Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Hot in here...

Hong Kong is getting very hot. Actually I don't mind this too much. I have been thinking lately of all the benefits of living in the tropics. My top two would definitely be the wide array of fruit and the speed with which my pot plants grow.

One less desirable effect of the warm weather is the increasing number of people swimming at MY pool. Even though I go there after eight thirty at night, the place is still packed. It's absolute carnage until the fast lanes open after nine and only marginally better after that.

I have taken it upon myself to be the enforcer of direction and movement in the fast lanes. I swim up and down on the left hand side (as the sign suggests) and show little mercy for people that get in the way or float around near the wall without swimming at all. Six out of eight lanes in the pool are dedicated for messing around.

No apologies to any of the following people who I swam into last night:
1. Those crossing between the two free swimming areas on either side of the fast lanes
2. The man swimming breastroke with his glasses on and head out of the water
3. The big crowd of teenagers taking up all the wall space when I needed to tumble turn.
4. The man doing aqua aerobics in the fast lane
5. The teenage couple who decided that the middle of the fast lane was an appropriate place for them to hug, kiss and giggle

Don't they know that the MTR is the designated place in HK for teenage PDA's?


Saturday, June 26, 2004


When I used to live on an outlying island it was an incredible coincidence if I ran into someone I knew in the city.

These days it's strange to go anywhere without bumping into friends. I have just arrived at work having come via the supermarket for some last minute ingredients for today's lunch for thirty.

That particular supermarket used to be my regular but I've been frequenting another one for the last few months. The cashier asked me why such a long time and no see. I told her I've been at the Hankow Rd store and she nodded, adding that it the range was much better there.

While still at the checkout, I saw another friend, a businessman from Ghana. I mentioned that I hadn't seen him for a while and he told me that he'd been out of Hong Kong on a business trip.

Arriving at Chungking I went to see Mabel, the Calcutta-born Chinese lady that runs my favourite movie store. The CD I wanted is the soundtrack of a new movie with a very strange name ('Why? We're in love, aren't we?'). Mabel hadn't heard of it and assumed that I was getting the name wrong. She gave a multitude of suggestions of similarly titled movies which I found quite amusing.

As I negated her suggestions, other customers also pitched in - maybe I wanted 'Tell me that you love me' or 'Is this really love?'. No, none of those. The music has only just been released so I guess I'll go back again after a week.

As I got in the lift someone mentioned to a friend in Hindi that my new trousers are very nice. I enjoyed the compliment without acknowledging that I had understood.

It's days like this that I really enjoy the sense of community in and around Chungking. If you can ignore the posters at the bottom of the lifts asking for information on a recent murder then it's really a nice place to work. I read an interview in HK Magazine last week where a Chungking resident stated that this is the only place in Hong Kong where everyone is equal. I think I agree.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Fan club

Since my local pool reopened a month ago I've been swimming at least two or three times after work per week. I've worked up to 3km per session and it feels good to be fit again. It also helps that I'm usually the fastest in the pool, a notable exception being the teenage girl in a red costume who occasionally comes to steal my time to shine.

As I walk through Kowloon Park to get to the pool it's not unusual to be greeted by a 'hello Mr Joe!' from someone too dark to be easily recognised at night time (please note that I do not encourage people to call me Mr!). Kowloon Park is the only nice quiet place around that the asylum seekers can hang out and pass time in the evening.

On Wednesday night I felt extra popular when I looked up mid-lap and noticed I had pulled a crowd of asylum seekers waving from behind the window next to the ticket booth. If it becomes a regular occurrence I'm going to have to become faster than my nemesis in the red costume.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

'The most beautiful woman in the world'

A couple of months ago, our boss told my colleague and I that we could employ a new staff member on a scheme for employing ethnic minority youth at risk of unemployment. It means that we pay half the salary and the government pay the rest.

My colleague and I were excited about the prospect of extra help but we disagreed over the preferred gender of our new employee. Since there's already an oversupply of men around here I wanted a girl. My colleague thought it would be better to have a boy so that she could send him out with flyers to promote our services. I thought a girl would be much better for this purpose anyway, as long as she went accompanied.

In the end we didn't have any choice because the interview candidates were all female. It turns out that our new employee has certainly changed the atmosphere of the place. Not only does she work well but she has developed a cult following among our clients and volunteer staff.

At first I thought it was just our 17 year old volunteer that was infatuated. He follows her around the centre and sits in a trance watching her when she is working on the computer. Whenever she gets sent out to do shopping or distribute flyers he sulks until he is sent too.

But when I witnessed another volunteer doing almost the same thing I realised that there was some kind of almost universal effect that I hadn't noticed.

This was confirmed when I went to the refugee's hostel for a Saturday morning breakfast and they began talking about her. It turns out that one of the refugees had arrived home after her first day of work and announced that he had seen the most beautiful girl in the world.

Possibly the best part about the whole thing is the willingness to clean, cook and generally help out that any men in our centre demonstrate when she is present. My workload in this kind of stuff has been cut by half :)

Friday, June 18, 2004

Cha cha cha

I came home on Wednesday eager to see the new mama. I was holding on to hope that she might be half as glamorous and exciting as Nancy with her permed hair, menagerie of friends and stories of trips to Paris long ago.

I was sorely disappointed to turn into my street and see the same boring mama who filled in for Nancy when she was on holiday in Thailand. She was squatting on her stool with legs wide apart. One hand was resting on top of her large stomach and the other was picking at her teeth. She was still picking at her teeth an hour later when I came out of the house to go swimming.

On her last night of working, Nancy told me that she is also going to use her new spare time to go to cha cha cha class. I figured out what this meant when she did a demonstration on the pavement 'One, two, cha cha cha, three, four, cha cha cha'. She was very good and went on to do a tango, a waltz and then a salsa. She's promised to call me so I can go with her to cha cha cha lessons.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Ends and beginnings

I checked the common post box this morning to find a letter from the HK Housing Authority. It was addressed to the family who are storing all the junk in the hallway. Could they have been allocated public housing? I wait in hope...

Nancy told me a couple of days ago that she has decided to quit her job. I don't think she really needs the money and she's been complaining so much about sitting outside in the hot weather. Today is her last day and she's planning to retire in style. Her plans include:
- knitting a jumper (don't know how she's decided on that in this weather)
- going on holiday to Thailand (again!)
- cooking
- doing a computer course so that she can chat on the net to her son in Taiwan
Daisy and I are very upset about her leaving but Nancy has promised to return often. We know that she will because her boss owes her a lot of money.

Speaking of Nancy's boss, I've seen a lot more of her recently because she's been patrolling the doorway of her building around the spot where Nancy sits. The mainland girls have been encroaching on her turf and I've had the opportunity for learning a lot of rude language as she sends them scurrying back over to Shanghai St.

Finally, my new boss is starting today, a refugee lawyer from England. it's going to be good to have an expert around.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

'Yes, but how do you minister?'

It can be both a blessing and a curse working in a secular NGO with a religious name. My Hindu colleague complains that the name of our organisation makes it difficult to attract ethnic minority residents to our centre. Time and time again I hear her on the telephone explaining that our centre is not affiliated to any church and our classes and workshops have no Christian content. I've heard the spiel so many times that I know it off by heart in Nepali.

One other side effect of the name of our organisation is that we get all kinds of people turning up because they assume that our entire staff are gung-ho missionaries. On occcasions this is a good thing. An old lady from PNG dropped in a few months ago on a break from her work as a teacher in China. I helped her to find a cheap place to stay in Chungking and she spent a bit of time hanging out in our centre. Her big hair and big attitude made her kind of reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg (with a few teeth missing). Every sentence was finished with a 'praise the lord'.

At other times the effects aren't so great. Chungking Mansions must have the highest concentration of 'Pastors' of any building in Hong Kong. It certainly has the highest concentration of pastors from Ghana. We get a steady trickle of pastors from Ghana (and other assorted countries) coming to our centre in the hope that we will be able to sponsor them to stay in Hong Kong and work in our organisation. They may or may not have overstayed their visa at this point. It takes them a while to figure out that this won't happen and move on to their next target.

This week something downright annoying happened. We were visited by an American family returning via Hong Kong from a mission trip in India. They walked through our door with a few PTL's, bringing back fond memories of my friend from PNG. I then heard 'Praise the Lord, tracts in so many languages!'. The exclamation tapered off towards the end as the dad realised that the 'tracts' were actually brochures on HIV awareness, left over from a health workshop. As I heard the change in tone I bit my lip in anxiety. I then gave up the anxiety but continued to bite my lip, suppressing a laugh. It reminded me of our boss' reaction when he demanded to know why bananas were listed as as 'program expense for health workshop' and not 'food for breakfast'.

I invited the family of four to sit down and have some tea and coffee. They told me they were in Hong Kong for two days and wanting to visit some mission organisations. They had seen our sign downstairs and were keen to know what we did in our centre. I began to explain our food program, language classes, computer classes, art classes, health workshops and medical centre. As I rattled off our impressive list of services they looked at me with a frustrated blankness. Finally the father asked, 'Yes, but how do you minister?'.

I explained to them that, despite our organisation's name, both my colleagues are Hindu so we're not exactly a mission organisation. I told them that, at the same time, I consider everything I do there to be part of my own personal ministry. I didn't feel in the mood to mention that we hold a bible study group on Saturday afternoons. Nor did I say that the asylum seekers often ask me to pray with them.

It was at this point that the father decided that our organisation was decidedly unchristian and he shifted focus to try and make a ruling on my own personal faith...
- So what is your church background?
- Well I grew up in an Anglican church (ok, I was exaggerating to deliberately annoy him) but my family and I (baiting again - do I have my own personal faith?) have gone to a Baptist church for the last few years.
- Oh! The Anglican church is pretty spiritually dead.
- Well I don't know if you can say that. Maybe it's better for you to judge each individual church. Or judge person by person (glaring).
- Yes, you are right. But you do have your own personal experience of salvation, don't you?
- Yes.
- When was that?
- When I was fourteen (okok... I know when to give up)
- Oh good (still sceptical). Because you need more than just a sprinkling to get to heaven.

Out of complete despair for the spiritual environment of our workplace, he then asked me if his son could play a song using one of our guitars. After five minutes of purification from the Wannabe Contemporary Christian Music Superstar, dad asked if they could pray before leaving. Excited at the prospect of the latter, I agreed but didn't concentrate on his words because the doorbell went three times before he had finished.

As they left I thought of how many times I have encountered this attitude since starting in my job. It's okay for a Christian to work in any kind of secular company but when they work in a secular charity they are considered to have sold out.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Excuse my Cantonese

Considering that I've been in Hong Kong since the start of this year, my progress in Cantonese has been pathetic. I've joined a class at work but I'm moving at a very slow pace.

One of the reasons for my lack of progress is that I hardly ever get the chance to practice. I spend most of my waking hours at work and my only chance to speak is when I receive wrong number phone calls. Apart from telling people they've got the wrong number, the only other area where I excel is shopping for food. I know the names of an impressive array of fruits.

As I lose hope of rapid progress in Cantonese I've set my sights on another language. I realised a couple of weeks ago that I've spent the last few months immersed in French and I've actually begun to pick up a bit. It's a bit like (but now quite!) the Simpsons episode where Bart goes on exchange to France and becomes fluent without realising. My initial 'Bart moment' came as a result of inability to communicate with my basic English class. I yelled out an instruction in French and surprised myself more than anyone.

This development has been quite a shock because I did only a couple of months of French at school. In fact, I've always thought learning French was just for people who dream of holidaying there and I find the random insertion of French words into conversation a particularly pretentious bourgeois habit.

Anyway, speaking some French would help me greatly at work and I've now found myself a couple of teachers. For the moment I'm having fun making everyone laugh.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Taking a razor blade to the hand that feeds you

Work has been getting busier. I don't know if it's a sign that the political environment in Central and Western Africa is worsening but there has been a deluge of asylum seekers from Congo (both of them), Cameroon and Nigeria in our centre.

When we started this place a few months ago everything was new and people were grateful for whatever help they could get. Many of them were living on the street and they were constantly telling us how much their lives had improved since our centre opened.

These days, the organisation responsible for asylum seekers in Hong Kong sends them to us as soon as they make their application. Many think that we are the food-distributing, accommodating-providing arm of that same organisation and they come with a list of demands:

I'm hungry! no crossaint? where's milk? Mr Joe give me bread!

My English lessons on how to make polite requests aren't sinking in fast enough! My basic English class has been able to learn to learn to use the classifier 'a piece of bread' much more easily than 'Could you please...'.

One of our part-time volunteers has quit. He couldn't handle the pressure of cooking meals and giving out food packages only to have the recipients give complaints. At one breakfast recently people ate so much bread that it ran out and I had to make porridge as an emergency measure. Most liked it but one guy came to me in the kitchen with his bowl, 'Mr Joe, this no good!'.

At the extreme end, things are even getting a little dangerous round here. Two people have had complete breakdowns in our centre in the last couple of months that have almost become violent. One client has been particularly problematic and is continually starting arguments with others. He began fighting with someone a couple of weeks ago and I was thankful that there were enough of us around to separate the two.

And then there's been drama with the set of hair clippers I bought (with my own money) for people to use. Last time someone used it they left five razor blades scattered around the room and a heap of bloody tissues in the bin. The hair wasn't all cleared up and a couple of the clipper fittings were left on the window sill. I let them know that I wasn't very impressed, particularly as the children's Cantonese class was to be held a little later in the same room.

Yesterday morning the same person that caused the hair clipper problem asked me for some bread to take away because he was fasting until six o'clock. I then saw him digging in to a huge plate of rice and curry at two o'clock in the other charity organisation in our building!

Anyway, in the midst of all this I've become very thankful for the 50% of our clients who are very helpful and grateful for the assistance they get here. I'm also becoming a lot stricter and more prepared to yell and say 'no' when necessary. I guess I"m learning to give 'tough love'.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


In the last week there have been a couple of milestones. Firstly, it's just over six months now since I left Australia for Hong Kong. There's been some hard work and some surprises (esp ending up in a different job than I thought I was coming here for!) but the last half a year has been pretty cool.

I've also noticed that my blog counter has now passed 1,000 hits. Thanks to everyone who's reading and commenting! It's fun to see so many people who are important to me communicating in the same forum, even when they don't know each other. So thanks to all of you in Australia, England, Hong Kong, Singapore, the US, Korea, Germany, Hawaii and anywhere else!