Tag Archives: Hong Kong

Weird Christmases

Christmas seems to get more and more distant the older I get. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have children. Or perhaps Christmas in America IS, indeed, changing. More frantic. Less time to prepare, but a stronger, unspoken obligation to prepare, and a heavy guilt trip if you don’t.

There’s a distinct voice in my head that says, “Your Christmases are numbered and if you DON’T take your friends out to look at Christmas lights, and if you DON’T go to choral concerts at churches, and if you DON’T put up lights and a tree, you’ll have wasted something very precious.”

But this isn’t an essay on how Christmas in America has changed. This is an essay on Christmas traditions in other countries, just as a passing curiosity to all three of our readers…a lovely way to spend fifteen minutes during the holiday season.

J-P and I recently returned from Hong Kong. Christmas is certainly NOT an ancient Chinese tradition, but Hong Kong was a British territory for so long that the traditions DID get practiced there (by the minority British population) and the Chinese observed them with curiosity.

Now that the British are out (white westerners make up less than 1% of the population in Hong Kong), the Cantonese Hong Kongers have adopted and adapted Christmas and it is practiced with glee and delight. J-P and I sat on the lap of a jolly Santa Claus one night and he asked us what we wanted for Christmas. But you can bet that we didn’t get funny looks, as we would at a mall in Dallas.

Santa Claus in Hong Kong

Santa in the Far East

The children were getting pushed consistently to the back of the line, and it was almost entirely adults sitting on jolly St. Nick’s lap, getting their photos made, and telling him what they wanted for Christmas. Also, the Chinese almost uniformly make the “peace” sign when they get their photos made with Santa.

Hong Kong Christmas TreesThey have another tradition which is an adaptation of the Christmas tree. They write wishes on little cards and attach them to Christmas trees in public squares. These trees become heavily overleaden with wishes, and you can stop and read them while you’re out for a walk. (I never saw a Chinese do it, so perhaps it was inappropriate of me to do it, but I was certainly fascinated…) Most were written in Chinese, but the few that were written in English, or both languages, were heart-warming to read, and often dealt with the health of loved-ones and the peace of the world than wishes for Ipods and tiny camera phones and cars.

I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in New York City with Christian’s Brasilian family. Their traditions revolve around food, but not the turkey and spiral-cut ham like ours. On Christmas Eve they eat a pasta called cappelletti, which is something like a larger tortellini, stuffed with chicken, ricotta, and nutmeg, served in a rich chicken broth. Wow is it good!

On Christmas Day they eat pork tenderloin roasted with fruits. And they have a specialty stuffing or dressing called “farofa” that is prepared at Christmas, and is a wildly complex blend of manioc (a coarse Brasilian flour made from the root of the yucca plant), roasted chestnuts, scrambled eggs, olives, vegetables, and bacon. It has a very, very dry consistency and bland flavor from the yucca flour, but the items found in it are all very moist and exploding with flavor, and varying in texture. It’s really delightful. Dessert is pastiera, a lightly-sweet cheesecake that has tender bulgar wheat mixed in with the cheese filling.

As a side note, on New Year’s Day, for good luck, they eat 12 grapes, one for each month of the coming year, and they go to the beach and jump waves (maybe symbolic of leaping life’s hurdles, I’m not sure.)

Leif, a dear friend of mine, recently moved to Buenos Aires, and this Christmas he went with a friend to the north of Argentina to experience a traditional Argentine Christmas. It consisted of dinner at 10pm, fireworks at midnight, followed by all generations going to the disco to dance until 10am the next morning.

So no matter how kooky Christmas becomes in America, rest assured that things are still stranger in other climes.

Australia, part 5

Greetings, all! J-P and I are safely back in Dallas, about a week earlier than expected.

Due to a number of reasons, we decided to cut out the New Zealand portion of our trip, and headed straight from Perth to Hong Kong. On the way we flew right over the interior of Borneo/Sarawak, one of my ultimate dream destinations. It was so mountainous and shrouded in thick jungle that there was just no trace of civilization, though there are tribes that live very primitive lives there. Those same jungles hide the entrances to the largest cave chambers in the world, as well, so you can bet I was excited to see it, if only from the air.

We landed in Hong Kong well after dark and took the express train into the city. The first thing we noticed was that EVERYONE was bundled up in heavy coats, gloves, and scarves. And well they should have been! It was almost down to 60F! I later learned that these “bitter” winds blow down across China from Siberia and freeze the poor Hong Kong folk to death… They lie along the same latitude as Cancun, which is not too far north of the equator, and aren’t used to ANYTHING below 80. So it’s understandable that 60 would feel bone-chilling to them.

The Infamous Chunking Mansions

They aren't joking when they say "De Luxe"

We lodged at the infamous Chunking Mansions in the district of Kowloon, just across the harbour from the financial district of Hong Kong and its famous miles of skyscrapers. We thought the name “Chunking Mansions” sounded lovely, and the guidebook said they were cheap, so we decided to stay there…not realizing until we arrived that “mansion” in Chinese equated to “decrepit skyscraper from the late 1950s.”

It was a supremely terrifying place…the lodging of choice for hordes of seemingly hostile and shady folk. While waiting for the elevator to our humble room on the 5th floor, we watched numerous transactions of questionable legality.

Once we were outside our lodgings, however, Hong Kong was a breathtaking place. You’d think, being occupied by the British for a century, that it would be a westernized place.


Hong Kong meat marketHong Kong is supremely Chinese. We watched chickens being beheaded and boiled to remove feathers (signs warning against H5N1 avian flu were EVERYWHERE, and lots of people were wearing face masks), we saw hearts, intestines, and hunks of meat hanging on hooks in markets, squirming eels in buckets, dried fish parts (complete with pungent aromas)… I would say that, apart from Cairo, Hong Kong is the most foreign place I’ve ever visited.  And that includes Thailand!

J-P’s primary goal was to experience lots of authentic Chinese food, so the first night we ate Peking Duck at a place that supposedly had the best in the city. It WAS good, but they saw fit to charge us almost $50 for it…a ripoff in a city where you should theoretically be able to eat well for less than $15 a day.

Other meals were delightfully satisfying, from shrimp dumplings in fish broth, to green papaya salad.

Hong Kong ParkWe must have walked 15 miles in the 36 hours that we spent exploring Hong Kong. The Kowloon side is grotty, smelly, poor, and very Chinese, whereas the Hong Kong side is immaculate, orderly, expensive, and something altogether unique. You simply can’t find another place in the world with nearly as many skyscrapers…they go on for miles and miles! Yet you’ll continually run across a lovely green swathe of park every few minutes, where locals do Tai Chi on their lunchbreaks, and massive goldfish and koi swim in ponds connected by waterfalls.

Hong Kong fruit marketIt was a budget trip, to say the least, but we DID want to bring back a modest gift or two. J-P and I spent the better portion of a day looking for JUST the right gifts for him to bring to his family members. We knocked the rust off our haggling skills, as Hong Kong culture loves to bargain.

The plethora of cheap trinkets available got the best of J-P, who has discriminating and creative tastes, and the ONLY thing of interest he found in the entire city was a striking cookie-cutter shaped like a dragon.

And after he had bargained back and forth with numerous vendors in the jade market and other places for things he didn’t really want, and ended up not purchasing, the shop keeper who sold the dragon cookie cutters simply WOULD NOT BUDGE on her inflated price of $5.

So we left Hong Kong with a $5 cookie cutter, and a load of memories.

Things we learned:

1. We’re very lucky. We left Sydney the day before violent riots broke out, originating from the ethnic clash of unwelcomed Musim immigrants into Australia. Many people were hurt. But we left less than 24 hours before they broke out. We also left Hong Kong less than 24 hours before riots broke out regarding the G8 summit which was held there. *whew*

2. Tip the Buddhist monk if he asks for cash. One came RIGHT UP to J-P and asked for alms, and J-P did what I would have done, which is apologize and walk the other way. But as soon as he did that, TERRIBLE luck broke out. He couldn’t find good gifts. We lost a chunk of money…it seemingly disappeared into thin air. We got MIDDLE seats between large, smelly people on the 12 hour flight back to Los Angeles, and then the flight that J-P got on back to Dallas was delayed on the LA runway for 3 hours. So tip the monk. Cause you never know what will happen if you don’t.

3. Good people are living and loving all over the world. J-P and I met Wayne, Iris, Pete, and Ruth on a boat in Antarctica almost exactly a year ago. A year later, we’re being hosted in their home in their country, meeting their children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and close friends, and have the rare opportunity to be part of a family we really don’t even know on the other side of the planet. Despite the fact that the world is smaller than it has ever been, I think it’s easy for us to forget how much people outside our own circle of family and friends love each other. And to be wrapped up in love and hospitality after having flown as far from Dallas as we could possibly fly was a truly life-changing event.

My Australian family

I’ve traveled far and wide, as you all well know, but this trip will live in my memory above all others, simply because I now feel like I have family in Australia…on the opposite side of the world. Many tears were shed upon our arrival, and many more were shed when we departed. And those are the moments that make travel priceless.

Merry Christmas to you all, and a fantastic New Year!