Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tossed Salad of Prosperity

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

The direct translation is "Wish You Good Fortune," but in my mind, it's always meant "Happy New Year!"

January 23 kicked off the multi-week celebration that is Chinese New Year. Growing up in America, I never realized that the festivities lasted more than one day. Here in Malaysia, it's just party after party for 15 days. The first two days are even a public holiday since people go home for a big family reunion.

Chinese New Year is determined by the lunar calendar, so the date floats around on the Gregorian (Western) calendar. Some years, it's as late as Valentine's Day, but it was extra early this year. Our school even delayed the start of Spring Semester to accomodate all the Chinese who needed to travel home for the occasion.

A big group from hubby's company went out for a celebratory Chinese New Year lunch, and the locals had a good time teaching all the expats about food traditions. When my hubby came home and told me about Yee Sang, I just knew the whole family needed to try it. "Yee Sang" is a near homophone to the word for "abundance", so it's considered very lucky. It's such a popular dish here in SE Asia, that Malaysia and Singapore are actually battling over who gets bragging rights for inventing it.

When we sat down for the restaurant's Chinese New Year dinner, a big platter of Yee Sang was waiting for us on the table.

All the elements were arranged in tidy little piles around the center of crispy fried wanton strips that symbolized a floor full of gold. You could tell that someone in the kitchen had been busy with the food processor. There were julienned strips of carrots, radishes, pickled ginger, maybe some jellyfish, halved limes and a few other crunchy bits I couldn't quite identify. We added in the thinly sliced raw salmon but skipped the five spice powder.

Then came the fun part! Everyone sticks their chopsticks in the salad and starts tossing. The higher the toss, the greater the prosperity in the upcoming year.

Come on kids! Let's see how high we can toss it. Okay that's high enough. No, no. You must at least attempt to have it land on the plate. No, there are no extra points for hitting other diners. Ack! Sorry m'am. Didn't mean to hit you. I guess some of our prosperity is coming your way.

You're also supposed to say various auspicious wishes out loud, so I just kept repeating, "Good Fortune! Abundance! Prosperity!" This is what the platter looked like when we were done.

See, most of it is still on the plate. Afterwards, we all dug in and started eating. It was delicious — really crunchy with a citrusy tang. We are definitely doing it again next year.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hong Kong: Classic Tourist Day

My trip to Hong Kong ended near where my family's story began.  Ages ago, after The Great War, a young man from Guangdong province in southern China began working in a department store on Des Voeux Road in Hong Kong's Central District. There, he met the store owner's daughter who would grow up, move to the Philippines, and one day become his wife. I wonder if back then, that young man ever dreamed that his granddaughter would be born in America and that she'd one day journey back to Des Voeux Road with her family.

No visit to Hong Kong is supposedly complete without a trip across Victoria Harbour on the Star Ferry. So, that's how we began our last day of sightseeing. Just boarding the boat was exciting. It was bobbing up and down so much from a passing ship's wake that they had to momentarily pull up the gangplank so passengers wouldn't fall into the water. Crossing the harbor, a bigger boat came close to us — probably too close.

Hubby remarked that the interior was just as he remembered from his childhood vacation here. He was the same age that our oldest boy is now, so I'm hoping that our kids will look back fondly on this time and want to bring their own children back to explore.

Heading from Kowloon to Hong Kong on the Star Ferry

On the other side, we boarded an open-air, double decker Rickshaw Sightseeing Bus to whisk us to Victoria Peak Station. I amused myself by yelling, "Duck down!" at the boys whenever we went under a bridge. I'm not sure they saw the humor in it.

I giggled at the sight of the giant canopy on the back of this "rickshaw."

Next up was the Peak Tram, a funicular that had its start in 1888. It didn't take us long to climb the 0.89 mile railway up the highest mountain (1,656 feet) on Hong Kong Island. At some points, the angle of incline was 27 degrees, and my eyes played tricks on me as I watched the passing scenery. The buildings are upright of course, but to me, they seemed to be leaning over like a scene out of the movie Inception.

Pretend "Funiculi, Funicula" (aka "Larry's High Silk Hat") is playing in the background. 

Even though it was a hazy day, the view from Victoria Peak was amazing. Imagine looking down at 88-story office buildings far below you.  We ate lunch at one of the touristy restaurants at the top (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., if you really must know) before heading back down on the tram.

At the bottom, we embarked on an excursion that I've been plotting for decades. I think every kids' fantasy of futuristic cities involves moving sidewalks. With the Central-Midlevels Escalators, the future has arrived! This covered system of 20 escalators and 3 moving sidewalks traverses 2,600 feet with a vertical climb of 443 feet, enabling pedestrians to quickly travel from the residential Mid-levels area to the commercial Central District.I think I read about it as a teen and always thought it'd be great to try out.

View of the SoHo district from one of the escalator landings

Before we left the hotel that morning, I told the concierge my plan and had her scribble the destination in Chinese on a business card to hand to the taxi driver. After the taxi left, I realized that the escalators were running in the opposite direction than I wanted to go. Nooooo!!!! It turns out that they're one-way. They run downhill from 6 - 10 a.m. and uphill from 10:30 a.m. to midnight. Is this how the Griswolds felt at Walley World? So, we took an unplanned hike down LOTS of stairs. When we reached the bottom, we went up a couple escalators to somewhat appease the child in me, then walked back down again. Oh well.

The escalator's downhill terminus is on Des Voeux Road, the street where my great-grandfather had his department store in pre-World War II Hong Kong. Even back then, I think it was a hustling, bustling kind of place. Today, numerous double decker streetcars run on tracks up and down the street, connected to the powerlines overhead — like a San Francisco streetcar on steroids and not as quaint.

Des Voeux Road and its streetcars
Could this be where great-grandpa's store was?

After our long hike downhill, we were ready to head home. Since we'd already rode on a boat, bus, taxi, and funicular tram that day, we rounded out the transportation experience by riding the subway back under the harbor.

It was a wonderful day made even better by the opportunity to connect with my heritage coupled with the (somewhat) realization of a childhood dream.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hong Kong: Parks and Recreation

After the constant heat and humidity of Malaysia, it was wonderful to spend some cool-weather outdoor time at Kowloon Park. It's an oasis of green amongst the towering skyscrapers and was filled with locals of all ages, from young kids releasing energy to elderly couples relaxing on benches. We ran around the maze garden reenacting Pac-Man, frolicked on the playground equipment, and watched flamingoes standing quietly in their pond. With a little arm twisting, the kids convinced me that we required an afternoon snack from the McDonald's McFlurry and Milkshake stand in the middle of the park.

As part of our mission to visit every science museum in the world, we naturally spent some recreational time at the Hong Kong Science Museum. My favorite exhibit was "Food Science Now" where they tried to convince me that Salted Calamari Guts plus Fresh Cream had the same salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami flavor profile as Shortcakes. I don't believe them, and I have no plans to test it on my own. The Hall of Mirrors was a big hit with the kids, too.

Are you up to the challenge?

Flying in the face of opposition from the kiddo contingent, we also visited the Hong Kong Museum of History which is located across the plaza from the Science Museum. I especially liked the exhibit on the Imperial Exam System of the Qing Dynasty. Passing the test was a person's key to a government job and upward social mobility. The stakes were so high that numerous people resorted to cheating. I kind of felt sorry for Hua Gongfu, age 26, from Jiangnan province. Centuries after he tried to dupe officials, he is still being publicly shamed for hiding answers in his crotch lining. Others snuck in answers in hat tassels and broom handles. How did that work? "Oh this broom here? Ummm...I was just planning on doing some... uhhh... light sweeping between test questions."

The rest of the museum focused on the broader history of Hong Kong and included wonderful displays such as walk through replicas of prewar shops and offices. After reading all the info, I thought I could definitely pass a Hong Kong history test (without resorting to cheating).

My two little scholars

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hong Kong: Dim Sum and then some

When we arrived in Hong Kong, we were famished and started wandering the streets in search of food. We stumbled across a seafood restaurant called Chuk Yuen. Even though it was 3 p.m., we still had to wait over 30 minutes for a table and the good-sized restaurant was packed. But oh my — the food was fabulous. Good thing I enjoyed it because when the check came, it was HK$1163. Wowza, that seemed like a lot of digits. As I was ordering, it vaguely seemed like a lot of money, but I wasn't too worried because there are a ton of Hong Kong dollars per one U.S. dollar. My mind must have been addled by traveling with three kids, hunger and the exchange rate conversions, because I inadvertently spent US$150.00 for lunch. Oops. We had McDonald's for dinner to compensate.

Hong Kong is famous for its Dim Sum, a style of Chinese cuisine in which a variety of small, bite-sized portions are served family style. It's like the Chinese version of tapas. We always went out for Dim Sum when I was growing up in Houston, and I wanted to compare it to the more "authentic" version. The hotel concierge recommended Serenade in the Hong Kong Cultural Center.

Deep-fried Crab Claws (back) and
Pan-fried Dumplings with Shrimp and Vegetables (front)

Before entering, we saw not one, not two, but three different bridal parties being photographed on a Monday morning. They were dressed in Western attire, but a fourth wedding couple entering the restaurant was resplendent in traditional Chinese wedding clothes and makeup.

It was definitely one of the fanciest Dim Sum joints I've ever dined in. Luckily for me, the menu was in both English and Chinese as well as having pictures of some items. Even though I've eaten Dim Sum all my life, I've never learned the names for my favorite dishes. In Houston, they wheel carts laden with towers of food around the to all the tables, and you just point at what you want.

This was the first time I've seen animal-shaped dumplings like the ones on the left.
The dishes on the right are very traditional.

Overall, the food was delicious but did not surpass what I've had in Houston's Chinatown. While my expectations had been higher, it's comforting to know that I can still get Hong Kong-quality Dim Sum in the USA.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hong Kong: A Room with a View

I've been wanting to visit Hong Kong ever since I was a little girl. The funny thing is that, for the most part, I wasn't ever clear on what exactly I'd do once I arrived. I just knew I wanted to go.

My first impression was that it's a huge, tall city filled with a crush of humanity. Nathan Road outside our hotel was jam packed with people. Railings even divided the sidewalk from the road to prevent jaywalking and, perhaps, people accidentally being pushed in front of traffic. After a while, we started using the extensive subway tunnels that run under Hong Kong to get around. Maps showing aboveground landmarks and what exits accessed them made it very easy to navigate.

Our room at the Sheraton had an amazing view of Victoria Harbour's Symphony of Lights. Involving 44 buildings, it's the world's largest permanent light and sound show according to the Guinness Book of Records. It provided the perfect excuse to entice the kids back to the hotel by 8 p.m. so they could enjoy the show.

This is just a small part of the show.
Many buildings had "Seasons Greetings" pictures lit up on their sides.

Weirdly, the other window in our hotel room was exactly where you'd expect a bathroom mirror (and a wall) to be, giving us a clear view into the loo. That's my bed in the foreground and the bathtub towel rack towards the top left of the picture.

Mommy can monitor handwashing and tooth brushing
without getting up from her bedroom chair.
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