Hong Kong, China & Macau – 2010

January 18 – 28, 2010

OK, so it’s official : Chinese people are weird. And before anybody points out the obvious, I realise that I’m generalising here, and that they think I am one beer short of a six-pack too. But hell, having a couple across the aisle on Flight SA3962 squeeze each other’s zits somehow underscored the cultural gulf yawing between the bastion of Boeredom and the land of the Kung Fu Panda.

The latter movie also sadly stands as my only cultural reference to China, which establishes me as a weak and irresponsible travel journalist. The likes of Michael Palin would have boarded the flight lugging a selection of travel guides, dictionaries and reference manuals and would be attired in garments thoughtfully selected to position him as an emissary soon to bridge the East/West divide.

I’m unsure what my Mezcal death’s head tee-shirt signifies, do not know how to say “thank you” or “please” or “you’re such a babe”, and will wait to find out what the Chinese unit of currency is once I set foot in Shenzhen, a massive industrial sprawl blemishing the landscape shaping the southern tip of China.

But you know what? I do not give a damn. This is an easy trip. Four days of shooting mountain biking for a German mate, then two days in Hong Kong to upgrade my camera systems, and finally a couple of days in Macau to shoot some stock images. Easy in, easy out : get the shots, bang-bang and then back home to Cape Town and kids and the heaps of deadlines which meant absolutely bugger-all sleep in the days preceding my departure.

So WTF, as they say in Twitterese. Part of the fun of travel – for me, anyway – is to have no idea what is about to happen next. And that is about how it is going to unfold 99% for sure … When I land in this alien space and place tomorrow I will not be able to speak the language, or read the signs, or communicate in any way but somehow I will make it to Shenzhen and find the hotel and have fun along the way.

Eighteen hours later, give or take an errant time zone or two, I’m sitting somewhere in downtown Shenzhen, having circled in an ever-increasing spiral from the dominating tower of the Marriot Hotel where I’m based. The search has been necessitated by an overwhelming craving for food once I realised around 8pm that I haven’t eaten since the airline breakfast. And that, in usual SAA style, was average to say the least.

Since then I had spent a couple o hours in the hotel gym, Jacuzzi and steam room in order to blast the jet-lag with a silver bullet, and feel already to go gung-ho on Shenzhen’s ass. A series of ATM dry humps later, I eventually find a machine with rather whacky English instructions, and slip my Yuan notes from the “money to appear here” slot. The notes are too big for the street vendors to handle, so I slip into a noodle bar emitting lamenting Kung-Fuey tunes.

It’s a well-lit place with long communal tables, and not nearly dodgy enough by my normal standards, but it smells damn good and that seals the deal as far as my stomach is concerned. The thing with China is that no-one beyond the counters of Marriots and MacDonalds of this world speak or want to try and speak, even a smidgen of English. But what the hell, there are pictures and I’m 72.8% sort of sure I order braised pepper beef with noodles and cabbage.

Who knows, it may have been braised stray cat, but it is succulent, spicy and piquant, and comes with one of those blackened eggs you always see in Hollywood movies with a gratuitous Chinese cultural scene. I wolf my meal down, probably committing a dozen-plus chopstick faux pas along the way. Being the only Westerner in the joint, is initially a touch weird, but the surreptitious looks turn to smiles when I hold their gaze.

Satisfied that I am not about to accidentally commit chopstick hara-kiri, my celebrity status wanes once again, leaving me to concentrate on savouring the delicacies on my plate and writing my journal. Then I do a terrible thing; the soya black tea does not hit the spot and– gasp!! – I wander down to the local Starbucks to ostensibly check out their menu. The caffeine craving – as I knew it would – sucker punches me in the taste buds and 10 minutes later I’m sitting drinking an espresso, listening to jazz in a fake American environment. And you know what? The kids hanging here re probably the coolest cats in Shenzhen. And, oh ja, I learnt two first Chinese words, even though I have no idea how to spell them. Than you is “sjin-sjin” and please is pronounced similar to ”dog” French, like “chien” but with an extended lift towards the end, as if you’re breathing the word out. And that’s it – Day One done and dusted.

January, 21

OK, so got totally sucked into the Chinese experience over the last three days, which is why the journal had to take a back seat. Spent most of my time shooting the BMW launch, catching up with Igor and the other stunt bikers. Even met Chris Pfeiffer, the rider responsible for single-handedly establishing street motorcycle stunting as one of the world’s most exciting freestyle disciplines.

The launch programme for the Xi was, as expected, a stylish if overly extravagant affair. It is quite obvious that China’s nouveau riche has bought into materialism big time, and I expect Chairman Mao is spinning in his mausoleum like a Tibetan prayer wheel. No expense has been spared, from the Canadian rock chick there to riff the opening notes, to the Moët and sushi platters doing the rounds amidst Armani-clad guests afterwards.

Don’t get me wrong. We Westerners set the trends as far as excess goes, and the rest of the world unfortunately seems to be buying into this brash and flash new future. But I’m not here to cast aspersions on world politics; after all, four days within one of the oldest cultures since the dawn of human civilization leaves me eminently unqualified to voice my opinion on china’s social issues. And anyway, I am way too busy stuffing my face on champagne and sashimi to make a judgment call.

So be it. The days roll on, with us shooting until well into the early hours of the morning, before sucking up the luxurious suites of the JW Marriot. I do manage a couple more sessions in gym, but it is Friday afternoon before we finally have all the pix in the bag. After a bit of a discussion, I convince Igor that it is time to go out and shoot some pix in the Old City, and we bundle the BMW bike into the back of a taxi and head off.

It doesn’t take long for a crowd to gather while we set up the bicycle, and even the local cops come to lend a hand. Igor cracks a couple of stunts in the seedy little park at the gate to the walled Old City while I shoot some pix and then we grab a bite at one of the little stalls. It’s tofu, piping hot and delicious, and it is hilarious to watch Igor have a Chinese conversation, using only the words “igat” (this) and “yo” (want). So not really the most flowing of conversations, but damn interesting nonetheless.

With the tofu settling in nicely, we cruise through the tunnel gate and into the chaos that is late afternoon Shenzhen. It is approximately 3 hours before sunset and the narrow alleys are abuzz with activity. Rowdy bands of school children are sauntering back from school, vendors are setting up stalls selling everything from origami trinkets to chicken’s feet; vagabond tramps sift through rubbish heaped high next to shops; and delivery men transport the unthinkable upon ancient and rickety bicycles. Double-beds, slaughtered pigs, bales of groundnuts, teetering piles of polystyrene … the mind boggles.

This tide of humanity swells and floods and ebbs all round us, flowing past to reform into the river that shapes their lives, with only the occasional glance or smile or exclamation rippling to the surface. After an hour of shooting, we stop at a dingy backroom to buy some dim sum, or dumplings, basically boiled dough wrapped round a variety of filings. We take our spoils off to a basketball court and plonk down on a low wall from where we can check out the surroundings. Lady luck smiles on us; there’s a 7-11 right across from us, with a line of ice-cold Tsingtaos all racked up and ready to go.

Unbeknownst to me, the Germans had a short-lived colonial dalliance in China, and one of the more fortunate legacies of this is the fact that at Qingdao (as per usual, the settlers utterly corrupted the pronunciation) was a solid beer-brewing culture, and this is where Tsingtao Lager originated. So much for useless history : the upshot is that Igor and I get to sink a couple of frosties while watching the Shenzhen youth shooting hoops. It’s all rather off-beat and seedy and surreal – rather like watching a scene in a Guy Ritchie movie unfold.

Fortunately no heavies in knuckledusters lumber up to spoil the fun, and we get to sip our beers while a passing parade of bright-eyed kids snipe English phrases in our general direction. With the sky starting to look threatening though (it’s damn difficult to tell with the smog) we decide to head back into the throng.

With rush hour, which lasts from around 4-7 pm, now at its peak, we’re going at a snail’s pace, maneuvering our way amidst toddlers, doddlers, tables, chink-eyed mamas and just about every dodgy character scrounging the region to the north of the Chinese Gulf. But there is not one smidgen of aggression and the only snarl we encounter is frozen on the faces of two dog heads on a butcher’s table. It is Igor who spots this rather grim sight, and I stop to take a photo, zooming in on the macabre image of lips drawn back from vicious teeth in an eternal and evil-looking growl.

Now, if I was a vegetarian, I would have had a shitload to say about this, but I’m not. It is an ancient culture within in which I’ve had the privilege of spending a few intoxicating days, and it therefore does not give me any room to cast judgment. To me, there is very little difference between breeding a pig or a dog or a sheep for slaughter, and I think they are treated with utter disdain across the board. Says a lot about us, the so-called homo sapiens master race, doesn’t it?

I do, however, have an issue with a lot of the other food, especially the shark fins and other endangered species I encountered in Hong Kong a few days later. One and a half metre high shark fins, coils of dried snake, desiccated lizard spiked and spread-eagled on sticks, mounds of starfish, bunches of dried seahorses, tens of thousands of sea cucumbers … the list is fucking endless. Now I realise it is a massive mission to feed 1.4 billion people, but give the planet a bloody break. And if the feeding is such a priority, why just fin the shark and chuck the whole body back in the water, wasting 95% of the carcass. OK, rant over, but it is time to take stock before all resources are depleted and the shit really hits the fan.

Final night in Shenzhen and most of the guys have by now flown home. Igor extended his flight for a day, while Andi is man down after spraining his ankle badly on the day of the final show. The previous nights have mostly been taken up with either shows or shooting, so tonight it is time for “massagy”, as the Chinese call it. On the one hand, you have the head, foot and therapeutic kind, and on the other you have the “happy ending” kind ….

Now let me be absolutely honest here, I am totally tempted to go for Option 2. The Chinese girls have grown on me in the few days that I have been here. Initially the slanted eyes and piggish features did not do it for me at all, but I have to admit that it was purely the conditioning of decades of exposure to Western facial structure. I’ve found before that it takes 3 or 4 days for these features to snap into place, and it is only then that the true beauty of a race shines through.

I was now at this stage. The almond eyes, alabaster skin, angular cheek bones, and not to mention the gorgeously pert bottoms, were totally doing it for me. And after all, everybody loves a happy ending, don’t they? By this time, we had become good mates with the guys at the JW Marriot’s concierge desk; they advised Option 2 as well, while we lamely insisted on keeping it clean.

Be that as it may, after a good few Tsingtaos and a Sichuan-style meal which would have given Lucifer himself after-burn, we end up at this joint called “The Gentlemen’s Club”. Don’t get me wrong, by massage parlour standards it is certainly on the classy side of sleazy. In fact, it is relatively opulent, but in that brash and flash way where you expect a guy called Dimitri to be sitting at the bar sporting gold chains and a silk shirt open to the belly button.

We check out the prices of both and agree it is a bit of a tourist trap, but then the deal breakers walk in and smile at us. And by God, they are gorgeous. Svelte and sphinx-like in looks, in body-hugging kimonos (I know, I know, that’s Japanese, but whatever you call it in Chinese) and utterly charming.. With a massage menu of two dozen-odd styles and a bevy of fifty beauties to choose from, it can but go one way, can’t it.

I go for a Thai massage with a girl who’s a dead ringer for the heroine in one of the Jet Li movies and leave Igor to play some German version of eeny-meeny-miny-mo. So far, so good. There is one problem though – my Chinese has not progressed beyond the “hello” and “thank you” stage and it is therefore impossible to communicate with this Oriental goddess who, I might add, has an uncanny ability to inflict immense amounts of pain with her seemingly dainty hands.

“She’s obviously a pro”, I think in one of those weird moments when I’m not contorted into some kind of testicle-smelling pose (my own, obviously, let me hasten to add!) “and if she’s a pro, then I should cease forthwith with the meaningful glances, I suppose.” But then there are those deliciously naughty little slips of the hand, which could be on purpose or, of course, an accident, and how the hell do you call it?

The upshot of it all is that by around 4 am, Igor and I end up heading back to The Marriot in a taxi without the happy ending, but utterly relaxed after what must rate as one of the best massages I have ever experienced. And not that I want to come over all yin and yangy, but life does unfold the way it is supposed to.

January 23 – 28

Hong Kong. Two words, and not to be confused with King Kong, Ding Dong or Ping Pong. What can I say about this city, except that it absolutely rocks? Sure, we all know it’s a world city, and have seen it in all its celluloid glory in dozens of Hollywood movies, which is why I was convinced I knew what to expect : rampant consumerism and paint-by-numbers Eastern philosophy – that’s what.

But no, Hong Kong worked me over in the same way that Jade Hsu or whatever her name was did in that Shenzhen massage parlour, and I had no inkling as to what was coming. In a way, I suppose the history of the country should have prepared me to some extent but I did not read the guidebook, so sue me. Lately I tend to opt for a self-exploratory approach, allowing the destination to sort of seep into your psyche and your soul.

Which is what Hong Kong did. Beneath the thick-skinned layer of materialist crap, a product of decades of British rule combined with meticulous Chinese work ethic (and a fair amount of exploitation, I might add), this city hides some of the most delightful surprises. Tranquil gardens, hide-away beaches, wild remote hikes, spiritual temples and centuries of both Oriental and Western history. I’m not quite sure what it is, but somehow the Hong Kongese managed to straddle that near insurmountable gulf between Occident and Orient, assimilating the business codes of the West, but without forfeiting their spiritual and historic roots.

Unlike mainland China, where spitting and hawking and a total disregard for personal space is often de rigueur, the people of Hong Kong are generally impeccably polite. It is true that this is partly a front and many Westerners feel that you never know what the Hong Kongese think. I don’t buy that. In most cases I found that the locals would express their opinions quite freely once engaged, and were much at ease with who they are.

The city itself – there must be at least 20 million people living here – sprawls across several islands situated off the southern tip of mainland China. Since the 1997 re-unification it is run from Beijing under a “One Country, Two Systems” approach, which at times obviously leads to a certain amount of schizophrenia. The “Islanders” definitely see themselves as separate, and more than a decade since the re-unification has seen the business of politics, and politics of business, settle into an uneasy truce.

Hong Kong’s main island is the undisputed economic powerhouse, with most of the banks and other financial institutions situated here. It epitomizes the urban boom in unrepentant bloom, with glass and steel and concrete skyscrapers literally scraping the sky, often disappearing into the constant low-layer of mist and smog hanging over the islands. The artery of roads and rail networks connecting the various business districts and islands, is like something out of The Matrix morphed with an ant colony, and the old adage where the city never sleeps holds true here in Hong Kong.

At dawn, when the last revelers are finally staggering out of the bars, clubs and parlour of Hennessy Road and Lang Kwai, the vanguard of street cleaners, show owners and suits have already hit the Metro and bus routes, and by 8 am a tsunami of humanity washes across the cityscape. They’re all there, pin-striped bankers, backpacking punks, Rajasthani wheelers and dealers, free-ranging school kids chattering and texting and laughing, young lovers, elder statesmen, and of course, there are the women!

They are unimaginably gorgeous, striking an immaculate balance between beautifully bold and sensually demure. Some are tall and statuesque, most are petite, nearly coltish, and all of them are equally beautiful. Their facial features vary from round and starkly simplistic, like those of a painted Japanese geisha, to avatar-like exoticism, with luscious mouths, ski-slope cheekbones and smoldering eyes beneath arched eyebrows. I fell in love on just about every Metro (or MTR) trip, and had fleeting fantasies of moving to China, learning Mandarin and setting up a local branch of the Zumaist religion where I could engage in daily showers with my bevy of Hong Kong wives.

Back in the real world I had things to do though; camera equipment to buy, photos to take, publishers to meet and a country to explore. I had based myself barely beyond the edge of Hong Kong’s bustle, and my daily walk from the western district took me along De Voyeaux Road, also known as “dried goods road”, a multi-lane highway lined with shops selling everything from seaweed to shiitake mushrooms. I’ve mentioned the macabre display of dead creatures along De Voyeaux Road before and it was one of the few facets of Hong Kong culture that did not sit easy with me.

Other than this, the shopping was superb. Computer and camera equipment kicked in at less 40% compared to SA prices, with the savings on fashion peaked at up to 80%. Shopping options morph from vendor to stall to store to mega-mall, and often seem to induce an incoherent buy-buy-buy mania, with insane bargains on anything from Calvin Klein knock-offs to Shinto daggers threatening to slash and burn your credit rating. The concept of “Buy 4 Items” on a ridiculously discounted sliding scale seduced my sensibilities to the extent where I had to eventually have a serious conversation with myself. “Self,” I said, “why the fuck are you standing in this queue with 4 boxes of Chinese New Year decorations?” Trembling, I returned these to the shelf and went off to have some oolong tea at a street café where you could get a free massage if you had three consecutive cups.

But I digress. It is true that shopping and big business are the raisons d’etré for most visitors to Hong Kong, but those who explore beyond the barter fields of the street markets and malls are sure to discover a dimension transcending this consumerist feeding frenzy. Both Hong Kong and Kowloon Islands boast numerous temples catering to the Buddhist, Confucian and Hindu faiths and here you are able to step into spiritual havens where you can reconnect with your inner self.

The old Walled City in Kowloon, with a centuries-old Alms House, transports you to a completely different time and place, and constitutes a public space where city dwellers can immerse themselves within a tranquil green space dotted with thoughtful statues, symbolic stones and the sound of bird calls weaving an aural tapestry right within the centre of what used to be a semi-lawless and high-rise slum.

More than any place else, the Nan Liang Gardens stand out as my favourite escape from the never-ending crush of the Hong Kong rush. Literally within spitting distance of Hollywood Plaza, the landscaped terraces of Nan Liang envelopes you as you walk through the gates, and lulls you into a beautiful sense of peace. Nothing matters here but the ageless ebb and flow of nature, and you can feel your soul recharging as you wander along your chosen path amidst Buddhist podocarpus pines, manicured flower beds, cascading falls and rippling koi ponds. The bonsai trees here have to be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, and the meticulous time, effort and love that must have gone into creating their immaculate form seems near implausible within our throw-away age. There is no immediate gratification here and I cannot help but feel like an instant gratification barbarian as I give myself over to this unbelievable beauty.