Hong Kong, Day 4: For the Birds

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The Early Bird Gets the Worm

I was wrong. There is a quieter place than the fountain at Hong Kong Park: the Rockery. It’s a place where they keep rocks.

Awesome rocks.

Let me explain. By 9 am on Friday, I’d written for two hours, been to BreadTalk for some ham and cheese toast, promised that I’d be going out tonight with some of the hostel roommates, and settled in at N1 Coffee again to do some more writing. I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of all the places I wanted to go by day (yes, I am that organized about my vacation). Although I’d crossed a lot off my list, there were some big items left. I wrote my exercises for The Artist’s Way in my (dragon? dog?) notebook and then headed for the Chi Lin Nunnery.

Of all the places I’d researched, I expected this to be the most typically, or maybe romantically, Asian. It’s a Buddhist nunnery (I didn’t know they had nuns), so I figured it would be all nature and zen, and a place I could finally do some drawing.

It’s currently Inktober — a yearly art challenge to draw in ink every day in October. Billy, a fellow artist from Pensacola, is also doing the challenge, and I’ve been falling woefully behind because I’ve had no time to sit anywhere. So today was the day. I was going to visit the Nan Lian Gardens of the Chi Lin Nunnery, sit in the Golden Pavilion of Absolute Perfection, and draw. (Note the use of the past tense.)

The gardens were definitely zen. The instant I passed the gate, the sound of the nearby freeway dulled and almost disappeared. From somewhere in the twisted trees, the sound of a shamisen formed a gentle soundtrack for the walk between the Lotus Terrace and the Pavilion. Trying to resist the itch of my camera trigger finger, I just walked and listened for a while. Finally – a place to chill and draw. I headed for the pavilion.

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I never made it. The Golden Pavilion of Absolute Perfection was currently being cleaned and was roped off from visitors. Not to be deterred, I wandered a little farther until I found a sitting area under the banyan trees. Perfect. I sat down and surreptitiously began a rough sketch of the trees and an old man reading his morning paper.

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I’d barely blocked out the page when the security guard wandered over, an older woman in a blue uniform, her hands clasped behind her back. I was the only Westerner in the park, so she must have been keeping an eye on me. Muttering in Cantonese, she walked up to my table and peered at my notebook. I showed her what I’d done, and she began shaking her head, muttering more insistenly. Whether the sketch wasn’t up to her standards or she considered drawing to be anti-zen, one thing was clear: I couldn’t draw there. Unable to argue with her, I packed up my notebook and pencils, somewhat amused. Who gets kicked out of a Buddhist garden for drawing?

Me, that’s who.

Bird’s Eye View

I wandered towards the Lotus Terrace to find the entrance to the nunnery when I passed a wall with a small sign. I almost didn’t notice, but a strange word caught my eye: “Rockery.” You can’t not check out a Rockery when you find one.

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Before I even made it inside, I found bonsai trees. I’m guilty of killing two bonsai trees in my life (my sister was an accomplice, having watered one with beer). These put mine to complete shame. They have so much character for such tiny plants. I considered stealing one for my office — third time’s the charm, right? — but I’d have to buy a bigger suitcase.

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The bonsai garden led me to the Rockery, and it is, as the name might imply, a place where rocks are kept. I don’t know what kind of rocks these are, where they’re from, or why they are so important for Buddhism. Each rock had a phrase associated with it, and a small card with the English translation.

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“Cool,” I thought and started snapping pictures of them and the sayings. I was halfway through the Rockery, which was now empty except for myself and had taken pictures of almost all of them when a realization hit me. I was doing the typical tourist thing, the thing I’ve been trying to resist all week. See something cool, grab a picture, move on without really seeing it. There’s nothing wrong with actually taking pictures of what you see, but what I don’t want is to go home with more pictures than memories. I wasn’t taking the time to actually look at the rocks. And if there are any rocks worth more than a passing glance, they’re the ones somebody put in a Rockery.

The connection between each rock and its phrase isn’t obvious, and I don’ think it’s supposed to be. ‘What a rock means’ can be fairly subjective, and associating a rock with a deep, wise saying might seem kind of cheesy. But it creates a context which gives a visitor permission to imagine that ‘a rock has something to say, if you listen to it.’ So, without any trace of irony, I sat down and listened to the rocks.

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There were two important things that I learned, both about simplicity. The first is that simplicity can be deceptive. When I write that I sat for about 15 minutes staring a rock, that sounds like the most boring thing in the world. The simple idea of ‘rock’, whatever that is in your mind, is completely graspable. A rock is a rock. You can use it for building or throw it or stub your toe on it. The concept of ‘rock’ is a very simple one, and when you need to build a house, scare off a dog, or avoid hurting yourself, all you need to know is the idea of rock — in other words, only the characteristics of a rock that affects you.

In contrast to this utilitarian (and often necessary) mode of thought, the reality that ‘rock’ refers to may be incredibly complex, like the ancient delta of some alien planet seen from space. So reality can be much more complicated and beautiful than our simple way of dealing with it in our everyday activities — worth taking the time to appreciate for itself.

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The second thing I learned is something I already knew. Rockery-worthy rocks like these are formed by the force of water that erodes and shapes them over years (much like bonsai trees are shaped by the long-term care and trimming of a gardener). That is all that’s required. Simply time and continuous effort – a block of stone can’t think itself into fantastic shapes. Which is a principle that I as an artist have to put into practice more, although I knew it, and I just needed a rock to tell me in a way that I would hear it.

This also probably indicates that I am hard headed. Anyway.

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Staring at rocks induced a kind of zen-exhaustion, and exploring the rest of the nunnery didn’t help much. It was a beautiful place, and the golden statues of the Buddhas were impressive (no pictures allowed). There were even more rocks with sayings; I made sure to read them all. Ironically, half of them were about landscape painting techniques. I guess the security guard from the garden wasn’t aware of this fact, which surely implies that artists are welcome to Buddhist gardens. I don’t hold grudges…

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Birds of a Feather

After I left the Nunnery, I went to the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, one of the many attractions on my spreadsheet. They sell birds here; parrots, parakeets… you name it, they have it. And for HK’s bird owners — mostly serious-looking old men — this is the place they come to hang out and converse with other serious-looking old men while giving their pets some fresh air. It’s like walking a dog, except… with birds.

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And, fortuitously, there was an urban sketch group there sketching the birds!

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So I joined them. I got a few looks but nobody asked why I was there. I want to say something about art being a universal language but, really, they were just too busy drawing to bother with this crazy westerner who was crashing their sketch party. And I finally got some sketching done.

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Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

After that, it was time for something I’d been kind of dreading: lunch. Specifically, lunch in an HK restaurant without a translator. Another interesting feature of HK is that it has the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant, Tim Ho Wan. Authentic, incredible dim sum at a poor-man’s price, served with the same attitude as all other authentic HK restaurants. Order, eat, pay, leave.

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Usually, there’s a long wait to get in, but I planned to for lunch at 3 pm. That sat me down at a table with several other people. I was the only westerner there. My only goal was to survive the meal without doing anything stupid. Fortunately, the menu had English descriptions, and the rest was a matter of watching and learning.

The first thing you get is a pot of weak tea, which you use to wash all your utensils.
Then you drink the tea (pour a fresh cup). Then you mark down everything you want.

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When Ian and I went to Iceland, we had to try the most traditional, weird foods that they had, which included fermented shark. I can still taste that ammonia flavor. Continuing that tradition, the weirdest food I could try in HK had to be phoenix talons. Aka, steamed chicken feet. So I ordered a bowl of those as well as some dumplings and steamed pork buns.

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Mostly, I was just looking forward to being full. I hadn’t felt at all full for several days, inducing a weird state of constant hunger. It’s hard to be full in HK, a combination of constant walking plus the small portion size of every meal, so I wanted a huge, delicious, Michelin star meal.

The pork buns were good. The dumplings were fine. The phoenix talons were among the grossest things I’ve ever eaten. Think of warm, flavored gristle.

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The waitress who cleaned my dishes looked at the bowl of mostly-intact chicken feet and looked at me with a highly amused expression. But no way was I going to finish those.

After that scarring Michelin star meal, which left me STILL not full, I did a few more things… found more secret coffee shops that require you to adventure into alleys and into tiny elevators to access them. I came home and took a rest, then visited the Jade Hawker Bazaar. They sell all sorts of Jade items there: pendants, etc.

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After last night’s experience at the Temple Street Night Market, I tried out my haggling skills and negotiated some items down, arguing price back and forth by talking to the old woman through the calculator. She tried to convince me to buy more, whispering conspiratorily that her son, who could clearly hear us, would never allow her to sell these so cheaply, but just for me, special price — but I kept the rest of my money. Also, a bird took a crap on me. That apparently means “good luck from Heaven” to the Chinese. Or maybe that’s what I get for not eating all of my chicken feet.

After that, it was time to hit the town with two hostel roommates: NoNo and MeowMeow.

Night Owls

NoNo is French, and she’s here on a marketing internship. MeowMeow is Chinese, and she’s here to study creative media. NoNo is a nickname, and when we were trying to introduce each other, neither NoNo nor myself could understand how to pronounce the Chinese woman’s name – the last half of the word was lost in a complex string of consonants, but the first half sounded like “meow.” So NoNo dubbed her MeowMeow. MeowMeow took some convincing to come out, but she finally agreed to.

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We went across the bay to BerlinFest, which was hosted by the German Consulate, and consisted of beer, meat, and a movie in a hotel courtyard. There were more westerners there than I’d seen across all of HK, which was oddly refreshing to see. It was nice to blend into the crowd for once.

NoNo, MeowMeow, and I had been holding an interesting conversation in which NoNo would try to speak English in a curvaceous French accent, MeowMeow spoke tentative English in a quiet Chinese accent, and I was the translator. NoNo would say something to MeowMeow, who would then look at me to interpret, and vice versa. During this ping-pong conversation, we found out that MeowMeow had never been to a bar or a club. NoNo made it our mission to fix that.

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We found The Woods, an underground bar off the beaten path. Coolest bar I’ve ever been to. We stayed for an hour or so until more (and more intoxicated) people flowed down from off the street. By this time, we’d been talking a lot about our different countries, cultures, and customs. MeowMeow was much more relaxed, and NoNo was satisfied that we’d crossed one job of the list. The next was to find a club.

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We found PLAY, a new club in a nearby tower. We were passed by the concierge and bouncers to the escalators, which brought us to a hip, modern, totally empty dance club. It was 10:30 at night. NoNo was laughing because she’d never been a club so early, but at least MeowMeow had been to one. As we took the subway back across the river, MeowMeow said she was definitely glad she’d come out with us. And I was having a great time and consequently forgot to take pictures of the three of us. Oh well.

It was time for me to collapse. On about four hours of sleep, I’d been up and constantly exploring for about 17 hours. Writing, staring at rocks, sketching birds, eating chicken feet, haggling with jade merchants, and exploring the nightlife with friends can definitely take it out of you.

And that way day four.

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