When last I posted, our small group of troublemakers had been in Beijing and then in Shanghai for about a week. Here’s a recap of our final week.
Before we left the Shanghai area, we took a day-trip to the village of Suzhou, a quaint and picturesque town of merely 4 million people, built at the lower reaches of the Yangzte River and along the shores of Taihu Lake. Because of Souzhou’s many canals, ancient pagodas and gardens, it is known as the “Venice of the East” and a major tourist attraction. Given that we were clearly tourists, protocol demanded that we visit. To my great relief there were no over-priced gondolas propelled by guys with B.O. singing opera arias badly.
Souzhou is also the hometown of our traveling China expert, Dr. Liu, he of the Georgia State faculty. We met his parents, sister and brother-in-law for a lunch at a traditional restaurant in the older part of the city. The kitchen staff became confused by our order and instead of one each of many available side dishes for all to sample, they brought one side dish of everything for each of the 17 people at the table. When we left the restaurant, Dr. Liu’s family was loading up a forklift of leftovers.
Before we made for Hong Kong, we stopped in Hangzhou, another charming berg of nearly 7 million. We stayed on West Lake, the city’s best known attraction. While in the area, we visited the Dragon Well Tea Village. Readers may recall that tea is a very important part of the Chinese culture and that they take the planting, harvesting, drying, and fermenting very seriously. At the end of our tour we experienced what can only be described as one of the best live performances of a 30-minute infomercial available in the Far East. Ron Popeil would be proud.
“But wait, there’s more” and with that promise from the deceptively self-deprecating pitch-woman, several in our group elbowed one another aside and shelled out serious money for green tea that would be shipped back to America at great expense. Apparently, the “Emperor” brand of Dragon Well Tea contains not only vitamin C and amino acids, it is also chock-a-block full of catechins. You heard me right, catechins. And, here’s the clincher, the catechins are just one of several polyphenois swimming around in what otherwise looks like pale green water. According to the Dragon Well tea lady, who is likely compensated by commissions, drinking this green tea several times a day cures many things including, but not limited too, irritable bowel, excessive flatulence, boils, sloth, cramps, tarry stool and dehydration. Well sure, what with all those catechins and such.
We flew to Hong Kong via Dragon Air, reaffirming that dragons are very important in Chinese culture. Oddly, the dragon is the only sign in the Chinese Zodiac that is mythical and doesn’t represent an actual living animal, a fact I pointed out to my mostly disinterested companions. Given that I was born in the Year of the Dog, I do kinda wish that my parents could have timed it differently and provided me with the Year of the Dragon mystique. The Year of the Dog lacks a certain amount of, well, mystique.
Hong Kong is a vertical city. With a land mass of only 426 mountainous square miles, comprising 200 islands and a population of 7.5 million people, the only direction to expand is up and then more up. The main island of Hong Kong is across the bay from the Kowloon Peninsula, which was the location of our hotel. The whole area is tied together with a network of underwater tunnels for cars and subways trains. Plus, there is an armada of ferries and taxi boats. For those who disdain surface travel, many of the buildings have heli-pads.
And, there are no junker cars in Hong Kong. Imagine a list of all the luxury cars brands in the world, you now have a mental picture of the cars on the streets there. If I were to devise a really difficult scavenger hunt for a Hong Kong party, I would certainly include a 1999 Chevy Cavalier.
Hong Kong is also famous for its tailor shops. It’s so famous and the competition so fierce that certain tailor shops hire Indian and Pakistani guys to harass tourists on the sidewalk with offers of “Silk suit, very cheap, hand made, ready this afternoon”. The whiff of over-promise and under-deliver wafted around these hucksters and if the tactic actually worked, you couldn’t prove it by me.
Hong Kong has only 33 years to go before it is fully absorbed back into the politics and laws of mainland China. This was the agreement that Great Britain made with the People’s Republic of China in 1997, giving Hong Kong 50 years from that date for being a Special Administrative Region and having near autonomy before the Communist Chinese take over. Times flies when you are faced with the loss of modest freedoms like voicing your opinion, printing the actual news or forming separate political opposition parties. I won’t be around to see how this all turns out, but I predict some rough patches.
I believe that it was in Hong Kong that I was introduced to the 1,000 year-old egg. What hyperbole! It’s not even close to that old. One hundred days maybe, even a year in some cases but really, who could stick around preparing an egg for 1,000 years? Basically, a fresh duck egg is coated in a jacket of plaster made from, among other things, black tea, ashes of pine wood, ashes of charcoal, ashes of fireplace and garden lime. The egg is left to ferment in a shallow hole for several weeks or months where it undergoes a process that essentially turns it from a docile Dr. Jekyll duck egg into a scary-looking Mr. Hyde duck egg. Dr. Jeykll’s egg white morphs into a translucent copper color and the yoke a pasty grayish green. Reviewing this description alone is making my mouth water. Unlike others in our band of brave culinary adventurers, I actually liked the eggs and had seconds. This experience, however, did not overcome my aversion to sea slug.
Three of us went to Macau, the other Special Administrative Region (non-communist) in the area. Macau is a gambling mecca but decidedly unlike the real Mecca, which is way more boring. Macau is mentioned in Roget’s Thesaurus as a synonym for the word “tacky”, yet that hardly does it justice. If the developers there ever met a bauble, gold leaf coating, hideous carpeting or enormous cut-glass chandelier that they disliked it is hard to imagine.
I went to Macau to brush up on my skills of losing money at the craps and blackjack tables. News flash: The Chinese Do Not Play Craps! Further, very few play blackjack. However, they do play baccarat and roulette and they gamble in a very vocal and demonstrative way. The popularity of these two games seems to be that neither requires much, if any, strategy. I’m not saying that the Chinese prefer less cerebral gambling but it is the only explanation that comes to mind.
After visiting three large and famous casinos, we finally found one blackjack table at a dinky place with threadbare carpet. The minimum bet was 200 Macanese patacas. As everyone knows, one pataca equals about 13 cents. Still, at a $26 minimum bet, losing more than lunch money can happen quickly. As it happens, my first session garnered me about 2500 patacas. Feeling flush and hungry, I left the table while at the same time making a crucial mistake. I forgot to tip the dealer from my stash of newly won patacas.
I returned after lunch and the same dealer, a menacing look in her eyes, went after my patacas with a methodical vengeance. Having someone after your patacas is unsettling. The dealer had her way with me and I left Macau with 1500 fewer patacas than I had upon arrival.
Two days later we boarded our Air Canada flight back to Toronto with a connection on to Atlanta. Hong Kong to Toronto is 15 hours of, “Are we there yet?” The Business Class seats fold down into what the airline industry refers to as a “bed”. If you can imagine trying to sleep in a fully reclined dentist’s chair then you get the idea. Some people take right to it, the current wife for example. Me, I watched movies, ate several helpings of ice cream, read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica online then played solitaire and we weren’t even in Canadian airspace yet.
I’m glad that we went. I’m glad we’re home. I’m glad that I still have some patacas as keepsakes.
Observoid of the Day: It’s cheaper to buy new shirts than to use the hotel laundry service at the JW Marriott in Shanghai.
June 4 was the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an event that the Chinese government desperately wants everyone to forget. From most appearances in the weeks leading up to the 25th anniversary (during our visit to Beijing), the Chinese people are pretending not to remember and most of those born since 1989 don’t know. We were warned not to do or say or ask anything about this event, lest we be detained, kicked out of the country or worse. We later learned that while we were in Beijing, a Chinese tourist from south China had a friend take his picture while he held up his fingers in the “V” for victory sign in front of Mao’s Tomb. When he returned home, he and his friend were arrested for showing “signs of government defiance”. My decision not to have my photo taken while giving the finger to Mao’s enormous portrait in Tiananmen Square was vindicated.