Review: No City for Slow Men

no_city_for_slow_menHong Kong is a complex city, and one that is full of contradictions. Nowhere else can a person stay for years, decades even, and still not fully understand the place. Which other city can be ranked ‘the world’s freest economy’ for 21 years in a row and yet still leave its’ residents feeling like the prisoners of greedy businessmen?

Jason Ng, author of bestselling book Hong Kong State of Mind, explores the ins and outs of the sprawling cosmopolitan city that is Hong Kong. In his newest edition, No City for Slow Men, Mr. Ng covers everything from his views of local service standards to stories about his parents’ lives in Hong Kong.

Hearing that, you may be tempted to think No City for Slow Men is a glorified travel guide, and yet, it is so much more than that. It is a book that blends wittiness, compassion and knowledge into 267 pages of delightful reading.

The pages are split into 3 parts. The first part, ‘Our Way of Life’, talks about the culture of the citizens in Hong Kong and those that oversee the operation of the city. Jason Ng points out and criticizes the idiosyncrasies that have become commonplace in Hong Kong, whether it be the people who cut their toenails on public transport or the shopping malls that feel the need to recreate their own version of the North Pole.

The second part, ‘Our Culture’, shows some of the peoples’ attitudes towards holidays, weather, etc. and also compares and contrasts the differences between locals and foreigners in Hong Kong. A good example that he points out is how playing poker is actually illegal in Hong Kong, a fact that is sure to boggle expats and tourists alike.

The third part, ‘Our Identity’, is perhaps the part that is most gripping for those seriously interested in Hong Kong. It talks about pretty much all the biggest issues, such as the city-wide identity crisis its’ citizens are facing and the domestic helpers that are consistently refused visas. It is here that Ng shows he can also be both compassionate and compelling in a heartfelt apology to the domestic workers. It is also not all about Hong Kong. The autobiographical elements that can be found throughout the book are most prominent here, and the book ends with two heartwarming stories about his parents.

There is a lot of criticism throughout the book of Hong Kong locals, yet Ng balances this with hefty doses of humour. Sharp and witty, he exposes the flaws of Hong Kong for all his readers to see. However, it is clear that he truly loves this eccentric city, and is not slow to give praise where praise is due. Whether it is complimenting Hong Kong’s food culture or praising local service staff, there is enough for even the most passionate citizen to feel satisfied about their city. All in all, Ng gives what I see as a fair and apt representation of the ‘Fragrant Harbour’.

There are also a ton of memorable quotes, short, sweet and ultimately very fitting. ‘Owning an expensive watch is a lot like having a girlfriend – it is not a big deal to have one, but it is a big deal not to.’ It is an accurate representation of the mentality here. ‘When alpha cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York fall over each other vying for the dubious title of a city that never sleeps, it is the citizens who pay the price.’ This is a quote that I feel encapsulates the frenzied and rushed lifestyle that citizens have to endure. And finally my personal favourite, ‘Mainlanders drive us crazy, but keep us afloat.’ In one sentence, Ng sums up quite nicely Hong Kong citizens’ feelings towards the Mainland tourists.

When you’ve lived in Hong Kong your whole life, it can be easy to wish to leave at the first possible chance. Perhaps the lifestyle is too rushed for your taste, or maybe the rent prices are too high. Whatever it is, you can sometimes forget why Hong Kong can be such a great place. No City for Slow Men can remind you why.

– Kieran Green


Review: Street Life Hong Kong

Street_Life_Hong_Kong_medScaffolders. Tram drivers. Recyclers. Sign holders. Hawkers. Shoe shiners. We see these workers every day in Hong Kong, and yet hardly ever realize it. They are mostly invisible labourers who we are so used to seeing out on the streets that our minds often blur them out when we walk past them. Yet these workers often toil the hardest in our busy city, bearing the hard sun for long hours in their professions, and yet are paid close to minimum wage for their efforts.

Street Life Hong Kong gives a voice to the voiceless. The book contains the profiles of 25 citizens who work outdoors, and whose stories are often unheard of in our beloved city. Accompanying these profiles are beautiful black-and-white photos taken by photographer Michael Perini. These photos present the subjects at work, and give added depth to their stories by recreating the bustling atmosphere that surrounds them every day. There is Yiu Chan-Leung, a rare female tram driver who had to work out at the gym to pull the manual controls on her tram, and who gives an insight into the patience it requires to drive a tram on busy roads where trams are not able to veer away from cars or unseeing pedestrians. There is also Kwok Shu-Tai, a sampan tour guide who was kidnapped as a child and sold to her sampan adoptive mother, and who gives a fascinating insight into what life is like on the water, and the differences between ‘boat people’ and ‘land people’.

Street Life Hong Kong celebrates our bustling city by highlighting the outdoor workers who reside in it. The book forces us to face those who make a living on the streets, and any who may hold prejudice towards these individuals will soon be humbled by the stories and voices that shine out in the book. This eye opening read will be sure to be a source of reevaluation for your life the next time you may complain about a crowded train or a hot day.

Samuel Rossiter

Paper Tigress is reprinted

Paper_Tigress_medWe’re pleased to announce that Paper Tigress, Rachel Cartland’s memoir of her years in the Hong Kong government, sold out. And it’s now reprinted and is back in the shops.

To mark the occasion, we print below the text of a speech Rachel gave to a Hong Kong business group late last year.

A Difficult Passage

I was a Hong Kong civil servant, a member of the Administrative Grade, from 1972 until 2006. So all you taxpayers funded my salary for all those years and I hope that I gave you value for money.

In May I gave a speech to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The title of my address to the FCC was “Has Hong Kong Become Ungovernable?” and the answer was a fairly unqualified “yes”.

It would be unconscionably lazy even if tempting just to repeat that FCC speech but I would like to quote a few sentences from it which sum up what I still believe to be the systemic failings in our political system which are causing us all to suffer:

“During my time in Hong Kong we have gone from a Legislative Council wholly appointed by the Governor to one in which the entire membership stands ever poised to provide the disloyal Opposition to the Chief Executive, who is specifically required to have no political party to support him. Within the Legislative Council there are representatives of the functional constituencies, some of which are rotten boroughs as bad and self-interested as anything that tainted nineteenth century England could come up with and directly elected members who get there thanks to a particularly peculiar proportional list system which is skewed towards ensuring that more radical candidates will get a seat.”

Another reason that I have for not wanting to reprise that FCC speech is that it caused me a lot of trouble. I was interviewed about it by a charming young man from the SCMP afterwards and his report was a pretty good effort apart from confusing “rotten boroughs” with “robber barons” and also liberally deploying a metaphor that I had used about there having been in effect a wicked godmother hovering over the cradle of the infant SAR. It went up on the online version of the Post which I don’t have but I realised that something was amiss when I got an e-mail from a friend in UK with the subject line, “Cat. Pigeons. Among.”. I asked the Charming Young Reporter to give me a link to the article but he demurred. “Oh, Mrs. Cartland, I am afraid you will be upset by the unkind comments.” When I finally got to read them, I didn’t feel at all wounded as they were basically utterly bonkers and bore no relationship to what I had actually said.

I was castigated as an old Colonial and told to return to my homeland, accused of badmouthing China and of being responsible for the failure to introduce democracy during 100+ years of British oppression of Hong Kong. In fact, I had avoided assigning blame for the constitutional debacle which confronts us. It is, as it happens, my opinion that the roots of our troubles lie in bad moves made by the Brits and they did it by introducing too much democracy rather than not enough. In the 1980s there was a view in the British press, public and parliament that the people of Hong Kong had been let down by the settlement reached with China on their future. The response was a classic British fudge or compromise, trying to make LegCo look more democratic by adding in the functional constituencies and gradually some directly elected members. Those of us who were civil servants at the time could cope basically because enough of the old ethos remained that kept people broadly polite and with an understanding that there was a common intention to get legislation through, pass the Budget and so on. As we can see on our TV screens every day when LegCo is in session things are a bit different now. If we had a system that gave the Chief Executive some sort of whip to crack or sweets to hand out we might see more constructive behaviour but our flawed system does not allow this and we have become worryingly dependent on the resilience and quick wittedness of one man: Tsang Yok Sing the President of the Legislative Council.

The old English saying “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good” seems to be applicable to the present crisis which must, for example, have been good for newspapers’ revenue figures what with all the full page advertisements being taken out. To the best of my knowledge, the first of these was on 11 June this year and was issued on behalf of various Chambers of Commerce. Its theme was, of course, Anti Occupy Central but what struck me about it was how often the statement emphasised the signatories’ interest in business and the economy and, conversely, their lack of interest in politics. This strikes me as very odd. I believe that recently there have been a whole lot of blokes kicking around a ball in Brazil. I know Germany came out on top but otherwise I’m quite ignorant of the details. I’m sure though that if I felt that my future well-being depended on it I’d be familiar with every moment of every match of the FIFA World Cup. And let’s not fool ourselves. This current Hong Kong crisis is long drawn out rather than short and sharp but as historian Jason Wordie says, this is an “emerging political disaster” that stands comparison with the 1967 riots. In these circumstances I think that everyone should develop an interest in local political and constitutional affairs, even if there is an understandable reluctance to grapple with such a dry and complex subject.

I would like to suggest some principles with which to approach our present difficulties. Perhaps you will agree with them, perhaps you will not but they are what I honestly believe.

The first is a quotation from an African American poetess, Maya Angelou. She said “as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike.” And that means everybody: fat cat businessmen, pimply schoolboys who want to occupy Central, Filipina maids, Anglican archbishops and Mainland tourists who are pushing, shoving and encouraging their kids to pee in the gutter. If you think that it is asking a lot of your tolerance to view all these sympathetically just think of my own pain as I watch the TV news and see people that I used to work with and know all too well now sitting in the seats of power where I have well founded doubts about their ability to perform capably. These days I feel free to get involved in all sorts of social causes and protests against the government. One of my fellow activists said one day in an off hand way: “of course, all the civil servants are evil and stupid”. No, really they’re not, though I will readily acknowledge that they’ve lost a lot of the dynamism that characterised the glorious days of the 1970s and 80s when we laid the foundations for modern Hong Kong. And I still believe that one can’t tackle failings in civil servants, whether individual or collective, without tackling the system which currently stifles and hampers them. Continue reading Paper Tigress is reprinted

Shannon Young on the radio

shannon-rthkOur author Shannon Young has been interviewed on RTHK Radio 3 twice this month. Click the links below to listen online!

1. Shannon Young is a young American writer currently living in Hong Kong who writes under two names. Her travel memoir about the year she followed a man she met at a fencing club to Hong Kong, only for him to be sent to London a month later, was published by Blacksmith Books in 2014. It’s called Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong. This week on State of the Art, Reenita talks to Shannon about how she juggles writing fiction and non-fiction under two different names.

2. On Morning Brew today, HK-based American writer Shannon Young will talk about her latest book Year of Fire Dragons.

How does a writer working at home resist the lure of the refrigerator and the internet? Listen to find out.

Remembering the mighty Bruce Lee

Remembering Bruce LeeEven four decades after the passing of Asian martial-arts superstar Bruce Lee, his achievements still attract adoration from millions of movie fans. The biggest fan of all may be Jon Benn, who befriended the high-kicking hero while playing “the Big Boss”, a villain in Lee’s acclaimed 1972 movie The Way of the Dragon.

In Remembering Bruce Lee, a tell-tale autobiography, Jon reminisces fondly about his experiences with Lee and a lifetime of other adventures. Read this excerpt from the book.

THE ULTIMATE MARTIAL-ARTS MAESTRO, a blurry-fast, high-kicking guy named Bruce Lee, bashed around an entire roomful of my tough-guy employees. He sent the whole bunch of them spinning and collapsing like bowling pins at a ten-pin world championship.

Then Bruce turned his rapt attention squarely onto me. At that moment, I alone faced the slickest possible human fighting-machine. To make matters even worse, I knew next-to-nothing about how to wage brutal hand-to-hand, foot-to-foot combat like my adversary did with such success.

In that menacing dilemma, almost any other man, being merely flesh and blood like me, might have started to quiver, gone weak at the knees or even lost control of his bladder. Happily, none of those less-than-macho symptoms befell me.

Indeed, I felt surprisingly relaxed – so much that I almost wanted to say, “Hey, Bruce, how about if I smoke another cigar?” And I never did take much of a thrashing either.

Actually, our confrontation, with all of its glares and threats, happened strictly for the sake of the movie cameras that pointed at us. In fact, Bruce and I worked together as members of the same Hong Kong film-cast and soon became firm friends.

I’m Jon ToBruce-Lee-Fists-Pic-cby Benn. Whether or not you recognize my name, a really strong chance exists that you have seen me before. For most of my lifetime, now nearly eight decades, I have worked partly as a businessman and partly as a movie actor, first in North America and then in Asia. Those two professions, although I honestly considered acting to be more of a hobby for most of the time, forged together into a really interesting combination.

Throughout the years, so many fascinating and fun things have happened that I really want to share them with you. This book tells my story.

By no coincidence, I devote this, the first and foremost chapter, to also covering a significant part of Bruce’s story. Forty years have passed since Bruce died, but I still regard him as a precious friend, still remember him clearly almost as if I had spoken to him last week and still respect him for being obviously the very best at what he did and for how greatly that he inspired so much of the world.

Not too long after I first arrived in Hong Kong back in 1971, I met Raymond Chow, the president of Golden Harvest Films, at a cocktail party. He asked me if I would like to appear in a movie with Bruce Lee. Although I did not fully realize it at the time, that question would have a profound impact on the rest of my life.

When I replied “Sure”, Raymond gave me one of his name-cards, and we went from there. Honestly, I had no clue then even about exactly who Bruce Lee was, although he just had completed two blockbuster films, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972). Much of the rest of the world already had noticed the most impressive martial-artist ever to grace the big screens of movie theatres. Yes, I had a lot to learn, and I soon began to realize that Bruce already qualified as a very big star, especially in Asia.

Always, I liked to seek out new experiences. Having never before been in a Hong Kong movie, I badly wanted to join the cast. I thought that it definitely would create great fun for me.

So Raymond and I reached an agreement, and he assigned me to play a villainous Big Boss, the leader of a dangerous mafia in Rome where the entire film, The Way of the Dragon (1972), has its setting and where part of it was shot. I guess that Raymond must have reasoned that I looked somewhat like a ruthless, bad-ass Italian. Maybe my beard gave him that sinister impression.

A film crew already had started to shoot the movie. No problem! Raymond immediately telephoned Bruce, who not only starred in the film, but also directed for the first time, and told him to “get rid” of the guy whom they had hired earlier for the mafia-boss part because he (Raymond) had found a more convincing scoundrel. I did not even do a screen-test. And considering the “mafia” aspect, I decided against asking anyone too many questions about exactly what they meant by “getting rid” of the previous guy. Continue reading Remembering the mighty Bruce Lee

Think of chopsticks as friends

Fred Schneiter moved to Hong Kong in the 1960s and wasted no time in getting to know the food. Here’s a story and a recipe for Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce from his new book, The Taste of Old Hong Kong.

IMG_3516cIf unaccustomed to chopsticks you’ll find the going easier—in initial encounters—simply by maintaining an affirmative attitude. Dismiss any thought that chopsticks are an ancient form of torture, invented to intimidate and frustrate fumbling foreign fingers. The secret is to relax and to keep in mind that Chinese also drop greasy things on the tablecloth and sometimes even on other people . . . and it isn’t a big deal. It happens.

Lunching on Hong Kong’s “Food Street” in Causeway Bay, a Cantonese lady beside me, at our tiny shared table, casually chopsticked a pork chop from her bowl of noodle soup.

Taking a dainty nibble, gravity suddenly prevailed. In an instant the chop plopped into her bowl, launching half her soup directly into my lap. The poor young thing was terribly embarrassed despite my assurance that it was OK. These things happen. Even to Chinese.

Then there was the Hong Kong Broccoli Incident which occurred while hosting a delegation of old friends from China’s Grain Bureau. Midway through the dinner we were served a steamy platter of slender, leafy, oyster-sauced Chinese broccoli. In the polite gesture of giving face to a dinner companion, the delegation leader, a particularly close family friend, was in the process of putting broccoli on my plate when her smile suddenly vanished as the slippery stuff started to slide off her chopsticks. She tried to catch the little varmint but, misjudging the thrust, catapulted the goopy glob straight into my tie. She managed just one or two tentative little embarrassed giggles before she and the entire table doubled over in gleeful guffaws as the gooey vegetable trailed a slow slimy slalom down the entire length of the tie.

Not only did it demonstrate what a fun food broccoli could be, it illustrated the wisdom of the old proverb, “When working together, laugh together.” Had this simply been one of those ubiquitous run-of the-mill Chinese business dinners, rather than a gathering of old friends, it could have proven a disaster.

Slapstick scenarios aside, this is a tasty and easy dish but if someone tries to put some on your plate, watch out. . . .

serves 2 to 4
1 pound Chinese broccoli
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ tablespoon peanut oil
3 tablespoons Chinese oyster sauce
½ teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon peanut oil
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced

Cut off and discard leggy bottom part of broccoli stalks. Remove and discard any tougher large leaves, leaving intact the more tender smaller ones. Peel lower section of stalks below the leaves. Rinse broccoli well under cold running water. Shake off excess water. In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of water to a rolling boil and add the salt and peanut oil. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine oyster sauce, sesame oil, peanut oil and ginger. Stir a few times, cover and bring to a low simmer for 30 seconds and set sauce aside. Add broccoli to the boiling water and when water returns to a boil, cover and cook 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Doneness may be checked by chilling a piece and biting into it. The more fresh and tender the broccoli, the less cooking time is required. Remove broccoli from boiling water while it retains its color and is tender, yet crisp. Drain well for a few minutes in a colander, shaking off and discarding excess liquid. Place broccoli in a large bowl, pour sauce evenly over it and toss gently to mix. Arrange broccoli on serving plate. May be served hot or at room temperature with heated sauce.

Tips—Serving broccoli at room temperature frees you up for  other  last-minute details at the stove. In this case, set the cooked broccoli aside for up to 3 hours and add the sauce hot just before serving. Western broccoli works quite well, but Chinese broccoli is available in Asian markets and is worth seeking out for its distinctive taste and texture.

The Yunnan Cookbook: Dai Grilled Fish with Lemongrass

yunnan-cookbook-dai-grilled-fishDai grilled fish scented with lemongrass and fresh herbs is one of the great fish dishes of China’s Yunnan province, alongside the Bai fish stew made with carp from Dali’s commanding Erhai Lake.

The fish from Yunnan’s majestic lakes are generally highly prized. It is a land-locked province, and so it is unusual to find seafood and salt-water fish, but the small, often bony fish from the river show up in soups, or are coated in cornflour, then lightly fried. This recipe is excerpted from The Yunnan Cookbook by Annabel Jackson and Linda Chia.

Dai Grilled Fish with Lemongrass

This is a favourite, classic dish made by the Dai people of southwest Yunnan, near the border with Laos and Myanmar. Traditionally it is prepared over burning coals, which lends an appealing smoky character to the fish as it browns and turns a little crunchy. It can also be served cold, with chilli chutney and tomato salsa. The fish can also be pan-fried (choose a fish which fits snugly in your pan!), grilled in the oven, or baked in the oven.

1 whole fish, scaled, gutted and cleaned
2 stalks lemongrass, halved lengthwise
For the marinade:
2 spring onions, finely chopped
2 sprigs of garlic chives, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 sprigs of mint
2 sprigs of coriander
2 stalks lemongrass
1 knob ginger, finely chopped
1 tbsp chilli paste
Pinch salt
Salt, to sprinkle

1. Cut the fish in half horizontally to fan it out.
2. Mash together the marinade ingredients (this is traditionally done with bamboo pestle and mortar).
3. Place half in the cavity, and the other half on a plate. Lay the fish on it, cover, and rest in the fridge for 1 hour.
4. Remove fish from the fridge, sprinkle with salt, lay the lemongrass pieces across it, and clamp it with a BBQ grill. Barbecue for about 3 minutes on each side until cooked.

For grilling in the oven:
After an hour in the fridge, place the stuffed fish under the grill and cook on each side for about 4 minutes.

For oven-baking:
Pre-heat the oven to 200°C / 400°F. Drizzle an oven-proof pan with olive oil, and place 3 lemon slices at the bottom, top with lemongrass. Lay the fish on the top of these. Cover the fish with foil or paper. Reduce the oven temperature to 170°C / 340°F and bake for 50 minutes. Serve hot.

For pan-frying:
Coat the fish with a little cornflour and fry in a hot pan for 2 minutes until browned. Reduce the fire and cook for a further 5 minutes. Bring the heat up again, turn the fish, and cook for 1 minute. Reduce the heat and cook for a further 5 minutes. Garnish with sprigs of mint and coriander and serve.

Year of Fire Dragons on Radio 3

Author Shannon Young visited the studios of RTHK Radio 3 to tell Noreen Mir about the making of her latest book, Year of Fire Dragons. Her new memoir is a wide-eyed newcomer’s account of Hong Kong wrapped up in an international long distance love story. Click here to listen online to the 10-minute interview.

When she’s not writing books, Shannon updates a blog called A Kindle in Hong Kong and likes to spy on other people’s books on the train.