Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Call it karma or joss or whatever, but I don't want to end my 2009 blogging on that last miserable note.
So here's a little photo tribute to many of the good things I have in life -- my lovely family, both human and feline, which grew with the addition of a lovely sister-in-law. My good job, my nice home. I should be very grateful.
I hope my readers have a healthy, happy 2010.

Dad carving the Boxing Day turkey at a family reunion at my uncle's house with two dozen relatives.

Marc the Metrosexual, dressed appropriately in Ralph Lauren Polo pink, on one of our book-filled holidays.
A bunch of colleagues who somehow made working on Christmas bearable, even fun. (This is what we do before deadline when the grown-ups, ahem, bosses, are not around.)

And a reminder for resolutions to come. Yes, that is actually my ridiculous Shredding set-up. I set up my laptop in the spare room and pop in the DVD using Hugo's (totally unused) scratching post as a stand. I use filled water bottles as weights. (Getting proper weights is on my 2010 to-do list).
Then the cat promptly falls asleep on my yoga mat. Hugo never did get the point of exercise.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sick

2009 was not the healthiest year. There was a family matter that was costly, time-consuming and upsetting. Then my grandma fell and broke her hip.
Even my blogging friends aren't in great shape: Speaking of hips, Gweipo has done something to hers. BKK Dreamer has a chest cold.
***
Me, I have bronchitis. Which is better than my brother, who has pneumonia.
At the doctor's office yesterday, I bumped into one of my cousins and his 2-year-old son, who was wearing a face mask.
Hong Kong has alot of respiratory problems. While SARS, swine flu, or hum-drum colds are not caused by pollution, I'm sure that dirty air (not to mention stress levels and year-round freezing air con) cause a collective lowered resistance.
Sometimes, I read these post-apocalyptic, Man-has-destroyed-the-Earth short stories and wonder. (On a tangent, there's a particularly harrowing short story in The New Yorker this week.)
When I was a kid, coughing all the time was not normal. Now it is. Wearing a facemask in public was not normal. Now it is. Friends here and in China, once outraged, have resigned themselves to appalling pollution as a part of life.
If we keep adapting ourselves to our increasingly screwed up environment, might we not notice when it's gone too far?
***
I'm not sure why people in my office (including me) insist on dragging ourselves in while we're sick. We sit in our cubicles, suffering and taking medicine at our desks.
Why? I work for a liberal foreign company, so there's no fussiness with HR and doctor's notes. No boss makes us feel guilty or pressures us to come in if we are unwell.
I think it's because we know we're short-staffed and we all like each other. If I'm out, there will probably be nobody to replace me, but the paper still has to get out. So each sick day I take puts pressure on my workmates.
I took off yesterday and today. Tomorrow (New Year's Eve) is my day off anyway. I suspect I'll be back at work on Friday.
***
I had a cold a couple weeks ago. A minor cough lingered. I have adult-onset asthma, so that's typical.
On Saturday, I spent Boxing Day with my extended family in the New Territories. I felt fine except for the cough. Actually, I had a great time.
But it got worse at the office on Monday. By the end of my shift, I wasn't quite thinking straight. (I later realized I was feverish).
Monday night was terrible. I coughed so much that I moved myself to the couch, since I wasn't sleeping anyway and didn't want to disturb Marc.
A friend of mine, who has spent much time in hospitals, once described asthmatics as "noisy." It's true. We make quite a racket.
Early Tuesday morning, Marc asked if I had to be taken to hospital, but I said no.
I've had two hospital-grade asthma attacks -- one in Montreal in the mid-90s, and one in Hong Kong in the early 2000s -- and this was not even close.
An asthmatic's hacking and wheezing can sound alarming to the uninitiated. But I was well within the range of being OK.
I don't go to the hospital unless I can't breathe and want to be hooked up to that mask-machine thingie.
Unless you're a critical case, hospitals just don't give good service. Some strange doctor on the graveyard shift sees you for two seconds, says you have a bad cold, and gives you a big bag of medicine.
I prefer to see my GP, Dr. Edmond Cheong, who has treated me for almost a decade. I had to wait till 5pm, but it was worth it.
***
Thankfully, my insurance covers my doctor's fees and medicines.
But it won't pay for my inhalers, since they treat a chronic pre-existing condition.
It's ridiculous. The drugs they pay for -- painkillers, cough syrup, decongestant, lozenges -- are basically there to relieve symptoms.
The inhalers are key: They are what keep air flowing through my lungs.
In fact, moderate use of inhalers through the year -- when I have a cold, flu or allergies -- is a good way of preventing big blow-ups like bronchitis.
That said, inhalers are not expensive -- HK $160, or about US $20, for two that last me more than a year.
***
I have basic flu symptoms: sore throat, runny nose, achy muscles, fatigue, lack of appetite. I can deal with that.
What bothers me is the cough. I think it's more fear than physical discomfort. There is very little chance I'm going back to where I was before, but the thought of another asthma flare up -- like years ago, when I'd be sick on and off for months -- frightens me.
***
Yesterday, I had a fever of about 38.5 C (I think that's a bit over 101F).
I did a technique my mom used when we were kids. (Only she made this horribly bitter tea that made you sweat. I'm clueless about Chinese medicine, so I skipped that part.)
I drank a ton of hot water, turned the heat on and bundled myself in a T-shirt, flannel PJs, a bathrobe and duvet. I slept on and off until I was all gross and sweaty. Ew. But it did force my fever to break this morning.
***
Addendum: Crap. Actually, I am feverish again. It just went down temporarily. Should I try to sweat it out a second time?
***
I was going to continue my happy family Christmas series. So sorry for this rather miserable interlude.
I hope all of you have a healthier 2010!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Part 1: The Shopping Mall

Since I worked on Dec. 23, my plan was to let a gourmet supermarket do the heavy lifting for Christmas Eve lunch.
So I went to the Three-Sixty at Elements. (Astoundingly, the Kowloon cabbie didn't know "Elements" in English.)
Also astoundingly, this overpriced, chi-chi shop (which was swarming with tourists) didn't carry the most basic cooked foods, which you can find at any of its Hong Kong Island counterparts, like GREAT, CitySuper and Oliver's.
They had roast chicken. But no hot potatoes, vegetables or traditional soups (I was hoping for split-pea, Dad's favorite). Heck, they didn't even have those microwavable tubs of mash. What's up with the weird Asian stuff? "Chinese caterpillar soup" on Christmas? Kowloon is truly The Dark Side.
Forget it. We'll just eat out.
***
Just as I was getting read to leave Elements, Mall Panic / In-Born Chinese Guilt Complex overtook me. My family promised we would go easy on spending this year. The gifts would be largely symbolic.
But, really. Was a small LeSportsac backpack enough for Dad? A bottle of Dior foundation enough for Mom? These guys bought us a flat-screen TV when we moved into our flat. And Marc and I are well-paid professionals with no kids. (Marc doesn't do family prezzies, so all the gifts I buy for my folks are considered joint efforts).
Back to the mall I went.
At Metro Books, I bought a copy of “Chinese Civilization Revisited,” by Xiao Jiansheng, which takes a look at the Chinese dynasties from a modern-day perspective. (I wrote it about it in my article about banned Chinese books sold in Hong Kong). That was for Dad.
Good 'ol Clinique came in handy for an extra lipstick and blush for Mom, and metrosexual grooming products for Marc.
You've got to give it to Hong Kong shopgirls. Everything was beautifully wrapped. And quick.
***
"Never mind about lunch," Mom said later. "I have some discounted ham from Park N Shop. We can make sandwiches."
"No, no, no," I said. "That won't do."
"We can go to Cafe de Coral," she suggested, which is like a Chinese-food McDonalds.
"No, no, no. Of all the days of the year I'm not going to eat a 'rice box' out of a Styrofoam container."
So Mom, Dad, my brother Will, sister-in-law Iris and I ventured into Olympian City, which is another mall, this one connected to my flat. (That's Hong Kong life -- there's alot of shopping mall involved).
I tried Double Star for the first time. I cringed at Iris's description of it -- "a chain serving Western food for Cantonese people" -- but it was pretty nice.
Cushy leatherette seats, chandeliers, waiters in suits, O.K. food.
The salad was crisp, the soup was hot, the pasta al dente, and the portions big. Eel may not be a typical pizza topping, but one can forgive. They had a token Emergency Chinese Mother Selection of pork noodle soup, which Mom enjoyed.
Since it's pretty local, all our mains came at random times. This is not correct for Western food, but makes sense for Chinese food, which is eaten communally.
"Let's get wine," I said.
When a Chinese person says this, particularly a female Chinese person, the presumption is that she is being polite. It never occurs to anyone that she might actually want to consume alcohol for pleasure's sake.
"No, no," Mom said. "Don't waste money." (Meaning, my gweilo husband wasn't there, so we didn't have to order wine for "face")
We settled on a HK $88 (U.S. $11) half-bottle of Chilean cabernet sauvignon, split between five people, which meant we got about an inch each.
When I ordered, the waiter looked at his watch, not without a hint of judgment.
I knew why. On The Dark Side (with the exception of the few nice hotels in T.S.T.), alcohol is supposed to be some hip, nighttime order served by a scantily clad "beer girl." Or, in this case, "wine girl", in a Santa hat, miniskirt and bleached hair. I guess they must have called her out early just for us.
I shouldn't be too hard on her. She did figure out the corkscrew once Dad showed her how it worked.
A generous Christmas lunch for five -- including starters, mains, a wee bit of wine, and coffee -- came to under H.K. $500, or U.S. $50something. That's the price for a boozy gweilo lunch for one in Central.
And we had a nice time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Liu Xiaobo: Not a happy Christmas for everyone

Working on Christmas isn't perfect, but Marc and I are used to it, being in the news and hotel industries.
Marc's wonderful staff at the Holiday Inn (who've been busy feeding President Arroyo and, like, half the Philippine government) helped organize a ham and trimmings for the IHT newsroom dinner, since just about my whole office will be in.
My colleagues brought in baked yams, homemade pies and cookies, cakes, Champagne and wine. So if you see a few typos in the paper tomorrow...
***
It's good that someone is keeping an eye on the news.
The viewing / reading general public is famously easily distracted, particularly this time of year. Important stories slip by when everyone's thinking about vacations, presents, holiday meals and that mad woman who tried to jump the Pope.
So let Joyceyland remind you that Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) one of China's most prominent democracy activists, was sentenced to 11 years in jail today for writing about democracy.
On Christmas, when all those pesky Western nations are busy celebrating.
***
Liu's lawyer said earlier that he thought the hearing would be open to the public. Ha. Either he was insanely optimistic, or was just saying that for the media.
Of course it wasn't.
For a long time, even Liu's own lawyers couldn't access him. His wife wasn't allowed near the courtroom. His brother did attend the hearing on Wednesday but, weirdly, was not allowed to take notes. Some protesters made it nearby, but others were stopped at home or en route. Foreign diplomats who were told they could attend were told there was "no room." Like all the chairs were full?
Liu's crime is calling for open elections and free speech, and for being a co-author of Charter 08.
In what little coverage there was of this online on the mainland, people tend to nit and pick over the Charter. But, honestly, it doesn't matter if you agree or even like it.
So long as something doesn't advocate violence or is a direct threat to the nation's leader (like those racist plots to kill Obama in America), voicing an opinion should be legal.
***
Random trivia: Liu and I (and, like, half of China) share a family name. The reason they're spelled differently is because "Lau" is from Cantonese romanization. On the mainland, I'm called Miss Liu.
***
As China's other industries rush forward -- from infrastructure to manufacturing, from hotels to skyscrapers -- the news media feels like it's moving backwards.
Liu's case is not some some odd exception. From blocking the Internet and jailing dissidents, to controlling newspapers and TV broadcasts, China is considered one of the world's most censorious states.
Just keeping track of the jailings is dizzying.
Not long ago, Huang Qi (黃琦)was sentenced to three years in prison for helping parents press the Sichuan government after their children were killed in shoddily-built schools that collapsed during the earthquake.
He was convicted of having "state secrets", though there was no proof he had anything of the sort. His "trial" lasted 10 minutes.
China had a pre-set plot for the quake: A terrible natural disaster happened, and the brave PLA rushed in. The Chinese helped each other, and there was a flood of charity money like the nation had never seen.
This story is true. Troops did do a good job, and the Chinese did rally to help victims. But any tiny blotch to ruin the tale -- like one noisy guy still seeking compensation for grieving parents -- had to be removed.
***
2009 hasn't been a good year for news reporters.
There was the massacre in the Philippines in which a ruling family in the south had 57 people executed and buried in a ditch. Many were critical of the local rulers, but some were just unlucky bystanders.
Of these, an estimated 16 to 22 were journalists.
A while back, I wondered why China ranked so lowly in media freedom rankings, since -- at the very least -- it doesn't kill people.
Maybe because China is very organized -- and spends huge amounts of resources -- blocking the news. The coverage is more curtailed.
Other nations may be more violent, but there is not such a frighteningly huge infrastructure to block information.
Filipino journalists can criticize their governments openly. But sometimes, they die.
In China, nobody dies, but nobody can say anything either.
I guess it's a fight for the bottom.
***
In a (relatively) bright note, Sami al-Hajj of Al Jazerra, the only journalist among the 779 known detainees at Guantanamo Bay, has moved on to being a high-profile human rights correspondent.
He was in jail for seven years without a charge, which is unspeakably terrible.
Thank God his case is an aberration, since America has one of the freest medias I have ever seen.
That, of course, doesn't take away from the horror of his personal situation. I can't tell you how relieved I am that Obama is moving to close Gitmo. It's a shame that a country with so much freedom can have its image brought down by one facility.
Hajj picked up his life and moved on. He even took on his own personal demons, and produced a six-part expose on the prison.
It's hard for me to express how much admiration I have for people like him. God forbid, if I went through what he did, would I be able to turn around and produce a documentary about it?
It's easy for me to write about press freedom and rights, snuggled on the comfort of my Hong Kong living room couch, or in the office at my good job, knowing that the police won't bang down my door in the middle of the night.
***
So it's a bittersweet Christmas.
I had a wonderful celebration with my family yesterday, including a Christmas Eve lunch, wrapped presents and stockings. It will be nice to celebrate with my colleagues tonight, even if we have to work.
Tomorrow, Boxing Day, we're having a huge family reunion with 26 relatives in my ancestral village.
While we're living the good life, we should take a moment to think of the less fortunate.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

All I Want for Christmas...









I will never be as good as person as Hong Blog. His family gave up Christmas gifts and use the money instead for charity.
I will never be as good as Gweipo's daughter, who took her gift money to buy food for the poor.
In my family, we have to exchange stuff. Maybe it's a Chinese face thing. You want to show your love? Buy something. A donation of a heifer to a poor person in Africa probably doesn't count.
***
My family, who have been hassling me to tell them what I want, are probably rolling their eyes that this post is coming on Dec. 22.
Here are some small things that might be nice.
* A rosemany plant to add to my fledging (O.K., dying) windowsill "herb garden."
* Dark chocolate and ginger cookies from Marks and Spencer. Mint crunchy things from See's. I like chocolates that have something bitter, sour or spicy to offset the sugar. Marc the Metrosexual says this is very British. The French are not big on gingery / minty sweets.
* Moleskin notebooks.
* Yet another plain black cardi. There are two holes in my Club Monaco one. My DKNY one is falling apart.
***
I love books, but people don't buy them for me, because I'm famously picky. The last winner what this HUGE hardcover collection of all of The New Yorker cartoons from the beginning of time. Dear Old Dad carried all 147 pounds of it on the plane.

I'm disappointed in myself. Of The New York Times top-100 books of 2009, I've only read two. Two. Kazuo Ishiguro's "Nocturnes," a let-down of a short story collection from a usually good writer; and Margaret Atwood's "Year of the Flood," which I loved.
Sometimes I wonder if the NYT lists are there just to make me feel illiterate. "The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn." Really?
Here are two I would like:
"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel. The Man Booker Prize this year, about Thomas Cromwell in the bloody court of Henry VIII.
"My Father's Tears: And Other Stories" by John Updike, in which he "grapples with the effects of aging, disease and death."
Merry Christmas, eh? My family find my tastes obscure and depressing.
No wonder my parents buy me coffee table books.
***
In the tradition of buying laundry hampers as romantic gifts, here are some ideas on the home-front.
A small oven-proof casserole for making two-person frittatas.
Some cheesecloth.
A rolling pin and Christmas-shaped cookie cutters. Though now that I think about it, I would need them before Christmas.
Marc the Metrosexual wants a Dyson vacuum cleaner. I didn't even know designer vacuum cleaners existed. I checked it out at Lane Crawford and it costs HK $5,000. That's U.S. $600. We don't even have carpeting. For that money, I can hire a Filipina amah to pick the lint off our wood floors by hand.
I'm going to file that in the same category as the magic mashed-potato-making machine that Marc wanted last year.
There are other things on our list: Bedsheets that are not from IKEA and don't have holes in them. An oven with actual temperature control.
***
Earlier this month, I did finally buy that Agnes B. trench as a Christmas present to myself.
***
I say I don't want anything big, but that's the practical side of me talking. The other part of me daydreams about the sorts of things I don't need, and would never buy for myself.
Two pairs of stud earrings. One with bright green jade, one with single large pearls. Simple. Circular. No dangly or sparkly things.
A full-length black silk cheongsam, God knows where I'd wear it.
A long orange summer dress I saw in the Hermes window in Paris.
A chocolate brown woven-leather Bottega Veneta bag.
A Chanel suit. I'd wear it till the end of my days.
And how about travel? I want to see South Africa and Russia.
I want to go home to Montreal, in the summer during the jazz festival. I'd feed Marc foie gras poutine at Au Pied de Cochon.
I want to take him to the Great Barrier Reef. I want to take my Mom to the Harrod's Food Hall in London. I want to send my Dad on a cruise. I want a riding vacation in Europe with daily private lessons so I can finally learn to canter and jump.
Hmmm. Is there a Christmas present that can take me away from real life for a while?
It doesn't take long for my fantasy to turn from "What I Want for Christmas" to "What If I Won The Lottery."
****
What I really want is a pony. I've wanted one since I was a kid. Growing up in Connecticut, I used to draw pictures of ponies, which my mom would tape to the wooden door in the kitchen leading down to the basement.
It wasn't until adulthood -- when I was in England a few years ago -- that I had the chance to learn how to ride.
So I get a pony. Then what? Where would he live? Certainly not a Hong Kong flat.
Pony needs a home with lots of land. And stables. Like a renovated manor house in England or France. (France has the advantage of being warmer, though it is full of French people).
It will have a fireplace and a library. A real library. Not the two IKEA Billy bookcases that Marc so romantically calls the "bibliotecque."
***
Speaking of fantasies, who has a manor home without a butler? I'll name him Jeeves.
Jeeves would probably be elderly and not care for Pony, so I will need a stablehand, too, preferably a hunky one.
Now that I think about it, my rural idyll seems incomplete without a dog.
How about one of those big, black Canadian Newfoundland dogs? I'll name him Newfie.
Pony, Newfie, Marc the Metrosexual, Hugo the Cat, Jeeves the Butler and The Hunky Stable-Hand -- we can all gather 'round the roaring fire, sipping sherry out of cut-crystal glasses.
Merry Christmas everyone!

*Images from www.veggiegardeningtips.com, www.moleskin.com, www.netaporter.com, www.dyson.com, www.hungryinhogtown.com and www.bigskygypsy.com.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hong Kong stories: Obnoxious richsters and drunk tourists

Don't know what's going on recently. Is all of Hong Kong lurching around in a coked-up, drunken stupor? Or am I just getting old and grumpy?
Here are some stories I've heard recently.
* Some details have been changed to protect the inebriated.
***
An American colleague and I closed up shop after midnight on Friday. Outside our office -- in an area next to the North Point Ferry Pier that's deserted at night -- we saw a man laying face down on the sidewalk.
"Are you hurt?" I asked in Cantonese. He didn't answer, though he moved and grunted, so we knew he was conscious.
We were afraid to touch him. He had broken his glasses and was bleeding from the face.
Another passerby stopped to help. There we were, three office ladies in the middle of the night, looking in our purses for extra tissues. (Though, obviously, a lack of Tempo packets was the least of this guy's problems.)
My American colleague got a guard from our office building. While Hong Kong building security usually drives me mad, they do come in handy sometimes.
The portly, kindly night-shift guy shouted to him in Mandarin.
This got him up. He was probably a mainlander, which is why he hadn't understood anything I said.
He staggered into a sitting position, wiping his face with his bloody hand. He was obviously hammered, which was baffling, since there are barely any bars or clubs nearby.
Then he sprang up and put up his fists, speaking garbled Putonghua. He threw a mock punch in the direction of the security guy -- not to hit him, but like a warning. More security people came.
The other lady quickly left. My colleague and I shared a cab. We wanted to get out of there.
This is what Hong Kongers would call "maah faan." Nobody wants to get too involved in someone else's messy problems.
***
One of my colleagues, a Hong Kong lady, was at a Kowloon MTR station after an evening shift when she saw a drunk man roll all the way down one of those escalators. (They are really long escalators). She rang 999 and MTR security came.
Maybe because he wasn't a priority case like a heart attack, it took a long time for the ambulance to arrive. They even rang my friend for directions. (To an MTR station? Really? Do our ambulances not have GPS?)
***
A gweilo friend who is always helping everyone out -- nickname: the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees -- was cabbing it home from a bar late one night.
There was a fender-bender with a car in front. Probably a Mercedes which, in Hong Kong, we call a "Ben-zee."
A typical Hong Kong Richster (that would be "rich + hipster") gets out and starts beating the geriatric, humiliated cabbie. He slaps him across the face.
Mr. Commissioner yells out of the backseat window and tries to break up the fight.
He also catches the Richster's license plate number on his iPhone.
The cabbie was so shaken that Mr. Commissioner thought he should take him to the bar for a few stiff drinks, but worried the gesture would be taken the wrong way. So they drove to the police station instead.
Amazingly, the Richster is caught and, I think, kept in jail a few nights.
****
The upside to Hong Kong's clean independent police and courts: Our system will generally stand up to protect the dignity of the little old guy cabbie, even against a rich hotshot.
The downside: The mechanisms needed to keep things fair create alot of bureaucracy. In order to have charges pressed against the Richster, Mr. Commissioner and the cabbie had to go through form-filling, questioning and even a suspect line-up. If they really push, it will involve translators, lawyers and courts.
Mr. Commissioner is a busy man and probably won't follow this case up. After all, the Richster didn't rob anyone or hurt anyone seriously. And he did spend his night in jail.
***
What do you think?
If you saw a bleeding mainlander on the sidewalk, a drunk Hong Konger rolling down the stairs, or an elderly cabbie getting beat up -- What would you do?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Political correctness ruins Christmas

From Reuters in Sydney: "Santa Claus needs to lose weight, cut down on the mince pies and brandy and swap his reindeer and sleigh for a bicycle to become a healthier role model for children, an Australian public health doctor said."
"Dr. Nathan Grills of Monash University believes the current image of Santa promotes obesity, drink-driving and speeding."
It's for real, people. Dr. Grills published a paper in the British Medical Journal entitled ‘‘Santa Claus: A public health pariah?"
***
Dear Santa,
I have been a good girl this year.
All I want is for you to stop disrupting international air space with your erratic, drunken sleigh-riding.
And please travel with bio-degradable plastic baggies to scoop up your reindeer droppings. The last thing this world needs are frozen animal feces dropping from the sky.
While we're at it, is that real white fur trim? It would surely hurt your "brand" if children discovered Father Christmas hacking polar bears and baby harp seals to death for the sake of fashion.
We would also like to send a labor organizer to your elves' workshop. Are they making minimum wage? Unionized? Do you use ergonomically correct wooden hammers?
We fear that your lack of green building materials is adding to the melting of the polar caps.
And what about Mrs. Claus, that classic symbol of male oppression? Why should you, in your paternalistic arrogance, roam the Earth while she's stuck at home baking cookies?
Speaking of cookies, for the first time since my childhood, I will not be leaving milk and sweets out next the hearth for you.
You heard Dr. Nathan Grills, Tubby. No extra calories for you.
I've had enough of your judgmental "naughty or nice" lists, not to mention your materialistic gift-giving in the name of a hegemonic Western religion.
Sincerely,
Joyceyland

Happy (end of) Hanukkah. And latke recipe.

I was reading the NYT/IHT website and came across Hanukkah recipes. Check out the photo slide show of Jewish holiday foods. This is what my colleagues call "food porn." Cheese danishes, potato pancakes, apple cake, oh my.
This is how much I love food. Just that made me feel nostalgic for the foods I ate in North America, but can't find easily here. Like onion rolls. Or challah (a twisty egg bread).
Very obviously, we are not Jewish. There is no Jewish mom or grandma or home-cooked Hanukkah meal to pull at my heart-strings. In fact, I'm a little nervous blogging about Hanukkah because I know almost nothing about it, except that it involves Jews, candles and food.
***
I had a soft spot for traditional delis in Montreal, which were originally run by Jewish families. Cheap, homey foods like peppery smoked meat on rye bread with mustard, or crisp sesame-encrusted bagels still warm from the 24-hour bakery.
Same goes for delis in New York, where I sometimes visited. That's where to get those bigger, breadier American bagels, topped with smoked salmon, cream cheese, thinly sliced red onion and capers. They didn't use that fat-free, spreadable, supermarket cream cheese that I now buy in Hong Kong, either.
***
I have a random memory of an all-night diner in Montreal, a bit old-school, a bit tacky, lit up with florescent lights against those dark, snowy nights, like a Canadian Edward Hopper "Nighthawks." (That was how I saw it then. Back when I was young and romantic, wore alot of black and peppered my talk with art references).
I was a student at McGill. A weary, possibly Eastern European waitress would serve me black coffee and blintzes, which are thin pancakes, lightly fried. I always had the blueberry ones, with sour cream on the side. A white cheese filling was another option. I remember them distinctly.
I would have one, followed by a cigarette, since these were the days when you could still smoke everywhere.
The caffeine was ostensibly so I could stay up all night studying; but I probably just sat there, trying to feel cool.
***
I tried my hand at latkes, which are potato pancakes for Hanukkah. They were for a Jewish colleague of mine. He doesn't seem particularly religious, but I think he appreciated the gesture.
I'm not particularly traditionally Chinese. But when I was living overseas, it was nice when someone acknowledged Chinese New Year, or if my family were around to have a Chinese meal.
***
I set aside too little time yesterday morning. I thought I could whip them up in 20, 30 minutes, then still have time to Shred before work. Ha.
The recipe looked simple enough.
1. Grate 2 lbs (about 1 kilo) potatoes
2. Remove excess moisture
3. Mix in 1 chopped onion and 2 eggs.
4. Drop into hot oil and fry as small patties.
5. Eat with sour cream and / or apple sauce.

Some recipes call for putting the potatoes into cold water as you grate to prevent them from turning color. I skipped this step because
1. It doesn't take THAT long to grate 2 lbs of potatoes, even if you do them by hand like me.
2. Most sane, modern people use food processors.
3. Who cares if they turn color? They're going to be browned in hot oil anyway.
4. The idea of adding water, then wringing all the water out again, seemed particularly torturous.

I've baked, roasted, boiled and mashed before. But until I shredded, I never knew how much liquid a potato can hold. Getting the moisture out was hell.
This is my technique. I...
1. Picked up big handfuls of shredded potato and tried wringing them out like a wet towel.
2. Put the potato shreds in various strainers and sieves, balanced over bowls and pots to catch the moisture.
3. Spread all of it out on paper towels to dry.
4. Poured off the top of the liquid so I could extract the leftover potato starch, which I mixed back into the potato.
5. Mercilessly threw away any bits of potato that clung moistly, stubbornly, to the paper towels, sieves, bowls, etc. There's alot of wastage. Latke making requires a dash of ruthlessness.

Then there was the frying. Each latke is small, flat and delicate. I could only fit about 4 at a time in my big frying pan, and 2-3 in my wok. Flipping them without breaking them took some skill. (If there ever is a next time, I might add an extra egg. My mixture didn't bind very well.)
It takes ALOT of oil. Those of you who come to Joyceyland seeking healthy recipes should avert your eyes from this one. Also many paper towels to soak up said oil after frying. Also kvetching. That word is Jewish, isn't it?
I had two gas burners going for about half an hour on full blast. My kitchen got uncomfortably hot.
About half way through, I was tempted to give up and just make a giant hash brown with the remainder, but I didn't.
Anyway, they turned out well. My office ate all 2lbs-plus, with sides of sour cream that my colleague brought it. (No gweilo ingredients at my local Park n Shop!)
So everyone was happy. But I probably won't be making them again soon.
Happy Hanukkah everyone!
***
P.S. Via the Privilege blog, I found Accordions and Lace. That's where a real Jewish person (i.e. someone who knows what she's talking about) has a great, and far more detailed, post about Hanukkah foods. She calls it "The Festival of Grease." There's lots of food stuff on that site. No wonder. She's a native Montrealer, like me.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Random question on cruising

No. Not that kind of cruising.
Has anyone ever been on one of the Costa Classica cruises, particularly the one between Hong Kong and Taiwan? Let me know how it is. Luxurious? Quiet? Good food?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hong Kong won! Is that a tinge of patriotism I feel?

Photo by AP, via www.scmp.com

I'm no sports fan. And while I love Hong Kong, I can't say I'm usually patriotic, at least not in the usual flag-waving way.
But, hey. Hong Kong won something! We won the football gold medal in the East Asian Games as the home team!
I know it's not the Olympics or World Cup. But, ever since that windsurfing lady retired, Hong Kong hasn't won much. Unless you count snooker. Or that round in the Olympic horse show jumping that a Hong Konger won but, mysteriously, didn't count. Or competitive not-walking-in-a-straight-line at the mall.
***
Marc the Metrosexual and I saw people at the IFC gathered around flat-screen TVs in front of an electronics shop window. (Standing around watching TV in public places is another odd Hong Kong habit).
There was a roar of victory. Fists thrust into the air. The screens showed crowds gone wild at Hong Kong Stadium -- something we never see. (Unless it's the annual Rugby 7s. And then it's just drunk foreigners).
An enormous Hong Kong flag -- bright red with a white bauhinia flower -- floated over the crowd. Pretty girls, sweetly outfitted with their shiny black hair in coils, held the medals.
The people in the mall were really excited. A man, rapt with attention, held an infant. A little boy ran around celebrating. An old woman -- OK, maybe I'm getting old and soft -- I swear she was teary eyed.
Marc and I got into a taxi and the cabbie had the game on AT FULL VOLUME. For once, I didn't complain about the audial assault.
"We won!" I said, clapping.
"We won!" he said. "Gold!"
***
Hong Kong is a small place in the world.
While significant and affluent, we are also a small place in greater China. We're a little island of a free society next to the world's largest Communist nation. And that's not always the most comfortable place to be.
That's why, unfortunately, most Hong Kong local pride is tagged to unhappy events.
Every year, when I go to the elegant, mass candlelight for Tiananmen Square crackdown victims, there is a big show of local pride there. "See?" we trying to say. "We're a free society. We can mourn our dead. This is what sets us aside from the mainland."
Same with July 1, the awkwardly named Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day, known us laymen as Handover Day. Some call it Hong Kong Day, but is it really that? There are mixed feelings. Some like the pomp and circumstance of parades. Others are a bit freaked that the parades are the People's Liberation Army.
There is also usually a mass pro-democracy march, and I think the Hong Kong pride is greater at that.
Hong Kong is not a very athletic city. But I think that's the reason Hong Kongers reacted with such overwhelming joy is because we finally have something non-political and upbeat that we can all share in and be proud of.
Too often since the handover, we've been made to feel like the underdog, or that our unique dialect and culture are being eroded away. This little celebration is good for us.
***
Back to the soccer, with reports taken from the SCMP and RTHK. (I'll never be a sports writer).
"Hong Kong shocked a young Japan side in the final of the football competition at the East Asian Games, winning 4-2 on penalties in front of a sell-out 40,000 crowd."
"The match had finished 1-1 after extra-time at the Hong Kong Stadium.
Wong Chin Hung's winning penalty kick sparked off wild celebrations inside the stadium after Otsuka and Suzuki had both missed for Japan. "

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama gets the Nobel Peace Prize

You can read all you want ahead of a news event, but you never know what you're going to feel at the time.
I'm watching the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on TV right now, in the IHT newsroom, and I am really touched, maybe a little excited.
I'm glad there was healthy skepticism over his choice, because I think those debates are good. I'm glad people have questioned whether the leader of a country at war should be awarded a prize for peace. It's a good way of bringing the wasteful, long, violent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan into public view.
Unless you're living somewhere like China, you can doubt or criticize your president -- and the prizes he wins -- without having your website censored, or getting thrown into jail.
I, too, had doubts whether this award was premature; but nobody ever said the Peace Prize's choices were perfect.
I hate to think that identity politics still matter, but they do. By taking on the U.S. political establishment and winning a very unlikely presidential campaign, Obama did away with much of baggage of American history -- centuries of black slavery and racism.
Technically, he did not win for becoming president. The committee said it awarded him for international diplomacy, cooperation between people and anti-nuclear weapons work.
He will give his cash prize to charity.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas gift for Bonkers

One of my (failed) resolutions was to alternate serious posts (news, media, censorship, work) with light ones (recipes, cat photos, shopping). Recently, I've been lax at the serious stuff. And here I go again.
Here's a video present for Bonkers in Hongkers for taking such a personal interest in my cat.
Usually I am against dressing up animals. But this kitty Santa Claus hat was a gift from a colleague who tried, and failed, to get her Beijing-based cats to like it.
The irony is that I, the professional journalist who has read something like 5,000 words of pre-coverage on the Copenhagen talks for work, is blogging about the cat. Marc, the professional chef, is writing about climate change.
***
I'm not sure if this is more embarrassing for me, or Hugo.
My parents are always asking when I'm going to move into TV. (More glamorous than print, I presume.) But I hate the way I look and sound on video. I can't even listen to my own radio broadcast.
My, that dress is unflattering. It was a gift, years ago, from a relative who had another relative who worked at the Burberry factory in China. Maybe I should stop wearing it so much.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Diet recipes for foodies

Hugo is unimpressed by health food. Click to enlarge.

I had a healthy day yesterday: I ate three decent meals. I had no junk food or fast food. I exercised.
Hurray! Now I know the secret. All I have to do is quit my job! Then I can dedicate entire days preparing a healthy breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner according to Jillian Michael's online food plan.
OK, it didn't take all day. But when you factor in lugging groceries home, washing, cooking, doing dishes -- three meals take time. IOn work days, I'd have to get up early to Shred, then pack lunch and dinner in advance to bring to the office.
That said, I'm pleasantly surprised by Jillian. As a foodie, I'm usually suspicious of recipes by fitness-y people, much less "diet plans."
Happily, sanely, hers doesn't
rule out any major food group. There is, in limited quantity, bread. Cheese. The odd cookie. I don't have to peel the skin off my fish like a dieting fascist. Or deny myself toast in the morning.
She calls it the Eat Less Diet. Makes sense. Aside from top athletes, most people don't need complex rules about glycemic indexes or carb-protein pyramids; they just need to eat less crap.
***
Breakfast is hearty: A bowl of cereal plus a three-egg egg-white omelet with cheese. A slice of vegetable quiche with toast and fruit.
Lunch is a sandwich or salad.
Afternoon snacks are biscuits, fruit, nuts or yoghurt, for those of us with sweet teeth or the munchies. (I have both.)
Dinner is meat, veggies, and sometimes a healthy carb, like brown rice of wheat pasta.
Ironically, her plan has me eating more during the day, not less.
You eat more in the morning, because you're going to be expending energy all day. If you have cravings for sweets or snacks, you sate that in the afternoon in a sane, moderate way.
You don't skip meals and find yourself famished at 11pm, then have mac 'n cheese from a box and leftover chocolate cake, washed down with wine, a cigarette stolen from your husband, and half a sleeping tablet.
(She's also against toxins like caffeine, booze, smokes and pills. But, hey. I have to get through my day somehow).
* Note: My diet takes into account that I am a 5'1", 30-something woman who sits in an office all day. If you are a young 6'2" American cowboy, you'd probably die on 1200-1500 calories.
***
Here are a few of her recipes, modified by me.
Jillian prefers whole wheat flour, but I don't have that at home. Plus, she uses cooking spray, and I use plain old oil.
These get my foodie stamp of approval. And they're quick and easy.

Egg florentine
(breakfast for one)
Place on a toasted English muffin:
One thin slice turkey or ham
Big handful baby spinach leaves, sauteed with garlic and a little olive oil, until wilted
A tomato slice
A poached egg
Sea salt flakes and fresh-ground black pepper

There's no photo because, in my morning fogginess, I screwed up poaching an egg. For some fuzzy-brained reason, I continued stirring the water after I put the egg in, as if making egg-drop soup.
In my continuing stupidity, I tried to save it with a slotted spoon, which made things worse.
So I fried another egg. Then I broke the yolk again.
Speaking of yolks, this one was a beauty-- a gorgeous bright orange, like the brown farm eggs we got in Connecticut when I was a kid.
I know it's indulgent and wasteful for me to buy imported free-range, organic eggs from England or Australia, but the wimpy, watery, pale yolks of Chinese eggs drive me crazy.

Cheese-y pancake-y things (breakfast, lunch or brunch, pictured above)

Serves two
In a bowl, mix until just combined:
one egg, beaten
1/2 cup low-fat onion/chive cottage cheese (or, plain cottage cheese with fresh chives)
1/4 skim milk
1/2 cup self-rising flour (or regular flour with 1/2 tsp baking soda)
Fry in a little oil on medium-high heat in a non-stick pan.
It's best to do two batches of two or three pancakes each. So you can spread them out nice and thin.
Sprinkle with sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Garnish with herbs.
Serve with big side salad.

Jillian's original recipe was actually a sweet breakfast-y one, with honey and berries. But I realized I actually bought onion/chive-flavored cottage cheese, which would be a disgusting combination. So I changed it to a savory dish.
I didn't think this would work. It seemed like too high a proportion of liquid to dry ingredients. I was worried it would go all watery in the pan. Or that cottage cheese would make it lumpy. But it didn't.
I don't know if the cheese melts or what, but the result was a good, smooth texture. It browned on the outside (but not too much, because I was using less oil than usual) and was soft and a pancakey-spongey on the inside (I mean "spongey" in the best possible way).
It's like a very light cheese fritter. Even Marc liked it, though he said it wasn't very strongly cheese flavored.

Asian salmon (for dinner)
Serves two
Fry two salmon fillets, skin-side down, in vegetable oil (not olive oil) on medium-high heat in non-stick pan
Use a spatula to make sure skin doesn't stick
In a bowl, combine 2 tbsp rice wine, 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp grated ginger
When the skin is brown and the flesh almost cooked (but still dark pink inside) flip over.
Pour sauce in and let reduce, about a minute.
(Don't pour the sauce right on top of the skin, or it will go soft. Don't put the sauce in too early, or it will caramelize and burn.)
After you plate, spoon on sauce from the pan.
Serve with lots of steamed Chinese vegetable (like baby bok choy) and 1 C brown rice each.
***
Jillian's original recipe -- in fact, most of her recipes -- involve broiling, which is great if you have a big American oven. Hong Kongers with tiny kitchens and a crap oven-- or no oven -- would throw everything in a wok, which is what I do, even if it requires a tad bit more oil.
I skipped several ingredients in original recipe (chili, toasted sesame seeds, miso paste). But I doubled the amount of the other ingredients (rice wine, soy and ginger). Maybe it's the Cantonese in me that wanted a few clear flavors. Maybe it was too much fuss. And I couldn't find miso paste at TASTE.
I made it for my parents, and it passed the Chinese Mother Test.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Obama, the war, and a glint of personal happiness











Photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times. From global.nytimes.com


Maybe it's all those endorphins from the new exercise, but I felt happy today.
For the first time in a while, I really enjoyed reading all our stories and feel proud of the newspaper we write, edit and design.
Don't get me wrong. I am generally proud of what we do. But it's easy to get dragged down by the daily grind of deadlines, budget cuts and long hours. Newsrooms are usually pretty glum, sarcastic places. Plus, this week, everyone is sharing the same miserable cold/flu.
So, sometimes, I drag through the stories. They either don't personally interest me, or the whole thing is just too much.
As I've blogged abefore, 8, 9, hours of death and destruction can be hard emotionally. It's nice to have a nice day.
***
In the meeting where we discuss our page 1 choices, we talked about how big the Obama/ Afghan story was, compared to the climate talk stuff.
I have smart colleagues, so it's nice when we get a good, healthy discussion going.
***
Obama wants to pour in lots more troops now, so the U.S. can eventually get out earlier. His goal is to hit the war hard and fast. (As opposed to sloppy and prolonged, as it was under Bush. Can you believe it's been on EIGHT years?)
***
I think Obama's Afghan decision may be the biggest of his presidency.
World leaders have been made -- or broken -- by grand decisions on war. Three years from now, we may look back and see, in retrospect, that this was the most significant thing he did.
Or the worst thing he did.
In any case, it's a big deal.
***
The front page due out tomorrow morning (Thursday) looks great.
(Not thanks to me, but our talented page 1 editor).
He designed a long, horizontal photo of Obama with what looks like spotlights behind him. Below are smaller photos -- of U.S. military students who might fight in Afghanistan someday, and anti-war protesters against the war.
The viewer's eye would move over these three images and -- in a glance -- get three different viewpoints.
Something else I like: We have different views. One columnist said he was absolutely against Obama's move. Other articles in the news section are not so critical.
(Could you imagine a Chinese newspaper running several articles about something Hu Jintao did -- one taking a pro-stance,one taking an anti-stance?)
***
Because of technical reasons, we had more room for articles in the Thursday paper, which causes grumbling in the newsroom, because it means more work.
But it also means more for the reader to read.
In terms of density, I've always thought of the IHT as the newspaper equivalent of The New Yorker.
I always bring The New Yorker on flights because it's very thin, but absolutely packed with words. It can last me hours. (The opposite would be Vogue, which is giant, but takes 15 minutes)
The IHT is thin -- 20, 24 pages? But it's jammed packed -- lots of articles, long articles, dense, concise writing.
A friend joked that he started reading one of our essays and, when his Hong Kong-Singapore flight landed, he was just finishing it. (OK, our articles aren't that long)
The length is by design. After all, if you just wanted quick, superficial news flashes, you'd check the BBC or CNN websites. It's only newspapers and magazines that can give deeper analysis.
***
This is what we decided on.
Page 1: Obama/Afghan. The environmental talks.
On the hard side: Pakistan had yet another attack. Iran frees British soldiers.
On the light side: A feature on oyster farming in Texas. A rare upbeat report on Iraq filmmakers turning bomb sites into movie screening areas.
In Asia: The Japanese prime minister's new troubles. A quirky American woman who has joined the unwashed masses to be a campaigner seeking justice in Beijing. (Actually, this came from the AP).
Then there's the weird health story on why people keep repeating ourselves, and why we forget what stories we've told to whom. (Impending senility, I presume.)
***
I hope this didn't come off as an IHT infomercial. (That wasn't the point).
Joyceyland readers can let me know if these "insider's views of a newsroom" posts are of any interest at all.
***
I already know what's going in the paper tomorrow. But I still like picking it up in the morning and reading it over coffee. Habit, I guess.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Shred": Jillian Michaels is kicking my arse.

No, it's not the Twelve Days of Christmas. It's My 17 Days of Exercise.

Nov. 17 -- Honestly, can't remember. Probably nothing.
Nov. 18 -- Nothing.
Nov. 19, Exercise Day #7 -- Horse riding. (45-minutes of rising trot is hard!)
Nov. 20, #8 -- Ran, but not far
Nov. 21, #9 -- Circuit training, i.e. "Shredding"
Nov. 22, # 10 -- Shred
Nov. 23, #11 -- Shred
Nov. 24, #12 -- Shred
Nov. 25, #13 -- Shred
Nov. 26 -- No exercise. Made giant chocolate cake instead.
Nov. 27, #14 -- Horse riding. Also leftover cake eating.
Nov. 28, #15 -- Shred
Nov. 29 -- Exercising before my Sunday morning shift? Forget it.
Nov. 30, #16 -- Shred
Dec. 1, #17 -- Shred

I'm glad I marked my exercise on Joyceyland. Otherwise, I'd lose track entirely. When I get busy, days blur into each other.
I exercised 17 out of 22 days.
I hope this initial burst of motivation will ultimately be habit-forming.
****
The challenge was more of a scheduling one, and less a physical one.
I'm proud of myself for finding time.
One day, I didn't think I'd make it, since I had a morning interview in Wanchai and then a normal workday, which goes till 9pm. But, I set my alarm, woke up early and did it.
A downside: I'm more rushed in the morning and am cabbing it more often to work, which must stop for money reasons. Now that I've carved 30 minutes into every morning, let's see if I can schedule it even better.
***
The "circuit training" is new.
I'm a little embarrassed to say I ordered Jillian Michaels' Shred video from Amazon. (She's at left, and also the screaming lady from The Biggest Loser video posted below).
Ten years ago, I was too cool to use a home exercise video. But, as old age creeps in, I have become less self-conscious.
I guess I don't like the idea of fitness videos, because I hate perky.
Perky body parts are OK.
Perky people: Ugh. Blonde American T.V. women in matching pastel outfits and giant white teeth doing cutesy aerobics dances to cheesy music.
****
But I like Jillian. She may seem a bit mean, but I need a little mean to motivate me. Her workouts are concise; they're designed to get as much done in as little time possible. Her theory is that it's better to suffer 20 minutes, than spend hours slumping inefficiently on a treadmill. (Sounds familiar...)
Timewise, it's great. I don't need to change, commute or sign in at a gym. Hell, I don't even need to put on shoes. The whole thing, including setting up and stretching, takes 30 minutes. No matter how busy I am, I can't convince myself that I don't have half an hour.
Each workout switches back and forth rapidly between cardio, weights and abs.
Some exercises are comfortingly old-fashioned: jumping jacks, skipping rope, push-ups.
***
Maybe I'm out of shape, or maybe this is just a tough work-out, but on day 1, I couldn't do a single push-up. Jillian Michaels was seriously kicking my arse.
By day 4, I could do a few girlie push-ups, like the ones on your knees.
By day 5, I added very light weights. (Actually, I used filled one-liter water bottles).
But Jillian Michaels is still kicking my ass. I'm only on level 1. Levels 2 and 3 must be killer.
****
As my exercise role model, Jillian is about 5'2" and 120 pounds, which is not crazy anorexic runway-model-sized, but Joycey-sized (and approximately Gweipo sized?)
She has meat on her bones. (OK, I don't want to be quite so, uh, muscular. Jillian looks like she could beat up every Canto-pop star in town with her little finger.)
But she still has a butt and boobs, and they don't look fake.
I like that. I certainly wouldn't want to starve / exercise away my better assets.
***
I want to make a habit of using my body and getting fit, instead of just sitting in front of a computer.
While it would be a welcome side-effect, I'm not doing all this exercise in the name of weight loss.
In fact, despite my increased ability to do push-ups, I haven't lost a pound. (I'm going to blame Thanksgiving dinner for that.)
Let's be realistic. A short workout might burn, what? 200 calories? 300? That's one Snickers. One sandwich. One bowl of cereal.
If I wanted to be a stick-figure, which is so en vogue in Hong Kong, I would just skip lunch instead of sweating it out every morning.