Day 0 – The Flight
We (my father and I*) departed Chicago ORD for Hong Kong at about 4pm on a Tuesday with estimated time of arrival 9pm on Wednesday. There’s a 13-hour time difference, so, if you do the math, that’s approximately 16 hours in the air (I think… I’m not so good at math). I’d never been on a flight this long and so I worried I would get a little stir crazy. As such, I mentally prepared to feel like I was on a plane for a whole day.
So I began the flight by watching Hateship, Loveship (starring Kristen Wiig) and it was pretty OK. It was about 7pm CT by the time this was over and I was feeling somewhat sleepy but I proceeded to watch The Lunchbox, which was also pretty good. After this I was exhausted and began to fall asleep while listening to David Sedaris’ “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.”
When I awoke it was 4am CT and I was pretty dazed but unable to fall back asleep. A few days earlier I’d listening to Allison Janney discuss her CBS show “Mom” on NPR, so I thought I’d watch an episode and see how it was. I’m someone who really dislikes laugh track, but I enjoyed this show so much and even liked the laugh track enough at the beginning to lose awareness that the laugh track was even there! Would highly suggest this show to anyone; at least check out the pilot. Allison Janney does an amazing job.
About three episodes into “Mom” we began descending and I was like “WHA?!?!?” I thought I was going to be on this plane for way longer than this. But… I wasn’t.
*So people don’t think I’m a wuss, I didn’t ask my father to join me, he wanted to and I didn’t refuse.
Day 1 – Hong Kong. 1968.
Hong Kong. 1968. A severe flu is sweeping through Hong Kong. As Hong Kong is a hub of internationality, the strain quickly spreads across the world, infecting hundreds of thousands world wide, although killing proportionally few.
I was sitting in class one day and saw a lecture slide with HK1968 on it (I believe because that’s the shorthand researchers used for the outbreak), and I just thought it sounded nice. Not the pandemic, but the expression: “H-K-nineteen-sixty-eight.” Like, that amalgam of letters and numbers sounds cool. So I thought up this story surrounding the outbreak involving a Vietnam War conspiracy theory. The title of the story: Hong Kong. 1968.
Because of it’s development as a British colony and it’s proximity to low-resource regions in Southern China where conditions are ripe for emergence of novel pathogens like avian flu, Hong Kong is like a mecca for emerging disease public health people. I’ve been interested in Hong Kong since that lecture and proceeded to read a book about H5N1 (The Fatal Strain by Alan Sipress), which detailed the history of the disease and explored the possibility of a global pandemic.
My dad is also very interested in medicine, being a surgeon and whatnot, so we hit up the Hong Kong Museum of Medicine first. It was very interesting. I learned that Hong Kong was also where bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis) was first discovered (by Alexandre Yersin) in Hong Kong. According to a video at the museum, plague struck Hong Kong almost yearly, so public health workers in the early 20th century monitored sewer rats as a plague surveillance technique.
We also learned about SARS. Like how the coronavirus most likely originated in bats* and then got transmitted to civet cats where it spread to humans. Around town, a non-zero number of people walk around with facemasks on, and I remember seeing images of this on the news when SARS struck in 2003. I learned that the culture here is such that if you feel a little sick, you wear a facemask. It makes perfect sense, but it’s not a thing at ALL in the States. Maybe it ought to be, although we’ve yet to have a possible pandemic flu strain develop in the United States. It makes more sense when you live in a region of the world where someone’s cough could be the next H1N1 pandemic. Like wearing sunscreen when you’re in a region of the world with high exposure to sun’s rays (altitude, equator), although more important because this is a matter of public, not personal, health.
After the foray into medicine, we hopped on the MTR (mass transit rail) and went to the other side of Hong Kong Island to check out the Hong Kong Film Archive. Junior year I took a class on Chinese cinema. Although I don’t remember watching anything from Hong Kong, I thought the archive would have more of a museum feel (it was more of a film screening locale), but it only had two exhibits – one on avant guarde film in Hong Kong and the importance of 16 mm, 8 mm, and Super 8 film in the avant guarde movements; and one on cinematography James Wong Howe.
After that, we were hungry and looking for food. Sandwiched between a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut, we opted for a more Hong Kong experience with the restaurant Tai Hing.
They served us hot water (to make tea? But where were the tea bags?) when we sat down. The waitress didn’t speak English, but luckily, in a restaurant, you can just point to the picture of the food item you want! Food (and math) breaks all language barriers! Food = math?
Despite being exhausted, we were told we had to check out the harbour** light show. We MTR’d it back to the other side of the island and hopped on a Star Ferry ride across the harbour. In the city centre, around Admiralty and Central MTR station stops, there are Westerners, whereas when we were out near the film archive, not a Westerner to be found. In Tsim Sham Tsui (where we were viewing the light show from) there were more Westerners and the shopkeepers spoke English well. It’s interesting to notice the transition from Western touristy, to Asian touristy, to local regions. But I digress. We only made it about halfway through the light show. I was seriously beginning to fall asleep and the lights were not that amazing; fireworks are better I think and I don’t even care for fireworks that much. We MTR’d it back to our hotel and PTFO’d.
*MORE REASONS TO HATE BATS. Some people laugh at me when I say I hate bats. But I have plenty of legitimate reasons. 1) When I was in Kenya, bats roosted in the bathrooms and would fly at me when all I was trying to do was pee and there was a non-zero possibility they had rabies; 2) Bats are the maintenance host of Ebola, which is ravaging West Africa and could jump to other continents causing a global pandemic; 3) Bats are the maintenance host for SARS, which has already caused a global pandemic***; 4) A bat pooped in my bed several times in Kenya and the bat poop attracted ants; 5) They look creepy. The only real reason to *like bats* is because some of them eat mosquitoes and mosquitoes suck… LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY.
**I’m going start using British spellings for stuff and just not stop, OK? Word keeps autocorrecting me but I’m going to persevere.
***I don’t want to be too hard on bats about this pandemic thing. You know, it takes two to tango and it takes human expansion into wildlife areas and other interactions with wildlife to create zoonotic pandemics like these. Judge not lest ye be judged…
P.S. Dad got lost today. We were boarding the MTR train for the first time and I got on it right when the doors were closing and he was too late. I went to the next station (which happened to be the end of the line) and thought I should wait because maybe he’d get on it and meet me there. I was standing next to a giant map of the area, and a woman came up to me, pointed at another stations and asked in broken English: “how do I get to there?” I wanted to be like, “LADY, does it look like I know what I’m doing here?” But I realized that 1) why would I be mean to this lady who is just asking for directions, and 2) I did know how to get to there. So I told her what to do. I was still waiting for my Dad when I thought: “Number one rule when you get lost – STAY WHERE YOU ARE.” So I hopped on the train back to the previous station. BUT HE WASN’T THERE! So I hopped on the train to the next station thinking maybe he did follow me. BUT HE WASN’T THERE EITHER! So I went back to the hotel room and waited for him to show up. It turns out he did stay at the station but where I got off the train was at a different location so I couldn’t see him.
Day 2 – NATURE
I woke up at about 4am (jet-lag) and at first I was really pissed about this, but then I saw the sun begin to rise and realized it was awesome that I woke up early and got to snap some pics of the beautiful sunrise over Hong Kong.
Being a card-carrying ecologist, I had to check out the Hong Kong Wetlands Park. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have checked out the Wetlands if it weren’t for Cathay Pacific showing a commercial for the Wetlands Park before every movie or TV show you watched. The commercial did a good job of selling it. So we hopped on the MTR for a roughly 40 minute ride with a couple transfers to get to the Wetlands Park. I’m so happy we got out of the city, because it was cool to see what the “suburbs” looked like: huge high-rises here and there with parks and schools and little shops. I knew we were in Asian tourist land in the Wetlands Park because, again, there were no Westerners*.
Regardless, the Wetlands Park was AMAZING. If you visit Hong Kong, you must go. I was surprised at how informational and interactive everything was! There was a section where kids could be Wetland investigative journalists and learn about environmental issues (although it was really hard; my dad and I did it together and pretty much failed all but one stage of the investigation). We also explored a section about the intersection between civilization and wetlands, aka, why we need wetlands to have civilization and it was very cool. There were interactive games on computer screens for children to play.
We spent at least 2 hours inside checking out these exhibitions before exploring the actually wetlands. Very pretty. Very interesting. Particularly interesting (again back to the avian flu thing) were the signs warning visitors to not touch birds or bird poop and to wash their hands if they were in contact with these animals.
That day I had a list of other things I wanted to do, but I wasn’t too upset because the Hong Kong Wetland Park was so enjoyable. I decided to skip the other things I had on the list and go straight to tea tasting at Lock Cha Tea Shop.
This place was praised in several guide magazines so I really wanted to check it out. The tea tasting started at 4pm, so with the train ride and the potential to get lost in the city centre of Hong Kong (the roads are more circuitous than Boston), I was somewhat worried we wouldn’t make it in time. We got off at Central station with about 10 minutes to find it. I was dumb and didn’t write down more than the street it was on, nothing about nearby cross streets. So I stopped and asked a man who was petition for some democracy and peace now organization if he knew where it was. He was incredibly kind and pulled out his phone to Google it for me. It turns out it was on the same street we were on, but the next metro stop over, so a 30 minute walk.
I was so pissed. I was pissed because I was dumb. If I’d done better preparation we would’ve stayed on the train until Sheung Wang station. I buried the frustration and decided to get back on the MTR because maybe we’d be able to make it for the end of the tea tasting.
We got to Lock Cha around 4:20pm and it looked like the tea tasting was over. But I thought I’d ask anyway if they’d let us taste a few teas anyway. A woman said of course and began pouring traditional teas, tasting the teas, telling us all about tea. We spent over an hour in the tea shop talking with this lady and others who came in and wanted to test teas and tea pots. It turns out, the lady – Maria – didn’t even work there! She was there to buy some teas and a tea pot for her friend! She had worked there a long time ago before pursuing her Tea Master education in China and traveling around the world doing tea demonstrations. She was very kind to us, taking time out of her day to pour teas and talk. It turns out the tea community is very friendly.
Happenstance: If we’d come at 4pm for the tea tasting, we wouldn’t’ve gotten the in depth experience we had because we were late. Just goes to show: CHILL, everything’ll be alright.
We ate at a Vietnamese restaurant cattycorner to the tea shop and across the street from a McDonald’s. Afterwards we were so exhausted from the long day, we went back to the hotel, enjoyed a happy hour cocktail (Tom Collins for the WIN), and went to sleep.
*This could be poor conclusion to draw since we are visiting Hong Kong at a time not too many visit Hong Kong. (It’s really hot and humid here and better to visit when it’s less hot and humid. Seriously, you don’t have to run – or even walk – to sweat. Just stand there and it’ll come. I’m lying down right now and it’s like I took a shower.)
Day 3 – Amitahba, Amitahba, Amitahba, Amitahba, Amitahba, Amitahba, Amitahba
Freshman year I took a class on Buddhism and learned about the sect of Pure Land Buddhism. I don’t remember if this is accurate, and my cursory glance of the internet is proving inconclusive, but I believe if you recite the name Amitahba (aka Amituofo) seven times without any other thoughts coming to mind, just Amitahba, then you will enter into the Pure Land upon your death. This may seem easy, but it’s incredible hard to think of nothing else.
August is Ghost Month in those who practice Pure Land Buddhism here! Since my freshman year class I’ve explored Buddhism at any opportunity I could get. So on the final day in Hong Kong, I decided to explore 10,000 Buddhas Monastery, Chi Lin Nunnery, and a Chinese opera street show being performed in honor of Ghost Month.
Like the wetlands, it took a while to get to 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. Both by MTR (we had to do several exchanges) and by foot (we had to walk up 400+ steps to get to the Monastery). On the website, they explained that no real monks would be begging on the path to the monastery, so I expected to be accosted by several fake monks. There were none, only a gazillion golden statues. It was VERY cool (figuratively). I found the different expressions on their faces interesting. It was incredible hot and humid though, so I was sweating like a pig about to be summer BBQ in Texas. During the trek I was slightly worried the place would be kinda touristy. But it was an active place people came to pray. And since it’s Ghost Month, people were there praying and burning offerings for their deceased ancestors.
At Chi Lin Nunnery, things were considerable less red and more wooden. It was definitely more of a touristy spot – lots of people taking pictures as opposed to 10,000 Buddha’s Monastery where I was the only one among with my camera out. But it was so gorgeous. Seriously, if living in a place like this is what it takes to be a nun, sign me up*. At the gift shop (also how you know it’s a touristy place, it has a gift shop) I got a CD that hopefully has the musical chanting they piped through the nunnery.
After Chi Lin, we walked through the nearby gardens. We were tired and thirsty and hot. I was really craving a Coke. We found a little vegetarian café positioned under a waterfall and gave it a shot. There were no Westerners inside and our waitress again did not speak English really. Also, again, we were served hot tea when we sat down instead of water. At first I was like “Ummm, why would I drink hot tea when it’s a thousand degrees outside.” Then I had a little bit and found it very refreshing. We ate dim sum, rested our feet, and cooled off before leaving for the next adventure!
The next adventure was going back to the hotel. Dad was tired (he’s been up at nights working since that’s when it’s day at home). So we went back to the hotel and had tea and appetizers there before I went back out. First, I went to a shopping area called PMQ someone had recommended to me. It stands for Police Married Quarters as it used to be a police building. But now it’s been repurposed into a hipster shopping mall (there was a cafe inside the Hello Kitty store complete with mushroom tables).
I had read about pop-up Chinese operas taking place in squares all over Hong Kong during Ghost Month and really wanted to go. In my Chinese cinema class we watched Farewell My Concumbine, which is about Chinese opera, so I wanted to see one IRL (in real life; I only recently discovered what this abbreviation was so I figured I’d share it with you dear reader).
I thought there would just be a stage and a performance, but the whole square was dedicated to worship. There were huge shrines where individuals could come place their offerings. As people were doing at the 10,000 Buddha’s Monastery, people were lighting incense sticks and praying with them to the different gods and goddesses. It was amazing to watch. Again, I was the only Westerner here, although there were a decent number of other people with there cameras out, so I felt better taking pictures here than at the 10,000 Buddha’s Monastery. The Chinese opera was interesting as well. Obviously I have no idea what was going on because I don’t speak Chinese, but I like the way they perform and the way the percussion accents certain dialogue. Very interesting stuff on the whole.
As I walked back to the MTR, I saw individuals making offerings on the street too: burning paper money so their ancestors can have money in the afterlife, laying out food, burning incense. It was really fascinating and I thought: “this is how you get ants”**.
*I know it takes more than that to be a nun.
**It’s a joke from Frisky Dingo and Archer.
Day 4 – Leaving HK
Our flight to Taipei was pretty early in the morning. Luckily we’ve been waking really early in the mornings because of jetlag. We took a taxi back to the airport and I was able to observe more of the city than before since we arrived in Hong Kong at night. I was somewhat worried we’d miss our flight, but Sunday morning there’s basically no traffic, so we breezed by.
Our taxi driver was pretty hilarious. Somehow we got on to the topic of President Obama and he said he liked him even though his relative in San Fran didn’t like Obama at all. Our cab driver said Obama was at least a lot better than Hillary. He hated Hillary. I asked him why, to which he replied: “She’s a horrible wife.” LOL. I actually laughed out loud, but he was laughing with me. I’m sure we weren’t laughing at the same thing. He went on to say she was a Tiger, you know, aggressive. She was decent as a politician but a horrible wife so why would you want her to be your politician? I laughed along with him and said: “But Bill Clinton cheated on her and she stayed with him, doesn’t that make her a great wife!” He just laughed. Nope. Doesn’t. Hillary, take it from this Chinese cab driver: stop doing whatever it is you’re doing and make Bill a sandwich.