Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hong Kong's old lantern stalls, and why mooncakes are good revolutionary foods

There is still a place in this city where an honest old vendor will sell you a pretty pink paper lantern for three Hong Kong dollars -- that's 38 cents -- and then refuse when you tell him to keep the change, instead pressing a coin into your baby daughter's hand. 
It sometimes feels like the entire city has been torn down and rebuilt again with expensive malls. 
It's all but a miracle that the Chinese lantern shops are still there on Queen's Road West in Sheung Wan, doing brisk trade before the Mid-Autumn Festival.
I am counting down the years before the fashionable Soho neighborhood slouches this far West and does away with them --  when the rents rise out of reach, and small family businesses are replaced by cocktail bars filled with bankers and galleries selling million-dollar paintings.
Until that day comes, you might want to head down to this little pocket of Old Hong Kong. Most of the fashionistas in Soho would never know that it's within walking distance.
Walk to the Western end of Hollywood Road  -- past the galleries, past the antique shops, past that Italian brunch place, until you hit Queen's Road West. Take a left and you will see an old stone wall along the bend of the road. Just past that bend are the lantern shops.
The smallest foldable ones -- the ones we had as children ourselves -- are HK $3 to $5. 
The medium-sized ones -- both traditional paper rabbits, but also modern Angry Birds, Hello Kitties and Doraemons -- are HK $30 to $50. If you really want to splash out, there are some gorgeous large carp-shaped ones with flowing golden tails for a little under HK $100.
Nowadays everyone has gotten into the paper lantern trade -- there are plenty of mass-made ones at the Park N Shop. But I wanted to take my daughter to Sheung Wan to see. To be fair, we got a few lanterns at each of the shops instead of buying at just one.
Our Mid-Autumn Festival festivities begin this evening. I've invited over a Chinese couple with a baby the same age as my daughter.
We're going to have tea and mooncakes in the late afternoon before bringing the kids out with their lanterns. 
But, let's be honest here -- who really likes mooncakes?
As legend goes, a revolution was once won by rebels who secreted messages around in mooncakes. That bit of history points to both Chinese ingenuity and the undesirability of mooncakes as a food. Because -- let's face it -- lard crust, lotus paste and salted duck egg is not a great combination.
The revolt worked because  those message-bearing mooncakes were passed around untouched and uneaten, like  old Christmas fruitcakes. The overthrow of the Mongols never would have worked if it had been chocolate croissants.
This is why mooncakes never spread in popularity overseas like other Chinese foods. It's also why there's such a rush to made modern mooncakes of other flavors, like custard or chocolate.
The couple coming over today, relatively new friends, are from Wuhan and Inner Mongolia -- and I've heard that in the North, they have hard mooncakes, as opposed to our soft Cantonese ones. (Yes, I know that Wuhan is not northern China. But to us Hong Kongers, "North" is simply anywhere north of us.)
I wasn't sure what to serve. Happily, in the small mall near our home, they've set up some stalls for local vendors selling traditional snacks. So I got some flat sesame cakes, almond cookies and 仔, or "little horses," which are kind of like a Cantonese rice krispie treat, with egg noodles pressed into squares with honey. 
It's been a long time since I've seen them hand-cut out of a big slab like this. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Amahs, Ayis and Spoiled Kids

The endless articles about the social problems caused by "little emperors" (and "empresses") always quote doctors, child psychologists and experts.

Whom they should really quote are amahs and ayis, the army of mostly poorer Asian women who are raising these children in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Jakarta, etc.

I have nothing against the use of nannies and house help, so long as the employees are treated and paid fairly as employees (and not like slaves or servants) and the parents themselves are still involved with their children.  

Like most Hong Kong families, we have a Filipina helper, who is lovely. Plus, as Marc and I sometimes work on public holidays or Sundays, we use a part-time Chinese ayi, to ensure that our helper gets her rightful time off.

The stories these women tell about their (usually much richer than me) former employers could out-do any psychologist's report. Of course, most Chinese / Hong Kong parents (and most parents everywhere) are dedicated, loving and display some measure of common sense. 

But there are enough of the other type to create a new generation of little emperors.When you look at the spoiled, selfish behavior of some Asian businesspeople and officials, you have to wonder if the kids brought up like this in the 80s are now hitting their stride professionally.

Note: All these stories come from idle chatter -- "off the record," as a journalist would say. So take them with a grain of salt.

* After waiting a long, hard time to get pregnant, a rich American-Chinese woman finally had a son who was small and weak at birth. 
Already, they had two Filipina maids at home (HK $4,000 or US $500, per month per maid) and added a Chinese "piu yuet" (HK $20,000 or US $2,500).
They also got an RN, a registered nurse,  (HK $30,000 per month) in case he fell ill.
The rule was that there had to be a hired hand with the child 24-hours a day. He has never had a single minute alone with his parents, or alone with himself.
As he grew older, the "pui yuet" and RN were replaced with Chinese ayi, though the 24-hour rule remains.
His parents gave him everything he wanted since they claimed that if he got too upset he would get a fever. The nurses, ayi, etc., all explained that that was medically impossible. (The ayi's view was that his diet of mostly deep-fried American restaurant food was too  氣 -- and while I don't usually believe in TCM, this sounds right to me).
So he got everything he wanted, and it got to be such a disaster that it would take two hours to get a meal into him with cajoling, force-feeding, videos and promises of cookies and sweets.
He's 12 years old now, still with 24-hour care, and his nanny still sleeps in his room with him in case of nightmares. God knows what happens when he hits puberty.

* Another case: The helper's job is the bring the kid to school and back. But instead of being off in between, she has to stand outside the school's gates so that, during recess, she can hand him his toys.

* My own helper used to work for employers -- rich Hong Kong dad, mainland mom -- who made their two Filipina maids sleep on the floor of the kitchen with the family's five dogs. It wasn't because of a lack of space -- they lived in a house (yes, house -- not apartment) in a posh area.
On her first day of kindergarten, their daughter was at a loss because she had never fed herself before. There was always a helper lifting every spoon to her mouth. And while she was obviously toilet trained by that time, she was so used to a helper pulling her pants up and down that she would just stand there in the toilet, waiting for the teacher to undress her.

* A working Hong Kong businesswoman / socialite was always out of the house -- always home late after the kid went to bed, still asleep when the kid went to school, usually away on weekend jaunts. The paid help were basically surrogate parents.
One day, Mom happened to come home in the middle of the afternoon, which was rare. She looked at the pre-teen  in her living room and said, "Oh, you must be one of so-and-so's friends. Make yourself comfortable until she gets here." 
She didn't realize she was speaking to her own daughter, who had just gone through a growth spurt. The daughter was so angry that she didn't speak to mom for a month. Though, as the ayi said, it didn't really matter because they had barely seen each other for more than a year despite living in the same household.

* A pretty  Chinese girl snags a Hong Kong guy from a rich family. She quits her crappy job and becomes a stay-at-home mom, which is usually a noble profession. 
But she doesn't even wake up in the mornings when her kids do -- the helper does that. She doesn't cook and refuses to learn how, so the whole family lives off of take-out. She doesn't help the kids with their homework because she isn't educated, but doesn't want to go back to school. She doesn't take her children to the doctor when they are sick -- that, too, is the helper's job.
When the 4-year-old girl fails to get into an elite kindergarten, she is belittled for being stupid and unworthy.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Hong Kong's education protests

Here are my own amateur iPhone shots from 8:30 or 9 pm, when I stopped by after work.
Organizers say 150,000 have surrounded the Legislative Council to protest the introduction of Chinese national education to local schools. Student leader say they will stay overnight.  I hope they will stay safe and not resort to anything too extreme.
As always, the demonstration was strikingly orderly for its size. I think protesters are so concerned that they will be seen badly that they actually behave better than they do on the MTR, etc, normally.
Volunteers handed out water. Families went with children and the elderly. Crowds even made way on the sidewalk.
Leaving the area, I could hear the cheering and chanting as I walked back down to Admiralty MTR. And this was much earlier in the evening, before the real crowds poured in.


And now for a professional, the always excellent Kin Cheung from The Associated Press.
 I love the way he caught government headquarters looking like a beautiful but cold modern fortress, surrounded by a sea of humanity.