>Naturally Curly Hair

>After three months I finally took up the challenge of finding someone to cut my hair. I knew it was going to be one of those cross-cultural challenges and experiences. The reason I had been able to put of this experience off for so long was the high humidity–with naturally curly hair, it just kept expanding outward. Imagine Jesus in the Godspell movie and you get an idea of what direction it was moving. I thought about just letting it grow out under these conditions. But then I faced the reality–I was going to Shanghai where it wasn’t so hot and humid. This could be a disaster for naturally curly hair.

The first challenge was to find someplace to get it cut. After consulting colleagues, I settled on a place called “HAIR” right next to the Dan Ryan Restaurant. That seemed promising. They have naturally curly hair in Chicago.

I walked into “HAIR” and asked for a haircut. I was given a menu with prices. The menu let me choose the level of the hair stylist–stylist, senior stylist, extreme senior stylist, super extreme senior stylist, artist. You get the idea. I chose senior stylist since the prices were not cheap, but I didn’t want to go with a rooky.

Once I had made my choice, an older lady came out from someplace and personally put on my sheet (what do you call those things, anyway, a big bib?). That was the putting on the sheet person.

I sat down and my senior stylist came to consult. In the meantime, someone else slipped a glass of water with a cover on the counter in front of me–that was the water person.

Someone else gave me a number 6. That was the number person.

I was soon sent off with another young man who took me into a dark room to have my hair washed–that was the hair wash person.

I was taken back to my chair and my senior stylist when to work. You have to understand, most people here have straight hair which is quite thick in texture. I have fine hair which is quite curly. My senior stylist proceeded to do a layer cut on my hair, and telling me how “smooth” he was making it. He kept it longer on the top. Then he used a roller brush and hair drier to do his very best at straightening my hair so that he could “style” it into a work of art. This all took a long time and great effort.

After the cut and before the flattening with the hair dryer, I was asked whether I wanted a rinse–that would have been the rinse person, but I declined.

The end result was quite nice, but not sustainable. It was a relatively dry day, I don’t have 90 minutes each morning and I didn’t bring my hair drier with me.

I never did figure out what the number 6 was for. Someone took it from me at some point. This was the taking the number back person.

My daughters just sort of stared at me when I walked into the apartment with that look that says, “now that is quite interesting.”

The next day, my hair went back to being in harmony with its natural inclinations and its environment.

>Ten Thousand Buddhas


Village by the train station and huge mall.

Notice the development on the hillside behind.

Ancestral Hall

I visited the Buddhist temple of the Ten Thousand Buddhas this week, completed in the 1950s. It is in Sha Tin, in the New Territories. As you come off the train, the station is (again) attached to a mall. But as you walk out of the station to the outside you go by what remains of the village of Sha Tin. It is a study in contrasts within feet of each other.

It is only about two blocks to find the path that goes up to the temple on the edge of another building with an IKEA and other home-related stores. The path goes up the hill behind the development and it soon becomes quit. Buddhas line the path as you climb the steep hillside. Each of the life-size figures, all gold colored, are unique. It is like walking through a sea of humanity (with an emphasis on huMANity, though you finally do come to some female figures). They often have names plates on the figures, making me wonder if families have contributed to each figure in honor of their ancestors. But I haven’t been able to find out. When you reach the main are, small Buddhas line the walls of the temple. There are also figures that look very Indian-Hindu to me.

If you go up yet further to some buildings above the temple and pagoda, several buildings that appear to be ancestral halls are found. It is a beautiful and quiet site in the midst of the trees on the hillside, a place worth going back to in order to just sit.

>The Chinese and Birds


I have been searching for information on why the Chinese have traditionally had birds for pets. I have not yet found an explanation. Of course, I don’t know why American culture is one of “a boy and his dog” or “a house, two kids, a car, and a dog.”

But birds being taken outside into the park is very much part of the culture, as is the bird market where you talk with friends while hanging your bird cage up, find food for you bird–from live grasshoppers to seed, and look for a new bird 🙂

I our neighborhood, the bird market is next to the flower market.

>Film in Hong Kong


Film is big here. This past week I went to the premier of a documentary on the life of Nancy Kwan. She was on of the first Asian actresses to actually portray an Asian lead lead in a Hollywood movie. Prior to her first film, “The World of Suzie Wong,” such roles were played by westerners–think of the Charlie Chan movies! Another early movie with Nancy Kwan was “To Whom it May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey.” Both of these film show complexity and depth in an Asian character–something that was very unusual in the 1950s and early 1960s. I recommend them! Nancy Kwan was at the premier of the documentary.

It must have been film week because when I took my two daughters to The Peninsula Hotel to experience high tea, we sat at a table next to actor, Chow Yun Fat. He appeared in “Anna and the King,” “Bullet-proof Monk,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

These two experiences framed the week 🙂

>Domestic Helpers

>One of the elements of Hong Kong life, is the presence of “domestic helpers.” These are workers from the Philippines or other parts of SE Asia who work 6 days a week, 24 hours a day. Recently one of my Fulbright colleagues published a piece in the Chronicle if Higher Education on their presence here. The response on line, was very negative, saying he was being naive and not understanding that these people are merely bettering themselves.

What I found disturbing about the responses is that they didn’t explore the impact of such workers on the employer. As my daughter says, her friends drop things and then say–don’t worry, the helper will pick it up. A colleague, who is very middle class but grew up quite poor, has her domestic worker bring the family grocery bags to our office rather than simply taking them with her to work in the morning. Having a domestic worker who is paid so little yet “available” 24 hours a day does something to people–the structure puts you in the place of devaluing others. It is not the same as having someone clean your house, an argument made in response to my colleague’s article. In that case you are paying someone a decent wage to do a particular task within a give time frame. The relationship that develops between employer and employee is not the same. You have to pick up before the cleaner comes so they CAN clean.

When we arrived in Hong Kong, I thought that the manager of our apartment had accidentally left a ring of keys in our apartment. When I tried to return them, I was told that we were given a key to every room in the apartment so that if we had a domestic worker we could lock individual room doors so they wouldn’t steal anything. This is disturbing.

I would be interested to the response to Chronicle article:

In Hong Kong, the Ethics of Housework

By Paul Hanstedt

I’m not 12 hours into my Fulbright in Hong Kong before I find myself stymied by a cultural knot I can’t unravel.

“What is it?” my wife asks, peering over my shoulder.

“I think it’s a bedroom.”

We both look into the small space I’ve discovered in a corner of our flat. The room is maybe 5 by 10 feet, just big enough for a single bed and a cheap wardrobe. No windows. No air conditioning. Even early in the day, it’s sweltering. The attached bathroom is so small that the showerhead hangs over the toilet.

Ellen shrugs. “Good place to store laundry.”

Later I ask Anne, one of my colleagues, about the little room.

“Servants’ quarters,” she says.


“You know,” she tells me. “Helpers. Don’t worry. I just put suitcases there.”

It turns out that roughly 10 percent of Hong Kong households employ “helpers”; the proportion rises to 30 percent for families with children. In contrast, a good half of the faculty members living in campus housing—natives of Hong Kong and foreigners, with and without children—have household help. That disturbs me. What does it say that people who’ve spent years engaging in the life of the mind can’t be bothered to scrub their own bathtubs?

We try not to judge. These are kind, smart people, whom we respect and whose company we enjoy. But whenever someone who’s just found out we have three small kids asks if we’re going to hire a helper, we have to hold ourselves back from asking, “Do we look like we traffic in human misery?”

The thing is, in Hong Kong, help is cheap: just $500 a month, and a one-time fee of $1,200. That’s not much to pay for someone who’ll do the laundry; mop the flat; go to the green market for vegetables, the wet market for fish, and the grocery store for pasta, toilet paper, and mango juice. Sometimes just getting a kid to school in this town can take an hour and a half—and she has to be picked up again at the end of the day and taken across town to ballet lessons and English lessons and piano lessons. If we were going to be in Hong Kong for more than just a year, could we really resist the temptation to get so much help for so little cost?

Back in grad school, in a course on multicultural literature, we spent a lot of time discussing the “white man’s burden.” “We’re arrogant,” a classmate said one day. “We go into countries and think we’re helping people, but really we’re making their lives worse.”

I should have kept my mouth shut: I absolutely got her point—is there a part of the world we haven’t screwed up? But, like an idiot, I raised my hand and talked about my stint in Africa a decade earlier—how one of our projects involved digging a well so that village women wouldn’t have to walk three miles from the creek carrying 15-gallon jugs on their shoulders. Wasn’t that a good thing? I asked.

Whoever it was I was debating looked smug. “But how do you know,” she responded, “that that six-mile walk wasn’t the best part of their day because they didn’t have to cook or tend to children, and they could be alone with their thoughts?”

“Because they told me so,” I said, and might as well have added, “when we were sipping mocha lattes and trading strudel recipes”—it was that big a lie.

But she had me. I didn’t know. And in the end, I’m not sure I left the course with any clear sense of direction about how to act in a situation like the one with digging the well, or now, with hiring helpers. Which is fair enough—education isn’t meant to give us the answers, just the pole to fish with, or the hoe to dig with. But tell a mildly insecure, navel-gazing academic that the best thing to do in any situation is to question one’s own judgment, and what you get is a severely insecure, navel-gazing academic who can’t figure out whether to go forward or backward and who ends up metaphorically standing in the metaphorical corner of the not-so-metaphorical moral ballroom of life.

In short, my wife and I don’t know how to respond to the helpers of Hong Kong—who are always women—or to the people who employ them. On the one hand, it’s none of our damn business. On the other hand, the people who employ them are our friends, and we’re around them and their helpers a lot.

Maybe you have to consider the fact that Hong Kong, relative to some places, treats these women very well. In Malaysia, for instance, the government has only just passed laws that standardize helpers’ salaries, give them a day off each week, and forbid employers to hold their passports. Those kinds of laws have existed in Hong Kong for years.

And Ellen makes the point that we have helpers in the States, too, only instead of employing one person, we farm out our housework to several parties: A team of women come in twice a month to scrub our floors and Clorox our toilets, and two other women take care of our kids. Of course, we pay those folks more than $500 a month, though we don’t give them health insurance, something that’s covered in Hong Kong.

But still, we don’t make anyone sleep in our home. That’s what I keep coming back to: those tiny rooms with no air conditioning. How bad must your life be that you look at sleeping in 100-degree heat, getting up at dawn, washing someone else’s shirts, and getting only two weeks off a year to fly home to your family as an improvement?

I mention this to my colleague Stuart one day over lunch in the campus canteen. He’s Canadian and a smart guy who’s lived all over. He and his wife are two of the most generous people we know.

“I’m not sure,” he says, after I’ve spent 20 minutes trying to come up with a metaphor to describe those tiny rooms. “Abigail’s already told us that she won’t be renewing. It’s too bad, because she’s great.”

“What’s she going to do?”

“Go back to the Philippines. She and her husband have a couple kids there, little ones. Her husband’s a foreign worker, too, in Saudi Arabia, and she only gets to see him and the kids once a year. They’ve been doing this for years, saving money to build a house.”

“A house? Really?”

He nods his head. “The standard of living in the Philippines is horrible. Abigail makes as much here in four months as she would there in a year, so coming here to work makes sense.”

A few nights later, we’re invited to Stuart’s for dinner. We gather their kids and ours around the coffee table and slice hot dogs and pour ketchup before retreating to the dining room for grown-up pork chops and Szechuan vegetables. Once the food’s on the table, we notice Abigail only once, peering out of the laundry room to check our progress.

Eventually Jamie, our youngest, makes it clear that he’s sick of hot dogs, so I grab a chop, cut it up, and put a few pieces on his plate. I feed him a little and he eats. I drift back to my seat. Every few minutes, though, I go back, spear a few more pieces, and make sure he eats.

Then I get distracted. It might have been the spicy vegetables, the wine, the conversation about living abroad. When I finally get back to Jamie, Abigail is sitting on the floor beside him, forking bits of pork into his mouth. She’s cleared all the dishes but his, and I assume she’s feeding him so that she can finish up and start in the kitchen.

“That’s very nice of you,” I say, “but you don’t have to do that.” Jamie’s taking the food from her happily, like a baby bird.

“It’s OK,” she says. “I like doing it.” And wipes her cheek with the back of her hand.

And then I understand that she is crying.

Paul Hanstedt is a professor of English at Roanoke College. He is in Hong Kong on a special administrative Fulbright scholarship. His blog is www.whiteboyfromwisconsin.blogspot.com

>Stanley and Repulse Bay


This is an old colonial building that was moved from Central to Repulse Bay area. See the contrast with the development behind.

In an old, classic hotel, the keyhole shape, is also part of feng shui.

The opening in this upscale building is there because of feng shui. It allowed the building to be located here and still remain aligned correctly. So even though this part of Hong Kong is very western, the Chinese cultural influence is very strong.

Hong Kong Island is a world apart from where I live, which tends to be very Chinese. We had the chance to go with someone who had a car and drove to the far side of Hong Kong Island over the weekend. The center of the island is mountainous, but westerners have populated the side of the hills on the harbor facing direction, attracted to the view and the cooler temperatures.

I was glad to be able to see “the other side of the mountain” on the island. Along with the midlevels on the harbor side, and the communities up on the peak, these are both western and extremely expensive areas.

We went to Repulse Bay and the town of Stanley, both western enclaves. It was like being in a rich California suburb, with an American club, upscale hotels and clubs, and a real mix of population.

I’m more comfortable in Kowloon 🙂


>In Michigan I was fascinated by lake effect snow. In New Zealand it was the cold winds from the south from Antarctica that were exotic. This week we experienced the range of weather in Hong Kong while Marie was visiting. We have had hot and humid–as in 95% humidity. We have had cool as in needing a jacket–the locals had on boots and winter coats. We had one day where you could see the sun for awhile. And then we had two ozone action days that were off the charts–some stations recorded levels of 400 points where anything above 100 is classified as very high, and above 200 is considered extreme by the World Health Organization.

General problems with air pollution have been major drawback for international companies attempting to locate offices here. The pollution has multiple sources. There are local sources–called roadside pollution which is a major factor. But then the areas adjacent to Hong Kong in mainland China, especially in the Pearl River Delta also contribute to it. And as someone said to me–and what power does Hong Kong have to ask mainland China to clean up its factories? But then there is the third source–sandstorms that originate in northern China. This week’s problems were the worst since records started to be kept. Drought and desertification have intensified such dust storms.

OK–it was bad. But Beijing, 6 years ago was much, much worse. It makes me wonder what those number were.

>Dim Sum–touch the heart


Central to Cantonese culture is dim sum–a lunch meal with a variety of foods, many in a rice flour dumpling, steamed in bamboo steamers on a wok.

Here is a dim sum meal, which means by the way, “touching the heart.”
There will be a big lazy susan in the middle of the table so you can move the dishes around to get to them. There are two sets of chop sticks–one to reach for the food and the other to eat with. Every time you turn around, someone next to you will have filled your tea cup again. And before you start, you often take the one tea pot that has hot water in it and put the hot water in a bowl and wash your tea cup and chopsticks in it first before the meal. And there is rarely any rice–other than the flour variety.

>Epic has a happy ending

>Nothing in Hong Kong is permanent. There is no historic preservation. Buildings come and go and the past is quickly obliterated in the face of progress. Instead, popular culture and celebrity reign.

So it made big news here when a block of residential apartment buildings was saved from destruction. Wing Lee Street buildings represent construction prior to 1955 in the tong lau style with with tall ceiling, large windows, and air vents between buildings to provide lighting and air flow in the staircase. Housing pressures and rising land prices were going to lead to the replacement of most of the buildings on Wing Lee Street with a government estate–high rise housing at subsidized rates. The people who live on the block were split over the decision, some wanting new, estate apartments.

So what caused this unusual decision by the Town Planning Board? The street was recently used as a film set for the film, “Echoes of the Rainbow,” which won an award at the Berlin Film Festival last month.

So….is the street and the past being preserved, or is a movie set being preserved? The newspaper headlines read: Epic has a happy ending–for some. But is the “epic” the story of Hong Kong, or the story that takes place in the film?

I went to see the film. It was not much of an epic.

>gender issues and control issues


Paper models of item to burn for those who have died. A friend told me her mother had a paper rice-cooker made to burn for her father when he died.

The temple is in an area that is now quite built up.

Food items

You shake the can and a number comes out that then is attached to a particular answer to a question.

Every day I encounter something that is underneath my surface perception. For example,
I was with a colleague recently and she told me that her mother was a second wife (concubine). This colleague has a Ph.D. and three grown children. She said that the practice was finally outlawed in the early 1970s, but while she was growing up almost all of her friends came from such families. When her father died, his money was given to the sons. My friend wanted to go to college and ended up working her way through–her brothers would not support her choice.

We started talking about her daughter-in-law who is going to have a baby in 6 months. She was having trouble being able to book a time for the birth in a hospital. I kept asking, “but how can you decide on a time for the birth?” She said most people book ten months ahead. Ten months??? As it turns out, many people from mainland China try to come to Hong Kong to give births.

I picked up the newspaper on my way home from work the next day. On the front page there was an article on the high rates of Caesarean sections in Hong Kong. 40% across the city with 59% in private hospitals. The rate in the developed world is 20 percent. At least one quarter of the Caesarean sections in HK are requested for reasons other than medical ones–fung shui–they want to pick the date of the birth. And those from mainland China want to plan for the birth, get their identity documents for the child and leave within a week. Caesareans are more predictable.

Often you hear about Chinese culture and the ethic of harmony with nature. But that harmony is one that is very much controlled. I remember reading a book by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan where he talked about the Chinese breeding carp with larger and larger eyes until they could not swim. I’m not sure the men treated the women much differently.

One of my tasks here is to review course proposals for the general education program. One course that will be required of all students is one on Chinese civilisation. Several of us have gone round and round with the Chinese Civilization program–the course as proposed is about dynasties, Confucionism, Daoism, etc. I call this the “big man” approach to history.

What about women and their place in history? They were concubines, they suffered foot-binding, and were considered vessels for the birth of sons. What about the ritual practices of the families of the students and the history of these families? Rather than talking about Buddhism in the abstract, how about exploring practices as they exist today? How about the men who served and died for the dynasties–the millions who suffered under Mao? How will that class help the students understand themselves and where they come from? Many of them come from poor families who fled China after 1949. How about the “common and real person” history? How about making women visible?

I’ve attached some photos from a Wong Tai Sin Taoist Temple we visited. It was packed with people. People were providing food for people who had died, burn incense and also paper clothes and items for them. This is religion at the local level, practiced by real people.