Monday, November 23, 2009

Walking the Freedom Walk

Boston was where the American Revolution and the birth of our country began. I consider myself a patriot and one who has a deep appreciation of the freedoms we enjoy as a result of the courage and sacrifices of a few brave souls. I came to Boston to walk the Freedom Trail but I had no idea how much it would renew my faith in the greatness of our country. History came alive for me this weekend in Boston.

We stayed at the Parker House, the oldest continuous hotel in America, since 1855, with a large room next to the John McCormick Suite (former speaker of the House). Parker House is the home of the Parker House Rolls and the Boston Cream Pie. It was here where the brightest lights of America’s Golden Age of Literature — writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Longfellow — regularly met for conversation and conviviality in the legendary nineteenth century Saturday Club. It was here where baseball greats like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams wined, dined, and unwound. And it was here, too, where generations of local and national politicians — including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and William Jefferson Clinton — assembled for private meetings, press conferences, and power breakfasts.

Two cultural icons and notable revolutionaries spent time on the Parker House staff: Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh served as a baker in the bakeshop from 1911 to 1913, and
Malcolm Little (remembered as black activist, Malcolm X) was a busboy in the early
1940s, during the period of the Pearl Harbor invasion.

Our first night at the hotel, we stopped into the hotel’s bar, the Last Hurrah, (where JFK proposed to Jackie) and had some Boston Cream Pie. It was delicious and unlike any other so called Boston cream pie I had ever tasted. It had both a crispness and lightness that was unmatched.

The Parker House is right on the Freedom Trail. Just down the street is a statue of Ben Franklin, who was born in Boston and attended Boston Latin School on the site, now occupied by the Old City Hall.
And at the end of the block, was the Old South Meeting Place, which was the site of the protest against a tax on tea Dec. 16, 1773 and later that night the Boston Tea Party was held.

The next morning off we went, borrowing two umbrellas from the hotel, following the red brick road.
We then went to the Old State House, where the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence was made and JFK first announced his candidacy for President. Then we visited the Boston Massacre Site where British soldiers killed 5 men who were protesting the occupation of the British, including Crispus Attucks, whose death was greatly romanticized as the first man to die in what led to the American Revolution. Attucks was of mixed race, part Indian, part black African but during the civil rights movement he suddenly became one of the most important men in African-American history.From there we walked a short distance to Faneuil Hall known as the “Cradle of Liberty”. Faneuil Hall has served as a marketplace and a meeting hall since 1742. Funding was provided by a wealthy merchant, Peter Faneuil, for the construction and local artisan to create the grasshopper weather vane that still perches on the building's cupola. Inspirational speeches by Samuel Adams and other patriots were given at Faneuil Hall. These oratories became the footstool for America's desire to obtain independence from the British.
Onward we trudged to Paul Revere’s House which is Boston’s oldest clapboard frame house. Then, the Old North Church. where Revere saw there were two lanterns shining from the steeple and along with other riders, went to warn the Minute Men that the British were coming by sea towards Lexington and Concord.

By then our feet were soaked and we were ready for some clam chowder and on our way back to the Parker House, we stopped and ate at the Union Oyster House, America’s Oldest Restaurant. For dinner we went down to the one of the restaurants listed in the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die”, the Legal Sea Foods. It was crowded and properly noisy and the food was excellent.
The next day, we traveled in the other direction from the hotel to see the Boston Commons, the State House, and Park Street Church, the Granary Burial Ground and the King’s Chapel.
The burial ground contains the graves of Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and the victims of the Boston Massacre.
We then took a taxi to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.
We took the subway back to our hotel, then got a taxi over the bridge to see the USS Constitution which is the oldest commissioned was ship in the world. It was built in 1797 and was nicknamed “Old Ironsides” and earned fame in the War of 1812.
Here is a painting taken from the small museum on site which shows the ship at full sail.
Outside of attending a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, we saw and experienced a lot of Boston. Walking the Freedom Trail was all it should be and I hope everyone will have the opportunity to have the experience.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shanghai-Pearl Tower

On our return to Shanghai from Hangzhou, we check into the Hyatt on the Bund hotel for a 2 night stay. We have lunch in the hotel with the full entourage and then find a place to have a full-body message. When we arrive we find this short street is filled with high end message places mostly catering to tourists and other westerners. After the long trip from Hangzhou, the massages were both refreshing and restoring.

The next morning I told this picture out our window.
The building with the hole at the top is the Shanghai World Financial Center, third tallest building in the world and the structure looming in the foreground is the Oriental Pearl Tower. The Financial Center is actually taller than the Pearl Tower.

Our tourist objective is to visit the Pearl Tower on this day. We travel by taxi through the tunnel under the Huangpu River and get dropped off at the tower.

As we learned each of the 3 balls on the tower was a place to visit. The 2nd ball had a restaurant, and every stop had many souvenir shops. Outside of the spectacular views the entire experience was just so-so.

The Bund is on the left of the bridge over the river and our hotel is on the right behind the building with the light blue roof.
Looking south.
From the ground.
One of the best things about the Pearl Tower was the museum on the ground floor that had full pictorials of the colorful history of Shanghai. Remember old movies that had these cars?
Later that night the we were sitting in the club room having drinks with I saw that a full moon was rising and was about move so it shown through the hole at the top of the Financial Center. I doubt that this photo can be duplicated very often.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hong Kong-Memories from the 80's

I have many good memories each time I visit Hong Kong. I lived here for 5 months in the middle 1980’s working for a company that was put together for the purpose of selling color picture tube technology to the Chinese. An enterprising Greek man, who formerly worked at Zenith, somehow associated himself with a Chinese man and woman who formed Lotus Engineering. Nick hired me after an interview at the Hyatt near O’Hare due to my 18 years experience at RCA and having worked in the Soviet Union providing technical assistance setting up color tube manufacturing plants spanning 3 different cities. That is another rich tale that deserves a future exposure.

I was unemployed at the time and living in Rockford, IL and my future job opportunities looked extremely dim at the time. So I jumped at the chance in spite of having to leave my three children in their early 20’s to fend for themselves.

In those days, a trip to Hong Kong on United Airlines from Chicago required a flight to Seattle first, then a plane change and depending on the head winds, a refueling stop at Midway Island or Guam. The old Hong Kong airport was one of the most difficult to negotiate with surrounding buildings and a short runway.

Soon after I arrived I found permanent lodging in a high rise in Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, which was accessible only by boat. My view over looked the beach below and the western end of Hong Kong island. There were always boat of many sizes anchored between Hong Kong and Lantau islands, and a constant variety to the panoramic view. At times the mist and fog prevented any view at all, especially in the mornings. The best vistas were always contained a small amount of sea mist which always helped to promote the idea of mystical intrigue and adventure were available to all that dared venture out.

There are two modest size hover-craft boats that transport residents of Discovery Bay to the main island. This is how I went to work 6 days a week and return to my apartment except when the hover craft broke down. Normally, the ride is about 20 minutes but in heavy seas somewhat longer. After disembarking from the hover craft, I take a short walk to the Star Ferry terminal and board the ferry to across over to Kowloon. Then, either a 10 minute walk past the historic Peninsular Hotel or a 5 minute bus ride is chosen to travel to the South Seas Towers in Tsim Sha Tsui and then up the elevator to the top 10th floor, and I was at my desk.

The Hong Kong I experienced is long gone. Street food vendors once tempted passer-bys with charcoal fired woks emanating aromas of garlic, peanut oil, fried pork or chicken, bok choy and other exotic vegetables or fruit. If you weren’t too facetious, in 5 minutes a delicious meal could be purchased at a very reasonable price. And you got to watch the chef all the way.

Gone is the Hot Lips Bar romanticized by an article in the New Yorker magazine referring to reminiscences of the movie “World of Suzie Wong”. One executive guest, I took around to see the city, wanted to go there. Soon after we entered the Hot Lips, we sat down in a large booth, the required escorts came and sat down next to us, the obligatory watered down drinks came and we of course we gladly paid. The escorts were definitely not comparable to Susie as their glow of youth had now to be applied with brushes, but they were reasonably attractive and had good teeth.

Soon after the second round, my visiting exec began to negotiate with mama-san to pay her for the loss of the escort’s time the rest of the evening. He slapped down some bills and soon he walked out with the seamstress by day, mystery woman by night.

Sure this sort of thing still goes on, but the circumstances will never quite be the same. The Hot Lips Bar is gone, but not the memory.

Most of Tsim Sha Tsui had changed into brightly lit modern shops with clean floors and spaced out merchandise. There are no places to buy ivory anymore, not that I ever wanted to buy any. Fake Rolexes and other counterfeits were openly displayed although in the rear of the store. Shady street people appearing on almost every corner could offer a nice looking watch for about a dollar. I always had the feeling of knowing I was going to be ripped off if I bought anything and was always careful to find an honest merchandiser.

Tailor shops abounded on Nathan Road and a man of Indian descent always stood outside enticing me to buy a silk suit made in one day. It was always assumed I was a tourist and had to leave in a couple of days. There were warnings that getting a one day suit would not fit as well as one that took 3 days and had final details ironed out on the 2nd day. I did buy a silk tailored shirt that was made to my longer than normal arm length but the warm weather of Hong Kong didn’t make owning a lot of suits an attractive deal.

There were still rickshaws that operated around the Star Ferry back then. The men were old, wiry, skin and bones, men that probably escaped from China during the Cultural Revolution and had no other skills to offer. I never used one as I thought it looked too bourgeoisie. But there were always a few tourists who would at least get in one to have their picture taken.

Lantau Island is now home of the new airport and is connected to both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island with new bridges, roads, and tunnels with the addition of hotels and convention centers that usually surround major international airports. Even Disney Land is there now. When I took my hover-craft to Discovery Bay, there was nothing to see except green hills and ocean.

When I lived in Hong Kong, I ate twice on the floating restaurant, the Sea Palace that sets just of the town of Aberdeen. I took a bus to Aberdeen, walked a little to the water front, where there was a water taxi that could sit six. After disembarking from the taxi, and walking up the ramp to the restaurant, I walked past a smoke filled room and first heard then saw Chinese playing Mah-Jongg. Believe me the Mah-Jongg solitary computer game is nothing like what they were engaged in. This game is like American poker, with lots of bets and money at sake. The restaurant provided a great decor and good food; taking a boat to a boat to have dinner that was the novelty. (Note: I still have the chop sticks from my last dinner there and use them often to eat any noodle dish)

Then there was the trip to Stanley which is also on Hong Kong Island. Stanley is famous for its markets and bargains to be found. I took a double-decker bus that climbed over the mountains to the other side of the island. I bought Xmas presents there at very reasonable prices.

These two unique places are things I want to keep in my memories just as they were, and I hope I am never tempted to return to them.

Probably what I will remember most about the old Hong Kong are the disco clubs which introduced me to a sub culture within the country. As exotic and exciting as Hong Kong to be sometime, there was no one to share things with and life was definitely lonely at times. I resorted to going to one of my favorite past times, dancing. There I met the maids of Hong Kong. They were mostly Filipinos in their late twenties or thirties and not only do they like to sing, but they like to dance also. I found some favorite dance partners who also became my friends.

Many people could afford maids in Hong Kong and many of them lived in the place where they were employed. Maid quarters consisted of a small room that held a bed and little else, about the size of a walk in closet in the States. The women would send what was left over from their wages back home where the money greatly helped their parents and younger children.

What made making friends so easy was that they spoke English. Josie became my girl friend and sometimes we would sleep together. She has a Catholic and a virgin and wanted to stay that way until she married. Since I knew I wasn’t going to marry her, I respected her wishes. We would sleep spooned together and I think we were both happy to feel physical and emotional contact with another person. She was a sweet kind hearted sole.

When I returned to the States I wrote to her for a while and two other Chinese from work, Bill and Amy.. There was much concern as to what life would be when Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese control. It happened in 1997 and by that time Bill Wong had emigrated to Canada and I soon lost track of him and the other two also disappeared from my life.

As it turned out Hong Kong is under Chinese control, but it is a separate country and has its own government. There is no Great Internet Wall in Hong Kong and information about the rest of the world is freely available. Perhaps China will become more like Hong Kong in the future.