Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fired daily, but never in anger: the Jardines Noonday Gun

Have any of these cannons ever been fired in anger?
The (in)famous Jardines Noonday Gun that gets fired daily!
"Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."  Thus goes a line in a Noel Coward song that I learnt about decades ago as a child growing up in Malaysia, one of the many former British colonies whose achieving of dependence brought the sun down on an empire which used to be so vast that at any time of the 24 day, at least one part of it would be seeing daylight

Another line in that very same song -- which was first performed back in 1931 -- states that "In Hong Kong, they strike a gong and fire off a noonday gun."  And while the gong has been replaced by a shiny brass bell, the three-pound gun nearby is indeed still fired at noon each day (as well as at midnight each New Year's Eve since 1946)!   

Many years ago, the Hong (that's still going strong) known as Jardine Matheson had its main offices and warehouses in the area of Hong Kong that's now part of Causeway Bay, and also maintained its own gun battery and detachment of guards there.  And at some point down the road, it became custom to give a gun salute to the head of the trading house whenever he sailed into or out of the company port there.
One day, the story goes, a senior British naval officer became annoyed as well as appalled when witnessing this practice which, as far as he was concerned, should only be reserved for military commanders.  He therefore slapped Jardines with a penalty involving their being required to fire their gun at noon every day for perpetuity!
Although I've passed by -- or taken friends to have a look at -- the Jardines Noonday Gun site several times before, I had never witnessed the actual daily ceremony which involves a Jardines employee ringing the bell and firing the gun before until yesterday.  Having arranged to meet a friend for lunch in Causeway Bay at 12.15pm, I realized that I had time to finally see the famous gun minus its usual protective cover and in action.     

Upon getting to its location by the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter (and, actually, just meters away from the floating Tin Hau temple that's well known among locals but far less of an international tourist attraction), I found quite the international crowd (which included native English, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean speakers) assembled there to witness what's actually quite a modest ceremony, albeit one involving a gun that can make a pretty loud noise.  
One nice bonus is that after the Noonday Gun is fired, the public is allowed into the area where it has been installed -- which happens to be the first plot of land to be sold by public auction in Hong Kong, and purhcased by Jardines back in 1841!  While quite a few people went ahead and snapped selfies or had others take photos of them with the gun, I was content enough to enjoy the rare experience of standing and walking about a bit on non-reclaimed land right by Victoria Harbour! ;b

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A floating Tin Hau temple in a Hong Kong typhoon shelter

Most, if not all, Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong -- like  
this one at Lei Yue Mun -- are located close to the sea
But it's the rare Tin Hau temple that actually floats on the water,
Long before I moved to Hong Kong, I had heard of Temple Street (or Miu Kai, in Cantonese) -- thanks in large part to movies with titles like Queen of Temple Street and The Prince of Temple Street, as well as the Temple Street Night Market which these days is largely a tourist trap but which looked like it'd be a really cool place to visit in Derek Yee's C'est la Vie, Mon Cheri.  
But it wasn't until my second visit to Hong Kong (back in the summer of 2000) that I got to realizing that -- duh! -- this Yau Ma Tei street got its name from a major temple complex in the area, whose central building is dedicated to Hong Kong's most popular goddess.
In the years since, I've come to know of the existence of a whole bunch of temples dedicated to the Taoist Goddess of the Sea (or Heavenly Queen, which her Cantonese monicker translates as), including the Tai Miu (big temple) over at Joss House Bay, others on Po Toi and Tap Mun, and in the area of Hong Kong Island that's come to be known as Tin Hau after her.  And although a good number of them are no longer located near the sea (or body of water, such as Victoria Harbour), I've learnt that the vast majority of them actually originally were.
Far more unusual than the Tin Hau temples found by the sea or further inland though is a Tin Hau temple that's actually located on a boat moored at the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter.  Home to a statue of the goddess that's believed to have been rescued from destruction during the Cultural Revolution in Mainland China, it's not been relocated elsewhere despite work on the Central-Wan Chai Bypass taking place pretty much all around it because the people in the area want it to remain where it is.     
Even though few fishermen and other folks call the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter home any more (and the largest Tin Hau temple on Hong Kong Island lies within walking distance from it), this floating temple reputedly still remains a popular place of worship.  And seemingly perenially festooned as it is with flags, it makes for quite the lively sight; with its continued existence adding color to Hong Kong's local cultural scene as far as the likes of me are concerned. :)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A satisfying meal at an indoor dai pai dong

Indoor dai pai dong dining at a cooked food center!
Chiu Chow-style oyster pancake
Sea snails in sauce as spicy as it looks! ;b
"Let's go eat at a dai pai dong", I suggested to a friend one winter evening.  But rather than dine at one located out in the open air, we headed over to a stall in the bustling cooked food center section of her neighborhood Municipal Services Building that almost looked too "authentic" to be true and got me wondering for a moment or two if I had stepped straight into a Hong Kong movie! 
The very well patronized eatery that we dined at that evening doesn't have an English name and neither does it have an English menu.  But even if its picture menu isn't as extensive as its Chinese one, it does list the highlights -- which both my native Hong Konger friend and I found intriguing and ample enough to satisfy us.
Happy to find Chiu Chow as well as Cantonese specialties on the menu, my friend set her heart on ordering the Chiu Chow style oyster pancake -- which was fine by me as I like that dish too.  And when our order came to the table, we knew we had made the right choice as it really was very tasty -- with the stir fried eggy bits being alternately fluffy and crispy, and the overall dish feeling far less greasy than lesser versions.                      
We also enjoyed my choice for the evening: sea snails in spicy sauce which actually wasn't as burning hot as I feared it would be but still definitely had a fiery kick.  In retrospect, part of me wishes that I had dipped some of my share of the oyster pancake into that sauce.  (Actually, an even better option would have been to bring the bottle of Maggi Chilli Sauce that represents a taste of home for me, and which I think goes great with fried things, be it chicken, fries or eggs!  And no, I don't think the folks operating this unpretentious eatery would have been upset if I had poured some of that sauce onto one of their dishes!) 
In addition, since both the other dishes we ordered can appear more "snacky" than filling, we also decided to get a plate of mixed vegetables and bowls of white rice -- to make sure our stomachs would be full but also that the meal would feel more balanced.  As it turned out though, we struggled to finish all the food, however tasty so much of it actually was, because the portions dished out actually were far more generous than we expected!   
Leaving the cooked food center using a different route from the one that we had used to get there, we saw that seating for the stall had flowed out into an adjacent outdoor space.  So we could have dined outdoors at that dai pai dong after all!  
Considering though that even indoors, the temperature was so low that pretty much every diner there had kept their jacket or coat on, perhaps it was for the best that we had gone for the indoor dining option.  And even while there were a few smokers in our midst (despite there officially having been a ban on smoking in eateries for some years now), there actually was sufficient ventilation to make it so that my clothes and hair actually didn't smell of cigarette smoke or, for that matter, strong cooking aromas post dining there! 

Monday, February 20, 2017

The optimal dai pai dong dining season

Where I like to eat on a cool evening :)

It may not look it from the photo but Leaf Dessert
is actually a pretty popular dai pai dong! ;) 
February is the coldest month of the year.  That's something I was told during my first winter at boarding school in England decades ago -- and whenever I've lived in a place with four distinct seasons, it has indeed felt this way for the most part.

But whereas I would spent February eagerly awaiting warmer weather to arrive when I lived in Britain and the USA, I often find myself hoping that spring won't come too soon here in Hong Kong.  One reason is that I tend to associate the spring with way too many super rainy days here in the Big Lychee.  For another, Asian winter foods (including Cantonese clay pot rice and laap mei) may well be my favorite seasonal foods of all!

Furthermore, although outdoor dai pai dong like Sing Heung Yuen are open all year round, they really are far more comfortable to dine at in cool -- even cold -- rather than hot weather.  Consequently, I'm more likely to feel up for frequenting them in the cooler months (though it's true enough that even when it's boiling, I still am liable to get cravings for that Gough Street dai pai dong's tomato soup!). 

Another reason to prefer eating at dai pai dong in winter is that cockroaches and their ilk seem far less active out on the streets of Hong Kong in cold and dry weather than during hot and humid evenings!  Hence my being more likely to have dinner at such as Sing Kee, the dai pai dong on Stanley Street whose offerings are famed for their wok hei, and which has featured in such as the Hong Kong episode of The Hairy Bikers' Asian Adventure TV show (as well as is located in the same dai pai dong-rich area in Central where Faye Wong's character bumped into Tony Leung Chiu Wai's in Chungking Express), during the cooler and colder months of the year.

Incidentally, the last time I ate at Sing Kee, I found myself sharing a table with a woman who told me she was a dancer who would be performing at this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival.  And some time ago when I was eating at Sing Heung Yuen, there was quite the commotion when superstar singer-actor Eason Chan appeared on the scene (and indicated, from the way he interacted with the dai pai dong's staff, that he's a regular patron of theirs)! 
So to those who turn up their nose at the suggestion of dining at a dai pai dong: now you know what you're missing -- the possibility of celebrity encounters and/or interesting dining companions along with some actually pretty tasty food in atmospheric dining conditions that I actually consider attractive, particularly during those times of the year when the very act of sitting in non-air-conditioned space won't get one feeling over-heated as well as sweating profusely! ;b   

Sunday, February 19, 2017

An enjoyable Sai Kung Peninsula outing with a good friend

The water was clearer the sky in Sham Chung this afternoon

...but a few hardy butterflies -- like this furry looking specimen -- 
braved the cooler, less sunny conditions to remain alive and active! 
The beautiful spell of weather Hong Kong has enjoyed in recent days came to an end literally overnight last night.  Yesterday, visibility was as high as 45 kilometers over in Sai Wan Ho.  Today, I don't think it exceeded 15 kilometers anywhere; and I experienced more rainfall -- and definitely way more misty and overcast conditions -- than caught sight of bright sunlight for much of the day.
Fortunately, it only started pouring in Sai Kung town (where I had gone for a Thai dinner featuring a tasty sour and spicy squid salad, rich beef green curry and fragrant white rice) just before I got on a green minibus out of there, and way after a friend and I hadn't only finished hiking and gone on a boat ride earlier in the day.  
But even while brighter weather would have added welcome color to the surroundings that we passed through on our trek from Pak Sha O to Sham Chung as well as the boat ride from Sham Chung to Wong Shek Pier, we were grateful enough for the temperature remaining pleasant, and it being warm enough for some butterflies to continue flitting about (even while cool enough for me to figure that the snakes that had awoken from their winter slumber in recent weeks had gone back into hibernation).
Something else that I really appreciated on today's excursion was the company of the woman who had been my regular hiking companion until she left for Canada a few years back.  Although I wondered whether it'd be the case when we had first said our goodbyes, she has indeed returned to Hong Kong a couple of times since, and we've found time to hang out -- and even go on hikes together on her too short trips back to the Big Lychee.     

This afternoon, I was reminded again how we share a love for nature, photography while hiking, and what another friend has described as "non-competitive hiking".  In addition, I also do like it being the case that, once she overcame her horror at piling back the calories during post-hike dinners (with the aid of my explanation/justification to her that "we hike in order to eat, not in order to lose weight!"), we got to thoroughly enjoying our post-hike meals and actually consider our outings incomplete without them! ;b      

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Mari-Cha Lion in Hong Kong

Advertising on a Hong Kong tram for the 
A view from the Asia Society's roof garden that takes in
Lion Rock as well as the Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Say the word "lion" in Hong Kong and the word "rock" tends to come to mind since to many people, since Lion Rock is the territory's most iconic Kowloon hill, and the one that the "can do" spirit that Hong Kongers (have) possessed for decades has been named after.  But this past month has since another prominent lion temporarily take up residence in town -- on the Hong Kong Island side of Victoria Harbour, over at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in Admiralty.  
The mysterious Mari-Cha Lion was originally thought to date from Spain but recent research undertaken on this large leonine sculpture leans towards it having been cast in the mid-11th to -12 century in a region of southern Italy ruled at the time by the Normans.  Decorated with Arabic engravings by its Spanish Muslim creators, this rare beast is further rendered unusual by the presence inside it of a vase-shaped vessel, made of the same type of bronze as the rest of the figure and thought to be the mechanism that made it an "acoustic automata" which could roar like a living lion!
As amazing as this precious work of art is though, it can't be the sole subject of one whole show.  Rather, the Asia Society put up a selection of other leonine creations on display along with it for the Roaring Guardians: The Mari-Cha Lion with Asian Traditional and Contemporary Art exhibition which explores the religious, imperial and vernacular significance of the lion symbol in various parts of Asia, including India, Tibet, ancient China, contemporary Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore (whose Malay name of Singapura, more than incidentally, means "lion city") and Japan.
Running the gamut from contemporary art works to artefacts considerably more ancient than the medieval Mari-Cha Lion itself, I personally found some of the most impressive to be the small but oh so detailed copper alloy figurines from India of Vishnu (the Hindu god of preservation, who takes the form of a lion in his Narasimha "man-lion" incarnation), Parvati (the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion, whose Durga avatar has a leonine connection) and her husband Lord Shiva (the supreme being who creates, protects and transforms the universe for Hindus).  And while I must admit to generally placing greater value on the older items on display, I also found myself intrigued by the miniature "lion's masks" creations by Vietnamese artist Vu Dan Tan out of recycled sweets' boxes along with other mundane elements such as paper, ink and goauche.
While looking at those items in particular, I found myself wishing I had brought my reading glasses along to the Asia Society!  Alternatively, the curator in me thought, it really would have helped for them to have provided magnifying lenses or similarly low-tech but helpful devices along with the informative complimentary audio recordings supplied at the information desk.  
Something else that the (occasional) museum consultant part of me found myself somewhat perplexed and irked by was how low a level many of the works and the text panels had been placed!  Curiosity actually ended up compelling me to enquire at the information desk if the exhibition's principal curators were on the short side.  Over the course of our discussion, the suggestion was made that the low height choice may have been made because the exhibition had been expected to attract many school parties.  But if this really had been the case, surely steps could have been made (literally and metaphorically) to accomodate both regular sized adults as well as children?     
Still, the above-mentioned exhibition design gripes aside, I actually did feel the exhibition was one I'm glad to have catch here in Hong Kong.  I'd even go so far as to say that the sight of the extraordinary Mari-Cha Lion alone was worth the price of admission, except that it'd be faint praise in this case since no entrance fees were charged for this pretty interesting exhibition! ;b  

Friday, February 17, 2017

On High West and Lung Fu Shan (Photo-essay)

Despite its name making it sound otherwise, Hong Kong Island's High West isn't as high as a number of other Hong Kong.  Topping out at 494 meters above sea level, it's only the 53rd highest peak in the Big Lychee (with number one ranked Tai Mo Shan standing quite a bit higher at 957 meters).  

Still, I reckon you can get some of the most stupendous views in Hong Kong from the top of High West.  And on one of my hikes up it (that also ended up including a stop at 253-meter-high Lung Fu Shan on the way down to a bus stop just above the upper reaches of Kennedy Town), I couldn't resist taking panoramic as well as regular photos from up there (all of which can be enlarged -- and their views consequently better appreciated -- by clicking on them)... ;) 

On this hike, bugs like this colorful true bug,
were eye-catching along with scenic views ;)
The top of High West on a beautiful blue sky day :)
Looking north and east-wards from the top of
this western Hong Kong Island hill

Looking west from High West (with Lamma Island, Hei Ling Chau
Peng Chau and Lantau Island visible in the distance)
 Another bug spotted along the way -- 
this one with pretty wings and hairy legs!
The view from some 250 meters lower down is considered 
interesting enough to merit an explanatory view compass 
A view of Pok Fu Lam -- with its large Christian cemeteries
-- and still largely green Mount Davis
 Red flowers abound on Lung Fu Shan
(also known as Hill Above Belcher's) :)