Saturday, August 26, 2006

The sights, sounds, smells and thrills

Time was precious and we tried to squeeze as much as possible into the last couple days before Mom and Dad had to leave. One of the things that is a must while visiting Hong Kong is to eat at the famous daipadongs (outdoor nightmarket) in Kowloon. They are known for their immense selection of fresh seafood, greasy dishes, loud and clanky atmosphere, dismissive service and somewhat dirty tables. We took a walk in the market afterwards and Dad got his fortune and hand & face read by a, what seemed to be, very successful entrepreneurial fortune teller (see pic) - btw, have you arranged your bed to face southeast for better fengshui yet?

We saw the harbourfront light show which I think is a complete embarassment for Hong Kong residents. There is a lot of uncessary hype and hoopla surrounding this so-called spectacular show, dubbed as a 'must-see' for tourists. Hardly. Seeing as Hong Kong prides itself as having one of the most incredible skylines in the world with layer upon layer of buildings, and not to mention one of the busiest harbours, they could really make something special of this light show if there was a bit more coordination. Basically, it consists of some really horrible Chinese music playing on crackling speakers as the buildings across the harbour light up at random intervals, a beat or two out of synch with the music. There is no method to the madness and ... ok, I'll stop there. On a positive note, there is something to be said about taking the Star Ferry at night when all the buildings are lit and a sort of incredible city-landscape emerges before your eyes. See pic of us in front of the famous clock tower.

Matt took both of them for a ride on the motorbike and, of course, they loved it! A visit to Victoria Peak, Stanley Market, the famous bird and flower market, and before they knew it, they were back on the plane heading home to Canada. This is just the first of many farewells we will do as we'll play host to several other guests in the coming months. Super exciting!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Old stomping grounds

We went to visit the places where Dad and Mom used to live back in the 50's and 60's. Dad's family lived on the Kowloon side near Hung Hom. Mom was on HK Island near North Point. At the time, it was rare to travel across to the other side unless it was for a special occassion, so my parents don't know much about the other's respective area.

We took taxis to get to each place and we lucked out as both taxi drivers were incredibly knowledgeable in terms of the changes in HK's geography and history. They gave us a little tour of the area, explaining how much land has been reclaimed, how the government has changed (for the better/worse) after the 1997 handover, what they think of the proposed GST law, etc.

When we arrived at Mom's old apartment building, we managed to get into the lobby where we took the old-fashioned elevator (the kind where you have to draw the brass gate across first) to the 8th floor where they used to live. As luck would have it, the woman who lives there now was just coming out and she invited us to look around the flat. They had completely renovated the inside, and even the walls are not where they used to be, but it was fun to see anyway.

That night we had our friends YK & Tomoe and Andy & David (old family friends from Cornwall who have moved back to HK several years ago) over for a bbq. It was the largest group of people we've hosted for a sit-down dinner so far and despite the shortage of cutlery and wine glasses - we had each couple sharing one knife- it was good fun. It was YK's birthday the day before and so on top of the cake, we took out the kava for everyone to sample. We bought it in the Vanuatu airport where they sell instant packs for souvenirs whereas the stuff we wer e given during our honeymoon was the authentic stuff: fresh and totally potent. Kava is made of tree roots grounded up and mixed with water. After a wee accident in the kitchen while preparing it, everyone had some to try with mixed reviews. You're supposed to drink it in one shot (see pic of David downing the stuff). It tastes extremely woody with a touch of mouldy shoe flavour, and it's supposed to leave you relaxed and in supposed bliss. Considered a drug, it is banned in Canada and probably elsewhere in the world.

It's a Family Day

Mom and Dad arrived in Hong Kong on Aug. 21st after their visit to see Anice in Japan (see Dad's entry on his impressions of Japan) and yes, they did come bearing my favourite cereal and chocolate bars!! During the first few days here, they managed to get their HKID card hassle-free, visit me at Treasure Island, see the world's largest outdoor Buddha at Ngong Ping and visit a few relatives.

Today we went to pay our respects to my dad's maternal grandparents. Situated in one of HK's largest shrines, we arrived early in the morning, bearing flowers, to meet up with our other relatives. Dad has not stepped foot in HK since 1977 (Mom was here back in 2000 on her way back from China), and so it was an emotional reunion with his aunties and uncles.

The entire place was simply beautiful, with colourlful temples, a turtle and fish pond, lovely sculptures and walkways and what makes it extra serene is the pleasant smell of burning incense from every direction. With the slight drizzle of rain and mist rising from the mountains, the atmosphere was just right for the occasion.

Dad's aunt and uncle recounted stories about their childhood, the occupation, how their mother had died at a very young age from illness and stress, leaving their father to care for 4 young children. He opted to never marry again so as to not have to worry about bringing in a 'wicked stepmother' to his children. Living in constant fear during the war, he burned all the family photographs so that the enemy could never get hold of them and track them down. And so, unfortunately, there are no pictures of my grandmother and her siblings until after the war ended. However, fortunately, he forgot one photograph taken of his new bride when she was 19 years old. This is the one that is now forever immortalized on plaque number 336, beside the picture of her devoted husband.

We did the customary three bows and then tried to find the site where my Aunt (Mom's oldest sister) has her 'grave'. I should clarify here that they aren't actually graves as we know it, where the body is buried there. In fact, it is just a plaque with the name and sometimes picture of the deceased, symbolizing the grave itself. Usually the person has been creamated or that he/she's been buried in a plot too far away to visit on a regular basis.

Having only met my Aunt once when i was one year old, she died of breast cancer ten years ago, leaving beind two sons (my cousins who are now in Toronto). We were only given scant information from another Aunt of where her grave was and after a lot of searching, we found it with the help of the office worker (see pic of Mom looking for the grave). There are dozens of rooms on site, each with hundreds of people's graves inside. As each room is given a name, you must know at least the room name in order to look up who you want. This shrine is so popular, that not only do tour groups come to visit the place, but the actual value of one of the shrine's room can be more than a modern condominium building due to the high cost of each grave. Side note: I read in the paper this week that because cost for a proper burial site has skyrocketed in HK, people are taking out mortgages for their own plots while they are still alive!

After a delicious dimsum meal we all trooped up to Dad's Uncle's, Sok Gong, apartment where we paid respects to my Dad's paternal grandparents. They have a mini shrine in their house so there is no need to trek all the way up to the New Territories to visit the actual grave site. This is very common among the older generation of Chinese people; it also allows them to pray everyday to their spirits as well as offer some siu-mai (smoked bbq pork meat, chicken, duck) to their ancestors. We performed a tea-pouring ritual, offered colourful crepe paper as a blessing and then trooped down to the open courtyard to burn them (see pic). It is customary to offer the spirits things from the living world so that they can use them in the afterlife. It is not unusual to see paper money, paper Ferraris, paper houses and even paper Heineken bottles being burned! Apparently people have been known to have died from toxic chemicals in their flat from attempting such burning ceremonies.

Afterwards we were treated to a little show from Sok Gong who has been learning the er-hu for a mere few hours but managed to make beautiful melodies nonetheless (see pic). He was still quite a lively fellow, although his vision was slowly deteriorating and he had to walk with a cane. He loves to tell stories of the past and he certainly didn't spare any that day!

A horrific story from his childhood was when my grandfather (Dad's dad) was already serving on a navy ship as a cook when one day Sok Gong went out to buy bread with his 3 younger siblings. A bomb fell directly in front of them, killing the 3 children instantly. Luckily Sok Gong was not injured, but he had the unimagineable task of returning home to tell his mother the devastating news. He was 17 years old at the time. He decided to join the army and eventually worked his way up to serve under one of China's most-feared generals.

Overall, the day was full of new revelations about my family and history. It was a happy reunion for my parents and that, to me, was a joy to see. I'm also very happy that Matt got to meet these relatives of mine and, even though most of what was said went over his head, he charmed everyone with his heavily Mainland-accented-Cantonese and they in turn embraced him as a member of the family.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


On Aug. 9 we met Mom and Anice at the Hiroshima train station who arrived on the shinkasen (bullet train). They had just finished visiting Mount Fuji but unfortunately couldn't make it to the summit due to a torrential rainstorm.

We stayed at the World Friendship Center hostel run by an American couple who are here as volunteers from their church. The Centre was set up after WW2 when the founder, Barbara Reynolds, decided to create a place where "people from many nations can meet, share their experiences and reflect on peace." She helped many A-bomb victims, bringing some to the States for reconstructive surjery. Today, the Centre offers English lessons, discussions on politics and world peace, talks given by WW2 survivors and a friendly atmosphere for backpackers who are looking for budget accommodation and a Western-style pancake and sausage breakfast.

That night we had a huge meal of Hiroshima's famous okonomiyaki (cabbage, eggs, octopus, noodles, special sauce, all fried and done in omellet style). The following day we spent the morning walking to the A-bomb memorial (see pic) and visiting the museum. Quite intense and heavy for a morning's sightseeing, the museum offered a lot of background information regarding the making of the bomb, the decision to use it, the aftermath and the steps that the world is taking to prevent another such catastrophe. It is incredible to think that such grotesque horror can be inflicted by humans on other humans, and until you visit this place will you get a small glimpse of what the world has done, and is still doing wrong in the name of 'technology, advancement and modernization'.

The following days we went around by car, visiting more of Shimane's rural paradise, stopping for a late afternoon gorge walk along the highway, touring the Iwami Silvermine (historic site where silver was mined and shipped to the New World), and passing through the town with the World's Largest Egg Timer (apparently at the stroke of midnight every New Year, it gets flipped over so the sand can start flowing out the other way).

One night we stayed in a small fishing town on the Japan seacoast called Yunotsu. Famous for its multitude of onsens, we even met an owner of one who has a son living in Discovery Bay! She had just come back from a visit to HK and gave us her contact details. Small world. We were treated to a traditional dinner where we had to wear the customary yukatas (robes), sit legs-folded on the tatami mats and figure out what each little dish of food contained and how it was supposed to be consumed. Yunotsu was probably one of my highlights of the week, a charming little village with a lot of character and community spirit. See pic taken by Anice of the peaceful morning street in Yunotsu.

We visited the famous Izumo Taisha Shrine, famous for people coming to pray for finding true love. Matt came here as a student a decade ago asking for a nice, diligent and obedient wife (just kidding!), and so as miracles do happen, we went to give our thanks to Izumo for fulfilling our dream. There are these humongous ropes that are knotted together in front of the shrine and you are supposed to take a coin and throw it up so that it sticks (see pic). This is for good luck in finding your true love. He must've had a helluva throw ten years ago.

Practically every night we went to a different onsen. I love the feeling of getting completely clean in a natural bathtub with a view of the valley or mountain, bliss! Mom and Anice went to the Ikeda Radium Hot Spring where apparently it was too hot to even get into the tub!

We left Mom and Anice early Sunday morning to drive the last few hundred kilometres back to Osaka. Mom will be coming to HK in a week (with Dad) and Anice will make her HK visit in October, so this farewell will be shortlived. We returned the car and checked-in at the airport. Another delay - this time due to the hyped-up security in the UK that caused flights to backlog. So we ventured into Osaka town where we rode on (what they claim to be) the World's Largest Ferris Wheel. For those who don't know, it has been a longtime phobia of mine, to ride in a tiny enclosed cab of a Ferris Wheel. But conquer it i did! And i must admit it wasn't as bad as i thought. It's probably because i'm about 20 years older and 2 feet taller.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Japan bound!

On August 6, after another late night packing session, we arrived early at the HK airport only to be told there was to be a delay on our Air India flight to Osaka. When we finally landed, after a flight on what must have been the oldest functioning aircraft judging from the tattered seats and musky smell, we picked up our rental car and drove to Matt's old host family home in Kobe. An absolutely lovely family, they laid out a feast for us, and then some! It was okasan's (mother) birthday so we celebrated with a cake afterwards.

The next day, okasan, Matt and I visited a local shrine and then headed towards the famous Himeji castle (the largest wooden castle in the world declared a UNESCO heritage site - see pic).

The next few days Matt and I (re)discovered Shimane prefecture, winding our way up and down the mountains, tiny fishing villages, farming towns, all in unbelievably picturesque settings, the kind you see in the movies. We stayed in little rural onsens (hot spring hotels), visited Hinomisaki Lighthouse, swam in the Sea of Japan, and camped in a trailer with canoe rentals nearby (see pic of Matt splashing me on the Go river).

The food was out of this world: fresh, organic and healthy. Soba and udon noodles, tempura, traditional Japanese meals of hot pot, seaweed, tofu, pickled veggies, eel, etc. My favourite meal was at a local sushi restaurant where the cook would make the same thing for every customer in the restaurant (which only sat about 5-6 people) and when you had had enough to eat you just had to tell him to stop and pay for what you had eaten. Great atmosphere, lots of interesting stories told and the best was, due to cultural miscommunication, while telling the cook of my peanut allergy, it ended up being "Bonnie, the girl who could not eat peanuts and allergy." Who ever heard of an allergy allergy? :) Well, it was safe to assume it wasn't on the menu that night.

It was nice to visit the places where Matt used to live; meet his old work colleagues at the International Centre in Matsue; see the old ski hill at Mount Sanbe where he attempted snowboarding for the first time; see his old apartment building; eat at his old favourite restaurants; meet Harakun (see pic), his old work/riding buddy and his extremely hyper mom and still-active grandmother who showed us his shiny Harley Davidson and the tricyle he spiced up for his 2 year old daughter, a biker in the making.

Matt remarked on several occasions how he has grown to appreciate the landscape and people in Shimane a lot more this time round, having 'grown up' and seen more of the world. As Marcel Proust so famously said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Returning to the place where Matt once called home and being privileged enough to get an insider's, albeit snapshot, view of the area, i understand more deeply the impressions left on Matt and like him, appreciate Shimane as a place where tradition merges gracefully with modern life, all the while eclipsed by the awesome natural environment that dwarfs most other places.

Friday, August 18, 2006

With Love, from Japan

Below is my Dad's mass email to friends and family around the world, describing his thoughts and impressions of Japan. I pretty much agree with what he says and thought i would post it here, to also give another 'voice' to this blog:

Sat. Aug. 19, 2006.

Hello All, After almost a week of travelling here in the ultra-chic urban area and the countryside, I am not just looking for the contrast of the old and the new, but also the wondrous, the exotic and the unconventional. Sometimes, the unexpected or the illogical encounters seem to be dubious, it is borne out of a culture of bias and outlook of a western North American society.

To quote the Insight Guide of the Discovery Channel, it is a unique place. Through the history of the land of the rising sun, Japan has adopted and adapted the best from her neighbours, such as the philosophy and writing from China, the Korean art and ceramics to the advances of the western technology. Along the processes, she has maintained its individuality, through her culture and people. It has become the second strongest economy over the years (and only surpassed by China recently), its infrastructure, development, and trade have created a high standard of living. You will find it expensive and yet people are willing to spend. Its recession of the last decade has gradually seen the light with the stock market registering double digit gain over the last two years. Yet the high value of the yen curtails many visitors from North America.

In my travels to different countries, the most striking and attractive highlights are the local people. To touch the surface, the distinctive well mannered behaviour has amazed me. Not just saying the usual Thank You is suffice to describe how citizens respect each other and care for the society. The unusual bowing of the train conductor to the passengers at the entrance and exit of each car speaks to the well discipline of the company's policy and yet the deep devotion to tradition and honour.

The unusual cleanliness of the environment and any establishments project the image of an advanced and developed state. The seemingly low number of public garbage can allows the populace to dispose habitually intelligently. With a 21st century equipped warm toilette, one can hardly feel the cold underneath in the winter time. With also sophisticated projectiles, the modern day toilet sure keeps you clean from the top to the "bottom".

Alas, the dominance of the Japaneses auto industry can be witnessed at the huge Toyota show place where one can test drive any available domestic cars, see any available latest models which become part of the North American models in a few years, examine and ride some future concept cars, and experience the whole universe of hybrid, Formula racing, safety equipments and the general knowledge of automobiles. In summary, it is an enlarged Ottawa Auto show by itself.

The acceptance and advancement of the western culture are uniquely Japanese. The willingness to compete and excel in this tight world market place yield unparallelled efficiency and accuracy, of which I suspect the high sacrifice of workers sometimes becoming slaves of time.

In this short window of time, I am amazed of what I have witnessed and experienced. As the owner of the new Nikko Lodge where we spent a night in the mountain resort, Kent portrays the new spirit of entrepreneurial after spending 35 years in Colorado in the States. As his very first Canadian guest, he has shown great care of ensuring us properly looked after, including a lesson of Yoga with a monk at 7am.

Well, we are now on the way to see more of the love of western cult in the Shibuya where the Harajuku girls dish out their ultra modern fashion and the Japanese Elvis' will do their twist.

Sayonara for now and talk to you again.

Cheers and take care,


Whew! Friday has arrived!

After arriving home late Sunday night from Osaka, Japan, due to our 4.5 hour delayed flight back to HK (tighter control systems at checkin were in place because of the incident with terrorists at Heathrow days earlier), it has been nonstop from waking up early, spending all day in the baking sun with 32 children on Surf Camp, riding for 3 hours a day on ferries, only to collapse every evening for a quick meal and then bed by 9pm.

Matt has been ever so good and provides all the comfort i need, and what's a plus, i don't have to yell at him to 'sit down'; wipe spaghetti sauce off his shirt, face and floor; remind him for the umpteenth to put on sunscreen and a hat; help find his shoes/glasses/earplugs/water bottle/towel/goggles/epipen!/sanity; dry his tears when he trips over the open drain in the shower and slices his toes; tear him away from a fight with another boy half his size over a shell found on the beach.

Things that make it all worthwhile:

Good-girl Irene picked up a spiral shell on the beach on Monday, brings it back on Wednesday in a little plastic container with some water in it covered in saran-wrap. She tells me that she thinks there is something still living inside the shell and that she wanted to bring it back to the ocean to release it.

10 year old Lucas telling 8 year old Jordan that "marriage can't be that bad since most adults do it some time or other.. and well, as for the kissing bit, it's disgusting, but i guess you just have to put up with it.."

Tiny Thomas with round specs asking me literally every three minutes on the ferry ride every morning and every afternoon how much longer until we get to Pui O/Central pier. Granted, it is a slow ferry and the ride is over 50 minutes - an eternity for kids who have no concept of time. I taught him that there are 60 seconds in every minute and that we should count: "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi..." I had him counting up to 32 minutes, then he gave up. Don't blame him.

Little Ben coming up to me to say a final goodbye today, wraps his arms around my neck and plants a wet one on my cheek.

This was Week 7 of Summer Camp. There is one week left before everyone is back in school. But I'll be working on the high school outdoor ed curriculum again, taking refuge behind the computer screen and stepping into my Leader Pants when/if necessary.

We have all survived, there were no barfers (hooray) and *i think* the kids all had a good time. I sure did, despite the continuous mundane questions. However, this week was just confirmation to why i opted to go into secondary school teaching. There may be more 'developed attitudes' at the secondary level, but at least conversation will be bit more sophisticated. Here's hoping.

Pic1: Angus and Dylan on the ferry wearing their beaded necklace they made in Arts & Crafts.
Pic2: The young sufers in training, crazy cheeky little monkeys!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

so this is HK summer

There was a drowning on Pui O Beach last week. Just as the lifeguards went off duty at precisely 6 oclock, a 19 year old university student who was here for a day of sand and surf, drowned. Fire trucks pulled up followed by hoards of cop cars and ambulances, and half of South Lantau too. I'm not sure of the details, but this is just one tragic incident that seems to be occurring more often than not in HK's waters. According to an article in the South China Morning Post, drownings have increased 155% after the government decided to swap the full-time more experienced lifeguards for younger, part-time (aka CHEAPER) ones. See pic.

Heavy rain and wind whipped through Hong Kong the past few days. At work, the waves were crashing right into the sliding doors of the restaurant as we yelled to each other over the roar of the waves. It was a "Heavy Rainstorm", The Hong Kong Observatory says. And so they only issued a warning signal #3 which, in my opinion, was way off the chart. It should've been closer to a signal #8 (which means everything shuts down and people are sent home). According to reports, where we were on Lantau Island, winds were recorded to have reached 209 km/hr. That is no mere 'heavy rainstorm'. Trees were completely uprooted, and anything that wasn't bolted down was sent flying in every which direction. Matt even saw a yacht washed up to shore from his office window and a mast of another boat snapped in two! The HK Observatory has defended its issue of the #3 warning signal but has promised to revamp its system.

Work has been extremely busy. We managed to finish the document for Friday's meeting where we presented it to 'a very special lady in the education field in Hong Kong who will have a lot of say in the success of our outdoor ed programme.' It was a lot of revamping the old programme into a new 'look' and also ensuring the aims of the national curriculum were met. It was fun and challenging and we've only just touched the surface. It's been good team-bonding to say the least. We've been taking our regular breaks of brownie&tea and the occasional dip in the sea (we all abandoned our computers after an intense meeting and went surfing for the afternoon - it was fantastic, what a rush!) Now our task is to write up the meat of the program in terms of lesson plans and training manual. But i get to skip out for a week...

In about 12 hours, we'll be making our way to the airport. Mom should be boarding her flight in Ottawa any time soon. It's been go go go the past few days and not that i don't welcome a change of scenery, but i would like a day of R&R here at home to do absolutely nothing first. Have been feeling a bit moody and today i'm plagued with stomach cramps and my bed looks so tempting...

After the summer, I'll be returning to University to do my postgrad degree in Education. I just went to pick up my schedule; that anxious/excited feeling of starting school again is growing strong. Dad will also be going back to school, to fulfill a dream he's had for a long time: to retire as anAssociate from Shoppers Drug Mart and take the Executive MBA course at Queen's University in Canada. He wrote the entrance exam the other week and passed - well done!

There is something very nice about going 'back to school' with Dad, well, at the same time i mean. We can talk about studying, reading, researching and making deadlines together. We can give each other moral support on assignments and exams. We can be proud of the other for following through with his/her dream of going back to school.