Dim Sum Dialogues: Expat ultimate frisbee

Confession time. Time to come clean. It’s something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest for a while. Something I didn’t know how to bring up before, but here goes… I did the most caucasian thing that an expat living in Hong Kong could do.

I joined an ultimate frisbee league.

Like the majority of twenty-something American males, I had a brief flirtation with ultimate frisbee in college – but had never devoted the time or effort to learning the strategy of the sport or even the full extent of the technical rules.

So when a few new friends invited me out on a Sunday for a pickup game of frisbee, I thought it’d be good to practice a sport I thought I knew and maybe I’ll make a few friends along the way. What I came to realize was that I knew absolutely nothing about ultimate frisbee.”Okay let’s count it off from the left for D – force flick and make sure we keep pressure the cup. On the turn let’s run a vertical stack, making quick cuts to the outsides. Can I get two more handlers? And if we change to a horizontal, please make sure everyone stays in their lanes!”

I nodded my head and pretended that I had the slightest understanding of what was going on. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to stand on two legs for longer than 5 minutes in the thick summer humidity.

Sunday afternoons were pickup games – open to everyone. Tuesday nights were league games – a more serious affair. Thursday nights were practice – I guess to fill in the gap between Sundays and Tuesdays. All of this play would eventually lead up to international tournaments over short weekends – Singapore, Beijing, Bangkok, Shanghai…with the HK team being represented by a few elite teams made up of experienced and mid-level players.

The players around me were from all sorts of backgrounds – a vibrant display of Hong Kong’s diversity. A handful of Hong Kong professionals. An Irish teacher. A German engineer. A Dutch designer. An Aussie pilot. A Thai accountant. An Indian film producer. A Canadian student. A British accountant. An American in the shipping industry.

It sounds like a setup for a bad joke, but it was just another Sunday on the field with the Hong Kong Ultimate Player’s Association.

As I got introduced to more people between games, it became apparent that newcomers like me were a dime a dozen. The first question was usually – “where are you from?” And the second was – “well, how long will you be here for?” The group was immediately welcoming & friendly, but I got the feeling that there was a hesitance to make strong friendships too quickly.

After a couple months of showing up three days a week, the names started to stick to the faces, and I started being accepted as more of a regular. It became apparent that there was a strong core group of people that were devoted to the organization, and then a fringe set of transients like me – people who disappeared from Hong Kong almost as soon as they had materialized, eager to learn names and possibly trade business cards.

Many foreigners in Hong Kong come over on temporary contracts. Five weeks. Three months. Six months. It becomes common to make new friends, only to try and organize a last minute going-away party for them a few weeks later. HKUPA let me experience the full extent of Hong Kong’s transient expat community, and allowed me to feel like I was a part of something, if only for a little while.

Eventually, I became proficient in the techniques of the flick, the hammer, cutting, handling, pulling, zone, horizontal, vertical, and occasionally even scoring. The summer league came to a close and the three meetings per week turned into once-a-week relaxed weekend beach games. My league team even took the title… although I don’t think I was exactly the deciding factor in the path to victory.

I consider my progress in a sport less valuable than my adoption into a small community for a few months. In a city so dense, so huge, it’s easy to get lost – and HKUPA became a welcoming place to plant some temporary roots. So for fellow travelers or transients out there, if you’re having a hard time getting settled, try frisbee. If you need an explanation on the verbiage before you set foot on the field, leave a comment and I’ll give you the expert scoop.

HKUPA’s fall season is starting up soon. If you’re in the Hong Kong area and interested in joining or passing through for a pickup game, see their website for more information: HKUPA.com

Dim Sum Dialogues: Ngong Ping

The world’s largest outdoor seated bronze buddha.

It sounds more like an obscure sports statistic than a record for a religious statue – and it left me to wonder – where does the largest indoor standing silver buddha reside? My skepticism about the buddha at Ngong Ping was barely trumped by my interest in finally visiting a historically and culturally significant monument in Hong Kong – fantasizing that it must have been built at least a few hundred years ago by devoted buddhists that used sacred, ancient methods of construction.

And yet again, my assumptions failed me.

The buddha was built in 1993. Nineteen Ninety-Three. The same year Intel shipped the first Pentium chips. The same year that the first corrected images from the Hubble telescope were taken. Hardly the timeworn, historical relic that I had pictured. I suddenly felt bitter and betrayed, like someone was trying to pull a fast one on a poor foreigner. But it seemed to sum up the story of Hong Kong; a new shining structure built upon a connection to Chinese heritage, in the hope of attracting foreign dollars.

The obvious tourist-trap nature of it made me reluctant to make the 45-minute trek out to Lantau Island from the center of town – fearing that I would only go home disappointed. The only attractive factor seemed to be the Ngong Ping 360º – a 5.7km long cable car ride (also owned by the MTR corporation) that whisks MTR passengers from the Tung Chung stop to the village of Ngong Ping in new cable cars with (wait for it) glass bottom floors.

So when a friend came to town, I tucked away my anti-tourist snobbery and splurged on the $160 HKD “Crystal Cabin” ticket for the 360º – a $60 step up from a regular cabin ticket, but worth every cent. It’s a fun and disorienting feeling to hover across water, trees, and mountains – something that initially takes several minutes to adjust to. The path of the cable car provides panoramic views over the Hong Kong International Airport and several outlying islands – assuming that the weather is clear, which isn’t a safe bet on most days in the territory.

When the cable car ride was over, I suddenly found myself in a modern Chinese “village”, which is simply a strip mall disguised with traditional Chinese architecture and light music playing over a carefully hidden ambient sound system. The words that entered my head as I walked through the development was “China-in-a-box”. A packaged, polished, and easily digestible version of the China that is ironically nowhere to be found on the streets Hong Kong. An orderly collection of Chinese memorabilia, ready to be sold shipped back to the country of your origin.

I was ready to turn around and go straight home as soon as I saw the painfully familiar glowing green letters that practically spells tourist trap: S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S. Everything I had feared was true, and the icing on the cake was the whipped cream on the carmel frappachinos of tourists lounging at green patio tables. The only thing that stopped me from turning around was the beautiful, faint sound of someone plucking a guzheng.

It was a sound that I had heard only in recordings before, and had hoped to witness in person since my arrival in Hong Kong. A sound that when I followed it, led me to the doors of a (wait for it) traditional wooden tea-house. The type of tea-house that I had dreamed of discovering weeks earlier, sans a wise old man with a long grey beard. There were scheduled tea-samplings and lessons for how to brew Chinese tea properly, antique tea sets and a diverse selection of leaves. In an instant, my prejudice against Ngong Ping was turned upside down. Maybe it was a fabricated, lustrous version of a China that can’t be found on the streets of Hong Kong – but it had just satisfied my expectations as a foreigner with one fell swoop.

The rest of the day was spent visiting the buddha, a buddhist temple, and wandering through several nature trails that surround the village. I let go of my bitterness as I read the displays that documented the construction of the buddha. I had to concede that it was still an impressive attraction and feat, even if it wasn’t crafted out of thin air by hundreds of devout buddhist hands, and even if it did cost an estimated $68 million USD to build.

On the ride back in the Crystal Cabin, I looked down at my feet gliding above the densely forested mountains. The sound of the guzheng still rang in my ears, and I was thankful that I had spent the day as a dreaded tourist.

So if you’re planning on visiting Hong Kong, I’d recommend putting Ngong Ping on your agenda. But please, skip the Tazo® in favor of some local pu-erh or oolong…

Dim Sum Dialogues: Double Happiness

In a continuation from yesterday on my post about Hong Kong weddings, I wanted to shed some light on the interesting history behind a prominent symbol that can be found decorating virtually every wedding in China. Double Happiness.

Sometimes translated as “double joy”, or “double happy”, the character itself is a ligature of two Chinese characters that mean “joy”, pressed together. It’s usually cut out of red paper – occasionally black, and can be found everywhere in a wedding. Walls, windows, doors and gifts that are given to the couple all bear the design.
The legend behind the design states that in the ancient Tang Dynasty, there was a student traveling to the capital for a national examination. The examination was to select ministers in the emperor’s court. Halfway through his journey to the city of the emperor, the student fell ill and was taken in to a small village by a herbalist doctor and his daughter.

The student and the doctor’s daughter fell in love with each other over the course of the stay, and both found it very hard to say goodbye when the time came. The girl said goodbye by writing down half of a couplet, for the student to contemplate and complete after his exam.

It read : “Green trees against the sky in the spring rain while the sky set off the spring trees in the obscuration.” After the student reached his destination, he took top honors in the examination. As a further test of the highest achievers, the emperor requested that he interview each one of them face to face. When it came time for the student to be interviewed, the emperor asked the student to finish a couplet that he had written. Luck was on the student’s side.

The emperor wrote: “Red flowers dot the land in the breeze’s chase while the land colored up in red after the kiss.” The student immediately realized that the girl’s half of the couplet was a perfect match. He answered without hesitation.

The emperor was delighted to see the wit and talent of the young man, and authorized him to be a minister in the high court.

As a special gift, the emperor allowed the student to return home before becoming a minister. The young man was overjoyed and rushed back to the village of the doctor, to meet the doctor’s daughter at her home. He shared what had happened and asked if she would marry him. They became married right away.

To celebrate the wedding, the couple showed their pleasure by doubling the chinese character for Joy on a red piece of paper, and put it on the wall.

From then on, Double Happiness has become a prevalent social custom and a symbol used in weddings throughout China.

Dim Sum Dialogues: Love & Marriage

Weddings in Hong Kong are big business. In every district, small shops advertise dress tailoring, videography or photography packages, and event planning services. Go into any of the big hotels on a weekend and you’ll find over 300 people congregating in the grand ballrooms, feasting over a ten-course meal that boasts elegance and affluence. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to help a friend shoot two local weddings, and on each occasion got an intimate look at the practices and traditions of modern ceremonies in Hong Kong.

The day starts early. The bride is joined by her mother and a few close friends, quickly nibbling on a light breakfast while a crew of photographers set up their equipment in the humble estate apartment of the Bride’s family. Immediately upon my arrival, I’m given a small gold & red envelope that I later discover holds $100 HKD – a generous welcome.
As the bride sits to have her makeup applied, the bridesmaids start setting up what appears to be a series of games. They pass around index cards, poster-boards, markers and containers of food seasoning. Bright red Double Happiness symbols are hung on walls and windows in the apartment, reflecting the hazy morning sun. We’re told that the groom and his groomsmen are in the lobby of the housing estate, and we rush to join them as the groom is handing out his own gold & red packets.

The men take photos and make their way up the cramped elevator to the apartment. Upon reaching the apartment door, they are denied access and the purpose of the poster-board is suddenly revealed. The groom must play a series of games and tests to gain access to the bride, while she anxiously waits in the back of the apartment with her father. The groom sings, answers trivia, and even outlines a chinese character through layers of mayonnaise, spices, and seasoning with his tongue. This is love.

After twenty minutes of displaying his devotion, the groom is allowed to enter and the bride’s father presents the bride to enthusiastic claps and laughter. She is dressed in a pretty, yet simple red dress adorned with gold stitching and small gems. The bride & groom then kneel on bright red & gold pillows to serve a special blend of tea to the bride’s parents.

The parents present the couple with special jewelry – large gold bracelets for the bride, and a small silver necklace for the groom. Pictures are taken, and then the whole party moves to the groom’s parents’ house for a repeat of the same tea ceremony and the opportunity for the groom’s parents to show their hospitality. After the second tea ceremony, the wedding party takes a lunch break. On my first wedding it was traditional dim-sum style food, and on my second it was gourmet cheeseburgers. Another example why you can never expect to always follow strict tradition in Hong Kong.

The next move is to the ceremony, typically held in a Christian church or in the City Hall, depending on the religious affiliation of the couple. The wedding in the Christian church was like most western weddings that I’ve been to with two exceptions: The groom sang a karaoke-esque song to the bride before she was walked down the aisle by her father, and the couple signed the legal marriage documents at the alter. I don’t think I have ever seen this done in an American wedding, but I could be wrong.

The day is capped off with a large banquet at a nice hotel. Everything has been arranged by the hotel staff, from the welcoming signs and displays to the towering eight-tier cake that stands on top of the main entertainment stage. Perfectly orchestrated lights and music are timed to dramatize the presentation of over ten courses of food. Vegetables, fish, chicken, pork, dumplings, noodles, crab, fruit, and even the environmentally taboo shark-fin soup are elaborately presented at tables of ten or so. There must be at least three hundred people in the room – undoubtedly more people than were actually in the audience at the ceremony. There is more singing, a few slideshow presentations, and a video highlight from the day’s events. The banquet climaxes with the couple making rounds to each table in rapid succession, to toast the guests and thank them for coming.

It occurs to me that the bride has changed dresses yet again into an evening gown, and the bride and groom each make speeches on stage. As everything is winding down, they stand at the ballroom’s exit with their family and form a line to shake hands and say goodbye to the exiting guests. A few red faces stumble and slur their way down the line – the sign of a little too much wine, but all in all the wedding is a success. The extremely tired bride & groom collapse on a couch, take a deep breath and get ready to catch a flight to their honeymoon in London.

Check in tomorrow for a look into the legend behind Double Happiness and it’s prevalence in Chinese weddings.

Dim Sum Dialogues: Family Business

I arrive at the Houston Center of East Tsim Sha Tsui dripping in sweat – a product of the battle between Hong Kong’s unforgiving humidity and my mild-weather Californian blood. I’m here to meet with 23-year-old Ray Lok, a mutual friend and aspiring businessman in Hong Kong. I hope that a quick breather in the air-conditioned lobby will help dry out my shirt, but within minutes I see him step out of the elevator – dressed in a sharp striped shirt – no tie, chequered trousers, and fashionable black shoes. He approaches me with a slight grin and says “Why are you sweating? Did you run here?”

In the elevator up to his waterfront office, we exchange business cards. His reads “Ray Lok, Director – Yulok Company Limited”. He comments on the thickness of my business card, “Where did you get these made? I think this is now the thickest business card in my collection”. We laugh and walk through a series of rooms strung with countless plastic & woven bags hanging from metal racks. Next to the bags are an array of textiles and various clothing fabrics.

He explains that the Yulok Company specializes in manufacturing carrier bags for retail stores around the world – South Africa, Israel, Australia, and throughout Europe. They range from simple bags with printed logos to custom designed bags for carrying bottles of wine. The Yulok Company also mass-produces simple plastic bags found in supermarkets, plastic trash bags, and more obscure products like billions of stirrers for coffee cups – it’s a diverse inventory.

Ray’s parents started the company in 1979, when his mother was employed by a trading company and approached by a client to help start a new venture. The success of the business took off despite the economic downturn in the 90’s – and at one point the Yulok Company maintained three factories in Hong Kong. Because of rising costs and regulations, they’ve since moved their factory to Vietnam – a complicated process that involved completely disassembling the factory machinery, relocating and then reassembling it.

Like many other young people in Hong Kong, Ray went abroad for his education – graduating in 2008 from USC’s International Relations & Global Business program. He remarks that he was impressed by students that were able to work jobs and study full time – and enjoyed his professors in the program. But he argues that the course itself wasn’t interesting and often inapplicable to business in Hong Kong. His real education came from sitting in on meetings as a child and watching his parents run the company.

For lunch, Ray leads me to a fancy Chinese restaurant a few floors below the office. The hostesses immediately recognize him, which is no surprise – he says he’s been coming here for 23 years. I ask whether or not he felt pressured to come take over the family business after school, and he shrugs saying that there was never any family conversation about it – as a male in a Chinese family it was expected of him. I ask him if this bothers him, if he’d rather be doing anything else, and he replies “It’s better than working at a bank” – referring to the large majority of the young, educated Hong Kong workforce.

We discuss the new plastic bag tax that hit Hong Kong’s consumers on July 1st of this year. There’s a 50¢ fee for every plastic bag used at supermarkets and convenience stores. It doesn’t concern him because he’s seen it implemented in other countries only to fail shortly after. He says that consumers often blame manufacturers for the environmental damage caused by plastic bags, but in reality it’s not the manufacturer’s fault – it’s how the consumers use and dispose of them.

Ray wants to expand into larger production of biodegradable bags, but adds that the government isn’t funding R&D enough to make them truly efficient…claiming that biodegradables can be just as bad for the environment as plastic bags are.

It seems that he’s genuinely concerned about environmental issues, but effectively dismisses any claim directed against the plastic bag industry. My ignorance on the subject forces me to return to my crispy noodles, hot tea, and sweet egg tarts. I ask him about his hobbies and aspirations, and he mentions that he’d like to explore an internet startup if he can find the time. His ideal dream would be to own a boat and escape Hong Kong on the weekends, but for now he spends his free time shooting photographs & toying around with fast cars.

It’s hard to pry deep into his personal aspirations – so I revert back to business.

We finish our lunch, and I ask him if he’s happy working so much at his age. He replies that his parents always told him “When you’re young, you sacrifice your health in exchange for money, and when you’re old you use your money in exchange for health.” I laugh to myself, and consider the truth in that statement. Wise words for a young professional in Hong Kong.