Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Old Lady in TaiKokTsui (大角咀)

Her face is deeply lined. Her hands are gnarled. Her back is bent double. At her age, she should be enjoying the leisure of retirement. Yet she is manning a small sidewalk stand in Taikoktsui selling household items such as towels. And she is not the only one. There are many others like her, trying to earn a living at an old age. Some are picking up cardboards for recycling, or worse.


Hong Kong has one of the wealthiest societies on earth. Many of us have much much more than we need. While some of us are spending tens of thousands of dollars on a meal, and tens of millions of dollars on a wedding, why are we not lending a hand? Do we really need to throw money away like than?

Now I feel guilty having eaten those egg tarts on Sunday - I wasn’t really hungry, but just could not resist the temptation. And now I hesitate to complain when I feel overworked.

How can we sleep at night without doing something?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Egg Tarts (蛋撻)

They are one of my favourite desserts. This is the flaky-shell type, probably with lard in it. - the real egg tarts. Those with non-flaky shells are supposed to be healthier, but they are nowhere nearly as good.

Look at the convex surface. Tap the tarts lightly, and the egg fillings wobble. Yummy!

Actually, the tarts came out of the oven only a minute ago; and the fillings have not settled yet. It is too water-ly. Let them sit for a minute or two, give the fillings a chance to firm up slightly, and they will be perfect. But if you wait loo long, the fillings cool, shrink, and the surfaces turn concave. They will not be as good then. So, timing is all important.

Two hot egg tarts, a cup of hot tea with cream, and a good book. Now that is a perfect Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Highway beside HuangHe (黃河)

This is an elevated highway by the side of HuangHe (黃河) near Hancheng, right in front of Sima Qian’s (司馬遷) tomb. It must be close to 200 feet high. Very dramatic, don’t you think?

This section of the highway runs along HuangHe, On this side of the river is Shaanxi (陕西). On the other side? Shanxi (山西). This stretch of the river is very broad but very shallow.

Here are a couple of the views from the highway. Note the green grass on the sand banks? Does that mean that the river does not really rise too much above the level that it is at? Except when it is flooding?

The reality is, so much water is diverted from the river for irrigation, that the river runs dry before it reaches the ocean in Shandong (山東) almost every year. It is becoming an inland river!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Surprised by sheep

Getting out of the one school in Dang village 党家村, I was startled by a noise that sounded like a bunch of people arguing loudly. But I couldn’t quite make out what was being said. At first I thought it was because they were speaking some local dialect. Suddenly it dawned on me that it might have been some animal baa’ing.

Trying to trace the source of the noise, I poked my head through the open door of this courtyard. The courtyard was empty but the noise got louder. Before too long, this woman came through those doors to the left. And I caught a glimpse of some sheep behind those doors. I begged her to let me look at the sheep. It turned out she was quite friendly and simply told me to just help myself.

Opening the doors, I came face to face with this curious creature, who stared at me as if I was some alien from outer space. I was also bombarded with very loud baa’s. There were some 40 sheep there, with many lambs among them. Honestly, I do not know why people like lambs. To me, puppies and kittens are much cuter.

There was just one unfriendly ram. Perhaps it was threatened because I was male? But how could it tell? The woman said they just need one ram, for obviously reasons, I guess.

Most of the time, most of them just stared at me with unblinking eyes. It seemed that the only time that they were not staring at me, they were eating. It was hard to tell whether anything was happening behind those eyes.

They can be sold at seven reminbi for a catty, which is about half a kilogram. Each sheep weights about 70 catties. So you can easily figure out how much each sheep is worth. And how much for the whole flock. It is quite a bit of money.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Stele for virtuous woman (節孝碑)

There once a Mrs. Dang, formerly Ms. Niu in the Dang village 党家村. Her husband went to the capital to attend the national examinations, but died before he entered the examination halls. Mrs. remained a virtuous widow for 52 years, until she died.

When the emperor heard about her story, he made her dead husband an official and commemorated her virtue by establishing a stele in her honor in her village. It is called a 節孝碑. similar to a 旌節牌坊.

On the one hand, it is an honor to be commemorated this way. On the other, this so-called honor took away the freedom and any hope of a normal life from numerous women.

In most cases it was only the faint hope of such an honor because the honor, even if it was actually bestowed, was only done posthumously. When it did, it was the family of the dead who actually benefit from it, So, there was certainly a lot of incentive for the family of the dead husband to make sure the widow stayed to live a virtuous life. But rarely any reason for the widow to do so.


党家村 was and is a farming village. It was perhaps not much different from other villages in China until the end of the Qing Dynasty. While both Hancheng and Dangjiacun are both very old, they are quite different.

Hancheng is an old town, with several straight, wide streets and many narrow ones, Dangjiacun’s streets are all narrow and mostly irregular. While there are many shops opening onto the streets of Hancheng, they are mostly Siheyuan’s (四合院) in Dangjiacun and almost no shops.

One thing that struck me was the numerous writings exhorting people to study, to be modest, to work hard, to be kind to family, to be disciplined, and in general to be virtuous.

They reminded me that while practically everyone in China was a farmer, everyone also dreamed of studying hard to be a cultured person. And, one day, passing the national examinations to qualify as an official. Failing that, at least become a learned and respected elder in ones’ own village.

There was even a monument honoring a virtuous wife of an official. More about it later.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dang Village (党家村)

党家村 is a 600 year old village about 10 kilometers north of Hancheng. And was the real reason why I took the three hour bus ride from Xian. When I arrived at the top of the sloping road leading down to the village, and saw it for the first time, the view took my breath away. It was really picture-perfect, a hundred years old village frozen in time.

It is becoming famous because of its near prefect preservation of Ming and Qing dynasty houses. Particularly those 四合院. I have seen them before, in Beijing, Xian, and other places. But usually just individual ones. And they were usually dilapidated, with the courtyard stuffed with ugly additions. Or so touched up that they looked more like models. Never before so many together, in such good conditions.

These courtyards reminds you of the movie 大紅燈籠高高掛, don't they? Well, they should, because they are really the same type of houses, quite common in northern China a hundred years ago.

In fact, people are still living in them. Behind those curtains dwell farmers who continue to work the fields surrounding the village. They grow mainly pepper corn, corn and millet, A farmer’s life in China is a hard life. Food prices are artificially low, to keep the city folks contended. So the back-breaking work does not always bring many happy returns. I saw a woman carrying a hoe, several women picking something from trees on a hillside just outside the village, a woman feeding sheep, a woman carrying coal, ... The village is a pleasant diversion for city dwellers and curiosity for history buffs like me - who would like it to remain that way as long as can be. But I imagine it must be very different from their point of view.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Confucius Temple (孔廟)

Hancheng has one of the oldest and largest temples for Confucius, right in the middle of the old city. The style is very similar to those I have seen in Beijing and Taipei, with pavilions, statues, steles, pools, bridges, ... It was pleasant and peaceful, the perfect place to spend an afternoon reading.

I like the most the majestic old trees. There were lots of pines and cedars. At least one of the cedars was said to be 1700 years old and some people had adopted them as their parents! It is believed that old trees become some kind of gods. Adopting them as parents is supposed to gain protection to their own children.

The words at the bottom of this stele had been chipped off, probably during the Cultural Revolution?

In a courtyard on the left hand side, I found these stone figures lined up neatly. They reminded me of students gathering for morning assembly.

It was strangely fitting that I bumped into a big crowd of students getting off from school when I was getting out of the temple, as Confucious has long been revered as the greatest teacher in Chinese history. Yet I doubt his real impact nowadays - I was the only visitor throughout the time I was there.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Landing in a Storm

When I flew from Hong Kong to Xian on the 16th the weather was fine. It was a bit hazy but I was still able to take photos like this one. Shatin is in the middle of the photo, with the ShingMun River flowing from top to bottom. MaOnShan at the bottom, Chinese University and the Science Park to the lower right, Kowloon in the upper left, and TsuenWan in the upper right are all clearly visible.

When I flew back from Xian on the 19th, however, it was dramatically different. Typhoon Signal number 3 was hoisted, and the weather stormy. For the last half hour before landing, we passengers had our seat belts tightened, while the plane was thrown up and down. Nobody panicked visibly. But people were talking, joking and laughing nervously. I read.

I suddenly realized there was a distinct possibility that the plane might crash in the stormy weather while landing. I started to imagine what it might be like when the plane crashes and we have to exit the plane quickly. For a split second I debated with myself whether I should try to take anything with me before going out. Then I remembered I was seating just two seats away from the emergency exit, that there was a woman seating at the emergency exit and she might not know how to open the door, that both hands have to be used, ...

I also realized that my family might realized the same and be worried. I started to pray for safety. Since I was seating at the aisle and it was raining outside, I couldn’t see where we were. Suddenly there was a bump and we had landed. People started to clap. So it was just God reminding me not to take anything for granted, and I was thankful.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hancheng (韓城)

Hancheng was Sima Qian’s (司馬遷) hometown. And it has one of the most well-preserved, yet living old cities dating back to the Ming (明) and Ching (清) dynasties. This is one of the main streets in the old city. On both sides of the street are houses built of bricks and wood, in the old styles. Hancheng today is an industrial town emphasizing on mining. Yet the city has decided to preserve the old city and develop the new one outside. This has long been practiced in many European cities but is a relatively new phenomenon in China. For example, there is not much of the old Beijing left today besides the Forbidden City. And it is true of most of the famous historical cities.

Here is a closer look at some of the houses. I was intrigued by the wood and brick construction, the big wooden beams, walls, doors, balconies, windows, ... Many houses have a dilapidated look to them. It is of course a pity. Yet at the same time it is strangely comforting because that also means that they have not been beautified too much yet. There are signs that is happening here - I saw quite a few house being built or refurbished in the old style.

Here is a smaller street where the houses are mostly built with bricks. There is no doubt this is still a living town with people buying their groceries, getting off from school, buying snacks, buying household items, clothing, toys and the like. In other words, they are just going on with their lives right here. There are some tourists, mostly from other mainland cities. I don’t remember seeing one Caucasian face. And I don’t get the feeling yet that the residents are staging for tourists. But I don’t know how long that will remain. The city seems to be investing heavily on promoting tourism. So get there soon if you want to see it as it is, not an idealized version.

One of the problems is that it is not easy to get to by yourself. It is 230 kilometers east of Xian, requiring a 3 hour bus ride on the highway. But it is worth it. I will post more about it when I have time.

Sima Qian's Tomb

I was at Sima Qian’s (司馬遷) tomb!

It was near the top of a hill about 20 kilometers outside HanCheng (韓城), 230 kilometers to the east of Xian, very close to the Yellow River. This was one of the views on the way up, involving some steep slops and a couple hundred steps. For me, the hike wasn’t very hard. But just outside those chains was a sheer drop of several hundred feet. I have to admit my legs went weak when I looked down - I had, somehow, become more afraid of the heights as I grew older. So you can imagine how I felt when I had to turn around to take photos of the views from the steps.

Here I was, just 2 steps from the top. It was a tremendous view looking over the plains around the hill. The fields were in so many different shades of green. The trees were of different shapes and colors, and lined up in intriguing patterns. My photos with a limited viewing angle cannot really give it justice. You have to be there. The highway bridge looked like a monstrous long legged millipede in a future world. Just behind it, in the distance was the Yellow River, which I last saw in Lanzhou in January. It was relatively small, cold and clear then. Now it is vast, shallow, and muddy. On this side of the river is Shannxi (陕西). On the other side? Shanxi (山西). The names are confusing in pinyin, but not in Chinese.

Sima Qian is the greatest historian that China have ever seen. He is worthy of our respect not just for the way he wrote “Records of the Grand Historian”(史記), an overview of the history of China covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Han Wudi (漢武帝), creating a style and method for countless aspiring historians to follow. It is also because of the way he stood up to the emperor, defending General Li Ning (李陵) who lost in a battle with the XiongNu (匈奴). He is my hero! So I was most respectful standing in front of his tomb.

It was not easy getting there from Xian. As to how I got there? It is another story for another day. It is late and I must go to bed.

Friday, April 18, 2008

My Little World

To the left is the university, where I work. Towards the upper right hand corner is the apartment block where I live. Our church is in the shopping center slight off center to the right. I did not realize it at the time when I took the picture - this little rectangle is pretty much the extent of my universe, mostly.

The earth has seven continents. With hundreds of countries, among which I have visited no more than ten percent. Even Hong Kong itself is a big place, with lots of places that I have never been to. Yet there are days, even weeks during which I barely get out of this rectangle. It is a pity, isn’t it? What about you?

It is not everyday that one gets a chance to fly over one’s home, so I was overjoyed when my plane did. It was a sunny day when it took off for Xian, but the air was hazy. And the picture was taken through the double paned window of the airplane. Hence the poor color. But considering it was taken from roughly 10,000 feet up in the air, the lens was really quit good. Thanks to my daughter who recommended it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Taking Off

In the first photo, our plane was completing its final turn, lining up at the end of the runway in preparation for take-off. In the distance, at the far end of the runway, the plane we were following had just taken off.

In the second photo, our plane was ready to take off. The NorthWest plane behind us was making its final turn. And in the distance, a plane was landing on the second runway. The Dragonair plane might appear to be following the NorthWest. But it wasn’t. It was actually stationary, parked in a space between the two runways. There were indeed planes following the NorthWest, but they had not gotten into the frame yet.

That’s how busy the ChekLapKok (赤臘角) Airport is. Roughly one plane landing or taking off every minute on each runway. It must be exciting but nerve-racking managing the airport.

By the way, I was flying off to Xian (西安) to attend a conference.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Old Kai Tak Airport

This is, of course, the old Kai Tak Airport. The photo was taken from the 8th floor car park of MegaBox. The long strip across the middle of the photo was the runway.

The airport was moved to Chek Lap Kok in 1998, 10 year ago. And the airport has been lying farrow more or less like this ever since. Well, it has been used for various temporary usage such as storing sand, storing buses, golf course, bowling, car shows, flea market, government offices, etc.

I actually sneaked in a few times to look around and found people flying model planes, riding bicycles, playing cricket, stealing metal, and jogging (me). You can check out some of my old postings for some pictures.

But the long term future of this prime piece of land in the middle of Kowloon was undecided for a long time. Land has always been in short supply in Hong Kong. While everyone has been crying out for space, isn’t it rather ironic this prime piece of land has been lying like that for 10 years?