Archive for the ‘Hong Kong’ Category

Last Day in Hong Kong

Monday, May 17th, 2004

Today would be my last day in Hong Kong; my flight would depart just after midnight, so I’d have to head to the airport at 10pm. After meeting with colleagues for breakfast, a group of us checked out late in the morning to move our belongings over to the Metropark Hotel in Causeway Bay. Suzanne Stein and Marcelo Sant’Iago were both staying there, and Suzanne was kind enough to let Louise van Rooyen and me leave our luggage in her room for the day while the four of us played tourist with the free time we had left.

We hired a minibus taxi to take us to the Metropark; with all of our collective luggage there was no way we could have jammed all of our stuff into a standard taxi. The minibus looked like it spent most of its time transporting livestock, but it still got us to where we needed to go. Over at the Metropark, the hotel wasn’t ready for new guests to check in, so we all left our luggage with the bell stand, baffling the attendee as to why this Suzanne Stein character had such a ridiculous amount of luggage going up to her room.

Suzanne Stein at the tailors
Suzanne Stein gets fitted at the tailor in Kowloon

Before exploring the city one last time, we paid a final visit to Stitch-Up tailors in Kowloon, catching the subway from Tin Hau to Tsim Sha Tsui. Suzanne had ordered two suits and a bunch of shirts, and she needed to go in for her final fitting, while Louise was contemplating a purchase of her own. When we got to the tailor, Andy’s brother George said he’d need about 10 minutes to get Suzanne’s suits from the workshop. We took advantage of the time by heading to the other side of the mall to pick up drinks from Starbucks.

Back at the tailor, Suzanne got fitted for her suits while Louise browsed and Marcelo politely declined several offers from George to get a suit made. Once our business was done, we went downstairs to the local McDonalds to take advantage of the public bathroom facilities. There was a huge line for the women’s bathroom, so Marcelo picked up a fried shrimp snack; it was tasty, but more fried than shrimp.

We then walked towards the Star Ferry to return to Central. A small elderly gentleman in Buddhist robes approached me and tried to get me to make some kind of contribution. This being Kowloon, notorious for its dime-a-dozen scams, I declined. I walked a few more steps with Marcelo before we realized that the elderly fellow was now handing papers and trinkets to Louise and Suzanne. Uh-oh. Marcelo and I just shook our heads and grimaced while the ladies made their transaction: apparently they’d each get some prayers said for them at some local Buddhist shrine for a small fortune — about 20 bucks apiece. I hope they’re damn good prayers for that price.

Amahs at HSBC building
Filipino amahs picnic in the atrium of the HSBC building. Click on the picture to see the video.

We caught the next ferry and pressed onward to Central, where we crossed through the underground footpath until we found ourselves near the entrance of the HSBC building. The skyscraper has an immense open-air atrium on the ground floor, and it’s often occupied by large groups of Filipino maids, or amahs, having a picnic lunch. None of us were prepared for the sheer size of the spectacle. The entire atrium was jammed with thousands of women, encamped on the marble floor atop their favorite blankets. Women were having lunch, gossiping, cutting each other’s hair, doing their nails, cutting coupons, you name it. And all of them were talking at once, creating collective cackle that echoed throughout the hall. I took a couple of video clips to capture the scene, along with a few still photos that I’m sure did it much less justice.

Heading uphill from the HSBC building, we climbed through the park adjacent to the St. John’s Cathedral. When it was built in the 1800s, locals complained it was an eyesore; today it’s once of the few significant colonial-era buildings left on the island. The cathedral was packed for Sunday afternoon services; a choir sang a beautiful hymn in the back of the church. A man standing near the entrance quietly told us we couldn’t take pictures, so we stood silently, listening to the haunting hymn as the congregation fanned themselves for relief from the mid-day heat.

A few meters up the street from the cathedral we reached the entrance to the Peak Tram. This was to be my second trip to the top of the Peak on this trip to Hong Kong, but it was the first time up for everyone else. For a Sunday afternoon it was surprisingly quiet in the ticket line, so we were able to get our tickets and climb into the tram in a matter of minutes. Louise and Suzanne were engrossed in conversation for much of the trip while Marcelo and I quietly enjoyed the view; after a while I had to give Louise a poke on the shoulder so the two of them would look out the window to see what they were missing: a spectacular view of the Hong Kong skyline as the funicular pulled us higher and higher.

group photo at the peak
Andy, Marcelo, Louise and Suzanne pose for a photo at the Peak

Reaching the top of the Peak, we meandered through the shopping mall at the exit to the tram until we reached the observation deck. Despite the light crowds downstairs, the deck was packed with tourists who were splitting their time between enjoying the view and buying souvenirs from a dozen or so kiosks. The four of us managed to find a strategic spot for a group photograph, but we had so many cameras to pass around that we ended up creating a minor roadblock for other tourists who wanted to lean over the railing for the full 180-degree view. Louise bought a set of miniature walkie-talkies and some Hello Kitty stickers for her daughter; Suzanne, meanwhile, took part in a survey about Hong Kong tourism conducted by a group of students, who found her having a smoke by a garbage can.

“I just wanted to see how they were organizing their questions,” she said afterwards, laughing. “The ‘where are you from’ questions were just a list of checkboxes with only a handful of countries, and some of the questions were a bit leading, like, ‘Do you agree or disagree – Hong Kong is a shopping paradise.”

“Don’t forget they’re totally skewing their whole data set by preying on smokers at the garbage can,” I added. “Wonder if they’re all more likely to show other addictive traits, like compulsive shopping or gambling…”

After having our fill of the view, we needed to fill our stomachs; it was nearly 3pm and we hadn’t had any lunch yet. We went to a café on the second floor of the Peak Galleria, which featured a marvelous view of the city. At first we sat outside in open sunlight, but after 30 minutes we felt we were being rotisserie roasted by the hot afternoon sun. Fortunately a table with an umbrella soon opened up, so we moved over to it, probably adding a few weeks to our lifetimes by avoiding the inevitable skin cancer we were giving ourselves in the open sunlight. Marcelo and Louise got noodle dishes while I had an oriental chicken salad and Suzanne stuck with sushi. The food was average at best, and the bill was, well, let’s just say you pay for the view and not for the quality of food or service.

By now it was nearly 4:30pm, and Louise had to be back at the Metropark at 6pm for her ride to the airport. I’d wanted to take them to the Man Mo Temple, but time was running tight. So we decided to take the next tram down from the Peak and catch a taxi to the temple. The taxi took us uphill through the Mid-Levels, past the island’s main mosque and synagogue, then plummeting downhill again towards Sheung Wan. We exited the taxi a couple blocks east of the temple so the driver didn’t have to navigate the local one-way streets.

beams of light at the temple
Beams of light cut through the incense smoke at Man Mo Temple. Click on the picture to see a video.

Reaching the temple, I noticed the sun was getting low in the sky — still quite bright out, but beginning to dip below the western skyline. Inside, we were greeted by a stunning site — the thick incense smoke created a brilliant sun ray pattern, with beams of light streaking a sharp angles through the interior of the temple. It was a very moving experience, not at all lessened by the fact this was my third or fourth visit to the temple. There are other temples in Hong Kong, but Man Mo is a special place that never fails to awe and inspire. We wandered the interior of the temple, quietly taking photos and videos of the candles, altars and incense. Suzanne and Louise shopped for school pens and pencils that had been blessed at the monastery; buy your pens here and your kids’ grades will improve, so the theory goes.

I found myself checking my watch every few minutes, somewhat concerned about Louise missing her ride to the airport. As long as we took a taxi back to the hotel, we still had a little time. So we walked a couple of blocks to the Cat Street antique market, where we all stocked up on gifts and souvenirs. Soon enough, though, it was 5:30pm, so we caught a taxi back to the Metropark.

Once we got there, though, I discovered that Louise’s ride was actually coming at 6:30, not 6:00, so we actually had time to spare. We decided to have a parting drink in the hotel bar. Marcelo and I made it down there first while Suzanne and Louise freshened up. For some strange reason, the bar was playing Elton John’s “Your Song” over and over; Marcelo and I lost track after a dozen times in a row. By the time Suzanne and Louise joined us, it was nearly time for her to go, so I ran down to the bell captain and told him that she’d be running a few minutes late. I should have said longer; we ended up spending about half an hour in the bar before parting ways with Louise.

Since I too had to go to the airport in just three hours, I wanted to stay fairly close to the hotel. Suzanne and I hung out at the bar a little while longer while Marcelo had a quick shower, then we went for a walk around the neighborhood. We probably should have gotten some dinner but I was still full from our late lunch, so we ended up swinging by the local supermarket, where we picked up a few beers to drink upstairs, noshing on cashews and watching MTV Malaysia in Suzanne’s room.

By 10 o’clock, it was time for me to go, so we all said our goodbyes. Who knows where we’ll see each other next; Osama Manzar and Zaman are each trying to organize similar events in India and Bangladesh respectively. We’ll just have to wait and see.… -andy

Lamma Island and Lan Kwai Fong

Monday, May 17th, 2004

After the conference wrapped up, I briefly returned to my room to pack my belongings before rejoining the group for a dinner e excursion on Lamma Island. Now that my ticket had been changed, I didn’t have to stress about leaving dinner early and arranging a boat ride back to the hotel; instead I could enjoy this final gathering of colleagues from around the world.

Louise on the boat
Louise van Rooyen on the boat to Lamma Island

We set off for the boat landing at 6:30, walking a few blocks to the shore, next to an ornate sculptured garden that was to be a private park used by Cyberport’s most exclusive business residents. The group climbed aboard the boat, going upstairs to its upper deck to enjoy the salt spray and the wind on our faces. The boat ride offered us a beautiful view of Hong Kong’s Aberdeen skyline, as well as the greenery of Lamma and the surrounding outlying islands. After a 20-minute ride we arrived at a harbor that was dotted with a series of open-air seafood restaurants, most of which were packed with diners. We had part of a restaurant reserved for us, with everyone gathered around two enormous tables. For the next couple of hours we enjoyed an eight-course seafood meal, a sumptuous selection of fried octopus, boiled shrimp, steamed langostinos, abalone on the halfshell, and crispy grouper for the main course. For people who came from countries with a limited amount of fresh seafood, it was an exciting experience; for the rest of us it was merely delicious.

Following dinner I went on a walk with Marcelo, Suzanne and Waheed down the lengh of the harbor. As we got further away from the restaurants the path turned very green and very hilly. Further down the path we reached a spot with a marvelous view of Hong Kong’s city lights, but we couldn’t linger for long since we had to make the last boat or we could be stranded at Lamma for the night.

Returning to the pier, we found out that the boat would continue to Tsim Sha Tsui and Central after stopping at Cyberport. Most of the group returned to the hotel, but around eight of us decided to enjoy a night on the town one last time. The boat ride was tremendous; the seas were chopping so we found ourselves getting tossed about as we marveled at the Hong Kong Skyline while traveling clockwise around the island. We exited the boat at Central and hiked uphill to Soho and Lang Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s famous pub district. The streets of Lang Kwai Fong were jammed with people from all over the world, drinking beer and cocktails while listening to a cacophony of music. We strolled the neighborhood, soaking it all in while trying to decide where to stop for a drink. Eventually, we bumped into Sam, the director of labor relations for Hong Kong, had attended the conference earlier in the week. Sam and his wife kindly offered to have us join him for a drink. They were a fascinating couple, each speaking many languages (Sam speaks 10 in fact). As the bar got ready to close down its outdoor seating for the night, Sam invited us for a night cap at the exclusive Jockey Club in Happy Valley, where he and his family were members. We split into to groups to take taxis to the club, but didn’t stay for long. As we had suspected might be the case, the fact that I was wearing shorts and some of the others were wearing t-shirts made us well below the usual dress code. Sam then suggested we have a drink down the road at the bar of the Conrad Hotel.

We stayed at the Conrad until after 2am, splitting a large bottle of Cabernet, telling stories from home, talking politics. We finally wrapped things up as the cleaning crew came in to vacuum the floors. I shared a taxi back to the hotel with Louise, Suzanne and Rodrigo, where we all marveled at Sam’s kindness and generosity. We’d only just met him briefly at the conference, but he and his wife insisted on buying all our drinks; she even gave Louise a colorful purse she’d just purchased at a night market. It was really nice to enjoy the company of new friends that night, particularly in the heart of the city.

ICT Summit, Day 2: Airline Tickets, Awards and Breakouts

Monday, May 17th, 2004

On the final morning of the conference, I’d started the day by reconsidering when I’d go home to Boston. There was so much going on this week I still hadn’t had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with several people I was eager to talk with about our “e-government for all” work. I called the airline office to see if switching my ticket by one day was feasible; they told me it could be arranged for a modest penalty, but I’d have to come to downtown before 11am that day, since the airline office was only open for three hours on Saturday. Conference events would start at 10am, and I was just about to meet with Minister Khan from Bangladesh for breakfast, so I decided to drop the idea.

Breakfast with Minister Khan was very enjoyable; along with a variety of work-related things we talked about my problems getting my ticket changed over the phone. He suggested I stay for the extra day, even if it meant being a little late for the morning sessions; how often would I have the chance to meet with all the people who’d gathered here from all over the world? Inspired by his words of wisdom, I darted back up to my room, grabbed my ticket and hailed a taxi to go to the airline office in Causeway Bay. The ticket change should have taken only 10 minutes, but I ended up spending nearly 45 minutes there as the staff struggled to figure out how to reload the ticket-printing machine with paper.

By the time I’d taken a taxi the 20-minute drive back to Cyberport, I was running about 40 minutes late. No one seemed to notice, though, as everyone was watching an award ceremony for Hong Kong’s Web Care competition. The contest honored local websites that were accessible to the disabled, as well as accessible sites designed by local students. The organizers even brought in a well-known Hong Kong movie heartthrob to give out some of the awards. If it hadn’t been for the posse of paparazzi following him around, I would have just assumed he was just one of the older students, just woefully underdressed in a muscle shirt.

Silvia Amici
Silvia Amici speaks during the afternoon breakout sessions

Following another buffet lunch, we split up into breakout sessions for the afternoon. I discovered that Louise was having further problems with the CD-Rom she wanted to present in the E-Learning session, so I offered to fill in for her, talking about the US E-Rate program instead. Since I was scheduled to speak during that same timeslot for the e-government breakout, Louise and I arranged with the session moderators so I could speak first in the E-Gov session, the bolt over to the e-learning session. My e-government presentation went well, though it was a rather small audience; I ended up having a much bigger crowd in the e-learning session. In the end, though, Louise decided to speak briefly about the state of education technology policy in Australia, using my presentation as a contrast. While I talked about US successes in wiring schools but failing to train teachers adequately and create quality content, Louise noted how online educational content was rich in Australia, while infrastructure still needed a lot of work.

In the second batch of breakout sessions, I attended the panel on e-culture and e-inclusion, which Suzanne Stein moderated. The session was a fascinating mix of presentations. Silvia Amici spoke of her organization’s work to promote Web accessibility and universal design in Italy. Louise gave her second presentation, this time focusing on projects targeting underserved Australian populations. A representative from Hong Kong’s public broadcaster discussed the network’s online strategy, while Eglal Bahgat, deputy director of Egypt’s Cultnat Center, discussed the rich amount of content being produced about her country’s long history…. -ac

Research Parks and Custom Tailors

Monday, May 17th, 2004

On May 14 we had the opportunity to go on a site visit to Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, Hong Kong’s premiere high-tech business incubator. The campus of the park was located in Sha Tin in the New Territories, not far from the Monastery of 10,000 Buddhas that I’d visited earlier in the week. All the overseas delegates at the conference were shuttled in a large bus, giving us a chance to drive through Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay before taking the underwater tunnel into Kowloon. Elizabeth Quat, the conference organizer and our host, played tour guide for us, standing up at the front of the bus with a microphone, while I helped along pulling interesting trivia from my Lonely Planet Hong Kong guidebook.

We arrived in Sha Tin an hour after we left the hotel, getting dropped off at the center of the new high-tech campus. We were a little embarrassed to discover that a group of Finnish biotech executives were waiting for us in the main conference room; apparently the tour we’d get at the facility would also be with them, and they had to wait for us while we ran about 45 minutes late. The CEO of the science park gave us an entertaining, interesting overview of the facility before turning us over to a group of businessman whose companies had been incubated there. We were then taken on a tour of some of the technology labs, including a clean room (which we could view through panes of glass) to a mobile phone lab that was completely shielded from outside radio signals.

Around noon we returned to the main building on campus and had a buffet lunch with some of the executives we’d met during our tour. The group was then going to return to Cyberport for a brief break before continuing with a press conference and a private-sector discussion of Hong Kong’s ICT industry, but I had other plans. Earlier in the week I’d ordered a suit from Stitch-Up Tailors in Kowloon, and I needed to return to try on my suit one last time just to make sure it fit properly. This would be the last chance I’d get to run over to Kowloon, since the conference would begin in earnest the following day. Elizabeth had said I could split from the group after lunch and catch a shuttle bus to the Sha Tin commuter rail stations, where I could make my way south to Kowloon before returning to Cyberport for the next session. Suzanne Stein asked if she could come along –she was curious about getting some shirts made — so the two of us departed immediately after lunch.

We rode the shuttle to Sha Tin station, where we paused briefly so I could point out the 10,000 Buddhas monastery high above the hillside. If we didn’t have such a tight schedule I would have suggested we’d visit it, but we had to make it to Kowloon as soon as possible. The commuter rail connected us to the subway in Kowloon Tong, where we continued south until reaching the Tsim Sha Tsui station. From there we walked in the directions of the Star Ferry, briefly pausing to get a look at the interior of the Peninsula hotel, where people were enjoying the start of afternoon high tea. Reaching the store a few minutes later, Andy the tailor brought out my suit and had me try it on — it looked really good. Suddenly I became overwhelmed with a feeling of dread, a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to leave the tailor without ordering another suit. I resisted for a few minutes, but the pressure soon hit Suzanne as well, who found herself ordering a couple of pinstripe suits for herself. I couldn’t take it anymore: the pinstripe fabric was so inviting, calling out to me. With a snap of Andy’s fingers, a huge bolt of pinstripe fabric came off the shelf and was set aside along with the two bolts Suzanne had selected. I ordered another suit and managed to get a great discount, because it was my second order and I’d brought along a friend. Custom-made tailoring was a nefarious plague spread by beautiful textiles that succumb the unsuspecting shopper. I could only imagine how many other colleagues would end up buying clothes before departing from Hong Kong.

With my suit, six shirts and a tie in hand, we high-tailed it back to Cyberport. We ended up running a little later than expected, as our taxi driver struggled to figure out exactly where this new-fangled Cyberport thing was located. By the time we got back, the press conference was well under way; fortunately, though, neither of us had a major role to play in it except to stand up and wave to the cameras, which we soon did upon our arrival.

Later that afternoon I managed to take a brief break in the hotel while the board of the World Summit Awards had their meeting over in the conference center. We soon found out, though, that the advisory board of the Global Alliance would have yet another meeting at 9pm that night in the lobby of the hotel. Suzanne and I grabbed some sushi and soup in the hotel sushi bar before rendezvousing with the rest of the group. Over additional platters of sushi, the group met until just after midnight. It was exhausting, frustrating work, but we managed to accomplish a lot more than we had in our previous meeting. We left the meeting feeling pretty good, though thoroughly unable to continue socializing. I went back upstairs and tried to go to sleep, but working so late had left me pretty wired. I spent about an hour playing with my digital camera trying to get long-exposure night photos of the view outside my window. By 2am I was finally ready to crash and managed to get to sleep.

Touring Hong Kong’s Cyberport

Monday, May 17th, 2004

Our morning began with a tour of Cyberport, Hong Kong’s new state-of-the-art information technology campus. Occupying the beautiful southwest coastline of Hong Kong Island, Cyberport is intended to be a high-tech town dedicated to developing the region’s ICT sector. Our hotel, the Meridien Cyberport, is part of the campus, all of it networked with wireless Internet access and a mobile telephone network (the cordless phones in our hotel rooms work everywhere on the campus).

We began our tour passing by the giant LED television screen located in the courtyard that sits between the hotel and the conference center. It’s one of the largest LED screens in Asia, and can be used for displaying satellite TV or the Web. Further along, we visited Cyberport’s mobile phone lab, a space shared by several mobile services developers who create digital content for mobile phones and wireless PDAs. We were then led to a conference room, where the manager of Cyberport gave us an overview of the facilities before taking us to a 360-degree multimedia screening room. Reminiscent to the 360-degree movie shown in EPCOT’s China pavilion, the room gave us a chance to see an impressive, digitally animated promotional program highlighting the history, culture and technology of Hong Kong. The high-definition projections that shone on the walls were so bright they often reflected their images onto us as we stood in the center of the room.

Our next stop was a digital production facility, which included a variety of editing, mixing and animation suites. The animation lab featured a smart suit — a body suit with dozens of small sensors capable of turning the movements of the person wearing it into an animated character. We also got to see a demonstration of the 3D scanners that allowed animators to do a complete 360-degree map of a person and use it to create animated digital images of them.

Temple Street Night Market

Monday, May 17th, 2004

After a full day of country presentations on May 11, all the speakers gathered in the hotel lobby for a bus ride into downtown Hong Kong. Being a large, diverse group, it seemed everyone had different priorities as to how we should spend the evening. Eventually we split up into two groups; the first group would go to a Chinese restaurant in Causeway Bay, while the second group would leave the bus in Central and take the ferry to explore Kowloon. I decided to go along with the Kowloon crowd.

We waited for a while at the ferry, which was running a little slow due to the skyline light show, which was just wrapping up. Suzanne Stein of Canada had just bought a bag of wasabi-flavored broadbeans from a vending machine, so it was fun seeing how people from around the world responded to their first wasabi experience. Eventually the ferry arrived and we rode across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui terminal. From there we walked north towards the Temple Street night market, which some of us had tried to visit on Sunday night but never made it to the center of the market. For most of the group it was their first time in Hong Kong; you could almost feel them soaking in the neon from the bright billboards suspended high above the streets.

Not too far from the Jordan Street subway station we found ourselves at the same small market we’d visited on Sunday. Alexander Felsenberg of Germany and Waheed Al Balushi of Bahrain spent much of the time shopping at camera and electronics booth, exploring the various tripods and high-powered flashlights, while the rest of us perused the rows of luggage and t-shirts. Many of the shirts had classic mangled Hong Kong English, like Haikus written by randomly selecting words or phrases from a hat.

We were eager to get dinner at some point, but we had a hard time settling on what we wanted. Some people were interested in eating in the Temple Street food pavilion, with its tented and open-air restaurants, so we worked our way north until we reached the area. The tents were packed with Chinese and western tourists, sitting around large tables covered in countless platters of Cantonese cuisine. We began to settle at a table when it became clear from the expressions of some in our group that they weren’t too keen about eating in an open-air market, so we got up from our table before the waiters had a chance to put any tea on it, quickly sneaking out the back of the tent.

As we exited the tent we found ourselves smack in the middle of the Temple Street market. Closed off to vehicular traffic, the street was teaming with tourists exploring row after row of market stalls: clothing, paintings, electronic surveillance equipment, DVDs, Hello Kitty paraphernalia, chop stick sets, faux antiques, postcards. Suzanne Stein and Louise van Rooyen of Australia found a marvelous collection of hand towels decorated with cutsy-cute Asian cartoon characters, each containing another collection of cracked-English text. Alexander, Waheed and I discovered a booth with a variety of laser pointers. Alexander andWaheed got a set of them, probably for use in presentations; I, on the other hand, got a set as a toy for my cats.

We spent about an hour exploring the night market, picking up a variety of souvenirs for friends and family. Given the fact that I’d been nominated as the de facto guide for the evening, since I’d been to Kowloon on several occasions, I found myself spending much of my time trying to keep track of everyone so we didn’t get split up. It was approaching 11pm and we still didn’t have any consensus on what we were doing for dinner. Alexander and Lawrence Zikusoka of Uganda had picked up a beer while strolling around — no open container laws here in Hong Kong — and I started to get the distinct the impression that dinner in any formal sense was becoming less likely. Waheed and I walked down the street to the local 7-Eleven store to find some kind of snack. I was overwhelmed by the selection of Asian snacks available, so ended up purchasing an eclectic dinner of curry beef buns, M&Ms and pear juice. Before I had a chance to eat any of it, though, suddenly the group decided to get dinner after all, so I shoved my new purchases into my backpack and led the way to find a place to eat.

Since half the group didn’t want to try food from the night market itself, we backtracked the route we’d taken to get there and found a Singaporean restaurant that was still open. As luck would have it, the restaurant had a private room that sat around 10 people, so we managed to get our own private space there, complete with a flat panel TV showing Japanese television and placemats with adorable little pigs printed on them (they were on display in the bathroom as well). Dinner arrived in fits and starts; Lawrence’s vegetable fried rice arrived almost as fast as he’d ordered it, while my mee goreng took its time. Given the variety of eating habits around the table — Lawrence was avoiding meats altogether while Effat El Shooky of Egypt, Waheed and I didn’t eat pork — but we still managed to get a taste of at least three or four entrees each. My mee goreng was outstanding, as was Louise’s fish soup and Suzanne’s curry. Lawrence’s fried rice had a subtle curry flavor to it, a subtlety that could only be pulled off by a Singaporean chef.

We weren’t exactly sure when the subway closed; I was under the impression it was some time between midnight and 1am. So we wrapped up dinner and managed to catch one of the last trains from the Jordan Street station. Crossing Victoria Harbor underwater, we exited the subway at Central and then split up into two groups to take a taxi back to the hotel, finally getting back to our rooms around 1am.

Dinner and a Website

Monday, May 17th, 2004

On the evening of May 10, after sorting out my room’s Internet access and taking that unfortunate swim in the hotel pool, I brought my laptop down to the bar for a beer and a blog. Elizabeth Quat of the Internet Professionals Association was already there, having a meeting with Bangladeshi ICT Minister Moyeen Abdul Khan. I briefly said hello and chatted with them, but let them get back to their meeting, while I spent the next hour blogging with a beautiful sunset over the East Lamma Channel outside my window.

Around 6pm, everyone who’d arrived at the hotel for the conference gathered in the bar for cocktails, followed by dinner in the main restaurant. It was wonderful catching up with each other; the last time we’d been together was at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva last December. Dinner itself was mostly western food, so it was a little disappointing, but we discovered a sinful pleasure on the dessert platter – multicolored wafer cakes shaped like hamburgers , stuffed with different cream fillings. Granted, they weren’t exactly a classic Cantonese delicacy, but they certainly were satisfying.

Since several of us were still on western time zones, we found ourselves getting a second wind just before midnight, so I invited everyone to my room for a night cap. Everyone briefly swung by their rooms to get their drink of choice from their mini-bar, and we hung out until around 2:30, continuing the reunion that had started earlier that evening. We took advantage of the Internet access and the giant plasma screen by showing off our favorite websites. I disturbed everyone by giving them a tour of the collection of punk kitten music videos at RatherGood.com, while Suzanne Stein put us all to shame with her vast collection of cool sites. Strindberg & Helium, a Flash animation site depicting the Swedish artist with an imaginary pet helium balloon, was downright bizarre, while another site about a woman so obsessed with Billy Bob Thornton she’d edited herself into video clips of his movies was simply hilarious. Marcelo Sant’Iago of Brazil then brought along a flash memory stick of photos he’d taken when we’d all first met in Dubai; since each of our rooms included a private multimedia server, we ran a slideshow of the photos on my plasma screen while my laptop played a varied selection of songs from iTunes. As had been the case in Dubai, it seemed we’d be in a pattern of working for 12 to 15 hours a day, then enjoying long nights over drinks and story telling. I’d really missed these guys…. -andy

Strategy Meetings and Sake

Thursday, May 13th, 2004

After wrapping up the country presentations late Wednesday morning, we spent the afternoon and early evening holding a planning meeting for the Global Alliance to Bridge the Digital Divide. The group wanted to explore ways of capitalizing on our collective experiences in the content side of the digital divide, from e-learning to e-government to accessibility for the disabled.

By the time we wrapped up work it was approaching 9pm. As much as we wanted to head into central Hong Kong for a night out on the town, we were all just too exhausted to leave the hotel. So we tried out the Meridien’s swanky new sushi bar, Umami. The barbecued eel was outstanding, as was the mushroom and buckwheat soba soup. I even tried my first cup of sake — it was interesting, but it won’t become a habit for me.

I started to get a second wind around 11pm — a 12-hour timezone change will do that — but reason got the best of us, wrapping up the evening for a good night’s sleep… -andy

10,000 Buddhas and a Wi-Fi Connection

Monday, May 10th, 2004

Because I needed to leave the Metropark Hotel later today in order to move to the location of the conference, over on the southwest corner of the island, I got up bright and early, eager to accomplish at least one tourist activity before having to get to work. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, I started to make my way to the New Territories — the swath of land north of Kowloon leading up to the mainland Chinese border — to pay a visit to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. Although it’s not an important monastery as far as history is concerned – it’s only a few decades’ old – it’s supposedly a nice place to visit to get away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Getting there seemed like it would be a difficult task – it involved several subway transfers, plus a switch to the commuter train that runs to the Chinese border crossing – but in reality it was very straightforward. The subways in Hong Kong are as efficient as they come; in particular, the fact that you can see a little arrow moving along the digital map of the subway system displayed inside the train guarantees that you won’t accidentally head in the wrong direction (or at least not for long).

So after heading in the wrong direction, for only one stop, thanks to that little blinking arrow, I was able to get to Sha Tin, one of the largest “new towns” in the New Territories. The train terminal was attached to a large mall, full of American stores ranging from Mrs. Fields Cookies to Tie Rack. Apart from the fact no one was speaking in English, I could have easily been in any US suburb. Stepping outside, though, I was quickly overwhelmed by the syrupy humidity, reminiscent of Bali or southern India. Fortunately the walk to the temple was only 10 minutes or so, but then I’d have to climb about 450 steps to get to the monastery. I just hoped my bottle of water would last the entire journey.

I followed the map to reach the trail head leading up to the monastery. The setting was rather strange; one moment I’m walking past a giant IKEA store and government offices; the next moment I’m in a bamboo forest. No exaggeration. But that’s the New Territories for you – even though it’s crammed with enormous housing estates and malls, it’s surrounded by lush green hillsides, making it easy to disappear for a verdant hike through the countryside.

Following the signs to the monastery, I reached the first of what would be nearly 500 steps to the top. The entire path upwards was lined with Buddha statues, statues different from any Buddha I’d seen at a previous temple. In fact, each statue was probably unique. There were thin Buddhas, chubby Buddhas, bald Buddhas, hairy Buddhas, Buddhas with walking sticks, Buddhas with dogs and dragons and frogs, macho Buddhas, androgynous Buddhas. The entire climb was a lesson in Buddha diversity.

The only Buddha I didn’t see, though, was a sweaty, exhausted Buddha, which is exactly what I felt like by the time I reached the top of the hill. I entered the monastery and made eye contact with a Chinese visitor who probably had just spent the last 10 minutes recovering from her climb to the top. She smiled broadly and shook her water bottle in the air as if she were waving a championship sports trophy. I was almost too exhausted to laugh, but I had to nod and snicker.

monastery courtyard
Courtyard of the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery

The monastery was modest in size, probably no larger than half a football field. The entire perimeter was lined with more golden Buddhas, some of them sitting atop giant animals, including a blue dog. Several attendants were working on various repairs, in some cases covering Buddha statues with tarps so they wouldn’t get sawdust on them. At the far end of the plaza stood a nine-story pagoda, which I recognized from Hong Kong currency (which unit of money, don’t ask me – I’m sitting in a hotel restaurant lounge as I write this and don’t have any cash on me). As I caught my breath I slowly walked clockwise around the courtyard, observing several middle-aged women lighting incense .

At the front of the plaza was the main temple. The interior was crowded with 10,000 Buddhas – or at least I surmised as such, given the name of the complex. The walls were covered with niches each featuring a miniature Buddha. There were so many of them, if you blurred your eyes they would have looked like a wallpaper pattern. At the center of the temple was a statue of a serene-looking monk. As I approached I realized it wasn’t actually a statue – there was a sign in English above him saying it was the corpse of the monk who founded the monastery. His entire body was covered in gold paint. He looked like he was straight out of the James Bond movie, Goldfinger – quite appropriate considering some of the film took place in Hong Kong.

Once my pulse had returned to normal I was ready to start the downward walk from the monastery. Of course it was a lot easier than going up, but my thighs started to quiver by the time I got to the bottom. The entire experience made for quite a workout, but it was a pleasant excursion that showed me a sign of Hong Kong that I hadn’t seen before.

Returning to Kowloon from the New Territories, I visited the tailor that was making a suit for me. I tried on the suit to see how it fit; it wasn’t bad for a first fitting. I also tried on the two shirts he was making for me; I liked them so much I immediately ordered another four. At $25 a shirt, how could you not get more?

Before heading back to the hotel I had a quick lunch at a Vietnamese noodle restaurant, enjoying a large bowl of chicken and cellophane noodle soup. I then returned to Hong Kong island by way of the Star Ferry, soaking up the view and the relatively cool breeze as the boat made its way from Kowloon. Exiting the ferry at Central, I walked among the skyscrapers, admiring the architecture of the HSBC and Bank of China buildings before swinging over to the Bank of America building to take advantage of my home bank’s no-fee ATM. By 1pm, I was back at the hotel to pick up my bags and catch a taxi to the Meridien CyberPort Hotel, home of the ICT summit I was going to attend. The taxi went past the Happy Valley Racecourse and through a long tunnel under Hong Kong’s central hills, ending up on the far southern side of the island. The hotel was located near the southwest corner of Hong Kong, with a fine view of Lamma Island and several smaller islands, with over a dozen large freight ships riding through the channel.

The hotel is incredibly swank and modern – it literally opened only two weeks ago. Because it’s part of the Cyberport complex, Hong Kong’s new silicon valley, the hotel is wired to the hilt. In my room I discovered a plasma screen TV with full Internet access and a multimedia deck that allows me to plug in DVDs, CDs and a variety of flash memory cards. The room also had one of the nicest views I’ve ever had in a hotel, with a view of the western sun hovering over Lamma Island and the East Lamma Channel. The room seemed even more spectacular because of the strategic use of mirrors on the walls, making it appear as if I was surrounded by water on three sides.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get email to work through their plasma screen PC, and my laptop wouldn’t connect via their wireless Internet connection. The hotel’s guest relations manager came by to help, and she ended up staying 90 minutes as she talked to tech support, who seemed baffled by the fact that I owned a Macintosh. Eventually we were able to get the Internet to work, though I discovered while walking my laptop around the room that the best Wi-Fi signal in my suite was curiously by the bathtub.

Our first official gathering was to start in a couple hours, so I headed outside for a quick swim in the hotel’s gorgeous pool. I jumped in and enjoyed the fresh, warm water, only to spot a pool boy running towards me as if I were drowning.

“Please get out of the pool!,” he yelled. “The bacteria levels are too high!”

Needless to say I got out as fast as I could. I asked him if there had been a sign posted, and he posted to a piece of paper that had been plastered below two pages’ worth of pool rules. No wonder I missed it.

I returned to my room and bathed as thoroughly as possible. And to think SARS had been my only worry on this trip…. -andy

10,000 Buddhas and a Wi-Fi Connection

Sunday, May 9th, 2004

Exploring Hong Kong

Today was my only full free day in Hong Kong; my meetings would start Monday afternoon. But after the 30-hour commute from Boston, I needed to sleep in until 8am; after that I had a quick breakfast at the hotel restaurant, giving me just enough time with my tour book to plan a day’s worth of events.

Women light incense at the Tin Hau temple
Women light incense at the Tin Hau temple

The first thing I really needed to do was get money, but I was eager to see what was going on at the local Tin Hau temple. Tin Hau, the Chinese goddess of the sea, was to have her annual festival later this week, so I guessed that they’re might be some activity at the temple.

The temple was about a two-minute walk from the hotel. Incorporated into the surrounding buildings, the temple did not stand out at first. I had to climb two flights of stairs before reaching the main hallway, which was packed with several hundred Chinese worshippers. Men and women alike were lighting incense and bringing offerings to the heart of the temple. Some were chanting, but overall it seemed more like a festive cacophony – old friends chatting, parents instructing their kids what to do in the ceremony, etc.

I made eye contact with one of the men who was working near the main altar. I motioned at my camera to see if it was okay to take pictures, so I stood to the side and tried to capture some images with my digital camera. I managed to do this for about 15 minutes, until someone off to the other side yelled something out at me in Chinese.

“No picture,” another man said a few moments later. I looked over at the man who initially said I could take photos, and he gave me a shrug with a look that seemed to say, “What can I tell you? It’s not like I’m in charge.” Not wanting to cause offense, I put away my camera and returned to the periphery of the temple, observing for a few more minutes before taking the stairs back down to street level.

I still needed to get some money, though; having $60 in U.S. cash wasn’t going to get me far if I wanted to take a ferry ride or get some lunch. The ATM around the corner from the hotel wouldn’t accept either of my cards, so I began walking west down Causeway Road, past Hong Kong’s beautiful public library. I stopped at a hotel to see if they had an ATM, but they told me to go into Causeway’s main shopping area, just west of the Victoria Park. I stopped in the park for a few minutes, where thousands of woman were picnicking and gossiping with each other. Around the corner I spotted an HSBC ATM and managed to get some quick spending money for the day.

dried produce for sale in a Hong Kong market
Dried produce for sale in a Hong Kong market

It was hot and humid, particularly among the pavement and the skyscrapers, but I wanted to walk as much as possible before it got even hotter. I soon spied a small market area — two or three blocks’ worth of shops selling fresh produce, meats, fish and dry goods. The smell of durian permeated the air — the world’s worst smelling fruit was reaching the peak of its season, and you could see the large, spiky fruit in almost every shop. On two occasions, shop owners beckoned out to me asking if I wanted to try some. “English like durian!” one of them said proudly with a devious grin. “Yes, but Americans think it taste like old onions,” I said back to her.

Leaving the market I slowly wandered westward, meandering a maze of pedestrian bridges and skyways that interconnected many of the skyscapers in Hong Kong’s Central district. Somehow I managed to find myself at the entrance of the convention center, site of the 1997 handover from the British. Apart from the nice view of Kowloon and Victoria Harbor, there wasn’t much to do around there, so I started walking west and uphill, towards the Peak tram.

The Peak is the most popular tourist attraction in Hong Kong. More shopping mall than vista, the Peak is home to a galleria of shops and restaurants, perched atop the highest hill on Hong Kong island. Half the fun of visiting the peak is taking the furnicular tram that runs the steep course up the hill. So I hiked up a busy road near the high court complex, thankful for the bottle of water I’d picked up earlier at a 7-Eleven store. Once I reached the entrance to the tram I had to queue for about 10 minutes with a small horde of fellow tourists. The Peak is also home to Madam Tussaud’s wax museum, among other tourist traps, so the tram ticket center did its best to entice visitors with a sample wax figure – in this case, Hong Kong’s very own Jackie Chan. I found myself staring at Wax Jackie for an otherwise disturbing amount of time. His skin looked real, his hair looked real — even his eyes looked real. The whole thing was very strange. A Chinese boy behind me started to cry — perhaps he was freaked out after losing a game of “who”ll blink first” with the paraffin Kung Fu master.

view of Hong Kong
View of Hong Kong from the Peak

Soon enough, I got my ticked and climbed into the tram. The vehicle then began to huff its way up the hillside, through the residential high-rises of the Mid-Levels neighborhood, the ratio of greenery to concrete improving with every 50 meters upward. Eventually, we reached the top, and join the masses of visitors determined to spent two minutes enjoying the view and another 58 minutes buying chotchkes or eating overpriced food at one of the Peak’s many restaurants. I decided to strike a compromise, going outside to soak up the marvelous view of Hong Kong’s skyline below, then retreating inside long enough to get an iced tea at a coffee shop before following a stone path to a slightly secluded outlook. The outlook, a red Chinese gazebo with marble rails, was a relaxing getaway compared to the chaos of the Peak Galleria. The gazebo provided just enough shade to stay comfortable; with Hong Kong’s 75% humidity, every moment of shade was a moment well spent.

After riding the tram down the hillside, I decided to walk to Hong Kong’s Soho neighborhood, a maze of restaurants and bars. I started by looking for a couple of noodle shops recommended in the Lonely Planet book, but somehow I got disoriented and ended up in a different corner of Soho. Rather than hike back across to near where I started, I quickly spotted a Thai restaurant called the Siam Café, and had their fixed-priced lunch of coconut chicken soup, drunken noodles and dessert. The drunken noodles were very spicy, with fresh peppercorns still on the stalk, popping like grapes when you ate them. Dessert turned out to be two little morsels of coconut tapioca pudding, each wrapped in a dainty little palm leaf gift box.

Cutting west through the rest of Soho, I found myself on Hollywood Road, which soon led me to the Man Mo Temple. One of the most famous temples in Hong Kong, Man Mo was one of my favorite spots during my first visit in 1997. As had been the case seven years earlier, my second visit to the temple was fascinating. Huge coils of incense hung from the ceiling, constantly tended to by two volunteers. Deeper in the temple, several people were lighting incense sticks and candles, occasionally banging a gong along the side of the hall. No one seemed to mind that I had a camera, so I spent a while hanging out, observing people as they came in and out to say their prayers. For such a chaotic city, it’s hard to step away from oases of serenity such as this.

Leaving Man Mo Temple, I walked further west to visit a trio of temples in a neighborhood that was one of the first settled by the Chinese after the British planted their flag on the island. The first temple was reminiscent of Man Mo, with its enormous collections of incense coils hanging from the ceiling, but on a smaller scale. The second temple was surprisingly un-temple-like. After climbing a stairwell, I found myself in a room with half a dozen middle-age people sitting in chairs, either asleep or looking terribly bored. One person was praying in the inner sanctum, while several others stood the side and stared at me. For whatever reason, this didn’t seem like the type of place that welcomed outsiders, so I politely turned around and went back down the stairs.

Just across the street, though, I had a much more positive experience. The Pak Sing shrine looked more like a modest dry goods store that had been converted into a house of worship. There were six people inside, but the place was small enough that even this felt a little claustrophobic when I entered. Two of them saw me and smiled, motioning me to come in closer while the others prayed at the inner shrine, chanting for the spirits of their ancestors. I made eye contact with one of the first two people and motioned to my camera. He nodded his head and smiled. I got in closer and slowly panned my camera while taking a short video clip of the prayers.

Leaving the shrine, I walked downhill through Sheung Wan towards the waterfront, first exploring the antique stores and curio shops along Cat Street. Eventually I reached the Central Star Ferry terminal, where I boarded a ferry for the 15-minute crossing to Kowloon, on the mainland side of Hong Kong. The views of Hong Kong from Victoria Harbor were just as spectacular as I’d remembered from seven years’ ago. Reaching Kowloon, I first paid a visit to a tailor shop to see if I could get a suit made. While Hong Kong’s tailors are no longer legendary for their affordable first-rate suits, they’re still quite a bargain, so I ordered a suit, two shirts a tie for the equivalent of $250. After getting measured for the suit, I took a brief walk through the Peninsula Hotel, observing its well-dressed guests having high tea in the atrium. Susanne and I had come for high tea back in ‘97, but doing it on my own didn’t seem like much fun. Instead, I went exploring up Nathan Road, admiring its famously garish neon signs hanging high above the street.

neon signs
Neon signs in Kowloon

After a brief walk, I returned to the ferry and caught a boat to the Wanchai terminal in Hong Kong, where I caught the MTR subway train back to my hotel in Causeway Bay. Back at the hotel, I took a cool shower to exercise the humidity demons from my pores, then rendezvoused with a group of colleagues I’d met at the World Summit Awards judging event in Dubai last year. We planned to head to Kowloon for dinner and a view of the nightly skyline lightshow, seen best from Kowloon’s waterfront. By the time we reached Kowloon, though, it was 7pm, giving us barely any time to scarf down a meal before the light show. Instead, we took a walk northwest of Jordan street, in the Temple Street market, where there were rows and rows of hawkers selling clothing and appliances of all shapes and sizes. Several of my colleagues had just arrived in Hong Kong for their first visit, so they were quite absorbed by the giant neon lights protruding from every building. “How Blade Runner,” one of them said – exactly the same reaction we’d had during our first visit to Hong Kong.

We slowly made our way down Nathan Road, pausing briefly to pay homage to the notorious Chungking Mansion, made famous in the movie Chungking Express. By the time we’d worked our way through the crowds and across the busy roads to the waterfront, it was 10 minutes to 8pm, just prior to the light show. The waterfront was crowded with thousands of locals, undoubtedly attracted by the fact that tonight’s show would be accompanied by a Cantonese-language narrator. All of us became transfixed on Hong Kong’s skyline as tens of thousands of lights danced and flashed to an orchestrated history of Hong Kong, punctuated by bursts of fireworks from the rooftops. The view was spectacular, but the fact that it was narrated in Cantonese made it more than a little difficult to follow the story line.

The show lasted 20 minutes, followed by a molasses flood of people all trying to leave the waterfront at the same time. We struggled upstream, so to speak, trying to get further inland to a restaurant district just east of Nathan Road. But the whole area was cut off by road construction, so we backtracked along Nathan Road until we could find a safe place to cut westward by a few blocks. By now it was nearly 9pm, and we were all getting very hungry and somewhat dehydrated. Fortunately we found a pan-Southeast Asian restaurant that wasn’t too crowded, and ordered a combination of Chinese, Thai and Indonesian dishes, accompanied by the coldest bottles of Tsingtao beer available legally without a permit. It was a delicious meal, but by the time we got back to the Star Ferry terminal and caught the boat back to Central, we knew we were too exhausted to find the subway down the street. So we hailed the first taxi we could find and climbed in clown-fashion, five of us jammed in a car that probably should have only seated three. The taxi driver spoke no English, and the Cantonese-language directions on the hotel’s business card still didn’t prevent him from getting lost twice. On the second occasion, we gave up and got out of the taxi, preferring to walk the five minutes’ distance to the hotel than drive in the wrong direction for an equal amount of time…. -andy