letter to Ruth

too lazy to create an entry about Christmas Eve in HK, so here's a letter I wrote to my friend.


Thanks SOOO much for the use of your apartment! I've left the resident card and key in the nightstand in the guestroom. I've made sure to sweep up all my loose hairs, but if I missed any, I'm SO sorry! I also did my best to get rid of toothpaste specks from the mirror (I'm an aggressive tooth-brusher at times) but if I missed any, again, SORRY! On my last night, I was in such a mad rush to get in to use the toilet (I felt an explosion coming) that I RETARDEDLY left the key in the door all night. A security guard came to ring your bell, and he must have been ringing for a good 10 minutes or something. Finally the building phone rang and I opened the door, while in my towel, to find a rather cute security guy. A shame about his red beret, really.

Glad to hear you're having a blast in Australia! I just got in last night, but my Dad left about 10 minutes ago to catch his flight to Asia. Glad I got to see him, even if only for just a short period of time.

Christmas Eve was nice. Spent the whole day alone, walking around HK. Sat beside some nice Canadians (expat for about 10 years) at a little Shanghai noodleshop. They'd directed me to some bar in SoHo, which I tried to find after polishing off a steaming bowl of sesame paste at a dessert stand up one of Central's many narrow slopey alleys.

As I walked past a Sichuan restaurant, a party of three dining there invited me to join them for coffee. It was actually one guy who came out to get me, on behalf of his single friend. They were nice, very chatty. I just sat there with my tea while they talked about Taiwan Independence and gave me a briefing on Portuguese Colonial History (they sure love Macau!). Both guys were lawyers, the woman (whose bf had come out to get me) is a Taiwanese native, doing her masters in arts management in Paris (How cool is that?) Her bf, a Montrealer raised in DC, has worked in Asia long enough to speak perfectly fluent Mandarin. The single guy, a Beijinger who's been in HK 25 years. Well-spoken. Not ugly. I felt bad for him though, because his friend was putting us both on the spot "So, you're here for what, five days? SURELY that's enough time to fall in love with this young successful lawyer!" We exchanged email addresses, but Kenneth knows I won't be contacting him anytime soon. Anyhoo, walked into some pretty neat bars in SoHo, but every place was packed so I took a mini historic walking tour with Kenneth and he accompanied me to the E11 bus stop. A nice boy. But no sparks. And of course no smooching. ;)

And here I was, ready to plunk myself down in a pub for Christmas Eve, with a pint of cider and the hopes of making a temporary friend or two. Now that I think about it, I doubt I would have found a quiet pub in that neighbourhood. Revellers were spilling onto the road, barricades and police officers everywhere. But isn't Lam Kwai Fong like that every weekend? New Year's Eve must be quite the scene.

Thanks again, my rice paddy honey and have a safe safe trip home! Happy New Year!



high an dry in HK

Sunny and 17C on Lantau Island :)

The first thing I noticed last night when I got off at Mong Kok station, was the people. There are lots of people. Lots. There are plenty in Taipei as well, but there, I found that there were more things, like cars, cabs, and scooters. But in Hong Kong, it's ALL people. Maybe if I hadn't chosen rush hour to meet my Grandfather in Kowloon, or maybe if I hadn't gotten off at Mong Kok -- one of the busiest shopping districts -- on a Friday night, I wouldn't have felt that way. Nah. It took me a good ten minutes to walk a block, as everyone was squished against everyone. A public fondler's paradise. The second thing Kowloon and HK have more than Taipei: neon lights. Everywhere. Even the side streets. Noise, light, air pollution abound -- but that's what makes this place seem so exciting. Looking forward to finding some dessert soups (pumpkin is good for the throat; almond is good for the lungs; black sesame is good for the hair AND the colon - black sesame is my absolute favouritest!) in the city. Mango pudding with coconut and sago is already pretty kickass.

My lovely friend Ruth has lent me her apartment for a few days, while she's off to spend Christmas in Australia with a busload of tourists. As soon as I landed at the airport yesterday, my middle finger split open for the first time in three weeks. And so it begins. Not that it's super dry in HK, but Ruthie's apartment (just minutes from the airport) is on the 57th floor, where it is much much drier than street level. I fell asleep last night to the sound of airplanes taking off and woke up to the sound of airplanes taking off, to a view of the mountains and sparkly ocean, and to a slowly-splitting right thumb. Most of the tenants in this building are flight attendants and expats so there's no real need to speak Cantonese. But I still try :) Although Lantau Island (where the apartment is located) is a bit of a MTR/busride from Kowloon, I can see why so many people would want to live out here -- it's rather peaceful. The droning of planes is calming.

Off to find a bandage, a cup of HK-style milk tea (McD's tea isn't horrible!) then up I go to the Peak. This will be my first trip up there. This is my seventh or eigth visit to HK, yet I have never done anything super-touristy, like visiting the Peak. The view of the island should pretty spanktacular. I just hope it's not too cloudy when I get up there!

The new Disneyland is just one MTR stop away. If I get back early enough, I just might catch the fireworks from the apartment ^_^


Jin Bao Mountain

This will be Amah's final resting place. Unfortunately, all the photos I've taken here turned out grey and gloomy (too many clouds!) so I've borrowed this from Wikipedia and will post my pics as soon as I've adjusted them.

On Saturday, I took my second trip (since arriving) out to Jin Bao Shan Cemetery with Mom, Aunt Loretta and Uncle Michael. It's about an hour and a half drive north of Taipei. Covering over 800 acres and the resting place for
Teresa Teng (one of Asia's biggest popstars), Jin Bao Shan is considered the most famous cemetery in all of Taiwan. Tsao Rhy-Chang, a huge patron of the arts (especially in sculpture) in Taiwan, commissioned a sculpture garden at Jin Bao Shan years ago. Flocks of tourists visit the site each day. Burial plots covering the mountainside get a breathtaking view (on a clear day) of the ocean.

Amah's plot was purchased a few years ago. We visited it my first week in Taipei. It was rainy rainy rainy. Our first stop when we arrived was at the restooms. The cleanest restrooms ever! There was artwork everywhere -- you wouldn't have guessed you were at a cemetery. My favourite painting depicted a Taiwanese funeral procession.

Funeral procession Funeral procession Funeral procession Funeral procession
The sales rep met us at the office and gave us disposable rain ponchos and large black umbrellas; then we proceeded up the hill to see Amah's plot, checking out other graves for design ideas. The rep gave us advice on materials to be used ("Look how dirty the white stone will get! Go for the polished grey") and showed us all the roof/bench/garden options imaginable. Since Amah is to be cremated, her urn will be placed in a cubby hole built into the 'hut' located at the back of the plot. ("We can install up to nine compartments for your family!") All we had to do was design the plot and request the type of material to be used. My uncle John sketched out something fairly simple, which included a skylight ("Amah likes a lot of sunlight"), a couple of benches ("not too many or it will be too crowded -- not everyone needs to sit anyway") and space for shrubbery along the sides. This was decided on the first trip up.

This past Saturday, the sun was shining. So my aunt decided to take another trip up to Jin Bao Shan to see the site. Ever since Amah's death, she hadn't slept well; as Amah's oldest child she felt somewhat responsible for ensuring that Amah would be happy with all of the arrangements. We were met by a different rep, Miss Tsang, who showed us the other 'burial' option: the mausoleum. The first building we visited housed seven levels of cubbyholes, each with a different theme. We were invited to removed our shoes before taking the elevator up to the third floor.

Miss Tsang was the queen of the upsell. We went from the third floor (homey, yet too traditional -- I didn't care for the fluorescent lighting) to the fifth floor (much cozier, warmly-lit) to the sixth floor (very clean -- but we still preferred the fifth floor). My aunt and my mom decided that perhaps it would be better to place Amah in the mausoleum, so that she'd always be surrounded by other souls and visitors, and there'll always be music playing. She'll also be in a cozy building, sheltered from the wind and the rain. We wanted the fifth floor. Unfortunately, all compartments facing the picture window with a view of the ocean (we thought that would be Amah's preference) were occupied. But then...

"Would you care to see the new building?" asked Miss Tsang.

It felt as if we were walking into an art gallery. The newest mausoleum was sleek, all granite and glass, complete with Zen rock garden in the lobby. (And the restrooms, wow.) Each cubbyhole had a glass cover in front of it, providing a surface for loved ones to customize the epitaphs with laser technology. Miss Tsang showed us examples of markers where a man selected his favourite idiom and had it etched onto his wife's glass cover. One school principal chose a poem for his own epitaph. Another marker showed a child's drawing, depicting a happy family, over his father's compartment. There was plenty of sunlight in the building, skylights everywhere. Everything was clean, peaceful. We were sold. My aunt reserved a nice two-urn compartment for Amah.

During the whole ride back, my aunt worried about whether she'd done the right thing. Both her husband and Mom loved the new mausoleum. So did she. She called my uncle John in China to make sure it was OK with him, since he was the one who had originally designed the burial plot; he liked the idea and just wanted Amah to be happy. My aunt still couldn't sleep. The next day, when she went for her daily prayers with Mom, they asked Amah's spirit whether the new resting place was acceptable. This Buddhist ritual is comparable to asking the 8-ball a question; once asked, my aunt tossed these two wooden pieces on the floor. If both pieces end up face-down, then the spirit's answer is "no;" if one is up and the other is down, then "yes." If they both end up face-up, then the spirit really really approves. The verdict? Amah approved wholeheartedly! Ever since, my aunt's sleep's been nothing but restful.

As for the plot of land on the hill, it shouldn't be a problem re-selling, since there's already a waiting list -- Mom says Amah will be disappointed if we don't make a profit from it. :)

God of Fortune

You KNOW it's a good place if the restaurant's been here for more than ten years. God of Fortune (Tsai Shen), specializing in cuising from the region of Tainan, has been around for as long as I can remember.

In 1985, I came here at least once a week when I spent the summer in Taipei. My cousins loved this place, but I didn't know how to appreciate non-Western cuisine. All I wanted was a hamburger or spaghetti -- which I never got -- so I sulked through many meals here, at the God of Fortune. What did I know? I was only 8.

At 28, I'd have to say this is the best restaurant I've visited on this trip yet!

Lunch at the God of Fortune
Click on the photo on the left to see what we ate!

Sniffly Sunday

It's currently 13C in Taipei. I've got that itchy-throat-snotty-nose-exhausted feeling. Think I've got me a cold. The apartment isn't heated, but there are about five mini space-heaters set up in various rooms. Hands are frigid. Will spend the rest of the day wrapped in a blanket. I think it went as low as 9C last week. Mom says that when she was a kid, and if it got as low as 14C, school would be cancelled because schools in Taiwan aren't heated. Interesting how back at home, it would take -30C and at least four feet of snow to shut the schools down.

I really hope it's just a 24-hour thing. Mom's gone out to find me some Neo Citran ^_^

It's my last week in Taipei -- one place I am absolutely dying to visit is here. I doubt Mom will want to come with me. She thinks I'm an oddball.

My cousin Daniella has offered her employee's pass to the spa at the hotel -- not a horrible way to spend a chilly Sunday. But I decided to stay home and sleep off this cold -- besides, I'm kind of holding out for a long soak in the hot springs. We had visited one yesterday while we were in the mountains, but it was Saturday, so naturally it was packed with people and the wait was too long. If we don't make it to the springs at Bei Tou in the next few days, then I just might take Daniella up on her offer.


double murders in Hualien

The naked bodies of two women are found in Hualien. Authorities assumed from the women's hair, makeup and clothing, that they were sex workers -- one in her 30s (and pregnant), the other in her 20s. Both had been strangled.

Within days, one of the victims' boyfriend confesses to the murder.
20 year-old boy had relations with young girl.
Girl, 15, was underaged.
Father of girl threatens to sue boy, unless he gives him $100,000 NT ($4000 CDN).
Boy coughs up the dough.
Father takes the money but sues boy anyway.
Mother of the young boy, along with boy and his buddies, kidnap the young girl and her best friend; kills them both, thinking that her son can't get sued for statutory rape if there's no victim.

A tragic story played out by stupid, stupid people.

What really boggles my mind is this: The victims were 15 and 12. HOW could police have been so off when they guessed their ages?

hanging out with Mom

At the market, you can find any animal organ imaginable to take home for your stew. The fattier, the tastier. Worried about your cholesterol level? Don't come to Taiwan. I'm sure I was slowing Mom down by pointing at everything at every cart and asking "What's that?"

At one point, she smiled embassingly and whispered in Mandarin, "A chicken's ju-ju."

"Ju-ju" is what you'd say to a 5-year old boy who points at his peepee. I'm 28. Yet I don't think Mom will ever be able to say the words "Rooster Testicles" to my face. Always the smartass, I was tempted to get technical on her and correct her on her animal anatomy. Unfortunately, I never learned the Chinese pet name for balls.

Do more testicles really mean more iron?


"I see you've had some success with the laxative."
"How did you know? Does it stink?"
"Do your roommates know how gross you are?"
Teehee. ^_^


road rules in Taipei

If there are any, no one really cares.

One Taiwanese phrase I would love to learn before I leave: "The sign says STOP you asshole!" I don't think the Mandarin phrase carries as big of a wallop -- not that I even know what the phrase is in Mandarin. Everyone who knows a Chinese swear word can only give me a Cantonese example. Mandarin-speakers just don't swear. They might spit on your shoes.

The drivers here aren't bad. They know how to anticipate other drivers' moves. No one ever slams on the brakes. Buses, cabs, cars, scooters, bicycles -- they all manage to maneuver around each other with only a couple of inches to spare. There is no alley too narrow for a scooter. There also doesn't seem to be a maximum seating capacity for a scooter. I've even seen scooter-trained dogs. You can buy a safety helmet (thickness of a salad bowl) for ten dollars at the drugstore.

Went cruising in a shiny red car my cousin is thinking of buying off his friend. He's going to have to convince his Dad to let him get one, since the brothers bought a silver one for my uncle Michael a few years ago.

"There's no point having two cars sitting idly in our garage!" Michael will say.

"How are you going to convince your Dad?"
"It's the company car. It will look good."
"So if it's the company car, will you slap some magnetic signage on the side? Great way to promote the business. Real classy."
"We can't promote the company that way. Signage would draw too much unwanted attention. We're taking a much more low-key approach."
"Porsche 993. A low-key vehicle. I see your point."

"Can you HEAR that?"
"Smells nice in here."
"How beautiful does that engine sound? Smooth ride huh? We'll speed up outside the city!"
"Automatic transmission? Wouldn't you rather drive standard?"
"All cars in Taiwan are automatic."
"Even the fast-looking ones?"
"Correct. You've got to custom-order stickshift."
"Don't tell me your Ferrari wasn't stick..."
Thought that might get a chuckle out of you, Ted.

I'm sure Lawrence will make good use of it (though he's told me they won't be installing car seats in the back). He's told me that if it weren't for the money, he'd be happy working in an auto body shop, tinkering all day.


cold and wet in Taipei

We arrived at CKS at 6am on Monday morning. The weather that greeted us was far from spectacular.

I met my little niece Lareina for the first time. She's only 2 but she's got the voice of a chainsmoker. Raspy and husky. I love it. At first she was shy. She hid behind my uncle, couldn't bring herself to call me "Shan-shan Ayi" (trans: Little Aunt Shan-Shan -- Ayi means Aunt, but doubling the Shan in my name implies youth; hence, Little Aunt). Lareina calls herself Nana. Within minutes, Nana was poking my belly and holding my hand. I can't wait to meet her little sister Angelina tonight.

The first ceremony at Amah's home was at 10am. The living room was filled with orchids and peonies. Three Buddhist nuns lit incense and chanted away, while the children and grandchildren of Huang Ai-Yang knelt before the altar and waited until we were told to kowtow, to chant along. Some of us had taken cushions to ease our knees. Jack, Calvin and I (yes yes, always the martyr) go without. I know Ted would have done the same. What's 45 minutes of slight discomfort? I went from seeing this woman every summer for the first half of my life, to only seeing her twice in the last ten years. This was the least I could do for Amah. Bruised knees will heal in a day.

We were given books with which to follow along. I was able to follow some of the passages, which included phonetic symbols for me to read. Whenver I couldn't follow, I tried to make sure I kowtowed at the right moment – forehead on the floor, book held in my left hand above my head, palm of my right hand facing up in front of me, knees creaking each time we rocked forward on the hardwood floor.

When the nun wasn't reading, she'd speak Taiwanese to the others. I was completely lost. After the ceremony, she sat us down and listed all the DOs and DON'Ts in ways to pay Amah respect before her funeral. Among them: no high-heel shoes, no sandals, no jeans, no leather shoes, no low-cut tops, no v-necks, no tanktops, no crossing of legs -- the list was longer, but that was all that I could pick up, as she spoke in both Taiwanese and Mandarin. I had shown up wearing a tank top (concealed underneath a cardigan) and sandals (suede too!) so naturally I felt horribly. Mom and Ahyee told me not to take everything the nun had said too seriously. Different nuns have different approaches. Their suggestions should be taken as guidelines, but not as rules. Mom assured me that Amah would not have been offended, as she was not a very traditional Taiwanese woman.
"How so?"
"Well, she was a very strong, independent woman. She truly believed that anything a man could do, she could do better."

Before leaving Toronto, I tried a quick search on Taiwan funeral customs. I was so worried about doing the wrong thing, about offending Amah. Imagine my surprise when "Taiwan Funeral Strippers" came up as a result. Mom said there would not be any strippers at Amah's ceremony, despite Amah's non-traditional ways. Apparently, the hiring of strippers and professional mourners was a lot more common in the rural areas.


Dad called me at 9am

My grandmother passed away Thursday morning.

"Were you close?" someone asked. Geographically, no. Funny that was the exact same question someone else asked me when my other grandmother died in 2001. Two days later, I left for Hong Kong for her funeral. And then there were none.

Amah was there from the moment I was born. She visited us every summer. I really can't recall any of our conversations because I didn't understand her Taiwanese-tinged Mandarin and she couldn't understand my Chinglish. I just remember there being a lot of yelling involved. But then for the Taiwanese, volume's always been key in getting a point across.

I slept in a crib until I was 6. One night, I got fed up and climbed out. The first grown-up bed I slept in was with Amah. We still have that bed in our house in Unionville. The room had thick brown drapes. The wallpaper pattern consisted of bare trees in varying shades of brown and silver. I don't think I'll ever find wallpaper like that now. Amah snored. She farted. She was amazing.

"She loved chunky peanut butter," was the first thing I could think of blurting out when M called to see how I was doing. And that she did. Everytime she came to visit, she'd return home with several gigundo jars of Kraft Chunky PB, the ones shaped like bear heads. She would eat it by the spoonful. At the time, chunky peanut butter did not exist in Taiwan. I was a real brat as a child, and was often grounded and sent to my room without dinner; Amah would sneak me pieces of ham and banana.

My plane leaves for Taipei tonight. I haven't started packing.