Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Trip to the Far East


I have just returned from my travels through Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. It was my first time to Asia since I went to Thailand almost 10 years ago. I went for work and flew business class. I must say, business class is the only way to fly when going that distance. It's a 15 hour flight, but I was situated in my own little cocoon that turns into a bed with a tv that plays music, over 50 movies and tv shows, and food and wine to die for. I slept for about 5 hours at a time, drank Grand Cru Bordeaux and watched Batman Begins, Back to the Future and Raising Arizona. Funny, I don't remember it ever making me sad in the past, but I cried when Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter return Nathan Jr to his crib at the end. God, the Coen Brothers are great.

I had only one day to myself and that was in Hong Kong. Most of the day was spent looking at shops (not for fun, it's work related), but I did get to experience a lot of the local color surrounding me. I woke up with only a little over 4 hours of sleep (I don't seem to sleep much these days), and ate from a large breakfast buffet in the cathedral-ceilinged dining room of my hotel. Natural light from an overcast morning softly washed over me as I ate an omelette and fruit to the sounds of Brian Eno's Apollo soundtrack playing from the speakers above. Pretty much everyone around me is here on business as well. Lots of suits and power breakfasts. I hop in a cab and take it to the pier where I hop on a ferry across the harbour to Kowloon. The ferry was a lot like New York's Staten Island Ferry, but not as long (and super cheap-about 25 cents). I'm fortunate that almost everyone in Hong Kong speaks english. In fact, my entire trip language was not an issue. Lots of english speaking peoples in that part of the world.

I split off from my work-related route to walk down Nathan Rd for a bit. Only one block from the area's high-fashion district, Nathan Rd is a strong contrast with its crowded, neon-lit vendors, twisting alleys with dirt-smudged buildings towering precariously above. This is a big migrant area with people from Pakistan, India, and West Africa. Everyone's trying to hustle me, selling watches, cell phones and cheap suits. Even though I'm a tourist trying to observe my surroundings and taking pictures, I can't stop for long for fear of being accosted.

I see Chungking Mansions (they call the projects mansions here), depicted in Wong Kar Wai's film, Chungking Express. I wander through its halls that are filled with transitory occupants setting up shops and money-exchange booths. As I escape a tall man asks me when I was born and if I wanted my palm read. No thanks.

One funny note; although the sidewalks are jam-packed with people pushing and shoving without regard, once they reach the crosswalk they stop. They wait patiently for the light to turn green, not even jay walking if there are no cars coming. Chaos and order.

Later that night I ride the Peak Tram. The tram was built by the British (well, designed by the British, built by the back-breaking Chinese labour) and climbs at a maddingly-steep slope up to the tallest peak, towering over the city below. This tram has been running continuously since 1884 with few accidents. The pitch is steeper than any roller coaster I've been on. I was amazed. Once atop the peak, the view is overwhelming. Imagine looking down on New York City from a mountain top perched in Central Park. That's what it's like. And then, a few steps behind me you look on the other side of the peak and witness a beautiful, tree-filled valley, pouring into the sea below. I stay until dark and Hong Kong sparkles below, silent and mesmerizing.

Hong Kong from the Peak

The other side

Back in town, I eat at Tsui Wah restaurant, which is essentially a diner, and eat curried pork. Unfortunately I must note here that restaurants don't serve water. They only drink tea and if you ask for water they give you hot water (which tastes like bath water, gross). So I'm eating this spicy, salty food with no water. Something else funny that happened, and I don't know if this is a cultural thing or if this guy was just rude, but a man joins his friend's table next to me and just grabs my other chair without asking. I didn't mind, but noted how back home the person would probably politely ask if my chair is taken first. The lights are bright and leave a sickly green tint to my skin, so I finish my food quickly and leave.

Ok, skipping to Singapore. Flying over Singapore I gaze at the harbour below and see hundreds of super tankers and cargo vessels scattered across the water. I've never seen so many large ships in one place before and am informed that Singapore is the most active port in the world. Like Hong Kong, Singapore is a very international city with people from all over Asia, America, and Europe. By the way, a lot of hot women waking around in the skimpiest outfits. I was with work colleagues so I was trying not to be too obvious looking. Although later, after having experienced more of Singapore I wonder how many of these women were 'professionals.'

Soon I learn that most Asian countries work 6 day weeks (Saturday is usually a half-day). Man, I mean, I work a lot too, but that sucks. I really like having two days off in a row. Seriously, how do you have time to relax? Most of the men there have a wife and kids, but they also have a girlfriend or two on the side. It's almost expected. Weird. And a lot of men in Singapore grow their pinky fingernails long. I'm not sure why, but someone told me it was to pick earwax out of their ears. Uh...yeah.

Raffles Hotel, Singapore

One hard days night I went downstairs to get a drink. I couldn't find the bar at first, but then a woman about my age asked me if I would walk her into the club downstairs because, as a guest, I could get in for free plus one. Sure, why not. I let her in and then she asked where I was from and I said New York. She excitedly exclaimed she was going to New York in a couple months and could she have my email address and contact me when there? Mmmm, "no", sorry.

Confused, I walked up to the bar to get a drink. The bartenders are rude and it took me forever to get a drink. As I turn to look around it dawns on me. About 90% of the women here are prostitutes. Preying on all the western men that
make up the other half of the club. I got approached a couple times, but sorta made friends with a girl from Thailand who went by the name of Rose. She probably named herself after her dress, which was covered in black-knit roses on a white backdrop. She was cute and we just talked and flirted. I think she just enjoyed talking to me and not having to worry about 'working' because I made it known at the beginning that I wasn't there for that. I also talked to the band, who was hired by an agent in LA and was in contract to play at hotels and clubs around Singapore and Hong Kong for 9 months. They were from the US and Canada and had only just met after arriving in Singapore a few days before their first gig. It was really great hanging out and talking to fellow musicians from the States and I think they were happy to see me too. They had only just arrived a few weeks before so their journey had only just begun. I wonder how they might change if I were to return 6 months later.

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

By the time I was in Kuala Lumpur I was getting a little sick and tired. Besides, KL wasn't as nice as Hong Kong or Singapore. It's just hot and, being a Muslim country, conservative. Although it was cool to hear the call to prayer every morning and evening. Such a beautiful, almost sad style of singing. I think Malaysia is known for its beautiful tropical islands, not its cities. Although the food was really good. Another time I'll hopefully be able to see the beaches.

1 comment:

M.L. Carlin said...

Great photos JB. I am also enjoying your rapidly evolving blog style - it's getting more conversational and bloggy (in a good way). Was that too meta and nerdy to comment on the blog itself rather than the content? Well, it's too late now...