Monday, 30 January 2012

Hong Kong and the Philippines Part 1: Hong Kong

An exciting week this week as I've just booked my next trip away. Basically, I was due to go to Valencia to watch Stoke play in the Europa League but work took so long in confirming the holiday that all the flights got booked up, (boo!). However, never fear, for a quick look on the internet with my friend Mike and we're off to Poland instead, another country that I've never been to before for a few days of beer and sausage and some sobering reminders of the Holocaust. As with any trip, I'm excited already and have already borrowed all the guidebooks on Poland from the library.
Back to this blog and I've decided to move away from the Balkans this week and extract something from deep in the past. Here is the first part of a travelogue I wrote in 2002 detailing a trip to Hong Kong and the Philippines that I made whilst living in Japan. It's only the second travelogue I ever wrote and not brilliantly written and pretty dated now but I thought it worth posting as the trip was a great one and the Philppines is somewhere that I'd love to return to one day. But in the meantime, well, like I said, there's Krakow...
Keep travelling!
Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Hong Kong

Part 2: Manila and Lapu Lapu

Part 3: Cebu and Bohol

Part 4: Vigan, Badoc and Batac

Part 5: Bagiou, Montalban and Manila


A trip to Hong Kong and the Philippines
Several years ago I spent Christmas with some Jewish friends of mine in Israel. It was the second year that I'd gone there for the festive season, the year before I'd spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem with a Bulgarian friend of mine and had probably the most memorable Noel ever. But this time it was different. It wasn't that I wasn't made welcome, I was, and indeed I actually thoroughly enjoyed my Christmas Eve and Day. But the problem was, it wasn't Christmas. There was no sense of occasion, the Jews don't celebrate anything related to Christ at all, and for them it was just another day.
But for me, Christmas is not just another day. Now, I don't want to sound like some religious extremist because I'm not, but Christmas is something special, the time to celebrate whoever you're with and wherever you are. So, since that time I've vowed to always spend Christmas in a Christian country, where there's not only me who wants to have a good time.
Finding a Christian country in Asia however, is not an easy task, since there aren't many. In fact, in total there are only four predominantly Jesus loving countries in the whole continent, far flung Georgia and Armenia, the great mass of Russia and the Philippines. Admittedly it's not all that dismal a record for our apostolising friends, missionaries have ensured that there are Christians in virtually all Asian countries and big minorities in South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Lebanon, Syria and India, but nonetheless, from a priestly point of view, Asia is hardly the home of believers.
The closest Christian country to Japan is the Philippines, a country that has long interested me, spiritual issues aside. What do we in the west think of when we muse upon the Philippines? The three Ms usually; Marcos, Maids and Mail Order Brides.
The most resonant image is probably that of ex-President Ferdinand Marcos, ousted out of power due to his corruption and habit of terminating his political enemies. And of course there was his high-spending wife too, Imelda who owned over 3,000 pairs of shoes whilst millions of Filipinos walked barefoot.
The Maids. The Philippines  exports more workers abroad than any country in the world except the UK. The big difference between the British and the Filipinos is that the Brits go abroad to be bosses, the Filipinos are normally the servants.
And Mail Order Brides. Are you an old guy with a big of a lack of personality? Can't get a bird at home? Fear not, the Philippines has thousands going spare, just order one nubile, pretty young thing over the Internet for about three thousand quid. The scandal of mail order brides and indeed the Filipino sex industry as a whole is well-known and only Thailand comes close when it comes to having a sleazy sex reputation. And for me, the mail order brides are something that I've had personal experience with; several of them live in my town in Japan, Osawano, and are mothers to children that I teach.
But there is a lot more to the Philippines than all that; a former Spanish colony, later occupied by the Americans and the Japanese, and now an independent developing nation with a rich cultural mix and a strong sense of Catholicism. Plus a nice hot tropical climate and cheap prices, yes the Philippines was in my mind, definitely worth investigating.
But of course any good holiday requires some planning, and I'm not talking about pre-booking the hotels. I am a firm believer in the philosophy that to understand a country you must meet the people, so therefore my first task was to meet Filipinos and learn from them what the Philippines has to offer.
In Toyama city there is a Catholic Church which offers an English Mass every month. I'm a regular attendant, (ok, so I know I'm Protestant but beggars can't be choosers and the fact that it is in English is more important to me than the denomination). The majority of the rest of the congregation however are Filipinos and so gradually, after some time, I got talking and that is how I met the girls from SMK computers in Yatsuo.
Remember back to my Vietnamese ramblings? We were introduced to that fine country by some workers at a local plastics factory. Well, the status of the Filipino girls is rather akin to the Vietnamese, and Yatsuo is only the next town so all was well. Foremost amongst the Filipinas in Yatsuo, I made friends with Mildred (Red), a shy girl who had formerly wanted to become a nun, and Arlene (Lheng), a completely unshy girl who never intended becoming a nun at all, but instead wants to emigrate to Hungary where she has a boyfriend. You'll hear more about their families later, since it was with them that we stayed.

The Filipinas at SMK, Yatsuo. Red is on the far left and Lheng is second from the right

I did not however travel alone. A fellow English teacher in nearby Takaoka also voiced enthusiasm for a trip to the Philippines and so it was that I booked tickets with Ryan Poindexter. Now Ryan has been a friend for sometime now and is a good bloke despite the name Poindexter which raises no sniggers with us Brits but apparently is hilarious to the other Yanks. Of course, some readers may be a little surprised that I was travelling with someone from Stateside, particularly as that country is not my favourite at the moment, but I must add here and now that Ryan is in no way responsible for air strikes in Afghanistan or the election of George Bush, and indeed he is not even a gun-toting Republican at all, so I figured, why not. After all, not every Brit was responsible for our country's crimes to humanity; we didn't all vote for Thatcher.
We booked our flights with Cathay Pacific which meant a one night stopover in it's hub city, more spice to the trip. And thus it was, on 20th December 2001, we set off from Kansai Airport, bound for Britain's former Pearl in the Orient, Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was a place that I was quite excited to see.Our former colony and a place where many Brits have lived or live. In one hundred and fifty years, the Crown had transformed a worthless, isolated strip of the Chinese coast into a teeming, highly profitable metropolis with almost seven million inhabitants. There was a lot that I wanted to see. Firstly however, there was the airport, which is brand new and designed by famous British architect Norman Foster. Considered by some to be an eighth wonder of the world, it can handle over eighty million passengers in it's single terminal, and is built entirely on reclaimed land. Sounds impressive.
And impressive it certainly was, pristine, new and enormous, with floors that you could eat your dinner off. Of all the airports I've been to, it reminded me most of Amsterdam Schipol, the forerunner of the one terminal concept. Foster's building is modern yet not unpleasant. What's more everything was extremely efficient and we got through customs in no time. The only disappointment was that there were no pictures of Mao beaming down at us, as I had hoped for in Communist Hong Kong. Later perhaps.
Hong Kong's airport is actually located about twenty odd miles from the city itself, so to get there we took the new airport express train, one of the sleekest I've ever been on. There was even a TV on each seat with a selection of channels. Admittedly most of the channels were either in Cantonese or didn't work, (the 'Wonders of Hong Kong Channel' showed a still of a cargo ship), but that bothered me not, since I was far more interested in peering out of the window.
My first two impressions of the former colony were these. Firstly, the land is pretty barren and useless. I doubt that anything could really been grown much on the steep slopes, the only useful land being the thin strip by the sea shore. No wonder the Chinese had not really minded giving it to the British back in the nineteenth century. And secondly, there was a hell of a lot of people crammed onto that useless bit of land, mostly in ridiculously tall and thin skyscrapers. 
I am now no stranger to skyscrapers, since there are quite a few in Japan, (though admittedly not on the scale of those in Malaysia, the US and other countries), but Hong Kong's are different. The thing is, that most cities only have skyscrapers in their central business districts, sparkling symbols of the power of business and money. Hong Kong of course has such towers too, the Bank of China building with it's bad feng shui and strange triangular shape is famous as a symbol of the new Hong Kong worldwide, but that's not where it ends. In Tokyo for example, Shinjuku, the business district has tonnes of towers of corporate wealth, but then they finish and the residential areas are low rise. But in Hong Kong, due to space shortages, the residential blocks are almost as tall as the corporate, fifty stories high, (taller than Canary Wharf), is not uncommon. From the New Territories to Happy Valley, every remotely flat bit of land, (and a lot of land that plainly isn't flat at all), is crammed with towering apartment blocks. An amazing sight.
We got off at the Central Terminal which is in the centre (surprise, surprise), of the city, and took a bus (double decker one may add), up to the Peak, something recommended by a friend who lived in Hong Kong for a while. The journey was fascinating, through the business district, the chaotic markets and residential areas and up by Happy Valley, to the area near the summit where the rich live, before finally reaching the hideous Peak Visitor's Centre which was apparently designed to look like a wok, but is more like a what Prince Charles would call 'a hideous carbuncle'.

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

Hong Kong is embedded within the psyche of all British people. I didn't realise this until I went there with an American. "What's the name of the place that we're going to next?" Ryan asked, "Kunloon, Cologne?" "Kowloon" thinking momentarily why he did not know the name of such a world famous place, or indeed any of the other names such as Victoria Peak or Happy Valley. But then again, why should he know? And how did I know? I hadn't been there before, nor had I read much about Hong Kong or talked with people who'd lived there. The fact is, that those names are known to virtually every Britisher, engrained in our national consciousness through the thousands of Chinese takeaways named after them. The view from the top of the Peak had looked familiar, then I realised why. Every year, as a gesture of thanks for our continued patronage of their establishment, 'Meir Chinese' had presented us with a calendar of Hong Kong views. In the most provincially English of houses, views of an Oriental metropolis had been hung on the wall year after year. Like the food and the buses, the sights were familiar already.
In all truth, Hong Kong struck me as still being rather British. In the four or so years since the memorable hand-over ceremonies, the People's Republic of China seemed to have changed nothing except the postage and passport stamps. No images of the benevolent Mao to be seen, and later on in Kowloon, we sang hymns in a karaoke booth and I found shops containing copies of books by the forever grinning Dalai Lama, formerly of Tibet. Hong Kong truly is the most un-communist communist place that I've ever come across. Later in the Philippines we talked with a Filipino guy who lived there. "The Chinese won't change anything there," he said. "Why? It's their milking cow!" I believe that he may be right.
The Brits are still living there too. In force and particularly in the affluent districts just below the summit of the Peak. The playgrounds that surrounded the plush apartment complexes were filled with Caucasian youth; the only Asians there were the Filipino maids. A worker's revolutionary party may be in control now, but the bourgeoisie are not entirely decimated it would seem.
Despite being familiar, the view from the Peak was nonetheless striking and I wasted considerable film catching it with my grinning visage planted in between the camera and the famous sights. After doing our duty towards boosting the profits of the Fuji-film Corporation, (and the Japanese economy needs all the help it can get at the moment), we retired to an Internet Cafe for a drink, and waited for darkness to fall, so that we could view the same stunning vista with the lights on. Satisfied with that, we hopped onto one of the red cable cars that ply the slope and went downhill the famous way.
We'd agreed to send the evening across the water in Kowloon where my former Hong Kongese friend had told me the action and cheap restaurants are. We walked through the business district from the tram terminal to the waterfront and then took the famous Star Ferry for the short hop across to Kowloon.
Whilst central Hong Kong breathes money, Kowloon breathes life. There's a vibrant cosmopolitan atmosphere that was all too evident as soon as we stepped off the ferry and we were accosted by Indian gentleman who wished to make suits for us at a very reasonable price, mister. We turned down their repeated requests and wandered aimlessly through the neon-lit streets, chancing into an area of Sikh immigrants who offered to sell us quantities of marijuana. Despite the fact that that offer was more tempting than the suits, we again turned the traders down and headed into a small restaurant for a bite to eat.
The food in the restaurant, (or probably cafe is a better word since it was hardly posh enough to warrant being called a restaurant), was pleasant and there was endless free Chinese tea supplied, which I enjoyed. What was most memorable however was the concept of how the Chinese seat their customers. In the Britain and indeed every other country that I've been to, they wait for a table to become free, and seat you there. Not the money conscious Cantonese however, who seated us at a table which already had a diner. After a while he finished and left, and someone else took his place. This system is of course sensible and financially rewarding I would imagine, but for someone not used to it, it was a little strange, having my barbecued pork, (sorry Jews), touching the fried rice of some unknown. What was also strange is what I called the mystery of Oriental women. The young Chinese girl on the checkout, how old was she? She could have been any age from twelve to thirty five, it was impossible to tell. So, just a warning to the lads, be careful, you simply cannot tell!
We had of course a lot of time to waste since we didn't leave until seven the next morning and we were too tight by far to pay the fifty pounds or so that the very cheapest hotels were charging for a shared room. We also realised that time is wasted faster if not in a sober state so we headed off to look for some entertainment, going via the harbour with more spectacular views. In the end we found what we were looking for, a cinema that showed films throughout the night. We booked into a showing of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone'. Ok, so we'd both already seen it, but the film had several strong merits recommending it. Firstly it was long, secondly it is a good film and lastly we were assured that it was in English. Our night-time accommodation organised, we then headed towards the entertainment district and eventually settled in a karaoke bar.
Anyone who has lived in Japan will be more than familiar with the joys of karaoke and indeed the time wasting possibilities that the activity offers. This in mind we settled down with San Miguels and sang a lot, mostly hymns oddly enough. The place that we went to was large and popular, yet strangely enough had a pretty poor selection of English songs, far behind that which you find in Japan or even the extensive English selection that I experienced in Ho Chi Minh City. But we sang away nonetheless, and after having more or less exhausting the limited selection, we stumbled out towards the cinema.
Harry Potter is an American film, using British actors and based on a British book. And the cashier assured us that it was, as it should be, in English. Unfortunately, after only a minute or so into the show, even us, in our not entirely sober state, realised that Dumbledore and Hagrid should sound more English school teachers than kung fu artists, and that the hero's name is 'Harry Potter', not 'Halii Po-aaa'. Nope, the film was, contrary to the cashier's assurances, in Cantonese and we couldn't understand a bloody word. So, we put our heads down and fell fast asleep, our snoring probably not being the most welcome addition in the theatre to the exploits of Mr. Po-aaa.
After being turfed out of the cinema at the end of the film, we commenced on a a mammoth walk across early morning Kowloon to the railway station, where we caught the first train of the morning to the airport, where after a shower and a shave, we boarded the plane, ready to experience the Philippines.



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