Sunday, February 27, 2005

The shildren

Our centre has been taken over by kids lately, including some very lively ones who have edged us another step closer to absolute chaos. My productivity levels have dropped sharply but I've really enjoyed having them around. It's made me remember how much I liked working with kids when I used to teach swimming in Sydney. As one of our clients pointed out this week:

'Mr Joe like the shildren. The shildren like Mr Joe'

We were also visited this week by several prospective volunteers. Some of them were from the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church and my doctor colleague has fallen into a habit of mistakenly calling them the LSD church. I'm praying that she doesn't do it in front of them when they come again to teach Cantonese this week!

Another new volunteer was an English vet and I asked him if HK pet owners bring their animals to the vet more frequently than those in London.

'Well, there are two extremes really. You have the New Territories pet owners who wait until something is almost dead before seeking treatment. On the other hand, there are a lot of childless couples who bring their dog to the vet every time it has a sniffle.'

After some deliberation, the Sister S and I decided to ask the vet to teach an English class for little kids. Snap!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Cosmopolitan HK

The thing I love most about Hong Kong is the mix of people and cultures. At work in Chungking Mansions I speak with people from at least twenty different countries every day. And these days, living on Temple St is more and more like being in a suburb of Kathmandu.

Last weekend I ran around from one activity to another, amazed at the contrast between the situations in which I found myself.

Friday night started with dinner at a tiny illegal Nepali restaurant with my friend Sue before the two of us headed to Soho to meet up with some other friends at a club. At the time, it didn't even register that our group of six came from five different countries - Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Nepal and Scotland.

Going out dancing for the first time in months was fun. Sue is a regular at 'Propaganda' and I got introduced to a lot of new people. Sue's dancing, JLo meets Madhuri Dixit, was hilarious and I heard some funny new lines, my favourite being 'I'm foreign as well, my grandma is Japanese!'.

After sleeping in the next morning, I met up again with Sue who had stayed overnight at a new Japanese style hotel in Central. We went for a noodle breakfast before crossing the street to have smoothies in 'Kosmo', a funky health food cafe that mum loved when she was here.

After breakfast it was time to run to a meeting for groups working with asylum seekers, organised by Amnesty. After several hours of sharing ideas over cookies, I went back to the Nepali restaurant where I ate yummy dumplings and watched half an hour of a Hindi serial on the TV.

On Saturday night I had been invited by a Scottish friend to a dinner party with other English and Australian friends that I used to work with in Hong Kong years ago. I ate lasagna for the first time in I don't know when and I won a two hour long game of 'Ultimate Boulderdash', a game requiring a mix of creativity and lying ability. I tried to control the excitement that takes over whenever I am with a group of native English speakers.

On Sunday morning I woke up just in time for church. I was a bit late and I opened the door gently to be greeted by a Filipino friend on the other side. She was taking video footage of the service for an upcoming documentary on asylum seekers in Hong Kong. The sermon was preached by a Dutch guy who had been at the Amnesty meeting the day before. I enjoyed the service but unfortunately I had been too late to collect the notes which included all the liturgies and song words. This became a situation of extreme discomfort when the camera zoomed in on me during a hymn that I had never sung before! I tried my best to look like I was singing but I don't know if I quite pulled it off.

After church I headed back to the Nepali restaurant to try another of their specials. As I was eating, a Pakistani family came in for take away and the kids started watching the Nepali movie which was playing. I found myself in the weird position of trying to translate the dialogue from Nepali to Urdu!

Because the weather was freezing, I went straight from lunch to the newly opened Starbucks where I got a large hot chocolate and read a chapter of 'Teach Yourself Cantonese' that mum left with me. From there I went home where I chatted on the phone to mum and dad in Sydney as well as friend in Singapore.

And that was my weekend!

Friday, February 18, 2005


"Do you always speak in that voice in Hong Kong?" Jen asked me. "It sounds kind of weird!"

"Yeah I guess so. When you speak English mostly with non-native speakers you end up adjusting so that people understand you"

The voice that Jen found so strange was my work voice. It's derives from a complicated mix of influences. Like Cantonese, the syllables are very distinct. Like French, the letter 'h' is not pronounced at the beginning of words. Like many South Asian languages, a lot of 'd' and 't' sounds are pronounced with the tongue further back in the mouth than usual.

But that's not the only voice that I've got. Apart from my 'normal voice', I also have a very Honky voice that freaks friends out even more than my work voice. Plus I've got my classy 'international voice' that I use in more formal situations. The international voice can slow down according to the English proficiency of the person I'm communicating with.

This week, however, I've had to search through my repertoire for a voice I haven't used in ages. I have a new friend who's just returned to Hong Kong after three years study at the University of Wollongong. It's amazing how Australian one can become after three years in Wollongong!

Sunday, February 13, 2005


While helping Pip set up her blog last week I noticed that blogger now offers more exciting templates and its own comment service. Thus my template has changed and previous comments (hosted by an external comment service) have all been removed. Let me know what you think!

Wished out...

Rarely has this blog been so topical.

The Wishing Tree is on the front page of the newspaper today after its largest branch snapped off yesterday, injuring a 62 year old man and a 4 year old boy. It was the same branch in which I managed to land my first successful wish. I'm not sure what that means for me.

It's no great coincidence that a branch should fall during the Chinese New Year period when branches are laden with requests for the coming year. When we went last week, the branch in question was heavy with oranges tied to wishes for prosperity, health, love, new mobile phones and Hello Kitty bed linen sets.

The newspaper interviewed a prominent astrologer who gave a priceless interpretation on the occurrence:
'Astrologer Gladys Mak Ling-ling said the incident was particularly jinxed as it happened in the Lunar New Year period.
"But if we look at it in a positive way, this could mean that something old has gone and new things are about to come", said Ms Mak, adding that the tree had survived other tribulations in the past, including a fire in 1998.'

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Wishing on a tree

Been there, done that, bought the fake designer t-shirt.

As we thumbed through various Hong Kong guidebooks and maps, mum and I realised there wasn't much that we hadn't seen before.

Rather than visit the same tired tourist spots, I searched the books for something new. I found an island called Ping Chau, two hours by ferry from the New Territories. The ferry left at nine o'clock in the morning and returned at five pm, leaving six hours to explore the tiny island and dine in its two noodle shops.

Luckily for both of us, I decided to leave Ping Chau for later and found something else that we hadn't done - the Tai Po wishing tree. I called Bee who is now back in Hong Kong with a foreign tourist of his own. The four of us met up in Mong Kok MTR station and got the train and bus to the wishing tree.

On arrival we looked at each other, thinking 'this is it?'.
'I didn't think it would be on the side of the road'
'I thought it would be on top of a mountain'
'I thought it would have more leaves!'

It was only minutes, however, before we were fully converted wishers.

The system works like this. First of all you buy a rolled up scroll of paper which is tied to an orange by piece of string about 50cm long.

After purchase, you write your wish on the paper and roll it up again using the string. You then throw your wish up into the tree. You have three chances to get it up and the higher it sticks, the better chance you have of getting your wish. If your wish doesn't get stick in the tree it probably means that you have been too selfish in your request.

Trying to get your wish in the tree was much more fun than I expected. It's not as easy as it looks and my first wish didn't get in at all. My second (less selfish) wish went in on the first throw, to much applause. Mum's wish came down and landed in an oil drum full of burning unsuccessful wishes. She ran over to rescue it from the flames but the orange had already come off and she was too late.

In total, I wished five times and got three in. One of the successes was debatable because it landed in scaffolding that was supporting the tree and not in the tree itself.

Watching others could be even more entertaining than wishing yourself. One woman had particularly bad aim and he first throw sent a group of teenage girls running. Her second wish came straight down on a man's head. Both wisher and wished upon were very embarrassed and the man kept walking as if nothing had happened.

I'm planning to go back soon!

Thursday, February 03, 2005


I remember that I'm foreign when I go to a restaurant without an English menu. There's a horrible feeling of helplessnes when I know that there must be better dishes available than the ones I can say or point to.

Sometimes I remind myself of a teaching tutorial where we discussed survival strategies of illiterate people. I tend to frequent the same couple of small restaurants where the staff know what I want without having to ask. Pictures on the walls or food on display make life much easier.

I tell myself that I would have learnt to read by now if Cantonese had a phonetic script.