Friday, 7 November 2014

The Christchurch-Hamilton Bells Visit Hong Kong (1)

Visiting the Hong Kong Branch on the Family Tree:
Part One
Written by David Bell
Photography mostly by Kalei Esteves with a few from others

Old Chinese Proverb: A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with the First Step

The idea began to incubate just prior to a trip Winnie and I made to Hong Kong in November, 2013, when I was thinking how great it would be if the grandchildren could come with us and experience the Chinese part of their family heritage. The idea must have stuck in my mind because all through that 2013 trip I kept thinking of the kids - like when we went to the Pok Fu Lam Buddhist temple to pay our respects at the memorial of Go Lea Hua, their great-grandmother. I thought about them on the day we walked to Winnie and her siblings' old primary school to find it still standing and much the same as it was  fifty years ago. Then there was the old street-market where Go Lea Hua purchased the family meat and vegetables fresh every morning and carried them to the old house where she transformed them into nutritious family meals; the same house where Winnie (affectionately known as Ah-ma to all her grandchildren) was raised throughout her Hong Kong days. The same thoughts must have been playing around in Winnie's mind because when I suggested we should look into the possibility of just such a project, to my surprise she appeared quite warm to the idea.

The night view from the Costley Apartment
We were under no illusions, however, about the logistics of such an expedition. It would include a family group of eighteen; Seven adults (counting Henry, Winnie's brother living in Christchurch) and nine grandchildren ranging in age from eight to seventeen. The cost of the plane fares would be substantial and finding accommodation for three families and ourselves seemed an impossible task. But the possibility of a family trip to Winnie's homeland was just too enticing to give up without a fight so as soon as we returned to Christchurch Winnie got to work on the computer and spent countless hours over the next several months researching plane schedules and fares and accommodation options in Hong Kong. I need say nothing more but that Winnie has the tendency to dismiss things that appear at first glance to be too complicated, difficult, and above all, expensive; unless she really wants it and then watch out, she will go after it with a dogged determination. Over the following months she managed to miraculously get us the best fares at the best time (exactly over the October school holidays), and accommodation ideally suited to our needs as family groups; three apartments in Mong Kok within walking distance of each other.

Interior of the TV lounge in the Bell flat, an indication of the
compact living conditions. Though small, these apartments are much cheaper and
better suited to family groups than a hotel.

View from the window of the Esteves Apartment. Jared and Jacinda's
building is the pink one across the football field peeping between
the two tall buildings on the left.
With these in place the trip was on and the word went out to the family to organise their affairs (work leave, passports etc.) and prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime family history experience. I suppose I should mention that Winnie and I heavily subsidised  the trip or it would never have eventuated. We have both recently retired after a lifetime of work and saving  and decided to use some of the kids 'inheritance' to help fund the trip. It is also a bit of a retirement celebration splurge; or a touch of madness, however you want to see it.

Once the news was out and everyone on board with the plan, the most difficult part was waiting out the following eight months to departure. This was written on Monday the twenty second of September, just five days from boarding the plane to Hong Kong. Needless to say there were nine grandchildren now fizzing with anticipation and excitement. I imagine it was much the same for their parents. 

Top three: Kalei, Chemae and Sarina.
Middle three: Ashden, Rylan and Emi.
Bottom three: Ella, Ava and Kobe.

Is there anything so joyously sweet,
As when kinfolk so long apart do meet?
At last the time passed and we all boarded our planes and set off for Hong Kong on Saturday, 27 September. The Esteves and Bell families left from Auckland with a flight change in Brisbane while the Costleys and senior Bells departed from Christchurch with a short stopover in Sydney, both groups scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong about fourteen hours later.

That is precisely what happened. Our plane arrived first and as I was lining up to go through customs I heard a shout and there, striding across the big hall, was the North Island branch of the family all waving and laughing.

The reunions between the children were especially great to see and I feel immensely proud that they have such a close relationship with each other; more like brothers and sisters than cousins. I realise that as time goes by they will all go in different directions, but I hope the memories they store up in their minds and hearts of their days together as children will forever keep them looking out for each other.

As I was lining up at customs I heard Miriam's familiar voice shout "Pada!" and
looking up I saw the Hamilton mob striding across the hall towards us.
The kids rushed to greet each other
Old buddies meet again
Going through customs was quick and uneventful. We were all surprised that unlike New Zealand international airports, in Hong Kong we didn't have to go through any X-ray or security machines; our passports were stamped and we just walked right on out into the arrivals lounge to where Winnie's sister, Lina, and her husband Mike were waiting. Then, after another happy meet-and-greet we walked out of the huge air-conditioned airport into the stifling hot and humid Hong Kong climate. It was about 6pm and close to sunset but still about thirty two degrees Celsius. I'm sure it was a surprise to the children but they were fizzing with excitement and it didn't seem to bother them too much; with the exception of Rylan who immediately began sweating profusely; he sweats easy.  
The comfortable air-conditioned bus we boarded provided relief from the heat and being a double-decker the kids rushed up the steps to the top for what proved to be an exhilarating forty-five minute ride to the city. I was seated on the lower deck but I could hear their excited voices as they looked out on a landscape very different from anything they had seen before: tropical vegetation, block-upon-block of multi-storied building complexes perched on hillsides and hilltops or along the shores; wherever there was space there were buildings. There was also a lot of pollution in the air which hazed out the blue sky so that when the sun began to set it appeared as a great orange disc easily looked upon with the naked eye. Their first oriental sunset was quite a marvel to them.
The Hong Kong airport is built on an outlying island called Lan Tau which is connected to the mainland by a enormous bridge of incredible engineering. I don't know if the kids were impressed but I am, every time I cross it.
Eventually, we arrived at our destination; the bus stop near the apartments Winnie had booked for us. We were met by the owners who took us to our various homes for the next two weeks. I should mention at this point that there are hundreds of apartments holidaymakers can rent anywhere in the city. They are quasi-legal arrangements where people buy or own apartments and then advertise them for rent. They are located in high-rise blocks amid all the other homes of the residents of the buildings. You can learn all about them on the internet. They may not be strictly legal because you are not really supposed to have professionally rented accommodation right next to private homes; right next to meaning literally next door. Nevertheless, we were duly delivered to our flats to settle in and unpack. These flats, while small and compact, were perfectly adequate for families like ours; I found them more practical and much cheaper than a hotel. 
A family meeting in our flat after arrival to plan the next few days. Everyone still quite tired after the long flight.
After our accommodation was sorted we met in the Bell senior and Esteves flat to plan out the next few days. We planned to all go to church the next day but tiredness and jet-lag put paid to that, so Sunday ended up a rest-and-recovery day. Monday saw us hit the markets, bun shops and restaurants. Hong Kong is renowned for its street markets and our flats were right in the middle of the best in the city. It also has restaurants galore; just about every second shop on every street is a restaurant or eatery of some kind. Eating is easily the national sport and pastime of the people of Hong Kong. One of our favourite dives turned out to be what we all called the bun shops - Chinese bakeries that offered the most amazing array of delicious buns, cakes, and breads warm and fresh from the ovens. The closest bun shop became everyone's choice for breakfast and snacks. The kids particularly loved it and quickly established which was their favourite bun. Kobe's choice was a soft bread roll with a sausage stuck through the centre. He must have eaten dozens of the things. There was a multitude of other tasty treats but by far the biggest favourite were the 'daantarts' - small cupcake-sized pastries with egg custard filling. They were just the right size to eat in one delicious bite. The Esteves family proved to be the champion bun-shoppers lightening their holiday budget to the tune of about $HK2,000 by the end of their holiday. Their departure would have seen a spectacular drop in business for the local bun shop.


Family photo on the boulevard along the water front. Fraser is
 absent because he's taking the picture.
So much happened that instead of writing a day-by-day commentary, I'll just tell about our main holiday events using brief commentaries and photographs.
                                                            Event 1: Ocean Park
 Hong Kong's Ocean Park is rated the best nature-amusement park in the world and I believe the rating a good one. The kids loved it! It has a panda enclosure which was a hit because it was air conditioned to mimic their mountain habitat which we found a great relief from the heat; the day being a sweltering 32 degrees with humidity hitting the roof. Ah-ma found it especially uncomfortable; her feet swelled up like balloons, her face went bright red and she had to regularly retreat to the panda house for relief.
                                                               Entering Ocean park.
                      Winnie and Miriam beating the heat by cooling off in the panda house. 
It didn't bother the kids too much; they went on every ride on offer (the wicked roller coaster with all its heart-stopping drops, swirls and spirals being the most popular), attended every show, and refreshed themselves with tropical fruit slushies. The location of Ocean Park is quite spectacular, set high up on a mountain accessed by cable car that begins at the entrance at the bottom and winds its way high up along the coast to the top. The ride takes about fifteen minutes and the view is breath-taking. On the day we were there thousands of mainland Chinese tourists had rolled up in buses and so the queue for the cable cars was about a mile long. The attendant advised us to take the Captain Nemo train instead which we did. It was good advice. The train, a mimic of Nemo's submarine in the book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, was cable operated and pulled us up through a tunnel all the way to the top of the mountain in about five minutes. We rode the cable car down at the end of the day which was good because we got to do both.
                                                         The Nemo train to the top.
                                                          Even the pandas found it hot.
                             The wild roller coaster; some of the kids are on there somewhere. 
                                            Above: the school of milkfish in the huge
                                            aquarium. Below is a close-up of a lion fish in
                                            the huge tropical fish tank set up like a coral
                                            reef with hundreds of species of reef fish.
There are hundreds more pictures of the day at Ocean Park but it would take albums to include them all. Suffice it to say it was a fantastic day which the kids in particular enjoyed immensely, despite the scorching heat that nearly killed Winnie.
Event 2: Our Family Visit to Pok Fu Lam Buddhist Temple
    View of Pok Fu Lam temple tucked way in a patch of forest
Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons for this family holiday was to have the grandchildren experience some of their Chinese heritage and see where their old grandma used to hang out when she was their age. The Buddhist temple at Pok Fu Lam was an important part of this cultural experience because it is where Winnie's deceased relatives have their memorials; it's where you go to pay respects to the dead, like we do when we visit a cemetery. Buddhism is also a big part of Chinese culture even though not many people in this modern city really practice it. The bigger more well known temples have pretty much become money spinning tourist attractions, but little Pok Fu Lam has no tourists and is much more the genuine article. The nuns and staff who run it are very devout and more traditional.
We all gathered after breakfast on the appointed day and took the MTR to Hong Kong island then caught the bus to Pok Fu Lam which stopped right outside the temple where we waited for Winnie's sister, Lina, to arrive. When she arrived we went onto the temple grounds and I proceeded to give the children a mini lesson on Buddhism and the temple so as to prepare them for their cultural experience. Then, Lina took them through the temple and assisted them in the protocols which were quite relaxed and uncomplicated.
Inside the temple you first enter a hall lined with large glass cabinets where plaques with the details of deceased people are displayed. Living family members come regularly to remember their departed loved ones by performing simple rites like reciting short prayers, waving incense, and leaving flowers and food. The idea is that in their spirit state the dead still need to eat and feel remembered and cared for by the living.
The kids in front of the cabinet containing their Chinese Ancestors' names
The New Zealand-Hong Kong generation 
The living can also purchase large sacks of paper money which is taken to an on-site incinerator and burned. The idea being that the spirits also need money for a comfortable afterlife. If you are a real believer you can even buy mansions, cars, planes, jewellery and so on, all made of paper. In one shop I even saw a paper basketball, presumably for people who enjoyed that sport in their earth life. Of course, people don't normally believe the spirits really eat the food or spend the money; it's all symbolic and a demonstration that the children still love and venerate their generations gone ahead. As for all the fruit and other food left in the big hall of remembrance, after an appropriate interval the temple staff take it to the kitchens and put it to good use.
After we had done all the rituals Winnie wanted to give the kids one more cultural experience; a Buddhist lunch! Buddhism belief in reincarnation suggests you shouldn't eat meat or you may be a reincarnated ancestor. Therefore, people should not eat meat. The temple has its own kitchen and dining hall so Winnie and Lina arranged a genuine vegetarian lunch. It was quite amazing the dishes they produced. Everything was vegetable and it didn't matter at all there was no meat...didn't miss it one bit.

                              Above: The kids had their own big table. At first they weren't too
                              sure about the unfamiliar food, but after a few bites they got into it.
                               Above: Vegetarian dishes on the adult table.
                               Below: Preparing bags of paper money and gold bars to be sent
                               to the ancestors.
                              Above: Winnie's mother's memorial with her favourite purple
                              orchids. Lina visits every Saturday to renew the flowers.
Adjacent to the Buddhist temple is a huge Christian cemetery which we had a look at. It amazed the kids how typically Hong Kong it was...crowded! Also expensive. A single plot could cost as much as a three bedroom house in N.Z. Little wonder people opt for cremation here.
It was a wonderful morning spent at Pok Fu Lam and a bit of new learning for the children about another world and culture. To their credit they took it all in and really got behind it by following their Aunty Lina's lead as she lead them through the rituals.
                  Event 3: Swimming to Beat the Heat
With soaring temperatures reaching well into the thirties it became a bit of a mission to find a place for the kids to cool off. Fortunately, Kowloon Park wasn't too far away and it sported a big outdoor swimming pool. We took the kids one especially hot morning and to our amazement discovered there was hardly anyone else there. It became apparent that Hong Kong people are generally not into water activities. We pretty much had the pool to ourselves. It was a great relief from the heat for the kids and we ended up spending more days and more time there than we anticipated. Another day we caught the bus to Repulse Bay and spent the whole afternoon on a very nice beach with shade trees, shops nearby, clean toilets and changing rooms, and groomed sand all once again sparsely populated. We had the beach pretty much to ourselves.
Above: Kowloon Park swimming pool. We have the whole place to ourselves and it was the same at Repulse Bay and the water was wonderful.
Event 4: A Visit to Cheung Chau Island
Originally, I had planned to take the family to Sai Kung, a seaside town outside the city famous for its seafood restaurants and seafood shops filled with every kind of fish, shellfish, and crustacean imaginable. However, it was costly to get there and even costlier to eat, Sai Kung being a bit of a tourist trap. Instead, it was suggested we go to Cheung Chau Island, an easy MTR trip to the ferry  and then a scenic half hour boat ride to the island. It turned out to be an inspired change because we enjoyed a thoroughly good day on Cheung Chau.
Cheung Chau has kept its old China fishing village character which was so different from the hustle-bustle of the city across the harbour. There are no cars on Cheung Chau except mini-emergency vehicles (the streets being few and narrow) and motorized contraptions that looked half lawn mower and half small tractor and used for carting goods from place to place. There were bikes by the thousands parked all along the waterfront; the owners either at work in the business centre or across the harbour in the city. It was obvious that the humble bike was the main means of wheeled transport on Cheung Chau. There were even rickshaw bikes for hire so we hired one per family and had a ball pedalling around the town. 
A view of Cheung Chau. The island has kept its old fishing village charm. It felt like being in old      China.
There were many delightful eating places all over the island and I quickly found my favourite; a small café type place that was neat and clean and run by a family of young women. Winnie and I had lunch there and sampled their speciality; a chunk of ripe mango wrapped in a strip of glutinous rice cake. It was crazily simple but astonishingly delicious. I ended up eating about ten and noted how I could easily replicate them back home in N.Z.
Something's wrong with this picture! Shouldn't that Chinese guy be pedalling the rickshaw? Winnie can't ride a bike and Henry has a bad knee (so he said) so I ended up the rickshaw boy. Luckily all the streets were flat. We all hired one of these and it was a lot of fun.  
   Bikes everywhere! There are no cars on the island so bikes are the main form of locomotion.
                                                      What's a fishing village without fish?
It was a bit hard to get on the ferry at the end of the day and head back to the city, we kind of wanted to stay there another day or two.  It was all agreed; if we ever had another family trip to Hong Kong, a return visit to Cheung Chau is a must.
                                                         End of Part One 

1 comment:

  1. Great post! What a fantastic trip! Now I want to visit Hong Kong too! You are making me drool at the sound of all the lovely food you got to eat! Yum! Can't wait to read about the next part of the trip!