Saturday, January 26, 2008

In the hands of the blind

You know you’re onto a good one the moment when you can’t breath for a couple of seconds, the pain is acute, and perhaps a sliver of saliva will slide out of the corner of your mouth uncontrollably onto the crisp white sheets that your body is pounding.
I’m no sadomasochist, but when at a blind massage joint they ask soft, medium or hard, I’ll always go hard and then ratchet up the pressure once underway. “Is OK?” they’ll say. “Harder,” I venture. Moments later they’ll inquire again, “Is OK?” and I wince back in a falsetto crescendo that yes it is OK.
The point that takes your breath away is invariably around either the fourth vertebrae or as your neck is needled.
Any trip to the mainland is always accompanied by regular blind massage excursions. I find their sense of touch is naturally that bit sharper, their keenness to impress is more noticeable and unlike the other massage parlours that dot most streets in the People’s Republic there is no hanky panky insulations, just a straight, hard rub down that always seems to make me taller and unwrap the knots and kinks in my crumpled body. And at roughly 1RMB a minute there are few better ways to spend your money than a one-hour blind massage.
In Beijing I go to a place just next to the old Red House on Chunxiu Street, where an albino, blind lady has such a fantastic grasp of her profession that she can tell you things like, “You use a computer mouse too much the wrong way so that is why this knot here,” cue sharp intake of breath to suppress the howl of pain on my behalf, “is so big and hard to get rid of.” In Guangzhou there’s a decent place on lovely old Shamian Island while this week I found a massage heaven in Shanghai that surpasses my old regular behind the Jingjiang Hotel. Next time you’re in Shanghai make sure you head to FeiNing Massage Centre at 597 Fuxing Road, near the intersection with Maoming Road. A cracking place, literally.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cocktologists from Fitzroy

Melbourne is a great city and the very best part of it (from the miniscule amount of time I have spent there) is the bohemian area of Fitzroy and specifically Brunswick Street (pictured). This throughfare is lined with brilliant bars, restaurants, shops – all colourful, slightly run down in a fashionable way and full of out of work actors working the tables. Think of a cuisine and Brunswick St caters for it – even Afghan food, and the quality of tucker on offer wherever you go is outstanding.
Then there are the brilliant bars. Half way down is Ginger, which lays claim to being one of the top 20 cocktail bars in the world. Certainly the wasabi capriosca the AsiaScribbler imbibed was suitably ingenious, blending spice and sour to drunken effect.
Still, just a few doors down is, for my money (and, doff of cap here to my sister and her boyfriend for steering me here in the first place) is an even more inventive cocktail bar – called the Black Pearl, oh aaaagh. So creative and inspired are the select number of drinks here that I took the liberty of purloining the menu, all in the name of journalistic/blog research, you understand.
What the alcohol chemists behind the bar do here is phenemonal in mixing certain ingredients that on paper make you wince at the prospect, but on supping make you drool with delight.
Take the Spring Martini, A$16, which according to the blurb is a “myriad palate of flavours activating every pleasure sensor on your tongue.” The ingredients are Hanwoods Port, Gin, Fresh Raspberries, a little Balsamic Vinegar (!) and Cranberry Juice. Vinegar in my martini glass? Are you having a laugh, as Ricky Gervais’s character in Extras might say, but I tell you what it works a treat.
Similarly excellent is the Marjini (pronounced Ma-hee-nee), which allegedly is a “margarita for ‘las personas del sol’”. El Jimador Tequila, Jasmine Syrup, Sauvignon Blanc, and Lime is served with a Corriander Salt lacing and is some of the best A$15 you will spend in Melbourne.
The Black Pearl is a treasure trove in a street lined with gems.

City of Dreams

To be the AsiaScribbler is to lead a charmed life. Many people are often jealous of my lucky niche, roaming the world “like a French movie star” as one chum likes to put it. But every now and then I get that perverse feeling that perhaps I am in the wrong place. Normally, it comes on holiday. And so it came to pass once again yesterday as I spent a marvelous 24 hours wondering around the fantastic city of Melbourne. This place has so much going for it: clean air, parks, culture, fantastic food, a benign climate, huge sporting events, multiculturalism, good transport, top wines … the list could go on. Put simply, it is as ‘livable’ a city as I have ever come across.
Living in Hong Kong and indeed all of China, one has to contend with awful pollution, mega humidity and a very different paced and focused way of life. I love it, but, wow, Melbourne does make me pause for thought. The thing is I am chained to HK as a China scribe. Otherwise a life Down Under might be a serious possibility.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The weekly commute

“The Colony had therefore become for him exactly what it was already for the rest of the journalists: an airfield, a telephone, a laundry, a bed.”
The Honourable Schoolboy
, John Le Carré (1977)

It is one of the great pieces of inspired infrastructure in Hong Kong, yet for me it is now a bit of a bore. I’m on it now as I am pretty much every week.
12 years back Hong Kong’s airport was in the middle of town, the bellies of 747s nearly scraping the tall towers that dominated the then colony’s heart.
When they reclaimed land and built the gigantic and ultra efficient new airport out on the west of Lantau island, unlike other Asian cities with new distant runways (step forward Narita and Incheon) the authorities linked the city centre with Chep Lap Kok airport with a 23 minute, HK$180 return train. Travellers are able to check in downtown – a brilliant idea – and wonder around HK, bags free, while they wait for their flight before taking the train to fly out.
The route of the tracks heads underground straightaway off Hong Kong island across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon before passing the container port and onto crowded Tsing Yi island. It then veers around Lantau island crossing the truly impressive Tsing Ma bridge, sadly in the dark, and whips past a stop for Disney before alighting at Arrivals.
As useful as it is though after a while it can get boring. In this hyper commercial centre, nominally under communist rule, just like Orwell’s 1984 adverts blare out of the TV for Disney and Dior - you can turn the sound down via your headrest, but never off.
I always say to myself I’ll take the bus and that way get to see different things and no Mickey Mouses. Trouble is in fast paced HK the bus takes 22 minutes longer than the train, and, well, that’s just too long.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Grey nomads

Grey nomads are what they’re called in these parts. You can’t miss them. They’re the baby boomers hogging the roads with the pride and joy of their lives – their caravans.
The highways and byways of the great Australian landmass are made up of these folk in their sixties who have cashed in everything, usually offloading their homes in the process, to live the, errrr, dream of becoming a roaming free spirit in later life. They are proud members of the SKI club – Spending the Kids’ Inheritance.
Their white plastic caravans are adorned with stickers, like war insignia, of where they have been and certain incongruous phrases – “Just cruisin’” or “Rock on” type spiel.
A grey nomad’s car is easy to spot because however dusty the terrain it is always shiny and spotless.
As they compete for spots at camping sites up and down the land you’ll hear them exchange banter about how long they’ve been on the road: “Yeah, this is our eighth time round,” they might say, in reference to circumnavigating the nation. Theirs is a life permanently on the road.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Way Ay, Man!

Inside the darkened rooms of the cavernous Newcastle Arms there lies pleasant surprises aplenty for the average British pub goer. Premiership football blares out from countless big screens, a normally pretty tight rock outfit plays well-known tracks from yore, the pool table is always busy while perhaps the world’s largest shove ha’penny apparatus sits alongside the main bar, just to the left of the darts board. And from said bar pour forth many of the more mundane local lagers associated with this region, plus the rusty brown, welcome taste of McEwans Ale on tap not to forget, of course, Newcastle Brown Ale. All in all, a strange but highly appreciated sight in the world’s largest municipality, Chongqing.

A number of years ago Scottish and Newcastle invested in Chongqing Brewery, God bless ‘em!

Address: Bayi Road, Yuzhong District, Chongqing, China
Tel: 23 6373 1488

PS: Opposite is a McDonald’s – just to the right of that is an entrance to what looks like a another office block, go in, punch the number 8 button in the lift and, post copious ales at the Arms across the way, boogey away the night at the city’s best club.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The E Street Band

“You buy me ecstasy.” These four words are perhaps what the average foreign bloke will hear most often on a night out in Jakarta.
I have never really had that much against MDMA and E really. I always thought it overrated and the comedown the following day easily outweighed the frankly dull high moments. Still, in Indonesia my viewpoint changed on seeing the sheer depravity and desperation caused by this drug. The streets are lined with gurning chicks, faces distorted by pills, words exiting their mouths in long, drooling fashion.
It used to be the upper classes that indulged in this drug through till the late 1990s where mass production and a perceived ‘coolness’ factor made it the pill of choice for the masses too.
Inside a cavernous warehouse that doubled up as a nightclub, the green laser lights darted across the huge dance floor, with techno music at full body-quivering blast, and the 2,000 strong crowd heaved to and fro as if filmed by an old fashioned Cinecamera thanks to the powerful strobe lighting. We perched ourselves at the back to take in the view and preserve our eardrums. No sooner had we sat down than dozens of girls came up, each one in turn demanding we buy them ecstasy. This rife drug doesn’t cost much in the Indonesian capital – around US$9 – but it sure dictates lives.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Another year on the road

A quick glance at the 2007 calendar shows I was away a hell of a lot. 2008 is even more blacked out with escapades around the globe. Being the AsiaScribbler involves seriously pissing off Al Gore with all the air miles I accumulate, and genuinely it is something I think about a lot. I don’t drive being perhaps the only person to fail a driving test because of a screeching, tire burning emergency stop 13 years ago, and the house I own has solar panels. I take long, long train rides often to avoid planes, but more often than not time or oceans get in the way of taking my preferred way of travel.
There’s a guy on Fantasy Island, where I live in Hong Kong, who is often pilloried for his extreme hippy looks, yet credit where credit is due he has planted more than 7,000 trees on our fair shores since I came here. In a vain attempt to rid me of my green guilt, I think I’ll pitch in with his tree planting sessions this year … if I am around at the allotted time.
So 2008, the Beijing Olympics year, sees me avoiding that sporting fest like SARS given the expected 10,000 journos to be hanging around the Chinese capital this summer.
Still, I’ll probably visit Beijing at least four times, Shanghai a couple, Chongqing, Wuhan and Chengdu each twice, excitingly the China/Afghan border (all 76km of it), Xinjiang province in the northwest, a return to Yunnan via Guizhou, plus obligatory trips to nearby Guangzhou.
So that’s China! Then there’s Singapore likely 6-8 times, the Philippines countless times, South Korea twice, North Korea in March for their game vs the ROK, Japan twice, Taiwan once, Dubai once, France and the UK three times, Australia once, Vietnam once, Thailand once, Tajikistan once, and possibly Russia’s Far East. These are just the planned ones.
In other words, this year I got me self a lot of trees to plant!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008