Monday, October 26, 2009

Honeymoon: Hong Kong Shopping and the Avenue of Stars

The city of Hong Kong is separated into two halves by a large body of water. Connected to mainland China is Kowloon and across the water is Hong Kong Island. The New Territories are a more sparsely populated area to the northwest. If you're coming to Hong Kong as a tourist on a tight schedule, I'd recommend finding a hotel in Kowloon and taking a daytrip out to see Hong Kong Island.

Kowloon is a good place to stay (we stayed near MongKok Station) because you're closer to the airport and right in the middle of the busy shopping districts. If you don't like shopping and noise, you could probably find a nice hotel in Aberdeen, but it may be more expensive.

On a side note, two good restaurants in Adelaide Chinatown that I used to eat at were called Cafe Kowloon and the MongKok Restaurant. Now I know what the names are referring to.

Lots of tourists target Hong Kong as a shopping destination. Clothing, food and souvenirs are noticeably cheaper, but other things like electronic goods are similar to Korean prices. The best places to go for cheap clothes are the markets in Kowloon. Here they'll sell shirts for around US$4 as the asking price, but you can easily bargain that down if you're willing to put some time and acting into it. Bargaining is fun if you have the time, although not quite so enjoyable if you're in a hurry.

The basic modus operandi of market vendors in Hong Kong is to first give a lightning assessment of the potential buyer. From my brief observations, it seems that you'll be given a lot of attention and less room for bargaining if you look rich and from a western country. Next come other Asian tourists, who get given a little attention and more bargaining leverage. At the apex of the economic shopping category come the native Cantonese-speaking locals. They will often be able to get a cheap price in a short amount of time, with the vendors just waving them off quickly so they can concentrate their efforts on the more naive customers.

As a general rule, you're not getting a bargain unless you pay less than a third of the advertised price. Heather and I did fairly well, after a few hit-and-misses.

A good thing to remember is that if the vendor is watching you, don't look like you're interested in any one particular item. If they know that you're interested in a certain item, you're sure to have difficulty bargaining it down. Ask for prices on a few different things first, and then eventually arrive at the thing you're after. If it's $100 HK dollars, ask for it for $20. Then they'll probably say $85. Give it some time and make use of the oversized calculator they always have nearby.
If that doesn't work, try pulling the oldest trick in the book. Pretend to give up on it and start walking away. If the vendor isn't busy, they will nearly always shout a cheaper price as you're just out of hearing range. If they don't call after you, don't worry because there'll be a shop selling exactly the same thing just up the road and you can try again.

There's always room for common courtesy and mutual respect though.

Common to much of Asia is the endless bemusement to be derived from English mistakes on shirts.

'Fo let the good times soll!'

For US$2, you can get any three of these fruits blended up in a smoothie. We tried carrot, orange and apple, which was a surprisingly good combination. The next day we came back and had some more.
The fruit on the top left that looks like it's on fire is called Dragonfruit. The flesh is white and has little black seeds like kiwi fruit.

Live seafood is sold in a similar manner to Korea. I remember when I first went to Jagalchi in Busan, I saw an ajumma buy a live octopus with a head that was only a little smaller than a basketball. The vendor put the squirmy creature into double-lined shopping bags and it was just carried off, writhing in a rather curious manner. Through the opacity of the bag you could see things like tentacles, something wet and breathing, and an eyeball.

Great Halloween idea.

This Adidas shop had a resident cat wandering around and greeting the customers. Before I came to Korea, I was always a dog person, but these days I'm learning to appreciate cats. I like the fact that they know where to poop, and they don't smell bad.

But then again, nothing beats coming home to an exuberantly excited canine, overjoyed with just the fact that it hasn't seen you since you left in the morning.

We came back to the hotel with a fair bit of shopping. I think I spent around US$300, but it was a $300 well spent. Luckily, I had packed a half empty suitcase in anticipation.

Then it was off to meet Tommy for the second time. The Hong Kong subway system is fairly simple and easy to use. The line map is much simpler than Seoul's, and everything is nice and clean.

This is Tommy Lau. I used to live with this guy back in Australia for a couple of years and we're good friends. Now he works in a trading company and seems to be doing pretty well for himself. He picked us up at the airport and took us around to some bars. These days he seems to be a little wiser and a little more healthy than when I last saw him.

It was nice catching up with him, and now it's his turn to come and see us in Korea!

He took us out to a Taiwanese restaurant. You'd expect to eat out at a Hong Kong restaurant if you're visiting Hong Kong, right? But the funny thing is that for me also, when people come to visit Korea, I feel like taking them out to foreign restaurants in Itaewon. Mainly because I spend too much time eating Korean food, so it doesn't seem special anymore.

For the record, Taiwanese food is quite nice and they like to eat sweet spiced chicken.

This is the Peninsula Hotel, one of the most famous in the city. If you're feeling suave, you might want to stay here or at the Intercontinental.

Here's Heather and me in front of the Space Museum. It's shaped like this because there's a planetarium inside. Anybody who knows me, knows that I like all things space-related, except for long-bearded professors who talk too much about the mathematics.
We came back to have a look inside, but it's closed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Take a note of that if you're visiting.

What are those green lights in the sky? They're lasers mounted on top of the buildings across the harbour. On certain nights, they have a Festival of Lights, and many of the buildings participate by lighting up in various neon patterns. It's all synchronised to a public music broadcast and worth coming out for, but we only got to see the tail end of it.

Here's Tommy, me and Heather on the Avenue of Stars. This area is a kind of boardwalk dedicated to important figures in Hong Kong movie history.

The boardwalk has some nice views of the harbour, surpassed only by Victoria Peak, which we'll see in the next blog post. That really tall building on the right is Two International Finance Centre. Batman jumped onto it in The Dark Knight movie.

Notice that dazzling blue neon billboard? That's none other than Samsung's contribution to the otherwise perfect photo opportunity. It's so bright that it becomes an overexposure problem in everyone's photos.

See what I mean? The funny thing is that in lots of the advertisements and other official photos of Hong Kong Harbour at night, the Samsung sign is actually covered up or obscured by something.

If any of the LKB readers out there works at Samsung, please ask the boss to hit the dimmer switch at the Hong Kong branch.

Similar to its Hollywood counterpart, the Hong Kong Avenue of Stars has these dedications on the ground. Tsui Hark directed the Once Upon a Time in China series, which are movies that captured my imagination as a middle schooler.

There was a time when I would jump around yelling "Futsan, Moying ge!"
(Cantonese for: No-Shadow Kick from Fushan!)

That's it for this time. I actually have to head to Jeju for 5 days this week on a science conference. So I'll be back with the next post sometime early next week. And I also start tutoring soon too.

Hmm... busy schedules; we all hope they lead somewhere worthwhile.

See you soon!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Honeymoon: Off to Hong Kong

Our wedding finished on the Saturday and we left Busan for the honeymoon on the following Monday. Having not had a holiday since Beijing in February last year, we were both looking forward to getting out and about again. Heather and I have a tendency to overload our schedules during working life, but traveling for us isn't very relaxing either. We try to make the most of it when we are lucky enough to leave the country, so traveling isn't good for relaxation, it's good for the change of scenery.

Here's Heather, still visibly bathing in the remnants of the wedding afterglow we both were feeling at this point. In the background is the departure terminal of Gimhae International Airport, which is the main airport that serves the city of Busan.

One of the things I had in the back of my mind for a while was an idea to buy a new camera. My old Sony DSC is fine, but is a little large and getting a bit long in the tooth. What I've realised with keeping a photo blog is that the quality of the camera is not as important as its carriability: which means (to me) 'the ease at which it can be carried around'. If the camera is too big, I'm not likely to put it in my pocket when I leave in the mornings, thereby missing out on a whole truckload of mediocre photo opportunities that I could have eagerly shared with you all.
The camera that I've always wanted since 2005, when I first started reading about cameras, is the one I bought in the photo above, from duty free at the airport. Albeit a much newer update to the original model. It's a Canon IXUS 100, and the original model used to be called the SD500 in Australia. It's a 12 megapixel; although I've since learned it's not the megapixelage that make the man, it's what he does with them. Other things it has include HDMI video, a battery that lasts longer than a week on honeymoon, and a nifty green square on the display that can detect when someone is blinking. It cost US$320 and it's really good.

This is the first video test I took with the camera, panning around the departure terminal. Heather is pulling a face, which she likes to do from time to time when I take photos of her.

Our original agreement was for Heather to organise the wedding and for me to do the honeymoon. It was a pretty good deal if you ask me. So I went off and emailed a few travel agents. The best deal I could find had us going on a return trip to Hong Kong, Macau and Australia for around US$2000 each. When I told Heather about it, she just rang her travel agent friend and got us the same thing for half the price. That's why I prefer to leave Heather in charge of important things.
We flew on DragonAir to Hong Kong at around 8pm. It's a very cheap airline, but seemed nice enough.

We arrived in Hong Kong around midnight and my old friend, Tommy, picked us up at the airport. We were a little tired and Tommy had to work the next day, so we went straight to the hotel to have an early night. The first thing I noticed about Hong Kong is that it's very warm at night. It's like a warm day without any sun.

The second thing I noticed was that they have funny water bottles. This bottle of water said it had a use-by date on the cap, but the cap was blank.
When I think about it, things should only have a use-by date if they have something in them that can go bad. But I read the label and it only said 'Ingredents (sic): Water'.

I drank it and I still feel fine.

The best thing about traveling is seeing new things. The second best thing is eating different foods. I was feeling a little peckish at that point, so Heather and I ventured out onto the streets to find some food. A little noodle place sold us a little tub of noodles for $2, and I was impressed by the custom carry bag.

This is what it looked like back in the hotel room. Pretty decent for a snack and an enjoyable change from the usual samgak-kimbap that I eat in Korea.

The next day we opened the curtains of the hotel room to this view. There are a lot of similarities to Seoul, but there's something different that I can't quite put my finger on. The buildings seem a little older, and there's a different colour of sky, perhaps.

Right near our hotel they had this construction work going on. Our Hong Kong Island tour guide later told us that they use bamboo because it's strong, cheap and light. And unlike metal, in tropical regions it maintains a cool temperature when you climb on it with bare feet.

Then it was off to find some food again. I snapped this photo of the menu in the first restaurant, that we went to.

Mainly because I like the sound of 'Mud Cat Congee'.

Food in Hong Kong is slightly cheaper than Korea. This means that you can get pretty good food for around HK$25 per dish. You divide the Hong Kong dollar by 7 to get American dollars.

I'd seen the streets of Hong Kong in many a Kung Fu action movie in the past. The city has a very distinctive lived-in atmosphere to it, but doesn't feel as crowded as you might think.

I'm a big fan of the Chinese shop signs.

The scenery changes rapidly if you walk around for a bit. Closer to the subway station there were some larger chain stores and it felt like Sydney all of a sudden.

There's something grotesquely intriguing about the way meat-on-a-hook-in-a-shop-window looks. To me, at least.

My favourite? That would be the duck.

Around midday is when they start setting up the market streets in Kowloon. From little plastic hessian wrapped bundles unfold tent-like enclaves. Mainly selling things like souvenirs.

We'll come back here in a later post.

The first day we spent walking up and down the streets of Kowloon. Heather's done a lot more traveling than me, and is one of those people who prefer to let others take the photos.

At this point, we were liking Hong Kong a lot, but the heat was quite noticeable.

The best thing about going into department stores in Hong Kong is that they have industrial strength air-conditioning. It's like walking into the South Pole from the Sahara Desert. And they sell matching hats so that honeymooning couples can identify themselves to others.

We found a foot-massage place and paid around US$12 each for a 45 minute massage. In this photo, Heather's feet are being massaged by a lady, while she watches TV. First they wash your feet in aromatic warm water, and then they massage away. I didn't know there were so many ways to rub a foot.

Heather loved it and fell asleep. I'm ticklish, so I found it to be an excruciating test of mental willpower.

Then we went to find a place on our little tourist map called Aquarium Street. I've always liked aquariums since I was young. Back home in Australia I had a nice 3 foot long one and kept a happy family of comet goldfish for a number of years.

Aquarium Street is a one kilometre-long alleyway selling every conceivable biological entity that can live in aerated water. I think what I like about aquariums is that they look like miniature worlds. And I always like to wonder what goldfish are thinking.

Hey. You there. Monkey face. Stop tapping. The glass.

I hadn't seen this breed of goldfish before. They have billowing skin bags puffing out under their eyes. That's what happens when you sneeze with your mouth closed.

Oh, and guinea pigs. One of my favourite kinds of pet.

Shrimps, snails and sea urchins were all for sale. I think the shrimps are actually food for exotic molluscs that people like to keep.

And these are Siamese Fighting Fish. In Australia, one of these will set you back around $45, but in Hong Kong they are HK$10, which is around one dollar something.
These fish live in small rainpools in tropical areas and the males defend their diminishing territory viciously. Placing two males into the same pond will result in a fight to the death.

Much to the bemusement of the betting men who placed them there.

We made a large circle around Kowloon by foot and ended up back at the markets. We'll continue on from here in the next post.

I'm going to divide up the posts into chunks around this size and post when I can. Life back in the lab is busy, and not nearly as exciting as these photos. But it's fun looking back on our trip and I'm looking forward to sharing the rest with you.

All in good time. See you soon!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Our Korean Wedding, Part 3

Around this age is when a fair few people choose to get married. A lot of friends have already been married, and some have weddings in the next few months. 27 years old seems young and I often ponder whether we should have waited longer. But in the end I always come to the same conclusion. And that is that when you're as sure as you'll ever be that you've found the right person, there's no reason to wait any longer.

Heather and I are both lucky enough to have great friends and supportive family. When I was younger, I thought I'd like to have a very quiet wedding with only a couple of close friends around. In the end, it's up to the couple whether they want a big wedding or a small one. Ours was medium-sized and turned out to be just the way we wanted.

Isn't she lovely?

All of the photos on this wedding post are taken by friends of ours. Lots of them are from Jef Robison, including this one, and there are some taken by Brandon Na. Thanks guys.

We started eating dinner around sunset. The Kitchen is our favourite restaurant in Korea, and we had met the chef a few months earlier to discuss the wedding menu. He's very talented and capable, with a good sense of creativity. Heather and I were probably the last to start eating, and a lot of the good things had been finished by that time, but it didn't matter.

You need to save space when you know there's champagne coming later.

In this photo I'm wearing a traditional hanbok, which Heather and I changed into. I don't have any good photos of us both wearing them, but we'll probably receive some from the agency photographer later, which I'll post sometime.
When people had finished eating, my Dad, my brother and I gave short speeches. While I quite like public speaking, the question is, what on Earth do you say at your own wedding?

Well, I thanked everyone else who made the day possible, and then I talked about how lucky I was to marry my wife.

And to wrap up the dinner, Heather's younger brother (Jang-Ho) and his friend performed a Korean song for us. They had been practising a fair bit and Jang-Ho had only started learning recently. The performance was quite humourous and had a good feeling to it.

Then it was off to Round 2. Jun is one of Daniel's friends, and is one of those Korean older brothers you have with an 'interesting' network of characters. He and Roman organised and decorated this wedding car for us. The car was brand new and actually had a sticker on the driver's seat that said "To Be Delivered". I think he had to return it to the car shop later.
Jun drove at around 15km/hr and had made a romantic playlist of 1980s classics for us to listen to. Thanks Jun!

We were lucky with the venue for the second round. A new bar called Paris had just opened on the second floor of Anthony's apartment. So Anthony and Rebecca went down to talk to the owner a few weeks before the wedding. The owner is a fairly young guy and offered to reserve us a section of the balcony for free. Even better, we were allowed to bring our own drinks with no corkage charge.
The bar is right on the beach at Gwangali and has a view of the bridge. A perfect venue for the second round. Thanks go out to the owner of Paris (Cavin), as well as Rebecca and Anthony!

If you're in Busan sometime in the future, consider visiting the Paris Bar on Gwangali Beach and giving them patronage. It's on the second floor next to the Homer's Hotel.

Two of Heather's bridesmaids, Ellie and Heidi.

These are the two folks I used to work with in the old HR department at Injung Education (CDI). On the left is Kelly, who is in the middle of traveling around the world, and on the right is Brandon, who now has a radio show on Busan eFM.

Here's Nathan Saler, Jennifer Pejic and Jef Robison.

Dad, Heather and me.

We're smiling for all the blog readers out there.

Our photographer had gone home earlier in the night and I haven't been able to track down many photos with some of the other guests. As a blogger, you know you had a good time when you are missing large chunks of the night in the photo record.

Here's Cavin, the owner of Paris Bar. In this photo he's pouring a special wedding fountain for us. After pouring the alcohol on top, he engulfed it in flames and then someone else made it sparkle with flint.
The flames were put out, and then Heather and I drank it together. It tasted fruity.

Our favourite celebration drink is Moet and Chandon. On the night we brought in 15 bottles with both brut and rose' on offer.

I remember clinking glasses, but the rest of the night is just a warm fuzzy memory.

We woke up the next day at the Aqua Palace Hotel and opened the curtains to a very fine day of warm sunshine. The day after you get married, it's fun reflecting on yesterday. It's also tempting to contemplate in what other ways the wedding may have turned out if such-and-such had happened, but this is a temptation worth resisting. In the end you take it for what it meant to yourself and others, and then it's time to focus on being a good husband.

I'll post some odds and ends from the wedding at a later date, but next up on Lee's Korea Blog is the 2-week honeymoon. We packed a lot into those two weeks, and it will take me around a month to get it all up on the blog.

Here's hoping that you'll find it interesting!