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.
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.