Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Chinese New Year 2013 - Year of the Snake

     While it seems like cheating the system to some extent, we have no qualms about celebrating two "new year's" in a year.  While East Asia is lined up with the West celebrating New Year's Day on January 1st according to the Gregorian calendar, perhaps the bigger celebration comes a bit later to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  In a nutshell, the lunar calendar is based on the time it takes for the Moon to go through twelve cycles (New, First Quarter, Full, Last Quarter, New).  Since this cycle takes about 28.5 days, the Lunar New Year occurs on a different day each year...........kind of like the Super Bowl, but not really.

     Chinese New Year is a big celebration in this area, but other Asian countries have similar festivities of different names.  For example, we just visited Vietnam during Chinese New Year which they call "Tet".  The fun part is all of the decorations and traditions leading up to the new year and especially the rotating Chinese Zodiac.  We just finished the Year of the Dragon (mostly 2012) and on February 10th we celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Snake.  Of course there are plenty of superstitions about one's fortune during each year, depending on your zodiac sign, and especially about babies being born under each sign.  Not sure why, but some of the locals tell me that the year of the Dragon and Snake are good years for boys to be born.

     For your reference, below is a table of the upcoming years (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Animal Branch New Year dates
鼠 Shǔ Rat
子 Zǐ
牛 Niú Ox
丑 Chǒu
虎 Hǔ Tiger
寅 Yín
兔 Tù Rabbit
卯 Mǎo
龍 Lóng Dragon
辰 Chén
蛇 Shé Snake
巳 Sì
馬 Mǎ Horse
午 Wǔ
羊 Yáng Goat
未 Wèi
猴 Hóu Monkey
申 Shēn
雞 Jī Rooster
酉 Yǒu
狗 Gǒu Dog
戌 Xū
豬 Zhū Pig
亥 Hài
*there are some variations in the zodiac lineup from country to country.  i.e. Cat replaces Rabbit in Vietnam

After reviewing this list my heart was recently broken as I was under the impression that I was a "Dog", but it turns out that I was born on the last day of the year of the "Rooster".  Could be worse............Marisa's zodiac is the Pig!

     In the following pictures I'll introduce you to just a couple of decorations and traditions that we've noticed this year.

The first thing you should know is that whatever the decoration, gold/yellow and red are the colors.  I'm not sure about red, but apparently gold makes people think of money and this holiday is centered on superstitions of planting seeds for good fortune in the coming year. 

Combining the previous decoration with this one, you can have your place covered with golden fruit from head-to-toe. 

Also ever-popular are the little Mandarin trees.   

Not sure what this one is, but it seems that people either try to have one at home or at least take a branch of it home.  Sort of like a Christmas tree, but I don't think they put presents underneath.

We bounced out of town early this year to spend the holiday in Vietnam, but there are usually parades with "dragon dances" using costumes like these.  It's really cool to see since you can have 2-man dragons or long ones with a dozen people or more, dancing in unison to drums and symbols. 

One of the retail stores in the airport had one of these characters handing out chocolates.  The golden thing he's holding is in the shape of old Chinese money, so yet another symbol of financial blessing. 

Another decoration are these old, golden coins with squares punched out of the middle.

     As I mentioned, we spent most of this holiday celebrating the Vietnamese equivalent called "Tet".  Below are some of their decorations for comparison.

 The Vietnamese also try to get one of these bad boys for the house (or similar pink tree).  Everyone's thinking about all of that gold that they're going to come across in the next year.  I guess the equivalent in America would be a pine sapling, for all of those pounds we're going to lose!  It'd be a lot cheaper anyways.

In Hong Kong they say "Kung Hei Fat Choi", but in Vietnam they drop a "Chuc Mung Nam Moi" - tomAto, tomAHto, potAto, all means Happy New Year.

From the rooftop bar of our hotel we gazed upon the multitudes that gather along this main street, taking photos in front of all of the flowers and decorations.  This is definitely the time of year to be upgrading that Facebook profile pic. 

We passed by a bakery that went all out with this cobra cake.  It's really too beautiful to eat.

Our hotel in Saigon welcomed you with some sort of wizard/pimp with gold coins falling out of his sleeves.  Now THAT's "making it rain".

Next year we hope to spend more of the holiday in Hong Kong to see how it's done, but we were still impressed.  So happy Year of the Snake everyone.  I'd like to give a shout out to all of my Roosters, class of '82.  Make lots of gold this year and keep that chin up!


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gweilo by Martin Booth

     Before we left Germany two of our sweet friends, Dan and Gina, gave us a book that "any expat in Hong Kong should read".  They predicted that everyone would tell us to read it once we got there, which turned out not to be the case - but we both gave it a go anyways and were glad that we did.

     Gweilo is the Cantonese word for foreigner and not in a bad way but more in just a descriptive way. The book is written from the perspective of an 8-10 year old boy growing up in Hong Kong in the 1950's.  I highly enjoyed this book and it made me like Hong Kong even more.  Not to give too much away for those of you that might read it, the book is a collection of childhood memories told by the boy as an adult.  It starts from his ship ride over from England to all the adventures in between.  Even if you don't live in or haven't visited Hong Kong I still think this is a great read.  The author tells stories so well and with such detail you feel like you were there.

     What I loved most was that he talked about places I have been and places I want to go.  He even described the area called Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) and it sounds exactly as it is today.  He had a keen liking for our current neighborhood, Mongkok, and he helped to paint the picture of what it might have looked like sixty years ago.  I find I walk the streets now with a bit more quest for adventure, but with an even greater appreciation of all the things Hong Kong has to offer.

Gweilo is available on the Kindle at Amazon

     On a side note, I would like to add that being a "Gweilo" in Hong Kong is very different than other Southeast Asian countries I have visited so far (Thailand, Taiwan, Philppines, Vietnam). I think the people of Hong Kong are so used to seeing foreigners that they don't give you a second look or pay that much attention to you. I have found in other countries you get more stares when you look different than the people of the home country. I will say it is nothing like the stares we got in Germany, but more just looking. Some people might expect or appreciate the occasional, "where are you from?" or "what are you doing in Hong Kong?", but you likely won't get that here.  I kind of like just blending into the culture and not having to worry about being stared at; people are doing their thing and I am doing mine. Don't get me wrong Hong Kong people are wonderful and very friendly, but don't be surprised if you just become another person in the crowd.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Happy Valley Race Day

     If you find yourself in Hong Kong on a Wednesday night, I highly recommend that you check out the Happy Valley Racetrack for some quality horse racing.  Just before our break for Chinese New Year, we went with some friends to Happy Valley for my first horse race.

     With an entrance fee of only 10 HKD ($1.20 or 1 Euro) to get in and no pressure to place any bets, it can be a really cheap date night.  We chose to get dinner beforehand and the beers inside aren't absurdly high.  There's a decent selection ranging from San Miguel to Hoegarden to Asahi, all of which is sold in 0.5-liter or pitcher varieties.

     In terms of betting, there were about eight races with 20-minutes in between.  The minimum bet for each race is only 20 HKD and you can either choose a horse to win or to finish in the top three places.  The odds/estimated payout is clearly posted on screens around the stands and there are a bunch of counters along the stands to place your bets.  Marisa and I each put minimum bets on each race and while we had a slow start, we ended up winning more than we lost.  However, when you then take out the money we spent on drinks the whole evening probably cost us 200 HKD, which is definitely worth it for an evening of entertainment.

The track is really cool because it sits right in the heart of Hong Kong Island with all of the tall buildings around it.

The track is huge and unless you have a nice box seat then you won't be able to see anything except the finish, so the screen helps to see how things are going on the backside.

Before each race you have a chance to get a closer look at each horse to help make a better choice.

Marisa picked a winner

I picked a winner

Everyone's a winner at Happy Valley

 Some people are VERY serious about the horse betting.  Most taxi drivers in the city study this stuff religiously through the newspaper.  Here we have, what I would call, the equivalent of NASCAR fans for horse racing.

While the shutter speed for our camera definitely isn't made for this type of shooting, the horses really do move pretty darn fast.

     I'm certainly no expert for this sort of thing, but my suggestion is to go with names of horses that you like first - then check the odds to see whether you should go with the win or just to place.  Some of the payouts aren't great if you go with a favorite, but something is better than nothing and as long as you stick with low bets, you won't lose much overall.

     Can't wait until next Wednesday!


Friday, February 1, 2013

Taipei Birf-day

   On my 30th birthday I had a surprise dinner in Frankfurt with some of my colleagues, organized by my wife before she left on a work-related trip to the States.  It was an amazing effort and a good time, but the lid was blown off the surprise before the delivery.  No big deal, it was still much-appreciated.

  Fast-forward one year to January 2013.  Marisa was poised and determined to deliver a surprise that would permanently erase my 30th birthday from memory.  In an effort to "test the waters" she asked me if she could plan a surprise weekend trip for my birthday and wanted to check on what weekend worked best.  My ears perked up and I was thrilled with the idea........I mean who doesn't want to finish out a work-week and then head to the airport without knowing where you're going?  Awesome right?  So I gave her the green light and we picked a weekend.

  All was well until a couple of weeks before, while Nicole was visiting, when - in a moment of frustration with the booking plans - she said "I'm having so much trouble with booking our flights to Taipei"......................followed by a moment of silence as I looked to her and to Nicole and back to her and the realization hit her that she'd just blown the surprise again.  To be fair, I had guessed that we might go to Taiwan since we'd talked about it before as a possible weekend trip and I really wasn't disappointed because it was still an unexpected trip.  This is just to set you up for my 31st birthday trip, which was a blast!

  Taiwan is an interesting bird identity-wise because in some sense it is simply Chinese territory and in some sense it is an independent entity, but not in the same way that Hong Kong and Macau are (one country - two systems).  To be honest, I'm still not totally sure about the political identity of Taiwan but it's safe to say that the world (or at least the U.N.) views it as part of China.  It's still confusing since they have their own currency and government and for a while there weren't even flights between the "Mainland" and Taiwan.  Regardless, it was named the island of Formosa by the Portuguese explorers which means "beautiful" and I think that adequately describes the place.  We stuck to the capital city of Taipei on the northern end of the island, but would love to return to check out some of the natural wonders that Taiwan has to offer.  For now, enjoy some pics from the weekend....

 Taipei 101, the former "tallest building in the world" now stands at #3 on the list after being ousted in 2010 by Burj Khalifa in Dubai, then again in 2012 after the completion of the Makkah Royal Clocktower Hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.  Taipei 101 was the champ from 2004 until 2010 and was designed to look like bamboo.

 The flag of the Republic of China (ROC, aka Taiwan) flies proudly next to good company.  Don't confuse it with the People's Republic of China (PRC, aka China).

On our visit to Taipei 101 we were surprised to experience a record-holding elevator.  I expected it to be like a Six Flags ride, but it was hardly impressive.......except for that one time when my ears popped on the way up.

View (through tinted glass) of some of metropolitan Taipei.  When you're looking from one of the tallest buildings in the world you don't exactly get a "skyline" view.

The building tour really went all-out, even allowing you to see this large, heavy steel ball that helps keep the building stable in the wind.  It's suspended from cables and sits on a hydraulic cradle that allows it to move with the wind instead of the building.

Asian cultures seem to make cartoons out of EVERYTHING.  In this case we actually have a cartoon figure representing the big ball thing in the above picture!  Seriously.  It comes in six different colors and the bulk of the gift shop included dolls, keychains, t-shirts, etc with these "Damper Babies".   On a side note you can see that Marisa is standing at 382 meters.........the highest that she's been since high school.

Not sure of the use of this vehicle, but it's worthy of a spot in the blog.

Taipei is covered head-to-toe with interesting sculptures that scream for a photo-op. This one appears to be pointing at..........

Spider Man or Spider Boy!  I'm doing my best web-slinging impression alongside the cartoon hero.

There's no shortage of memorial temples and such to honor those that fought to promote a democratic China and vowed to re-take the Mainland from Mao's communists.  Here's Sun Yat-sen chillin in an armchair, admiring his temple.  This statue stands in stark contrast with most European statues that usually involve some guy on horseback.

Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall.  It's pretty much used as a community center, sort of like the Cobb County Civic Center, but I'm sure it has more than just "Gun n' Knife Shows".

Taipei seemed to have a nice mix of green space and city, perhaps a slightly higher ratio than that of Hong Kong.

 The Longshan Temple was one of the busiest Buddhist temples I've ever seen with dozens of people pouring in and out of this place.  I'm not sure of the whole procedure, but snacks and fruit are purchased and left on tables, incense is bought and burned in metal holders, people stand and pray, kneel and pray, sing songs from a book and bow a lot toward a golden figurine inside the temple.  It made for a great people-watching spot.

We passed through a handcraft market outside of the Red House.  It's a great spot for Etsy-like products and unique graphic tees.

Identical buildings face each other and host the National Theater and Opera House, directly adjacent to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial.

Sunset made a nice view of the gate for the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial.  This guy led the unsuccessful effort against Mao Zedong and the Communist Party following WWII.  He was eventually forced off of the Mainland to seek refuge on Taiwan.

We were also fortunate to come across a Shanghai-style dim sum restaurant:  Din Tai Fung.  While we thought we were experiencing something really local, it turns out that this place is a chain (but I think this is the original location).

Din Tai Fung is known for a pork dumpling called xiao long bao.  It was very good and distinctively different from the barbecue pork buns famous in Hong Kong - cha siu bao.

The night markets are the thing to do in Taipei.  Unlike other Asian markets, these are more focused on street food than on other goods.

The markets are a family affair with games for the kids and food for everyone.

We ate before we came and had to pass on the meat table.  With Asian street food, you're bound to come across some random organs that are unidentifiable.

The narrow, crowded streets also feature small tables packed with locals chowing down.  It's difficult to tell where one "restaurant" ends and the next begins.

On our last day we ventured out to a fishing village to enjoy the weather, the waterside, and more street food and markets.  These are potato chips that come with your choice of seasoned salt.

Upon reaching the Fisherman's Wharf we saw this vicious teenage scooter gang being dispersed by a security guy.

This bridge is the highlight of Fisherman's Wharf as it's supposed to be a great place to catch a sunset.  Unfortunately we ran out of time and had to see it at midday.

"Lovers' Bridge" as it's known, was a nice last sight  before we left.

Scratch Taiwan off the list!

It was a fantastic weekend getaway, an excellent birthday trip, and maybe next year Marisa will come up with an even better "surprise".

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