New Tires, Not Re-Tired

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hong Kong Endings: What I will Miss and What I Won’t

It seems such a short time ago that we embarked on the long journey east to Hong Kong, a place we have grown very fond of. When I started this entry, it was our last day—a day full of packing and cleaning and winding down.  But today we are in our Florida home, nearly two weeks after the return flight. As I look back over the months behind us, I’m remembering what I am already missing about Hong Kong.

First on that list is the sum of the experience in the vibrant, crowded but orderly city—a place that is alive 24-7—from the pre-dawn activity of the workers and exercisers to the twinkling of the lights on the harbor buildings till the wee hours— all decked in Christmas trees and snowmen and wrapped packages.

I’ll miss my familiar faces on my harbor walks in the morning—the men and women of about my age who appear every day and smile when they see me, wave and shout  “Jo San.” (good morning). I’ll also miss my friends here who have shared the happy times and my fits of frustration with lazy students.

I’ll really miss the food here. As time passed, I cooked less and less and sought out a variety of great restaurants instead. I may never be able to eat Chinese food in the U.S. again. In most restaurants it bears no resemblance to the amazing array of dishes we have sampled here. Of course the best is the dim sum, which is not to be missed—all the little morsels that come to the table freshly steamed in baskets or on small plates. My favorites are the turnip cakes and the Shanghai dumplings.

I miss the views from my window—at dawn when the sun rises, at  mid-day when that sun blazes into the windows and causes me to draw the curtain, but most of all at 8 p.m. when the 20-minute light show begins. On the special days during our visit, the light show was accompanied by fireworks—on the October 1st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic and on the opening of the Asian Games.

I’ll also miss having the sheets on my bed changed three times a week—and not having to do my own cleaning. I’m already back to the reality of multiple rooms that scream out at me to be dusted or vacuumed or de-cluttered.

I’ll miss the friends I made and the former students with whom I reconnected—students with families and successful careers in academia. This is one of the best parts about  spending much of my teaching career engaging with doctoral students, now spread across the globe in various institutions of higher education. Watching them blossom and grow and take up new interests has been incredibly rewarding.

And I’ll miss the new students (mostly in the master’s program) who seemed eager to engage with the social aspects of the internet and share with me their own knowledge of internet practices in China. I even learned about the human flesh search engine from them—and returned to the U.S. to find that “Law and Order” had taken up the subject in a recent episode.

Missing –well Not So Much. . .

The stress of full-time work in the university, especially the Thursdays I spent on my feet for six straight hours with only an hour’s break for dinner.

The many  undergraduate students who had no knowledge, less curiosity and even less willingness to study about the large world in which they reside.

The height and width of the stairs on any given staircase. They must be made for Asian feet and legs, but I never did feel comfortable climbing or descending the steps.

The Chinese cultural habit of not responding to challenging questions or requests when they could not or were not willing to provide straight answers.  Usually, the responses would begin something like. . . .”It would be most inconvenient. . . . “ or “I am so sorry, but. . . . .”  or simply to avert their eyes and not answer at all—or purse their lips and make the “m-m-m-m-m” sound. Usually these responses would lead to increased frustration on my part.

Greeting the wall of people anxious to board a train before any of us inside was able to disembark.  The arrows on the platforms would be utterly ignored by the boarding passengers as the quest for a seat trumped the usual practice of following the rules.

Hong Kong's ubiquitous soft squishy bread with no substance.

The clouds of pollution rising over the South China Sea blown in from the Pearl River and ruining the Hong Kong skyline.

Goodbye Hong Kong

I'll miss it all and hope to return one day--if not for work then for a visit to see the dragon dances and other celebrations of Chinese New Year. Thank you for the wonderful memories, and when those fade, for the pictures of some spectacular experiences.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Getting Married--Hong Kong Style

We live next to the wedding mall in our harbor hotel. Yes, that’s right, a mall full of everything weddings. Wedding services, wedding makeup, wedding flowers,  wedding decorations, wedding planners, and restaurants that  shut down their public dim sum service to become wedding banquet halls.  I’m told that our mall is only second best in Hong Kong. The Golden Plaza in Mong Kok  district holds the prize for that—boasting more than 100 wedding shops. Our mall is home to a variety of other stores and restaurants (thankfully).

Weddings are a big deal in Hong Kong, much as they are most places in the world. The bride frequently dresses in a traditional red Chinese gown (red for good luck) adorned with gold and silver as well as in a Western white dress. Gowns can be rented or purchased from the stores that offer a range of wedding services.

This blog isn’t going to be the insider’s guide to a Hong Kong wedding. I’m no expert on that. I’ve never even attended a wedding here. Instead these are just my observations and photos of weddings I have observed at a distance—and the shops I pass every day on my way to and from the train station.  So this will just be  a voyeur’s guide to the wedding experience.

Mall Wedding Protocol

One of the first things we noticed about the wedding banquet hall in the mall was the TV screen outside that carried the names of the happy-couple-du jour  alongside a photo taken long before the event. Must be that it is not considered bad luck to see the bride in her dress, as photos are taken in picturesque spots all over the city prior to the big day—in parks, along the harbor, etc. Luck is a major part of the event, though, so fortune tellers can get involved in picking the most auspicious day on which to hold the wedding.

Getting back to the banquet hall description, we have passed the place many times when a wedding was being held.  A guest registry is set up at the highly decorated entrance to the restaurant. Inside tables are covered with cream-colored shiny material that matches the chair covers. At one end of the room, there is a stage for the bride and groom –elevated for a better view by the guests.  And if they can’t be seen well by those sitting far from the stage, a  large television screen will capture their movements.  We also notice that the TV screen outside the restaurant always lists the couple’s first names—their English first names, not their Chinese names given to them at birth. Perhaps this wedding mall is just for the Western weddings, as we’ve never seen anyone’s picture in the traditional red dress.

High Cost of Getting Hitched

Much cost is incurred by the weddings, even in the economic hard times. A local paper in August announced that the wedding halls in the entire region were fully booked from that time until October 2010! And the most popular places were the five star hotels, not the less pricey 3 star ones. A survey reports that the average price spent on these occasions was $30,000 (U.S.) in 2009—down from $31,225 in 2008. Weddings must be resistant to economic change here.  The total spent in Hong Kong in 2008 was reported to be $1.5 billion (U.S.).

To avoid the big expense, or just to get married in a more exotic location, many couples choose another country in Southeast Asia for the ceremony. I enclose a picture here of newlyweds in Siem Reap who went to visit Angkor Wat to be photographed. Our driver told us that couples wait until the end of the rainy season to get married there. That had just happened when we arrived.

In Memoriam

While I’m on the subject of weddings, I want to take the time to remember my good friend Beth Wood. It wasn’t so very long ago that I attended her wedding to my friend and colleague, Dan Drew, in the faculty club of the Indiana Memorial Union. I'm sure it was the happiest day of their lives. They seemed to be perfect for each other. She, so full of life and enthusiasm for most everything. He, the practical joker and always ready with a good story.  Both of them, really good people. We had many good times together—even after the cancer appeared in her lung. She smiled through it all—the surgery and the aftermath. And she had several really good years before the return of the disease. It claimed her life in the last week, but never her spirit. I can scarcely believe that we won’t ever be able to have lunch at the Limestone Grill or Tallent again. I will miss the twinkle in her eye and her excitement for life. She boosted my spirits on many occasions and taught me to value every precious moment we have left to us. I raise my glass to you Beth and thank you for being my friend.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chasing Hong Kong Dollars--Lots of Them

Hong Kong residents think about only three things, as the saying goes. Work, Food, and Shopping. But I think the over-arching thought is about making money. And the evidence of that is all around me. In the scores of financial institutions that populate Hong Kong Island, in the high end stores that are found in most malls, in the equally up-scale hotels that dot the harbor, and even in the comments from my students about their life goals.

It is probably to be expected that money would drive some of the values here as Hong Kong is a major world financial center. That also explains the fact that the income gap between rich and poor is among the highest in the world. A recent UN report indicated that the richest 10 per cent of the people here possess about one-third of the territory’s income while the poorest 10 per cent get only 2 per cent.

One good indicator of how rich those people at the top are is the price that apartments go for here. In September a newspaper headline announced that a record was set for the price of a one-bedroom flat in a new building called The Masterpiece (which I can see from my hotel room window) at $3.3 million (U.S.). That bought the local businessman 816 square feet of space. Hardly a palace but how many people can say they live in a masterpiece?  (Pictured here behind the "Pinnacle Apartments," the Masterpiece is currently the tallest building in Hong Kong).

One interesting scheme  for raising a lot of money was offered up by a local bank recently. Upon reaching the 150th anniversary of the bank’s opening, bank executives decided to issue a limited number of $150 HK notes and sell them at $280 as collectors’ items. The plan hasn’t attracted so many customers, I hear. Supposedly the bank was going to give the profits to charity.

Though we are constantly told about the changed behavior since the economic tsunami in Hong Kong, a recent global poll found that Hong Kongers are still spending as they did before the downturn (77% said that) and more than half are still buying luxury goods. (Synovate survey in August).  I’m not sure if that is true, but I do know that the malls are still chock-full of people almost any time of the day or night.

Hong Kong Students and their Goals

This atmosphere of consuming also affects my undergraduate students in the approach to their education and their choice of life occupation. Granted, my experience is only that, but I’ll share what has been happening in my classroom this semester.

I have noticed that the students in my international communications class appear to be less than interested in the topic of the course despite my efforts to make it relevant to their lives. Though it is a required course for all students in media and communication, it is a class in their major. And so I have inquired about their apathy towards the class. In my office one day two students said that they really didn’t want to major in communications, but they were there because they didn’t qualify for business school. In Hong Kong students take entry exams to be admitted to the university and are able to enroll in courses of study according to the points they receive. Since such a system is also in place in Turkey, I knew how it worked. So I asked if engineering and computer science were at the top of this hierarchy and therefore required the most points. “Oh no,” one of them replied. “Business is at the top.”  Communications is somewhere near the middle. Further discussion revealed that their goal was really to make money  rather than find a career that they love, and they chose whatever major for which their scores qualified them to reach that outcome.

The conversation helped me to understand why they might not be so engaged with a critical treatment of global media barons and the trend toward concentration of ownership. And their minds might be thinking about ways they could transfer majors as I talked about the revenue declines in the news business.

What they do seem to be interested in is electing student groups to represent the student body. I noticed this phenomenon as I arrived at the entrance to the university every morning for about two weeks. Each day a different set of groups in matching outfits and with signs bearing slogans would be shouting out cheers to promote their individual group. At 8:30 in the morning,, I  was surprised by their excessive energy and asked about the purpose of the shouting. Students told me that if elected, they would organize interesting activities for their classmates or even to try to get textbook prices reduced. Each group tried to outdo the others in the promises made. I commented to the security guard on duty that if they put just 10 per cent of that energy into their studies, they might be better off. He replied that he only wished he had the opportunity to go to school, but that because his family was poor, he was unable to attend.  Perhaps he might actually have enjoyed a class in international communication.

Though his comment made me sad, I knew that such events were part of student culture and that U.S. students who join sororities and fraternities were not much different than this. And besides, I told myself, they were learning leadership and entrepreneurial skills this way. Perhaps it will get them closer to their goal of making money after graduation. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

From East to West and Back Again--Culture Change

Germany--More Like Home

When I entered the airport in Hamburg, Germany about a week and a half ago, I already felt closer to this culture than the one I had left about 15 hours earlier. For one thing, my whole foot would fit on each step of a staircase. I had forgotten that stairs in Hong Kong were much smaller. For another thing, I didn’t feel so outsized. The people surrounding me were taller and wider than the ones I had just left. I am reminded of that difference every day in Hong Kong. The last reminder came as I was purchasing socks for the colder weather when I departed the airport in Hong Kong. The label read “one size fits all.” I would have been relieved except that “all” referred to those people with shoe sizes from 4-8 and mine were 9!
I was also reminded of the differences when I had problems figuring out where to find a taxi upon my arrival in Hamburg. Finding nobody at the information desk, I inquired the direction of a woman at another desk. She promptly told me that her job was NOT to supply information and so I had to fend for myself in the near-empty airport that night. I thought to myself that strangers in Hong Kong were much friendlier—particularly in the fabulous Hong Kong airport.

When I went to breakfast the next morning, I was greeted by the best kind of difference—the sight and smell of sturdy bread in all shapes and all grains. The Chinese have likely come to the appreciation of bread a little late—and make it more to resemble their steamed buns than the bread I am used to. It is always either too soft or too chewy, despite having the look of the real thing. So instead of Congee and noodles or a stir-fried rice dish, there were many kinds of cheese and jams and yogurt and muesli on the breakfast table—all accompanied by wonderful coffee. OK, I can get that in Hong Kong, as Starbucks and the Pacific Coffee Company have both made their way to Asia and are fairly ubiquitous around the city.

Of course the cooler temperatures and the many-colored leaves were also different. I had traded my sandals in for lace-up shoes with those too-tight socks. And I even purchased a wool jacket from Marks & Spencer in Hong Kong before the trip. Yes, it is true, the stores are loaded with winter attire and the advertising in the magazine shouts “Winter at Last” when the daytime highs are still in the 80s.

Next Stop—Siem Reap, Cambodia

I didn’t get much chance to make other comparisons as I had to spend most of my time in Germany in meeting rooms before the interminably long return flight. But as it turns out I had another chance to make comparisons when Pekin and I decided to take this last long weekend with a little trip. Monday was Chung Yeung Festival where the people go to respect their ancestors in the graveyards and to sweep the graves make burnt offerings. Having no ancestors in Hong Kong to visit, we purchased tickets to Siem Reap, Cambodia to experience one of the new wonders of the world, the ancient city of Angkor Wat.  It didn’t make the cut for the top seven, according to the million votes received by the New7Wonders Foundation, but it was in the next 13 to be nominated. Other lists of the “wonders” do include Angkor Wat in the top tier.

At our age we frequently say to ourselves that it is possible we won’t get the chance to do these things or be healthy enough to make these trips again, so we need to do it now. We weren’t sorry.

But the contrast with both Germany and Hong Kong couldn’t have been greater. The first difference was the walk through passport control. Pekin referred to the long line of uniformed middle-aged men as the “Twelve Apostles,” but there weren’t quite that many. After affixing our visa to the passport the first man passed the passport to the next, who inspected it carefully and handed it off to the stern-looking guy on his left, and so forth—all the way to the last man, who then handed the documents across the counter to us. At last we had been given approval to enter the country. We would have taken a picture of the group, but feared they might revoke the visas.

All over Siem Reap we were greeted by men and women who couldn’t do enough to make us feel honored to have entered their country. That was all the more obvious by following of the cultural practice to press the palms of their hands together and bow to us each time we were greeted. We never opened a door in our hotel. There was always someone there to do it for us. Chairs were pulled out for us as we sat down to breakfast and my car door was always opened by the driver. I wonder how I can get that to happen back in the U.S.

People Living in the Midst of Poverty and Corruption

I know there is poverty in Hong Kong because I read about it in the newspaper regularly.  I’ve also read that the region is at or near the top in the gap between the richest and the poorest. However, because of the life I lead here, I don’t have many chances to encounter the poorest citizens. In Siem Reap it was impossible to avoid. Our driver, not among the poorest, quit his job as an elementary school teacher, to earn more money as a driver. He can’t rise in the ranks to be a tour guide, however, until he pays $3,000 for the license to practice. It is all about corruption, he says, when he describes the system for nearly everything in the country. He took us to visit his mother so we could purchase some of the baskets she makes and sells along the Thai border where they fetch a better price than in town. His parents were spared from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge because they lacked education and worked as rice farmers. After driving down a long bumpy dirt road and through a village surrounded by flooded land, we arrived at the family home—up on stilts, open to the elements from below because the floor boards had gaps between them; lacking doors or windows; and without electricity from the city but only a battery that allowed for limited lighting, television viewing, and refrigeration. After purchasing a few baskets, I left feeling sad about the hard life of this woman and her family of seven children.

We also saw the signs of poverty at the Angkor Wat ruins where small children as young as four or five relentlessly begged tourists to buy their post cards, woven bracelets or guidebooks. We were told they went to school on split sessions, but that school was closed in honor of the visit of the S. Korean prime minister, leaving the children free to ply their wares.

One morning we took a boat trip on Tonle Sap Lake where the mostly Vietnamese boat people live. To tourists the place is romantically referred to as the “floating village.”  Earning a livelihood from fishing, the boat people spend their whole lives on the water. Some of the larger ones serve as shopping centers, while one boat was the site of a pool room, and a third one covered with netting was used as a basketball court. Several floating restaurants were also situated among the homes. To complete the community there was a church boat and a school boat. The community must have to deal with water-borne diseases, and mobility is both limited and facilitated by the surrounding water. Children and adults alike appeared thin and malnourished. I was glad to have seen this village, but also sad to know that I could do little about the conditions. It made me want to give more to support Kiva, the online micro-loan program.

Of course we went to Siem Reap to experience the temples, not the poverty. They were as amazing as everyone has said. But without the $50 million that came from NGOs and the Japanese government to preserve the site and clear out the land mines—which are said to still be found in the jungle areas surrounding the temples, it would not be the tourist site it is today. The Cambodian People’s Party government is somehow unable or unwilling to manage the temple business , so outsources it to a private company that returns a small percentage to government coffers. In case you might be thinking that this poor country would not know the value of a dollar, you would be wrong. A 3-day pass to visit Angkor Wat costs $40 per person, while the 45-minute boat ride on a tub that we were not sure would get us back to the dock was priced at $20 per person, and the right to exit Cambodia at the airport was an additional $25 per head (coming in cost only $20 each). Who gets all that money? Our driver tells us that the corrupt government scoops it all up and it lands in their pockets.

I started this blog with thoughts about cultural differences, and in the short time between October 15 and 26th I felt like I went through a time warp as well as a cultural warp. I’ve only touched the surface of the feelings I had about differences, so might continue this later. All I have to say to conclude is that I’m glad to be back at our serviced suite hotel on the Hong Kong harbor.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Resurgence of Barbie in China

Barbie dolls have always driven me crazy. They lack most all of the features that I believe little girls should seek in role models. As many other feminists have pointed out, they have anatomically unrealistic bodies, they find that “math is hard,” they spend their time trying to make themselves beautiful for Ken, and  they represent the ultimate female consumer.

I consider myself a feminist and have fought for women’s rights in my profession, conducted research on gender equity issues, and tried hard to raise my two daughters to be strong women who also believe in  gender equality. But I must confess that I failed to resist Barbie pressure from at least one of my daughters. And when my youngest was gifted with most of her cousin’s large Barbie collection, discarded because she had outgrown doll play, I allowed her to accept the dolls, the clothes, the jewelry—all of it.  Not my only failure as a mother, but I’m not proud of that weakness.

In recent years I have not thought much about Barbies as my daughters are grown and the topic doesn’t come up much in conversation.  I have noticed in Hong Kong, however, that many of the young women wear clothes out in public that resemble those of Barbie.  However, I was still taken aback when I walked into the shopping center  through which I must pass each morning on my way to school, to find a life-sized display of a Barbie dream house in shades of electric pink. In another part of the mall was a display that included an enormous pink high-heeled shoe with other fashion items displayed prominently. The entire display was labeled “Pretty in Pink.” 

Flagship Store in Shanghai

I had read that Barbie sales in the U.S. were on the decline lately—probably replaced by the newly popular Bratz dolls. So the display surprised me a little. Later I read that Mattell’s sales of Barbie are huge in China these days. On the Mattel website, it introduces Barbie Shanghai as “the first Barbie Worldwide Flagship Store.” Complete with a fashion runway, a place to have a “photo moment” with Barbie and a Barbie Spa (guess that is for the pleasure of  aging Barbie fans).   Opened on Barbie’s 50th birthday in March, the store is a full six stories.  Yes, you read that correctly. SIX stories. For those of us used to locating Barbies in a single aisle in Target, it is hard to imagine what they could possibly put on all those floors. Barbie’s clothes surely don’t take up that much space!

Now  in stores in more than 200 Chinese cities, Barbie is selling  like hotpants, errr.. hotcakes. In one shopping mall in Beijing alone, sales of more than $13,000 a month are being reported. There is even an online web site,, for Barbie lovers in China.

Should We Take this Seriously?

A little bewildered by this surge of Barbie fans, I asked a female colleague whether she objected to the Barbie display in the mall or the message it might be sending to young girls. She replied that her daughter had Barbies and that it was fine for little girls to think about being pretty and dressing up as long as they also were taught to work hard in school.  

My university is located in a neighborhood with a lot of private elementary and middle schools. Frequently I see the young girls in their modestly designed uniforms and sensible shoes walking around the mall or on the train platforms. But I know it  won’t be long before they are aspiring to the silk and glitter of the models walking on the harbor or the mannequins in the multiple store windows that fill Hong Kong. How can they resist when the malls are one of the few places where kids can go that is out of the intense heat and offers fun places to hang out and even ice skate.  

In a meeting one day in my office with several young women working on a school project, I remarked about the glitter-covered and intricately designed nails of one of the women. Her face lit up as she described how you could go to mainland China in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong and get them done for only about $100 HK, while at home the same manicure would cost more like $700.  (That would be about U.S. $13 and  more than U.S. $90 respectively). She left me with the address in case I wanted to invest in designer nails.  Does this mean she followed this fashion because she played with Barbie dolls—or that her school work was less important than her nails? I have no way of knowing as the mid-term, paper and final have yet to be turned in.

Post Script  

There was some redeeming value to the Barbie Pretty in Pink display in Festival Walk. The mall was holding a charity sale in conjunction with the display in cooperation with the Moonlight Foundation Nepal that helps provide free education to poor children in that country.  The recipients of this aid would otherwise join the child labor force of 40,000 in Nepal. Because the supporters of the charity in Hong Kong are “super models,” (Anthony Sandstrom and Jocelyn Luko) they likely thought that the Barbie Dream House display was appropriate.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Rules Are Mostly Made to be Kept in Hong Kong

Americans live by rules every day of their lives—in their community governed by neighborhood associations, on the highway in their vehicles, in their workplaces controlled by their superiors. But in Hong Kong societal rules seem to seep into every part of daily existence. And in case you forget how to behave in any given situation, there are plenty of reminders around to get you back on track when you stray. Those reminders come in the form of signs found everywhere—on the walls in train stations, on the workplace intranets, and in the public service announcements on television.  A recent television spot told us all how much happier we would be if we cleaned our homes regularly, illustrating how the whole family pitches in to mop floors.

Rules in University Life

     As an academic, I’ve had fairly free reign over the conduct of my work life. As long as I taught my classes responsibly, kept office hours, attended meetings and published an appropriate amount of research, nobody messed with the way I went about doing things. Not so here. I got a taste of the rules even before I arrived. In early summer, the Human Resources office of the university informed me that my visa would begin on the day before classes started and that I was not expected to book my flight before that time. What?  No time to recover from jet lag? No time to settle in?  No time to get my preparations done before walking into the classroom?  After much negotiation, I was able to get here some days before the start of teaching. But I found those were not the only rules. I needed university approval for travel to conferences —and not just at the department level—and was allotted exactly 3.5 days of approved personal leave for the semester. Decisions are posted on a public website.

     Rules come up in unexpected places at the university. One day early in the semester I left to go home after my evening class. On the train I remembered that I had neglected to remove flash drive from the USB port of the classroom computer. “Never mind,” I thought. “Nobody will be in that room anymore tonight, so I’ll just arrive before the start of classes in the morning to retrieve it.” To my horror, the flash drive was gone and an extensive search turned up nothing. “You might check with security,” said one of the administrative assistants. Thinking this was just like a lost-and-found center, I asked the attendant if my flash drive had been located, providing details about the classroom location and time I left.   Then the interrogation began.  “What did it look like?”  “What was the brand name?”  “What color was it?” “How much memory was on it?”  “Name several files stored on it?”  I must have had a few problems recalling specific information as he was not ready to tell me whether such a thing had been located. He disappeared for about 15 minutes and returned with the device. “Yes, that’s it,“ I said, excitedly, thinking he would hand it over. Oh no. The drive was inserted in the security office’s laptop and powered up. Then I was asked again about file names.  Finally after certifying that it was indeed my flash drive in an official log book and providing several of my signatures, I was allowed to leave—flash drive in hand. Whew! Since then I have remembered to check for ALL my belongings when leaving a classroom.  And I know the security officer’s rule. Remove all alien devices from classrooms and turn them in to the main security office for hapless faculty to arrive and be treated as if they were not the real owners of the items.

Rules for National Day

Last week was the celebration of National Day, the 60th anniversary of the PRC.  Though celebrations on the mainland were much more elaborate and had many more rules than in Hong Kong, we had a few of our own to follow. Mainland rules dictated that nobody without tickets could attend the official show in Tiananmen Square (despite its being dubbed “the people’s parade”), and that no official celebrations outside those in Shanghai and Beijing were allowed. Even the weather systems were not permitted to bring rain to the main event. So several hours in advance of the celebration, the clouds were all seeded so that rain would fall prior to the ceremony and smog and clouds would magically disappear on cue. As it turned out, the rules were all followed—even by the weather--and the program went off without a hitch.

            Hong Kong’s celebration mainly consisted of a 23-minute fireworks display over Hong Kong harbor. Those people who did not live in an apartment with full view of the harbor or who could not afford a hotel room at the pricey Peninsula, were relegated to standing along the Avenue of the Stars to watch with the rest of the public. Local officials did not want them to misbehave for the event so many banners, like the ones pictured here, reminded the people of proper behavior. Well they must have complied with the admonishments because the next morning on my walk, I found only this display of trash and no indications that any other disturbances occurred.

Rules for Playing Golf

My husband, an avid golfer, has been really keen to get on a golf course here, despite the expense of it all.  On a weekend, the  greens fee for the 18-hole course at Kau Sai Chao costs more than $100.  I encouraged him to go as he may not have the opportunity to do this again. So he called the course to book a tee time. At the other end, an automated telephone system instructed him to register with some detailed personal information, including the first 6 digits of his passport number. After a few more steps, he was asked for his handicap number and the names of the other golfers playing with him.  Following a bit of difficulty he was able to get a real person on the line, explaining that he was away from the U.S. and did not have his handicap number with him. Sadly, he has been unable to get on the links, and is waiting for the number to be sent to him from his golf course back in Bloomington. All of this means nothing to me, but he was incredulous that a public golf course would require his handicap number to be able to book a tee time. Guess his cash is insufficient to play and they won’t take his word about the handicap. Those are the rules.

Transportation Rules –and a Small Rebellion

The rules especially apply to public transportation. On a recent bus trip to the U.S. consulate, my husband and I were seated behind the driver where the bus rules were posted, as you can see in the photo I took of them. I got nervous reading complete list of 24, thinking I might be violating one or the other of them. So I tried to get through the list before disembarking.  But when I got to the 25th rule, I was somewhat relieved to find that if I had a problem with any of the previous 24, I could call the hotline or customer service or even email a query to the city bus information center. What a relief.

       Now you may be wondering what it takes for a Hong Konger to break the rules. I do see occasional jaywalkers when the stop light lasts too long and a pedestrian is in a hurry. And I also notice that some rule-breakers walk up or downstairs opposite the arrows indicating  the appropriate side.

But I find the most consistent violation of the rules when travelers are boarding trains.  At all train stations passengers are reminded to  “allow passengers to alight” from the train in three languages and to “stand behind the yellow line” as the train approaches. Well, they get part of this right.  At each entrance to the train, arrows are drawn on the platform indicating that those leaving the train will exit in the middle of the door and those boarding the train will wait on either side of  the middle. The assumption is that boarding passengers will wait and when the last person to exit has left, they will step onto the train. But what really happens is that boarding passengers stand behind the yellow line only until the train stops. Then they move in, standing shoulder to shoulder forming a kind of barricade so that the disembarking passengers must push their way out of the train just in time for the doors to close behind them. Why does this happen?  Why do they not wait in the designated areas until all the passengers depart the train?  I have no real explanation. I can only guess that no matter how hard people want to obey the rules, there are just some times and places where you absolutely must resist and do what you want to do—in this case, push your way onto the train. 

I believe I am becoming a better citizen here in Hong Kong and am actually trying to obey the myriad rules posted around me. But I must confess to a little resistance now and again, despite my best efforts.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why the Newspaper Business is Like Mooncakes

I would be really sad if the direst predictions about the news business, in particular the newspaper business, were to come true. I love reading the morning paper with my cup of coffee, and particularly on Sundays—especially when the New York Times was much bigger than it is today.

So when I saw the bustle of delivery vans stacked full of morning papers, vendors offloading them onto pallets, men on bicycles stacking them up behind them, and middle-aged ladies selling a range of local and international ones on the platform outside the Star Ferry, I was encouraged about the health of the newspaper industry in Hong Kong. 
Every day on the way home from my walk, I buy the South China Morning Post, more commonly referred to as the SCMP, the most influential and most trusted daily in the territory—including  Chinese-language newspapers.  I like the writing style of the paper and the way it takes on local social issues—like the rising youth drug problems and the incompetence in area hospitals or government corruption. But SCMP is far from being the largest circulating paper. That honor goes to the combined market for the four free newspapers (three in Chinese and one in English) given out at train stations and other public transportation centers.

The press here isn’t as healthy as it appears, however. The industry has the same problems as it does in the West—declining advertising revenues (SCMP lost about $7.5 million in the first six months of this year alone) and failure to attract young readers. I have noted that the SCMP sells a special edition that includes only classified ads—for about half the price of the newspaper. I found that really interesting as in the U.S., newspapers have just about totally conceded classified advertising to craigslist. I mentioned this to my internet communication class and was told that Hong Kong has no craigslist equivalent—though just across the border in China one exists. After class a young woman came up to my desk and said that she often buys the paper’s classified section, touted to have the best employment ads in Hong Kong, when she is job hunting. She said she was happy to do that as otherwise, she would buy the paper and throw away the news section. She thought that was a waste of money and newsprint—so better to buy the ads without the news! Youth are the same everywhere—more interested in the internet, computer games, and other ways of getting the information they need. Consuming news the traditional way is far down on their list.

So us retired folks are about the only audience left for news it seems. When I travel, I love to read the local newspapers to learn about the culture, the local events, and what issues concern the population. It is also the way I learn how to make a distant location a little more like home. Alongside the SCMP, I also read the edgy Hong Kong Magazine—written primarily for expats—that can be found on Fridays at no cost in the neighborhood Starbucks. It is one of several Asia City Media Group publications that appear in several regional cities. 

Mooncakes and Moon Festivals

It was through a story about moon cakes that appeared in the magazine that first got me interested in the overpriced dessert that appears in supermarkets, bakeries, convenience stores and even in Haagen Dazs stores (where the special ice cream variety of mooncake is sold).  Later I found a mooncake story in the SCMP and many references to mooncakes on the web. Odd that I had never heard of them before—or of the holiday, the moon festival, itself before coming to Hong Kong. It illustrates how very disconnected from the rest of the world Americans can be. We expect to find our holidays wherever we go but are surprised that other traditions exist and that they are celebrated by more people than ever think about Thanksgiving or Halloween (though I understand there is a following for that holiday here).

The Moon or mid-Autumn festival has some connection to Thanksgiving, however, as it is considered a harvest festival. Now mind you, it is hard to imagine harvest in 95-degree heat in my shorts and t-shirt. But never mind, in some parts of Asia where the holiday is celebrated, actual autumn temperatures do exist. Celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar (October 3, this year), it also resembles Thanksgiving in that families reunite and have a special meal together. Falling on a Sunday this year, there is no public holiday. On this day, gifts of food and money are given to relatives to indicate respect and love for them. Prior to the holiday you should at least give one box of moon cakes to your family. From the number of people I have seen on the streets carrying the beautifully wrapped or decorated boxes bearing mooncakes, the tradition seems to be widely upheld.

As students are a major source of information about the culture, I asked them about their fondness for mooncakes. “We don’t like them,” said one. She claimed that because the traditional mooncakes are falling out of favor with young people (much like the news business), bakers have come up with more attractive forms of the sweet in the “snowy” variety or the ice cream versions.

More needs to be said about the several kinds of moon cakes. After reading about them in the HK Magazine, described by Johannes Pong as “cloyingly sweet,” “rich with lard,” and “dense with egg yolk,” I just had to try them. But I thought I had better start out with the adapted and modernized version called the “snowy” moon cake that I found in the freezer section of my supermarket. I chose the little translucent glutinous rice gems that promised blueberry  and  chestnut fillings. Two of them, just 2 inches in diameter, sold for about $4. At home, I cut them up and sampled them with my husband, Pekin. Not bad, we thought. Now on to the real thing.

Given that I wasn’t in the generation of my students who hated the authentic moon cakes, I thought maybe I would like them better than they did. They are called moon cakes because they are round, but also because they contain four salted duck egg yolks that represent the four phases of the moon. Surrounding the egg yolks are a lotus-seed paste (or bean paste), and all around that is the lard-filled pastry. Yum!

With just a few days left before the holiday and fearing the moon cake supply would be exhausted, I purchased a single traditional moon cake in a lovely decorated box (although the clerk assured me that this was the real thing and didn’t I really want to buy a box of four). At home I sliced it up in small pieces as is the custom and served it to Pekin. It was indeed sweet and heavy as described, but the taste wasn’t bad and the saltiness of the egg yolk offset the sweetness of the lotus paste.  I guess I must have consumed more of the egg yolk than did Pekin because my intestines responded unfavorably a few hours later. I wonder if it is a good idea to keep cooked egg yolks—even when surrounded by the other ingredients out on the shelf and unrefrigerated for so long.   Anyway, I don’t think we will finish the rest of the mooncake, despite the price. Reports are (but not listed on the box) that one mooncake contains 800 calories and 400 times the amount of daily cholesterol a person should consume.  Local campaigns have tried to warn people not to eat too many. But despite this, at least one school was giving them out as rewards to students who completed their homework.

News and Mooncakes

At first I thought writing about the news business and mooncakes in the same blog didn’t fit together at all. But the more I write, the more I am convinced they are intimately related. Here’s why.  First off, it seems that locally the state of the economy is measured by the sales of both newspapers and mooncakes.  Maxims, one of the large local bakers of the product, is reported to have ordered 32 million duck eggs for the 2009 season. The owners of the business insist that Hong Kongers will need to have their mooncakes, regardless of the economic downturn—or tsunami, as it is locally called. Early reports of sales showed a bit of a slump in mooncake sales, however. So like the newspaper business, mooncake sales are reflective of the larger economic conditions.

Hong Kong youth view mooncakes, like newspapers, as part of their parents’ and grandparents’ traditions—not their own. And they are not particularly fooled by marketing schemes and changes in ingredients to woo them to buy. Much like free newspapers and online news websites don’t necessarily hook young people into becoming lifelong news consumers. And if all the young people in Hong Kong stop eating mooncakes, one day the lovely decorated boxes will disappear from the store shelves to be replaced by something more tasteful to the next generation. If the same happens to newspapers, there will be no more vans backing up to the Star Ferry station to unload and no more employment for the women who sell the publications. That will be an even sadder day for the residents of Honk Kong and the rest of the world’s population. We will have lost two valued traditions. Let’s hear it for mooncakes. Long live mooncakes. And long live the South China Morning Post.