Temple of the Fire God

18 05 2015

The Parsees, followers of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, have had a small but wealthy community in Hong Kong for hundreds of years. The followers of the prophet Zoroaster, once known evocatively (if not entirely accurately) as “fire worshippers,” arrived from Mumbai, then Bombay, where they have long been a potent commercial force, their “burial towers in the air” still standing over some of the city’s most expensive suburbs. Once in Hong Kong, Parsee traders helped to establish the University of Hong Kong, HSBC and the Star Ferry – an impressive roster of city icons by any count. Mody Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and Ruttonjee Hospital are both named after Zoroastrians.

Today the community has dwindled to just 232 members – but it still maintains a headquarters in an anonymous-looking office block in Causeway Bay, the Zoroastrian Building on Leighton Road. I had walked past several times without noticing the golden logo of Zoroaster high up on the black ship-like prows of the building or in the lobby, underneath a Persian-influenced star-shaped alcove in the lobby ceiling.

There is a temple on the upper floors.

See a video about Zoroastrianism in Hong Kong here.

The Happy Valley

11 04 2015

Happy Valley, tucked away from the MTR and cut off by the vast swathe of the main Hong Kong racecourse, is an insular, upscale and rather self-satisfied little neighbourhood, rarely visited by those who don’t live there. Before today, I had only been there once or twice. But after coming down the mountain from yesterday’s Aberdeen to Causeway Bay hike I had passed through, and decided to go back and take a look around. It was a grey and gloomy day, but the area, it turned out, had a few places of interest.

It was, for example, home to Hong Kong’s first ever 7-11 which opened here in April 3, 1981. Perhaps it was this one? Despite some internet sleuthing I could not find the exact location. I did find this however – a “cafe” tucked away on a second floor away from prying eyes which I strongly suspect to be an undercover gay bar…I’ll have to go back another time to find out.

But an even greater find was a store I saw advertised on the mains street on a banner: “Chameleon Happy Palace.” The store – complete with colour changing electric signs – sells exactly what you would expect: chameleons. Starting at about 2000 HKD, they range up to 20,000 for a “Parsons Yellow Giant” speciment, complete with little Triceratops horns, zapping tongues (I saw one in action) and swivelling eyes.I was pretty tempted to pick one up (I have always had a soft spot for the creatures) but had hesitations on two fronts: one, my boyfriend who hates reptiles had said he would never come to my place again. And two – many of the species here come from Madagascar which has banned their export, so I would need some reassurance that they had been ethically sourced.

In addition to the chameleons there were iguanas (like the one pictured) and some much bigger, a full-size water monitor lizard and a clump of what looked like juvenile Aldabra tortoises in a heatlamp-lit pen.

Just a few blocks up from here (Happy Valley is compact after all) I found the Tung Lin Kok Yuen Temple, a Buddhist complex built in 1935 in “Chinese Renaissance style” (see below) with a Buddhist primary school attached.

Finally, I stopped into the Sheung Hing coffee house. Here since 1951 but recently renovated, the coffee house thankfully retains the features of a postwar cha cha teng – tiled walls and booths, ceiling fans, a menu of butter pineapple buns and yuangyang (milk tea mixed with coffee) and a sign saying “No Spitting.”

Fake plastic trees

27 02 2015

The Wishing Tree in the village of Lam Tsuen is a kind of animist shrine where once worshippers would gather during the Chinese New Year to throw oranges up into the branches, making wishes for the new year. Until, that is, the sheer mass of oranges broke the tree. Now there is a fake plastic tree into which people throw fake plastic oranges, before buying merchandise. In other words, the whole experience has been overregulated and turned to shit.

Bangkok traffic: ghosts and kings

11 01 2015

This is interesting. A section of what was previously Sukhumvit Soi 16 has been renamed “Soi We Love the King” or “We Love the King Road”. I stumbled across the odd name on google maps while searching for a nearby Theta Float Centre.

Meabwhile, officials are to clean up the “100-death shrine” of accident-prone Rachada Road. Full story courtesy of Coconuts here.

Bangkok Part 2: A city of surprises

4 01 2015

A few days into my trip, the surprises kept coming. I saw a white-haired white man stroking a white-haired cat at 2am at a table of hookers in sparkly minidresses, surrounded by the the sprawling bodies of sleeping kids and adults. I saw a man passed out in a Santa hat outside a temple on New Years Eve, with a pack of wild street dogs sleeping around him – one under his head like a pillow. A tut-tutting passerby snatched the few banknotes out of his begging tin and tucked them in to the sleeping man’s belt as he lay lost to the world.

I saw a homeless woman with four cats on plastic strings. I went to  internet cafes in the middle of the night filled with Middle Eastern tourists yelling down the phonelines to Cairo and Morocco, where the keyboard default language was Arabic and my browsing was interrupted by an amplified call to prayer.

I saw dwarf monks, and stumbled on to a huge kerbside statue of a gorilla. I found a coffee shop next to a mosque with an inflatable Darth Vader peering out of a top floor window. I saw a flock of pigeons roosting in the glittering eaves of a riverside temple and stumbled across an altar of offerings book-ended by enormous cigarette-like bundles of incense, each a metre tall, in the middle of an alleyway in Chinatown. I saw a clown in a blonde wig dancing in a vegetable market. And a Japanese porn star. And a friend’s ex.

And I discovered more and more of the strange and unexpected sights with which the city is so richly endowed.

Bangkok surprise #1: singing at the llama farm

4 01 2015

This year, my home city of Melbourne opened its first cat cafe, a place based on the Japanese model where patrons can sip a coffee and stroke a selection of cats. It was lauded as a hot new thing. Pfffft. Bangkok is so far beyond that it is not even funny. The Thai capital is doing karaoke with alpacas. “Alpaca View” is a restaurant, bar and “karaoke farm” in Lad Phrao where the main attraction (obviously) is singing in a barnyard-like environment complete with pigs, and dining next to a herd of alpacas. The alpacas have been conditioned to come right up to the fence of their enclosure to be fed, and sometimes poke their heads over inquisitively at the nearest tables. But I did wonder: how do the poor creatures deal with the city’s heat and humidity?

There is also a flock of free-ranging, unrestrained rabbits who roam the premises and – what the hell? – a white picket Eiffel Tower in which sits an effigy of Spiderman.

The restaurant is part of a wider trend in Thailand towards camelid-related attractions. There is also a new alpaca farm in Ratchaburi and a camel theme-park in Hua Hin.

Bangkok surprise #2: Crash landing

4 01 2015

Also in the northern suburbs, this time Ramkhamhaeng, sits the tattered remains of two aeroplanes, one a full fledged  Рthough now wingless Р 747 and the other a smaller model. They sit on an empty lot, mysteriously abandoned and covered in grafitti. Where did they come from? Why were they left there? I had heard that you could climb inside and take pictures of yourself in the cockpit Рand the doors were indeed wide open Рbut when I approached a homeless-looking woman started yelling at me from some long grass where she was sitting with a mean-looking dog, so I beat a hasty retreat.

Bizarrely though, these are not the only stray ruined aircraft scattered around the city. When searching for directions to this site on the internet (it is by a canal, 200 metres east of the entrance to Ramkhamhaeng Soi 101,) I read that there are two other decommissioned jets lying abandoned on patches of wasteland around the city too. In fact I remember passing one, smaller than the Ramkham 747 but in a better state of repair. It was being used as the backdrop to a beergarden around (if my memory serves me) Ram Inthra 77.


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