Vol. 2 Hong Kong -- A Tram Ride to Remember // Jaja in Asia by Jahan Sharif

Hong Kong’s famous milk tea and egg tart!

Hong Kong’s famous milk tea and egg tart!

This essay was originally published February, 19 2018.

The two of us were on the tram heading from Wan Chai in the east, to Central. The trams here are modern skinny double-deckers made in a style harking back to the days of British colonialism. We were sitting together on a bench in the back when he asked me if I wanted to move to the front so I could see better. I was comfortable where we were because there was a lot of legroom and I could stretch out. But I’ve learned that when Andy asks if I want to do something, he’s not asking me at all. So, to the front we went.

I hunched my way forward, squeezing and weaving my elbows through the heads poking into the aisle before taking a seat in the first row. The view was indeed better in the sense that it was easier to see out-- but tall buildings, no matter where in the world they are, all look about the same at street level.

Inside of the tram.

Inside of the tram.

I don’t blend in here, so I wasn’t surprised when I heard the group of ladies sitting to my rear talking about me. They were speaking in a different language, so I couldn’t understand them. But when one of the ladies said the phrase “must be tourist, eh?” I could tell by her accent that she was Filipina. I ignored her and Andy scooted over to take my picture. I heard the same lady speaking about me in Tagalog again. She said, “Tagalog, tagalog, tagalog, HIS FIRST TIME, yea, first time.” And that’s when I whipped around and engaged her.

I looked her in the face and gave her the Austin Powers “I see you girl” finger gesture-- smiled broadly and then turned back to Andy for the picture.

“Yes, take picture! It good for memory. Memories important, yea. Take picture.”

“I agree! Why don’t you come take a picture with me?”

Without hesitation she uncrossed her legs, got up, sat next to me, Naomi Campbell’d the shoot, and returned to her seat.

“Where you from?” she asked.

“Los Angeles.”

“Ah-- USA. California. I want to go one day. Look nice. You here visiting? You tourist?”

“Yep, it’s my first time. Do you live here?”

“Yes, but I from Philippines. That your man?”

(Smiling) “No, he’s just a friend-- but I’m visiting him. What’s your name?”

For the ancestors.

For the ancestors.

“Jenny... and this Linda, that Jessie, and she...(speaking in Tagalog)...oh she name Linda too. We just meet today. What your name?




“Oh nice name.”

“How long have you lived in Hong Kong?”

“I live here 5 years now. My employer very good to me so I stay with him. I want to go to America when he go, but Trump make it very hard now. Linda come here a few months ago from Middle East. They no treat us good there sometime, so it better here in Hong Kong. I know Linda long time and I tell her to come here and I will help her find work.”

Linda chimes in:

“Yes, employers in Middle East sometimes good sometimes bad. I get scared when I hear story of employer in Kuwait locking maid in freezer for one year as punishment. She die.

“You were in Kuwait?”

“No, I was in Qatar-- but I hear stories.”.

“So it’s better here in Hong Kong?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so. Sometimes people rude, but it’s ok. Most time they ok. And we get day off when we want.”

Roughly 320,000 foreign domestic helpers, as they're officially called, live in Hong Kong. Almost all of them are women and come from either the Philippines or Indonesia. They are required by law to live with their employers. (Or, phrased differently, employers are required by law to provide housing for their helpers.) Because they can choose which day to have off, most pick Sunday so they can be together.

From Victoria Park to the outdoor lobby of the HSBC building and the footbridges that connect malls, friends gather early in the morning to stake out a good spot. Once they find a plot, they construct what is effectively a temporary informal settlement made of broken-down cardboard boxes and fleece blankets. They bring their own food and battery packs-- I think I even spotted one person with a small generator powering a TV. They nap on the street, listen to music, play cards, and shop in pop-up style flea markets. They openly engage in communion and unapologetically obstruct foot traffic. It’s as if they’re saying, “It’s one day a week-- you can deal with it.” And of course, people seem to do just that.  

Jenny and me!

Jenny and me!

I asked Jenny where she was going.

“Central-- to meet friends. I introduce these ladies to them so they get friends too.”

“That’s good of you.

“Jahar-- this for you. Take. They say it for good luck.”

Jenny handed me three little inch-long oranges, which are believed to bring prosperity.

“You take good care of people, and the people take good care of you. Yea? Remember that, ok?

Hong Kong
February 19, 2018

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Vol. 1 Hong Kong -- Arrival Terminal // JajaInAsia by Jahan Sharif

This essay was originally published on February 16, 2018.

Hong Kong is an island that sits in the South China Sea near the mouth of the Pearl River-- China’s third longest. Approaching from the west we flew over Taipei and continued far out into the ocean where hundreds of cargo ships queued up in a shotgun spray pattern across the bay waiting to enter the harbor. It is nighttime and their deck lights sparkle in the water like fireflies in the desert.

Whenever possible, planes prefer to land into the wind. The captain informed us that there were light winds coming from the East, sloping upward and over the peaks of Lantau Island before breezing gently across the airfield. We banked hard to the right and made a U-turn, touching down moments later purposefully and without much fanfare. We taxied off the runway and within a few minutes were parked at the gate. The captain shut down the engines and very matter-of-factly turned off the fasten-seatbelt sign, signaling that our nearly 15-hour trip across the Pacific had finished, and that Jaja was officially in Asia!

It is not possible to overstate the number of Asian people in Asia. I know that sounds obvious and completely ridiculous, but it’s just something you have to experience to understand-- and those who have experienced it will understand. I think the culture here recognizes this, because they seem uniquely adept at moving huge amounts of people very quickly.

Take my experience going through immigration as an example. My flight landed around the same time as four others— so there were roughly a thousand people at immigration. Men and women in baby blue blazers led groups of about a hundred people to different areas in the terminal. They walked so fast that most people had to trot to keep up. (Imagine getting off of a 15 hour flight and then having to run with all of your bags and kids across a terminal the length of a football field. Nobody’s happy about it. Everyone is complaining loudly. Nobody is listening. And everyone complies.)

I joined the first line and had a few hundred people in front of me. When I reached the front, I was met by two older men (65+) in blazers who were firmly and forcefully sorting people into lines to the left and right. They’d vigorously motion in the direction you were expected to go. If you stopped at a line too early they screamed at you from afar to move down. If you weren’t paying attention or not moving fast enough, they grabbed you by the arm or waist and physically moved you along. I was definitely focused!

I was put in a line with an agent who looked to be in his late twenties. He was asking the lady in front of me why there was a mole in her passport photo, but no mole on her face. Before she could say that she had had it removed recently, another agent had arrived to take her to secondary screening. As the lady cleared the space, the agent leaned out of his chair and stretched his hand out through the glass toward me. I didn’t so much give him my passport, as he snatched it from me. We exchanged no words and fewer than 10 seconds later, I was through.

Take this scenario as you will, but the fact is I deplaned and got through immigration in less than 20 minutes.

Celebrating the Year of the Dog with frozen candied strawberries at the Lunar New Year Market.

Celebrating the Year of the Dog with frozen candied strawberries at the Lunar New Year Market.

My friend Andy, who I’m here visiting, met me at the airport. In the Uber he told me some unfortunate news. Because of a recent bus accident that claimed the lives of 19 people and injured 65, Hong Kong’s chief executive placed the entire bus company under investigation and canceled the annual Chinese New Year fireworks show out of respect. (There are also reports that because the driver was driving recklessly, surviving passengers tried to beat him up after the crash!) I was disappointed.

That night— less than two hours after landing— we linked up with some of Andy’s friends and went to the Lunar New Year Market, which is known locally as the Flower Market. Throngs of people flood Victoria Park (Hong Kong’s Central Park) to buy Chinese street food and special holiday desserts. It’s the year of the dog and little canine-themed trinkets and figurines are everywhere. There are vendors selling trees for good luck, and bouquets of flowers for loved ones— it is Valentine’s Day after all. Young people with megaphones rap along to their favorite songs next to salespeople hawking everything from scissors to mops to pieces of wood that are supposed to help you sleep at night. It’s a wonderful, and very human, mishmash of life where you can watch kids delighting in the blissful glow of first loves while munching on grilled dried squid or frozen candied strawberries, all the while holding onto a bag of doggy knickknacks. By the time I went to bed, it was nearly 3am.

I woke up the next morning to the news that a high school in Parkland, FL was shot up by a former student. I know the school. It’s not far from where I went to high school, and it’s much like where you went to high school, which is probably very similar to the other schools that have been shot up since the beginning of this year in the US.

One of the most valuable parts of travel is just bearing witness to how others do things. In Hong Kong, there was a tragedy and we see how they chose to react. What will we choose to do in the face of ours?

Hong Kong
February 16, 2018

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