Pieces of Hong Kong – a new blog

Over the summer, I’ll be keeping (hopefully) a more regular blog about a city I love… (I’m thinking once-a-week-ish.)

The blog will be very different from this one. For one thing, it will be far less personal. There will be snippets of daily life. There will probably be one or two political rants (one’s brewing violently at the moment…). There will be photos (when I finally get around to clearing my memory card), of Hong Kong. And there will be stories of people I come across. Maybe even interviews! :D But hopefully there will be very little of me (except for my voice and vision and all that good stuff).

Secondly, Our City, as my new blog is titled, is firstly written in Chinese. (It is partially to keep my Chinese writing skills honed). I write each entry in Chinese, then translate it to English. Thus it is actually two blogs, the Chinese one, and its English counterpart. Not that it makes any real difference for readers, except that the English blog may be updated a little later.

Here it is in English: http://hkhearteng.wordpress.com/

And in Chinese: http://hkheart.wordpress.com/

Still a little work to be done with the header and layout and stuff. But I’m sure you’ll make do.

Finally, Beneath the Olive Trees will remain my primary blog, even if I do update the other one more often. This is, ultimately, the place where I share the more important parts of me, the place where I talk to friends, the place where one would actually get to know me (assuming I post… :p). Beneath the Olive Trees is my blogging home. Our City is a summer project.

With love,



Chungking Mansions

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong KongGhetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A group of Hong Kongers enter the Chungking Mansions, in search of “real curry” perhaps.

They huddle closely together, unused to being the minority. Some of them stare openly at all the foreign faces, none of which are white. Others carefully avoid eye contact, especially the girls, unused to such open scrutiny. Unconsciously, they clutch their purses closer, not knowing that travelers from various corners of the world freely leave thousands of dollars on counters while they carefully count out the payment for, say, a shipment of copy mobile phones.

The Hong Kongers weave their way through narrow corridors lined by tiny shops, mostly catering to Africans and South Asians, and worry about the dangling wires overhead. They find the staircase near the back of the building, clear of junk which may have once been constituted as fire hazards. On the second floor, they find the Indian restaurant their friends told them of. They relax a little once they enter that small quiet world which was outfitted for the comfort of Hong Kong costumers. They are served by a quiet Indian girl who speaks beautiful English. Her relative, perhaps a husband, brother, or cousin, occasionally comes of the kitchen to stare at the TV, which was broadcasting the muted tones and bright colors of a comedic love story on the Indian subcontinent.

The curry was superb, the Hong Kongers all agree, definitely much better than the stuff they were served in Hong Kong restaurants. Of course, they do not know that the cook greatly altered his recipes to please the mild palates of Hong Kong Chinese.

They pay the bill, and the quiet Indian girl hopes that they enjoyed their meal and would come again. Of course, they reply, but wonder if they really wanted to risk the dangers of Chunking Mansions again, only for a meal.

They finally leave Chungking Mansions and re-enter the bright, familiar world of Hong Kong. On the sidewalks of Nathan road, they heave a collective sigh of relief and loosen their grips on their wallets.


Hong Kong people do not understand Chungking Mansions at all, but this book offers an insightful explanation of the building and its important place as a threshold to the developed world for the South Asian and African middle class. (Rnadom fact: The author estimates that about 20 percent of the mobile phones used in Sub-Saharan Africa had gone through Chungking Mansions.)

It is also a very well written book in that it is able to capture and retain the interest of even those who spend too little time reading non-fiction. It usually takes some effort for me to read non-fiction (okay, LS, put down this fantasy book for a while to finish a chapter of that history book), but this book was so interesting that I staid up quite late a few nights reading it. ;)

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The passing of Uncle Wah

Mr. Szeto Wah, known affectionately by the Hong Kong people as Uncle Wah, passed away on January 2nd. He was an important figure in the developement of democracy in Hong Kong over the years, and he is already sorely missed.

I met him once, before I really knew who he was. It was at the Chinese New Year Carnival, when the various political parties had their stalls up and tried to gain the favors of the Hong Kong people.  As usual, Mr. Szeto Wah was at the Democratic Party’s stall, writing New Year couplets for people. Our family was in line, and my mother asked for “龙马精神” (the strength and health of the dragon and horse) for our grandmother, who is growing old and frail. Mr. Szeto was cheerful and friendly, and gladly complied. He wished her well.

That red piece of New Year paper hung in our grandmother’s living room for over a year. We still have it now. His calligraphy was neat and strong. In the Chinese stories I’ve read, one could always guess the nature of a man by his calligraphy. Perhaps there is quite a bit of truth to that. 

Szeto Wah was a giant on the Hong Kong political landscape.  He commanded the respect of all parties, pro-democracy or pro-beijing, and the Hong Kong people affectionately call him Uncle Wah.  He was the spiritual leader of the Democratic Party. The party was a strong, calm voice in Hong Kong politics. They are perhaps not as loud and noisy as other, seemingly younger parties.  But they are no less passionate for democracy, and they had quite a bit more common sense. Such was the influence of Uncle Wah. He didn’t rave and rant. But he was heard clearly even in the strongest storms.

There is another party which I am rather fond of, though I quite disagree with their way of doing things. Long Hair and Wong Yuk-man are of the League of Social Democrats, and young though they are not, they are as noisy and teenagers. Hong Kong people well remember their acts in the LegCo chamber, from throwing bananas to shouting … rather impolite words.  There is still heated debate about whether those particular words qualify as swearwords. I personally think not, unpleasant though they may be. I came to learn that they are both masters of Chinese history, which instantly increased my respect for them. I suppose I consider them as over-active kids. I do not approve of their actions, but I’ll admit, they’ve brought many a wry smile to those who watch LegCo meetings.

But there is one thing I could not come close to forgiving. Szeto Wah was diagnosed with cancer in late 2009, and of course, all political figures showed concern. But during the democratic split during the contraversy over the Reform Package,  Long Hair, in his anger at the Democratic Party’s choices, asked rudely if Uncle Wah was not functioning properly because of the cancer that has gone to his brain.

Outrage ensued. For all their political differences, everyone was suddenly on the same line: defending Mr. Szeto and condemning Long Hair. Long Hair could get away with calling anyone any kind of names. He was that kind of character. But he could not get away with showing such disrespect towards Mr. Szeto. Szeto Wah was more than just another political figure in the pro-democracy camp. He was the political figure.

When I started paying more attention to Hong Kong politics, I was overjoyed to learn that Mr. Szeto wrote a column for the Mingpao (our family’s favorite Chinese newspaper) every three days. Then I was most disappointed to learn that he never wrote about politics. But slowly, I came to appreciate his short, simple column. He liked to write short, sweet stories. They were almost childish in their simplicity, but is that not the way of the very best fables? He also shared some of his favorite Chinese poems. They were almost like a short lesson in Chinese literature. He was so willing to teach. Those were the days I liked best, because I love anything of Chinese literature or history. Some days, he would even share a verse or two from the Bible. (I think that Mr. Szeto became a Christian not long ago.) I’ve come to love his column, and I made a point of reading it every time he wrote. Like I’ve said, in those times he seems more like a teacher than a politician. But then, I suppose he always was a teacher at heart. He always was a teacher, not the politician, which is why he commanded the love and respect of so many younger men and women (old though they may seem to me).

I remember reading something written by a young reporter not long after Mr. Szeto was diagnosed with cancer. She said that he expected reporters to have done their homework before interviewing him, which was only a decent request, that of a stern, though loving teacher. She also said that whenever the young reporters couldn’t understand some obscure Chinese reference or saying made by any of the politicians, they had merely to call up Mr. Szeto, and he would be more than happy to help them out by drawing on his vast wealth of knowledge.

He came to the June Fourth gathering last year. He always came, and he said that, as long as he is able, he always will come. How could we have known that it was the last time?

(Economist‘s obituary: http://www.economist.com/blogs/asiaview/2011/01/szeto_wah)