To anticipate a delicious meal for ages (even minutes) only to see it not materialise or turn out to be inedible must surely be among the hardest knocks dished out to us humans.
One of the delightful things about living in a Spanish city (town) after 30 years in the Hong Kong countryside, is that I can order food deliveries online. I can't tell you how excited I was the first time I heard a motorbike pull up outside and saw an Indian take a paper bag out of box on the back of the bike. Chicken tikka masala - in my own house! That he had forgotten the Kingfisher beer I had also ordered was not a problem, I just extracted the 3 euros from the price. Yes, I always choose to pay cash on delivery.
HOWEVER. Last Sunday I stupidly logged in to a delivery service instead of ordering as a guest. Whoosh! Before I knew it, the money had rocketed out of my card. Noooo! Cash is king! Oh well, now at least I would soon be biting into a delicious Pizza Margarita, my favourite. The motorbike came with the little box, and I settled down in front of La casa de papel, ready to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a succulent pizza.
But what was this? A piece of dry crispbread with some elements of cheese? They had sent me a pizza Margarita without tomato sauce or basil. And I had no recourse.
It made me think about the time when I came back to Hong Kong after working as a volunteer teacher in a small village in Sichuan. I had chosen this province especially for the food, and I wasn’t disappointed. I can still remember the first lunch my local colleagues took me to on the first day: Dish after dish of spicy, colourful, pungent, succulent, crunchy food; food that had been in the earth or walking around that day.
A dish called Fish Fragrance Aubergine, so named because the sauce, spicy, numbing, sweet, sour and salty, is of the type sometimes used together with fish, quickly became one of my favourites with its riot of colours and all the tastes of Sichuan combined. It was this I ordered on my first visit to a restaurant back in Hong Kong.
Ahhrghhh! It came to the table as a grey slop, just some boiled-to-death aubergines, over-salted and overcooked and worst of all, full of little dried salted fish. I hate fish! The waiter argued that it wouldn't be called fish fragrance if it didn't have fish in it. It's like saying something wouldn't be called hamburger if it didn't contain a German city.
It was possibly the worst food related disappointment of my life up until then. (Something good came out of it, though: I learnt to cook Sichuan food for myself.)
But that was in 2002. What would become and still is the worst culinary kick in my face happened in 2011 in Xiahe in Gansu province, a Tibetan stronghold. We had an hour to go before the last bus of the day would take us back to Lanzhou and thence Kazakhstan, just enough time for dinner.
There it was on top of the menu: Yak. Glorious, beautiful yak; 10,000 times better than beef and right up there with reindeer and moose. It's even better than horse meat. We ordered through tears of joy, jumping a little with impatience as we really couldn’t miss that bus.
After 50 minutes and three promptings, a waiter mentioned nonchalantly and without any shame that they had forgotten our yak. A lesser person would have played the racism card, but as it was we just got up and ran to the bus, crying.
One thing I'll say about Hong Kong; as much as I love the city and everything (that used to be) in it, when it comes to food they can't really cut it. But what does that matter as long there is CANTONESE? But even Cantonese is on death row. Soon only foreigners and overseas Chinese will be speaking it.
Take lessons from me, or, if you can't afford it, buy a super cheap course!
But first there was to be a demonstration in favour of the horses.
It is rather painful to look at, I must admit; the enormous tourists and driver in the buggy and the thin, panting horse struggling along the asphalted, lightly melting city streets. Can't they have people pulling the carriages, like the cycling rickshaws in China of yore? At least people can decide when they need a drink of water or a break, and not just collapse and die like the horses. Having said that, in the latest incident the horse didn't die at all, the owners indignantly protested, it just collapsed a little. Also, those animal rights campaigners are clearly racists, why else would the protest against animal abuse.
I'm always up for a good demonstration, so off I went with my friend R, to see what all the fuss was about. With clenched fists we started shouting "down with the horses" but in English and from a safe distance. We were joking, you see, knowing very well that the demo wasn't against horses, but against the abuse and accidental killing of them. Yes! Even I am against that.
I seemed to recognise many of the anti horse-abuse people from the anti vaccine mandate demos I had been to, but maybe all demonstrators look the same to me. This time, instead of shaking tambourines, they were hitting on pot lids with a spoon. Not a good sound.
Anyway, just hearing the word 'horse' catapulted me right back to Kazakhstan, that wondrous home of Borat whose name must not be mentioned, mysterious landlocked entity to the west of China. That's where my friends E and K and I went on a semi-whim in 2011, by train from Hong Kong. It was harder to get the visa than to travel by train for three weeks without air conditioning or restaurant cars... but I digress.
In fact I think I'll have to come back to the Kazakhstan trip on another occasion. The reason I mention it now is that for both E and me, (K is sadly a vegetarian) discovering the many pleasures of horse meat was the highlight of our stay. By far. Especially barbecued horse meat. In fact the food in Kazakhstan was better than all other things about the country, as far as we could tell, with horse meat towering proudly on top.
It is strange that the people of China, proud as they are of "eating anything with four legs except the table" still haven’t embraced this delicacy. After all, there would be no shortage of cheap horse meat coming from Hong Kong, on account of all the racehorses. They kill racehorses, don’t they, as soon as they as much as develop a sniffle, let alone break a leg. But perhaps Hong Kong racehorses are too lean and sinewy after all that running; what do I know. Kazakh horses on the other hand – oh! Succulent and melting in the mouth doesn’t begin to describe them. And also, if horse meat eating caught on in China, there wouldn't be any horses left in the world, to pull carriages or run free with the wind in their hair.
And that would be a pity.
Is it wrong to love animals but also like to eat them?
At least I am not part of the overfishing of the oceans. I hate fish.
Meanwhile, did I mention that Cantonese is now on the kill-list, not only of the Chinese government who has been trying to get rid of it for years with great success, but now also of the so-called government of Hong Kong?
It's time the people of the world stood up and told them where to stick it, and the best way to keep something alive is NOT to kill it.
Learn Cantonese the natural way - from a Norwegian! If you don't have time to take lessons, you can kick off with a fun and instructive video, Cantonese - The Movie.
Oh! That was exactly the phrase I needed last week when I found an article from noted Hong Kong English language newspaper the Hong Kong Standard about yet another nail in the coffin of Cantonese. It said that the language of instruction in the Hong Kong school system will switch from the language everybody speaks, Cantonese, to hated imperialist Mandarin.
What took them so long? I had been "disdainfully predicting" this for a number of years; ever since I started noticing that in Guangdong province, formerly known as Canton, the 'cradle of Cantonese' just across the border from Hong Kong, no children actually spoke Cantonese. After asking I don't know how many parents about this and getting the same quick nervous exchange of looks, followed by "... er, it's not convenient," I did a little digging, and sure enough. Parents get punished if the children speak Cantonese at school - and at home.
This column in the South China Morning Post ("Putonghua" means Mandarin, changed by the editor for political reasons) is from 2014, and was possibly the reason why they quickly decided to discontinue my column. Or it could be because of any number of other columns lamenting the killing of Cantonese. What I do know is: The discontinuation of my column coincided exactly with the takeover of the paper by one Jack Ma, owner of "China's Amazon" Alibaba.
Anyway - there is no better way to eradicate a language than to make sure children don't speak it. "Speaking Mandarin is the only way to get ahead" is one way to do it, and when it comes with the added incentive of "...and Daddy will lose his job if we don't comply" - well, it's a done deal. The cradle of Cantonese is now more or less a coffin, Canto-less.
And now it's Hong Kong's turn.
Today the language of instruction, tomorrow severe punishment for speaking Cantonese at home. It's the only way to get a handle on those intransigent Hong Kong people, otherwise who knows what they could be saying among themselves.
They have already started "training" Hong Kong teachers and students in "patriotism", but it's impossible to be properly patriotic without the correct phrases in the correct language: Mandarin. The next push will be to introduce crippled ("simplified") characters to Hong Kong, so that city can look as cheap and shoddy as those in mainland China. This has been tried before without any luck, in fact to much protest among Hong Kong people, but now is the time.
Now HK people are sufficiently brought to heel, and they will say not a word.
Will soon only foreigners be speaking Cantonese?
Make sure you are one of them!
* Predict disdainfully - what does that even mean? Hey, Hong Kong people! Please enlighten me!
In the most hovelistic building, more like a crumbling shack, lives a mysterious okupa.* Some say he is from Romania, others say Poland or Russia. Wherever he’s from, he speaks good Spanish. Good enough to tell the police to bugger off when they came around a few weeks ago. He stood on the balcony shouting angrily at them and eventually went back inside to God knows what squalid horrors, while the old policia scuttled off.
I thought - hoped - the police might have come because some neighbour had complained about the music. Yes, because although he has nothing and doesn’t work, the okupa contends himself with playing incredibly loud music most of the day. He plays Middle Eastern/Central Asian drum n’ bass, something I could actually have grooved to if I was, say, hurtling through the Taklamakan Desert in a broken-down car, but as it is I really hate, because it’s like sitting inside one of his speakers. And then he plays Ed Sheeran.
I detest Ed Sheeran. Ed Sheeran drove me out of Hong Kong. No really! It all started with my losing the venerable Honolulu cha chanteng (greasy spoon) as a Cantonese teaching venue. Oh what halcyon days of shiny tiles, mirrors and students nervously trying out their Cantonese on waiters of various degrees of patience.
I think we spent eight years in Honolulu, teaching, partying and making films. It was a nice little earner for the owner too, raking in the HK$ at the time of day the place was normally half empty, between 4 and 8pm. But one day it was all over, the building was sold and one of Hong Kong’s last iconic cha chanteng gutted. Me too!
After that we became nomads, learning Cantonese wherever we could find a table and chair. After a year I found a 'new old' funky millennial cha chanteng, so hip it had ahhhrghhh paper straws, bamboo cutlery and of course double the price. But we had a room to ourselves.
The problem was, they played non stop a reel of music with about ten songs. Modern pop songs, all with the worst element of modern music: Autotune. One of them was Ed Sheeran’s intolerable something something "in love with your body." The first time I heard it I thought - hm! That’s a catchy tune. But as the days and weeks went by with about 23 X Ed Sheeran's body a day, I started going slightly mad. In the end I couldn’t sleep, because the damn thing was playing in my head.
There was only one thing to do: Leave Hong Kong.
Since then I have been living fairly undisturbed by drum n bass n autotune. So imagine my horror when, a couple of months ago, the damn okupa also started playing this intolerable crap tune, and five times as loudly as in the woke cha chanteng whose name I have forgotten now. There was Ed Sheeran, the gingery wonder himself, now thundering into my ears several times a day again.
One night I came home late, at least 8pm, from beerorama, Okupa was standing next to a police car, in handcuffs. Was it possible he would be gone?
No, a few days later the music was back, possibly not as loud though.
Then a few weeks ago, I woke up at 02:30 for some reason. It was quiet. For another some reason I went out to the terrace, only to see my upstairs neighbour and at least four different people across the street hanging out of their windows, riveted by the sight of three police cars and several officers.
Upstairs Neighbour told me Okupa had been at home when the police came, but had escaped via the balcony and across the rooftops.
How exciting! Living vicariously through a criminal. Doing the 02:30 gossip with my neighbours really made me feel I belonged - a little bit more. And only understanding half of what they said made me crank up the Spanish studying action - a little bit. Since that day I haven't seen Okupa - nor heard Es Sheeran's intolerable tune.
Talking of idiots - did you know I’ve written a Spanish textbook for plonkers? You should buy it - it’s fun.
However for real fun you should learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian!
*Okupa: A squatter who lives without paying rent, often stealing electricity and water from neighbours.
I manage the marketing of leaves and twigs, as well as roots. I am a plant marketing manager!
The plants are yews, hornbeams, thuja, beeches and, and... and more! Whose English names I know not! Oh yes, privet hedge, the type you see in charming English murder mysteries. Totally unsuitable for most of Norway, but they want it anyway. Thank you, Inspector Morse.
This summer from April has been crazy, just managing, managing, managing from morning till night, or longer. It’s fun, but has really taken a toll on my work to make Cantonese a world language.
A few weeks ago I went to Norway to interview some plants and their owners, making one film about blood beech and one about privet. Yaooo! It was fun. It turned into a road trip with benefits, trawling around country roads with excellent driver and friend Cecilie Maske, and visiting places I’ve only read about in books.
The highlight of the road trip was finally meeting my student ah-Tong (Soup) possibly the only Cantonese enthusiast in his village. Soup is an unusual guy; deeply philosophical, plays in three bands on top of working as a truck driver, has 3 children and loves Cantopop, especially George Lam!
We went to a Chinese restaurant in a nearby town where the owner happened to be from Hong Kong, a good friend of Soup’s and possibly the one to set him on the road to Canto. Whatever it was - welcome to the fold, Soup! One more of us, one fewer of them.
That trip reminded me of another road trip in Norway with the same Cecilie Maske, grooving around the fjords and trying to find Chinese restaurants that weren’t too... Norwegian. I don’t ask for much - only chopsticks.
In Åndalsnes, I finally saw a promising place, astonishingly called ‘China House’. The waiter howled with laughter when I talked to him in Cantonese, asking me where I was from.
“You can’t be.”
Then came the ‘you can use chopsticks’ and ‘you can ask for Tsingtao’ applause, culminating in a thundering crescendo of incredulous howling when I asked if they had anything on the menu containing lotus root.
The waiter spoke fluent-ish Norwegian badly, and when I pretended to be amazed, he scoffed that he had been living there for 20 years.
“Right, so why is it strange that I can speak Cantonese, drink Tsingtao and use chopsticks?”
“Why is it different?” I said with an evil smirk, having had exactly the same conversation in mainland China only about 32,000 times.
“Because... they are Chinese things” he explained, as if I were a 10-month-old infant of unusually limited intelligence.
But anything is better than the ridiculous notion that wearing, eating or enjoying something from a different place in the world than oneself is somehow “cultural appropriation”.
No! It’s cultural admiration. Or - it’s just something interesting, fun, amazing that happens to be started by some people somewhere else. Like Cantonese.
Learning Cantonese is NOT cultural appropriation, it’s the most fun and interesting thing you can undertake in your lifetime.
Perhaps you don’t have time to take lessons from me right away, but why not start with Cantonese 101, Cantonese the Movie, more than one hour of everything you need in basic Cantonese.
Then you can go to Hong Kong and spend your entire holiday in quarantine!