Archive for the 'Hong Kong' Category


Grinding it out with a grain mill

Germany HaWo Kornmühle grain mill wideOne of the first things I noticed about my wife K’s kitchen in Hong Kong was this big, blocky wooden thing in the corner near the back door leading out to the terrace.

“What’s THIS?” I asked, flipping a globular wooden knob back and forth.

“It’s a grain mill,” she said.  “A friend brought it from Germany for me.”

That really floored me.  Her flat was actually quite spacious by the cramped standards of Hong Kong, but the kitchen was little more than a narrow corridor wedged between an oversized living room and the tiny, windowless room we stored stuff in, but was designed as the maid’s bedroom.  We may have been cooking with gas, but you had to be really organised or you’d quickly run out of counter room.  You could stretch your arms across and touch both walls it was so small, so this glorified hunk of wood seems like the last thing you’d need.

But she swore by the results she got by grinding her own whole wheat flour, and I couldn’t much argue after she served up some Kaffee und Küchen for the first time. 

In Hamburg we have a much bigger kitchen, so the mill seems to take up a lot less room on our counters, and after 22 years it still gets used a lot, especially the last couple of years or so that I’ve been baking bread regularly.Germany HaWo Kornmühle grain mill cleaning

It’s a German product, dependable and built to last out of solid beech, but you have to take it apart once in a while to give it a thorough cleaning or it starts to look a little ratty.

On the inside you’ll find a powerful motor and millstones made of a hardened ceramic.  The first time I turned loose all the bolts and separated the parts to clean was after it hadn’t been used in a few months.

There were a few bug skins clinging to the walls of the flour chute and around the grinding face, which was a bit of a YUCK moment, but once it was scrubbed clean, put back together and burnished with linseed oil, it looked good as new.

For grain I head to the organic food store.  I’ve ground a variety of grains over the years, but usually stick to wheat because that’s what the bread recipes I use call for.  The only thing I’ve not tried is corn, because I’ve never found corn kernels that specially say they’re for making corn flour, but what I’d love to do is grind some corn to see if I can make some whole grain polenta from it.

Germany HaWo Kornmühle grain mill settingsThe manufacturer’s website has a variety of mills to choose from, and I like the fact they still make the exact model we own.  Their website gives you a bit of sticker shock, though.  Our model will set you back €454, but they’re guaranteed for 10 years.  Like I said, they’re built to last, so you should have it at least as long as we have with regular care.

If you want to see it running in this video, turn your sound down!  It is a bit of a noisy thing:


The blueberry jam backstory

Three humble jars of homemade wild forest blueberry jam sit in the coolness of our apartment thanks to a clash 300km east of here between a bridge construction crew and technology gone wild.

We were staying for the weekend near a lake in a small corner of eastern Germany because an old friend from our Hong Kong days was celebrating his 60th birthday.  It was a huge bash.  He’d invited his whole extended family and everyone he’d known from those days, so there was a good crowd of more than 120 people.  We were all crammed into a discotheque in this tiny town that didn’t seem to have much else going for it aside from being surrounded by wonderful rolling countryside of forests and farms linked by shady roads lined with thick oak trees centuries old.

The party got off well and people danced and sang and talked and drank a bit so that most everyone was well-oiled by the time it was to take our leave.

The next day I had to be at work at 4 in the afternoon, so we tried to time our departure so that we’d be back in Hamburg with not too much time to spare.

We were using our GPS to find our way through the back roads of the former East, but after a half-hour of driving, we’d run into a problem.  The GPS gizmo was telling us to take a turnoff to a road that was blocked for construction work a little further on.  Unable to take the turnoff, we kept driving straight, but after five minutes of the machine blabbering on about how we really must turn around and plow into that construction crew, we turned the thing off, eased to the side of the road and found crammed in the glove compartment one of those things that in the past always proved useful , even if you could never fold them back up the right way.

A map!

TURN HERE! my wife said almost as soon as we got up to speed again, so I turned sharp right onto a narrow, one-lane road leading into a pine forest.  It was paved, with wide shoulders, so we were making good time, but after a few minutes we came upon a couple of cars parked off to the side, so we slowed down.

There were people off in the forest bent over and looking at the ground.

“Hey, I know what they’re doing,” said my wife.  “They’re picking BLUEBERRIES.”

So we parked the car a bit further along and rummaged around til we found a couple of containers, and got to picking some ourselves.  After an hour we’d had enough – about a pound and a half as it turned out – and headed out on our way again.

The whole time I was telling myself I should stop the berry-picking and go back to the car to get the camera, because the scene was so idyllic.  A forest thick enough for shade but leaving dappled noonday summer light on the carpet of berries, stillness except for the buzz of the occasional bee… to heck with it, I said.  Sometimes you just have to carry on with what you’re doing in the moment you’re doing it.

As we got going again I did take the opportunity to teach my wife a word she’d never heard before.  That’s rare, because her English is very good.

Serendipity: the happy accident that happens when you find something good you weren’t even looking for.


Ten days in New York’s Chinatown

We met in Hong Kong and have fond memories of the place,  always telling the little red-haired girl that we’ll take her back there someday.  We’d also always talked about going to New York City as well, but with only two weeks’ holiday, Hong Kong is quite a stretch.

So in booking a hotel for New York, we combined the two: The Hotel 91, at 91 East Broadway, is right in the middle of what some say is the biggest Chinese community outside of Shanghai.   Turn left out the door and cross the lane, you’re in a Chinese supermarket right under the Manhattan Bridge.  Turn right and you’re in the middle of a scaled-down version of Hong Kong’s old Wan Chai wet market, with a variety of fresh fish, live eels, huge, fist-sized sea snails, razor clams oozing soft, white flesh, live lobster, and what I came to fall in love with: the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab.

I’d never seen blue crab before stopping to watch a fishmonger along East Broadway.   He had no fewer than 30 wooden buckets of them stacked up tightly along the kerb when I went out to fetch croissants for the three of us one morning, and when we went back later, shoppers were lined up to buy them. They’re such a gorgeous blue, gradually giving way at the extremities to a deep red-orange.

He’d thrust a pair of tongs into the buckets, shoving what he could gather into a large paper bag.  Sometimes the customer would complain and say – I suppose – that one of them was too small, so he’d root around in the bag and haul it out again with the tongs.  Because he worked fast and handled them roughly,  he’d shear off a limb or two, their remains scattered in the buckets and on the surrounding pavement.

Standing amid the passing traffic, getting jostled by the constant stream of pedestrians crowding the sidewalk, you’d hear above the loud Cantonese the blast of subway trains as they rumbled by overhead on the Manhattan Bridge.  They came every two minutes, blotting out all possibility of conversation.  But like living near an airport, after a while the noise was just part of the background.

I often had the feeling we really were back in our old colonial home in what is now China.  In the manner of emigrants everywhere, the people seem to have held on so hard to the life they left behind, it remains frozen in time, while the home country has moved on.  The old-fashioned herbal remedy stores look and smell exactly as I remember them.  Cakes, preserves, meats, paper products – all stacked in a disarray along sidewalks with barely a border between one store and the next.  And everywhere the crush of bodies.

A playground lies on the other side of the bridge adjacent to the brick supermarket.  I lingered and observed the families watching their children play, the old men smoking, the young women chatting in groups, the kids so wrapped up in enjoying the moment.  It was tiny, very crowded, and noisy: just like everywhere in Hong Kong.


How we nearly tripped over a headless snake that had swallowed a dog whole

An item I saw on some forum somewhere reminded me of a hike I took one day in Hong Kong.

Seems a dog in Australia let himself get too cozy with a python and ended up in the belly of the beast:


It does happen from time to time.

Not long after arriving in Hong Kong I was on a hike with my girlfriend in the Sai Kung Country Park, one of the few large patches of oceanside greenery remaining in that crowded little spot.

We had just disembarked at the last bus stop and were walking along a sidewalk on the last strip of road before the trailhead, when Amy let out a SHRIEK and jumped off the curb.

Most of it was in the bushes in shadow, but getting closer and hauling it out by the cord to get a better look, here’s what we saw:


I still don’t know what happened to the snake’s head, but we think it might have been sawed off for stuffing as a souvenir by the same person who wrapped a rope and dragged it to the place we found it.


Nearly tripping over a headless, 2.5-metre snake with a dead dog’s legs sticking out isn’t everyone’s idea of the ideal way to begin a hike, but after we’d gotten over the initial shock and taken a few pictures, we pulled the carcass back into the bushes and carried on.

Update: Reader Amanda left a comment saying that’s no dog!  By the look of the tapered tail, the delicate feet and retractable claws, it’s a CAT.


Lost your job? Maybe that’s a good thing

With unemployment in what’s left of the world’s leading economy rising to its highest level in 25 years today, a lot of people are going to suffer as the tidal wave aftermath of Wall Street’s latest greed bubble washes over the rest of the world.

But losing your job isn’t bad news for everyone.

douglas-germany-luneburg-cameraTake the case of my friend and fellow Canadian Douglas in London. We met in Hong Kong in late 1995 when he was being hired for a new weekly show at the station where I was working. Because they the management twits picked Douglas instead of me to host the new programme, I first saw him as a rival, but after a couple of days on the desk with him I soon got over myself, and we’ve been tight ever since.

Douglas has had a real Hong Kong career. He first worked in radio, then TV, then switched for the big bucks of public relations ’til he – quite understandably – couldn’t stand the stench of all the bullshit any longer, then went back to TV.

About two years ago, he got a job producing for a world-famous provider of television business news in London. I remember how excited he sounded on the phone from Hong Kong about landing the position, how he was finally getting out of this “small town” and hitting the big leagues to work on what’s happening in the heart of old world finance.

But like all expats who’ve already paid the price once for leaving home and establishing another one overseas, in moving to London he had to pay all over again, because in the meantime he’d built up such a good life over a dozen years in Hong Kong.

Douglas had good friends, a loving, long-term partner, a comfortable home, even a rag-top car in a city where driving is a luxury often associated with the very wealthy. And let’s face it: as a successful, white, middle-aged gay man in Hong Kong he was still a hot commodity. In London he’s as common as the man on the platform waiting for the 8:15.

So when Douglas told me yesterday that a show he’d been working on had been cancelled and he’d taken the buy-out they were offering him and his colleagues, I said to him: Fantastic!

Getting bought out is the best news he’s had to deal with in ages. Wu Hu! He can now take the cash, travel a bit, visit family back in Canada for a while before taking up a standing offer to return to the station where we met way back in the mid-nineties.

It’ll be the third time in a decade he’s gone back to them, but that’s OK. It not only demonstrates how highly they value his skills, it shows all of us how important it is never to burn your bridges and to remember who your friends are.

cockatoo-hong-kongAnd instead of moaning about another dreary London morning, he’ll once again be able to enjoy breakfast on the terrace in the middle of February amid lush greenery, warm breezes and maybe even the sight of a passing cockatoo before heading out into the sunshine.

Nice life if you can live it.


Don’t panic! A Hong Kong financial tale of greed and fear

Got talking about matters economic and financial this morning on the phone with the brother who speaks my language.  Like millions of others are doing right now, brother Gordon was bemoaning the sudden plunge in the value of his RRSP.   That’s Canadian for 401(k).

He was saying that it looks like he’s shovelling money into a black hole, because every time he checks his balance it has dropped by much more than what he puts in it every month.

“I’m thinking about cashing all the stocks in and simply buying a guaranteed income certificate,” he said.  “That way, at least I’ll stop the bleeding and have  something left when I retire.”

I didn’t have to tell him anything he didn’t know already: that retirement money is for retirement and not for day-trading, that he should just ride it out, and that if the worst happens, we’re all screwed anyway.

Then I told him a little story from my time in Hong Kong.

It was mid-January, 1995.  The Asian financial crisis was still about three years away, but as far as anyone could tell right then, the worst was already happening.  The Hang Seng Index, the leading indicator of shares in Hong Kong, had been falling for months.  A property bubble had burst about a year before, so people who’d bought apartments during the boom years were now being forced to either walk away from deals or face paying out mortgages costing much more than the current value of the flat.  Everyone had stopped buying, apartment prices were crashing, and there was no end to it in sight.

Sound familiar?

Then on January 17, 1995  the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe, Japan.   As the leading market in the region, Tokyo plunged about 1,000 points.  Other markets including Hong Kong spiraled down with it,  the notorious Nick Leeson‘s desperate and ultimately futile attempts in Singapore to prop the Nikkei up in the following weeks led to the collapse of Barings Bank… but that’s another book, movie and talk-show tale.

I remember thinking as I was watching the numbers wither while cutting those famous pictures of the elevated roadway that fell onto its side that any market reaction to this has got to be overdone.  That feeling was reinforced after a Chinese colleague came back to the studios with a quote in English from a stock analyst who’d said: I think the market is headed for the worst period in its history, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to buy stocks right now.”

So the next day I went down to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building in downtown Hong Kong, that breathtaking Norman Foster construction some say looks like the back of a fridge, and headed for the basement where the share trading counters were.  I’d opened a stock account a while before, but had done little trading up to then.

When I got to the counter, an old Chinese lady was at the counter next to me shuffling some papers.  Stealing a glance over her shoulder, I could see they were paper stock certificates in the bank we were standing in: HSBC.   Oh my God, I thought.  Here’s this withered old lady who probably keeps her cash in a shoe box thinking the roof is going to cave in, so she’s selling her stocks in a panic, and I’m down here to buy them.

It wasn’t that long until payday, so I cleaned out my savings account and stuck it all in the bank stock.  I hadn’t been able to save a fortune by then, but I thought what the hell.  Things can’t get much worse than this.

As it turned out, that day was very close to an historical low point for the Hang Seng Index and its leading stock, HSBC.

Ha-hah, I’m such an investment genius, right?  Wrong!

When the market bounced back about 30% only a few month later, I sold the lot, thereby taking in a decent profit but losing out on what has since then turned out to be gains probably 10 times as great.

Moral of the story: you can’t predict the future, but you can make the present one hell of a lot more enjoyable if you quit worrying about it, let go of the greed and fear,  and just go with the flow.  At the end of the day, we’re all dead anyway.

Speaking of withered old ladies in Hong Kong, here’s one with the little red-haired girl, taken on the dock at Lamma Island only days before we left.



Filled with memories

Holidays are on!  First stop is a reunion this weekend with colleagues from the school in Hong Kong where my wife was teaching when I met her in the mid-nineties.  Despite the rather dismissive tone of this earlier post about the whole reunion thing, as the weekend draws nearer I’m actually getting a bit giddy thinking about it.

I won’t be blogging, but this blog will still be updating.  I’ve decided to cobble together a variety of photos and video clips that wouldn’t fit anywhere and have post-dated them to appear every day or so in a light’s-on-nobody’s-home-but-the-zombie kind of way.

So if you leave a comment yet see no reply, you know why.

Today’s photo: A gift we received shortly before leaving Hong Kong.


Things I’ve still not written

Another post about blogging. Sorry, Bruce.

I look at all I’ve written over the past year and a half and can’t complain about not being able to post regularly. Still there’s so much more I’ve wanted to post, but haven’t been able to get around to it.

I wanted to post:

  • At least one write-up of our trip to Mallorca last October, though I could write six. Yes, Mallorca, that German-package-tourist-hell-on-rollerblades. Know what? It was wonderful. Really, it was a great trip. Maybe photos and a few captions will have to do.
  • A supplementary page to A Month in South Africa and Lesotho, because we’ve actually done two months there, but three years apart. The page with photos and write-up is of our more recent trip. The first trip was very different, but still worth writing about.
  • An obituary, a eulogy, a letter I wish I’d written while he was alive to a special person and old friend from Quebec who died back in November, 2007. I got the news three weeks too late to even send something to be read out at his funeral.
  • Another one involving death, this time someone who interviewed and rejected me for a job as reporter at the South China Morning Post in 1994 when I first arrived in Hong Kong. I found out only a few months ago he’d died in 2000, an apparent suicide in London.
  • More on Paris. It was a very multi-layered, multi-textured encounter; a reunion, a look back, a look ahead, a language lesson, a mini second honeymoon.
  • A tragically hilarious account of a trip to Bucharest for work in early April, just before booking off sick for more than a week.
  • A follow-up to a post in January where I promised to later post some translated excerpts of a book I read in French and whose English translation won’t be out until September. A lot of readers said they were looking forward to it. I’ve read the book, but still have to deliver on the follow-up.

Those are just the ones I can name.

I have another two dozen drafts sitting in the queue, waiting for some more bone, blood and flesh. They’re like scraps of paper, really. Sometimes I wish they weren’t stacked up in such a straight, orderly line, because it takes away from the experimental feel to it.

Are two dozen drafts a lot or a few?  Blogging guru Lorelle says you should write your drafts and then publish right away so that your ideas don’t go stale. I think she has a point. The problem with letting things sit around in draft mode is there is no longer any urgency. I can write them anytime, so that’s when they get written: Whenever.

Or maybe I’m just lazy and have been taking the easy way out. Looking over that list, I know that each one of them would be a time-consuming challenge. The eulogy has to have just the right tone. The South Africa and Mallorca travel write-ups involve all that photo sorting and uploading. The Hong Kong/London suicide story might take a couple of telephone calls to sort out an unanswered question or two.

And besides, it’s summer.  Who wants to blog?


So nice to see you after all these years

We’re going to a reunion this summer, a three-day fest on the Rhine gathering together former employees and spouses of Hong Kong’s German-Swiss International School.  My wife was a teacher there in the early nineties, had been for three years before I landed in early 1994, got a job, found a girlfriend, broke up, met K, moved in, married her, had our daughter, quit my job and then moved to Germany.

Along the way I met many of her colleagues, some of whom we’re still friends with after all these years.  Looking over the list the other day of those slated to attend, we smiled and said how much we were looking forward to seeing many people who up to now have existed only in that place and time we filled before moving on.

There are at least a half-dozen I want to have a long catch-up with.  One of K’s girlfriends back in the day will I hope recall an incident barely a week after I’d started going out with K.  The three of us were at a bar somewhere up near The Peak and Karin was wearing a dress that showed off that great figure she still has.  When K went off to get some drinks I turned to her friend and said something like, “damn, she looks fantastic, doesn’t she?”  She gave me this horrified look and spat back, “WHAT did you say?”   With the loud music and her not understanding English very well, she thought I was making a pass at her the moment K’s back was turned.

But as much as I’m looking forward to the reunion, there’s a certain dread about it too.  Not that I might feel like an outsider, because I do know a lot of the people.  It’s just that I know exactly what’s going to happen.  If you’ve ever been to a high school reunion, you know the drill.

Not long after you arrive you’ll see the people you’ve been thinking about all these years and you’ll rush over and greet them.  After the first excitement of recognition has blown by you’ll have the catch-up gab, the what-you-doing-now where-you-been-in-the-meantime chat, the great-to-see-you-again tap on the arm for good measure when you go refill your drink.

It will go on like that until someone gets up to make a speech or the buffet is served.  With any luck the food will be decent and drinks flowing.  By now you’ll have coalesced into groups you used to hang out with ‘way back when, avoiding those you don’t know or only had a superficial relationship with.

The evening will be a pleasant one and it will all end a bit too soon.  If there are events the next day and evening, you’ll enjoy them, basking in the memories and nostalgia which, if the atmosphere is right, will come in bunches.

As the last event draws to a close and everyone drifts off saying their final farewells, there will be hugs and shoulder shakes and thumps on the back, cards swapped, telephone numbers, email, website and blog addresses scribbled on the back of napkins or scraps of paper, and sincere looks exchanged as you look each other in the eye and say, “It’s been so much fun to see you again after all these years.  We must keep in touch.”

But you know what?  You won’t.

EDIT and update:  It was a great time and we’re looking forward to the next one.  Really, it was wonderful.


Memories of Hong Kong on a trip to London

One of the things I used to love about living in Hong Kong took place only about 100 or so metres above it.


Back in the day, the city’s airport used to be a short taxi ride from downtown. The largest planes in the sky would fly west over the waters of Victoria Harbour, turn a half-circle to head east, then descend low through the teeming warren of streets of the Kowloon Peninsula, nearly scraping the six-storey buildings as they screamed past.

On the final approach, after the landing gear had been lowered, the plane would make a quick slicing arc to the right as it passed a beacon, before finally landing on a strip of landfill in the bay. Though there had been fatal accidents over the years, it was a tribute to piloting skills and maybe a bit of sheer dumb luck that in all the time Kai Tak airport was in operation, not one plane landed on top of all those people living just across the road from the start of the runway.

I was sitting in a window seat my first flight into Hong Kong in January, 1994. I’d been told about the landing, that I was in for something spectactular, but I never expected to see what I did. Through the evening darkness, I looked out the window at the buildings slipping past and suddenly in a flash appeared a figure seated at a kitchen table, the glowing blue light from a television set reflected off a pair of glasses like two flickering orbs. It was there and gone in an instant. By the time I tried to see something similar on the next apartment, we were past them and on the way down. I used to love that ride, and on every flight in hoped the winds were right so that would be the approach we’d take.

Why did I think of this on the way into London?

Because once past the motorway wasteland and into the outskirts, sitting on the bus from Stansted airport on the way to Golders Green tube stop I became fascinated with the scenes laid before my window as we drove by. I saw the silhouette of a man wearing a turban, a bedroom plastered with magazine posters, a dining room with an old-fashioned chandelier, a man getting up off the sofa, a shadow creep across a ceiling, curtains ranging from bedsheets to lace.

Whether it was some form of drive-by voyeurism or mere curiosity, I found myself compelled to keep looking, craning my neck to get the shortest of glimpses, somehow trying to peer beyond the mundane to discover something special, discern from that glimpse what sort of life they must live.

© 2008 lettershometoyou

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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