Hello Uncle Foreigner

hong kong

Jan 3, 2018

Can you just pronounce us “married” already?

The pain of paperwork

People travel for many different reasons: to see the sights, to meet new people, to eat strange food. To have adventures; to find love or oneself; to swim with or jump off of something. We’ve been traveling a lot this past year, but for none of those reasons.

Until last July, about every sixty days for the year and a half before that, we had had to leave the country because we couldn’t prove that Peter and I were legally married. It was irritating. Some of it was our fault – Peter’s name had been backwards on our marriage license and nobody noticed it for six years. But mostly it’s because living in China as a foreigner is an exciting and unending stream of paperwork and changing regulations.

When it comes to visa runs, most of the time the cheapest and fastest thing to do is to hop over the border at Hong Kong. Usually, we’d race there and back in 2 or 3 days so I wouldn’t actually have to take time off of work. And wishful thinking had lead me to believe that each of these trips would be the last one. So each next one came as a horrible surprise.

The last time around, in April, I finally realized that while I couldn’t control the speed of the process, I could control how we prepare for it. So in early March — well ahead of time, comparatively — I bought plane tickets, took real time off work and started looking forward to an actual vacation in mid-April. And because it was an actual vacation, we thought we might try to find some actual fun vacation things to do: a concert in Chongqing and a boat in Shenzhen. That should do the trick.

What’cha looking at?

For the people of Luzhou, we have two big-sister cities: Chengdu and Chongqing. Both a short bus ride away, they each have an international airport, more shopping, better entertainment, bigger universities and more opportunities. It’s like people who live between Boston and New York – you’ve got two choices when you need a taste of big city life.

But Chongqing is by far the scrappier sister. It sprawls over nine districts, and it’s up and down topography give some areas a real “you can’t get there from here” feeling. We’ve carved out our own little area, but we definitely feel we don’t know Chongqing as well as we do Chengdu.

We were there to see Alcest, a French black metal shoegaze band, which sounded like something we’d like. We switched things up by staying at a 7 Days Inn right on the peninsula, nearer to Nuts Club, the only destination that mattered. The plan was: get in, see the band, fly out to Shenzhen.

But it was too nice a day (and too small a room) to stay cooped up in the hotel all afternoon. Peter was feeling napful, so I went for a Lonely Ringo-style jaunt around the neighborhood. This has always been my favorite way to see a place.

I was getting lost-on-purpose, down an old stairway, when an older woman asked me where I was going. “不知道 [I don’t know],” I said. “Are you looking for 十八梯 [shiba ti]?” She asked. I wasn’t – I didn’t know what that was – so we parted ways. I eventually made my way up to the Jiefangba central business district, a shopping area with a Uniqulo, an H&M, tons of Western-style bakeries and cafes.

But 十八梯 was on my mind. Was it a local way of referring to the subway? Was it a famous noodle shop I was missing out on? I always have room for a famous noodle.

OK, so according to the internet, 十八梯 was a famously old neighborhood that attracted local sightseers for many years. Now it’s a pile of rubble still attracting lookie-loos who haven’t heard the news that it’s being cleared out for a new housing development. There are still a few remaining restaurants boldly advertising their十八梯 connections, but mostly what’s left are street vendors, hawking everything from porn to hand-crafted silver. And I had been wandering through it all along without knowing!

What’cha eating?

In Shenzhen, we finally got back to our wandering glutton … I mean, gourmand … ways. We stayed in the tiniest, cheapest place (with the hardest bed, though they were nice enough to let us raid the linen closet for extra padding) so we could spend all of the money on food.

Now, we love Chinese food, but as our followers can tell you, something we really miss is the variety available to us in New York City. We’ve been spoiled to the point of thinking there’s nothing extraordinary in having Italian, Indonesian and Indian all in the same week. So when we travel to a bigger city, we live for the hunt of the different and new. And, boy, does Shenzhen deliver. (Not literally, though; there’s no way we were staying trapped in that hotel room.)

From favorite to fine, these were the meals we found: At the Bollywood Café, there was samosa chaat, paneer tikka, and a rich dal makhani. The Istanbul Restaurant served up chicken with cheese, hummus and a fresh Mediterranean salad. Then there was a Pizza Express, of course, which remains my favorite tomato sauce in southeast China/Hong Kong. McCawley’s Irish Pub offered decent pub grub. And I had a Starbuck’s gift card from work so we snagged a muffin and some iced teas; we don’t have a Starbuck’s in Luzhou, so this was my chance.

To get to all of these places and more, we had to go to the mall, or someplace like a mall. It’s a fact of life we’re getting used to, that even while the mall is dying in suburban America, the mega cities of China are organizing their cultural life around luxury shopping centers. (Even little Luzhou has a Mix C and, word on the street is we’re getting a Wan Da in a few months!)

Cruising through Coco Park is not the same as wandering down a Parisian boulevard or getting lost down a cobblestone alleyway in Rome. For one thing, the lighting is a heck of a lot harsher. But its China, and they’re running out of room for charming. Or they’ve relegated it all to the fake old towns they keep building.

Where’ya going?

You can take the subway directly to the Hong Kong border at Futian, so that’s what we did. I love subways in China; despite the fact that they are generally pretty crowded, they’re really clean and the exits are so clearly marked. It’s a level of organization I’ve seen in no other Chinese enterprise.

After getting off the train, we followed the signs to the Futian checkpoint, and left for Hong Kong.

On the Hong Kong side, I bought a quick ham and cheese sandwich and some peanut butter M&Ms at 7-11. They don’t have the peanut butter flavor on the Mainland.

Then, we turned around and re-entered China, and Peter had his visa clock reset for another 60 days..

What the boat?!

Remember when I professed ambivalence about malls?

Sea World in the Shekou neighborhood of Shenzhen is a riot of western and western-influenced restaurants and bars, staged around a plaza with a dry-docked ship in the center of a large fountain. The ship is also a hotel and German-style beer bar. Peter found it about a month before our trip, and since that time we’d been saying to each other, “It’s so silly, but we have to go.”

We have a well-honed strategy for days when there’s potentially a lot of food on the table: Eat a little at a lot of places. Our first stop was Tequila Coyote’s, because it was closest to where we disembarked from our cab, and it’s called Tequila Coyote’s. Mexican, that looks like a chain (though, as far as I can tell, it isn’t), but with a dining room open to the warm spring day. Worth at least a couple of margaritas.

The tacos al pastor came with real corn tortillas, a tasty green sauce and no cheese! (I love you Peter’s Tex-Mex, but sometimes I miss the real deal.) It was an auspicious start.

Counterclockwise around the boat, we found Pizzaria Alla-torre, where we kept it light with a salad containing fresh mozzarella and Parma ham. It was wonderful. Sitting on the outdoor deck, we had a great view of the boat’s bow. We watched babies attempting getaways into the water; people of all ages posing for selfies; the mini-train carrying bemused youngsters around the square. At the next table over, a new dad was hanging out with his teething baby while presumably the rest of his family was out having fun without them.

We had time to kill before the 7pm water and light show, for which we wanted to be up on the ship, so next was cocktails at Lucky Bar. These were fine and weird.

Finishing these, we were ready to head up to the boat. The German restaurant is on the top deck, perched just above where the magic happens. They also brew their own beer, so we ordered some of that, and a cheese plate. Here’s the thing about cheese in China, quite often you’ll end up with the most boring brie or an inoffensive camembert. Not here. Our cheese plate was a flavorful (if somewhat safe) selection: expertly mixing hard and soft, stinky and mild – complete with dried apricots and fig jam. And some saltines, because, of course.

The fountain show did indeed start directly at 7pm, with water and lights dancing up and down to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It was stirring. At our location, we could also hear the crack of each jet of water as they went off, adding unintentional accompaniment. It repeated again at 7:30 and 8, with different music. I wouldn’t say you should travel to Sea World just to see it, but if you’re already around at the right time, it’s worth a peek. Especially with a cheese plate.

After this was a surprise that Peter’s research had not turned up. Latina is the newer one of two Brazilian-style churrascarias in the square. How good could a Chinese churrascaria be? No, really, we wanted to know. So we ponied up for the unlimited meats and buffet party … and it was some of the best beef I’ve had in China. Succulent, salty, with just the right amount of fat on, juicing up the place.

I tried to heed Peter’s warning — don’t fill up on the buffet — but he knew he had lost me when he turned around and I had two plates. In my defense, the second plate was a half-size, and I needed those black beans and rice. It’s my favorite. And the cauliflower, it’s also a favorite. The meat kept coming, and I, as the Brazilian saying goes, ate myself sad. It was glorious and I recommend it.

And then plan on fasting for the next two days, because you’re going to need it.

It was a long subway ride back to our sleeping box, with me moaning the whole way about being full. But totally worth it. And overall, we had a weird but fun time on our vacation. The day after Sea World, we took a late flight home, and Peter continued to be a law-abiding tourist.

But this time, I just knew we’d get that spousal visa sorted out.

Mar 9, 2017

The easiest border crossing we know

Exploring new areas in Hong Kong

This apartment building was cool enough to stop us.
We thought this apartment building was pretty cool looking, so we stopped for a photo. A local tapped me on the shoulder to point out …

As a kid, I dreamed of going to Hong Kong. I was an unrepentant Anglophile, and fascinated by its colonial English roots.

These days, I’m really attracted to spaces that seem caught between two worlds, and as an adult I’ve been lucky enough to have been to HK a lot. As is well documented, Peter and I have fallen completely for Lamma Island. This most recent trip, however, we stayed for the first time on the Kowloon Peninsula, the northern bit of the city part of Hong Kong. We bunked down in the infamous Chungking Mansion — a commercial building with approximately 5,000 cheap guesthouses crammed into every nook and cranny. Our room was spacious, for a sea voyage, but the price was right.

Kowloon, especially the Kowloon City neighborhood, has a large immigrant community, which means — food from all over! The Indian Curry King, who lived up to his name, was our best meal of the trip. Also serving food was Ebeneezer’s Kebabs & Pizzeria. It’s a good name.

Our unofficial mission for the two-day trip was to track down a Marvel Legends Iron Fist action figure. Peter has been checking our Luzhou Toys “R” Us for months now, to no avail. (And, yeah, Luzhou has a Toys “R” Us now.) We got lost all over the place and at one point ended up at a Ruby Tuesday’s for onion rings. It’s amazing the places a good quest will take you.

In the end, we never found that figure. But we did find Pizza Express! A British chain that serves a pretty decent tomato sauce on their pie. (Their crust could do with a little more time in the oven, but this is pizza in Asia, so we’ll take it.)

The famous Tiger's Head Rock, which needed to be pointed out to us.
… we were missing the real view of Tiger’s Head Rock directly behind us.

Oct 31, 2016

Happy Halloween from Lamma Island

In which we crash a children’s party at the Lamma Grill

We’re settling back into Luzhou nicely, but from time to time we are impelled to make a quick trip over to Hong Kong for paperwork. These days, of course, when we’re in Hong Kong, we’re on Lamma Island.

Having some time to kill Wednesday afternoon, we stopped in at the lovely Lamma Grill — where a children’s Halloween party broke out around us. “I did warn you,” said Caroline, the Grill’s owner, as children in costume descended upon us. But it was fun to see all these third-culture kids — some with their parents, some with their nannies — take part in an international celebration of CANDY!

My favorite overheard moment was a British kid in a ghost costume quizzing the bartender.

Kid: What are you supposed to be?

Bartender: A clown

Kid: You’re not very funny, are you?

Apr 28, 2016

Lamma Island, Hong Kong

A ferry ride to paradise

Lamma Island from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, we decided: Forget the city! Let’s check out the outlying islands. Lamma Island is home to a small community of local Hong Kongers and ex-pats. There are no cars on the island, and a series of small alleyways winds through tiny, cute villages. We fell in love immediately, and decided we needed to do whatever we could to move there. It was one of those kinds of vacations.

At home, cooler heads prevailed. But the seed was planted, and we were dead set on moving … somewhere.

Jul 8, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Turn it up!

Browsing Chengdu’s music street

☆ Side Quest: Music Street

Objective: Check out Chengdu’s guitar and music shops

Chengdu's Music Block
Tom Lee Music in Hong Kong
Above: We had to go all the way to Hong Kong to find flat-wound bass strings. Right: But Chengdu’s Music Block is a fun ramble.

Moving to China, one of our biggest logistical hurdles was figuring out how to get three of our six seven guitars here with us. Shipping is very expensive, and there are some nightmare stories out there about guitars on airplanes. “Why are you even bothering? Just buy new guitars when you get there,” advised the man who bought Peter’s Vypyr 30 amp from us.

But who knew what we’d find in China’s guitar shops? Definitely not us. So the guitars were coming with us (some of them, anyway).1

Now, since we’ve been here, we’ve made it our habit to check out the music store situation in every city we’ve visited. It probably won’t surprise you to know that Hong Kong is basically like New York, in terms of what you can find. The excellent Tom Lee Music, a Guitar Center-like Sam Ash-like [Peter: Guitar Center sucks!] super store, carries pretty much everything — including some things that we had somewhat of a hard time tracking down in NYC, like flat wound bass strings for my Hofner.

Our hometown music store
Our hometown music store.
The worst statueBig guitar
You can tell its Music Street by the wonderful statues.
Ming Wu Music
The Ming Wu Music Store is the gem of the bunch in Chengdu.

In Luzhou, by contrast, the pickings are much slimmer. We actually live right near a bunch of music shops — we met our first non-school friend, Hank, at the store that’s right next to our school. But the main focus of these stores is either pianos or traditional Chinese instruments. Good rock gear is hard to come by. (Though we were able to find some serviceable amps, guitar stands, a guitar cable and a modeling stomp box.)

Where there are guitars, most of them are acoustic, with little space devoted to electrics. And pretty much all of the guitars are knock offs; fake Fender, Gibson and Ibanez being most common. One store even had a knock off Steve Vai Jem Signature.

Chengdu’s a bigger city, so we were hoping for a bigger range. A Google search of “Chengdu Guitar Shops” offered surprisingly little information, but we did glean that the area around the Sichuan Conservatory of Music is fertile ground.

We had to wander a little bit to find “Music Street.” One false lead pointed us to the South First Section of First Ring Road. (Tip: It’s near First Ring Road, not on First Ring Road.) But you’ll know when you’ve found it, because there are literally dozens of music shops all packed into just a few blocks, selling everything from traditional Chinese musical instruments to hard-rocking guitars. There are also giant, mostly horrible, sculptures relating to music that line the street — a grotesque figure playing a distorted Ibanez guitar was particularly bad.

Hands down, Ming Wu Music (which also might be called Famous House) is our favorite store. Someone online called them “The best guitar store in Chengdu,” and we totally agree. (They are located at 69 Qunzhonglu, I think.) This crowded little shop carries authentic guitars and equipment from the brands you know and love. They have acoustics upstairs, but the whole first floor was devoted to electric guitars — quite heavy on the Schecters.

The display guitars were all shrink-wrapped in plastic, which we found kind of strange. My guess is that it’s to keep the guitars scratch-free in their densely packed racks, but a side effect is that Ming Wu is surprisingly quiet for a guitar store. The cacophony of seven different kids butchering seven different versions of “Stairway to Heaven” was definitely not missed.

The amp selection was great as well. They had the Vypyr that Peter just sold, as well as the beloved Roland JC120 that he sold in an earlier life. (“It still breaks my heart,” Peter says.) When we’re ready to upgrade our amps, this is probably where we’ll go.

The other stores in the area mostly seemed to carry knock-offs. A lot of different kinds, but knock-offs just the same. We checked around for my bass strings, but no one, not even Ming Wu/Famous House, had them. We didn’t come away empty handed, however. Peter loaded up on picks, with a good handful of Dunlop stubbies among his spoils, and I got a decent guitar cable to replace the crappy guitar cable I bought in Luzhou. Success!

But the music just gets louder …

1. How did we get three guitars to China? Well, we took a chance on the airline, planning to take two guitars as carry-ons and checking the third.

The recommended strategy for carrying your guitar on is act first, apologize if you have to. If you confidently take it as your carry-on like this is something you’re supposed to be doing, people around you, including the gate staff and cabin crew will also act like this is something you’re supposed to be doing.

The other tip I have is: Board as early as you can, so that you can find an empty overhead compartment, and then stash your axe in the first free compartment you see. We had no issues with this on the four legs of our very long journey. And all three guitars arrived safe and sound with us in Luzhou. Big ups to American Airlines!

Dec 28, 2011

Hong Kong: The MTR

Go underground with the Octopus!

Taking the train

One last post about Hong Kong.

One of the things we really loved about the city was the Metro system. It was clean, fast and convenient, and it looked very much like the London Underground. You could pretty much get anywhere from anywhere via public transportation.

The coolest part, though, was the Octopus smart card. Instead of swiping a Metro Card or using tokens, you just held your pre-paid smart card up to the sensor. You could also use the card to debit purchases at 7-11, McDonalds and other retailers. It was very convenient, and reminded us of the failed smart card program in New York. Catch up, New York, or we’re not coming back.

A crowded escalator underground
Check out a subway photo album.

Dec 22, 2011

Shenzhen: On our way home

Walking over the Chinese border

Emily, on the Shenzhen border
Here’s an album of photos from Shenzhen.

As I may have mentioned, it’s cheaper to fly back to Luzhou from Shenzhen - the city over the Chinese border - rather than going direct from Hong Kong. And the Shenzhen-Luzhou flight runs every other day at 7 am. So Monday evening, after picking up Peter’s passport, we crossed the border back into China so that we’d be ready to catch our Tuesday morning flight.

We took light rail from the center of Hong Kong right to the Lo Wu border checkpoint. A few stops before the checkpoint, a bunch of people swarmed on with huge boxes and burlap sacks. They started handing out items from the boxes and sacks that other swarmers grabbed and secured in their small luggage, making sure that nothing looked lumpy. By the time we reached the checkpoint stop, the boxes and sacks were broken down and out of sight, and everyone left one-by-one. It was extraordinary to see - out of the side of my eye, of course. This didn’t seem like an operation you wanted to get caught staring at.

The crossing itself was easy enough. We filled out departure cards on the Hong Kong side and arrival cards on the Shenzhen side. This particular border crossing is supposed to be the busiest, though we zoomed right through. It went much faster than our crossing the opposite way at Shenzhen Bay. As we were going through customs, we saw a school group doing the same thing - with 50 or so 10-year-old kids! I would not want to be a chaperone on that field trip.

Back in China, you’re immediately confronted with the grayness of Shenzhen. Customs empties out into a big paved expanse with the main rail and metro stations right there. It’s convenient, but ugly. Our hotel was in walking distance, so we walked. The scenery got a little better.

For dinner, we found another Mexican place: Amigos! They had an album of photos outside, next to their menu, showing people enjoying their food. While we were browsing, the host came out, dressed in a serape, to convince us that this was the place for us. We could hear some Australians inside having a good time. One of my travel rules is that you usually find Australians in fun places, so that sealed the deal.

The food was good enough - it was our last real cheese for the foreseeable future. And they had delicious sangria. It was a fun time when we weren’t expecting one, so that’s always nice.

We woke up the next morning at an excruciatingly early 4:30 am to get to the airport by 6. The less said of this, the better.

Dec 20, 2011

Hong Kong: The search for Mexican food

Spoiler: We find some

Our need for pizza sated, the mission Sunday night was Mexican food. We looked up a few places in Central that sounded good.

An awesome thing about Central district: It’s situated on a super steep hill, so they’ve built a giant 800-meter long escalator. There’s a break every block, so you can get off and on where you need to. It’s super cool.

The Mexican place we found was called something like El Taco Loco, and it was just the kind of disgusting cheese-covered junk food we were looking for. It was a super casual place, with tacos and burritos served in red plastic baskets, and it seemed to be super popular with the younger ex-pat crowd.

After eating, we hit up an English-style pub called Waterloo Station. Basically, we wanted to suck up all the foreign-ness that we could before we returned to China.

We found some terrible Mexican food!
Follow the full journey to find Mexican food.

Dec 20, 2011

Hong Kong: Out in Wan Chai

The wall of Scotch

Scotch at Nana's Thai restaurant

To finish up our last night in Hong Kong, we had a bar crawl through Wan Chai, one neighborhood over from the one where we were staying. Seedier spots mixed in with casual pubs and dive bars, and even on a Sunday there were a few people out and about.

Our first stop was Nana’s, a cute little Thai place that specialized in Scotch (pictured). We were a little sad that we had already eaten, because the food smelled so good. It was a funny place to find good Scotch - Nana’s was definitely pulling off a tropical beach shack vibe.

The next two destinations were English pubs: The Bulldog, which leaned toward sports bar, and Trafalgar Pub, also sporty but more refined with overstuffed chairs and dark woods.

At Trafalgar, where we were sitting on the balcony, it started to rain. It was late, and we were tired of spending money, so we called it a night. On the way home, we picked up a bag of pretzels (surprisingly hard to find over here) at the grocery store, and said our goodbyes to Hong Kong. The next morning, we would be picking up Peter’s passport and crossing the boarder back into China proper.

Scotch at Nana's
Check out our Wan Chai photo album.

Dec 19, 2011

Hong Kong: Tai O

Fishing for tourists

The other big attraction on the island of Lantau is the fishing village Tai O, located on the south coast. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it was getting dark, so we only got off a few snaps before it was time to go. But it was very pretty.

A nighttime view of Tai O
A quick photo tour of Tai O.