Monthly Archives: September 2012

In which a haircut is purchased.

This afternoon I ventured out to get a haircut. This trip was preceded by considerable research on the various expat forums, reading up on the suggestions for barbers. There is no shortage of women’s beauty salons in HK—there are a least two in the mall we live next to—but not a huge number of barbers, even in Central (which is the most Anglophone and clearly formerly-British area of HK). There are, evidently, very nice barbershops in the super nice hotels downtown, like the Mandarin Oriental, where they will clip and trim and wash and shave, all in a classy wood-paneled, leather-upholstered paradise, and oh by the way it’ll cost HK$700 (about US$90).

This is not where I got a haircut.

My haircut today cost HK$50 (less than US$7) and took less than 10 minutes, as they promise. Continue reading



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Hong Kong geography: A primer

So since I’m probably going to be writing a lot about places in Hong Kong, allow me to present a short overview of Hong Kong geography. With a touch of history.

The name “Hong Kong” is usually rendered in English as “fragrant harbor,” though what exactly was so fragrant is not 100% clear: possibly the Pearl River delta, possibly incense stored for shipment in Aberdeen Harbor on the south side of Hong Kong Island, on which see more below. Here is a link to Google maps for your zooming-and-panning pleasure.

Now for an awesome older map, from ca. 1900 (via Hong Kong’s First). Continue reading


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On Hong Kong identity

It’s a bit tricky to apply a label to Hong Kong that fully conveys its geographic, cartographic, and political status. It’s not a country, though it demonstrates aspects of countryhood. It has its own currency, judiciary, and immigration office, for example. (A Hong Kong visa is entirely separate from a mainland China visa.) It’s not a city; though it certainly has wildly built-up urban areas, it also contains small villages that are clearly separate from each other. It’s not really a “metropolitan area,” at least not as Americans would think of that term, because some of the rural areas are reallyrural—they’re not suburbs, but yet those rural areas aren’t very far at all from the densest of the city.

Politically, it’s both part of China and not. The “one country, two systems” model allows for the separation of the currency, judiciary, and all that, but HK does not conduct its own diplomacy nor does it have its own military. Hence Hong Kong, like Macao—an easy one-hour ferry ride from HK across the Pearl River Delta—is a “Special Administrative Region.” You see the abbreviation HKSAR all over the place here. Continue reading

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The right to abode, part 1

Cate and I trekked over to the HK Registration of Persons office this morning to apply for our Hong Kong ID cards, which are required for anyone staying more than 180 days. There’s no real analogue to this in the US, since there’s no mandatory national ID system in the States. The HKID is kind of like a green card, except that it can be issued for a specific duration; it’s not a “lawful permanent resident” card like the green card is.

My handsome temporary HKID.

I should mention—hopefully without jinxing us—that in general our (granted, rather limited) experience with government bureaucracy here has been quite positive. When we came through HK Immigration upon our arrival, the passport control officer stamped my passport with a tourist visa because I didn’t point out to him that I had an employment visa stuck in there. (In my defense, though, it was a long flight, and the thick sheet of glass between me and the immigration guy seemed to discourage dialogue.) Once I noticed the problem (fortunately, right after going through) and asked another immigration officer about it, he put me back in the front of the line to return to the window I’d come from, whereupon the guy apologized to me for the error. A few crazy stamps, a little bit of paperwork, and a five-minute wait, and everything was shipshape. Unbelievable.

My frame for comparison here is the French, since that’s the only other foreign government I’ve ever had the pleasure of interacting with. Those of you who have ever partaken of French bureaucracy will no doubt agree that French fonctionnaires are uniquely adept at making you feel like (at the very least) a huge nuisance and, in most cases, a complete and total asshole for having the audacity to impose on them for even the most basic of job duties. (Examples include: selling you some postage stamps; stamping your passport; getting you a book from the restricted library stacks; pointing the way to the Louvre.)

So it has been very refreshing to encounter what is, by and large, a very efficient bureaucracy with really quite pleasant and knowledgable civil servants. One also gets the impression that there is, shall we say, less of a commitment to Kafka-esque arbitrariness than the French demonstrate. (Fellow seekers-of-early-manuscripts in French libraries and holders of French cartes de séjour, please stand up.) To get our HK visas, I only had to fill out a pretty simple application form and return it to CityU with a photocopy of our passport pages (not the passports themselves). A few weeks later, they sent us the visas, which we stuck into our passports ourselves. Now that’s how to do it.


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Packing: the aftermath

All our things

Nice, right? Yes, in the lower left that is a portable Weber grill taped to a file box. But don’t worry, the file box has a charcoal chimney in it, so it all makes perfect sense.

This is what it looked like when all was said and done: once we had packed everything, loaded a bunch of it into a van and had movers load the rest of it into a truck, and crammed it all into Paul and Rodda’s basement (generously donated for a year of housing our too-many-books et cetera).

And this is what it looked like in our condo, once we had packed everything we thought we wanted and needed to bring to Hong Kong into two big-but-not-super-big bags. It turned out that two of them were, despite our meticulous use of Brett and Alicia’s bathroom scale, overweight, so we started our journey with a nice overweight baggage charge. But you amortize that over ten or eleven months, well, it doesn’t seem unreasonable. (Until you arrive and learn that a bunch of the things you thought you really needed to pack because there’s no way you could find it in Hong Kong, at least not with a huge amount of effort and expense that you don’t want to have to worry about in the first few days after a long flight and a new job and a new place to live and all of that… are in fact readily available. Alas.)

Ready to go

This is what it all came down to. Balancing the passports on top is an especially darling aspect of this photo.

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On the travails of packing

Is there anything worse than packing? It is my considered opinion that there is not. Just over one week ago, this is what our condo looked like. But here’s the evil, insidious part of packing: I always think that we’re about two hours from being done. So at 10am, I’m thinking it should take about two hours to finish. Fast forward to 6pm, when I’m sure that in just two more hours, the kitchen will be completely packed. Repeat as necessary.


About two hours of packing should finish this off. Har.

Actually, there’s another evil part of packing: the visual change effected by one’s packing efforts does not correlate with the time required to complete that packing. So, for example, we can pack all of our books quite quickly, and it looks like we’ve done a lot of work. The bookshelves are empty, there is a fresh mountain of boxes—heavy boxes, too, which surely means that some serious packing occurred—and mild exhaustion has set in. Great! Time elapsed: two hours.

Then you start packing the kitchen. Oh lordy. Unlike books—which, despite their tendency to accumulate more quickly than seems reasonable, are at least all orthogonal, fairly sturdy, more similar in size than they are different, and rarely something one needs to consult multiple times a day—kitchen stuff is oddly shaped, either very heavy or very fragile, and stuff you use every day. So there you are, assembling box after box, each of which can contain a few pans or a single Dutch oven, leaving a couple of cubic feet of space you either need to stuff with packing paper or fill with “sundry items” that aren’t too heavy and will fit, Tetris-like, in the available space.

So that’s how, 12 hours later, you end up with boxes labeled “KITCHEN: Dutch oven, measuring cups, Ziploc bag of dog food, novelty Simpsons bottle opener, take-out soy sauce packets.” But of course you don’t actually label the boxes this clearly. That’s just a surprise treat for when you unpack.


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What’s in a name, and all that

I had intended to get this blog up and running long before we actually arrived in Hong Kong, but the final flurry of activity leading up to our departure made that unfeasible. So here we are, settling into our apartment in Kowloon, and gradually—oh, so gradually—adjusting to life in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

I hemmed and hawed about what the name of this blog should be. There is considerable pressure—or at least I thought there was considerable pressure—to think up something memorable. More than a few god-awful puns crossed my mind, but nothing seemed quite right. Then, this summer, while on a long road trip from Chicago to the East Coast and back, Cate and I listened to a series of fascinating lectures on the history of modern China, and of course references to the Forbidden City abounded. It’s hard to imagine a more evocative or provocative name for a place, notwithstanding the considerable irony that nowadays floods of tourists flow in and out.

So every time the lecturer mentioned a Chinese emperor, I’d think “How cool would it be to live in a place called the Forbidden City?” But, as anyone who’s ever watched The Last Emperor knows, it actually wouldn’t be that cool at all: locked gates work in two directions, and all that stuff. Surely it would be better to live in an unforbidden city.

But ultimately, “unforbidding” is aspirational—it’s my hope for the coming year. HK is legendarily full of hustle and bustle; we’ve already experienced a little bit of that in just a few days, and we haven’t even made it into the dense fray yet. We have been told to expect to be a bit overwhelmed, sometimes even a lot overwhelmed, by the all-out, near-constant energy, movement, and sound. So the name of this blog is an ambition—that we should as much as possible, I hope, be awed, be impressed, even be exhausted by all that we find around us; but that we should never find it forbidding.

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