Monday, November 22, 2010

Back in the SAR.

It’s early evening and I’m sitting in my new favourite bar in the Mid-Levels area - The Phoenix. The place is small, quiet and most importantly devoid of Internet access. I’ve found being disconnected from the online world has always been a great source of muse. And besides, it’s Happy Hour.

I’ve been living in Hong Kong for just over two weeks now, and I thought it was about time I posted my observations on the foreign city that has quickly become my new home.

Firstly, for some strange reason, most shops don’t open until around 11am. This has become quite a nuisance for my morning coffee ritual as it means I either need to brew my own at home, or simply wait for lunch. Not that the coffee is overly good here, but it does result in very low alertness levels until after midday. The upside is that you can buy necessities at 9pm…like a dishwasher…in the off chance that your one happens to flood after dinner.

Not only this, but everything in Hong Kong is significantly cheaper than back home. Except rent. A bottle of Veuve Clicquot for example, is about half the price it is in Melbourne, whereas renting a two-bedroom apartment here is approximately double the amount you would pay a month for a terraced house in Fitzroy. You do the math. I did, and bought the damn bottle of bubbly to celebrate my new city of residence.

Let’s talk about the city itself shall we? First of all, the Chinese have a bizarre obsession with everything new and modern. To them, a one hundred year old building is deemed an inconvenience, as the site could potentially hold an apartment block for a thousand people. To combat this, they dismantle the building, brick by brick and move it to a storage facility until they can find a suitable place to resurrect it. Usually somewhere where it won’t hinder future modern developments.

An excellent example of this occurring was in 1982, when the Murray House (previously a barracks) was pulled apart to make way for the impressive Bank of China building. It was finally reassembled nearly 18 years later on the Southern side of the island in Stanley and now houses several tourist-oriented restaurants. Crazy Chinese.

On the topic of construction, this place is really one big construction site. Almost every second building is undergoing renovations and the sound of heavy machinery echoes through the narrow streets of busy Central.

The most amazing part about all of it is Chinese scaffolding. Instead of erecting the seemingly safe and sturdy metal scaffolding that most Westerners use, death-defying workers scurry about on temporary structures made of bamboo, that sometimes completely cover buildings over 30 floors high. Men oblivious to the meaning of fear (a harness is rarely used) hang meters above the ground, lashing the bamboo together using lengths of twine. They look like monkeys scampering through the trees. It’s a real treat to watch.

Speaking of watching (my segue skills are top notch today) a great skill to learn in Hong Kong is how you walk in the streets. Usually I’ll just watch where I am walking; taking care not to trip on a crack in the pavement or step in a puddle of dog piss. Here, you have to watch where everyone else is walking, or you’ll end up in more front-on collisions than foreign tourists on ‘Le Carrousel de l'étoile.’

Personally, I prefer not walking anywhere and instead like to find a nice spot overlooking a crowded area (beer in hand) and simply ‘people-watch’ from the comfort of a chair. This city has such an eclectic mix of Chinese, expatriates and other Asian nationalities that just sitting and observing becomes a very interesting pastime. Funnily enough, The Phoenix happens to be one of those excellent ‘people-watching’ places. I think I’ll close my laptop lid and do that right now…

Monday, November 1, 2010

Turning Chinese.

"Hello again." I say to no-one in particular. "Did you miss me?"


Yep, I'm back. And this time I will be documenting the 5 or so months I am about to spend on China's greatest asset - Hong Kong. But let's start the journey in transit...

I'm sitting in what appears to be an extremely generic American-style sports bar in the furthest corner of Kuala Lumpur airport. It's all rather dull and depressing waiting for a connecting flight and so far all I have to while away the time is to unsuccessfully justify the merits of professional table tennis (and more importantly why I'm still watching it) and to devour what is apparently meant to be 'chicken 'nuggets' but comes across as more of 'deep fried recycled newspaper.' Delicious.

Anyway, as I was saying, I am currently 4 hours into a 6 hour transit from Melbourne to Hong Kong. I'm heading there to work for HK Magazine as an editorial intern, and I'm slightly (read: extremely) excited about the prospect of writing professionally for the first time in, well, ever.

As always this page will be my creative outlet; giving me a place to reflect on the observations, adventures and experiences that happen to me while living in such an incredible city. I hope what I do share inspires others to do exactly the same. Jóutáu.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Ach eye the noo.

‘It’s shite being Scottish.’ Heard this before? Well you’ve obviously read Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – a brilliant novel focusing on a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh during the late ‘80s. Up until now it was the only point of reference I had to Scotland, and a fairly bleak one at that.

It came as somewhat of a surprise then when I found myself on an overnight bus headed for Scotland’s capital with only a small backpack for a final three-day fling before heading home to Australia.

It’s a long 9-hour trip from London, but the fare is cheap and also saves on the cost of accommodation for a night. As is my luck, I had the misfortune to be seated next to an Indian man who thought it was absolutely necessary to talk on his mobile phone while the rest of the bus tried to sleep. He continued a conversation for the next hour or so and it took every ounce of strength not to stuff the ruddy Nokia into his mouth. Instead I put my headphones on my ears, covered my head in my jacket and prayed that his phone ran out of battery before my iPod did. Luckily for him, I managed to nod off to sleep and soon woke at 8am to find myself freezing cold in the middle of Edinburgh.

It really is a charming city, built on the site of an extinct volcano, it has a dark history of war, witch hunts and plenty of whisky. The old part of town has wide cobbled roads all leading off the ‘Royal Mile’ which runs directly through the city from Holyrood Palace all the way to the Edinburgh castle. Surrounding the city is a wall of green hills and rocky outcrops, it gave me a strange feeling of having stepped back in time to the 1800s.

Some interesting first impressions were the realisation that every second shop on the Royal Mile sells tartan something (whether authentic or otherwise), taxi cab drivers have sadistic desires to run people over and you can almost bet you’ll bump into a Buck’s/Hen’s party staggering down the street at 3 in the afternoon.

Luckily first impressions are occasionally wrong.

It was too early to check into our hostel so we thought we’d replenish our energy stores with a hearty Scottish breakfast. We found a small restaurant on the Royal Mile offering a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, mushrooms and haggis for a mere 5 quid. It sounded promising. My travel companion at the time had never heard of Haggis, but I assured her she would enjoy it. The meal came and we devoured it quickly, although I managed to craftily conceal my portion of haggis under my napkin. Once plates were clean my friend turned to me and said ‘Haggis is just like meat pie! What’s it made of?’ I proceeded to inform her of what she had just consumed and needless to say she looked a little green for the rest of the day.

Full of food we decided to take a free walking tour of the city to get our bearings. Our tour guide led us past the usual tourist attractions: the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, Endinburgh Castle and a seemingly endless row of pubs. Images of the next three days started playing out in my head: dark corners, strong whisky, drunken lullabies.

That evening we decided to explore the city some more by taking part in a ghost tour. I was in the mood for getting the pants frightened off me. I’d already downed a couple of drams of Jameson and I was feeling nice and warm in an oversized coat. Our guide was a big giant of man with a grizzly beard (who else to take you on a ghost tour?) and I held hopes of this being a good night. Unfortunately the tour did not have the zing I was looking for. Maybe this is because my idea of a ghost tour involved of us being thrown into the moors ala ‘American Werewolf in Paris’ and having our scary guide tell us bone-chilling tales of murder and poltergeists whilst unknown creatures howled at us from across the marshes. However we did get to explore some graveyards by night albeit with traffic tooting in the background (way to spoil the mood, car.)

The following day we decided to hike up Arthur’s seat, which is situated in Hollyrood Park about 10 minutes walk from the centre of Edinburgh. It was a beautiful day and the walk was spectacular. We joined other tourists, locals and dogs as we made our way up the steep crags to the highest point in the area.

It took a little over an hour and a half but the view was worth the trek. The view is spectacular and you really get a good idea of the layout of central Edinburgh all the way down to the ports of Leith. The grey buildings are surprisingly far from being an eyesore and if anything I find it an endearing quality of the town.

For me Edinburgh was only a small sample of what Scotland has to offer. Unfortunately time restrictions meant that I was unable to explore further north to the Scottish Highlands. However I’ve had a taste (not Haggis) for Tartans and Whisky and shall one day return again. Ach Eye!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Art for Kodak's sake.

You know what really frustrates me? Tourists. Don't get me wrong, I know I'm here as a tourist, and I see my own fair share of the popular sights (I went to Notre Dame twice). What I don't understand is tourists and their obsession with cameras and taking photos of anything even remotely famous – as if by taking this photo they can go home and show everyone how well travelled they are.

Take yesterday for example. I'm in Paris at the moment, and thought I would wander down to the Musee d'Orsay for a few quiet hours of perusing the gallery's Impressionist works. I am yet to see a Van Gough in the flesh, and this was the perfect place to spend a casual Saturday afternoon.

There was no queue to get into the d'Orsay and even as I moved around the gallery I noticed a distinct lack of large crowds. Where was everybody? As I moved upstairs it suddenly dawned on me that some of the 5th floor rooms were dedicated entirely to Van Gogh pieces.

Sure enough as I reached the top floor I heard the distinctive murmur of a room full of people.

Now I know Van Gogh had an excellent eye for colour and technique, but there were rooms full of Renoir's, Monet's and Manet's in other parts of the building, why was everyone so obsessed with this one? What made matters worse was I couldn't stand for two seconds admiring the skilfully applied brushstrokes before two or three Leica/Nikon/Canon lenses were shoved over my shoulder and started snapping away. I was appalled as I watched these people move around to almost every painting taking photos; of the canvas, themselves with the canvas and even their significant other with the canvas. Some even posed like models beside the painting. It’s like they didn’t even care about what they were standing next to. It’s a quick snap and then move on to the next one. Do they even know what they are photographing?

As I scanned the room I realised that other people were doing the same thing with small point-and-shoots and even video cameras.

I was so frustrated that I left the room in haste. As I walked downstairs I thought to myself; shouldn’t art be enjoyed because an individual finds it beautiful or evocative? Have we become so blinded that we only want to see an artwork because it appears on coffee mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads and tea towels? And to make matters worse, it seems that a mental picture is just not enough anymore.

I still vividly remember seeing my first Basquiat. I was in Barcelona and it moved me in a way no other painting has managed to achieve yet. I had to sit down in front of it and admire it for a while. It was by no means his best work, but I could not comprehend that he had stood in the same position I was now, Charlie Parker blaring in the background while he contemplated what to do next. That’s what I call an art experience. I will admit I took a photo of it, but it was the only one from the whole exhibition!

So to be perfectly honest I’m not totally against people taking Kodak moments of some art works, nor I am I going to tell someone to stop. They are free to do whatever they want, just so long as they spend time admiring it first, taking in the finer details and only saving their cameras for the ones they really take real pleasure in. I fear very soon that art may become so transparent that the magic will be forgotten, and people will take these pieces of work at their face value, rather than being awed by its deeper meaning. It would be an absolute travesty.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Terry's World.

It’s just after 9pm on a chilly Thursday evening and I find myself sitting at a square table in a small Bavarian bar down a back street in the heart of Berlin. I feel slightly out of place, due to the unnerving gaze of some of the locals. To the left of me sits Ziggy, a non-English speaking German who enjoys double denim and a cigarette poised constantly in his right hand. To my right is a man who I know slightly more about. His name is Terry Brewer. He dislikes bad grammar and frowns upon people with green hair and rings in their noses. He has taught me more about Germany in two days than any history teacher could achieve in two years.

As we sit chatting over a plate of German sausage and pickles with a side of beer Terry tells me that the last 20 years of his life have all but rolled into one. ‘Where has the time gone?’ he says.

Terry is an interesting character to say the least. He is nearly 74, served in the British Naval Intelligence and has been taking people on his famous Brewer tours of Berlin for over two decades. This means that not only did he see the fall of the Berlin wall, but he’s also seen the gradual rebuilding of neglected infrastructure that has begun to take place over the last 15 odd years. How many tour guides can proudly offer that kind of insight? Probably none, and yet Terry is as humble as anything.

‘It’s weird.’ He says. Barely 3 years ago this was empty land – just piles of rubble or crumbling buildings’ he motions at a large block of offices and housing estates. I struggle to comprehend what this place must have looked like until Terry shows me some photos of the vacant blocks at an information point nearby.

As we walk further around he city it suddenly dawns on me what the people of Berlin have done to this city. They have given new life to an area devastated by war and civil unrest; the Berlin Wall is now an art space, derelict buildings have become studios or live music venues and properties once destroyed by bomb raids are being restored to their original condition. Admittedly this does mean that the whole of Berlin oozes a cold, industrial façade – but this is part of its history. Look beyond these walls though and you find a very complex metropolis. What surprises me the most are the great expanse of glorious parks and gardens. They form islands of green amongst a sea of grey.

In fact it’s incredibly hard to imagine that just over 20 years ago this city was so divided. It seems so peaceful now. Germans mix with Jews (even in Jewish schools), and members of allied countries are living and working here on their own free will. Remnants of past years are all but left to the pages of history and the glass cases of museums. It’s not that Germans are trying to forget the past, they are just moving on. For nearly a century now there has been no palpable way of life. Now they have a chance to show some pride in their country and their once war-torn capital.

I must admit, the locals still aren’t overly friendly, but I think this is a result of being more reserved rather than being a display of arrogance. One thing is clear - they’re certainly not French. As a slight consolation, when you do find a chance to talk with one of them you realise that most of the time their English is impeccable. The only German I know is ‘danke,’ ‘nein!’ and a collection of derogatory swear words. I could still have fluid conversations with all the locals, just so long as I slowed my abnormally fast-paced Australian accent to a coherent and understandable speed.

A waitress comes to remove our plates. Terry says something to her in German and she lets out a laugh. ‘I told her the service was lousy’ he chuckles as she walks away. I shake my head and smile. He is a constant source of amusement.

Terry really is an excellent guide, and I recommend anyone coming to Berlin to partake in one of his many daily tours. He is a wealth of knowledge and explains everything in such detail and with such an enthusiastic demeanour that you can’t help but become fascinated by what he is saying. Occasionally he will repeat himself, but this only adds to the learning process. I am soon infatuated with Berlin and its complicated history. I yearn to know more.

‘I know an awful lot about a lot of things, but I don’t pretend to know everything about everything,’ is Terry’s famous mantra. He repeats it constantly and he means it. He does know an extraordinary amount about Berlin, and the rest of the world for that matter. Just be intelligent and don’t ask an ignorant question is my suggestion. You’ll be praised as a result.

I take two tours with Terry in the seven days I am here. The second one is the most fulfilling. Our contingent consists of a Jewish-American boy that seemed two loaves short of a basket, Terry and myself. We’re being led on ‘The Third Reich’ tour which takes us through understanding the most evil of Hitler’s plans to praising the resilience of the people who opposed him. Terry seems intent on giving the Jewish-American and myself a hard time. We are constantly tested on our general knowledge. He means no harm though. These tours are a great form of entertainment and at the same time a great way to learn Berlin's history.

This expedition is meant to last 4 hours and instead lasts 8. The man can certainly talk. As is customary at the end of the day, Terry invites me to join him for a beer at his favourite bar that he fittingly likes to call ‘his bar.’ I graciously accept. This is where we sit right now.

An evening with Terry could easily turn into a free history lesson. But I soon find out this is no time to talk about Berlin. This is Terry’s down time. We watch non-specific European soccer and I listen to him talk fluent German to his many friends that either regularly frequent the bar or work there. He is well know and well liked. He can communicate in 10 languages. He is a legend in this city and it is an honour to know him really.

After a little while I turn around and find Terry fast asleep in his chair, a half empty glass of beer slowly bubbling away in front of him. I smile. He has had a long day and a longer week. I pay the bill and make a stealthy exit making sure not to wake him.

Please, if you ever find yourself in Berlin, make sure you find Terry. I assure you it will not be a disappointing encounter.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The fix.

You know what most places in Europe have that Melbourne doesn't? Terrible coffee. Like what I did there? Seriously, it's a disgrace. Maybe I was drinking my cup of Joe at all the wrong places or maybe the baristas' were having a bad day, but I just couldn't for the life of me find a decent daily grind.

Now I'm no coffee connoisseur, but I believe I have the capacity to tell a good cuppa from the next. I tried cappuccino, caffe latte and even espresso in over five countries, but all were horrible - even bordering on undrinkable. I thought the Europeans were renowned for their coffee making abilities! I was wrong. I even tried Starbucks...on both sides of the street.

Actually I stand corrected. Today I found my first decent coffee. I was in Berlin, waiting for the Ramones museum to open. I found a homely little cafe called 'Weinerei.' It was a last ditch effort and I put all my chips on the table and bought a double espresso. It was delicious. Perfect temperature with the slightest hint of caramel and chocolate.

This doesn't mean my argument is flawed however. One good espresso over an eleven week period of drinking coffee does not equate to good odds.

Maybe it's because I'm a snob then. A snob that knows nearly nothing about coffee, just one that has been spoilt by Melbourne's selection of marvelous morning mud.

Alliteration aside I make a valid point. Last year Starbucks announced it would be immediately closing 61 of its stores across Australia. It is an extraordinary number, considering it reduced the overall number of stores to just 23. I even did the research on which stores are still open. Queensland has 8, New South Wales 10 and Victoria a mere 5. This leads me to the conclusion that either Brisbane and Melbourne have great coffee or that people from Sydney have no taste. Either way there was something greater than a 'troubled economy' driving the Green Giant away from Melbourne. I know what it was. Do you?

I even found an anonymous quote that stated 'In America you can buy bucket-sized cups of coffee in any flavour you like other than coffee-flavour.' Hilarious. Case closed.

I'm sorry, I had to get that off my chest. It's me bothering me for weeks.

To end this brief rant I just want to say one thing: Melbourne, as far as I'm concerned, makes the best coffee in the world. Cherish it. Think about it next time you travel abroad. You will long for it dearly.

I will happily talk to anyone who feels they can prove me wrong. I think I have a certain friend in New York who may like to discuss this topic further...

Until next time, espresso yourself.


Monday, September 14, 2009