Archive for August, 2007

Tropical Cyclone Pabuk

August 16, 2007

Last Thursday (9th August) there was a bit of a buzz about the office, and a lot of people changing online statuses making mention of a possible incoming Tropical Cyclone by the name of Pabuk. Naming of cyclones over here following similar international standards. I knew beforehand that Hong Kong has a weather warning/scaling system, and that if the black rain warning were given then you had to stay indoors, preferably at home. I now know there is a similar system for tropical storms and cyclones. From mid-morning onwards the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) was giving fairly frequent updates on the progress of Pabuk. Initially sighted at 500km away, moving on a general westerly course towards Hong Kong, wind speeds of 120 km/h etc. It was being scheduled to hit us in the evening at a possible scale of 8. Strangely it seems the tropical cyclone scale goes from 1-3, then up to 8, then onto 10. Apparently when it hits 8 you’re sent home, and if it hits 10 things can be pretty unpleasant and frightening. Looking out the windows of the office didn’t provide much evidence. In fact the only sign something was up was that Hong Kong harbour’s air quality must have been nearly the worst I’d seen. More experienced heads told me this was because of the wind direction and the incoming cyclone.

During the rest of the morning the reports from HKO showed the cyclone getting closer: 450km, 410km, 370km. Wind speeds remained the same and you could see the swirling clouds on the satellite images on their website. [If you’re suitably interested you can keep up with my current and predicted weather here]

By about 3:00pm the distance had dropped to 300km, but I had noticed that the incremental distances had been dropping, where is was previously approaching at 50km/h it was now only really getting about 35km/h closer. Still the weather outside didn’t look too appealing, as it was looking pretty smoggy and cloudy. All of a sudden at 4pm the warning was dropped, and we were back down to a T1. Pabuk had had a change of mind, swung north and dropped in speed. I received an Instant Message shortly later from a friend who works in Sha Tin, in the New Territories (ie. further to the north) that it had all gone very dark there – despite the (now) T1 warning. Sure enough, within 30 minutes Central was getting very dark, and it was almost pitch black by about 4:30pm. Assuming, somehow, the Observatory had got it wrong and we were in for a big storm I was a little concerned. The odd flash of lightning out the window not helping. As quickly as it had darkened the atmosphere lightened again, although the air was still looking very heavy with smog and clouds. As expected, the poor air quality is blamed on the Chinese factories and the change in wind direction.

After a lot of excitement and build up, the cyclone never arrived and was downgraded to a tropical storm. A very uneventful finish to the day. It did rain pretty heavily that night (and I got soaked playing hockey as a result), but that’s not exactly a worrying storm in my book. There must have been some wind though, as a rather large section of tree had come off one of the trees at the end of the street I live on.

So, after the excitement anti-climax of Thursday when I got to the office on Friday it seemed Pabuk had passed us by, but that another tropical storm (Wutip I think) could come close to Hong Kong. The HKO website didn’t show much of interest, preferring to report the last gusts of Pabuk… or so I thought. Just proving once again that you can’t really predict weather, Pabuk had another change of mind picked up a bit of speed and decided on a direction change. By midday we were back at T3 with a strong possibility of a T8 later in the day. I was at Causeway Bay today and, again, looking out the window didn’t see much into worry about. A bit of light rain was all. As a group we decided to take lunch together – I managed to pass on the chickens feet this time. In fact, maybe the novelty of seeing what I might baulk at is wearing off, as I don’t recall anything particularly nasty turning up. I did have a few bits and pieces of the fish that turned up. I have no idea what kind of fish they were… a pinkish colour and a yellow colour, sliced open, heads and tails still on if that helps.

Just about finished lunch by 2:00pm and one of the guys gets a text to say a pre-T8 warning has been given, which means it will be a T8 in two hours, and that we’re going home. Again, nothing out of the ordinary as I look out the window, and I’m not sure if people are being serious. If they are, no-one is hurrying out of the office, so of course I don’t want to be the first to leave and look silly. Within about 15 minutes or so, one person does leave and other people are beginning to pack up – so off home it is. MTR a little busier than normal, and theres a bit of rain and some light gusts of wind as I go home. I’m still not sure what the fuss is.

I’m back home by 3:00pm, curtain open so I can see when the rain starts and maybe here the howling gales I’m expecting. 4:00pm still nothing, and we’re now officially at T8. Check a few forums and the like. It appears the MTR is rammed getting out of Central, the ferries have stopped, phones aren’t working. Basically, not quite panic, but the communications and transport system is collapsing under the strain of everyone trying to get home and contact loved ones. Still no wind though. Stanley is listed as a good place to storm watch, but more intriguingly Stormies in Lan Kwai Fong allegedly offer free beer for the duration of a T8 warning. Well, wouldn’t do any harm to check it out I reckon. Agree to meet a few others there (assuming Lan Kwai Fong is open of course – it occurs to me if business closes during a T8, surely pubs/bars do too).

Yep – LKF pretty much business as usual. Stormies packed. No free beer. Ah well – still a good night out. Everyone in LKF seemed to be enjoying themselves more than usual (even saw some guys playing pub golf: Europe vs America, front nine in LKF, back nine in Wan Chai. Europe were 2up at that stage). Maybe a light breeze every so often but no rain until later in the night when I couldn’t find a taxi and someone had nicked my umbrella… typical really. But a fun night out nonetheless.

A few observations from the storm that wasn’t. It seems that it only needs to trigger a T8 at one point in the territory and the whole territory gets the signal. Due to a failure to raise a T8 once (a T3 was raised) and there 100+km/h winds ripping the place up. The oncoming wind seemed to produce loads of (large) dragonflies from god knows where. Quite unpleasant. Once again, I’ve written a lot more text than I originally thought or planned to.
The cynical might say that shutting down business – and as a result the stock exchange – when world markets are in turmoil due to the US sub-prime mortgage worries was (temporarily at least) quite helpful.

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Shenzhen

August 13, 2007

Bit of a lazy week, last week and I never really got round to updating the blog. Last Saturday (4th August) I woke up hungover and with a painful bruise to my ribs. The hangover was the result of post-hockey match drinks, and the bruise to the ribs the result of being hit by the hockey ball during the match. I had unwisely volunteered to play kicking back and couldn’t get out of the way of the ball quickly enough. Still, the post-match drinks had helped to anaesthetise the pain on the night. Today I had decided to go to Shenzhen which is over the Shenzhen River, and is part of mainland China. It’s been designated a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), and it’s basically where a lot of the previously Hong Kong manufacturing base has been relocated to. Due to China’s lack of environmental laws the city has the reputation for being cheap, dirty, and smelly. A lot of local Hong Kongers blame Shenzhen and the surrounding manufacturing industry of the Pearl River delta for a lot of the pollution problems here.

The main reason for my trip to Shenzhen is to return to Hong Kong on my working visa – I could do this via a trip to Macau, but I’ve got a multiple entry visa for People’s Republic of China, and I’ve been to Macau 3 times recently so Shenzhen would at least be a novelty. It’s also easier to get to. A simple MTR ride to Tsim Sha Tsui, and then jump onto the Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR). This terminates at Lo Hu, which is on the Hong Kong side of the Shenzhen River, and then it should be a simple walk across the bridge into communist China (except Shenzhen is a very capitalist city). My trip was incident free, and getting into Shenzhen was no problem at all.

If anything stepping out of Shenzhen station it felt hotter than Hong Kong, and definitely dustier. I’d forgotten to bring my lonely planet guide, so had no real idea of where to go or even what direction to go in. I did initially consider just heading back and getting the passport updated, but then figured I may as well spend a bit of time and take a wander around. If I found nothing, I could head back. Having spotted a road that headed off straight off into the distance towards taller buildings I assumed this would be a good direction to start off with. On the other side of the road walking in the opposite direction to me I saw a kid carrying a McDonalds bag – a good sign of increased commercialism on the route I was following.

My usual quick walking pace was occasionally interrupted by hawkers asking if I wanted a massage. I’m told these are very popular in Shenzhen with lots of people heading across from Hong Kong for these specifically (and hair cuts, somewhat oddly). I can’t say I was interested, and if I was, I’d go with one of the guys from the Novell office who makes the trip quite regularly I’m told. However, it was just about the only english language I’d see or heard since arriving. I’d been warned that as I spoke no mandarin or cantonese that I would struggle. It quickly became apparent how much english there is in Hong Kong, as there was very little here.

The road I walked along was somewhat disappointing, and I began to think I’d have to head back – and come back with the lonely planet at some point. However, I reached a junction which allowed me to see the road that ran parallel with the one I was on, and it was very obvious this was busier, more commercial, and had pedestrian signs pointing to… well, it was all in Chinese characters so I’m not sure what it was directing people to, but I had to assume it was some sort of shopping area. I did eventually find a pedestrianised district, having walked through a few buildings comprising smaller shops and various stores. This was all done rather randomly and when I emerged in the pedestrian shopping area (I assumed this was what it was by the existence of a Pizza Hut sign) I had no idea where I was in relation to where I started.

In this area there were the usual shops, department stores, and lots of brand names: Starbucks, Adidas, Nike, Levis, Calvin Klein etc. Despite being in China, it wasn’t unlike being in any other large city. Except for the sheer number of people, and the spitting. I’ve heard they’ve managed to cut back the amount of spitting that goes on in Hong Kong, and now I can believe it. It’s not just the spitting, it’s the ever so lovely hacking and gacking that precedes the enormous gob of spit that then flies out of the mouth. I think it’s at it’s worst when you hear it from behind but can’t see it…

I’d converted some HK$ into Chinese yuan (renminbi) which seems to work out at nearly a 1:1 ratio. I saw what looked like the equivalent of an indoor market – and it as hot/humid and I hoped the indoor market would have air conditioning. (As it turned out, not really) I thought I got a lot of hassle at the various markets in Hong Kong… well, it was far worse here. Clearly, being a white Western guy it’s figured I have loads of money to spend and was therefore a good target for pretty much every store. If I even looked at what people were selling I was being hassled, and in some instances being pulled towards their store/counter top. I wandered around here for a bit, and eventually got caught looking at a watch (I’m still annoyed that my original copy Omega lasted all of 10 minutes). Despite all my protests there was no escape from one particular determined woman (they all seemed to be woman stallholders). Despite the complete communication failure between us, I eventually negotiated another Omega copy for 300 yuan. It looks pretty similar to the one I bought in Hong Kong – I’m now of the opinion there is pretty much a factory knocking these out for supply to Shenzhen traders and Hong Kong street markets.

The good news is this one still works at the moment. Unfortunately as I was walking out, I got trapped by another stall holder (actually, ok, I admit it, it was shiny stuff that made me look in the first place) and I now find myself as the owner of a Playstation Portable. I’m not a big games player, have never been a console fan, so why I bought one of these is a complete mystery. I’m going to blame it on the hangover, the heat, and the belief that I needed to spend my yuan. I’m open to ideas as to what to do with my Playstation Portable. It also seemed that my HSBC bank card which had worked flawlessly in Hong Kong wouldn’t work in Shenzhen ATMs. At least that meant I couldn’t spend more money.

Getting back was very straightforward and incident free. Just had to queue up and make sure that when entering Hong Kong again I was entering on the correct visa. I felt pretty good that I’d been able to go to Shenzhen, stumble into the shopping area, somehow head back to the station in the right direction, and then get back into Hong Kong on the working visa. My mood was only really upset later than night when HSBC cash machines were refusing me cash in Hong Kong as well. I had to phone HSBC in the UK, on a Hong Kong pay as you go mobile, and find out why. It seems, after 3 months in Hong Kong, one attempt in Shenzhen was enough to put a block on my card. I was unimpressed. After explaining this problem to the first person who answered the card hotline I was put through to her colleague, who I then had to explain it to again – and he sounded distinctly Indian call centre. At least he then reactivated the card, and I’m back to spending my money again…

Quick post

August 3, 2007

Just a quick note, as much for myself, to mention I’ve tried some food thing that is giving the chicken’s feet a run for it’s money in the ‘not very pleasant to eat’ stakes. Today, lunch was at a wonton noodle shop. I ordered the beef and noodle. So far, nothing to worry about. One of the guys orders some ‘side dishes’ for the whole table, one of which is deep fried fish skin! Now, I’m not the biggest fan of seafood as I’m sure I’ve mentioned previously, and admittedly I had been out last night for a few beers. Even despite these factors, deep fried fish skin sounded revolting – and still does to be honest.

Sure enough when this dish arrives on the table, it’s as you’d expect. About six inches of fish skin that has been turned crispy by being dunked in a deep fat frier. On one side you can still make out the individual scales of the unfortunate fish whose skin this once was. I must admit, when this arrived I decided immediately I wasn’t trying it. Hangover, seafood, skin rather than actual meat… no way. Obviously though, the point of the post is that I did try it. Having come out here with the view that I will at least try stuff before deciding I don’t like it, I summoned up the willpower to give it a go. Although, I wasn’t going to eat a whole side of fish skin, I did get a piece maybe about one inch square.

The way to eat deep fried fish skin is to dunk it in your soup (of wonton noodles) let it soak a bit of it up and then go for it. Well… it was revolting. It obviously didn’t have the slightly slimy texture of skin having been deep fried, but you could tell it wasn’t the meat part of the fish. And as I chewed on this slightly more the taste of the frying oil and the saltiness of the skin came through. It’s pretty unpleasant just remembering the experience as I type it here… So, deep fried fish skin can be added my list of food I won’t be eating again.

Even the noodles weren’t great as they stuck to each other and it felt like I was choking as I was trying to find the ends of the bits of noodle I was trying to eat… All in all, not the best lunch experience in the world.

First day

August 1, 2007

Having spoken to people both in the UK and over here I feel I’ve made the right decision over whether to stay or not, and it is definitely good to have ended the uncertainty in my own mind. The messages of support and urging me to go for it were appreciated.

The actual transfer process from being a UK employee to being a Hong Kong employee was certainly quick. I had the offer letter arrive by Thursday, and as of today I’m now employed by the Hong Kong office. I must admit it was a pleasant experience to realise that yesterday was, for the time being, my last day paying UK tax. Goodbye 40% tax rate, hello 16%.

This does mean, however, that I have to get my life in the UK sorted out and I’ll be heading back for a couple of weeks towards the end of August. No dates set as yet, so I haven’t yet been able to figure out when to have a proper leaving celebration. As I see it I’ll have to sort out the following:

  • Flat to be rented out as soon as possible. (I’ve got an agent who is keen to get it done by the end of August)
  • Sell car.
  • My stuff crap to be cleared or sold.
  • Bank accounts/credit cards to be informed of address change.
  • Utilities stopped. (Electricity, gas, council tax, tv license, and the one I’m dreading the most… Virgin Media)
  • Tax office informed. Pension (although apparently I can keep contributing to my UK pension).
  • Hong Kong bank account to be set up.
  • Exit Hong Kong and re-enter on my work visa so I can apply for a Hong Kong ID card.
  • Accommodation in Hong Kong to be sorted.

All in all a pretty long list of ‘stuff’ that needs to be completed. I’ve decided to try and rent my flat out without offering the garage. If I can keep the garage for my use then I can use it for storing my stuff that I either can’t get rid of, or stuff I want to keep but don’t want to ship to Hong Kong. Even if I wanted to take everything from the UK to Hong Kong it wouldn’t be feasible as I won’t have as much room in Hong Kong as I’m used to in the UK. Besides which, I don’t think I’ll have much need for the Kilimanjaro kit over here (amongst other stuff).

Nothing much unusual for me over here lately which is probably a good sign that I’m beginning to feel a bit more settled over here. I took a trip to the beach at Shek O on Sunday with a group of expats – shark nets at the beaches like in Australia, although the water is definitely not as warm as it was in Queensland, and not the same shade of blue. Closer to grey in fact. The water is still considerably warmer than Donegal though. The shark warning flag was flying as there have been shark sightings in Stanley which is quite near to Shek O, although this didn’t seem to deter anyone from entering the water. I am not, and never have been, a person who tans in the sun so unsurprisingly I managed to get sunburnt – on one leg, just above the knee. Why it was just this one leg is a mystery – I had sun cream applied to both equally. As I wore sandals whilst on the beach I’ve also got various suntan sunburn lines on my feet, which I didn’t really care about as I only own that one pair of sandals so it won’t matter. This, I’m told, is a typical guy attitude. Enjoyable day out though, even if the authorities are a bit on the killjoy side: no ball games, no kite flying, no saucer games? Turns out saucer games = frisbee.

Latest odd food eaten would be thinly sliced raw octopus at a Japanese restaurant. Can’t say I would hurry to eat it again – it’s chewy, and has a slight seafood taste to it. You can tell exactly what it is by looking at it; being slightly purple in colour with the outline of the ‘suckers’ very distinguishable. Nicer than jellyfish though which I still don’t see the point of eating. Despite not being much of a fan of seafood when I came out here, and still preferring a good steak, I am able to eat most seafood now. I still have a real problem with prawns however.

Watched the Transformers movie (silly and brainless, but good fun anyway), and have been playing hockey (no goals to add to my tally of 1 sadly). Which reminds me, another item to add to my list of things to get done is to join a gym out here. There is a Hong Kong marathon which I could be tempted to run. Maybe.

Hoping to get to Shenzhen this weekend, which apparently is the home of really cheap copied stuff, so another chance to buy a copy watch. It’ll be first use of the multiple entry Chinese visa I’ve got and also get me back into Hong Kong on the working visa. My first day as a Hong Kong employee hasn’t felt any different.