Saturday, February 28, 2004

Funny stuff

I know I've already blogged an uncharacteristic amount of material in the last twenty four hours but I have to write two things that people just said at work:

1. Nigerian guy on the computer just asked me 'do you know a website where I can get email addresses of businessmen all over the world?'

2. Fundamentalist Muslim Algerian/Chinese guy just dropped in. I was surprised that he didn't recognise me because he's a Chungking fixture and we've met a couple of times before. I told him I was surprised that he didn't recognise me and he said 'All European people look the same to me, I can never tell them apart'.

I love Chungking!

Friday, February 27, 2004


It's been a week full of cultural enlightenment.

Most of all, I was fascinated to discover that a gap between the top front teeth is considered the pinnacle of beauty in Ethiopia. Many women actually file a gap away if they aren't naturally endowed with one.

Gaps are in for men too and so are hairy chests. They are considered lucky. Hearing that has helped me overcome the emotional anguish I've been suffering since Christmas when my sister gave me a bottle of 'Hair and Body Wash' and told me it would be 'perfect for a hairy body'!

In the meantime, I've also discovered that my naughtiest Cantonese teacher lied to me six years ago about how to say 'I miss you'. I should have expected that from someone who had me saying unmentionable things in restaurants when I thought I was ordering chicken dishes. Now I'm racking my brain to think of how many people I have said 'I want you' to over the last six years!

Wednesday, February 25, 2004


Perspective is a really interesting thing. Many people in the world would consider the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) a lovely organisation which does great work to help refugees.

To the asylum seekers in Hong Kong, the UNHCR is a bunch of unsympathetic people who don't care either that they are currently homeless or that they have been through incredibly horrible experiences in their respective countries of origin.

To many human rights lawyers in Hong Kong, the UNHCR office here lacks transparency. It does not even follow the recommendations that its head office makes to governments around the world who are dealing with refugees.

Dealings with the UNHCR have come to dominate the lessons of my twice weekly English classes for asylum seekers. Most of my class is Ethiopian and they are concerned that their cases with the UNHCR are progressing very slowly.

When they ask about the progress of their cases in the UNCHR, they are told that they won't be given an answer unless they write a letter. To this effect, we have been working towards writing such letters for the last few lessons... through a lot of activities and games.

I actually called the UNHCR this week and asked someone why the Ethiopian cases are progressing so slowly. They were very honest and told me they didn't have a translator. they haven't had one for quite some time and they haven't been able to find a new one.

Please pray that this happens soon! Until it does then these guys will remain homeless with no help except what they recieve from our centre and another group providing a meal five days a week.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Brushes with fame

I've found out that some of the neighbours have a nickname for me. It seems to have something to do with being clean. A few days ago Daisy introduced me to the old lady who sits at the bottom of the stairs of the opposite building (who proceeded to tell me of her barrister friends and trips to Paris long ago).

Anyway, when Daisy introduced me, the lady told her she had seen me often in the window before I got a curtain. Aiyaa! her seat is on the street on the bathroom side!

Thursday, February 19, 2004

The lesser of two evils

I've spent a lot of time in the last few weeks trying to decide whether I think the treatment of asylum seekers is more inhumane in Hong Kong or Australia. I think Australia wins but Hong Kong certainly puts up a bizarre fight.

Many African nations have to deal with floods of refugees that number in the hundreds of thousands. In Ghana, for example, there are many Liberian refugees. Camps are set up to house them and provide for basic needs. They are also able to work outside the camps if they want to.

Australia deals with a trickle of asylum seekers that arrive by boat. They do a number of things to deter them. Firstly they broadcast the message to would-be refugees that Australia is full of poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. Not that this really matters because anyone arriving by boat is likely to be eaten by sharks before they land.

Secondly, the Howard government has done mean and tricky legal stuff to 'excise' some islands off the coast of Australia. Any asylum seekers arriving at these islands can not claim to have reached Australian land. The government combines this with a policy of trying to turn boatloads of asylum seekers back to Indonesia (the last stop on the trip to Australia).

If asylum seekers do get to Australia they are held in detention centres run by the same company that is responsible for managing Australia's prisons. The detention can be drawn out and conditions inside are reputed to be horrendous. Okay, okay so I think Australia wins hands down but anyway, on to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong recieves more of a trickle than Australia but the situation here is very different. Unlike Australia, Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees (China is but this hasn't been extended to HK). That means that no one arriving here can seek refuge in Hong Kong itself (except possibly under the Convention Against Torture - currently being tried out).

There is, however, a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Hong Kong and about forty new asylum seekers arrive each month to make an application for refugee status. If they are then granted refugee status the UNHCR assists them to resettle in a third country. A significant amount of people attempt this because of Hong Kong is relatively easy to enter on a tourist visa.

The problem, however, is that the appeal and subsequent resettlement can take up to several years. The government forbids asylum seekers from working but otherwise turns a blind eye to their welfare. Approved refugees are given some financial support by the UNHCR but asylum seekers are left to subsist on the favour of churches and charitable organisations.

This is okay for some but the lack of a safety net means that many end up homeless. I know this has been a long entry but I hope it explains a lot about the work that I'm doing. Next time I'm going to blog something really positive about how well the food program and English classes and all have been going. I've learnt to glide gracefully through the red tape at work and I'm loving every minute.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Baby R (not Hritikh)

I'm so excited! My friends, Cow Shake and D, had their second baby this morning. Baby R just missed out on being born on Valentines day (his mum was hoping for that) but that's probably just as well for a kid named after a bollywood heart throb.

Since the parents live on Lantau Island mum had to be taken into hospital by helicopter when she went into labour early this morning. The closest hospital with a helipad was in Chai Wan on the far side of Hong Kong Island.

Tonight me and Cow Shake are going to visit. Because of new rules (post SARS) only two visitors are allowed per day. I feel very lucky and I can't wait!

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Let them eat toast

As much as I would love to go deeper into the intrigues of Temple St (the last few days have been eye opening) it really is time I said something about work.

I have very much enjoyed the last week and a half but it has also been something of a culture shock experience. The organisation I have joined is very Honky and I have been thrown into an unfamiliar world of form filling, heirarchy, permission seeking and kowtowing to superiors.

The funniest part has been my battle to get a toaster after being charged with providing daily breakfast for asylum seekers. Despite a complete lack of cooking facilities, I had to write out forms on why I needed a toaster and then get them signed by my boss before sending them to head office. Someone in head office then had to do a quote which had to be approved before I could get the toaster. When permission came through I was told my budget was $HK100 ($AUS $16).

Electricals in Hong Kong are cheap but not that cheap. After trawling Kowloon on an unfruitful search I finally sobbed out my story to a old Indian man in an electrical shop in Chungking Mansions. After a lot of drama from me he finally told me that he would give me a toaster for exactly $100 since it was for charity. I'm sure the kind old man saw it as a donation to the poor because it was $60 cheaper than anything else I had seen.

Luckily, the project I am working in is new and we are a good distance away from the head office where the bulk of the 200 staff are situated. Our team of three is a bizarre collection of people and skills. Gwailo B is English but has been in Hong Kong since the sixties. He speaks fluent Cantonese and has starred (usually as the bad guy) in countless Hong Kong films. He's a fun guy to work with and has a great way with people. Sister S is a Russian trained Nepalese GP. She is fluent in English, Hindi, Nepali and Russian and is currently learning Cantonese. The three of us are having a lot of fun.

More about what I do soon... I need to get home to prepare my English lesson for my class of (mostly) Ethiopian asylum seekers tomorrow morning. And I'm going to make my first use of my beautiful new rice cooker (that also bakes cakes!).

Sunday, February 08, 2004

The last time I forget my keys

It's been a crazy week and I haven't been near a computer but there's been no shortage of bloggable material.

The biggest events of the week have been starting work and moving in to my new place. The latter was preceeded by a great deal of cleaning. The bathroom was the worst and I had to go at the grease (someone used to cook in there) with a metal scraper before I could start with a cloth.

Yesterday was the final day of cleaning (12 hours!) and as I reached out to clean the exterior of the windows (and dropped yet another sponge) I smelt Nepali food from the next room and hoped I would get to know the neighbours soon. My room is in a flat divided into four residences.

I turned to refill my bucket of water from the shower and as I turned it on the hose came out from the water pipe. Hardened against such minor disappointments, I decided to go downstairs to get a spanner (I'm becoming quite a plumber) and retrieve the latest fallen sponge.

I went down in my wet t-shirt and shorts and picked the sponge off the street. It was freezing cold and people looked at me like I was crazy. I borrowed a spanner from Daisy in the shop below (my new best friend) and as I turned towards my door I realised I had left the keys in the room.

My real estate agent (next to Daisy's store) was closed and I have no idea of my landlords phone number. I hovered around the door shivering before the Chinese family next door but one came back home. Thankfully they had seen me before and took me for more than just a crazed foreigner in a wet clothes and thongs blabbing about a key and a room in terrible Cantonese.

I went up with them and knocked on the door next to my place. A Nepali girl answered and got very confused by me soaking wet and shivering and explaining in Hindi that I wanted to climb out her bathroom window.

So I got back in my place and I also bonded in a special way with my neighbours. More than that, I am now a renowned lunatic among the women who sit at the bottom of the starcases in the nearby buildings. There was much pointing and excited yelling as I climbed around the exterior of the building into my bathroom.

I'm glad that I fit in well with the general insanity of Temple St. I just wish the stall below my room would stop playing 'You light up my life' repeatedly between 5pm and 1am every night. The lines 'you light up my life' (I still don't have blinds) and 'you fill my nights with song' are so apt it is like a cruel taunt.

This isn't my photo but you get an idea of my desparate need for blinds!

Sunday, February 01, 2004

If lady sitting downstairs is okay?

Most of my first week back in Hong Kong has been occupied by my very picky search for a home. I knew the area I wanted to live in, in fact I had it narrowed down to a section 4 streets wide and several alleyways long. I chose this part of Jordan because it is close to work, full of life and also a centre for the ethnic minority groups that I will be working with. The streets in this area are not traffic heavy and two are market streets that are closed to vehicles.

I also had a good idea of the kind of residence that I was after. I knew that my budget would not allow more than a single room with bathroom and kitchen attached. Thus, within this framework I set a load of criteria including:
- bathroom big enough that I will not have to shower on the toilet
- several large windows
- no laminated floors
- a ceiling that I can't touch
- a kitchen that is not in the bathroom
- no offensive odour

I even brushed up my Cantonese for the occasion and formed a little monologue that went along the lines of...
'I want room. Bathroom. Kitchen. No lift, no problem. I like many windows'

What I did not imagine was the amount of entertainment that would be provided by the search. My quest began by following a real estate agent through back streets to inspect my first room. The agent in question was a glamorous lady dressed in black. At every corner she would turn and smile, beckoning me with her finger. Onlookers began to stare and I grew more and more embarrassed as we went.

The fun did not stop there. The next agent was a friendly old lady who showed me a room on the 13th floor. Most buildings in Hong Kong leave out unlucky numbers (13 and anything ending in a 4) and I joked that I might have to think twice about taking that room. At that moment she turned into a snarling monster screaming '13th floor very lucky! very, very lucky!'.

The next agency was a family business and the parents sent me out with their son who spoke much better English than they did. To our surprise, we found out that we had both been studying at UTS last year. It was the first time that the poor guy had ever shown anyone a room and I felt very sorry for him because he couldn't find it. He apologised non-stop and almost died of embarrassment when we chanced upon a cat with a litter of kittens in a stairwell. We went into two different buildings and tried the key in six doors before he called mum with an SOS.

As the search continued it looked like I might have to make do with a windowless box complete with an old lady downstairs luring customers. On my second day of searching, however, I found the perfect room. It is on the 3rd floor on the corner of a building and has windows across two sides. The kitchen and bathroom are large and the ceiling is 2.7m high. The floor is covered with funky retro blue, red and white tiles and it's on Temple St above the night markets. And the fact that there is a small plant growing between cracks in the bathroom tiles bodes very well for my hopes of success with pot plants!

Plus, there's a view to die for!