Thursday, October 26, 2006

Quick Impressions of Macau

I dropped by Macau for half a day when I was in Hong Kong, and make no mistake: Macau is without doubt the most beautiful city in the Chinese diasphora. The reasons aren't entirely Chinese, in fact I think a lot of the beauty comes from looking like the stereotype of a South American colonial period city. In reality, Macau was a Portugese colony until 7 years ago. It's just a normal street scene, but check out the faded pastel colors, the flat fronting, the rounded edges, even the ad for Fanta soda:

More directly, the old city center had a definite Iberian look to it. While the current population is only 2% Portugese people, the buildings are definitely in a mixed style, and a lot of the civic buildings, and historical buildings, look straight Portugese. Macau is also the only place I've seen haole kids, speaking Chinese - I noticed it a few times. In the PRC there's no native white population, in Hong Kong everyone's speaking English anyway.

This tourist center was anchored by the remnants of a cathedral which burnt down more than 150 years ago. Only the facade remains. If you zoom in on the above picture, you can see 9 headed dragons, skeletons relaxing, saints being tortured, and so forth.

The food! I'm a big fan of both Portuguese and Macanese food. While I wasn't in Macau for very long, I'll admit I ate more than my fair share, and I was very impressed. First was a simple Portugese place I ran across, Restaurante Escada. Nothing amazing, but very solid and delicious. It was in a charming building in a charming little alley:

The street food was also out in force, with a lot of places giving away a sample of the food they were selling.

I also had one of Macau's famous pork chop sandwiches from a chain store, along with an iced and sweetened ginger tea. You can see a lady holding up a plastic tray as I took the picture. She thought this was the funniest thing, and laughed for a long time afterward. In general I found the shopkeepers, workers, and people I ran into on the street, all to be extremely friendly in Macau.

There were some beautiful parks I wandered around, very well maintained and well used, with lots of plants and statues. This one was located on a hillside looking over the city, and you got the panoramic view of what was going on below, as well as a good spying position on some old men, sitting around and playing cards:

As with Hong Kong, it seemed like not only did every single store have its own miniature shrine, there were also a lot of shrines located in alleyways, at parks, around the corner where you can't really see it, etc. A friend tried praying at one, I haven't heard yet if it helped.

It's really not my thing, but I'd be amiss to not at least mention gambling in Macau. Most of Asia doesn't allow Casino type gambling, while Macau does. For the last few years, Macau has been in a mini economic boom, partly driven by an influx of Vegas-branded casinos. We wandered past casino after casino which looked like it was just about ready to open, and the Sands opened not too long ago.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Yuyuan Gardens

Yuyuan Gardens is one of the tourist areas of Shanghai. It's an old Chinese-style garden, with scenic rocks, old buildings, and beautiful vistas. One of the most interesting parts of Yuyuan Gardens will be talked about sometime in the future: Old Town, the area of Shanghai it's located in. It's a series of narrow alleyways and oldish, often decrepit buildings, that have a unique and interesting character to them, that maybe vaguely conform to old American stereotypes of China.

Despite the disrepair to the picture above, I kind've dig the look of the area. I really hope it gets fixed up, rather than torn down, although I wouldn't want to place any bets. Check out the flat fronted buildings facing the street, the shop on the first floor, it gives a homey feeling to the place. I also really like the tile roofs. The immediate surroundings of Yuyuan gardens are done in a similar, if over-the-top, recreation of this style. It kind of feels like Disney China. They sell the cheesy Chinese sort of stuff you buy on the main drag of San Francisco's Chinatown. While it could be worse, really the less said about the surrounding markets, the better.

Going into Yuyuan Gardens, you see the tile rooves, out in force:

I also like the dragons, used as massive cornerstones for the roof tiles:

Chinese gardens often have large collections of whimsical rocks. I view it as very odd, although they add an ambience to areas that otherwise wouldn't have anything going for them. Here, they're decorated with some flowers, altough they haven't been the other times I've gone:

Here is a old-style building, looking out over some water:

The water is stuffed solid with koi fish, they're real fat!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

More On Hong Kong

I've already had my word to say on Hong Kong, both the central island of Hong Kong, and the hipper Kowloon. While I visited very briefly before, this time I was around for a week. I was there to meet friends from California, one of whom was born & raised in Hong Kong. I learned a little more, saw a few new things, and here are a few pictures.

First, I didn't mention in my last postings about the Peak. All the Hong Kong gangster movies have some point where the gangsters meet up on remote hills overlooking the city to discuss something nefarious. I went up to the Peak to have a look, twice on the same day: I sort of wandered up the mid-level escalators and then hiked there the first time, and then that night I took a train. Either at night or day, it's very beautiful.

My parents had been to Hong Kong briefly, about five years before, and had commented that it reminded them of Honolulu. Other people have told me that's balderdash, but certain parts of Hong Kong definitely felt like Honolulu to me, with the semi-tropical climate, and the hills balancing themself off against high-rises. That was especially true in Aberdeen, which wasn't quite as built up as the central districts of Hong Kong. There was a whole lot of boats, it gave the impression of being a small fishing village long since overrun by an expanding Hong Kong.

On the back side of Hong Kong Island is a series of beaches that almost feel remote. The beaches themselves aren't all that much, but with the dramatic cliffs and mountains leading ride up to the oceanside, many of them are beautiful. I stopped at Stanley, which had a lot of charm despite being overwhelmed by tourists, and in the middle of a construction project that blocked off direct ocean views for much of the area.

There's a few other things I want to mention. First, Hong Kong people seem to be way superstitious and religious compared to Shanghai people. Most interesting to me was, buildings didn't have floors that ended in 4, which sounds like "death" in Chinese. So, no 14th floor, 24th floor, etc., although there are 43rd floors. Also, there were little shrines everywhere, such as this one, by the side of an alleyway:

I wasn't quite as impressed with the food in Hong Kong this time: some of the food I had was truly delicious, but it was really hit and miss, even between dishes in indivisual restaurants. I ended up eating plenty dim sum: while you can find the elements of a dim sum meal in Shanghai, recognizable dim sum restaurants are rare here. In Hong Kong there were a bunch of them. Very delicious, although these meals went on for hours, almost beating the record 4-hour lunch I once had in France. They were similar in food and style to what I got in downtown Oakland:

On transportation: huh. It's doubtlessly better than Shanghai's, and I was particularly impressed with the 45 minute train between Kowloon and Shenzhen (it's much cheaper to fly from Shanghai to nearby Shenzhen). But Hong Kong's terrain is more irregular and crowded than Shanghai, so at times getting about took much longer than I felt it should take. Of note, there's a bunch of double-decker trolleys, they only cost a quarter and are pretty convenient along Hong Kong island's downtown. There's also double-decker busses, during rush hour they are packed solid:

There's ferrys between the islands, that have essentially been replaced by subways connecting Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. The ferry building is getting replaced, and the ferry service downgraded. While it was a short trip, the water was surprisingly rough.

Overall I was not as impressed with Hong Kong as I was the previous time, mostly because I feel it lacks any scene, or things to do besides shop and get drunk - and I didn't do either. I'll have more to say later about the nearby state of Macau - where I didn't go gambling!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

More Videos

Many thanks to reader Ka: I mentioned in my last update that I couldn't get a good video of making pulled noodles, and he uploaded a video of just that. If you can't tell from the video, everytime the cook folds the noodles over, it doubles the amount of strands:

Also, a couple of videos I liked, and grabbed off a Chinese rendition of youtube, tudou. The first isn't in Chinese language, it's some cute girl who's expert with a butterfly knife:

The second is in Chinese, with Chinese subtitles: a South Park parody on The Banquet, a recent big-budget kung-fu movie that's supposed to be bad in a really goofy manner. The parody is fan-made, of course, with the South Park kids speaking dubbed Chinese. Fan made parodies of Chinese movies are something of a phenomenon.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pulled Noodles

A quick update on a favorite Shanghai food: pulled noodles!

Pulled noodle stands are located all around Shanghai, offering a bowl of noodles (among other less popular dishes) for half a dollar. I'm not the biggest fan of noodles, and generally I think noodles in Shanghai leave a little to be desired. Pulled noodles are the exception. Even if they're nothing amazing, they're dependably delicious. There's a rule, one that I've confirmed with a number of people: the more dirty or hole-in-the-wall the restaurant, the better it is. Another good sign is if taxis are parked outside, with cab drivers rushing in for a quick bite.

It's interesting how the noodles are made: a rectangle of dough is stretched to a full length, then folded over, and re-stretched, with flour added to keep these folds from re-joining. Eventually it forms one really long noodle strand. By the end it gets wild, with the noodles being swung around and even slapped against a board! I'm still trying to get a good video of that, but maybe it's a high-impact version of those pizza chefs who throw pizza dough around. Finally, the long noodle is boiled in a broth, with shavings of the beef added.

Additionally, here is a video uploaded by reader Ka, many thanks:

Most of the noodle stands are operated by Muslims, often they seem to be families, and are wearing recognizably Muslim clothing. For obvious reasons, these restaurants won't serve pork, China's most common meat - it's mostly lamb and beef. The signs will often have a picture of a Mosque on them, and references to Lanzhou, a city that served as the Eastern end of the Silk Road, and I suppose is the mythical source of pulled noodles with beef.