Monday, October 29, 2007

Hong Kong Disneyland

As long-time Disney fans, during our trip to Hong Kong we couldn’t resist visiting Hong Kong Disneyland. As the newest, and therefore smallest, Disney park (it’s still being expanded), the place has been maligned for not enough activities for hyperactive small children or Asian teenagers raised on video games. But we loved it, partly because of the simple pleasures of walking around a Magic Kingdom, soaking up the atmosphere, and watching how the cultural and language differences played out.

A detailed review, for those particularly interested (and if you are, you’re probably related to me):

When you arrive by subway, Disney has its own train off one of the main lines. The train is plush, with windows and rings shaped like Mickey’s head and gold statues of Disney characters. You exit the train at a gorgeous, old-fashioned train station before walking through manicured grounds past a huge fountain with sculptures of Mickey, Donald, and the rest on your way to the gate.

Hong Kong Disneyland is, visually, a bit on the short side. It’s on Lantau, the same island as the airport, so we’re guessing that a bigger Sleeping Beauty’s Castle or Space Mountain wouldn’t have met height restrictions for flight visibility. But it’s still beautifully done, with all the details you would expect from a Disney park.

Food Surprisingly good. Favorites: Fantastic dim sum in a food court in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, amid tapestries that told the story, classic Gothic arches, and lighted pedestals with life-sized statues of dancing Disney princes and princesses. British and Cantonese food at the end of Main Street. Ice cream (selection: chocolate-and-vanilla Mickey heads, chocolate and sesame seeds, red bean, and green tea) while staking out seats for the excellent parade.

Entertainment Fascinating, largely because of language differences. For the main show, the songs were in English, but they spoke Cantonese, and the Chinese characters (for the Mandarin speakers) and English were on screens on either side. Imaging hearing Cantonese spoken with the squeakiness of Mickey and Minnie, the aw-yuk of Goofy’s voice, and the quacking of Donald Duck!

Stitch Encounter, a computer-run audience-interaction show, was also interesting. Since it would be impossible to interact with the audience in three languages at once, the day is divided into English shows, Mandarin shows, and Cantonese shows. It only takes them 15 minutes to switch the technology from one language to the next. Impressive, and fun. Stitch immediately picked Joey out of the audience and announced that he was an escaped space pirate, complete with mugshot on screen. Ah, the memories...

Rides Space Mountain is tamer; there’s just no getting around it. Lots of tight spirals at high speed, but no drops at all, perhaps because of the lack of height. The “rockets” in Tomorrowland have been altered to take on more people; now they’re literal flying saucers, an odd contrast to the Mad Hatter’s Teacups not far away.

The Jungle River Cruise is more like Disneyland in California, much more fun and involved than the one in Orlando. Also, here Tom Sawyer’s rafts are called Tarzan’s rafts, and they float across to Tarzan’s Treehouse. Not much to do, but given the location and the beautiful hills that surround the park, it’s a terrific place to take in the views.

Buzz Lightyear, the Carousel, Dumbo, Mickey’s Philharmagic, and Winnie the Pooh are the same as in Orlando. It’s a Small World probably will be, too; it’s still being constructed, but we could see the familiar facade.

Omissions? Yes, there are plenty. No Frontierland at all - and while it doesn’t exactly make sense in Hong Kong, that means no Splash Mountain and no Big Thunder Railway. No Pirates of the Caribbean. No Peter Pan. No Haunted Mansion. (No Hall of Presidents, either, but that’s a bonus.)

Hotels There are two Disney hotels near the park. The Disneyland Hotel looked so much like the Grand Floridian (though it was billed as European) that we couldn’t stay there - it was just too weird. Instead, we stayed at Disney’s Hollywood Hotel, a casual but glamorous hotel decorated in a perfect art deco style.

If you enjoy finding “hidden Mickeys,” this is the hotel for you. Mickeys tucked into the outer wall. Cubist Mickey carpets in the halls. Mod, flat, circular lights in the restaurants in the Mickey shape. Mickey croutons in the salads. Mickey-shaped tops on the travel shampoo.

And when we got tired of looking at Mickeys, we could look out our window onto the hotel grounds and then out to the bay and the mountains beyond, a constant reminder that we might be at Disney, but we were still in the exotic city of Hong Kong.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Culture Shock: Hong Kong

After our decidely “foreign” experience in Beijing, I have to admit we felt little (if any) culture shock in Hong Kong. It was often in English, easy to navigate, with a great subway. It is true that in casual Singapore, land of the universal flip-flops, I had almost forgotten what it was like to be in the Big City. (Note to self: remember to reintegrate black into wardrobe.) The buildings are taller, the rich are richer, and most people seem to walk with a sense of entitlement, secure in their success.

Plus, in many ways it was exactly what we expected: the truly spectacular skyline of an established financial behemoth, peopled with a global mix of ambitious financieers. And in the background, as we’d secretly hoped, those mysterious, exotic little hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants crammed to the rafters with carvings and lacquerwork, many lit by the haunting glow of deep-red lanterns.

My favorite part of Hong Kong, though, was a remarkable little piece of architecture generally referred to as “The Escalators.” Part of Hong Kong is built up the side of a steep hill, and it’s quite a climb even to get from one block to the next. So they built a series of escalators (really “travelators,” those flat, moving ramps), to carry pedestrians up the hill. They’re raised about one floor above street level, so we rode along while peering curiously over the edge and down into the lanes on either side. Then, any time we spotted an interesting restaurant or shop (and the lanes were packed with these), we just hopped off to investigate. Going down, you have to take the stairs, unless it’s morning commuting hour; then, they change the direction of the escalators so that everyone who lives up the hill can ride down to the central business district to work.

Like Beijing, Hong Kong was hazy during the day, so we skipped the Peak Tram and its supposedly spectacular views from a foothill just outside the city. But the sky cleared up at night, so we took a gorgeous ferry ride across the bay from Kowloon to central Hong Kong for the best views of the skyline across the water. One of the nice things about the ferry is that it’s not a tourist attraction; it’s just what lots of people take as part of their commute every day, for about 50 cents US per trip. Of course, by now they’re too jaded to notice the view, but we think they’re still lucky to have the chance to see this every day.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hari Raya Puasa

Let the celebrations begin! Hari Raya Puasa (Fasting Day of Celebration) marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. In Singapore it also marks the beginning of a slew of holidays. This year, the Hindu celebration of Deepavali is in early November; then there’s Christmas and New Year’s, and finally Chinese New Year in early February 2008. Needless to say, the retailers are having a field day with sales events (or “promotions” as they say here).

Which makes us especially grateful for local Singaporeans who have welcomed us--or, more often, Jenn--into their circle. From bowling on Fridays to East Coast dinner parties, from cat sitting while we’re traveling to the occasional help from a maid, we’ve been very fortunate. Many of these are women Jenn has become friends with--and I freely admit that Jenn’s cell phone rings more frequently than mine!

Through these acquaintances, we’ve been introduced to wonderful cultures. Our introduction to Hari Raya Puasa came courtesy of the lovely Monica, who took us out to the Malay Village and Geylang area last week after sundown (and after the breaking of the daily fast) to enjoy the festivities. She simply loves all the different celebrations in Singapore (anything that involves putting up decorations is a big hit), but it was great to spend this one with her. Of Malay heritage herself, she could explain the details of all the sights and sounds.

As usual with these festivals of sensory overload, it was hard to capture the true sense of the festival on film. A few photos, anyway:

These ladies certainly know how to wear a hijab...

...but for those who aren't quite as sure, you can always look to the mannequins for inspiration.

Apparently, one simply must buy new curtains at Hari Raya, and the selection is overwhelming. This shop was one of the few I could frame in the camera.

After some “Halal makan” (must celebrate with food, lor!), we took a stroll through the bustling booths stuffed with carpets and stunning embroidered clothing (and yes, the sign says $55 Singapore dollars, or about $35 US).

Finally, we climbed a footbridge for one last look at the lights down the main thoroughfare of Geylang.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Climate Change… What Climate Change?

Before everyone harpoons me for this title, I should say I believe global warming is real – good enough for a Nobel prize. I’m not sure some climate change wouldn’t have happened without people, but I certainly don’t believe people have no impact.

Having said that, I confess to wishing for seasonal climate change in Singapore. Precipitation doesn’t count. The temperature fluctuations look like an EKG reading at a cemetery. The word "season" has one meaning here, and it involves taste buds.

Yes, I knew this when we moved here, and the lack of temperature shifts doesn’t bother me that much – after all, if I needed a quick fix, I’d just duck into the nearest shopping mall for a/c. But I find the lack of seasons is toying with my sense of calendar. Is it October already? Are Thanksgiving and Christmas really right around the corner? Noticing that Australia is approaching Summer just messes with my head even more.

I’ll have to take my seasonal cues from something else; I hear from a local friend that Christmas decorations will be up in a week or so - maybe that will help.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

How Guanxi Killed My Carpet Grass

(Cue film noir theme music.)

This is a story of unfulfilled promises, dashed expectations, sheer incompetence, and guanxi (the relationship-based way of doing business in Asia).

The characters: an out-of-town landlord, a dastardly landscaper, his bumbling gardening henchmen, and one naïve renter whose contract provides for a certain amount of lawn maintenance.

As our story opens, the renter is watering dutifully, even going so far as to invest in technology to ensure even coverage. The landlord has signed a contract with the landscaper, naturally a friend of a friend. The contract calls for maintenance of the newly installed carpet grass, which apparently requires fertilizing and cutting to just the right length, at just the right time every month, in order to survive at all. The renter has no obligations regarding this contract, except to water dutifully. The landlord heads out of town, confident in guanxi to guarantee all will be well.

Unfortunately, rather like cell phone reception, guanxi tends to break down over long distances. With the landlord out of town, the landscaper has as much affection for this carpet grass as one might have for wilted lettuce - which the grass begins to resemble. Out of desperation, the renter attempts to establish some local guanxi himself. Weeks of sweet-talking the receptionist (Catherine) finally garner the renter first-name recognition status. On one occasion, the landscaper himself even shows up for a consultation. The bumbling henchmen finally do it right. The carpet grass begins to thrive.

Then inexplicably, everything falls into disarray. The landscaper is mysteriously “out of the country.” Catherine is nowhere to be found. The henchmen reschedule a maintenance session for three weeks later, then miss one entirely. And when they do show up, they’ve returned to their previous bumbling ways. Here’s what’s left of the carpet grass.