Wednesday 22 February 2017

A Walk on the Kowloon Side: History Tour of Hong Kong

I was hosted on this tour by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

If there's something we travel writers like, it's the word "new". If something is new there's a good chance it hasn't been written about much, and that turned out to be the case with Asiascene's new Stories of the Place tour.

Rather than being a walking tour, it's a bus tour with a fair amount of leisurely walking within the sights it visits. It loosely links together four historic places on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, all attractions that could easily be overlooked by the traveller.

The first, and most interesting to me, was Kowloon Walled City Park. I knew nothing about Kowloon Walled City before researching this trip, but it turned out to one of those weird quirks of history which I find absolutely fascinating.

Basically, the site started as an Imperial Chinese fort, which was retained by China in 1898 after it leased the New Territories north of Kowloon to Britain. This left a little island of Chinese sovereignty within a sea of British colonial rule.

As the decades rolled on, the Chinese emperor was deposed, there was civil war, the Second World War, and various other shocks such as the Cultural Revolution. This drew China's attention away from Kowloon Walled City, and it found itself unable to exercise its rule there.

At the same time, the British authorities were loathe to interfere within its walls. So the walled city became a strange, lawless enclave, being built ever higher (and more dodgily) as time went on and it filled with refugees from the mainland.

By the 1980s, just before it was cleared out and levelled by agreement between the UK and China, it housed 30,000 people and looked as this model on the site suggests:

Once this strange shanty city was demolished, archaeologists were able to undertake digs to locate fragments of the site's military past, and I saw evidence of this through the park:

Intriguing. There were more recent memories on display in buildings throughout the park, including a series of audiovisual recordings of former residents discussing their lives in Kowloon Walled City.

Our second stop was at another serene set of greenery, the Nan Lian Garden. This land belonged to an adjacent Buddhist nunnery which bought it over eighty years ago. They'd always planned to develop a traditional garden here, but China's troubles again meant the space became home to refugees from diverse conflicts.

In the fairly recent past the land was cleared of its structures and finally the garden could be developed, in the style of China's Tang Dynasty. A very beautiful and peaceful place it is too; as is the attached Chi Lin Nunnery which we walked through to after the garden:

The final stop of the tour was the Tin Hau Temple. This Taoist temple is dedicated to the god of the sea, a very relevant deity to a people living near a shore from which they fished and set forth on trading ships.

It's a small but spiritual place, full of the aroma of incense and the bright colours of its decor:

This historic structure, the smallest and oldest of the sights on the tour, provided an appropriately humble finale to a tour reaching back into Kowloon's relatively recent and eventful past.

The Stories of the Place tour takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fee HK$490 (about A$80) per person. Find more information and make bookings at this link.

Saturday 18 February 2017

My Favourite Place in Macau

I travelled to Macau courtesy of the Macao Government Tourism Office and Cathay Pacific.

I've just spent four days in Macau, the former Portuguese territory which returned to Chinese rule in 1999, along the same lines that Hong Kong had two years before that.

You wouldn't think four days would be long enough in a new place to adopt a favourite spot. But I did, on my first afternoon there.

For the first two days I was based in the Old City, the oldest part of the territory on the Macau Peninsula. After that I moved to the conjoined islands of Taipa and Coloane, with the casino zone of Cotai between them.

On my first afternoon I had some free time, so I wandered around the heart of the Old City. This area, with its key landmarks of the Monte Fort, the ruins of St Paul's and Senado Square, is packed with tourists. That's understandable, as it's a very scenic district.

To the immediate southwest, however, the tourists largely vanish. That's probably because the terrain suddenly becomes quite steep. But my Lonely Planet guide said there was an interesting building up there, the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library; so I started trudging upward.

Sir Robert was a gent from Hong Kong who once lived in this attractive house, then left it to Macau to be used as a library.

It was indeed a beautiful building, inside and out. But what truly caught my eye was the square it faced: Largo de Santo Agostinho, or St Augustine's Square. It was a lovely little space, serene on this sunny Monday afternoon.

It was so serene, in fact, that one occupant of the benches against St Augustine's Church was dozing, her head supported by her backpack:

There was a little kiosk at one end of the square, that sold odds and ends such as instant coffee and sweets. And off to one side there was a thoughtful amenity for canine locals, a dog WC:

Beyond this facility, beneath apartments, I could see a cafe named Bless. It seemed an apt name for a cafe facing a church.

I sat inside for a little while, and had a very creditable cheese and avocado sandwich, which this industrious guy put together for me:

But it was the square itself I couldn't help returning to. Later in the week, I grabbed another hour to head up that steep slope to the Largo de Santo Agostinho, and sat writing postcards which the kiosk girl sold me from a dusty curling pile of neglected stock.

No one sends postcards anymore I suppose. But somehow this square, with its generous shaded seating, its seemingly unprofitable kiosk and its sleepy vibe felt like a holdover from a more peaceful age.

This is the direction I left the Largo, to return to the noisier world down the hill:

I don't know if I'll ever return to Macau, but I bet I'll dream about that square.

Friday 10 February 2017

Beach Blanket Babylon - Musical Madness in San Francisco

I stayed in San Francisco as a guest of and San Francisco Travel, though I paid for my airfare to the USA.

In October 2015 I visited San Francisco at a weekend, though regretfully I didn't wear a flower in my hair.

On the Saturday I took a couple of great walking tours, one focusing on the city's wilder history and the other on the late and eccentric 'Emperor Norton' (more about him another day).

On Sunday morning I caught a bus out to the Presidio, to explore a food truck market. Then, that evening, I headed to North Beach for Beach Blanket Babylon.

It's as fun and as crazy as it looks. This long-running musical revue started in 1974 and has played ever since, making it the world's longest of its kind.

Having done as I had been mysteriously bidden, "Ask for Eric", I was led to one of the cabaret-style tables up the front of the theatre, with an excellent view of the performers and their outlandish headgear.

The recurrent story, such as it is, is simple. Snow White has tired of San Francisco and wishes to travel the world to find her prince. What follows is a high-energy romp through diverse locales, which is actually a commentary on current events.

As Snow White travels, she encounters numerous celebrities and politicians, each skewered via lively satirical songs.

On the night I attended the figures onstage included Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, along with celebs from film and TV such as Oprah. I don't recall Donald Trump being among those present, so presumably he hadn't started making political waves at that point.

The songs were hilarious, the choreography fast-paced and beautifully timed.

And the headgear was extraordinary. A key characteristic of the show is the collection of giant headdresses worn by characters, either as complex hats or vast arrangements of hair. It makes each character into a live caricature, and also renders the performers' dance moves even more impressive.

Just check out this modest chapeau from the finale:

Beach Blanket Babylon is a great San Francisco experience, and ever-changing in its topical elements. You won't have any trouble following the plot if you're from outside the USA; some locals I spoke to were concerned I wouldn't recognise all the references, but I did.

You might also learn something about the city as you watch and laugh. Let's look at that final huge hat again - how many San Francisco landmarks can you spot?

Beach Blanket Babylon is presented at Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd (formerly Green St), San Francisco, USA. Find performance times and make bookings at the show's website

[Photos used by permission, © Beach Blanket Babylon]

Friday 3 February 2017

New Poland Book: The Kick of Stalin's Cow

Sometimes it takes a long while to pull a book together, and The Kick of Stalin's Cow was such a project. But it's finally out there, having been released this week on Amazon.

The book is a travelogue based on my 2008 journey around Poland for Lonely Planet, paying particular attention to relics of the communist era.

For various reasons it took many years to write and edit, so what emerges is a snapshot of the country in that year, in the process of transformation.

Here's an extract, from the chapter in which I visit the Social Realist Art Gallery near Lublin:


Seen bundled together, the collection was almost overwhelming. There was a deliberately raw look to the statues, as if they’d been hewn out of stone and never quite finished – presumably this was intended as a show of strength and power.

However there was also a dull sameness about most of them, as if a single artist in a garret in Moscow had done the lot – which was the idea behind a uniform artistic style.

The crammed nature of the space was a necessity, but it was extremely effective in magnifying the power of the works, each juxtaposed with others in strange combinations.

In one corner, a large statue of Lenin cut off at the knees stood with the usual constipated expression next to a much smaller (and thus seemingly vulnerable) statue of a child dressed in shorts, with a large old-fashioned post horn in his hands. Behind them was a large painting of some kind of youth rally, in which the young people wore red ties and raised their hands in salute among a sea of red banners.

Further along, a white seated statue of Stalin in pensive mood (“Who shall I purge today?”) was placed in front of a huge hanging banner of a man heroically handling a ship’s wheel beneath the slogan “PARTIA”. Nearby was the most disturbing of all these lumpy statues, a reddish-brown kneeling naked woman clutching a baby, one arm raised in a fist.

The museum’s curators had cleverly added an audio enhancement to their exhibits. Stirring communist anthems played as I walked past images of Stalin, Lenin and the local cut-price communist strongman, Boleslaw Bierut.

This was a great idea, evoking the emotional themes locked within these dull lumps of stone. Involuntarily, I found myself smiling as The Internationale (a cracking tune) swelled through the space, singing under my breath “The Internationale unites the human race!”

It was time to face my dark secret: I was emotionally attracted to the iconography of communism. Not intellectually – its dark excesses horrified me and I was glad to see it gone from Europe – but emotionally, there was something compelling in those bold images of Olympian men and women striding forward for the cause. The banners, the slogans, all that red.

In the attached garden, however, were statues that made me laugh. There was only so far you could take the heroic male form before it became distinctly homoerotic, and the pair of over-muscular miners carrying lanterns while wearing only trousers and hard hats had well and truly crossed that line. It wasn’t so much The Internationale, more I Will Survive.

Lenin wasn’t helping either. His garden statue was thrusting his hips forward in a louche, self-satisfied way as he stood with hands on hips. It was the kind of pose that was once disparaged by Blackadder as “Here are my genitals, please kick them.”

As I walked across the aristocratic lawns that all good socialists should have sneered at, I reflected on the original appeal of communism. The ideology wasn’t formulated as an evil plan to enslave people and torment them.

Those who thought it up and then put it into place – Marx, Engels, Lenin – were reacting to the excesses of capitalism, excesses which were real and blighted many working people’s lives, making them little more than economic slaves.

No wonder the then-untried ideology had so much appeal. Though perhaps few philosophies had as much potential to be twisted into arbitrary totalitarian rule as this one had. I wonder what Marx would say if he could peer beyond his grave and see how it all turned out?

Buy The Kick of Stalin's Cow as a Kindle ebook or a paperback by visiting this link.