Monthly Archives: November 2010

Why China is Weird, Part 4

I saw a sign while walking around the Botanical Gardens in Hong Kong which read: “Beware of Pond.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge the fact that ponds are indeed a public menace and should be accorded all due caution. But really– this particular water feature was perhaps six feet in diameter, a breathtaking 4-6 inches in depth, and featured a rather prominent fountain. It would have been hard to miss. (I would like to note now that this “Beware of Pond” sign does not appear anywhere about the large and fearsome koi pond at the very center of the Gardens. Madness!) The only explanation I can surmise is that this particular pond has a mischievous or even malevolent streak, and that it snares unsuspecting passers-by with its seemingly harmless mien only to… dampen their ankles? Oh, the horror…

Ahem. Forgive my flight of fancy. It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Why China is Weird” post and the return has made me somewhat whimsical. No offense is meant to anyone who has, in fact, suffered trauma at the hands–er, something– of a pernicious puddle.

That same day I meandered homeward on the MTR, book in hand and casually reading. The woman sitting across from me had caught my attention when she boarded the train, as she was carrying a bag full of whole fish–something silver and largish– and what appeared to be melted ice. Evidently, I thought, she had been carrying the bag of fish around for quite a ways.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the train hit an incline and all of a sudden the fish began flopping violently inside the plastic bag; it occured to me then that the bag had not ever contained ice, it was just enough water to cover the fish and allow them to breathe. When the train started pulling uphill, it displaced the water just enough to worry one of the poor creatures, which panicked and made its anxiety known in an impressive acrobatic display. The woman carrying the bag adjusted it and the fish relaxed once more, but now I could see its mouth working against the side of the plastic. That was going to be a seriously fresh meal.

Hardly an hour later, I had passed through customs and was safely back on the Shenzhen side. Book still in hand, I waited patiently for my bus to arrive; the stop I was at was in full sun and a bit sweltering, so the other two people who were waiting had taken shelter in the shade behind the big plastic timetables. (If I hadn’t mentioned this already, Chinese people are notoriously afraid of a suntan.) At some point, a woman emerged from behind the bus stop to hail a taxi cab; she didn’t have long to wait, as one pulled up with alacrity (as they do in Shenzhen). The woman spoke for a moment with the driver, then headed back behind the shelter. Intrigued, I watched as she emerged a moment later with two birdcages containing live birds in her hands, which she then proceeded to place into the trunk of the taxi cab. It was a little bit of a production, actually, because one of the cages was rather tall and wouldn’t fit, so the cabbie got out and started gesticulating and they finally came to the conclusion that they would just leave the trunk open. So off they drove, two birdcages in the open trunk of a cab down on of the busy arterial roads of Shenzhen.

One last tidbit for you, and then I must get on with my Saturday. Whilst I was walking to the grocery store with my neighbor one night, she suddenly clasped at my arm and made a strange sound like a strangled laugh. I looked up to see what was the matter, and there, walking past us, was a man who was wearing a waist-length jacket– and absolutely nothing else. Just lettin’ it all hang out. Stephanie and I just sort of looked on in horror as he passed, and then burst into giggles after rounding the corner. When we told this story to someone who had returned from the previous year, he said, “Oh yeah, that happens sometimes… Public indecency isn’t really enforced at all.” I mean, naked children in public are one thing. Pantsless men? only in China…

The Aitch-Kay on a Rainy Day

The last time I was in Hong Kong, it was steadily-dripping kind of rainy day, and being a staunch and stubborn Oregonian (actually mostly just forgetful, in this climate), I of course did not have an umbrella. Not wanting to waste a day, though, I decided to trek off to the museums and see what kind of culture HK could offer me.

As I mentioned in the previous post, just across Victoria Harbour from HK Island is TST (Tsim Sha Tsui), home of Chungking Mansions . The Hong Kong Cultural Center, Space Museum, Museum of Art, Science Museum and the Museum of History all live right around the TST train stop as well.  Since most of them open around noon or 1pm, I spent a leisurely morning reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession in a coffee shop sipping a hazelnut latte and indulging in a brie-and-roasted-tomato panini (I’m living where now? This is not China…) before heading off to indulge in some culture.

I started (where else?) at the Space Museum. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, though I was hoping to learn a bit about the Chinese space program and a little bit of Chinese astronomy. And I did, a little– remarkably enough, the information on the China space program was pretty much the only up-to-date information in the museum.  Oh, other than the shows, kind of– the Planetarium is actually quite nice, built like our OMNIMAX for the folks from home, or pretty much exactly the same as the new Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Science. It’s a bit smaller than a real OMNIMAX, but they do run IMAX shows there; the Planetarium show that is currently running is Cosmic Collisions– yeah, I hear you OMSI folk giggling/groaning. Trust me, I had the same reaction. Actually that was one of the first shows I ever ran as a Planetarium Presenter, so I almost bought a ticket out of nostalgia, but then I returned to my senses.  They don’t do live star shows, which is just as well because their sound is run through headphones in the individual seats, where you can choose to listen to the show in Cantonese, English, Mandarin or Japanese. That was kind of cool, actually, and definitely a good move in a place like Hong Kong.

The rest of the museum was actually hilarious. As I wandered through the Hall of Space Science and perused the mix of Chinese and Western histories, I began to notice a prevalent use of the phrase “is credited with”– as in, Hans Lippershey is credited with the invention of the telescope. This didn’t seem at all odd to me (true, Hans Lippershey is indeed credited with inventing the telescope) until I realized that this tag was attached to almost every Western invention or discovery, but never attached to any made by Chinese scientists (especially when a tool was invented in both China and in the West). Unsurprising, really, but once I did notice I kept track through the rest of the museum and was rather entertained.

The Hall of Space Science is not only home to exhibits on the history of astronomy– which was, to tell the truth, most of the reason I went; I really wanted to learn something about the history of Chinese astronomy– but also delves into spaceflight. And it’s actually quite well laid-out, starting with the sextant and jade circumpolar-star-finder (I don’t know what it’s called in English, but it was cool) and moving all the way through early experiments in flight to the invention of gunpowder and rockets, to solid vs. liquid fuel, to the Sputnik/Vostok/Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era, and finally to an interactive exhibit on the Space Station, complete with a scale model of the Space Shuttle and mock-up of the cockpit and console.

This sounds all good, and it was fun poking around and looking at all the exhibits, but again I started to notice some oddities in the way the information was presented. Passing the Space Shuttle scale model, I did a double take when I realized that the wing boasted the label “Columbia.”  I looked around to see if it said something about the Columbia being the first spaceworthy shuttle, or anything about the 2003 Disaster, but no dice. Obviously the exhibit has not been updated in a while.

But it gets better. I passed on through to the Space Station area, which is on a series of platforms and tunnels above the other exhibits. Walking around, though, I was scratching my head thinking, I know what the inside of the Space Station looks like, and this is not it… Turns out, their “Space Station” is not, in fact, the ISS– it’s Skylab. Which fell out of the sky in 1979. (Actually I think it’s sort of a mishmash of Skylab and Mir, though the model definitely looks like Skylab.) Oh, China.

The Hall of Astronomy was on the small side, and also has not recently been updated (Pluto still included as one of the planets on an otherwise pretty cool model of the Solar System that sits as a centerpiece in the Hall) but it was a fun romp, for sure. It’s mostly hands on, definitely geared for young astronomers and explorers with interactive stations dealing with various wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum– there was a cool infrared station where a small black block with copper bits poking here and there sat under (essentially) a pair of infrared goggles, and by touching another piece of copper to various nodes you would see different patterns light up under the scope that were invisible to the naked eye.

The Space Museum vanquished, I decided on a whim to pay a visit to the Museum of Art just across the way.

Boy, am I glad I did. The permanent exhibits in the Museum of Art are dedicated solely to Chinese art pieces, with (it seems) visiting exhibits of art from other places in the world. They have collections of ethereally lovely and subtle Chinese scroll paintings, jewel-toned and glittering pieces of glasswork and pottery, and some kind of mind-bogglingly detailed woodwork pieces, especially the open wood carving. And it’s all laid out more or less chronologically, so you can get a sense of the evolution of the art forms through the dynastic timeline, from the ancient Qin all the way to the most modern Qing and into the PRC.

Then I wandered into the current featured exhibit: The Ultimate South China Travel Guide– Canton II (The Last Episode). Evidently this exhibit is a continuation of one that occurred last year, and it is absolutely genius. It’s a (pretty bitingly) satirical look at the relations between China and the West just after the Opium Wars, through a series of journals, oil paintings, watercolours,  newspaper articles and prints done by Europeans–mostly British–coming into Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangzhou (Canton) for trade and leisure in the late 1800’s.

The exhibit also has an element of whimsy, as the captions and information panels are all written as if the reader was actually going to be taking a trip to Canton in the 1800’s. So, if you walk up to a print of Mr Forbes’ House on the Praya Grande in Macao, for example, the plaque that goes along with it reads:

For the employees, employees’ dependents and guests of the trading companies, a house as prominent as this one may be your best shot when it comes to lodging. Located at the south end of the Praya Grande, this mansion has been variously inhabited by James Matheson, Lord Napier, and Captain Bennett Forbes…

Alternatively, if it is hotels that you fancy, we recommend the Royal Hotel on the Praya Grande for a great sea view, or the Oriental Hotel at the head of the steamer wharf in the Inner Harbour for convenience.

Etc. My favorite bit was actually a huge installation that took up an entire wall, called “Phrase Book.” It’s a helpful guide “if you don’t know a single word of Chinese or Cantonese” to the CPE, or Chinese Pidgin English. It’s a linguistic headache-inducing chart of English phrases with the CPE, phonetic Chinese (which is a marvel) and Chinese translation. For example:

English: Do you speak English?

CPE: You savvy Englishee?

Pronunciation of CPE: (written phonetically in characters)

Chinese: (translation in Chinese)

Needless to say, I was terribly amused.

And again, I’ve gone on quite a bit longer than I meant to. Here’s another rest for you; when I come back, more stories about Why China is Weird.

The City Across the Border

Yes, patient ones. I have owed you a Hong Kong post for so very long. The problem originally was that I found the city a bit overwhelming, and trying to control it enough to write about it succinctly (HAH) felt like a bit of a chore. Now, though, I’ve spent enough time there that even though I can describe it to you, now it’s just the sheer quantity stuff to talk about that is daunting. Oh well. Must begin sometime.

So let’s talk first about Crossing Over. There are at least four, maybe five, border crossings to get from Shenzhen into Hong Kong, and two of them are in my district. I’ve never used the other ones because, hey, convenient! It is important to note that the Luohu/Louwu Customs, which is the main crossing at the Luohu train station, is the only crossing at which a Chinese visa can be obtained, so for folks coming in to China without having previously acquired a visa can pass through there, and only there.

Aside: China visas. Expensive. Somewhere between $50 and $150 USD for a 30-day visa, depending on how the Chinese government is feeling that day. No, I’m not actually kidding (though perhaps being a little hyperbolic)– they change their policies on entry visas, especially regarding American passports,  about every 3 months; or basically whenever they feel like it.

The crossings I use, as I said, are both in my district. The one I discovered first is a ferry that goes from Shekou Port (where Sea World, that bizarre expat neighborhood, is) right to Hong Kong Island. It’s easy to get to, usually not very busy, takes about 45 minutes and it drops off right in the heart of downtown Hong Kong. The only downside is that the ferry is the most expensive method of crossing by quite a bit. It costs about Y11o each way; which is not exorbitant, but not cost-effective for a semi-regular commuter.

The other Nanshan crossing is through Shenzhen Bay Port Customs, which leads to a massive bridge over Shenzhen Bay into the northern, mainland part of Hong Kong known as the New Territories. You walk through the customs building, get on a bus on the Hong Kong side which takes you over the bridge and drops you off at an MTR (metro) station, and from there it’s easy to get to any part of Hong Kong; it’s about 20 minutes to Tseun Wan, which is a neighborhood on the border of Kowloon, about 45 minutes to TST (Tsim Sha Tsui) which is Kowloon proper, essentially downtown on the mainland side and home of the infamous Chungking and Mirador Mansions (not to mention more Louis Vuitton stores than you can shake a stick at), and roughly an hour (and a line transfer) to Central, which is the main part of Hong Kong Island. Transit time varies depending on traffic, and whether you are dumb enough to try to get into Hong Kong at rush hour (incidentally, not a good idea) but for the most part it’s about 2 hours all told from Nanshan to Central.

Traffic, by the way, runs on the opposite side of the road once you cross the border. There are London-style double-decker buses along side the regular bus and cab traffic; and all the of the street corners downtown have “LOOK RIGHT” painted on them (unless it’s a one-way, in which case you might see “LOOK LEFT”). I have, of course, very nearly been hit by a bus on several occasions.

The ferry was an ideal first venture into the city, because it afforded absolutely fantastic views of the verdant, mountainous landscape of the New Territories and Lantou Island; and then, pulling in Sheun Wan where the ferry docks, the glittering skyline of Hong Kong Island came into view. Shenzhen is, as I have mentioned, with all of its glitz and neon a rather gaudy place at times. Hong Kong does not so much suffer from this malady, as somehow the neon and sparkle are quite tasteful, even elegant. During the daytime the structure of the Bank of China and HSBC towers dominate the architectural majesty of the city; at night, these same building form the nexus of a rather dazzling light show–every night at about 8pm–which then subsides into a steady, but elegant, city glow. It’s quite beautiful viewed from TST, just across the bay. (It also appeals to this peripatetic laserist who misses her craft.)

Once you start wandering the districts, Hong Kong at night has its inimitable corners and surprises. In my limited knowledge of the place I’ve explored (a little) the expatriate’s club district Lan Kwai Fong, better known as LKF; wandering east just a little ways takes you past the malls at Admiralty to Wanchai, where you find the redlight district. And it truly is– this area of Wanchai at night is a kind of disturbingly fascinating runnel of (red) neon lights and restaurant signs. Apparently, the seemingly unattached (Western) men walking through this area at night can expect to be first approached, then propositioned, and finally fondled by the very attractive, and somewhat scantily-clad, young women who hang about in the doorways of what look like bars but perhaps are not. (Being a woman, I have not only not had this problem, but have acted as an effective shield against this happening to my male counterpart when I have had occasion to walk through Wanchai at night.) The lights do give a sort of reddish cast, though it’s somewhat overpowered by the bright yellows of the myriad Mexican restaurants and Western Unions, as well as the variegated neon of the clubs.

Hong Kong during the day is a horse of a different color. It’s part concrete jungle, part lush green subtropics. Victoria Harbour figures prominently into the landscape from anywhere on the Island or from TST, where many of the cultural buildings sit. And the city is full of little crooked alleyways, multi-storey markets and little cubby-hole restaurants tucked along the slanted streets. Hong Kong Island is a city of hills, in much the same way that San Francisco is. In fact, it’s home to the (let’s see if I can get this right) longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, also known as the Travelator or the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. The system of escalators connects Central district, at the bottom of the hill, to SoHo at the midlevels, to Western at the top; it crosses a number of streets on the way up and there is an entrance to the Travelator at each crossing.

Get this: the escalators run downhill for the morning commuters from the top of the hill, and uphill the rest of the day. Wicked. They run a total of about 800 meters, and according to Wikipedia takes about 20 minutes to travel all the way up; or, as the locals put it, you can start drinking a large bottle of beer at a leisurely pace at the bottom, and finish before even reaching the top.

Central, as I briefly mentioned, is sort of the main downtown area; it’s where a lot of the good shopping lives. SoHo, just above it, is home to many boutiques and bistros, a couple of hookah bars and some really fantastic cocktails.

I haven’t done too much exploring on the mainland side, beyond TST (which will be making an appearance in the next Hong Kong post) and Tseun Wan, where I spent that fateful and frustrating afternoon trying to post money home. Grr. Tseun Wan, which is definitely outside the city center, is definitely a little bit different-feeling Hong Kong. The signs are still in English, and the cars still drive on the opposite side of the road, but you don’t see as many foreigners and it’s more open-air markets and less malls.

Speaking of the next Hong Kong post, I’m going to wrap up here with this abominable word count and let you rest your eyes. I’ll be back (soon!).

No, I’m sorry, Bank of China [China] is NOT the same thing as Bank of China [Hong Kong]

So I usually have all sorts of fun and hilarious things to tell you about the expat life in China. Here’s one aspect that, no matter what you do to it, is the mother of all expat migraines. That, I can tell you, is NOT fun.

I have a bank account here in China. It’s with a lovely bank called Bank of China, which exists everywhere from Taiwan to Hong Kong to Malaysia to Singapore, not to mention 40 branches in Shenzhen ALONE. I’m thinking, this is great. Easy access, branches in international locations, what’s not to love?

I also have this thing called school bills. While I highly recommend getting a fantastic education and a fancy Latin diploma like I got at Mount Holyoke, the afterglow is more like aftershocks when the school bills start to come a-knockin’.

Problem: school bills (and credit card bills, ugh) come out of a US dollar bank account in the US. I currently make a salary in RMB in China.

Solution: International transfer– wire money to the US. Easy, right?

Yeah. NOT AT ALL.

See, the problem is that, while it’s perfectly acceptable to wire US funds into China, for some reasons that I don’t know quite enough about to get into them, the US does not accept international wire transfers in RMB out of China and therefore will not let me send my money from my Chinese bank account to my American bank account without some serious finagling. Sub-accounts, exchange rates, not to mention minimum balance requirements and all sorts of fooferah.

Seriously I make no money. This is all very much not worth it.

So Option Two: Go to Hong Kong. Hong Kong not only deals in Hong Kong Dollars, which the US will accept as a transfer, but they also (bless them) speak English as a general rule.

So it’s a Thursday, roughly 12:15 pm. I say to myself, “I have nothing to do this afternoon. Let’s go to Hong Kong and do some money stuff.” I’m thinking, quick trip across the border, there are some bank branches at an MTR stop that’s not too far into the New Territories, shouldn’t take me more than a couple hours all told.

It’s 10:30 pm and I’ve JUST gotten home. Here’s why:

Apparently everyone and their mother was going to Hong Kong at 1pm on a Thursday. I have never seen so many people at the Shenzhen Bay Landbridge crossing, and I’ve done the trek a few times now. (Incidentally, I’m going to need new passport pages soon because going into and back out of Hong Kong requires almost a half a page of stamps, it’s ridiculous.)

I went to Bank of China in Tsuen Wan, which is that close-in MTR stop I mentioned. Tseun Wan is one of those places that I’ll talk about when I eventually sort myself out enough to actually write about Hong Kong. I know. Procrastination is a necessary life skill. Anyway, I went into Bank of China, got my numbered ticket, and went to wait to be called over to a banker’s window.

A full 45 minutes later, because of course I was in the queue for Accounts Opening And Others, I finally get called to a window and I put down my passbook (we don’t have an equivalent in the US as far as I know, but sort of like a combination transaction register and account card) with my passport and tell the woman what it is I need to do. She looks at my passport, looks at my passbook, says, “You open the account in China?” and at my affirmative answer, says, “Just one moment, please.”

Hmmm. Never a good sign. A good 15-minute wait later, the gal comes back with another banker who politely explains that while I do, in fact, have a savings account with Bank of China, that Bank of China has actually nothing to do with Bank of China Hong Kong and therefore they a) don’t have access to my account and b) cannot possibly help me.

So I decide, instead of opening a BoCHK account and having TWO BoC cards in my wallet, which would cause no end of confusion for me, I will instead hop on over to HSBC which is just down the street and open up an account with them. A little bit more trouble (mafan, or inconvenient, as we say here) but at least that way I would have the problem solved for the next time the situation came up.

HSBC, of course, was packed to the gills. I eyed the horrendously long line for about 5 seconds and decided to sort out what I was actually going to need to do before waiting all that time to be told at the counter, no, sorry, we can’t do that. So I found a banker who seemed a little less harried than the others, and drew her aside to ask about what I could do.

She told me that I could open a savings account, but that there was a minimum balance requirement and a first-time deposit requirement, neither of which I was thrilled about. She then told me that I could open a cheque account but that I wouldn’t be able to wire out of it immediately. She was very nice, and answered all of my questions, and almost convinced me to stand in line and get the thing done, but then my shoulder angels took over and steered me in the direction of a Western Union to just get the thing done and think about it later.

Of course, finding a reliable Western Union that wasn’t in the back of some divey little Filipino shop (no offense to Filipino shopowners, but come on– having me write my information on a scrap of paper to put into the most ancient computer ever just did not strike the right note of confidence with me) took a little adventuring, and I wound up (of course) having to go all the way in to Hong Kong island and thus cost me another hour of travel time each direction plus the finding of a Western Union and getting that all sorted.

Luckily my presence in the neighborhood was discovered by a friend and I was summoned for coffee, which made the day quite a bit better.

Seriously, though. All of this would be so much easier if the RMB could just behave like normal currency, and the US could treat it like normal currency. Bah.