All posts by dm

Gold Medal Noodles

The Last Emperor of Flushing, his wife Wendy, my friend Karrie and I paid a visit to the Culinary Palace of the Ancient Kingdom of Queens–aka the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing– last night. I’d been reading about this amazing basement food court packed with regional Chinese snack vendors on foodie websites like for months, but general torpor and malaise (more about that later), and my utter surety that There Is No Chinese Food In New York That Can Compare With Hong Kong’s kept me from taking the long subway ride out to the further reaches of New York’s borders.

But a few weeks ago the New York Times food page featured a full page article on Flushing’s Chinese food–basically a watered down summary of the Chowhound bloggers’ reports for a mass audience. Uh oh, I thought. Better get out there before it all disappears.

The Emperor kindly offered to whisk us to the Motherland in his royal Toyota chariot, thus sparing us an endless ride on the number 7 train. Flushing was rainy and cold when we arrived, but we found a parking spot close to Main Street right away, which the Empress proclaimed a good omen.

I’ll spare you too many details of our amazing meal, and anyway you can find the food kiosks and their various offerings obsessively documented on the Chowhound site, which even features a Rosetta Stone–a laborious line by line translation of many of the vendors’ hand-written Chinese character menus.

We split our dinner between two vendors–the guy from Xian who calls himself after his signature dish, “Cold Skin” 皮–a fresh, chilly salad of hand-cut wheat gluten and wheat noodles tossed in a vinegar/hot pepper oil dressing and spiked with chives and cilantro. Mr. Skin speaks a fair amount of Cantonese (he kept dancing over to our folding table and saying “Hou meih doh!”) in addition to Mandarin and English. No fool, this guy–he had the NY Times article pasted on a post by his open kitchen stall, and kept egging us to order more dishes.

Everything was absolutely stunning. The lai mihn noodles which the ladies were pulling and cutting right in front of us, perfectly al dente, topped with yummy, cumin-scented lamb. We shared yummy mini-pita bread round sandwiches, stuffed with the same cuminy lamb–“Just the thing to pack for lunch on your Silk Road trip,” Karrie proclaimed. Cold Skin urged the Emperor to order yeung gwat, and shortly a huge heap of braised lamb ribs, muttony goodness clinging to the bones, arrived at the table. Indeed, hou meih dou.

We ate and ate, then got up, wandered around the tiny crowded, fluorescent-lit basement warren with electrical wires loose overhead ( better get here soon, before the NYC building inspectors do!), and ate some more. The tip on the Xian guy had come from the Chowhound chronicles, but this time we just followed our stomachs, and our hearts, to a small stall where a broad-faced woman in an apron was rolling out dumpling wrappers by the dozen at a little table. The sign at the stall was hand lettered, in rather nice brush calligraphy, “seui gao”. The calligraphy, coupled with the no-nonsense description, and the amazingly dexterous flour-dusted hands of the dumpling lady, called out to me. “Let’s try this place,” I said.

The dumplings arrived, all twelve of them ($3!!) steaming and cute as babies. I noticed a steam table with veggie dishes, and ordered a plate of slivered cold potato salad as accompaniment. The owner, a guy in a baseball cap, came over to chat in Cantonese and English. He is from Tianjin, and the dumpling lady is from Qingdao, same as the beer. The basement of the Golden Mall in Flushing is like a Chinese national food convention.

Or, more to the point, like the Wang Fu Jing food street in Beijing, where migrant workers from all over the country have set up stalls featuring the culinary specialties of their region. I’ve been to Wang Fu Jing. Trust me, this little basement in Flushing is just as good. It may even be better (The general quality of foodstuffs like pork and cooking oil is probably better in New York than in Beijing). What’s more–and this is the most shocking thing to me–there is no place in Hong Kong where you can go and eat mainland Chinese street food as good as this.*

I suppose it makes sense, when you think about it. Hong Kong’s immigration policy is tight, particularly towards its northern neighbors, and as a mainlander you’ll have a hard time getting in and staying there long enough to do something like open up a hand-cut noodle stall. And, even if you do, the paucity of mainland migrants from central and north China (and the general un-adventurousness of the average Cantonese palate) means your business will have trouble finding a clientele.

But Flushing is awash in mainland Chinese from Hunan, Wenzhou, Fujian, Chengdu. (The Last Emperor laughs wryly at this turn of events–when he grew up here, he and his Toisanese family were the only Chinese among thousands of Italians and Jews.)

Immigration. Freedom of movement. America, it is true, has a blemished history when it comes to giving foreigners, particularly Asians, the big “fun ying” 歡迎, or welcome.  But on the balance, the door has been fairly open, especially since the 1960s, and all you have to do is look at the demographics to see it–by the middle of this century, the U.S. will be a nation of minorities.

And that, more than anything, is this country’s greatest strength. (Immigrants also are the strength of our even more open-door and fun-ying ge neighbor Canada). Which brings me to the Olympics.

I’m not particularly interested in fighting battles over who’s winning medal counts on Yahoo or Baidu, or squabbling about underage gymnasts, or whether a Disney-perfect kid is prettier and more charming than a sweet, chubby-cheeked little girl with crooked teeth. (Okay, I’m not being completely honest–speaking as a ex-chubby-cheeked 7 year old with an overbite and a dream to be a singer, I wanted to shut my bedroom door and cry into my pillow when I read about Yang Peiyi. Who, by the way, I think is much cuter than her picture perfect “ringer”, and I don’t think I’m alone in my opinion).

But when I look at this media-fueled uber-nationalistic Battle For World Supremacy and Gold Medals what I notice is this. On one hand you have a country intent on muffling its national minorities, making Tibetans, and Uighurs vanish into the mythical homogeneity of a Great Motherland, and throwing near impossible hurdles in the path of a non-ethnically Chinese immigrant to become a citizen. (Not to mention all the new visa application hoops put into place since last April). On the other hand, you have U.S. Olympic teams where the best athletes include teenagers named Nastia and Raj and Sasha, and whose coaches come from Rumania and, yes, even from Beijing.

This is the season of gold. China’s Politburo dreams of a gold medal coup for its hardworking, super-humanly dedicated athletes, and of re-establishing the golden era of empire. Meanwhile, in the far reaches of New York City, in a golden mall named Wong Gam, immigrants from the four corners of mainland China have their eyes on a different prize. I’ll take another bowl, please, of those Gold Medal Noodles.

*Footnote–yes, it is true you can get very, very good northern-style dumplings in Hong Kong at Wang Fu on Wellington Street. But the dumplings I had last night i
n Flushing at the “Seui Gao” stand were fresher and better. And while I am recommending New York restaurants, I must shout out another surprising find, the Fukienese “Everett” restaurant on 8th Avenue and 56th street in Sunset Park’s Chinatown, where I ate an eel soup every bit as delicious as any such dish I’ve sampled in Hong Kong. Unexpectedly, as I head back to the Big Lychee just in time to watch the LEGCO elections, I’m overcome with culinary loss and regret…

Penang: At the Cathay Hotel

Room 8, Cathay Hotel, Penang, Malaysia, February 10, 2008 4pm

There was no question: I couldn’t leave Penang without spending at least one night at the Cathay Hotel. But it was completely booked. I begged, shamelessly. I showed up twice a day to chat up one or another of the elderly Chinese men who manned the marvelous, Art Deco front desk with its vintage square 1950s clock above. I even pulled out my secret weapon: I chatted them all up in Cantonese.

Yauh mouh fong ah? Ting yaht yauh mouh gei wuih a?

Mr. David Chan, a wiry fellow missing all but two of his top teeth, shook his head. “Mun jo ah!” Full up. Chinese New Year, la!”

Mr. Michael Wong was more sympathetic. He cracked open the Cathay’s heavy, dusty black leather ledger to a page scrawled with numerous names and obscure notations pencilled in and scratched out. “Maybe Sunday, lah. Waiting list, put your name here.”

The column of hopefuls already had four or five names on it. I recognized one of them: the dour retired Scandinavian engineer who’d been my seatmate for 24 hours on the train down from Bangkok. No way was I going to let him keep me out of a room at this inn. I angled harder.

“Wah! Wong sin saang. Gam do yahn ah! So many people already. Mr. Wong, what can I do?”

He looked pained, in the way that many Chinese in business do when you ask them to deliver something that they can’t. I’m familiar with this expression, and I suddenly felt bad about pushing my case too hard. Mr. Wong was doing me a solid, really, just by opening up the book.

A moment or two passed uncomfortably, silently. I could hear nothing but the sound of the sweeper stroking his old-fashioned Chinese straw broom across the dingy tile floor. Mr. Wong was lost in thought; his eyes didn’t make contact with mine. Then, to my surprise, he looked straight at me and smiled. “Okay you come, okay, come on Sunday. Give me fifty ringgit deposit now.”

Reaching into a desk drawer, he pulled out a yellowed, crumbling paper pad that appeared to have been salvaged from an attic sale, and wrote me out a receipt.

I folded it carefully and tucked it into my wallet for safekeeping. It was my ticket to paradise.

You’re probably wondering by this point what all the fuss is about. Or, to frame it in the preferred lingo of the travel section of a famous American newspaper:

Why Does Everyone Want to Stay at the Cathay Hotel?

Since it was busy season, Chinese New Year, I had arranged a place to stay before arriving in Penang: what we travel writers would call a “decent mid-ranged hotel for the business traveler.” It had a comfy bed, a nice view of Penang’s harbour, reliable a/c and hot water, it even came with a free breakfast. And it was totally, utterly devoid of personality.

The Cathay Hotel has saggy beds covered with brown China-made fleece blankets printed with flowers and the slogan “Happy. Forever. Wishes.” Water, sometimes verging on lukewarm, sputters from an overhead shower fixture, then drips into the rust-stained tub for hours afterwards. Guests are issued two striped dishtowels, each the thickness of a paper napkin.

Breakfast? At the Cathay, you’re on your own.

In nearly every measure of traveler comfort, my “decent mid-ranged hotel” ran rings around the hotel I lusted after. Except for that most elusive, yet most important measure of a hotel’s allure: character. The Cathay Hotel has six stars worth of it.

The Cathay Hotel is what I’d call a “magnificent pile”. I’ve stayed in other piles, around the world: The Olaffson Hotel in Port au Prince, Haiti. The Broadlands Hotel, in Chennai, the Z Hotel in Puri, India. The Royal Hotel in Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji (the oldest continuously operating hotel in the South Pacific!). Hotels that were once the homes of maharajas, wealthy opium traders, Presidents-for-life. And that now slumber in quirky decline. They’re an endangered species, and you’re lucky when you find one before it’s torn down to make room for a shopping mall, or “restored” into boutique-y sameness.

There’s nothing same about the Cathay Hotel. Not even the rate! The first day I arrived, it was 110 ringgits. The second and third day, it dropped to 75. If I’d stayed longer, maybe they’d eventually end up paying me to stay here.

But, after one last snapshot and a “Joi Gin” to Mr. Wong, I had to move on.

Malacca beckoned. And then I had to rush back to Hong Kong for my meeting with Michael Zhang, Translator of Many of Your Articles.

In Bangkok: A Perfect Meal at the Source of Fortune

Yuen Lei Restaurant, Bangkok, 6:34 pm, February 4, 2008

One of the terrific unexpected benefits of learning Cantonese is how it lets you see the rest of the world with a Chinese eye.  Gwong Dung Wah is like a magic wand that opens a door to Chinese communities wherever I go.

The other night I was in Bangkok. I had walked a long way trying to find a travel agent’s office at an address near Lumpini Park. After I finished the errand, I went back out on the street, feeling hot and sweaty, and not even particularly hungry. But my eye caught some signs written in Chinese characters. When I travel, any sign with Chinese words on it calls to me like home, especially in a place where most of the signs are written in a language that I don’t have a clue about (namely, Thai).

The Chinese characters they use in Thailand are strange, though. Have you ever noticed this? I can just about read them. They have an odd, broken brushstroke style, as if they’ve been written by someone who barely remembers how to write Chinese:

It’s a kind of Chinese calligraphy I only see in Bangkok. Maybe it has something to do with the nature of the Chinese community there. Most of them are from Chiu Chow (in Thailand they say “Teo Chow”), and most of the families came down to Thailand a long time ago, trading in birds nest, and other expensive dried seafood. The lingua franca of the community now is mainly Thai. Chinese here have Thai, not Chinese names.

As assimilated as they have become, the Chinese community in Thailand is nevertheless distinct from the Thai. Everyone, Thai and Chinese, knows who is who. For instance, all of Thailand knows that Thaksin Shinawatra, ex-Thai Prime Minister turned Hong Kong resident and power broker in exile, is Chiu Chow Chinese.  

Anyway, I was looking at these broken brushstrokes, and trying to figure out what the third character from the left was supposed to be, when my eye wandered off across the street to another Chinese sign that I did know how to read:

Yuen Lei Daai Fan Dihm

The Source of Fortune Restaurant.

What grabbed me was not the name but the look of the place. It wasn’t exactly a building, but an open corner lot partially covered with plastic and iron sheeting. In front was a streetside kitchen surrounded by pots filled with fresh green leafy vegetables, glass containers with pieces of tofu, sliced Chinese sausages and pigeon eggs. Roast ducks hung from a pole. I recognized that the eggs and the tofu had been prepared in the lo seui braising style typical of the Chiu Chow cooking I have sampled in Sheung Wan and Wan Chai, in Hong Kong.

I walked over to take a closer look. If I were Wong Kar Wai, I would have made an urgent call to my cinematographer on the spot. Inside the place had, well, patina. It looked as if it had not been painted, scrubbed, or otherwise improved since 1967. Just on the basis of the decor– industrial steel tables, acid-green molded plastic chairs, ancient ceiling fans–I would have eaten there.

Well, that’s not entirely true. If it had not smelled fabulous, I wouldn’t have done what I did without thinking: walk into the middle of the Source of Fortune and sit down by myself at a big round metal table.

That smell. There’s nothing like it anywhere in Hong Kong. Sure, Hong Kong has a lot of Chui Chow Chinese restaurants, but the Chiu Chow food of Thailand has morphed into something different, as odd looking as that calligraphy. The Chiu Chow have become a little bit Thai in their tastes. They have developed a liking for strong, intense flavors, they use the pungent green herbs of the Thai countryside. I suppose you could call this cooking Thai-Chiu Chow fusion food.

Seconds after I seated myself, a scary-looking middle-aged Chinese woman with a blob of fuschia lipstick, pencilled eyebrows and a butch cropped haircut came over and slapped a plastic menu down on my table. It was tri-lingual, in Thai, Chinese, and English, and it also had some helpful pictures.

The worst thing about eating alone in a Chinese restaurant where everything looks and smells great is that you can’t order all over the menu, like you would if you were with a group of friends. I ordered a beer and pondered. Then I gathered my courage and asked the scary waitress for some help. She didn’t speak any Chinese, but she had a few words of English.

“You want vegetable? Come, look.” I chose a tender, bright green bunch of morning glory shoots, and then I pointed to some fat prawns swimming in the tank.

The choi arrived first, stir fried to perfection.

Hidden in there with the morning glory stalks were fat cloves of Thai garlic that had been fried brown, and some of those little almond-like seeds that my friend David puts in with his pig’s lung dish. But this vegetable stir fry didn’t smell or taste like a Hong Kong stir fry. The sauce was stronger, a bit sweet. I ate with chopsticks, and ate with gusto. When I stopped for a moment and looked up, I noticed that all the help had come out of the kitchen and were standing in a line by the doorway, watching my reaction to every bite.

Soon, part two of my order arrived: Prawns with Bean Thread Noodles (called here, woon sen):

The cook served this dish to me himself, bringing it covered to the table. With a flourish, he opened the claypot top so that the steam released at once, in a whooooosh!. My god. The aroma of the green chinese celery was intense, concentrated, like a curative herb. The whole dish–noodles and meaty prawns–was infused with it.

“My mother is Thai and father Chinese,” said the waitress when I asked her about her background. But, where in China did she and the restaurant owners come from? “Over there,” she answered, pointing towards the kitchen. Oh, I said, Chiu Chow? Guangdong?”

“No, no” she shook her head. “Over there. Chinatown.”

Memory fades, but delicious food is forever.

Yuen Lei Daai Fan Dim is near the corner where Thanon Lang Suan meets Lumpini Park. The location surely has excellent fung seui. In a city where things get torn down and rebuilt almost as fast as in Hong Kong, this restaurant has occupied this corner for more than thirty years. Hopefully it will still be there the next time I pass through Bangkok in search of a source for amazing Chinese fusion food.

Brushstrokes of Spring

It’s cold. Hou dung ah! I can’t remember it ever being this cold in Hong Kong in winter. Dung in the damp streets of Sheung Wan. Dung in the wind-whipped corridors of Tsim Sha Tsui. Very, very, fei seung dung in the New Territories.

Ah Go is cracking me up. He’s become my SMS comrade in shared dung suffering. At midnight, my mobile phone bleeps unexpectedly. “Freezing Cold, take care, Ah Go.” The next morning, at 11, another bleep: “Freezing cold. Did U fix Ur Heater? Take care, Ah Go.” By that afternoon, he’s down to a shorthand: “
F.C. Have to go to Fanling, shit, Ah Go.”

Yeah, okay, I know the people on the mainland are up to their katucchas in snow. But do they live in buildings with five inch exterior porous concrete walls and zero insulation, apartments equipped with nothing but air conditioners? I tear myself away from the bosom of my newest best friend, my sputtering, probably fire-hazardous, $200 HKD-on-special-at-Watson’s-drugstore electric space heater and brace myself for the outdoors.Mrs. Wong is on duty as usual in the lobby of Prosperous View Court, bundled up in a puffy powder-blue down jacket that I’ve never seen her wearing before. Hoooooooooou dung! my doorlady greets me, stomping her feet and doing a little shiver dance for me as she opens the door.

Now it’s official. In Hong Kong this week, “Hou dung” (It’s cold!) has replaced “Sihk jo faan mei ah?” (Have you eaten yet?) as the universal polite Cantonese language greeting.

Mrs. Wong has been in a cheerful mood lately. She always is around Chinese New Years time. Last week I came out of the elevator and found her up on a ladder, arranging the final touches of red tinsel on the dusty florescent light ceiling fixture.

She loves doing the New Year’s lobby decorations. Every year is different. This year, she’s transformed our environment into a Chinese New Year of the Rat/Mouse Disneyland Wonderland Extravaganza! Lucky fai cheun, in red and gold, cover every wall, and our doorway is a fung seui nuclear power plant of fortunate energy. “Cheut Yahp Ping On!”, shouted Mrs. Wong, pointing to the fai cheun over the top of the door. It’s the most common New Year’s fai cheun couplet. For those of you who don’t read Chinese, the characters mean: In, Out, Normal, Peaceful. You better believe nothing bad is going to get through the door of Prosperous View Court this year! If Mrs. Wong doesn’t bite your head off, Lo Syu Mai Keih, Mickey Mouse surely will.

This is where I have to make a horrible confession. I’m not a big fan of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. Before I came here, I always imagined it would  be a lively, fun time of great excitement and interest. Then I got here and found out that Chinese New Year is when all your favorite restaurants close for a week, the streets go dark for three days, and all your Hong Kong friends vanish into the bosom of their various family obligations. If you aren’t part of a big Chinese family, then you are as lost and adrift at this time of year as a Jewish person in New York at Christmas. (Except that my Jewish friends in New York, at least, can go out for Chinese food on December 25th!)

Then there’s the general mood. Just like Americans at Christmastime, Hong Kongers are caught up in an intricate and often stressful web of obligations, face, customs, and money. This angst has a tangible, visible form:

Yes, the deadly lai see. The myth of lai see is that it is a happy, Santa Claus-like manner of delivering holiday presents to delighted children. While that is certainly part of the story, I have discovered that the lai see is also a ritual fraught with delicate family politics and financial strain. Who gives what to whom, and how much? Two of my Hong Kong friends have actually kept their marriage a secret from their family for the last five years, so they won’t have to become entangled in the family’s lai see web every New Years (singles are exempt from the giving obligations.)

That’s extreme, and unusual behavior. Most Hong Kongers who want to escape the New Year’s obligations take an easier way out. That whoooooosh! that you just heard is the sound of hundreds of fully loaded jets headed for Phuket, Kota Kinabalu, Tokyo–anywhere but here.

And I, too, will be on one of those jets soon.

But that’s okay, because the part of Chinese New Year that I enjoy is the anticipatory build-up, the two weeks before the actual holiday. Flower shops set out sidewalk displays of gorgeous peach blossom branches, and fat bushes studded with Mandarin oranges. The shopping malls and buildings decorate their public spaces splendiforously, with lanterns as huge as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons. Suddenly the air is filled with endless loops of Cantonese opera Muzak everywhere you go–lobbies, building elevators, supermarkets. Yesterday in Park and Shop, I found myself doing a little scarf dance in the dairy aisle.

And, like Mrs. Wong, I love the fai cheun.

Some of you are probably wondering: what are these fai cheun? They are the vertical Chinese paper scrolls, usually red, occasionally gold, that Chinese put up on their doors and walls at this time of year. The Chinese characters “fai cheun” literally mean “brushstroke of spring”. But it’s usually translated as “Spring Couplets.” Written on each fai cheun is a four-character poetic message–a wish for good luck, good health, prosperity, etc.

Nowadays, most fai cheun are mass produced printed affairs, and the poetic phrases are stock ones like Mrs. Wong’s favorite “Cheut yahp ping on”–Come in, come out peacefully. But in olden times, fai cheun were handmade affairs, and the couplets were composed for the occasion by the calligrapher writing the fai cheun, often spontaneously.

In Hong Kong, the making of fai cheun has drifted into the world of politics. I’m not sure how or when this tradition of scholars and artists got turned over to the politicians. What I do know is that, in the weeks before Chinese New Year, all the major Hong Kong political parties send their best known leaders and legislators out into the street with brushes and black ink to make fai chuen for the public. Imagine if politicians in the U.S., in addition to their baby-kissing and rubber chicken-eating obligations, had to be judged, like their Hong Kong counterparts, on their handwriting and poetry-composing skills!

I’ve heard whispers that some Hong Kong politicians actually take calligraphy lessons in the weeks before New Year’s, so their fai cheun won’t look clumsy and embarrass them. (From the textbook-perfect form that DAB chairman emeritus Tsang Yok-sing is using to hold his bat, I’d guess he’d recently gone in for some, um, brush-ups.) For there is a high bar set in the political fai cheun stakes. Hong Kong’s most famous pro-Democrat and most venerable elder statesman also happens to be a master calligrapher: Mr. Szeto Wah:

Last Sunday I was wandering around Causeway Bay and ran into Wah Suk–Mr. Szeto is 77 years old and everybody in Hong Kong calls him “Uncle”–sitting at his folding table. I asked him to make me a fai cheun. He looked me in the eye for a moment, as if sizing me up, then asked me my profession, and my Chinese character name. Then, huddling over two blank red papers, he dipped his pen into a saucer of jet black ink, and wrote quickly, with careful strokes:

I couldn’t read the whole thing right there and then–I had never seen the third character from the top, on the right, before. So it was only after I returned to the comforts of my home and my dictionary that I realized what clever and masterful strokes Uncle Szeto had performed. In just a moment or two, he had written a lucky Spring Couplet that riffs and quotes and puns, like a jazz piece, around the two characters of my Chinese name, Lan Yan (which means–ugh!–Graceful Orchid, for those of you who haven’t already read about how I got the name.)

Lan saam sau hau/Yan chung ching luhng

The character I didn’t know is “sau“, to embroider or knit. It’s the key to Mr. Szeto’s clever pun. The first two characters in the couplet, “Lan Saam” mean “Orchid and Heart”. But when you say them aloud in Cantonese, they sound like laan saam–sweater.

A perfect pun for a freezing Hong Kong day.

Here’s my stab at a somewhat poetic translation (Attention Kempton, Alice, armegag, Siu82, joyce, Roland and all you other native Cantonese speakers! Please feel free to tell me if I’m even close!):

“The flower in heart embroiders (her) language/With serious grace and abundant affection.”

Szeto Wah’s handmade fai cheun does exactly what a Chinese New Year’s fai cheun is supposed to do: put a little spring cheer into a heart that’s survived the winter’s cold. I can’t think of a sweeter note on which to enter the Year of the Rat.

Well, actually, I can. (Consider this next bit to be like the cool snippets that run over the credits of a Jackie Chan movie).

Cut to Wan Chai. I’m shivering down Johnston Road at rush hour, weaving through the crowd. On the corner of one of the market street lanes, I see a guy pushing a steaming cart, loaded to the gills with hot roasted chestnuts. For a moment I think about buying some, they smell so good, but he’s passing so quickly, it’s too crowded to get to my wallet, I don’t have any small change…

Then, abruptly, one of the old lady market vendors whips out her arm and steals a fistful of hot chestnuts on the sly.

I can’t help laughing. It’s like she read my mind. And I feel naughty, like making trouble, so I laugh at her and say, in Cantonese, “You stole it, ah!”

She looks up at me from inside of the ratty scarf she has wound around and around her head like a turban, and she’s laughing like hell.

Hou dung ah! Hou dung!

And then, so fast that I don’t even have a second to register surprise, she grabs my hand, opens it, and presses it full of hot chestnuts.

Yit di la! Now you’re warmer, see!

She sends me on my way, with a hand full of Hong Kong’s heart.


By the way, if you’re in Hong Kong, you can find Szeto Wah out on the street writing fai cheun for the public during the next few evenings at the big Flower Market festival at Victoria Park in Causeway bay. Chinese readers (that is, people who can read Chinese) can consult Wah Suk’s complete schedule here.

Gung hei faat choi! to all of my “Learning Cantonese” duhk je. And do jeh–this is a do jeh situation for sureto everyone, for your kind comments and enthusiastic support in this last blogging year.

Twin Ducks in a Teacup

I just published an article in praise of the cha chaan teng and my favorite Hong Kong beverage, yun yeung coffee-tea.

Eating In Hong Kong: the Cha Chaan Teng

by Daisann McLane

Twin Ducks in a Teacup: Hong Kong’s yun yeung coffee-tea

The Eskimos, so they say, have 12 different words for snow. Well, in Hong Kong, we have a dozen or more ways to say: Eat Here!

The variety of Cantonese words that mean “place to eat” is pretty amazing. Jau ga, jau lau, sihk sat, mihn sik, chaan teng, cha chaan teng.
Years ago, when I was studying Cantonese in New York’s Chinatown, I
remember how bewildered I was by it all. “But Mr. Wen,” I would ask my
septuagenarian teacher from Canton, “The lesson book says that a jau ga is a restaurant. But then it says jau lau also means restaurant?

“Yes, same,” Mr. Wen sighed patiently.

So, then, what about the chaan teng, I’d ask him. And the mihn sihk and mihn ga–are these restaurants, too?

“Yes,” he would nod, “Also restaurants.”

By this point, feeling like the dimmest student on the planet, I’d
stop with the questions. For years, I believed that the Cantonese
language had numerous ways to say “restaurant”, all of them more or
less interchangable.

Then I moved to Hong Kong.

Where I discovered that Hong Kong has as many different types of eateries as there are Cantonese words to describe them. …….

Read the full article on the International Herald Tribune’s website.

Rule of Law or Rule by Law-Part 2

On Sunday, the day before Justice Hartmann delivered his decision on the civil injunction, I rode the MTR out to Chai Wan, to visit the offices of Citizen’s Radio. They’d called a press conference, and Long Hair and Tsang Kin Sheng “The Bull” were going to be there. Chai Wan is one of those working class Hong Kong districts that no tourists ever visit. Probably, at one time, Chai Wan was stunning: it is encircled by steeply rising green hills, and it faces the sea, the channel that leads into Victoria Harbour. But in the 1960s, it got “renewed” into a dreary, porcupine cluster of tightly-spaced housing estate high rises, and block-like factory buildings that cast long cold shadows over the narrow streets on a sunny day.

To get there, you ride the Island subway line all the way to the eastern end of Hong Kong island. “Chai Wan is where you jump off Hong Kong,” Long Hair chuckles. He grew up here before the urban renewal, when Chai Wan was a settlement of squatters, mostly Chinese from Guangdong and Fukien who’d fled the poverty and political chaos on the mainland. “I lived up there on the side of that mountain,” says Leung, pointing in the direction of a concrete jungle where laundry droops from every window.

I wasn’t expecting Citizen’s Radio to have a snappy headquarters, but still I was surprised when I got there. The broadcasting company that’s giving the HKSAR government migraine headaches operates out of a 150 square foot space in a humongous old warehouse building that rents work spaces to small manufacturers. There’s no window, and half the cubicle is occupied by The Bull’s silk-screening equipment (he’s also an artist). The makeshift broadcast booth in the back looks like it was carved from the original bathroom (the toilet is right alongside–it’s a good thing that Citizen’s Radio’s broadcasts are only 1 hour long).

I’m late, and the press conference has already started. Cameras from Hong Kong’s four major news stations, plus about 8 more local journalists have somehow managed to position themselves in this tin can of an office. I don’t really enjoy squeezing into a Hong Kong press scrum (once I got bongged on the head by a video camera), so I wait outside in the hall.

Let’s suppose you live in Hong Kong, and you want to start a radio station. According to the law, the first thing you must do is submit a proposal to the Office of Telecommunications and Broadcasting Authority, the department of the HK government that oversees radio licensing. Your proposal goes to a three-man panel for review. There’s no specified time limit for the review, and the reviews are completely at the discretion of the panel, there are no written guidelines. When the panel has come to a decision, they pass it along to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. No matter what the panel recommends, the CE has the final word: if he likes the proposal,  he can give it the go-ahead. And vice versa, of course. One man, and one man alone has complete control of Hong Kong’s radio spectrum.

Hong Kong, a city of nearly 8 million people, has fifteen or sixteen newspapers, but only three radio stations.

Radio is an incredibly popular medium in Hong Kong. The radio talk show is a natural format for Cantonese speakers, with a language so rich in puns and slang and four-word aphorisms. Every taxi in town is tuned to talk radio; the typical soundtrack of small offices and waiting rooms and shops is the laughter and chatter of roundtable talk-show discussions. And the radio talk has always had a political edge–nothing makes for better chat than the affairs of the day. Three of Hong Kong’s most popular radio talk hosts have been thrown off the air, and everyone in town knows it was because their tycoon bosses got nervous about their pro-democracy, anti-government chatter. Two of the hosts, Wong yuk-man and Albert Chang, have since become politicians. (The third, Allan Lee, has retired, but he’s a member of the National People’s Congress).

In New York City, where I grew up in the 60s and 70s, you can tune into a dozen small and college community radio stations. Some broadcast in Yiddish or Chinese, or Hindi, others play jazz and indy rock and other music that the big corporate stations won’t play. I can tell you that I’d have grown up a very different person if it hadn’t been for the free community radio that I listened to as a kid. Low-power college stations like WFMU, and indy political stations like Pacifica Radio’s WBAI introduced me to everything from Bob Dylan to Susan Sontag, to anti-war politics. I’d lie awake after midnight with the antenna wire draped across my bedroom to catch the precious, but weak signals: echoes of other points of view, other worlds.

How would such a transformative power affect people in a radio-loving town like Hong Kong? I think that both the cultural and political impact of a more open broadcasting policy would be tremendous, the possibilities endless. Hong Kong’s language minorities, speaking Chiu Chow, Hakka, Mandarin and Fukienese could have their own voices. Local musicians, writers and theater people dying for exposure would have a stage, essayists and intellectuals too “hot” or edgy for mainstream radio could have a space. And, of course, there are all the social and political groups that would jump at the chance for a platform. I’m sure Apple Daily’s pro-democracy publisher-tycoon Jimmy Lai would be on the air in a nanosecond with “Apple Radio”.

But, according to Hong Kong law, anybody who wants to broadcast on the public airwaves has to pass through a gate that can only be opened by a single man.

Who has absolutely no intention of opening it for the people he considers his “opposition.”

So what do you do?

Well, in the U.S. and Europe, you could try to change these draconian broadcasting laws by proposing new legislation in Congress or Parliament. Since many of the people supporting Citizen’s Radio are also elected members of Hong Kong’s Legco, why not propose a new bill?

M’ dak! No can do. Hong Kong’s legislature can only approve or disapprove bills that are sent to them by the executive branch. All the “bills” proposed in Legco by its members are, in fact, non-binding motions. If you are in Legco and want to check and balance the enormous executive powers of the Hong Kong government, the only two words you have in your vocabulary are “Please” and “No.”

But there’s still one more possibility. Hong Kong’s judiciary, its common law courts, are the city’s last bastion of independence. The courts can–and sometimes have– declared a law unconstitutional. If you can get your battle into the courts–and use the battle to leverage your way into that other important Hong Kong faat teng, the court of public opinion–you stand a small chance of pushing through a change.

And that, in a nutshell, explains the closet-sized office, the dime-store transmitter, the rag-tag, once-in-a-while schedule of Citizen’s Radio. This isn’t a company whose primary goal is to broadcast.

From the hallway, I can hear “The Bull”, Tsang kin-sheng, reading his press statement. Citizen’s Radio has decided to stop broadcasting for three months. But if the Chief Executive does not, in this time, propose new legislation to open up the airwaves to the Hong Kong public, they’ll resume their civil disobedience and go back on the air.

In the topsy turvy Alice-in-Wonderland system of today’s Hong Kong, the only way to change an unfair law is to break it.

Rule of Law or Rule by Law–Part 1

Justice Michael Hartmann’s decision yesterday (full text here) to deny the Hong Kong justice department’s request for an extension of the civil injunction banning Citizens Radio from the airwaves wasn’t a huge surprise. At least not for anybody who sat through all 7 and a half hours of arguments in High Court last Friday. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been following the ups and downs of Hong Kong’s radio activists for more than 2 years. So of course I sat there absorbing every delicious minute.
I really must thank Long Hair for introducing me to the Hong Kong arena that is more riveting than Cantonese opera or even Legco: the faat teng. Literally, the hall of law. Courtroom.

(The press scrum gathers outside the court awaiting Long Hair’s exit–photogs aren’t allowed inside. )

(On the High Court steps, Long Hair meets the press)

Whenever Leung Kwok Hung goes to court–and that’s pretty often, because the judicial challenge is one of the activist’s favorite weapons in the fight for a democratic Hong Kong–I always try to catch some of the action in person. (Once I even took my mother to watch him argue a case in High Court. We shared seats in the spectator’s box with a handful of mainland Chinese visitors. Hong Kong’s British-style courts, with their be-wigged barristers and exotic Rule of Law are, no surprise, a hugely popular stop on the Chinese tourist trail.)

My mother, an American of English parents, was tickled by Hong Kong’s old-school robe and wig scene, and by the courtly etiquette of the barristers who refer to their opponents, in their speeches, as “My Learned Friend…” I admit to being tickled too–and occasionally much more than that. Well do I remember the first time I observed Hong Kong’s most senior barrister, human rights and pro-democracy activist Martin Lee, arguing a human rights case in the Court of Final Appeal (HK’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court). While watching the septuagenarian Lee, his head topped with a yellowed horsehair pigtail wig and his fine black silk robe flapping like bat wings as he gestured, I suddenly found myself transported in a flash to the earliest days of the American republic. There, standing before me, what a heart-stopping apparition–James Madison and Thomas Jefferson reincarnated as Cantonese, debating the finer points of the Bill of Rights!  (Last Friday’s proceedings found the judge and the barristers waxing eloquently as usual, but, alas, in civilian gear. This was a mere injunction hearing and only court sessions require the full 18th century regalia).

Beyond fashion and historical charms, Hong Kong’s courtrooms are riveting for a more technical reason, as this report from an American lawyer who visited a HK court last year entertainingly explains. In the U.S., most of a lawyer’s arguments are contained in the paperwork, the submitted briefs. In Hong Kong, however, courtroom arguments take place in real time–typically, barristers come into the courtroom preceded by a squadron of assistants wheeling a half-dozen or more suitcases and pushcarts full of heavy, index-tabbed three-ring notebooks–case citations, evidence, testimonies, notes. Then, slowly and deliberately, the prosecution and defence counsels unspool their arguments verbally, section by section, as the judge listens. What takes 30 minutes in a U.S. court can take a whole day here in the legal ivory tower of Hong Kong

So, even if you don’t have a law degree, just by sitting in a courtroom and listening to these arguments, you’re going to learn a lot. Long Hair, who probably has logged as much courtroom time in the last three years as he’s spent in the Legislative Council chambers, certainly has. When I first started watching him in court several years ago–he always represents himself–he’d stand up during his alloted time and deliver political speeches in Cantonese. (Hong Kong’s courts are officially bilingual, English and Cantonese. But since most common law is written in English, barristers and judges mainly use English for their arguments. There’s always a simultaneous interpreter on hand.)

After several years of civil disobedience cases and judicial challenges, Long Hair’s diligently learned the ropes, and now he’s arguing as deftly as any of the black robe brigade. On Friday, his final statement to the judge began, “Mr. Justice, my opponents are like Don Quixote, they are tilting at windmills. Basically they have three arguments, and I will explain why all three are wrong….”. Then slowly, quietly and with lawyerly precision, he proceeded to do so, occasionally pausing to correct subtleties of the Cantonese-to-English translations of the simultaneous interpreter.

(After court is adjourned, I ask him why he doesn’t go and study law. “I could study, but I can never be admitted to the bar in Hong Kong,” Leung reminds me. Because of his acts of civil disobedience, he’s a convicted felon.)

Usually, after a couple of hours in a Hong Kong courtroom, you can make a pretty informed guess as to which way the judge’s decision is going to turn. Most judges will interrupt counsel to ask questions, and those questions will reveal how he’s thinking. Often, the judge will make it even easier for you to pick the winner, by expounding at length his interpretation of the matter at hand.

On Friday morning, right at the beginning of the Citizens Radio injunction hearing, Justice Michael Hartmann laid his cards on the table in some opening remarks. Hartmann said he was of the opinion that civil injunctions should rarely, if ever, be used against criminal defendants. This was a heavy-handed, and unfair use of judicial power–if broadcasting without a license is already illegal and punishable under the law, how do you justify adding a further penalty on top? If the Hong Kong Department of Justice wanted his court to grant an extension of the civil injunction forbidding Citizen’s Radio to broadcast, they were going to have to convince him with evidence that “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” warranted it.

To me, this sounded like bad news for the government’s prosecution team and good news for Leung Kwok Hung, “The Bull” and Citizen’s Radio. The judge had come straight out and said he thought the prosecution needed to jump a very high bar.

Still, the government’s Department of Justice had sent all its heavy guns into the courtroom today, maybe enough firepower to sway Justice Hartmann from his original position. Head prosecutor Jat Sew Tong, a suave young fellow with an upper-crust British accent who sprinkled his arguments with offhand references to countryside holidays in England, is a rising young Turk in legal circles. Five years ago, when he was 36, he became one of the youngest barristers in Hong Kong to ever be “called to the Inner Bar”, that is, inducted into the 80-member elite club of the city’s Senior Councillors. Sitting in the spectator’s section was the government’s senior prosecutor Kevin Zervos, a cocky, darkly glowering Australian who just lost the government’s previous case against Citizen’s Radio in lower court (Zervos would come onto the pitch as substitute for Jat later that afternoon). Besides Jat and Zervos, I counted 12 additional solicitors and assistants on the prosecution team.

The plucky Citizen’s Radio guys weren’t lacking in legal muscle, though. Martin “Je
fferson” Lee headed the team, assisted by human rights activist and Senior Council Philip Dykes, and one of Dykes’ bright protegees, Hectar Pun. On the backbench, sitting next to Long Hair, was a fellow Legco member and Democratic Party president, solicitor Albert Ho Chun Yan.

Would they be able to hold the line and defeat the government’s prosecutors? Would Justice Hartmann change his mind about the legal justification for a civil injunction?

In my ringside seat at the faat teng Friday morning, I eagerly awaited the answer to all these questions. Of course they were just sideline concerns. The biggest question looming in that High Court courtroom on Friday was this: Why in the world does the Hong Kong government think it needs to expend so much money, talent and legal firepower to stop a band of upstart radio pirates from broadcasting with this:

(to be continued)

(above: Citizen’s Radio’s transmitter. Made in China, it costs about 1,000 Hong Kong Dollars, or $130 US.)

The Big Parade

It’s official. I can no longer remember exactly how many times I’ve walked this same walk with thousands of other Hong Kongers. Fifteen times? Twenty? And I’ve been in Hong Kong just half the year, for only three years! I’ve marched in July’s sweltering heat and sudden rains, I’ve marched wearing gloves in a January cold snap, I’ve marched with an umbrella under drizzly and sunny and (lately, all too frequently) white-grey pollution skies. I’ve marched alongside David, and Hemlock, with Leung and Wilson and Veronica and Mr. Lo and Patrick and San Ching and Ming and Po Ying.

And, yesterday, once again, another Daaih Yauh Hang, 游行, the Big Long Walk. It’s not really that long. The distance from Victoria Park to the Central Government Office is probably about 2, 2 and a half miles. But it seems to get longer and longer. Kind of like the Hong Kong government’s so-called “democracy timetable.” In 1997, Hong Kong was supposed to have the opportunity to vote for its leaders in 2007. In 2007, Beijing said no way, that was never the deal. Talk began to float about suffrage in 2012. But three weeks ago, right in the middle of the Christmas doldrums, a hastily-convened meeting of the National People’s Congress rubber stamped–excuse me, passed–a declaration that Hong Kong people must wait until 2017 to (maybe) vote for their Chief Executive.

So: Sunday, 3pm, Daaih Yauh Hang.

Why march, over and over and over again? Doesn’t it dilute the power and impact of the pro-democracy movement to hold marches so often? You hear this argument a lot and the typical retort from the pan-democrats is this: In Hong Kong, ordinary people have almost no political power, and the government is not accountable to the public. So street protest and civil disobedience are the only political tools available for people to make themselves heard.

It’s a linear line of reasoning, and it has a point. But I don’t particularly like this argument. It’s too simplistic, and it leads to simplistic conclusions, aka The Numbers Game. If “only” 100,000 people turn up to protest for the right to vote in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s population is 7.8 million, does that mean that  just  1.25 percent of Hong Kong people support the right to vote? If the march organizers predict a turnout of 10,000, and only 8,000 people show up, does it mean the march is a failure and represents a government victory? Finally, by insisting on this straight line between turnout and public opinion, you end up playing the endgame that has no end: how many bodies really did participate? Every march leads to the same ping pong match between the police, the press, and the organizers. Yesterday, the police counted 6,000 heads. The organizers counted 22,000. Apple Daily will report the higher figure, Wen Wei Po the lower one. (As a participant, and march veteran, I will tell you that the truth, as it often does, lies in-between. The march was definitely bigger than the police estimate, smaller than the organizer’s–I’d guess around 12,000-14,000.)

The pan-democrats need to let go of this notion that a Hong Kong march is a quantifiable demonstration of public will. Of course it isn’t. Not in Hong Kong, not anywhere in the world. It is much more than that. History records the results of popular discontent, not the exact numbers of the participants. We remember and are moved by the power of the passions. Exactly how many people hacked open and burned chests of tea at the Boston Tea Party? Does it matter if it was 500, or 1,000, or if those people really represented the majority opinion of the American colonists at that moment? What counted was not the scorecard, but the revolution. What counts are the sparks that set the world on fire.

A march in Hong Kong is a spark. As I have marched, over and over again, I’ve come to see these activities as kind of political ritual, a local form of art. The form and players are as defined and refined as in any Chinese opera. You know exactly what will happen, exactly what to expect. Yet, each time the play unfolds, it is a bit different.

I meet Veronica at 2:30 at Tin Hau MTR Station, on the eastern side of Victoria Park, and we grab a cup of coffee and some buns to keep us going during what we know will be a long afternoon and evening. I’ve already packed a bag with March Essentials: a bottle of water, a collapsible umbrella, an extra sweater (for January: if it is July, you pack sunscreen, more water, a hat). I’ve got my cellphone in my pocket, so I will know if somebody’s trying to get me while I’m surrounded by loud traffic and chanting. (The cellphone is a march essential–the only way to make sure you can hook up with your march buddies when you get separated). I’ve also got some small change handy in case I need to make a fast donation, or want to buy a march souvenir.

Even though Victoria Park is lovely, a rare Hong Kong patch of public green that hasn’t been concreted over by developers or their government enablers, the assembly point of the march is always the most tedious and uncomfortable part. No matter if the march organizers have predicted a turnout of 10,000 or 100,000, there’s always a enormous brigade of cops swarming around, doing their best to annoy and discourage the marchers by herding them into small corrals or snake-like queues marked with police tape and portable metal gates. I’m sure there’s some international consulting firm that’s teaching contemporary crowd control techniques to police forces everywhere, because the herding tactics used by the HKPD are quite like the ones I experienced at the hands of the NYPD when I marched against the Iraq war in New York City in 2003.

You gotta be shrewd in these early legs of the demonstration, because if you don’t pay attention, you might find yourself, as Veronica and Wilson and I did at the last march a few weeks ago, stuck in a pen with the entire membership of the Hong Kong chapter of the Falun Gong. Now, I don’t care much about the Falun Gong one way or another, and I’m glad they come out for all these pro-democracy marches, but they make for very dreary march companions. They spend most of the time walking in formation, saying nasty things about Jiang Zhemin, and thrusting free copies of the “Epoch Times” newspaper into the hands of bypassers.

The long wait in Victoria Park’s holding pens may seem like a downer, but it is the essential prelude to any pro-democracy march. It gives you lots of time to memorize the afternoon’s official slogans (The chants shouted at every march are written and agreed upon by the organizers in advance, one of Hong Kong’s stranger protest customs. The other odd tradition is that groups will spread their banners out on the ground, then ceremoniously raise them as the march begins). So as we waited for a friend, avoided the Falun Gong, and finished our coffee in Victoria Park with the other demonstrators, Veronica and I quickly memorized the main slogans of Sunday’s march:

Yi ling yat yi seung po syun!

Ngoh bat yiu yi lin yat chat ga po syun!

We want universal suffrage in 2012
No phony suffrage in 2017

Unfortunately, we also were forced to listen, over and over, to the Official March Song, “We Are Ready-2012”. An Open Letter to Hong Kong’s pan-democrats: You are in need of a serious makeover in the musical department! I would suggest rock and roll, or anything with a beat. Why not bring in some traditional Chinese drummers with those big gongs from the Cantonese opera. Please, please, anything but those wimpy, badly sung folk rock ballads straight out of a Catholic youth mass. Tell Ronny Tong to leave his guitar at home. And even though it was cool when blogger L
am Kay did a YouTube trash of the Hong Kong Handover song last July, it is NOT cool to turn the yucky Beijing Olympic ballad “We Are Ready” into an anthem for Hong Kong Democracy. Marching anthems should rouse the spirit, not make you want to suffocate yourself in a pile of Hello Kitty pillows. (Still, the video version, complete with documentary footage of protests past and present is pretty good.)

Did I mention that waiting in the Victoria Park holding pens can really make you grumpy?

But then, at last, you break past the tapes and gates and surge through the streets of Causeway Bay, in the peak hour of Sunday afternoon shopping, on a river of happiness.

Like I mentioned before, position is everything in one of these marches. You want to have a couple of march buddies, and you want to find yourself in a good spot. My friends and I prefer the back of the parade, since the politicians and all the press and television cameras are always crowding up front.  I like marching alongside a small, feisty group that does a lot of chanting, like the LSD, who usually march with some interesting prop–a giant marionette puppet of Donald Tsang, or a big coffin. But if I can’t find the LSD, I’m happy to march alongside some lively independent protestors. My favorites are the guys who make their own exuberant hand-lettered signs in Chinese characters. Some are as intricate and gorgeously realized as anything  by the The King of Kowloon:

Other protesters are interesting because they have an offbeat point of view, or are willing to say something that the organizers might shy away from in those “official slogans”. This guy wants to remind everyone that the Chinese Communists promised universal suffrage to the people in 1946. “The Communists Lie!” he shouted to me in English.

We shuffle, slowly now, but with increasing speed, through Causeway Bay. Shoppers gape from the sidelines. Some appear curious or puzzled, some look bored, others smile and clap as we go by. Many, many people snap pictures, take videos. One friend of mine in the movement thinks that the most valuable contribution of any of these demonstrations is the pictures and videos that mainland Chinese tourists carry home to their families: “This is what they do freely in Hong Kong!” (And what you can’t do here in China).

Speaking of contribution, we’re soon heading into the stretch between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai where every march turns into a Carnival Fair. Volunteers with transparent plexiglass strongboxes mingle with the marchers, soliciting donations for the Civil Human Rights Front, the coalition which sponsors most of the big marches, for the Democratic Party, the Civic Party, various unions. Some groups sweeten their pitch with souvenirs–a button, a poster, a sign. This march had some excellent take-homes! The Democratic Party got veteran activist and elder statesman Szeto Wah to do his (famous) Chinese New Year’s calligraphy (the little four-character poetry couplets called fa chun)–they printed up hundreds of his red paper pro-democracy couplets and sold them to passers-by. But the real prize of the march were these T-Shirts being sold by the Confederation of Trade Unions, imprinted with pro-democracy calligraphy by the late King of Kowloon:

Down the hawkers row we wind, passing booths set up by Citizens Radio, where Ah Ngau, “The Bull” and his band are (illegally) broadcasting from the march, even as the Department of Justice is indicting them for contempt of court. But where’s Long Hair? Just a block past the highway underpass where Wan Chai begins, there’s Leung Kwok Hung in his usual spot, up on a ladder, shouting to the crowd, smiling for a million pictures.

A little ways further, Ah Ming joins us. He was in an accident some years ago, and it left him crippled, but he usually joins up at the halfway point, and marches from Wan Chai to the finish. “That’s about what I can still do,” he says. Veronica and Wilson and I slow down our pace. By the time we reach the base of the hill that leads to the Central Government office, there is nobody behind us but a squad of motocycle policemen.

And I’m wiped out. The march has been hard today. Like I said, the Big Long Marches are all the same, and yet different. Some are energetic and defiant, buoyed by anger and outrage. Others, like this one, are infused with a feeling of duty, and necessity. Nobody in this march believes that this, or any march is going change the hard minds of the powers in Beijing. But not to march would be giving up. Giving in. And, even worse, sending a signal that nobody in Hong Kong cares enough anymore to bother.

It was here, in the weary valley at the bottom of the hill up to Government House,  that I thought about skipping out. But it seemed very wrong. Look at Ah Ming. Not to mention in front of me were were a hundred or so very elderly folks pushing their way upward, the lo yan ga from the Right of Abode movement, who march around town several times a week to remind people that their sons and daughters are stuck in mainland China and can’t join their parents legally, because the HK government decided to exclude them from residency.

Like the famous actors of the Cantonese opera, we are professionals. The march must complete its course. The end is near, at the top of the hill. We will laugh, and clap for each other, pat friends on the back in congratulations, say thanks to each other for another long march well done. Politicians will raise their hands in the air, shout words of encouragement, hug babies, send hope forward.

And Veronica and Wilson and Ah Ming and David, and anybody else we have gathered along the way will have a beer together at Club 71, then say farewell. Until we get the call to join Hong Kong’s next Daaih Yauh Hang for democracy.

And we surely will.

The Heavenly Platform

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 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:

“Pigs Lung!”

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.

The Electric Platform

Yesterday an extraordinary thing happened in Hong Kong. A young magistrate in the Eastern District Court, Douglas Yau Tak Hong, delivered a knockout judgement in favor of the upstart pirate radio station, Citizen’s Radio of Hong Kong. Judge Yau, in dismissing the case against activists Tsang Kin-sheng (“The Bull”), Leung Kwok-hung and several others, ruled that the current system of approving/rejecting applications for a broadcast license in Hong Kong is unconstitutional according to the Basic Law.

Yau’s argument is so clear, and the situation so self-evident, you wonder why it has taken more than 10 years for this matter to be addressed. As Yau observes in the text of his decision, Hong Kong’s chief executive has “unfettered and unchecked” power to control access to Hong Kong’s airwaves. He gets to appoint half the members of the board in charge of considering applications. What’s more, there’s no clear set of guidelines for would-be license applicants.

Is it any wonder that the airwaves of Hong Kong, a city of nearly 8 million people, are home to only three dihn toi? (The Cantonese phrase for “radio station” is a marvelous compound of two Chinese characters: electric and platform. 電台)

Like a lot of things in this city, Hong Kong’s broadcast law is an old British policy that dovetailed so well with the mainland Chinese government’s interests, that it has survived the handover from one colonial ruler to another almost intact.

The British administration didn’t want to cede control of Hong Kong’s electric platform. And neither does the current government. CE Donald Tsang has even launched a project to scrap what is arguably the last redoubt of independent broadcasting in Hong Kong, public radio station RTHK. Radio Television Hong Kong has its programming ups and downs–some of their stuff’s terrific (like the hilarious and outspoken Saturday Night Live clone, “ Headliner“, “Tauh tiuh san man”), and some of it is the kind brain-deadly public service stuff that you’ll see at 3am on a U.S. television station. But, as Hong Kong media goes, RTHK is the fairest and most independent player in the game, beholden to no tycoon’s whims, no politician’s special interests.

And that makes the Chinese central government nervous. On a trip to mainland China, I was astonished to discover that the website of Hong Kong’s only government-funded radio station is blocked by the Great Firewall.

The government wants to abolish RTHK and retool it into the government’s propaganda mouthpiece. They’ve already got a proposal floating around, and there’s probably not enough opposition in the Legislature to put the brakes on the plan.

Enter our brave young Magistrate Yau.

As the powers of governments and corporate interests all over the world meld into each other, the independent judiciary has become a front line in the fight for democracy, people power and human rights. It was the judiciary that stood up to Musharraf in Pakistan, and here in Hong Kong, maverick judges like Kemal Bokhary–and now, Mr. Yau–are using judicial authority as a check and balance against the hugely disproportionate, non-democratically elected powers of the HKSAR executive branch.

“The decision is both good and not good. We didn’t exactly win,” said Long Hair, as he showed me the text of the decision over dinner last night. He explained: the government’s lawyers freaked out after the ruling was handed down, and immediately asked for an adjournment, which the court then granted. The government argued that declaring Hong Kong’s broadcast laws unconstitutional opened the floodgates for anyone with a $500 transmitter to start up their own radio station, which would cause chaos on the airwaves. They needed time, they argued, to make an appeal.

So Judge Yau’s decision will not go on the books–yet. And meanwhile the case of HKSAR vs. Citizen’s Radio will slowly make its way up the court food chain.

Yeah, it’ll probably get diluted. But it doesn’t matter, because the decision has made a big noise and put the issues out on the table. (Hong Kong’s government prefers to spring things on the public–to push through “reforms” and changes when nobody’s paying attention.) Why shouldn’t Hong Kong–a city with 15 or 16 newspapers– have just as a wide a spectrum of voices on its electric platforms? (Especially now that digital broadcasting technology is about to eliminate the old argument that “there is no room” on the airwaves). And who should have the power to decide which voices are allowed to speak?

Two years ago, I followed some of the Citizen’s Radio guys on one of the missions that led to their arrest, and to this court case. They were planting an illegal transmitter on one of Hong Kong’s tallest peaks in the dead of a cold winter night. At midnight, in a howling wind, I watched these guys climb a tree to hang the cheap, matchbox-sized battery powered transmitter that would allow The Bull and his studio guests to broadcast a single program across a three mile radius.

As the scary shadows of wild boars rustled in the underbrush, all I could think was: these guys are crazy–how would this tangle of spaghetti wires and tin cans get them any closer to their dream of a Hong Kong with open airwaves? I admired their pluck, and their courageous civil disobedience but I figured these guys were tilting at windmills, Hong Kong’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

I don’t think so anymore.