The Snail

This morning I put the kids on the bus and headed out for a run along the South China Sea. Listening to Krista Tippett interview Paul Elie about Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy on her radio show On Being, I settled into an easy pace and listened. Of these 20th century writers Elie said, “They weren’t content to settle in that place and say, ‘This is my lot,’ or ‘This is the lot of our time.’ Their hunger for something more, for something deeper was so strong that they made that unbelief or disbelief a starting point and then a continual testing ground for their religious convictions.”

As I listened to the interview, I ran along Stanley Main Beach, through town and up over Chung Hom Kok Road. Turning into Ma Hang Park on my return I noticed a woman standing in the middle of the path ahead of me. Something held her attention, and I wondered what it was.  Getting closer, I saw that the woman was a friend of mine and the object of her attention was a large garden slug with a shell on its back that had made its way all the way to the end of a long, dangling palm. The palm hung from a towering tree, but stopped short a good three feet above the concrete path. We stopped and stared wondering where the snail would go from there. It seemed to be in the most impossible predicament. Could a snail that size turn around? Could it back up? Would it linger until it ran out of food, water and strength then release and fall to the path below, surely cracking its shell? Had the snail unwittingly crept to a certain death, or was there a way out that we couldn’t see?

My friend was out for a walk. Her in-laws are visiting and, it being Monday morning, she subtly suggested that her walk was precipitated by a need for a little alone time after a weekend of togetherness. I bid her a cheerful farewell and started again on my run, but then stopped and called out to her.

“Monique! I love that you stopped to look at that snail. Keep that in mind today and remember, it doesn’t get worse than that!”

We both smiled and went our separate ways. As I turned back to my podcast, Paul Elie was quoting Walker Percy. “The pilgrim’s search is outside oneself. The Guru searches within.” I thought this delightfully fitting apropos the poor snail’s predicament and my friend’s momentary escape. Were any of us this morning content with “this is my lot” or did we hunger for more? Were the snail’s survival resources to be found within or outside itself?

I think I will return this afternoon to see if the snail remains on the palm or if the snail’s remains mark the pavement below. If it’s still hanging on, I may just give it a lift to lower ground. Perhaps, as I think about it now, I should have done that in the first place. But then how can it be that a snail would need me to save it?

Stop Calling Her A Socialite

The woman who fell to her death from the roof of a building in Beverly Hills last week was an artist, a mother, a wife, a successful businesswoman, and a humanitarian.  She co-founded Child Welfare Scheme Hong Kong, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children in Nepal.  She designed and sold exquisite one-of-a-kind jewelry in the finest boutiques around the world.   She catalyzed a donation drive raising extraordinary amounts of money and goods in the wake of the recent hurricane in the Philippines.  She hosted a female Tibetan Buddhist Lama in her home and had a private audience with his holiness the Dali Lama. She has contributed wisdom, expertise and resources to dozens of local and global organizations and worked tirelessly to create a beautiful, conscious life for her family, her community, and the world.  Call her any of these things, but please don’t call her a socialite.  She was anything but.   

Sandra d’Auriol’s death last week is a tragedy by any measure, but the media’s insistence on headlining news calling her a socialite just because her family was well-resourced shows an appalling lack of respect for the extraordinary contributions she made to the world.   While the reason for her death may never be fully understood, the most likely scenario is an adverse reaction to prolonged exposure to anesthesia for an unbelievable 13 straight hours combined with copious pain medication.  This drug cocktail could be a shock to anyone’s system, but especially so for one who lived a healthy life, steering clear of medications and chemicals as much as possible.

I have no defense of her decision to seek cosmetic surgery.  She radiated beauty and had no need for such a procedure.  But you know full well that the pressure on women to forestall the aging process at all costs is real and the results can sometimes be devastating.  Even my own dear friend offering helpful advice as I casually lamented the growing crease on my forehead texted, “a little filler and some botox and you’ll be fine” as if she’d just suggested I put on some lip gloss.  She totally meant well, and she’s right, I would probably look younger if I added a little filler and botox to my face, but where’s the line and how do you know when you’ve crossed it?

Sandra sent an email to her friends on January 10, 2014, not two weeks before she died.  If you have any lingering suspicion about her engagement in life and love for it, this should clear it.  Here is what she said:

Dear Friends,

First of all to wish you a wonderful New Year, Happiness, Health, Success and the time to enjoy it all!

As you know all the proceeds from my business go to helping different humanitarian and environmental projects each year.

I thought it would be nice for you to know who your support has benefited, it makes the circle of buying gifts from me so much more meaningful.

Financial Donations:

Plastic Oceans Foundation

Senior Citizen Home Safety Association

Child Welfare Scheme Ltd

Kids4Kids Ltd

Clean Air Network

Society for Promotion of Hospice Care

Art in Hospital Ltd

Bloom Association

UNHCR

Lam Tin Qi Gong Project

Burning Clinic in Nepal

Avaaz Foundation

Joshua Hellmann Foundation

Environmental Working Group

Samasound Association

Avaaz Foundation

Wikimedia

Al-Seeraj

OXFAM

Pat Liang (Cell Phone for Philippine Relief)

2 Laptops for Khandro Thrinlay Chodon

Project Aware Australia

Go Fund Me

Angki Purbandono

Donations of Goods for Auction Items:

Orange County School of Arts

Chi Fan

HKSF

Child Welfare Scheme

Passerelles Numeriques

Mother’s Choice

Thank you so much for your continued support, and a special thank you to my husband who makes this all possible!

With best wishes

Sandra

If that is the definition of a socialite, then sign me up.  If not, then please honor her memory by googling the charities she supported and making a contribution in her name and by calling her what she was; a remarkable woman.

Here’s one to get you started:    http://www.cwshk.org

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Random Path Generator of Life

Today is National Day in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine it could be as unusual as the one I spent a few years ago and describe here… 

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On October 3, 1990, a pudgy college senior studying abroad in Vienna, I stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and watched as the flag of reunited Germany was raised for the first time.  I hadn’t intended to go to Berlin for the unification, but Oktoberfest had been more like “drunken grope-fest” and my travel mates and I needed a good night’s sleep.  So, with our Eurail passes we boarded a night train to Hanover (a solid eight-hour destination) then figured we might as well check out this unification thing in Berlin since we were so close.  It was surreal.  I chipped my own souvenir piece of the wall with a rented hammer from an entrepreneurial German (I still have that piece), wandered the streets of East Berlin with the buildings eerily lit for dramatic effect, crossed Checkpoint Charlie and explored the museum.  As I stood at the gate at midnight on the West Berlin side, champagne corks and fireworks exploded and Ode to Joy played.  A stranger handed me a cup and we all toasted the occasion. I was moved by the celebration and the hopefulness of the people around me.

Very few days generate the detail of recall as that day, so every October third I tend to reflect on the unpredictable path that led me from the Berlin Wall to my present circumstances whatever they are each year.  So twenty years later, the random path generator of life blew a fuse and put me in a bikini on a yacht in HK with my husband, mother, Hong Kong living legend Sir David Tang, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

I had known since the spring that entirely by coincidence, my mother and Gwyneth would both be visiting Hong Kong during the first week of October. Mom for her annual kid visit and as a stop on her book tour, and Gwyneth to film a scene for Steven Soderberg’s upcoming movie, Contagion. Still, I had no idea what the week would bring and didn’t even know if we’d see Gwyneth.

Mom arrived first and jumped right into a few book related events we had arranged.  She’s a total pro.  She spoke at St. John’s Cathedral to a group of parishioners, teachers, and others who had heard about the talk.  It was well received and she sold a lot of books.  The next day I had organized a brunch at my house and invited 40 women.  I made my favorite recipes and, though it was originally planned as an open house, mom ended up giving an impromptu talk to the group that was provocative, challenging and inspiring for these worldly, but content-starved women.  It was a very nice morning, and I am so glad that we already had these two events under our belts before the crazy weekend ensued.

Gwyneth had sent me a text, “Friday night! Let’s go!! I am so excited!”  While I was excited to see her, I felt a bit of pressure, as her evening arrival coincided with National Day (many things are closed and the streets are thronged with people watching the largest fireworks display of the year), and, plus, just how do you take a celebrity out on the town for her very first introduction to HK?  I enlisted two trusted friends and, after considering a zillion options, settled on a plan.

My “entourage” that night consisted of my husband, mom, Sonya, Louis and eight-month-pregnant Kelly.  At the last minute Louis asked if we wouldn’t mind if a friend of his visiting from London joined us for drinks.  Turned out to be Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian, Harvard & Oxford, PhD, author of Dead Aid:  Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa and on the Time Magazine 100 most influential people list.  “Sure.” I said.

I had insisted that GP switch hotels and stay on the Hong Kong side, as the selected hotel for her would have been impossible to reach and too crowded with the National Day celebrations going on.   We had organized a private table at the bar at the Upper House and arranged to meet for drinks there to watch the fireworks.  I had to laugh when she texted to ask me what I was wearing (now I can say that I loaned money to a Kennedy AND gave fashion advice to a cover model!).  This turned out to be a spectacular view of the fireworks and a nice way to ease into the evening, although Dambisa arrived wearing a flashing devil horn headband with her own entourage of about ten oil guys who were quite enthusiastic about the party they had just joined.  Everyone handled it gracefully, and we managed to extract ourselves from the group and head to dinner.

After much deliberation and a hundred restaurants selected and then discarded, and at the advice of several in-the-know women, I eventually settled on a private Szechwan kitchen, Da Ping Huo on Hollywood Road, known for great spicy food and the wife of the chef who comes out and sings Shanghainese opera after the meal.  I thought it would be a real authentic and not cliché HK experience.  Well it was that, but sadly the food was rather inedible.  We were the only party in the five-table restaurant (save for one lone male European tourist).  Fortunately, Frenchman Louis had brought along some nice wine & champagne so what we lacked in food we made up for in beverage.  At least in a tiny, empty restaurant we could all really talk and get to know one another. Gwyneth is as interesting as she is graceful, so no complaints around the table.  Her charming assistant Kevin was a delightful addition to the party too.  The opera serenade was a riot, and overall the experience was fun, but it was unfortunate that the food was not great.

Mom was the first to peel off from the group, sensibly heading home after dinner.  The rest of us headed to a private club called Kee.  We walked there, and on the way a few people stopped her for photographs, but other than that she wasn’t bothered by paparazzi the whole time in Hong Kong.  Kee was great fun, dancing!  After some time on the dance floor with GP (nearly sending Kelly into pre-term labor!), they headed home and the remainder of our group eventually headed to another club under the escalator called Drop.   It is a wild experience to walk into a room and immediately have the best table cleared for you and champagne corks start popping.  We stayed until 3:30 am, then Gwyneth, my husband & I headed out.  Sonya stayed and showed Kevin the late night scene.  We dropped GP and were home by 4, the latest we’ve been out in years.

My husband takes the total dad-of-the-year prize for getting up to take our oldest to a shade-less soccer field in Kowloon by 8:30 the next morning for a four-hour tournament.  He came home and slept all afternoon!  Just as we were getting home from a difficult dinner in Stanley with the kids Saturday night, my mobile rings and I hear, “Gwen?  This is David Tang.”  “Oh hey!” I answer as if we’ve been friends for years.  He’s calling to organize sending a car to pick us up for lunch at his house in Sai Kung the next day, then an afternoon on his boat.  He had met Gwyneth previously and extended the invitation to her, which she insisted on extending to us.  O-K…

Sunday was a day of hilarious contrasts.  Probably the most unusual day I have ever spent… well, except the birthday I spent in Somalia when I visited the USS Tarawa by CH-46 helicopter and met Audrey Hepburn on the tarmac in Mogadishu, but that’s another story…

Sunday was Harvest Festival at St. Stephen’s church in Stanley and, since it was Pastor Will who had invited mom to speak at the cathedral and because we have been making an effort to go there, we all rallied and went to church.  After, we dropped the kids at a friend’s house, quickly walked Finchley and then headed out in David Tang’s white Range Rover with his driver Alex.  I must admit that before all of this started, I had never heard of David Tang.  I soon learned that he’s a Hong Kong entrepreneur, founder of Shanghai Tang, China Club and many other hot restaurants in Hong Kong and London.  He has also been knighted by the Queen, enjoyed a private audience with the Pope, writes regularly for the Spectator and FT, has the exclusive distribution rights for Cuban cigars for Asia and is an all-around character and self-described “maximalist.”

His driver took us to David’s country house out in Sai Kung. The house is located on a large, lush lawn stretching to a beautiful sea view, and is full of things he loves like dogs, books, good reading light and cigars.  David’s wife Lucy is a British woman who has channeled a penchant for intense socializing into excessive exercise and now competes in ultra-marathons on every continent in one year.  She has already completed the Gobi and Sahara deserts and is off to Antarctica for the next one.  When we arrived David told us that GP had gone to dim sum and so was delayed by an hour.  That meant that we were to make conversation for the next hour with a man seated next to a photograph of himself with the Pope.  Mind you, mom’s book is a controversial take on Mary Magdalene’s role in Christianity and does not look entirely favorably on the institution of the church.

David was a total pro, though, accepting a signed copy of mom’s book and offering her one of his own signed “To Cynthia. From your acolyte, David Tang.”  Eventually GP & Kevin arrived and we headed to lunch under a tent on the lawn for a great meal prepared by his Sri Lankan staff.  I was seated at the head of the table next to David.  At one point David sat in his chair and leaned back. For a split second I thought of grabbing his thighs to stop him from toppling over, but in my hesitation as I pondered what that would look like if he wasn’t really about to fall backwards, he actually did.  Fortunately he tucked up his head, or he might not have lived through lunch, as there was a concrete drain eerily close to the spot he landed.   He jumped right back up into his seat — an impressive feat for a not insignificant man — and the meal continued.  The conversation turned to organic produce and, as that is a regular topic of the non-working Southside mom set, I launched into a tale.  But, just as  I began the story, I felt a warm wet sensation on my Chloe-clad foot.  I looked down to discover that their dog was peeing on my shoe!  I still wonder if the dog was poorly, or very well trained?

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The meal complete, and a ceremonial cigar with David (how could my husband turn down a Cuban offered by their honorary ambassador?) we headed out to board their fancy “ocean-liner of old” style yacht.  We sat up on the top deck admiring Sai Kung, but one by one we peeled off for bathing suits. GP came out in a tiny pink bikini looking entirely glamorous.  I gulped hard and decided not to care and donned my own army green bikini.  Who’s looking at me anyway?!  We had just had a discussion of the dodgy water quality in HK and Mr.E’s mysterious viral water warts that his doctor had said probably came from swimming in the ocean.  So GP hesitated on the deck for an awkward several minutes after the rest of us had jumped in, probably doing a mental calculation of the risk and reward of a refreshing swim, making her singing debut at the CMA covered in water warts, and the commercially beneficial irony of actually catching a virus while filming the movie Contagion in which she is patient zero for a devastating virus that sweeps the world.

We sailed into Victoria Harbor at dusk as David held court about his views of the environment… “The real problem is not the birth rate but the lengthening of the lifespan.  If you really care about doing something for the environment, then DIE!”

Gwyneth had to meet with the director back at the hotel, so the boat docked at the star ferry pier in TST and she and Kevin debarked along with David & Lucy who were also heading off.  As we were scheduled to be on Lamma Island for mom’s appearance at the inaugural meeting of the Philosopher’s Club at the Bookworm Café, David sent us off on the yacht to Lamma.   This is how we found ourselves alone on a staffed luxury yacht in Hong Kong Harbor watching the sunset.  Go figure.

In a classic Hollywood tale, this would be the parting shot, us sailing off into the sunset, but I can’t quite end the story there, as the Lamma portion was a perfect antidote to the luxury day.  We arrived in Lamma with enough time for a quick seafood dinner at one of the local places where you point to your fish in a tank and it arrives a few minutes later on a plate.  Mom’s host met us at the restaurant and gave her the low down on the evening ahead.  Apparently, the poster his evangelical girlfriend had made for the talk had created a bit of a stir on this tiny island bastion of mid-sixties, Caucasian hippies and local fishermen, so the night portended to be quite interesting.

In fact, it was.  Completely random, awkward and a difficult set-up in a public café with half of the people there for the talk and the other half there to have dinner.  But again, mom handled it with her usual skill and the talk was well received and interesting.  She posed for a few pictures, sold a few books and we ran for the 9:30 public ferry.

So, since her visit, Gwyneth has guest- starred on an episode of Glee!, graced the cover of ELLE, made her country music singing debut at the CMA, promoted Jessica Seinfeld’s new cookbook and any number of other experiences.  For her, HK was an “interesting cultural experience” and is a distant memory.  For me, her visit was a glimpse of another world and a long slow exhale.  Now What?

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Dharma Weekend

Attending a conference outside one’s own professional field is always a humbling experience, but never more so than one expounding on the finer points of an ancient religion whose ultimate goal is the cessation of views.  Such was my experience last weekend at the Buddhist Meditative Praxis:  traditional teachings & modern application conference at Hong Kong University’s Centre of Buddhist Studies.  In my opinion, the conference divided into three distinct groups: those who meditate, those who study those who meditate, and those who study what those who meditate study.  The room was filled with monks, scientists and scholars.

Knowing next to nothing about Buddhism, my interest fell squarely in the middle camp, neuroscience, which turned out to be a bit of a pariah at this conference.  Buddhists and scholars expressed the opinion that measuring the meditating brain was entirely missing the point, but it was the reason I wanted to attend.  The presence on the speaker line-up of two of my favorite thinkers in the mindfulness space, Mark Williams and Rick Hanson, was the initial draw of the conference for me.  Oxford Professor Mark Williams was instrumental in developing Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and getting the British government to recognize it as an NHS-approved treatment for depression and suicide prevention.  Rick Hanson of the Wellspring Institute in California moderated an impressive on-line series “Compassion and the Brain” I watched last year and has recently published a new book, so I was eager to hear them both speak again.  Beyond these two I did not recognize any of the speakers on the roster.

My learning curve on the first day was beyond steep.  Kicking off with “On the curriculum in the monastic universities in the 10th century,” a talk given by a European scholar of Buddhism, all I understood was that existent bad luck causes the black cat to cross our path, not the other way around.  That one was comprehensible compared to the next paper on the canonical anapauassatisutta and the sources of the 16 stages in four tetrads, or something of the sort.   I think he concluded that whether the first breath is a long one in, or a short one out, is indeterminable, but don’t quote me on that.  From the next distinguished speaker, I simply wrote “No freakin’ idea what he’s talking about” in my notebook.  Though his English was fluent, he might as well have been speaking his native German for all I understood of this paper on The Case of the Four Applications of Mindfulness in Vajrayana. Likewise, when Professor Yao read his paper on whether or not meditative objects exist and I read along, I could only grasp that the existence of blue is debatable, and I’m not even sure about that.  The ontological status of meditative objects had me reflecting on the ontological status of my presence in the same room with these people.  This was not going well for me.  I jest with all due respect and recognition that my ignorance is the problem here, not the presentations.

Just as I was about to throw in the towel and hit the latest coffee shop in Sai Ying Pun, a scientist hit the stage.  Phew.   Now this was language I could begin to wrap my brain around (never thought I’d say that!).   She described careful studies comparing the differing effects of Focused Attention Meditation versus Loving Kindness Meditation and their associations with changes in the attention regions of the brain and cognitive empathy in the dorsal affective system respectively.  See… plain and simple.

Dr. Mark Williams described depression, the high likelihood of relapse and the successful use of MBCT to treat it.  Depression is a highly recurrent illness that starts early in life and affects an alarming number of people. Roughly 20% of the population is at risk of suffering depression at some point in life, and the most common age of onset is between 13-15 years old. This is an epidemic that needs attention, and MBCT is one of the most promising treatments available.  Dr. Williams’ research has shown that MBCT, which combines ancient Buddhist praxis with psycho-education about depression, is as effective as antidepressants in treating traumatic cases of depression.

Dr. Rick Hanson’s presentation was philosophical and much more rooted in the Buddhist tradition, as he bridges the two realms as a practitioner and a scientist. He teaches us to “Use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.”  Of most interest in his speech to me was a discussion of the negativity bias that has been trained into humans.  Because sticks are more consequential than carrots, we learned evolutionarily to avoid sticks more fervently than to remember carrots.  Therefore, we imprint negative experiences and forget positive ones.  So, taking time to reflect on positive experiences to ensure that they, too, get transferred to long-term memory is important.  This was not the deepest message of his talk, but it was the one that resonated most with me.

Two hands on my bag, I was ready to make a quick exit to get home to my family before dinner, but then Venerable Sik Hin Hung took the stage.  Dressed in a grey robe with wire spectacles and a shaved head, the venerable was engaging, informative and thought-provoking in his presentation that brought it all together for me.  His theory was that many mindfulness programs have shown positive results in cognitive improvement, but that they have secularized teachings of Buddhism in order to make them palatable to wider audiences.  In so doing, he theorized, they have removed the essence of the teachings and lost something.  He and his colleagues set out to carefully design a study to determine if Sense Of Coherence (SOC) — comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness — a measure of well-being developed by Aaron Antonovsky, could be positively impacted by the study of meditation AND the tenants of Buddhism.   Working with teenage students about to take a rigorous standardized test, his study demonstrated that, in fact, those who studied Buddhism along with meditation techniques and then went on to pass the Buddhism exam showed positively better SOT than both those who did just mediation and those who did no meditation or Buddhist teaching.   This presentation was the biggest teaching point of the conference for me.  Welcoming the new, the measurable, the scientific, but cautioning that mindfulness uncoupled from the original tenants of Buddhism might have unintended consequences.

Buddha said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick at least we didn’t die; so, let us be thankful.”   Reflecting on the conference, I am thankful for the opportunity to witness the coming together of earnest faith, thought, reflection and hard work in a search for greater understanding by some and a reminder by others that understanding might not be the point.

The Driver’s Seat

Sometimes sitting in traffic on Gloucester Road, inching my way toward the Aberdeen Tunnel, I fantasize about becoming a taxi driver in Hong Kong.  It hasn’t always been this way.  When I first arrived in Hong Kong I swore I would never, ever drive in this city.   This is a city where driving is in large part left to the professionals, relegating the faint of heart to hiring drivers or taking public transportation.

Winding, single lane roads with sprayed concrete on one side and precipitous cliffs on the other are treated like speedways by aggressive trucks and mini buses, double-decker city buses and confident professional drivers careening around hairpin turns only to find a lycra-clad cyclist on a training ride, or unexpected slope maintenance underway.  There’s no margin for error on these slick streets.

Nonetheless, a few months after we arrived, we bought a car from a departing expatriate.  One quiet afternoon, in need of milk, I reluctantly took the keys and white knuckle drove to Stanley, a five-minute trip to an easy outdoor parking lot.  That became a regular route.  Later I drove to Redhill Plaza to see a friend and to Repulse Bay to a big indoor lot.  Within a month I was a relatively confident “South-side driver,” never intending to venture to the other side of the island.

But one day my son had a tennis lesson at Wong Nai Chung Gap up the hill.  I gripped the wheel and made my way up the windy Stubbs Road to the top, turned into the lot and parked.  I was sweating, but I made it.  Later I reasoned that if I could get to the top of the hill, I could probably venture down over the other side.  That sparked the next automotive milestone when I committed the route to Pacific Place to heart and drove to Wan Chai.  For some time I would park there, run errands around town via MTR, trolley and taxi then return to Pacific Place.   I’d spend just enough money at Great supermarket to get three hours of free parking and head home.   This was good enough in my book.  After all, I had heard stories of people making one wrong turn and ending up in China.

One fortuitous social day changed my perspective.  A friend who lived in Pokfulam invited me to go for a hike.  I drove from my house in Tai Tam to meet her at the horse stables in Pokfulam.  We parked there, hiked up to the PEAK and looped Lugard Road on foot, then headed back to our cars.  She suggested we have lunch at the yacht club in Aberdeen, so I followed her in my car, around Kennedy Town, through Central to the club in Causeway Bay and we had a great lunch.  I left there and took the Chai Wan route back to Tai Tam.  I made it there in time to meet the school bus.   I realized that I had gone all the way around Hong Kong Island (with a hike and lunch too) in less than an hour’s driving time.  So, I reasoned, as long as I am driving on HK Island, I’ll eventually come to a place I recognize.   If I mistakenly end up in a tunnel and find myself on the TST side?  No problem.  All signs lead back to HK Island, and then refer to rule number one.

With Hong Kong Island less of a mystery, I made it my business to identify parking lots all over the city.  Learning to park at IFC gave me Central, and Centrium Building, a tricky spiral of a lot with a one-way section, gave me LKF.  I found a lot in Sheung Wan and that mostly covered the places I needed to go on the island.

But what about Kowloon side?   Early in my driving tenure, my friend Debi told me there was an ice skating rink and a Bed Bath and Beyond type store in Megabox; an easy trip through the Eastern tunnel.  I decided to try it one day, but unfortunately missed the exit.  I spent the next forty-five minutes driving through neighborhoods on the Kowloon side I could never identify.   I actually laughed out loud when my haphazard impulsive turns eventually took me right to Megabox.  That time being lost in the city was fundamental to my learning curve.  I could drive to Kowloon side.

I learned to drive to King’s Park and KGV School thanks to a brief foray into the world of soccer mom.  My kid gave up the sport, but left me with two more parking lots under my belt.  Mongolian BBQ with long-time HK resident friends gave me Nathan Road, the need for a new cotillion suit for my growing teenager opened the door to Shenzhen, and my determined hiking quest gave me Sai Kung.  Now we’re getting somewhere!

But there are places even the most seasoned drivers take a deep breath before tackling.  One of these for me was the elevator parking lot.  My friend Eunei drove me in her little Prius for lunch at Din Tai Fung in Causeway Bay one afternoon.  We entered the lot and she drove into an elevator, turned off the car and the door closed behind us.  We were taken up to a floor with available spaces and she backed out and parked.  I was amazed, but planned never to attempt it myself.  Certainly my Volvo station wagon would be too big.  But then, several months later another woman who had lived in Hong Kong for a year less than I had, pulled in her mirrors and drove the exact same car as mine expertly into the car lift.  I went back that same week to do it myself.

My husband drives just enough in Hong Kong to be dangerous (or at least that was the case at first).  After casually rolling out into a busy intersection in front of a minibus, forgetting that a right hand turn is across traffic, and being one lane off for the tricky Wong Chuck Hang to Repulse Bay Road cut off that sent him unnecessarily through the clogged Aberdeen Tunnel on a busy Saturday afternoon, he relinquished the keys and left the driving to me.  My driving in Hong Kong is the “talent” he singles out for the most amount of praise.

As time passed, my grip on the steering wheel loosened.  I began to turn on the radio or plug in my podcasts.  I delighted in a new route, parking garage or street discovered.   And, returning to Hong Kong for our fifth year, I am thrilled getting back in my car and venturing out into the city.  Driving in Hong Kong is more than transportation to me.  It is a daily recognition that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to “teach an old dog new tricks.”  Just don’t try to convince me that the same logic might apply to learning to speak Cantonese.

Michelins and MacLehose

Forget visas, flights, Airport Express and all the other hassles of international travel and instead hop a taxi through the tunnel and you’re set for a fantastic “staycation” right in your own HK backyard.  Here’s my suggested itinerary for 3 days of hiking the first half of the MacLehose trail, dining at Michelin starred restaurants and staying in style.

The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong is a great resource.  I recommend photographing each page of the stage you’re doing on your i-phone for frequent reference rather than lugging the book.  Also, we loaded up on almonds, dried mango and a Snickers bar.  Food is not always available along the trails, so take your own.

Day 1:  Kiss the kiddies goodbye, drop your bags at the W Hong Kong on Kowloon side and head to Mong Kok for the first of your incredibly inexpensive and delicious Michelin starred meals at Tim Ho Wun (2 Kowong Wa St).  You may wait an hour to get a seat in this cramped, no atmosphere, world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant dim sum place, but it’s worth it.  Put your name in, get a number and an order form and go wander the local markets until it’s your turn.  Don’t miss the char siu bao.  For roughly a dozen dishes our bill for two people came to a whopping $111HK.

If you’re up for it, start your hiking adventure that very day with Stage 3 of the MacLehose trail (we did stage 5 and part of the Wilson trail, but I think this plan works better).  Taxi to Pak Tam Au (or 94/96R bus toward Wong Shek Pier) with plenty of water, as there’s no place to buy it along the way.  This stage will take you roughly three hours at a steady hiking pace and alights at Kei Ling Ha where it’s easy to hail a cab back to the W.  That night we chose to eat in the hotel, but you could probably find a better meal if you venture out.

Day 2:  Start with a swim at the W’s gorgeous rooftop pool, then a hearty breakfast at the clever and stylish Kitchen. Tank up for a fabulous day of hiking stages 1 & 2.  If you’re in it for the exercise or bragging rights, take a taxi to the Country Park Visitor Centre at Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung and start your hiking adventure just past the gate.  This first stage is largely flat, entirely on road surface and rings the enormous man-made reservoir created by damming a narrow inlet on both sides.  This stage took us about two hours at a walking pace, but I would recommend either running this phase or skipping it altogether by taking a green taxi to the end of Sai Wan Road and meeting up with the trail just before the start of stage 2.

Stage 2 of the MacLehose is indescribably beautiful and should be a must-do for anyone with a Hong Kong ID card.  We completed this stage in about four hours, but would have spent more time enjoying the beautiful series of beaches along the way had we not walked the first stage too.  The first of several amazing beaches is Long Ke.  This beach has white sugar sand and a perfect pine grove for camping. Interestingly, the only development located there is a rehab facility; most definitely the finest located one in the world! If you can drag yourself away from this paradise, the trail continues with a steep ascent over Sai Wan Shan, but one is royally rewarded with the descent into Sai Wan for a gorgeous beach filled with starfish and a funny “Oriental Restaurant” where you can stock up on water and sometimes food.  Up and over again and you get to Tai Long Wan, Big Wave Bay, with a perfect little rest spot beckoning from the far side of the beach across a rickety little wooden bridge.  This is a perfect, grab-a-beer-and-ponder-the-view spot, not to be rushed.

From here the trail turns inland and goes through several abandoned villages.  It’s slightly creepy with many stray dogs and no people along the 8K tree-canopied path, but it eventually opens up at a place where some catch a ferry, or continue on to the end of the trail at Pak Tam Au.  The 94 bus leads directly back to Sai Kung town.

Reward your considerable efforts by making a beeline for Michelin starred Loaf On (49 Market St.) in downtown Sai Kung.  Famous for abalone, crispy chicken, fried tofu & salt & pepper squid, this place knows how to fry!  While Rod would argue that fried food is not the best hiking fuel, I stand by my recommendation that this is too good to miss and you deserve it after all that work!

Day 3:  After another Kitchen breakfast (we switched to the new Ritz Carlton in ICC after one night, but I much preferred the W.  Learn from my mistakes!), take a taxi to the start of stage 4 at Kei Ling Ha Lo Wai for a solid day of hiking 4 and 5.  Stage 4 is a relatively rigorous climb up Man on Shan (the second highest peak), Pyramid Hill and Delta Pass.  Hopefully you will be rewarded with stunning views on either side of this exposed trail.  Unfortunately the day we did it was shrouded in fog, so it was a bit tedious and slippery for us, but still a great workout.  The second half of Stage 4 goes through woods along the Gin Drinker’s line with several emplacements from WWII still visible.  The end of stage 4, by Gilwell Camp, is a hard place to get a taxi, so definitely plan to continue on through stage 5 that leads up and over Tate’s Cairn, Shatin Pass and Lion Rock.  The views of Kowloon along this trail are stunning.   Since you’ve spent the day hiking back towards your hotel, a quick cab ride from Tai Po road will have you back at the W in no time, ready to celebrate!

We opted for a foot massage at the no frills but authentic Tai Pan on Nathan Road in TST then an al fresco meal at BLT Steak, but if you want to continue with the Michelin theme, there is no shortage of options within a few minutes of the hotel.

Day 4:  Sleep in, read the whole paper over a leisurely breakfast, check out and head back in time to pick up your little one from preschool.  Congratulations! You’ve just completed, in three days, one-half of what some crazy people do in roughly 24 hours at the Oxfam Trailwalker 100K.  But, you’ve actually had a relaxing vacation in the process and enjoyed the sites along the way.

Hong Kong Tips

Here are some Hong Kong tips. I created this list for a friend visiting from London and have kept it as the foundation of my recommendations since then. I’ll try to keep it updated as I find new gems, and as things close as they inevitably do in HK. The turnover is higher than ever here…

Stay: Four Seasons – You can’t go wrong at a Four Seasons, and Hong Kong’s doesn’t disappoint. This is where we stayed on our “look see” when we wanted to convince the kids that HK was the best place in the world to live. It worked. The hotel is gorgeous, with amazing view of busy Victoria Harbor where you can watch junks, cruise ships and the Star Ferry from your floor-to-ceiling window. The hotel has a great infinity pool and a nice spa, and is located right above the IFC luxury shopping mall with many solid restaurants (Isola being my personal favorite). It’s well located for adventurous exploration of Central too.

Upper-House – All the luxury of a 5-star with a twist. It’s cool…not corporate!  Upper House has a great restaurant, Café Gray Deluxe (Chef Gray Kunz), with arguably the best views on Hong Kong side. Upper house has a sister-hotel in Beijing called “Opposite House.”

The Peninsula — Located across the harbor on Kowloon side, the Peninsula is so historic you feel like you’ve stepped back into graceful timeless luxury. First opened in 1928, the Peninsula has been the site of everything from the Hong Kong Governor’s surrender to the Japanese in 1941 to a regular location for films from James Bond (I think) to Batman. The hotel also boasts a few top restaurants including Philippe Starck-designed Felix with awesome views of Hong Kong island. W Hotel – Located on the Kowloon side, the W Hotel is as you would expect. Great views, nice contemporary rooms, beautiful bar, pool & spa.

The LKF Hotel (on Aberdeen Street) – I haven’t been here, but Sonya swears it’s a fantastic value and in a great location. Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) is the Soho of Hong Kong — party central — with bars, restaurants and foot massages all night long.

Eat:

If you’re feeling homesick, Hong Kong has many of your London and New York favorites including Roka, Nobu, Alain Ducasse (Spoon), BLT Steak, Joel Robuchon… shall I go on? They are all great and most have gorgeous décor and some great views, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try our Hong Kong one-of-a-kind places. I’m giving you safe bets as well as hole-in-the-wall places. You decide how intrepid you want to be.

China Club – It’s the closest thing to an art-gallery in HK and offers a memorable Chinese food experience. Technically a private club, a good maitre d’ (or an AMEX black card) can arrange a reservation. Designed like an old Shanghai’nese home, the ambiance and art is spectacular. Each evening there is a little show for out-of-towners. It’s an experience and a great meal all in one.

Hutong – Not only is the ambiance something out of 18th century china, (not an easy feat on the 28th floor of a skyscraper) but it has the best views of the city. You can make an evening of it, enjoying a cocktail on the red-sailed Aqua Luna junk boat across the harbor from central and then getting off on the Kowloon side near Hutong. Each dish is a work of art, some more delicious than others, but all photo-worthy!

Jumbo Floating Restaurant – This has popped up in many Hollywood movies. It’s an amazing site to see – five floors of restaurants on a giant, ornately decorated, floating “junk.” It’s more of an experience than a culinary destination, but actually I was surprised how good the food really was. The most fun part is the short sampan ride from Aberdeen to get there. Top Deck is the best place to go for brunch on Sunday.

Life Café – This is more of a lunch place, but my favorite spot in town for the Life salad, complete with flax seed crackers! The garden roof terrace is an absolute oasis in the busy city. It’s h-e-a-v-e-n for anyone who is vegetarian or vegan. And being a vegetarian is no easy task in a town where eating chicken’s-feet is normal.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab – Arguably the best soft-shelled crab in SE Asia., it’s all about the food. Located off Jaffe road in Wan Chai district (about five minutes from Central), Under Bridge is not fancy, but the crab is amazing. You’ll have to do a lot of pointing to order and you’ll be seated at an oil cloth covered table with an endless supply of tea from a pitcher (stick to beer!), but when they bring out the live crabs for you to select and minutes later bring the same smothered in garlic, you’ll be thrilled. Yum!

City Hall – For an authentic Sunday dim-sum experience, go where you’ll be the only Gweilo in the place. It’s a grand ballroom style room with big round tables and waiters pushing carts of dim sum up and down the aisles. Point and enjoy!

Po-Toi Seafood Restaurant – If you have time for an adventure, you’ll get a completely fresh steamed fish with ginger and spring onions or, my personal favorite, salt & pepper chili lime squid at Po-Toi Seafood. It’s located in a little fishing village and you need to take a ferry or private Junk to get there. Don’t expect glamour, but it is authentic seafood dining in HK.

Din Tai Fung – I know it’s a chain (in fact, I think there’s even one in California now), but I absolutely love the soup dumplings here. It’s spotless, efficient, friendly and so, so good! My kids, who require encouragement to eat veggies sometimes, can’t get enough of the sautéed kale and dumplings here. There’s one in Causeway Bay and another in Tsim Tsa Tsui (TST) across the harbor.

Lung King Heen – This restaurant gets three Michelin stars for Cantonese food, so it must be good, and it has a view. I must say I haven’t tried it, but if you’re looking for the best of Cantonese food, Michelin usually doesn’t disappoint.

The Pigeon Restaurant (Lamma Island) –Yep, pigeon. It’s a local favorite and is apparently delicious minced and served in lettuce leaves. I have to admit, this is one of Sonya’s recommendations. I have not had the guts to try it yet!

Lucy’s – Tucked away in Stanley Market, Lucy’s is the go-to ladies lunch spot on the south side of the island. Always fresh, tasty and healthy, Lucy’s is the closest to California dining I have found.

Mozarella Bar – Located in the hip Star Street area of Wan Chai, and one of the few street-level places, the Mozarella Bar reminds me a bit of the Fromagerie off Marylebone High Street in London. Wood common tables, floor to ceiling wine and delicious cheese and charcuterie plates to sample; you can sip a delicious glass of wine and people watch before a great dinner nearby.

Posto Pubblico – I think you’d really like this place. It’s in Soho on Elgin Street, known for restaurants, but at the moment Posto Pubblico is the anchor. Started by a team of two with a vision to bring Italian osteria style dining combined with fresh local ingredients, they offer pizzas and simple Italian food like you like it. I’m thrilled because they have recently begun home delivery of locally grown organic vegetables from their own farm in the new territories. Now I’m enjoying amaranth, choi sum, wild mushrooms and pink dragon fruit picked within hours of arrival on my counter.

Drink -Most of the hotels have great bars with views and quiet ambiance, but if you’re looking to venture out on the town, here are a few recommendations. Again, some local adventure if you’re up for it and some reminiscent of the Sunset Boulevard scene.

Sevva – there’s no bigger (or better) terrace in the city. It is the happy hour place to see and be seen by Hong Kong’s finance crowd. It’s the place to be on a clear night in the city. If you fancy dessert, the Sevvaa crunch cake is out of this world!

Sugar – Tucked away in off-the-beaten-path neighborhood of Taikoo Shing on the 32nd floor of Hong Kong’s EAST hotel, Sugar’s huge outdoor patio, bar and lounge is the club-du-jour.

Dragon-I – for dinner, drinks or late-night…Dragon-I has been the HK hot-spot for the cool-crowd for years. It’s a bit disco style and has huge cages of live birds on the patio. Apparently the scene is completely different depending on what time of day you’re there. They also have an all-you-can-eat dim sum brunch that’s a favorite among the lunching set.

Alfie’s Bar – the upstairs of the Alfred Dunhill store – ”suitably” cool for after-work drinks RACKS – the best billiards/bar in town. Book your table in advance….it gets busy.

The Pawn – Located in Wan Chai, The Pawn is a colonial-era institution with an updated look. Moving fans on the ceiling, you can sit on the small second-story patio and watch the street trams go by, picturing a Hong Kong of a few decades ago.

Feather Boa – it’s what old “speak-easies” used to be like. Dark, small and hard to find, it’s a great late-night drinking-spot with fantastic chocolate martinis! This place is a trip and the grouchy yet efficient female bar tenders keep the place in order.

Do — Most tourists don’t get beyond the Star Ferry and the Peak Tram, both fabulous introductions to Hong Kong, but not the only thing in town. With a little bit of research and some creativity, Hong Kong is so much more than shopping and food.

Hiking – most people don’t’ know that Hong Kong Island is more than 50% parkland. Yes, that’s green open space, but unfortunately mostly vertical, so a lot of stairs! Only 10-mins from downtown, you can be on a trail that feels a million miles from anywhere. Go over to the Kowloon side/New Territories for some of the most spectacular hikes, beaches and waterfalls, and a few wild-monkeys on the trails!

Water sports – Hong Kong is a city of islands…and that means water. You can do just about every water sport out there. Wake-Boarding is hugely popular along with kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing and surfing. Don a wet suit and grab a board and head to Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong’s version of Topanga Canyon, complete with a surf shack that serves pancakes, breakfast burritos and steaming cups of coffee for those early morning surfs. I can almost transport myself back to Malibu!

Junking – A junk is an old antique Chinese fishing boat that has been remodeled for leisure adventures and can be rented out for the day. It’s an amazing way to get out on the water and see parts of HK you would never be able to see on land. You can also hire a speedboat to come along for all the water sports mentioned above!

Helicopter Ride of the City – organized through the Peninsula Hotel, there’s no better way to see this town of contrasts; from stunning parkland, to Disneyland. From gleaming sky-scrapers to crystal white beaches, you can see it all from the sky in less than an hour.

Horse Racing – No visit to HK is complete without a day at the races in Happy Valley. Horse-racing (more specifically gambling on horse races) is a favorite HK past-time. I am told that more money is bet in a single race-day in HK then all the casinos in Vegas.

Foot Massage – No visit to Hong Kong is complete without taking advantage of the opportunity to try out a little reflexology treatment on those feet. There seem to be foot massage places on every corner, but one in particular I can recommend is called FOOT. It’s located on Queen’s Road Central just minutes from IFC and it combines a soothing zen-like environment with a relaxing foot massage for as long as you want.

Shop — I have to admit, this is an area I have not mastered in HK. I usually wait until I return to the U.S. on a visit to do my shopping, but there are a few places I know and go in a pinch.

Ap Lei Chau, Horizon Plaza — 27 floors of furniture, clothes, home goods and specialty culinary stores, Horizon Plaza has become a one stop shop. When I first arrived in HK 4 years ago I was warned to take my own water bottle, snacks and toilet paper when I went, but it has since been renovated and upgraded and is a nice experience.

Pacific Place, Times Square, Landmark, Harbour City & IFC — Somewhat indistinguishable, these are the high-end shopping malls that combine luxury shopping and gourmet food, coffee and more. They are shopping experiences, usually decorated to the hilt, especially at the holidays. The prices go up with the floors at some of them.

Lane Crawford — This reminds me of Fred Segal in Santa Monica. A gallery of hip boutiques divided by designer. When I want something special, I might splurge here.

Sonjia Norman – hidden down an adorable old alley, her store is one-of-a-kind. In a city that is label-obsessed this is a rare-treat. You won’t find designs like this anywhere else in HK, and best of all, everyone else on the street won’t be wearing it!

Faux – there’s nothing fake about Faux Home-wear. It’s amazingly original. At their show-room, lunch-time is a proper sit-down affair. If you happen to be there then expect to stay for a few hours. They take dining as seriously as they take designing!

Sofia Suarez – the most in-the-know private shopper you could ever want. She grew up here and knows …well…everything! Clothes, Ming-ceramics, kitchy Chinese art…etc. she’s gorgeous, stylish and will have you fully-outfitted in Hong Kong’s finest in record time.