Back in 1983, our Chinese doll maker Lee Ming Yang, also known as Michael Lee, then 74 years old and unmarried, would tell us he had children all over the world. A small group of ladies worked with Mr. Lee cutting and sewing the doll clothes, stuffing them with cotton and then painting wide smiles on their faces. Lots of love and care went into hand-crafting those cloth dolls. Every couple of weeks or so, Mr. Lee, looking like a Chinese Santa Claus, would come to our store with a big cloth bag full of his dolls which we named Sampan Sally after a colorful local Hong Kong character and Hang On Hannah who carried an infant son on her back. Thanks to our mail order catalog customers and visitors to our Amazing Grace stores in Hong Kong over the years, Mr. Lee’s ‘children’ travelled widely and put even wider smiles than those painted on his dolls onto the faces of hundreds and thousands of children all over the world. Unlike Santa Claus, Michael Lee does not live on but his dolls certainly do and are now sought after by doll collectors.
Smiles that reach across borders introduce children to different cultures. To expedite the process, many of the dolls in the Amazing Grace airport stores in Hong Kong and Singapore and at our website www.chinesebabydolls.com come with passports tied to their arms, ready to make the journey. Passport dolls usually travel in pairs as sisters or mother and daughter with a smaller, baby doll tied onto the back of the larger doll. They both wear matching satin cheongsams and have pigtails tied with ribbons. The baby dolls may also be purchased separately.
On our buying trips to China, we often encounter American couples who are in the process of completing the adoption of a Chinese child and are in the final stage of arranging a passport for the new member of their family at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou. It is hard to describe the look of delight on their faces as they push their child on a newly-purchased stroller, perhaps for the first time, on the sidewalks in the historic district of Shamien Island near the consulate.
For a look at some of the happiest parents you will ever see, go for breakfast at the White Swan hotel where the joy they experience sharing the table with their new two-year-old is harder to translate than the word for cereal. The connection in this narrative between the baby dolls that are made for us in China and the adopted children we see on our trips is the happiness both can bring. When laughter is the language, it seems, communication is not a problem, or ‘mei yo wen tee’ as it is said in Chinese.
Borders also disappear with national minority dolls from Amazing Grace representing hill tribe cultures living mostly in the mountainous region straddling the Thai, Lao, Chinese and Burmese borders but even from Mongolia as well. Among the better known of these ethnic groups are the Naxi, Lisu, Yao, Miao, Zhuang, Laha and Blang. Dressed in homespun black cotton jackets and trousers or colorful skirts trimmed with embroidery, they wear their wealth in the form of silver necklaces, bangles, beads and other accessories. Their colorful attire and jewelry make them popular photographic subjects in areas frequented by tourists in these countries. In addition to dolls, artists have translated these figures into keychain, backpack and purse dangles made of clay with hand-painted faces and moveable arms, also available at Amazing Grace. As dangles, play and display dolls, all promise to open your child’s eyes to another world.
We bought tickets well in advance, did lots of research and planning and headed for Expo 2010 Shanghai in mid-May prepared for the worst after reading about the long waits to get into the Expo grounds and the three-hour lines under the sun to see the more popular pavilions. Without a magic wand or V.I.P. status, I was left with only the old age card to play. I didn’t realize, however, that I would be in competition with thousands of other senior citizens, many of whom had been given free tickets as China’s gesture of thanks to the city’s residents for putting up with years of inconvenience while the huge infrastructure projects undertaken for the Expo were being constructed. Only later, reading that Shanghai has three million residents 60 or over, 22 percent of its population, did I find out what I had been up against. Most of them seemed to be there the days we visited. Special access lines for the elderly were almost as long as the other lines and when I tried to join a shorter line of people in wheel chairs at the Japan pavilion, I was kicked out because I didn’t have a wheel chair.
The lines were brutal. An American couple I met waiting in one line said they had given up after nearly being crushed to death trying to get into the Saudi Arabian pavilion. Three hours after arriving they still had not managed to get into any pavilion and had arrived at the same strategy as we had — forget about the popular pavilions with long waits like France, Japan, England, Saudi Arabia, etc., go for ‘second tier’ pavilions instead where the lines were less than an hour and just walk the Expo grounds to get an appreciation of the architectural styles. Part of the problem, I learned later from the China Daily newspaper, was caused by Expo staff who could enter the grounds and queue up before ordinary visitors. From other people we met in line, we learned that that it was much less crowded and more comfortable to visit the Expo in the evening after six.
Overall, it was an exhausting experience. The distances are huge, food and drink were often long walks away and finding our way around was sometimes a challenge. The young volunteers in their green and white jackets tried hard to be helpful but were sometimes as clueless as my wife and myself even though we spoke to them in both Chinese and English. We gave up after just one-and-a-half days despite having tickets for three days. But admittedly, this was the first month of the Expo which is scheduled to run until the end of October and since then, I’ve read, the organizers have added thousands of benches and sunshades plus more drink trolleys and buses.
Fortunately, we were allowed to join the senior citizen line at the highy-popular USA Pavilion and enter after a relatively short wait. This was the highlight of our visit. I loved the film presentations — humorous, low key messages about diversity, perseverance, innovation and working together, not bombastic or chauvinistic, striking just the right tone and balance and very well-received judging from the laughter and smiles on the faces of the Chinese people around us, in sum, a great bridge-building effort. I felt so proud to be an American in that setting. Equally impressive were the young American ‘student ambassadors’, university-age Mandarin-speaking volunteers who welcome the visitors, introduce the programs and move them — some 45,000 people a day — through the pavilion with almost machine-like efficiency and amazing fluency in the language. A young blonde speaking perfect, rapid-fire putonghua is something to hear and see.
Although we are frequent visitors to Shanghai, this was our first opportunity to see the impressive redevelopment along the Bund waterfront, completed to coincide with the Expo opening. Later we had dinner with a manufacturer creating a new line for us of panda bears wearing Chinese garments. He and his staff graciously agreed to take us to our favorite Shanghai restaurant, 1221, hard to find but popular with many foreign residents including the diplomatic community, followed by a walking tour of the old French quarter and desert at La Creperie.
Another day was devoted to the Shanghai Museum (where we also had to wait in line) and browsing the shops on Tai Kang Lu to see the latest, innovative garment and craft designs by Shanghai’s enterprising young artists and designers. From a business viewpoint, the most valuable time of our trip was spent with one of our scarf suppliers selecting burnt velvet silk fabrics and matching them with solid color silks that would be sewn on the reverse to create double-sided scarves, one of the most popular lines at our Amazing Grace airport stores in Hong Kong and Singapore. Grace, myself and three shop attendants spent hours pulling down silk rolls from the shelves, an effort rewarded afterwards however when the owner drove us to a small shop where we could buy fresh, steamed buns filled with vegetable. What a treat, for me more delicious than those crepes and a lot less fattening.
“This is not wood; this is art.” So an artisan in Mas, a wood-carving district in Bali, described his carvings on one of our recent buying trips. The distinction is increasingly lost as commercial pressures lead to standardized and speeded-up production and traditional skills are lost as fast-growing economies in Asia attract artisans with better-paying jobs in the cities. The road to the capital Denpasar from the silver jewelry, painting, wood and stone carving villages is jammed every morning with motorcycles carrying young people on one-hour commutes to jobs in the tourist industry, garment factories, retail sector, government, etc. Computer skills pay far more than the ability to see the figure hidden inside a piece of wood. Such is progress.
And still the search continues: for hand-hammered silver elephants and fish in Cambodia; engraved silver pill boxes in Vietnam; lotus leaves and buds shaped from fabric in Thailand; rosewood jewelry boxes in China; hand-painted snuff bottles in Hong Kong; butterfly and bee mobiles from the Philippines; hand-painted blue and white ceramic jars and teapots from wood-burning kilns in Thailand; hand-woven silk in Laos; and hand-embroidered pictures in China.
Searching hard enough, we still find places where the old ways prevail. Leaving behind the noisy cities, we come across village work places on back roads still as monasteries except for a barking dog or radio playing softly in the background, where part of the day is reserved for ‘spiritual time’. In northern Thailand, craftsmen from young to old sitting at wooden tables or cross-legged on rattan mats tap intricate designs into ritual silver bowls, their hammers competing with the rhythmic chatter of insects in neighboring fields. Perhaps a machine could stamp out a similar bowl in a fraction of the time, perhaps not.
Here’s one hopeful note that will keep wood carvers across Asia in business for years to come, the huge, continuing popularity of hand-crafted laughing Buddhas. The laughing Buddha is considered by many to be symbolic of wealth, happiness, good luck and safe travel and is believed to bring joy, serenity, and contentment into the home. Buddha’s presence enlightens and enhances self-awareness, it is said, and rubbing the big belly of laughing Buddha, symbolizing abundance and mirth, is thought to bring good luck.
The reclining laughing Buddha carved from light-colored, richly-grained wood is among the best-selling designs in our airport stores in Hong Kong and Singapore. Standing and seated laughing Buddhas designed as incense burners are also popular and collectors, in particular, will appreciate the selection of laughing Buddha netsukes or miniature Buddhas. Seated Buddhas made from a composite of acrylic and resin were first discovered by Amazing Grace in Cambodia years ago. In jade, amethyst, amber and azure colors, they radiate a beautiful warm glow when showcased with a spotlight.
Chinese dragons have a way of ending up in the most surprising places — fountain pens, neck ties, watches, hat and caps, scarves and even hair sticks. Panda bears and elephants have their own fans as well, of course, and Amazing Grace tries to keep everybody happy. But in the race to accessorize, dragons earn the most mileage points.
As we all know, dragons conquer time and space with amazing ease but unlike most other celebrity creatures, lend their image without requiring product endorsement fees thereby helping keep Amazing Grace dragon watches, for example, as reasonable as they are. Telling time by dragon hours is a great educational opportunity as well since the hours are marked in Chinese characters. What a wonderful gift for a kid studying the language. Chinese character panda watches and watches with mother of pearl faces are equally popular presents in our airport stores in Hong Kong and Singapore .
Dragons also lend their fabulous lines to ball point and fountain pens. Though not well known for penmanship, dragons’ graceful contours draw the envy of calligraphers. Not surprising then to find them on Amazing Grace pens, lending a bit of grandeur to your signature. My choice for an executive gift is a dragon pen in brushed gold or silver with red garnet gemstone eyes.
Amazing Grace equal opportunity Chinese silk neck ties make space for elephants and panda bears but dragons are the most popular choice for power ties, a natural pick for fire-breathing friends or someone born in the year of the dragon. More than just novelty ties, dragon ties help celebrate almost any occasion including green dragon ties for St. Patrick’s Day. Silk ties with Chinese poetry written in calligraphy may require a translator but even without, impress with their elegance.
For supporters of teams with names like Dragons or Tigers, Amazing Grace comes to bat. Mad hatters will be pleased with Chinese calligraphy caps that translate as Dragon or Tiger, caps embroidered with dragon images and calligraphy caps written with Chinese poetry. Soft, cotton knit pullover caps in pastels are themed with the Chinese character for ‘good luck’, choose your colors.
After nearly 40 years sourcing silver, crystal, jade and other gemstone jewelry in China, Thailand, India and Indonesia, I believe there are motherboards in my brain wired with silver that pick up signals from jewelry display shelves informing me that there’s stuff I need to look at. The product seems to find us. True, my fellow-buyer Cindy Chau and I go at it with the passion of prospectors looking for mother lodes and are thrilled with our discoveries. But with such an overwhelming variety and quantity to choose from for our Amazing Grace airport stores in Hong Kong International Airport, Singapore’s Changi Airport and our website, we need all the help we can get. So I guess what I’m saying is that in addition to experience, knowledge of our customer, and the endurance needed to visit factories and schlep up and down the aisles at jewelry trade shows and markets, instinct aided by some paranormal talents play a big part as well.
I liked silver from the days the silver commodity contracts I owned in the early ‘70’s were going up-limit every day. That’s when the Hunt Brothers in Texas were trying to corner the market. Unfortunately, the firm selling the contracts was running a scam and just booking my orders instead of placing them so I was never able to fully cash in except for some early takings. But my heart’s still in it. Silver was $6.00 an ounce then, now its around $19.00. What will your purchase of Amazing Grace sterling silver bangles, bracelets, earrings and pendants be worth a few years from now? Most likely a lot more than you paid for them since silver follows closely behind gold. Maybe that’s why the hill tribe ethnic minorities in Thailand and China are ahead of us in their thinking. They load up with silver jewelry they make themselves and wear their wealth on their arms and around their necks.
Some things just seem to lend themselves to silver. Dragons look great as pendants and bangles, elephants do well as bracelets just like they do at a circus in a daisy chain, and Chinese characters look like they were meant to hang from earrings and around the neck to denote your birth month sign according to the Chinese horoscope calendar. That means you could be a dragon, tiger, rabbit, perhaps a snake or rat or one of seven other animals, flashing your identity by catching a few rays of light. What a great way to start conversations.
The first thing I learned in business was to eliminate the middle man whenever possible. The key is sourcing and is the reason our jade jewelry is so affordable, from one-of-a-kind designer necklaces to the green jade and white jade bracelets and pendants that sell so well in the Amazing Grace airport stores. That doesn’t mean we mine the jade ourselves or even buy the un-cut stones at auction. But sourcing components from a variety of suppliers, often from different countries, making unlikely combinations and working with designers and top craftspeople have consistently enabled Amazing Grace to develop original yet inexpensive jade and gemstone jewelry lines. To fully appreciate the selection, we hope you will visit our airport stores.
Its Sunday morning at Villa Vista on Victoria Peak in Hong Kong where I have lived for nearly 40 years. After several days of downpours to drizzles, the rains have briefly paused. With a sweeping gesture from Beijing to Bali including India, the TV weather lady turns the magical map behind her into swirls depicting Asian monsoon rains drenching the region and I realize that this is my territory as well except that instead of water, the skies are raining silk dragon robes from Saigon, hand-painted muumuu’s from Hangzhou, cheongsams and qipao’s from Guangzhou, Asian-themed jersey tops and tee shirts from Bangkok, silk sarongs from Bali, hand-beaded garments from Delhi, etc.
The rain never stops. It seems that even before our previous orders have dropped from the skies, my colleague Cindy Chau and I are on the road again placing new orders for the Amazing Grace stores at Hong Kong International Airport, Changi Airport in Singapore and our website. With nearly 35 million airport arrivals a year in Hong Kong alone, the continuous demand for new styles and product never ceases to amaze us. Our challenge lies in combining the best craftsmanship and traditional skills in stitching and embroidery with Asian ethnic motifs. By drawing on talents of top designers throughout the region, we try to create an Amazing Grace collection that is constantly original and changing at the same time, enhancing centuries-old Asian legacies with new colors, ideas, and directions.
[/caption]Its no surprise that a good part of our online business comes from customers who have passed through our airport stores and were impressed with what they saw. Silk is a favorite purchase and no wonder. Since the discovery of silk-making in China thousands of years ago, it has been regarded as the fabric of elegance and luxury. Lightest of all natural fibers, silk is a natural insulator that breathes well, keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter. Lustrous, smooth, supple, lightweight, elastic, and strong, silk fiber is so resilient that it will stretch by up to 20% without damage. Silk also resists mildews, molds, and rots that attack other fibers and is hypo-allergenic.
In ancient China, this luxury fabric was kept for the exclusive use of the emperor and nobility. It was considered so precious that information about the manufacturing process was regarded as a state secret punishable by death for those who revealed it. Over time silk became a measure of value for paying tax and civil servants and as a currency for trading with foreign countries. The Romans became so fond of silk that commerce during the Tang Dynasty (618 -917 A.D.) on the great East-West trade route, the Silk Road, was dominated by the silk trade. The Silk Road now reaches Amazing Grace from the Asian skies, an almost continuous downpour of silk pocket scarves, silk sleep wear, silk kimonos, silk jackets, silk wraparounds, etc. Bring your raincoat and umbrella.
Of the millions yearly who visit Hong Kong’s most popular attraction, Victoria Peak, only a small fraction take the hour or so to experience one of the City’s least expensive (meaning free) and biggest delights, the walk that circles the Peak. As a resident on that road for nearly 40 years, allow me, if you will, to accompany you and make a few observations along the way.
Walking, jogging, bicycling and driving it for all those years, I’ve developed a real affection for what residents in the few homes and apartment buildings along the way simply call ‘the road’. Actually its two — Lugard Road and Harlech Road, one named for the 14th governor of the then British colony, Sir Frederick Lugard, and the other, although the historical record is scarce, possibly for Lord Harlech, Right Hon. W. G. A. Ormsby-Gore, M.P., Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. They are a patchwork of surfaces, paved and repaved many times since they were built in the very early 1900’s and barely wide enough in most places for a single car. They begin from the Peak Tower in opposite directions, meet roughly half-way around at a junction with Hatton Road, and are part of what is called the ‘Morning Trail’.
We start at the Peak Tower, upper terminus for the iconic Peak Tram cable car, said to be the steepest in the world when it began operations over 120 years ago. The Lookout restaurant across the street, a charming stone cottage with red-tiled roof that could pass for a gingerbread house with braids of tiny white lights streaming from the roof, windows, eaves and trees, sends Take Five riffs and compelling, near-tangible notes of ribeye steaks from the open kitchen grill into the evening air. a devastating. Proustian experience. Built in 1901 as a shelter for sedan chairs and their bearers and used during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in World War II as a guard house, the one-story structure is a favorite backdrop for picture-takers. You could do the road in its early days by rickshaw for around 60 cents. Now, unless you’re a resident with a special permit for your car, going by foot is the only option.
A trickle of walkers begins every morning before dawn from the lower slopes and eventually grows into a steady stream. To me, the road is the world’s greatest track. It offers no miraculous cure but judging from the number of elderly and ailing who never miss a morning, the walk or jog apparently effects restorative powers to the body if not the soul as well. Considering that life expectancy rates in Hong Kong are among the highest in the world, there may be something to this.
In a City’s where most people and their pets live in close confines, the road is a favorite destination for not only walkers and dog-walkers but even one resident who regularly takes a pair of birds for a run by jogging the 1.25 mile road with a bird cage in each hand. The mix includes parents pushing prams, tai chi practitioners harmonizing body, bone and soul through measured steps and motions, smartly-dressed joggers oblivious to almost everything except their cell phones, and long-legged models I’d move the mountain for. Among the regulars are those who walk backwards (for whatever reason), ‘the skeleton’ as I have named him, the shouters who believe their loud, prolonged yells are somehow good for their health, and ‘the crow’ who caws like a crow in greeting his friends and looks like one as well. From the pocket radios of a generation predating iPods you may hear the clash of gongs and cymbals while the spectacle of Chinese opera emerges, if only in your mind, as maiden and warrior, fan and sword in hand, stride forth from the shade to play their parts in this mountain setting.
Two words, ‘Joe San’ in Chinese and ‘Good Morning’ unite this multinational sub-culture of Chinese and expatriates not otherwise given to greeting strangers on the street. I’ve come to wonder what brew this spirit of bonhomie arises from if not one of kinship inspired by the mountain air and morning skies. Joe San and Good Morning, absent of artifice, are shared with a smile or nod of those who know a secret. Class and kind dissolve, if only for this brief period in the morning.
Following Harlech, just past The Lookout with sweeping views of western Hong Kong and the outlying islands on the left, kermit green mosses carpeting the shady steep slopes on the right invite you, in respect to their ancient lineage, to examine them closely, perhaps to pass your fingers over their nubby, pug puppy, short furry surface.
Coming round the third bend on an evening in early spring, just past a fig tree on your left, you may hear the mating call of a bullfrog or two at the nearby waterfall, croaks from rocky recesses that would credit the acoustics of a concert hall. The much-admired waterfall strung and garlanded with greenery and flowers is merely a trickle most of the year. But swollen by monsoon and typhoon rains, it gains enormous voice and comes crashing over the 50-foot high lip with such ferocity that it nearly splashes onto the road itself. Engulfed in its violent breath of wind and spray, you may be inclined to quicken your step and leave this mild adventure behind before imagination takes hold and has you swept into the torrent as it rages through the rocky gorge below.
A few years ago City authorities decided to dress up the road in Victorian style considering its importance as a tourist attraction and Hong Kong’s heritage as a British colony. Decorative, knobbed, wrought iron fencing now stretch for most of the length and slender steel lamp posts embellished with fleur de lis motifs taper into gracefully arced arms posed like cobras and fitted with hooded, sodium vapor lamps. They cast such an eeirie, amber glow on foggy, misty nights, of which there are many, that you may imagine a descendant of Jack the Ripper lurking nearby. Hong Kong, however, is one of the safest cities in the world and there is absolutely no reason to worry no matter were you walk.
On rainy evenings its wise to tread carefully to avoid squishing a frog or toad, nearly invisible against the road surface and yet as much a part of the road culture and ecology as the bulky, blue-suited street sweepers in florescent green vests, butterflies, dragonflies, occasional civet, porcupine and squirrel, and the surprising variety of birds. With its scarce land and dense population, Hong Kong may seem an unlikely place for bird-watching. Yet I’ve counted at least a dozen different bird calls when the chorus begins around six or six-thirty in the morning. In fact, Hong Kong has around 450 bird species in all counting residents, migrants and vagrants, an astonishing number considering that it is around one-third of the total species found in China.
Hong Kong is on one of the main bird migration routes in Asia and offers widely differing habitats — wetlands and valleys, forests, and mountain slopes for the shrub and grassland birds. Spring and autumn are best for bird-watching when passage migrants visit Hong Kong on their way to breeding grounds elsewhere. Others come to spend the winter months in what to them is a warmer climate or better feeding ground. With binoculars and some time to spare, you will find the Peak a good place to see warblers, flycatchers, flowerpeckers, bulbuls, thrushes, pipits, spotted doves, Chinese blue magpies, the hwamei, Indian cuckoo, and my favorite, the magnificent, broad-winged black-earred kites that circle the Peak and harbour, hovering in the wind with almost effortless motion before swooping down on their prey. Some would have this raptor named the official bird of Hong Kong given its length of residence, high visibility, and shared characteristics with some of Hong Kong’s other inhabitants.
Skirting the stretch of road ahead for around 150 meters on a parallel but winding path is a yellow brick road with benches, outdoor exercise equipment and a string of graceful acacia trees that flower in late spring, filling the air with a sweet lemony scent and then, a few weeks later, leaving a soft yellow carpet along the road. Lie down on the sit-up board found under one of the trees and as the sunlight streams down you will see the clusters of the tiny yellow, spiky, spherical balls even with your eyes closed.
The picnic area with gazebo not far ahead where Lugard and Harlech connect is a favorite gathering place for the morning regulars and, on one night of the year, for families and young couples who come to the Peak with candle-lit lanterns to celebrate the Moon Festival, staying late into the night, the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, usually around October, when the moon is supposedly at its maximum brightness for the entire year. Think back 3000 years when people came to worship the moon and later, farmers to celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season. When you pass by, imagine the clusters of families spread out over the grounds, burning incense and candles and eating moon cakes, lanterns hanging from the trees, the impossibly bright moon, and the quiet beauty of it all. Enjoy also the grove of pines standing at this intersection that seem to create their own climate, dripping water from pine needles long after the rain has stopped while playing a deceptive game that causes you to look for an approaching car as gusts of wind sweeping upwards from Victoria Gap whoosh through their branches.
For an educational experience more pleasant than sitting in a classroom, check out the illustrated, descriptive signboards along the way. ‘Classes’ include infomation on various plants and trees, birds, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, land forms and geology, tea leaves, rain and mist, ferns, history of the road and nearby places, etc. And what a remarkable show: Sweet Vibirnum with rose red fruit resembling strings of coral beads; Ethretia with its spectacular spring show of acid pink and pure white flowers; the pale yellow flowers of the Pond Spice, a favorite with insects and bees; the remarkable Hong Kong Pavetta with its many medicinal benefits; and the Mountain Tallow, Chinese Red Pine, Hong Kong Camellia, and the Persimmon-Leaved Litsea with fragrant, pale yellow blossoms hanging from the banches like tiny pom-poms. The star attraction is Ficus Elastica or the India Rubber Tree, sometimes miskaken as a Chinese banyan tree, just past 28 Lugard Road, with hundreds of long hanging aerial roots that Tarzan would love and a sign posted on the trunk reading simply ‘old and valuable tree’. A few steps further is one of the few camphor trees to be seen on the Peak, known for its wood for making furniture and chests and the oil from its bark, roots, wood and leaves for its medicinal value.
The winding, upward forested stretch ahead soon opens to reveal a panorama of the city and harbor with morning skies structured in stainless steel that bridge the mountain tops and the sun leaning in from the South China Sea to paint the water in shining silver. The throbbing hum of commerce driving the city below is almost palpable, a constant low-pitched vibrato from the collected voices of transport on land, sea and sky and the relentless pulse of machinery creating wealth measured by the square foot. To best appreciate the road for its isolation and this particular moment, choose a morning or evening that is not a Sunday or holiday. The imagination is strained to believe, in this tranquil setting, that a city of seven million lies just 1300 feet below, only minutes away. Its easy to understand why the name of this mountain in Chinese is Tai Ping Shan meaning Peaceful Mountain.
Near the crest you may notice a concrete bench facing the harbour, cracked, chipped and stained with liverwort that has withstood every typhoon and never missed a moon festival since the road was built. Sit for a moment and you will see a century in which skyscrapers swallowed up graceful old colonial buildings and the sun rose every day on new construction of high rise apartments that raised the ratio of people to land and the value thereof to the highest in the world, competition for space no less than in the dense sub-tropical growth on the slopes below. Its hard to believe that Hong Kong was “barren” with hardly a tree left standing following the Japanese occupation from 1941 to1945 when people cut them down for fuel in order to survive, or when Hong Kong was a ‘wilderness of rock faces, boulders on grassy expanses and scree slopes’. Long gone are the oak and laurel families of primeval forest that once covered the land but thanks to a government reforestation program of recent years and natural growth, tree lovers can still find much to admire.
Take a minute to admire the ‘bridge’ we’re standing on, acclaimed as an engineering triumph when it was completed almost 100 years ago for the innovative use of concrete pillars planted in the slopes below to support the road as it snakes along the side of the steep, rocky cliffs giving it the appearance of a bridge. The illusion of this stretch appearing and then disappearing as mists sweep past gave rise to the name ‘fairy bridge locked by fog’.
Continue now as the road slopes downward, past a couple of mansions and some ferociously barking dogs, safely locked behind the gates. From here its just a few minutes to where we began, time perhaps for a bite at the gingerbread house on Tai Ping Shan.
Most people I know would find it hard to say something exciting, even interesting about chopsticks. They might think that chopsticks would easily lose out in a beauty contest with curvy, well-wrought spoons or forks. Yet in the international rankings of eating utensils held annually at American Fork City, Utah, chopsticks always seem to come out near the top, way ahead of eating with hands, for example, as is the practice in some south Asian, Islamic and African countries, not to say that I have anything against fingers as long as you wash them first. And after living all these years in Hong Kong, I have come to regard chopsticks with great respect for the superior dexterity, flexibiiity and liveliness they bring to the table compared with rigid, cold steel, judge-serious cutlery. Spoons get credit, of course, for eating soup, cereal, ice cream and yoghurt. But I’ll take chopsticks any day for the precise way they attack a fresh green salad and manipulate those messy lettuce leaves dripping with salad dressing. Furthermore, living in that part of the world where age still counts and being kind of old myself, I’ll go with chopsticks. Where were spoons and forks 3500 years ago?
Over those many years, chopsticks became more than just eating utensils but, as we continue to discover in our buying trips to almost every country in Asia where they are made, a minor art form in some cases and even collector items. Amazing Grace sells thousands of pairs each month through our website and stores in Hong Kong International Airport — from engraved silver dragon chopsticks made in Vietnam, Chinese jade chopsticks that some people put in their hair, and blue and white porcelain chopsticks with bamboo designs — to chopsticks inscribed with classic Chinese poetry, bamboo chopsticks adorned with Thai hilltribe dolls, and rosewood chopsticks inlaid with mother of pearl — chopsticks that speak for themselves in the languages of the countries they were made. Not the kind of chopsticks you will find in restaurants, but chopsticks you would like to put on your table when guests are coming. In the 40 years we’ve been in business, I guess that adds up to a lot of tables and tons of food. The website www.chinesechopsticks.com is the entry point from which the entire range of Amazing Grace chopsticks can be accessed.
An internet search will bring no shortage of information about the etymology, history, use, types and styles of chopsticks, the etiquette of using them in different cultures and how to play chopsticks on the piano, none of which I will bore you with here. Astronaut Donald Pettit can give instructions on eating tea in microgravity with chopsticks (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7obLT4s2-HA) as he did in 2003 on the International Space Station, perhaps the first time chopsticks went into space. But it makes you wonder if one of those Chinese dragons making the celestial circuit for many centuries now didn’t have at least a pair or two tucked into his or her scales.
Although I have never sailed on an ocean liner, I figure I’ve made the equivalent of several trans-Pacific voyages in the 40 years I’ve lived here just crossing Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry’s main route connecting Hong Kong’s central business district with Kowloon. When I’m not off on trips around China and southeast Asia buying handicrafts for our Amazing Grace airport stores here and in Singapore, the Star Ferry is how I get to and from work every day. I could be one of the ferry company’s best ever customers except for the fact that for the last seven years I haven’t paid a penny for my passage. More about that later.
The harbor is Hong Kong’s lifeblood. Until the opening of the first harbor tunnel in 1972 and later a subway and two more tunnels, the ferry service that started in 1880 and became the Star Ferry Company in 1898 was the most important link connecting Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula. Now 12 double-deck green and white ‘Star’ ferries — Evening Star, Morning Star, Night Star, Solar Star, Meridian Star, Silver Star, Shining Star, etc. — carry over 70,000 passengers a day on four cross-harbor routes — and what a pleasant alternative they are to the busy tunnel traffic and crowded subway trains.
For me and many others, that short journey of seven or eight minutes is more than just a boat ride — its an absolute delight. Leaving every six to twelve minutes depending on the time of day from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., there’s hardly any waiting time before boarding. A seat on the starboard (right) side from Hong Kong to Kowloon and port (left) side from Kowloon to Hong Kong usually offers a refreshing east to northeasterly breeze blowing across from the South China Sea. On most of the warmer days there’s the option of sitting in the air-conditioned section on the upper deck. When thick morning fog blankets the harbor, I am treated to a symphony of horns played by the ferry pilot and and those on nearby vessels. Before typhoons come too close and shut down service, their approach makes for choppy seas and turns going to work into a mild adventure. I confess to a schoolboy’s delight in seeing the few passengers not prescient in their choice of seats get soaked when the occasional wave comes crashing over the lower deck.
Those few minutes are just enough time to read The Standard, a free tabloid handed out in the morning near the ferry piers, and enjoy a cup of coffee that I take on board from Starbucks located near the upper deck turnstiles on the Hong Kong side. Coming from Kowloon there’s Uncle Ross Coffee tucked in next to the upper deck entrance. These daily sea voyages are truly the most relaxing times of my day, the best therapy in town as one writer has put it. This small measure of tranquility requires a little distance however from anyone in a suit with a cellphone, caffeinated traders exchanging notes, and exuberance of any kind whoever the perpetrators. Caution: choose your seat carefully.
On the evenings I work late, a seat on the 8 p.m. Star Ferry leaving Kowloon terminal guarantees one of the best views of the ‘World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show’, as described by Guiness World Records. This multimedia display of colored lights, laser beams and searchlights by over 40 buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor, known as ‘The Symphony of Lights’, creates what the Hong Kong Tourist Association calls a ‘stunning, unforgettable spectacle . . . a must-see event on any visit to Hong Kong’. Allowing for a little exaggeration by the HKTA, I’d still say its a pretty impressive show produced by one of the most stunning skylines in the world. I particularly like the way the white linear lights streak up and down the triangular sections of the Bank of China building in such unpredictable ways.
I guess what I like best about the Star Ferry fleet is the familiarity these ladies afford. Although a little grumpy at times, not surprising considering some are into their 50’s, I feel comfortable in their humble presence — unchallenged may be the better word. Change never threatens, there are seldom surprises. The buzzer sounds, you alight; the whistle blows, the ferry chugs forward; the bell rings, you disembark. Archimedes would be proud of the jury-rigged rope and pulley apparatus used to lower and raise the gangplank. The ritual of casting and catching the ropes remains the same. I feel in my bones the creaks and cracks of those thick hemp ropes as they’re wound around the mooring bitts. A new rope is a rare sight; watching a crew member sprawled on the deck with a hammer and cutter re-braiding broken strands of a rope that snapped is all at once a privileged look at an ancient craft and a lesson in economy.
A trip on the Star Ferry is not something you should take just because its cheap and yet it is, unbelievably so. Only U.S. 30 cents for adults, 18 cents for children on the upper deck (‘first class’ we call it) and 23 cents for adults and 17 cents for children on the lower deck if you don’t mind the press of humanity. Prices are slightly higher on weekends and public holidays and will go up another three to ten cents across the board January 1, 2010. Just imagine: a proposed increase of around two cents in 1966 triggered what are still known as the ‘Star Ferry Riots’ in which one person was killed and dozens injured although, in fact, there were deeper underlying causes for the disturbances. Citizens over 65 with a Hong Kong identification card or senior citizen card go free which is why I have paid nothing these last few years.
The National Geographic Traveler magazine listed the Star Ferry as one of the ‘Must-Do’s’ in its ‘Places of a Lifetime’ series featuring 50 cities. It was also number one in a poll conducted by The Society of American Travel Writers to determine the ‘Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides in the World’. It has been described as ‘the cheapest, multi-cultural multi-sensory cruise experience in the world’, ‘an icon of Hong Kong’s heritage’, ‘a piece of the fabric of Hong Kong life’ and ‘one of Hong Kong’s best-loved institutions’. William Holden playing the role of an aspiring artist in the 1960 film ‘The World of Suzie Wong’ met Suzie played by Nancy Kwan while crossing on the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong, a scene that lasts the time it takes to cover the distance. Surprisingly, the Kowloon terminal and pier area don’t look much different now than they did in the film nearly 50 years ago except for the Ocean Terminal, a stone’s throw away, where huge cruise liners and the occasional warship moor.
The harbor never sleeps, they say, and over the years I have photographed a wide variety of cruise liners, pleasure launches, barges, tugs, junks, freighters, etc. from the decks of the Star Ferry and my 14th floor office in Star House (appropriately named) overlooking the harbor. Someday I may hook up a web cam trained on the harbor so that everyone with a computer can tune in 7/24 to the panoramic view and endless variety of ships passing by. Its a lot cheaper than getting on an airplane to come here but then you’d miss the chance to shop at our stores.