Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ocean Park: The Not-So-PC Asian Amusement Park

First of all, it was one of the hottest days thus far this summer recorded at 34.5 degrees C (about 94.1F) at something like 80% humidity. You may claim that I was just suffering from heat stroke.

Ocean Park is your typical Sea World, minus the fact that there are two sections connected only via cable car.
There are aquariums, zoo exhibits, and dolphin shows mixed with some amusement park rides. However, there were some anomalies. Among them, one was the multitude of "cavemen" in the dinosaur area.

One bopped you on the head with a stuffed bone when you entered. Another scared the pants off of me inside the dinosaur exhibition. Some would through a bone at you in the foam play area. Yes, there was a foam play area in the park.

Another oddity was the Spanish/Latin band while we were waiting for the dolphin show to start. No, it's probably not the most "Asian" thing to have.

However, no Asian amusement park is truly complete without the prepubescent boys doing acrobatics. They were doing some amazing tricks flipping onto each other and throwing each other in the air.

Aside from the above, we did get to see a fun dolphin show, pandas, and red pandas (aka FIREFOXES!). Despite the feeling of walking in a boiler room, it was a pretty fun time and definitely worth my time.

A Guide to Squid Fishing

The Boat: Two sampans. One driven by the son. One driven by the mom and the dad.

The Other Boat

The People: CEO Hong Kong Interns + Alex's Co-worker and Friends

Our Boat

The Idea: Your hook is a fish. You jerk the line here and there to imitate a fish darting in water.
You draw the line up slowly and hopefully the squid come along. Squid only come out at night and are attracted to the strong lights.

The Catch: Small squid about 5 inches long if you're lucky.

Tips: Patience really is virtue. Squid squirt ink. If anyone has gone fishing, you know that when the fish comes out of the water, it tends to struggle and flop around. Squid flop around and squirt all over the place. Hold your hook with the flapping squid over the side of the boat, above the water so they can't suck up water and squirt that at you along with the ink. Then pull it up and take it off the hook.

FACT: The squid have spots that appear to flash when they are dying as the ink/blood rapidly circulates around their body. They look like little blinking lights. Perhaps that was too light of a way to talk about dying squid...

The "Mom" Sauteing Squid on the Boat

The Reward: Freshly sauteed squid with a little garlic and soy sauce. MMMM!!!

Other interesting things at Honeymoon Desserts after squid fishing:

Frog Ovaries: The clear white jelly like looking substance.

Frog Ovaries: A dessert delicacy. It is bland tasting with a texture somewhere between sago and jelly. Somethings are better when you don't think too hard about what you're eating.

More Durian: Just for kicks, there was also a really strong durian milkshake. BON APPETIT!

Friday, July 31, 2009

First Time Experiences

Solar Eclipse 2009-
Being a science dork, this was quite fun to witness. Albeit to the average person, you could say that the sky was a little dimmer and that was about it. Frankly, it was one of the best (meaning longest) total solar eclipses during our time. The fact that I was actually in the area to see a partial is pretty cool in my book. A simple way we did it in the office was to cut a circular hole in the paper and project onto the floor.

Durian Tasting-

My next door dorm neighbor Alex decided to purchase some shelled/peeled durian from the local supermarket. While I was peacefully sitting on my bed with my laptop, I heard a knock on my door. Opened the door and saw Alex and David with cups of durian. I promptly slammed the door shut before the scent wafted into the room. According to the Wikipedia entry of durian and from personal experience, yes it does smell like rotten eggs and stinky trash and poop all in one.
I reluctantly ventured out as they coaxed me to join them and try durian. Alex had already tasted it before, but David and I were durian virgins. You can usually find my brother and me running out of the house if my parents ever brought one home.

I frankly enjoyed my durian. The first bite was the worst. The smell was overpowering and just managing to put the spoon in my mouth and then swallow was painful. However, after that, it was fine. Durian has a sweet, cloying taste, almost too sweet. It's fleshy and has a rich flavor. Quite indescribable as I'm sure many durian eaters explain. I am now oddly intrigued by durian, going back for more. I recently even had durian gelato in Macau. My friend David on the other hand had a different experience. Sadly, the video won't post here... Hopefully I'll figure that one out.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mentor Trips

Mentor Outings:

China Club Fountain

Pick Your Communist???

The China Club-
A few weeks back, a mentor kindly took the group of us interns to the China Club. It's actually in a few floors of the old Bank of China building owned by Sir David Tang, creator of the clothing line Shanghai Tang, and decorated in a 1930s Shanghai art deco style. Before we descended upon the buffet line, Rob, the mentor, gave a very informative speech on Hong Kong. He commented on the work ethic of the people here. It is only in Hong Kong that the secretary/personal assistant willingly stay late, on little overtime pay, merely to help out. There is rarely rushing out when the clock strikes 6PM if the boss is still in. Also, the government is able to keep taxes at a 15% flat rate because of land costs. By owning a large amount of land, the government is able to sell the deeds at a very high rate usually to holding companies that promise to develop the land to benefit the people. Granted, often times the land developers only develop the land into malls to gain as much revenue as possible rather than affordable housing. It is only with government contracts that land developers grudgingly build the large, cloned, cramped apartments with government subsidized rent.

"Gentleman's Lounge"

Main Dining Hall

Only after a few pieces of advice did we hungry college students rush to the buffet. It was a lovely weekend dim sum spread where the food kept changing each time we went to grab another plate. We then toured the three floors of the China Club which had an astounding collection of art, mostly China related and falling under the broad umbrella of political realism.

Model of the Port

Hutchison Port-
Edith, who also spearheaded Columbia at the Ivy ball, invited us to the Hutchison Container Ports. Hong Kong has always been a major port and seeing the enormity of its operations only cemented that fact. The pictures really don't do quite justice to the magnitude at which these machines work. Hopefully from the picture of the airplane head goes to show how large these containers are. Technically, each one is what you would see on the back of a 18-wheeler. Everything is automated with human controllers for backup. Their programs are developed in-house with years of operations people streamlining it to optimize efficiency. They know exactly where to put each container to reduce recovery time. All the truckers have ID cards with their info digitally stored on them. This aids in the process, creating an entirely automated process to determine where to put the container after removing it from the ship, where to move it thereafter, and where the truck should wait to receive the container. It was quite a massive operations.

Just think...each box is an 18 wheeler

Of course, no Asian outing is complete without a meal. Edith took us out to Yuen Long in the New Territories.We had a traditional country banquet with char siu pork, roast duck, roast chicken, shrimp, and pork lard and soy sauce poured on white rice. Despite the large amount of food, we managed to clear the table.

Company Policy: FACE MASKS!

Of course there are many other wonderful things our mentors have done for us. I've only included those with a significant cultural aspect. Not to say I didn't enjoy them, but I'd only be describing the food! The mentors have been an involved and caring bunch, welcoming us to Hong Kong and showing us sights we otherwise would not have seen.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Guide to Hong Kong Hiking

These past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of having some very adventures guys with me here in Hong Kong, who have all but been more ready and eager to hike and explore the “wilderness,” instead of staying in the air-conditioned malls to shop. As one of our mentors explained to us interns, many people are surprised to fly over Hong Kong, whether by plane or helicopter, and see that most of the land is green. Granted, the residential areas are incredibly dense and vertical. Housing projects give birth to clusters of cloned, cement blocks with black holes as windows. My friend’s dad enlightened me by revealing one could tell the rich houses from the poor by one single factor: laundry on the balcony. Those buildings with hanging laundry from the windows most likely do not have in-house washing machines, hence, the poorer. However, I digress, because besides the popular belief that Hong Kong is very much akin to New York, it has a thriving hiking community. There are annual hikes across Hong Kong Island and across Kowloon that take days to finish. These are mostly held in the winter to avoid the hot, humid summer months. After many mosquito bites and bottles of Procari Sweat (the Asian Gatorade), I have conquered four different hikes.

1) Lamma Island: This is a small fishing island off the East coast of Hong Kong Island. It really wasn’t much of a hike than it was a walk around the south part of the island. Sadly, David, Yipeng, Amina and I decided to go during a typhoon warning, which ended up into a very soggy, drippy, cold trip. It seemed more like an abandoned town, with all the townspeople hiding in doors. Quite a few gave us a stare as we trudged through the small villages. The highlight of the hike was probably our fresh seafood meal at one of the many touristy restaurants lined near the ferry dock.

2) Lantau Island: Continuing with the typhoon theme, a few of us went to Lantau Island after a visit to the Hutchison Container Port. Lantau Island is to the East of Hong Kong Island and is the largest of all the outer islands. It houses the new airport and Disneyland Hong Kong. What is most famous about Lantau is the Big Buddha. Sadly, due to the strong winds of the incoming typhoon, we were unable to take the cable cars. However, the bus ride provided a wonderful tour around the island. When we reached Ngong Ping Plateau, we quickly visited the Big Buddha and set out to hike some of Lantau. One of the girls was deterred by the large number of enormous snails crawling around and opted to explore Po Lin Monastery and the small strip of shops instead.

Wisdom Path


Although the guys and I had originally planned to hike along one of the trails and return to the Big Buddha in time for the last bus back to the MTR station, we discovered that there was an overgrown, closed off trail that led to one of the peaks. Boys being boys, Yipeng, David, and Eugenio OBVIOUSLY decided to hop over the gate bearing the sign “CLOSED PERMENANTLY DUE TO LANDSLIDE.” The trail actually turned out to be quite safe and offered gorgeous views of the island. The trail was of moderate difficulty, and we caught a clearing just before the sun was beginning to set, making for beautiful photos. I strongly recommend Lantau for anyone who wishes to venture off the paved path and seek a moderate climb. Lantau contains some of the tallest peaks in Hong Kong and offer dazzling views. It’s also convenient for those in the party who wish to opt out of the hike and leisurely enjoy the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery. I hope to go back again just to take the cable cars.

3) Ma On Shan: One Sunday, I decided to call up David and drag him out of bed to go hike Dragon’s Back Trail to end up at Shek O beach. Having already done the hike, David suggested another hike, Ma On Shan on the Maclehose trail. It was rated as a rather difficult hike, but Yipeng and I were up for it. We set out to the village of Sai Kung, full of yachts in the marina with many expats and some sort of carnival going on. After walking around the main road for a while, we finally discovered the entrance to Stage 4 of the Maclehose trail. Unbeknownst to us, Stage 4 of the Maclehose trail is the most difficult section of the entire 100km trail. One could complain about the heat and humidity, but the sun was a welcome sight and illuminated the coast and the mountains. In the distance, we could see Sai Kung and the neighboring villages as well as paragliders on a nearby mountain. We first reached a fire watchpoint, assumedly a place to watch for forest fires, and met a photographer. We explained to him that we wanted to scale Ma On Shan; he gave us a stare and said, “Do you even know where it is?” Following that he said, “You want to do the whole mountain? It’s straight up stairs to the top.” How do we get down? “Just follow the sun, go West,” he replied. Boy, how descriptive. He looked at us incredulously after helping us snap a picture and wished us luck on getting out before sun down.

We headed out and, true to the photographer’s words, they were straight up steps. For those of you who’ve been to Hawaii and seen Kokohead, this is the equivalent, but for an extended period of time. The hard work paid off once we reached the highest part that the trail took us. I stayed back while the boys attempted a small trail to the very peak of Ma On Shan. As they ascended, I found it very curious while waiting at the bottom that I could clearly hear their conversations discussing the best way to go about reaching the top. Because of the arrangement of the mountains, we also discovered that there was a lovely echo effect if you yelled toward the mountainside.

The boys ended up giving up on the climb to the top. As the sun was soon setting, the clouds were condensing and lowering, covering the tip of the mountain in a shroud of mystery, making the trek very difficult. They were unable to see the trail in front of them or the trail behind them, and, with both sides dropping off into a sheer cliff, they decided to turn back.

Sunset on the ridge, those clouds rained on us...

As we walked along the ridge, looking at the sunset, the clouds glided past us and delivered a surprise rain shower. Of course, from all those science classes, we had somehow failed to remember that when clouds reach the mountain, they usually condense and release moisture. Added on the fact that the air was cooling down in the evening, we were served by a 10-min buffet of torrential rain.

We safely emerged from the slippery slopes into a small village circa 7:30pm, just as twilight started and the sun had given away. Luckily, at the bottom of the hill, outside the main entrance of the village, a green minibus perchance was passing in the direction of Sai Kung. It was by far the most rewarding, both visually and physically, of all the hikes so far. It’s not for the faint of heart, and I did manage to finish 2L of water.

4) Tai Mo Shan: Epic failure. We first spent 1.5 hours just trying to find the correct bus terminal and bus number, which ended up taking us back the way we came to the dorm, and then to Tai Po Market. From there, we then had to navigate our way to the correct path. After first discovering we had taken the hardest part of the Wilson Trail due to heading in the wrong direction, we missed the turn to reach the peak of Tai Mo Shan, the highest point in all of Kowloon. Then, because it was getting late, we took a trail marked “dangerous” and for “experienced hikers only.” This consisted of steep, rocky, patches paired with slick mud/clay areas that were more dangerous due to the recent typhoon that passed through and delivered tons of rain. We finally emerged from the trails to the paved road path around the reservoir and ended up face to face with a troop of monkeys. (Yes, the correct collective noun for monkeys is troop!) Tired, muddy, sweaty, and hungry, we braced ourselves and trudged on until we found the bus stop.

Kowloon in the distance

Yup... we're lost.

Lesson learned: check directions in the hiking guide to actual directions. And make sure you get to the correct peak.

More to come next time when we, hopefully, actually scale up Tai Mo Shan.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

People of Hong Kong

Overall, the people here in Hong Kong are some of the most honest and hardworking people I’ve met. The 60-hour, 80-hour, or even 100-hour week is not unheard of in the finance industry. However, here, even non-profit jobs require long workweeks. Contrary to what many interns from last year said about Hong Kong having a huge lunch culture, it is actually a very rushed, at crammed, and stressful experience. Precisely at 12:30pm, the entire downtown area goes to lunch, rendering it impossible to get a table without being crammed with 4 other strangers elbow-to-elbow or perhaps not even getting a table from personal experience.

There is also something to be said when the MTR (the subway) is spotless, granted it is privatized. (New York City, we could learn from this.) People don’t litter. People actually wear face masks to protect other when they are sick. People don’t jaywalk. The government levies a 15% flat tax rate upon every citizen and has a budget surplus. (However, I will add that there are plenty of other factors that an alum made evident during a lunch as to why/how Hong Kong is able to do this.) Hong Kong recently implemented a tax incentive that charges 50 cents for each plastic bag at the pharmacy or grocery store to eliminate plastic bag waste.

Perhaps a reason that the 0-10% service charge is possible is because people expect the best service. People do complain if their service is sub-par. However, outside of a paid service situation, everyone is ruthless. They will make fun of you if you don’t realize it’s the end of the bus line. They push and shove and squeeze on the MTR. There are hawkers and beggars wherever possible. When we all went out for dinner, we had flocks of people shove fliers at us enticing us to choose their restaurant. Living in such a dense area has instilled a survival instinct in the people.

Interestingly, what differs most between expats and natives are their choice of leisure activities. Expats prefer going to the beach or going out to clubs and bars to party. Natives go to one of the hundreds of air-conditioned mega malls to shop or watch a movie or ice skate at an indoor rink. Many of the school-age kids go to arcades. At night, they prefer grabbing dessert, opting out of the alcohol laden nights of the foreigners.

In the end, this is still just a generalization of the people. There will always be a few exceptions. I feel that I have been lucky enough to meet some of the kindest, most generous people in Hong Kong, many of them Columbia Alumni who’ve been especially welcoming to us interns. Until next time!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Week 1

Boat Marina

The Boat Ride: To round up last weekend, we were invited for a boat ride by another Columbia student. It just so happened that she lives in Hong Kong and they own a boat. We embarked and ate a meal at the marina then went to one of the nicest beaches in Hong Kong. Apparently, one can only reach the island by boat or helicopter. It was such a gorgeous getaway from the crowded city. Apparently, boats are even better than the tiny flats in Hong Kong. That evening, we were treated to a lovely Shanghai-ese dinner, where we were all so stuffed from the good food.I'm on a boat!

Scallion pancakes done right.

Work: I started work this week at a fund of funds. It's quite small with only 1 boss, 3 analysts, 2 secretaries, and 2 interns. Though, I actually find this quite nice since everyone is very willing to explain their work. Frequently, people take a break from work to share their opinions and comment on something flashing on Bloomberg. Everyone is very intense about their work. The boss is usually in first in the morning and last to leave. My hours are stated in my contract to be from 9-6, but rarely is this true. Every Tuesday, and some other nights, there's a required call with all the principles at 8am NY time, aka 8-11pm HK time. Even lunch is a hectic ordeal. The Lonely Planet Travel Guide and many interns from last year's program explained that lunch was a very social gathering and relaxing event. Most people would go out for an hour lunch and talk. Perhaps it's because I intern at a financial firm, no one really goes out for lunch, and most grab a sandwich and sit at their desks. Sometimes I feel like the odd one out. The 3 analysts are all men and very "chummy." The two secretaries and the other intern are from HK and therefore frequently speak in Cantonese, which I don't understand. However, overall, I'm enjoying it so far.

I also went to the last horse races at Happy Valley Racecourse, which was really just people getting together and drinking beer with some betting in the mix.

Ivy Ball: The Columbia Alumni Association in Hong Kong graciously invited us to the annual Ivy Ball where all the alumni from Ivy League schools plus MIT gather for a formal night. One of the traditions is the fight song competition. Columbia has won every year except last year. Edith, a mentor and key organizers of the ball, invited all of us to her house the night before for a lovely home cooked meal where we rehearsed "Stand Up and Cheer" and a small cheer routine for the competition. Needless to say, Columbia won this year with all the interns leading the way. What did we win? Nothing really. Bragging rights. The food was amazing, and there was a genereal feel of school spirit and unity, rare for Columbia.

Columbians at Ivy Ball!

I also went to Lamma Island, an outlying island to the south of Hong Kong Island for a hike with a few other interns. It just so happened that there was a level 3 typhoon warning for that day. We were all drenched to the bone in the rain, and I was eaten alive by the mosquitoes. After a short hike, we settled down for some fresh seafood and headed home.

Overall, there have been some wonderful sights. For example, Star Ferry is a cheap way to cross Victoria Bay from Kowloon side to Hong Kong Island and offers beautiful views of the skyline.

Hong Kong Skyline

Hong Kong Cultural Center... no windows???

Also, the amount of shopping available is ridiculous. There are malls every where, which are sadly as expensive or more expensive than in America. However, I will admit they are a great way to get out of the heat and humidity. Hong Kong also has a very international feel. There are many expats working here as well as non-Chinese who grew up here. So far, I don't feel like I'm here for an internship. I'm actually on vacation. :)