From November 2009

Lost in Hangzhou

Blue Bucket

Given my recent busyness I never got a chance to conclude the write-up of my previous mammoth mid-autumn trip around Jiangnan province. The third stop on this epic journey was the world-famous city of Hangzhou which lies about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai and is renowned for its beautiful West Lake as well as other historic sites.

Bonsai Tree

To see Hangzhou properly you’ll need at least two or three days – one for the West Lake and the rest for surrounding places of interest. You can hire bicycle very cheaply from bike stations around the city – these come with automatic locks which allow you to hop on and off wherever you like. Don’t forget to take your passport as proof of identity when you first register.

Servants Bedroom

One of the most interesting places I visited, slightly off the usual tourist trail, was the former residence of Hu Xueyan (胡雪岩故居)  which is a colossal private house that was built by a rich business man around 1872 (Qing Dynasty). Recently restored in 2001 the house is enclosed on all sides by high walls which hide much of the grandeur which lies within.

P1050090

Inside is a complex labyrinth of exquisite courtyards, landscaped gardens, towers and sumptuously furnished chambers. Examples of the highest levels of craftsmanship can be seen everywhere with intricate stone/wooden carvings having been lovingly restored at a cost of 29 million yuan. Amazingly for a national holiday it was surprisingly quiet and a nice place to relax away from the crowds.

P1040972

Back in the hustle and bustle Hefang Old Street (河坊街) is a pedestrian area full of shops, restaurants and street food vendors. While most people passing through are tourists it’s worth a look, especially if your after souvenirs. Be prepared to queue if you’re going for dinner because most of the popular restaurants are often packed to bursting.

Medicine Shop Counter

Along the street were a number of intriguing traditional Chinese medicine shops which were full of unfamiliar sights and smells. Despite the growing use of western medicine many people still rely heavily on this type of medicine to treat all manner of ailments – as to its effectiveness I have no idea but many swear by it. One shop was proudly displaying various ginseng roots, some of which cost the price of a modest house!

P1040985

On every trip I take there is usually at least one occasion when I get hopelessly lost. Such an occasion occurred in Hangzhou when I decided to cycle over the Qiantang River but vastly underestimated a) how far it was for the river and b) how wide the river was.

Sunset Over Hangzhou

The river is known for the world’s largest tidal bore at this time of year, which is up to 9 metres high, and travels at up to 25 miles an hour. The original idea was to try and catch it but after nearly two hours of  cycling the sun was setting and although I had crossed the river it looked like I had missed the main event.

Green Avenues

I was clearly in uncharted territory and didn’t fancy the ride back (uphill all the way). Luckily after consulting Google Maps on my iPhone and the help of a bored security guard I managed to find a bike station not far from the opposite side of the bridge and took the bus the rest of the way back into town.

West Lake at Night

My lasting memory of Hangzhou will be walking along the lake-side at night and looking out over the still water. For all China’s crazy busyness its nice to know that you can still find a moment of peace and quiet.

Trying to Explain China

When meeting friends and family from home one of the first questions your asked is “What’s it like living in China?“. This always causes me to pause and reflect for a moment because with such a large and varied country where do you start? Given you might only have 30 seconds to pitch life in China it’s wise to have a brief elevator speech ready. For future reference here’s mine:

“Big and Crowded”

Imagine a large crowd of people in the street. Now times this crowd by about a thousand and you’ll get an idea of the population density in big cities here. Forget peaceful suburbia, gardens and privacy, often you feel like you’re living in a battery farm surrounded by high-rise buildings. Everything in China is on an epic scale.

“Extreme Extremes”

Contrary to what you might have heard on the news China is a country full of extremes, both good and bad. Traditional and modern, closed and open, poor and rich, slow and fast all exist together in an uneasy harmony which the government tries to maintain tight control over (with mixed results).

“Life is Fragile”

China is developing so rapidly that often safety is sacrificed for the sake of speed. Reports of accidents which result in untimely ends are a daily occurrence. Even on the roads drivers trust lucky charms over seat belts and the buses are so over-crowded that saying a few Hail Mary‘s is almost mandatory when boarding.

“It’s Fascinating”

While the novelty of living here does tend to wear thin at times there’s always something new to discover and explore. Although my Chinese is extremely limited I’ve learnt how to get by and life is quite comfortable. China is generally friendly towards foreigners as long as you respect their culture.

…and finally:

“It’s good but I’m trying to make it better”

The quote above is how a Chinese friend responded when I asked them the same question. Although not entirely helpful to outsiders I found it quite inspiring and a positive reflection on at least a portion of China’s youth who will inherit this vast land with all it’s intricate complexities.

For those who live here: how would you try to explain China to outsiders?

N.b. I’ve been feeling pretty under the weather for the past week while being super busy with work hence the relative air of quietness around here. Lots of good stuff in the pipeline!

Bloodthirsty Catholics

I’ve not done a film review in a long time and to be honest I’ve not managed to keep up with Asian Cinema as much as I used to but this said I saw a Korean film over the weekend which is worth mentioning: Thirst (박쥐 – literally translated as “bat”).

From legendary director Park Chan-Wook (Old Boy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I’m a Cyborg…) the film premiered earlier this year but has only recently come out on DVD so I finally had a chance to get hold of a subtitled copy. Anyone who’s watched his previous works will know that you’re in for a brutally visual tour de force and although it’s not nearly as extreme as Old Boy it does not disappoint. From the outset it’s a beautifully crafted narrative with excellent acting, a stirring soundtrack, luscious backdrops and a few good stunts which are genuinely exciting (unlike most of the todays CGI-fests).

As with all Mr. Chan-Wooks films it’s a bit difficult to know where to begin when explaining the story. Perhaps I could best sum it up as Catholic-vampire-noir but with very adult overtones which go way beyond your usual sharp-teeth blood-sucking clichés. At this point it’s worth pointing out that about one-third of South Korea’s 45 million population are Christian and numbers are growing faster than in any other country (in stark contrast to its decay in the west).

The story revolves around a troubled priest, Sang-hyun (played by Song Kang-ho), who works in a small hospital but is unsure about his vocation which is amplified by the death he sees around him. He volunteers to take part in an experimental drug trial in Africa with fails, leaving him with a particularly nasty and fatal disease but miraculously after a blood transfusion he recovers.

Returning to his home he becomes a local hero (a “bandaged saint”) and devoted parishioners, thinking that he has the gift of healing, flock to his services. One of the visitors is his childhood friend who invites him to his house to play mahjong with his family. There he meets his friend’s wife, Tae-ju (played by Kim Ok-bin), who he finds himself dangerously drawn to. We discover a particularly dysfunctional family with an overbearing mother who treats her grown son as a baby and his wife as their servant.

Suddenly one night Sang-hyun relapses and violently collapses only to wake up the next day a changed person with an increasing taste for blood (which he initially steals from comatose patients at the hospital). His personal demons return full force and from here on in things start to get crazy. He begins an affair with Tae-ju who is also pretty messed up, having been forced into her marriage, and the intensity builds with both willing each other to deeper extremes until finally murder is committed.

I wont give the rest away but sufficed to say it gets pretty horrific with much lustful blood-letting and general insanity. There’s also a hint of Shakespeare in here with multiple layers of subtext which will take repeat viewings to unravel. It adds a whole new dimension to the Catholic sacrament (whereby it’s actually believed that the wine is turned into Christ’s blood)!

Trailer (Korean Version):

Trailer (International Version):

Overall a unique take on the vampire concept with some thrilling twists but imperfect in its execution (7/10).

Waking Up in the Clouds

Jinmao & WFC
Left: Jinmao Tower (Grand Hyatt), Right: World Finance Center (Park Hyatt)

I think I’m going to start a new category for “posh hotels I’ve stayed in without paying” as this is the second time in 3 months I’ve tasted the 5-star treatment courtesy of others generosity. Frankly I don’t much like hanging around with people who have more money than sense but the experience does deserve documenting for the luscious interior design at the very least.

Good Morning

The Park Hyatt Shanghai (as opposed to the Grand Hyatt next door) currently holds the title of the worlds highest hotel, situated near the top of the worlds third highest building – the World Finance Center. Ascending at 16 m/second in the turbo lift you feel your ears popping but this is soon forgotten when the doors to the 87th floor lobby open and your breath is taken away by the stunning panoramic views out of the floor to ceiling windows.

Psychiatrist's Office or Hotel?

The shimmering exterior of the building (Japanese designed) is matched only by its stunning interior which I would best describe as mature yet modern; in other words sophisticated. In the enormous rooms cool creams and deep blacks are offset by the occasional hint of colour which in the case of the shiny green apples immediately draws your eye like forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Temptation is all around.

Planet Shanghai

Designed by New York interior designer Tony Chi one might be forgive for thinking you’d entered a monochromatic world where Chinese zen meets high-tech perfectionism. In the stone-walled bathroom a waterfall-like shower cascades from the top of the 10-foot high ceilings with pinpoint precision and a screen inset in the mirror allows you to catch up on the day’s news while brushing your teeth!

Waking Up in Park Hyatt Shanghai

On cloud/smog-free days the views from the rooms are nothing short of breathtaking (“perfect” as the concierge described it) and waking up on Saturday morning I couldn’t resist taking a video of the automatic blinds opening to reveal the sweeping metropolis below. If you ever wanted to feel like a king for the day this is a good option 😀

Mega Breakfasting

Breakfast was equally decadent (and expensive) with every type of cuisine and taste catered for. Predictably it was all delicious and second helpings were called for. It was also a good opportunity for people watching. I have observed that more often than not groups of wealthy people act like spoilt kids – to work here you’d need the patience of a saint.

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Back in the room free wi-fi is provided which makes a nice change from the normally over-priced options which many other hotels push on their customers and with such an expansive space they are also perfect for working – deluxe rooms also come with a large lacquered wooden table fit for an informal meeting.

∞

Compared with my previous 5-star experience at the W in Seoul this goes way beyond in terms of sheer luxury but is clearly targeted at a different demographic (hip and trendy vs. sophisticated and mature). If you have a chance to stay it’ll definitely be a memorable one.

Life Jacket Vending Machine

Life Jacket (Condom) Vending Machine

Spotted on my way back from lunch today on the wall behind my office. Somehow I don’t think it’s selling the sort of life jackets one might expect to find on dry land. I think we can chalk this up to a rather literal translation 😀

Toilet User Interface Design

Ok, so you probably don’t read too many blog posts about toilets but stick with me!

Toilet Remote Control UI!

Last weekend I was lucky enough to stay in the Park Hyatt Shanghai hotel (free on someones reward points again) and while everything was amazing, one thing stood out in particular: the toilet. As long as it’s western style I’m not to fussy about loos but what I found in my bathroom went beyond anything imaginable. First of all the toilet lid automatically raised itself when you entered (see video below), had a heated seat and automatic flush but way beyond this was the remote control which was hung on the wall (see photo above). Yes you heard me right – the toilet had a remote control. For the life of me I can’t work out the use case of this apart from for playing practical jokes.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/randomwire/4088927575/

I’m used to toilets with only 1 button/lever but this thing had 27 of them including a LCD display to customise every aspect of the experience. While the technology may be advanced the functionality was scary – with labels like “Wand Cleaning” and “Pulsating” it took on a terminator like menace which was constantly a button press away. I decided to say way well clear.

I’m guessing this probably comes from Japan who have a long history of high-tech toilets with even more crazy features such as: automatic air deodorizing and conditioning, music to relax the user’s sphincter, germ-resistant surfaces which glow in the dark, a power saving mode that warms the toilet seat based on historic usage patterns, a talking voice that greet the user, and even inbuilt wi-fi! The mind boggles.

Frankly I think this all a bit much. If you get to the point where your toilet has 27 buttons then evolution has probably reached its limit and it’s all downhill from here. This company badly needs Apple to consult it about simplification of the UI but I’m not sure the world is ready for a multi-touch toilet yet!

Silk Production in Wuzhen

"Screw"

During my previous trip to Wuzhen (an ancient canal town near Shanghai) I was lucky enough to come across an old silk production factory which was still in active use, albeit mainly as a living museum these days. The process of turning a silkworm cocoon into fabric, known as sericulture, is fascinating so I took some photos and videos to show how it’s done:

Silk Ladies

Silkworms (technically moths) are cultivated in controlled environments with a female laying up to 400 eggs at a time. Once hatched, the larvae are fed huge quantities of mulberry leaves (up to 50,000 times its initial weight!) for around six-weeks after which it spins a silk cocoon around itself (pupating). During this time it produces about a kilometer of silk filament in 3-8 days. At this stage the silkworm cocoons are ready for use and are sorted by hand with the bad ones being removed.

Silk Harvesting Process

Next the cocoons are boiled in water to soften the silk and prepare it for unwinding. The immersion in hot water also kills the silkworm larvae (predictably animal activists don’t like this bit).

Boiling Silk Worms

Multiple strands of silk from 4-8 cocoons are joined to create a single strand making it much stronger. Amazingly around 5500 silkworms are required to produce just 1 kg of silk.

Silk Spools

Each thread is then spun on to a reel by machine (known as filature). Raw silk contains sericin (a binding protein) which needs to be washed out at the same time before it can be used commercially.

The video above also shows the traditional manual method by which the spinning wheel was operated and more of how the automated machine operates.

Weaving Machine

Once spun into a yarn the thread can then woven into a fabric. The contraption above is so complicated it has to be operated by two people with a woman sitting on top allow the weaving of complex multi-coloured patterns. It strangely reminded me of a church organ with foot pedals and complex patterns to be followed. No computer aided design around here!

The end result is a highly desirable and expensive fabric which is popular around the world with most of it coming from China and India. The next time you buy something silk bear a thought for all the silkworms which died to make it for you 😉

One Night in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Junk

This post should really be title “One Day in Hong Kong” but it didn’t match the above photo (a junk sailboat which was cruising along Victoria Harbour at night) so nicely. It’s not a wonderful photo but I like the red colour of the sails against the skyscraper shoreline. Of all the skylines in the world HK is hard to beat… anyway, I digress…

Lamma Island

I hadn’t been to HK for a few months so on Saturday I crossed over the border for a day trip to explore the southern half of Lamma Island (southwest of Hong Kong Island proper). Starting from Shenzhen Bay I took the bus down to Kowloon and then a ferry from the central piers to the island, a trip of about 40 minutes.

Security System

Arriving at Sok Kwu Wan, a small fishing village on southwest coast, I had planned to follow the “family trail” which runs the length of the island. The only problem was that I didn’t have a good map and took a wrong turn somewhere diverting me on to a circular route which included traversing one of the islands small mountains. Not quite what I had in mind (especially considering I only had a single bottle of water and melted chocolate bar with me). Getting lost aside the walk was nice and there was hardly anybody about to disturb the peace.

Lamma Island Abandoned School

The island itself is dense with lush green trees and plants which are apparently home to a number of poisonous snakes that I was (un)fortunate enough not to encounter. Curiously many of the islands small houses seemed to be abandoned or in a state of some disrepair. Given it was Halloween my imagination ran a little wild and I was convinced that each dilapidated shack I encountered was home to demented locals ready and waiting to feast on lost hikers.

Aberdeen Junk Boats

After about two hours of walking I finally made it back to the dock and took a ferry to Aberdeen on the south shore of Hong Kong Island. Here high-rise apartments dominate the horizon built right up to the water’s edge where a small flotilla of fishing boats were moored. I’d liked to have explored further but time was against me so I took a bus through the long tunnel to Causeway Bay on the other side of the island which brings us nicely back to the beginning of this post.

On balance I think I prefer Cheung Chau Island but for hiking Lamma certainly has more on offer.