Saturday, April 21, 2007

Travel warning!

Attention to all travellers:
When transiting through Hong Kong, make sure that you adjust your watch or mobile phone to local time (which is 1 hour ahead of Jakarta time). Failure to do this may result in you missing your flight because you are sitting around eating Ben & Jerry's ice cream and buying Alize at the Duty Free Shop, thinking you have plenty of time before you need to go to the departure gate. This may result in you having to spend the next 18 hours stuck in Hong Kong airport, cursing your stupidity and likening yourself to Tom Hanks in "The Terminal".

Not that I would ever do something you stupid... it kinda happened to "some guy I know".


Me and Arnie at karaoke, Bengkel, Central Jakarta.

One annoying thing about border crossings is the constant filling out of forms. And having been in and out of 6 countries in 2 weeks, I’m beginning to wish my middle name was shorter than “Harshawardhana”. Damn, the Indonesian immigration form doesn’t even give you enough space to write that.

I weighed myself the other day. After 3 weeks’ holiday, I am officially 3 kilos heavier, and it ain’t muscle. Fortunately I am in Asia, where being fat is considered a sign of prosperity (my mum tells her friends they are fat all the time). So according to my rough calculations I am now about 5% more prosperous. That’s a pretty good growth rate for 3 weeks – invest in me now.

Try telling your girlfriend she’s getting a bit prosperous and see how she takes it.

Arrived in Jakarta. I think that a country's airport can tell you something about the country itself. At Singapore or Hong Kong things are extremely slick and efficient, with lots of gadgetry on display to keep transiting travellers amused. Australia's airports are
notable for their strict approach to quarantine - gotta keep those foreign things out! Jakarta airport is hardly a positive first impression for a traveller - poor administration and long queues, and bad toilets without paper.

Speaking of which, a proud record of mine has finally come to an end. Many of you have heard my talk about my aversion to the traditional Indonesian manner of going to the toilet (ie. without toilet paper, just some water and one's left hand). I had managed to go for 30 years and 11 or so trips to Indonesia without having to step outside my comfort zone and resort to this method.
Yet this time I had no choice. I was at my aunty's home in Tebet, Jakarta. Normally there is toilet paper, but this time it had run out. I realised, turning to the water filled bak mandi, that my moment of reckoning had arrived. And to be honest, it wasn't that bad. I was about to have a shower anyway, and let's just say that as number 2's go, it was pretty "tidy".

Driving home late after karaoke, my relatives and I were pulled over by a police officer. He informed us that one of our rear lights was not working. This was a load of crap - it was working perfectly - but that's not the point. We paid him Rp50.000 ($AU8) and he went on his way without any more hassle.
Its a sad fact that Indonesia is one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Being hit up for a bribe by a police officer is such a common occurrence that it barely raises an eyebrow. It is actually deeply entrenched within the force. Andi informs me that officers actually need to pay their superiors money in order to use police vehicles, or in order to secure a promotion. Which means that the officer on the street is constantly accumulating debts just for doing his job, so he needs to make up the money somewhere. So they shakedown motorists and innocents, while letting criminals off for a fee. If you have property stolen, it is routine for the police to ask for money to find it.
Where they find the time to fight crime is beyond me.

For all those of you who resent "big government" and its constant intrusion on your day-to-day activities, learn a lesson from Indonesia. As a huge, poor nation with an ineffecual bureacracy and law enforcement, you can observe what happens when there is no rules that govern the minutiae of daily life. Traffic is pure anarchy, while theft of anything left in a public place is a certainty. As my cousin Nesa says, "We are a clever country - clever at stealing and clever at talking sh*t."
Some take the law into their own hands. You often hear of mobs in the rural villagers, ganging together to kill someone suspected of practising witchcraft. While in Jakarta the FPI (Front for the Defence of Islam) have been assembling to destroy bars and other establishments they consider immoral.

But the creativity and improvising spirit needed to negotiate the daily urban jungle also gives rise to some careers which you would never think of. Two examples:

- those young men who hang around at the worst traffic intersections, and direct traffic when it becomes too chaotic. Passing drivers lean out the window and give them tips - Nesa once made Rp50.000 in half an hour doing this on a whim.

- when, to ease traffic congestion, the government declared that some main roads in the city would be only for cars with 2 or more passengers, street kids started hiring themselves out as passengers, allowing single drivers to get around the regulations.

Food is fantastic in Indonesia, and it is a passion. When driving up to the hill town of Puncak on a day trip, we drove for kilometres and saw almost nothing but eating places lining the road. Word of mouth is very important for a street vendor or restaurant in gaining business, and Indonesians will always be able to recommend the best place in any given area for whatever dish you are keen to try.

There are a number of good indigenous cuisines, but the 2 that stand out are Padang food and Sundanese food. Padang-style, from West Sumatra, is the most ubiquitous cuisine throughout Indonesia. It is notable for its richness, with Indian-influenced spicing, coconut curries, and deep-fried offal. Sundanese cuisine (from West Java, not to be confused with food from Sudan) is notable for its extensive use of fresh herbs and vegetables, and food steamed with spices inside banana leaves, and seems a much healthier style of cooking - Sundanese women are renowned for the beauty and vigor, attributed to their eating habits. One Sundanese restaurant in my neighbourhood had a staggering 30 selections ready on display when I walked in for breakfast at 10am.

The best restaurant I have been to in Indonesia is called Payon, in Kemang. If you are in Jakarta, go there - that's an order. Its very spicy, and in the Sundanese style, while the restaurant itself is beautiful and picturesque, with a very trendy take on the traditional Javanese garden. It is to my great shame that I didn't bring my camera and so have to use a photo I pinched from somewhere else. (Update: I have written a more detailed review of Payon's food here.)

Payon - Authentic Indonesian Restaurant & shops
Jl.Kemang Raya no.17, Jakarta 12730
Phone: 021-7194826

Unique food: Indonesia doesn't get the credit it deserves as a great food country, when compared to say, Thailand or Vietnam. But there are many ingredients and recipes unique to this country that are waiting to be explored.
Vegetables: Ginseng leaves, melinjo (bitternut) leaves, salam leaves.
Oncom is a unique Indonesian soya product, similar to the Japanese okara, made with fermented residual fibre from making bean curd. It is like the more familiar tempeh, but mushier and more subtle in taste. The Sundanese take this and mix it with a sambal of shallots, garlic and chili, then add lencak (pea eggplants).
Pepes implies a Sundanese dish rolled into a banana-leaf packet, sealed with a toothpick and steamed. You can buy pepes of fish, meat, mushroom, tempeh or bean curd, which are combined with various spices (such as lemon grass and turmeric leaf) and then steamed.
Urap is a common dish of chopped vegetables steamed with grated coconut and spices; the best I've tried include kemangi (lemon basil), which lifts it into a whole new dimension.

Weird food: Indonesians quite like to combine food items that don't seem like they were meant to go together. Kopi Sereh (Black coffee with lemongrass) is an example, as is Bajigor (sweet ginger tea with coconut milk). Soda Gembira (Happy Soda) is soda water mixed with condensed milk and syrup, while Teh Telur is hot tea beaten with egg and condensed milk (again) - tastes like tea-flavoured custard.

But most unusual is Indonesia's relationship with cheese. A relative newcomer to the region, cheese in Indonesia is bland processed stuff, slightly salty with no particular character. Which makes it perfect to be used in unorthodox ways, such as in sweet dishes. A favourite street snack is martabak manis, basically a freshly made pancake/crumpet topped with chocolate and grated cheese.
The cheese donut I tried at J.Co was less successful however.
One of the most surprising dishes I ate (at Cafe d'Excelso, Senayan City) was a banana fritter in flaky batter, drizzled with condensed milk and topped with grated cheese. Odd, but kind of brilliant in a strange way. Latin Americans also understand the affinity between cheese and bananas.

Stinky foods: Apart from durian, there is petai (also called stinky bean or twisted cluster bean); petai is quite tasty but your breath, flatulence and urine will stink of it for the next 3 days. We also ate this in Thailand, where they call it sator.

Bitter food: Apart from the wrinkly green bitter melon, popular all over Asia, many Indonesians eat papaya leaves. This is the most bitter food I can imagine anyone ever eating; it tastes like aspirin but worse. Apparently it has anti-malarial properties, and is useful in Eastern Indonesia where mosquito-borne diseases are still a big problem.

Chinese-Indonesian food: Like other countries in the region, Indonesian cuisine is strongly influenced by the Chinese. However, over time we have put our own spin on things. For example:
Siomay: these are steamed dim sum - Indonesians make them with fish rather than pork, and serve with spicy peanut sauce.
Nasi Goreng: the original Chinese version is vastly improved by the spiced-up Indonesian version.
Bubur ayam: rice porridge (congee) with chicken; the local style has lots of chili and sweet soya sauce (kecap manis)

At karaoke at Bengkel, in Central Jakarta.

My cousin Muni enjoying karaoke.

Mum, Andi, me and Peter.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Hongkie fun with dice and drinks

Our last night in Hong Kong. At Knutsford Terrace (or "Nuts for Terence" as I misheard it the first time) in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Jiu ling - Chinese drinking games. Tonight's game rules: Everybody rolls their set of dice, but keep your results to yourself. Everyone takes turns to guess how many of a particular number there will be overall (eg. ten sixes), with the next person having to guess higher. Guess incorrectly and you have to drink.

There is a special art to rolling the dice like a true pro... art which some of us have yet to learn.

Stop making me drink... my head hurts... leave me alone...

No more beer! Please!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Hong Kong / Macau / Shenzhen

Bamboo clams, HK. It's amazing what people eat. Someone said "Ew, it looks like a penis!"

I hope no one ever tells me, "Ew, it looks like a bamboo clam!"

When cooked in black bean sauce. Looks marginally more appetising.

Feasting at "Under Bridge Spicy Crab" Restaurant. Can you tell who had too much to drink at the rugby?

Weird Chinese food
In the global food chain, the Chinese function as the top predator, since they are famed for their penchant for eating anything. Like any other great cuisine, Chinese culture has its share of bizarre foods. Examples are durian (a SE Asian fruit that tastes and smells like a mango marinated in raw sewage), jelly made from seaweed (very nice actually), salted dried plums (take a perfectly good dried plum and then cake it with salt - urghh), and "fragrant meat" which is a pleasant euphemism for dog meat.

Then there is the century egg. All the Chinese folks I know seem to like this. I think its one of the most horrid foods I've ever tasted. For those who don't know, you make it by taking an egg and burying it in some combination of minerals for a long time, until the white of the egg turns black and translucent, and the yolk becomes mushy and greenish grey. The taste is not quite as bad as it looks, but the texture is ghastly.

The new thing to try on this trip was chao do fu, which translates as "stinky bean curd". It's the Chinese equivalent of blue cheese, made by leaving a block of tofu lying around until it reaches the desired level of stinkiness, then deep fry it and add salt. The smell can best be described as a disgusting cross between smelly feet and garbage. Surprisingly it doesn't taste too bad, not too different from regular deep-fried tofu. Which then begs the question, why not just eat regular deep-fried tofu?
The unmistakable rank odour of chao do fu can be found on many street corners in Mongkok, where we have been staying. If you eat it, be warned that this odour will follow you around for a while, as it attaches itself to your hands and face. Ew.

Another thing Hongkies like to do is take various foods that shouldn't go together, and combine them to see what happens. Andi ate a dessert which consisted of seaweed jelly, mango pulp and glutinous rice-flour dumplings stuffed with icecream. All good things individually, but didn't make much sense when served up together in one bowl. At the same place I ate a thick sweet soup made of pulverised cashew nuts, while Carissa ate cold rice noodles with mango puree and pieces. Not too bad either, but it adds to the suspicion I have that Chinese chefs just spin a wheel to decide which random ingredients they are going to combine in each dish.
Oh, and only the Hongkies would invent Lemon-Yoghurt flavoured Mentos.

Cooked papaya filled with sweet milk, Shenzhen. Interesting.

Deep fried hedgehog. Or fried custard buns, I can't remember.

Only the Chinese would make a delicacy out of "bird's nest", which is basically the saliva of a species of SE Asian cave swiflet. Or turtle jelly.Or frog jelly, which you can have with coconut cream and mango in a popular HK dessert chain. The main appeal of many of these products, dog meat included, is their alleged ability to increase sexual potency. This quest for sex-god status is also one of the driving factors behind the extinction of many animal species - tiger's penis and rhino horn are also considered aphrodisiacs. No wonder there are more than a billion Chinese - to quote the late Richard Pryor, "Somebody in China's doin' some serious f*ckin!"

And speaking of which, there are quite a few hotels that charge by the hour in Mongkok. Which I don't understand; it seems ridiculously expensive to pay an hour's rate for something you can easily accomplish in 3 and a half minutes...

From a Malay/Viet restaurant in Macau. For those who like their crap on the spicy side.

Maid in Hong Kong
6 days a week, HK is a city populated by Chinese, with a few gwai lo ("white ghost" - Westerners) and hak gwai ("black ghost" - Africans and South Asians) scattered into the mix. Then on Sunday, something odd happens - the city is invaded by an army of South East Asian women. These are the Filipino and Indonesian maids who do HK's household chores. Sunday is their day off, and they congregate in little groups all over the city, sitting on mats playing cards, chatting and eating. Then on Monday they are gone from sight again, back washing dishes and cleaning floors.

Public Transport
HK's public transport system is fantastic. In comparison, Melbourne's MET network is a steaming pile of poo. HK's trains are spotless, fast, run every few minutes, and are cheap and user-friendly. The smartcard ticketing system is fabulous. It boggles the mind how Australian governments have managed to ignore such an efficient system.
This sign was seen on a train wall: "Show you have a loving heart. Offer your seat to someone in need." Nice.

Lantau Island

A lost scene from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".

Me with the Buddha.

(The Buddha is the one at the back.)

Macau and its Tarts
Macau is what HK would look like if the Portuguese had ruled it rather than the British. Now back under the control of China, it has the same level of autonomy as HK, a country within a country. But Macau is a more thoroughly Chinese place than is HK. All the street signs may be in Portuguese, which is still one of the official languages along with Mandarin, but the only people who speak it are the 5% Portuguese minority, and Cantonese is the language most widely spoken.
Possibly the best thing ever to come out of Macau are its Portuguese egg-tarts. I ate about 8 over 3 days. Haven't been to Portugal, but its hard to imagine they make them any better than the ones we had.

Macau is a city of 2 faces. On one hand it is a city with a charming colonial heritage and unique cultural fusion. On the other hand, it is the Las Vegas of Asia, with the tacky glitz of casinos popping up everywhere, an economy driven almost entirely by gambling. And where there is gambling there is inevitably sleaze, with most casinos providing a "sauna" service which seemingly offers a whole lot more than the sauna at your local swimming pool.

Macau's Grande Lisboa casino complex has a corridor that runs in a circle linking the casino, hotel and various restaurants. This corridor is the haunt of the local call-girls. The law prohibits them from staying in one place, as this would be solicitation, meaning they have to keep on the move. So upon entering the hallway, the visitor is confronted by the odd sight of some stunning well-dressed women doing laps of the complex. At first I thought they were all on their way to a function, but they just kept on reappearing, going round and round. Thus this part of the complex has earned the name "The Racetrack", or "The Chicken Walk."

It is well known that Chinese are fond of the number 8, as when pronounced it sounds similar to the word for fortune or prosperity (fatt). Similarly the number 4 is avoided as it sounds to similar to the word for death (sei). In some circles, the number 168 has a special significance. When pronounced in Cantonese this number sounds very similar to the phrase "the road to good fortune" (yat look fatt). Which is innocent enough so far, but "the road to good fortune" is also a euphemism for "happy ending" in massage circles. So if someone mentions the number 168 when you are getting a massage, or if they seem keen on you taking the road to good fortune, be wary!
Just want to add that all that stuff was told to me by Suraj, who works at a casino, and I do not speak from experience!

Shenzhen is in Guangdong (Canton) province of China, right on the Hong Kong border. Its a good place to buy cheap DVDs, although whether you want to risk getting fined for bringing them back to Australia is another thing. Shenzhen is hardly a widely-known city in other parts of the world, yet it is the country's fastest-growing population centre - 10 million people now live there, whereas in the 1960s it was less than 1 million. Most of its inhabitants do not speak Cantonese, as they have migrated from all over China, and the diversity is noticeable in the people you see on the street.

Years of austere communist party rule have had an effect on the people here, and there is a real contrast with neighbouring HK, at least in the retail sector. In affluent HK, sales assistants are usually indifferent to customers. In Shenzhen they work really hard for the money - often too hard. In a shopping centre, we were mobbed by people desperate to sell us things. One guy followed us around for 5 minutes, and seemed to have access to everything ever invented by man. Here is a snapshot of the conversation:

"Hey, my friend you want DVD?"
No thanks.
"You want watch?"
No thanks.
"You want jeans?"
"What about playstation?"
"You want t-shirt?"
No, I don't want anything!
"What about DVD, you want DVD?

And so on. I actually got lost momentarily in that shopping centre, because I was so preoccupied in shaking this guy off my back that I lost my bearings. Perhaps its an insight into why Hongkies convey that front of rudeness or indifference - look too friendly and people will hassle you.

I guess that guys' products were nicer than the constant offers that I get on the streets of Bali, Thailand and Springvale ("Hey Mister, you want porno/heroin/'massage'/mushroom/girl/marijuana/jiggy-jig/ping-pong show?", which suggest that I look some kind of deviant.

Driving the Asian way - see how many people you can fit in a van. Answer: 13!

Winnie, Andrew, Vivian and Ada at a great Korean Restaurant in Shenzhen. Spicy!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Hong Kong Culture Shock

The view from "The Peak".

Hong Kong is a fantastic city, a megatropolis that combines ancient Chinese tradition with high-tech modernity. There always seems to be things to do here, particularly if you are a fan of food consumption. I am tempted to say that HK is a city that never sleeps, but that would be untrue, as the city does like a good sleep-in - a great many shops and restaurants are open late, but breakfast is harder to find than you'd expect in a city with such a great food culture. I've had an awesome time here, met some great people and learned many things.

BUT... after a week among the graceful, respectful and polite Thais, our arrival in HK came as quite a shock to the system. My first impression of Hong Kong was that it was a city full of assholes. Fortunately the impression only lasted less than 24 hours, but in that short time I was treated to a real lesson in the differences between Chinese culture and that of my more familiar SE Asia. Years of hanging out with Chinese-Australias failed to prepare me for this.

In Thailand, everyone seems pretty chilled - why, one of their most famous monuments is the "lounging buddha". I didn't see a single person running for the train, pushing through a crowd, or looking particularly stressed out. HK has a really different edge to it; my friends warned me about this, but witnessing it first-hand was stunning and hilarious. Lesson One was in the queue for a bus at HK airport. The line was quite long, which led to various attempts (seemingly all by elderly Hongkies) to get on the bus before anyone else. One guy walked up near the front of the line and asked where the bus was going. Upon receiving his answer, he sneakily stayed where he was, as if he'd been at the front of the line all along. Unfortunately for him, the couple he asked were familiar with this tactic and reminded him where the back of the line was. Once the bus arrived and opened its doors, what was once an orderly queue descended into a rabble, with people from the rear rushing to the front as if the queue had never existed. One old lady was trying to push past us, but when Andi purposefully moved his suitcase to block her path, she actually climbed through a fence in order to jump the queue. She must have been about 70.

Granny don't take no mess
Which leads me to an interesting facet of Asian culture - the old lady with attitude. Western grandmothers tend to be fairly quiet, good-natured and are a bit intimidated by people between the ages of 11 and 60. Anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong, Springvale or Box Hill, will know that they are different kettle of fish. You'll find lots of scary Asian grannies who will take no crap from anyone. Having reached a grand old age and popped out lots of offspring, they seem to have decided that they've earned the right to do whatever the hell they want. This includes barging to the front of queues, giving anyone who displeases them a piece of their mind, and jabbing unsuspecting victims with their walking sticks when words just aren't enough. While I suspect that the Chinese have more of this brand of senior citizen than other Asian nations (like the exceedingly polite Japanese, Indonesians and Thais), anyone who has met my late Indonesian nenek would recognise this as not just a Chinese thing.
For all the Asian females reading this, I may be describing your future.

How to be a Hongky, Part 1: Talking Like a Hongky Ah
To put more "flavour" into the conversation, Malaysians love to put lah on the end of every phrase, while Indonesians use sih, dong or loh. To talk English like a Hongky, end every phrase with ah; it doesn't matter if its a statement or a question. Typical conversation:
"How much is that ah?"
"Twenty ah."
"Eh, too much ah. Fifteen ah."
"Ok ah."
"Thank you ah."

Got to give respect to the Cantonese - their language is probably the hardest ever devised by mankind. To basically need to be a genius to get your head around the 6 tones (Mandarin only has 4). For those who don't understand how the tonal system in Chinese works, it means that a word can have a variety of completely different meanings depending on whether you say it with a rising tone, falling tone, a flat tone and so on. And that's without even mentioning the writing. Add to this the fact that most Hongkies speak at least a bit of 2 other notoriously difficult languages (English and Mandarin), and they get much props from me on that front.

How to be a Hongky, Part 1a: Being offensive in Cantonese (this section comes with a coarse language warning, at least for Cantonese speakers.)
Cantonese insults are quite creative. And as in almost every culture, the worst stuff you can say to someone relates to their mama. Below are some examples: (these may not be 100% correct by the way)
Diu! - ****!
Diu lay! - **** you!
Diu lay lo mo! - **** your mama!
Diu lay lo mo chao hay! - **** your mama's stinky ####!

Pok gai! - Literally "to fall over in the street". Equivalent to "drop dead!"
Pok gai ham ga zhan! - I hope you and all your family die in the street!

Ham sap - horny
Ham sap gwai lo - horny Westerner

Thanks to Helen and Vivian for those.

How to be a Hongky Part 2: Learning the Hong Kong Attitude
A Russian co-worker once informed me that "We Russians are the only people ruder than the Chinese." Well, I haven't been to Russia, but he was certainly onto something about the Chinese, at least in HK.
Walking around the city and people-watching, the term that seems to best describe Hongkies is self-absorbed. Everyone seems locked into their own little world, unaware that other people exist outside their own bubble. This is reflected in the way people walk around. There are 2 possible modes of walking in the busy HK streets:

1. Frantically push past people, squeezing you body through the crowd. If you bump someone, don't apologise, make eye contact or otherwise acknowledge that the person exists. After all, that person is not important - the only thing that matters is getting where you want to go.

2. Dawdle as if you have absolutely nowhere to go and nothing to do. Look mostly at the ground. Walk slowly and aimlessly, occasionally stopping in the middle of the footpath to chat or look around. Pay no mind to the fact that there is a crowd of people behind you trying to get past, as they are not important. If you want to sms someone, do it while walking, or alternatively if you have one of those hand-held miniature computer game consoles, play it while walking through a busy crowd. Don't worry about looking up to avoid people bumping into you, that's their responsibility.

Walking gets downright deadly when it starts raining and everyone pulls out their umbrellas. The tines of an umbrella can easily poke you in the eye, and this seems especially likely in a city which is (a) extremely crowded, (b) full of short people, and (c) full of people who don't seem to care if they do poke you.

Lesson Two in Hong Kong rudeness was at the Stanford Hotel (or Sie-Tan-Fook, as the Cantonese pronounced Stanford). In Bangkok, our hotel staff bent over backwards to make us feel welcome, helping us with out bags and showing us the rooms. At the Stanford, after lugging our heavy baggage from the bus stop, the extent of their helpfulness after check in was "here's your key." Thanks a bunch.

The Chinese are renowned for their business acumen and ability to make money. Ironic then that the art of customer service has never really sunk in here. I'm sure in business school they teach you that being friendly to your customers will make them feel valued, meaning they will come back and thus bring you more money. This doesn't mean much to many Chinese workers, who will give you the bare minimum and take out all the trivialities like smiles, "Hello" and "Thankyou".

In Thailand, in every place of business you enter or walk past, you are greeted with the ubiquitous "Sawadee-kaa" in a warm and gentle tone. In Indonesia people greet you with a smile and every exchange is followed by a friendly "terima kasih" (thank you) and "sama-sama" (same to you). Most Hongkies in service occupations will just stare at you until you tell them what you want. Then they will perform the task with a complete lack of joy. It's amazing how many waiting staff look like they are about to yell at you. The ultimate was the old lady selling fruit slushies on the roadside who told us off for the heinous crime of asking what a few of the drinks were. "So many questions, so many fingers pointing! And for such a small inexpensive thing. Hurry up and make a choice!"

Upper-echelon restaurants tend to be much better in terms of friendly service, and I have to say that one place in Shenzhen (across the border in mainland China) had perhaps the loveliest and most enthusiastic service of anywhere I have ever been. My Chinese colleagues assure me that is definitely the exception rather than the rule.

How to be a Hongky Part 3: Hongky Names
One interesting aspect of Chinese people outside China is the names they pick for themselves. For example, Chinese Indonesians usually adopt Indonesian names, yet tend to pick far more flamboyant names than native Indonesians. The funniest example I have come across was a guy named Ifan Satria Nusantara, which translates as "Ifan the Warrior of the Archipelago".

Chinese in English-speaking countries (like Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia) can get even more original with their names. As well as a full Chinese name, they are often given an English name; or in many cases, they select an English name themselves. There are various categories - regular, surname-as-first-name, and just plain out-there names.

Regular names: These are those English names that Chinese just love. This category includes names like Penny, Jackie, Lawrence and Kenneth. Malaysian Chinese love to name their kids Kelvin and Eugene, while Indonesian Chinese have a peculiar affinity for the names Irwin and Rudy.

Surname-as-first-name: This has become quite popular amongst Westerners - picking a name which usually a surname, but using it as a first name instead. Chinese take this to the extreme. Examples are Jackson, Harris, Davidson, Wellington and Wilson.

Out-there names: This usually happens when a Chinese teenager with only a Chinese name decides on an English name without consulting the advice of others. The strong teenage desire to be different/funky/cool leads to some really unorthodox name choices. 3 that I have heard about are Raysond (he was unable to choose between Jason and Raymond), Potato, and Cereal. I'm not kidding. I imagine you would get sick of having the same conversations over and over again:

"Hi, I'm Potato. Nice to meet you. Yeah, that's right. Potato. No, seriously! My name is Potato. Just like the vegetable... why are you looking at me like that?"

Like this? You'll also like:

Hong Kong / Macau / Shenzhen - weird Chinese food and persistent salesmen

Hong Kong names, part 2

The tale of the "Grass-Mud Horse" (or "F*** your Mother")

Salam from Indonesia, March 2006

Jakarta travel notes

Salam from Malaysia, March 2006

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Hong Kong Rugby 7s - A Photo Essay

I ain't no rugby fan, but spending a day at HK Rugby 7s was possibly the first step towards changing my opinion of this game. Great skill and entertainment on the field, with the underdogs given a good chance, but most of the action is off the field. Basically it was one big party, and if you are lucky enough to know people who know people, as I do, you can get a lot of stuff for free - entry, beer, food, corporate t-shirts. Some people got even further into the spirit of the occasion with all manner of outlandish costumes. The aftermath - armies of drunken and elaborately dressed fans descending on the streets of Hong Kong Island - was obviously a shock to some of the passing locals.

Go Kenya! Maybe its just me, but they don't seem to make the fearless Masai warriors like they used to...

Me and Andi, having just entered the stadium. Within a few hours, Andi will earn himself the nicknames "Chucka" and the more imaginative "Chucka Khan". No prizes for guessing why.

Coke Sponsorship! I've finally sold out to Tha Man. Dunno why I did this...

...ah, maybe that's why...

Me, Andi, Ava & Carissa. Wearing some free stuff. In about 20 minutes time Andi will be reborn as "Chucka".

Sharon and Helen. The dangers of alcohol - a lesson for the kids out there.

Does a crown count as Bling? Here I am with Bernard, who is Helen's brother. Bernard was the mastermind behind our foray into the corporate boxes and free stuff at Rugby 7s. Respect!

Andi and I, er, "trying on outfits" acquired from Rugby 7s. If we come out of the closet in years to come, don't say you didn't see the signs. For the life of me I can't quite remember why we were doing this, but there must have been a good reason for it at the time...

Monday, April 2, 2007

Bangkok Part 2

(Part 1 is here.)

Tried durian with sticky rice at MBK. We then got on the packed train, which seemed to have a faint whiff of durian about it. We soon realised it was us - the pungent odour of the fruit had attached itself to us like an evil spirit. Hence the reason for the signs banning durian from the hotel.

Tom yum goong (sour soup with shrimp) featured at virtually every meal we ate. As did pad thai (fried noodles) and cha Thai (Thai iced tea), either with condensed milk or with lime (both seen here). Not sure yet how they get the distinctive orange colour. Thai iced green tea was also worth getting.

By far the best dessert to eat in Thailand is Mango with Sticky Rice. It is so simple in concept - glutinous rice, sweet coconut milk sauce and sliced ripe mango - but the combination is so harmonious and wonderful that it speaks directly to your soul. You can get it pretty much everywhere, but good-quality mango is obviously the key.


I suspect that Thailand has a factory that churns out beautiful women. There are seemingly more of them about than in any other country, anyway. I don't mean that everyone is a supermodel by any means. But across-the-board, females here seem generally to be better looking than in any other place I've been.

Now, I'm in no position to comment with any expertise on whether Thai men live up to the same standard. Some of my female co-travellers rate them generally as too scruffy, too geeky or too effeminate. Which is a shame - just a styling issue perhaps? Thai women seem to look after themselves really well, and perhaps Thai men don't treat that with quite the same importance. On the other hand, the significant number of gay Westerners spotted with Thai guys would probably disagree. I have certainly seen some Thai guys around who are pretty stylin', and some guys in the army and police who looked pretty buff.

Does this account for the following statistic?

Foreign men and Thai women spotted in romantic relationships: several hundred.

Thai men and foreign women spotted in romantic relationships: none yet. Possibly a couple, but these were unconfirmed reports.

Not that I think Thai men would really care about this, given the embarrassment of riches they have at home. After all, if you are sitting in a 5-star restaurant, why on earth would you order a pizza delivery?

(You'll notice I'm going purely on looks here and not mention personality. But hey, I'm a superficial kind of guy)

Ladies-men and Lady-boys
In response to my previous praise about the beauty of Thai females, Tin reminded me: "but they're not all women."

Which is a fair point. Thailand is famous for its Ladyboys (cross-dressers, with or without "the chop"), and in general there seems to be a praiseworthy acceptance of all things transgender. Sorting the ladies out from the ladyboys is a good way to keep yourself from getting bored while walking around on the train in Bangkok; it is made more challenging since modern medical science apparently allows for the removal of the adam's apple. Some ladyboys look stunning, and sometimes it is only when hearing them speak (usually not convincingly feminine) that you can pick them. Heavy makeup is another clue.

While I have certainly appreciated the Thai ladies from afar, I've stayed away from the possibility of anything more happening, which has ensured that there won't be any scary moments ala the movie "The Crying Game".

I think it must be difficult to be a tall Thai woman, as you would probably have idiots like me staring at you on the train, trying to figure out if you have an adam's apple or not. That's gotta to be annoying.

Similarly, the Western men hooking up with Thai women probably are scrutinised in a similar fashion; the prevalence of Westerners coming to Thailand to frequent the brothels and strip clubs means that any liason between Thai female and farang male gets viewed with some kind of attached judgement about power, exploitation and sleaze, regardless of whether such labelling is deserved.

Weirdest T-shirt design found in Bangkok: A cartoon sillhouette of a vomiting monkey, accompanied by the slogan: "Some time bad, some time hang!"
If this makes any sense at all to anyone reading this, please explain it to me.


Kids the world over wear school uniforms, but Thailand is the only country I know of that has a national uniform. Everywhere you go, people are wearing yellow polo shirts with the Thai royal emblem. At least a third of everyone you see will have one on at any given time. This is to show respect to the Thai royalty, most specifically King Bhumibol, who is the world's longest serving current head of state.

You can't walk for 2 minutes in Bangkok without seeing a picture of the king or his wife Queen Sirikit. The Thais are fervently nationalistic (although not in a loud obnoxious way), and absolutely revere the royal family, who are an embodiment of Thai culture itself. A man was recently given a hefty jail sentence for drawing a moustache on the a picture of the king's face. The national anthem is played everyday in some buildings at 8am and 6pm, in which it is considered rude not to stand.

Another manifestation of civic pride is in something you notice only by its absence - rubbish. Bangkok, at least in its main areas, is almost devoid of trash. What is even more mysterious is that it is also devoid of rubbish bins. I don't know where it all goes; perhaps it is one of the benefits of a lowly-paid workforce that there will always be people available for cleaning up duties.

Likewise, graffiti seems non-existent, and you don't seem to see young people hanging around looking to cause trouble. Contrast this with any public space in inner-city Melbourne: lots of bins yet rubbish everywhere, graffiti covering the walls, and scary looking homie/bogan/emo kids with nothing to do but look like they're up to something.

Bangkok's train system is a hell of a lot better than Melbourne's as well. You never seem to wait longer than 5 minutes for a train, and the system is cheap, clean and efficient. Tourists can get around with ease, and its a great showcase for the city.

One other thing I noticed - hardly any Thais seem to smoke! Contrast this with Jakarta, where smoking is the national pastime. Perhaps it is Bangkok's choking pollution which acts as a natural selector, killing off those who want to double-dip in the pool of carcinogens by smoking as well as trying to breathe in this city.

The Buddha. Just chillin', kickin' back on a hot day in Thailand.

The Grand Palace. We very nearly got scammed by some con artists outside the front gate; fortunately Riss was too streetwise (meaning she had read Lonely Planet which described it as the most common scam in town).

Trying to blend in with the locals.

Don't know the significance behind touching this water-dipped lotus flower to my head, but when in Rome...

Elephant ride, Ayuthaya.

About to get told off by security, Ayuthaya.