Will they find the black box?

If you haven’t already read Flying Low and Flying Low II: Ground Proximity Alert, you should start there.

The Aviator has crashed and burnt! It’s been deserted, darkened, with a bike lock through the door handles for some weeks now. The varnish outside is flaking away. The whole place dragged out of the sky in a stall induced by epic fail.

But how could this happen in a busy, highly-populated area like Tung Chung, where there are so few other bars to choose from? Could it be:

  • that they never, ever changed their tedious and bland menu?
  • that their food and drink were recklessly overpriced, especially given the quality?
  • that their beer selection was minimal and consisted of the same brews sold everywhere else (if I wanted Carlsberg I’d get it from 7-Eleven; sell me something interesting!)?
  • that their buffet was covered in flies?
  • that their staff had been taught a special facial expression of greeting (best described as “oh crap, here’s another one”)?
  • that the place had the atmosphere of a food court, and did not encourage lingering (more like The Autopilot, quite often)?
  • that the service was incredibly slow, and you’d often spend as long waiting for your pint as you would spend drinking it?

Or perhaps it was just bad luck. Who can say.

Moving on, fingers crossed that something actually good replaces it. Not just another chain restaurant/bar. Something with the pizzas of Wildfire, the beer selection of the East End Brewery, and prices from the Mainland. Not a chance, obviously.

More supermarket shenanigans

Apropos of the previous blog post, something else I’ve noticed that they do in Taste/Park’n’shop is to leave the “This product is out of stock” label covering the shelf prices of products that are clearly in stock and piled up right there in front of you.

Why else would they do this, except to prevent you seeing the unreasonably high prices they charge? The individual items are not marked with prices, so the shopper relies on the shelf price. I have started confiscating “out of stock” tags that are untrue, so the prices are visible once again. I have quite a few already.

Truly, I wish there was somewhere else I could shop. There is a Wellcome in Tung Chung, but it’s woefully local and sells very little of any use.

Whine tasting

My local supermarket, Taste (part of the Park’n’Shop empire), pulled a neat bait and switch on me this evening. Many times on other blogs, or the estimable Not the South China Morning Post web site, I’ve seen articles about Park’n’Shop’s dubious product labelling practices. Today, they got me.

I was in the wine section. They had Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay.

(Wine tasting sidebar: Yes, I know Banrock Station isn’t elite or special, but the unwooded chardonnay is a nice quaffing wine, versatile for cooking, and it’s generally reliable. Suggestions for other wines to try are always massively welcomed, but lectures about my poor taste in Aussie whites will force me to open a Leeuwin Estate and not share it with anyone.)

The wine was labelled at $59 each or $100 for two. I took two.

At the cash desk, the special offer did not materialise. I got charged full price. I complained, and they said there was no special offer on the wine. I went back to check, and this is what I found:

  • The special offer price tag was for “Banrock Station Sem. Char.” You may safely assume the use of tiny print.
  • There was no Banrock Station Semillon Chardonnay anywhere in the wine section
  • There was no price tag anywhere for the Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay
  • The price tag for the Semillon Chardonnay was directly under the Unwooded Chardonnay bottles, up at one edge of the shelving.

Bah, humbug, Park’n’shop. You may be technically in the right, but I have no doubt that this little stunt was deliberate. You do know, Mr Li, that this is a shabby way to treat customers? You do know that this is a cunt’s trick?

So, what’s the big deal? It’s $18 difference. It’s nice wine. I’d probably have bought two bottles anyway, as I have a risotto to cook tomorrow. It’s simple enough: when I shop for food, I don’t want to be on tenterhooks looking for scams all the time like I’m in some crazy grocery-related find-the-lady game. Food-shopping is one of our most basic needs; one would expect it to be accompanied by some basic decencies. Now I know better; it’s time to learn some Cantonese and start shopping at the wet market.

Tung Chung FAQ (part 2)

Apart from people seeking commercial sex in Tung Chung (see the FAQ part 1), the other search engine queries that turn up many times a day are from peckish people searching for food delivery services.

Now, eating out in Tung Chung is woeful, for the most part. We have:

  • The Aviator: poor food at high prices
  • Pizza Hut: poor food at high prices
  • Delifrance: Incredibly poor food at high prices
  • Starz Bar: Microwaved plastic food at high prices
  • Spaghetti House: Bland but inoffensive, although they did once serve a friend of mine with a pizza that included a plastic bag between the base and the topping
  • Food Republic: Well, it’s a food court. You wait ages for your food while standing up, and when you have it you won’t be able to find anywhere to sit. Once you have sat, you are haunted by other people hovering nearby holding rapidly cooling meals and waiting for you to leave. Also, Food Republic manages to have a back door but no front door.
  • That new restaurant under the cable car, whatever its name is: Can’t even be bothered to go look, because the menu they dropped in my mailbox had “Chinese Western-style Food” scrawled all over it, i.e. bad steak, overcooked and served with fried rice. I’m the last person to lambast Chinese food – I love it in all its forms – but they cannot butcher, so anything involving western cuts of meat is a guaranteed failure. Also, some of my chums have tried this restaurant and say it’s pretty bad.
  • KFC: KFC
  • McDonalds: Gone, in accordance with CityGate’s policy that an Outlet Mall must contain nothing other than outlets, which is why we don’t have any HSBC ATMs any more either.
  • Eastern Gate: Nice dimsums (but a very limited menu; where’s the tripe fried in black pepper? where’s the no mai gai?), long, long queue, and the wait staff get incredibly surly if you overstay while they’re trying to set things up for the Sunday afternoon geriatric mah jong sessions.
  • The Thai in the Basement: Some say they like it. I find the food unsubtle and unsophisticated; the sweet-and-sour tastes like ketchup. If you want Thai, go to Melody Thai in Tung Chung Village, where the phanang curry will make you squeak with pleasure, and the full-strength tom yam goong will just make you squeak.

There are other options, but generally I don’t bother eating out in Tung Chung. Kowloon and the Island have a million better alternatives.

You can get food delivered in Tung Chung and it’s not always a bad option. The Handi Tandoori (again, out in Tung Chung Village) does magnificent and authentic Indian food and will bring it right to your door. The aptly named “Pizza and Chicken Experts” will deliver… well, I never used them, but I see their bikes about the place. I assume they’re delivering pizza and chicken.

And now McDonalds claim to deliver as well. I guess they bike it over from Yat Tung, where clothing outlets know their place. In fact I actually tried to order food from MaccyD’s delivery service recently. The nice lady telephonist, whose English was unexpectedly good, told me that “the chef is very busy” and the order would arrive in “one hour and forty minutes”.

Firstly, chef?

Secondly, who waits nearly two hours for a quarter-pounder? McDonalds food is the very last resort for a terminally tired guy who needs a protein-stuffed comfort food fix before lapsing into unconsciousness. It has no features sufficiently redeeming to justify an hour and 40 minutes delay. I cancelled the order and, as a result, added two days to the far end of my lifespan.

And just to annoy all the folks who’ve waded all through this diatribe in the hope of finding phone numbers for Pizza and Chicken Expert, McDonalds, or the Handi Tandoori – yes, I have them all, and no, I’m not publishing them. Not unless they start paying me commission.

Tung Chung FAQ (part 1)

Whenever somebody out there in the great tangle that is the Internet uses Google, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu or any other search engine and somehow lands on my blog, I can see their route to the site. For the non-techie readers I can quickly and easily explain how this works. Whenever you click a link on a web page, your browser requests that page from its web server, and the request includes the address of the page you were on when you clicked the link. It’s called an “HTTP referrer”, and it’s useful to help web site owners work out how people find their web sites.

When somebody uses a search engine, the HTTP referrer usually contains the words that they searched for, and if they’re coming to my site, the search terms get written into my web server log file.

I can see, for example, that somebody found my site just this morning after searching Google for “thousand steps hike hong kong”.

What makes me laugh, however, is the number of people evidently using search engines to seek out seedy nightlife in Tung Chung:

  • “bar girls tung chung”
  • “tung chung escorts”
  • “sauna extras tung chung”

These are just examples, but I see such things all the time. So this entry is by way of being the first part of an FAQ for Tung Chung, based on my web site hits from search engines.

Whoever you people are, researching the dark and secretive underbelly of Tung Chung, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you – but there isn’t one. We’ve only got one proper bar, and it’s enough of a challenge to get them to serve drinks and food, never mind any additional services. The restaurants are all closed by 10:30pm. Even our McDonalds has packed up and gone away. My advice would be: get back to your search engines and focus on Tsing Yi and eastwards. Sleepy suburbia is no place for you!

“Journey of Enlightenment”

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Ngong Ping 360 cable car. It’s strangely unnecessary. Apart from the Big Buddha, which is spectacular enough to be worth a slightly uncomfortable bus ride up the mountain, there was never anything at the top to merit all the tourists that pile up there, so there was no real need for a cable car. They built the bloody awful plastic Ngong Ping village to justify the cable car. Smells of circular logic to me.

Well, good news. At only a year old, the damn thing is crumbling. From RTHK today:

Cable car plunges from Ngong Ping 360 Skyrail line

A cable car has fallen from the Ngong Ping 360 line in Lantau. The car plunged on to a slope below a support tower near the coast in Tung Chung after eight O’clock this evening. Firemen are at the scene, but no one is believed to have been hurt. The trouble-plagued cable-car system was shutdown for three days last week for maintenance. The Chairman of the Legco’s Transport Panel, Andrew Cheng, says the government should immediately stop the cable car service and conduct a thorough investigation into the incident. He also said the whole managment team of the cable car system should be replaced.

It’s a white elephant, it doesn’t bring any extra income into Tung Chung, and its absence wouldn’t be greatly mourned (by me, at least; it would be a blow to the Falun Gong protesters who would have to go and find somewhere else to harangue mainlanders). If they leave the new trail up to Ngong Ping, some good will come of this colossal waste of money.

(Edit: MingPao has pictures.)

Flying low II: Ground proximity alert

A few months back I wrote a ranting diatribe about our local (and practically only) pub in Tung Chung. That’s The Aviator in Tung Chung (Mr Google) to be precise. I’ve been trying desperately hard to be charitable, give them time to accrue experience and work on improving their service, but after last night I’ve pretty much run out of patience.

They have a new waitress: pretty but dumb. And also – it seems – deaf. I visited the pub with two friends. She tried to take our orders while standing at one corner of the table, but could not hear what the lady at the far corner of the table was asking. Did it occur to her (radical thought, I know) to walk around the table to get closer? No – I had to repeat everything on her behalf. In fact, she may be congenitally unable to walk around a table because when the time came for her to place things upon the table, she leaned right across my space, practically dipping her hair into my meal and beer.

The food and beer were ordered simultaneously. The food and beer arrived simultaneously. I don’t mind waiting 20 minutes for a burger, but a pint of Stella should arrive sooner than that. They weren’t exactly busy.

The food, when it arrived, was not what was ordered.

The Stella, when it arrived, was contaminated with cider and practically undrinkable.

The lady in our party was a vegetarian, and she pointed out something I’d not noticed before: The Aviator does not have a single vegetarian main meal on its menu. Not one. My friend ended up with the soup-of-the-day, a side-salad and a bread basket.

On the positive side, the new waitress shut her fingers in the drawer of the cash register.

It’s embarrassing, really. I no longer feel comfortable taking visitors to Tung Chung into The Aviator because I have no idea what incompetence and laziness the serving staff will inflict upon us.

The dreaded lurgy

It’s a springtime tradition. While the swimming pools are re-opening all over Hong Kong, air conditioners are starting to grind into life, and Park’n’shop decorates their stores with unconvincing Easter bunnies, every year I end up with a lower respiratory tract infection. Cue much coughing, phlegm and self-imposed quarantine.

The Quality Healthcare doctor’s surgery in Tung Chung was moved and re-opened some time ago and this (I suppose I should be thankful it took so long) has been my first opportunity to give the new place a try. It’s a significant improvement. The old surgery was almost humorously tiny, with seating for about six people and nowhere to stand. It wasn’t uncommon to see people waiting outside, especially if there were one or more fractious or boisterous kids in there. There was no queue-management system either, just an incomprehensible tannoy. Even the locals had trouble understanding who was being called to the doctor’s room. “Next patient – Shnmrggha”.

Anyway, it seems they were not insensible of their own shortcomings. The new place issues tickets, and a big flatscreen shows your number when you’re due with the quack or at the dispensary. There’s plenty of seating, a television (Chinese channel, of course, but fair enough), a drinking fountain, and space to breathe.

My usual quack, whose name is Dr Natural Chan, was off sick when I visited. (Which presumably means that, for one day only, the Tung Chung Quality Healthcare was an un-Natural Practice *badummm-kish*) Instead I got Dr Dorothy who diagnosed bronchitis, and sent me packing with an assortment of tablets and linctuses (lincti?)

It’s all a far cry from my GP in the UK. The biggest difference that any visitor from England would notice is that I don’t have to make an appointment. In the UK you need to know in advance when you’re going to be ill. If I’d woken up with clogged lungs, a hacking unproductive cough and a fever on Monday, and called the doctors to make an appointment, I’d probably have got to see him by Thursday. If he wasn’t busy. Here, I just wander through the door, take a number, and queue as long as I need to (never more than an hour, generally). Of course, in England my visit to the GP is ostensibly free (although as an income tax payer of long standing, I know that’s hardly the case). My visit to Dr Dorothy cost me $180, which for those of you reading in the Old Country is just a bit under 12 quid. And that includes all the medications.

Well, the tablets seem to be working. I am avoiding the linctus because it knocks me out more effectively than a blow to the head. I will save it for long-haul flights, I think.

Flying low

The Aviator is Tung Chung’s newest pub, and the one that seemed to have the most potential. It’s in a good location under the Mei Tung Street half of Tung Chung Crescent, it’s spacious, and it’s licensed to open until 1am – a luxury, given that Starz Bar (previously the only watering hole within easy reach of the Crescent) starts stacking its tables before 10pm.

At the outset, many locals (myself included) were strongly supportive of The Aviator, voting in favour of their license in the face of opposition from the residents of Block 5, who were objecting on the grounds that drunken gweilos would leer at passers-by, and the vomit from the toilets would exceed the capacity of the estate’s sewers (I kid you not). When the pub finally opened, even before the license arrived, we piled in with cans of beer from 7-Eleven and tried out the restaurant. And later we drank their beer too.

Unfortunately, it’s all been downhill from there. The Aviator’s serving staff are (with a few valuable exceptions) unappealing jobsworths, hopelessly disorganised, and a couple even give the impression of being less than honest with the bills. Some examples:

  • I was in a party of six adults, in the pub for a World Cup match. With us we had the two year old son of one of the couples present. We had a table near the big screen, we’d all had meals, and we were clearly settling in for a long, long drinking session probably involving barsnacks. The little boy had a bottle of a fizzy sports drink from 7-Eleven. One of the waitresses saw him drinking from it, approached the table, addressed him directly, “I’m sorry honey, you can’t drink that in here”, and without further ado or even acknowledging his parents, she took the bottle from him. Cue screams, tears, and said child’s mother taking the waitress to pieces in the middle of the pub. And it was all pointless: they didn’t sell anything the kid would drink, so they weren’t losing any revenue from his fizzy drink.
  • The same waitress, later on, accepted a credit card payment from one member of the party and then failed to return his card. She wasn’t terribly interested in going to fetch it, and then made a huge show – for about ten minutes – of searching high and low for it. Eventually it made it back to the table, but by that time the risk that it had been cloned was too high and he felt it sensible to cancel it and incur the costs of replacement.
  • A pleasant muslim couple of my acquaintance went to The Aviator for some non-alcoholic beverages. They were told to seat themselves anywhere they wished, and since it was after food-service hours, that seemed like a reasonable idea. The serving girl subsequently informed them that the table they had chosen had a mandatory minimum order of $100 a head. Easy enough if you’re drinking beer, but something of a challenge if you’re on cokes and mineral water. Another example of mindlessly following rules and pissing off the customers.
  • On many occasions, the bill has contained drinks that we did not order. Sometimes it’s obvious (e.g. a pint of Guinness charged to a table that had drunk nothing but Stella all evening). I wonder how many times they’ve slipped an extra Stella onto that bill without us noticing. In a crowded establishment this may be forgiven, but on a quiet night in a suburban sit-down bar it begins to look suspicious.
  • The food service is amazingly disorganised. I’ve heard more than one person say they’ve waited so long for their meal that they’ve seen other diners arrive, order, eat and depart before their own food arrived. I’ve ordered side-dishes that haven’t arrived; rather than waiting for them I’ve asked for them to be removed from the bill, but they’re usually still there when it is time to settle up.
  • The sports corner is laid out in such a way that it’s impossible to play darts without spearing a pool player in the head.

I’d love The Aviator to be a good neighbourhood pub. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to provide customer feedback. Often there isn’t even anyone there to complain to when things go wrong. On the night of the fizzy-drink-stealing waitress, when we summoned the manager, she informed us that she was in charge. That was a bad omen, right there.

We’ve returned to patronising Starz Bar. It might close early but the staff are delightful, they’ve got a good range of European beers, and the service is impeccable. As long as they keep that up, they’re in no commercial danger from The Aviator.

Recharging

Living in Tung Chung has its ups and downs. Lots of people simply can’t believe that I’d choose to live so far away from the city, and are dumbstruck by the duration of my commute (40 minutes each way).

The commute is easily laughed off. Nothing can be worse than the two hours it used to take me to get from Mortimer to my old office in SW1. I’d have to drive to Reading station, battling my way through the school-run traffic; there would be 13 pounds per day in parking costs. I’d have to wait for a train to London, which would cost about 7 pounds for a single journey (a weekly season ticket would be about 70 quid). The train would be packed when it arrived, so the trip to London would always be standing-room only. Then the tube journey (no extra charge; I’d always get a Zone 1 travelcard), which would be unreliable, crowded and smelly. Finally, the walk from the tube station. The whole journey would be expensive, hectic and draining, and then I’d have to do it all over again in the evenings. Here I jump on the E11 bus. There is always a seat, and the seats are comfortable. I can read, or work, or snooze until I arrive at the office. And it costs a bit less than two pounds each way.

Well then, say the cynics, isn’t it amazingly inconvenient to have to get back to Tung Chung if you want to stay out late in Central or Wan Chai? Not really. In the first instance, we have restaurants and bars here too. But even if I’m carousing until the silly hours in Central, the N11 night bus runs every 40 minutes and will whisk me back home. If it’s really necessary, a taxi will only cost $400 or so. Not cheap, but not much more expensive than a black cab from Leicester Square to Paddington.

But even if the travel is a minor inconvenience that can be tolerated, why should it be tolerated? What is so great about Tung Chung?

Three very obvious things spring to mind. The first is the cheap price of property here. If I wanted a flat like mine on HK Island, I would have to pay three to five times the rent – depending on the area it’s in. The second is the proximity of the airport. It is a luxury to know that – when I step off a long, tiring flight – I have only a five minute bus journey before I get home.

But the main reason is that this is the closest you can get to “rural life” in HK while still being connected. Sure, you could live on Lamma or Peng Chau, or relocate to a shack in the jungle, but the commutes from such places are not half as straightforward… and getting home at 2am when you’re legless is definitely not an option.

You don’t have to wander far from Tung Chung’s town centre before things start to get very rural indeed. I wasn’t up for a full-on hike today; I was pretty tired and my acid reflux was playing up. But it was a beautiful day, so I took a short stroll around the neighbourhood.

Some distance to the west of my apartment block there is a public housing estate called Yat Tung – it’s the largest estate in Tung Chung, much larger than the Fu Tung public housing estate, which I can see from my window. There is a large area of untamed land between here and Yat Tung – a hill that is still overgrown with forest, incongruously dividing Tung Chung into two parts. I went to see it, and now I think I understand why nobody has attempted to develop that area. It is covered in gravesites. The second of the year’s grave-clearing festivals has just taken place, so many of the graves are freshly tended and easy to see; but even in the undergrowth, glazed “ancestor pots” full of bones are clustered together. Many graves are festooned with faded “hell money“.

Descending from the hill, I found a large, fairly modern but derelict building painted in faded green and white. It was clearly from pre-handover days and looked like it had been closed up for some time. The sign on the wall proclaimed that it was the “Traffic division, Islands office Lantau”. I peered through a window, but I couldn’t see very much apart from a 2003 calendar still hanging on the wall.

Just a little further down the road is the Tung Chung Battery – it’s ancient, built at the beginning of the 19th century, and nobody even knew its ruins were still there until they were found by accident in 1980. It’s kept in good order, but nobody goes there. It’s less than ten minutes walk from my apartment, but it is silent and you can see nothing of the developed areas from there, except across to Chek Lap Kok island and the airport buildings.

I sat idly there for half an hour, watching the planes landing across the Lantau strait. The isolation made me feel better; good enough to enjoy the irony of going to a Battery to recharge.