Saturday, March 19, 2005

Ah, at last, I appear to be back.

So what exactly, nobody is wondering, did we get up to in Hong Kong? I should have posted this way before now but bleedin' webcrimson got in my way, deleting all my templates and crashing every time I attempted to post any kind of update. Ah well.

Anyhoo, the trip was, excuses to return to a place I've fallen in love with aside, to take in the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which is an Edinburgh International Festival-style shindig. The Stage, bless it, kindly agree to accept some of my words on the above. Hurrah and wonderment still ring out as M joined me this time around, there to snoop around a five star hotel and enjoy all that HK has to offer in return for a holiday feature in the HDM. We were joined by an ace reporter from Opera Now, a bonkers woman called Josette Lesser who will, no doubt, be led here during a vanity Google.

Excuse me, this may be boring and you'll be forgiven for choosing to opt out. Perhaps skip to the next entry?

The trip got off to a rather shaky start. Opting to get down to London on one of Hull Trains finest, it quickly became apparent that this forward thinking transport company neglect one thing - fuel for their train. Our departure from the squalid Paragon Station - located in the heart of a building site - was delayed for an hour while the train was sent up the track to get filled up. Luckily, and having absolutely no faith in Britain's wobbly transport infrastructure, I had planned in several extra hours of 'unforseen circumstances' travelling time. So, somewhat smugly, we supped coffee on the platform while business types shouted "this is ridiculous, I shall miss my dull and boring meeting" at disinterested guards.

Shan't bore you with anymore transport details, so you will be spared my gushes about the Heathrow Express and Cathay Pacific's flight CX252.

After hours of travel, culminating in a transfer to our hotel by a lovely driver whose services we enjoyed for three days before he was mysteriously replaced without explanation, thus forcing my overactive mind to keep visualising a violent end, we finally checked in at the Langham Place Hotel, Mongkok, around 90 minutes late and thus missing the start of the hotel's Gala Opening Party at which our presence was expected. The hotel's PR - a lovely lass, it turned out, called Helen - wasted no time in phoning our room, asking us if we had any interview requests which, of course, we didn't as a Queen sized bed was staring at our aching limbs, lassooing them and forcing them to rest. Post-phone call and feeling a tad guilty, we forced ourselves to the party, where we gulped down fizzy alcohol, chomped on poncy nibbles and watched a Terminator-style robot with a man inside dancing with...Josette Lesser, of Opera Now. There were also some scantily-clad dancing girls thrusting their way around a cat walk who attracted my attention because it was art, not gratuitous body parts, in close proximity to an arts journalist, which is what I was there for...

Hong Kong: A sprawling metropolis covered in a slight haze

You've got to love Victoria Peak. It's a great place to view the sprawling metropolis - even if things are a little hazy. So we did, getting up there by the Peak tram. For me, it was a time to check out familiar sites and absorb some of the view that was obscured a little by alcohol on my previous jaunt here. The heavily Norman Foster-influenced skyline rocks and there've been a few additions - the building next to the Ritz Carlton is now finished, for instance. Alas, it's a mere office block. We were then transported to Repulse Bay and Stanley Main Street, for a bit of retail therapy before the real work began.

First interview was with Brit-based Yellow Earth Theatre's David Tse, who directed his adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's The Nightingale. He was, as M pointed out, a good looking lad and he had a lot to say, making up for my air-headed jet-lagged lack of interview skills by just free-forming on his subject. The festival office proved extremely helpful and, after we'd finished with David, set up another interview with the festival director Douglas Gautier, who was just as forthcoming. With the tape whirring around, an amazing view of the harbour out of the office window and Douglas's rather soothing tones, I definitely started to drift off to some other place. Bless him for not slapping me about the face. Found out he has an uncle in Cleethorpes which, in my drowsy state, was a very surreal revelation although, later in the week, I managed to get a column for the paper out of it.

A looker: David Tse's a lovely bloke

After the chats we watched The Nightingale, which was a whole lot more fun than David had made it sound (he'd opted to stress the production's worthiness and its strengths as a parable for Chinese rule of Hong Kong). The Shouson Theatre was packed with chattering, chuckling kids a few of whom, once the show got underway, were reduced to tears and screams of panic. Ooh, the power of theatre.

After baling out of that enjoyable performance, we were ushered to Maxim's Restaurant, above the City Hall where we would later watch some Cantonese Opera. I'd been here before and eaten the most fantastic Dim Sum but this time around Jeannie, our excellent tourism board chaperone, ordered vast quantities of chicken, duck and Pak Choi which I was pretty much left to eat myself. One of us had forgotten our tickets for the Cantonese Opera - Josette Lesser, of Opera Now - leaving Jeannie, who had no appetite, a vegetarian M, who ate as much of the Pak Choi as a human could take, and me to polish off a meal for four. By the time we took our seats in the City Hall's vast Concert Hall, I was feeling physically sick. Cantonese opera is an acquired taste, methinks, even if it is by master Ton Tik Sang. it's just soooooo long. Three hours to the interval, another 150 minutes after that. We skipped out at half-time, having got the gist and grown bored of surtitles that were only updated every 20 minutes and looking at the massive platform shoes of the male performers who, as a result, looked like they were auditioning for a role in a Glitter Band tribute act, and went in search of a Tsing Tao, a chocolate milk shake and a shopping mall in which to unwind. As this is the city that never sleeps, that wasn't so hard to find. While we were cosuming our drinks we saw quite a few people brandishing their Cantonese Opera programmes, so we weren't the only ones to take this approach. The audience at the opera surprised me - they were very noisy, constantly talking and shuffling around. Certainly a million miles away from what I'd expected. This ain't no museum piece, it's alive, the people appear to love it but they refuse to get pretentious about it.

Chez Killing Time: Our new Tai O apartment

Sunday was a day to get in touch with our Taoist side. We headed over to Lantau Island, snooped around the Po Lin Monastery, entered the massive Buddha, scoffed a quite superb vegetarian lunch. Following this we headed out to the Tai O fishing village. Yes, it stinks, because they love drying out fish in the sun. But it was all fascinating.

Ah, the French. No holiday would be complete without whinging about the French. Actually, I love the French. But they all looked like the svelt-like Peggy Donck, company manager of circus-theatre troupe La Syncope de 7. Again, and this was the trip of the easy interview, Peggy waxed lyrical. The bonus was le sexy Francais accent. It was just me, Peggy, the arts festival PR Alexia and a bunch of hairy, ugly rehearsing circus performers alone in the Lyric Theatre at the Academy for Performing Arts. I've got to say that, in future, I shall conduct all interviews with men bouncing on trampolines in the background as it wasn't off-putting at all (tape transcript: "We are .... TRAMPOLINE SQUEAKS, CAN'T HERE WHAT PEGGY SAID"). Peggy urged me to persuade my fellow trippers to hang about at the end, as the company like to meet their audience post-show but HK audiences like to depart immediately, so they were missing human company. So, like complete melons, we did. Josette Lesser, of Opera Now, really enjoyed this part of the trip.

In between the interview and the show itself, we nipped to the Super Star Seafood Restaurant, in Wan Chai, who serve an exquisite duck that, again, I feel I devoured single-mouthedly.

The following day, slightly the worse for wear, we did a bit of open-air Tai Chi at the Avenue of Stars, which is just up the road from the Star Ferry Terminal. I'd like to say that I moved with all the grace of a Tai Chi master. I'd like to say that but...well...I don't want to mislead you.

After that we skipped out to the New Territories to meet the real people, pausing en route to lob an orange into the Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree. Those New Territories, y'know, they seem to be improving. There's certainly no shortage of high rise government accommodation nestling around and about the walled villages and the odd house made of cardboard. Culture too, in the form of Tai Fu Tai mansion and the ancestral hall of Tang Chung Ling.

I think, though memory kind of fades, that later that same day we hopped a ferry to Hong Kong Island to visit Eva Lui, my pal Rich's girlfiend. Eva works at the Ritz Carlton and she treated us to high tea and, yep, a Tsing Tao. She's a great gal and has an wonderful sense of humour, no doubt connected to hanging out with Rich, who's a Scouse scally and the Jimmy Tarbuck of his generation. Rich, resorting to stereotype, txted me later to tell me that Eva was "made up" that we'd called in on her. And here's me thinking that kind of language was only used on Brookside.

More food at the Peking Garden Restaurant before taking in, for me, the festival highlight - the Blind Boys of Alabama, whose gospel stylings and hard work reduced a very reserved audience to, heck, actually standing on their feet, shouting, screaming and clapping in response. Those blind guys were great and this was a very life-affirming show. Talking about it later to M we both admitted to feeling moved by it all.

Kestrel for a knave: In John Woo's remake of a classic Brit flick, Billy Casper (left) takes his caged bird for a walk every day with HK's answer to Brian Glover

Blimey, there's more. The following day we absorbed the sights to be found in Mongkok - the Bird Garden, the flower market, the goldfish market and the "How big is it and does it ever end and how cheap are the watches??!!" nature of the Ladies Market before heading to shoppers' paradise Causeway Bay for lunch with Mandy Lo, from the Tourism Board. I've met Mandy before and she's very nice and she ordered us some top tucker at XinJishi. For some reason, conversation swung towards Charles and Camilla's upcoming nuptials. "We're not interested, we hate the royal family," M and myself kept pleading. Ah well, etiquette and all that. Josette Lesser, of Opera Now, is certainly no anarchist, we discovered.

The rest of that day is a blur but involved lots and lots and lots of shopping. What this trip lacked in serious debauched nightlife was more than made up for with retail therapy. No copy Rolex's, I hasten to add, but another of those great moments on Nathan Road where you're led down a thousand alleys and into a dodgy apartment block, where a man who was supposed to sell you a Baby-G watch suddenly pulls out material swatches on you and tells you he could do you a suit for the equivalent of 20 quid. M was scared, I found it all very funny. But, later, when M made the brave decision to have her hair cut at a Hong Kong salon, the roles were reversed, so all is fair in love and on a press trip it seems.

Spotted: Yes, that woman staring directly into the lens was very worried about her image rights. Josette Lesser*, of Opera Now, is the blonde to the left of this woman's head.

Ah yes, there was shopping, there were sights to bring a tear to the eye, there was plenty of booze and, in reality, there was much more to the trip than I've penned here. And now there are two of us that love this incredible place. The trip wasn't long enough. But we will return and I can hardly wait. Here endeth the sermon. All I need to do now is write the two features for The Stage! Jo, if you ever get round to reading this, you're a real diamond for sorting all this out for us.

*Josette Lesser writes for Opera Now.

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