Thursday, June 16, 2011
A lot of Watson Fellowships take Americans deep into the wildernesses of third world countries, far from the luxuries of modern living, challenging urban dwellers to cope without indoor plumbing or electricity. Whereas my project has had the opposite effect on me. While I usually do have to squat unless I can find a Western style toilet, in Hong Kong my greatest challenges are hunting elusive open seats in airconditioned free wifi cafes. I'm a little bit confused as to whether I love living abroad or just in cities. I mean, I guess I could also enjoy public transportation and Starbucks in America; I've just never had the chance before. To the right is a shocking example of the local standards of hygiene.
But recently I grew weary of city life and took a 20 minute ferry ride to Lamma Island. It's a sleepy little island that takes only a strenuous 2 hour hike to traverse. It has lots of really cool restaurants and shops that sell handicrafts and freshly caught seafood, irrespectively. Many expats live on the island because it is cheaper than living in the city and also much quieter. And unlike local Hong Kongers they are unconcerned with the prestige of living in a good location. The brightly painted buildings and chill vibe also come off as oddly Caribbean. (Bonus: I just noticed that in this photo upove there is a dog peaking out of a backpack!)
I passed through the one road that leads through the northern village, through some hills which featured lovey-dovey graffiti commemorating honeymoons. Pictured below is the meanest public defacement I could find. After a 15 minute hike I got to the first beach, plopped down on a bench and began reading when a girl my age asked me if she could sit next to me. She then scoffed at the other people on the beach. I looked up from my read and noticed a pattern. There were roughly two dozen couples and they ALL consisted of a youthful Asian girl who looked good in her two-piece and an obese white dude with more hair on his back than on top of his head. I made a face and told my benchmate, "Yeah, that's pretty gross."
"The worst part is that those guys don't realize that most of the girls are Vietnamese immigrants looking for a green card. Ugh. Don't look now, they're snogging." I didn't want to look but like Lot's wife or the Four Tops, I couldn't help myself. I paid the price for my curiosity, my eyes burned like lasik gone bad.
"I'm Ling. I'm also hungry. Do you want to go get some organic vegan food?" How could I say no? I had eaten more than my fair share of chicken feet in the previous week so I was keen to escape meat and the gross couples. We passed by the water (which is supposed to be safe because of the shark net but the fact that one is needed kind of freaks me out) to get our feet wet but decided against it since the water was filled with plastic bags and bottles. This plastic manufacturing plant is the main source of the pollution.
While eating beans on vegan toast at the Bookworm Cafe, Ling told me that she was from Suzhou (about an hour from Shanghai) and was traveling to Hong Kong for holiday. She is an English major and after finding out I was American, switched her vocabulary and accent accordingly. I was thoroughly impressed since I still can't do a British accent and English is my native language. But I'm inspired by Ling and Amy Walker to keep trying.
She, Ling not Amy Walker, confessed her fanaticism for comic books so we headed off to the discounted movies to see the new X-Men movie, only mildly concerned that we looked like the couples we had previously mocked. Here' Ling on the scenic hiking trails on Lamma Island. In the picture of me you can't directly see it, but my shorts are being held together with about a foot and a half of ducttape.
After the movie, I told her it was my turn to suggest a geeky event and we went to Zhongying music concert. Zhong means Chinese and Ying means English. It was a concert in a park done by senior citizens. They played traditional Chinese folk tunes on western instruments. Violins for erhus, guitar for plucked instruments and saxophone for bamboo flute and suona. I was impressed with their ability to get extremely authentic Chinese sounds from their extremely not Chinese instruments.
Keeping My Composers
The next week I went to an amazing concert where almost all of the pieces were world premieres. They were introduced in either Cantonese or Mandarin by the composers in person! There were 10 pieces which ranged in size from a comical duet between erhu and pipa, depicting an argument two travelers have on the road, to pieces for the entire Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Not all of the pieces were knockouts but what some lacked in realization, they made up for in ambition. Every piece involved novel ways of making sounds on instruments. One piece, a trio between flute, sanxian (a three stringed cello-type instrument), and pipa called for the pipa player to pretend to hack up a lung. She was thoroughly convincing.
The best part of the concert was that afterward the composers were to linger in the foyer to mingle with the plebes. The two composers from Beijing looked lonely so I went up to them and introduced myself in Chinese which always gives people way too good of an impression on my Chinese abilities since I've thoroughly practiced my spiel of who I am and what I'm doing and it involves lots of obscure vocabulary. But I soon had drawn a crowd around me of mostly gawkers who were pointing at the whitie speaking Mandarin. But since the rest of the composers were carrying on in Cantonese, the three of us Mandophiles kept up our conversation. They both were postgraduates at Beijing Central Conservatory in composition. For one of the composers this was his first time composing for non-Western instruments so we discussed the different challenges of composing for Chinese orchestra.
Then they announced that the composers would go out for drinks and I got invited along. Yes! Some of the other composers looked at me and asked in an 80% joking sort of way, "Are you old enough to drink?" Sigh. I have been for 5 years in Hong Kong. At the bar, I discovered that composers are very serious about their music and possibly even more serious when it comes to drinking. But I'd learned my lesson from my previous encounter with Mongolian musicians in the Swiss Alps and nursed my one drink while the others had 6 rounds. Once the slurring of words began to affect my comprehension of my inebriated friends, I got email addresses for the Beijingers and escaped before things got too out of hand.
Another Near-Death Experience (辣肚子）
Jafi decided to take me to a place that has a spicy food eating competition. He had had enough of me complaining about food not being spicy enough and was ready to shut me up for good.The noodle shop in question has a contest; if you eat their spiciest noodle bowl in 10 minutes then you get it free. I was starved and ready for the challenge. Jafi ordered me the "Star Challenge Spice Bowl" and ordered himself a bowl of the least spicy noodles. The waitresses teased him in Cantonese so I couldn't understand the words but the drift of it was clearly, "You pussy."
The noodles came and I took a bite and the waitress started the timer. My first thought was, "Huh, it's not that bad." On my tongue the spice was totally tolerable but my face immediately flushed a deep crimson and my stomach gave an audible turn before I'd even swallowed that first bite. My eyes sprung tears like I was watching the Notebook which ran down my face and converged with a steady stream of snot that was shooting down my upper lip. I tried to breath in cooling air, but my lungs seemed to have seized. I just panted for a minute. I couldn't breath and wasn't convinced I had control over any of my orifices so I did the only sensible thing; I took another bite. My symptoms doubled instantly and I began hiccoughing obscenely. My body was rejecting this food and telling me it was poison, but my psyche said, "Don't lose face!" which was pathetically unrealistic since most of my face was melting in a gathering puddle of sweat, snot and saliva on the tabletop. I rushed to the bathroom setting some sort of digestive landspeed record. This is definitely TMI but how could it already be spicy coming out?
With the poison emitted from my body, I returned to the table covered in sweat and 10 pounds lighter than when I left. Jafi was also covered in sweat but his perspiration was guffaw induced. The waitstaff would have none of this though. They scolded him and asked him how he could treat a guest like this and how he could really be from Hong Kong and enjoy such bland noodles. Just then the buzzer went off and I waved my white flag and paid for my noodles defeated more completely than I would have thought possible.
Pictured right is my favorite mode of transportation in Hong Kong. On Hong Kong Island you can take this double decker trolley. The wind blowing on your face is a great way to recover from a near fatal dose of peppercorn.
The Death of Hobbies
After weeks of playing email tag, I finally had meetings with all of my musician and ethnomusicologist contacts all in the same week and everyone had very similar things to say. It's interesting how Hong Kong manages to be simultaneously similar to Singapore, Taiwan, and the Mainland in different facets.
It's similar to Singapore in that it has a strange mix of British and local culture. It's also similar in that it's sort of one big city with lots of people that are very work oriented. This stinks for the music scene because, as almost every random person I meet in Hong Kong tells me, they used to play piano, violin, or even Chinese instruments, but then had to give it up when they started high school because the academics were so rigorous. As an American, where high school seems set up to accommodate extra-curriculars, this seems totally bizarre. Also, as one ethnomusicologist preached to me with intense eye contact that contained unsettingly few blinks, "People work so hard that they just collapse when they get home. They definitely aren't going to spend that money, let alone the time on a hobby like a musical instrument."
Hong Kong is similar to Taiwan in that it is sort of part of China and sort of not. It's not disputed like Taiwan. Hong Kong is a special administrative region which means it enjoys such privileges as free speech, but the Chinese government still has its ways of controlling its denizens. One local told me about the exodus in the 90s that occurred when Hong Kongers realized that they were going to be under the control of the same government that was responsible for the student massacre at Tian An Men. One quarter of the population left, heading to the USA, Australia, and especially Canada.
Finally Hong Kong is actually part of the People's Republic of China and you can now take a train straight to Beijing. There are tons of Mainlanders working in Hong Kong trying to save up money to make a triumphant return back home. One ethnomusicologist told me his idea for why traditional music is in decline which I can't quite wrap my head around. He said the problem with traditional music in Hong Kong is everyone is too impressed by it. And it's true. When people heard I played zhongruan, they would say, "Wow! You are so clever. I couldn't appreciate that kind of music." So apparently there's too much reverence for it, so it's dying out. Does that make sense to other people?
I bought a CD of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra which was called Music for Tranquility. This struck me as bizarre because it was full of lively pieces like Golden Snake Dance and Dragon Boat Race. It also heavily featured gongs, guanzi, and suona, an instrument that rivals bagpipe for its ability to imitate nails on a chalkboard. But I suppose it's hard to advertise Chinese music as music to get you pumped! with all the techno and heavy metal floating around out there.
The other day I was carefully moving about the apartment disaligning right angles when I realised that I was suffering from the very same compulsions I had previously been mocking. I had developed an obsession with sliding chairs, napkins, towels, toothbrushes slightly askew. At first, it was just to marvel at the thoroughness of my roommate's inspections. Even if I turned the salt shaker in the cabinet it would inevitably be corrected upon my next inspection, but I wasn't so sure of my true motivation anymore. After 20 days in the apartment, I had to seriously question my sanity. I explained my predicament to my landlady who immediately instructed me to practice Taichi. I figured it couldn't hurt and joined the elderly in the park near me for the rest of my time in Hong Kong.
A visit from Emily and Wade forces me into the tourguide business.
I see the best concert of my entire life.
I meet strange expats including an Italian sommelier and an Argentinian cantor
and I discuss my continued struggles to reclaim my sanity.