Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lunar New Year

It's been a while since my last post.  The fact is, my dorm room is not a very pleasant place to spend time, but it's currently the only place where I can conveniently connect to the internet (most of the university being closed for the Lunar New Year).  Thus, I'm spending most of my time out of my dorm, and am usually too tired when I get home to take time to post.  So, until classes start again on Monday I'm likely to be behind on emails and posting infrequently. 

After a mere four days of classes, the university closed for the Lunar New Year.  The dorms emptied of students, most businesses closed for the entire week, and expats left Hong Kong in droves for Southeast Asian vacations.  A few of us stayed in town, though, and got to see a very different Hong Kong.  Still busy by any objective standard, the city is more or less dead compared to any other time of year.  A few of us left a bar at 9pm the other night, a reasonable hour, and the streets were empty - ordinarily that doesn't happen until 2:30 or 3am.  It was actually a bit eerie.  

To celebrate the Year of the Ox, a few of us - along with apparently half of Hong Kong's population - paid a visit to the Tian Tan Buddha (pictured) on Lantau Island.  85 feet tall, weighing 250 tons, this giant bronze buddha was completed in 1993.  The fact that it's not all that ancient in no way diminishes the statue's grandeur, though.  It's truly awe-inspiring.  The weather was not very pleasant, and we didn't have much time, so we chose to take a cable car ride instead of hiking.  Even the cable car ride took about 25 minutes, and offered some great views along the way.  The buddha itself is large enough that it came into view about 10 minutes before we actually reached the cable car terminus.  Allegedly it's visible from Macau on a clear day.  The place was very crowded, almost entirely with families.  Small children were decked out in their holiday finest, which ranged from bear costumes to faux-Qing dynasty imperial outfits, complete with queues.  We caught one of the last cable cars back to civilization, and enjoyed a fairly sizable New Year's banquet at an elegant, surprisingly affordable restaurant at the IFC.  

The next evening I watched the fireworks at Victoria Harbor with a few friends.  The display was impressive, but nothing mind-blowing.  All in all, the Lunar New Year in Beijing is much more of a spectacle.  The biggest difference is that Beijingers apparently aren't subject to any laws regarding fireworks, or at least no laws that are actively enforced.  People set off fireworks wherever and whenever they feel like it: in the courtyards of apartment complexes, on the sidewalks near crowded streets, leaning out of high-rise windows, etc.  Basically, the city starts echoing with what sounds like gunfire around 3 pm.  The noise picks up significantly as it gets dark, and continues until the early hours of the morning.  In Hong Kong, by contrast, it's been very quiet.  The official display at Victoria Harbor were the only fireworks that I've seen or heard all week.  All in all, Hong Kong is a much more orderly city than Beijing, so that's not too surprising.  

Yesterday the weather was finally warm and sunny again after several overcast days, so a friend and I took the bus to Stanley.  It's a smallish town on the south side of Hong Kong Island, with a pleasantly uncrowded beach and a fairly laid-back seaside promenade.  After exploring the town for a bit, we went hiking on the nearby Wilson Trail.  Rather than winding back and forth across the hillside, the trail simply went straight up the side of it - it was a very steep hike.  However, the view from the top was well worth the effort.  After our hike, we picked up a couple of cans of Tsingtao and relaxed on the beach for a while before getting dinner on the promenade and catching the bus back to the city.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dorm Life

Living in a dorm for the first time in almost five years has required a bit of an adjustment.  As I wrote previously, I'm living at Lee Hysan Hall, an undergraduate dorm.  The building is more than a bit run-down - a grimy exterior houses a predictably institutional interior.  I'm not too close to campus, and there's little of note in the immediate area: two more residence halls in the same complex, a 7 Eleven (one of the few in China that does not sell alcohol), and, across the street, a hospital with a Starbucks and a decent cafeteria.  The one thing that this dorm really has going for it, though, is the view (pictured).  We're on a hill fairly high above the rest of the city, facing west across the East Lamma Channel.  Our common room has a beautiful view of the water, and at any given time the channel is full of bulk carriers and other cargo ships headed toward Victoria Harbor, very much a reminder that Hong Kong remains a vibrant and bustling port city.  

Most floors are coed, although mine seems to be largely, if not entirely, male.  As I mentioned earlier, there's a strong sense of hall spirit and tradition.  At the risk of sounding antisocial, I'll admit that I've taken the advice that was given to me by other foreign students and deliberately avoided this.  By way of explanation, I'll recount a few stories:

On my third day here, I met another foreign student who explained the concept of Water Games to me.  The paint on the walls in his hallway is uniformly worn away to a spot a few inches above the floor.  Apparently once a semester the local students clog up all the toilets, stop up the sinks and shower drains, and run all the water to flood the hallway (it occurs to me that the substance on the floor in the field hockey story, recounted in an earlier post, may have actually been water mistaken for beer, or perhaps a mix).  This is Water Games.  I don't think they do this on my floor, though, as the paint doesn't seem to be worn away.  The entire concept sounds unbelievably unhygienic and dangerous.  Buildings generally aren't made to be flooded multiple times per year.

He also told me that another popular pastime is to open a window, stand some distance back, and take turns trying to kick a soccer ball out the window.  Whoever kicks the ball out the window must then go outside to retrieve it, while the other students try to pour liquids on and throw things at him while he's doing so.  This would explain why there's a chair stuck in a tree outside, about twenty feet below the window to our common room.

Last week, I came home late, stepped off the elevator, and saw a group of students standing in a cluster near the door to the common room.  A leg was sticking out of the huddle at a weird angle, a few feet above the floor.  They turned to look at me, and I quickly made my way to my room - it seemed like the safest thing to do.  I asked my roommate Sai what they were doing, and he laughed, and told me I'd find out, because they did it to everybody and they'd do it to me soon enough.  I told him that they most certainly would not, and that I would really like to know what they were doing so I could avoid it.  Initially refusing to tell me, he relented soon enough and explained the "bicycle" to me.  Since then, I haven't quite looked at the local students the same way, and learning to understand Cantonese has taken on a new urgency for me.  They all speak English, but I need to know what they're saying to each other when I'm around.

Two nights ago, I was watching a movie in the common room with a couple of other exchange students, when we gradually became aware of students congregating in the hallway outside, near the elevators - the same spot where I had witnessed some poor soul being bicycled earlier.  Fortunately for us, we weren't on their agenda (although one of the other exchange students is a water polo player, and I'm fairly sure I overheard the phrase "he's too tall" in the midst of the local students' conversation).  Venturing out into the hallway, we witnessed another bicycling incident.  We went back into the common room and turned the volume up on the TV, but it continued for some time.  At various points people ran into the common room excitedly, and ran back out into the hallway with such diverse items as soy sauce, an empty water bottle, and a birthday cake.

This isn't something I expected to deal with as a second-year law student.  I'm making an effort to stay pretty much under the radar around the dorm.  I generally leave the dorm somewhat early in the morning, and don't see a whole lot of the local students - they seem to only start coming out of their rooms and filling the hallways around 10:45pm, and they stay there until around 4 or 5am.  With the aid of earplugs, I haven't had any trouble sleeping yet.  All the same, I remain vaguely concerned about the bicycle.  

Thursday, January 15, 2009


None of my classes start until next week, so I've spent most of the past few days exploring Hong Kong, getting a sense of the city and how to navigate it.  Yesterday I took a break from Hong Kong, and spent the afternoon and evening in Macau.

Macau is something of a Portuguese equivalent to Hong Kong.  In the 1530s, over 300 years before Britain acquired Hong Kong, Portuguese merchants began using Macau as a base of trading operations, ultimately purchasing the island from China in 1557.  As a Portuguese colony, Macau was the only European port for the China trade until 1841, when China ceded Hong Kong to the British after the First Opium War.  Hong Kong had a better harbor, and most European merchants soon made it their new base of operations, abandoning Macau.  Eclipsed in economic and political significance, Macau never developed into a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis like Hong Kong.  It remained under Portuguese control until 1999, two years after Britain returned Hong Kong to China.  Today Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) - part of China, but with different economic and political systems than the mainland.  All part of Deng Xiaoping's "one country, two systems" idea.  It's the only place in China where gambling is legal, and casinos remain the city's big draw for most tourists.

A friend and I took the 12pm ferry from Hong Kong and arrived in Macau around 12:45.  Not much for gambling, we headed across the island for lunch at Porto Interior, a Macanese-Portuguese restaurant.  It was delicious - hot, crusty bread, rice and seafood stew, an assortment of lightly fried Macanese snacks, and vinho verde (lightly sparkling Portuguese wine).  The highlight, however, was the galinha a Africana (African chicken) - barbecued, served in a thick, sweet and spicy red pepper sauce.  Macanese food is sort of a fusion of influences from various parts of Portugal's colonial empire, including Portugal itself, local Cantonese cuisine, and East Africa.

After lunch we went to the A-Ma temple, a 15th-century temple dedicated to the goddess of fishermen and the sea.  With the lunar New Year around the corner, the temple attendants were setting off extremely long and loud strings of firecrackers on a regular basis.  After inhaling plenty of incense and gunpowder smoke, we moved on to the Maritime Museum - had a few somewhat frightening mannequins, but all in all was a pretty interesting look at the maritime activity of Macau, both Portuguese and Chinese.  There were models of various Portuguese and Chinese sailing vessels, and dioramas of traditional fishing activities.  Most significantly, I learned about the Drunken Dragon Festival, a Macanese tradition in which one dances around and gets sprayed with water while drinking copious amounts of alcohol. 

After leaving the museum, we wandered around Macau's back alleys for most of the rest of the day.  Like the food, the city is a blend of Portuguese and Chinese influences.  Whitewashed walls and porticos give the city a distinctly Iberian feel, and all street signs are in Portuguese as well as Chinese, but there's hardly a European in sight.  The alleyways, barely wide enough for a motorcycle in some places, were packed with shops, restaurants, food carts, and people.  Bakeries selling Portuguese-style pastries stood next door to Chinese medicine shops, packed with the usual assortment of roots, fungi, and animal bits.  We walked through a bustling and bloody seafood market, where we witnessed tables full of fish heads, some of which were still trying to breathe.  At one booth an eel had been chopped cleanly in half; the top half was still squirming across the counter, opening and closing its mouth and butting its head against the lower half of its body - I'm not likely to forget that sight.  We stopped for a beer at a hole in the wall noodle joint (still trying to wash the taste of gunpowder out of our mouths), and then continued back toward the ferry terminal.  

Before leaving Macau, we stopped to wander around one of Macau's Vegas-style attractions, a sprawling Disney-esque recreation of various, wholly incongruous... well, things, I guess.  There wasn't really a common theme.  Aladdin's Fort stood next to the Roman Theatre; a replica of Tibet's Potala Palace and a Tang Dynasty fortress were built into the side of a mockup of a Volcano.  Aladdin's Fort was apparently the site of some kind of war game attraction; a few bored-looking people dressed as soldiers stood next to a mock-up of a crashed Black Hawk helicopter.  Yet this entire complex was almost entirely deserted - we saw at most four or five other people the entire time, and all the shops and restaurants were empty.  The pointlessness of the place was almost overwhelming.  After a while, we decided we'd had enough, and caught the 8:15 ferry back to Hong Kong.  There are still plenty of things I'd like to do in Macau - see some of the old Portuguese forts and churches, go to the village of Coloane on the adjacent island of Taipa, and eat more Macanese food - so I'll definitely be going back.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Initial Impressions

Note: I arrived on a Saturday, so I wasn't able to get my dorm's internet connection set up until last night.  Thus, this post was written on January 11, but not posted until today.
I've been in Hong Kong for just over 24 hours now.  The trip over here was uneventful - no missed connections, delayed flights, or unfortunate seating arrangements.
I spent most of today (Sunday) walking around HKU's main campus, getting my bearings.  It's about a 20 to 25-minute walk from my dorm, or a much shorter bus ride.  You know that M.C. Escher drawing of the stairs in an endless loop?  The campus feels a bit like that, but placed in the middle of a subtropical forest.  Initially confusing, but very cool.  Hong Kong island is basically one giant hill, so the campus, like pretty much everything else here, is built straight up, right into the side of it.  Big grassy quads with paths between buildings would be out of the question, so the buildings are linked by a series of exterior staircases and walkways, periodically connecting to patio-type areas, one of which has a very pleasant lily pond.  The entire campus is shaded by lush vegetation.  With the foliage and the various staircases and walkways, trekking around campus sometimes feels like walking through an aquarium's rainforest exhibit.  I like it more than walking through that busted rock garden near the law tower.
The U.S. is unusual in making certain subjects, like law and medicine, graduate programs.  In most other places, including Hong Kong, if you want to be a lawyer or a doctor you simply study law or medicine at university, without studying something else for four years first.  Thus, I'm living in the equivalent of an undergrad dorm.  I have a double room in Lee Hysan Hall, an off-campus student residence hall.  It was named after a Hong Kong opium prince turned construction magnate who was gunned down by rivals sometime in the 1920s.  Our floor's common room has a great view of the harbor, a mah jong table, a TV, and a kitchenette.  I'm somewhat apprehensive about living in a dorm again for the first time since my sophomore year of college.  Every dorm has a theme; ours is "Hysanic," which means that our common room has a little bell with "1912" written on it, and there are little pictures of life preservers in the bathroom stalls.  I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that our theme is the greatest maritime disaster in modern history.  I don't know what kind of dorm activities they plan on tying into that theme.  Also, it seems that hall spirit is a very big thing here.  I've hard that from a number of local students, as well as one BUSL who spent a semester here a year or two ago.  He advised me to avoid hall activities at all costs.  He said that they involved a lot of marching and chanting and clapping, and that on one occasion he came back to his dorm and found that the hallway floor was covered in beer, and that a number of his hallmates were hitting each other in the crotch with field hockey sticks.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The O.C.

I'm spending some time in Orange County, CA (perhaps you've heard of it? apparently there was a TV show...) before leaving for Hong Kong.  Having spent just one full day here so far, I now have a great deal of sympathy for anyone who left Orange County to spend their time studying law in a city where the winter lasts for eight months.  That's dedication, or maybe madness.  Then again, I don't live here, so maybe having beautiful weather more or less year-round and living right by the beach gets a bit monotonous.  For my part, I'm not sure I could get any serious work done out here.  I suspect that, not having grown up out here, I would have trouble shaking the feeling that I was, in some sense, on vacation.

Anyways, it's been great so far.  Brunch on the beach, drinks on a pier, spending the day wandering around a boardwalk with no real plans other than enjoying the weather.  Good to spend some quality time with the roommates (two of them, at least) before going abroad.

RETRACTION: I'm ashamed to admit that after just one post I'm already compelled to issue a retraction.  However, accuracy is important - after all, if people could just post whatever they wanted to on the internet, what kind of world would that be?  So: in my posting of January 2, I said that I had it on good authority that there were "peeps on call" in Orange County.  It has been brought to my attention that this is inaccurate; in point of fact, I was told that there were "peeps on alert."  I apologize for the error, and for any resulting confusion.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The First Post

So, for some reason I agreed to keep a blog for the supposed benefit of the law school whilst in Hong Kong next semester.  However, I've never kept a blog before, and have, in fact, derided the blog as an unfortunate innovation that makes it far too easy for - and, in fact encourages - people who labor under the delusion that their opinions matter to share those opinions with the entire world.  That's not quite what I'm trying to do here.  Last time I was in China I kept people up to date via periodic emails to a distribution list of people who had expressed interest.  This time, though, I'm putting my reservations about blogging aside and trying it out, primarily as a means to stay in touch with people I know, not to disseminate the contents of my mind across the internet (because I don't think anybody really wants that to happen).  So, in the interest of getting the hang of this before arriving in Hong Kong, and before I start blogging for the law school, I'm starting a bit early.

So, this will hopefully provide semi-regular updates on my activities abroad, for anyone who cares to read it.  If you don't care, then don't read it.  Feel free to post - I think I've enabled that option, but I'm still figuring this thing out.  A brief rundown of my upcoming whereabouts:

Until January 5: Nashville
January 5 - 9: Orange County, CA (where I have it on good authority that there are "peeps on call," whatever that means)
January 10: arrive in Hong Kong

That's all for now.  Happy New Year!

N.B.: This blog is not the blog I'm keeping for the law school.  Some posts may be identical, others will not be.  I'm keeping this one as well because a third-party administrator has to approve all my posts before they're published on the school's blog - understandable, but cumbersome; also, the law school might not be very interested in, or particularly happy about, some of my activities (i.e. missing class to go backpacking in Laos, etc.).  It may be that keeping two blogs at the same time, even if there's some content overlap, will be a little more than I'd like to handle.  So, we'll see how this goes...