On the Trail of the Wild Onegaishimasu


If there is one word that you hear every day, every hour, maybe even every minute in Japan, it is Onegaishimasu(お願いします). You hear it when you meet someone. You hear it when someone asks you to do something. You hear it thrown on the end of a sentence when someone isn’t entirely sure what they should say next. If in doubt, Onegaishimasu will get you through the day unharmed.

There is however a big problem with this word.  It is an elephant in the room that is so large that it long ago crushed the room and has moved onto obscuring the entirety of Japan in its vague shadow. No one seems to really know what it means.

The word does of course have a meaning, but it seems to have become rather unclear with the passing of time and excessive overuse. Onegai (お願い), without the shimasu on the end roughly gets used to mean ‘a favour’

A quick Google search didn’t much help on this one. The featured answer was entertainingly specific and raised its own questions. It jumped straight to usage of Onegaishimasu in the game Go. Apparently even when Go is played properly in English, you start the game with a well meant Onegaishimasu. See, to me this seems pretty ridiculous as I can’t see the word being a particularly integral ritual of the game. In, let’s say, Mahjong, you build a wall out of your pieces because it symbolises…a very great wall.

Turning onegaishimasu into an essential part of English Go seems to me a bit like making the phrase “lovely weather today”, even when it’s absolutely pissing it down, a ritual at the start of all football games. Imagine it’s the world cup for a moment. The pitch is a quagmire, the players resemble washing up sponges before the game has even begun, yet they turn to the skies in unison and cheer “LOVELY WEATHER TODAY” and the game begins.

No. It just won’t do. And neither should onegaishimasu be considered special to Go. The two players are essentially sitting down to a table, nodding, then saying a long, drawn out, awkward ‘so…’.

So… let me look to personal experience to try and understand that mysterious onegaishimasu. It was the 7:40 am in the office and one of the teachers came over show me her English lesson plan for the day.

“hello Timothy, onegaishimasu”.

Onegaishimasu number 1.

“This is the lesson plan for today, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number 2.

*runs through lesson plan, with numerous onegaishimasu-es along the way*

“Is that lesson ok? Onegaishimasu.”

Onegaishimasu number nn

“thank you, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+1

“yoroshiku Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+2

*teacher exit right*

Apologies for using the word, as I’m sure you’re very bored of it by now, but Onegaishimasu is certainly very polite. It exists to be polite. The problem is it’s clearly more than a mere thank you.

Thinking of the word as a thank you has after all led to some rather odd English usage in Japan. Japanese textbooks teach kids nice and early to say thank you all the time. That’s no bad thing. It would just be better if they use thank you when you would use thank you. Say, for example, when you are giving thanks. Instead, the most common usage in Japan’s English textbooks is as an ending phrase for longer texts. A text may look something like this:

Hello, my name is ben. I am 13 years old. I am from America. I like tennis. Thank you!

Yes, the English is accurate (more than can be said for some English blips in the elementary school materials), but plain odd. Who is being thanked? Why? The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in the dark mysteries of that pesky onegaishimasu. An Onegaishimasu would fit very comfortably there, if Ben had spoken in Japanese. Part of me wants to try using ‘thank you’ in English conversations whenever a Japanese person would use Onegaishimasu, but I fear the world would think me a madman.

So let’s move on from that. Thank you.

Seeing as the word seems to mean more than simple polite gesturing or thanksgiving, we need to go back to the drawing board. Enlisting the aid of locals should help. That definitely can’t just confuse the situation, right?

One day, a co-worker had just, naturally, said Onegaishimasu.

Afterwards she turned to me and asked me how best to say Onegaishimasu in English. It’s worth noting that she is an excellent English speaker with a native English speaking husband. My first reaction was to claim we don’t really say onegaishimasu in English, but it just wasn’t a satisfying answer, so we continued trying to get to the bottom of the conundrum. I asked her how she would explain the phrase.

“please be kind to me” was the tentative answer, but she hadn’t convinced herself. Japan is already a kind place, so there is no need to ask for more kindness every twenty seconds. That would just be greedy.

She added that when she asked her husband the same question, he philosophically answered “Onegaishimasu is… Onegaishimasu.” and left it at that. Clearly the novelty of the world had long worn out the poor man.

So I took a different angle and asked how she would explain Onegaishimasu using Japanese. Stumped. There she came to a horrible realisation. All these years and she literally hadn’t known what she was saying. In such dark times as these, there is probably only one phrase to use. Only one phrase that can console, or at the very least fill the ensuing awkward, impenetrable silence. お願いします。

Given all this, there can only be one answer to the mystery. There isn’t one. Nobody knows what on earth an Onegaishimasu is. Because of this, I will be forced to the same radical measures as many have been when trying to understand the Scottish delicacy of haggis -to hunt the hills for a wild Onegaishimasu, because it definitely doesn’t exist logically in the language.

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Setting up life in Japan


It’s been a month now since I moved yet again to a new place, this time settling in Japan. I had wanted to see Japan for a long time. Even the first time I moved away from the UK to China with Project Trust, I had originally hoped to go to Japan instead, and it had been years before then that I had dreamed of going there. Now, I’m here.

First Impressions

I came here as part of the JET programme, a programme run by the Japanese government to help promote cultural exchange in Japan. The majority of Jets, including myself, become English language teaching assistants. So, for the first time in over four years, I’m back to teaching English.

I live and work in Hojo. It’s a small town just outside of Matsuyama city, the largest city on the island of Shikoku. It’s not the most known city in Japan, so for reference it is south of and across the sea from Hiroshima.

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Hojo is a quiet place. Once it’s own town, it has been swallowed up by Matsuyama. I imagine this is due to Matsuyama getting larger, whilst Hojo (and simply all of Japan’s rural areas) steadily depletes of people. When I first arrived it struck me as a ghost town. I realise now that it’s not quite a ghost town, but it can be eerily empty sometimes. Japan has a rapidly ageing population and it shows much more clearly in smaller towns. Most young people move to the cities, leaving the age demographic in the countryside heavily skewed. That said, there are clearly enough young families in Hojo to fill up the schools. There are two junior high schools, a senior high school and numerous elementary schools, and where there are schools there are young families. Where they all these young families are however, remains a bit of a mystery to me.

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It is a nonetheless a beautiful near-ghost town. On one side of Hojo is a bright blue sea dotted with sub-tropical islands. The closest of these islands is called ‘Deer Island’, as it is…well…inhabited by very tame, very friendly deer…as well as plenty of impressively large insects and dangerous plants, but that’s Japan. On the other side of town, rice paddies run up to the edge of lush green mountains. Storks stand in the paddies as giant dragonflies flit across them. It is on all accounts a very idyllic place; it is probably the most beautiful place I have ever lived.

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My local city is no metropolis either, but it’s a pleasant place. It is one of the few lucky towns in Japan to actually have a real castle. Most of Japan’s castles of old are really replicas that were built after the originals were burnt down by A. warring clans, B. war between Samurai and the government, or C. bombs in the second world war. Matsuyama castle has, despite all the burning of castles round the land, been standing since 1611.

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It is also famous for Dogo onsen, apparently one of the oldest hot spring resorts in the country, and the inspiration for the onsen in the Studio ghibli film ‘spirited away’ (a film that, coming from someone that doesn’t really enjoy watching films) should be obligatory viewing…as are all studio ghibli films.

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We also have the best city mascot. Japan being Japan, in constant need of being adorable at every corner, it has many a cartoon mascot. Matsuyama’s flagbearer is Mikyan, half dog, half Tangerine (mikan in Japanese, hence the doggo’s name). Mikyan also has an evil friend, dark mikyan.

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I should be forgiven for thinking dark Mikyan was a lime (such an evil fruit, you know), but apparently the evil version is a rotten mikan.

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I am yet to buy any Mikyan-related goods, but I will no doubt have 60 Mikyan soft toys, Mikyan curtains and carpets, Mikyan pajamas and formal suit by the end of my time here.

The nicest thing about coming to Japan as part of the JET programme is that you have a community as soon as you get there. Despite Matsuyama being a small city, there are around 30 JET ALTs (Assistant language teachers) in town. There are three of us in Hojo. So, in those tricky first few weeks where you are just trying to settle in and meet people, us JET folk get a head start. It helps of course that they’re a really good bunch of people in Matsuyama, a group who will no doubt get mentioned a fair few times in future blogs. It is true that despite having been here a month now, I feel I haven’t got to know the other ALTs well enough yet (partly down I imagine to my ineptness at dealing with small-talk…) but I’m more than happy in knowing that there is such a good group of people just half an hour away on the train from Hojo. It’s going to be a highlight of my time in Japan getting to know these fabulous folk.

Seeing as I’ve been here a month, I should perhaps write about the events of the month. After all, there were a few festivals in town, as well as a few natural disasters nearby, but for today I’d rather talk about Where i’m personally at. Writing about events and the like will have to wait for another time.

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Back in school I set myself a list of goals, a list which I deemed not achievable. Included on that list was to become a hyperpolyglot (able to speak 6 or more languages), be able to consider myself a writer, get a first class degree at university,  travel the world, and explicitly live in Japan and Germany.

Well, i did all that. Plus more. That is in itself amazing and I have to stop sometimes and think – did I really do all that?? how did that happen? But that has created its own challenges. What happens when you achieve what you really didn’t think possible? What do you do when all your goals are already surpassed?

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I have formed new goals since my school days, but the realisation that a list I deemed impossible to complete was actually very much possible. That evokes my confusing feelings. Positive, but confusing. I don’t want to share all of my new ‘unachievable’ goals here, but they are big ideas. Maybe I will surprise myself again after a few more years of work.

Of course in the short term I have my goals for Japan. This little piece of writing represents the beginning of one of those goals. I am putting pen to paper (and then often transferring it over to the digital world) once more. I hope that I can be more honest and more meaningful in what I write from now on. Writing has a capacity to be extremely powerful, for both the reader and the writer, but holding back restricts that. In the past, I have held back. Sometimes that was to avoid panic from my readers. Sometimes it was to avoid terrifying myself. yet in the long term that does no favours to anyone, so lets start with some honest writing right here.

Honest thoughts at the beginning of my life in Japan

I could easily record only the amazing, the positive, the envy-evoking parts of life in a new land. I have done that in the past. Now, if i look back at what i wrote about living in China, I can see right away that something is missing; that my recollections are insincere. The honest feelings are gone now, and with it a true recollection of events.

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So what am I really thinking, past the rose-tinted glasses?

This is my 6th consecutive year of not staying one place for longer than a year, and it’s having its effect:

Year 1. Kuitun, West China. Year 2. Start of degree, Leeds, UK. Year 3. Beijing. year 4. Part back in Leeds, part in Leipzig, Germany. year 5. back in Leeds. year 6. Japan.

I feel detached. Though it is true I was disowning the UK to a certain extent even before the first time I left it, but it truly does not feel like a home anymore. I feel most at home with a backpack on, boarding a train to somewhere I’ve never been. I think when I left the UK, I wasn’t just looking for experience and adventure, but I was also running. I still haven’t worked out what I was running from, but that running away has led me all the way here to Japan. I’m still running. Perhaps my situation is like Sparrowhawk, in wizard of Earthsea, running from the parts of himself he doesn’t want to face. If so, I don’t know what those parts are. It certainly doesn’t stop me from running.

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I would have thought that after 5 years of moving so regularly that it would get easier. Instead it has been the opposite. Moving to Kuitun was strikingly easy. Not speaking the language, moving to the Gobi desert at the age of 19, I settled in in less than a week. Now with more experience living abroad than many will ever have, I found Japan very hard to settle into. By western standards, Japan is cleaner, more polite and freer than China (that last point is worth discussing heavily in the future), and yet China was so much more comfortable to me. Maybe 19 year old enthusiasm softens cultural change better than holding a degree training students in the art of cynicism. That is at least relatively cynical in comparison to 19 year old enthusiasm. Technically if your academic work is cynical, it probably isn’t properly academic, in the same way it should not optimistic.

That said, I do still love the adventure of this unpredictable lifestyle. It’s just getting harder and harder. When I look to see what old friends are doing, and I see there (apparent) stability, I don’t understand it. So many people that seem content with gradual change. Content with the same job, the same circle of friends, the same scenery. I’ve only been here for a month and I’m already busy considering what happens next. That perhaps sounds condescending of those who have settled. Really it is the opposite. It is a mix of something similar to envy, and an inability to understand that way of being. I have the option to stay here in Matsuyama for up to five years, yet the idea of being somewhere for longer than a year seems so strange and distant to me now. As much as I have loved the places I’ve lived, the only place I was not ready to leave was Germany (which for anybody who is in doubt, is the finest place in the whole world).

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I can almost here the unrestrained yells of ‘privilege!’, ‘ ohh, your life is so hard!’ wailing across the hills at this point, but there is a tendency to look at any situation in absolute terms. This is an extreme irony, as nothing, nothing, (spot the flaw here) is absolute.

I am kicking myself for writing that, but the point is staying, as it just highlights the prior sentence.

For every wonderful experience, there is a dark side, or at least an opposite, to it. For every opportunity I am privileged to experience, there will always be some kind of repercussion. There is an analogy from one of the existentialist thinkers (Kierkegaard possibly?) of two brothers that highlights this problem better than I would be able to personally. It’s work looking up, but in short, one brother leaves his home town for adventure, whilst one stays. One day, they meet again, both in envy of each other. The brother who went has stories and adventure under his belt. The brother who stayed has a family, a community and stability. Both want what the other has.

So after 5 years of moving at least once a year, I sympathise with the brother who went. Adventure is no absolute wonder, as valuable as it is.

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And this is how I begin my time in Japan. I have completed one line of impossible goals and I begin a new collection of impossible goals. I am so happy to be in a childhood dream, yet I’m also at a point of limbo. I’m still running. At some point I want to know what I’m running from, but I think I’m too afraid to turn around.

Watching the rain fall over Matsuyama castle as I write this is somehow grounding. Five years on from when I started running, I don’t know where I’m going. Yet the road truly is longer than the goal, and the road is as beautiful as it is winding.

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(reblog from 2016 for archiving) A summer in Hong Kong


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

I’m back in the UK now, meaning the travelling part of this blog is coming to a close but before it is completely over, I still have my summer after Beijing to write a little about.

I spent the summer working in as a team of English teachers running a summer programme for kids in the new territories. I won’t be covering much of the time spent in the school, but will touch on it a bit. Instead I want to write about my impressions of the city as a whole.

I’m going to start from Beijing, as there’s a fun story for the journey down south. In short, my train got delayed.

By 17 hours.

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Kowloon from the Star ferry.

In keeping with my favoured way of getting around China, long haul trains, I decided I would have one last journey on the tracks before leaving the middle kingdom. Little did I know that my train, expected to be a mere day in length, would end up being a 40 hour LONG long haul trip.

I asked some of fellow passengers, who seemed strikingly unphased by the slowly increasing length delay announcements, what the cause was and I got a very standard reply; the kind of reply you grow used to from staying in China for a prolonged period of time, but secretly annoys you senseless – 没办法 (nothing we can do!). Of course, always accompanied with a little smile just to let you know that nobody really cares that they are going to be on a train for practically a day longer than they paid for.

So…due to a minor delay, I arrived in Hong Kong on 3rd July, not quite fresh but certainly ready for a month and a bit working in the fragrant port.

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What’s striking about HK compared to mainland China?

Plenty of locals will hold that Hong Kong isn’t really China, and we’ll get to that later, but one thing is for sure. Hong Kong is strikingly different.

The first thing I notice in Hong Kong really is wonderful after Beijing – I can breathe there. Beijing is famous for it’s smog, sometimes reaching levels that break the national pollution scale in the winter, so to get off a train to find real, delicious air is quite the treat.

One of the things I really appreciate about this mad city is its people. Hong Kong people are (on average) much more lively than their mainland cousins. It helps of course that the language in Hong Kong is Cantonese rather than Mandarin, which just has an air of sass about it. There probably isn’t a language in the world that compares to it for it’s richness and variety of swear words and vulgarity either. Awesome. I won’t give any examples here, as it puts even the worse of Italian swear words to shame.

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Puns, although essential to China’s humour in general has a stronger presence in Hong Kong. 

HK is an extremely cosmopolitan place and although the larger cities in mainland China are getting there, they have nothing on Hong Kong for it’s variety of cultural offering from around the world. I found better coffee shops in Beijing though, if I’m being brutally honest.

Is Hong Kong part of China?

This is an extremely sensitive question, and I know for sure that even among friends who may read this, opinions could vary wildly.

No doubt you will have heard of the Yellow umbrella movement that brought Hong Kong to a standstill a few years ago, as pro-democracy supporters took to the street in protest at alleged election vetting. This still to an extent continues today -I’ve seen the remnants of the movement in the streets both times I’ve visited HK this year.

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“I want a real election” The yellow umbrella movement lives on

The region was Annexed by Britain in 1841, only to be returned to Hong Kong in 1997. 150 years was of course a long enough time to become a very distinct culture from mainland China, and to develop itself into its own entity. At the same time, it retains a strong Chinese feel, but a feeling I would compare more to Taiwan than the mainland (Taiwan is sometimes considered to be more ‘traditional’ than mainland China). This is a city with a visible British colonial past, but chances are that the family restaurant you go to for dinner will have a traditional Buddhist shrine at the back of the room. You’re unlikely to see either influence in Beijing or most large mainland cities.

Hong Kong is officially a special economic zone of China, with strong level of autonomy for its inner workings of the economy and politics. In strictly official terms, then, Hong Kong is part of China, but sometimes a question comes down to more than officialdom -I’m officially British, Dutch and a Kiwi (as long as I still have NZ citizenship…not really sure on that one) but I’ve called myself Scottish for most of my life!

The same goes for Hong Kong. I’ve seen adverts alongside election posters essentially asking residents to remember they are firstly Chinese, then Hong Kong folk. On the other side, some of the election posters, were putting independence on the agenda.

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The differing political systems of Hong Kong and the Mainland makes this question even more confusing. Hong Kong is aggressively democratic. The run up to an election going on during the summer was only a local election, but that didn’t stop the whole city being covered in political flags and the sound of megaphones rallying for more votes filled central.

After the election, the majority of seats were taken up by pro-Beijing politicians. I haven’t looked into the results thoroughly, so I can’t comment on whether this mean the suspected pro-Beijing vetting happened, or whether the result simply expresses a majority as pro-Beijing, but in my ignorance I will have to take the benefit of the doubt and say, the election suggests good strong support for Beijing.

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streets on Hong Kong island lined with election flags

I’ll finish on the political side of things by saying that most of the people I’ve met in Hong Kong, whether representative of the population as a whole or not (I assume not), have been pro-independence, some of whom will express concerns about some of the very serious accusations against mainland China.

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These accusations are openly voiced by one of the most divisive organisations in Hong Kong: Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a spiritual practice, combining elements of Buddhism and Tai Qi. This may sound completely harmless, but some consider it an evil cult. It is outright banned in the mainland and you will get in serious trouble for associating with the group. There are special Falun Gong messages written on 100 yuan notes in circulation around China, and I’ve seen people look openly worried at seeing them.

I mention Falun Gong because this is an organisation that is definitely not in favour of ties to the mainland.

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I came across a Falun Gong march through central and as you can see from above, they have a few things to say about the ruling party over in mainland China. Their posters accused the CCP of murder, torture, unjustified imprisonment and even live organ harvesting. Add in the kidnapping of journalists and bookshop owners, and you have the same accusations of some of the angrier pro-independence supporters.

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counter protesters call Falun Gong and “evil sect”

Again, I don’t know enough about Falung Gong to justifiably say whether or not they are a good organisation, but they certainly express some of the anti-mainland sentiment which exists in the city.

Then there is the question of media opinions. On the TV, (I struggle a bit as it’s Cantonese TV rather than Mandarin TV, so i can easily get the wrong impression) media outlets seem fairly supportive, or at the very least neutral towards mainland China. The printed media however is a bit more divided. Take this line of magazines for example.

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Highly critical of Xi Jinping news magazines

The magazines in the previous picture are so damning of the current CCP government, that they go as far as comparing it to the cultural revolution, a time in China’s history so controversial that mainland China tries to dodge any mention of it. It’s worth remembering taking this kind of press with a pinch of salt however. Although I’m not familiar with the magazines, the names such as ‘China Secret Times(?..struggling on how to translate 报 neatly…)’ suggests there might be a bit of sensationalism going on.

No more than the Chinese state press, no doubt, however.

Ok, I take back my earlier comment of ‘final note on politics’.

Religion in HK

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We’ve talked a little about Falun Gong and China’s traditional Buddhist influence, but religion is a big topic in Hong Kong. You will never be far from a Buddhist temple in the city and one of the finest religious buildings in the city is a beautiful mosque, but it seems to me the religion with the largest presence of Christianity.

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Bamboo scaffolding in one of Hong Kong’s churches. Local building techniques meet Christianity.

Where the strength of Christianity’s influence on the city shows most clearly is in the Christian organisations dotted about it’s borders. The YMCA for example has a huge presence, including owning most of the schools I saw around the city, including the ones I worked in. I also spotted one Buddhist school, suggesting that religious schools seem to be preferred in general. Although there must be some, I don’t actually remember seeing many secular schools at all.

Even for those who may not be religious themselves, the traditions coming from religions have an influence on people’s lives. Traditional festivals, values and much more all make their way into every day life.

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Typhoons

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Damage to Hong Kong’s green space after the Typhoon

Something I didn’t experience on my short visit in the winter was Typhoons, but August just happens to be prime time for big, windy, rainy, tropical storms.

This year’s typhoon was meant to be the biggest on record for 37 years. I genuinely don’t know if it ended up that way, as it reached it’s peak in the middle of the night, but even as it was building up the evening before, there was an impressive amount of wind and rain. My apartment (a wooden bungalow near the sea) was told to evacuate to nearby concrete buildings just for safety and although there was no damage to the place, I’m glad the precaution existed.

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Branches ripped from the trees near my accomodation.

Luckily it seemed damage was limited, but the city’s green spaces were knocked around a bit. The paths near the Botanical gardens had a team busily trying to clear all the debris, some of which would have hurt if you were walking by when it fell.

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bits of tree being cleared near the botanical gardens after the typhoon

Away from the City

Leading on nicely from Hong Kong’s slightly mangled green spaces, the city actually has a surprising amount of natural beauty that you might not at first expect. It is, after all, built on a number of mountainous islands on the South China sea. It is, despite the concrete and glass of Kowloon and Central, a beautiful part of the world.

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a footpath near the botanical gardens.

I took a trip out to Lamma Island, one of the outlying regions which you need to take a ferry to get out to. img_5320

The villages on the island are small fishing communities, but I got the impression the main industry here now is tourism. In many ways you could consider spots like this the ‘rural’ Hong Kong. Other than two villages, Lamma Island is mainly countryside. The strangest thing for me, was that it seemed to also be a British ex-pat retirement place. The  number of older British residents was unexpected.img_5328

But at least the beaches were nice.

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As were the dragon masks hanging, for some unknown reason, from trees in the forest.

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And the overgrown paths that looked unused, or at least unkempt, for many a yearimg_5350

Overlooking one of the villages on Lamma Island.

The route to and from Lamma Island highlighted another very important element of Hong Kong: It’s one of the largest ports in the world.

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some of the huge number of boats out in Hong Kong’s harbour.img_5309

I personally didn’t need to go very far to see nature each evening however. I was staying right next to a wonderful beach up in the new territories – a very peaceful spot in the evenings.

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Hong Kong is, then, not just skyscrapers and endless bustle. It’s a beautiful place.

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Just to finish, I’ll leave you with a few oddities I found in the schools I worked in.

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Hong Kong kids apparently place ‘annoying hipsters’ amongst the worst of criminals. I better not spend too long in Hong Kong.

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People in China are known for loving their food, but I felt this prayer at the front door of every classroom emphasised that a bit.20160809_134923

If I were running a primary school, I would have coloured teams. I would not have a team based on a disney character called ‘sadness’. No no no.

(reblog from 2016 for archiving) Taiwan – the other China


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

I didn’t expect to get to Taiwan this year. I didn’t even expect to like it as much as I did, but it turns out that over my two years spent in Asia, this island was the China I’ve been looking for.

Taiwan has some complex politics. Many of the locals will tell you it is its own country. The Mainland however will tell you that Taiwan is a province of China. I don’t know enough about the topic enough yet to comment, but one thing is for sure – it is a political challenge that has troubled the Chinese strait for decades. I have heard that until very recently, Taiwan’s main official political goal was actually to retake the mainland, but that has been dropped now.

Let’s not go too deep on politics for now however.

I spent the majority of the trip in capital, Taipei; only having a few days meant that going down to the beaches of the south wasn’t an option. Luckily, the Taipei area had more than enough for the limited time.

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Just north of the hostel was ximending, a well known shopping district. The shopping itself wasn’t much of an attraction, but instead the subtle differences from the mainland were interesting. Most striking was an extra script on many of the shop signs. It’s no secret that China does not like Japan. I’ve met 5 year olds who already proudly express their hate of Japanese people without understanding why. In Taiwan however, where Japanese influence has been stronger, many of the signs use Japanese as well as Chinese.

Other elements of Japanese culture were present too. Anime characters appeared on signs and in the city’s graffiti. Japanese food was everywhere, and Japanese brands were more common.

I haven’t really considered possible reasons for this phenomenon, but as a passing thought, it could well come down to Taiwanese people thinking more independently than those in the mainland. Geography may also play a part, seeing as the two countries are divided only by a short space of water. Truth is however, I don’t know why.

A wander around the local area helped me understand a bit more about what Taipei is all about .

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A sign for a church might not seem like month, but once again this is an interesting comparison to the mainland. There are churches in China, but you won’t see them this obviously. Churches over here in Beijing are state controlled and non-state churches can get in serious trouble. I haven’t seen a single sign for a church, state owned or not, in the mainland. I have however visited a few. They tended to make use of public function spaces and move about a lot. One even was visited by the police, with a message to say the meetings couldn’t take place anymore in that particular building.

That is why a permanent building for a church shocked me.

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A rather large step away from churches, Taipei has a toilet themed restaurant, where you can eat toilet-themed food from a toilet shaped bowl. Delicious. I think you already know how they present the ice cream.

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Another thing you wouldn’t see in the mainland – a street devoted to the US. this narrow street had the star spangled banner painted dramatically across the ground and was lined by the more hipster looking shops.

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The street also had its fair share of graffiti, something which I must say is done pretty well in Taipei. I like a good bit of high quality graffiti, so it was nice to see it again. In Beijing it is basically restricted to the wonderful 798 art district.IMG_4612

One thing I now consider characteristic of Taipei from my short stay there are small shops stuffed to the brim with odd bits and pieces. Like the shop below devoted to fans, or the shop next door selling a single manikin.

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Another omnipresent sight in Taiwan was the motorbike and the moped. Although the supposed 9 million bikes of Beijing have very much disappeared, Taiwan is flooded in their mechanised counterparts.

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If there  is one name you should know before a visit to Taiwan, it would be Chiang Kai shek. As the father of modern Taiwan, and former leader of the Republic of China, He is in some ways Taiwan’s Mao Zedong.

In the Chinese Civil War which resulted in victory for the Chinese Communist party, Chiang Kai shek was forced to retreat to Taiwan, where the republic has remained ever since.

I’ve got to say however, the Chiang Kai Shek memorial is a bit grander than Mao’s mausoleum.

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Here’s Chiang in immortalised form inside his memorial. IMG_4654

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Even though the Chiang sat in the memorial is a statue, he still enjoys a permanent guard, which changes every hour. The modern age and the love of mobile phones in Asia adds a new twist to the hourly occasion.

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Downstairs from the memorial hall you can find an exhibition hall containing some particularly interesting items, especially the paintings.

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Above is a painting commemorating the celebration the end of the war with Japan. This was, if the flags shown actually were all there, probably the only time in history where American, British, Nationalist and Communists Chinese flags all flew together in celebration.

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I found the gift shop fascinating for the huge contrast with the mainland. Chiang is represented as an enemy half the time in Chinese exhibition spaces. Not even Mao really enjoys the praise he used to, often being the butt of jokes instead.

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Just like the mainland, artistic expression of war with the Japanese is a grim affair, but it certainly isn’t as sensationalist and gory in Taiwan. A painting of Japanese soldiers burying victims is grim, but compared to most depictions I’ve seen in Mainland museums, the Taiwanese pieces are particularly tasteful.IMG_4707

Taiwan once upon a time was home to the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101.

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Although it has been surpassed quite considerably now by buildings in China, Malaysia and Dubai, it’s still quite a sight, especially at night from 象山, elephant hill, a mountain just a short distance from the centre of the city. IMG_4759

Although the city lights are all too clear from the mountain – it’s really the place’s speciality – elephant hill highlights Taiwan’s greatest asset, as far as I’m concerned. Wherever you go in Taiwan, nature won’t be far away. Taibei may be a city of several million, but it is also surrounded by mountains covered from the foot to the peaks in lush green trees. So yes, the blinding glow of the city may have settled down below, but elephant hill mixed nature with city in a very special way.IMG_4772

And on the mention of mountains and nature, we come to the most important part of Taiwan – it’s wonderful green space. I took a cable car out of the city to a small place in the mountains dotted with teahouses, named Maokong.

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The cable car had the added pleasure of having a glass floor to remind you of high up you were.IMG_4834

Taiwan is known for its tea, and up on Maokong, the tea did not disappoint. This pot was filled with a local tieguanyin tea.IMG_4838

The teahouse was half open, so although a roof kept cover from the rain (and lightning storm that started half way through the tea), you could truly soak up the beautiful atmosphere. Coming from smoggy Beijing, that comment is only slightly figurative. Taiwan doesn’t have poison cloud which sits stubbornly over most Chinese cities – I was impossibly thankful for the reprieve Taiwan offered from it.IMG_4841IMG_4852IMG_4855IMG_4859

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Back in the city, Taipei is famous for its night markets. Although it sounds like many are tourist traps, they are still good fun. As basically huge street food centres, there are some pretty odd things to try along with all the expected snacks.

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Taiwan in recent years has become synonymous with one of its most popular food exports-bubble tea and Taiwan Milk tea. IMG_4892

Funnily enough, you get much more of a choice outside of Taiwan. The places in London have an impossible array of flavours, but in Taiwan the choice is essentially standard milk tea flavour, or taro – an ingredient which pops up all over the place in Taiwan)IMG_4900

Two milk teas – both with 布丁, ‘pudding’ rather than tapioca bubbles.

Where things felt a bit more genuine and less touristy was an underground food hall running below the main market.

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Although I’m no expert, downstairs the food seemed pretty genuine – a bit less for show and a bit more real.

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Won tons aren’t hugely common in Beijing, where dumplings are king, but Taiwan certainly did a good job of them.

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小籠包, Soup dumplings are a Taiwanese speciality. There is actually somewhere in Taipei a restaurant devoted to these snacks. There’s just enough soup in them so that eating them is still pleasant – I’ve had large-sized soup dumplings before and they don’t work. This kind however is rightfully a speciality.

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Here’s my friend Mark, feat. food.

Taiwan, being an island, is also famed for its sea food. This market was no exception. I didn’t get any but those oysters look fabulous. It’s a hard life trying to cut down on meat and fish, especially when travelling.IMG_4917

But then you see these guys and remember why it’s important to eat less. Vats of live seafood with hardly any space to move seem to be a common sight across Asia.

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Hard at work making something – looks like dumplings, but could be anything…IMG_4925

A view down the underground part of the Shilin Night market.

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The last stop on this short trip to Taiwan was Jiufen, a small town just outside of Taipei made famous for apparently being the inspiration for the town in Studio Gibli’s ‘Spirited Away’. If you’ve seen the film (and if haven’t, go watch it now. It’s a wonderful film), you can no doubt recall a traditional town of winding streets with buildings towering over each side, abundant with food stalls. Add some nearby mountain scenery and you’ve certainly got Jiufen. As far as I could tell, there were fewer spirits, but there were a few temples dotted about at least.

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Honestly speaking, it was the staff in some of the eateries that made me think of spirited away the most. I don’t know why, but the boss of this place just made me think of the tough, slightly bossy workers in the wash house in Spirited Away.

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My favourite stall however wasn’t a food place, but this man and his home-made ocarinas. Not only where they the prettiest Ocarinas I’ve seen, but they sounded perfect. I almost bought one, but I didn’t want the risk of it breaking on the way back in my already limited luggage space.

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just outside of Jiufen itself was a path up the tallest hill in the area.

The way up, there was an old grave site, and I’m sorry to say there wasn’t much left of it. I found this particularly strange considering the reverence for family and ancestry in Asia. Perhaps it wasn’t respectful to take a photo of it and paste it onto my blog, but I’m still left wondering what the cause was. I just don’t see it being mindless vandalism because of the importance of such places. Very much a sad mystery.IMG_4971

The route up betrays views occasionally over the town below.

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From a distance each of those small buildings looks like a home, but if you look more carefully you’ll see they are actually all very ornate graves. As I said above, Asia respects ancestry.IMG_4984

For me, being on a mountain away from the mainland meant seeing nature again. I honestly sometimes think that nature has given up on Beijing, and when I do see a lone bird in the sky, I pity it having to fly through the polluted skies. IMG_4977IMG_4986

At the top there was a view across the town, but I found the view out west far more fascinating: the view of nothing more.

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Having reached the east coast of Taiwan, I had truly covered the Chinese speaking world from west to east. From living in Xinjiang two years ago, to standing looking over the Pacific from Taiwan, that felt like, and is, a real journey.

and long may the adventure continue.

My year is coming to a close. I have one more month in Beijing before I head to Hong Kong for the summer. After that, I return to Leeds and go back to being a normal student.

But this short trip to the other China reminded me I still have a long, experience rich way to go.

 

 

(reblog from 2016 for archiving) The Search for Spring


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

China is a nation of People that don’t like cold weather, and aren’t very fond of hot weather either. Considering that a large part of China becomes bitterly cold in winter and brutally hot in the summer, the spring and the autumn really are wonderful parts of the year for the Chinese.

There is however a problem. In the north of the country, these two favourable seasons are strikingly short. Because of that, I went out in search for Beijing’s spring.

I just about spotted it.

IMG_4258The first sign were the willow trees. Before even the blossom started to appear, cascades of young, lightly coloured leaves began to drape their way across the green spaces.

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Despite most of the residents still being reluctant to remove their long coats just yet, the parks flooded with happy faces, relieved to finally say good bye to long winter. After four months of cold and coal fire pollution, there is no better way to celebrate than go outside, breathe and smile.IMG_4294IMG_4330

Everyone can go outside; great. But what do the Beijingers do with that great opportunity? As far as I could tell, fishing was high up on the priority list.

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No place had quite as many avid anglers as Qianhai, at the northern point of the line of lakes which wind through Xicheng from the Forbidden city. Lining edge of the lake was what can only be described as a barrage of fishing rods and lines reaching out into the water.

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Fishing is of course not for everyone. For some, the turn in the weather allowed space simply for introspection. Many of my fellow visitors to Beijing’s parks seemed quite happy to sit in silence and think, whilst  resting under the willow trees and staring over calm waters.

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The parks are after all for everyone. That’s very clear, as the word in Chinese, 公园 means public garden. In Beijing, they are in fact so open to everyone, that even a strange number of giant rubber ducks have their space too.

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Yet plenty of locals don’t enjoy silent introspection either, and instead prefer to fill the parks with music. Some people bring their musical instruments outside. Many older residents take it in turns to sing traditional songs and opera with their friends. Even whole choirs gather outside under pagodas resting by the lakeside…

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…and where there is music, there is dance. huge group dances are everywhere in China, the most famous being the so-called ‘dancing aunties’, who cover squares and parks in the evenings in every city. These almost regimented groups aren’t afraid of the winter however, so there is no triumphant return for the dancing aunties; they have just kept going. Sometimes, the spring weather gets the individuals on their feet too, the dance floor no longer reserved for the armies of middle aged women.

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And sometimes, a good old simple walk will suffice. You may apparently end up being followed however by balloons. Many of China’s larger parks have a kind of permanent fairground in them, meaning that balloons, bubbles and such fairground fare are common sights, depending on where you go.

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The warmer weather also heralds the arrival of tourists, and with them, all things touristy. One of the attractions in the centre of the city is a ride on a bike-driven cart around the old town. At the moment, these carts swarm the narrow hutongs (Beijing’s alleyways) in packs.

The wonder of public spaces for the government is that the public like to go to public spaces, making them the perfect place for political announcements. Along the wall of the fairground area of zizhuyuan you can currently find a line of posters explaining the goals of the 十三五,  The Party’s thirteenth Five Year Plan.

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How about normal bikes? After all the city was famous for its sea of bikes; so much so that Katie Melua wrote a song about the 9 million bicycles weaving in and out of each other. Sadly, even the sunny weather can’t bring them back. Cars have slowly been replacing cities former 2-wheeled, non- greenhouse-gas-emitting symbol. Bikes are however still here to an extent and there is even some moves towards boosting their popularity once more.  For now, many bikes remain dust covered or even broken and rusted on street corners.

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One Beijing tradition which is revived after cold season is the gathering of many bird cages across the city’s public spaces. Many of the older locals keep birds as pets and in the summer, they join their owners in the park. Sadly, they remain in the cages. As you can imagine for an animal that has been locked in a tiny space most of its life, most have gone slightly mad. They hop around in circles continuously, that little hop being the only movement they have space for to make.

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Less harmful hobbies also get revived as the world bursts into spring. Friends gather together to play cards or Chinese chess. Occasionally you might also see Mah Jong, but it is less common, perhaps because no ones wants to be accused of gambling.

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And of course, there is one thing that instantly jumps to mind when spring and China are discussed together – Cherry blossom. Although perhaps much more dramatic in the south and over the sea in Japan, the perfect white flowers do bloom for a few days. The city hardly becomes a sea of blossom, but they are still a sign: the long winter is over.

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(reblog from 2016 for archiving) Art of the State


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

Art galleries: institutions essential to the celebration of culture, ideas, art…and propaganda?

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statue representing the 56 nationalities considered minority groups in China

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I went to the Beijing national art gallery to check out an exhibition focussing on the varied minority groups of China for part of a museum project I’m working on. Naturally I got to see my fair share of artwork, but through the brushstrokes there was a clear message showing through.

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The exhibition, titled ‘National Exhibition of Fine Arts for Great Unity of Chinese Nation’ (中华民族大团结全国美术作品展) was concerned at its heart with expressing the view that each of the many groups of people in China are in unity with each other and in support of the ruling Communist Party.

Chinese museums like to have an almost essay-like structure. They have prefaces and conclusions as if there were only one way to interpret their contents and each section will act as an argument towards that final conclusion.

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In the art gallery’s foreword, you might spy upon an interesting phrase – The Chinese Dream (中国梦). I won’t go into it in much detail right now, as I’m likely to write fully about it in the future, but for now it should suffice to know the basics. The phrase became popular after Chairman Xi Jinping used it in a speech in 2013. It is associated with China’s current development goals of becoming a ‘moderately prosperous’ economy and rejuvenating the nation. It pops up around Beijing far too often.

This Chinese Dream is closely related to the exhibition, as are a number of Beijing’s museum exhibitions. Development is associated strongly with the Governments claim to power, and unity across the massive country – the exhibition’s focus- is essential to both.

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“Unity is power. People of all nationalities are making progress together with joint effort, destiny and objective on the way of fulfilling “China Dream””

Why then, are the ethnic groups of China important to development? One element is a group’s possible ability to slow the Chinese image of development. Despite such exhibitions painting a happy, united image of the country’s minority groups, there is unrest amongst some of them, especially where their traditional ways of life are threatened.  On the opposite side however, active support of minority group would surely result in smoother development.

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Territory also comes into question. Most westerners are for example aware there is controversy over Tibet and whether or not Tibetans are Chinese or not.  The region is a territory of China, but by depicting Tibetans as an essential group within China’s many minority groups, they lay claim to them. If Tibetans then, are ‘owned’ by China, so is their territory. The celebration of minority groups in part secures borders.

Those views are rather cynical, and there are more opinions that could be drawn. The people celebrated in the exhibition do live within the borders of China, and it is in the interests of a country to look after its people. One could view the exhibition as embracing its minority groups and their rich beautiful cultures. In exhibiting cultures, they can be preserved. China is changing so rapidly that much of the old will disappear. One could see such events as being an expression from the government, so as to say ‘we will respect and preserve all culture in China’.

The slow knocking down of Kashgar says otherwise, but never mind.

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Aside from the politics and intrigue of Chinese exhibition spaces, much of the exhibited artwork was beautiful and those pieces which weren’t beautiful were usually very interesting.

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The military trades education for education, teaching the only thing they know – national defence.

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Young Kazakh riders

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Tibetans somehow gaining huge harvests in barren places

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These last two depict multiple minority groups standing together in apparent unity, along side all things CCP.

 

(reblog from 2016 for archiving) Hong Kong, Asia’s ‘Fragrant Port’


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

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You should go to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is, as I’ve said to a few friends, all the best bits of China, without all the crap of China, plus a big dashing of special Hong Kong-only charm and character.

In short, you should go.

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I’m sure you have an image of this city already in your head, whether it be the endless hanging street signs of Kowloon, or the ultra-modern skyscrapers on Hong Kong island, and if one thing defines Hong Kong, it would be its diversity.

The cityscape varies from glass and steel plated architectural masterpieces to rickety fishing villages. The people come from all over the world.  The food stretches from street noodle bars to some of the world’s finest dining.

Most of all, the city as alive. If you were take the buzz of the whole of China, and concentrate it all onto one tiny peninsula, you would have yourself a Hong Kong.

I arrived in Hong Kong straight from Shenzhen on the metro system. You might think given that, that a jump from Mainland China to not-mainland-China wouldn’t be a shock, but you’d be very wrong. I would go as far as saying Hong Kong really isn’t China, and that isn’t because I feel some kind of colonial hold over it as a Brit. Honest.

Stepping out of Mong Kok station, the city was exactly how I expected.

That’s never happened before.

There was an uncontrollable vibe all around; those infamous signs balanced off buildings at every angle; campaigners for (and against) Falun Gong were frantically waving things at people: this was a city with energy.

Mong Kok not only was my place to stay for my time there, but it also just happens to be the busiest location in the world. There is no spot on the entire planet where people are more densely packed than here.

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Crossing the road at Mong Kok is more like following a flood of people.

My hostel was situated in one of the local tower blocks, which reminded me of the kind of building you expect to see crimelords running around in in action films set in Hong Kong: That is to say, fairly run down, graffiti strung across the walls like the washing hanging down into the dramatic drops from the side of the building.

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请勿大小便-please don’t go to the toilet. Someone clearly wasn’t too happy with a visitor here. Further up the stairway was a brilliant sign on the floor reading roughly as ‘oh, sorry, this isn’t actually a bin. Could you please put your rubbish in a bin, not here. Thank you.’ Hong Kong folk have a healthy bit of sass.

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Some of the wall graffiti up in the building.

Up in the top of one of these high-rise buildings a friend and I found a strange scene – someone appeared to have built a shrine (and possibly a small basic home?) into a boiler cupboard. And all just in search of a good view over the city.

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Now back to the street.

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Just down from my hostel were two opposing stands right next to each other – one pro Falun Gong; the other anti-Falun Gong. In the mainland this organisation is illegal, and you can get in serious trouble for even holding items related to the group. One stand was explaining apparent brutal treatment of its members in the mainland and the other was condemning the group as an evil cult.

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Much less controversial and quite a bit more appetizing is Hong Kong’s famous street food. This stall was a convenient 30 seconds away from my hostel.

The most famous place to grab yourself a street snack is temple street night market.

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You don’t need to worry about your food not being fresh. Much of it will be alive when you order.

The other local food is something special too. My friend took me for what she called ‘morning tea’. I have no idea what that would be in the Cantonese, but I would guess something like 早茶?(Jaucha?)

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Even the trucks have personality in this city. This wasn’t the only truck mural I saw.

You might wonder how you could put up those gravity-defying hanging signs that characterise the whole of Kowloon. The answer, of course, is bamboo.

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Scaffolding in Hong Kong is entirely made of bamboo; no metal to be seen. Despite the extreme modernity of this city, traditional building methods are used even on the skyscrapers.

Another very traditional part of Hong Kong is it’s medicine. No place has such a strong presence of traditional medicine shops as here. Mushrooms hang from the ceilings and stuffed jars of dubious content line the walls.

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See anything you fancy?

I didn’t, but all to no avail – you sometimes end up with Chinese medicine in the food, as I found out after ordering some soup on my last night.

Down at the southernmost point of Kowloon, where it meets the harbour overlooking Hong Kong island, lies an arty part of town, complete with art gallery, theatre, and oddities surrounding them.

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The screen on this megaphone encouraged visitors to sing along with a group of Indonesian migrants singing traditional songs. Most people were using the installment as a happy opportunity for a good shout across the city.

Or, as this man shows, for a chance to take part in Asia’s current favourite past time – selfies.

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If you’re in a place without much grass, learn from Hong Kong and just wheel some in.

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If that’s not a fabulous view, I don’t know what is.

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In the early days of Hong Kong, this would have been the first building you saw, heralding your arrival. These days it’s dwarfed by the local skyscrapers, but it’s a piece of local history.

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That’s the star ferry – probably the best value cruise in the world. How does 2HKD, the equivalent of 20p (40cents?) sound for views over one of the world’s most famous harbours?

Over on the other side, onto Hong Kong Island, is Victoria peak. You can see it behind the buildings in the above photos.

Unfortunately you couldn’t see it later on…roughly when I was on it.

To get to the top, you take the vernacular railway.

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On a clear day you get to experience a surreal view of skyscrapers shooting off at 45 degree angles as the train leans dramatically in order to get up the mountain directly.

That day was not a clear day. Here’s the view.

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You should be able to see down to the harbour. It was lovely anyway. I recommend going on a clear day however – it’s probably lovelier that way.

The park just along from the Vernacular is also a quieter gem of the city. A beautiful green gem hidden among the grey of steel and glass. It even has an aviary in the middle of it.

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Plus art work

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And even a solemn memorial to hero doctors who died fighting the SARS epidemic.

Down on the west coast of Hong Kong Island, the feel is very different. The shinyness of central gives way to a grittier dockland, and finally to quiet boat-strewn suburbs.

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I was aiming to walk out to the far west coast beaches, but it proved to be a little too far away. I hit an end to footpaths and was forced to turn back. Back to Kowloon it was.

Kowloon at night is a different city. The neon lights characteristic of Asian cities somehow seemed more dramatic here, and the streets were filled with that Hong Kong energy.

The yellow umbrella democracy protesters are still out in Hong Kong demonstrating, if less dramatically. They still however covered the streets with their message.

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“I want a real universial election”

Also out on the streets was a film crew and Hong Kong boy band.

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I’m sorry to say if you’re a fan of the Hong Kong All stars, they cannot sing at all. They mumble tuneless-ly to the extreme joy of their tone-deaf fans.

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But at least, even if the local singers can’t sing, the local buses are pretty cool.

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And the local tower blocks are spectacular when the sun goes down.

More spectacular however is the better known view across the harbour at night.

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Oh how I wished for a wide angle lens for that shot.

And let me finish with a junker boat, as they are fantastic looking boats. A great symbol of Hong Kong, a city, which I may have mentioned, you really should go to.

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