3 New Experiences

I would never have experienced these without coming here…

1.  Bag-o-Frogs

For Thanksgiving we went to a very weird event: a gathering of Americans and others in a small bar on the 7th floor of an office building to eat turkey out of Tupperware containers — an ambiguously commercial event organized by a young woman who does wine tasting parties and her boyfriend who is launching this bar.  Anyway, not our bowl of soup, but — the good part was meeting Camelia.  Camelia is a native Hong Konger who has lived in Chicago, Germany, London, among other places.  Her family has been here for at least three generations.  She does lighting/AV design for events.  I think she got laid off from her job in Chicago, so lost her visa, came back here, and is figuring out her next move.

Camelia generously took me through the streets surrounding the Wanchai market and gave me a food tutorial.  The range of ingredients here is vast.  My favorite, besides the bakeries which sell Pineapple Buns (suggary-topped pan dulce-type affairs) and Cocktail Buns (longish fluffy rolls filled with butter/cream and topped with coconut), are the dried goods stores.  Everything dried has more concentrated flavor — there are dried oysters and scallops, all sorts of mushrooms (stars on the caps and thicker are better), and long stringy bunches of dried bok choy for soup.

Everything goes in soup here: papayas and cucumbers being the most surprising to me.  There are all sorts of soups.  In the US we don’t take soup nearly as seriously as the Chinese.  But as Camelia corrected me, “What do you mean ‘Chinese Cuisine’?  There are many many cuisines.  This is Cantonese.” In Cantonese cuisine, she says, there are very few seasonings.  It’s a matter of balancing just a few basics — soy sauce (particular variety), sugar, salt, and oil — with the flavors of the ingredients.

Camelia also taught me how to buy a chicken.  A guy will bring the chicken out upside down, held by its feet.  You reach into the feathers and grab the breast to feel how fat it is.  Then he’ll go behead it quickly and stick its body into a funnel-type device for the blood to run out.  Presto.  We didn’t talk about how to prepare frogs.  There were bags of living frogs sitting on the counter, looking appropriately glum.  We have yet to try Frog on a Hot Stone at our favorite Sichuan restaurant.

2.  Poof

Envision E in his socks, ready to slip-slide bolt across the kitchen, one arm holding a plastic bottle above the sink.  I am cowering in the next room.  Smoke is unfurling from the drain.  Both of our eyes are like saucers.  This, ladies and gentleman, is Chinese Draino.  Not your everyday-American-toxic affair, but straight-up sulfuric acid.  This was the result of a round of charades at the hardware store — effectively, I need to unclog a sink.  Well, this does the trick.  Also oxydizes the finish on the stainless steel sink.  But these folks don’t f— around when it comes to chemicals.  E and I wondered if this is what was used in the acid attacks in Monkok in September (a cuckolded boyfriend attacked the alleged offender by throwing acid in his face, gulp).

3.  Shenzhen

This was a day deserving of its own blog post.  I met up with a group of five ladies at the Starbucks in Pacific Place — everything takes place in shopping malls here, you just get used to its being the underlying terrain — at 8:45.  These are expat ladies who lunch.  Husbands are big dudes in HK business, having launched some of the bigger enterprises in town.  They have moved their families and children from New York to London to Hong Kong to Paris, educated their domestic helpers, commuted to the Four Seasons condos for many years.  They are the logistics arm of the expat banker population.  All of them very competent, earthy people.  Kind of an army vibe.  But they’re not tai-tais, I’ve learned.  Tai-tais are the very beautiful Chinese wives with badly behaved children who are more decorative than functional.

We were headed off for the wilds of Shenzhen, which is where all the stuff we buy in the US is made.  And it’s where expats go to buy cheapcheap while the mainland Chinese head the opposite direction to buy real brands.  Hong Kongers avoid Chinese-made products, by the way.  Yes, you should be afraid of lead in toys and anything else you can imagine.  Consumer protection DNE so watch out.

I only saw a few blocks of Shenzhen — a grey-brown oily river, overcast polluted skies, acres of concrete buildings.  Seventy percent of the people here, allegedly, are women.  Girls come out to work in the factories.  Also there’s lots of prostitution.  It’s the rule here that tour groups must have a Chinese tour guide, so we picked up ours — Mandy — at the mall.  She spoke excellent American-accented English and was quite cute with her LV tote, tight jeans, and little blazer with girlie ruffles.  So we shopped and she shopped with us — explaining all the while the challenges of finding a husband: “I think Hong Kong husband is best choice for Shenzhen girl.”

Hours and hours of winding our way through labyrinth-like corridors while salespeople would come surging out of doorways, “Missee missee iPhone case?  You come in shop.”  Grabbing my arms and bag.  It felt like being surrounded by animals, really.  Like being swarmed or attacked.  Someone pacing after you even after you’ve told them no a thousand times.  You are not human beings.  You are money and they’re going to get it.  If they see your eyes pause in the window of a shop, they surround you and begin pelting you with sales pitches.

But after the swarm, sometimes they would let up and relax.  Our leader, who — like everyone else — was running her own scam by taking us to particular shops and telling us to pay the price she’d negotiated, had a good rapport with some folks despite not speaking any Cantonese.  So as we hung out sitting on plastic stools in the hallways, someone in one shop came out and helped me to re-tape a package that came open.  Others were playing with babies in the halls or eating cherry tomatoes brought in on carts from outside.  It’s both ways…there is a predatory brutality and a warm, relaxed communality too.

A final snippet…  The weirdness of following the wife of a big-time HK businessperson into the back of a bedding shop, through a secret door, into a claustrophobic room full of fake Jimmy Choos (which looked like Payless Shoesource with JC emblems tacked on).  Then waiting while the official Chinese tour guide finished trying on her fakes so that we could leave.  Returning to HK after Shenzhen felt like a balm…it was organized, people were civilized and reserved.  Very grateful to be here, not there.


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