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Archive for June, 2006

Shopping conventions

Different cultures bring with them various customs of value, but sometimes you find yourself really thankful for how we do things in Australia.

Yesterday I went to the Foreign Trade Market to get some hair clips and see if I could find some clothes, and just have a general mooch around. I came back with the hair clips, a wooden comb and 2 night-singlets. Being clothing items from a large floor-area, they called for a specific Chinese purchasing system to be observed: once you have selected your items, you hand them to the lass who is hovering near the table. She writes out an order-form on a piece of paper, and minds what you’ve chosen. You then go to the counter to pay for the items, then go back to the floor-section to pick them up.

I’m sure this is nowhere near the most efficient way of doing things. It was ok since I was the only person in this particular place at that time, but if it had been a crowded Sunday afternoon, and had I had many purchases, things might have been a little less comfortable. (It was also 29* according to the electronic thermometer on the wall, and I don’t know the exact humidity, but it was very high. We’ve been told the worst month for humidity is August.)

On a light note, I have recently purchased a little red trolley. It’s the kind that some Asian people who shop at the Central Market use to transport their produce home. I have been getting a bit fed up with the biweekly heavy shopping bags, and this seems to be a workable option. It is not perfect because the handle’s not quite long enough, but definately workable, and though the trip home is a little longer due to unwieldy navigation and the occasional stuck wheel, it means that there are less difficulties. Heavy bags and weight limitations will soon be a thing of the past. Here is a picture of this wonderful specimen.

red trolley.jpg

Green Tea

Green Tea Tea (cha’) is a very important thing in China, and drunk throughout the day by all Chinese. There is oodles of it in the shops. It comes in all shapes and sizes; air-tight packages the same size as our coffee packages, tea in bags (Rickshaw vs Lipton), and even in bigger bins, where you can observe the quality and choose for yourself. We have samples of all of the above; tea being something I was quite keen to try over here.

The floral teas are nice, with green tea and jasmine, green tea and chrysanthemum, green tea with rose, and oolong osmanthus. There are also others including iron budda tea, mandarin tea and ‘black tea as the English drink it’ (aka Lipton). Lipton certainly have the monopoly on teabags over here. They also undertake copious advertising campaigns on the trains.

Gail tea 006.jpg

Tea is not drunk very strong here, and so doesn’t need, and wouldn’t support, our White with One. Green tea is the least fermented of the teas, so has fewer tannins, and is more like drinking flavoured water than anything. My favourite is jasmine tea. It both tastes and smells the best. I’m not sure if it consists of ‘green tea with jasmine leaves’ or just ‘jasmine tea leaves’. Maybe back in Mt Barker I can pinch some leaves from a Jasmine tree, ferment them and test it out. )

Given the unsavoury nature of the water, tea is also a good way of disguising the taste, and after consuming it, you really need all the anti-oxidants you can get. A very common street-way of drinking tea is to put a few leaves in a long, cylindrical container of hot water, and drink out of that. All the locals, regardless of social status, drink it this way. The only difference is the quality and cleanliness of the container. I was impressed with this method, and sought out an appropriate container at the local Trustmart. It’s very swish; even has a filter at the top so the leaves don’t go through when you’re at the bottom of the tea. It fits vertically in my handbag, too, which was a big deciding factor. ) The thing about this arrangement is that when you’ve finished it, all you do is refill it with hot water, and have another litre of tea all ready to go.

I’ve discovered that drinking warm tea while on the train is enjoyable, and somehow makes the wet, humid, crowded ride to Hong Kong a lot easier to handle. It’s largely therapeutic; just like sitting down to a hot drink after being out all day. It also replenishes the dehydration of travel, or even the tiring nature of just being out in muggy air. You’d be right to point out at this stage that, yes, tea, like coffee, is a diuretic and causes loss of retained water in the body, but it really is such a weak brew that this doesn’t matter.

This is what my cannister looks like, filled with green tea leaves. It’s not quite ready because not all the leaves have sunk to the bottom. The colour wouldn’t darken that much more, though.

tea cannister.jpg

Coffee is expensive here, and dehydrating. Many restraunts don’t know what to do with hot chocolate, either. It’s obviously not part of the general taste. I tried a hot chocolate at our local Spaghetti House the other day, and it was brought out in a coffee cup, with whipped cream on the top. Sounds nice? Yes… and no. The hot chocolate consisted of some sort of chocolate syrup icecream topping-type concoction, to which was added a few drops of hot water, and no milk. Sickly sweet. It wasn’t very nice. I might stick to the tea.

Tropical Thunderstorms

Stock exchange at night

Last Friday night we had a ‘heavy thunderstorm’, contrasting with the weather prediction of ‘thundershowers early in the day progressing to thunderstorms, moving to heavy thunderstorms in the evening’. I have been able to deduce that the difference between t’showers and t’storms is the amount and intensity of rain produced.

The heavy t’storm in the evening was magnificent. It began about 7pm and lasted for 2 hours or so. It was a spectuacular array involving much sheet lightning of moderate intensity and at regular intervals, so we sat down with hot drinks, turned the lights off, and enjoyed the show. At about 27 degrees, it definately was a tropical thunderstorm.

Cars lined up

There were only 3 or so bolts of lightning that we could identify as bolts, and one of these lasted for a significant whole second or so as it earthed itself to something or other in the distance. Incidentally, all the buildings here have lightning rods.

We took a short video using our Canon digital camera to give you a bit of an idea of the thunderstorm. Remember that we’re in an apartment complex so there’s no sound from the rain hitting the roof, only the sound from the rain on the windows. Click here.

Guangzhou ramblings

Andrew & Gail together

Last weekend saw us take the train to Guangzhou (pr. gwong-joe’), formerly called Canton. We debated whether we should go or leave it for a while, since it was raining, but concluded that if we waited for pleasant weather we could be waiting a very long time. Armed with a backpack containing our Lonely Planet Guide (thanks again, Lorelei ) ), a phrase book, lots of water, nibbles, a pashmina (you never know), on-train readables and both umbrellas, we headed for our first challenge: buying a train ticket. Almost all ticket lines were appropriate, especially since I’d learned how to identify the Guangzhou character. The person at the ticket office was hesitant in her ability to speak English, so quickly recruited the lady next to her. Personally, I thought Andrew did a very good job of asking, ‘I want a ticket, Shenzhen to Guangzhou’ in Mandarin. Maybe she was nervous speaking English with English-looking people. Incidentally, during this time a new line opened up next to us, and the rush of people was faster than a group of school kids at 3:30pm.

The train trip was one and a half hours and we had the accompaniment of four grizzly kids opposite us (including twins), with weary mother and grumpy grandmother.

The atmosphere was a little unusual; it was raining, warm and humid outside, but inside the train it was cool and humid, with an uncomfortable tangible dampness on everything. The dampness was no doubt enhanced by our leaking train window. The on-board loo was pleasantly clean which made a nice change from previous watch-your-feet train trips.

From the train we were able to board the Guangzhou Metro (subway) and head across the city. Once in Guangzhou and off their metro, the pollution was extremely present. That, and we were lost. Taking the ’scenic route’ as Andrew would say, hence the picture of Andrew poring over the map. It took about 30 mins to find where we wanted to go, including the ten minute walk to get there. Along the way we discovered a stretch of road that was selling all kinds of bulk goods; raw and dried produce of all sorts, including dried snakes and huge centipedes that leave our small relatives for, well, dead. I’m sure the ones here taste a lot better too. (Gail would just like to disclaim all responsibility for the last sentence.)

The district we were aiming for first was actually an island; one of the original foreign settlement points of the city, so it had Chinese-European architecture. It was also the site of quite a few foreign embassies and a mixture of Western/Cantonese cafes. We realised that this island we visited was not a true reflection of the ‘real’ city; a bit touristy, but to be fair, it was only one of quite a few places we were planning to see. The paved streets were graced with quite a few statues on their corners, capturing what to the Cantonese must have been extraordinary sights, including kids crabbing at the water’s edge, society ladies meeting with their needlework, a fat lady walking her dog, children following a teacher, and even photographers with bags on their shoulders and cameras in hand. They were obviously modelled on people who were seen engaged in these actions.

Island scenery

We found an American cafe and ordered. My food was very hot, so came out on a plate on a wooden platter. It also came out with about 20 small unordered red occupants, rich in protein and legs. The waitress (a trainee) didn’t know what to do, and just looked at the plate and the situation in front of me for a few moments. When it became obvious she was shocked but wasn’t going to do anything about it, I asked, ‘Would you please take the plate away, and bring it back without the ants?’, to which she complied, while I was busy eliminating the offending miscreants that had escaped from the wood and were already rampaging about the table. Oh well. These things happen. )

Boat sepia 2

After lunch we watched some dragonboats go down the river as part of the dragonoat festival celebrations (oficially the previous Wednesday, but it seems that even the Chinese postpone celebrations until the weekend if it’s convenient). There were really, really long wooden boats with people paddling away to the beat of a standing, on-board drummer. Occasionally someone on the boat would set off a fire cracker over the water. This was, apparently, to scare away the evil spirits. They do the same thing when building new buildings however, in that case they usually use more traditional fireworks.

Dragonboat

Shortly after lunch Andrew and I were caught in a stunner of a rainshower. Since the weather forecast had predicted thunderstorms for Guangzhou, we were armed with brollies, and enjoyed the few sheets of lightning in the distance. With only a handful of peals of thunder as a warning, it started raining very, very hard. The wind brisked right up and we found ourselves in the midst of a tropical thunderstorm with no nearby place to shelter. Our little Chinese brollies proved to be very ineffective at keeping the thundering rain at bay and we were both drenched from the waist down. We ran back towards the cafe but found shelter under a roadway on the way with a bunch of other Chinese.

A little while later the rain stopped almost as abruptly as it began. We decided to abandon the plans we had for the rest of the day and thaw out in a very comfy Blenz coffee shop we found nearby (Canada’s replica of Starbucks). After suitable hot-chocolating, resting and thawing we took the scenic route (deliberately this time!) through some back-street-ish areas, past a famous Guangzhou resturaunt, down a Rundle Mall style shopping area and finally to the Metro entrance, stopping only to order some fried rice and soup from a local Cantonise resturaunt to eat on the train later (praise God for phrase-books!). By 10pm we were home, having largely dried out, with the exception of the legs of Andrew’s pants, and pairs of squelchy shoes and socks. We’ll be back.

We heard from Mark that there was a great supermarket crammed with all kinds of great stuff in Hong Kong called City Super. Not that we were keen or anything, but Gail & I crossed the border the very next morning to go shopping! Pity about the pouring rain. Still, the weather was warm and we hardly got wet at all. From the time we left home until the time we returned later that day we were never actually directly in the rain. They really have worked out how to deal with the rain well here. We were fortunate that the Kowloon Tong rail station is fully enclosed and kept us from getting soaked whilst disembarking.

Raining Down

Within a few minutes of alighting at Shatin we had looked around the 5-story shopping complex and located City Super. Here we found a plethora of delectable delicacies from all over the world. The prices were certainly higher than in China but sometimes some things seem worth buying regardless of the price. Like Australian steak. Or Cocoa. Gail has been suffering from Cocoa withdrawls for the past few weeks so she was determined to find some. I’m sure it was her prime motive for going to City Super. If she had written a shopping list it would have had 2 items on it: 1) Cocoa. 2) Other.

Outside of City Super

As we scoured the shelves we came across a real array of fine foods from across the globe. Because practically all the food was imported it made the Australian produce the same price as practically all the other foreign foods. One of the great discoveries of the trip was English museli. For all their other cullinary faults, the English do museli very well (they may have borrowed it from the Swiss anyway, I’m not sure). With ingredients of oats, wheat flakes, sesame seeds, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, almonds and a few other things, it is has proven to be an exceptionally good snack/breakfast and general hunger-sating device. Gail plans to make some of her own once we finish this lot. Another great find was some Villi’s pies! All the way over here! We bought 4, more for the fact that they were Australian Villi’s pies rather than for their outright tastebud tantalising talents.

Gail - I am pleased to say that the British answer to CSR’s golden syrup is neither inferior nor superior to ours however, it does come in a very nice tin, highly decorated with green and gold, with ‘By Royal Appointment’ on the back. It would not have the same ring to it if we put ‘Johnny eats this for breakfast’ on ours. The lid has a tendency towards being tacky, and we couldn’t find a tin in the shop that didn’t have some stickiness on it, but it tasted the same. I guess it’s probably the only sealed try-before-you-buy item… They didn’t have any bicarb soda or vanilla essence, so they are a few more things to bring back from Adelaide. City Super also had an array of herbs and spices that was very pleasing, and are slightly cheaper than the McCormick/Masterfood ones of Adelaide, once we’d done a currency conversion. I’m still getting used to thinking about how much things really are. The impulse of ‘I’m not paying $18 for that!’ still needs to be moderated by the fact that it is only about AU$3. We now have parsley, basil and cinammon, which is very pleasing and makes cooking a bit more normal.

We came across something that we have seen in other places around HK/CN and that was plastic imitation food outside resturaunts. The quality of the reproduction is just fantastic, you would have no idea that it was not a real meal that you were looking at. This is all done to lure prospective customers. There must be a really good trade in fake food because it’s something we’ve seen in quite a few places.

Plastic Food 2 Plastic Food 1

Well, here are the spoils. Soup, sauce, beans, pies, cocoa, steak, crackers, whipped cream, pasta sauce, golden syrup, juice, muesli, herbs and spices and even a box of Just Right. Not bad at all for a shopping expedition. I’m sure we’ll go back there sometime soon. Probably about the same time the cocoa runs out…

The Spoils

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