Monthly Archives: April 2011

Travelogue: Kuala Lumpur, Taman Negara, the Cameron Highlands (Malaysia)

Because access to travel is one of the great plusses about living in HK, I am going to attempt at another “regular” column called Travelogue, to record some of the thoughts and experiences I have had while travelling. 

Easter is a great time to take off in Hong Kong since we generally always have a 4–day weekend (Friday off for Good Friday, and the Monday after Easter Sunday off).  Last year my sister visited and we went to Guilin/Yangshuo.  This year, I hooked up with newly expatriated friends from college in Kuala Lumpur, where both happened to be on business (they live together in Singapore). 

KL: I was pleasantly surprised by the city.  Though I didn’t spend that much time there, I was happy with the monorail and had a good long walk through Chinatown, Independence Square, Little India, and past the in-town rainforest Bukit Bintang, back towards the City Center, near the city’s iconic Petronas Towers, where Phil had hotel stay.

It wasn’t unbearably hot for late April and I found as long as I took a break at 1pm, I was able to deal with the heat and humidity, particularly in the shade.  I loved the strong Muslim influence on architecture (the former Petronas headquarters was in an incredibly peaceful looking building, covered in gorgeous Islamic detail), while sensing a great deal of diversity between the Chinese, Malays, and Indians. 

Of course – the highlight would be the food.  I enjoyed many of my favorite Malaysian dishes, and unfortunately discovered a bad allergic reaction to the delicious soursop.

Taman Negara: Taman Negara is Malaysia’s most visited National Park due to its proximity to the capital.  We rented a car for 170 MYR a day and drove nearly 6 hours out to the less frequented Northern entrance at Kuala Koh.  Here there was but one resort, so choices were limited, but we found ample things to do — self-guided trail hikes in rather dense forest, tubing down the river, a guided night walk, and a dizzying canopy walk.  We didn’t see much for animals, unfortunately (not even birds), in spite of plenty of evidence of their presence — leeches galore and lots of chirping and other sounds.

Our leech experience was eye opening.  We all had visions of fat slugs when in reality they are tiny worm-like creatures that do this twisty kind of movement standing on one end, likened to an alien slinkie, trying to bite at whatever brushes past it.  They do look creepy and once they’ve had a good feed, where anticoagulants prevent your blood from clotting, leaving a messy red mess for about 30 minutes, they actually can resemble the nasty fat slug.

Phil went from 5 bites on our first outing, to 2, to none, so I’m going to take that as improvement.  Though our 95 RMY a night A/C chalet was luxury jungle living, we decided to hit the road and see what else was in store after 2D/1N in the jungle, especially since there was no rafflesia in bloom this time. Boo 😦

Cameron Highlands.  We drove around 4 hours to find ourselves in the Cameron Highlands, famous for tea and agrotourism.  The scenery was outstanding, and the mountain tea plantations were one of a kind.  I’d seen plateaued rice fields in Guangxi, and saw similar terraced farms in pictures of Sapa, just north of Hanoi, but these tea plants were something else. 

We enjoyed a “traditional English breakfast” (more like a sub-par English breakfast) at what appeared to be a very misplaced English cottage, surrounded by an orchid-filled garden, and found a strawberry farm run by a pair of Bangladeshis where we picked a kilo and a half of strawberries (which we subsequently ate up during our drive down the highlands).

The weather up there was cool and crisp, and nothing at all like the stickier places we’d been just 24 hours before.  It was an amazing change of pace, and makes one really reconsider moving permanently to Southeast Asia where a respite from the heat was just a matter of hours’ driving away.

The drive back to KL wasn’t bad, though definitely took longer than the 2.5 hours we read.  Overall, driving in Malaysia is not bad.

The downer — I missed my flight by a matter of minutes next day and had to pay up the wazoo to buy a brand new ticket (the price difference between the next HK flight and the one I’d bought was more expensive!) to Shenzhen, where I was only too anxious to come home.  I must say, this trip had better be a real lesson learner — and I vow to tack on an additional 30 minutes to whatever time I plan to leave for airports from now on! (I swear, I left when everyone recommended — but the airports of KL are just too darn far!)

So the down and dirty on this itty bit of Malaysia:

Pros: renting a car and driving on your own gives you flexibility and is surprisingly enjoyable and easy (esp when you have an awesome navigator like Scilla!)

Cons: AirAsia can kiss my big toe and transport between the airports and KL is too darn slow and long.

Con to Pro: leeches can be conquered!


More in Protest News

Right after I posted on disappointing protests in Hong Kong, a pair of protests occur this past Sunday that are directly related.  One was a rally calling for the release of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, who was detained en route to Hong Kong for some mystery “economic crimes” last week; the other – why, budget protests again of course. 

Both had a relatively wimpy turnout.  The budget protest lost a lot of fuel since the 6-10,000 estimated in number last March, and only drew around 360 attendees,  but even sadder, apparently ” up to40 protestors” marched for Ai. 

To be fair, I am starting to get a better idea of what the other angles are on the budget proposal, and think there is a lot more to explore — however, seems to me the HK public are not exactly dealing with this in the most effective way.  And still disappointing, I don’t think enough HKers care enough about their soon-to-be, if not already, rulers, China.

One Country Two Systems FAIL

“One country, two systems” – it’s the motto of China’s two SARs (Special Administrative Regions), Macau and even more considerably, Hong Kong.   Without it, we’d just be… well, China.  But we’re not, or are we?

When the 1997 handover (1999 for Macau) took place in Hong Kong, many fled for more democratic pastures, shall we say — like Canada, UK and the US.  All feared the undemocratic regime of China, and thought it best to leave, completely untrusting of the alleged “two systems.”

Then most people saw Hong Kong was the same as ever, and the Hong Kong religion of money prevailed.  Eventually, mostly after the SARS pandemic, many returned and restarted their lives again in HK.  And of course, you have many happy expatriates like me, who have come to Hong Kong to make a home, for however long, whether it be a number of years or even decades!

Adherence to the motto, however, is critical for the well-being of the millions who choose to make Hong Kong their home (or at least for those of us who have a true choice).  And I’m sure any obvious changes will lead to yet another mass exodus.

I’m still not quite versed in all things LegCo (the Legislative Council), nor understand how delegates from HK to Beijing have any clout, but I have heard many say that they believed China’s hand has begun to get deep into Hong Kong life.

One recent example that got me thinking has to do with Hong Kong’s prohibition of Wang Dan, a former Tiananmen student protestor and activisit, from entering Hong Kong (from Taiwan, where he now resides) to pay his respect to his mentor, and democracy icon, Szeto Wah, who died earlier this year at the age of 79 from lung cancer.

Wang Dan openly promised not to speak to the press or media when he came to Hong Kong, and to leave immediately depart after the memorial services.  And yet, for no reason given, the Immigration Department denied him entry.  Wu’er Kaixi, another former student of Szeto’s, was also denied entry. Neither a representative from LegCo nor Immigration has commented (insofar as I’ve been able to find news since the story broke in late Jan.), and it seems no one in HK really cared!

The South China Morning Post apparently ran an editorial criticizing Wang Dan’s refusal into the country, but as far as I could tell – that was it! 

What are Hong Kongers getting up in arms about then?  Money.  In late February, Financial Secretary Tsang published the year’s financial plan, which included an injection of surplus into the people’s retirement fund.  When the people disagreed, Tsang actually edited the plan to instead give residents a straight up cash injection of HK$ 6,000 per person, plus some other income tax deductions.

I realize some economists would argue how this is not the best way to spend a surplus, but what more do the people want? I’m not too sure, but this is what incensed the Hong Kong public to gather in and around 10,000 in number one Sunday evening.

When the angry public began disrupting traffic and mounting in dangerous numbers, police began taking measures to diffuse the crowd, including using pepper spray.  Unfortunately, children, who were brought to the protests, were injured, as well as other adult protestors and police officers.  All in all, a not too pleasant sight.

But to me, this demonstration just looked so much more like a circus than anything elese, and all for what – money? If anything should have gathered 10,000 strong Hong Kongers united in protest it’s the denial of Wang and Wu’er from being allowed to pay respects to Szeto Wah.  This unexplained refusal is a serious sign of failure in the whole one country two systems motto, and is what will lead to even more serious problems in the near future, never mind 2047, when the SAR regime will officially end.

Further, this whole fight over Tsang’s financial plan bothered me even more since 1) I saw a lot of commercials seeking public comments on the new plan (HK is great about getting public comment on just about everything before anything happens!), and 2) Tsang did make a change immediately in response to public disapopintment.   I may be entirely in the dark about why the HK public are upset, to be honest, and even if the whole financial plan dealio is worth some outcry, I still believe the whole Wang refusal deserves it even more so.

Where are the true Hong Kongers at heart? Don’t you care what is happening in your government?  Or is it so — all HKers care about is their state religion — money.

CDotD: Cage Homes!!

This is not meant to be a laughing matter whatsoever, and I hate to bring down the levity of the CDotD posts, but upon learning about cage homes in Hong Kong, I was so mortified I had to learn more and share what I found.

The annual Hong Kong Art Walk recently came and went, and while I still have yet to participate in this high brow pub crawl, as it’s come to be known, I came to learn more about the cause this charity event serves — The Society for Community Organization (or “SoCO”).  One of SoCO’s causes is the Cage Homes and Private Housing Residents Project, which seeks to assist the more than 100,000 cage home  (and other similarly sub-par housing) residents, and get them into proper housing.

That’s right — cage homes.  A significant population in Hong Kong live in 15 square foot cubicles, typically with 8 cramming into one such cage — sometimes even more!  From the articles I read, bathroom situations for such “homes” are dingy unsanitary situations, shared by too many and the kitchen situation is also fairly sketchy. 

These subpar “homes” were devised in the 1940s to deal with a wave of desperate Chinese refugees fleeing civil war on the mainland.  Indeed, my own family came to Hong Kong from China in the 1950s (not long after the Japanese occupation of WWII, which I only learned about when visiting the HK History Museum!).  They did not live in a cage home, by any means, but there were a family of 5 (not sure what other extended family members joined them on top of this) who lived in a very tiny 1-BR apartment in Kowloon somewhere.  My granny told me how they had to pack up their beds by day, and were really crammed into a tiny space.  This was and remains uncommon today.

The extreme cost of housing in Hong Kong is no secret to anyone, though these cage homes are news to me.  Worse, with some cage rents beins as high as HK$1,500 a month (almost US$ 200!), the cost per square foot of these nasty spaces far exceed those of some mansions in Hong Kong’s exclusive Peak district where many local tycoons reside.

The best demonstration of this horrific housing condition is best done in photos than words, so I invite you to check out the exhibit SoCO displayed in the 2009 ArtWalk, and if you are inclined, please make a much needed donation to help lift the more than 100,000 HK residents who reside in spaces below 60 square feet!