Thursday, April 30, 2009

Day One ..... And to the Waterfall.........

So here we are with mum-in-law, taking photos of the beach on the first leg of our walk.........

And then, we are looking for villages......Which way to go??

Of course, there are always signs to point us in the right direction? Oh, hum, which way?

So, let us dally for a while in the local temple until we decide.........
Good job I knew the way, so, we made it to the waterfall.....eventually!
And then Greybeard arrived on the ferry to meet us in the evening.

See you tomorrow. Missing my reading, but, lovely to have time with the family.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's a Family Affair - Dreams From My Father

I have to say from the outset that I have been fan of Barack Obama, since he first appeared on mine and most other people’s radar during the 2004 Democratic Convention when he made his career enhancing pivotal speech. I cheered him along the 2008 election campaign trail which eventually lead him to the White House. So, when I saw this book, I thought it would be worth a read.

Dreams From My Father is an account of Obama’s search for his own identity as he struggles to understand his position in the world as a black man, coming from a white family. He lives, during his early life in the villages of Indonesia where all the kids look more or less like him, so his place in life isn’t in question at that time. Then his mother, who has ambition for her son, decides he would do much better in life with a good education and so he successfully applies for a place at a private college in Hawaii and is sent to live with his grandparents, so he can attend school. It is during this time that his questions begin to surface and he realises he belongs to a minority. Although his white grandmother and grandfather play pivotal roles in his life, he is driven by an enormous curiosity about his father and his paternal family in Kenya, wondering all the time that if he knew them he would better understand his black heritage and be able to find his place in life. He slowly develops into an angry young man, although he does not reach the heights of anger that some of his friends attain.

Eventually, after learning of his fathers death an opportunity finally arises for him to visit his family in Kenya. The contrast of life there in comparison to his earlier days in Hawaii and then at college in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago, could not have been more distinct. Although he is adored by his mother and grandparents, his father’s family absorb him into their ranks as if by osmosis and this state of kinship is clearly described and obviously enjoyed by Obama. He paints a wonderfully bold portrait of his grandmother, aunties, uncles, half siblings and cousins.

It is an honest account of a child turning into a man who is torn between two worlds and feels that he does not belong entirely to one or the other. He talks about his anger at discrimination against him personally and as he bears witness of it against others’, he recalls smoking pot with his mates and his dabbling in under-age drinking. From a political perspective, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the clearly racist comments he makes would come back to haunt him in the future. Then I realised that Barack, the man, had played a master stroke by owning the book and the young Obama entirely, racist comments, misspent youth and all, thus, taking any potential ammunition out of the rifles of any future opponents. Smart, smart man!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

Speaking of family - my mother-in-law is visiting and we are off to see our local waterfall today. I'll post some more photos tomorrow, but here is one from last week.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It may be quiet for a little while

It may be difficult for me to write book reviews over the next two weeks as we are having a guest stay with us at Chez Kimlette for the next two weeks and it would be terribly rude of me to abandon my mother-in-law to write a blog, especially as she has come so far to visit!
Do keep your comments coming and I will post photos of our excursions as we go.

At least the weather has improved and it has stopped raining!

Let us hope it stays this way........

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Are taxi's the same everywhere?

What is it about taxi’s that conjures up memories in my mind of speeding around bends, vying for too small a space in traffic jams ahead and exposing white knuckles whilst holding on for dear life to the handle on the seat back in front of me? Why do taxi drivers throughout the world feel compelled to challenge and change the rules of the road in every city I have ever travelled to? I can give you some examples:

My top 5 scariest taxi rides:
1. Indonesia - Jakarta – Airport to JI. Raya Cilandak KKO (about one and half hours).
2. India – Bombay – Taj Hotel to Airport (three and a half hours)
3. China - Shanghai – Airport to Pudong (one hour )
4. USA - New York – JFK Airport to Central Park ( 50 very long minutes)
5. Malaysia - Johor Bahru – Causeway to Pasir Gudang ( 40 minutes)

Granted, the number one scariest ride on my list, took place in Indonesia and was somewhat enhanced by the fact that it happened during a local uprising against the military. Foreigners were being hijacked along the airport road, so the taxi driver felt compelled to drive along it at the speed of light and when he asked me to lie down on the back seat for the duration of the journey, so I could not be seen through the window, it dawned on me that perhaps I should have made a will. It is amazing how hearing these instructions sharpened my senses and increased the amount of adrenalin coursing through my veins, so much so, that my heart felt as if it was about to make its own way to our destination, bouncing along without me! That very day a warning was issued to travellers by the UK government, advising all UK nationals to consider postponing any travel plans to Jakarta. Why didn’t they tell me earlier?

The most surreal taxi ride I have ever taken was in India and happened one evening when I was on my way from the hotel, to the airport. I ordered the car to pick me up four hours ahead of the scheduled departure time of my flight, which should have been more than enough to make the journey and a timely check-in. What I hadn’t bargained on was that the first rain of the Monsoon had arrived in Bombay, just one hour before I was to set off! If you have been in any Indian city when the monsoon rains arrive, you will understand why this posed a potential threat to my travel plans. At the first drop of monsoon rain people dance and celebrate outside, in the rain. Everybody celebrates! There are 19.5 million people living in Bombay, it has the highest population of any Indian city and possibly the most domesticated cows, which are revered by Indian’s country-wide. The holy cows and all the people take to the streets to welcome the monsoon and they were all out that night, all 19.5 million of them, plus cows, I swear!
My driver was heroic. He swerved and stopped, spotted any opportunity to move forward and, all the time, kept his hand firmly planted on the horn of the car, which, in an odd way, added to the chaos and revelry. I was horrified at first and then realised that I was in the hands of the Gods and this taxi driver. So, I sat back, relaxed and soaked in the scene around me and I am so glad I did. I have never seen such unadulterated joy written on so many people’s faces, in one place, at one time. It was contagious and gave me such a happy feeling, which stayed with me long afterwards. When we finally arrived at the airport, my driver abandoned his car about 300 yards from the departure lounge, grabbed my suitcase out of the boot and held it above his head. He urged me to follow him as he pushed and jostled his way through the saturated crowds, as I held on to the back of his jacket. I made the flight with half an hour to spare, and couldn’t thank him enough for all the effort he had put into getting me on that plane. Then I gave him a huge tip for his trouble and I will never forget what he said to me “Please come back soon to my beautiful India, Ma’am”. Life is good!

My first trip to Shanghai happened many years ago and I was stunned by the swerving capabilities, frequent lane swapping and the uncanny ability of my taxi driver to cut up every other vehicle on the road ahead and at the side of him. A friend told me later that the lower the registration number on the licence certificate, which must be clearly displayed on the front dashboard of each taxi, the more experienced the driver is – mine, on this occasion, was licence number 212,076, not so encouraging when the licence numbers start at 100!! I am glad I didn’t know this at the time. I have since refused taxi’s with high registration numbers because the suggestion that lower numbers means a better driver, seems to hold true and I have also been known to get out of a cab when the driving has been too reckless – only in Shanghai!

In New York I felt as if I was on some horrid fairground ride which stopped and started, constantly. Why do the cabbie’s stop as if they are about to dive off a cliff and then start again as if they are in pole position on a Formula One racetrack? I recall that we hardly moved 10 yards during each of these spurts of movement and I felt horribly nauseous by the time stumbled into my hotel. And how do some taxi’s drivers judge the distance between the front fender of their car and the back of another, to within 3 millimetres? I had to close my eyes. Welcome to New York!

The first Malaysian taxi experience I had helped me understand some different driving methods and how traffic “merges” rather than flows. It became apparent very quickly that perhaps I was going to be in for a treat of unusual driving skills as I noticed that the traffic along side my taxi was five abreast on a three lane highway. Ah! Somebody later explained to me that there is an unspoken rule to driving in JB that is called “pick your spot” and this is the one and only rule; pick a spot you wish to be in on the road ahead and head for it, regardless of what any other vehicle on the road is doing. Everybody was driving this way and by some uncanny miracle, it worked, but, I quickly found that it was a completely terrifying experience to anybody not used to it. Add to this the fact that there are not only cars picking spots, but, trucks, motorbikes and bicycles of all shapes and sizes, each needing various sized spaces to fit into, but that seems not to matter at all and on this day it seemed to work. I did not see one collision during that ride. Perhaps that was an exceptional day!

So when I hear people say that they have had a terrifying taxi experience, I smile to myself and wonder “Compared to what?”

Speaking of taxi’s, my review for today is of a wonderfully funny and well written travel book I re-read recently by Annie Caulfield called Show Me the Magic – Travels Round Benin in a Taxi. Annie sets off to travel around Benin looking for magic and stories of the past. Her luggage does not arrive with her at the airport and so she checks into the hotel and can do no more than wait for news of its arrival. Whilst sitting in the hotel lobby, she is approached by Isidore the taxi driver, who convinces her that he should be her taxi driver of choice. She eventually hires him, along with his battered Peugeot, and the following day the journey and his stories begin. It soon becomes apparent who is the boss and who needs to do as they are told as they travel. The history and magic of Benin unfolds under the expert eye and guidance of Isidore and an unexpected story of Isidore’s own comes to light. Annie Caulfield does a superb job of transporting the reader around Benin with her and Isidore and she offers more than a just a commentary on Benin, its people and its past, as we accompany her to many meetings with local shaman’s and visits to festivals, shows and parties, which she describes with her trademark humour and wit. It is a lovely book and I would recommend it to everybody, whether they intend to travel to Benin or not.

So here is one of our local Taxis in Hong Kong. Can’t say I’ve had too many bad experiences with these, so far – but then I have to ask, compared to what?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hey Jude, meet Stephen Hui

One of my favourite books by Thomas Hardy is Jude The Obscure. This book was first published in 1895 and was Hardy’s last novel. It caused such an outrage at the time of publication that it was burned in the street by the Bishop of Wakefield only days after it came out. In Hardy’s own words in a postscript to the 1912 edition he says:

“So much for the unhappy beginning of Jude’s career as a book. After these verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burned by a bishop – probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.”

Hardy received much personal condemnation from several quarters following publication of Jude. Although Jude was a commercial success and very popular with the public, this outcry had such a profound effect on Hardy that he vowed never to write a novel again. He kept his word and produced only poetry and drama for the rest of his life.

Jude Fawley is a lower class stone mason who dreams of becoming an eminent scholar and of going to Christminster, (which is a city modelled on Oxford). He teaches himself Greek and Latin in order to be able to apply to the university. Through a series of misfortunes his life takes elaborate and unforeseen twists and turns and he struggles to realise his dream. Trickery, tragedy and traditional moral attitudes of the time rule his life and he is forced to travel down a different path from the one he had in mind.
I loved this book and wanted so much for Jude to succeed in fulfilling his dream. The pages flew by as I walked with him on his journey and comforted him through his disappointments. Everyone loves an underdog, I know, but, Jude is so naive that I felt like sitting him down and speaking sternly to him, on more than one occasion. "Wake up Jude, young man. Smell the roses!!"
The book also paints an excellent picture of life in England at the turn of the century and examines moral attitudes, education and class differences. It is a gem of a book and I often wonder what else Hardy would have written had he not been so disillusioned by the reception of Jude. I suppose we will never know but I am certain it would have been superb!
Speaking of educational institutions (sorry this link is so tenuous today, but, I thought the stone mason and university connection might just work!!), the Earth Science department at Hong Kong University recently opened the Stephen Hui Geological Museum which is the first and only geological museum in Hong Kong. It opened its doors to the public on January 16, 2009.
It is the most wonderful museum and one the university and Hong Kong should be proud of. One of our neighbours in the village is a lecturer there and played a significant role in preparing some of the museum displays. Of course, being a girl who loves shiny and sparkly things, I just had to go and visit to look at the collection which our neighbour had said was a stunning.
As well as the glittering displays, and informative , logical explanations, one of the things that really fascinated me about this museum was the story of man the museum was named after. Dr Stephen Hui was a philanthropist to many local organizations including the University of Hong Kong. Apart from constructing the Hui Oi Chow Science Building, which was named in honor of his father, Mr Hui Oi Chow, Dr Hui had also generously donated his extensive mineral collection, forming the core of the Geological Museum's permanent Earth Material display. After Dr Hui passed away in 1989, his wife Madam Anna Hui, and sons, Richard and William, have continued to support the advancement of Earth Sciences in Hong Kong, and have set up the Dr Stephen S F Hui Trust Fund and the establishment of the Stephen Hui Geological Museum.
When you see the collection of minerals on display you will understand why this little piece of information is so interesting - I have visited many similar museums around the world and have never seen such and extensive and unusual collection of minerals and gems - and to think, most of the exhibits came from one private collection, is truly amazing.
Anyway, the reason for me telling you about this is that I would urge you to go see it; take the kids, it is a very child friendly museum with dinosaur stories and exhibits too. Perhaps if you are visiting Hong Kong on holiday you might consider putting the museum on your itinerary - it is worth the trip. Here is some information which may help you:
Opening Hours: Mo-Fri 1-6pm (mornings are reserved for organized group visits).
Contacts: Curator: Dr. Petra Bach Museum Assistant: Ms. Angel Chan or visit
Have fun and let me know what you think if you do manage to get there.

Lazy Sunday Afternoon

I love Sunday afternoons these days, living here in this lovely place. After pottering around in the morning, catching up with emails and blogs (these days) and sorting out files and photos, Greybeard usually watches the football match from Saturday night, our time, which is recorded from the live match that is usually aired too late here because of the time difference. This is my time to read, unless of course, it happens to be a Man U game and then I might watch if I can stand to.

This Sunday it was time for me to read and so I finally turned the last page of Stella Duffy’s The Room of Lost Things, which I have been mentioning for weeks now, or so it seems.
Robert Sutton runs a dry cleaning shop which he took over from his mother when she retired from the business over forty years ago. The shop is located in Loughborough Junction, London and Robert knows his customers and the neighbourhood intimately. When Robert plans to sell the business he is approached by Akeel who is a British Muslim from east London. So that Akeel can transition smoothly into the business and Robert can teach him all he needs to know, the men work together for over a year. An unlikely but solid friendship results from their time together and so much more than the tricks of the trade are revealed about both men as the story unfolds.
Stella Duffy sensitively allows her characters to develop and with a keen eye for small details, paints a clear picture of life in a bustling London community. It took me a little while to get into this book at first because I felt as if there were too many stories going on, but then, the lives of the locals begin to intertwine and as this happen the past was revealed with unforeseeable results. I loved the book by the time I had finished it and was so pleased I had read through the agitation I felt at the beginning.
Read it for yourself and let me know what you think. I am now on the lookout for more Stella Duffy books so will keep you posted.
So, after I had finished the book, and the football was over, Greybeard and I trotted off to one of our local eateries for a late lunch-with-a-view. Perched right on by the ferry pier, almost on the water’s edge we sat and ordered lunch which we ate whilst we peered out to Honk Kong Island across the South China Sea.

Now you know why we are lazy on Sunday afternoon...........we stayed a while.........

.....................And then came the rain!

And, I wished I had been as smart as this lady and remembered my umbrella!!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

From Union Jack to Bauhinia Flower

A great thing about living in Hong Kong is that it is easy to learn the history of the place. I have found some wonderful books, fact and fiction, that would not be so readily available elsewhere. Add to that the many various stories from local china hands and a rich tapestry of Hong Kong and its history starts to take shape.

Very briefly, Hong Kong was claimed by the British after they planted the Union Jack in what is now called Possession Street, on Hong Kong Island, in 1841. After an array of political twists and turns and wars with the Chinese, it was finally agreed with the signing of the Treaty on Nanking in 1842, that Hong Kong would be handed over to the British government in perpetuity thereafter. Thus ended the first of the Opium Wars!

By 1898 the relationship between the British rulers in Hong Kong and London and the Chinese government in Beijing was still very wobbly, mutual suspicion abounded. In that year the two nervous neighbours signed an agreement which allowed the British to lease the island of Kowloon for 99 years, up to 1997. This lease did not affect the ownership of Hong Kong Island itself. With the extra land, the strategically vital free port of Hong Kong had a buffer from the Chinese mainland. When the take-over of Kowloon was complete, the newly leased area became known as the New Territories, with Kowloon keeping its name in the southern peninsula which faced off across Victoria Harbour and looked out at Hong Kong Island itself. This is just as it is today.
Move forward 99 years and the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese in 1997. British rule was over after decades of controversial dialogue between the two nations which saw the Treaty of Nanking rescinded and Hong Kong (proper) handed back to China, although it had never been leased in the first place and was officially still a British colony (there was much anguish and debate about this). The flag was changed and the new one carried an image of a Bauhinia flower which could be found flapping from flagpoles everywhere.

The years between 1841 and 1997 were colourful, painful, squalid, heroic and brave. Pirates ruled over the seas and, by all accounts, in the boardrooms of banks and the hong trading giants of this now powerful nation. Many testimonies to this period in history exist and are worth reading (details in another blog). I have read several of them, all of which are as delightfully swashbuckling and tragic, as were the lives of the people themselves. Living on this group of small islands at the time meant suffering from epidemic and famine, war and destruction, occupation and liberation, overcrowding and disease, floods and landslides, poverty and abundant wealth, and all the time businessmen, politicians, triads, spies and soldiers traded goods, people and secrets. It is said that you could buy just about anything in Hong Kong in those days and perhaps that is true, somewhere in my mind’s eye I can see it all unfolding.

Today in the towns and villages on our island there are many restaurants and bars which seem to attract a mixture of newly settled residents, like us, and the old china hands who have lived here all their lives or at least most of it. Stories of the history of Hong Kong when the British ruled flow thick and fast after several gigantic scotch and soda’s and one such place is not so far away from where we live.

Every village needs an historian of some sort, and in our village there are many, but, one old china hand stands out. She is an ex- journalist who, according to her own account, was on first name terms with the last Governor and is unafraid of local triads or the Chinese mafia - and the police have been known to be her friend once or twice, at least! She was born and raised in Hong Kong. Her mother and father were British and came to the islands in the 1950’s before having children. They became so wealthy and powerful working for one of the hong companies, that they never left. Her parents belonged to the higher echelons of the business community and were very well connected, definitely on the A list of the time. As she grew her childhood was peppered with regular visits to the family home of politicians, hongs, police and pirates and she was always intrigued by a good story. Journalism seemed the obvious career and off she popped to London to get her respectable degree and she returned in the late 1970’s when talk about democracy and the 1997 handover was just taking off. Over the next decade Basic Law was hashed out and democratic politicians and those opposed to the return of Hong Kong Island to the Chinese were complaining bitterly. Bankers, smugglers, commies and spies abounded and our friend was never without something to report. Looking like an unwashed Kate Adie, without any of the blond hair, glamour or make-up, she lives here still and freelances, generally snooping around asking lots of personal questions – not that she stands out at all in the villages because everybody does that here! In those trade mark Kate Adie fatigues, she cuts a dashing figure – minus the helmet, of course. She frequents various watering holes around the town and is good friends with the team at our local where she can often be found propping up the bar with one hand, stroking one of her three dogs with the other and recounting a ripping yarn or two.
All this brings me to my book for today. Whilst our journalist friend was growing up in the streets of Hong Kong in the mid 1950’s, so too, was Martin Booth. In his wonderful memoir of a Hong Kong childhood, Gweilo, he calls to mind, with razor sharp focus the sights, smells, society and life of that time. (Gweilo is the Chinese slang word for ‘white man’, but in real terms it means white ghost or devil and is a derogatory term). There is something so endearing about this book, not least of all because it was to become Martin Booth’s epitaph, as he died a shortly after writing it. A career journalist, Booth was diagnosed with a nasty incurable brain tumor in 2002. His grown up daughters urged him to write down his life story before his memory slipped away from him. He did and the result is magnificent. The descriptions he provides are so convincing and the images so carefully crafted that I was transported into the back streets and alleyways of Kowloon in 1955, out on a fearless mission of discovery and friend making with this seven year old Luke Skywalker of the day. As we climbed the outcrops of The Peak a year later, our view of Victoria Harbour was crystal clear. The book is also a moving tribute to the memory of the love he had for his mother and a testimony to the smoldering hatred he had for his father. It is very near the top of my favourite book list.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I want to tell you a story!

Recently I have been thinking a lot about telling stories, not the telling of tall stories, or fairy stories, but, the telling of our own stories. DGR in her blog got me thinking about this when she reviewed The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman which is a biographical account of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor. The project had initially received the support and blessing of Elizabeth’s family, but, when the book was published, the family were outraged by some of the material that had been uncovered during research. They were especially upset about quotes from some letters which had been kept by her one time confident and lover. These letters were from a period in her life before she was married to the father of her children and husband of many years. ET herself had destroyed all the correspondence and papers that were in her possession before she died and so these early letters were the only ones handwritten by her available for the research. The book winds up to various conclusions and the family have since withdrawn their authorisation of the book.

A huge debate ensued on the blog about why so many people seem fascinated by biographical accounts of peoples’ lives; are we really voyeurs or just interested in fixing a frame around people we admire or have heard of. In the discussion we touched upon the unique responsibility and ethical challenge a biographical writer may face should they uncover something that would be perceived as negative about the subject they are researching; if that writer should withhold such information from publication in order to protect the subject and the family of the subject or if they should go ahead and tell the truth about the findings. It got me thinking about the whole issue of the responsibility one has to speak up for oneself and how we have to face the fact that if we do not tell our story then someone else may well come along and do it for us - and we may not like the outcome! This also lead me to think, which is the truer account, autobiography which is written with hindsight and very possibly a selective memory, or, biography which is based on the trail of whatever evidence is left behind? I came to the conclusion that this is not as easy a question as it at first appears.

In my last blog I reviewed Hilary Mantel’s book Beyond Black and I was struck by her comments at the end of the book when she was talking about what drove her story, she said:

“The thing that frightens me most is confiscation of history. If you don’t own the past, and can’t speak up for it, your past can be stolen and falsified, it can be changed behind you. I am interested in the way people remember, and just as the way they won’t remember.” we have several very juicy and difficult things to tackle here. I'd love to know what you think.


Speaking of autobiographies, I recently re-read Joanna Lumley’s No Room For Secrets which is a very clever, stylish and witty account of her life. She tells her story by taking the reader on a journey around her home. From the outset she works on the premise that because of her many TV appearances over the years, she is likely to have been a visitor to your home and that it is only polite for her to invite you into hers, via the account in this book. What unfolds is a rare book of travel and discovery as she cleverly describes each room in her house and what it is used for. She talks about pieces of furniture, draws full of trinkets, old paintings hanging on walls, racks of clothes and costumes, collections of old photos and an assorted collection of eclectic possessions and what these mean to her and the part they have played in her life.

Here is a tiny excerpt just to whet your appetite:

“We bought that gorgeous place, and with astonishing speed and competence, under the dangerously demanding eye of Pat Lorimer, our architect, a road was built (only a farm road, nothing spivvy needed or wanted)”

Can’t you just hear her rich and deliciously plummy English accent resound in your head when you read those words – I can! It is a wonderful book about the life of a remarkable woman and I urge anyone who has not read it to track a copy down as soon as possible.

Here are some photos of a few rooms in my house, whilst we are on a theme!

Here is the spiral staircase in our lounge. The panel paining on the wall was a gift from my brother and sister-in-law to thank us for arranging their wedding last year which took place in Hong Kong - Cotton Tree Drive Marriage Registry - don't you just want to get married there with a name like that! The sculpture on the writing desk is one we picked up from Hamilton Island in Australia when we took a family holiday there in 1999. The dolphin is called Diana and was a local celebrity in and around the Island, loved by locals and tourists alike. She often turned up very close to shore and was responsible for raising the alarm several times when swimmers and sailors got in trouble at sea.

This is our sitting room and I am perched on the cream sofa (on the left of the picture) right now typing this blog. As you can tell, books are a big part of life in this house and the bookcase is one of three we had especially made when we first moved to the US several years ago. The painting on the wall is a hand painted batik on silk and depicts a dragon. This was from the Malay Village in Singapore and I swore I would go back for the tiger, but, I never got round to it! The jester's head is an original wood carving which we bought at a summer fair in Tennessee in 2005. We got caught in a terrible summer storm that day and I had to stuff the carving under my t-shirt to get it home undamaged.

Last, but not least, for today that is, here is my reading corner, resplendent with more books and comfy sofa's. The painting on the wall is one by the brother of a good friend of ours from Singapore days, the artist Raymond Jennings. It is a relief painting of another larger one we have which depicts a house on a street in San Francisco. The chair first appears in the large painting as a part of a table and chair set parked outside the front of the house. In this painting the chair is shown in detail.

You see, it is possible to piece together stories around rooms and possessions. Of course, Ms Lumley's attempt is much better than mine here, but, you see what I mean.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fires are a Grave Affair.

China Daily, April 7th 2009

HONG KONG - More than 70 hill fires broke out in Hong Kong on Saturday as grave sweepers, burning joss sticks and paper offerings, paid homage to their loved ones in the traditional Ching Ming festival, local media reported on Sunday.
The majority of the fires occurred in the New Territories. Government Flying Services helicopters were out tackling several of the hill fires by dropping water bombs.
One of the bigger fires occurred in Sha Liang in Man Kam To. The area affected measured about 200 meters by 300 meters. Another big fire was reported in Tai O on Lantau Island.

Apparently it happens every year, hill fires start up at an alarming rate set by people visiting the graves of ancestors for Ching Ming Festival or Grave Sweeping Day. People from all over Hong Kong descend onto the hills of the countryside where the majority of ancestral burial sites are located. I was shocked by the sheer volume of people passing in front of our gate, travelling to the cemetery which is over the hill, just behind our village. People carrying sticks of incense, bunches of flowers, bags and bags of paper money (issued by the Bank of Hell, no less!) and elaborately folded origami-type paper models of cars, motor bikes, jewellery, houses, clothes, anything, in fact, that a person may need to have a more comfortable life (or is that afterlife??). But, not a drop of water in sight! The money and paper models are burned in an offering to the ancestors because the belief is that as the smoke rises to heaven the essence of the items being burned will rise up to the spirit of the ancestor and they will have that comfort of that possession or the money being offered. The flowers are used to sweep the grave so no water is needed for a vase – hence nothing to put out the flame of the Hell notes should they blow off the grave and drop onto nearby bushland as the graves are set in the hillside amongst the trees and bushes. As in all good Chinese traditions, there is food and drink involved! The visiting family enjoy a kind of ceremonial picnic by the graveside after worshipping the ancestors – the food is offered first to the ancestors then the family get to tuck into it later. Fair enough! After all, wouldn’t it be such a waste to burn the food or leave it behind to rot!

Lovely sentiment and a cherished ceremony, but, what about them there hills?? Below is a photo of the cemetery behind our village after the fires had devastated the surrounding hillside. You can see the scorched earth compared to the green of the trees in the foreground. It was interesting to see the fire fighters armed only with fire beaters slung over their shoulders, march seven-dwarf-like and pass our gate towards the intensifying inferno. We also watched the movie style performance of the Hong Kong Government Flying Services dropping water bombs of sea water scooped from the nearby bay and we marvelled at the stamina of the helicopter pilots as they did relay after relay from the bay to the hills and back, to prevent the further spread of flames.

It is hard to say this activity should be stopped because it is so much part of local custom and culture – but what about our planet? In these days when concern is rising about the state of the earth and what affect we are having on the weather, surely we must think of the greater good and perhaps look for ways to be more considerate to the environment when sending burned offerings to the spirit of our ancestors – perhaps carrying a bottle of water or two along with all the other assorted requirements of the day might be a good way to start! Splash! Splash! Hisssss........

Speaking of spirits (which I was amongst the ranting!!), I recently read Hilary Mantel’s book Beyond Black. This is a story of two women brought together by their interest and involvement with spiritualism and clairvoyants. Alison Hart is a medium and makes a living by appearing before group audiences providing communications from dead relatives and friends. She also offers readings to individual callers by passing them messages over the phone from the other side and reading tarot cards and scrying crystal balls for them. Collette becomes Alison’s business manager and the two decide to live together for convenience. Collette helps Alison to struggle through her nightmares and thoughts of demons and Alison offers friendship to Collette in return. They are a very unlikely pair, but somehow, as a team they are ideally matched.
The book is funny in parts, especially the descriptions of other members of the 'clairyoyant entertainment' community, but, it also has a very dark side too, which gave me some nightmares of my own. For me the story became strangely compelling and I couldn’t wait to finish it. More than a story about spirits and afterlife, it is a work which explores the right of an individual to privacy in her own mind and the search for identity by recovering memories of the past and owning them, no matter how painful they may be. The driving force behind the book according to an Afterword by Hilary Mantel was the fear she had about the confiscation of history, especially personal history and the right of ownership of one’s own past so it cannot be stolen or rewritten by someone else. This brings up a whole other debate which Dove Grey Reader’s blog started off about biographies and biographical writers and got me thinking about the responsibility we have to tell our own story ...........but that’s a whole other blog by itself! Watch this space.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I've been reminded whilst reading Stella Duffy's The Room of Lost Things that even large cities like London are really made up of a collection of small villages and neighbourhood's crammed with so many characters, each with a story to tell and all needing a helping hand and a little kindness at one time or another in their lives. Even though we now live in rural Hong Kong and not in the metropolis, the village community here is alive and well just as it is in downtown Hong Kong or London itself.

One of my earliest encounters with a long time resident was when I came across an English hairdresser from Essex who had lived in the village for more than twenty years. The first time we spoke he was propping up the wall in front of the single story house in which he now squats. He used to rent the place but hard times descended upon him when he lost his super glamorous job as chief stylist at one of the most famous hair salons in Hong Kong, all for being unreliable and less than sober on the job once too often. Over the following few months he gradually donated all of his life savings to various bars and sauna houses around town which had the unfortunate consequence of rendering him unable to pay the landlord’s rent. He decided to stay in his house until he was asked to leave, not least of all because he had nowhere else to go and the fabulous “in crowd” that had previously swooned over him, dropped him like a hot potato as soon as his bank balance turned red. Many years on, he has not been disturbed in his home since (other than by a burglar who dropped by a couple of months ago, stealing his only remaining valuable possessions; his Gucci watch and two Cartier rings). It is a little inconvenient living there now though, as he has no gas, electricity or running water, but, he keeps sitting outside during dry days and chatting to people who pass by; people like me on their way to town.

The house is resplendent with its peeling pink masonry paint, flaking away in the humidity and its corrugated tin roof, massively rusted and allowing the rain to leak in. The exterior front garden of the house is decorated festively sporting the corpse of a seven month old Christmas tree, an ornate Chinese bird cage (without residents), a string of fairy lights which no longer twinkle, two large bamboo poles painted bright red, a burgundy bathroom sink which gathers water and mosquitoes, some potted orchids, large pots of lilies and a wooden frog which sits on the wall next to him.

The “patio” of the house is famous. Located opposite the front garden and on the bank of the river is a clearing which is home to three chairs nestled under the shelter of a giant fir tree and a large flowering azalea. These kind of chairs are usually to be found local Chinese restaurants - ones with metal frames and brown plastic seat cushions. Hanging over the chairs, dangling from the fir tree are two hand-made red lobster pots which at some point belonged to the local fishermen but were “acquired’ and presented as a birthday gift to him one year because the colour matched the garden bamboo exactly. At any time of the day many of the retired villagers can be found sitting on those chairs enjoying a pit stop and perhaps even cocktails before lunch, beer for breakfast, afternoon drinks, or, when money runs out towards the end of the month, cheap Chinese rice wine with a dash of grapefruit juice to take the edge off the corrosive taste of the wine. Over drinks they catch up with gossip, put the world right again and silence the memories that haunt them.

“Oh Hello! You’re new here aren’t you? Don’t mind me I’m drunk, dear!” Those were his very first words to me at ten o’clock one Tuesday morning only a week after we had arrived in the village. “What’s your name?” He asked and when I told him he went on to explain that I would have to tell him my name every time we met because he never remembered names either because he is too drunk or not drunk enough and really I should not take it personally if he forgets mine.

My second chat with him was very informative. “You wear mascara, don’t you” he said, “Not like most of the women who live here. They don’t bother wearing make-up or blow drying their hair and it only takes ten minutes. They should get up earlier! Well, I notice these things and I can tell you blow dry your hair and wear mascara.” I agreed that I do both things.
“One coat, let it dry. Two coats, let it dry and three coats is just right! It may make you look like Dusty Springfield, but what the hell at least you will be noticed”. I had to admit, I had never looked at it that way before. “Even though I am very gay, dear, I don’t wear make-up myself, but, I know how it should be applied”. Somehow I didn’t think this meant he was any happier than the average man. “What’s your name, I’ve forgotten?” He said, and so ended our second meeting.

I see my hairdresser friend very often as I have to pass his place to get into town from my house. He has introduced me to many of the passing locals, some share a drink with him and others just stop to chat and offer him their time. He confided to me one day that he has to stand outside and talk to people because sitting in his dark, damp and mercilessly hot house all day drives him mad. Several times I have noticed that if he sees me approaching from within the darkness behind the front door he rushes out to talk to me. He has mastered remembering my name at last and one day he told me that he is going to get a job. That was six months ago now.

On days when I do not see him propping up the wall or on the patio I worry in case something has happened to him. This happened a couple of weeks ago, he wasn't there as usual and I wondered if he was ill. The next thing I knew there he was in the queue at the supermarket. He was counting his pennies for a wire scrubber because he let his only pan boil dry on his recently donated camping stove whilst cooking potatoes for lunch. He had fallen asleep from too much booze and so the pan was black.

I am always impressed by the kindness of the neighbours in the village. People bring him lunch and take him out for dinner, invite him in for a cup of tea, and to family BBQ's on the beach. They leave bundles of warm clothes for him in the winter and t-shirts for him in the summer. They drop off hong bao's stuffed with dollar bills for him at Chinese New Year and beautifully wrapped presents and bulging hampers for him at Christmas. Everybody knows that when he gets the small amount of monthly cash which is his pension, he will spend it within a week on drink and visiting the sauna houses and that he cannot help himself. They know that the middle to the end of the month is the hardest and hungriest time of all for him and always offer him a hand.

Monday, April 13, 2009

My neighbour just rescued a dog!

Yes, my neighbour just rescued a dog!

He was originally found by the local animal welfare group on the island, PALS (Protection of Animals, Lantau South) which is run by people who love animals and wage a constant crusade to rescue the abandoned, mistreated and abused pets and assorted wildlife in the area, of which there seems to be many. Members of PALS design photo posters to tempt would-be owners into a new pet. The photos are always super-flattering of the animal and even the one eared mongrel with a face only his mother could love produces an “Awe” when the poster is glanced by passers by. These ads also contain a little blurb about the animal which usually mentions canine characteristics or feline features as well as some logistics of this "Soon To Be Your Pet" candidate. Descriptions like “Cindy is in need of an attentive owner who would benefit greatly from a constant companion” which when translated into truth, of course, means “Cindy is a pain of a dog that cannot be left alone because she will eat the sofa” - it is so easy to read between the lines! Posters can be found all around town and in the villages on lamp posts, in vet clinics, bars, coffee shops and in some places there are collection boxes for donations to PALS. The ads are very clever and provide the required amount of guilt by osmosis to convince you that you need to take home a new pet. I am wise the their tricks though, so, whenever I feel the pang of weakness whilst looking at Maurice the Mongrel, I stick a bank note into the collection box and walk away quickly. In all fairness, the volunteers at PALS do a great job and should be commended for the concern they show for waifs and strays – if only there was an organisation like that in Lantau South to look out for the welfare of people!

So, in spite of my protestations and plea's for her to resist the temptation, my neighbour took home one of the rescue dogs. He looks like he would be three times larger if he filled up all the sagging skin he is carrying and handsome isn't a word that comes to mind at all when thinking of how to describe him, but, he is the gentlest, softest dog you could imagine and has not an ounce of aggression in his body, (which is sizable)! I will take his photo of him and post it for you soon.....And so you know who I am talking about, the poor chap has been labelled "Fugly" by his new mistress! Say no more.

Speaking of pets, I read a couple of books a while ago about dogs and their owners. One was Marley and Me by John Grogan, which has since been made into a film starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson and the other was A Dog Year by Jon Katz. I loved both books and even though I don't live with a dog myself, the dogs and their antics had me laughing out loud and crying at the inevitable endings. I haven't seen the Marley film and don't intend to even though the story is great, because I fear the film would spoil the image I have in my mind of Marley and the Grogan family. Jon Katz, I believe, still trains dogs and writes dog training guides too. Both worth reading, especially if you want a cheerful, easy to read escape for a few hours.

So, I'm off to continue with Stella Duffy's The Room of Lost Things. I didn't get very far with it yesterday as the picnic got in the way -- you knew we would, though, didn't you!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter in Hong Kong - from Justine Picardie to Stella Duffy with a blog or two and a picnic in between

So now I have discovered blogging the Easter holiday has been filled with writing profiles, searching photos and travelling to visit fellow bloggers with similar interests. Poor Stella Duffy's The Room of Lost Things is moaning quietly from the top of my TBR pile just waiting to be opened - "I'm on my way" I cry, guiltily and then get waylaid once again - not least of all to write this post!!

You will be proud of me when I tell you that I did finish Justine Picardie's If The Spirit Moves You on Friday. It was a real honour to have been able to share the journey of loss with her - she is so brave to have committed to the page the agony she felt after the death of her sister (and best friend) who succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 33. For anyone who has lost someone close to them this book is an absolute must read - it is a true gem and so helpful for those who are grieving. I didn't think I would make it through to be honest having recently lost my dad but I did and it confirmed so many things for me that we just do not talk about every day. Thank you Justine for being so candid and I am so relieved that someone else did all those things and had all those thoughts too.

What a great way to spend a holiday, reading and blogging, however, I did drag myself out to the beach on Saturday for a picnic with greybeard, though. It was quite lovely and helped blow away that pale look I was sporting having been for far too long in front of a computer screen.

This young chap was just too cute for me to miss the photo op! He and his mum were our neighbours whilst we picnicked and he took forever to get into just the right pose for his mum's photo.
And so to today, the last day of the holiday, what will it be - more blogging, another picnic or Stella's book??? I'll let you know tomorrow. Kx

Saturday, April 11, 2009


For a few months now I have been reading other blogs and have very much enjoyed myself - somehow even feeling as if I am getting to hear the voices of people who regularly contribute to the blogs I read ( dovergreyreader, justine picardie, stella duffy, simon savidge etc amongst others). So, I decided to try this for myself. Give me time and I will be up and running and look forward to meeting people with similar interests to me (reading, stitching, collecting old photos and history ;-)