Posted by: Sam Olsen | November 22, 2014

Seeking East: a book coming soon

I’m excited to announce that I will shortly be publishing my first book. It’s called Seeking East: An Expat Family’s Year in Hong Kong, and is a travel and adventure memoire about our first year here.

It’s just about to go to the printers, and will be on Amazon very soon too. So watch this space!

I’ve also set up a new website which will provide some more information about life out in Hong Kong http://www.samolsenasia.com

 

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Posted by: Sam Olsen | November 17, 2014

Get the spelling right and the rest will follow…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you sure you mean this?

Are you sure you mean this?

You’d think that if you were going to spend thousands of dollars on your restaurant’s sign then you’d want to get it right. I know you can spell ‘bistro’ like this, but I’m not convinced they know this.

Anyway, I had lunch there. Mistake. Despite its name, the muzzak of choice was hard dance, and at disco noise levels. My pizza took an age to arrive and then was so crusty and topping-light that I thought I’d accidentally ordered flat bread. Even the olives in the salad tasted odd, and that’s, well, odd.

If somewhere looks like they can’t be arsed to get things right then they probably can’t. Stay away.

 

 

 

Posted by: Sam Olsen | September 29, 2014

Occupy HK and its meaning

There’s a great deal of coverage about the Occupy clashes in Hong Kong these last few days. So what’s it all about?

Many pages have been written on the subject, but basically, to our expat eyes, it’s all about fear, and fear of China. HK has, over the last 15 years or so, developed a love-hate relationship with its northern neighbour/parent. It used to be all hate, but then locals here realised that Mainlanders had a great deal of money to spend, and they wanted to spend it in Hong Kong. About 40 million Mainland visitors a year spend billions of dollars, enriching large numbers of people here.

The flip side to that is that China proper is encroaching on HK. There are hundreds of thousands of Mainlanders that have moved here in the last few years alone, and the Cantonese language is slowly being eroded by Mandarin. And the influx of wealth has pushed up property prices to extreme levels (well out of the reach of the vast, vast majority of people) and has crowded out school places and other social utilities.

Added to this mix was the agreement to allow universal suffrage in 2017. Naturally those who feel they have the most to lose from a loss of HK identity – the young and aspirationally Middle Class – want to use these upcoming elections to push for full control of their futures. Beijing has decided that only candidates it trusts can be on the short list, but this of course is not in the interests of those that want to break free of the Motherland’s embrace.

That’s the long and short of it, but there are plenty of more points of view, such as this one.

But as for us, we are all OK. There is very little to be worried about unless we head straight into the melee. The worst case scenario is that the Chinese Army (the PLA) and start shooting people. But the chances of this are absolutely small – Beijing know that this would be end of HK.

So we’ve stocked up on food and petrol, and we also aren’t going to be running out of wine any time soon. We’re off on holiday on Wednesday for 5 days so with any luck it will all be over by the time we are back. Although given the heated emotions on both sides it is quite probable it won’t be.

 

 

 

 

Union Saltire On Thursday – so in less than two days – Scots will vote on whether to put to the sword a country that has held together through thick and thin for more than 300 years. To the rest of the world, the answer to the referendum question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” is stunningly obvious: a trumpeted, exalted ‘no’. In the words of one leading economist, “Why anyone would want to exit a successful economic and political union with a G-5 country – a union which another part of Europe so desperately seeks to emulate – to go it alone for the benefit of… what exactly, is incomprehensible”. The US, EU, Australia and Canada have come out against Scottish independence, as has China. It is telling that the only international voices urging the Scots to go it alone are North Korea and Islamic State: worthy international partners indeed for a future independent country. Yet the polls would have us believe that around half of Scots will ignore the dangers of making “a historical mistake” and vote to leave the United Kingdom. Perhaps the polls are wrong. For a start there has not been an independence referendum before, so the pollsters don’t have any history to study for comparison. Secondly, and more importantly, is the militancy of the Yes campaign. The venomous tone has been reinforced by the recent announcement from senior SNP politician Jim Sillars, who claimed there would be a “day of reckoning” for major Scottish employers such as Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life who dared to endorse a vote for No. He also vowed that oil giant BP, which pays 1/7th of all pension dividends paid by FTSE 100 companies in the UK, would be nationalised. “What kind of people do these companies think we are?” SIllars asked. “They will find out” was the spiteful reply. This aggressive attitude to anyone that dares to counter them filters down to SNP activists on the ground. Labour MP Jim Murphy was attacked with eggs in the street by Yes activists, and all across Scotland ‘No thanks’ posters have been trashed and people menaced. JK Rowling, who gave money to the No campaign, was actively abused online by so-called ‘cybernats’ for her contribution.

A cybernat target

A cybernat target

Of course, there have been incidents on both sides, but the Yes campaign has managed to drum up such fanaticism that there is a real danger of violence come Thursday, and all police leave has been cancelled. Alistair Darling, hardly a beacon of the dramatic, said that “I have been involved in political campaigns for the last 35 years and have never seen anything like this. There have been dark aspects to this which need to have a light shone on them because they are not acceptable.” But say the polls really are right, and that half of Scotland believe in Alex Salmond. If the SNP are so determined, by hook or by vitriolic crook, to achieve independence then it stands that there must be an excellent reason for it. After all, people on average want what is best for themselves and their families. The core measurement of the quality of life for a separate Scotland is how well its economy would perform. This after all underpins everything: education, health, welfare, industrial investment. It therefore makes for depressing reading to see the economic challenges that await an independent Scotland. The SNP’s main economic platform is that Scotland should own the revenue from North Sea oil and gas, making it a petro-dollar paradise equivalent to Norway.  Although they have similar populations (5.05 million for Norway, 5.3 million for Scotland), Norway earned $40bn from hydrocarbons in 2013 versus $11bn for the UK as a whole. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that UK oil and gas revenues will fall to $5.5bn in 2016/17 – and not all of that will be Scottish. As one Forbes commentator noted, there’s no amount of careful stewardship that is going to magic $5.5 billion into $40 billion, when many of the North Sea rigs are at the end of their life and production levels are falling.

Not for much longer

Not for much longer

Oil or no oil, there is currently a gulf between what Scotland earns and what its Government spends. No one knows how wide this gap is, but estimates range between $6bn and $24bn. The SNP likes to stress Scotland’s famed whisky exports as a source of future wealth, but given that total whisky sales abroad are only $6bn they would have to double production within a year to make up the shortfall. Not even the Chinese want that much Laphroaig. Another startling issue to confront would be the shrinking tax base. With approximately 90% of Scottish business urging a No vote, according to the CBI, it is no wonder that senior finance figures are predicting huge levels of capital flight from Scotland and the relocation of most large companies should Yes prevail. This of course would serve to widen the economic deficit. That said, Scotland would be able to borrow on the international bond market post-Independence to make up the difference. But for a small country like Scotland, with a Government intent on high levels of public spending and with a decreasing economic base, borrowing rates would be steep. This would start a vicious circle of increasing national debt that would have to be broken by reduced public spending of some kind – thus at one stroke extinguishing the argument of those that want independence to protect public health, education and welfare expenditure. The sad truth is that these economic arguments mean nothing to the average Yes campaigner. At a radio debate a few months ago, the SNP supporter I was paired with told the audience not to discuss the Scottish economy as it was something that “we should worry about only after the vote is won”. The Yes campaign is built not on logic, but on an emotional passion, and not a particularly nice one at that. The whole SNP rationale has more than a stench of the racist about it. Being nationalistic, by its very definition, means to the exclusion of others. Despite the SNP wanting to describe its campaign as the positive one, it has not hard to recognise the anti-Tory, anti-Toff, anti-English chords of chiming through like bells of spite. With Salmond’s appropriation of North Sea oil wealth (despite the fact it was developed thanks to huge upfront investment from the British Government and British industry), the SNP’s belligerent left-wing, petrochemical-based nationalism looks and feels very much like Chavezism. And look where Venezuela is now: a bankrupt, utterly divided society riven by destructive popularism.

Fighting for the UK

Fighting for the UK

It is horrific to think that the same nationalistic forces that the British fought against in two World Wars could lead to break-up of our country. I thus find it hugely ironic that I served alongside the Highland Regiment in Kosovo, the last country in Europe before the Ukrainian carve-up to suffer at the hands of rampant nationalism. Having discussed the SNP with many of the Jocks there, they would, I’m sure, be horrified at the thought of UK they served with distinction being destroyed. Not least because the vast majority of the Scots regiments don’t get a referendum vote, given that they are not based in Scotland – another nail in Salmond’s claim to be representing the democracy of his part of Britain. The world is an increasingly dangerous place. It has been said by several English friends of mine that they wouldn’t mind Scotland going their own way. But the consequences would be terrible for the remaining United Kingdom too. An economically challenged state outside of NATO, outside of the EU, led by a fanatical nationalistic party, would be an attractive partner to any nation that wanted to do harm to the West. A $20bn Russian investment into empty Edinburgh coffers would buy a great deal of influence, and perhaps a nuclear submarine base at the heart of NATO’s defences. Lord Robertson, NATO’s ex-chief, was particularly right when he said that dark forces wanted a Yes vote. In conclusion, it is an absolute pity that the Yes vote has been allowed to portray itself as the positive vote for Scotland. No wonder that Salmond is considered a competent politician when he has managed to turn a rejectionist ideal into a movement for progressive change. The division and spite that the SNP stand for is totally against the best interests of not only Scotland, but the UK as a whole. Billy Connolly, a fearless Unionist, put it simply: “The more people stay together, the happier they’ll be”. A vote for No would absolutely be the best decision for all parts of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A vote for Yes would plunge us all into a needless pit of division, destruction and decay. So I end this note by making a strong, heartfelt appeal to anyone that has friends or family in Scotland. If you believe in the United Kingdom, if you actively love your country and don’t want it broken apart by brutal nationalism, then you have two days – two short days – to persuade your kith and kin to help keep us together.

Let's do it

Let’s do it

Posted by: Sam Olsen | September 29, 2013

Flying cats

A friend of mine (Will) who is most likely moving out to Honkers emailed me the other day to ask a tricky question. Being a cat lover, he wanted to know if he would be able to find a flat where his feline pals would be welcome.

We’ve spoken elsewhere here about the amount of dogs in Hong Kong, most of them cooped up in tiny apartments and only appearing to be walked on the pavements and concrete paths that thread around the territory. That’s why the pedestrian is always keeping a couple of eyes open for the ubuquitous turds that litter the way. And, if you remember our post, that is why the occasional local takes enormous pleasure in poisoning the poor pooches.

There is a concerted effort by the Establishment here to make the Hong Kong Chinese into a nation of animal lovers, including dogs. For decades here Fido’s finest cousins were served up in restaurants, as they still are in Korea, Vietnam and across the Chinese border. So at Larry’s school this week a local charity brought in a small mutt (“Doctor Dog”) to teach the kids that he and his kin were for patting, not tasting. To help the education process they kindly distributed their website. Us parents, naturally assuming it to be a child-friendly site, gathered our offspring around to see Doc Dog’s online antics. As the photos of bear bile farms and caged creatures ready for the pot downloaded it became clear that Larry was going to be remembering this moment for many a nightmare to come.

Anyway, back to the cats. It is true that many do live here, but their life expectancy isn’t always what would be expected, thanks to the preponderance of high-rises. A friend of a friend was at his new girlfriend’s house feeling a little hungover. She went for a run, leaving him with express orders not to open the windows or door. After a while he was feeling a little sweaty so chanced his luck by opening one of the fenestras, by just a touch it must be said. Then, alas, nature made a sudden calling, which only took a few minutes, but enough for felix to discover the gap. He managed to get a hand to its tail but recovered only a few hairs before watching it plummet fifteen floors to its demise.

So Will, yes it will be possible to find somewhere for your cats to be accepted too, but just remember that aircon is better than fresh air.

 

 

Posted by: Sam Olsen | September 21, 2013

Typhoon coming…

 

“Hong Kong warned to brace itself for Super Typhoon“, “A super typhoon is headed for Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong braced for ‘strongest storm on earth’ as 180mph monster Super-Typhoon Usagi gains strength over the Pacific” are just some of the headlines that anxious locals here are being subjected to as we all batten down the hatches.

There is a distinct air of anticipation in the city today, with what could be the largest storm for thirty years just a day away.

Still, at least we are fortunate to be in Hong Kong rather than in a squatter camp in the Philippines; many of the helpers here are acutely worried about their relatives who will be far more at the mercy of the destructive elements than well-built HK. Although having said that, there were warnings on the radio this morning for people “living in wooden huts” to prepare themselves for the typhoon.

We have stocked up the fridge and are now just waiting for the windows to start bulging in and out, as is their way with strong winds. This is an unnering experience for sure, but how the people that live on house-boats here do it I don’t know.

 

 

 

If you don’t hear from us on Monday then we’ve been washed away.

POSTSCRIPT

What a let down that was. It wasn’t even worse than a heavy storm in Leicestershire. We could have at least have had some buckling windows but the most destructive consequences were some twigs in the the pool. Michael “There’s no hurricane on the way!” Fish eat your heart out

Posted by: Sam Olsen | July 30, 2013

YaYas; a guide for the uninitiated

Yaya is our Domestic Helper. Yaya means ‘Auntie’ in tagalog, which is the language of the Philippines.  We have learned some right funny words in tagalog from Yaya, such as making sure we put talcum powder on our Killy-killy’s (armpits), or how long to boil an etlog (egg).  Tagalog appears to be a funny mix of something Asian and a bit of Spanish thrown in. It always sounds  sing-song and cheerful. It is not actually our Yaya’s first language, rather like the way many Chinese speak Mandarin for official purposes they would speak a dialect at home or in their local region. Meaning that she speaks three languages fluently plus enough Cantonese to get by in the market and enough Mandarin to instil the vocabulary that Lawrence is taught at playgroup.  Thats starting to put pressure on Polyglot Olsen himself as to who is the most well-spoken in our house! 

A post about Yaya is timely since she will soon be meeting many of you as she’s coming to the UK with us on a bit of a holiday…. albeit a busman’s holiday since she is still on duty helping look after Lawrence and Dominic. There are numerous rules about the employment of DH’s here in HK and even more to have one accompany you over to the UK. Special clauses apply in the visa regulations of both countries. Yayas are the Philippines largest export (ranking ahead of bananas and mangos). Citizens working overseas contribute 12% of the Philippines GDP according to the World Bank and along with seaman that rove the oceans on oil tankers and cargo liners, domestic helpers make up the bulk of these. 

Anyway, our Yaya has lived with us for two years now and just renewed her contract for another two.   She has two grown-up kids in Manila, and a husband who lives on the family farm in a province called Bohol. When pressed for the home address in order to get the aforementioned UK Visa, she gave me the name of her husband, simply followed by Villafuente, Carmen, Bohol. ‘Street name?’ I asked, ‘House name’? ‘No!’ She replied, ‘Just send a letter to Albert in Villafuente, everyone knows who he is’. Yaya spends half her salary on fertiliser for the family farm. Her daughter left university a couple of years ago and her son is in his final year.  All funded by Yaya. 

Religion plays a huge part in the life of most helpers, many of whom are Catholic, although their brands of Christianity vary enormously. AS I think we previously mentioned, St. John’s Cathedral which is the largest Anglican church here in HK, also holds services in Tagalog.  Numerous other facilities and shops spring up for the helper population. I offered to open a bank account for Yaya when she first came to work for us, and she scoffed that she’d never get as good a rate as at the hole-in-the-walls in Kowloon on a Sunday. That’s the traditional day off for most helpers, when they can be seen setting up little camps around the city, parks, beaches, and bizarrely, underpasses.  Our Yaya does not frequent such lowly outdoor hangouts, instead spending the day with her church group that meets at a University. 

Yaya looks after our kids as though they are her own. Every Sunday she gets home from her day out and asks ‘Lawrence already sleeping?’ even though she knows it’s well past his bedtime. I think she’d like a chance for a quick cuddle. Or perhaps is checking that we careless parents have not left him in a pub somewhere.  She runs a tight ship around the house (something I have not interfered with too much while on maternity leave you understand!). Laundry days, shopping days, veg and milk delivery, outsourcing the car cleaning, organising playdates for the little ones. She doesn’t really like me getting underfoot in the kitchen but is very polite when I do the dinner; finally admitting, however, that cooked cheese is to her tastebuds absolutely disgusting and makes her ill! 

If you haven’t had the wonderful experience of having someone cheerful, intelligent, patient and jolly living under your roof and helping out with all things household, it may be hard to understand. People often ask, isn’t it odd, having a stranger living under your roof… My response is that cosy coupledom disappeared with the birth of our first child, and Yaya certainly doesn’t require as much looking after as he! Do the kids know the difference between you and her? Well, yes, I think so, although Lawrence is going through a phase of calling me Daddy and Daddy Yaya at the moment…. And don’t we feel bad, that she is here, earning not very much money in Western terms, and not with her own family? Well, we try our best to make her happy as well. The good helpers choose their employer just as much as the reverse! Her kids are now old enough to fend for themselves, and have been to visit her here for holidays when we go away and make space in the flat. The financial arrangement is not something for debate here, save to say that there is a minimum wage we pay well in excess of, and that she probably makes more than a schoolteacher in the Philippines.  

 In one generation, Yaya can honestly say she has lifted her family from close to subsistence farming to middle class office workers at international IT companies. That is an achievement that far outweighs what most Western parents do for their kids.  My only concern is that with both her kids out of university she decides she’ll head home and retire… But I don’t let myself dwell on that nightmare scenario often! 

 

 

Posted by: Sam Olsen | June 5, 2013

My Secret Asian Addiction

I’ve got a secret; not for long, since I am about to share it on this blog. It’s something that’s developed more while I’m on maternity leave. No-one knows where I go, a lot of the time. I tell Tessie the helper that I have some errands to run, to the bank, or something. I’m never late to pick up Lawrence from school, and Number 2 doesn’t mind as long as he gets fed regularly. Of course, husband has suspected, and he sometimes even partakes himself, but he never pushes the boundaries like I do.

I head off the beaten track. The less English spoken, the better.  I don’t need to be able to say much and I have enough Cantonese to make myself understood in these circumstances (although often the proprietors are not HK people and probably aren’t here legally at all). Plus I am less likely to bump into anyone I know who might be shocked or somewhat disgusted.  I nip off the street up or down stairs, into hovels reminiscent of opium dens; red lights flashing above the door.   Cash only, no names exchanged, keep your handbag in sight. Try to ignore the decor and the personal hygiene of the other customers.  All it takes is half an hour, although 45 or 60 minutes is better.

Basically, I pay people to hurt me.   I am addicted to getting local massages.  It’s not expensive, about 10 GBP for half an hour. Feet only costs less than full body. Thai, Chinese, or just plain brutal, I’ll go for them all. Ignore the bed bugs in the massage  mattress (although if the place looks really dodgy I will stick with feet only) and let the nameless masseuse do her work. Since having a baby the ouchy shoulders from breast feeding, the stress of never knowing if they are all going to stay asleep, and plain old exhaustion have driven me time and time again to places I would previously have stayed well clear of! As I have previously commented on this blog (and as sister Cath can attest), the massages one gets here in HK are a wonderful agony. This is no dimmed lights, fluffy towels and scented oils followed by a cup of herbal tea.   Ten days ago a Thai woman somewhere in Kennedy Town threw me across a grubby looking mattress and my back still hasn’t recovered. Hence I had to try and get it fixed today by a mainland guy on Caine Road who perhaps didn’t know the meaning of ‘Hou Tong’, (that hurts), or maybe just chose to ignore it.

The day after there is a niggling reminder of my unfortunate habit, the gentle ache as though I have been weightlifting, when in truth, all I do is lie down and let someone else do the work. So here it is, my asian addiction, no doubt one day I will pay the price in physiotherapy or osteopath bills, but for now, it’s bliss…

Posted by: Sam Olsen | May 25, 2013

Tokyo Time

As a fan of Blade Runner I had always wanted to visit Tokyo, this proto-science fiction city that has inspired numerous films and books alike.

 

The verdant, ridged mountains that we flew over on the way in were not quite what I was expecting so close to the city, and neither was the distinctly low-rise landscape once I had started my drive to the hotel: it appeared Hong Kong would make the replicants feel much more at home.

 

My taxi driver, middle aged and with swept back hair that made him look like an out of work actor – well, maybe he was – insisted on practicing his English and appointed out every building we sped past. Unfortunately for his learning they all had Japanese names so it kind of defeated the object, but it was a nice gesture at least. We went through several slightly run down suburbs and it was interesting to see that the locals weren’t the wealthy techno-geeks that many in the West assume to be the case – I didn’t see one robot the whole time I was there, though Deckard may have corrected me.

 

The Imperial hotel

, my home for the next few days, lies close to the Emperor’s official residence and was, in a previous incantation, a stylish building designed by the pinnacle of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright. His version was famous for being one of the few edifices to survive the terrible 1923 earthquake, as well as the WWII firestorm launched by American bombers. Sadly for aesthetes, in fact anyone that isn’t a sycophant of ghastly 1960s concrete, will find the current version a touch of a let down.

 Image

My room summed up the state of Japan to a tee: it was obviously once rather grand and internationally ground breaking, but was looking quite tired now, just like the wider economy, and Meg Ryan. With the rise of Japan’s fortunes, how long will it be until the place has a facelift? Because in comparison to the hotel I stayed at in Shanghai last week, it really does need one.

 

I was in meetings for vast majority of daylight hours, but some of these were in Yokohama, a city 45 minutes away along the coast, so I was able to look around a bit. In fact, it looked very much like Tokyo: low-rise, but with less neon. Every office I visited was hot inside is hot as the aircon was never on. So at one meeting I was rather grateful therefore when the Japanese gentleman I was seeing, a thin man wearing a striped air force blue shirt, and thick black glasses over a round, kindly face, suggested I remove my jacket. No sooner had I done so when a whole bunch of other Japanese staff arrived, including his boss – the man I needed to speak to – and they were all fully jacketed. Great.

 

In the one evening I had off, I decided to head into town to see what the place had to offer. I selected the borough of Shinjuku (literally ‘New Lodge’, although there was not even an old lodge in sight), which is home to the largest rail station in the world, and although safe now, pretty dodgy in the old days so I heard from the hotel concierge.

 

After walking past thousands of vending machines, selling everything from coke to fags to toy dinosaurs, and more comic book stores than was healthy,Image I plucked up the courage to eat alone in a café cum restaurant. I was seated downstairs, surrounded by cheesy Japanese ballads and couples slurping, both the food and each other. My meal started with sesame bean sprouts, followed by spicy peanut and pork wontons on top of egg noodles with, curiously, a cold poached egg on the side. I was given a huge disposable bib to wear too – no one else was so this may have been a foreigners-only perk
.

 

After supper I had some time to kill before Iron Man 3 started at the cinema, so I had a look round the streets. There was not much English anywhere except funnily enough on the sign for Neals Yard Remedies – how much local custom did they receive?
 The atmosphere was relaxed, much more so than Hongkers, and the locals looked quite jolly and carefree. An old woman was settling in to her doorway for the night which was a bit of a surprise as I didn’t realise they had many homeless people here.

Image 

In the cinema, which was depressingly like any movie theatre anywhere in the Western world, I bought a coke and burrito. To my delight I was given a plastic tray shaped like an old-fashioned ring pull to hold the items and take to my seat
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I was slightly surprised to see the pre-film adverts included a jaunty animated plug for a tobacco brand named ‘Good Man’ which showed a boy tripping over something, pinning his girlfriend down to a park bench and then snogging her. Whereupon he took a deep drag of his fag. The creative types must have been given a fine bonus for that one.

 

I really enjoyed the film, and could have quite easily embarked on a night on the town. But bed was calling, so I searched for a lift home. The taxis looked like a mix of the old fashioned black marias and the car from the latest Green Hornet movie, all dark and pseudo-gothic. Some of them have bizarre adverts on them, all painted in gold pen, including a talking dolphin which might or might not have said “Eat me” (topical reference to the Cove there). It appeared too that the night taxistas were mostly elderly men with nearly combed hair and thick metal rimmed glasses, wearing clean white gloves, and all driving calmly and in silence.

 

My ride home bore a total lack of resemblance to the cab experience of Hong Kong.


 In fact, it was all quite different from my new home. But somehow it was just as addictive, so I look forward to returning soon.

 

Posted by: Sam Olsen | May 2, 2013

Birthing: HK style

It’s the post you’ve all been waiting for… would the hospital food kill me even if the ferocious midwives didn’t? Would the baby actually come out looking Chinese and cause the biggest marital upset in expat HK? Would an unscrupulous mainlander steal Olsen jnr from the ward nursery and sell the little mite into the white slave trade?

The answer to all these questions is of course… No! We are pleased to report the arrival of young Dominic Richard in the family, on Sunday 21st of April 2013. The story began last summer when we discovered we were expecting while in Dorset with the family. Upon returning to HK, I immediately consulted my health insurance package for details. The Matilda is the renowned HK hospital-come-hotel where any self-respecting expat books in for a birth.  The first hurdle was that ‘Here for Good’ does not automatically equate to Here at the Matilda, and the health insurance stretched to a meagre HKD10,000 vs the accepted HKD 100,000 for a normal birth with no complications. I consulted a friend who’d delivered at the public hospital, and was pleasantly surprised to hear her story. As the daughter of a proud and life-long public health service employee, I decided to give it a go. So my ‘care’ was cobbled together from the man who did scans in the floor above the bank Compliance department in Central, a team of bonkers but wonderful European midwives operating out of another office building, and the hospital itself.

All progressed smoothly until week 37 when I was finally due to report back in at the hospital. The doctor, the indomitable Diana Chung (appearance = 25 years), noticed I had a cough and immediately put two and two together with the report of a strange, albeit dormant, lung condition on my notes. She instructed me to be admitted To The Ward immediately. I refused; it was the Friday afternoon before the Rugby Sevens – Sam was in no fit state to be doing childcare all weekend! So we agreed on the Monday, and I got my first taste of two days relaxing at the Queen Mary Hospital on the ante-natal ward. Silence reigned amongst the 12 of us or so in the ward. In my wing, the other two women lay listless on their beds until visiting hours. Hours which were, incidentally, highly regimented; 3 per day, no kids allowed. If anyone was in labour, it wasn’t noticeable!  The food was pretty grim; Fan Yuu I accepted (fish and rice). The evening’s indiscernible offering was urged against by my fellow patients and fortunately the doctor released me to come home and sleep (and EAT) in my own world.

Released from hospital the following day, the waiting game began; Easter, followed by the due date, came and went. I spent the time crawling around on all fours or bouncing on my ball. Induction? Ten days after due date, they threatened. This seemed reasonable for the so-called ‘regimented’ HK healthcare system. But nature played a fair hand and after a false start on the Thursday evening, Sam headed out to the cinema on Saturday night, almost a week after the due date. I stayed at home watching…. Victoria Wood and Julie Walters (attentive readers, namely MS, may recall the role that Acorn Antiques played in the arrive of Lawrence). By eleven pm, I realised something was afoot, but didn’t bother to call the Icelandic midwife since we’d rather disappointed her earlier in the week!

By 4.30am it was time to wake Sam and make that call; “Go to Hospital Now”, came the response. Downstairs, trying to call a taxi; Daai tou po (Big tummy lady) I told the late night doorman whose English was worse than my Cantonese, gasping between contractions. (Sam was upstairs getting the car keys). No taxi in sight, so into the trusty Mazda 5 we climbed, up the hill, over the numerous sleeping policeman in the car park at the hospital. Then the longest walk through hospital corridors. Walk interspersed with clutching of stomach while on knees that Sam later reported was a bit over-dramatic. No-one around to see it anyway; peace reigns after hours at QMH!

I shall spare the general public the gorier details, but here are a few highlights; the midwives – all be-masked of course (and one even be-spectacled in some of those glasses people wear for DIY), Pamela, Jennifer, and Maggie, were a force to be reckoned with. Yes, NHS pundits, there were three of them there, just for me, for the two or so hours between us arriving and D appearing. Maggie in particular clocked me as quick as a flash… ‘Will somebody help meeee?!’ I shouted, grabbing her hand. ‘STOP squeezing my hand, you are hurting me’ she commanded, knowing full well that if I relaxed my hand I may well relax the rest of my body. Eventually they grew tired of my weak westerner howls and filthy language and told me that the baby would come out quicker if I shut up. Hmmm.  At one point a doctor made the mistake of entering the room. “This is the obstetrician” announced Jennifer with tangible disdain, “If baby doesn’t come out soon she will use ventouse, forceps, episiostomy….”. The said Dr. Mok (appearance = 17 years, honestly), took one look at the scene and fled.  Back to Mags, Jen and Pam and the piece de resistance of their approach: ‘Now time to try traditional Chinese squatting pose’. Well, I’d recommend it to anyone, but like I said will leave out the gory parts. Expectant mothers feel free to get in touch.

Dominic appeared shortly afterwards, as the sun rose over Telegraph Bay on the western side of HK island. It’s a stunning view from up there on the delivery floor!  An hour or so later I was marshalled to the ward by a series of rather lumpen orderly/nurse types. Thereafter followed 48 extremely relaxing hours, visited by dear husband during visiting hours, handing over the little one to the nurses whenever I wanted a sleep. Their attitude was a refreshing; ‘Baby not always need to eat, sometimes good just to cry and exercise lungs’ as he was marched off to the nursery area with the other tiny babies. The Chinese visitors came in floods; it is considered quite rude not to turn up the day of the birth, quite the opposite of the Western way.

Two days later, I was safely installed back at home, and Lawrence was introduced to his little brother. They think each other totally smashing already!

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