Hong Kong, horse racing, Study Abroad, travel

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Island.

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A Horse Race in China.

I believe that China has the most ardent gambling fans of any nation.

Americans like to gamble, but not like the Chinese — to them, it’s a basic, essential part of life, like fine food to the French, or dancing to the Spanish.  I suppose it stems from seeing life as a gamble — you have to take your chances, competing for a job when everyone else has exactly the same skills and mindset.  And in the industrial zones of China, your life is being gambled away for you, as you attempt to survive the job-site, the drinking water, and the air you breathe.

In Hong Kong, like everywhere in China outside of Macau, every form of gambling is outlawed — with one exception.

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The exception is the horse race. There are two racetracks in Hong Kong — both famous, world-class, and impressive.

My friends from Lingnan University decided to meet at the Happy Valley Racecourse, in the center of heavily-developed Hong Kong Island.  Happy Valley is home to the biggest single jackpot in the world for any horse racing event – 400,000,000.00 dollars.

L0055568 Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Viewed from the hill. The village of Wong Nei Cheong can just be seen at the far end of the racecourse. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Racecourse, Happy Valley, 1868, credit John Thomson, Wellcome Library, London.

Originally, the land was swamp and rice paddies, appropriated by the British back in the 1800’s.  The city grew around it, and the track is now surrounded by skyscrapers.

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The owner of one building, a particularly enthusiastic fan of racing, built himself a penthouse with a special viewing balcony.

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The Tram. Looking a bit like J.K.Rowling’s Knight Bus

The trip there from the New Territories was an entertaining saga if its own — getting lost repeatedly, while trying various unique modes of transportation, including a 110-year-old tram.  Getting home took even longer,  and only people familiar with the absolutely indescribable impossibility of keeping any group of Asian college students on track and moving, can understand. (Because enjoying being together in the group is the goal and the reward, rather than actually getting anywhere in particular!)

The racetrack is an amazing sight in its own right:  7 stories of free seating, and 3 more decks for those who want to pay for the privilege of getting VIP seating. The stadium was also very Hong-Kongish in that it was full of food stalls that were randomly placed around the track, and simply full of people everywhere, tens of thousands. I don’t know the seating capacity, but it must have been in the hundred thousand range. In typical Asian fashion, it was crowded, full of animated conversations, clouds of cigarette smoke, and cell phone “Selfies” being taken.

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Having finally found the track, getting up to the seventh story to find our friends was a challenge in its own right — the elevators we found took us into the kitchens for some reason, and others were just for use during fires (which didn’t make sense to me, since in America elevators are what you don’t take when there’s a fire). So we took the stairs — also challenging — they were crowded with people, but none of them were actually going up and down.  The glitzy decor of the rest of the stadium wasn’t there, and the stairs were full of cigarette butts, old gum, torn-up betting slips, and countless people sitting quite comfortably on the steps smoking cigarettes, despite the signs saying: NO SMOKING. They clearly weren’t bothered by that. The looks they gave us seemed like they were daring us, “Go ahead, tell us to stop.”

When we arrived at the 7th tier, it hit me, that we were having a distinctly Hong Kong experience. Yes, there were about 10,000 reserved VIP seats, but really, as far as your neighbors at this track, all bets were off (pun not intended) — you could sit on the crowded benches literally rubbing elbows with a CEO on one side, and his shoe-shiner on the other.  It put everyone on an equal level.

 

Horse running Mulbridge LOCBetting was also interesting, as it was a very complex process. We had three Korean women in our group, who seemed to have mastered it with their system — they placed a bet on every single horse!  They were betting in several categories (win, place, show) and despite the initial cost, they won by default every single time, sometimes winning enough that’d they’d break even or even make a bit of money.

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The Lingnan U Betting Club

The most vivid memory from Happy Valley is something that screams “CHINA” to me. When we got to the final round of races, we all decided to place bets. I had been carefully studying the directory, and placed my bet on a favored horse to win. Everyone else was going to do the same, when a shirtless, mostly toothless old-looking man approached them. (This isn’t an uncommon sight in China, another difference between here and there). This man whispered in the ear of the Chinese-speakers and then stood behind them as they placed their bets. I thought he was just some oddball and then proceeded to watch the race.

Well, apparently he was a wizard. My horse lost by a hair, or a nose, to the horse that was the underdog — who was the one the old mysterious man had told my friends to bet on. He was right. They split the winnings (several thousand HKD) between them and had a great time rubbing it in my face.

They turned to thank the old man, and he had vanished. The time he disappeared was the only time that there was no crowd in our part of the stadium, so it seemed like he honestly vaporized into the night air. I don’t know why, but that disappearing old shirtless man is probably the most distinctive image I have of China, of all of the images I have saved mentally. It just seemed so incredibly Chinese to me, maybe because that does not happen anywhere else!

I didn’t need any time to realize that this was a distinctive experience — it struck me as suddenly as the little old man vanished. As we left, I was disgruntled over my lost bet, and my friends were ecstatic that they won (even though divided up, it came to very little money).  We walked out of the stadium through a literal downpour of papers from the betting tables. Showers of papers riding the humid air currents and slowly falling to earth closed the scene.

Of all the things I saw, felt, smelled, ate or heard, during my time in Hong Kong, this day was China.

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Hong Kong, Study Abroad, travel

The Night Market. Fu Tei, Hong Kong

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A lot of the lights in HK are still lovely neon, not LEDs. I don’t know if my hand shook on this shot, or if it was a reflection, but when I went to delete it, I realized it looked like musical notes. And so I kept it.

As any traveler to Asia knows, the “night market” is the place to visit while traveling for amazing food, and for a taste of local life. I cannot imagine Hong Kong without its night markets.

 

To a newcomer from the U.S., it is a wholly new experience.  We might have grown up with a “farmers’ market” — perhaps a great chance to meet some local farmers and crafters, and get fresh produce, but often it’s pretty limited – – just same-old vegetables on some bare-bones stands, or a handful of crates and cartons on the tail of a pickup, maybe a few baked goods and handicrafts, set up once-a-week in a village park, plaza, or parking lot. If you’re lucky, or in a bigger town, someone might make fried dough or doughnuts.

But in HK, a whole secondary city exists, popping up everywhere, every night, stalls with lots of lights and signs, selling everything, almost like a traveling carnival, open until midnight, then disappearing again by morning.    Everywhere you turn you’ll encounter them — from the famous Temple Street market that takes up several city blocks, to Mong Kok’s Ladies’ Market, where anything (and I mean anything) can be purchased, legal or illegal. But of the many night markets, the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the Fu Tei Illegal night market.

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Next to Lingnan University, Fu Tei is a huge housing estate – so big, it has its own postal district.  Several times a week,a semi-legal night market would semi-magically appear in front of the estate’s small shopping mall.

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Diagon Alley East

And that is my single most quintessential image of Hong Kong:  a shopping center with food stalls in front, teeming with people, saturated in cigarette smoke, and food smells wafting toward you through the humid air.

There were only a dozen food stalls in this particular night market, making it among the smallest. But this place was perfect. Despite their limited or nonexistent English, the cooks never messed up my order, and there was always good food for very little money. It cost more for me to get a bag of chips in the nearby Circle K, than it cost for a full meal at the night market.

I’d go three or four times a week to get my fix of spicy peanut noodles (dry) and my dumplings. Sometimes I’d get the soup noodles but they always found a way to make them too spicy, though still delicious.

The reason it is only semi-legal is that they are only allowed to operate certain times without a license, which most can’t afford. However, they would run the market every night of the week, crossing the line, and it wasn’t uncommon to have them pack up and run when a cop approached, though they wouldn’t be prosecuted and they always made sure everyone got what they wanted before leaving, making it the most relaxed illicit activity in the history of crime.

When I think of Hong Kong, five images come to mind, and most of them are the stereotypical images one would expect: the skyline, the harbor, the Big Buddha, the swarms of people. But that night market is always the fifth and possibly what I miss most about the city.

Westerners who have never been to Asia simply cannot understand the night market. It is a strange concept. The idea that random strangers, many toothless, missing limbs or sporting large wounds and dripping cigarette ashes into your food, are serving you random foods, that you cannot name, from a cart that isn’t even legally allowed to be there, does seems strange. But seven million customers can’t be wrong. The food is often better than what you’d get in a restaurant:  cheap, in generous portions that are agreeable to a westerner, and wildly addictive.

DSC02597The western business people and high rollers visiting Asia, they’ll go downtown in places like Hong Kong or Tokyo and drop five hundred dollars on a lobster that’s actually steeped in pollutants and glowing with radioactivity.  But the high rollers of Hong Kong, along with the bottom-of-the-barrel types, all know that you go to the night market for the action.

Nothing says Hong Kong like seven steaming dumplings wrapped in paper, served with a box full of peanut noodles with random things on them that I still couldn’t identify to this day.

I miss it .

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One of my favorite moments in England was a visit to Grantham, a small town in Lincolnshire, halfway between Hull and London.

 

I arrived at an old-fashioned train station and immediately fell for the charm of the place. Staying at a little inn, painted bright red for some reason, I felt like I’d been dropped into the stereotypical English holiday depicted in the old movies — a quaint old town set in a picturesque countryside.

 

 

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Roaming the winding alleys and cobblestone streets, past little parks with statues and flower beds, past buildings standing since medieval times, I felt most definitely in England.

 

 

 

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statue in front of City Hall, dedicated to the English Civil Servant, and every bit as animated, brandishing a sheaf of useless paperwork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ventured into the High Victorian-styled City Hall, where the staff were perfectly cast, like a waxwork museum, fulfilling their stereotypical roles as British Civil Servants.  Polite, pleasant manners, combined with total indifference to their jobs or visitors, and apparently lacking the slightest interest in, or knowledge of, the town they where they worked.

 

 

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Sections of the church not only pre-dated the United States, it even pre-dated the Normans. As I studied the Saxon-Norman-Gothic church, housing its chained library and perhaps a bone or two from old St. Wulfram, I really felt like I was in England for the first time, and not just in a continuation of the Rust Belt where I’d grown up — it might be in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Hull seemed like it could just as easily be Cleveland or Detroit in some regards — it even had a Chrysler plant.  Hull somehow didn’t feel entirely British, though it was distinctly un-American.

 

 

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Grantham felt how England should feel: damp, but not cold, grey, and ancient. Under the massive steeple of a thousand year-old church, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. Roaming by Sir Issac Newtown’s school and home, I felt that it really is true, there isn’t a spot in England that isn’t touched by history, I don’t think any other nation in the world can make that claim, especially in the third world, with cities rising out of jungle, desert, or seemingly from thin air.

The Grantham cabbies, the gingerbread biscuits, fish-and-chip shops, a medieval inn, the pubs lining the street – these were exactly the elements of the England I had hoped to discover in Hull, but never found there.

 

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The next day was spent at Belton House, an estate and manor. Roaming the grounds with its own forest, deer herd, and even a small railroad for children, it reinforced the sense of a movie-set England. The house was massive — 72 rooms and over a thousand acres of land (and a lake, a boathouse, gardens including a maze, carriage houses, etc). I loved the greenhouse, the immense library, even the servants’ quarters.

 

 

Belton House 5

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Everything about this trip was wonderful. For the first time in England, I felt like I had finally arrived on the right Island, and not in some historical Disneyland like York, or an American-style Rust Belt burg like Hull, or a modern cityscape like Leeds, which felt like a Canadian city minus the joviality and hockey.

 

 

Travel and “study abroad” involve learning something new, challenging your preconceptions, and encounters with the unexpected.

 

But — Grantham is England for me — I finally found the England of my expectations.

 

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England, Study Abroad, travel, UK

Grantham. The Quintessential English Town

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England, London, Study Abroad, travel, UK

A commitment to The Commitments

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Cast of the Commitments on the marquee of the Palace Theatre. (I think? it’s possible some of my photos got mis-labeled)

Halfway through a semester at the University of Hull, I was sick of England.

At that exact point, I could only think about the mass of readings and papers facing me at school, while trying to function on the few hours of sleep I could manage amidst the noisy, drunken student ghetto where I was living. I’d reached the low point in my regard for Life in Outer Yorkshire – – I did not feel at home, and I was sick of feeling like an outsider in a strange, decrepit corner of an island nation.

I took the train down to London to visit my mother, who was there briefly on business, and even then, didn’t feel as enraptured with London as I had expected. It was hard to generate too much enthusiasm when I’d decided that I hated England.

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Sure, London was cool. It was neat to see the great old buildings, the fantastic, though wholly overwhelming British Museum, walk through Hyde Park and some of the nicer neighborhoods, Covent Garden…and eat good food, rather than my own horrible experiments with codfish in an unpredictable and malevolent cooker. But it felt hollow (since it was all tourist stuff) and I felt that I needed something with a feeling, with soul, to welcome me, or make me feel more at home.

What finally helped me out of this rut was unexpected — going to see the play “The Commitments” on the West End.

On impulse, we got half-price tickets and then sat in a comically high part of the theater, past the nose-bleed seats, possibly in converted attic space, farther up than I would’ve expected possible in the creaky old building, looking down a long way to the stage. Three or four more rows up, the vegetation became stunted, and the seats were reserved for goatherds, as you hit the alpine timberline.

Despite a theater building that seemed to qualify as a comedy improv in its own right, the seats were fine and the crowd around us was interesting (between the middle-aged Irish women in front, singing and dancing the entire time, to the old British woman who turned around halfway through, to ask Mom if she, too, “thought tha’ show was rubbish”). The audience was a treat, and could’ve been a show in itself.

The actual show, while simple in plot, was more of a concert, highlighted by some bit of acting, rather than being a musical, which is more like a show interrupted by singing.

The songs, all protest and soul songs from the sixties (and therefore all songs I enjoyed greatly) were wonderful and done expertly, the dialogue was funny, and everyone was having a good time (save for the crabby old lady in front of us, who was kind of entertaining, in her own way). It was hard to be downbeat when the show was nothing but great beats.

Perhaps it was the music, perhaps it was the atmosphere of British people cutting loose a bit, having a good time, not being cold and aloof in their usual London manner (even Scandinavians and Germans are warmer than white Londoners), but I was finally able to have my spirits lifted. Maybe it was because the characters, Irish folk living in the 80’s, were also in a rut, that I was able to really get into the show… and from that point on, the city felt less dead and cold.

Like New York, and of comparable size and status, London has an edge — you know you don’t impress anyone there, and no one rushes to make you feel welcome, probably because you aren’t. At least folks in Hull were friendlier, probably due to the relative novelty of an American visitor to the East Riding of Yorkshire (especially one visiting on purpose, and not just a random tourist stranded when they missed their “All Creatures Great and Small” tour bus).

While a return to the Uni ghetto and drudgery didn’t help my mood or mental state, the show granted me a short-term escape, and helped me enjoy London and England more.  The positive effect was strong enough to last the rest of my stay. More escapes and happier times were around the bend, visiting friends on the Continent and then taking a brief trip to Spain. And even if I never acclimated to the student ghetto’s endless cycle of boozing-and-singing-Disney-theme-songs-very-badly-at-3AM-outside-my-window, I came to appreciate and like the people of Hull, even if I rarely understood more than a word of two of their dialect.  But the better mood and higher spirits all started with the Commitments.

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England, Study Abroad

Manchester

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Manchester is a unique city existing in several times.  It is simultaneously in this current world, the future world as envisioned by the media, and still in centuries past. The different times are intermixed and entwined perfectly.

Old buildings of brick — cold, gray and grimy with the ashes from industry of a bygone era — are mixed among steel skyscrapers of the “Madchester” era, an era of revitalization and a new face of British “cool”. And, among the old bricks and ‘80’s steel, is a new architects’ dreamscape, a world of modernistic buildings of glass and random designs, colors and styles. If you picture the city of the future, it may be located in the Far East, in the steaming jungles of a tropical region perhaps, but its look may be based on the experiments of Manchester’s cityscape. Giant glassy domes, belonging to a co-op mixed with the tallest building in the UK outside of London.  (This last one is the Beetham Tower, an ugly glass box with legs, but it gives an unparalleled view.)

The city has more restaurants than they know what to do with, so they just leave it to chance for the tourist (lost amid confusing half-streets, back alleys and winding ways), to wander into them — be they kebab, Korean, or fine Italian dining.

There are great museums — one promoting the struggle of the working man, and that gave a balanced view of communism, and made it look all right. Another museum, of science, and another of art, with no admission charge and extended hours so that the poor, the working, and the student can get to experience culture without sacrificing their schedule.

This city mixes cultures and races together into a cosmopolitan flavor. And yet, the whole time, you know you’re in England. There is the wet grey weather, the crumbly streets, the wrong-sided driving. The smell of tobacco, the music, the pub signs.

Manchester is possibly the last true English city. London is more than half foreign-born, and Leeds is thoroughly modernized, it’s historic roots mostly lost beneath myriad mazes of glass and steel, though present if you know where to look. Hull is like Bucharest, a nice place once you get over the initial ugliness and bad reputation. But Manchester, there is something special there. It is English in its mix of history, culture, and night life, its blend of old and new.  Foreign and native blend together but remain decisively English, and it feels Old World in a way the vibrant London does not, but it doesn’t feel ancient in the way York does, a city that is now a living museum.

Manchester to me, while not the most immediately interesting compared to some other places, is the most real. It has the English realness, the directness, the honesty. You can see its story written on its walls, not holding back, and yet not telling it to your face either.

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