Happy 2009 from Hong Kong!

If you find this video a little lacking consider also that it cost me about four thousand bucks to shoot!

It’s my own fault, really… I should have secured myself a better viewing spot for the famous Hong Kong Harbour fireworks show  much earlier in the evening. As it happened, I walked out of my hotel at around 11:45pm and could only get about ten steps towards the water before a sea of other revellers stopped me dead in my tracks. Here’s as far as I got, courtesy of Nokia Maps:

Fireworks Vantage Point
Fireworks Vantage Point

Of course I’m not just here to ring in 2009 some thirteen hours before my friends back in Toronto… More posts are on the way — in the meantime, check in on my dedicated Flickr set for the story so far.

Shanghai Rewind: Day Eight

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(A recap of my China adventures from Monday, August 28th…)

The photo above (courtesy of Jian Shuo Wang) shows one of Shanghai’s many cheap and cheerful taxis, instrumental in getting LinLyn and I through the crucial last mile (more like last block) from the People’s Square subway station to our hotel on the day of our arrival. Because it was such a hassle transferring from the Maglev to the subway on our way in, we decided to forgo the 430 km/h train ride and take a cab all the way to the airport for our departure.

And wouldn’t you know it, we get the one cab in all of Shanghai in desperate need of a tune-up.

It started on the highway when we noticed that every other vehicle on the road was passing us, honking madly as they roared by. I thought at first the driver was just trying to save gas by keeping the engine speed low, but it seemed after a while that the car was shuddering between only its second and third gears. We couldn’t really ask what was up, because (1) we didn’t speak Chinese, and (2) the driver spent most of the journey coughing into his kerchief. All we could do was wonder which would give out first—man or machine!

We eventually puttered into Pudong International Airport, and once our bags were checked did some last minute duty-free shopping. I spied a book called Chinese in Plain English. I thumbed through it briefly and got the English translation for the Mandarin phrase Wah-jr dao—it means “I know”.

This instantly explained a show I had seen on TV the night before. Just like back home Chinese television has been infected by reality shows, and American Idol knock-offs are no exception. The twist is that a lot of the performer/contestants are kids—six year-old kids, even! One of these young crooners, shall we say a rather husky lad, was being interviewed by the show’s presenter, who started pinching the kid’s chubby cheeks. The kid replied “Wah-jr dao!” and the audience laughed. Then the host started rubbing the kid’s belly, to which the kid replied “Wah-jr dao!” and the audience laughed again. Then the kid sticks out his own ass and shouts (you guessed it) “Wah-jr dao!”, and hilarity ensued. Look for the pilot episode of “Fat Camp Pre-Tween Idol” coming to our airwaves next season…

Speaking of TV it’s worth noting that the spindly tentacles of Just For Laughs Gags have extended all the way to Pudong Airport. It was playing full volume in the departure lounge, and worse, people were laughing along with it. Ugh.

Our flight home was delayed about twenty minutes by a raging thunderstorm that had forced the closure of the airport’s main runway. LinLyn and I were very fortunate that this was the only significant rain of our entire trip. Maybe Shanghai was sad to see us go and couldn’t hold back the tears until we left?

Yeah, probably not…

Shanghai Rewind: Day Seven

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(A recap of my China adventures from Sunday, August 27th…)

It seemed like the very patient housekeeping staff at our hotel were consistently kept waiting for us to get up and out of our room, but on this, out last full day in Shanghai, LinLyn and I were actually ready to eat about an hour before our planned place of eating was even open for business—the ”best brunch in the world” at the Shanghai Westin Hotel. It would have cost us about $40 CAD each, so we were quite happy to have the free buffet at our hotel. No champagne or lobster, just honest eggs and some fresh-baked bread.

Our first stop of the day was literally across the street at the Shanghai Urban Planning Centre. I had read in my handy Time Out guide that the building featured a huge scale model of the city as it would look in 2010 for the World Expo, and we were maybe just a little disappointed with what greeted us in the lobby. Little did we know that the real deal was just above our heads on the second and third floors.

Also upstairs was an installation where we were treated to a 360-degree computer generated fly-though of the entire city. You know how a baby reacts with surprise and delight to a bright and shiny new rattle when they see it for the first time? This experience was kind of like a giant rattle, for adults. China in the ‘00s feels a lot like America would have in the ‘50s, and even with concerns about pollution, human rights and the like it’s kind of hard not getting caught up in the utopia that is Shanghai’s very near future!

We eventually left the air-conditioned comfort of the Urban Planning Centre in search of the square in People’s Square. You can see it from space, in the Google Maps fly-through that I previously posted, or if you’re really lazy, at the top of this post. People’s Square is in actual fact a lot bigger than it looks from space, and in the forty-plus degree heat it was a bugger to find… But I did it.

What my photos and Google Earth won’t show you is that underneath People’s Square is a labyrinth of underground shops, known to locals as “D-Mall”. We tried to find the way back to our hotel through there but got lost so many times we finally gave up the air-con and headed back into the sweltering heat to navigate by surface streets. As a reward I treated myself to a Dairy Queen pineapple shake—an idea which must have been planted in my head from the previous day.

By this time it was mid-afternoon, and LinLyn and I split up for the first time since we had arrived—her to buy a pair of shoes at Raffles and me to score some more dummy mobiles at Cybermart. Both of our side-trips were a bust, although LinLyn still managed to find some footwear to spend money on, even if they weren’t the shoes she wanted.

😉

Sadly, the last day of our trip ended in a pickpocket attempt, and it wasn’t East Asians but South Asians who were responsible.

Here’s how it went down: I was trying to take LinLyn on foot to a souvenir joint known (somewhat ironically) as “The Friendship Store”. It was supposed to be on The Bund, but the further we walked south towards the address the funkier our surroundings got. While crossing a darkened pedestrian overpass I suddenly felt my messenger bag move ever so slightly of its own accord. I whirled around instantly to see this kid of maybe fourteen behind me, quickly jerking his guilty arm upwards behind his head, like he was combing with his hair, but without a comb. As he continued past me on his way I whacked him hard as I could on his back—much like what had happened to me last summer when I learned the phrase mi camera es roteras in Peru. He turned around and I accused him (in English) of what he was obviously guilty of. Either he was really bad at playing dumb or was honestly hearing the words “You”, “try”, “pickpocket” and “me” for the very first time, because that’s all he repeated back to me as he slowly retreated to join his fellow urchins. I soon regretted not snatching the side bag the kid was carrying on his shoulder, as I could have been a hero for reuniting my fellow tourists with whatever ill-gotten goods were inside that thing. As it happened we just turned around and went back to our hotel, as there was a distinct lack of friendship in the air in that particular corner of town…

Shanghai Rewind: Day Six

(A recap of my China adventures from Saturday, August 26th…)

You can’t really spend a Saturday in China without trying some local dim sum, and the locally-famous Crystal Jade didn’t disappoint. We arrived without a reservation and were seated at a long table with other diners in the swanky eatery, which was done up even fancier than your typical Spring Rolls in Toronto.

The food was great, but what we’ll always remember is the creepy American guy sitting across from us with much younger (think high school) Japanese “friend”. After spending more time eyeing LinLyn than his own menu out he struck up a conversation, telling us that he was a professor and that he and female companion had flown in from Japan for a weekend vacation. Uh-huh…

Fortunately for us we were almost finished at that point, and after making our getaway we went for a stroll up the quaint laneways of Xintiandi proper, marvelling at the air conditioning units that were set up to cool people—outside!

A quick cab ride then brought us to the Temple of the City God and Yu Gardens. This is the number one destination for visitors to Shanghai and it showed; a Dairy Queen and Starbucks front and centre while the historical stuff was a bit harder to find amidst all the hawkers. We did eventually find an entrance to Yu Gardens, but it was as crowded as it was outside—maybe even more so, to which the video above will attest.

Yu Gardens couldn’t deliver the oasis we had hoped for, but the bar in The Grand Hyatt saved the day. Here, high above the Huangpu River LinLyn was able to score some olde tyme Coke bottles with Chinese writing on them (which she collects) and we met our new friend Duncan, staff manager for the hotel’s ten or so eat and/or drinkeries. He confirmed my suspicions that thinly-veiled sex tourism is still often the norm for pasty white middle-aged guys like myself—thereby explaining the creepy American and “friend” at dim sum and my run-in with a working girl the day before—and told us a little bit about his life as an ex-pat in Shanghai. With the hotel located on the top floors of the Jin Mao Tower, LinLyn and I can say now more than ever that we have friends in high places, hyuk.

With the dinner hour approaching we made our way back to our own modest digs and took a meandering route to Raffles City for dinner. On the way there I found some Docomodake keitai charms in an open-air market and over at Raffles we found an awesome curry house, much better than where we had eaten the night before.

Shanghai Rewind: Day Five

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(A recap of our China adventures on Friday, August 25th…)

Having denied ourselves any napping the day before we were able to get an early start and make the breakfast buffet at the J.W. Marriott. The western-style grub was great and wonderfully presented; can’t say the same for the western-style hotel guests, though. Their attire started the bland trappings of “business casual” and went downhill from there. Way downhill.

After breakfast we re-traced our steps through the west end of Nanjing Road in order to find a building known as “Fashion Mall”, which I had read about in this helpful blog. It’s known to locals (and savvy tourists) as a good spot for fakes, and sure enough not two steps in I got pulled into a stall to look at fancy designer watches out of someone’s gym bag. I didn’t really want anything so I made a ridiculously low offer on one of them—like, twenty bucks Canadian—which was unfortunately accepted. The deal was hampered a bit by passing police officers, who made the merchandise instantly disappear and forced a awkward discussion of the weather for a moment or two. But once the coppers were out of sight I became the proud owner of a Rolex watch, which hasn’t worked since I left the store.

Previous experience in Beijing’s Silk Alley has taught me the fine art of bartering, and while my travel partner was initially disgusted with the concept in short order she had me doing the haggling for her. One of the shopkeepers offered to take us in back for a gym bag-full of cheap DVDs, and while we didn’t buy anything pirated (because of course Hollywood produces nothing but stellar movies that are absolutely worth the over-inflated prices they charge for their copy-protected discs!) we couldn’t resist getting a couple of copies of Sideways 2, pictured above.

We also topped up on some more kitschy souvenirs, but the constant cries of “Hello, hello! Bag/watch/DVD!” eventually wore us down, so we dumped our stuff back at the hotel then set out to get some post cards at a bookstore nearby.

It was here, on the Nanjing Road promenade, that a working girl walked up to me in broad daylight to offer her services. She was taller than me and a bit intimidating—I knew instantly what was up by the way she grabbed my arm, and sure enough, when I pointed out my girlfriend just up the road her mousy colleague who was trailing a few steps behind made herself known by giggling “I guess there will be no opportunities for you”, and pulling her friend off into the crowd. I wonder if they ever hire themselves out as a pair…

Over at the bookstore I was given a demo of some Windows software that uses speech-to-text to teach Mandarin Chinese. I had test driven an electronic translator at Cybermart the day before, writing some dumb thing like “can you tell me where Dongtai Lu Market is”, then passing it over to the person hawking it to read. And of course he couldn’t. Since this computer program seemed like less of a scam I took the plunge and brought it home with me, where it’s been sitting unopened on a shelf ever since.

Later that afternoon and into the evening we surveyed an area once known as The French Concession, featuring boutiques of local designers and a Shanghai Tang. And on the way back to the hotel we had an unremarkable dinner at a fast food curry joint before turning in for the night.