Monday evening, Bill hosted pre-dinner drinks and snacks at  his apartment, the two-month old Grand Centre apartment near the Four Seasons Hotel and Ratchadamri BTS station.  I don’t know what he is paying for his 33rd story unit, but with the view below, he must be paying a lot!

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Above: Looking  north towards Siam – Paragon is in the middle of the picture, Central World Plaza to the right, the Police Hospital and headquarters at the bottom.  Below: Looking southwest towards Silom.  The State Tower with its golden dome is visible one-quarter the way across the horizon from the left.  The Royal Sports Club is in the forground with Chulalongkorn University behind it, discernable by the many low-lying buildings with Thai style roofs.

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Afterwards we went to dinner at Center World Plaza, within the distance of a short walk.

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Above: Vee, Maitree, Sean and Tawn.  Below: Suchai, Francois, Chairat, and Tawn at the Food Hall at Central World Plaza.

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Above: Dresses on display at Zen department store that will be part of a charity auction.

 

Winter in Hong Kong Part 3

Style note: I’ve become aware that when subscribers receive my entries, if I’ve centered the pictures but left-justified the text, the entire entry – both text and pictures – appears centered in the email.  Because that looks unpleasant, I’m going to stop centering pictures in my entries.  For those of you who read my entries directly on my website, I apologize in advance for all the pictures being left-justified.

Winter finally arrived Sunday morning in Hong Kong.  It was overcast and blustery, and actually cold enough that I had to keep my pullover on all day.  Especially true while we had dim sum at Maxim’s City Hall restaurant, where the air conditioning was set so as to eliminate the need for any refrigerated storage in the kitchen.

Before this, we checked out of our hotel and checked in at the in-city airport terminal, part of Hong Kong’s snazzy Airport Express train system.  I’ve written about this before, and I know there are some other cities that have a very well integrated train to airport system, but I really like how I can check in in Central a full 24 hours before my flight, drop off my luggage, receive my boarding passes, and then go about my day until I’m ready to take the 26-minute train ride on the MTR Airport Express.

P1030861 With nearly an hour to fritter away before our dim sum appointment, we walked along the waterfront from the new IFC complex to city hall. 

This area is undergoing massive redevelopment as one of the final stages in a decades-long Central and Wan Chai reclamation program that will ultimately open up a world-class waterfront promenade.  The Hong Kong government’s website on this project is here.

Right: Pictures of the proposed redevelopment.  The area above the main east-west road is all land that will be reclaimed from the ever-shrinking Victoria Harbour.

P1030860 One of the victims of this redevelopment was the closure and demolition of the 50-year old Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier, where the iconic Star Ferry dropped passengers off in Cenral. 

Now, the ferry uses the new Central Ferry Piers 7 and 8, built 300 meters further into the harbor which results in a walk much further than that. 

Estimates are that as many as a third of the ferry’s passengers will switch to other forms of transportation such as the MTR underground railway, which seems chronically overcrowded throughout the day and night. 

Below: A view of part of the reclamation area.  The construction in the foreground of the picture is where the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier once stood.  The walkway to the new pier is visible in the picture.  The new Central Ferry Piers 7 and 8 are visible in the right of the picture: the white building blocked by a yellow boat-born crane is the main entrance to the piers.  There is criticism that the government’s attempt at replicating the Edwardian design of the original pier resulted in a theme-park appearance for the new one.

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Below: A view of the same area, taken from the pedestrian walkway you see in the above picture.  This picture is looking east towards Wan Chai district and the striking Hong Kong Convention Centre and the construction in the foreground is the site of the former Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier.

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Below: A view of Tawn taken from the top of the car park where I shot the pictures of the harbor.  He looks more and more like his father when on holiday.

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P1030899 Any of my readers who live in, are from, or are familiar with Hong Kong will undoubtedly have a long list of dim sum restaurants they much prefer to Maxim’s City Hall.  “Cheaper”, “Better”, “Less Crowded” will be heard from those folks. 

But the two things I like about the restaurant: a stunning view of the harbor and an ease of finding it when you have a group of people who have varying degrees of familiarity with the city.

Left: Daufufan (did I anglicise that correctly?) – a warm tofu custard served with a slightly sweet ginger syrup with sugar crystals on top.

We were joined by Wai Kin’s friend James, Ryan and Sabrina’s soon to be cousin-in-law Amelia, and my friend from when I lived there in 1998-99 Edward, as well as Chris and Tehlin and their two children.  I like mixing and matching people in a social setting; it can make for fascinating conversation.

Below, Tawn is always a hit with the children.  Sam tries to color Tawn’s cheeks with purple crayon, an effort in which he was successful and which made Tawn all the rosier.

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Above: Sam, Tawn, and Isabel hang out at Maxim’s.  Below: Chris and Isabel spend some time coloring.

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Above: The other Chris with Isabel, in the lobby of City Hall.

 

 

200px-My_Blueberry_Nights_poster We did finally get an opportunity to watch “My Blueberry Nights”, director Wong Kar-Wai’s first English-language film.  After dim sum we were going to go to Lantau Island to take in the Ngong Ping 360 cable car ride.  But with the wintry weather, which was heavily overcast, we figured the stunning views would be smothered, so instead headed to IFC to see what time the movie was showing.

It being the film’s opening weekend, the show that had just started had seats only in the front row.  The next show time was inconvenient to making our filght, so we took the MTR up to Kowloon station to see if we could catch the flm at the new Elements mall.  Themed after the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), the mall inexplicably has placed the ice scating rink in the fire zone.  That sounds like bad feng shui to me.

There is a cinema at Elements and they had an upcoming show of My Blueberry Nights with good seats still available, so we killed an hour book shopping and having some tea and pastries at Le Goƻter Bernardaud, below.

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The film was really good with artful visuals and Wong’s signature style imposed on one of the most American of film genres, the road movie.  Norah Jones did a delightful job in her debut film role, Jude Law was charming, and the cast of A-listers who had cameo roles was a testament to Hollywood’s desire to work with one of Hong Kong’s most creative filmmakers.

After the film, we headed up to the airport, with more than enough time to eat a bite (some really good hand-pulled Shanghainese noodles for me) and buy some Krispy Kreme donuts per the request of Tawn’s client at Rolls Royce.

Below: Fun with giant donuts:

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All in all, it was a fun weekend getaway.  After our last trip to Hong Kong, which resulted in us being busily overbooked with social engagements, Tawn and I agreed that the pacing of this trip was much more relaxing. 

 

Winter in Hong Kong Part 2

P1030737 Hong Kong is always a joy to visit, not only because it is familiar to both of us (I lived there in 1998-99; Tawn flew their regularly when he worked for United) but because it is such the polar opposite of Khrungthep.  Khrungthep is relaxed in a “if you don’t get to it today, there’s always tomorrow” sort of way.  Hong Kong, on the other hand, is uptight in a “there’s more money to be made today” sort of way.

And Singapore is on yet a third pole.  Singapore is fastidious in a “why wasn’t this bus stop color coded and alphabetized?” sort of way.”

So if you live in one, one of the others usually seems like a good place to go on holiday.

Right: Large signs at the Hong Kong International Airport encouraging seniors to use the lift instead of the escalators.  I love the happy, smiling grandma.

We’re staying at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, which I learned today used to be the headquarters of the Mainland Chinese government’s “news service”.  I use the quotes because I also learned that the news service was more or less the front for their intelligence agency.  Given how large a building it is, one wonders just how many plainclothes “reporters” they had in their employ.

Below: The view from our room.

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P1030744 Friday we did some wandering around Central, the Midlevels, and Soho.  There wasn’t a lot to see on Hollywood Road, the antiques and design district. 

Left, an interesting photo from the Central escalator, which is a network of moving sidewalks and escalators that bring commuters up from the business district to the Midlevels, a desirable residential district halfway to Victoria Peak.

One thing that really sets Hong Kong apart is the sheer density of people.  There are 6.9 million people in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, a density of 16,470 people per square mile (or 6,407 per square kilometer). 

Contrast that to Khrungthep, with 5.7 million people and a density of 9,438 people per square mile (or 3,644 per square kilometer). There’s twice as much elbow room there as in Hong Kong.

Interestingly, Singapore’s 4.5 million people place it just behind Hong Kong as the world’ fourth most densely populated nation, with 16,392 people per square mile, or 6,369 people per square kilometer).  But from my visits there I’ve never felt that it is so crowded.  Maybe the way the Singapore authorities fit everyone into the housing blocks.

In either case, every square inch of Hong Kong seems to be jostling with people.  The area around Times Square, near our hotel, was just a madhouse throughout the day Saturday and into the night, for example.

Below: Tawn poses in front of an out of business restaurant on Staunton Street.

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Below: The Lippo Centre, one of the many architecturally interesting buildings on Hong Kong Island.

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P1030781 Tawn was feeling under the weather Friday evening, suffering from a recurring pain in his neck (not me) about which I think he will eventually write a blog entry.  He stayed at the hotel and I headed off to Chris and Tehlin’s house on the south side of the island.  Right: Chris and Tehlin.

After visiting with their lovely children, the three of us headed off to dinner at Top Deck restaurant, which is appropriately enough on the top deck of the famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen, below.

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The Top Deck restaurant is run by the Cafe Deco group, which runs Cafe Deco up on Victoria Peak as well as a half-dozen other restaurants.  Cafe Deco was on my list of favorite places when I lived here, and Top Deck retains the expansive international menu and attentive service that I would expect.  The food, however, was just moderately flavored. 

I went all beef with a steak tartare maki (sushi) roll for starters, followed by a US filet mignon.  The tartare was okay, nothing spectacular… the filet was tasteless and I had to individually salt each bite to coax any flavor out of the well overcooked meat.  The chef’s definition of medium rare was questionable and I should have thought to send it back but didn’t.

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Saturday was more shopping and wandering around on both sides of the harbor.  I wrote some post cards and found quinoa on sale at City Super! market.  The price was quite reasonable, too, at 500 grams (about one pound) for 18 Hong Kong Dollars, or just over US$2.30. 

In the evening we met Big Michael in Mongkok, on the Kowloon side of the harbour.  A decade ago, Mongkok was all prostitution and drugs, with a flourishing daylight trade in construction materials on the side.  When I worked in Hong Kong as the opening manager of AMC’s first cinema in Hong Kong, our pre-opening office was located in Mongkok.

These days, with the opening of the Langham Place mall/office/hotel complex more than three years ago, the area has gentrified and has become very popular with tourists and locals alike.  Nonetheless, the Portland Street prostitution businesses remain strong.

Below, lit up like Times Square, is the intersection of Shantung and Portland Streets, just opposite to Langham Place.

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Below: Big Michael holds the camera for a group portrait.

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His taste in food always being impeccable, we let Michael do the ordering at a small, hole-in-the-wall, typical Hong Kong establishment with seven tables and the occasional cockroach running around.  But the food was tasty.

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P1030816 From top left, clockwise: Stewed daikon radish, fried bean sprouts, and cuttle fish and sausage; Chinese broccoli with salty pork; fried oysters omelet; stewed duck; Chinese broccoli and garlic.

 

 

 

 

 

200px-My_Blueberry_Nights_poster After dinner, we were going to watch Wong Kar-Wai’s new film, My Blueberry Nights.  This is his first English-language film and it stars Norah Jones and Jude Law.  Not knowing when or if it will be distributed in Khrungthep, I was hoping to watch it here.

Unfortunately, we were running late and each cinema we arrived at (two of them), we found the only available seats in the front row of the theatre.  Instead, Tawn and I went to Times Square for some dessert at a popular (line outside) Chinese dessert restaurant, below.

Unfortunately, I do not know its name, but I know where to find it and would be happy to draw you a map if you need to know.

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Above: The dessert restaurant’s interior.  Below: A twist on khaw niaw mamuang, Thai sticky rice and mango.  This is Japanese mochi, glutinous rice pounded into a chewy sheet, wrapped around a fresh piece of mango and rolled in shaved coconut.

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Above: Just like the dessert soups in Thailand, the Chinese soups feature beans, grains, and ingredients like taro served warm and moderately sweet.  In this case, there was a set in which the soup was accompanied by a fried turnip cake.  Somewhat odd as the turnip cake is a very savory item, usually served with dim sum.

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We concluded our evening walking back to the hotel.  Along the way, though, I was amazed at the large number of people and taxis at Times Square at 11:00 on a Saturday night.

 

Winter in Hong Kong Part 1

We arrived in Hong Kong just before eleven Thursday night for a long weekend of visiting friends, shopping, and – most of all – relaxing.  Since a requirement of my visa is that I have to leave the country every ninety days, short trips such as these make for good quick vacations as well as jumping through the appropriate immigration hoops.

The weather is cool here – highs about 74 F / 22 C – but muggy.  The sky is mostly overcast and if you catch the occassional gust of wind the day is pleasant.  When the sun breaks through you can quickly get sweaty despite the low temperature.

All the locals are wearing jackets and sweaters.

We booked the room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, located in Causeway Bay across from the Hong Kong Jockey Club.  It is a nice enough hotel, but the original “basic” room we were booked in had frosted-over windows.  All of the basic rooms do, we were told, because that side of the hotel faces an old Chinese cemetery.  After paying for an upgrade, we found ourselves in a larger room with a view, with dinner and internet access included.

I’ll try to do a post with some pictures tomorrow, but so far I haven’t taken very many.  After enough visits and having lived here, I’m less inspired to click away.

 

Of pumpkin pies and upside down sconces

Paul and Aori came over last night.  They thought they were coming over to see the condo then we’d go out to dinner, but I cooked dinner for them.  Nothing fancy: linguine with homemade pesto, a mixed green salad and a baguette.  For dessert, homemade pumpkin pie.  From scratch.  Yes, really.

Started out with this … and ended up with this

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The crust didn’t work out correctly.  I had this “foolproof” pie crust recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that uses a vodka/water mixture to keep the dough pliable but not tough when cooked.  But it is made with a food processor and my food processor is in Kansas City.  So I cut the fat in by hand and it just didn’t work out the same.  For some reason the dough already seemed moist before I ever added any water.  It didn’t hold together when being rolled out.  Maybe I mis-measured, although I thought I was being very careful.  A tablespoon of butter is 1/2 oz or 4 grams, right?

Maybe I really need to have a food processor to distribute the fat correctly?  Jenn, if you’re not using my Cuisinart, I might be bringing it back to Thailand next time I’m in KC.  No budget left for buing one here.

Anyhow, crust aside, the pumpkin filling tasted great.  It really is so easy to make it from scratch that I don’t know why you would bother with canned filling and that tinny flavor that accompanies it.  I’ve never been much of a fan of pumpkin pie, but this was seriously tasty.  Roka was the one who first asked if I knew how to make pumpkin pie, so as soon as I get the crust figured out, I’ll make one for her.  Anyone else want to come over?

♦  ♦  ♦

 

P1030701 This morning the mirror men (glass men?) came to install the handles on the mirrored cabinet doors.  This involved drilling into the mirror and through the wood behind it.  It looked like a complicated process as they changed drill bits frequently and were sprinkling water on the mirror as they drilled, I guess to either keep it from cracking or to keep the glass dust from flying around.  Considering that nobody had any protective gear on, either reason would be fine with me.

The electricians showed up unexpectedly after that to install the final two sconces, which Paul had hand carried from San Francisco.  Unfortunately, when the question came whether to install them facing up or down, I chose up.  I tried calling but he was in a meeting and I couldn’t get through.

Feeling empowered, I told the electricians to install them facing up.

They’ll be out Thursday afternoon to correct that and turn them to face down.

So much for being empowered, eh?

♦  ♦  ♦

 

P1030705 Afterwards I had to run an errand so while out, I met up with Ken, Bill and Roka at Kalpapruek Restaurant off Silom. 

I’ve eaten at their locations at Paragon and Emporium many times, but it wasn’t until I walked onto the property today (the restaurant is situated in an old house and adjoining buildings between Silom and Sathorn) that I recognized it: this is the place Tawn brought me for lunch the day after we met, eight years ago.  There has been remodelling since then but I knew it in an instant.  Above, Ken tries to navigate the menu as our waitress looks on, very patiently.  Below: Kalpapruek is known for their baked goods.  Here is their orange cake with a meringue frosting.

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♦  ♦  ♦

 

P1030712 Back at the Surasak BTS station, I took some pictures of the abandoned office building immediately next to the station. 

There are hundreds of these ghost buildings in the greater Khrungthep area, victims of the 1997 Asian economic crisis. 

While dozens of new buildings are being built today, there are countless relics that for whatever reason are never finished.  Most of them just stand empty, others have been taken over by squatters or have been targets for what I assume are mostly farang graffitti taggers.

♦  ♦  ♦

 

 

 

Funny election picture.  From the New York Times is this picture of John McCain.  All I can think is, “I hope he doesn’t try to hug me!”

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Thursday evening Tawn and I are heading to Hong Kong for the weekend.  It is the end of my 90-day visa and I need to renew it, so a border run is necessary.  Temperatures are wintry there – highs forecasts of 25 C / 77 F and lows of 20 C / 68 F.  Where is that parka?

 

Lots of visitors.  Paul is in town.  Daniel and Joe are coming to town.  And yesterday I received a call from Claude, who, while being from New York, had found himself in Singapore about to board a flight to Bangkok.

“Can I crash at your place?” he asked.

“If you’re okay with a little Japanese style futon,” I replied.

As my aunt says, there’s always room for one more.  Most of the time, Tawn agrees with that, but I’m not going to test him to see where the limit is.

Very-Thai1 So I picked Caude up at the airport.  On the way there, sitting at the intersection of Thanon Ramkamhaeng, I noticed these interesting planters.  The mayor of Khrunthep has made a lot of effort to beautify the city, planting more greenery.  What I liked about this particular intersection was the clever (and Very Thai*) way that the people with the green thumbs had gone about overcoming the very tall concrete barrier.

First off, put the plants in trash bins.  They’re large enough, there’s plenty of them around the city, so why not? 

Second, if the bins aren’t tall enough, just keep piling on concrete footpath pavers until the plants can peer over the top of the barrier.

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Waht I love about it is, it is such a practical and elegant (if not pretty) solution.

Claude was very thoughtful and bought us a bottle of Absolut Vodka at Singapore Changi Airport’s duty free.  They are selling a limited edition “Absolut Disco” bottle, which is a regular bottle sold in a funky disco ball case.  Very cute!  There’s even a hole at the top so you can hang it from the ceiling on a little spinning motor.  I’ve suggested to Tawn that we take down the chandelier and replace it with this bottle.

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This morning, Claude went off to Koh Samed for a few days at the beach.  We’ll see about reconnecting this weekend in Hong Kong.  Meanwhile, it is off to Thai class for me.

* I’m thinking that I may start using this “Very Thai” picture to denote entries or observations that I find to be illustrative of Thai culture.  The original book is by Philip Cornwel-Smith and is full of many “oh, now I understand” moments.  I’ll try to contribute more of them along the same vein.

 

As ruuduu naw (cold season) continues, there has been a whole lot of nothing going on.  Errands, mostly.  Seeing friends a bit.  Watching the Iowa caucus results and reading the pundits.  So I’ll just address some odds and ends this morning:

P1030381 Regarding the bookshelves/china cabinets (leftsee entry here), thank you to those of you who offered your opinions.  Tawn was amused at the responses. 

Ble, our designer, stopped by Friday with the original plans for the cabinets.  Sure enough, they were built too large: 10 cm too tall, 5 cm too deep (both the upper and lower sections), and 15 cms too wide. 

Additionally, the pattern on the glass was not done correctly.  It was supposed to be etched with thin lines that made a diamond pattern, rather than being etched with diamonds themselves.  The difference would be in the opacity of the windows.  The idea is that we should still be able to readily see the contents of the shelves.

No explanation how the cabinet makers managed to mess these details up, but they did.  Ble will work with them to either fix the current cabinet or, more likely, build new ones at no cost to us.

 

♦  ♦  ♦ 

P1030615 Markus’ brother and sister-in-law are sister-in-lawthree weeks along with their two children, from Aptos, California.  In addition to picking them up from the airport, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with them. 

One of these opportunities was a trip to the Ancient City, a park to the southeast of Khrungthep and not far from the new airport, that has recreated at half scale over 100 of the most important historical structures in Thailand.  Built about twenty years ago, many of the structures now are surrounded by lush flora that more closely resemble the actual settings where these sites are located. 

Additionally, some of the structures are built to show what they would have looked like at their glory.  For example, some of the palace buildings that were destroyed when the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya is 1767 A.D. have been rebuilt (half scale) to their ancient splendor. 

The pavillion I capturpavilion right isn’t the prettiest thing on the grounds, especially given that the workers were in the midst of repainting it.  But I liked that it isn’t so typically Thai.  Also, the purple color was unusual.

You can travel the grounds either by rented golf cart or on bicycle.  With the weather sunny but not too hot, the bicycle proved a good way to go even though the bicycles were almost as ancient as the structures depicted in the park!

P1030624 The only drawback was ruin and wat burnout.  Had we purchased the guide book before touring the site, we would have been much better informed about the significance of the sites.  After a while it began to feel like “yet another palace” and yet another temple”.  I have a guide book now, which you’re welcome to borrow if you ever go to the Ancient City.

On the way home in our comfy Toyota tour van, we were stopped at a light in Khlong Toei and a friendly teenager on the back of a motorbike was smiling at us, so I took a picture, left.

 

♦  ♦  ♦ 

Roka had an interview at a language school on Thong Lor, so afterwards Tawn and I met her for lunch at J Avenue.  I love J Avenue.  The J stands for “Japanese”, and ostensibly this outdoor, upscale strip mall is aimed at the local Japanese expat population.  True enough, there are several Japanese restaurants in it and there is a Villa Market, the grand-daddy of all expat supermarkets.  But then there is a bowling alley, a Greyhound Cafe, an Au Bon Pain, and a bunch of other places that don’t have any obvious Japanese connection.

The center’s design is very good and if makes use of two huge old trees that were preserved right in the middle of things.  They have used misters and good landscaping to create a cool (temperature-wise) central court that is very pleasant to sit in even on a sunny day.  Best of all, it is within walking distance to our house.

Greyhound Cafe at J Avenue is much better than the Siam Centre location, because the service is organized and more attentive.  For examples, orders don’t go missing.  Here’s a selection of our dishes:

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From Left to Right: Asparagus soup, lasagna salad, and Thai-style spaghetti.

 

♦  ♦  ♦ 

We also ran some errands to the Ratchaprop and Siam areas, parking the car at Gaysorn to avoid geting any more into the messy traffic.  Here aregetting streets all within a three-minute walk of each other, to give you an idea of what traffic this weekend looked like:

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Thankfully, we were walking on the pedestrian skyway so we could see the traffic rather than be a part of it.

Speaking of Gaysorn, this high end but nearly always desserted mall often features nice sculptural works indesertedntral courtyard area.  A few months ago it was a giant splash (further below) and now it is this interesting grouping of lanterns.

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In a country where public art is sorely lacking, it is nice that this mall makes the effort to support local artists in this way.

 

♦  ♦  ♦ 

Side Notes:

Wilcox HS On Facebook, I’ve started a group called Adrian Wilcox High School – Alums of the 80s.  If you graduated in the late 1980s from this venerable Santa Clara, California institution of secondary education, feel free to join!

As of this morning there are already ten people signed up as members.  Some of these are the high school friends I’ve long stayed in touch with.  Others are people I do not know or barely remember.  Would you believe my 20 year reunion is coming up this summer?  Aiee – so old!

 

barack-obamaRegarding the results of the Iowa caucuses, while I try to maintain a fairly politically neutral stance in this blog since that isn’t really what I want to write about, let me say this: I’m happy that Barack Obama (right) did as well as he did.  Along with a lot of other Americans, I’m ready for a change in the tenor of our political debate. 

I’m convinced that the “red state – blue state” depiction of the United States is an artificial one, designed by news organizations, politicos, and pundits to play up the drama of divisiveness.  I believe that on most issues, the large majority of Americans can agree on many points, and do.  We are desperately in need of leadership, both in the domestic arena as well as on the world stage, that can start from the large common ground and build outwards, rather than starting from one extreme and demonizing the other.

Have a good week!