A Travellerspoint blog

Ernie Goes to Macau and Home

The surprise is in the Wynn


View Trip 1 - HK, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Macau (December 2008 to March 2009) on ErnieHK's travel map.

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I spent the next few days taking things slow. My three month holiday was now entering its last third, and I found that I wasn't quite ready to accept its inevitable conclusion. My parents would soon be joining me in Hong Kong to attend a cousin’s wedding at the beginning of March, marking the beginning of the end. There was a new urgency to squeeze in a couple more getaways before my parents arrived, and I reached out to a few old friends to see what I could scrounge together. There was a relatively uneventful trip across the border to Shenzhen with some university pals, but there's not much that I can really say about eating barbecue and getting massages. A week later, however, I contacted a girl named Kat, a friend of a friend from back home. Kat had been introduced to me as a teacher in Macau, originally from Toronto, and upon learning that I was traveling around Asia, offered to host if I was ever in the area. After emailing her to let her know that I was planning to swing by her city, she very generously invited me to stay with her and her housemates. Getting to Macau was a breeze, and within days I was on the morning ferry, cutting across the Pearl River Delta.

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Macau is one of two Special Administrative Regions in China, along with Hong Kong. Though separated by only an hour's ferry ride, its history and culture reflect a different historical narrative that begins in the medieval kingdom of Portugal. After defeating the Moors in the 13th century and claiming Portuguese sovereignty along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, they began exploring the unknown lands beyond its familiar coastal waters. By the 16th century, they were rulers of a vast empire that stretched across South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and East Asia, courtesy of their considerable naval forces. The Portuguese colony of Macau was at its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, a wealthy port city fought over by distant European empires – all this while Hong Kong was an insignificant jumble of fishing villages scattered across a rocky shoreline. Macau’s downturn echoed the long, slow decline of the empire throughout the next two centuries, and, by 1999, it was one of two tiny colonial outposts that represented the dying gasps of Portugal’s imperial ambitions. That same year, Macau’s sovereignty was handed over to China, two years after Hong Kong’s own handover ceremony. In its last decades under Portuguese control, it had been surpassed by Hong Kong in wealth and prosperity, but recent years have testified to its newfound status as Asia’s gambling paradise, and it has experienced an economic revival the likes of which have not been seen in these parts in over four hundred years. That is the Macau to which I was currently headed – a city that had seen glory days, gone through decline and decay, and persisted to find itself once again riding the swell of rising fortunes.

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Kat and I had agreed to meet at six in the evening inside the lobby of the Venetian, one of the many Las Vegas-style casino-hotels that were popping up wherever there seemed to be a gap in the skyline. The hotel was located on a section of reclaimed land between the islands of Taipa and Coloane, to the south of the main Macau Peninsula where my ferry docked, so I had an entire day to get across the peninsula and Taipa Island. Much of that first day was spent wandering the peninsula, the densely packed urban center of Macau, where the majority of the population resides, and one of the first things I did was climb to the fortress at the summit of Guia Hill to get a look at the city from above. The sky was overcast, and the buildings seemed to be painted with the same brush as the clouds – a monochrome image in shades of dusky brown. From there, I took a cheap, single-occupant cable car down to street level – the dense web of streets was ideal for exploring on foot, and I was eager to see the city on its own terms. I started in the far northern end of the city, near the border crossing with China, and walked my way past elaborate gardens, neighbourhood temples, Mediterranean piazzas, and entire blocks frozen in time since Portuguese soldiers, African slaves, and Chinese merchants plied their trades together on these same narrow streets. The ruins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, arguably the most famous landmark in Macau, stood as a testament to the city’s colonial past, and as the colours of the day shifted into its purple and pink phases, I milled around the façade and the surrounding square for longer than I had intended.

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After a frantic search for a taxi, I arrived at the hotel a half-hour later than the agreed-upon time. Fortunately, Kat had graciously waited for the extra thirty minutes, and she took me through the hotel grounds and back to her nearby apartment, which she shared with three other girls. All four of them were teachers at the same international school – the only international school, in fact – in Macau, and had been recruited from different parts of Canada to teach the children of wealthy casino investors. We went out to grab some grub, and then we took a walk around their part of town. The main casino strip was being built up nearby, although the financial crisis that had begun that autumn, and would continue throughout the next few years, had put a temporary halt to any construction. For every Venetian – garish, lit-up monstrosities that appealed to the lowest common denominator – there were two or three empty shells shrouded in darkness, the skeletons of would-be casinos and hotels that had felt the crunch of global greed gone askew. To gaze upon these barren frames, row on row, was to get a peek at the ebbs and flows of global wealth. Half a decade later, many of these structures have been completed, filling the coffers of the lucky few who went all in, as well as the Macanese government.

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The girls needed to go home and do some marking, and I was feeling the effects of being on my feet all day, so as they retreated to their rooms, I planted myself on their couch and put on a movie. Later that evening, after they had finished with their work, we gathered in the living room to talk about what I should do tomorrow before going back to Hong Kong. Hasty maps were scribbled on napkins and business cards, and recommendations for food and drink were noted and filed away, before we said our goodnights, and our goodbyes, shortly afterwards. As it happened, I awoke to any empty apartment, and, after a quick shower, I was out the door and on my way.

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I followed up on most of the girls’ recommendations the next day – breakfast at Lord Stow’s Bakery, Portuguese egg tarts at Margaret’s Café - and then I just wandered around the southern tip of the main peninsula, where some of the biggest casinos are located. Macau’s reputation as the Monte Carlo of the Orient began in the 1960s, when the government granted a syndicate made up of Macanese and Hong Kong businessmen the monopoly rights to all forms of gambling in the territory, which, at the time, was largely made up of small Chinese gambling houses. The syndicate built large casino-hotels and introduced gambling games popular in the casinos of Europe and Las Vegas, instantly drawing millions of tourists from Hong Kong, eager to live out their Vegas dreams just a short ferry ride across the delta. This arrangement would persist for the next forty years, until shortly after Macau’s sovereignty transferred to China, when China promptly put an end to the monopoly. The old Casino Lisboa, a fixture of the Macanese gambling scene since the 1970s, saw a string of new foreign-operated casino complexes open across the street in a matter of years, like the aforementioned Wynn Macau and the MGM Macau, as well as the Sands Macau a few blocks over. Veterans of the Vegas Strip, these new casinos offered a thrilling combination of spectacle and luxury as yet unseen in Macau, forcing the old guard to offer similar perks in order to stay competitive. As I approached the low, rectangular Wynn that afternoon, the Casino Lisboa and its newest extension, the Grand Lisboa, towered above the skyline, a greenish-gold glass building purportedly inspired by the lotus flower, or possibly a jet of vomit issuing forth from the heart of Macau, forever and forever.

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When I returned to Hong Kong later that evening, my parents greeted me at the door. My last week or so in Hong Kong was a blur - it seemed like only a day later that we celebrated my cousin's wedding, and then I was passed out on a plane, waking up to watch a movie or two, and then fading into dreams again. I’d spent three months goofing off in Asia, and now it was time to go home and start building a life. I had kept a loose grip on the job offer in Hong Kong - it was a verbal offer, which made it seemed less than real, like it might disappear if I took it too seriously - and there were still a few loose ends in my life back home that needed to be addressed. A week after I got back, however, the company contacted me again to ask if I was still interested, and this time I had an answer. Three months later, I was on a plane to Hong Kong, one-way ticket tucked into my back pocket.

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Posted by ErnieHK 02:38 Archived in China Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Beijing

Winter in the northern capital


View Trip 1 - HK, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Macau (December 2008 to March 2009) on ErnieHK's travel map.

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I first met Hannah in the summer of 2006 – she had been invited to play on my church’s summer softball team by a mutual friend – and we managed to keep in touch when she moved to Dalian, China, the following year. The way she tells it, her move to China had started out as a holiday to visit her parents, until her dad met her at the airport to take her to a job interview. By the time I was vacationing in Hong Kong, she had moved to Beijing, and I was starting to weigh the pros and cons of visiting northern China in the winter. When Hannah informed me that she was in the middle of moving apartments, but that I could stay in her old apartment – there was an overlap for about a week when she had access to both – I took her up on the offer, and packed whatever cold-weather gear I could, which wasn't all that much.

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It was not a great first impression – the lush greenery of the Taiwanese countryside was still fresh in my mind's eye, and even Hong Kong’s normally claustrophobic concrete jungle was tempered by the brilliant blues of its winter skies. As the plane descended into a city of greys - grey buildings, grey streets, grey skies, grey snow, grey people in grey clothes – I wondered what kind of world I was about to enter. Hannah had given me instructions on how to take the train to her neighbourhood, and the view at street level wasn’t any better. I met up with her in front of a grubby department store, one of those places that seemed to deal in knock-offs of knock-offs. After dropping off my bags, we headed out to grab a quick meal, before taking a walk around the Central Business District. There had been a fire in the area a week beforehand that had been the talk of the town - another friend in Beijing at the time would tell me about how he had gathered with his friends to watch it in a nearby apartment – so Hannah took me to see the burnt out husk.

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The next morning was almost enough to make the grey tableau the day before fade into distant memory. We were blessed with a rare blue sky day, and we took advantage of it by heading out to the Olympic Park. These buildings, and the events held within them, were a nightly companion to me a few short months ago when I pulled two weeks of all-nighters to complete my Master's thesis, and it felt right to show my appreciation in person. In the afternoon, we hit up a couple more touristy spots – the Wangfujing snack street and the infamous Tiananmen Square. By this time, the blue skies had retreated and diminished against the relentless onslaught of smog and pollution, and the thick haze that covered the city cast a ghostly shadow upon the square. After a few minutes of reflection, we turned around and walked away.

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That night we had Peking duck, a personal request, as it seemed appropriate. The day had felt long, and the bitterly cold Beijing winter was beginning to have an ill effect on me. Hannah suggested taking it easy after dinner and grabbing a drink at a local café – I couldn’t agree more. My recollection of how we got there is a bit murky, but I remember entering into a small courtyard and walking up a floor or two to get to the café. Hannah clearly felt at home here, since she immediately took me into a room in the back to say hello to the staff. As tea drinkers sat in high stools set up along the back wall, sipping and chatting away, a smaller group was seated at a table in front of me, lost in conversation. We found a table outside in the main seating area, and, as we were talking, the other patrons of the Upper Room started orienting their seats towards one of the walls. A projector had been set up, and two men sat down facing the crowd with a guitar and a djembe. As they began talking, Hannah explained that every Saturday night, the two men, one of whom was the owner, would lead a sort of live karaoke session – people called out popular songs, the two men would find a transparency with the song lyrics, and they would play the music as the crowd sang along. The songs were sung with such gusto, such energy, with such abandon - it was honestly a bit exhilarating. It was beautiful, and from the eager smile on Hannah’s face, this was something that she had wanted me to experience. A few months later, when I asked about the café, Hannah would tell me that it had closed down, unfortunately. Hannah would go on to find greener pastures soon afterwards – I’d get a chance to meet up with her the following year at her new home in Singapore – and just last year, she made the move to Hong Hong herself. That night remains one of my favourite memories of my three months in Asia, though, a brilliant, blinding, flash of life and fullness in an otherwise grey city.

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Posted by ErnieHK 07:21 Archived in China Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Taiwan

Taipei and Taroko Gorge with an old college friend


View Trip 1 - HK, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Macau (December 2008 to March 2009) on ErnieHK's travel map.

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I did not expect Taiwan. As I hiked along Taroko Gorge towards the Pacific Ocean, again and again I was struck by how beautiful it was, especially when compared to the earlier stops on my trip. Hong Kong and Singapore have their own aesthetic, one that I can appreciate – I’ve got a thing for urban cityscapes – and Malacca and rural China had their own charms, but this was something else entirely. After I got back from Chaoshan, I had contacted a Taiwanese friend from university, Yun Ping, who had moved back to Taipei after graduation. I wasn’t too interested in the usual sights and sounds of Taiwan, though, whatever they might be. With friends from overseas, like Yun Ping, and Nicole in Singapore, I long had the feeling that what I knew of them from their time in Canada was only a part of who they were, and I saw this as an opportunity to share in Yun Ping's idea of home.

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We spent the first couple of days in and around Taipei, criss-crossing the city in all manner of transportation – the subway, buses of all different colours, taxis, and our own two feet. Yun Ping had a number of places that he had in mind – Taipei 101, the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, the National Palace Museum – but all else paled in comparison to Taipei’s famous night markets. It is here that I made one of the all-time rookie mistakes, one that has informed my eating strategy in all subsequent night market escapades. Yun Ping had taken me to the Shilin Night Market to baptize me into the world of Taiwanese street food, and I was pumped. My mind was filled with images of endless food stalls filled to the brim with heart-stopping, oil-dripping, taste-bud-overwhelming edibles. As we approached the market, we saw a line stretching out in front of a blue and white stall. Intrigued, I asked Yun Ping about it, and he pointed at a woman walking away with what appeared to be a giant piece of fried, flattened chicken – like a chicken finger made out of the entire bird. You’re damn right I lined up, and I ate the whole thing too. This was my downfall – my eyes were bigger than my stomach that night, and I never recovered. I force-fed myself whenever Yun Ping recommended something to me, but at a certain point there just wasn’t any more room. That’s when I learned that one must pace oneself at a Taiwanese night market, or know the intestinal discomfort of regret.

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On the morning of the third day, we woke up early to catch the train from Taipei to Hualien, a town on the Pacific coast of Taiwan, about halfway down the island. One of Yun Ping’s uncles had generously arranged for us to spend a couple days hiking in Taroko Gorge, a national park located among Taiwan’s central mountain range, but getting there would take two hours by train and another hour by bus. A few years later, in the spring of 2013, I would take that same train from Taipei to Hualien as part of a 300-km charity bike-a-thon team, and I can remember feeling some nostalgia as I took in the public square outside of the train station again. My first time around, in 2008, I was a jobless, directionless, and oftentimes lonely recent graduate, with less than a handful of friends scattered around Asia, loitering in a small provincial town halfway around the world from everything that I would consider home. By 2013, I had been working in Hong Kong for four years, was about to get engaged (to a woman born and raised in Taiwan!), and had a vibrant, loving, supportive community of friends that had, in almost all respects, made Hong Kong into the home I had been longing for. But before any of that, it was just me and Yun Ping, waiting for a bus.

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The road into Taroko starts at sea level, and then slowly climbs as it snakes around mountains, skirts precarious cliff-sides, and, all else fails, plunges through tunnels blasted into the sides of the surrounding hills. Miniscule railings provide the bare minimum of security around tight corners that fall off into the valley below, and numerous blind spots seem to encourage drivers to take unnecessarily wide turns at uncomfortably high speeds. Of course, Yun Ping would turn to me and point out that parts of our hike over the next two days would be on that very same road. After an hour of hairpin turns and near misses, we pulled into a village located on a plateau at the convergence of several smaller valleys. We quickly checked into our hostel, and after getting our bearings, we headed out to do some hiking before sunset. We chose a trail that started with a long tunnel through a mountain – the other end was a small pinprick of light, and a metal railing had been installed along one of the walls so that hikers could feel their way through to the other side. Yun Ping joked about two people using the railing from opposite sides and walking into each other in the dark, and then he actually walked into somebody in the dark. When we emerged on the other side, we found ourselves on a small plateau that looked out over a massive forested valley. The surrounding hills stretched out into the distance, and we could see the trail winding its way along a narrow ledge, disappearing around corners and fading into forest. Behind us, the tunnel seemed to close off all outside intrusions – our world was this valley, and the trail was our guide.

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We hiked for at least a couple of hours that day, stopping only when the trail ended in an abrupt manner – a section of the ledge had fallen away. Just before the trail ended though, we had to walk through a tunnel section that housed a hidden waterfall, soaking us to the bone. On our way back, we passed other hikers going in the opposite direction, looking at our wet clothes in alarm, and we laughed about what their expectations might be of what lay ahead of them. When we got back to the village and had settled into our hostel, Yun Ping went downstairs to grab dinner first, as I was in the mood to lie down for a while. Our room looked out onto a small range of hills that towered above us, and, with the sun just beginning to set over the forested peaks and the cool breeze coming in from the open balcony door, I was content to lie on my bed and allow my body to sink in. Not surprisingly, I fell asleep – I woke up early the next morning, feeling fantastic, and after we packed up our things and grabbed a quick breakfast, we were off.

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Our route for the day would roughly follow the road that we had driven up the day before, but there were several trails that forked off into adjacent valleys and hills, little detours that took a more scenic path before joining up with the main road farther down the gorge. Our first trail started not too far off from the village, the Tunnel of Nine Turns. It followed the river as it carved its way through steep canyons and cliff-sides dotted with vegetation, the sheer marble walls tinged with beautiful blues, greys, tans, and oranges. The trail itself, as evident by its name, was a series of tunnels that twisted and turned as it cut through the base of a cliff, according to the whims of the river. We emerged from the trail about an hour later, briefly considered hitching a ride with one of the giant tour buses picking up the uniformed tour groups, hesitated, and then watched as the bus drove off without us. For the next hour or so, we walked along the edge of the road, taking in the view of the river rushing through the rocky canyons above and below us, and mindful of the occasional vehicle speeding down towards the coast, mere inches from where we stood. We chatted for a bit initially, but we soon settled into a quiet rhythm, conserving our energy for the afternoon. I don’t think we minded the silence – it was enough to just be present, and I can appreciate companionship without words. Within a month or two of the hike, Yun Ping would begin his twelve months of mandatory military service, and I wouldn’t see him again until a year-and-a-half later, when he came to Hong Kong with his church for a conference. Another university friend, Justin, who had moved to teach in Beijing the same summer I had moved to Hong Kong, was also in town that weekend, and the three of us had a late night reunion in the lobby of the airport hotel before parting ways again.

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By late morning, we were about halfway down the gorge, and we had found a trail that one of the hostel workers had recommended to us earlier that day. She had assured us that it would be a twenty minute hike, at most, but when we got there we realized that it was twenty minutes straight uphill. It took us a lot longer than twenty minutes, and it wasn’t so much a trail as it was a massive set of stairs. The end of the trail, somewhat unexpectedly, opened out onto a vast, grassy plateau, with a hill that rose gently in the back, crested by a set of low-lying buildings. We headed towards the buildings, hoping to grab a quick snack before moving on, as we needed to catch the right bus back to Hualien at the bottom of the gorge. This was quickly forgotten when the hill-top structure was revealed to be an indigenous Taiwanese restaurant. A silent agreement was made, and we had a fantastic meal together, made more satisfying by the appetite worked up during the morning’s hike. We spent close to two hours there, eating and resting, putting us slightly behind schedule, but we were too full to be bothered.

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As we continued to hike down the gorge, there was a noticeable change in the vegetation and climate. The air became heavy with moisture, and the lush plant life glistened in the humidity. There was more traffic on the road as well, and at one point, our waiter from the restaurant on the hill sped by us on his scooter. A few minutes later, he came back up in the opposite direction and offered us both a ride. Reason and common sense won out in the end as we, somewhat reluctantly, declined his offer. We also finally caught up to a young couple and their baby that we had seen hiking in front of us, on and off, throughout the day. Yun Ping and I introduced ourselves when we all took a break underneath a bridge, and we found out that they were a family of Quebecois acrobats performing with Cirque du Soleil in Macau. I had grown up learning Quebecois French in school, and Yun Ping had attended high school in Quebec, but neither of us were able to communicate very well, so after exchanging some pleasantries, we emerged from under the bridge to complete the last few kilometres of our hike. About an hour later, we were on the bus back to Hualien to catch the evening train to Taipei – I slept the whole way through.

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We took it easy on my last day in Taiwan. Honestly, I don’t remember much about what we did that day, but I do remember having dinner with Yun Ping and his mom. They took me to a restaurant that had been one of his favourites when he was younger, and there was one dish that he really wanted me to try. He took a while trying to explain the dish to the waitress, before they both realized that he was talking about a dish from another restaurant. Incredibly, the waitress went out, bought the dish, and plated it for him anyway – I’ve never seen that level of service before. At night, after we got back to his family home in the southern suburbs of Taipei, he took me down a nearby alley to buy fried chicken out of a window. I saw a man in pajamas ride in on a scooter and hang multiple bags of fried chicken from his handlebars before driving back into the night. Obviously the chicken was amazing. Yun Ping had one final thing he wanted me to try though, but there was a slight hitch – it had gone missing. He had kept a bottle of his favourite drink chilling in his fridge since before I arrived in Taiwan, but when he went to retrieve it, it was nowhere to be found. After asking his mom about it – she didn’t know anything – he began calling his relatives, and this was close to one in the morning. He eventually found out that an aunt had come by during the day to see if they had any empty bottles for her son’s science project. She saw the bottle in the fridge and, thinking that the drink had gone bad, emptied it down the drain and brought it home. I seem to recall that the cousin didn’t even end up using it. From his anguished reactions during the phone call, Yun Ping was taking the news quite hard. His mom then very sensibly suggested that we go down to the neighbourhood 7-Eleven to pick up another bottle, which we did. I get it now though, why Yun Ping was so upset. I’ve gone back to Taiwan five times since this trip, and each time I’ve made sure to get the same drink whenever possible. You don’t just pour Apple Sidra down the sink.

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Posted by ErnieHK 09:00 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Chaoshan

Two days driving in and around the Teochew villages of northern Guangdong


View Trip 1 - HK, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Macau (December 2008 to March 2009) on ErnieHK's travel map.

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After Singapore, there were no more plans - I returned to Hong Kong with an empty schedule ahead of me. I had envisioned a frenzied itinerary around East Asia, with hardly any down time, but I realized that I quite enjoyed having nothing to do – the apartment in Hong Kong, far from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong’s more chaotic neighbourhoods, proved to be an effective place of refuge. The solitude was broken a few days later, however, when my uncle from Singapore flew up to Hong Kong to take part in my extended family’s twice yearly pilgrimage to our ancestral village in Chaoshan, a region in the northern Guangdong province. Our family still has significant ties to the area, and my aunts and uncles regularly make the trip to check up on village matters, connect with distant relations, and visit our temple. Another one of my cousins, who was studying in California at the time, was also in town, so we tagged along to get re-acquainted with the story of our family from the other side of the border.

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Though unplanned, I found myself looking forward to the journey and seeing my own fairly distant roots. Both my parents can trace their lineage to Chaoshan, and they self-identify as Teochew, a term that describes people originating from the region, as well as the distinctive dialect that they speak. Growing up in Toronto seemed far removed from Hong Kong, which seemed far removed from our ancestral village, but my grandfathers had started out as villagers in the hills of southern China, and their grandchildren had grown up in middle class households in Canada, USA, Australia, and Hong Kong. As a kid, I remember having to fill out a family tree for a school project, but I could only get as far as my grandparents. My parents had difficulty remembering the names of their own grandparents, and anything beyond that was lost in the fog of my family’s past. A few years back, though, they had crossed into China to find my dad’s ancestral village, armed with a set of directions from the Hong Kong family. All of a sudden, I was aware that somewhere in northern Guangdong province, there was a little village with a tiny temple with a list of my family’s generations. I was eager to see the temple for myself and appreciate the precious fact of my family’s preserved history.

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A van was waiting for us on the other side of the border, and for the next five hours we trudged along congested country roads, sped down empty newly-constructed highways, got lost about a half dozen times, and were subject to some truly terrifying driving techniques. We eventually pulled up in front of an imposing three story house, one that my grandpa had built after he had established himself in Hong Kong. After walking through the house and stretching our tired legs and backs, we exited out a side door, and I laid eyes on the village where it all began: long rows of low brick buildings, gabled rooftops topped with faded gray tiles, each row neatly subdivided into courtyards and temples. After a brief stop at my grandfather's childhood home, we made our way to the family temple, a grey-brick building with a tall sloping roof inhabited by the frozen images of various gods and divine beings. At the back of the temple was a platform set up with various brick-sized tablets – some were covered with red or dark purplish velvet pouches, while others were exposed, revealing the names of my ancestors. A large, rectangular, bronze fixture dominated an adjacent wall, covered in tiny Chinese characters – a poem that had been commissioned for the family. In subsequent years, successive generations of Chans had gone down the poem, character by character, to name each generation of "brothers" - male members of the family born within the same generation. Sure enough, about three-fifths of the way through, I found the character that I shared with the male cousins on my dad's side of the family. I watched as my aunts and uncles, along with more distant relations from the village, performed the rites honouring our ancestors, burning incense one by one. When the ceremony was completed, long strings of bright red firecrackers exploded in a riot of noise and smoke outside the temple, and kids from the village swooped in to look for the odd cracker that had failed to go off.

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The rest of the day was spent exploring the Teochew countryside and taking a walk around the school that my grandfather had built. Half of my aunts and uncles went back to Hong Kong in the late afternoon, while myself and a few others continued on to Shantou, a key trading port in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We had time for a quick Teochew dinner - slow-braised goose, oyster omelette, cold steamed fish - but the exceedingly long hours in a hot van finally caught up to us, and we trudged back to the hotel to catch some much needed shut-eye. The following morning, we left the big city behind and did some more touring around the area, before piling into the van and settling in for the long drive back to Hong Kong. Walking the same dirt roads that my grandfather, and my ancestors, had walked all those years ago was an unforgettable experience, and I am fortunate to have such a direct connection to the pre-Hong Kong chapters of my family’s story. All the same, I was glad to be on my way back to Hong Kong, and after a few days of lazing about in the apartment, I began to plan the next leg of my journey: Taiwan.

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Posted by ErnieHK 03:26 Archived in China Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Malaysia

To Malacca and back


View Trip 1 - HK, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Macau (December 2008 to March 2009) on ErnieHK's travel map.

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With only a couple days left in Singapore, and Malaysia only a short bus ride across the Straits of Johor, it made sense to hop across the border and at least take a look around, if only for a day. After briefly considering the options available, I settled on Malacca, on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, due to its rich history as a long-time center of commerce in the region. Established by the Malaccan Sultanate in the year 1400, its rapid ascension in power and prosperity ushered in a century-long golden age for Malay culture and civilization in the region. As the city's fortunes faded, however, it passed into the possession of the once formidable Portuguese and Dutch colonial empires, before winding up in the hands of the British for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. My cab came to a stop outside the rose-red façade of Christ Church in the middle of town, built by the Dutch in the mid-18th century to replace an older Portuguese structure, and I spent the afternoon walking the city center's ancient brick lanes and alleyways, a tangle of roads and pathways stretching from the distant past to the modern present.

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I began my day in Dutch Square, the plaza that surrounds Christ Church, and from there it was a short walk to St. Paul's Hill, the historically significant promontory around which much of the city was constructed. When the Portuguese first overthrew the sultanate in the 16th century, incorporating Malacca into their lucrative Asian trade network, they immediately began construction of a fortress compound. The fortress, now known as A Famosa, was built on St. Paul's Hill, and it stood guard over the city for almost three hundred years, before the British tore it down in a neat bit of 19th century geopolitical maneuvering. It was only the last minute intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, that preserved its last remaining feature - the tiny gate house known as the Porta de Santiago. At the summit of St. Paul's Hill lie the ruins of Nossa Senhora da Annunciada, a former church and burial ground of the Portuguese and the Dutch. It's an easy climb to the top, and within its crumbling walls you can still see some of the tombstones marking its colonial-era graves. Large, brick-lined windows provide a clear view of the city below, and I took a moment to take in the scene before heading on down to re-enter the fray.

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At the foot of St. Paul's Hill, beyond the Porta de Santiago, is the Malacca Sultanate Palace Museum. The Sultanate Palace, I was a bit disappointed to learn, is a reconstruction of Mansur Shah's palace, and not the actual historical structure - it was built in the ancient year of 1985. Still, its a beautiful building, all dark woods and swooping roof lines, and it gives a glimpse at the lives of the native Malaccan nobility before the onset of European colonialism. Somewhat regretfully, I rushed my way through the museum inside, as my time in Malacca was running short, and I was, quite frankly, more interested in what I could see at street level. My last hour or so was spent in and around Chinatown, a legacy of the vibrant Chinese and Peranakan population throughout Malacca's history, before calling it a day and hailing a cab back to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town. As I settled in for the cab ride, the driver tried out a bunch of different Chinese dialects before striking gold with Cantonese, the language I grew up speaking at home, though I'm far from fluent. We chatted about where I was from and his own family history in Malaysia, and I remember thinking how odd and comforting it was to be conversing with a stranger in Cantonese, as a tropical shower pitter-pattered against the car windows. I made it back to Singapore in the evening, and after spending New Year's with Nicole and her family the next day, my time in the Lion City had finally come to an end. On the 2nd of January, I boarded a plane back to Hong Kong, not knowing where I would end up next.

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Posted by ErnieHK 02:50 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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