Daily Life

4 December 1998
As of last year, Hong Kong had 558,903 registered vehicles but only 517,000 parking spaces. And as the standard of living continues to increase, so does the demand for cars while the number of parking spaces stays the same. So what happens in HK? Some people start speculating in parking places. 420 spaces were sold last month and the average price per space was $57,000. That's US dollars, not HK dollars. For a parking space. Talking about speculation....of those 420 parking places sold last month, 50 were bought by one man for US$8.8 million!

21 November 1998
Letter writer on HK streetOne of the traditional trades of old Hong Kong that is disappearing in the 1990s HK is that of the letter writer. These now elderly men sit at a table on the street, often near a post office, and transcribe letters for Hong Kongers who cannot read and write. The early waves of refugees who came to the colony in the 1950s were focused on survival and did not have time for schooling. And there weren't enough schools to accommodate them anyway. A large part of a whole generation grew up illiterate. Nowadays the letter writers sit and listen to what the sender wants to say and then put on paper the appropriate words and ideas.

17 November 1998
Elderly woman collecting cardboardIn Hong Kong no one ever quits working. After raising their families and retiring from jobs as main bread-winner, grandparents take on responsibility for young children, escorting them to and from school, or often they find odd jobs like this elderly woman collecting cardboard for recycling. The garbage collection system in this huge city depends on these elderly men and women who push their carts along the streets collecting the rubbish left at designated points and then ferrying it to larger "refuse collection points" where it is loaded into trucks to be taken to landfills.

12 November 1998
Bread on the sidewalkA recent series of articles in HK newspapers seems to signal a new interest on the part of government and at least the high-end restaurants to improve food hygiene in Hong Kong. Right now it leaves much to be desired. Here fresh baked loaves of bread sit on the sidewalk next to a busy street. Besides road dirt, they are exposed to all the people, cats, dogs, and rats that go by.

10 November 1998

CockroachJust when Hong Kong parents hope to have distracted their kiddies away from Excreman (a soft doll made to look like lumps of poop, with a toilet paper muffler), along comes the cockroach comics. A young alternative-comic book producer is set to launch a quarterly comic book called Cockroach on 25 November. He hopes these inevitable parts of HK life will serve as a "metaphor to represent any minority in society," and so teach us about living. Still he adds for those who are less than pleased to see a cockroach crawling across the table: "Take a big breath before reading the comic."

5 November 1998
Pocari Sweat adThey tell me it's from Japan, but whether it's from there or originated here in Hong Kong, the sports drink called Pocari Sweat certainly has an unattractive name! Probably the local people don't even realize the meaning of the name as they reach for a cold can of Sweat at the little shop on the street. I tried it once and it didn't do much for me (it's a GatorAde imitation), and I'm sure part of that was psychological!

31 October 1998
Animated Pumpkin Halloween and its traditions are relatively unknown in Hong Kong. Trick or treaters might be seen in a condo inhabited by westerners but not anywhere else. Local Chinese people, especially the youth might know that Halloween has something to do with dressing up in costumes and with witches and ghosts and goblins, but would not be aware of its origins as the celebration of All Hallow's Eve, the day before All Saints Day. Some local advertizing shows pumpkins, fall leaves, and corn shocks, but their import is lost on the local population.

29 October 1998
One of the nice things about living in HK is that it is a very safe place to live (despite the fact that it is the only place I have ever been mugged!) The Secretary for Security just released statistics that show that while the actual number of crimes rose by 1282 over last year, the number of crimes per 100,000 people--the overall crime rate--has dropped. Last year HK had 3 robberies with guns and 47 homicides! Are there any other cities of 6+ million people that could say that?

25 October 1998
Our first #3 typhoon signal of the year has been raised as Typhoon Babs approaches Hong Kong. The #1 signal went up two days ago, but Babs is very slow moving, at present making only 8 MPH toward us. There is a posibility of a #8 signal going up tomorrow or Tuesday when Babs will reach its closest point to HK. The upper, exposed deck of the new bridges going out to the new airport was closed today for the first time because of the high winds that whip the roadway 500' above the water. The lower deck is enclosed to allow transportation to the airport to continue.

22 October 1998
Hong Kong has its fads (including collective obsessive behavior!) like any other place. One of the first I noticed here was a hairstyle, mostly on girls, with a pompador-like wave set high on the forehead and shellacked in place. More recently we had the girls wearing combat-boot shoe styles. Most recently we have had eyeglasses with narrow lenses and heavy black frames. Along with that are very short hair cuts on women (sometimes it's hard to know if it's a girl or boy) and dyeing the naturally black hair to some shade of brown. The usual resulting color is some sort of odd shade of brown that doesn't look natural at all...but, hey...who said fads had to look good! I'm always curious if these are native originations or if the HK youth are following a come-and-gone US or European fad.

20 October 1998
A few days ago, we held a meeting at my house so I cut up some apples as a snack to eat during the discussions. All the deaf people really appreciated them and started nibbling...except for one young woman. When I asked why, she said that she had almost broken her foot recently and had gone to a Chinese bone doctor--a bone setter for broken bones, not an MD--and now with the injured foot of course she couldn't eat apples. No matter how long I live here, I don't think I'll ever understand the Chinese and their "hot" and "cold" foods (it has nothing to do with temperature) and how the foods affect different parts of the body. They certainly believe in it, though, and wouldn't go against it for anything!

7 October 1998
A couple last notes on the Mid-Autumn Festival:
  • The Urban Council, responsible for sanitation and also for the maintenance of the parks in Hong Kong, had their usual cleaning staff plus 100 volunteers out in Victoria Park yesterday to clean up after Monday night's moon-viewing festival. Despite a drive to increase environmental awareness about the effects of the festival, 50 tons of rubbish was picked up--ten tons more than last year--and the volunteers were kept busy scraping candle wax off the paved areas, ledges, even off the grass, where people had lit candles.
  • Many younger people don't have the traditional appreciation of the familiar mooncakes and turned this year to new variations. Some were baked with the traditional ingredients but were made into Garfield cakes instead of the usual hockey-puck shapes. And Haagen-Daas introduced an ice cream mooncake this year that sold out.

6 October 1998
MooncakesLast night was the time for viewing the moon (except that it was cloudy all over Hong Kong) and today was the free day to rest up from what would normally have been a short night because of communing with the moon. One important aspect of this Mid-Autumn Festival are the mooncakes, round, heavy cakes with egg-yolks baked in the middle. History says that notice of a revolutionary uprising was secretly passed around baked into similar round cakes, and now the mooncakes are the most traditional part of the celebration. Hong Kong alone bakes 25 million of these cholesterol bombs which are made with lard and one or two yolks from either chicken or duck eggs. Most people find a portion of one mooncake is enough to last them for a year so no one is sure where the rest of them go. Maybe to relatives in Taiwan or the mainland. Or maybe they get passed around from family to family like the proverbial fruitcakes in the USA!

5 October 1998
Kids playing with lanternsToday is the Mid-Autumn Festival, the fifteenth day of the ninth month in the lunar calendar. It is a harvest festival for the Chinese people, focused on the full moon with some old traditional myths to add atmosphere. On this evening families will have a meal together and then go out to gaze at the moon. The problem is that it's cloudy and misty, with occasional light rain this evening so there won't be any moon sitings this year! Crowds are still expected to gather at big community organized celebrations, however. The kids love it because it's a time of the year when it's OK to play with fire. Families will go to parks and the festival areas and play with their lighted lanterns traditional ones with candles inside and new ones, in the shape of planes and tanks, with battery-operated lights. They also light dozens of candles and sit around them in the darkness--a headache for the people responsible for the parks who must clean up the candle mess in the morning.

28 September 1998
Snoopy doll from McDonald'sHong Kong people are great collectors, especially of things that are small and easy to store in their cramped flats. McDonald's is in the middle of a promotion which offers the chance to buy a different Snoopy doll each day for 28 days. The three-inch Snoopy figures are dressed to represent various countries around the world, and are only available on that one day for an extra $6.00 (US$1 = HK$ 7.8) with the purchase of any value meal. Yesterday there were long queues outside of the McDonald's outlets all over HK as customers vied to get the U.K. Snoopy, dressed as a British Beefeater with a bearskin hat. It has been by far the most popular Snoopy model offered up to now.

26 September 1998
Mobile phoneHong Kong is reported to have more mobile phones per capita than any city in the world except Tokyo. Everyone has them, it seems, even in the deaf community where those without enough hearing to use a phone have one--or two--pagers. Members of our group have been after me to get a phone--and I would like to have one for safety reasons when I am hiking alone, but only then. To me they are just a mass intrustion into other people's worlds as they go off constantly on the buses and subways and wherever people are gathered. I will admit that sometimes they are a plus. E.g., when we are at a planning meeting and want to set the date for the next meeting, we can call the people not present on their mobile phones (because they all have them) and have the next meeting arranged literally in minutes instead of going home, playing telephone/fax tag, and then sending around the meeting date to everyone. But that's still not enough of an advantage for me to get one!

22 September 1998
Our appliances are giving us fits these days. First it was the toaster. We smelled something rotten in the little dining room we have and finally found that the smell emanated from our toaster. I'm sure there's something dead in there and it must be relatively big to smell so much. My bet is it's a gecko, caught between the heating elements and the outer plastic cover. The cover is secured with some special screws, however, so I can't get it off to see!

And then the water heater in the bathroom went out. Homes here don't have a central water heater. Usually there is one for the shower and that's it for the whole house. Ours was only 18 months old (six months past the warranty end, of course) when it suddenly died. The repairman on a first visit said there was nothing he could do and it had to go back to the factory. Two other men hauled it away yesterday and said it would be back within a week. Makes for cool showers these days, but luckily the sun heats the water in our rooftop tank during the day.

16 September 1998
Excreman dollNot all the bad taste is in Washington, D.C. these days. Washington has Clinton, but Hong Kong has Excreman, a cartoon character that has a toilet paper scarf and a chamber pot that serves as a hat. These accessories are most appropriate because Excreman is, well....a piece of poop. The invention of a local author, Excreman is a lump of excrement that lives in the sewers. His ambition is to escape the oppression of the sewers and become fertilizer for someone's flowers, but he is worried that he may might meet his demise in a sudden torrent of water that would dissolve him. This story line is found in two children's books that have become highly popular--much to the dismay of most parents. To make matters worse, an Excreman doll is now the rage in Hong Kong, and his image is being used to sell other merchandise such as umbrellas and mouse pads.

13 September 1998
Toilet paper is one of the idiosyncracies of Hong Kong. It's found everywhere except in toilets. Every automobile has a roll on the dashboard, every office has one on each desk, restaurants put a roll on the table in lieu of napkins. But no toilet has a roll. An article in the newspaper yesterday about the chaotic conditions in government hospitals noted that patients needed to send relatives out to buy toilet paper for them. And where else but in Hong Kong would you find a full-page color ad in the newspaper for four different brands of toilet paper!

12 September 1998
The Hong Kong horse racing season started up this week after the usual summer layoff when it's too hot and the horses just loll around their air-conditioned barns. The HK Jockey Club was worried that this year's terrible economy would eat into their profits, but HK$931.8 million was bet on opening day, just 0.4% down from opening day last year. And that was with torrential rains that pelted the course. Good times or bad times, you don't keep HK people from gambling!

7 September 1998
One of the nice things about Hong Kong is the ability to get things repaired. If a toaster stops toasting or a radio stops playing, there are little fix-it shops near all the housing estates (housing areas) where little old men sit in cramped quarters and take on all challenges. Even broken umbrellas! HK has long had an umbrella making and repair industry, and again it's individuals carrying on a long tradition. The number of umbrella repairmen (and a few women) is rapidly declining, though, as the sons and daughters choose instead to go to university in Canada and study computer science!

4 September 1998
Offerings for hungry ghostsTomorrow, the fifteenth day of the seven month of the Chinese lunar calendar, is known as the festival of hungry ghosts. For two weeks before and two weeks after the festival, the ghosts of the deceased are supposedly turned loose upon the world and must be fed. Every night now dozens of people are out on the streets burning piles of paper money, food, paper clothes, houses, etc., to keep the spirits happy. Makes for quite a mess with smoke and ashes blowing everywhere from the fires usually built in the gutter. This photo shows two elderly men carrying piles of paper clothing meant to be burnt for deceased relatives.

3 September 1998
Garage or yard sales are quite common in the US. Not so in Hong Kong where no one has a car much less a garage or yard. But HK's rich and famous will not be denied the pleasures of marking down their castoffs and maybe picking up some good buys. One of the social set is orchestrating a sale in HK's Convention Center of more than 800 designer dresses, handbags, suits, accessories, and the like. Anxious for a Louis Vuitton bag but can't shell out the HK$8000 for a new one? One will be sold at the sale for $1200. Sellers attribute the success of these sales to the lack of closet space in HK's cramped living quarters. The downturn in the economy combined with a continuing need to impress the Joneses hasn't hurt, either. And as one contributor to the sale offered: "It's also an environmental thing. It's recycling."

1 September 1998
The Chinese people celebrate the Year of the Rat, and rats are very much a part of the Hong Kong landscape. It is not unusual at all to see rats in doorways of buildings or just along the sidewalk. Where I live, we have to close all our windows at night to keep the rats out because there are no screens. This week I am staying at the Maryknoll center house, and tonight when I went into one of the bathrooms, a six-inch rat was on one of the toilet seats. When he saw me, he jumped into the water in the toilet bowl and up the pipe. I could see his tail sticking out a little bit so I flushed him down the rest of the way.

25 August 1998
I do a lot of hiking, using my day off each week (usually Thursday) to explore HK's many trails. Seldom do I see any local people, but they are out en masse on Saturday and Sunday. Last Sunday night a Chinese man visiting from the mainland got separated from a hiking group and found himself on a peak alone as night came on. He had a mobile phone with him but didn't know how to reach emergency services in HK. So what to do? He called his office in Beijing on the phone and asked them to call emergency services here in HK. The local police sent out a search party and he was eventually picked up by a rescue helicopter.

24 August 1998
SGA logoThe numbers are down from the R&R years during the Vietnam War, but still tens of thousands of US sailors and Marines come through Hong Kong each year. Continued access to HK as a liberty port was one of the major focal points of China-US negotiations when the British left in July, 1997. They first step ashore at Fenwick Pier, at the Fleet Arcade, the home of the Servicemen's Guides Association. One of the Maryknoll priests is director of SGA and today we were there for a meeting. Because of the US bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan and the number of US Consulate personnel in the building, it is considered a potential terrorism target and extra security measures are in effect. For example, now all the lockers in the main lobby area must remain with their doors hanging open to insure no bombs are placed there. In more normal circumstances, Fenwick Pier is also known as the home of the only McDonald's in the world that serves pizza and beer for the service men and women looking for a taste of America in Asia!

18 August 1998
Since DNA testing to determine paternity has become available in Hong Kong, there has been a rush by HK fathers married to mainland women to see if their children are really their own. Chinese culture has traditionally allowed multiple wives and concubines, and even now it is quite common for a HK man to have a family on both sides of the HK/China border. Sometimes the fathers do not trust the faithfulness of their mainland wives during their separations, and sometimes the fathers would like to disprove paternity to facilitate a divorce.

14 August 1998
I don't know what your mental picture of Hong Kong is like, but the geographical reality is lots of steep hills--80% of them covered with trees and scrub--and very little flat land where the people live. The steep rocky hillsides descend straight into the sea, with no beach, in most places. Decades ago, small roads were blasted along the hillsides and those are still the major arteries serving places like southern HK Island where Maryknoll has their center house at Stanley. Today I was traveling there on one of the large double-decker buses that often have to slow down or wait for oncoming traffic because the vehicles cannot pass side-by-side on the narrow, twisting lanes. Today our bus, swerving toward the curb to maneuver past an oncoming bus on a tight turn, brushed the rocky face of the cliff and a protruding rock smashed two of the buses windows. No one was hurt but it's a wonder that doesn't happen more often.

14 August 1998
I don't know what your mental picture of Hong Kong is like, but the geographical reality is lots of steep hills--80% of them covered with trees and scrub--and very little flat land where the people live. The steep rocky hillsides descend straight into the sea, with no beach, in most places. Decades ago, small roads were blasted along the hillsides and those are still the major arteries serving places like southern HK Island where Maryknoll has their center house at Stanley. Today I was traveling there on one of the large double-decker buses that often have to slow down or wait for oncoming traffic because the vehicles cannot pass side-by-side on the narrow, twisting lanes. Today our bus, swerving toward the curb to maneuver past an oncoming bus on a tight turn, brushed the rocky face of the cliff and a protruding rock smashed two of the buses windows. No one was hurt but it's a wonder that doesn't happen more often.

11 August 1998
The British education system--translated lock, stock, and barrel to HK--is a mess, IMHO. Formal school starts in Primary 1 and continues through Primary 6. There are then five years of middle school, called Form 1-5. At the end of what would be the junior year in a US high school, all the students must "sit" (British English for take) a standardized exam in which they must pass each each subject individually instead of graduating or not from high school as in the US.

This year 130,000 Form 5 students "sat" the exam which would determine their eligibility to continue their education. But there are only 24,000 seats available in Form 6 in Hong Kong. Form 6 is called a matriculation year and is necessary for a student who wants to enter one of the seven universities--which operate on a three-year basis instead of four years as in the US. The government doesn't want to increase the number of Form 6 places because there are only 13,000 places available in the incoming university classes each year.

Thus access to higher education is severely restricted unless students want to go abroad to study. The program is further complicated by the fact that the schools are grouped into five bands according to the differing achievement levels of their students, and students are basically assigned by the government for the most part. Any free seats are then available to more than 100,000 Form 5 students who didn't get the highest marks. The fact, though, that a student completed Form 5 at a given school doesn't mean that his/her own school will accept him for Form 6. This past four days have seen tens of thousands of students scrambling all over HK trying to find a Form 6 opening.

It's a strange set up.

10 August 1998
Yesterday I stopped in to visit a young mother who just had her second child while we were on our pilgrimage. Her older sister was there also, and they were brewing a concoction required for Chinese mothers after they give birth: hard-boiled eggs and a pig's foot cooked in vinegar and ginger. With great faith and fervor they explained how this special dish would clean out all the poisons from a mother's body and how much better it was than eating regular meat and vegetables. If any new mothers are reading this, I can probably get you the recipe!

9 August 1998
Our first typhoon signal of the year just went up a few hours ago.  It's only a #1 standby signal which just means that there is a severe tropical depression within 240 miles, but the storm is heading in our direction and is expected to make landfall tomorrow within 90-100 miles south of us.  The storm itself will not be significant, but this is the latest in the season that the first typhoon signal has ever been raised. Usually we have four or more by this time.  However, the weather observatory here cautions that even though the typhoon season is much later arriving this year--because of El Nino, of course--we will still probably have the same number of typhoons as usual.

7 August 1998
A feature of Hong Kong life are the "flag days" held throughout the year to raise money for charitable organizations.  Volunteers stand outside the subway entrances on Saturday mornings and approach everyone for a donation for the designated cause.  Everyone who donates receives a "flag," a sticker applied to the shirt or jacket to identify the donor as having contributed.  Flag days are normally held every other Saturday and each charitable group's application to solicit this way must be approved by a government body.  The response to the days is generally quite good and the flag days are well received by the public.

7 July 1998
Hong Kong's new airport opened yesterday morning after a massive overnight moving operation from the old Kai Tak Airport site near my home. The new Chek Lap Kok airport didn't have the same problems as plagued Kuala Lumpur's new airport last month, but there have been plenty of bugs to work out and plenty of irate passengers who couldn't find baggage, couldn't get tickets for the train to town, couldn't make telephone calls, etc.

It is interesting how quiet it is now at my house without the 400+ landings and take-offs each day. And the night sky is noticeably darker toward the south now that the airfield lights have been extinguished.

4 July 1998
Consider the plight of the large supermarket chains in Hong Kong: they serve an increasing number of the Chinese population who are particularly picky about the type and quality of their food but who now haven't the time to run to the fresh-food markets, and they must also serve the hundreds of thousands of non-Chinese expatriates here in HK.  One of the chains recently queried its customers about items they would like which the store didn't carry.  A follow-up newspaper ad listed some new products Park 'n Shop will be carrying, products which might give a small glimpse into the tastes and lifestyles of HK people:

    "New arrivals in July," says the ad:
  • 36 new Waitrose products, including 3 low-fat quick soups
  • Spanish and Greek extra virgin olive oil
  • Angel Delight
  • Birds Trifle
  • Rocky Mountain Marshmallow
  • Poptarts
  • Sacla Red Pesto
  • Oxo Vegetable Cubes
  • Discovery Fajita Mix/Jalapeno Chillies
  • Shippams Paste
  • Sunbee Sunflower Spray Oil
  • Dr Pepper soft drink

2 July 1998
Hospitals in Hong Kong have really modernized in the last couple years. All of the major government hospitals have had major physical renovations--which they sorely needed. HK public hospitals are still quite interesting places, though--if you're healthy enough to enjoy the scenes.

    For example:
  • Each hospital has a 7-11 convenience store built in
  • Chinese patients and their families don't trust hospital dieticians to know what they're doing--even though they're Chinese also--so when you go to hospital you can have a no-meals plan and your family brings all your meals. They're going to do that anyway, so no use paying for what the hospital sends up. Every visitor is bringing a thermos full of soup or congee (rice porridge) or some herbal medicine.
  • Patients wander around the hospital, outside in the parking areas, down the streets to go shopping, in their hospital-issued pajamas. Since some people wear pajamas out in public all day anyway, it's no big deal.
  • While visiting a friend in a cancer ward, I saw two nurses helping an elderly man opening a can of sardines that had come up with his hospital meal.
  • All the elevators are used for all kinds of traffic: I've ridden up and down with garbage wagons, dead bodies, post-op patients on their way to their rooms, carts full of files, food wagons, gurnies, and lots of patients walking around plus their visitors.

25 June 1998
Kowloon SkylineThe peaks and ridges around Hong Kong are constantly being quarried for stone for the continuous building and development.  Besides being aesthetically ugly, a recent cut into a Kowloon ridge will damage HK's fung shui (wind and water balance), declared a local fung shui master.  In the picture to the right, you can see a ten-meter deep notch (circle) that was cut into Tai Sheung Tok peak.  The fung shui master said the peak was part of the dragon arm that keeps energy and prosperity in the western harbor area.  Now the cut will allow the energy to leak out; and since the dragon arm is associated with men, its shrinking will lead to a strengthening of the position of women.

Quarry work on ridgeThe cut in the peak, here seen close-up, is now ten meters deep but will eventually be 40 meters.  When the mountaintop has been removed, engineers will make the slope more gradual and plant it with vegetation.  A prominent local politician said she couldn't comment on the fung shui, but anything that strengthens the position of women would be good! [Photos from the South China Morning Post.]

22 June 1998
It's not as rigid a custom here as it is in Japan, but in most homes everyone takes of his or her shoes as he or she enters.  Sometimes slippers are provided, sometimes bare feet or socks suffice.  When I'm getting dressed in the morning, I usually give some thought to where I'm going to be that day and if I will have to take off my shoes.  If I will, I make sure I pick out socks that aren't worn too thin or in an advanced state of "hole-iness."  My sock-darning days are few and far between!

20 June 1998
Pots of human bonesA common scene throughout the less urban areas of Hong Kong are these earthenware pots containing human bones. I pass them frequently when hiking in the hills.  The large bottom pot is set in the ground, usually buried to about one third of its depth, and then a smaller pot is placed upside down over the larger one, as a lid.  Usually cement is used to seal the top to the bottom.  The locations of the pots are determined by fung shui, the interaction of the wind and water and forces of nature as determined by a geomancer.  These pot burials sometimes occur on an open hillside but more often are next to sacred rocks or trees or other natural features.  These pot graves seem to reflect the poverty and simplicity of a now-disappearing lifestyle.  Most rural graves today would be the more modern "armchair grave".

HK Jockey Club Logo16 June 1998

It was a sad day in Hong Kong last Sunday as the horse racing season ended here.  For the first time ever, the Jockey Club (the government-approved group that runs racing in HK) suffered a decline in betting revenues.  In 1997 the total betting turnover was US$11.96 billion.  That's BILLION, not million, dollars.  This year the turnover slipped to $11.85 billion.  Attendance at HK's two thoroughbred tracks also declined, only 3.12 million of Hong Kong's six million population going through the turnstiles this year.  The economic downturn has been blamed.  The betting turnover this year works out to an average of US$1.97 million FOR EVERY PERSON in HK!  Can you imagine that?

Red rainstorm warningBlack rainstorm warning10 June 1998
This past week has been marked by frequent rainy periods with no sunshine at all. That's not unusual for this time of year in Hong Kong. But yesterday we had 16 inches of rain! For the first time this year, the black rainstorm warning went up. That means that at least four inches of rain was recorded in the last two hours. A red rainstorm warning means that two inches has been recorded within an hour. If either a red or black warning is issued before school starts, classes are suspended. Some businesses and government agencies will also close.

Chinese Barbie doll9 June 1998
Hong Kong people are rabid collectors of almost anything--anything that may increase in value, that is. They don't have the space to store collections but they will buy anything that seems likely to appreciate. Thus souvenir subway ticket cards, coins, stamps, comic books, and many other items are all avidly pursued. The latest collectible is the Golden Qi-Pao Barbie doll, a special edition Barbie produced to mark the first anniversary of the handover. It was completely designed in Hong Kong and has the most expensive fabric ever used on a Barbie edition--a hand-stitched embroidered lace. Last year at the handover, the Chinese Empress Barbie was introduced and has already more than tripled in value. "Qi-pao" is Mandarin for the type of Chinese long dress with the slits up to the thigh.

30 May 1998
Today was the Dragon Boat Festival which is held on the fifth day of the Fifth Moon in the Chinese calendar. Originally the celebration remembered a poet who drowned himself several centuries before Christ to protest government corruption. Now it is a time for racing dragon boats, long, narrow canoes paddled by about 30-40 men. The boat racing has become quite a spectacle and now boasts an international section also. A traditional food served at this time is rice dumplings, wrapped in green leaves. Originally they symbolized the rice villagers threw into the water to lure the fish away from the poet's body after he drowned.

12 May 1998
Gecko on top of radioGeckos are lizards that are part of life in Hong Kong. They are in most houses, usually on the ceiling or high up on the walls. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of one as it skitters across the wall. Or it just sits in place, waiting for an insect to come into range. Basically they are helpful because they eat a tremendous amount of insects, but they can often be a nuisance when they poop on any papers you leave uncovered on the desk overnight. They also have a bad habit, in my room, of chirping in the middle of the night from the bookcase and awakening me. And recently I rather putrid smell has been coming from my computer when I turn it on, and I suspect a gecko met his end inside. Last year a gecko hopped on a piece of paper feeding into my fax machine and took a ride--his last ride--through the rollers. In the picture is a gecko that has taken to enjoying the warmth of the radio during cold weather.

5 May 1998
Wet Floor warning signHong Kong takes its wealth very seriously. The accumulation of money is a primary value in Chinese culture, and just having it is not enough. You have to show you have it, so we have pink Rolls Royces and Ferrari race cars in a town where the highest speed limit is 45 MPH. And we have marble and polished granite buildings. And steps. And walls. And everything. Everything is made of stone in HK--the wood was used up hundreds of years ago--and it has to have a mirror shine. The problem is that marble and polished granite is extremely slippery, especially when wet. So all the marble walkways have warning signs put on them each time it rains, alerting pedestrians to the danger. In the US, either OSHA or a hundred lawsuits would keep architects from using slippery floor surfaces, but not here. In this picture note the yellow "Wet Floor" warning sign put on marble courtyard area after a morning rain shower.

2 May 1998
Just when you thought it was safe to turn on the lights.... Tonight while I was eating supper, I saw a shadow flitting around the room and saw a large bug circling the single 200-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling in our dining room. At first I didn't give it a second thought (the bug, not the light bulb!), but then it dawned on me.... They're back! These are the long-winged termites that swarm every year about this time, attracted to lights. They invade a room and fly about clumsily until their wings fall off. Last year was a particularly exciting invasion!

29 April 1998
Yesterday Maria's Bakery closed down all its outlets in Hong Kong, a victim of the faltering economy in the SAR. More than 400 people lost their jobs. What made the news, though, was the thousands of people who have unredeemed cake coupons from Maria's. It is the practice here, when sending out wedding invitations, to include a certificate or coupon for a dozen cakes or rolls at one of the local bakeries. It is estimated that about HK$500 million is spent each year on these coupons! Maria's has very little assets as they go into voluntary bankruptcy so no one knows if the coupons will ever be redeemed. One man who came forward has 300 of them!

27 April 1998
First it was the chicken flu, then the red tide killed half HK's fish population and prompted government warnings against eating the surviving fish and any shellfish, and now this week E-coli 157 has been found in beef on sale at one of the markets here. Of course beef sales plunged immediately. Now all we've got left is pork. And pizza!

18 April 1998
When western movies come to Hong Kong, the local distributors have a problem: what Chinese name to give them? In switching from the English name to a Chinese name, the re-titler has to find something that "is unique, easy to recall, and creates a desire to see the film."

Most major US studios think up titles that are "flat, boring, and don't tell audiences what the movies are about," according to one man whose full-time job is renaming movies for local distribution. Thus Nixon becomes The Big Liar in Cantonese. Afraid that The English Patient would come out as "The Sick Englishman," which wouldn't attract Hong Kong audiences, the title here was changed to the Chinese version of Don't Ask Me who I Am which focused on the dying man's secret.

Sometimes the Chinese translations make a play on words, or refer indirectly to previous popular films, or have some sexual innuendo. Or it plays on a transliteration, as happened with Fargo--a city no Hong Konger would know. In Chinese that title became Mysterious Murder in Snowy Cream, partly because "snowy cream" is pronounced "fah go" in Cantonese.

6 April 1998
About 51 per cent of babies born are male, so boys outnumber girls through childhood and into early adulthood. But men have a tendency to organise stupid and dangerous pastimes such as wars, gang fights, beer-drinking contests and other displays of machismo (Latin for "mashed-potato-brains"). So the dumb ones die and, at the age of 25, the number of women overtakes the number of men. That imbalance stays in place from then on, growing gradually wider. Thus the total number of women in any country at any time should be larger than the amount of men. (Nury Vittachi, in the Sunday Morning Post) 

In Hong Kong at the beginning of the 1990s, the local population seemed to defy the statistics with a surplus of men over women of more than 100,000 spare men. This surplus started dropping until in 1996 there were only 7,000 more men. But now the latest figures show that as of 1997, there is a 37,000-person abundance in the supply of males. This is attributed to an influx of men, from the mainland and abroad, on business.

The imbalance is getting even worse on the mainland side of the fence. Because of a preference for male heirs and the one-child policy in China, it is expected that by the year 2005, the People's Republic will have an excess of 41 million men over women!

Cemetery in the city6 April 1998
Yesterday was the Chinese festival of Ching Ming or "grave sweeping" day. On this day people by the hundreds of thousands flock to the cemeteries here and in China to tend to their ancestors' graves, sweeping and cleaning, and then making offerings of fruit, rice, or burnt symbols. The immigration department reported that 280,000 people crossed the land border into China on Friday night at the beginning of the long weekend. There will be an even bigger crush of people tonight when they all return for work tomorrow. 183 hill fires were reported yesterday as burning offerings spread to the surrounding grass and brush. The belief in burning symbols of material goods for the use of ancestors in the spirit world usually outweighs good sense in this Chinese culture. People are always burning stuff in the streets, on sidewalks, in funeral homes, in the stairwells of buildings, etc. If all the buildings weren't concrete, it would be a much worse problem than it is!
Family tending an ancestor's graveThis family came prepared with shovel and broom to tidy up an ancestor's grave. Many families bring food offerings, and after their prayers, they will then have a picnic with the offerings. More and more families are bringing flowers to graves now, though, as western influences continue to spread throughout Hong Kong society. Note the steep hillside, too steep for building, which has been terraced to make a cemetery.

27 March 1998
Our cook is off this week, visiting her sick mother in rural China, and I was running late for our RCIA class so I stopped at McDonald's for supper. Lo and behold, they have a new "McPepper Burger." It's two hamburger patties with a strong shot of a good pepper, some onions, and a good dose of gravy (I guess they'd call it "sauce.") A little messy to eat but not bad! Has the McPepper Burger already appeared in the US?

10 March 1998
We've had a surprisingly warm winter this year with only one week of really cold (for us!) weather. Over the weekend, the temperature went up into the low 70s F, and after a much cooler preceding week, it caused a lot of heavy fog. Hundreds of flights were disrupted, and about sixteen thousand people were delayed or spent the night at the airport. Today administrators of the new airport due to open in July said that fog will not be a problem there. New lights and instrument landing systems will enable operations to continue in almost zero visibility. One problem, though: the newspapers today announced that a 125-foot crack had been found in one of the runways although it's said to be minor and easily repairable.

7 March 1998
Yesterday was the Chinese "Feast of Excited Insects" or "Chingche", as it is known in Chinese. It's origin is in the changing of the seasons when the cold winter weather gives way to warmer days and spring thunder which causes the awakening of insects and other animals which have been hibernating. In most parts of China, it is the signal for the beginning of spring plowing.

Another aspect of the feast--a bizarre one from the perspective of Westerners out and about on the streets on this day--is the beating of "devil men" by elderly ladies huddled on street corners throughout Hong Kong. Amid piles of offerings and fires burning paper symbols, these women, hunkered down on the sidewalk, use their shoes to hammer paper images of enemies that are spread out on the pavement. Passersby pay to have an enemy so cursed and assaulted and buy special offerings which are placed in the mouths of replicas of tigers made from bamboo strips and paper. It's quite a sight!

27 February 1998
A 52-year old Hong Kong man was arrested yesterday for cooking a dog. He had bought five of them from a construction site for $13 and was roasting number three on a charcoal grill when caught. The British have a thing about dogs and made it illegal to kill them--and cats--for food. The maximum penalty is a $650 fine and six months in jail.

14 January 1998
I don't get many junk faxes--only two in nine years, as a matter of fact--because my fax line is not a registered fax line. The second one that arrived not too long ago was from Glortex Trading Limited in Cheung Sha Wan, a part of Kowloon. I can't read most of the Chinese, but at the bottom in English they advertise

  • Glory to God -- polo shirts
  • Blessed Peace & Joy -- underwear
  • Robe of Righteousness -- for worship

If anyone is in the market for some peace and joy underwear, let me know! (Include your size.)

Parked Rolls Royce5 January 1998
Chicago has 5,700 taxi cabs for a population of 3,000,000 people. HK has 18,100 taxis for 6,000,000 people, reflecting the difference in lifestyles and transportation styles. In the US, cars are almost a necessity because of urban sprawl and suburban living. Here in HK, a car can be a real problem so taxis are an integral part of the public transportation system and are much cheaper than in the US. In this crowded culture, I read of one parking space that sold for US$80,000. Another indicator of lifestyle difference: the last statistics I saw showed that 1/10 of HK's cars are Rolls Royces and Mercedes Benzes!

30 December 1997
Hong Kong certainly is making the news this year. First the handover and now the bird flu.
  • Every day our local newspaper has about 4-6 full pages of related articles on what's happening with the flu here, but I don't know if the situation warrants some of the descriptions I've heard on international radio. For instance, I heard a newscaster on the BBC speak about the "panic" in HK--and that was almost a week ago when they only had four or five confirmed cases.
  • A few hours ago the news said there were still about 300,000 chickens that hadn't been killed but they should all be gone by morning.
  • A newspaper article said that eating eggs was safe as long as they are well cooked. I'm wondering where the eggs are supposed to come from, however. We are smack up against the proverbial: "Which comes first...?" question.
  • KFC says its business hasn't been affected since it imports its chickens--130 tons a month--from the US.
  • With chicken imports banned from China, Taiwan is hoping to become the provider for HK's poultry as soon as imports of live fowl are allowed again.
  • Monk Releasing Fish into SeaBuddhists here today held a special ceremony to "pacify the souls of the dead chickens" killed by the government's decree. The ceremony included a ritual feeding of the dead birds and a show of reverence for life by releasing the entire catch of one fishing boat (photo, right). Further ceremonies will continue for the next week.
  • It is traditional to start a lion dance with the lion's eyes being "opened" by a drop of fresh chicken's blood. Even with the expected shortage of chickens at the time of the Lunar New Year, not to worry, however...a fung shui expert says that the lions' eyes can be opened with a cabbage instead of chicken blood. (Say what? You can start to appreciate the "lost" feeling of foreigners in a Chinese culture--substituting cabbage for chicken blood, to open the eyes of a lion?)

25 December 1997
Christmas Notes

17 December 1997
It may not be surprising that Kellogg's sells corn flakes in Hong Kong. It may surprise you, though, that here the cereal box includes instructions on how to eat dry cereal. In a culture where the traditional breakfast for hundreds, thousands of years, has been jook (rice boiled into a thick porridge), corn flakes require a new approach. Thus, Step 1, pour the cereal in a bowl. Step 2, add strawberries or other fruit. Step 3, pour milk on cereal and eat with a spoon.
Cereal Box

15 December 1997
In his policy speech in October, Hong Kong's Chief Executive pledged that each secondary school would receive 82 computers for teaching and learning. The teachers union, however, in a survey of principals found that most of the schools don't have room for the computers because of HK's chronic lack of space in a very crowded society. The union's report said: "If the schools do not have spare space to build rooms [for the computers], the department should consider expanding the schools, cutting the number of classes, or reducing class sizes. Otherwise the additional computers will be useless."

Two Elderly Women on Steps 4 December 1997
Every day the ladies gather in Wanchai on the steps leading up to Park 'N Shop, one of HK's two major supermarket chains, to catch up on the news since yesterday. Comfortable on pieces of cardboard or folded newspapers, shoes off, it's a ritual repeated all over HK.