Over the New Year period, my wife and I spent five days in Hong Kong and Macau. This was our fourth trip to Hong Kong in the last three years but the first time we'd visited Macau.
Macau is described in guide-books as "a Portuguese colony famous for its casinos" and frankly, if you're not into gambling, 24 hours is more than enough to take in all that Macau has to offer. Once you've ambled around the main square and the ruins of St Pauls, you're left wondering whether 2.30 in the afternoon is too early to start drinking.
We felt duty bound to take a peek inside at least one casino so we settled for the lavish and glittery Lisboa Grande. After going through the security check, you're hurled into a smoke-filled world of card tables, slot machines and roulette wheels - all competing to part tourists and locals with their hard-earned cash.
I like an occasional bet, but up to now it's been nothing more than ‘a few quid' on the horses. This was taking things to a whole new level. I was immediately struck by how informal it all was.
My perception of casinos has been formed largely from James Bond movies, but in the Lisboa Grande there were no dinner jackets, dry Martinis, or sultry maidens in low-cut dresses winking at you from opposite ends of the roulette table and offering suggestions on how to best to spend your winnings. The gaming crowd was a strange mix of curious tourists and Chinese housewives taking a break from the afternoon shopping.
After thirty minutes spent trying to work out all the features on the slot machines (why do those things have to be so damn complicated?) I settled for a seat at a dice table. I think the game is called ‘Tic-Bo' but basically you bet on the outcome of three dice. I have quite a knack for this - or so it would seem - and a very pleasurable couple of hours passed with me taking the casino for about a thousand HK dollars. OK, it's not an obscene amount of money and it certainly didn't arouse suspicions from the casino ‘heavies' but it was a lovely feeling to come out on top.
Macau is just a one-hour ferry ride from the Hong Kong mainland, with little to do en route except recline your seat, enjoy the gentle swell of the ocean and doze off.
I'd read some time ago in a Lonely Planet article that the Chinese are particularly susceptible to travel sickness. This became startlingly apparent on the return leg. Opting to catch the very last ferry of the day, which left Macau at 10.30pm, the Chinese day-trippers had had all day to gorge themselves silly on free snacks.
Two of Macau's specialties are grilled flat pork and a kind of peanut candy. Such is the competition among the food-shops in the St Paul's area that each of them employs a salesperson whose job it is to stand on the footpath and hand out free samples to hungry passers-by. It's possible to walk the few hundred yards from the main square to St Paul's ruins and indulge in serious quantities of pork and candy - never a good combination at the best of times.
And indulge is what far too many had done. After ten minutes on the ocean, the chatter and laughter turned to tears. Every time I looked at the passengers around me, another one turned white and made a grab for the sick bag. The crossing became a 75-minute "barf-fest" as all I could do was sit back and listen to a chorus of retching. It wasn't the most pleasurable journey it must be said.
When I'm in Hong Kong, I always have to visit a fortune teller. I'm not sure whether I believe in it but I'm a sucker for all that tarot and palm-reading stuff. The area around Temple Street Market is heaving with Chinese fortune tellers, all promising to give you the most accurate reading for the year ahead.
Most of them conduct business in Chinese but a small selection display a sign that simply says ‘English spoken' so you hover around outside their tent and go for the one with the friendliest smile and the most enthusiastic welcome. I opted for a snazzy looking lady in her mid-40s. Not quite the classic witch, but she had the glittery dress and the long flowing hair and she'd probably messed about with the odd live toad in her time.
For 160 HK$ I was given a tarot reading for health, wealth and career. Thankfully I wouldn't experience any major problems in 2009 although she did point out there was some risk of a car accident between February and April - time to get back on the Bangkok buses perhaps.
Not wishing to be left out, my wife settled for a Chinese gentleman in the next street, who according to his colorful signage was the self-proclaimed "Fortune Teller to the stars" Alas, not one of the foreign ‘stars' did I recognize apart from a relatively unknown travel presenter from England's Channel Four.
For a pricey 180 HK$, he offered a ten-minute palm reading and told my wife that this year she would experience considerable stress and pressure from her job. That sounded quite plausible. She would also go on to have two children at some stage in her life. Now he was just talking bollocks.
Temple Street Market is also known as ‘Men's Street' because many of the market stalls specialize in items for the more discerning gentleman. One moment you're browsing Mao Tse Tung paraphernalia and the next you're confronted by more sex toys than you'd get in a Dutch mail order catalogue, and there's this wizened old Chinese grandmother type sat behind lotions of all scents and flavors and dildos of all thicknesses and dare I say purposes.
Occasionally one of her regular customers will stop by for a chat. The conversation is all in Chinese of course, but it sounds suspiciously like "tomorrow is my girlfriend's birthday and by God, she's going to get it. Do you have anything that's guaranteed to inflict pain?" To which the old woman replies "stop messing about - how much pain exactly?"
While all this was going on, I was peering over the customer's shoulder deciding whether to go for the three-speed ‘Exocet' or the sleeker-looking ‘Emporer of Pleasure' and how I was going to possibly explain them to a customs officer. But I'll save that story for another time.
If you've seen the latest Woody Allen movie ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona', you'll be familiar with the part where Penelope Cruz asks Scarlett Johansen what's she's studying at university. When Scarlett responds with "oh the Chinese language" Penelope sneers and says "why on earth would anyone want to study that? Have you ever heard two Chinese cooks arguing in a kitchen? It sounds just horrible"
I must confess that I'm on Penelope's side here. It's probably not my place to criticize the world's most widely-spoken language but I'm going to do it anyway. Eavesdrop on two fresh-faced college students on the Hong Kong subway, possibly talking about homework or which teacher they fancy, and spoken Chinese is still an assault on the ears. Is there a language that sounds more aggressive or more chaotic?
When two Chinese gentleman start a conversation near you, you instinctively look skywards to see if you're about to be crushed under something heavy. Spoken Chinese always gives one a sense of impending danger. I wonder if there's a sentence in Chinese fiction that begins with "The man from Beijing leaned forward and whispered" I somehow doubt it.
To kill some time on the fourth day, and to prove that we had other interests apart from shopping and eating, the wife and I ambled around the Hong Kong Natural History Museum. The museum had put together an exhibition on The French Revolution, and while it was very well done, I found it difficult to summon up any enthusiasm for portraits of Parisian philosophers wearing the most ridiculous outfits.
Come to think of it even the prehistoric section failed to keep me entertained. After ten minutes, I'd had enough of glass cases full of stone-age arrow-heads and fossils from the Aegeon period. All I wanted to do was get back into the discount clothes shops. Does that necessarily make me a bad person?
Anyway, during the brief period spent at The French Revolution exhibits, there was a large group of about 40 Chinese tourists, all being escorted by a Chinese-speaking guide. I sat down for a moment and enjoyed the sheer occasion of being in the company of the world's loudest man. I have no idea whether he was prattling on about King Louis' childhood diseases or the terror of being locked in the Bastille, but this guy was so loud it almost made your ears bleed. I wanted to go up to him, lift up his jacket to find the volume control and then slap his head a couple of times for good measure. I would have thought if there was just one place I could escape from a decibel-packed spoken Chinese onslaught, it would be a museum. Well, apparently not.
The only thing worse than listening to two Chinese people engaged in heated conversation, is watching certain Chinese people eat. I suggest you avoid it entirely if your stomach is of a more delicate nature.
The most popular breakfast dish in Hong Kong is congee - a sort of rice porridge with bits of meat and vegetable floating on top. In a café near our hotel, I did the very British thing of ordering a plate of ham and eggs but unfortunately got seated opposite an old fellah enjoying his morning congee. I'm not sure how they do it but the knack of eating this watery rice dish seems to involve burying your head in the bowl and sucking the contents up with both nostrils. I warn you now - it isn't pretty. I just looked on as what little appetite I had rapidly disappeared.
Being in Hong Kong on New Year's Eve meant we had the task of finding a suitable place to view the midnight fireworks and although over 200,000 people were expected to flock to the Kowloon harbor area, we decided this place would be as good as any.
The HK police had sealed off the main Nathan Road, one of the city's main thoroughfares, and all roads led to the harbor for hopefully an unforgettable firework display. Our trip to Hong Kong was not without its letdowns - and Hong Kong's midnight pyrotechnics was certainly one of them. It's not that the spectacle was mediocre in any sense, it's just that I expected better from the nation that gave the world gunpowder.
I think anyone who witnessed the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics would have gone with high expectations. That afternoon, back in the hotel, we'd already seen glimpses of news bulletins showing the celebrations in Auckland and Sydney - Australia and New Zealand being among the first countries to see in the New Year - but Hong Kong disappointingly came nowhere near to putting on a show of such magnitude.
Most of the 200,000 crowd seemed happy with what they got though, and a huge throng of people shuffled its way back up Nathan Road in commendable high spirits.
We'd stood at the side of Kowloon Harbor for over two hours to get a good vantage point and one thing struck me as I indulged in my favorite pastime, people-watching - not a single Chinese person was drinking alcohol. Had that been 11pm on New Year's Eve anywhere in Europe, you'd have had the majority of revelers lying spark out on the nearest patch of grass or throwing up behind a bush. The rest would be walking around clutching a beer can and looking for a fight. I admired the Chinese for that because despite the absence of alcohol, they still looked as though they were having a great time. The only time you saw a can of Heineken, there was always a Westerner hanging off it.
Let's go back to the 200,000 people slowly making their way home up Nathan Road in a sensible and orderly fashion. Suddenly the happiness of the occasion was rudely interrupted by two Australian girls, who had obviously had too many sniffs of the barmaid's apron and thought "I know, let's make complete arseholes of ourselves"
They decided the best way to do this was to start pushing and shoving people out of the way while simultaneously trying to wish everyone a Happy New Year and plant a kiss on the world's cheeks. When the Chinese started to look the other way - out of bewilderment and sheer embarrassment - the girls launched a tirade of verbal abuse calling everyone around them "miserable bastards"
I've never hit a woman but I would have made an exception for those two morons. The question is really this - why is it only westerners who need to ply themselves with drink in order to label something a celebration? Pass an exam, pass a driving test. Let's get pissed. Someone's retiring from the office. Whose round is it? Having a baby, had a baby, split up with a boyfriend. Come on - get it down your neck. Isn't it a little bit pathetic when you think about it? I mean really think about it.
Let's talk about the bird flu. I've never had it. I wouldn't want it. But Oh boy is Hong Kong ever paranoid about it.
Warning signs are posted all over the subway trains and on many lamp-posts instructing people on how to best handle their bodily fluids. "Please use a handkerchief", "Please do not spit in the ashtrays". My personal favorite is the one that says "if you feel unwell, then please contact a member of the security staff at the next station". The security staff are easy to recognize because they're dressed up as chickens.
Only joking of course but who on earth is going to do that anyway? What would happen if you approached a member of staff on some lonely isolated platform and told them you had a slight fever and your feet were beginning to turn yellow? Would you be ordered to lie face down with your hands behind your back while government officials in plastic suits seal off the area and try and scoop you up with a large butterfly net? Me? I wouldn't take the chance.
It's interesting to see how the paranoia manifests itself though. On a couple of occasions, while riding the tube, I sneezed quite loudly. I mean it's a perfectly natural thing to do. But all around, passengers stared at me. I know exactly what they were thinking. How long has he had it? How many of his family have already died? Oh my God - we're all doomed!
If you're into fashion and shopping for clothes, Hong Kong is a paradise. But I have to give special mention to the sales assistants in most of the clothes stores. I don't know what sort of commission they earn or what kind of training they receive, but they are brilliant at their jobs. And what a refreshing change it makes from shopping in Thailand where you have to play hunt-down-the-salesgirl simply to enquire if they have a particular shoe in a size eight.
In Hong Kong, the sales assistants are nibbling at you the moment you walk through the door. It starts with a pleasant greeting and then you are left to wander around the store at leisure. At least that's what you think is happening. But the moment you show interest in a particular item or go and try it on, they descend on you with armfuls of stock. Perhaps something similar to the item you tried on but in a different color - perhaps a handbag that would go well with the blouse or a set of beads that would match a particular T-shirt.
And it works! My wife entered one store because she ‘quite liked' a blouse in the window and emerged half an hour later with four tops and a handbag.
Actually the shop assistant tried to sell her two bags, even going as far as telling her that she would hold the special discounted price of the second bag for one hour while my wife looked around other shops. So confident was she that my wife wouldn't find another handbag like it. Now that's salesmanship!
The sales assistants are never pushy, they never outstay their welcome, but they recognize those buying signals and know exactly when to strike. I have nothing but admiration for them.