Saturday, July 31, 2010

Kowloon Cocoon

Day 3 - Friday July 30th - we had a busy day. Considering that the children and I woke after mid-day on Thursday it was an achievement to be up at 9:00 HK time (2 am in London). After Theo and I had breakfast and feeding Quentin we set out to collect Martin and then proceed to The American Club for a potential new members tour. We were leaving Kowloon and heading for the first time to Hong Kong Island.

In London taking a taxi with a buggy and 3 year old is straight forward. Theo hops in the cab, then I wheel the buggy in, apply the brake and then sit down and buckle Theo and I in. As they taxis here are like a standard car (e.g. like a NYC rather than London taxi) I was concerned about the logistics of getting Quentin out of the buggy, breaking down the buggy and getting it and Quentin into the taxi. This became a non-issue as the Harbourview Place/W door staff were incredibly helpful. I called down to reception to say that I wanted to take a taxi and explained where I was going. After making the final preparations I was just about to walk out the door when I was greeted by a door man, Michael, who had been sent to assist us to the taxi point. Once arriving at the taxi area Theo hopped in the taxi as usual and then Michael held Quentin while I broke down the buggy. Someone from the W door staff put the two buggy pieces in the taxi trunk (boot). So that I was not just holding Quentin I strapped him into the baby bjorn and then he was buckled in with me.

We took the tunnel underneath the harbor and then proceeded to the IFC complex where Martin works (2nd tallest building in Hong Kong). It was highly vertical and felt busy - like being in mid-town Manhattan. Parts are also reminiscent of being in Chicago as there are various road fly-overs like the L with a plethora of ground level shops. From the IFC we went on to Tai Tam to the American Club's country site.

This proved to be a much longer journey as the taxi driver got lost multiple times. This did have the benefit of an unplanned tour of the far side of the island. He apparently took us the long way around so we saw Repulse Bay, one of the favorite beaches but which I had read yesterday in the paper had just suffered from an oil slick of unknown source. We then stopped at the HK International School (high school) which he had thought was our destination. Then we went out farther on Tai Tam road, onto Tai Tam Reservoir Road and went over a dam on an incredibly narrow two way road. We climbed a windy hill to be greeted by a sign to Shek O (far point of the island that I hear has a nice beach) and a sign pointing to number 28 as being in the direction which we had come from. So, back down the circuitous mountainside road, over the dam and then he stopped at the HK International School (middle school campus this time). I was delighted to see that the school mascot was (of course!) - The Dragons! We stopped at yet another apartment complex before finally pulling into the American Club 'Country' site (as they also have a Central location) more than an hour after I left with the children from Kowloon.

We took a tour of the club facilities. While the facilities were really nice (a pool and children's pool; a really fun children's play area; restaurants; squash courts; tennis courts) it felt a little weird to be at this haven of Americana in Hong Kong. Having lived in the UK for so long I found it odd to be in a club in a foreign country where everything on the walls is from America. I was also jet-lagged, tired, and incredibly hot (as it was now midday and part of the tour was outside). While the American Club seems nice (except for a lot of steps up and down through the club) I am a little concerned about being surrounded by Americans who don't like being in Hong Kong. Hopefully this will not be the case. The club was pretty quiet and we were told that most of the members were away to visit the US during this time of year. I obviously need to give it another chance when I'm not jet-lagged and tired and when we take a more direct route so it is not such a long travel time.

The way back we again drove over the reservoir road and then back into the more densely populated areas. There was high-rise after high-rise of apartment building, many looking in shabby disrepair, as we approached the more central area. Seeing so many very tall skyscrapers makes you realize how densely populated both HK Island and the area across the harbor are on the mainland. It is still difficult to comprehend where all those people are in the city (I guess working in other skyscrapers...)

Our next stop was the immigration office where we had to get our Hong Kong ID cards. An entire high-rise is devoted to Hong Kong administrative paperwork with different floors for different purposes. It was pretty efficient with us entering and beginning the application process in one corner of the 8th floor and then proceeding around the floor. I was not very happy that we had to provide both of our thumbprints - I hate the idea that China has a copy of my fingerprints. This is especially so as the same data protection that we enjoy in the US and UK (though of the course the UK has had large recent data leaks too...) does not exist here. Yesterday the papers talked about how data from the MTR (subway/tube) card registrations had been sold. I guess this is similar the frustration that everybody without a US passport feels when they visit the US. Well, they have the fingerprints now as it was mandatory to get our HK ID cards which are mandatory with our visa. Quentin was again a star at the immigration office. The woman who was processing our application (and fingerprinting us) held Quentin for me so that I could complete my paperwork while Martin took Theo to the loo. She was absolutely delighted to hold him and Quentin was smiley as ever - he did his bit to break up the monotony of a bureaucrat's day. Interestingly, the final stop was one where they re-verified our fingerprints and asked us some final questions before we were given our temporary ID cards. Our permanent ones with the fingerprint and other information in a microchip will be ready in a few weeks.

It was now well past lunch time so in addition to everything else we were all hungry. Martin led us through the Wan Chai district on an elevated walkway in which I felt like I was part of a great river of Chinese people. The smell from the street level wafting up was of a massive Chinatown. The river deposited us at the Wan Chai MTR station which we took two stops back to the IFC - while the subway ride itself is relatively quick getting down to the subway was time consuming with a buggy as we had to find and then wait for lifts. We had an adequate VERY late (it was 4:00 by this time) lunch to everyone's relief. At 4:40 I left and took the two boys by myself on our first MTR ride without Martin. It was just one stop under the harbor to the Kowloon station and we were back to our apartment just after 5:00.

It was a real relief to arrive back in Kowloon to our (sort of) familiar mall beneath our building. It just seemed less crowded, more relaxed and more comfortable back in Kowloon. I found this interesting because before we came over I had one former expat tell me that I would not like Kowloon because "it is almost like you need a passport to get there" and it is "crawling with Chinese".

The pool was closing early Friday night so I was pleased to make it back in time to visit the pool to recuperate a bit from the busy day. The boys and I were at the pool by 5:30 and spent a little over an hour there. It was really lovely to swim with them.

Afterwards I finally made it to the supermarket in the mall. If I felt comfortable in my Kowloon Cocoon before the supermarket was the icing on top of the cake. The supermarket is absolutely incredible - it has products from all over the world. The supermarket is called 360 and it is aptly named. Many of the products are organic but most of all the variety and the quality were impressive. Anything that I could have wanted from the UK that I can't find in the US or from the US that I cannot find in the UK were available in this store. More on the supermarket later....

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jet lag, knight's tunic and the little prince

Hong Kong is 7 hours from London and 12 hours from EST in the USA. The first night (last night) we were all late going to bed. Theo finally fell asleep about 10:30 but I could not sleep until after 1 am and then was up regularly through the night with little Quentin who seemed to treat night like day. Martin left for work in the morning but I kept the curtains drawn and caught up on some sleep. Theo woke about 1:30 and then we had a mid afternoon breakfast of some cereal. We finally set out just after 3:00 (or 8:00 London time). Theo was adamant that it was morning and I was just being silly for even suggesting it was afternoon.

We went to explore the Elements mall a bit more after yesterday's brief visit to eat dinner in a restaurant. It is like living above an upscale Bluewater (for those in the UK) or Beachwood mall (in the US) and we do not have to exit the building to go directly into the mall - pretty handy in tropical heat and heavy rain. As it was not raining this afternoon we stopped briefly outside and Theo and I agreed that yes, it was hot - the temperature and humidity felt like this time of year in Miami so not unpleasant but not suitable for sustained outdoor exploration with a baby.

Theo decided to wear his knight's tunic from Disneyland Paris. I thought, why not, we are just going to the mall. I had at least four people ask me where they could buy an outfit like Theo's so he oddly became a conversation piece and fashion setter - look out for knight tunic's on next year's Hong Kong fashion runway. Other questions included why he was wearing the costume - I explained that we had just moved from London where there are many castles and Theo is a knight. As I said, a great conversation starter!

In the mall they are featuring Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) and have lovely exhibits with scenes from the book scattered around the mall. With his blond hair and size Theo (plus knight tunic!) he appeared similar to the little prince and was the source of some excitement when he sat down on a bench for a picture with a little prince statue.

Having seen the little prince statues last night one of our objectives for today's mall visit was to read some of the book together at a reading station by a statue of the elephant being eaten by a boa constrictor. There was a little table but, alas, though it appeared to have Le Petit Prince in a host of languages they were merely props of book covers glued to a bookshelf. So I told a disappointed Theo we would find a book shop to buy our very own copy.

The Metro bookshop in Elements is brilliant with a huge selection of English language books. The staff were very friendly and helped us find the book. The version we got is all the original text but in pop-up version of some of the pictures - the reading interaction is entertaining for an almost 4 year old. Theo also picked out a Clifford book and a 3D Toy Story book.

The bookshop overlooked - of all things - an ice rink. We watched people of various skills ice skate and they also were taking lessons and practicing ice hockey. After the book shop we went to Starbucks for a snack. As a frequent visitor of Starbucks in London I was surprised by this one as it had many of the same things but also a much wider range of food choices and some additional drink choices (like my favorite from the US - iced green tea which is for some reason not available in the UK). I think that the surprising thing though was the heightened emphasis on sustainability, which exceeded the visible sustainability message of London and also NYC Starbucks.

At this point Quentin was approaching a meltdown so rather than find the supermarket (which is also in the mall) as planned we headed back to our room. After tending to Quentin's basic needs the three of us got ready to try out the rooftop pool. The boys wore their matching swim outfits and looked adorable. To get there we had to descend from the 57th floor to floor 2, change elevators and then take another lift to the 76th floor. The pool is pretty amazing and offers breathtaking views of the city skyline. Perhaps most interesting though is to be in the pool on floor 76 and able to look up at the adjacent ICC building (3rd tallest in the world and the largest in Hong Kong) rise significantly higher above us.

While pleasant the pool is all the same depth of 1.2 meters - which is taller than Theo and just below my shoulder height. I definitely got a work out as I had Quentin on one shoulder and then held Theo with the other arm by the waist as he swam. We did laps up and down the pool and then also under little fountains of water from the glass infinity wall. Theo also jumped in and swam to Q and me. Thank goodness I enjoy swimming!

We were having a great time but then could clearly see a storm rolling in. The clouds descended around us and were dark gray. The winds also picked up. We headed back down to our room where we got ready for Martin's arrival home from work.

This evening we again went to a (different) Chinese restaurant in the Elements mall. The food was good but I did not like it as much as the place we ate last night which had the most amazing scallops and also delicious rice. Dinner again proved entertaining. Last night we spent about 10 minutes trying to learn how to say sparkling water from the wait staff. I thought I had it down but had forgotten by the end of the meal. I decided to not be too hard on myself as I was jet lagged, tired and had just arrived. I can remember how to say thank you in Cantonese which is useful. A lot of the words to my Ohio ear sound like two or three random sounds put together and while I can (sort of) repeat the sounds I don't yet have the recall to remember which sounds go together when I want to say something as it all sounds rather sing song to me.
Tonight we sat next to a table with two little boys about age 6. They were fascinated by Quentin and made all kinds of faces at him - including one where they pull down the lower lids of their eyes which apparently is the Chinese inverse of what American and English kids do (e.g. making their eyes look either Sino or Anglo). They had play cell phones and pretended to take his picture and just generally got him laughing and smiling. All this was great for me as it distracted Quentin while I was eating. Then Quentin starting blowing raspberries at the two boys and they (fair enough) decided to do that back to him. When they became rather vigorous in their blowing to the point where phlegm was going to cover his face I rescued Quentin from this good hearted germ exchange.

At both restaurants we were the only white people. This is not terribly surprising considering we are in China but worth mentioning as I had been told that Hong Kong was filled with expats - I guess not everywhere. On the first night when Quentin got fussy at dinner I took him for a walk around the mall and I also only saw Chinese people. It was weird as I had this vague feeling of being dropped into a parallel universe to Canary Wharf in London. So it at the same time felt familiar and foreign.

Theo seems to be adjusting best of all of us to the time change. Quentin - who normally eats every four hours so for whom you would think this would be easy - is having issues. It's now 2 am Hong Kong time and Martin and I have been tag-teaming him to try to get him to sleep. Hopefully we will succeed soon!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

QT arrive to Hong Kong

We have arrived in Hong Kong! This blog tells the story of two little boys and their family in Hong Kong in 2010: Quentin (19 weeks old) and Theo (3 and 3/4 years old).

We have travelled here from London, UK for Martin's job. Over the past few weeks have been busy getting organized for our move and it is thrilling to finally arrive in Hong Kong. We had a direct flight from London on British Airways - we thankfully flew business class and it was great. We had three adjacent seats - two of which were in a joined pod and the third facing the opposite direction but we were able to see each other with the divider down. It was a perfect seat configuration with young kids as Theo and Martin sat next to each other and I held little Q who could share big smiles with his Dad and brother. Perhaps the best feature was a bassinet at the foot of the double pod. I was at first concerned that it would be too small for bonny Quentin but perhaps the snug space was just the trick. Quentin fell asleep about 2 hours into the flight and proceeded to sleep for - check this - 9 and 1/2 hours!!! A record for a baby who normally sleeps in 4 hour segments. So, on the flight I think I slept in a longer uninterrupted stretch than I have enjoyed in months and also the lie flat seats on BA were really comfortable. Needless to say, the flight went really quickly.

Arriving in the rainy season we were greeted by heavy rain on our approach to Hong Kong. The airport itself it really modern, busy and pleasant. It is always a bit disorienting arriving in a new place after a long flight. The oddest thing that made me laugh was as we made the trek from the gate to immigration there was a gauntlet of Dept of Health workers wearing white masks. One ran up to the buggy, held out a thermometer and scanned Q's temperature (he passed). No similar approach was made towards Theo which I thought was a bit odd as I think that older children would be just as if not more likely to be harboring a temperature.

People are all really friendly towards the children, particularly baby Quentin. Quentin is a very smiley baby and was delighted at all the attention from people through the airport. Having people be so friendly is not only handy for entertaining the children but also sets a really nice tone that just makes it pleasant to be here.

We are staying in Kowloon at the ICC megalopolis complex (more about this later...). The drive from the airport to Kowloon was somewhat surreal - it was pouring, and I mean pouring, rain. The mist was rising from the water and covering the mountains. There were many picturesque islands amid the mist. The amount of skyscraper apartment blocks in these outer areas was both surprising and impressive.

Must run now - I'll write more soon as there is so much to say.