Friday, March 30, 2012

Basking in Beijing

I attended a conference held at the Shangri-La in Beijing on Tuesday through Thursday this week.  It has been a while since I've been in Beijing (I think the last time was 2007, and prior to that was 2002), so I was eager to return.  I have fond memories from when I was there to study Mandarin at the Beijing Normal University with Princeton-in-Beijing.

Beijing may be one of the ugliest cities in the world, but it is steeped in history and as the political seat of an-ever growing world power, a truly fascinating place to visit.  For example, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could access both the New York Times and CNN.  I was less thrilled when I realized Facebook did not work.    

Beijing is set up in concentric circles, and the traffic has only become worse as more and more people have acquired cars.  It took me nearly an hour and a half to get from the airport to my hotel.  However, the weather, notoriously terrible in Beijing, and the pollution, even more infamous, surprised on both counts. It was sunny and a warm 72 degrees, and the sky was quite clear.  The contrast was great from my first two weeks living in Beijing in 2002, when I carried an umbrella everywhere because I thought it would rain.  Finally I figured out that it was actually sunny out - it just looked cloudy due to the pollution and smog.  I also used to come back from wandering the city with a gray ring around my white t-shirt.  This time, I was not outside long enough to do the same little test.

My trip consisted mainly of networking at the conference, attending seminars and workshops, or else slipping in some time for regular work, so I did not have any time to do any sightseeing or shopping.  I had a little bit of time on my first night to go out and check out the city.  I chose to go to a street lined with restaurants serving traditional Beijing cuisine, such as hot pot and grilled skewers (pronounced "chuanr" with a satisfying tongue curl if you speak it like a bona fide northerner).  The street was lined with red lanterns, and called Ghost Street.  

I've never given away as many business cards as I did at this conference.  The business card is very important in Asia, presented and received with respect (proffered with both hands like an offering).  Unsurprisingly, considering that the conference was in China, the business cards were all bi-lingual.  Some people had some nice Chinese names.  I was particularly impressed by how fluent in Mandarin some of the business people were - at such a high level of fluency that they could converse on various topics, legal, business and current events, in Mandarin.

I met a bunch of young corporate types who were either in private equity or else working as service providers to the private equity industry.  On the second night we went to a hotpot restaurant called 捞, literally translated as "catch from the bottom of the sea", close to the hotel.  Going with bona fide natives, I gamely pronounced myself up for eating anything.  There was nothing that was really too terrible, except for bullfrog legs (which were shockingly tender) and the one dish that gave me pause for thought -- pig's brain.  I generally stay away from eating brain, but I bravely pushed aside thoughts of mad cow's disease and Contagion, and I have to admit that the two pieces I sampled were delicious.

My favorite part of the whole conference may have been my hotel room.  I was in an executive suite with floor-to-ceiling panoramic views:

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I didn't think I was starved for a view when I lived in either Manhattan or Chicago, but now that I'm in Hong Kong, I have to admit that good views sure are in abundance here.  I wish our windows were bigger.  Our view is fantastic.  I don't think the pictures do it justice!

Our view from our 12th floor apartment:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I See London, I See France

Michael claims that the two favorite pastimes of the Chinese people are walking such that they get in your way (it is truly maddening), and hanging their wash out to dry (it does seem to be the case).  All of the windows here have racks built in directly below.  Bedsheets, pants, undershirts, underwear and socks all hang out and flap in the afternoon breeze.  Even apartments that are right next to the escalators, surely some of the most heavily pedestrian trafficked routes in Hong Kong, hang their clothes out within touching proximity.  I am curious to see if this practice will continue once the infamous humidity rocks the island, but for now, we have joined the locals and are proudly displaying our wares.

A note on the walking -- I never thought I'd say this, but Manhattan feels really spacious and convenient to me right now.   The sidewalks here are just generally much narrower and tighter and more cramped, and compounding the problem is the sheer number of people milling about at all times.  Women (mostly) hoist their umbrellas whether it's drizzling or sunny, a combination that makes walking around Central during rush hour an exercise in dodging to avoid being jabbed in the eye.  People. here. also. walk. so. slowly.  They amble and meander without a care to the people behind them.  They block up the whole sidewalk.  To say that the whole experience tests one's patience is quite an understatement.

Friday, March 23, 2012


I am starting a trial week at the Pure Fitness chain, a very high-end chain of gyms in the Hong Kong area.  They remind me of the Equinoxes that I used to frequent in New York City, except lacking certain touches (no Kiehl's products) but more service-oriented in other ways (they provide change of clothes if you forget something).  The gym is very close to our new apartment and on my way to and from work, which I'm hoping will encourage me to work out more (ha!).  What is most exciting about it though is that the membership would also include unlimited access to their yoga studio, which offers all kinds of yoga, and some at very advanced levels, throughout the day and evening.  The yoga studio is conveniently located very close to my office.  I went yesterday during lunch for my first hour-long class, including trying out scorpion pose for the very first time.  Muscles in my upper and lower back and abdomen are screeching this morning.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Chicken (Feet) Soup

Don't waste the chicken feet!  Chicken soup, including goji berry, longan fruit and ginseng, from Ser Wong Fun, a restaurant located right by the escalators on Cochrane street in Central, cooked for a loooong time, delicious, and oh so good for the soul. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dim Sum, Solo

My lunch yesterday at Loyal Dining, a restaurant at 66 Wellington St. down the street near my work.  The name of the restaurant comes from the word "loi lo" in Cantonese, which refers to all the Western things that became popular in Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s.  The restaurant itself is fancy while nostalgic - marble tops, heavy wood, dark booths, art deco tile floor.  They serve the usual mishmash of Western and Eastern cuisine - dim sum, as I had, but also afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, but also Beef Wellington (but it's served Asian-style on a iron sizzling hot plate), but also garlicky escargot, but also pork char siu.  You get the idea.

My lunch consisted of crab dumplings with sprinkled with orange roe, tasty and robust shumai, and flavorful, delicious vegetable dumplings.  The vegetable dumplings were startling in their nearly radioactive color (my first thought was play-doh) because the wrapper is made out of spinach.  My lunch came with a pot of fragrant jasmine tea.  It was all really tasty!  The restaurant is famous for serving dim sum all night, and not closing until 4 am on weekends.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Saturday Part II - Chungking Mansions

We were hungry after the ballet, so we wandered up Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui eager to explore Kowloon side and check out some local eats.  I had my eyes peeled for little hole in the wall noodle shops  but unfortunately due to the proximity of TST to the waterfront, most of the restaurants were tourist-driven or else expensive or perhaps both.  But then, we stumbled upon the Chungking Mansions.  I love the name.  Once you see these pictures you will understand.

Basically, this is a building very well known for having the cheapest accommodations in Hong Kong.  Although the building is supposed to be residential, it has a ton of shops, restaurants, stores - mostly of the ethnic variety.  It was also featured in Wong Kar Wai's 1994 movie, "Chungking Express".

From the outside:
Rainbow lights!  I wonder if this bothers the residents inside
From the inside:
exposed wires and plumbing
graffiti and messages
the condition of the building... 
Our meal at Bombay Curry, a restaurant located in Block A-6.  It was a family-run (or mob-run) Pakistani restaurant that was no-frills in all of its tasty, flavorful, fluorescent lit, tile floored glory.  When we wandered in, there was just one table of all men sipping tea, smoking cigarettes and doing their best to look naturally sketchy.  Then we realized there was a separate room, a private party full of rowdy men, eating baby goat by the whole and ordering round after round of food.  We did not see any alcohol on the premises but the men in the room were definitely, definitely drinking.  I was the only woman in the entire establishment, the entire time.  Our waiter was really friendly and nice though - very patient when I was faced with debilitating indecision at the wide variety of food choices before me.  It turns out, we really couldn't have picked wrong.  Michael had the chicken masala, and I had the beef queema (spiced minced meat)
Remnants of our meal, half-devoured because it was so delicious

Saturday Part I - Causeway Bay, Turandot

Michael and I had an action packed Saturday.  We went to Ikea (conveniently located in Causeway Bay) to find desperately-needed bed sheets, score a $1 blue doormat, and buy the world's heaviest metal dish drying rack on a whim.  We succeeded on all three fronts.  However, Causeway Bay on a nice Saturday afternoon is pretty crowded.  There's a reason it's the Times Square of Hong Kong:

Although I do love the trams in Hong Kong:

I bought a huge yellow sweet potato on the street (rendered to a smoky and sweet consistency, smothered by the coals of the vendor's cart), Michael tried out his first bacon-wrapped mini hot dogs on a stick, and I quenched my thirst with a sweetly sentimental fresh glass of sugar cane juice.  Sugar cane juice never fails to transport me instantaneously to the Taiwan night market.

At night, we dressed up and went to check out the Hong Kong Ballet Corp's production of Turandot at the Cultural Center in Kowloon.  I'll give you one guess as to whose idea that was.  (No, really, everyone, Michael does not like to admit it but he loves the ballet - that's my story and I'm sticking with it).  I found the ballet company to be quite talented, and I really liked the principal dancer who played Turandot, but my overall criticism is that there was too much focus on the acting and the more technical lifts and turns, which led to a production that lacked focus on the actual choreography.   Otherwise, we had pretty decent seats (front row of upper circle) for a very reasonable US$12 each.

We took the Star Ferry, a historic boat that traverses Victoria Harbor between Kowloon and Hong Kong island for a whopping US$0.31.  Here was the view (pardon the blurry blackberry pic):

And THEN, as if that were not enough adventure and productivity in one Saturday, we wandered around Tsim Sha Tsui after the ballet and...(see Part 2)

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I am ready to admit defeat.  It is so hard to watch American TV in Hong Kong.  I don't even really watch TV, so the fact that I'm ready to throw things out the window might reflect just how upset I am.   The one and only sports event that I can even pretend to care about is March Madness.  But it is impossible to watch here.  We're even willing to pay money but CBS simply does not allow an overseas viewer to watch their content.  AAAAAARGH, for the love of God!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bliss (a.k.a. Cebu)

I hope to not neglect this blog for so long again!  The past couple of weeks have really passed in a blur, punctuated only by brief periods of sleep and food (barely) - which is why I'm so grateful that Michael and I were able to abscond for our short weekend trip.  It looked like touch and go until that very morning...

We left early afternoon on Friday for the Alegre Beach Resort & Spa in Sogod, an hour and a half north of Cebu in the Philippines.  It was a surprise for Michael's birthday that I had managed to keep secret for nearly a month and a half - only to ruin it the morning before the trip because I was so sleep deprived I accidentally blurted out, "I've already packed the small suitcase for the Philip" before I realized to smack my mouth over my hand.  Oops.

The resort was perched on three intimate coves of warm blue water and white sand.  We had half of a large cabana overlooking the water.  The air was scented with frangipani and honeysuckle.  The grounds were beautifully manicured.    Bliss... it was exactly what we needed.  (I'll let the pictures wash over you.)

We went snorkeling on both days, but the reefs did not really meet my (admittedly colosally high) expectations.  We did see lots of blue starfish, brain coral and mushroom coral, and electric-colored fish.  We were also swarmed by small fish every time we entered the water.

I tried out a traditional Filipino Hilot massage, which was so delightful I fell asleep and refused to be roused for a good fifteen (or fifty?) seconds.  The resort was impressive in that it had its own greenhouse and garden and used a lot of those ingredients for their food and drink.  Try as he might, Michael could not get a mojito because the resort had been having trouble growing mint in the hot, humid weather.

Most of the rest of the vacation consists of the best kind of uneventful: our sitting on lounge chairs listening to the ocean waves, taking dips in the warm pool, swaying in hammocks, marveling at the dippers in the night sky and the moonbeams playing on the warm water, and otherwise just enjoying a lot of fresh coconut juice and frothy pina coladas.

Going from cove to cove during high tide


View from our cabana (#11)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Choice Names

Lately, Michael and I have had the chance to observe an amusing aspect of living in Asia: interacting with locals who have, shall we say... interesting names.  Oh sure, at first it was just a little odd because someone was named "Gertrude" or "Beatrice," as if after a character from a BBC period piece.  Then we started meeting more people - salespersons, agents, random service persons.  And then we started to hear names like "Blossom", "Flossie", "Candy" or "Ringo".  Michael is really getting a kick out of this.  Having cousins who grew up in Taiwan, I'm not all that surprised.  Most people choose their own English  names, at a relatively early age - though regardless of age, the implications of (sometimes the innuendo behind) the chosen name often do not survive the culture divide.

One of the fun things to note while here is how American companies (read: mostly, fast food) translate their products into Chinese.  Apparently a lot of time and effort goes into choosing a good name for their product.  The ideal in my mind is something that still phonetically sounds English, but also manages to convey the same meaning and with very positive words.  Johnson & Johnson's "Clean & Clear" and Coca Cola (any surprise there?) are the two that always stick out in my mind.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Work, Perchance to Sleep

I was pretty much forced to give up blogging this week, because work reared its nasty head.  My major accomplishment of this week was probably going to the printers.  My very first time in Hong Kong.  Joy.  Unlimited junk food that makes you feel sick, a lot of annoying bankers and tired lawyers stuck in one tiny, fluorescent, un-ventiliated, messy, dirty conference room... the printers is bad.

I'm too tired to come up with anything clever or funny, so instead I'll let a picture (of Michael's ingenuity) do the talking.  While I was hunched over a laptop and poring blearily over changes and proof upon proof, he was working very hard too.  But in a vastly better environment - his home office: