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Enter the dragon–it’s back to the dojo

26 Sep

Some folk say that life is a lesson – while others say that there’s nothing that we need to learn – that we’re perfect just as we are. I’m not sure – all I know is that I feel a hard-wired imperative to grow, to learn, to develop, to become all I can possibly be. Some of that learning is through what I read, what I watch, what I listen to. And there’s a lot of that! Some of that is through the experiences that life throws at me – or, perhaps more accurately, that I create for myself. And there’s a real huge lot of that learning happening right now. And sometimes it’s through the experiences that I choose to have, the conscious choices that I make – like the one that took me round the world, the decision to pursue a career in computing – the day I chose to learn to dance, or the day my son and I took up karate.

Tai Chi (2)So I guess it was inevitable that one day I’d take up another martial art – a brief flirtation with Aikido, which I loved, came to an end when I moved away from my Aikido class. But I’ve always been intrigued by the flow of energy that the more centred martial arts draw on: like Aikido, Qi Gong, Tai Chi. Each of these martial arts contain the Japanese character for life energy or chi, and work by redirecting that energy. That’s a huge contrast to the forceful block and counter of martial arts like karate – although karate uses a lot of locks and body shifting, designed to redirect the opponent’s energy, it’s not at the core of the art. I found that as I watched the wonderfully charismatic yet unassuming teacher who I only think of as Mr PeaceyMind (after his continual exhortation to his class to be of peaceymind) on the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong that I’d love to explore  a little more.

small karate

So Tuesday found me back in a dōjō (otherwise known as a village hall) – this time without my white pyjamas or, indeed, the security of my black belt… back as a beginner again.

You don’t really need to know about the experience – at times calming and at other times as frustrating as hell – but 15 years of martial arts means that my balance is pretty damn good and that I have can at least draw on the basics that lie behind transition and form. You also don’t need to know that I was the only man in a class of 30 women, either.

So there I was, relearning some of the basics: how to step, hip rotation, rise and fall, the basis of form, the first handful of movements (and unlearning some of the other things that were core to a very different martial art) – and then the moment when all of us, expert and beginner alike, took to the floor to perform all 108 movements of the set… a moment when it was sink or swim – give up or press on. And I’m not very good at giving up.

But it got me thinking again about mastery – about the journey to master anything, whether it’s an art, or a field of study, a craft, a discipline, a career. We probably know as soon as we step on to that path that we’re never going to know it all – that we’re going to be learning more every time we step onto the practice floor.

There’s a saying in budō – the study of martial arts – that the moment that we acquire our black belt is the moment that study truly begins – that the years of sweat and pain that have led to that moment have really only been qualifying us to study: that those preparatory years have been just the entrance to the school, and that from that point the learning really starts.

“To search for the old is to understand the new. The old, the new, this is a matter of time. In all things man must have a clear mind. The Way: Who will pass it on straight and well?”

(Gichin Funakoshi, founder of modern day karate)

Traditionally, too, in some martial arts the black belt is designed to fray with use – so as the student progresses, the belt increasingly wears back to white, demonstrating that even the master is always learning.

So what’s the life lesson here?

Well, in life as well as in the dojo, yet again I find myself in a place where I don’t see myself as an expert, knowing that I have much to learn… and yet finding myself called to teach and share what I do know. There are places that my studies have taken me over the last few years, things that have shaken me to the core of my being, clearing out old and unhelpful beliefs, helping me to see Life more clearly. Some of those experiences have been hugely painful and yet breathtakingly freeing – and have caused me to grow immeasurably in my understanding of some of the principles at the heart of creation.

Yet now I know that it’s time to take those out into the dojo that is life – to share some of those principles even as I seek to master them in my own life. I want to reach mastery before I start to speak about some of this – and yet I know that the only way to take the next step toward mastery is to start to teach and to write – to unpack some of the thoughts and insights that have been part of my journey.

For me, that’s hugely scary, and I have been fighting and resisting some of this for months… and yet the time feels right to start something new…So, hopefully I’ll have the courage and resolve to announce some of that in the next few days..



“Just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one who would study Karate-Do purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with a clear mind and conscience can he understand that which he receives.”

(Gichin Funakoshi)


Enter the Dragon

24 May

Walk round Kong Kong Park (1)

I’m still finding my digs very depressing (this isn’t them, this is the Bank of China building) – and very disorientating. My body clock is an hour behind Chinese time (there’s only one time zone in China, although the country spans five different geographic time zones). Since my room has no natural light, and is a way away from the street (in fact, I think it exists in a special dimension of space and time – which would explain why the elevator takes so long getting there). (Side note on the elevators. They are incredibly slow. And incredibly sensitive to excess weight, leading to some very entertaining acrobatics from the locals trying to get one more person in without tripping the overweight alarm). That said, the great thing about Chungking Mansions is that the ground floor is a rabbit warren of phone shops, laundries, clothes shops – and Indian messes (cafes). Which means you can get a really good Indian meal for about $8. Bet you can guess where I have been eating… although in an effort to escape my cell room I have been spending too much time in Starbucks.

Chungking Mansions (5)Chungking Mansions (2)

I no longer get hailed by tuk tuk drivers (simple reason – there are no tuk tuks) but people are waiting to pounce and offer ‘cheap guest house sir’, or ‘copy watches’ and of course ‘custom tailor’. Initially I got cross with how persistent they were, until I realised that it was just inertia that got them half way through their spiel before they could stop.

I’ve done a couple more mornings of Tai Chi – I am considering taking this up when I get back, or something similar… we were treated to a demonstration of Tai Chi as a true martial art on one morning – watching the instructor and his wife fight was a true joy, although I am not sure what life at home must be like. And very polite too – unlike Japanese martial arts, which is a case of ‘bow – then fight’ there is a whole preparatory set of movements before the fight commences – and another set of movements after it is over. You can see elements that got incorporated into Kung Fu and components of other martial arts, too. I’m loving his Chinglish, too – having gone through it three times with unexpected breaks half way through sentences when we would wait for a comma to pause – and loving his exhortations to maintain a ‘peacey mind’.

Tai Chi (7)Tai Chi (3)

While we’re on the subject of martial arts, the Avenue of Stars pays homage to the Hong Kong film industry, including its leading lights Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (who seems to be found grinning from billboards all over the place.

Bruce Lee (2)

and a collection of pictures from Phillippe Raiment – all carefully created without digital effects to produce some spectacular – if odd – pictures.

Philippe Raimette (2)

The Avenue is also a great place to watch the Hong Kong light show – using the Hong Kong skyscrapers as a setting for lasers, spotlights and creative lighting of the buildings themselves. I watched this a couple of times – the second time with a new found friend from Canada, who was trying to find the Star Ferry terminal at the same time I was.

HK Skyline (11)HK Skyline (2)

And in an attempt to boost my ‘number of countries visited’ I spent an afternoon (!) in Macau, around an hour’s high speed ferry journey from Hong Kong. Now, purists might well argue that Hong Kong and Macau are both part of China. But since I have to pass immigration to get into both countries from China, then I’m calling them separate countries. The same goes for Tibet (although I feel I am on even firmer ground there). And especially since leaving China for Hong Kong cost me $80 to get another visa to get back in – you BET I am counting these as separate countries.

So. Four hours in Macau. What can you do in that time? Well, as it happens, you can catch some ancient Chinese history, go gambling, go shopping in some luxury stores, watch a couple of free shows, enjoy some Portuguese history, and get some exercise.

So let’s see how that all works out…

Macau (12)

Macau is Asia’s gambling Mecca. Although it’s not as structured as Vegas, it’s certainly larger in terms of ‘take’. The new Cotai strip on Cotai Island will allow it to rival Vegas as a single location, but for the moment the hotels are spread around the islands a bit. I took a wander in to Wynn’s, a slab of golden glass and steel on the main island. The lobby has a couple of cool automated shows, with the Tree of Prosperity and the Dragon of Fortune both materialising from the same dome in the floor. I took a while to wander the casino floor, which seems calmer and more tranquil than its Vegas equivalent. Outside are luxury brands – Versace, Dunhill, Fendi, Ferrari – and I found it very healing to wander round and renew my relationship with financial prosperity, something which I have needed to do to allow more wealth to flow into my life (it’s been a huge subject for lots of the reading and listening that I have been doing – and again, another component of some of the workshops and products I have planned).

Wynn Macau (9)Wynn Macau (4)Wynn Macau (2)Wynn Macau (1)

Then off to the Grand Lisbon – this glittering lotus flower shaped temple to excess and decadence yielded one of the coolest photos of the trip when I realised I could capture my own reflection in the mirrors.  Just  below the two red ones… is a man in black. With a camera. And what appears to be shorts with one leg longer than the other. Hmm.

Grand Lisbon (10)Grand Lisbon (7)

Grand Lisbon (1)

And we’re off. You can actually walk (or drive, or cycle) the Macau Grand Prix racetrack which runs round the island.. and it felt like a rapid pace. Not for THIS guy, perhaps

Macau Racetrack (3)

I discovered the A Ma temple, one of the earliest temples dedicated to A Ma, goddess of the sea.

A Ma temple (3)Macau (5)Macau (6)

I found the old Teatro and the original Jesuit college. The Portuguese legacy means half the signs are in Portuguese, which is kind of funky out here.

I wanted to visit the old red light district, where Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed – but I ran out of time. Increasingly concerned about getting back to the boat, I decided to take a short cut over the top of the hill. Unfortunately, although there is a path straight up – the one the other side is blocked by building works, as I found after vaulting the locked gate and then finding a padlocked door at the bottom. So I climbed back up the hill, went back to the other side, down the same way I had come up, and ran like the wind to the boat – making it with 15 minutes to spare.

So, there we are. Hong Kong and Macau in 6 days. I have now secured both a new shiny Chinese visa, a train ticket (hard sleeper) to Shanghai… so I’m off to the mainland again!

There are no days and nights–just you and me…and Bruce Lee

22 May

(A more obscure song today… any guesses?)

HK Skyline (20)

Well, I set to exploring Hong Kong – so much to do, so little time to do it in! I started off with a wander round Sheung Wan???  the older part of Hong Kong Island itself – easily accessible by MTR (metro). Exploring the streets brings me face to face with the Hong Kong tram system, which reminds me of the transporter that C3PO and R2D2 were taken to after being kidnapped in Star Wars Episode 4.

Trams (3)

The streets are filled with ginseng sellers and dried seafood specialists.. I recognise the shark’s fin and sea cucumber, although there are things I wouldn’t eat without a far better understanding of Chinese….

Sheung Wen (1)Sheung Wen (12)

This is where the British landed originally, although apart from the Possession Road street sign and a plaque, there’s not much to mark the event. But I did agree with the sign I found…


I take the Central – Mid-Levels escalator, the longest in the world.. it’s actually a bit of a cheat, as it’s the longest series of escalators. At over 800m it does seem to go on for ever – just as you think it must be over, there’s another one just round the corner.

Central - Mid -Levels Escalator (6)Central - Mid -Levels Escalator (3)Central - Mid -Levels Escalator (1)

That takes me up to Victoria Peak.. most of Hong Kong is hills, so there are some quite spectacular sky scrapers embedded in the hillside.

From Botanical Gardens (1)

And then off up the gravity defying Peak Tram to the summit of Victoria Peak. In true Hong Kong style, they have built a multi story shopping mall at the top. The views are stupendous, though – being higher than the skyscrapers is slightly dizzying – although it’s soon a bit cloudy and then rain sets in. Time to head down hill.

Victoria Peak (3)Victoria Peak (6)Victoria Peak (9)


Once I have made my way back down the hill and back across the harbour, looking back across the harbour to Hong Kong island from Kowloon is incredible – the skyline is dramatic and high tech, putting the older Star Ferry boats and the occasional Chinese junk into a surreal perspective. Perhaps it’s time for an evening out on the town.

HK Skyline (17)HK Skyline (19)

Oh, yes, dancing. I’d been wanting to dance for ages – if only to remind myself how! Ceroc Hong Kong meet a couple of times a week under the tender care of ???. I managed their regular class night and a special monthly evening class in Central Hong Kong, which was great fun and very reassuring to know I could still dance (although the intermediate class on the Tuesday was tough tango style, as they were reviewing the week before). Arriving early meant I was on furniture moving duties, but did give me a much better chance to chat to the teachers. (Memo to me, turn up earlier for stuff in future).

I have to say that Hong Kong and New Zealand have more advanced stuff in many of their classes – even the beginners. Quite odd to see the different cultures though – the beginners class was almost 100% Chinese students, while the intermediates were mostly westerners. That might well balance out over time, but they do have some lovely dancers there. And some crazy ones.

It was the Buddha’s birthday recently, so I thought I had better go and wish the old chap a Happy Birthday. In this case, I went up to see the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping on Lantau. Lantau is connected by MTR (metro) from Hong Kong, so a nice easy day out. I took the cable car up, although, to be honest, I wish I had decided to walk (I couldn’t see a route until I got on the cable car – at which point it became completely obvious). Mind you, it would have been a bit of a trek in 66% humidity and 30 degree heat!

Lantau (7)Big Buddha (1)

The views, though, are spectacular. The Buddha statue is recent, and quite a climb up the hill to reach it. The original plan was to make it in concrete, but that proved technically challenging, so it’s cast in bronze – and, honestly, so much the better for it.

Big Buddha (20)Big Buddha (18)Big Buddha (11)Big Buddha (22)

A little walk from the base is the original temple of the Po Lin monastery…


… and further on some incredible views across the mountains, making me wish I had got there earlier and been able to walk the trail some more – and the wonderful sculpture that is the Wisdom Trail. This beautiful and inspiring work of art contains the Buddhist Heart Sutra on 24 wooden posts in Chinese calligraphic writing. It’s arranged on the mountainside in a figure eight ‘infinity’ symbol, and proved to be a lovely place to just stop, and sit, and contemplate. A real surprise, and a real joy to find something so lovely in such a gorgeous setting.

Heart Sutra (4)Heart Sutra (5)Heart Sutra (9)Heart Sutra (14)

I’ve noticed something, though – unlike Mexico, where the ancient Mayan ruins still seem alive with power, and even the spiritual locations in Australia and Hawai’i sing with something vibrant and deep, the Asian temples seem old, without power (although the Big Buddha did have a certain presence, peace and tranquillity to it – perhaps simply because it is a modern declaration of faith rather than an old traditional religious icon) .

And as I observe them, it seems like the faithful have a quiet air of desperation about them as they bring their offering. It’s even more confusing in China, where the temples are often a mixture of Buddhism, Taoist philosophy, Chinese gods and a liberal sprinkling of folk myth. And maybe the reason is that there is a search for something outside of the seeker – when the truth is that all power is within.

And while I am musing, t seems a long, long time since the UK. Hong Kong has brought it back – although Hong Kong has been Chinese for nearly 15 years, the colonial legacy remains. Electric sockets are British, and the cars drive on the left (a fact that’s shared with neighbouring Portuguese colony Macau). Sterling, though, as a currency, is a long way behind me. I don’t even convert to sterling anymore – it’s all dollars of one form or another – Hong Kong dollars, Australian dollars, New Zealand dollars – or the local currency (although the days of millionaire status in Laos and Vietnam are over). As it happens, it’s around US$8 to the HK$ – although it was still a bit of a heart stopping moment to pay $150 to go dancing for the evening.

More on Hong Kong to come – because I really didn’t like being in my room much, I didn’t do a lot of blog updates while I was in Hong Kong… so this is all getting typed on the train to Shanghai!

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