Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gutter Oil

Taiwan’s gutter oil scandal found its way to Hong Kong, for some reason.

Gutter oil is the appropriate description for recycled cooking oil that some cheaper restaurants and even a few high end places like to use to save a few pennies. It is less expensive for the restaurant, but they can still charge whatever they want because no one will ever know what type of oil they use. At least until there is a big scandal and government investigation.

The scandal comes not from the fact that gutter oil is repulsive and will make your stomach feel about as good as if you drank the water in Victoria Harbour. Surprisingly, gutter oil is actually illegal in Hong Kong. Most restaurants will try to use the cheapest oil they can find, but somewhere along the line, the Hong Kong government decided that cooking oil that literally went down the drain and has been shown to cause various types of cancer is probably not ideal. I don’t know if it’s illegal in Taiwan, but they are in the middle of a big scandal, so someone there is obviously upset about having poison in their food.

Restaurants cutting corners to save money is nothing new around here. If Hong Kong had a restaurant health inspection ratings system, millions of places would have a big F posted in their windows. What’s unusual is that the Hong Kong restaurants caught up in this latest investigation bought their gutter oil from Taiwan. I would assume that illegal poison oil would be cheaper to get from China. Most things from China are cheaper, and it’s easier to import Chinese products. The Chinese government would definitely rather have Hong Kong restaurants serve Chinese poison over Taiwanese poison. They don’t like Hong Kong very much right now, but they haven’t liked Taiwan for a long time.

Hong Kong has banned the import of all products made from the company in Taiwan that is getting the most attention, but it doesn’t seem like they are doing anything about any of the other companies that sell gutter oil. In typical Chinese fashion, if they only concentrate on the most infamous troublemaker, they think no one will notice that so many other troublemakers are still making trouble.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hong Kong Protest part 4

The Hong Kong police finally started to clear the barricades in the streets and force some of the protesters to let traffic through. Not so much at Central. The street that the police cleared was Nathan Road in Kowloon. It was actually very close to my old tiny apartment in Mong Kok. If I still lived there, I might see the protests as an inconvenience – or I would have gone out to join them every night. As it is, they are not close to my current apartment.

The main bulk of the protesters are at Central, and that is the area that’s getting all the media attention, but there are also smaller satellite protests going on in other parts of the city. The one on Nathan Road was a surprise to me. Not only because I used to live right there, but also because Nathan Road is easily the busiest street in Kowloon. On any given day, there are about a million tourist buses going up and down that street. I don’t know where they all went when the street was blocked off.

Staging a protest outside the Central Government office is a good idea. That is where the people you are protesting against go to work. That’s also where a lot of other people go to work. Shut that area down and you essentially shut down the government, more or less.

Nathan Road seems like a strange place to block traffic. It hurts tourism, which in turn hurts the economy, but it does nothing against the government. The leaders of this city probably don’t even know that Mong Kok exists. Hurting the economy will only hurt the protesters. Instead of forcing the government to listen to their demands, it will drive the opinion polls away from the protests. Most people in Hong Kong would agree that the protest should have been allowed to happen, but as soon as it affects the economy, most will say that the protesters have made their point and now it’s time to go home. Chinese people have been living under emperors and dictators for 5,000 years. Democracy is not a high priority.

By Friday, there were a few hundred people camped out on Nathan Road. This particular protest site was clearly dying down. In a week, or less, it would have emptied out on its own. Then the police came in and cleared the road with the subtlety of a Chinese driver trying to parallel park. Images of police officers in riot gear beating an unarmed 18-year-old protester were all over TV news stations. By Saturday morning, there were about 9,000 protesters on Nathan Road.

If the Chinese authorities want this to end, they should leave it alone and let it die out as people lose interest. The more they charge in like a dragon in a China shop, the larger the protests will grow. Antagonizing people on the weekend is especially stupid. Many of the protesters are students. They have an inherent need to get rowdy on weekends.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

San Francisco 4

The best part about my very short trip to San Francisco was the food. I like Chinese food as much as the next person, but sometimes you need a little variety. Hong Kong has a lot more than just Chinese food, but there seems to be at least a hint of Chinese in everything. In San Francisco, I could eat any kind of food I wanted, even Chinese food. San Francisco has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, but I stayed away. I can see authentic Chinese anytime.

My 2 Canadian roommates wanted to try a popular vegetarian restaurant at Fort Mason. I was expecting the stereotypical California salads and sprouts, but Greens Restaurant had a more upscale menu than I expected. I had the chick pea tagine with potatoes, green olives and pickled fennel. My American roommate had a curry and coconut risotto with eggplant and squash. The Canadians had pasta dishes filled with all kinds of summer vegetables. For an appetizer, we all shared some pupusas with squash and cheddar cheese. They came with a big bowl of avocado, salsa and pickled vegetables. There were nice views of the Marina, but we could see all that from our hotel. The best reason to go to this restaurant was the insanely fresh food. Every vegetable we ate was most likely picked that day.

On the opposite end of the healthy spectrum, our hotel was close to a fast food place called In-N-Out Burgers. Though it looks no better than McDonald’s or Burger King, Californians practically worship the food. In-N-Out is only in a few western states, so we never had any in Minnesota, but I have even heard expats in Hong Kong reminisce about how great it is. I only went in because I was walking by and wanted a light snack. I got some French fries expecting them to be no better than any other fast food fries. I could not have been more wrong. This is a fast food place, but the fries were cut from actual potatoes right there in front of me. I never ate anything else there, but with those French fries alone, I can see why Californians who live abroad miss this place so much.

A few blocks east on the same street is the Boudin Bakery. If sourdough bread is the symbol of San Francisco, this bakery is supposed to be the place to get it. I knew I would be eating lots of bread in San Francisco. When you live in Hong Kong, you take any chance to get good bread that you can find. I absolutely love sourdough, which seems to be impossible to find in Hong Kong, and this bakery did not disappoint me at all.

Across the street from Boudin Bakery is the Rainforest Café, a jungle themed chain restaurant. The food was nothing special, but the atmosphere almost reminded me of Disneyland with all the artificial trees, artificial rocks and artificial ambience.

One tacky theme restaurant I absolutely refused to go to was Ace Wasabi’s Rock-N-Roll Sushi. The name alone told me that this was not the kind of place I wanted to be.

When it came to great American food like pizza, tacos and strudel, I was spoiled for choice. There are two places to get good pizza in Hong Kong, but any kind of Mexican food or pastries have always eluded me. My goal in California was to eat things I can never get in Hong Kong. In that regard, I succeeded marvelously.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

San Francisco 3

My California roommates and I went to Baker Beach in San Francisco because it was just on the other side of the Presidio. There is a larger coastal beach on the far end of the city, but it is much farther away and, something only 2 of my roommates knew about at the time, Baker is a nude beach.

I’m not sure why people are always trying to get me to go to nude beaches, but this time it was more of a case of the 2 Canadians wanting to get naked. It had nothing to do with me. The other American and I were only along for the ride.

What none of us knew at the time is that the north end of Baker Beach is the nude part while the southern end is just like any other beach. The bus to get there stops at the southern end, and when we walked to the beach, the Canadians were disappointed to see that no one was naked. There were plenty of people on the beach. It was a great day to be there. The sun was out and it wasn’t too hot or too cold. Summer was pretty much over, but it lasts longer in San Francisco.

People think that Mark Twain said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco”. He never said that, but people always mention it because San Francisco summers are much cooler than summer in other American cities. People who don’t know anything about Minnesota think it’s an ice box, but Minneapolis summers get 20 degrees hotter than San Francisco. Mark Twain lived in Connecticut and New York. He obviously saw winters that were much colder than any summer in San Francisco.

San Francisco is not exactly a frozen wasteland. Their summers may not be very hot, but their winters are not very cold either. It rarely dips below 40 degrees. So while the rest of the country is complaining that summer is too hot, it’s actually very nice in San Francisco, and when people complain that winter is too cold, it’s very mild in San Francisco. For people who like a relatively steady temperature, San Francisco might be the perfect city. I’d go crazy because I like different seasons, but I’m sure plenty of people love it.

One of the reasons Baker Beach is so popular is the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. You have to climb on some rocks to see the whole bridge, but it’s nothing challenging. You don’t have to be a serious climber to get there. Even if you only stay on the beach, you’re going to see the bridge. You can’t miss it.

To get to the best views of the bridge, you have to go to the north end of the beach. That’s where all the naked people are. The Canadians were happy about that and took off their bathing suits as soon as they saw other naked people. The fact that almost all the other naked people were older men didn’t bother them at all. I think they wanted to be seen more than they wanted to be naked, so older men are actually a good thing. Younger men might be too friendly. Older men will mostly keep their distance and just stare at you. That might be creepy to most of us, but for the Canadians, that was perfect.

My very limited experience with nudists told me that they are not exhibitionists or voyeurs. Most of them simply want the freedom to get naked at places like a beautiful beach on a nice sunny day. The 2 Canadians I was with were not nudists. They wanted to be seen. They were not complete attention whores. They did nothing outrageous to be the center of attention. They simply got naked. They would have been the center of attention on the clothed end of the beach, but on the nude end, very few people even noticed. That was their biggest disappointment of the day.

None of us could understand why these 2 attractive – and very naked – young women were not more popular on this beach. There were a few other naked women, but they were all older and not exactly the kind of women most men lust after. Most of the naked men were older, but that does not mean they were all attracted to older women. Older men are not generally repulsed by naked young women.

We only found out later that the north end of Baker Beach is also the gay end of the beach. Apparently Californians like to segregate themselves on the beach by sexual orientation. I had never heard of such a thing, but the more people I talked to, the more I learned that any nude beach in California will have a gay side and a straight side. This makes no sense to me since the point of a nude beach is supposed to be for people to relax and enjoy the sun and water without clothes getting in the way. It should never matter what gender they sleep with since sex on any beach is illegal. For some reason, it matters in California.

We never saw anyone having sex on Baker Beach. The way the beach is set up, it would be impossible to do without an audience. It is a straight beach without any coves or hiding places. You would have to climb the rocks on the north end, and that has to be a terribly uncomfortable place to have sex. It is also not very private since people go there all the time to take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge.

It occurred to me while we were there that this was the first time I had ever been to a nude beach with different types of naked people. My first nude beach was just Ryan and me. No one else ever showed up. My second beach was Lily, me and a bunch of lesbians. No men ever showed up. This time there were men, women and children on the clothed side. All genders, ages and races were on this beach. That’s the way it should be. It was nothing like Hong Kong. This was the American way.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Hong Kong Protest part 3

Lily & I went back to the protest site at central on Monday, about 10 days after it all started. I could say that the protest was still going strong 10 days later, but it was infinitely weaker. Last weekend, there had to be at least 100,000 people there. I still have not seen any official figures, but there was a massive crowd of people filling the streets. A week later there were still crowds, but they were not nearly as large. There were probably thousands of people, but it was much easier to walk from one end to the other.

The mood seemed to be the same. The impression I got was that everyone was optimistic that their demands would be met. I’m not really sure why. The optimism was understandable the week before. There is safety in numbers. By this point, it should be obvious to everyone – including Beijing – that this protest is not as popular as it used to be. The hardcore protesters might be in it for the long haul, but the longer this drags on, the less support they will have from the general population.

Last Sunday, when the police shot tear gas into the crowd, the protesters had most of Hong Kong on their side. Whether the average Chiang agreed with the protest or not, they were vehemently against the police using tear gas against a peaceful Hong Kong assembly.

Hong Kong is not a Middle Eastern dictatorship where most of the people are living in poverty under the oppressive thumb of a ruthless tyrant. The people protesting in Egypt and Syria were obviously willing to kill and die for the changes they wanted. The Hong Kong protesters are not looking for a civil war and are not about to kill anyone. I never heard anyone talk about dying for their cause. A civil war in Hong Kong would never work anyway. China would surround the city and put an end to that quickly and with a terrifying amount of bloodshed.

The Arab Spring may or may not still be going on. No one talks about Syria’s civil war anymore because they’re all talking about terrorist groups trying to take over. But this protest in Hong Kong will never be a Chinese Autumn. The governments in China and Hong Kong will not topple any time soon. Terrorism here will never be much of an option.

By this Sunday, much of Hong Kong was ready to go back to work. The protesters are starting to wear out their welcome. Instead of becoming the harbingers of true democracy in Hong Kong, they run the risk of becoming a nuisance to people who need this large road to get to work. Freedom to vote is an abstract concept in China. Paychecks are more tangible.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

San Francisco 2

I was talking about my California trip before the protests in Hong Kong derailed my train of thought.

Back in San Francisco, I don’t think I was the best roommate for the other 3 girls on this trip. They wanted to spend most of the day shopping and most of the night clubbing. I have little to no interest in either activity. We had limited time in the city, and I wanted to explore what little of it I could. Shopping malls tell you almost nothing about a place and you can’t see anything in dark and noisy clubs.

When I suggested we all go to the sea lion colony at Pier 39, they thought I was crazy. I thought it would be interesting to see hundreds of sea lions living side by side with humans in peace only a few minutes from our hotel. They thought buying more clothes was a better idea.

When I wanted to go to Alcatraz, they could not understand why anyone would want to see an old dirty prison – especially when you have to get on a boat to get there. The department stores at Union Square were an easy cable car ride away, and our hotel was right next to one of the cable car terminals.

In the end, I never went to Alcatraz because I wanted to explore the city and Alcatraz is more of a museum than anything else. It shows a unique historical perspective, but going there would have told me nothing about what it’s like to live in San Francisco.

Something I knew I would always be doing alone was taking an early morning walk or bike ride along the marina. The weather was great while we were there and it was nice to take a morning walk in the brisk morning air. The morning fog over the bay only made it more beautiful. Since I’m from Minnesota, I think mornings are supposed to be colder than the rest of the day. You don’t get that in Hong Kong. At 6 am it’s already hotter than it needs to be.

My roommates were not exactly morning people. Since they stayed out late at night drinking and doing who knows what, I was the only one who woke up before noon. Being alone in the morning is something I’m very used to since I seem to always surround myself with night owls.

When they wanted to go to the beach, I decided I should probably go along just for the sake of harmony. I thought lying out on the beach was a waste of time, especially since there was so much we were never going to see, but this was only the beginning of the trip and I did not want our differences to make the rest of the trip uncomfortable.

We all brought bathing suits with us, for some reason. My 2 Canadian roommates were determined to get some sun since we were in California. Hong Kong is not exactly the best place in the world for sunbathing. I brought a bathing suit because I assumed – or hoped – that at least one of the hotels would have a nice clean swimming pool. I never get to swim in Hong Kong, so if I’m going somewhere that has a pool without Chinese people using it as a toilet, I’m in.