Saturday, March 25, 2006

I Love Hong Kong: Kowloon Edition

I've said my piece about Hong Kong's Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong Island was great and very scenic, I really enjoyed it. As much as I liked it, though, I thought the Kowloon district was much, much better. I can definitely imagine living there in the future.

The first thing I noticed was the Kowloon is much more international than Shanghai. There's a variety of different nationalities, at a quick look I noticed large numbers of Indians and Pakistania, Americans, British, Thais, and Filipinos. I don't want to claim it's some multi-racial paradise - it seems like there's essentially no integration to Hong Kong, you won't see a table of Indians and Chinese and Haoles sitting together. However it did lead to a larger variety of sites than in Shanghai. For instance, Indian women were all wearing traditional Indian clothing, kind of interesting. The picture on the left shows a storefront window for such clothes, and you also saw Indian restaurants, Indian stores, and this rather large mosque:

OK to bring up stereotypes: having lived in the SF Bay Area, with Indian American friends, I think of Southern Asians as likely being involved in the IT field, and fairly wealthy. It was kind of strange to see South Asians as the ghetto-ized underclass to the city. When I wandered what seemed to be the center of Kowloon's Indian population, I was offered drugs time after time, and to be honest the area seemed a little scary. So why did I wander the area?

Yes that's right, it's the same "Chungking" that lent its name to Wong Kar Wai's 3rd best movie (after the amazing "Days of Being Wild" and "In the Mood For Love"). It increased my respect for the movie, especially the first half - walking around the apartments and the surrounding area, I basically sensed like I was wandering through the movie, a distinctively strange feeling.

Like in the movie, the bottom floor of the apartment complex was a crowded and confused series of markets, and the upper floors were apartments. I didn't go up to have a look, but I suspect the apartments are overly cramped, and not entirely nice places to live. To an extent this is true throughout Kowloon. The apartments look cheap and a little old, although I'm sure they're still quite expensive. Hong Kong is extremely dense, even compared to Shanghai or, say, New York City.

But I love population density! There's always people around, and more explicitly it allows stores and restaurants that couldn't exist if I was living out in the outskirts of Oahu or somewhere. Overhanging signs illuminate the streets even late at night, and there's entire avenues full of restaurants, I took these pictures around ten at night. Late night restaurants are common to Shanghai and exist in any large city, but there's nothing like this anywhere else I've been:

An easy criticism about Hong Kong is, it can feel like wandering around a shopping mall. Kowloon wasn't as bad at the constant boutique stores of Hong Kong Island, but it still could get repetitive. Not that Shanghai doesn't have its fair share of convenience stores or places selling cell phones, but it seemed like Kowloon had one store after another, selling the same crap you could buy three storefronts away. More encouraging though, was the repeated storefronts selling BBQ meats:

I didn't have as many meals in Hong Kong as I would have liked, but the food I had was simply amazing. While they have BBQ meats in Shanghai, I don't think they're so great, I prefer what I got in Oakland. But, the BBQ meat I had in Hong Kong was very tasty. And, while I'm not the biggest noodle fan, I was in a hurry and popped into an unassuming chain noodle joint to get a quick cheap bowl of noodles. I got Sichuan style noodles, it was a little rich with hot oil and a surprisingly strong taste of peanuts. It was only a bite or two later that I realized it was the most delicious bowl of noodles I had ever eaten in my life. It was so good I wanted to cry.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Spray-On Ads

Spray-on ads are one of the two or three things I correctly anticipated about living in Shanghai. They figured prominently in the movie "Suzhou River," where the videographer narrator is shown spray-painting his stenciled advertisement. Earlier on this blog, I mentioned that these ads were a little rare in most of Shanghai. I now realize my perspective was warped by living in a cheap hotel off the very center of Shanghai. While they're rare there, the more residential areas, particularly the more lower-class areas, have these advertisements everywhere. As an extreme example, this was taken from a stairwell just a few minute's walk north of the Bund.

There's no videographer ads, though. As far as I know, all the sprayed ads are for hourly workers who want to do construction, or heavy-duty housework. Shanghai has an extremely large class of poor migrant hourly workers, it's very interesting and I will talk about this in the future. In the meantime, it's enough to pass on a very rough estimate I read that Shanghai will seasonally have up to 5 million migrant workers. Most of them work construction jobs, in support of Shanghai's construction boom - which is the largest ever, anywhere. In the last year, the government has tried to rein in the boom a little bit, so perhaps it's lessened since the estimate I read - either way, it's still a very large sub-society to Shanghai. I guess it's still a competitive market, if people need to advertise for what I'm guessing is a few hundred dollars a month.

I've talked to a few locals about it. They told me that the hourly workers who would post such a thing wouldn't do a very good job. I don't entirely understand why they said this, as they have no experience hiring people for construction projects, but I heard this from different sources so maybe they know what they're talking about. Also, I had thought that some of the ads were using a graphic slang for sex, but I asked a couple people and they assured me that my mind is stuck in the gutter.

It isn't just sprayed on signs - you also see stickers for such work, for example this one is on a corner garbage can. It's very enterprising, especially considering the city does a good job of taking the stickers off quickly, as well as painting over or removing the signs when they're on public property. However, they come up just as quickly, I've seen week-old walls with a number of such ads. Spray-painting the ad on a tree isn't at all common, but I can appreciate the whimsy of the act:

Always eager to help, I offered some people my radical idea for cutting down on this sort of crime. The police could call the numbers, pretend to be be employers to arrange to meet with the workers, and then give the workers a fine. I was told it would be illegal for the police to do that, interesting.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Hot Dog Piracy

One of the things that just blew my mind was to go into a busy HMV store in Hong Kong, and see DVDs and CDs selling for ten to fifteen dollars. Unbelievable! CDs, DVDs, video games, and software, will all go for somewhere south of $1 in Shanghai. It's entirely widespread. I wonder why there isn't a crackdown, I suspect because it would be a serious impact on the quality of life.

But perhaps the biggest quality of life issue is bootleg hot dogs. China does have hot dogs, they're usually cooked on those cheesy rollers like a 7-11, or sometimes they're barbequed. They don't look like anything special, and I'd never gotten around to eating one. Until, right across from Fuzhou Lu in People's Square, I noticed a new shop going up last week.

Yes that's right, Top Dog - or Mac Dog, perhaps the "Mac" comes from McDonald's??? This won't mean much to most people, as it's a Berkeley-based chain with just six locations, one inside a drug store. I'm not much of one for hot dogs, and I rarely went to the Top Dog in downtown Oakland, as the same price got you much better food just a block or two away. Still, it's a good place to go for a late night snack. For those not in the know, here's a Top Dog Menu in Oakland. It uses a more modern-looking version of the Mr. Hot Dog logo, but other Top Dog mascots look exactly the same.

They do the same gourmet hot dog thing, although the Chinese version has a much better selection of milk teas, shown elsewhere on the menu.

I asked a lady who works there about the place. She was very friendly, and said her husband worked at a Top Dog for half a year, and wanted to bring back the hot dogs because they don't have them in China. I pointed out that hot dogs are common, which they are, and she replied that they're too expensive. A strange comment, as $.90 cents for a hot dog is definitely expensive by Shanghai standards. On the other hand, I'm sure those other hot dogs aren't nearly as good. The hot dog I got (Garlic Sausage - Pork) was right tasty, although the bun was a little too substantial and could still use some work.

Update 2/3/2007 - I regret to report that this place now focuses on the sweet drinks and deserts. It still sells hot dogs, but without all the flavors and variations, and they use the 7-11 style rollers.

Update 2/23/2009 - There isn't Mac Dog anymore.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

I Love Hong Kong: Hong Kong Island Edition

I'm recently returned from a very short trip to Hong Kong, and I must admit that I totally loved the city. Where to begin? Howsabout the place where I first got dropped off, Hong Kong Island. The comparison is less than complete, but in many ways Hong Kong Island is to Hong Kong, what Manhattan is to New York City.

When I came in by bus, as shown above, I was extremely surprised both at the density of skyscrapers, and the obvious wealth and design to many of them. It's immediately apparent that there is much, much more money in Hong Kong than in Shanghai. This was hammered in by something silly but kind of cool: free Internet terminals inside the subway station!

In Shanghai, when I told people I was going to Hong Kong, the inevitable next statement was that it was a shopper's heaven. That might be true, but I wasn't looking to buy anything. In the two products I was keeping an eye out for, shoes large enough to fit me and a larger selection of spirits than that available in Shanghai, I came up empty. Anyway Hong Kong has one boutique store after the next boutique store, and parts of Hong Kong Island reminded me, in many ways, of the area around Union Square in San Francisco, hills and architecture and all.

As in San Francisco, but even more so, these hills just keep going on and on, and are quite steep. It's extremely pictaresque, but not many rich boutique stores would want to locate so high up. To address this, there's a huge linked series of outdoor escalators running up the side of the hill, from the shops to the apartment buildings at the very top. Although the cobblestones streets are so beautiful, it's tempting to walk.

Let me say a little more: these escalators just keep going and going. You rapidly get pretty high up taking these escalators. One pleasant surprise was that as opposed to Shanghai, where people think nothing of blocking off both sides of the escalator, in Hong Kong people stopped on the right side and kept walking on the left. The other huge contrasts I noted is that cars very rarely honked their horns, and I didn't see anybody spit. I guess Hong Kong has a more developed city culture, Shanghai is still booming with recent arrivals.

The escalators took breaks at side streets that were obvious hang-outs for Hong Kong's large foreigner population. Many of the bars and restaurants didn't have any Chinese people in them, aside from the people working the tables. Shanghai has a range of foreign food, but Hong Kong's easily eclipsed it. On the other hand, from my very limited experience of eating at a single Mexican restaurant in Hong Kong, the foreign food is just as bad as Shanghai's.

While Hong Kong Island was dominated by malls, department stores, and boutique shops, there were a number of extremely packed side-streets, where Chinese and immigrant Asians sold clothing and a range of other products.

I chose to go to Shanghai for valid reasons that remain valid, but I wonder if I should have done things a little differently. I have to admit I think Hong Kong blows away Shanghai in some regards. I definitely hope to visit again, for a longer time. Over the next month I'll have more to say on Hong Kong, so stay tuned.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Tujia Minority Chinese-style Pizza

I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again: Shanghai has great street food. My favorite remains Manapua, and the most common is probably grilled meats, but there's a lot to choose from; you could easily make a meal out of a little of this and a little of that. The street food will be sold from booths set up right on the sidewalk, or more normally from small booths along the side of the road. Here, there's a little alcove next to the entrance to the subway, with four or five stalls.

If you notice the people eating from the brown paper wrappers, it's interesting. Just a couple of months ago the snack was nowhere to be seen, but now the snack is everywhere. It's called Tujia Minority Chinese-style Pizza, and no the unwieldly name hasn't been shortened.

It's a big trend, and the places that sell it can have weirdly desperate lines form up. These things are made quickly and sold just as quickly. Even though the shacks are so small, these are often assembly line operations. I've heard the places that sell them can stand to make huge profits - the cost is maybe 25 cents, but they cost about 10 cents to make. Whereas, I've heard the profit margin on a Babi Manapua is only 1 cent.

So what do they taste like? They certainly aren't pizzas, although with the thin, oily bread and the greasy, spicy meat, they do have a sausage-pizza-like vibe to them. There's also a strong herbal taste, however. I asked some locals what they thought, they told me they smell very good, but are really nothing special - the main complaint being that they're far too greasy. If you look at the slicked-up wrapping paper it's difficult to disagree, but I'd like to add that they're also far too salty. Still, on occasion they make for an excellent snack.