David’s place is at the top of six flights of stairs. Sometimes I make it up in a breeze, other times–at the end of a day, when I’m tired–I slog up like my feet are made of lead pipes. But the struggle is worth it; this is indeed a Stairway to Heaven. In Cantonese, literally so, for at the top of the climb is David’s tin toi, his “heaven platform”. That’s rooftop, to you.
Apartment hunting expats in Hong Kong, heads up! This is very important. Memorize these two characters diligently. That one on the left means sky, or heaven (and, sometimes in written Chinese, it also means “day”). The character on the right you will recognize from the previous blog post. That character is toi or platform, and you’ll find it in many Chinese word combinations–for instance, in dihn toi, radio station, and also in the phrase you hear over and over on the intercom as you step out of any MTR train. It is probably the only phrase every non-Chinese in Hong Kong can recite by heart. Cheng siu sam yuet toi hung kwik! Please mind the gap. The words yuet toi are Cantonese for “train platform.”
But as I was saying. 天台 is a pair of characters you’ll find very useful as you head out into Hong Kong’s overheated property market, in search of the perfect flat. Of course I’m assuming you intrepid apartment hunters have already figured out that the real estate shops with all-English language advertisements in the windows are rip-off joints. That if you want to find a decent and fairly-priced flat in Hong Kong, you have to head for the shops that have mostly Chinese language ads. Which means you must get familiar with Hong Kong’s realtor lingo, the Chinese character equivalent of New Yorker’s “3 rms riv vu f/p mint!”.
Some of the basics: 租–rent. And 房, room. Here’s another useful one: 裝修. “Jong sau” or “Jong” is the realtor’s way of signaling the flat’s been newly decorated. (That’s “renovated” for us Americans.) Another one I’ve seen a lot of lately is 獨立, duhk laap. Normally, the phrase means “independent”, but in real estate lingo it’s being used to describe the latest trend in flat renovation– the loft-style apartment. Traditionally, Hong Kong flats are cut up into tiny rooms, the more bedrooms the merrier. But Westerners prefer open, or “independent” spaces. So one of the sounds of my neighborhood, Soho, is the clatter of a thousand demolition teams knocking out walls.
Here in Hong Kong we like to be on top of things. Apartments on a go lau, a high floor, 高樓 are more desirable, and command a heftier price. Often the go lau apartment will have a great ging 景, or view of the sea 海 or the mountains 山. (Take those “sea” views with a grain of salt. My “sea view” is a peek at a sliver of harbor about 10 centimeters wide between two taller buildings).
And then, there’s the biggest attraction of them all, tin toi, 天台, the heaven platform. Everyone wants a rooftop in Hong Kong–some outdoor space to eat supper, barbecue, catch a breath of air and sky in Asia’s most densely populated metropolis. A tin toi will cost you. Add about 30% more to a rental price, up to 40% on a sale price. Since when did slices of heaven ever come at a discount?
Since about 2001, actually. That’s when David bought his small flat with a big roof in Soho for well under a million HKD. It’s worth about four or five times that now. David is generous with his heavenly space. He and his wife Ah-lan host the best dinner parties in Hong Kong several times a month, big Cantonese feasts that we eat sitting on plastic stools huddled together at a round glass table. It is very homey. We drink red wine from coffee cups decorated with cartoon roosters, reach enthusiastically across the table with our chopsticks to gaap sung, and we cast our discarded chicken bones on the table. In the distance, the big red “Shun Tak” sign gleams from the Macau terminal.
“I made something really, really special tonight,” David says as I settle into my rooftop stool. I can’t imagine what it could be. Most of the dishes David cooks I’ve never eaten or even seen in any restaurants; he and his wife’s dinner parties are my window to the home-style, everyday cooking of Hong Kong’s Cantonese. At David’s I’ve tried many varieties of animal and aquatic innards. I’ve sampled dried mushrooms and fruits I’ve never heard of before. It was David who introduced me to Cantonese kitchen staples like lotus root and lotus seeds, to the jars of fermented tofu that form the basis of many sauces, and to the marvelous (and medicinal) gau ji , the bright orange-red wolfberry. He helped me find and buy my traditional iron wok in an old Sheung Wan shop that looks like a film set, and then taught me how to steam a whole fish with black beans, Hong Kong style, on a plate inside that wok.
“Yes, I made something special. Rainbow is coming all the way from Kwai Chung to try it. Leung said he’d come as soon as the Legco meeting is over.”
It really must be special. Leung Kwok Hung is very busy these days, between Legco and all the fallout over the Citizen’s Radio court case, and the latest injunction. The Legco meeting will certainly run late tonight–they’re debating a motion condemning the NPC decision to “consider” suffrage in 2017. There are four amendments to the motion which will be defeated, of course, but the debate could go on into the night.
So whatever David’s up to in the kitchen, it must be something so alluring that it will draw even busy and exhausted guests up six flights of stairs without an elevator. And what is this special treat? David hesitates, looks at me for a minute, then breaks into an ear-to-ear grin:
I’m hoping David doesn’t notice that my face just froze in terror for an instant before it quickly recovered and I replied, “Sounds great!”. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten used to eating a lot of strange–for me, anyway–Cantonese foodstuffs. And I’ve found I like quite a lot of it. Intestines, stomach linings, cow tendons, the feet of ducks and geese…bring it on. But there are some cultural lines that even a culture vulture like me hesitates to cross.
“You never see pigs lungs in restaurants any more,” David explains. “You can’t even get jyu fai in Central market. I had to go out to Sai Ying Poon to find this. It cost $6.
A pound? I ask.
“No. Six dollars for the whole lung. That’s why they don’t get sold in market. There’s no profit, really. Anyway, then I had to spend an hour cleaning it. It’s really tough work to clean pigs lung.”
David’s wife chimes in: “Because there’s so much
There’s a big pressure cooker atop David’s stove. Lung, like tripe and tendon, needs to be cooked slowly for a long time to tenderize before you can eat it.
And, in the process, it makes a really strong-flavored broth, which everyone at the table seems to savor more than the actual pig lung itself. Ah Lan ladles out rice bowls to everyone as they arrive. I take a gulp–it is brown and opaque and tastes like dried herbs, musky and sweet, kind of like the bowls of Chinese medicine you buy from streetcorner vendors.
“It’s really good for your lungs,” David laughs. I can’t tell if he’s joking. Ah Lan, as usual, is doing a critique of her own cooking. She says, “I think it is too sweet. It should be more balanced. Yauh tim, yauh fu, yauh haam.” Sweet, bitter, salty.
Long Hair arrives around 11pm. Someone asks him about his court case. Ah Lan, who is a lawyer, says that Douglas Lau, the district court magistrate who handed down the decision dismissing the charges against Long Hair and the pirate radio organization, did an extraordinarily brave thing. “He is a nice guy, only around 40. He has put his career in jeopardy because of this decision. He may never get promoted again.
“It was a very courageous thing,” Long Hair agrees. Even though he’s come very late, we’ve saved him a bit of the pig’s lung, little greyish-brown bladders of tender tissue buried in a mountain of cooked watercress. He gulps down his soup. “I’m very tired. I shouldn’t have come. Tomorrow I must get up very early because I’m walking for democracy with some other Legco members, from Fortress Hill to Sham Sui Po.”
“But this is good. Good friends, good food. Pig lung.”
I’m suddenly overwhelmed with feelings, a jumble of emotions as confusing as the flavors of this sweet-bitter-salty soup. Long Hair is right–life is wonderful on the platform of heaven–and yet everything feels as fragile as air. We are eating pressure-cooker boiled envelopes of air, sitting up here in the Hong Kong sky on a marvelous rooftop that may be history in six months time. David’s building recently got an offer from some big developer who wants to demolish this property. It’s the Soho juggernaut, you can’t fight it. The neighbors are negotiating a sellout. Meanwhile, Long Hair plans to defy the latest high court injunction that prohibits Citizen’s Radio from broadcasting. So he’ll soon be in contempt of court, And then, maybe, in jail.
This is Hong Kong. Everything here is impermanent, everything changes. Even on the platform of heaven, you can wake up one morning and find your happy world wrapped in green plastic sheets and bamboo scaffolding. Up on the tin toi, I take a deep breath, and one more gulp of sweet-bitter-salty for the road.