Nov. 3, 2018

Dear world,

Sometimes, I feel as though I’m trying to wring my stories from all the wrong places.

When I was 17, I wrote thinly-veiled love letters. I wrote about places and lives I wanted to inhabit and ranted about the great injustices I saw around me. I had a fierce, unearned confidence that made me verbose.

Eight years on, I feel older than I am. And death and sickness are easy wells in which to dip a pen.

Maybe the problem is that, at some point, somebody told me what makes a story (beginning, middle, end. Timeliness, conflict, impact, proximity. Lead, nut graf, kicker).

It’s easy to learn how to write and then forget that maybe not all your stories fit into complete sentences. Some fall short. Some have caveats that need to be crammed into brackets. Or have leftover fragments.

I’ve learned that, when you’re born into mid-December at 23-years-old, thin and over-medicated, you can heal yourself by learning to write again.

But when your cheeks fill in and the your brain repairs itself and somebody pays you for your words again, suddenly the roughness of your own stories can feel too misshapen for others to read.

And in my desire to keep churning out content, it’s often tempting to keep prodding at the knots of pain in my past as if one day I’ll be able to lay them flat enough for the pages of the New York Times or Atlantic.

But I don’t want to just mine my own tragedies for material.

When I was 17 I had a different blog, under a different name.

That’s where I put my love letters and dreams and rants. And it’s where I wrote about the questions, fears and hopes that hid in the everyday. I wrote about how I felt, then and there. I want to re-learn how to do this.

Some of my favourite pieces of writing to look back on are the ones I wrote back then. They take me back to such exact times and places, late-nights and hundred-year-old houses. They remind me of someone I no longer am and who I’ve always been.

(Also, I’m a writer. And sometimes the most important part of that is the act of it, even in all the instances of unpublishable mess.)

So today, I won’t try to force a story out of myself. I will reach for what is within my grasp, and try to let that be enough.

It is grey today. A Saturday afternoon after a particularly draining week.

It’s the first week of November but we’ve been resisting turning on the heat, so I’m wrapped in a scarf and my fingers and nose are a bit too cold.

I drove out to Coquitlam earlier for tea with a friend from high school. We talked about the world and about life. After a challenging week, it felt good to sink into a good conversation.

Tonight Dario and I are off to dinner at the home of another couple of friends’ apartment. We’ll bring a bottle of red and dessert from Purebread.

It’s daylight savings this weekend so we’ll gain an extra hour to sleep in tomorrow, contorted around the cat at our feet.

Life is both small and big. At work, I’m faced with huge, existential questions and challenges like, “How do we convince people and governments to change their behaviours in the next 12 years so that we can prevent catastrophic climate change?”

But right now I am suspended in a small pocket of time — almost removed, rain on the roof, writing.

Right now, I am this word in this sentence on this page of this story.

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Photo by Dario Balca

Love,

Emily

 

 

 

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Hong Kong Day Seven – Lin Heung Tea House, Man Mo Temple, PMQ and Yat Lok round two

Dear World,

We got a bit of a late start to the day on our final day in Hong Kong, trickling out of the apartment at about 10 a.m. and making our way to Sheung Wan in search of Lin Heung Tea House.

By our final full day in the city we’d started to feel like pros at navigating the place. Hong Kong’s MTR is fast and pristine and though we ended up on a couple busy trains I never felt as packed in as rush hour in Toronto or even Vancouver. We’d also learned to pay attention to which lettered exit we needed, as many of the stations are so huge that different exits could be blocks away from each other.

We were also feeling confident enough to venture to the famous Lin Heung Tea House, an old-school dim sum spot renowned not only for its food but for the lengths that people will go to to get their favourite dishes.

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We entered and found a spot to sit across from a man who appeared to have already finished eating and was flipping through a newspaper. We sat at the table for a few minutes, watching the pandemonium and trying to figure out the system.

There was a crowd of people, mostly young women, waiting by the entrance of the kitchen to pounce on the next food cart and its towers of bamboo steamers. Whatever didn’t get snatched up right off the bat made its way around the rest of the restaurant. Of course, we were almost at the end of the circuit.

Still, we decided to start with ordering off the cart, and picked up a dish of fish heads on bean curd. It wasn’t a dish I was familiar with but it was very tasty. I popped the eyeball in my mouth, gave Dario the fish cheek (what my grandfather used to say was the best part) and we picked over what were mostly bones seeped in rich sauce.

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While we worked on that I tried to motion to the older women pushing carts past us that I wanted to take a look inside, but for the most part they had no time for my nonsense. Luckily one of them tapped me on the shoulder so that we could order some shrimp in rice noodles with peanut sauce, and then we managed to get some pork meatballs with Chinese parsley.

Three dishes in we saw a frenzy by the kitchen so I gathered my courage and entered the fray. Dario was concerned that he wouldn’t know his own strength in a face of the feisty but petite competition so we agreed that I should be the one to get up and get dishes. Luckily this first attempt was pretty orderly and though I just-missed a steamer full of har gow (shrimp dumplings), I did return triumphantly with some siu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings.)

We’d been eyeing the table next to us as they expertly amassed a number of dishes and so when the next trolley came out I rushed over, perhaps a little over confident. The little lady behind the cart reminded me a bit of my grandmother, but while my Ngin-Ngin always ensured I was more-than-well-fed, this Chinese grandmother was literally swatting away peoples hands as they shoved their ordering cards in her face and called out the names of the dishes they wanted.

I wasn’t confident in the name of the lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice that I was eyeing so I did my best to be assertive and point but ended up having to wait until she’d helped about six or seven others before she grabbed my card without looking me in the eye. I went to grab the hot basket as soon as she stamped by card and she exclaimed loudly and shook her head at the ignorant foreigner while she slipped a plate underneath so I could comfortably carry the hot dish back to our table.

When I returned a new couple of men had joined us at the table and one of them was feeling chatty. When he suggested I get up to grab another dish, however, I shook my head. “Too tired!” I said, giving him a good chuckle.

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Maybe it was the atmosphere or maybe it was actual the food itself, but we found the dishes at Lin Heung possibly more delicious than at Tim Ho Wan, where we’d eaten on Sunday. As we paid up beneath a cage with a motionless bird (either fake or stuffed) we agreed that we were happy we’d braved it: it was an experience we won’t soon forget.

After dim sum we had a few more places in the area that we wanted to see before I was scheduled to meet up with my friend Kathryn, who I first met on a trip to India in 2011 and who was in Hong Kong for a work trip. After a couple day trips it felt oddly familiar to be walking around Central and we followed the well-marked street signs to Man Mo Temple, a central temple dedicated to the gods of literature and justice.

Today the temple is run by a hospital foundation. We toured a smaller room first, with beautiful lanterns hanging from the ceiling, statues of what I guessed were various deities (I confess my ignorance here so if anybody has more details I’d love to hear) and oranges and apples arranged as offerings.

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The larger room had a sunken area with rows of more lanterns and, above, what looked like spiralling incense holders to funnel the smoke around. Towards the back was a sort of shrine, but by the time I made my way in that direction the smoke was so thick that my eyes and throat were beginning to burn, so I exited back into the sun light.

We walked a little down Upper Lascar Row, where vendors on either side of the street sell zodiac charms and jade figures and folding fans, then up Hollywood Road, also known as Antique Street, though we didn’t enter any stores there.

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Many of the street corners and alleys in that area have colourful murals and the vibe is decidedly artsy. The pinnacle of that is the former Police Married Quarters, now called the PMQ. The multi-story building used to house police officers and their spouses but it’s now been converted into trendy shops and a cat-themed café on the first floor and artists’ studios on the upper floors, all surrounding a courtyard with art installations.

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We spent a couple hours wandering the stores and a couple floors of studios and then settled into the café for a guava smoothie and some sweet Taiwanese milk tea.

The studios and stores had a great selection of both aesthetically-pleasing jewellery, clothing, ceramics and fine tea, and also streamlined and functional products that had earned awards for their design. Dario and I lusted over some sleek watches and cufflinks in the shape of Chinese characters and necklaces shaped like the outlines of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

The term “made in China” is often used in a way that suggests a product is cheap or utilitarian but it was important and interesting to see such a flourishing art scene.

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At 2:00 p.m. we headed out and Dario called an Uber to get me to the Shangri-La where Kathryn’s Bay Street company was putting her up. I felt a little under-dressed sitting in the lobby but was soon distracted when Kathryn suddenly appeared beside me and pulled me into a hug.

We headed to the eighth-floor pool and lounged in the water and chatted for a couple hours. The last time I saw Kathryn was back when I lived in Toronto, but in the years since we first met in Udaipur, India, we’ve managed to reconnect in Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa as well. It was nice to relax with an old friend in yet another city, and to speculate about where and when we’ll be reunited again.

After some down time with Kathryn I found my way to Admiralty MTR station and took the metro back to Sai Ying Pun where Dario was enjoying some peace and quiet of his own. We rested for a bit and then headed out to Central for our final evening in the city.

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I wanted to return to the Chinese barbecue restaurant on Stanley Street, Yat Lok, for dinner. We arrived at about 8:40 p.m., and the server was almost-immediately in our face, asking for our order. We’d wanted to change it up a little from last time and order twice the char siu but half the goose, since Dario isn’t the biggest goose fan (a flaw I’ve chosen to overlook/take as a positive because it means more for me).

I was feeling a little flustered and asked her two or three times for more time as I scanned the menu but then she pointed to the clock and said “closing!” before huffing away. Dario looked it up and they did indeed close at 9:00 p.m., earlier than we’d thought, so then we ordered in a hurry and ended up with a bowl of noodles, goose, char siu and lettuce in oyster sauce and one of noodles, goose, roast pork and lettuce in oyster sauce. I didn’t complain about the extra goose.

We ate as quickly as possible, even though they were still reluctantly seating tables when we finished up at about 9:03 p.m. For fifteen minutes, however, we did get to enjoy some of the best Chinese barbecue out there.

After dinner we went for a bit of a walk. Dario wanted to finish off his roll of film and I wanted one last bubble tea. We wandered up into Lan Kwai Fong, the famous night life area, but were turned off by the loud, drunken tourists spilling out of the various bars. Instead we headed back to Sai Ying Pun to what had become our own little neighbourhood, climbed the hill up to Third Street and took the elevator up to our 16th-floor apartment.

We were packed and ready to go by 7:30 a.m. the next morning, with only a brief stop at a bakery en route to the airport express metro line. Even though it counted as an international flight, it turned out that we couldn’t check in until two hours before boarding, so we ate a second breakfast at an airport MacDonald’s and enjoyed the free wifi.

Our flight to Xiamen was delayed by an hour, but that was no problem since we had an eight-hour layover planned in the city already. When we finally did arrive and go through Chinese customs we spent a few hours in a little coffee shop right outside the airport (you can enter the city for a short amount of time without a Visa, but we didn’t have the time or stamina to really explore). We had a disappointing dinner in the airport and I caught up on some writing. Then at 9:40 p.m. we departed.

We touched down in Vancouver at 6:15 p.m. local time — three hours earlier than we left Xiamen on paper, but nearly 12 hours later in reality.

Now I’m lying on our couch, feeling suddenly struck by jet lag for the second time today. I woke up at 5:30 a.m., unable to sleep, and went to T&T for groceries. I wanted to stay up through the afternoon in preparation for work tomorrow but I ended up falling into a deep sleep in the early afternoon, before forcing myself out for some coffee and a walk so that I wouldn’t sleep through to the evening.

We drove downtown and bought a sandwich and salad to share while sitting on a bench by Coal Harbour. It was 24 degrees and breezy and the oceans and mountains looked deeper and more muted than their Hong Kong counterparts. There were still patches of snow on Grouse.

I felt like we’d never left and also like we weren’t really back, and Dario said, “We really do live in the best place on earth.”

I may already be planning my next big trip (Paris and Toronto, August 2018!) but he’s got an excellent point.

Love,
Emily

Sights
Man Mo Temple
Upper Lascar Row
Hollywood Road (Antiques Street)
PMQ
Lan Kwai Fong

Food
Lin Heung Tea House
Yat Lok Roast Goose

Hong Kong Day six – Lamma Island, the Ladies Market and wonton at Mak’s Noodle

Dear World,

Starting this entry from a table in Xiamen airport, a couple metres from where we had beers on our layover heading to Hong Kong.

We left our apartment in Sai Ying Pun at about 7:30 a.m. this morning and have been travelling for nearly 12 hours. By the time we reach our front door we figure it will have been a 25 or 26-hour journey.

I’m tired and my stomach is feeling a little unsettled after a meal of almost-inedible airport chicken, and so I’m happy to pick up where I started journalling two days ago, with our excursion to Lamma Island.

We’d originally planned to spend Thursday morning hiking the Dragon’s back trail, but after our packed day on Lantau, the idea of retreating to Lamma Island,  car-free locale famous for its laid-back vibes and beaches, was more enticing than trekking a few hours in the feels-like-36-degrees-with humidity heat.

We vowed to save the hike for when we return at a later, cooler date one day, and headed to the Central Piers to catch a ferry to Lamma.

The boat pitched so dramatically when we boarded that we lost our balance, but we found a spot by the window and it was fun to watch as we sped past little fishing boats manned by just one or two people in peaked straw hats. Not-as-fun was watching the plastic bottles and other trash bobbing in the waves and catching in banners of sea foam.

We arrived on Lamma and walked past a large bike lot on our way into town.

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Lamma Island ferry dock, flanked by bikes.

I’ve noticed that lots of people have bikes with small wheels and tall handle bars and Dario told me that the design makes it possible to actually fold the bikes up, which I guess makes sense in one of the most densely packed places on earth. Of course, the main Lamma Island village of Yung Sheu Wan did not have the same bustle as Hong Kong Island’s business centre or the Apliu Market in Sham Shui Po.

We walked past a few seafood restaurants with huge outdoor seating areas (Lamma is famous for its fresh seafood) and a harbour with a scattering of boats and stacks from a large power plant looming in the distance.

It was still early in the day so many of the shops were closed, but that was fine because we wanted to walk to the beach as early as possible to avoid too much walking midday, a mistake we’d made the day before.

It seems as though many stores, restaurants and even bakeries in Hong Kong don’t open until later in the morning than we’re used to at home, something that held us up even when we started our day in Central on Monday.

Dario had the inspired idea to buy a couple bottles of beer to drink on the beach (Hong Kong has open-carry laws, unlike back home) so we stopped in one of the little shops that was open. We grabbed a couple Heinekens from the fridge but there was no employee in sight.

Instead, there was a sign instructing us to deposit our money into a machine on the counter. We scanned our bottles first, the machine flashed a total and then we fumbled around, trying to figure out where to leave the cash. Just then, a voice from somewhere in the back of the store, out of sight, called out “push the green button!”

I jumped a little, pushed the button, and a cover lifted to reveal a spot to insert our bills.

The machine spat out our change in a clattering parade of coins and we were on our way, but not without me nodding my head towards the direction of the disembodied voice and muttering “I don’t know why he couldn’t have just done that.” Dario, on the other hand, declared it the best shopping experience of the trip.

It was about a half-hour walk to the beach from the ferry dock, first through the village and then along a path with thick vegetation on either side and the occasional large, mystery bug for us to examine from a respectful distance.

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Views along the path from Yung Shue Wan to Hung Shing Beach on Lamma Island

The beach itself was quite beautiful, sandy with a few trees set back from the shore and a cluster of rocks jutting into the water where a couple of girls were conducting their own mini photoshoot with a digital camera and tripod.

We set up camp on a bench in the shade and Dario used a carabiner to pop open the beers. I pulled out my notebook to do a bit of writing, took a swig of the warm beer and said, “Ahh, Rwandan-style,” referring to the fact that when I had to specially request cold beers when I was in Kigali a few years ago. The default was to serve them warm.

For some reason Dario found this highly amusing (he felt it necessary to specify that it was my delivery, not my wit). But the moment of levity was short-lived when he realized he’d forgotten his bathing suit.

I said I’d just run in for a quick dip and then we could sit for a bit while I dried off, and then head back to the village. I ran down to the water, the sand hot under my feet, but stopped short in my tracks.

As beautiful and cool as the water looked from afar, there was a literal barrier of trash that I would have had to wade through before getting deeper in the water, where only an occasional piece of plastic would be in my way.

I ran back to our table, feeling a little disappointed about not being able to swim and also sad to think of all that garbage amassing in such a uniquely beautiful place. Working at an environmental law non-profit has made me acutely aware of the value and fragility of natural places, and marine plastic pollution has been a hot-button issue this year, thanks to some shocking footage in BBC’s Living Oceans series.

This is the year we learned that the Great Pacific garbage patch is now significantly larger than the area of France, and just a couple weeks before our trip I’d seen a photo of a plastic bag floating in Marianas Trench, so the sight of all that plastic gloating in the gorgeous waters of the South China Sea was not only off-putting but a little upsetting.

Still, we stayed on the beach a while to enjoy a delicious breeze and the view (minus the power plant pillars), then packed up and headed back into town for lunch.

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Dario was mildly suffering from the head at this point so we went on a hunt for air conditioning. But unlike on Hong Kong Island, most places appeared to be open-air.

We ended up at one of the big restaurants we’d passed when we first walked off the dock, and requested a table inside. There were a few groups sitting in the outdoor area, but we were alone inside, save for the chattering servers.

We asked about the daily specials but the server paused just long enough when citing the prices for us to wonder if he was giving us “special” tourist rates. Instead, we ordered seafood fried rice, sweet and sour pork (not my usual favourite but I had a weird hankering after watching a Youtube video of a guy eating the dish at a Dai Pai Dong), and a platter of prawns topped with mounds of crispy garlic and chilis.

The prawns were huge and sweet and meaty, possibly the best I’ve ever had, but the rest of the meal was sub-par.

The real kicker though was the price, which came out to about $60 Canadian and included a surprise charge for the miniscule bowl of peanuts that they’d served us without us having ordered it. It was more than we would have normally paid at home for similar but better fare, and stung even more because we had budgeted to make it to the end of our trip with our remaining cash.

Oh well though.

We brushed it off as the type of small misstep that is bound to happen to even the savviest travellers and went to browse in some shops (but not buy anything, given our depleting funds).

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A man selling dim sum baskets outside a restaurant on Lamma Island.

Lamma has a reputation for attracting creative types and some of the store fronts that had been closed when we first arrived were now open, showcasing colourful imports from India and Thailand. We looked around a little store with lovely postcards and crafts by local artists, and one specializing in cat paraphernalia. Then it was on the ferry and back to our apartment for a rest.

In addition to many other things, we will remember this trip as the week we became enthralled with the Netflix special “Wild, Wild Country,” which is about a group of religious fanatics that set up a commune in Oregon. In other words, a story very far removed from our sightseeing and culinary escapades in Hong Kong, and a nice was to occupy our minds as we cool off with a cold drink.

We set out for Mong Kok in the evening to return to Showa, the camera store, to pick up my negatives. We strolled around the Ladies Market after and I proved myself to be the most ineffective bargainer ever, but I did come away with a few colourful totes for loved ones back home.

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Evening in busy Mong Kok.

We transited to Tsim Sha Tsui for dinner and ended up at a Mak’s Noodle, a famous noodle and wonton restaurant with a couple locations, not to be confused with Mak Ming Noodles, where we had our first meal in the city.

Mak’s was clean and actually quite chilly, with emerald green walls. We’d been told that portions there are small but delicious, so we ordered a bowl of wonton and noodles each and some beef brisket and noodles to share.

Everything was fresh and hot and savoury. For me, wonton is the ultimate comfort food. Forget Campbell’s chicken noodle, I want Hon’s (or, perhaps now, Mak’s) wonton soup.

After dinner we walked down to the water and sat on a bit of a curb beside a perfectly manicured lawn by the space museum and enjoyed the evening air — probably the coolest few moments outside of the trip at a comfortable 29 or 30 degrees.

We were a little too later for another Symphony of Lights but there were still plenty of people around, taking photos by the water or lying on their backs on the grass.

I took a few photos with Dario’s DSLR (I didn’t even bring mine on this trip and have been relying on my film camera and iPhone) and I felt deeply content: a little tired, recently-fed, a comfortable temperature, an amazing view, surrounded by other people also spending an evening just taking in the atmosphere and, of course, with Dario beside me.

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Night views across the harbour.

It wasn’t until the train ride back to the apartment that a small sadness crept in: tomorrow would be out last day, the final 24-hours of a bucket-list trip.

But that bittersweet feeling is familiar and a good thing, really. It’s a sign of an experience (or group of experiences, really) well-earned and well-anticipated, well-enjoyed and temporary in a way that makes it all the more remarkable and altering.

It’s a sadness shaped by knowing how lucky I’ve been to see this place and stay a short while, and lightened by the anticipation of returning home, to beautiful Vancouver, my own bed and my cat.

Love,

Emily

Hong Kong day five – Tian Tan Buddha and Tai O

Dear World,

We started the day on Wednesday with a quick stop for some pastries a couple blocks away, in the same bakery that we had coffee in just after arriving in the city. All the bakeries here have little metal trays and tongs and you select your own buns and bring them up to the front to pay.

I also added a matcha milles crêpe to our order because if you can’t have cake for breakfast when you’re on vacation then what’s really the point?

We took the metro all the way to Tung Chun Station and then followed the signs to get to the Ngong Ping 360°  cable car. We had a bit of a wait to board the gondola — probably the longest line we’ve waited in our entire time in this busy city, but then we were swinging up and over a little bay and towards the mountains.

Our frame of reference for cable cars is the Peak to Peak in Whistler. This ride was much longer and the car a little smaller, seating eight of us.  It took us up and over a couple of ridges, each falling away to reveal another valley and rise. Directly below us was a narrow little path, completely empty in the morning heat.

Maybe 20 minutes in, we crested over the final hill and there was the Big Buddha, towering over Ngong Ping village. It was breathtaking.

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We de-boarded and walked straight through the “village,” which was really more of an Epcot-style stretch of souvenir shops and restaurants catering to tourists.

Even though it looks as if it could be an ancient marvel, the Big Buddha, or Tian Tan, was actually constructed in the 1990s. It is made entirely of bronze and towers at 34-metres high.

To get to the statue, we walked under a big white arch, along a path flanked by “generals” representing each of the 12 zodiac signs (Dario and I are roosters) and past some scruffy dogs panting in the shade and one large brown cow.

It is a 260-step climb to reach the Buddha, so we arrived at the base of the statue a little out of breath. Once there, however, the view was enough to steal our remaining oxygen away.

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The Buddha loomed over us, totally serene in the harsh sun. Beautiful Bodhvistas flanked the seated Buddha on either side, holding out offerings. And beyond were the lush hills, cradling the red, green, blue and yellow Po Lin Monastery.

We slowly circled the Buddha, which sits on a large lotus symbolizing purity, taking countless photos trying to capture how truly stirring the setting is. I couldn’t help but feel that there was indeed something sacred about the site.

We walked down the steps and I went to buy some meal tickets so we could have a vegetarian lunch in the monastery, while Dario said he was going to search for a washroom. When we sat down for lunch in the sparse monastery cafeteria, however, he pulled out a little beaded jade bracelet that he’d snuck off to buy while I was paying for our meal. The pale green beads were from Burma, he explained, and the proceeds went to charities that the monastery supports.

Lunch was simple and mass produced but good. A woman in a short yellow jacket served us a pot of rice, soft tofu with chillies and corn, assorted veggies with soy, spring rolls and greens with shiitake mushrooms. The only dish I couldn’t get behind was a murky wintermelon soup.

After lunch we walked over to the monastery’s “room of 10,000 Buddhas,” a large hall with four big statues in the centre-back and thousands of smaller figures set into the walls. The ceiling was also very intricate.

Outside we walked through a haze of incense and headed towards the “Wisdom Path,” a loop lined with towering wooden planked etched with the Buddhist Heart Sutra.

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The path was only about a fifteen minute walk from the monastery, but by the time we reached it we were dangerously overheating and the 15 or 20 steps up around the circuit seemed insurmountable. We snapped some photos from part way down the path, the rested a while in the shade before heading back to Ngong Ping for a Frappucino.

As we hid from the midday sun, we considered heading back to the cable car and going back to our apartment instead of going on to Tai O, a fishing village on Lantau Island, just a short ways from the Big Buddha.

We’d only bought a one-way ticket for the gondola, however, and were running dangerously low on cash. After searching for and ATM without any success, Dario saw that the once-an-hour bus to Tai O would be arriving in just a couple minutes so we rallied and boarded.

It was a shaky, 25-minute drive around hairpin turns to get to Tai O, with tree branches scratching at the window every time we had to make way for oncoming traffic. But the seats were comfortable and the air conditioning strong and when we de-boarded in Tai O, we were happy we’d pushed through.

Tai O is a small village known for its stilt homes. Home to the Tanka people, the main source of income for residents has traditionally been fishing, but today the tourism sector is growing.

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When we entered the town from the bus lot, a man advertising 20-minute boat rides to see the houses from the water and maybe even catch a glimpse of the elusive oink dolphins instantly greeted us.

We forged past him and down a main street. It was mostly quiet, perhaps due to our mid-afternoon timing or perhaps just because the town itself is always hushed.

There were a couple other tourists wandering behind us, store keepers half-watching as we inspected the pungent dried seafood on offer, and then there were couples and trios of school children barrelling along on their bikes, ringing their bells to signal that we should move aside. We figured that the school day must have just ended.

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Dario and I wandered along the same road as the shops and people thinned out. Many doors had little shrines with burned-down incense sticks and oranges out front, the same set up as the neighbour across the hall from our AirBnb in the city. At one point we passed an open living room ringing with the sound of clattering mah jong tiles and chatter from a group of shirtless, middle-aged men inside. Other homes and lots appeared empty or abandoned.

Eventually we turned a corner just beyond a walled-in temple and found ourselves on a bit of a dock, looking out over some small boats and elevated homes. Small silver fish, about the length of my palm, glinted in the sun.

We walked a bit further, taking a few photos, before Dario suggested we turn back. By that point we were the only people around outside and we felt a little like we were trespassing in a private space.

We walked back to the entrance to the village and decided to use some of our remaining cash to hop into a boat. We were the last ones of board so we got to sit on a bench at the very back, right beside the helmsman.

First, he took us down a couple canals to see the houses from the water. The view was indeed better from that angle, where we could see porches crammed with plants and ladders leading down to small boats overflowing with netting and other gear, and a green mountain backdrop.

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Then the boat turned out into more open water, picking up speed over the choppu waves. We didn’t see any dolphins, but the breeze did feel nice.

There were a couple moments when the engine stalled, including when we pulled up to a dock to drop off a family and their bags at what I imagine was a small waterfront resort. When the engine did rev back to life, it propelled us head-on into the stone jetty.

We made it safely back to land, though I felt bad for the driver. If he depended on tourists paying him 30 HKD (about $5 CAD) per person for tours of the village, I wasn’t sure what would happen if his boat broke down once and for all.

Our good luck with bus schedules continued and we only had a couple minutes to wait before boarding one back to Tung Chung, where we could connect with the metro. It was a long ride — almost an hour — and I was feeling beat from a packed day (not to mention that I’m naturally prone to conking out in moving vehicles), so I had a short nap.

Dario was feeling a little car sick by the time we pulled into Tung Chung, however, after a ride that was just as bumpy and winding as the trip from Ngong Ping to Tai O, but nearly three times in length.

We returned to the apartment to shower and drop off our bags and cameras, and then headed across the street, feeling rested and ravenous. We feasted on fried chicken cutlet and squid, garlicky noodles, pork on rice and sausage with sticky rice and sweet milk tea with tapioca pearls for me and an iced lemon black tea for Dario.

Then it was back to our apartment to watch some Netflix and call it an early night.

Love,

Em

Summer baby/Oak Tree, Snowstorm

Dear World,

It’s been a hot July day and I’m officially 25 years’ old.

I’m lying in bed with my legs up against the wall, a habit I’ve always had but that I feel more justified doing now that I know it’s also a bona fide yoga pose. It’s 30 degrees out and my feet are crisscrossed with a sandal-strap tan. The fan is whirring.

My memories of birthdays growing up all seem framed like this: languid summer heat, corn on the cob, angel food cakes with cool whip. Or, in other special years, steaming canals in Venice, eating ice cream in Vienna and getting serenaded in an airport on the way home from Udaipur.

I’m sure it rained some years, but other than the time we held an early birthday-camping-party in June and it poured the entire time, I can’t recall a specific washed-out birthday.

Of course, there was also my 23rd, another scorching day. It was a month after my first seizure and I spent the occasion river rafting with a group of friends, quietly struggling to make the distinction between what was real and what wasn’t.

This year, Aneesha and Eli stole me away for a night out and follow-up brunch over the weekend, and Dario and I are planning an escape to Tofino this upcoming Friday and Saturday night, so I’ve been spoiled in that extended way that seems to happen when you combine generous loved ones and the need to arrange birthdays around work schedules and people coming in and out of town.

Today, specifically, there’s been little fanfare.

In fact, it’s been a very quiet Monday, July 23, 2018. And to be honest, it is a small blessing to have the space to reflect on this milestone.

I worked from home in the morning, essentially filling the hours with a series of video and conference calls. Then in the afternoon I drove to North Vancouver and took a bus up to Lionsgate Hospital.

I’d had to reschedule an MRI that was originally slated for earlier in the month, and didn’t want to be fussy when the receptionist asked if the afternoon of the 23rd would work. I joked to my Dad that, for my 25th birthday, I was getting the gift of the Canadian healthcare system. Definitely not something to take for granted.

Things were running a behind schedule at the hospital so I sat under the artificial waiting room lights and watched Jake Tapper try to moderate a panel on Trump’s latest harebrained proposal and daydreamed about what I’d eat as soon as I was allowed to break my pre-test fast.

Then I changed into a ballooning set of hospital pants and top that made me look like the newest cast member of Orange is the New Black and went to lie on a hospital bed, facing a black and white Ansel Adams print of trees in snow. I looked up the title when I got home: Oak Tree, Snowstorm.

From the hospital basement, summer birthday things seemed far away.

Hospitals are strange places for me now. Of course, I don’t think I know anybody who actually enjoys being in the hospital, but for me they trigger strong memories of feeling imprisoned, both in my own head and, literally, in a bed or ward.

I actually spent some time in Lionsgate when I first began displaying symptoms of Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis, more than two years ago. That’s where I went when I had my first seizure in June, 2016. And I landed there again for a five-day stretch soon after getting my diagnosis the following October, before being transferred to VGH for the bulk of my treatment and beginning of my recovery.

I don’t remember much of either stay at Lionsgate, but the first time I returned to the emergency room as a healthy individual (for a minor cut that, to my slight disappointment, didn’t end up even warranting a stitch) I immediately felt short of breath.

I don’t have comprehensive memories of the time I spent there, but even writing about it, I can picture moments: sitting in the emergency waiting room, knowing something was deeply wrong but being terrified I’d be told that there wasn’t.

Feeling cornered as a resident with horrible bedside manners tried to force me to speak and threatened to send me home without seeing a psychiatrist if I didn’t cooperate. The constricted feeling in my throat when the psychiatrist did arrive and I couldn’t make myself respond to him. How he told my parents I was being willfully, “selectively mute.”

I still feel the slow burn of anger when I picture him.

It’s hard to put those memories aside, even in the real world, above ground, when it’s sunny and people you love are around to remind you how okay you are.

But it’s even harder when you’re back in a bed, lying on the same style of blue and white hospital sheets under which you spent nearly two-months of — painfully sleepless, for the most part — nights.

But today, the MRI technician is nice. She asks me to recite my date of birth and congratulates me when she recognizes the coincidence.

The nurse who gives me my IV says I look familiar and I end up telling her about why I’m there and she says she’s never heard of Anti-NMDA. I recommend the book Brain on Fire and her eyes light up and she says she’s seen the Netflix movie and now she’s full of questions.

Did I also see things? Yes. Was I also misdiagnosed? Yes, as a matter of fact. In this very hospital.

She looks at me with the strange respect that people give you when they learn that you’ve lived through something that could have easily led to a less-happy ending. I know I have modern medicine and some brilliant doctors and nurses to thank, but I feel proud of myself too.

I am led to the room with the machine and lie down on a tray and the technician presses a button to raise me up and feed me in to the belly of the machine, like somebody sliding a pizza into an oven. They put headphones over my ears and I try to ignore the fact that they’ve set the music to a classic rock station, which is easy to do once the machine starts beeping and whirring.

I practice some yoga breaths and really it’s not that bad. When I finish, the technician tells me I did a good job, and it’s funny how nice it makes me feel to be praised for just lying there and holding my breath every once and a while.

When I emerge into the sun again the heat is radiating off the pavement and I’m famished. I find a half-empty poké spot and sit in the air conditioning.

I remember that I turned 20 on a Tuesday. It was my first summer in Ottawa and I was spending most days working at a local pub. On Tuesdays, however, I volunteered at a local women’s shelter in the morning and then had an evening creative writing class. In between my volunteering stint and class, I decided to treat myself to a birthday-sushi lunch for one.

I remember Dario calling me after his shift at his summer job, and sounding aghast to hear I was ringing in a new decade by myself.

In hindsight, maybe the picture of 20-year-old me, sitting alone in a Japanese restaurant in Ottawa is a little sad. But I didn’t feel sad at the time, and I didn’t feel sad as I sat by the window today and watched cars drive past me down Lonsdale Avenue.

Birthdays are funny, nebulous things. They can be exciting or dreaded, a reality check or something to ignore.

I lay on the beach with a friend yesterday and she told me that her fifteen-year-old brother recently looked at her and said, “You’re so old now. Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

We laughed but the pressure to have things all figured out by certain ages (often in multiples of five) is real.

And yet I feel as if, after all the shit that’s happened, I’ve been gifted with incredible perspective when it comes to these things.

I might not have made it to 25. I might not have been able to get up from that bed and away from the Ansel Adams photo and back into the sunlight.

This has been one of the most understated and beautiful birthdays I’ve ever had. I heard from so many people I love, and I finished the day with some coconut ice cream and Dario, in a city that is home.

My mum used to call me a summer baby, a lover of sunshine and salt water. This weekend I embraced the label and spent back to back days lounging in the sand and wading into the ocean.

It’s nighttime now and I’m lying in bed at the end of the day, but I still feel the sunlight pouring down on my eyelids.

Love,
Emily

Hong Kong Day Four – Sham Shui Po, camera-shopping in Mong Kok and Yardbird

Dear World,

I’m sitting on a sandy beach on Lamma Island, a half-hour ferry ride from Central on Hong Kong Island, gulping down a warm beer and enjoying the breeze. We have had such packed and exciting (and exhausting) days that I’ve fallen behind on my writing, so I’ll get right to it.

We started Tuesday morning by returning to the Star Ferry and hopping a bumpy ride over to Kowloon. This time we picked the right side of the ferry for a rewarding view of the Hong Kong skyline. Unfortunately, by the end of the crossing I was once again feeling quite seasick.

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We took the metro to Sham Shui Po, in search of the Apliu flea market, a street I’d read is a go-to for all things electronic including cameras.

One of our main points of reference this trip, beyond Google searches and personal suggestions from friends and family, has been a Youtube series called Digital Rev, which features camera reviews and photography tips from Hong-Kong-based photographers. I remembered an episode in which I was quite sure they’d hunted for vintage camera parts and eaten snake soup around Apliu Street and was eager to check it out.

I was still feeling a little uneasy from our Star Ferry trip, so first we struck out for a food stall called Hop Yik Tai, a rolled noodle place also recommended by our friends Nick and Iris and also a Michelin-Star recipient.

For the first time on this trip there was no laminated English version of the menu, just a handwritten list  of menu items on a large sheet of orange paper, so we quickly pulled up an image of the noodle rolls from the Michelin website and mimed our order with the visual aid.

It came out to 8 HKD, or about $1.30 CAD for a plate of rolled rice noodles, snipped with scissors right in front of us and doused in Hoisin and peanut sauce. We ate in the alleyway with toothpicks for utensils, and then dumped our reusable plastic plate into a bucket before heading on our way.

We walked through the stalls on Apliu Street but were disappointed to find only rusty old drills, radio parts and metallic karaoke mics. I was almost at the end of my roll of film so we ducked into a shop front on the edge of the market but the salesperson told me that nobody in the area sold film.

Dario looked up another camera store nearby but we soon became completely turned around searching for it. The city is so dense that Google Maps often has trouble pinpointing our location.

Feeling hot and frustrated, we ducked into a bubble tea spot and shared a cold milk tea with coconut jelly and tried to map out our next stop. We decided to forego our camera hunt and seek out a dai pai dong (outdoor restaurant) that I’d read about.

Sham Shui Po is a much more ramshackle neighbourhood than Central or even our digs in Sai Ying Pun. The pastel coloured apartment buildings are boxy and crowded, with air conditioning units and laundry lines hanging out of the windows. I spotted a puffy pink winter jacket out of one window and wondered if the rack was used more for storage than actual drying in these hot summer months.

Another interesting feature of Sham Shui Po is that the streets are almost all themed. If Apliu is for selling electronics then there’s another for selling toys and one for you buttons, ribbons, zippers and other DIY needs. Thanks to our faulty Google Maps, we managed to see these areas entirely by accident as we hunted for the dai pai dong.

When we did stumble upon the restaurant we were intrigued by the open kitchen right on the street, a blackened wok perched on a stove and a woman sifting through dishes in a bucket brimming with soapy water.

The food looked good too, but we ultimately decided that we didn’t want to risk the chance that our weak Western digestive systems couldn’t stomach the street food, so we left with only a few photos of the man out back expertly chopping the tips off of chicken feet with a massive cleaver.

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Buildings in Sham Shui Po.

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A man chops chicken feet at a dai pai dong in Sham Shui Po.

Instead, we decided to walk through a sort of industrial area to the flower market, really a bunch of mini-Art Knapps with some plants displayed outside. On the way we stopped in a bakery for some of the most delicious hot dog buns and egg tarts — childhood favourites — that I’ve ever had.

The heat was starting to wear on me by the time we finished walking through the flower market so we looked up the closest metro station, Mong Kok East, and made our way in that direction.

Succulents in the flower market.

Succulents in the flower market.

Unfortunately I’d failed to realize that Mong Kok East is a totally different station than Mong Kok, and that the line we needed did not in fact connect to where we were. We exited the station and re-entered the heat as we continued our search for the correct station.

In a bit of serendipity, our mistake ended up turning the morning around. Dario remembered that he’s also heard of camera shops in Mong Kok and a Google search of film cameras came up with a very cute looking vintage camera store scheduled to open at 2:00 p.m.

We killed some time in air-conditioned shoe stores boasting (non-counterfeit, we think) brand name shoes for a considerable discount compared to Canadian prices, and tax free! I found a few rolls of film in another camera store and was tempted by a pair of boots, but ended up happy that I’d saved my money when we finally arrived in the second-hand camera store, Showa, that Dario had seen online.

I was a little reluctant to climb the flights of steps to find the store, especially when the route took us past a questionable-looking foot massage parlour, but the pay off was great. We ended up in the coolest little camera shop, brightly lit and with a number of helpful hipster staff, complete with a little orange cat.

We amassed a number of rolls of film and I picked up a 28mm f/2.8 lens for my Pentax K1000 and Dario bought his own Nikon film camera, all for a bargain. To thank us for our shopping spree, the employee threw in developing one roll for free, so we left the 24-exposure roll that had been in my camera, already excited to return.

As we exited, Dario said, “Just that store is enough reason for a return trip…but maybe in the winter.”

We headed back to Sai Ying Pun with our new toys and the intention of returning to Winston’s, the café/bar where we’d had a couple drinks in the afternoon before. Unfortunately it was full, so instead we decided to check out a spot right across the street from our AirBnb called Yuan is Here.

We’d noticed lineups of people out the door on previous nights and were eager to see what the fuss was about. The server sat us at a shared table with another couple and the man instantly struck up a conversation, telling us about time he and his companion visited Vancouver and making recommendations off the menu.

We took their advice and ordered rice with pork, fried chicken, fried squid, gai lan with minced port and bubble tea. It wasn’t Michelin-starred but Dario declared it one of the best meals of the trip and made me promise we’d come back.

We returned to our apartment to write (me) and watch Suits (Dario) and rest (both of us) for a few hours. Then it was out again in search of Yardbird, a trendy and acclaimed izakaya-style restaurant that was recommended in a guidebook we bought of must-sees in Hong Kong, as recommended by “60 local creatives.”

We arrived to the chic, dimly lit eatery to see a sign on the door reading “BYOB.” Even though I’d heard good things about the cocktails it was a bit of a blessing for our wallets to duck out into the alley and stop in a 7/11 for a bottle of Oyster Bay.

There was only a short wait before the hostess sat us at the bar. Something we’ve noticed is that while places are busy, people seem to be in and out of restaurants quickly and there are so many amazing options that we haven’t faced the 45-minute to hour-long waits we’re often quoted at home.

A large Australian man with a man-bun took our order, poured us our self-supplied wine and tucked the bottle away in the fridge where it would keep cool between regular top-ups. Our 7/11 bottle seemed a funny accompaniment to the setting, but it was a refreshing touch of playfulness in an otherwise more upscale spot.

The food was also both a little playful and incredibly delicious. We started with a chilled eggplant and cucumber salad, followed by various yakitori skewers: chicken skin, heart, tail, liver, thigh, and a chicken meatball that came with raw egg yolk for dipping. We also ordered some fantastic KFC – Korean fried cauliflower, coated in a spicy-sweet sauce. It was perhaps the highlight of the meal.

We left a little buzzed off our bottle of wine and walked home to Sai Ying Pun, to our air conditioning and Ikea bed.

Another successful day in the city.

Love,
Emily

Sights
Star Ferry
Apliu Street Market

Food
Hop Yik Tai
Yuan is Here
Yardbird

Souvenirs
Showa

Hong Kong Day Three – Victoria Peak, Yat Lok Roast Goose and wandering Sai Ying Pun

Dear World,

Last night, we ventured across the water to Kowloon and to the Temple Street Night Market, Hong Kong’s oldest night market.

We accidentally wandered up to the wrong end of the market at first and I was a little dismayed at how small and seedy it appeared. Fortunately we heard a man say, “You know it goes on over on the other side of the park,” and so we made our way over, via a corridor of stalls selling garish sex toys, illuminated by flickering, blue-tinged lights.

Along the way, I turned to Dario and said, “I don’t think this is where we want to be.”

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Temple Street Night Market vendors. Photo by Dario Balca.

The main section of the market, on the other hand, stretched for a number of blocks and consisted of brightly-lit white tents stocked with knock-off watches and bags, cheap cheongsams and kimono robes in vibrant colours, fidget spinners and much, much more. At the end of the street were a number of restaurants with expansive outdoor seating, advertising chilli crab beneath a neon sign reading “sex shop.”

Heat and exhaustion seemed to have taken away my appetite, however, so instead we followed our noses to a stall selling Hong Kong-style bubble waffles with scoops of ice cream. The Michelin Star logo on their menu board convinced us and we split a large plain waffle wrapped around two scoops of vanilla ice cream, complete with sprinkles, all while listening to a couple from Russia cover The Cranberries on a traditional two-stringed instrument.

It was perfect.

This morning we were out the door and on our way to Central at about 8 a.m. We walked around for maybe 20 minutes in search of a bakery for breakfast but most spots were closed so instead we picked up a sandwich and salad and freshly squeezed orange juice to go from Marks and Spencer and ate it on the sidewalk while smartly-dressed locals hurried past us to work.

We walked to the base of the Peak Tram and were delighted to find there was no wait to board the trolley up the mountain. It was a short, steep ride up through thick green foliage, past side streets and huffing hikers and then, as we neared the top, interludes of skyline views.

I was a little surprised to arrive to a sort of mall at the top, complete with a floor for souvenir shops, a Madame Tussaud’s, multiple restaurants including a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and an area where you could pose in front of various painted backdrops of the city and then purchase a photo to take home.

We walked to the Lions lookout and snapped a series of panoramas, and I turned to Dario and said, “this is what they call a world-class, one-in-a-lifetime view.”

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We headed inside to take the series of escalators up to the Sky Terrace viewing platform, only to realize it didn’t open for another fifteen minutes. It was okay, though, as we ended up first in line to go up, facing a squat employee who guarded the roped-off entrance to the escalator with great commitment.

At 10 a.m. on the dot he turned his key and the escalator hummed to life (have I mentioned that, as if to match the pace of the city, escalators seem to move extremely fast here?). We were the first ones up onto the platform and had a few precious moments to take a video of the space free from the crowds.

The view truly was incredible. Directly in front of us stood the densely packed skyscrapers of Central, hemmed in by mountain slopes. The ocean beyond was a vibrant turquoise, slightly muted by a thin layer of haze, and Kowloon beyond seemed packed with an impossible number of additional high rises.

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As Vancouverites we are blessed with an abundance of city, mountain and ocean views, but Dario and I agreed that there was no comparing to the scene from the highest viewpoint in Hong Kong and those back home — not in a better or worse way, but in the sense that, despite having the same basic components, the scale of the city, the vibrancy of the tropical greens and teal of the sun on the South China Sea, are completely different from the Pacific Northwest vistas at home.

Dario shared a photo on Instagram with the caption, “I used to call Toronto the big city.”

From the Sky Terrace, we walked a little down Lugard Road, a shaded trail with wide-leafed trees on either side and butterflies with wingspans the width of my open palm flitting back and forth. It was nice to walk in the shelter of the trees, high above the city, but soon we were hot and sticky and so we turned around to seek out air conditioning and wifi.

We bought a couple of pricey smoothies from a cafe inside and sat by the large windows, looking out at the view and plotting our next moves. We created a lengthy itinerary spreadsheet before leaving Vancouver and have been regularly referring to it for guidance (and then getting so sidetracked that we don’t follow the plan anyway).

We took the tram down to ground level and then walked towards the escalators before turning up onto Pottinger Street. I’d seen photos of the steep side street online and was charmed by the uneven steps and stones and intrigued by the descriptor “lined with shops selling costumes.”

What I didn’t realize was that the stalls were literally selling Halloween-style masks, animal onesies and dismembered rubber limbs.

That said, the first stretch of the street was strung with red paper lanterns and the addition of stylish women hurrying by in their loose-fitting summer wear made for lovely people-watching and photo-taking conditions.

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From Pottinger we walked up Hollywood Road, pausing to admire street art and duck into a shop or two. Then we boarded the Central Mid-Level Escalator and rode up four or five blocks before a lovely little lane lured us off the mechanized path.

There was something almost Parisian about the dead-end street with a small cafe to the left and I raised my camera to my eye to snap the final shot on my roll: laundry flapping in the breeze, framed by tree leaves.

I brought the camera down and fished another roll of film out from my bag and that’s when tragedy hit. Dario cranked the knob for winding up the used film, made a funny face, popped open the back of the camera and…it was empty. No film.

By this time we were both hot and hungry and I was feeling particularly irate, but Dario was very sympathetic and helped me retrace our steps to Pottinger Street so that I could re-shoot a few photos I remembered attempting to take earlier.

Then we walked back down Queen’s Road and up to Stanley Street in search of Yat Lok restaurant, famous for its Michelin-Star-earning roast goose.

We split a plate of char siu and goose over noodles, and one of roast pork and soy sauce chicken over noodles. Everything was amazing.

The char siu — Dario’s favourite — was the most tender and flavourful I’ve ever had, totally unlike the almost-candied variety from our local T&T at home. The chicken was moist, the skin of the roast pork perfectly crisp, and my favourite, the roast goose, was fatty and crisp and gamey in all the best ways. A meal to remember for less than $25 CAD total.

After lunch we headed back to Sai Ying Pun, intending to rest. I was still feeling eager to use up my film, however, so we took a detour to go see a street of dried seafood vendors that Dario had passed on our first day.

On the way we stopped at a very trendy cafe/bar and Dario ordered a cold brew and .I had a cocktail that smelled heavily of anise. The setting was so hip that we felt compelled to order a second drink and eavesdrop on the effortlessly cool baristas who all looked Chinese and spoke Cantonese but were also fluent in Australian-accented and British-accented English.

We ordered to “Gwei-lo” beers — slang for “white person” or “westerner” — and lingered on bar stools by the window.

Feeling rejuvenated, we finished our walk among the dried seafood stall, photographing the translucent balloons of former sea creatures in the pungent air.

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Then it was back to the apartment to cool off with cold showers and cold drinks.

We were out the door again in the early evening and took the metro to Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Kowloon side.

We walked from the station to the waterfront next to the space museum and staked out a spot to watch the Symphony of Lights. Even before the show began, the skyline and harbour were lit with the glow of city lights and massive advertisements for banks and tech companies.

At 8:00 p.m., music began playing through nearby speakers and laser beams shot into the sky. The lit-up billboards and stripes of lights along the skyscrapers opposite of us began pulsing in concert with one another, flashing text in English and Chinese and images of people walking and paint dripping down the buildings. It was fun to watch but really the view on its own was just as mesmerizing.

After the show, we walked up to a mall. Dario keeps asking why everything here is in malls and I really don’t have a better guess than “because they’re air conditioned and because consumerism.”

This particular air-conditioned consumer magnet also housed the famous Din Tai Fung, however. And even though we knew we could find another location in Seattle, we were almost out of cash and opted for a meal that we knew would be good and that we’d be able to pay for with a card.

As it turned out this particular Din Tai Fung (which has also earned a Michelin star! We are becoming total snobs!) far, far exceeded our expectations. The menu was a little different than when we went in Seattle, save for their famous xiao long bao, and so we ordered two baskets of soup dumplings, some cold green beans with pork and dried shrimp, pork and spinach wonton in chilli sauce and peppery pork cutlet over egg friend rice.

On a trip during which every meal seems to top the last, it certainly fit the trend.

After dinner, we walked a bit along the water near the clock tower and Star Ferry terminal, and then boarded a ferry back to Central. Unfortunately I led us to the side of the boat without a view of the city and the rollicking motion, combined with the heat, left me feeling quite seasick. But the ride was brief and we soon disembarked and headed home to our Airbnb.

We are having such an amazing time here.

We booked this trip in dreary Vancouver January and now that we are here I already feel like I’m fighting my own memory as I race to put impressions down on paper: the pace, the sounds, the flavours, the colours, the smell of raw pig hooves and sight of leafy Chinese banyan trees hanging in the humid air.

Right now home — wonderful as it is — is far away. My couch, my kitchen counters, my desk, are all out of reach. But soon enough that set up will reverse.

Before it does, I’m doing my best to strike that balance between soaking it all in, capturing it all by camera and pen, and stopping long enough to catch my breath.

À demain,

Emily

 

Sights
Temple Street Night Market
Victoria Peak and Sky Terrace
Pottinger Street
Hollywood Road
Mid-Levels Escalator
Symphony Of Lights

Food
Mammy Pancake
Yat Lok
Winston’s 
Din Tai Fung

 

 

 

Hong Kong Day Two – Central Waterfront Promenade, walking tour and Tim Ho Wan

Dear World,

I woke up at about 6:00 a.m. this morning, feeling well-rested and eager to begin exploring the city. We had a walking tour booked for 10:00 a.m., leaving from Admiralty Station, so we decided to take the metro two stops to Central Station and then walk to Admiralty from there.

We were out the door by 7:30 a.m., armed with both a DSLR and film camera, a bottle of water already sweating condensation and a good slather of sunscreen.

We took the subway to Central Station and exited onto a street lined with designer shops. It could have been Robson or 5th Ave or Ginza except for the palm trees and women beginning to lay out sheets of cardboard along the sidewalks. I assumed they were setting up shop to peddle souvenirs under the shadow of towering Rolex ads and thought what a telling contrast that would paint.

Dario and I wove our way towards the water and the Central Waterfront Promenade. We walked out onto the Central Piers, by where the Star Ferry to Kowloon docks, and snapped photos of a man fishing for tiny silver fish from the teal waters. One pier down, women gathered for a big Sunday morning yoga class and, as we walked down the promenade, the occasional runner, slick with sweat, jogged by.

On our part, the heat of the sun and our ambling pace were quite enough to leave us feeling exerted. We sought shade on a bench and downed some water before continuing to Tamar Park, a lovely green space with viewing platforms looking over the promenade and out to Kowloon. From there, we cut back into the thick of the skyscrapers and to Admiralty Station.

We were still early so we went into the mall in search of something to nibble on and a place to cool down before our tour. Unfortunately not many places were open on a Sunday morning, so we ended up at a Starbucks where we drank some kiwi juice and ate ham and cheese sandwiches and borrowed a wifi signal.

We found our tour guide, Michael, in front of the station. He wore a bright yellow shirt with “Free Hong Kong tours” splashed across the back, but I also recognized his grin and goatee from the tour company’s website.

Michael explained that he used to work in Hong Kong’s financial district before founding the tour company a little more than a year ago, after growing tired of staring at a computer screen for 10 hours a day. Then he explained that the focus of the tour would be on sharing stories — of Hong Kong’s history and his own personal connection to the place — rather than listing off trivia.

As it turned out, Michael was a fantastic storyteller. He started the tour by taking us over a bridge, beneath which thousands of protestors had camped out during the Occupy Central protests in 2014, the beginning of the Umbrella Movement.

He explained how the British took control of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories further north through a series of opium wars, and then described the day in 1997 when the British anthem played over the city one last time as the Union Jack and Hong Kong colonial flag lowered and the navy set sail. Then, at the strike of noon, Michael said, the Chinese anthem began, the Chinese flag rose, and the army arrived.

Beyond providing insight into the political tensions and handovers that Hong Kong has seen, and the current “one country, two systems” (or, as Michael suggested, “maybe one country, one-and-a-half-systems”), Michael incorporated pieces of his family’s journey into the tour:

His grandfather fled Southern China during the Japanese occupation and ended up in Saigon. Then his father fled the Vietnam war and made his way to Hong Kong. When Michael was only 17, he moved to the U.S. amid general uncertainty about the transfer of power over Hong Kong from the U.K. to China. Then, after 14 years in the States and Norway, he came back to Hong Kong.

The tour took us back to around Central Station, ending at St. John’s Cathedral, which, amazingly, once stood on the shoreline of the island. Pretty much everywhere we’d gone in the two-and-a-half-hour tour was on land that had been filled in since the 1800s.

The closer we got to the end of the tour the more groups of women we saw lounging on flattened cardboard boxes on the street, eating chicken and rice and taking selfies. As we walked from a memorial for the 1,000,000 Hong Kongers who died in WWII and towards the neoclassical building where Hong Kong’s highest court sits, I asked Michael about the women, who I could now see were not selling anything.

He told me that they were among the 300,000 to 400,000 domestic workers — mostly Filipino and Indonesian — in Hong Kong, enjoying their only day off of the week. Mostly, he said, they look after children and seniors and make less than the minimum monthly wage of $4,000 HKD, or $670 CAD.

Women socializing in Hong Kong

Groups of women spend their Sunday socializing on the streets and sidewalks of Hong Kong.

After the tour we walked through Central, towards the famously long chain of escalators there. Michael had left us with some advice for how to spend the rest of the afternoon and a handy map of landmarks and restaurants, so we headed north from Queen’s Road and towards the massive IFC mall in search of Tim Ho Wan, a famous dim sum restaurant.

Along the way, we stopped by a restaurant displaying glistening roast duck and barbecue pork so that Dario could snap some photos. A woman came along, pointed to the duck, and loudly asked me, “Is it scary for you?”

I laughed and told her that we were from Vancouver and that I’m half Chinese (which surprised her) and that I grew up eating char siu and roast duck. She said she was originally from Hong Kong but now lives in California and was just back for a visit.

“I have a grand-daughter like you,” she told me, “Half-Chinese and half-Caucasian!”

Then she gestured to the meat in the window again. “When I see this I just think, too bad it’s not dinner time yet!”

Photographing roast meat in Hong Kong

Photographing roast meat in a restaurant window

Once we reached the IFC, we spent a good 45 minutes wandering the luxury mall, savouring the air conditioning but also growing increasingly hangry as we searched in vain for our real destination, the elusive Tim Ho Wan.

As it neared 2:00 p.m. we were ready to admit defeat, but decided to follow some signs for other restaurants underground just in case.

And there it was: Shop 12A. Tim Ho Wan.

We joined a queue of switchbacks, feeling a bit apprehensive when the burly employee shoved a little pink ordering card at us and turned to the guy behind us to say the wait would be “fifty, five-oh-minutes.”

Luckily it was more like 20 minutes before we were seated at the end of a table at the back of the restaurant. We ordered backed barbecue pork buns, chicken feet, rice noodle rolls with shrimp and vegetables, taro cakes, siu mai and har gow.

Everything was fresh and hot and delicious — though not, we concluded, life-changing. We are spoiled for dim sum options in Vancouver.

We headed back to the apartment to blast some air conditioning and watch some John Mulaney stand up. Dario soon fell fast asleep and I cracked open my new pale blue notebook and started to try to capture the past 36 hours and our arrival in this frenetic city.

Love,
Emily

Sights
Central Piers
Tamar Park
Hong Kong Free Tour
St. John’s Cathedral

Food
Tim Ho Wan

 

Hong Kong Day One: Arriving in the city, clay pot rice at Kwan Kee

Dear World,

It is just after 5 p.m. Hong Kong time. Dario and I are taking a little break in our mercifully-air-conditioned AirBnb on the 16th floor of the Fook Moon building in Sai Ying Pun.

It’s 32 degrees outside and humid.

Down on Third Street and out the front entrance of our building, the thick air wraps itself around you before the door to the air conditioned lobby has even had a chance to slide shut. It blankets the pig haunches suspended on hooks in the shops on Second and even the local woman who sat one table down from us at lunch tisked and said “too hot” as she slid by us to pay her bill.

We left Vancouver at about 1:20 a.m. on Friday morning and flew through what seemed like continuous night for 13 hours before touching down in Xiamen at about 5:00 a.m.

Even after clearing Chinese customs we were too early to check in to our 10:00 a.m. connecting flight, so we ordered a couple of Tsingtaos in an airport café and tried to carry a sleep-deprived conversation in the sparse Xiamen airport. It was a little surreal in the way only travel can be surreal.

Our flight to Hong Kong was brief. We didn’t have seats together but the whole row behind me was empty so I moved back and stretching out beside the window (I tried to tell Dario to come join me but he was in such a deep sleep that he didn’t even stir when the stranger beside him tried tapping his shoulder to wake him up for me.)

I nibbled our in-flight chicken bun and peered out the window as clouds gave way to the South China Sea and we descended over an incredibly lush network of mountainous islands.

We sprung to take the (fast, cool and quiet) express train into the city and then the subway to Sai Ying Pun Metro Station.

We couldn’t check in to our AirBnB until 3:00 p.m. so we lugged our bags up a couple blocks’ worth of stairs to find our building, then back down to Queen’s Road to find lunch.

Our neighbourhood is a very lively mix of little grocery stores, butchers, dessert cafés boasting coffee and toast blocks, pet stores (selling products for animals, not animals themselves), and multicultural restaurants packed with locals and ex pats alike.

Sai Ying Pun

Sai Ying Pun

A street up from our AirBnb, High Street, has a restaurant called “Granville Island Hong Kong” and a craft beer bar, as well as “real” Italian and “real” Indian joints. Across the street from our building is a takeout place for French-style rotisserie chicken and right downstairs is “Noodies” — a thankfully G-rated noodle restaurant.

Yesterday, however, we ended up at a more old-school spot on Queen’s Road called Mak Ming noodles. On the recommendation of the older man who beckoned us in off the street, we ordered one of the set menu combos: a bowl of plump wonton in piping hot broth, beef brisket and sweet and sour pork, both served over springy egg noodles, and some limp steamed lettuce with a dollop of salty oyster sauce.

We inhaled the food and a couple cups of tea each, even though we’d been fed on our flights.

We still had some time to kill after the meal so we stopped at a bakery for a cold drink and some coffee before making our way back uphill to our building.

View from our AirBnb

View from our AirBnb

Exhaustion took hold almost immediately after we figured out how to turn on the A/C and I cooled down with an almost-cold shower (even with only the cold knob turned on, the water doesn’t ever really come out cold). Even though I’d told myself I wouldn’t nap, I lay down and fell fast asleep while Dario went out to explore and find some shampoo and toothpaste.

He returned an hour later, buzzing from the feeling you get when you explore somewhere totally foreign to you on your own, and I dragged myself out of bed and we went out for an evening walk.

The air was significantly cooler without the direct sunlight but it was still sticky and thick. We walked up High Street and around a big park where men played soccer on a paved pitch, painted green.

We cut down towards the water and wandered a little further East, along a stretch that Dario said had been lined with dried seafood vendors earlier in the day. By evening it was surprisingly quiet though, especially for a Saturday night, so we doubled back in search of a clay pot rice restaurant that we’d seen recommended online and that our friend Iris had also mentioned is a must-try in the area.

Kwan Kwee is a small place just off of Second with your typical Chinese-restaurant-fluorescent-lighting and tables spilling onto the street. A woman in bedazzled Minnie mouse jean shorts directed us to a round table in the corner where two couples were already sitting, then brought us a menu and a plastic bowl containing chopsticks, spoons and smaller bowls for eating out of.

We ordered clams in black bean sauce and clay pot rice with Chinese sausage and watched the couple to our left dig into a pile of deep fried squid while the couple to our right (literally) attacked their bowl of chicken clay pot rice. The man kept pulling bones out from between his teeth and adding them to a growing pile directly on the table in front of him.

Our clams came, swimming in sauce and studded with green pepper and whole garlic cloves, and then our rice arrived, so hot that the bowl sizzled when I poured sauce over it. The Chinese sausage was juicy and somehow more pungent than the T&T variety at home.

It was all incredibly delicious.

We stopped in a bakery en route home for some neon-yellow egg tarts for dessert and coconut buns to save for breakfast, then to a 711 for beer and Mango Fanta. Once back to the Airbnb, we watched a little John Mulaney on Netflix before finally calling it a night at about 9:30 p.m.

Until tomorrow,
Emily

Food:
Mak Ming Noodles
Kwan Kee Claypot Rice

Making plans

Dear World,

Sunday night and I’m sitting on our grey Ikea couch, Dario less than a hand-span away. The air is heavy with the smell of just-struck matches and the fir-scented candle we picked up this afternoon in a little souvenir shop in Steveston. It’s all very “hygge”— the trendiest word of the past year, meaning something along the lines off “a feeling of coziness.”

I feel like, after nearly two years of extreme imbalance, I’ve reached a fragile equilibrium. Somehow, I’ve found my way back to a sense of steadiness that felt impossible even a few months ago.

I know that life is good right now because I keep making plans.

Last month, in the span of a week and a half, I booked up my vacation time for the year.

I bought a plane ticket to Paris to meet my parents in August, then a pit stop in Toronto, on the way back west, so that I can sleep on Kirsty’s couch and celebrate my dear friend Karly’s wedding.

A few days later, Dario and I walked into a Burnaby dealership and bought a car: a mid-2000s Toyota that we’ve named “Mura-Camry,” an homage to one of our favourite authors.

In our first week as car-owners we booked an Airbnb in Portland for Easter long weekend. Then we sat at our kitchen table and watched YouTube videos of a skinny fish monger exploring the weird and wonderful food options the city has to offer.

Finally, we crossed an item off my bucket list and booked a trip to Hong Kong for May. It’ll be my first time in China. I wonder if I will recognize any of myself there.

In between, I’ve been spending Monday to Friday writing about orcas and recording interviews for a podcast (which you can listen to here!). Every day, I feel more settled in my Chinatown office, more confident in my work and a growing sense of gratitude that I get to spend my days doing something I find meaningful.

Of course, reconciling my environmentalism with buying a car is a bit of a challenge, but we’ve pledged to do our best not to use it unnecessarily, to continue transiting to work and downtown, and to do our best to use this new-found freedom to access and appreciate the incredible nature just outside the city limits.

As we plot more distant escapes from the city, we’ve been using weekends for smaller excursions.

A few weeks ago, in a bout of sunshine, we drove to Deep Cove and hiked up to Quarry Rock. I pointed out red cedar trees as we passed by and wrapped my arms partway around a designated heritage tree.

IMG_6241.jpg

Two weeks ago, we drove out to Tsawwassen and sat in a stranger’s living room, just feet away from musician Tim Baker. He tested out some new songs in front of a crowd of about 30 people and kept forgetting the lyrics. It was all beautiful anyway.

And this weekend we sat in a coffee shop in Steveston and talked about how free we are right now.

I feel like I’ve entered a sweet spot in the timeline of my life. I’m young and healthy (now) and I’m spending my weekdays at a fulfilling job that pays just enough to let me spend my weekends and vacations on mountains and in coffee shops.

I’m not tied to student loans or a mortgage. I have Mewcha, our overly-affectionate cat, to look after, but he is well worth the small responsibility. For what might be the first time in my life, I’m focusing more on enjoying the present and near-future and less on worrying about what comes next.

When I told Kirsty about all the plans I’ve been making, I joked that, after nearly dying, I feel like I want to just enjoy myself for a bit. I was kidding, of course (humour can be a much-needed coping mechanism), but there was truth to it.

I repeated the sentiment last weekend, over a cup of tea with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.

She told me that, after living as a refugee, winning a scholarship to study in Canada, spending years working to bring her family here, and, finally, welcoming them last year, she felt like she was in a place where she could just focus on herself.

“I feel like I know now that I can start over and it’ll be okay. It doesn’t scare me anymore,” she told me.

I can’t come close to imagining the circumstances she’s endured and overcome. But what she said about this moment in her life resonated with me.

I lost myself and, in a different way, I too rebuilt myself.

And now, I’ve found this sense of stability and I just want to enjoy it.

If I’m lucky, there will come a time to plan more than vacations and my next meal.

There will be the stress of hunting for new apartments and the terror of jumping headlong into new career opportunities and, maybe, the anticipation of applying for school again somewhere.

And while I hope that there won’t be the devastation of a relapse, I know that, at some point, there will be the pain of more losses. That’s inevitable.

But for now it’s hygge Sunday evenings and sunshine drives and the promise of plane tickets across two different oceans.

I don’t know how long it’ll last, but I want to revel in every moment of it.

Love,

Emily