how tired you feel after spending half a day in an art museum? Your feet are swollen and your brain is mush and your eyes have gone blurry because you’ve been staring at things for too long. It was nice to be inundated with such a concentration of artistic production, but it was also nice to leave. After having our fill, we went to an outdoor restaurant next to the bus station. The tables were right on the sidewalk. Cindy told me that after the last bus leaves around midnight, they set up even more tables in the bus lanes. In the Fotan towers, the crowds were mostly Asian, as you would expect, but we also saw a fair amount of Westerners in the know. When we took our seats for supper, I realized that I was possibly the only “gwai lo” (foreigner) customer in the joint, and felt plenty of stares. A small price to pay for authentic local food.

Cindy cleaned our bowls and chopsticks with hot tea to get the dust off them, and she and Joey ordered for me in Cantonese. The first dish to arrive was something called fried pissing shrimp–so named because they piss when the fishermen pick them up. Elsewhere I’ve seen them called mantis shrimp, but this was my first taste. The shrimps have cream colored shells which are very sharp with spiked points on each plate of their exoskeleton. They came fried in garlic and chilies and there was a lot of work involved in peeling them open and sucking out the meat, but they were scrumptious. Next, grilled pigeon, cold beer, and a soft beef dish. It was a very satisfying meal.

The next day, Evelyna treated Joey and me to lunch at the Jockey Club, one of the well-to-do country clubs on the island, and about as far from eating on the side of the street breathing bus fumes as you can get. As it was a Sunday, there were many, many families. We found seats on the deck, and the view was remarkable. The back of the Jockey Club faces a forest valley. In the areas where it’s not too steep to build, enormous blue glass high rise condominium towers stretch up into the sky. The sun was very bright, and we were all quite warm as we ate at the teak deck table. Joey had a massive cheese burger and I had Chinese beef and broccoli in a boat of perfectly steamed rice.

After lunch, we met up with Joey’s friend, Earl Wan, at Victoria Park, where preparations for the Flower Festival (part of Chinese New Year) were in full swing. Earl had arranged to shoot some pictures of Joey doing break dancing moves for a portfolio. We walked from the park to an old pocket of the island where none of the 1950s buildings were taller than five stories. This was one of the old towns of the island, as all of the buildings were still walk-ups with wrap around glass windows up the corners, and faded pastel stucco. The change of scenery was striking. While Joey and Earl set up, Evelyna and I spent some time talking to a local florist about the miniature orange trees and orchids he was selling. I was amazed at how he had trained the Clementines to grow so dense. These little shrubs, only about the size of a basketball, were full of orange fruits.

Photo courtesy of Earl Wan.

After the first few pictures, Evelyna left and I followed the guys around, helping Joey with wardrobe changes when needed. This neighborhood was very quiet, with many small cafes and shops. Very different than the Hong Kong I was used to.

After the photo shoot, Joey and I joined the family for Sunday dinner at Joey’s Grandmother’s (father’s side). This was the culmination of my Hong Kong eating experience. In addition to chicken soup and steamed rice, she served sweet and sour pork with mango and pineapple, and brisket that melted in our mouths. Then, the piece de la resistance, a fish cooked and served with the skin still on. When I took my first bite, I was expecting to encounter a bone, so I chewed slowly. When I didn’t, I looked more closely and found the texture of the meat to look almost like a burger. Then Joey’s grandmother explained in Chinese, translated by Evelyna, that the fish was first cooked and deboned and then the meat was wrapped back up in the skin. Then the head and tail were stuck on the appropriate ends. Unlike anything I’ve ever had. It was a delicious treat, and I was thrilled to experience a real deal Chinese home cooked meal. Joey’s grandmother survives her husband, who got his start hiking batteries over the mountains to supply the Chinese in the Sino wars. She reminds me a lot of the wife in Waiting, by Ha Jin. The character is a very traditional Chinese woman who shows her love to her husband and children through cooking delicious meals.

The following day we visited Evelyna’s studio (not in Fotan, but in another industrial area) and she shared her latest projects. One of them, close to completion, really got my attention. Evelyna painted a picture of a Russian woman and a Chinese woman holding a red ribbon above their heads, with their comrade women workers behind them. In the air above them are the numbers 3 and 11, for the 11th of March, which is International Women’s Day. In the bottom foreground she painted a large peony which is symbol of the feminine. She took a scan of the painting and brought it to a village on the mainland which is known for copy artists. These artists are known for being inexpensive and high quality. If you’ve ever seen a good reproduction of a famous painting hanging in someone’s living room, chances are it came from this village. Evelyna was interested in exploring how the personalities of each artist came out in the work. Particularly, she wanted to see if these artists viewed themselves as factory workers, or individuals. She commissioned about 40 of them to copy her painting.

Evelyna told me this as she and Joey laid out canvas after canvas on the concrete floor of her large three room studio. Soon the floor was covered with unframed canvases of the same picture. Evelyna asked me which ones I thought were painted by women, and after she gave me a big hint (look at the details in the faces) it became very clear. Only one or two of the male artists had put the same amount of effort into the face, particularly the eyes and lips.

On my last full day in Hong Kong, we took a bus way out into the New Territories, to Tuen Mun, which is on the north west end of Kowloon, just above the airport/Disney island. Joey’s girlfriend, Bread, is a hip hop dance instructor, and some of her students were performing at a community center for school, along with many other student groups. On the bus ride to Tuen Mun, we passed many high rise apartment buildings. As we crossed several bridges, we had excellent views of the harbors and many container ships chugging to and fro.

I don’t imagine Tuen Mun gets many gwai lo visitors. Like San Wai Ho, why would a visitor ever want to go there? We saw one white woman who looked like an English teacher, as we walked from the bus stop to the community center. This far away from the city, the public transportation system is all bus and light rail, unlike southern Kowloon and Hong Kong, which is underground subway. The pace in Tuen Mun was noticeably different. Joey kept remarking about how much cleaner the air was compared to Hong Kong island.

To get to the center, we walked through a large open cement tiled space. Two buildings were predominant: the local branch of government offices and the post office. Beyond that, several government subsidized high rises towered over an underground mall, and even more towers could be seen beyond that. This is a place where a lot of people live in tight quarters, and the median income is far less than what you’d see in the city. I was very grateful for the chance to see this part of the New Territories, and to see what a Chinese high school dance competition would look like. It’s not every day, right?

The arena was very much like any other performance theater, though with some distinctly authoritarian flavors. The judges, for instance, were prominently seated in the center at a long desk. We expected this. Every one of the fifty or more seats in front of them was marked with a sign that read RESERVED, but throughout the course of the competition, no one sat there. Audience members, meanwhile, were forced to settle with second-best views, and sat on the sides. The dance students had another section of reserved seats. I kept thinking: a place for everyone, and everyone in his place.

Before the competition started, only a smattering of an audience had assembled. A recorded message was played, which Joey explained was the usual turn off your cell phones, etc. Then the director of the center came out and leaned with his hands on the back of a seat in the empty front row. He proceeded to explain, in Chinese, (Joey translated again) how important it was to follow the rules, when it was okay to clap (only at the end of a routine), and how the last time they did this, they had called the police when someone was talking too loudly and got kicked out. In my Western freedom of speech POV, I’m thinking, “are you kidding me?” and both Joey and I laughed quietly about this. Later though, we saw security guards yell at two girls, one of whom was talking on her cell phone, and again at a well dressed professional looking couple right in front of us, for talking during their daughter’s performance. The mood was not cheery, and I had the feeling I was being constantly watched by Big Brother Security Guard. Not fun.

The bulk of dance groups were doing some sort of hip hop, all to American songs. The one that stands out the most was a rendition of Disney’s High School musical. I couldn’t tell you what the other hip hop songs were, as I haven’t listened to much rap or hip hop since Tupac died and took the art form with him. Given the authoritarian feel of the program, I was surprised at how scantily some of the young dancer’s were dressed, and by their routines, which were straight out of booty-titty-shaking music videos. A lot of Material Girl influence, as well as anime costuming, hair and makeup. Watching young Chinese girls shake their skinny money makers got pretty old after awhile, and the entire presentation felt so stifled. Controlling crowd response seemed to be unfair for the dancers who feed off audience reaction. After Bread’s students did their routine (one of the best ones, actually) Joey and I went outside to take in the late afternoon air. As luck would have it, we found a group of bboys gathering for practice, a few of them already working on their moves.

Joey had mentioned during the performances that he could tell who the teachers of the bboy routines were. We were in SR Crew territory, one of the oldest crews in New Territories, “but they don’t really battle anymore,” Joey told me. “They just do shows every now and then.” When we approached the young guys, they all recognized Joey pretty quickly, which impressed me. He showed them a few moves, and practiced with them for awhile on the smooth tiles. They played music from a cell phone, and they would stay there past sun set, until they ran out of battery power. Down some steps, on rougher concrete, a group of students practiced a line routine in their school uniforms: grey slacks and skirts, blue cardigans. “How come you’re not competing in there,” Joey asked the young bboys in Cantonese. Their answer was simply that they didn’t dance for school, just for fun.

We asked them what the name of their crew was. They had no name, really, but eventually referred to themselves as SR Future. “See,” Joey said. “That’s because they learned from SC Crew.” Where were the SR Crew teachers now, I wanted to know?

“Too busy to teach,” Joey said. I asked if maybe these kids would come to the community center in San Wai Ho where I’d seen the call out battle on my first night.

“No way, man,” Joey laughed. “That’s like, an hour and a half away from here. Too far.”

I watched them practice for awhile, until their arms were shaking and they panted for breath. When Joey started to do more advanced moves and string them together the bboys stopped what they were doing and watched, eagerly taking in the details of how Joey balanced himself as he spun and kicked, and more important, how smooth he looked doing it.

Later that night, Joey and I went down to the Kowloon side of the harbor to get a sea-level view of northern Hong Kong Island. You’ve probably seen this in a lot of movies, so I won’t bore you with a description. Enormous and neon, is all I’ll say. And fantastic.

After admiring the view for an hour or so, Joey and I met up Jon Lee, another friend from high school. About a year ago, Jon had moved from New York where he was an investment banker, and risked it all to start his own business in Hong Kong, making frozen yogurt. His 400 square foot shop was the first frozen yogurt store on Hong Kong Island, and even though most of his customers are Westerners, he’s been successful in his first year, which I thought was pretty incredible considering the global economy. After some drinks and dinner, we ended up in a somewhat sketchy internet cafe around midnight where we played Left For Dead, an freakin scary first-person shooter zombie game. In a dark smoke filled room, there were fifteen rows of computers, maybe twenty computers to a row. Around the perimeter were private booths with sticky keyboards, the monitors turned towards the wall. The din was paranormal. A combination of gun blasts, explosions, screaming orcs, the cha-ching of collected coins, and lots of shouting in Cantonese. The place was not full, but there was a crowd. It was a Tuesday night. I saw a man staring, unblinking, into the blue glow of his flat screen, cigarette between the fingers of his keyboard hand, his mouse hand flitting back and forth with his black eyes.

We got set up on a row, and I noticed there was a small crater between the F and G keys at my station, where a cigarette had been left for too long. Five hours later, we stumbled out of the cafe, down the metal steps to the street, and at every alley and corner, I expected to be jumped by a zombie. The sounds of the game were still in my ears, and the images burned into my retinas were superimposed over the backs of my eyes as I fell asleep. This was a throwback to our high school days, when we replaced our desk lamps with red bulbs, so the dorm heads wouldn’t see the light under our doors, and played on our computers through the night. I’m happy to say that more recently, when I go to bed in the early morning, it’s the image of Microsoft Word burned into my eyes, not the tip of a shotgun.

On the last day, Evelyna took us out to a delicious dim sum brunch with her mother. After, Joey and Bread and I went to visit Jon at his shop, so I could try his frozen yogurt and interview him about being a young entrepreneur. I was so inspired by Jon’s shop, I got to thinking, why don’t I start my own business, too? Lately I am obsessed with becoming a spray foam insulation contractor when I get back to South Carolina. I think I can do this while I go to trade school for HVAC in the fall. We’ll see.

After my interview with Jon, Joey took me to the airport express train station. I was running a little late, but amazingly, I made it from the entrance to the airport express, through check-in, security, and immigration, to my seat on the plane, in one hour flat. That’s just how you do it in Hong Kong. Turbo style.

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