Hong Kong 1997 Diary

Slightly incoherent reports typed on the road from cybercafes, friends' houses, poolside hotel terminals, etc. I also took lots of photos.

April 23

I'm leaving today for New Orleans.

If you'd like to get a post card, please write to me at:

Jim Rees
American Express Client Mail
New World Tower Ground Floor
16-18 Queen's Road, Central
Hong Kong

I'll be at this address from mid-June to early July.

May 1

I had a productive weekend in New Orleans at the jazz fest. Frankie Ford doing "Sea Cruise" was just one of the highlights. I also saw Los Babies del Merengue at the Dream Palace, the Soul Rebels brass band at the Dragon's Den, Rosie Ledet at the bowling alley, and a Cuban funk band.

I spent a couple nights in El Paso and walked over the border into Juarez, which is a typical border town.

I'm in Tucson now at the Hotel Congress, leaving for LA on the Sunset Limited tonight.

Cinco de Mayo

I managed to hit three different Cinco de Mayo fiestas, in Juarez, L.A., and San Francisco. The L.A. one was the best, with bands on several stages, and Mexican folk dancing. I'm in San Francisco now, getting visas and an airplane ticket to Japan.

May 9

I'm in Tokyo, at The British Council Library. Love this place. More later.

May 13

Still in Tokyo. I like it here. I'm at the cybercafe in the Sony Building. Everything works in Japan. You don't even see burned out light bulbs. On Sunday I went to Yokohama to meet Japan's biggest surf music fan. He's got thousands of records and drives around town in an Indian Ambassador car. I'm going to Nara City tomorrow by shinkansen, then to Hiroshima.

May 26

My favorite Japanese soft drink is Sparklin' Beatnic. Just the thing to wash down a stick of squid jerky, which you can get at a Let's Kiosk. The drink, along with beer and almost anything else, comes from a vending machine. My favorite car is the Careena.

After Tokyo I went to Nara, which has (they say) the world's biggest wood building and bronze casting. Also a cool bar called Nara Sound, run by a woman I met in Jamaica a few years back. Then Osaka, a big friendly mess.

Hiroshima was interesting, and all the A-bomb stuff is fascinating in a morbid way. There is a plaque marking the spot the bomb detonated above, now a hotel. Also a museum full of things like watches that stopped at 8:15 am, lumps of melted coins, burned clothing, and before-and-after photos.

At Shimonoseki I walked through a pedestrian tunnel from Honshu (the main island) to Kyushu (the southern island). Then took a ferry boat to Pusan, Korea.

Pusan is full of Russian sailors. They come here to shop. There is a fish market where you can have an eel skinned alive and cooked for your lunch.

In Taejon the latest fad is tiny little poodle dogs. They dye the fur pink around the ears and tails. There was an earthquake one morning, the second since I left on this trip (the other was in Tokyo). It was only a 3.8 but was in the papers the next day. It felt like more than that in the hundred year old building I was staying in.

Seoul is a great place, which is a good thing because I'm stuck here for at least a week waiting for a visa for China. The Chinese embassy took my passport, so I can't even visit Panmunjom while I'm waiting. My $12 a night guesthouse has Internet access, laundry, and a kitchen, and interesting fellow travellers from Bolivia, Sudan, Uganda, New Zealand, and other corners of the earth. Right now I'm sitting in the local cybercafe, drinking Hite beer and listening to K-pop on the radio.

May 31

Still stuck in Seoul. My visa for China should be ready Monday. Tuesday I'll go to Panmunjom and the DMZ to get a look at the North. That's as close as I'll get on this trip. They want $700 for a four day tour of North Korea, and I certainly don't want to give them that much money, even though I hear the food is good.

On Wednesday I'll take a slow boat to China, 24 hours from Inchon to Qingdao. Then a 31 hour train trip to Xian to see the terra-cotta army. I'm also hoping to get to Chengdu, Lijiang, Yangshao, and Guilin. I'll do as much of that as I can and still get to HK by July 1.

Seoul is being rocked by student demonstrations. The President's son has just been arrested in a corruption scandal, and the President has hinted he might resign. There are busloads of riot police everywhere, and a woman at my guesthouse was teargassed last night.

A reporter came out and did a story on our guesthouse last week, and I got my picture in the paper. A Korean woman I met in Istanbul two years ago saw the story, recognized me from the picture, and called me at the guesthouse. Last night she came over and took me to a traditional Korean musical show. It was quite a production, with a 15 piece orchestra, lots of singing and dancing, and a dozen costume changes, including one Vegas showgirl number. The story was pretty easy to follow even if you can't speak Korean, about a woman who must choose between two men to marry, one who is rich and one who loves her. She makes the wrong choice and ends up dead.

June 3

One of the highlights of any trip to South Korea is the Kimchee Museum. Don't miss it.

My visa came in yesterday, and tomorrow I'm leaving for China.

Today I toured Panmunjom and the DMZ. Creepy but fun. You can stand right next to a North Korean soldier, and even get your photo taken with them. But they don't just stand there like a Buckingham Palace guard, they move around and gesture, trying to get a response. They scowl and look intimidating. One of the rules is that you can't respond to anything they do. It would be funny if it weren't so serious.

I'm still avoiding the teargas. After Jerusalem and the Intifada I have no taste for it.

I just read in the paper today that my worst travel nightmare is coming true. After eight weeks on the road I will arrive in Hong Kong to find that the Chinese are celebrating July 1 with the world's largest karaoke sing. I guess I'll have to learn the Cantonese words to "Pearl of the Orient."

June 17

I'm in Dali, Yunnan Province, China. Sitting by the pool in my $5 hotel using the computer and drinking beer. More later, I'm having too much fun now.

July 14

Conditions in China are still very primitive. One day I was sitting by the pool and ordered a mai tai from the bar. Not only did it come in a plain glass, there wasn't even a paper umbrella.

But China has changed a lot since my last visit in 1989, just after the Tiananmen Square incident. At that time, China was very much a communist country. Under classic communism, everyone has plenty of money but there is nothing to buy. The Russians used to say, "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work."

Now China is more capitalist than we are. There are expensive department stores, and TV shows lots of consumer goods that the average citizen has no hope of ever beeing able to buy. There is a huge gap between the richest and poorest.

On the tourism front, I recommend a trip to Xian to see the terracotta army. I also spent a few pleasant days in Chengdu, and in Lijiang, which was destroyed by an earthquake a couple of years ago but rebuilt in the traditional way.

I got stuck in Kunming, ran out of time and ended up flying from there to Guangzhou.

The handover (armover, legover, whatever) was fun but would have been more fun if I were royalty. There was relatively little for the commoner to do. The fireworks were spectacular but it's hard to get a good viewing spot in a city of three million that's infested with skyscrapers. I watched from the roof of Chungking Mansion with a hundred other budget travellers. This amazing 20 storey firetrap has about a hundred guesthouses mixed in with Nepalese and Pakistani resturants, T-shirt shops, and money changers.

At midnight I headed over to the Lan Kwai Fong expat bar district, which probably has more bars per square foot than any other place on earth. In spite of this, I was unable to even get near a bar for a drink. I've never seen so many people in one place.

After this madness I had to go someplace cheap, so now I'm in the Philippines. Last time I was here was also 1989, and I had to leave in a hurry when there was a coup attempt. This time I'm trying to see more of the country, so I'm down in Cebu right now. My plan is to island-hop my way back to Manila via Bohol, Negros, Boracay, Samar, etc. So far I love it.

July 27

I've been island-hopping through the Visayas for the last couple of weeks. That's the island chain right in the middle of the Philippines. From Luzon I went to Cebu, Bantayan, Negros, Siquijor, Bohol, and Mindanao. Right now I'm in Cagayan de Oro, a nice compact city. I'm at the Internet Avenue cybercafe. I'll be going back to Manila soon and then fly to Bangkok.

The Philippines is an interesting blend of Spanish and American colonial cultures along with the Asian. It's possible to go to Betty's Burger Joint on the town square, order a bowl of noodles, and be told the price in Spanish.

There are over 7000 islands here, and only about 2000 are inhabited. It's not too hard to find a deserted beach if that's what you want.

The Philippines is known in Asia for the quality of its musicians, and last night I went to see a very competent band play 70s funk.

July 31

Just landed in Bangkok last night. Or maybe it was two nights ago. Food is good, beer is not as cheap as Manila, but the coffee is better. Lots of good live music. Tonight I'm going to the boxing stadium to see some Thai kick-boxing.

August 5

Bangkok has quite a few cybercafes. Right now I'm at one in the Imagine record store.

Today I went for a walk along one of the klongs, the canals that used to criss-cross Bangkok but now have mostly been filled in. Lots of little old wood buildings built on stilts over the water.

Tonight I'm leaving for Issan, in the northeast. It's my favorite part of the country. The Thais consider it hillbilly territory and avoid it. The tourists consider it boring and avoid it. I find the people are wonderful. It's where I learned to speak Thai (what little I know) and now Bangkok residents laugh at my hick accent.

Last night I went to see a Thai Elvis impersonator. He put on a better show than some American Elvis impersonators.

August 11

I'm in San Francisco, at the Public Library, which provides free Internet access. Maybe that's why there are no cybercafes in this otherwise cosmopolitan city.

It took 40 hours to get here from Bangkok, including an eight hour layover in Manila, where I had lunch at the Swagman Hotel, and an unscheduled stop for engine repairs in Honolulu. I tried to get the airline to let me stop over there and take a flight the next day but they wouldn't let me.

My last day in Bangkok I went record shopping. I found a street with used record stores and bought half a dozen 45s with cool sleave art, go-go girls, hot rods, etc. The music is surprisingly good too, Thai surf and mod bands from the 60s.

August 21

I'm back in Ann Arbor. I'll probably scan in some photos and write up some stories soon. Check back in about three weeks.

[Boat] Back to Travel and Culture.

Jim Rees