Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Lately I had been thinking about getting a tv. After much internal debate, I decided that I am still better off without one. Instead I'll continue to fill my spare time with swimming and attempting to read the Hindi version of 'India Today'.

That means that I'll have to find somewhere to watch the TVB Pearl report on asylum seekers which will probably air a week on Sunday. I guess I'll be able to say 'I only watch TV when I'm on it'.

Not having a TV (or computer) has other positive effects, aside from improving my swimming and Hindi reading abilities.

Working in Chungking has instilled an instinct to avoid any display of wealth. This is partly out of sensitivity but also because I am constantly asked for money (I never give any). At such times, it is often helpful that I own one of the oldest mobile phones in Hong Kong, particularly if the person asking for money owns a flashier mobile than I do!

Last week in English class we were discussing the Terri Schiavo story when someone asked if I'd seen the TV footage. The students were shocked that I didn't have a TV. One Togolese client joked that he would pass a collection box around so that all the asylum seekers could contribute to a 'buy Joe a TV fund'. I laughed and didn't mention that it's mostly pride stopping me from getting one. That and the concern that a television would make my room look ugly.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Happy Easter

I hope that everyone enjoyed Easter. I very much enjoyed having some time off and also having DSD visit from Singapore.

After learning more about Chinese New Year this year, I had a new appreciation for Easter. Unlike Christmas, which is all in the anticipation, Easter stretches over a longer period of time. I love how the different days hold different meanings and facilitate different kinds of reflection.

I pondered all this yesterday as I sat in church before the service. I deliberately arrived early to reflect and thank God for everything that the day meant to me. I prayed for my family and I prayed the unlikely group of people who have become important to me. I also prayed for a friend in Rome (not the pope, though I might have if I'd remembered).

The service started with 'Up from the grave he arose' and I smiled, knowing that my family would be singing the same song in Sydney. As it turns out, they sang it at the dawn service which would have been almost at the same time. Unlike them, however, our congregation was singing simultaneously in English, Cantonese and Korean.

Easter is a four day holiday in Hong Kong but I'd chosen to work Friday and Monday mornings. I did this partly out of concern for our clients but also because I am concious of keeping a very good relationship with the company that donates food on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

When I arrived at work this morning I regretted making the effort. A disappointed client had defaced the 'Easter opening hours' sign on the front door to write something nasty about me. It was the result of my recent efforts to increase communication among groups assisting asylum seekers so that help is more evenly distributed.

Lately I have thought back often to the time that I worked in an NGO that sent shipments of aid goods from Hong Kong. We always used to tell ourselves that 'behind the scenes' charity work was a thankless task. Unlike the person on the frontline we didn't get to recieve the smiles and grateful thanks of the people we were helping.

That wasn't quite the whole picture!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

HK elite

Many established South Asians in Hong Kong don't particularly like to be associated with Chungking Mansions, a fact I can well understand.

Knowing this, I teased someone I met the other day who asked what I do:

'I work in Chungking Mansions, have you heard of it?'

The answer took me back somewhat as I realised I was speaking with HK royalty:

'Actually, my father owns the hotel next door'

I had heard of that one.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Pip's 'only in HK' comment made me realise something. Most of the things which used to seem unusual don't even register on my weirdness radar any more. Yesterday I walked past one of the real estate shops that I went to when I was looking for my apartment. It may have been their experience with me which taught them that English speakers usually want multiple windows in their apartment. One sign read:

'One Room. Many Windows Can Cook Toilet'

Later in the evening I went to buy some fruit for this morning's breakfast at work. I always head to the market around closing time when the vendors are keen to flog the rest of their stock and go home. Lately I've had to be careful because I've developed loyalties to two rival fruit stalls. I was stupid enough yesterday to walk past one of the stalls after buying 25 apples at the other. One of the stall holders saw me walking past and shouted:

'What have you bought? Apples? How much did you pay? $20? You've made a big mistake! Our apples are only $5 for ten today!'

'Aiyaa. I didn't know' I said and the three stall holders all mimicked me in unison 'aiyaa, aiyaa, aiyaa, you didn't know, you've made a mistake la'. 'Will you have these apples tomorrow?' I asked. The young lady mocked me again as the old lady laughed. 'aiyaa, aiyaa. Tomorrow who knows. You should have bought them today la'.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


What do you do when you catch a fish that is longer than your kitchen is wide?

I came out of my room yesterday evening and perceived a fishy odour. I walked down the hallway, past my neighbours' doors and opened the metal door to the stairway. The father of the Chinese family on my floor was de-scaling a two-foot long fish.

The fish took up the whole 4th floor landing and I guess they must have cut it out there because it would have been very difficult to get it into their room.

After some questioning, I assertained that he had caught it somewhere on Hong Kong Island. I'm just wondering whether he brought it home on the bus or the MTR!

Sunday, March 20, 2005


My colleague was volunteering at the Rugby Sevens all weekend and I was left to cover all shifts at work. With both Saturday and Sunday marred by several hours of work in the middle of each day, my weekend was looking pretty sad.

That's when I had a genius idea, reminiscent of Homer Simpson's creation of a meal between breakfast and brunch. I would adjust my sleeping hours to create an extra weekend day. For lack of a better word (any suggestions?) I decided to call it 'Funday'.

Both Saturday and Sunday had to be trimmed down to squeeze Funday in. Saturday finished at 6pm when I went to bed for several hours sleep. I then woke up on Funday morning and I had a shower, got dressed, eat a pear and practiced a new dance move from 'Samundar mein nahake' (having bathed in the ocean...), a video clip that I had seen while eating dinner in a Nepali restaurant the night before.

Preparation finished, I rushed to Causeway Bay to do some shopping before everything closed. On Funday, most shops are only open for several hours in the morning. Unfortunately I had just passed through the Jordan MTR turnstile when I noticed I was wearing my oldest pair of shoes. These wouldn't do for Funday and I rushed back home to change.

From Causeway Bay I headed to Central where I went to a friend's art gallery and then out for a drink (lime soda - alcohol would have been inappropriate so early in the day anyway). I then realised that I hadn't taken any breakfast and went to Tsui Wah for wonton noodles.

On the strength of the wontons, I danced until Funday evening at Pp. I feel like a regular there despite making only two recent appearances. I then went back to Jordan and had dinner in the 24 hour Nepali restaurant. For my benefit, the boss put on the VCD of 'Dhoom' (smoke/exhaust/excitement), the Hindi version of 'The Fast and the Furious'.

A sozzled customer complained about Dhoom and demanded the return of a singer that he called 'Nepali Bon Jovi'. After I gave in and agreed to his insistence that Nepali music is better than Hindi music, he made a very generous offer in Nepali that required a little translation 'Visit the bar where I work anytime and I will give you drinks until you pee'. I'm yet to find out if this is a standard Nepali saying.

He then apologised again for changing the music. 'After all' he complained, 'I don't even understand what "dhoom macha le" is anyway'. 'No problem' I said, 'You are making dhoom enough anyway', gesturing to his cigarette. Everyone giggled and I got that tingle that only comes from making a joke in another language.

It was too late to explain why 'dhoom macha le' is a clever song name. I finished my fried rice and went home to bed.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Early mornings

Three days a week I start work at 8am instead of 9. An hour makes an amazing difference, the streets are quiet and I can walk a straight line down Nathan Rd. If I'm in a rush and need to catch the MTR I know that I'll be able to fit easily inside the carriage.

Chungking just before eight is deserted, save for a few businessmen standing around drinking tea from either of two small stalls. One of the stalls is Pakistani run and at that time in the morning they play out the Muslim call to prayer, presumably for those on their way to Kowloon Mosque up the road.

As I walked past the stall yesterday I remembered sitting in the rooftop restaurant of my favourite hotel in Old Delhi, opposite the Jama Masjid. I'm not sure when I'll be back there next but I would like it to be sometime soon.

I noticed yesterday that the range of Urdu romance novels under the stall counter includes one with a picture on the cover of Angelina Jolie, hero to all refugee workers. I'm sure that she hasn't given permission for that!

The romantic theme continued when I arrived at work and found one of our French speaking clients at the door. He was eager to use the internet and called me to help him understand an email in English that he'd just recieved. The email really surprised me because this guy doesn't speak any English at all...

Dear ______

I have just arrived back in London. I want to tell you you how much I enjoyed spending time with you in Hong Kong. I miss you already.

love ______

Hmm. I was reminded again of travel in India and all the times I was asked 'will my foreign girlfriend come back and take me to England like she promised?'.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

All the fat

I didn't think that I would have a justified occasion to write about the Chungking lifts so soon after last time but I do.

For the last week, the lift for all the even floors in our block has been closed for repair. It will be closed for another week in what the management are calling a routine servicing.

As a result, we have to take the odd floor lift and walk up from the 15th floor. This isn't too much of an inconvenience.

What is an inconvenience is the huge queue for the odd floor lift. The wait can take up to twenty minutes and it is causing a lot of tension. Frequent arguments are erupting in which mothers cover their children's ears and I learn a lot of bad language in Hindi. Most of it involves 'your mothers' and 'your sisters'.

But even worse than this, the odd floor lift is struggling to cope with the added strain and is breaking down on a daily basis. Once last week, seven huge men all rushed in on the ground floor. The doors shut and the lift sunk half a metre without going anywhere. After some time, a security guard came with a lift repair man to force the doors open. As the men burst out of the lift the security guard counted, 'One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. All the fat!'.

With another week of stair walking to go, it's going to be hard for anyone in E-block to be the fat for much longer!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Pass the urine

When I arrived at work yesterday morning, Aunty Mona, our oldest client, was waiting outside the door.

'Oh beta! I am waiting for you because my bus coming early. I need the tea and the vegetarian bread. And I am waiting to pass the urine'

Saturday, March 05, 2005

I'm ungry

Every day at work seems to bring a new rule. The busier we get, the more we have to legislate in order to keep our centre from exploding.

Most new rules fall into one of two areas - meals and internet access. Except, I guess, for 'Don't eat at the computer' which straddles both and is very strongly policed.

The backbone of the meal rules is 'No food served outside of set meal times'. People will try all manner of fast talk and flattery in order to get food at irregular times. It didn't take long for everyone to realise that the following doesn't have much effect on me:

"Mr Joe, good morning... you are looking very handsome today... I'm very hungry"

Yesterday, someone tried a smarter and slightly more effective technique. I tried my best to counter it with more smart talk:

"Joe, zallah"
"Zallah, now that you are so good in French you have to start with Lingala"
"What's zallah?"
"It means 'I'm hungry'"
"Anita, please think of this place as your mother's house"
"Thank you"
"This is not McDonalds where you can take food anytime. It is like your mother's house where you have to eat at meal times"

I gave a biscuit for effort and well directed flattery. My French, by the way, is still very limited.