Musings from China – No. 5

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Daisann waiting for us.

My mother was the most Lutheran person I ever knew. She wasn’t born a Lutheran as I was. She chose to be a Lutheran. She knew more about Lutheran theology than most of the pastors we had over the years.

It has always amused me that I know more things about the history of Prosperity than my husband, born and bred here, does. I wasn’t born in Prosperity. I chose to adopt Prosperity/Frog Level and keep collecting stories.

Cousin Karen had signed us up for a Sunday walk in Wan Chai, a great local neighborhood. Moments after I met our tour guide Daisann McLane, an award winning journalist, Cordon Bleu trained chef, and founder of Little Adventures in Hong Kong, I knew I had met someone who had chosen this city as her own. A native New Yorker and a Hong Kong citizen by choice, I knew she was passionate about this place, its food, its people and its many stories.

She has lived in and studied Hong Kong for 13 years. I’m sure that very few natives know this town as a well as she does. She seems to scour every conversation with locals to find another interesting nugget about its history, out-of-the-way eateries, temples and even famous murders.

She’s learned or, should I say, is learning Cantonese. She began her studies so that she could order food well at really local restaurants or holes in the wall! Cantonese is a complicated language that you never stop learning, especially restaurant Cantonese. She fearlessly uses the language with natives, like the owner of the little cha chaan teng coffee shop called Ho Wah where she took us.

IMG_3144She thinks it is a badge of honor that the owner now jokes with her about her language skills, sharing the idiomatic terms that native speakers of Cantonese use for the literal translations she speaks. It seems there is a short-hand word for almost everything in Cantonese and Daisann is in search of them all.

It was like a comfortable step back in time when she ordered us milk tea, lemon tea or a mix of coffee and tea to go with all of our white bread treats at the cha chaan teng. I particularly enjoyed the plain white bread version of “French toast” like my Mom made for us as children. Yes, Mom, I got the lemon tea just like you fixed it for me. You were there for just a moment.

Daisann shared with us that these little eateries had been very popular after World War II in Hong Kong, when life was pretty tough. These pre-packaged “American” foods became important in the local culture at the time. There are only a few left in areas like Wan Chai, which was once the waterfront, before mammoth geography-changing landfills. These eateries are the favorites of not only old-timers, but also young people reaching back to claim some of their social history.

IMG_3148Another stop on our rainy Sunday tour was Hung Sing, a small temple that seemed to organically grow out of the rocks in the side of a steep hill. The hill seemed held together by the embracing roots of a singular banyun tree. It felt holy.

Daisann sees this eclectic temple, with its many village “gods” and effigies to those lost in a long-ago plague in Hong Kong, as a symbol of the practical and sensitive nature of the local mix of Chinese people. The place is holy, where it is easier for those with many different “gods” and beliefs to reach across the boundaries between the living and the dead. They can honor the ancestors of the poor souls who died without their families in the long ago plague or their own village gods and ancestors. It’s all good.

Daisann understands that social history, what people eat, what they cook, and how they worship, tells the story of a place as well as dates in history. She also cares tremendously about the current local politics of China in Hong Kong. She is saddened that so many of the old “Hong Kong” places and buildings have been lost. She is cautiously optimistic that there seems to be a growing public support for saving them and their history.

She left us at Pawn, a hip bar and restaurant that once was an old pawn shop. It overlooks the trolleys going back and forth on the busy street below. It is a good example of how to creatively use old spaces, not just raze and build up, up, up!

She also left us feeling like we had gotten a little glimpse of the real Hong Kong. Thanks, Daisann, for our “Little Adventure in Hong Kong.”

Check out www.littleadventuresinhongkong.com for more information about this amazing small group tour company and Daisann McLane.