30 January 2014

I Am A Horse

Happy New Year!  It’s the Year of the Horse, 4712 on the Chinese calendar. The Horse is a beloved animal in the Chinese zodiac.  Battles are won on the backs of the handsome, strong, and intelligent horse.  If you have a horse in your life (especially working for you), then it’ll be a fortunate year.  Lucky you! I am a Horse.

Buddha named the animal years.  Legend has it that he asked all animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve showed up.  Buddha named a year after each one and announced that people born in a particular animal year would have that animal’s traits and personality.

According to my thorough surface-scratching research of the Chinese zodiac, the Horse is endearing yet frustrating.  In general, they are strong, hard working, and self-reliant.  They are creative and work well with others, but they’re also an independent force.  Socially, they are eloquent and charismatic, however they’re likely to be the first to leave a party.  Horses are free-spirited and always on the move, but they need intimacy and belonging.  They have good manners and pay great attention to their appearance, yet they’re giving and generous to others. Good careers for the Horse include businessperson, poet, travel writer, or politician.   Sandra Day O’Connor and Teddy Roosevelt were born the year of the Horse. I was born the year of the Horse.

Last year’s Snake had me moving from Hong Kong back to New York.  The three-month long international shipping of my belongings and the reverse culture shock made my reentry a bit bumpy, so I kept to my cottage in Garrison.  I got a puppy, resumed restoration of the cottage, and cleared felled trees. I visited with family, saw old friends and made new ones, and met with neighbors.   Lots of time was spent walking my 200-year-old dirt road and researching its history.  I became the secretary of the dirt road advocacy group, the Old Road Society.  As of post time, the New Year, I decided to make it my business to save my old dirt road from the town’s plan to pave it.  Then I read the 2014 Chinese horoscope Horse form:  

For those born in the year of the Horse, you need to stay low profile in 2014 as every aspect of your life can encounter challenges and competition this year. In order to succeed, you need to spend extra effort with your colleagues, friends, supporters and even competitors to solve issue pertaining to the business. You risk losing your reputation if you mishandle the situation properly. Expenses and social activities will increase for the Horse people and there are signs of money going out swiftly. You need to handle your finances prudently. Lending money should be avoided as you risk getting back later and lose the friendship. In 2014, your mental health cause by the challenges is weak, you need to remain positive and stay strong. Get a health check for your heart and urinary system if you are experience issues. [sic]

Hold your horses!  How can I raise the public’s awareness and engage elected officials in road-saving measures if I am to keep a low profile?  I’ll have to rein in some of my mannerism.  Fortunes coming in and going out?  I’ll keep things low stakes. What about the eerily specific urinary system warning?  Forget leading this horse to water, I’ll be drinking cranberry juice! Remaining under wraps for 2014 will be a challenge, but I will not be eased.  I am a Horse.

30 April 2013

Bad Air Day

Air pollution in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities on the mainland has been making headlines worldwide.  Coverage has been as relentless as the endless string of bad air days. China is the largest producer of emissions in the world. The country’s statistics do not include Hong Kong.  It is considered a Special Administrative Region until 2047.  However, the island has bad air too.  Earlier this month, just days before a scheduled 10K hike on Lantau, I was sucked into the Environmental Protection Department’s air index readings.  Toxins were in the air.  With just three days before the hike would it blow over and out or would I be forced to remain indoors for my health?

T minus 3 days
I woke to see a yellow haze in the air.  Growing up in central Ohio made me used to shellacked skies of hot and humid days, but Hong Kong’s hue was different. I wasn’t looking up at it from a great distance I was breathing it in.  My eyes watered, my nose tickled, my face reddened, my throat became raw…and I was in my apartment!  I turned on the air purifier full blast and stayed inside all day.

Air pollution index readings take place in 11 stations throughout Hong Kong. They measure ozone and nitrogen dioxide levels.  The air quality index has a chart ranking the levels, such as 0-25 Low - within acceptable standards and 151-200 Very High.  Three days before the hike the level was 205 and 210, or Severe.  Severe levels reading between 201 – 500 means that people “with existing heart or respiratory illnesses may experience significant aggravation of their symptoms. There may also be widespread symptoms in the healthy population (e.g. eye irritation, wheezing, coughing, phlegm and sore throats).”

T minus 2 days
Another day of unbearable slightness of breathing.  I had to go out and run errands. My first stop was to purchase a box of paper facemasks with elastic bands that loop around the ears.  Asians tend to wear masks when they have colds and I thought for sure that the entire population would be wearing them to filter the air.  (One idea that popped into my head was to take my red lipstick and paint lips on the mask.  For James, I thought, I’ll draw a mustache!)  To my surprise no one was wearing face protection.  The streets were busy and the sidewalks crammed with the usual mid-day crowd.  Clearly in Asia’s financial core there’s no masking the pain.

A mix of local and regional pollutants causes Hong Kong’s smog.  Emissions from industrial facilities, coal-fired power plants, dirty diesel vehicles and ships burning bunker fuel, the world’s dirtiest transportation fuel, are the source.   The bad air gets trapped among the skyscrapers and cannot escape.  The only hope we had for a hike was a big wind or soaking rain to get the air circulating.

T minus 1 day
Third day same as the 1st.  The air purifier had been humming away for two days of severe levels pollution.  I went out this time to visit James in his office on the 99th floor of Hong Kong’s tallest building.  At that level I’m usually on top of the world looking down on creation, but not that day. I couldn’t see a thing through the vapor.  Skyscrapers aren’t so high when pollution comes down to earth.

Lantau Island.  It’s prominently rural, but it’s also home to the airport and Disneyland.  Our 10K excursion was to hike from Big Buddha, the world’s largest outdoor bronze statue of a seated Buddha, to the fishing village, Tai O.   A rewarding day trip if the air clears.

Take off
Is that fog or smog?  I woke to gray skies and immediately texted for the hikers’ official weather report.  It wasn’t pollution; we were to take off at 8.  We went with the hope that the misty cloud hanging overhead would burn off when the sun was high in the sky.

The misty cloud never dissipated.  We started our hike at Big Buddha but we couldn’t see it or the horizon on our ascent.  When we reached the top the only view we had was of the wild water buffalos lying down chewing their cud.  We made our way down to Tai O and strolled the seaside village where houses stood on stilts and streets were stocked with stands selling salted fish and fresh catch.  At that foggy bottom we were closer to Macau than to Central and feeling very distant from the previous days of killer smog.

According to the Hedley Environmental Index, there were 322 premature deaths in March of this year as a result of adverse health effects due to air pollution.  Government officials in Hong Kong and China have proposed billions of dollars to combat pollution and that doesn’t include the latest threat to the skies: light pollution.    The University of Hong Kong recently found that the city’s light pollution is 1,000 times brighter than globally accepted levels.  Among the side effects, it causes insomnia in humans and death in birds (they tweet all night by the artificial light and often times don’t make their migration destination).  The smog of war burns bright in the Fragrant Harbor.

31 March 2013

HELP WANTED: Villain-Hitter

March.  In like a lion, out like a lamb.  In Hong Kong it’s more like a slaughtered lamb.  While my fellow Americans welcome spring with warmer temperatures and budding crocuses, many Chinese welcome it with awakening insects and hitting villains.  It is Jīngzhé, or hitting season, and for 15 days professional hit women are legal guns for hire.

A villain-hitter is a job title.   The villain-hitting ceremony, or da siu yan, dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907).  At the end of winter, when temperatures began to rise, it was customary to burn incense and mugwort in the home to drive out hatching insects. Through the centuries, the hatching insects has evolved into unpleasant people. Siu yan literally translates to “awakening insects” and this includes “little people,” such as troublemakers, gossips, and people who cause misfortune.   Villain-hitters are typically older women (please note: older women are fondly called "grannies" and older men "uncles").   It is their job to clean house.  During Jīngzhé the professionals set up shop where evil lies: under bridges and overpasses and at crossroads.

To every villain there is a season.  I knew just the insect I needed to hit.  The petty man was my sister’s enemy.  What he did to her directly affected my family and me.  With my mark in mind, I went out in search of a dark place where evil spirits linger.

Under an overpass at the crossroad of Hennesy Road, Canal Road East and West was a gallery of six villain-hitters.  Each sat on a low stool next to a ceremonial stage set with an altar of the Goddess of Mercy, stacked fruit, and a vessel of burning joss stick and candles.  Also included was a pride of paper tigers.  I approached the first granny who met my gaze.  She allowed me to take a couple pictures of her set up, then extended a hand for me to sit. Amid the noisy mid-day traffic and the clicking cameras of all those who passed by the strange sight of a blonde westerner sitting before a villain-hitter, the ceremony began. 

We never spoke a word to each other throughout the 30-minute ritual.  First, the hit woman handed me a wad of colorful paper roughly the size of a tri-folded 8x10.  She tapped the top of it with a pen, so I wrote my villain’s full name.  She placed it on the ground in front of the goddess.  Then she lit a few sticks of incense, put them in my hands, and positioned them palms flat together as if in prayer. I mimicked her hand gestures and slightly bowed my wrists while she chanted.  The chanting continued as she took the incense from my hands and stuck it in the vessel.  Next the granny placed a folded piece of paper marked with green drawings of humans, animals and geometric designs on a cloth-covered brick and began to hit it with the sole of a black shoe.  This tapping echoed under the overpass and sounded louder than it actually was because the other villain-hitters just happened to be performing the same task for their clients. 

The beating lasted for over five minutes.  When the paper began to fray, she wrapped it in one of the paper tigers, rubbed it on a pig’s ear, and waved it over the altar.  She lit it on fire from the flames of candles and flung it into a burn barrel.   Then she picked up the colorful paper with my villain’s name, unfolded it and took out the inner pieces of paper.  The piece with the name remained in its place.  The chanting began again as she lit the sheets of paper to smoke, not fire, and waved it over my body - tapping my shoulders, forearms, and thighs.  At this point the scent of incense and paper smoke was so heavy I could no longer smell the exhaust that choked the air in the crossroads camp. 

After the burning paper accolade, she chucked it into the burn barrel.  The name piece was set alight and added to the fire. A few grains of rice were thrown over the altar and vessel.  Finally, she tossed a pair of ear-shaped discs of wood into the air.  It took a couple turns of the charms, or jiaobei, before she divined that my petty person had been eliminated.  She did this by gesturing with the international sign of all’s good: two thumbs up.

The elimination of the cursed man from my life doesn’t mean death.  Chinese folk sorcery is not like voodoo.  It isn’t meant to kill or bring bodily harm.  The ceremony is performed to bring peace and happiness to the person who hired the professional killer.  Villain-killing is another example of yin and yang and the Chinese culture of dualism.  A villain-killer is a do-gooder because she is helping her client, not harming the enemy.

I paid my villain-hitter HK$50 and tried to learn more.  I pieced together that she got her start from a “dark calling.”  At 78, the granny had been giving the boot to baddies for 10 years.  Reducing an enemy to something lower than the lowest part of the body – the foot – was something I thought only happened in Arab cultures.  Right after my participation in the villain-hitting ceremony I felt like a multicultural sole mate, but it also left me feeling like a heel with no sole.

28 February 2013

Year of the Snake

2013 is the Year of the Snake, Chinese Lunar Year 4711.  The most powerful yang year of the Dragon is over and the calendar turns to balance it with a yin one. Make no mistake. The Snake has strength - fire energy. If past Snake years are any indication, 2013 is going to be full of venomous days!

Yin and Yang are not opposing forces they’re complementary.   For example, grapes are grown and, when ripe, plucked from their branches.  They are aged and bottled as wine. Branches need to be bare so new grapes can grow to refill empty bottles.  Since the 2012 yang fruits have been picked dry, 2013 will be a yin year of cultivation.  Adding the Snake to the balance makes it all the more challenging.  It is one of the most enigmatic, intuitive, introspective, refined, and collected of the 12 animal signs in the Chinese Zodiac. Ancient Chinese wisdom says a Snake in the house is a good omen because it means that your family will not starve.  We’re going to need a full belly to stomach what may be in store for us this year.

According to my thoroughly unpracticed Feng Shui study, 2013 is said to be a yin water Snake year.  Water is the element of transport and communication, so it’ll bring intelligence and innovation to the fire of uprising or hidden conflict. 1953 was a yin water Snake year.   The Korean War ended, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, and Josef Stalin died of a heart attack.  Peace and pageantry during the super powers’ cold war arms buildup.

Not all past Snake years were water Snakes.   In general, though, all appeared equally unsettling.   1929 was the year of Al Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Pearl Harbor was on December 7, 1941 and Hitler declared war on the U.S. days later.  In 1965 the Vietnam War escalated.  The killings at Tiananmen Square happened in 1989, and the World Trade Center terrorist attack was in 2001. Yet peace was found in the Snake year of 1977 when newly sworn-in President Jimmy Carter signed The Panama Canal Treaty.

It’s not all doom and gloom during Snake years.  1977 was a stellar one. My brother, Jimmy, graduated from Bexley High School and the 1st U.S. space shuttle was launched.   Disco came alive with the release of the movie and soundtrack Saturday Night Fever.  Cinemas also debuted Anne Hall, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of a Third Kind.  Fleetwood Mac released the album Rumors. Atari was born, the Neutron Bomb was developed, and Nickelodeon was introduced on QUBE in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. It was also that same Snake year when Steve Jobs created Apple requesting: “don’t make the logo cute.”

History and timelines offer us an opportunity to examine past events so we may have a better understanding of the present.  They also let us see if history is repeating itself.  It’s the beginning of 2013 and past Snake years are already shedding their skin.  The winter weather is a record-breaking ditto.  The Blizzard of 1941 was said to be the worst of its time and the one in 1977 brought snow from New England to Miami and claimed 100 lives.  The winter of our discontent doesn’t end with the weather.  King Richard’s bones were unearthed while North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un rattled Seouls.  He conducted an underground nuclear weapon test in defiance of the U.S. and China.  His neighbors in the south believe the fall out is war.  Another echo from Asia’s past is the escalation of tension between China and Japan.  Both nations claim ownership of a chain of islands in the East China Sea  (Diaoyu Islands in China and Senkaku Islands in Japan).  Oddly enough, Mr. Xi Jin Ping, China’s new leader of the Communist Party, was born in the yin water Snake year 1953.

Wasn’t the world supposed to have ended last December?  I surrender!  Mark Twain said, “The world doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”  So I'll wait for the white smoke of a new Pope to clear and hold for hope that we’ll cope in the celestial globe this year.

31 January 2013

Groundhogs and Englishmen

While I’m settling in Hong Kong and figuring out who the best butcher, baker, and martini maker are, I’m also playing the tourist.  My first taste as sightseer came while running errands in Causeway Bay.  I went to see the firing of the Noonday Gun.  The tradition has lasted in roughly the same spot since the Opium Wars and I was aiming to find out why.

Even though Hong Kong is now a special territory of the People’s Republic of China, the city still fires a daily report. The midday blast was made famous when The Queen of England, Noel Coward, wrote about it in the song Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
In Hong Kong
They strike a gong
And fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who’s in late

As poetic as it sounds, the purpose was for punishment and not as a warning for tardy soldiers.  In 1832 two Scots, William Jardine and James Matheson, founded the trading house Jardine Matheson. Jardines, as it was referred, imported opium to the Chinese and exported cotton to the British.  Their offices were located at East Point in Victoria Harbor.  To announce visiting business leaders or company big wigs (tai pans), Jardines’ private militia would fire a cannon. In 1860 things got out of hand when a business executive was announced with a 21-gun salute.  Fresh from the Opium Wars, the British navy remained in full force.  A naval officer didn’t appreciate a businessman receiving the same honor normally reserved for senior officers or government dignitaries.  Jardines’ punishment for this breech of colonial etiquette was to fire a cannon every day at the stroke of noon. 

Given the Noonday Gun’s history and its listings in tourist guides, I decided to go early to get a good seat.  When I arrived I was the only one there and there were no seats.  As the hour approached people began to trickle in and stand with me behind locked gates: a few construction workers from a nearby site, a Mainland couple on holiday, a family of 3, and a pack of 5 teens who seemed to me to be on a school assignment with their pens and notebooks in hand.  A small man in a naval-inspired uniform came striding in.  He rang a bell three times and then walked up on the cannon platform.  He stood tall and proud, extended his left arm in the air, and lowered it as he fired The Hotchkiss Mark I three-pound cannon with his right hand.  The report gave us all a jolt and we gasped like we were watching fireworks.  It was louder than anticipated – two busy construction sites and honking 6-lane traffic surrounded us.  The guard walked off the platform, rang the bell again, and then opened the gates.  For thirty minutes we were allowed inside the grounds.  He shouted something I didn’t understand and we all exited the yard.  The experience left me wondering why it inspired song.

Except for the Japanese occupation during World War II, the Noonday Gun has been signaling high noon everyday for over a hundred years.  Hong Kong isn’t the only city calmly carrying on with colonial British tradition. Cape of Good Hope has a Noon Gun. The British captured the Dutch colony in 1795 and Signal Hill has been blasting since 1806.  The city began firing a cannon to announce incoming ships.  As time progressed, it was reduced to once a day. Cape of Good Hope remained a colony until 1910, but the tradition continues today.

In this day in age, why continue firing a cannon at noon? I don’t know about Cape of Good Hope, but in Hong Kong land is at a premium. The Jardines property remains with its patch of grass and a few cannons. Why blast midday when it isn’t loud enough to hear island-wide?  It makes sense if people need to set watches, but a majority of the population use their phones to tell time and a satellite in space sets those. Maybe if more people attended the ceremony I’d "get" it, but I'm at a loss at this point.

Then again, who am I to question other countries’ traditions?   Back home in America we gage the length of winter from a hedgehog named Punxsutawney Phil.