After that we went to Guangzhou.
I saw really fucked-up shit at the Qingping Market. Stuff like dried bear claws and deer antlers; women picking live scorpions out of tubs using chopsticks; live turtles ripped out of their shells; and rabbits, guinea pigs, kittens, and small dogs packed into cages so tightly that they could only roll around and shit all over each other. You could hear the latter practically scream in their cages, trying to escape their destiny of being served in the finest kitchens of Guangzhou. It's enough to turn Ted Nugent into a vegetarian.
Walking around the rest of the city was pleasant; it was pretty warm in the winter so it's gotta be oppressive in the summer [Ed: When I checked the weather forecast in the summer, I saw that Beijing was actually getting higher temps than Guangzhou. Damn unfair.] By far, Guangzhou is the most caught-up-with-Western-civilization city that I've seen in mainland China (I haven't visited Shanghai yet). But besides that, Guangzhou seems to be the only mainland city that seems to have an independent pop culture that doesn't try to explicitly ape American pop culture. Along with the economic and cultural development comes the fact that the women of Guangzhou are easily the most beautiful women that I've seen in mainland China. [Ed: As I found out later, not as beautiful as the women from Sichuan/Chongqing] I swear that I felt like a prisoner in one of those prison movies when some female lawyer walks in and the inmates go nuts.
Guangzhou is renowned for its food, but we had a mixed bag. At one lunch that we started at around 1:30, the four of us ordered four dishes, but then pigged out on dim sum before the dishes came. When our dishes finally came, we were practically full already. But we persevered, being the troopers that we are, and finished it all by about 5:00 PM. We didn't do anything that night but go back to our room and stare at the ceiling in a dull stupor and weep, for it truly was the best meal that any of us had ever eaten in our lifetimes.
But we also had this horrible meal at this other place where I had a terrible encounter with a rabbit stew while Josh had an encounter with pig liver; suffice to say, we headed straight for the McDonald's afterwards.
Another interesting thing that happened was that we were in our hotel room watching the news on a Hong Kong channel. Our ears perked up when we heard the anchor begin a story about a journalist imprisoned for six months in Qinghai. However, after about six seconds into the story, the channel suddenly got cut off with a test pattern. When the channel came back on, they were on to some other story. Dude, Big Brother was sleeping on the job.
From there we headed down to Macau, a rather pleasant surprise. It was the first time any of us had seen real Western-brand clothing stores (not the Chinese-imitation stuff which can occasionally induce uncontrollable laughter when seen on the street), all at pre-Spring Festival markdowns. Diversion: I went in to an Espirit shop to buy a pair of pants under the pretense that my other pairs were too dirty to wear, picked out the first decent pair I saw, also picked up a shirt that went with it, thought about returning to Beijing with some decent sets of reasonably fashionable clothes, realized that my testosterone level was dangerously low, and hurried out of the store with those two items.
The city felt very Euro, with all of these crooked cobbled stone streets named in Portuguese (soul-searing despair sets in when I realize it's easier to read the Portuguese on all of the signs than the Chinese, the language I've supposedly been studying for two and a half years). There was also a lot of European style architecture around; that is, buildings that make use of things like pillars, window sills, colors other than cement gray, and otherwise don't attempt to be as ugly as possible.
There was also a real heavy Catholic influence around town (damn those colonizing missionaries for bringing tasteful architecture): a number of active churches and ruined churches, this really cool cemetery, etc. One night we went to this Brazilian restaurant run by the cutest little old Brazilian women and the only other customers there were a group of real, live Chinese nuns speaking Portuguese!
Besides the aforementioned Brazilian restaurant (where I had an excellent moqueca with a side of black beans), we also had some excellent Portuguese food at all these little holes in the wall. Pork chops at one place, African chicken at another (the waiter at this place had funniest pencil line mustache and Marlon Brando accent). We even had a real breakfast at one little cafe that involved French toast, fruit salad, and coffee. After half a year of youtiao for breakfast, that was momentous indeed. The only reason I mention this is that it's the first time in almost five months we ate real, non-McDonald's Western food. Hell, it was the first time we had used forks and knives in five months.
This was the first time we had also had full exposure to uncensored books and newspapers. We pitched in some money to buy an issue of Time and Newsweek, which were well-flipped through and dog-earred within a few days. They were even Asia editions so they had some good juicy stories about some sort of smuggling scandal in Xiamen involving top Party members and million dollar bribes. I also remember taking about three or four hours to sit in a bookstore to read some book about the Tiananmen massacre. Having had to read the People's Daily as part of your daily curriculum has turned me into a John Birch society anticommunist.
We also visited a casino in Macau. The one distinguishing fact about Macau is that they have lax gambling laws; hence, it's trying to be built up as a haven for those gambling-crazy Chinese. Let me say this about the gamblers I saw: modern economics holds that people, when they're not suffering from imperfect information, will rationally utilize their limited resources to maximize utility (wanker psych and philosophy majors will disagree with the rational part); from what I saw in Macau, I'd say that this definition needs to be modified. I have never seen such insane, irrational betting in my life. The only game that I understood there was blackjack, which has this statistical certainty about strategy that I like. I saw people put down insane amounts of money, get a 12 and hold. After losing, they would put down almost no money, get a 17 and then hit. I could not find a discernable pattern in the hour that I watched (stakes were too high for us to even consider betting ourselves) except for the crazy little routine each person would do before looking at their cards. Another things I noticed is that half of the betting taking place in the casino were observers betting with each other on who would win! After that, we went down to the dog races (name of the venue: Canidrome) but the races weren't on. Instead we hung out in a bar with a bunch of bookies closely monitoring a football game on the telly.
The only problem with Macau was the prices. Compared to Western cities, Macau is very cheap, but compared to mainland, it's pretty darn expensive. But then again, while the food is twice as expensive and a newspaper cost seven times as much, you were definitely getting the buck's worth. Hong Kong was a different story.
From Macau, we took a stomach wrenching ferry to Hong Kong. Hong Kong easily rates as the biggest disappointment of our trip. At first, I was giddy with joy after going through an HMV and another uncensored bookstore (this time sitting down to read about opposition to the Three Gorges Dam.) And we were initially excited to see some traditional Chinese culture for the Chinese New Year, thinking that it would all be suppressed in the mainland. When we got there though, it was all downhill. To summarize Hong Kong in a phrase: Manhattan without the museums. My biggest complaint about Hong Kong is how expensive the place is: it is quite literally the most expensive place I've seen in the world, even more so than the yuppiefied wastelands of San Francisco or Manhattan. The cheapest bowl of noodles I could find was about $US 4, while in Guizhou province you can find a much better bowl of noodles for about $ .15! Other examples include $6 for a root beer float that was half full of ice and $4 for a bottle of beer. I was bitterly disappointed with Tsimshuitsai, the tourist ghetto we stayed at. Tsimshuitsai is more Times Square than the current post-Giuliani Times Square. All sorts of shady characters selling fake Rolexes, stores with huge window displays selling fake electronics, fat, white tourists walking around with their brand new Nikon cameras bouncing over their rotund belly looking at the porn magazines and girlie bars around every corner. The guesthouse we stayed in, Mirador Mansions, was this large scummy building made up of mazes of filthy, smelly corridors with piles of rotting garbage lying all over the place and wretched little cats living inside the walls (needless to say, we paid about three times as much for accommodation here than in we did for a nice room in mainland). Admittedly, the view from Kowloon over the harbor or from the top of Victoria Peak is pretty cool, with all of the neon signs alight. It felt like any second Chow Yun-Fat would burst around the corner on some high speed boat chasing druglords. And it probably would have been a lot more fun if more of the stores were open and bustling with people.
HK island is this yuppie investment banker heaven with rows of shiny skyscrapers, luxury hotels, an immaculate but sterile park, and Lan Kwai Fong, which is a gentrified ghetto of California cuisine-type restaurants serving Thai-teryaki falafel wraps and power guava/mango/banana smoothies with interiors straight out of an IKEA catalog. The place was filled with fat, balding middle aged white investment bankers with their petite, twenty years younger Chinese girlfriends. We did spend one night getting silly off of big bottles of Heineken and fish bowls (a 3 liter punch bowl half filled with ice and soda water, half filled with any random hard liquor the bartender randomly chose) and then running around the streets practicing our gongfu.
Since it was so darn expensive (Of all the money I spent on my 6 weeks travelling, more than half was spent the 4 days we were in Hong Kong), we ate the majority of the time at McDonald's or KFC or these cheap Indian fast food joints (it's crazy how many Indians there are in Hong Kong, the explanation being that they could get British passports easily).
We were in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year's. Beforehand, we had thought that being in HK would be the best place to celebrate chunjie since I've heard so much about how mainland has suppressed a lot of traditional Chinese culture and as such we'd be able to see a lot of stuff here that I wouldn't be able to see in some rural town. Wrong. The biggest mistake of my entire stay in China is to have been in HK for New Year's. It sucked royally. It turns out that Chinese New Year's is more like Christmas than New Year's to them. Everything is closed since everyone is hanging around the house with their families. There was one parade which had one or two dragons followed up by a bunch of Canadian Mounties, bagpipe players, gawky high school marching bands, and other bored looking non-Chinese people. Then there was a half hearted fireworks display. I had a much better experience in Guizhou province a week later. Of course, surrounding the parade were a bunch of foreign tourists, most of whom wouldn't know a ci of zhongguohua (to be fair, we were speaking English the entire time there since few people know Mandarin), who were snapping pictures like this atrocity was some sort of cultural experience.