Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hong Kong and Beijing

This post has been a long time in the works. I've been keeping my eyes open and noting the differences between Hong Kong and Beijing pretty much since my flight landed two and a half months ago. Hong Kong and Beijing are the two cities in China where I've actually lived, rather than just visiting, so I suppose the comparison is inevitable.

The differences are myriad, the similarities few. The single biggest difference would have to do with the relationship between each city as a physical space and its populace. Simply put, the physical space and layout of Hong Kong all seems to be a response to the needs of its populace; whereas the population of Beijing, by and large, has to base its existence around the physical space of the city.

Hong Kong is incredibly hilly, with steep, narrow, and winding roads. Looking at a map of Hong Kong, one sees a maze of streets, curving, crossing and recrossing one another at acute angles. A map of Beijing, by contrast, shows broad avenues, running north-south and east-west, intersecting at neat right angles almost without fail. Yet in Hong Kong, despite the appearance of chaos, people and goods move fluidly through the city by means of a hodgepodge but effective transportation network - buses, minibuses, trams, ferries, escalators, subway, and light rail. The Octopus, a stored-value, one-tap all-purpose commuter card, works on all of them. It takes me around 45 minutes and can cost as little as US $1 to get across the harbor to Kowloon all the way from my dorm.

Beijing is the opposite - the illusion of order that a map of the city presents evaporates quickly upon arrival. As broad as the streets are, they are regularly congested; it can take close to an hour to cover just over a mile at times. The city has attempted to address congestion by adding ring roads (a series of freeways arranged in concentric circles around the city), but each time a new ring road is completed, the congestion is alleviated just enough that more people decide to buy cars, and traffic quickly returns to its earlier gridlock. Beijing's wretched air quality makes walking a somewhat unattractive prospect, and most people resort to bicycles. However, that raises a new set of concerns - several of my friends had their bicycles stolen, one of them multiple times.

Clearly the two cities have strikingly different histories. Under British rule between 1841 and 1997, Hong Kong was spared the turmoil that characterized much of the past two centuries of Chinese history - the Taiping rebellion, the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the country's subsequent descent into warlordism, the Japanese invasion and the civil war, and the ravages of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. After 1949, when the Communists finally drove the Kuomintang from the Mainland, Beijing was largely closed off to the outside world. Today, a drive through the city gives the impression of Westernization: Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC; Adidas and Ikea megastores; malls full of Rolex, Bulgari and Lacoste; bars advertising Carlsberg and Budweiser, and clubs playing (almost) current pop music. Scratching the surface, however, is as easy as getting out of the bus and walking down any of the side streets away from the main boulevards. Aside from the major foreign chains, few restaurants offer decent non-Chinese food. You'll see migrant workers from the provinces hawking and spitting left and right; parents holding their pantless children at arm's length, letting them defecate into the road; beggars and lepers sitting silently, hat in hand, staring silently at the ground. Giant piles of rotting fruit can be found just meters from expensive apartment complexes. The air quality is remarkably poor. You eventually get used to it, but initially spending less than a day in the city can leave you feeling as though you've been kicked in the face by a mule. The city is the beating heart of Communist China. Soldiers in Tiananmen square stand at strict attention, and Mao's Mausoleum still draws crowds of Chinese paying their respects. Squat toilets abound, even in fairly Westernized shopping districts. Many Chinese visiting Beijing from the provinces have never seen foreigners before, and will stare wide-eyed with undisguised interest; some will even ask you to pose with them for pictures. You'll be lucky to find anyone who speaks English once you venture beyond the hotels and major tourist destinations.

Hong Kong, by contrast, was a British colony for more than 150 years, and has remained an international finance and shipping hub even after the 1997 handover. As such, even in predominantly Chinese neighborhoods far from Central, Soho, and the Midlevels, foreigners attract little attention from local Chinese. Western restaurant chains are prevalent, but so are independently owned restaurants offering fare every bit as good as what you'd find in a pub in London, a shwarma stand in Amman, or a burger joint in Chicago. Most locals at least understand basic English, and often speak it well enough that basic communication typically poses no problems. I've yet to see anyone spit or go to the bathroom in public, and the city is strikingly clean compared to Beijing. The air quality is quite poor by international standards, but most visitors experience nothing worse than a mild sore throat and runny nose for a few days before they acclimate. One barely encounters reminders of Communist rule in Hong Kong. I've never seen a soldier in Hong Kong, and have seen perhaps two Chinese flags flying since I've been here. By contrast, the flag of Hong Kong - a five-petaled white flower on a red background - is ubiquitous.

Understandably, most visitors prefer Hong Kong to Beijing. As for myself, I'm still not sure. I went to Beijing last weekend to visit a few friends, and am still processing my impressions of the city as it was when I lived there, as it is now, and my overall experience there. That will be the subject of another post.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Three Days in Thailand

Having Monday off for Foundation Day, and never having class on Fridays, I decided to go to Thailand for a few days.

I spent most of my time in a small town called Kanchanaburi. It's about two hours west of Bangkok, on the River Kwai (made famous by David Lean in the classic Bridge On The River Kwai), and is a very pleasant place to spend a few days. The town itself only has two real attractions. The excellent Thai-Burma Railway Centre is a museum documenting the experience of the Allied POWs who built the railroad linking Thailand to Burma during World War II. Captured when the Japanese conquered most of Southeast Asia in 1941 and 1942, thousands of British, Dutch, and Australian soldiers (and some Americans) were slave labor for the Japanese military effort to build a railroad that would eventually connect Singapore to Burma and facilitate the Japanese advance towards British India. Malnourished and diseased, apparently some 38 POWs and Asian laborers died for every kilometer of track constructed. (It would be impossible to document, but I wonder how this ratio measures up to the ratio for the Great Wall of China). Some 6,000 of these POWs are buried in a cemetery near the museum, the second attraction of note.

Kanchanaburi's real draw is the natural scenery surrounding the town. Erawan National Park, about 65km away from the city, was definitely the highlight of my trip. There weren't many foreign tourists when I visited, mostly Thais out for a weekend excursion. The park contains a seven-tiered waterfall, with a number of natural pools that are perfect for swimming. It was an hour's trek to the seventh tier, at which point the path became a bit more tricky. Getting from the path to the falls themselves required some careful navigation across a series of extremely slippery rocks - I saw a European tourist take a very nasty spill on one particularly treacherous section. After making it safely to the top I cooled off with a half-hour swim in the various pools, watched by a family of monkeys that had come down from the trees for a drink of water. I spent my last few hours in Kanchanaburi seeing the current Bridge on the River Kwai (the original was destroyed by Allied bombers in the last years of the war), then took a minibus back to Bangkok.

Khao San Road, in Bangkok... never in my life have I wanted to leave a place so quickly. Every negative tourist stereotype is on display there: the freshly dreadlocked white guy covered in new tattoos, beer in hand and god knows what in his bloodstream; the florid, obese middle-aged man, sunburned and balding, sweating through his polo shirt and leering at the Thai girl on his arm, young enough to be his daughter; and, of course, the type who clearly thinks that being on vacation gives one an excuse to dress and act like a complete a**hole.

The street was crawling with them, and packed with every sort of business that would cater to their interests. T-shirt shops, hostels, tattoo parlors, salons advertising dreadlocks, beads, and extensions, bars blasting loud pop music, stalls selling cheap trinkets, and plenty of familiar Western restaurants (Burger King and McDonalds, among others).

Ordinarily I would have made every effort to avoid this place, but under the circumstances it made sense to be there, unfortunately. I was only staying in Bangkok for one night, and then planning to catch a minibus to the coast and then traveling on to the island of Ko Samet by ferry. The hostels in Khao San are very cheap, and the abundance of local travel agencies/tour companies make the neighborhood an easy place in which to arrange transport out of Bangkok. So, there I was.

While I was asking a hostel employee about Ko Samet, a sunburned Westerner (Austrian, as it turned out) approached, a beer in one hand and a Coke in the other. His teeth were yellow, broken and crooked, his hair was stringy, and his eyes seemed to have some difficulty focusing. He told me how Ko Samet was a wonderful island, and how he'd been going there for ten years. Then he gave me the name of the hostel that he stayed at, and told me to tell the owner (someone named Yud, apparently) that he had just come back from Lao and was about to return to Austria. He wrote all this down for me: "Koh Samet Puolsa Bangolouws Yud Greadings from Koert."

After meeting Koert, I decided to skip Ko Samet and leave the country a day early. I was quite certain that I did not want to spend my time and money in a place that appealed to Koert so much that he has apparently made annual pilgrimages for the past decade. Given its relative proximity to Bangkok, I could only imagine how many other Koerts there would be on that island.

There's a sad irony in the fact that Thailand, the only Southeast Asian nation to avoid European rule during the colonial period, has been so transformed by the throngs of hedonistic Westerners that pour into the country on a daily basis that it's barely possible to discern what lies beneath the bars, tattoo parlors, sex shows, dreadlock shops and youth hostels. I was only in the country for a few days, but a number of my friends spent more time there, and in different places; almost without exception, they came away with the same impressions. They loved Thailand's natural beauty - the beaches, the rivers, the forests - but they were shocked and disgusted by everything that had sprung up around it. One of my friends summed it up very succinctly: "It's like there's not even a country, just a bunch of dirty backpackers."

So, if you're thinking of going to Thailand, spend as little time in Bangkok as possible, unless you are a) a complete degenerate, b) unspeakably perverted, c) an unwashed hippie in search of like-minded persons, or d) not particularly picky about where you spend your free time, as long as they sell t-shirts and beer. If you're reading this blog, I sincerely hope that you are none of these things.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Shark Fin Soup, Chicken Feet and Duck's Blood

It's been a fairly uneventful few weeks for me since coming back from Taiwan. Going to classes, reading for classes, studying Chinese. I'll be traveling later this month, April, and May, so I've been laying low a bit to save money. In lieu of final exams, I'm writing papers for two courses - one is a comparison of the cannabis laws of Singapore and the Netherlands (pretty much polar opposites); the other one is about "cultural" exceptions to the international whaling ban.

This post is not so much about Hong Kong specifically, but just some reflections on food and drink that I've tried in "Greater China" - Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland. The more time I spend over here, the easier it is to let go of the idea that some animals, or some parts of animals, are more "normal" to eat than others. It's all more or less meat, after all.

Jellyfish: I first tried this at a nice restaurant in Shanghai a few years ago, mostly because I wanted to say that I had eaten jellyfish. As it turned out, I liked it - the texture is a bit like calamari, but is a bit crunchy as well as chewy. I still order this in Boston. There used to be a good place on Brighton Avenue, but it has unfortunately closed. To make matters worse, my good friend Connie stole my to-go box of jellyfish the last time we went there.

Shark fin soup: First off, I should say that I do not condone the consumption of shark fin soup. The way that the chief ingredient is obtained is fairly gruesome. Fishermen don't actually kill the shark, but simply hack off the fins and toss it back into the ocean to die. I would never order it. The only time I've eaten it was at a very posh, set-course dinner in Beijing. Thus, the shark was already dead, the dish was already made, and my refusal to eat the soup would have had no effect whatsoever on the market for shark fins - under the circumstances, it would also have been very rude. All that being said, I enjoyed the soup. The texture is a bit hard to describe - the fin is mostly cartilage, but it was fairly soft, not very rubbery. Served with a bowl of rice, and was a very hearty course. But while the soup was good, it was really nothing special. Had it been something less controversial, it would be nothing worth writing about. So, I continue to oppose this dish in principle. The demand for shark fins apparently remains high, though. I've seen many hanging in the windows of Chinese medicine shops and restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau.

Duck's blood: Absolutely delicious. I tried this at a hot pot restaurant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan last month. The duck's blood is congealed to a tofu-like consistency and cut into cubes. After simmering in a spicy Sichuan-style broth for ten minutes or so it picked up a wonderful flavor, both spicy and savory at the same time.

Baijiu: Even if you're a serious, open-minded drinker, I do not recommend this stuff. It's not like soju, and it's not like sake. It's like rubbing alcohol. For those of you who claim vodka tastes like rubbing alcohol, trust me - it tastes like water compared to baijiu. It is generally distilled from sorghum (sometimes from rice) and tends to be very strong, around 120 proof or so. The worst, cheapest stuff comes in small green bottles with white and red labels. In some places you can buy little plastic, one-shot bags of it for the equivalent of around 50 cents. I went camping on an old ruined section of the Great Wall a few hours away from Beijing a couple of years ago, and one of my friends brought along a bottle of baijiu for the night. When one of our group gashed his leg open on a rock on a treacherous portion of the trail, we used the baijiu as antiseptic - it bubbled like hydrogen peroxide when we poured it in his cut. We also used it to help get the campfire going. I never drink baijiu if I can avoid it. However, I make an exception for moutai. It's a type of baijiu from Guizhou province, somewhere around 110 proof. It's got an interesting, almost spicy flavor to it, and served warm in a small glass it's pretty good.

Chicken feet: The first time a plate was set in front of me a few years ago I wouldn't touch it. However, I overcame my reluctance and tried them as part of a dim sum brunch in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Not bad. The basic idea isn't all that different from eating a chicken wing - you nibble around a bone to get at a relatively small portion of meat. So, once I quit thinking about what part of the chicken it was, I had no trouble eating these. There's not as much meat, though, so for that reason I would order wings, if given the choice; but as a dim sum course it's fine.

Yak butter tea: It's basically a thick, hot tea in which the principle ingredient is Yak butter. Sounds disgusting, but it is actually a great drink for a cold day. Hot and thick, it really warms you up. Given Tibet's altitude and how unbelievably cold the winters are, it's not surprising that this is such a popular drink there. I spent the coldest night of my life in an unheated hostel in Lhasa in mid-winter, and the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was down a giant mug of this stuff. I felt better immediately.

Stinky tofu: Pretty much like it sounds. I'm not quite sure how it is prepared, but these chunks of tofu smell distinctly like unwashed feet. If you're passing a restaurant that serves it, you can typically smell it from the street. This one took some getting used to. The first few times I ate it, I only did so to be polite; however, by the third time I realized I had acquired a taste for it. Part of the trick is to just ignore the smell, or convince yourself that the smell is not coming from the tofu - honestly, it does not taste like it smells. If you live in Boston, try it at Taiwan Cafe in Chinatown.