02 March 2009

All kids love burgers

Random event I just remembered from last weekend:

I was at Babyface with some Chinese friends and a friend from Bates. It is a well known club here in Shanghai, extremely popular with wealthy locals but also notoriously unwelcoming to foreigners. It was here where a guy on my study abroad trip in 2006 decided to go for a solo night out and got into a fight (he lost, badly) with a bunch of Chinese guys. Since I was with a bunch of Chinese people, and also like to think that I'm less of a jerk than the aforementioned guy, it was all fine.

The place is really interesting as an example of modern Chinese culture/wealth. It is ultrapretentious and ridiculous in the Chinese “nouveau riche” way. Expensive to be expensive....display your wealth etc. It's pretty amusing. You buy a table and a bottle (Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal for $150!) and it comes with mixers and ice and a dedicated server who is so ridiculously attentive it’s crazy. Every minute, she lifts your glass and wipes the residual moisture with a tissue. Somebody smokes 1 cigarette and immediately she brings a new ashtray. You drop your dice that you’re using to play the dice drinking game and she picks them up for you. You take a sip of your drink and she immediately refills it. It's crazy. Also, don't think about going to the bar to get a drink. It's table service only and you can only order through your server. Very rigid. Also, just like a Chinese meal, one person will pay for the whole evening. Don't even think about trying to pay your share.

Anyway, I went outside to get some fresh air around 2AM and was greeted by about 10 little kids, about 5-10 years old, who immediately swarmed me, holding on to my legs, raising their plastic cups toward me, wide smiles on their dirty faces, begging for money. "Money, money! Please, please, please money!" Now, I typically don't give these kids money because I think it's pretty messed up that their parents (the ones a few feet away who train them and "direct" them to foreigners to ask for money) use them as beggars. Their parents are always the ones trying to sell you flowers and cigarettes, while their cute kids just beg you for money.

However, I was feeling particularly generous, and mindful of the $400 bar tab inside, so I asked these kids if they had had anything to eat lately. Their parents were shocked that I could speak some Chinese. "Mei you!!!! 没有!!!" (no we haven't) the kids all shouted in unison. I eyed the McDonald's right next door. I told them to wait a minute while I went next door and bought 10 hamburgers. The kids were jumping and I had to shake them off my leg and tell them to hold on while I handed around the burgers. Immediately their parents approached me, thanked me, and pushed their flowers and cigarettes at me. No, sorry, I still don't want to buy anything from you, and why don't you take your kids somewhere to get some sleep? The kids were happy and full for a few hours at least.

Hong Kong's Chungking Mansion

I'm meeting my friend Caroline, who's coming in from London, for a long weekend in Hong Kong at the end of March. It turns out that our trip lines up with the Hong Kong Sevens which is apparently somewhat to Hong Kong like Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. Supposed to be a big party weekend:
The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens is traditionally one of if not the biggest event on the Hong Kong sporting calendar. As such, there is a tremendous party atmosphere, with particular emphasis on the South Stand, where hordes of rugby fans dress up and dance for most of the duration. Activities that typically ensue as the weekend progresses include the throwing of empty beer jugs around the South Stand, Mexican waves, and streakers running across the pitch. Since 2007 the South Stand has been made officially accessible to over-18s only, due to its hyper and somewhat provocative atmosphere, although this rule is not strictly policed.
See YouTube for more on this.

So we made a deal: she'd take care of the hotel/hostel in Hong Kong and I'd book the flights from HK to Shanghai. We'd settle the difference. Well, I spoke to Caroline last night ans she informed me that she had booked the Las Vegas Guest House. Great, I thought. We had both agreed on booking a hostel or cheap hotel so we could spend our money on food, alcohol, tourist stuff, traveling around the island, etc. No need to stay at the Ritz. At least not when I'm paying. I laughed when I asked a buddy for advice on going to HK, particularly for this weekend, and he mentioned when he went to Sevens he had always stayed at the JW Marriott or the Mandarin Oriental. $500/night hotels? Great when someone else is paying. Plus, this place is called the Las Vegas Guest House. Sounds great. Seeing as I've never been to Vegas, this would be a good substitute. Speaking of Vegas substitutes, did you know that gambling revenue in Macau (the "Vegas of Asia," a small island off of China's south coast which was basically a Portugese colony until 1999) now eclipses that of Las Vegas itself? For more on this, check out this extremely colorful character: Stanley Ho.

Anyway, back to the main subject. When Caroline first told me about the hostel, I thought it'd be fine. Then I did a little research and discovered that it is located in the Chung King Mansion. I couldn't believe it. I thought she was joking. The Chung King Mansion. This was the ONE place where everyone who I'd talked to about going to HK told me to avoid. Seriously, people warned me, don't bring any valuables, don't carry any cash on you, this place is exceedingly dodgy. And I heard these things from some pretty inveterate travelers. Not the kind of people who are accustomed to 5-star hotels. I had been widely advised to just avoid the whole place.

This clip gives you an idea.

See here for a great article on the "chung king experience." Bottom line is that this place is a huge melting pot. It is a big complex made of five concrete blocks which are all filled with hostels and various vendors and shops. It attracts backpackers and travelers from around the world looking to crash on the cheap. It is a haven for immigrants, transients, and vendors from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka. It's also known to be a favorite of drug dealers, petty criminals and thieves, prostitutes, schemers and dreamers, etc. As you might guess, it's also known to have some of the best ethnic food in all of Hong Kong.

In all honesty, I'm actually pretty excited for this to be my first HK experience. I'm sure we'll be fine if we stick to that rule of keeping no valuables in the room and use common sense. I have plenty of time to return and stay at the Peninsula (where they maintain the world's largest fleet of Rolls Royce Phantoms, 14 of 'em at about $450,000 each) and eat at Alain Ducasse. I'm looking forward to doing it this way first. Also, in fairness to Caroline, our hostel supposedly gets good reviews for cleanliness and, most importantly, will cost us each just $19 per night, which is about as cheap as it gets in Hong Kong.

We'll see what I have to say once I actually experience it first hand...