Monday, September 19, 2011

Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery

Craig and I really made a day of it on Saturday.  Before we went to the Walled City, we braved the heat to visit Nan Lian Garden, and Chi Lin Nunnery.  The temperature was in the mid thirties with very minimal cloud cover, so I may not have spent as much time peacefully contemplating things as I should have.  But hey, it's free, and I live here now, so it's not like I can't go back when its cooler.

 The gate to Nan Lian Garden

 All the trees, plants, flowers, rocks, and, I suspect occasionally the dragonflies, are put just in the right place.  The garden is built in the classical chinese style, with Tang Dynasty designs.

 Rock gardens with atmospheric misters.

 A lake, with a golden pagoda in the centre.

 Golden pagoda.  We couldn't get any closer than this though.  I guess wiping the fingerprints off must be a bitch.

 On the far side of the lake on the right there is a Tang style tea house.  Unfortunately you could only go in if you were buying tea and dimsum, so we didn't go this time.

 Though the garden is set in the middle of a forest of high rises, rivers of busy roads, it's quite peaceful inside.  Because the garden was a joint project with the Chi Lin nunnery, the rules of the garden disallow any group photo taking, special occasion photos, loud noises and a host of other things in order to preserve the intended experience of harmony and silence in nature. 

 These beauties were just about everywhere, in other colours too.  Some of the prettiest and largest dragonflies I've ever seen.

 This is inside the nunnery.  I didn't take too many pictures in here, because there were people praying and worshipping, and I didn't want to intrude on them.

 So I took pictures of the water spitting dragon instead.
The main courtyard of Chi Lin.  One day, when it's cooler I think we'll go back and spend more time wandering around here and Nan Lian.

Kowloon Walled City Park

When I first read Martin Booth's memoir Gweilo, his descriptions of Hong Kong in the 50s fascinated me.  In particular, his description of Kowloon Walled City grabbed my attention, because I felt it truly described a Hong Kong which doesn't really exist anymore.  Indeed, Kowloon Walled City was torn down in the 1990s.

Kowloon Walled City started life as a Chinese military outpost.  Even when the New Territories were leased to Great Britain, the city technically remained under Chinese rule.  When the British eventually claimed it, they found the village almost empty apart from an old Mandarin.  By the middle of WWII, very little remained of the city except the historic yamen and a few other buildings.  After the end of WWII, the Chinese government announced their intent to reclaim the Walled City, and thousands of refugees took over the area under the Chinese protection.  The British Government attempted to get rid of the Chinese unsuccessfully, and after that adopted a hands-off policy. 

With this hands off policy, Kowloon Walled City became a haven for triads and criminals, as well as normal Hong Kong families.  Home industries thrived, and even up until its demolition in 1993, the city was well known for dentistry, though the dentists were largely unlicensed. As far as illegal activity goes, opium dens, prostitution and gambling also thrived in the City. 

Here is Kowloon Walled City in 1980, 13 years before demolition:
As you can see, it was a very small space that was very densely packed.  Many of the buildings had pathways through them so that it was possible to go from one side to another without actually touching the ground.  Building was pretty much unregulated, and apartments were on average 250 square feet.  Balcony cages and rooftop additions were a common way of creating more space. 

 Inside the old city walls now lies a park.  This park is based on some classical Qing period gardens, and includes the old Yamen building, which was painstakingly restored after the demolition. 

It's a really beautiful place now, and it seems very hard to believe that what used to be there was quite an infamous place.  In Booth's memoir, he says that "It was said that any European who entered is was never seen again unless floating out of it down the nullah that served as a sewer.  If ever the police entered the area, they went in armed patrols of three." (Booth, M. Gweilo, 2006)  It certainly paints a picture of what it was like 50 years ago.   The park was full of old people, and I had to wonder if they had once been residents of the Walled City, relocated by the government before the demolition.

 In the yamen, there are a few displays of photos, models and graphics about the city, its history and its culture.  This photo is a rendering of a map of the city in the 1970s.  All above ground passageways, staircases, wells, entrances and factories are marked.  You can see from the picture just how crowded and cramped the area was, but also get an idea of how life function is what was essentially a closed community.

 This is a bronze model of the city as it was just before demolition in 1993. 

 Looking over the model to the doors of the yamen. 

 Behind the bronze model, there was a large cross section picture showing aspects of daily life in the walled city.  Above, a dancer entertains men in a bar.

 An illegal dentist does his work, while at the right, old men gossip with their birds and friends.

 Neighbours tear down the adjoining walls to make a bigger apartment.

While another family extends by simply building up.

 A prostitute plies her trade in a small room.

And a man is threatened with a gun for some unknown crime.

This place is well worth a visit.  It's not exactly on the beaten track for many tourists, but can be easily reached on the number 1 bus from Tsim Sha Tsui.  Kowloon Walled City was a place that combined, seamlessly, aspects of both every day life in Hong Kong, and the seedier underside of it. I won't say my quest for information on this place has been completely fulfilled, but it is certainly good to understand a little bit more of another aspect of Hong Kong life pre-handover.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Quick update

More posts with pictures and adventures are coming, I promise, but we're still in limbo mode until next week.

On Thursday we will get the keys to our new apartment. Once we're moved in, I'll send the address to those who need it. We have a nice little two bedroom place, with the luxury of a decent sized balcony. It's 46 floors up, so I sure hope the lift is reliable!

I also will be starting work in October sometime. When I get my visa I can start. I will be working as an educational assistant at one of the international schools here. The job gives me a good opportunity to improve my mandarin, as the school is a Mandarin/English bilingual school.

Until I start work, I am just pottering around getting stuff ready for the apartment, and practicing Chinese, and trying to adapt to the heat, which isn't easy. We're having tons of fun though, seeing something new every weekend.

Hopefully some proper internet time this week, so I can get some posts up with pictures!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Preparing for the Mid-Autumn Festival

Mid-Autumn Festival, or Zhongqiu Jie to give it its Chinese name, is coming up next Monday night, and there are big preparations happening all around.   Mid Autumn Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar.  To read the background stories behind the Mid-Autumn Festival have a look at the wikipedia page, which gives a decent summary of the legend of Chang'e and Houyi.

The Mid Autumn Festival is celebrated by eating moon cakes (a heavy round cake often filled with lotus paste and egg yolks and stamped with Chinese characters), burning incense to deities, dragon dances and hanging lanterns.  A lot of cities and towns will put up large lantern displays.  Here's a few photos of the display going up in the park in Tin Shui Wai, where we live.

Come next Monday night, these will all be lit up.  It should be really pretty I think.  There's also a stage going up in the park, so I assume that there will be some cultural performances.  Personally, I'm hoping for acrobats!

Yuen Po Bird Garden

Yuen Po Bird Garden was our next stop after the flower market. Once you walk down Flower Market Road, you will inevitably come to the bird garden so it's easy to find.  The bird garden is an attempt to continue the work of the old bird market, which was removed in an area redevelopment.  The traders from Bird Street were able to move the stalls up to Yuen Po, and now there is a flourishing small market where you can find birds, and all the things you need to look after them.  It's also a place where local bird owners take their birds, and hang out with other bird lovers.

The garden is decorated with lovely bird mosaics, depicting species found in Hong Kong.

 Cages like this one are sold to keep birds in.  This is a fairly simple one, but many are works of art in their own right, covered in delicate carvings and patterns in the wood.

 Aside from the usual bird seed and dried fruit for parrots, some of the stall holders sell live crickets and grasshoppers for the more discerning bird.

This fellow belonged to one of the stall holders, and loved playing up to the cameras. 
  If you like birds, go here.  It's a really neat place to visit, and while it's not the original bird street, it still has a feel of stepping back in time somewhat, with a tradition that has been going on in Hong Kong for a long time.

Mong Kok flower market

On the weekend, we took one day to get started with our exploring around Hong Kong. There's such a huge list of possible things to do, so we just picked two places that were reasonably close together and headed for them. The first of these places is the Mong Kok flower market.

It's not a huge market, but the variety of flowers and plants is phenomenal.  There are flowering shrubs like at this shop above. 

Pot plant type flowers for people wanting to have a small balcony or indoor garden.

Bulk flowers for people who want to do their own arranging.  When I was looking into flowers for our wedding receptions, I toyed with the idea of getting bulk flowers and making the arrangement myself.  I was put off by the cost somewhat, but here, I was astounded at the cheapness of some of the more expensive, and currently trendy wedding flowers.  Peonies, for example, go for around $5 USD a stem online, and here I found a bunch of ten for $25 HKD, which comes out to around $2.50 USD.

 There's also plenty of places to buy ready made bouquets if you're not of the flower arranging type.  The variety is really astounding, and you can get anything from a small posy for about $50 HKD ($5-6 USD), while a huge arrangement with 20-30 roses should give you change from $100 USD (depending on what sort of other flowers there are in the bouquet).

Orchids are also a big thing, and the prices are also very reasonable.

 For an orchid like this one, not in it's own pot you're paying less than $10 USD.  There are some arrangements that come set up in beautiful porcelain pots with ferns and other greenery that will set you back a whole lot more though.

As well as the more conventional bouquets, you'll find bouquets of teddy bears.

And even the odd Angry Birds bouquet!

All in all, I'd say the flower market is definitely worth a visit.  Even if you're just a tourist in Hong Kong, it's worth going to see because of the vibrant colour and beauty of the products sold there.  There's also a number of other markets and interesting shopping streets nearby, so you could easily fill in a whole day in that area.