One Year After Hong Kong

More than a year has passed since our return from Hong Kong. The day has come and gone without my having said anything about it on this website, but in recent weeks I have actually been thinking a lot of our time there.

Looking back at this past year, I have realized that I had not really gotten over leaving Hong Kong. It has been like a mourning period, or the period after a breakup, with constant comparisons between aspects of life here and aspects of life there. To name a few, it is mostly things that, in my opinion, HK does better than SF: convenience, HK-style food, public safety, and public transportation.

Back in March of 2015, before we decided to return to the US, I did some comparisons with the intention of posting them here. I never did, so here are some of them now, in italics, along with present-day comments and additions.

Convenience

The other day, JC told me that the stored value on her prepaid phone was running low. I was in a new-to-me part of town on my way to a dinner but I knew that all I had to do was to keep my eyes open and I’d find a place that sells recharge cards. Not long after, I saw a 7-Eleven and took a detour. It took 30 seconds for me to stop, buy the phone card, and then be back on my way.

I remember this night, getting off the bus and walking up a footbridge, then seeing the 7-Eleven just inside the Shun Tak Centre. Whatever it is you need, you can be sure that it’s not far away. More significantly, you can be sure that it’s not far away, on foot. It is the nature of population density and the culture that has evolved from it. Most people don’t drive. Homes are small with little space for storing extra things. Instead, when the need arises, people simply go down to the supermarket or the convenience store. Considering the small space and the large amount of people, it is not surprising to see multiple supermarkets, convenience stores, and restaurants in close proximity to, and steps away from, each other. On the most part this wouldn’t happen in America (I’m thinking NYC might be an exception). A single big box store would be able to successfully meet the demand of people from miles around and opening another one across the street probably would not make business or financial sense.

I’m also a fan of the super convenient Octopus cashless payment system, accepted all over Hong Kong. It works on most modes of transport, retail stores, and fast-food restaurants. I’ve even paid for haircuts with it. Whenever I went to play basketball, I only had to bring my Octopus card and I’d be covered for the bus fare, the drinks machine at the court, and sometimes even a late dinner from Cafe de Coral if I was hungry. If only Clipper were as widely accepted here as Octopus is in HK.

A couple of other seemingly small but actually very convenient things: tipping and sales tax. Tipping is neither expected nor required, and I have to say it feels liberating to not have to figure one out, worrying if the amount is appropriate. Similarly, no sales tax means what you see (on the price tag) is what you pay, no math required.

Safety

Growing up in SF, you learn that on the bus or BART you leave your newest toy in your bag and not out in the open for opportunists to see and grab. With the advent of smartphones and everyone carrying them around out in the open, this is a little different now, but one still has to bring street smarts when riding public transportation or walking around on the street. In Hong Kong, one needs no street smarts at all. One can be a smartphone zombie, keeping his head down towards his device, and still be safe.

This has always been true, and seems even more so now with the increased gentrification and new money coming into SF. The perception is that people are being driven out and have to resort to crime to survive, or perhaps because there are now more rich people here, it’s hunting season. Burglaries, robberies, shootings, and stabbings are reported every week just in our one neighborhood, let alone the entire city. I experienced crime first hand as a kid in SF, and I learned to be constantly vigilant because opportunists will prey on you if you appear weak or inattentive even for a split second. It’s a relaxing change being able to just let go in Hong Kong without needing to remember to keep aware of my surroundings all the time.

Another thing involving both safety and convenience is the 24-hour store. Here, opponents of 24-hour establishments will always cite crime as a factor, because it is. In Hong Kong, it’s a non-issue. I miss 24-hour McDonald’s delivery. I miss midnight hot pot. I miss being able to take a walk around the neighborhood in the middle of the night.

Race

I know this is a touchy subject, but for me one benefit of living in Hong Kong is that I’m finally a part of the racial majority. Say what you want about racial progress in the U.S., and especially the Bay Area, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to relations between races, and perhaps not necessarily between whites and minorities. Although we all live in close proximity to each other, we do tend to keep each other at arm’s length. Obviously I’m generalizing here, but it happens enough to bother me, happens enough to make me feel excluded.

This seems even more relevant now with the Black Lives Matter movement, police shootings, and the election on the news recently. It gets kind of tiring. The first time I experienced racial discrimination was in this country, and things have not changed much in 30 years. We love talking about it though, using code-words and politically correct rhetoric to make it seem like it’s a thing of the past. And that’s just overt racism, without considering the type that has been institutionalized, the kind you don’t consciously think about or even realize you’re practicing. Also, why does discussion of race in America only involve black and white, and very occasionally brown? I think I know the answer, but as a yellow person that doesn’t mean I can’t still feel marginalized.

In Hong Kong, where I’m part of the majority by a long-shot, race, like crime, is another non-issue. Don’t get me wrong, people in Hong Kong can be extremely racist, but at least they don’t talk about it all the time trying to pretend like it’s not there, and they don’t direct it towards me.

Food

This one’s sort of a combination of the above: convenience, race, and geography combine to give me easy access to food that I enjoy. For example, HK-style fast food like Fairwood and Cafe de Coral. McDonald’s delivery. Baked pork chop rice. Iced milk tea. Yunnan rice noodles. Beef brisket and tendon noodles. Fish ball noodles. On the most part these selections are available in the Bay Area, but one must go and seek them out. Here, one does not have to travel far to enjoy local cuisine.

To add to the above, while HK selections can mostly (no 雲南米線, sadly) be found in the Bay Area, the quality can be severely lacking. It’s like they know that they’re the only option so they put out shit food. I suppose it’s all relative; people in Hong Kong might argue that Cafe de Coral is shit food. I should also mention that I used the wrong words in “convenience, race, and geography”. They probably should be convenience, culture, and density.

To name a couple more, I really miss the fresh iced lemon tea from Yoshinoya in Fortress Hill, and the curry beef brisket (with steamed rice) at both Cafe de Coral and Fairwood.

Fairwood Beef Curry Brisket and Tendon
How not to get any work done after lunch – Fairwood’s Beef Curry Brisket and Tendon

Public Transportation

This one can be filed under convenience as well. There are so many different modes of transportation: MTR, taxi, bus, mini-bus, tram. Many routes are duplicated so that even if you miss a bus, another one, or a tram, or a mini-bus, are not far behind. Maybe I’m lucky because I live in a busy/convenient area, but I really like this aspect of HK.

Yes, I think a big part of this was that I lived in North Point, a super-convenient area with many overlapping lines. Contrast that with some of my relatives’ neighborhoods in Hong Kong and one will find that it can be just as bad as MUNI or BART (to their credit though, both MUNI and BART have continuously tried to improve). Nonetheless, Hong Kong’s public transportation system is still way better than the Bay Area’s. Even if you ignore frequency and timeliness, the cleanliness of HK transport destroys that of the Bay Area’s.

As mentioned before, riding on the upper deck of a bus is one of my favorite pastimes. This is something that I miss tremendously. I’ve tried sightseeing on MUNI buses, but it’s not the same and actually quite a difference. They feel claustrophobic by comparison.

Final Words

Being a person of two worlds can be a struggle. Juggling is something I’ve been doing ever since my family moved to the United States, and it seems to have gotten harder after living in Hong Kong as an adult. While it may seem like I’m just bashing America in this post about things I think Hong Kong does better, I can tell you that when I was living there I did plenty of bashing in favor of the USA. It sucks. I sometimes wish I came from only one world, born and raised in a single place, living my life out in that place, not knowing what’s outside, being blissfully ignorant. If you don’t know what you’re missing, then you can’t miss it, right?

Have a good night. 🙂

Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui on the Star Ferry

Hong Kong Island
View of HK Island from Star Ferry, Wan Chai to TST – May 2, 2015

Been awhile since I’ve posted a non-food-related slideshow pic; tonight’s is one taken from the Star Ferry on its way to TST. From left to right you can see the Convention Centre, the Bank of China Tower, Cheung Kong Centre, and the rest of the Central waterfront skyscrapers. As I’ve mentioned many times before, it’s incredible how small Hong Kong is.

Tiny Kitchen

Tiny Kitchen
Our HK kitchen – April 19, 2015 – 11:41 PM

Sunday evening in our old HK kitchen, before it was taken apart for move-out. It was a tiny but useful kitchen, and I dare say that it became efficient as well after we mastered how to prepare meals in it. We could have the oven, rice cooker, stovetop, and even the second rice cooker (from Granny) going at the same time. We could even do our laundry in it! (haha)

It’s nice to see these kinds of photos in the slideshow every now and then; reminds you of all the chapters you’ve gone through in life. Here, it’s Sunday night, winding down and getting ready for work the next day. Have a good week!

27 Weeks

Last night I read a journal entry for July 5, 2014, the last day that anyone in my family set foot in my Granny’s flat in Hong Kong. The place had been in our family for 40 years, give or take a few. The rent always stayed below market rate due to rent control, but even so it started making less and less financial sense to pay rent for a place that nobody was living in. On occasion, my mother or other relatives would stay there while visiting Hong Kong, but otherwise since 2010 when Granny moved into a home the place was uninhabited. It was kept in the hopes that perhaps one day Granny would return, or maybe for nostalgic purposes.

My mother and aunt had cleaned out the place, with JC and I tagging along but mostly staying out of it (save for keeping old newspapers and other historical items). They (especially my aunt) took a more practical approach to cleaning house. For example, old newspapers and other decades-old trinkets were considered trash. The antique furniture was sold to a dealer, and everything else was left to be kept or taken away as the landlord saw fit. I went there to retrieve a camera that my aunt had accidentally left there, and also to take my time and comb through the place for anything else worth keeping. Being the sentimental person that I am, I also took it as a chance to say goodbye properly to the closest thing I ever had to an ancestral home.

Goodbye to Granny's House
July 5, 2014 – Goodbye to Granny’s house

I’m reading the journal entry when I remember that the landlord’s representative, Mr. Lam, showed up near the end of my visit. He said that it was fortunate that I had gone there when I did, because he was planning to change the lock. I asked him if I could keep the lock for sentimental purposes, but he refused because he couldn’t make the call. He said that they would probably move that ancient lock to another property (lol). At that time I was just starting out at my job in Hong Kong, and I hadn’t learned the intricacies of CYA (covering-your-ass) yet, but now with my experience of working in HK I realize in retrospect that he was probably just afraid of doing something out of the norm. When I was explaining to him my sentimental reasons for keeping it, all he could think about was following the rules and toeing the line. Nothing I said registered.

This got me thinking about bureaucracy in Hong Kong and how deeply entrenched it is in HK society. Employee empowerment? Forget about it, they’re scared too shitless to make any decisions, call the manager. Remember when I complained about ticky-tack fouls? Bureaucracy in action. The players have been taught (or punitively programmed) to follow all rules to the letter in life and in basketball, so one little touch is a foul. What about when I tried to stick up for my coworker, or when I tried to order a battery for a user? Sadly, I did end up alienating some people at work due to the way I got things done, and I wish I would have gone about it in a smarter way where I could have had both my cake and to eat it too.

With my mind on Hong Kong, I went back and looked at all the updates I’ve made about living there, including some in my own private journal. I was reminded of how I felt when I was trying to find a job, how I felt my first month into the job, and how I felt about my career overall. There is some symmetry between what was happening then and what is happening now. I compare what I’ve been doing in the six months since returning from Hong Kong with what I was doing in the first six months of living in Hong Kong, and I find that I’m going through something very similar. And yet, in the 27 weeks I have been back in San Francisco, there have hardly been any updates on this site. I’ve posted a bunch of museum posts and VH posts, but nothing like those HK updates. So, here’s a quick recap.

In July, the first month of coming back, I had the momentum of moving from HK and being fresh from leaving a job. The first job application I sent out resulted in an interview. In my hubris, I did not prepare for the interview thinking it would be just like a meeting at work, which resulted in a poor performance and my candidacy being passed over. I continued applying for jobs with no results. On the recreational side, it was nice being back in America and going to BBQs, Costco, VH, and Sizzler. There was a learning curve to playing physical basketball again.

In August, same thing. Applied to a few more jobs, heard back from none of them. There was a family wedding which took up an entire week. JC landed a job. I continued playing basketball.

September, more of the same. I continued to mark off every Thursday: 10 weeks, 11 weeks, 12 weeks, etc. Our stuff from Hong Kong finally arrived. Since I didn’t have to work, I was tasked with waiting for the delivery.

In October, I enlisted the help of a staffing firm to assist with my job search, but nothing really happened on that front. I started having difficulty with waking up and not knowing what to do, which drove me to start planning my days ahead of time so that I could simply follow my calendar without thinking, similar to when I had a job and a routine.

November, I started ramping up the search again with the new system. I got my first interview arranged through the staffing firm. Everything went great, they told the agency that I was great, but sadly I lacked iPad experience whereas my competition did not. It was nice to spend the first Thanksgiving in three years with family and have multiple grand feasts. At 21 weeks, I stopped keeping track of how many weeks we’ve been back.

Last month, I started truly getting depressed. Maybe it was the holidays, maybe it was the cold, or maybe it was my career, or lack thereof. Remembering how I felt about my career while I was in Hong Kong, I wondered if I wanted to keep doing what I was doing, applying for jobs that I knew I could do but not really interested in. Did I really want a repeat of my HK job? If not, what would I do? Start my own business? Again, what would I do? I had and continue to have no idea. I went back and read about the tyranny of the shoulds. I’m back to the situation I was in when I wrote those posts, except I don’t really have any money now. Is there room for idealism when one doesn’t even have enough money for his own place to live? I’ve done IT support on and off for 20 years, should I not just hunker down and make some money via this field first? Or, have I forgotten the lessons I’ve learned during these past 3 years?

It’s been 27 weeks, and I’m still trying to figure it out. Happy New Year!

WTF are you looking at?

HK Pier Cat
HK Pier Cat – November 16, 2013

Was supposed to post this yesterday but didn’t get around to it. Lately when I’ve had downtime I’ve been looking at photos from previous years taken on the same day. Yesterday, I saw that we had gone hiking on Lantau Island in 2013. After returning to Tung Chung from Tai O by boat, we saw this cat sitting at the pier enjoying the last remnants of the afternoon, daydreaming about feasting on the fish just below until some stupid human decided to interrupt. I would look annoyed too if someone interrupted me like that.

Basketball is Life (Another Lesson from the Court)

Victoria Park Basketball Courts - June 30, 2015
Victoria Park Basketball Courts – June 30, 2015

June 30, 2015

It’s a Tuesday afternoon. Having just finished a game, I’m sitting on the asphalt, watching the activity on the courts, soaking in the sun, and thinking about all the time I’ve spent here during the previous two years. All those nights staying until lights out at 11 PM. The time when I destroyed my ankle because I was an idiot. It’s just a regular day to all the players here, but for me I’ve just played my last game here until the next time we return to Hong Kong, whenever that may be. Earlier in the day, we moved out of our flat and turned in the keys; instead of going home to clean up, I’ll be heading to the hotel when I’m ready to leave.

I still have some time before a scheduled farewell dinner, so I continue to sit, and watch. The sun will be setting soon. I watch the local HK basketball players wearing their NBA-style jerseys. There are some familiar faces. I watch the double decker buses passing by. I look towards Causeway Bay and the skyscrapers. Soon, the Excelsior Hotel will be gone, too. It’s a moment to remember, and I remember it vividly now as I write this.

For some reason, my mind thinks back to my college days, when some NBA alumni would come to our gym to work out. During practice, they would bomb threes like they were doing layups. In the NBA, because players are so good at putting the ball in the hoop, defenses have to be sophisticated (and physical) to counter them. There can’t be any slacking and players are actively and constantly trying to stop you. The fact that NBA teams regularly score over 100 points a game even in the face of hounding defense reveals just how amazing these players and coaches are.

I start thinking about efficiency in basketball. At the most basic level, depending on which side you’re on, there are two goals in basketball: put the ball in the hoop, or prevent the other person from putting the ball in the hoop. It’s a very simple premise. And yet, I unnecessarily complicated the game that I had just played. Instead of simply and efficiently putting the ball in the hoop, I often do a lot of unnecessary dribbling trying to get by my defender. Sometimes, when I have room to shoot, I’ll do a few shot fakes to see if the guy will bite, and if he finally does, I sort of stand and watch to admire how I faked a guy into the air (wtf). If he doesn’t, I don’t take the shot and end up back where I started. It’s a lot of wasted energy and unnecessary movements, and by the time I finally do put up a shot, I’m exhausted. I wonder why I don’t just put the damn ball in the hoop, especially when I have the capability to do it.

Now, it’s time to go. I make some notes in my phone so I can remember my last time here. On the way back, I almost get off at the wrong stop, having gotten off at that stop so many times without thinking.

November 5, 2015

Now, I’m back in America. I’ve started playing more games and have been reminded that it is much more physical over here. Less (or no) fouls are called. People are bigger, faster. In Hong Kong, I was able to get by people, but I don’t think I’ve done it once here. It’s also possible that my age has finally caught up with me – although it’s only been a few months since HK, a precipitous decline once you hit a certain age is not unheard of. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. Being unable to get by people makes it that much more important to take the shot when you have it.

So that brings us to today. The reason I’m posting this now is that I had one of those games today, where if I had been more business-like and efficient in my approach to the game, I could have done a lot more, and maybe even have won. It was a good 1-on-1 with some back and forth missing early on, but later on my opponent caught fire and hit several shots in a row while I was stuck at 2. Despite a furious attempt at a comeback and hitting several shots in a row of my own, he was able to finish the game off with a contested jumper. Final score: 7-5.

I spent a lot of energy dribbling around trying to get by the guy and getting nowhere when I could have just pulled up and taken a shot. I had a stupid hang-up thinking that the game would not be fun if all I did was shoot (and make) threes from the top of the key. In the end, it was a good game and a good workout, but I couldn’t help thinking what could have been if I hadn’t hindered myself with that unproductive thought.

That brings us to our final thought for tonight, which is, once again, that basketball (in this case, specifically pickup ball) is a microcosm of life. The court is the world, the players are society, and everybody has a different motivation for playing (living). Most people want to win, some people want a good work out, some people want to start a fight, and some people want to hang out with their friends. Players are able to influence or be influenced by other players’ behavior. If you don’t have a goal in mind, which puts your mind in the wrong place, then you don’t know what to focus on, and you allow others to dictate your actions. This is the part that bothers me the most, in life and in basketball, and is what happened today. I allowed some completely made-up hang-up, one that only existed in my mind, to affect my focus, which in turn affected what I did or did not do on the court and cede control of the game to my opponent. That is not who I want to be. I want to be the person dictating my actions, having a plan, and knowing what I want – not the person limiting myself. There are already plenty of others trying to limit you, so why do it to yourself? Time to drop the hang-ups.

Hong Kong Market PS3 Super Slim – Box

After settling in to our new place in Hong Kong, one of the first things I did was go to the electronics store Fortress to check out their TVs. Coincidentally we lived near Fortress Hill, and the Fortress at Fortress Hill had the LG television that I had been looking for – at an unmarked and substantially lower price! I ordered it on the spot, then proceeded to buy the PS3 to go with it. This was my third PS3 and my first super slim, and despite having no TV yet I was excited to bring it home. I replaced the hard drive with a 7200RPM 500GB one, then hooked it up to my new computer monitor with HDMI so I could update the firmware and download my games. Like the previous post, good times.

One interesting thing to note is that although the specs on both the box and the actual hardware (well, the outside anyway) state 220-240V, the console actually works on 110V as well. This has been tested and confirmed, and if one is still in doubt, one can open up the console to look at the internal power supply which should state 100-240V on it somewhere. I didn’t do this for the super slim (I did for my now-dead fat model though), but I’m not going back to HK any time soon so I didn’t mind taking the slight risk to confirm.

Lastly, I have to say that Sony’s packaging has always appealed to me. They really know how to make a product attractive. Enjoy the museum post!

Box - PS3 Super Slim - HK Version
Another Dual Shock 3 controller for my collection…
Box - PS3 Super Slim - HK Version
Look at all those cool peripherals!
Box - PS3 Super Slim - HK Version
Left side of the box
Box - PS3 Super Slim - HK Version
Right side of the box…
Box - PS3 Super Slim - HK Version
Looks like I got a fresh one, just a couple of days after the date on the label
Box - PS3 Super Slim - HK Version
Still no HDMI cable…
Box - PS3 Super Slim - HK Version
Everything is made in China now, even the box
Box - PS3 Super Slim - HK Version
HK5 and CECH-4012B yes, but 220-240V? I think not

Metro-Cammell England

Trains by Metro-Cammell
From MTR 35th Anniversary exhibit at Hong Kong Station – August 1, 2014

For tonight’s museum cum nostalgia post I decided to go back to exactly one year ago, today. At Hong Kong Station the MTR was showing an exhibit of its history, and this was one of the tickets on display.

Last month, it was announced that the remaining Metro-Cammell MTR trains in Hong Kong will be replaced after 30+ years of service. Knowing this, I’m glad I spent a year in Hong Kong riding the MTR to work every day. I rode the Island Line so it was always this model train, the ones that I remember from early childhood in the late 70s and early 80s, with the same sounds and even smells today that they had back then.

Pissed
Pissed on the MTR – August 5, 2014

As I mentioned in some previous updates, I was pissed at first from the crowds and the disingenuous politicians stating that the MTR was still under-capacity.

Admiralty Station Crowd
Admiralty Station rush hour – does this look under-capacity to you?

Once I grew accustomed to the crowds and the disingenuity in general of Hong Kong people, I started noticing things other than my own annoyance, which in turn led me to truly experience the nicer aspects of the MTR. Number one has to be predictability. You know that another train is never far behind, sometimes seconds behind during peak periods, so when a train does arrive but I’m not yet at the spot on the platform where I can get onto a car with less people, I can just continue on calmly if I’m not in the mood for sardines. The trains are all the same length. The cars are always well-air-conditioned and never stuffy. The staff in general are pretty helpful. And I just learned that the MTR has a 99.9% on-time rate.

When I was a kid, I loved getting on at Central (where we were guaranteed a seat) and peering out the window as the train started moving, cupping my hands around my eyes to keep the light out. There were pipes in the tunnel that I could see, and as the train passed them it looked like they were bouncing up and down. Once we got to Mong Kok to transfer, I hoped that both trains would depart at the same time, because for a very brief period you could see the train you were just on. It was sort of ethereal, a rectangle of light containing faces and bodies floating outside, looking like it was following us, the angle changing as the train changed direction, vanishing finally as the tunnels separated.

As a grownup, after taking the MTR every single day, I just automatically developed a routine. First of course is the zombie walk from home to the station (because not long prior I was still in bed). Then, it’s the walk down the stairs, knowing to watch for people who are coming up. Next is passing through the fare gate, knowing where the trouble areas are (tourists, mainlanders with big suitcases). Same thing with the escalators. If two are available, there’s always the one with less people because they’re too lazy to walk a couple of steps further. Then, the aforementioned best place on the platform to get on. As the train rolls in to the station and slows to a stop, I watch for openings and sometimes move one or two doors down so I can get to my favorite spot on the train: the doors on the opposite side.

Many people have their favorite spot on the train, especially if they’re a daily commuter. After a while, I realized my favorite place on the train was right next to the train doors, but not the place you might think. Most people like the spots at either ends of the doors, with your butt on the glass, right next to the face of someone who might be sitting down (see far left in “pissed” photo above). I never liked being the one with someone’s butt near my face, so I prefer to stay away from those spots. Instead, I choose to lean against one of the doors on the left side of the train. First, this spot is usually open because it’s not popular and is between those two popular ones. Second, for my journey to work the left doors open at only one station. Third, not many people get on or off at that station, so I can basically hang out at my spot indefinitely. Lastly, I can leave both hands free for electronic device usage by leaning back and spreading my feet to steady myself. In 30+ years I’ve never heard of anyone falling out due to the doors suddenly opening (gotta give it up to those British engineers), so I figure if it’s my turn to go, then I’d be okay with it.

It seems sort of appropriate that they would announce the end of these trains after we left Hong Kong. I already got a chance to experience them for real, develop a routine, rather than just take the MTR once or twice during a short vacation trip. If we don’t get another chance to ride these Metro Cammell trains, I think I’d also be okay with it.

As always, hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.

Further reading:
Metro Cammell from the London Historians’ Blog
Collection of even more old MTR tickets from British railroad enthusiast John Tilly