Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Er-nai (二奶) for the dead

In the past, people burned paper-made clothes, houses, cars, ..., for the dead. Now you can buy (and burn) designer shirts, shoes, sneakers, handbags, jewelry, ..., mobile phones, check books, air conditioners, ...

I heard smaller items such as shirts cost 10 - 20 dollars a piece.

For a long time, I thought this practice was an invention of the practical Chinese. Recently, however, I read from the book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by the respected Sogyol Rinpoche that this is truly part of Buddhist beliefs. He wrote that when a person is dead and waiting to be re-incarnated, the person has a mostly virtual body and may feel certain needs, such as being hungry. The body can feed on things offered through burning. But these items must be offered in the person’s name. I did notice my relatives writing the name of the dead relatives on the items just before they burned those items.

I read that in Wuhan, for 50 yuan, one can buy a marriage certificate with a well-known film star for a dead relative. Or an er nai (mistress, 二奶) - to be more accurate, a paper-made doll with a label which says “ 二奶”. Amazing, isn’t it?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Why is there so much empty space at Chai Wan Cemetery? Isn’t it supposed to be overcrowded just like other cemeteries in Hong Kong?

It turns out many of the grave plots are only rented, not sold. Every ten years the remains are dug up. And the space is then rented to somebody else. Hence the temporarily unoccupied plots.

It is really not such a bad idea. If every dead person has to occupy a plot, sooner or later space will run out. And two or three generations later, chances are that there will not be anyone around to pay their respects. What is the point of keeping the grave and the remains?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ching Ming (Qingming Jie 清明節)

One week before Ching Ming Festival, and it was already very crowded at Chai Wan (柴灣) Cemetery on Sunday. We went there quite early, around 9 o’clock in the morning. It still took our taxi almost half an hour to go from Hang Fa Chuen MTR station to go up to the second columbarium in the cemetery. With most of the time spent between going from the first (the big round tower in the middle of the photograph) and the second one in the middle level of the the cemetery. Our destination was actually the third, which is at the highest level. But the road has been blocked beyond the second columbarium.

A lot of people ended up walking up the mountain, which is quite a long and steep climb. For the elderly like my aunt and my mother, it is impossible.

The view from the top levels of the cemetery, however, is spectacular. The graves face the north and north-east. The columbarium at the top is clean and airy. One can look across the harbour towards the general direction of Tseung Kwan O (將軍澳). The elevation is so high that one overlooks the buildings in Chai Wan.

Except one row of wall-like buildings right on the waterfront, which are taller than all other buildings by a big margin. Hence blocking everyone’s view, including those graves on the top of the mountain. They belong to one of those real estate developers of which Hong Kong is famous (or infamous) of.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Early morning in Hung Hom

It was not yet seven o’clock in the morning. These people at the grocery store were already busy laying out the vegetables. There is something about the wet market that attracts me, particularly in the morning. Perhaps it is because I often went with my mother to the wet market when I was small. Perhaps it is the freshness of the produce, the store, and the people. Perhaps it is the simple pride in starting to work while others are still getting up.

Just opposite the grocery store, other early risers are having breakfast in an old fashioned “ice chamber” (冰室), which has really evolved into a “cha chaan teng” (茶餐廳).

Inside a fast food restaurant, a brother and a sister are having breakfast, with no adults in view. They are not an isolated case. There are lots of parents who are just too busy, to take their very young children to school, or even to have breakfast with them.

Around the corner, it is Hong Kong style cardboard recycling in action.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lin Heung Tea House (蓮香樓)

A few blocks from Wing Lee Street is Lin Heung Tea House. One of the oldest Cantonese style tea houses still in business.

Glass-topped tables, old style kettles, ceiling fans, ox horn fans (牛角扇), big buns (大包), ...

Fighting for dim-sum from a push cart.

Sharing the table with complete strangers, standing behind someone’s back making him uncomfortable in order to finally make him vacate his place, ...

Nostalgia, yeah.

Wing Lee Street (永利街) 2

More photos from Wing Lee Street.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wing Lee Street (永利街)

Wing Lee Street has become the most famous street in Hong Kong, thanks to the movie Echoes of the Rainbow (歲月神偷). I have not seen the movie. Not that I don’t want to, I just haven’t got the time yet. But I have been to Wing Lee Street with my wife.

The street brings back a lot of memories. There are other buildings elsewhere in Hong Kong of similar age and style. What is remarkable here is that the whole street has not been rebuilt - yet.

Even though it is surrounded by high rises from all sides.

There is even an old market that is now used for recreation.

Hong Kong is probably unique in that it can afford to do much much more to conserve and preserve its buildings, streets, and the associated culture - but does not.

Most great cities such as London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Kyoto, etc. are doing great jobs in conservation. Some buildings have been there hundreds or even thousands of year. They look old, and yet they are still functional. Even Chinese cities such as Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, etc. are trying hard to catch up. Poorer cities cannot afford it. Hong Kong certainly can, but does not.

The logic of our government is impeccable. (1) Most buildings are too young to worth preserving. So nothing is done for them. (2) By the time the buildings are old enough, they have deteriorated to such a dilapidated state that they simply cannot be preserved. Either way, nothing can be done. So nothing is done. Isn’t it beautiful logic? Listen to our officials. If they are not using argument (1), then it is (2). Without fail.

Friday, March 19, 2010


S and his two daughters went on a tour, with a large group of friends from their church. They were crossing the border from Jiangxi into Hunan. The tour bus came upon a T-junction in the road from the bottom of the T, and should turn left. Somehow, the bus went straight ahead, went off the road, and plunged head first into the soft mud in the field. S passed out from the impact.

When S regained consciousness, he found himself lying on the soft grass field. Miraculously, he was unhurt. So were his daughters. In fact, he found that the people in the tour group were strewn all over the field, with no obvious injuries, but all of them unconscious. He could not tell whether they were dead, or that they simply passed out from the shock. He could not see the bus.

What if he is the only survivor? What should he do?

He tried to revive his daughters. After much shaking, they started to regain consciousness. But the others remained motionless. They tried to shake up the others. With no effect.

What are they supposed to do. There seemed to be no signs of life in the surroundings. What happened? What if they are the only survivors of some strange catastrophe that killed everyone? What are they supposed to do?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Reader

Hanna Schmitz had an affair with the young boy Michael Berg in the early years of post-World War II Germany. She often asked Michael to read to her. One day, she disappeared without a trace.

Years later, Michael found out she was accused of committing hideous crimes as a guard in a concentration camp. There was little doubt that Hanna was a guard at the camp. But there were considerable uncertainty as to how much of the crimes were committed by Hanna. As the trial went on, her behaviour in the trial became rather odd. At one point, she admitted to writing an important report that would confirm her guilt, rather than to submit a signature specimen to clear herself. While it was obvious to Michael that she could not have written the report because she could not read nor write. It appeared that she was too ashamed to admit that she was illiterate.

Later Hanna was sentenced to a long sentence. Michael sent her recordings of book readings, and Hanna learned to read and write. But Michael refused to visit her. On the day before she was to be released, Hanna killed herself.

I have to admit that I do not quite understand the book. But I was struck by how deeply the Germans felt their collective and individual guilt during the war. It is obvious that many of them felt ashamed of it, wanted to find out what happened and why so many of them behaved in such despicable ways.

In contrast, such reflection had been almost completely lacking in Japan. Why is this strong contrast? Could it be related to the strongly Christian faith and culture in Germany?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Second hand food

I was stunned when a man walked up to the table opposite mine, picked up a cup and drank from it.

Didn’t three young Filipino ladies just eat at that table, and then leave less a minute ago? I didn’t see the man put down anything. So he was drinking from one of those cups left by the young ladies?

Then he picked up a piece of bread or something to eat.

How desperate do you have to be?

When I recovered enough from the shock to want to buy the man something to eat, he had disappeared. I looked around, but he was nowhere to be found. As if it never happened.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Shoot out in a dim sum restaurant

S was crouched behind a cupboard in an old-style Chinese dim sum restaurant. The type in which ladies push around carts piled up with dim sum, from which customers can take their pick. The cupboard was only waist high. So S can watch the entrance to the restaurant over the top of the cupboard.

He knew he cannot get out - the police were outside, guns drawn, waiting for the opportunity to rush in. He made a mistake a long time ago. One thing led to another; and now the police is after him. He would love to go back and undo the mistake, to start all over. But he could not.

What should he do? He had a gun. Should he shoot at the police? The police would surely shoot back at him. He would then die in a hail of bullets. That would seem heroic. It would be very exciting for a moment. Then what? Perhaps he would be wounded but not die. Then he would have to spent the rest of his life crippled, in prison. That would be a lousy way to live.

Should he put the gun in his mouth and pull the trigger? That would end it quickly and he would surely die. Then what? Would he end up in the abyss, condemned to eternal suffering?

Should he give up, admit that he had screwed up, and accept the punishment? Should he try to live his life in the right way from now on, even in prison? That would seem to be the right thing to do. But prison life is hard. He would suffer terribly. There would surely be a lot of pain and indignity. He probably deserved it. But could he handle it?

There did not seem to be an easy way out. Perhaps life is really like that - no easy way out. What should he do?

Mailboxes (2)