Typhoon Times – what’s in a name?

Its probably a bit late in the trenches and bolted down in a T8 for the second time in five days to start to discuss Typhoon safety. So I won’t ( well … I will a bit). We are currently experiencing Typhoon Pakhar (T8) (Name derived from a freshwater fish living in the Mekong in Laos) five days after Typhoon Hato (T10) (Name is a Japanese pigeon)

In 1969 The National Organisation for Women in the US passed a motion calling for the cessation of womens names being used for tropical storms ( something about women being always associated with terrible destruction – go figure!) and what we know in HK as Typhoons, had always had European names. This was largely ignored and many of us recall Cyclone Alice as the NZ Met office’s first uninspired naming attempt on a Fiji horror show – not Alice of Wonderland, however the name Alice has been attached to no fewer than 20 world wide Typhoons, Cyclones, Hurricanes and Tropical storms before the name was ‘retired’ in favor of ‘Andy’ in 1979. Not known for their creative genius these weather people! Cyclone Warren just doesn’t have the same energy as Cyclone Maud or Blossom.
Ten year lists of names were promulgated in advance. Hooray for Hong Kong!  1997 our first foray into post British ‘self determination’ had the Typhoon committee HK Members put forward a request to name Asian weather with Asian names and to stop using US and European names, that had been applied since 1947.  It took a further 3 years to gather the list of 140 names and agree that the Japan Met office would pick the names in sequential order from the lists provided by the members, depending on the category, and hence this year we have had Japanese and Laos names represented. Sadly Hong Kong’s dynamic contributions of Dolphin, Lionrock and Banyan have passed us by. It’s all fascinating stuff but the real truth is in what actually happens on the ground, not in the nursery where baby names are being conscripted for meaningless and often inconsequential weather patterns not yet born.

It’s a documented truth that in a Typhoon #8 or above, some people will go home, others will go to the pub and some will go kite-surfing. It all depends on your perspective on natures wildest forces. Fear and a need for security, opportunity for social interaction and reckless disregard for our own safety all find safe harbour in our spirits when a Typhoon signal comes out. I found out who I was, standing on the roof of my apartment wondering if it was safe to go for a run, past the local (to see who was there), when the iron sheets on the lean to shed were whipping a Trinidadian rhythm heard three floors down and the TV aerials were still transmitting from their scrunched up spaghetti nest on the ledge below where they had hung.
Since 1957 only two #10 Typhoons have not resulted in deaths. All have involved injuries. Rose, in 1971 claimed 110 lives and 5 missing along with 286 injuries. Don’t dismiss a Typhoon. I have experienced all three #10’s since 1992 and they are not for sissies.

So for the uninitiated and non-Hong Kong residents – we are ok. The Typhoon season begins as early as May, as I found out holding a birthday party outdoors on 1 May ( first May typhoon in 25 years) and ends around October sometimes with a late lash coming up from the Philippines.  In that time we ought to have experienced at least one minor, and from time to time, a major disruption to the daily business of running the business of Hong Kong. Estimated losses to Hong Kong last week in Typhoon Hato were in the 10’s of billions of dollars, and that didn’t count the damage. Just closing Hong Kong’s financial institutions for a T8 will cause a wide ripple on a global banking day not to mention the local economic fallout. Its little wonder that the guy with his finger on the TYPHOON SIGNAL #8 BUTTON in the Observatory is as much in fear of getting it wrong as President Trump ISN’T about hitting the nuclear codes. Much responsibility is in his hands.

As the death toll of Hato now climbs over 17 in the region let me reflect on how it is to experience natures force. It could be likened to an orgasm – different for everyone; everyone has an opinion but hard to explain. Some experience it fully, and others get the picture but only a glance. It depends where you are, who you are with and how much warning you got to prepare. The wind direction has alot to do with it (!) It can be disappointingly overrated or overly complicated. Some take preparation seriously and it doesn’t live up to its name, and still others take absolutely no precaution and just live with the consequences. I sit somewhere in the middle. T1 and T3 are foreplay to the main event. Sometimes the main event stops there. Not everyone is happy.
I’ve been irresponsible – stuck on a shopping trip to Shenzhen trying to return to pick up my kids from kindy when the #8 went up and 2 million people tried to get home across a small bridge with no sides as sheets of iron flew through.
I’ve had an overrated and expensive night in the Grand Hyatt when the ferries stopped, with an amorous work colleague, hoping to make a Typhoon more memorable. It wasn’t. I have been awed by the power of both Typhoon York, and Sam in 1999, watching a 100 year old banyan bend double to the force of mother nature, before gradually yawing over into a river of the torrent of Huka Falls. I’ve hurried home to find it was all over before I got there, and I’ve had to bale out knee deep water in my business offices and count the cost in dollar terms.

Today – I’m sitting Pakhar out, with a hot coffee and a cool AC, with WIFI and slippers, in a 4th floor apartment overlooking the boat harbour in Saikung. The rain is torrential, straight in from the East, the windows are leaking and the boats are a wobbly stack in the Typhoon shelter. Last week, in Hato, I watched winds whipping from the West and it was a WHOLE different mojo. Fisherfolk seem to know what to do from generations of hard earned experience, and today they are not battling the ropes to keep the craft in alignment, though to this untrained spectator – they ought to be. They know the winds. Last week it was every man to the pumps, today they may be in the pubs. They know the difference. We do not.

If typhoons are new to you let me give you comfort. Your partner may be in New York or on a flight to Israel, but when a typhoon hits, you will never be ALONE. Schools have procedures – follow them. Doormen will be wearing hard hats and taping windows. You are not expected to brave the force to rescue your child; they will send them home early or advise you to keep them at home well in advance. If you are at work with Chinese colleagues – they are like tortoises. They have an inbuilt barometric pressure gauge that will tell you to go home because the T8 will go up at 2pm not a minute later or earlier. They know. IF you are on a boat – you will know. If you don’t know you maybe ought to rethink living that dream on that Marina.

Typhoons are serious – scaffolding buckles, trees wrench, boats snap moorings and carparks flood. The best place to be in a typhoon is at home. Secure your furniture, tape your windows, get a DVD if you still have a machine and open a bottle of wine. It will be a chance to play monopoly with the kids or catch up on writing your will. You will have inspiration because the people you value will most likely be with you. Typhoons are family reunion days albeit without the margaritas or the aunts. If you happen to be a beneficiary of someone else’s will you may wish to revise your warning system.
I admire mostly the people who go on TV in typhoons to tell us its getting windy out there. Storm chasers for TVB or Pearl don’t get paid enough to stand in yellow macs in full gales giving obvious truth to the winds or the power of hair putty.

Finally to the doubters – All buildings in Hong Kong are pretty much ‘typhoon proof’, but windows do pop. Keep away from them and perhaps follow the urban myth (debunked but I do it) and crack open a small window on the leeward side of the apartment – not to relieve the pressure, but to give me a feeling that I have taken a precaution. Never underestimate a typhoon or its fury as it morphs innocent roadsigns into guillotines, and garbage bins into torpedoes. More importantly, never underestimate the help needed to clear it up as soon as the winds abate so we can get on with Hong Kong being the centre of commercial wonder we are. Grab a bag and help out if you can and if you need help, ask friends and neighbours – for years we were the only people we knew who owned a Husqvana chainsaw. I know lots who now do.
Listen to warnings, and do take precautions. Like unwanted pregnancies, failure to plan and prepare can have long term consequences, and definitely slows you from getting back into the swing of life when its all over. I have come to know that a Typhoon can go either way, and it is never the way you think, but it has never disappointed me being wrong when I anticipated it to be the BIG ONE. This week I have seen a BIG ONE. I hope it doesn’t happen again soon, but thankyou HK for your resilience, and the never ending army of ants who relentlessly tidy up and get on with life after.

For information on naming conventions of Storms and History of HK Typhoons






To Gardeners

When I arrived in Hong Kong I was heavily pregnant and relocating from the Solomon Islands. We had, for the previous three years enjoyed the benefits of a tropical paradise – full coral beachfront, wide palm fringed garden and unobstructed views of the ocean. And we had a gardener!! My home finding at the hands of a local agent had left me in tatters. How could I survive in a 30th floor apartment with no balcony, and planes whizzing past the windows near Kai Tak Airport? I knew people lived in places like Clearwater Bay and the Southside, but we had a budget that wasn’t going there. I was excited when an expat agent suggested I visit Discovery Bay. At last someone who understood. I didn’t even view the rooms of the house when I walked into my first Hong Kong low-rise, and glimpsed a long strip of green grass with a white sand beach beyond. I had found HOME. I had no idea how my husband would get to work but we had a BEACH and a GARDEN! Almost 24 years later, as an agent now myself, I recently leased the same home (with no improvements) for double our budget of 1993 and wondered to myself if the eager tenants really understood what owning a garden in Hong Kong means – I certainly didn’t and I wonder now if I would reconsider if I had.

As a keen member of the HK Gardening Society I moved on – to the New Territories and 4000 sf of unkempt scrub which we stoically built up with composting and cuttings to a sizeable oasis of fruit trees, ponds and contemplation corners.  Along the way I made friends with people who did the same. Gardening people tend to hang together, even in the face of growing doubts that they are sane. Mosquito breeds and snake species came to be part of my vernacular and we fought on, chopping our way out after typhoons and euthanising chickens in a birdflu epidemic, to retain the country lifestyle. Our kids grew up rock climbing and stream hopping and we entertained in the garden and had annual bonfires and luau’s – until we got a divorce.
I had never lived in a high rise – and I had no idea what that meant. It certainly meant less room and certainly didn’t involve garden furniture, but it did involve free time, clean floors and a strange sensation of not quite ever being alone. I’d never even had curtains! The first night I didn’t sleep a wink as I listened to lift bells dinging and chairs scraping on all four sides of my flat. And so for the last three years I have lived without a garden. Let me tell you how that feels.
I miss it.
I miss the smell of plants and fresh cut grass and I miss the sound of plopping turtles. I miss the cool evenings having a glass of wine under the trees and admiring the days effort. I miss the fun of kids running amok and chasing puppies, but I don’t miss all that comes with it – hours and hours of pulling weeds, repositioning hoses, clearing drains and smacking bugs.
Leasing a home with a garden is a bigger noose around your neck than adopting a dog. You will enjoy a garden for about three months a year – in between the rain and the cold. If you are here in October, November and March it will be wonderful. The rest of the year you will either be watering or baling. Now don’t get me wrong – as a Real Estate Agent with some knowledge of HK’s greener sides, I still lease homes with gardens, and some are magnificent, but seldom to people who are seasoned expats. Nowadays, we have so many options to enjoy gardens – public gardens – that owning one yourself is hardly necessary. A few herbs in pots and you are done. A palm in the living room and you are positively transported. Honestly – having a garden is for the birds but this is just my opinion. Now I don’t have a garden!  I am happily enjoying running, and exploring areas of Hong Kong I’ve never really appreciated – Hong Kong IS a garden. A wonderful garden of Eden in all seasons and I love it!


Memory Lane – Kam Tin Village

Few areas exhibit the good, the bad and the ugly of Hong Kong in such a distillate as Shek Kong, Kam Tin.  Nestled in the bowl of the ‘ring of fire’ surrounded by ridges in a stunning caldera like valley, this whole area drew little attention since  the weekly Shek Kong market disappeared with the British Army and Gurkha regiments in 1997 along with the tailors ( for mess kit you understand) the Pakistani Shaffi’s naffi and the paddy fields seasonally yielding up gladioli, and cabbages. It remains low key due in part to the Shek Kong Airfield and PLA military camp carving up the centre of the valley, but licking at its fringes are the telltale signs of encroaching development – swamplands, home to endangered Painted Snipe and water buffalo, are being drained, and the lowlands no longer flood thanks to extensive run off canals which have effectively brought drought to the basin. Mid-rise apartment buildings are studding the landscape towards Yuen Long, and the massive carpark of the Kam Sheung Road Rail line daily fills with commuter cars. Quiet little Kam Tin Village is a bit of a traffic jam which affords a birds eye view of village life from your car and the one traffic light even buys you a stop at the centre!

I lived in this valley for the majority of my 24 years in Hong Kong and got to know it intimately and now I’m back for a short stay rediscovering places that haven’t changed and those that have.

Working ‘from home’ this week, I have had time to do a little exploring. I have wandered the villages where orange rinds are laid out to dry, laundry lays flat on iron roofs so low you would have to stoop to enter the house, and wild passionfruit rot on the paths where they drop. I have poked around in the back lanes that are now jammed with car yards and scrap merchants carrying bags of cash gather container loads to ship to far off developing nations. I’ve squeezed up lanes where its artful to dodge Pakistani’s in kurta pajamas on bikes and black as pitch Nigerian sunnis with white as snow smiles, heading to makeshift mosques.

Breathing in the pungent aromas of the forests I have rediscovered one of my favorite walks along the Kap Lung Catchment, where Birdwood vines meander beside the path and monkeys occasionally get drunk on the nectar of their flowers – and reconnected with a road sign still telling confused pedestrians “When wig-wag sign goes stop”
I have discovered that despite the behemoth of the Guanzhou fast rail line operation centre laying waste to a large part of the local village land, (incidentally it will take just 14 minutes to shoot from Hong Kong to Shenzhen when it is completed) there is still a wonderful hodge-podge of Cantonese, Hakka, and all manner of ethnicities tilling out a fairly humble existence just yards from the high tech Kam Sheung Westrail line that will take you back to Hong Kong in a relatively leisurely 30 minutes. If you think that you can handle the ‘local culture’, I happily recommend a visit.

Some local treasures:
1. The Sum Ngai Brassware factory http://www.sumngaibrass.com/
2. Kat Hing Wai – one of Hong Kong’s last walled villages complete with a moat https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kat_Hing_Wai
3. The 300 year old house with the tree growing through the middle of it http://annatam.com/tree-house/
4. The Kap Lung Ancient trail http://hiking.gov.hk/eng/trail_list/country_trail/Kap_Lung_Country_Trail/introduction.htm
5. The walk around the Ho Pui Reservoir – this was my children’s favorite walk http://hiking.gov.hk/eng/trail_list/family_walk/Ho_Pui_Family_Walk/introduction.htm
6. See some real soldiers guarding the now PLA compounds up Route Twisk and head to the summit for a bit of hide and seek around the huge boulders on what my children have always called ‘Misty Mountain’ – Tai Mo Shan
7. Have a great curry at the Shek Kong Park dai pai dong bus stop and live to talk about it being the cheapest meal you have ever had in Hong Kong.
8. The weekend open air market at the Kam Sheung Road MTR

Bring a little courage and a willingness to be amazed and you will not be disappointed. This area may not have changed alot on the surface in the last 20 years but by the look of the new monument being built outside the PLA Shek Kong airfield I don’t think that will last, so visit now – before its all turned into history.





Summer of Seventeen

Wow is it hot in Hong Kong this year. Not hot enough it seems, to melt tons of Palm Oil that was leaked into the sea after a collision of two ships in Chinese waters four days ago.


I’ll keep this short – I have been so proud of how Hong Kong has rallied to the call to clean up our act since SARS and how we have all contributed to the sustainability of areas of Hong Kong that we treasure but, today Hong Kong… I’m very disappointed.

Palm Oil – well that says it all really. Mountains of Palm Oil from unsustainable plantations tilled over suddenly extinct forests, stripped clear of life and endangered species to make SOAP and stuff we don’t need in our bodies. This ‘accident’ which will now require a gargantuan clean up or be left to fester like the grease pits and uncleaned drains in seedy back alleys, reeking like rancid chip shops was totally, disgracefully avoidable.
Disappointed. Yup and Sad.
Oh well – Ive lived in HK long enough to know it can always get better. Surely we can work on saving the last few dolphins who may be lurking below this globulous goo?

Palm oil.jpg



In honor or Buddha’s Birthday

According to this legend, briefly after the birth of young prince Gautama, an astrologer named Asita visited the young prince’s father—King Śuddhodana—and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or renounce the material world to become a holy man, depending on whether he saw what life was like outside the palace walls.

Śuddhodana was determined to see his son become a king, so he prevented him from leaving the palace grounds. But at age 29, despite his father’s efforts, Gautama ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights—he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest. He spent the rest of his life perfecting meditation to find the peace within and teaching the techniques to anyone who wished to know.

Having attended a 10 day Buddhist meditation retreat 8 years ago, I now make a 20 minute meditation a part of every day and this has, over the years paid off in spades. I highly recommend meditation for relaxation, stress relief and it helps when crossing Hong Kong’s busy pedestrian pathways!

“I can die happily. I have not kept a single teaching hidden in a closed hand. Everything that is useful for you, I have already given. Be your own guiding light.”
– The Buddha, while leaving his body at the age of eighty

In China, celebrations often occur in Buddhist temples where people light incense and bring food offerings for the monks. In Hong Kong, Buddha’s birthday is a public holiday. Lanterns are lit to symbolise the Buddha’s enlightenment and many people visit the temple to pay their respects. The bathing of the Buddha is a major feature of Buddha’s birthday celebrations in the city.

It is remarkable that a man of simple stature, having given up his royal status, could affect the course of history and bring peace to so many. In a frenetic city like Hong Kong, calm descends for just a day. If you have time to visit one of the many Buddhist shrines around the city, today probably isn’t the best day to do so. But take a moment to enjoy the country side, the beauty of Hong Kong’s natural places, and todays glorious weather because with the factories of China turned ‘off’ during Golden Week, we are sure to enjoy cool spring skies and some fresh air for a few days – perfect for getting our breathing techniques focussed in line with Buddha’s teachings.


Mid-Autumn Mooncake Munchies

Ooh the annual mooncake munchathon is upon us and I am delighted to take a break from sugar free and totally healthy and join this most fun of festivals in Hong Kong.

Its a time we all watch the weather – is that Typhoon coming, or not, to rain on our parade? No apparently not this year!
Is there going to be a basket of candies and fruit to deliver – a few this year again and its a pleasure ( thanks to all our wonderful clients for supporting us)

And then there is the BIG debate – which is the best mooncake to buy, give or relish…Well this year I am going to put my neck on the line for the NO EGG, nutty, not so sweet cake as opposed to my collegues choices of mango centred chocolate mocchi or green tea snowy ones that melt before you eat them. As time goes by it seems the traditional two egg yoke cakes are disappearing – I have never liked them and I guess more Western tastes are creeping in. Soon we will see McDonalds making twoallbeefpattylettucecheesespecialsauceonasesameseedmooncake and then I reckon the west will have won and we can all go home… Thankfully this is not yet. We all live in  Asia and happy to participate in this cherished family activity.

Have a wonderful Mid-Autumn Festival with friends and family, relishing the love of your kin if not the mooncakes in your tin.


Is the world so horrible?

It hardly seems that I can turn on any form of media these days without learning of tragedy and horror and political extremism and naturally one forms a view – not always balanced. But just for a moment I am taking a breather and soaking up the happiness of diversity in a community in which I live. Its a multi racial, international, religiously varied vegetable patch of tastes and temperatures, and for some its a hot bed of complaint or compassion.

Recently my small community (Lantau where I live) social media Facebook page has been a venting opportunity for anti religious, racist comments and more than a few accusations even backed up with shaming photos. But having been fairly disgusted by some of the comments shared I have refrained from comment. Others have been less restrained. Tempers have flared.

Slowly, I have begun to witness a turn of the tide. People seem to be fed up with a diet of racism and divide and they are fighting back with love. The people I live near are reaching out to each other and showing support to anyone who dares to stand up to a deeply troubling undercurrent of hatred. Bigotry and bullying are being banished!!

The moderators of our social media site have been admonished for not moderating. People have been thrown out and the community has reasserted itself as a safe and loving place.

How long will it be before the world rejects hatred and distrust?
So grateful to live in Hong Kong – feeling safe, being able to bring up my family with values of self awareness and respect, and knowing my community has my back, regardless of colour or creed. And if they don’t – they are learning. Progress not perfection.