Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hong Kong's True Celebrities

Walking along the streets of our neighborhood, Mongkok, one is sometimes in sensory overload with all of the people walking around, hundreds crossing intersections at once, the neon signs in Cantonese hanging out over the streets, the dripping air conditioning units that splash the sidewalk, the warmth of exhaust as buses pass closely by, the intense smells of stinky tofu and boiled tripe at the corner snack shops, the voice on the loudspeaker as a man demonstrates the newest gadget in front of the street market.............it really is a lot to take in.

Coming to an intersection you look across the street and notice a billboard two stories tall with a larger-than-life-size picture of a well dressed man in a suit and assume that he must be a politician or a famous actor.  Standing at the bus stop further down you notice several buses that are wrapped in pictures of groups of people in tuxedos and formal gowns - again, assuming actors and actresses perhaps.  Then again, you look across the street from the bus stop and you notice a panoramic billboard with another group of 30 or so people, also in formal wear.  Not being familiar with Hong Kong sitcoms or movies, besides those with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li - you don't think much of it.  However, curiosity gets the best of you and you start looking a bit closer to see just what all of the fuss is about with these people.

"Star Academy" is looking ready for the red carpet with this line-up.  This is a picture just outside one of the tutoring centers.

Looks like the gents from "334" are going more for the "Apprentice" look.  Another mural covering the wall outside of the tutoring center.  I wonder if "Fatheads" would consider making a Hong Kong celeb tutor line?

On a larger scale, Beacon College is taking up the width of an apartment building for their advertisement.

Welcome to the world of celebrity tutoring!  As it turns out, these people are all full-time tutors that are making at least double what public school teachers make - some even making millions.  In Hong Kong there is a great deal of pressure to perform on local examinations in order to compete for the relatively few spaces in local universities.  In order to supplement their education and to give themselves an edge on "the competition", thousands of students sign up to attend cram sessions from celebrity tutors at tutoring centers all over Hong Kong.  One recent study found that around 85% of secondary students enroll in such programs that offer nearly every subject or examination.

You can't ride a bus in this town without coming face-to-face with Dr. Amanda something and her task force.....

....or this guy "Calvin Sun" who looks like he just graduated high school.

Apparently these tutors dress up with their hair and make-up done, and treat it like entertainment while they use a microphone to address groups of students up to a couple hundred in number.  It is a commonly held opinion that these tutors, many of which do not have education backgrounds, are more qualified than normal teachers because they are paid a higher salary.  The average teacher in Hong Kong makes $60,000, while these tutors are pulling six figures.  I know that our school is no exception to this culture, with students even hiring consultants to help them with college applications.  The "name brands" mean a lot to these students, who typically only concede street cred' if you attended Oxford, Cambridge, or Ivy League schools.  Fascinating or sad, but it's certainly interesting to see how the focus can be very different from culture to culture.

--Justin

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Hong Kong Dollar: A Tale of Two Currencies

     As a kid I used to collect all sorts of things like stamps, rocks, foreign money, and PEZ dispensers (which actually went a little past the "kid" days).  My foreign money collection wasn't very extensive, however, since I didn't make it out of the country until I was 12 or 13.  The only exotic currency that I had was from Saudi Arabia, sent to me from my uncle serving in the first Gulf War.  I was nine years old at the time and I'll never forget writing him letters and receiving some back with colorful paper money covered in Arabic script.

     I suppose it was partly those memories that have inspired me to hoard any coins or bills (within reasonable limitations) that we come across on our travels to send back to my younger brother, Jake.  He's also 12 years old now and since I've been either in college or overseas for most of his life now, it's been difficult to have much of a brotherly relationship.  So, in order to remedy that I've tried to send postcards and money from every new place that we visit.  All of that to say that whenever we're in a new place I'm eager to see what their currency looks like and what its called, etc.

     So the official currency of Hong Kong is the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD).  At present its value is approximately 1 HKD = 0.13 USD, or to put it in easier terms, 1 USD = 7.75 HKD.  Marisa and I usually go with the Euro conversion because it's still familiar to us and it's a much easier conversion rate:  1 EUR = 10.1 HKD.  Like most countries outside the US, Hong Kong's money is very colorful which is the first thing that one notices.  However, there was also one more thing that caught my eye during my first few weeks............there are different versions of the same bill.  Now I don't mean like the old $5 and the new-and-improved $5 where Lincoln has a big head, everything is off-centered, and there's a neat little watermark inside.  I mean these bills had totally different color schemes, but still looked new.

 Two versions of the $20-HKD note.  Top one issued by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) and the bottom issued by the Standard Chartered Bank.  Apparently the Bank of China is also allowed to print money, but I haven't seen one from them yet.

 Two of the major banks in Hong Kong - Standard Chartered on the left, and Hong Kong and Shanghai on the right.

     So it seems that instead of one central mint issuing all of the currency in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) allows three different banks to circulate notes.  It is also my understanding that the only notes that the HKMA circulates is the 10-dollar note.  While this concept seems very foreign to me, apparently it's not completely unique since the United Kingdom allows for eight different banks to circulate their currency.

     I suppose that just means that I've got twice as many bills to collect before sending them back to the States!

--Justin

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I hum, you hum, we all hum for Dim Sum!!

One of the best parts of learning about a new culture has got to be trying out the food.  While Marisa and I are mere beginners in the art of Asian cuisine, we have been exposed to Thai and now Cantonese food.  We don't know too much about Chinese food, but from what we've heard, we're not exactly in the best part of the country for food.  However, that doesn't mean that Hong Kong doesn't have much to offer our unrefined palate.  Allow me to introduce you to dim sum...

Since many of the dishes are steamed, they're served in these little wooden containers.  It looks cool when you've got your table looking like a warehouse.

     Dim sum is a feast of small servings of steamed or fried dumplings that usually goes down around breakfast or brunch time - unless you're a Westerner, in which case you stroll in for lunch or early dinner.  All of the dim sum restaurants seem to be huge banquet halls with gaudy chandeliers and nice decorations, but the food and service feels much more family style.  You sit at large tables with lazy susans in the middle while you fill out your Bingo-card-looking menu of how many of each item you want.  The first thing to do is to start pouring the tea - there's usually at least two varieties at the table (all-you-can-drink) and that will be the only thing you can expect to drink at this meal.  I usually bring a bottle of water just in case, but I'm starting to get used to the warm tea.

Admittedly, it makes zero sense to me to only serve hot tea at a meal like this.  It also gets a bit messy because tea pots that don't leak when you pour don't exist here - seriously.  Reportedly, the thought is that if you drink warm drinks during the meal it will help break down the fatty foods that you've just consumed.  After a few sittings, I'm actually starting to grow accustomed to the tea drinking.  I mean, it's better than the alternative......

....I'm sorry, but who really wants to drink something called "sweat"?  Tea please!

Marisa has had a great time figuring out how to use chopsticks.  It's been working muscles she never thought she had.  We've heard that some families train their kids to be able to pick up marbles with them - I think that earns you a first degree black belt in chopsticks.

     If there's a pattern to the order in which you receive your food, then I haven't picked up on it, besides the dessert coming at the end.  I suppose it's sort of like tapas, so they come in whatever order they come out of the kitchen.  It usually seems that you eat a bunch of meat first, and then some rice comes out towards the end - which really doesn't make much sense to me.  What I do know is that there are dozens of fantastic little dishes that are served up at a typical dim sum meal.  I'll share pictures of some of the popular ones...

"(ng)ow yook chong fun" - Beef rice roll 
(it's got a translucent wrapping and you douse it with soy sauce)

"cha siu bao" - Barbecue pork bun.  
This is definitely the MVP on my list.  The bun is soft and a bit sticky and the filling is really nice.


 "yu peen jook" - Fish congee.  
This is in a different class of dim sum dishes.  Congee is a rice-based version of porridge.  They like to mix different items in though, such as:  preserved duck egg, beef, fish, pig's blood, etc.



The lazy susan helps to pass dishes around to everyone.

"foong jow" - Chicken feet
The Chinese like to eat meat on bones.  I've been told that this is because they want to eat "active" meat which was used a lot during the life of the animal.  I suppose it doesn't get much more active than eating a part that steps in its own poo all day.  Westerners don't get it because there's not much meat on these things, but the Chinese really love them.

 I had to give them a shot once.  I suppose you could crunch through and eat the whole thing, but I was mostly eating skin and cartilage.  Never knew there were so many damn tarsals and metatarsals!  This was my first, and last chicken foot I'm afraid.

not sure of the name, but it's just beef and carrots.

this is a dessert with some sort of flower petals inside.  interesting taste - kind of like rose jelly if you've had that.


     The sad thing is that I don't know why I never tried this stuff (or even heard of it) before.  My knowledge of Chinese food was limited to fried rice, Mongolian beef, Sweet & Sour pork, Sesame chicken, and some General's chicken.  It now makes me wonder if there are such establishments in the U.S. - I just haven't been looking for them.  It's definitely a fun meal to share with friends and family.  The problem is that the menus are typically in Cantonese and the staff typically won't speak much English.  However, that problem can easily be solved with the purchase of a Dim Sum Guide....

came across this gem in a random bookstore

Two other popular dishes are shown - shrimp dumplings ("ha gow") and pork dumplings ("siu my")

Each page gives you a lovely picture, the Cantonese writing (so that you can find it on the pictureless menus), the English pronunciation, and a description in English.  What a great idea!

If you haven't partaken in dim sum then I strongly encourage you to give it a shot.  Enjoy!

--Justin

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mooncakes and RC Cola

It's always fun spending your first year in a new country and having a first-hand look at the holidays that they celebrate and how they celebrate them.  For example in Germany, besides Oktoberfest, we had Fasching which was a version of Mardi Gras - only with different costumes and for a seemingly much longer time.  Our first taste of this came at the end of September with the Mid-Autumn Festival.


At Victoria Park they had this stage with a variety of performers from the community - Chinese opera, martial arts, marching bands, beat-boxing, dance team, etc.

The significance of the festival is to celebrate the end of the fall harvest and it's based on the lunar calendar (as many things are here), beginning on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (September 30, 2012).  Apparently the other significance is to keep bakeries in business selling these little pastries called "mooncakes".  There is also no shortage of brightly colored lanterns displayed in most of the public parks.  So here's my take on this holiday...



This seemed to be the main lantern - looking inspired by Epcot Center.

Basically this is a family get-together kind of holiday where you have a meal and exchange mooncakes with each other before going out to a park under the full-moon and watching a fire dragon parade.  Now allow me to elaborate on mooncakes...

Traditional mooncake with egg yolk and lotus-seed paste.  Although they are small, they're meant to be sliced and shared.  Trust me, you want to give as many away as possible.

Billboards all over the city advertised different brands of mooncake - all of them appealing to some sense of getting together with family.

The traditional mooncake is made of egg yolk and lotus seed paste.  To most Westerners this combination is not very pleasant.  Marisa described the texture as "pasty and chalky", which is pretty spot on.  It seems that the word "cake" is used loosely here as it isn't the sweetest morsel in the world.  And can we talk about the name?  It sounds like something you'd pick up in a coffee shop in Amsterdam or something.  However, I will say that these "mooncakes" don't come standard with any hallucinogenic effects.  Nowadays more bakeries are moving away from the traditional flavors and moving to more appetizing ones like: mango, strawberry, chocolate, red bean paste, grape, and pistachio.  We bought a box of 12.....which I should add is quite an experience in itself - the grocery stores have salespeople on hand to help you make the best selection for your taste and pack them up in fancy carrier bags - but we went with frozen ones (a.k.a. "snowy mooncakes") with flavors that are more likely to be included in Baskin Robbins' 31 flavors.

Our box of "snowy mooncakes" with a commemorative tin.  They're a bit pricey though - about 140 HK$ or 14 Euros or $18 (U.S.).

 One of the strawberry-yogurt mooncakes...they're not too bad, but it's not like ice-cream cake or anything.

 As I mentioned before, the parks are loaded with traditional lanterns and themed displays made from a tent-like material lit from inside.  We visited Victoria Park on Hong Kong island and were pleasantly entertained for about an hour, walking around the light displays.  We also tried to track down the "fire dragon dance", but only caught the "tail-end" - pun intended.  Literally, we peeked through the crowds to catch a glimpse of about 30 guys dancing down the street, holding some sort of grassy-looking dragon covering that was lit at the ends - kind of like a bunch of incense sticks or something like that.  It's difficult to describe with words, and unfortunately I wasn't able to take a picture either.




Loved this guy standing on a barrel, blindfolded, throwing knives at a target 10 yards away.  Serious Shao-Lin kind of stuff.



The holiday comes and goes, but we were certainly glad to catch a glimpse of the festivities and we look forward to the next one - perhaps Chinese New Year?

It turned out to also be China's National Day on October 1st, so we got to watch tons of fireworks over the harbor.  Sadly, it was also an infamous evening due to a deadly ferry crash on the other side of the island.

--Justin

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