Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I was a "Jesuit" Buddhist Monk

This is part two of my memoirs of my Buddhist childhood.

This is a more detailed description of the Monks and Thailand itself. My previous post described Theravada and its most basic teachings. Now comes the details as they pertain to Thailand.

Going along with my "I was a Catholic Buddhist" then I was a "Jesuit Buddhist Monk" ... Theravada is divided into three main chunks. Going back to the Catholic analogy, that's like saying Irish Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Mexican Catholic. All three are Catholics but they're slightly different in minor ways.

The three main chunks of Theravada are in Sri-Lanka, Thailand, and Burma. Sri-Lanka was first, they were invited into Thailand by King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai Era (13th century) and established the monkhood and ordinations and organziation that would flourish there in Thailand. After the Portugese smegheads destroyed Sri Lankan culture, Thailand returned the favor and Thai monks returned to Sri Lanka to re-establish the monkhood in Sri Lanka. Burma did its own thing ...

... remember... about 12 days after the world was created it was clear about two things. One, that the Irish and the English would never get along and two, that Thailand and Burma wouldn't either. That's a joke. It's also, just about the truth. I'm Thai... not Burmese. Take that into account when I write about Burma.

Well anyway, in Thailand, there are two main orders of the Monkhood. Kinda like Franciscan (or Dominican) and a Jesuit. They're called the Thammayut Nikaya (sometimes spelled Dhammayut) and Maha Nikaya. The Maha Nikaya is older and bigger. It traces its roots back directly to the Lankhan establishment of the 13th century. It's the chilled out, laid back, easy going one. It's more like the Franciscans. Most of the temples in Thailand are Maha Nikaya and most of the Monks are too. The other one, Thammayut Nikaya, is younger. King Mongkut formed it...

that's the same King from "Anna and the King" starring Jodi Foster and Chow Yun Fat or "The King and I" starring Yule Brenner... ps... Anna H. Leonowens was a big liar. Those movies are fiction, not fact. However, they're still good movies.

...when, as a student of the Nikayas, he realized that the practice of the monkhood in Thailand and what the true order of the Monkhood were HORRIBLY out of whack. He then, by Royal Decree, established the Thammayut Nikaya, and did what he felt was some needed housecleaning. The Thammayut Nikaya is a more strict and disciplined order of the monkhood and it was the order to which I was a member.

In effect, I was a Jesuit Buddhist Monk. Now, just because there are two orders, doesn't mean they don't get along. Buddhists in Thailand and across the Theravada world pretty much get along with each other. The differences between them are extremely small. That's why there's no big friction. The current Supreme Patriarch of Thailand and senior big boss of the Thai Monkhoods is a Thammayut Nikaya monk. But he could have just as easily been chosen from the Maha Nikaya order. The Buddhist Temple here in Texas, in Keller out on highway 377, is Maha Nikaya so is a lot more freeform thatn what I was when I was a monk. That said, the head abbot of this Monastery is Thammayut!

Within Theravada itself, there are lots of little... erm... "customs" that have grown up as you can probably imagine with a religion that's two and a half millenia old. Basically, there are three main outlets for a person's devotion:
  1. Concern with and against "evil spirits"
  2. Concern with good kharma and avoiding bad kharma
  3. Nibbanic practice to escape the cycle of life-death-rebirth. Just about everyone in Thailand is a little bit of one, a little bit of another, and a whole lot of a third.

The superstitous folks do a lot to ward evil spirits. The folks in the monasteries are seeking Nibbanic escape. Most folks are just worried about kharma and not getting bad kharma. They all interplay together. The Monks are usually the ones that people will go to for advice or help with the first two. Monks are part wizard, part priest, part psychiatrist, part marriage counselor, and part philosopher. For the third step, they will usually suggest that the person consider joining an order after studying the Nikaya texts and Lotus Sutras themselves.

Well... there ya go.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Growing up "Catholic" Buddhist

Ok, people have heard me joking around and say that I was a "Catholic Buddhist" growing up. It's a phrase I say because it's funny, but there's a lot to it too. What follows is a boring introduction to the Buddhism I practiced as a youth, culminating in a monastery in Bangkok when I was about 13 years old. It's probably boring stuff so read only if you have absolutely nothing better to do.

Ok, first off, before I completely bore the crud out of you let me start with a paraphrasing of one of the teachings of the original dude that most people think of when they say Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince. According to the Lotus Sutras he said that there was only one "Path" to Nirvana, but many "yana" or vehicles.

Fast forward a few centuries (actually 2548 years by the Thai Calendar which starts at year 1 with Gautama's death). There are now MANY yanas. Depending on where you come from in Asia you either believe that there are between one, two, three, four, five, six, nine or twelve vehicles to enlightenment.

The single Yana folks, I jokingly call the Jewish Buddhists. They believe there is only one true vehicle, the Mahayana, and that's it. The nine yana folks are famous because of the Tibetan monks and includes the tantras in their belief system. There are some that are part of a newer 12 yana systems, but I think that's a PC thing that's trying to reincorporate all the various yanas back into one system. I call the 9/12 Yana folks the Unitarian Buddhists. Due to the coolness of the Dhalai Lama, 9 Yana Buddhism is very vogue.

The two yana folks believe in the Mahayana and the Hinayana. Ok, first the word "Hinayana" is insulting to the people who believe in it. Hinayana was a term the Mahayanas used to slam them. "Hina yana" means "Lesser Vehicle" because "Maha yana" means "Greater Vehicle." The people who practice the "Hina yana" in Southeast Asia call it Theravada which means "Teachings of Elders" or literally "Elder's Teachings."

Well anyway, Thailand (and Burma aka Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and parts of south China and Vietnam) is one of the two yana folks. Remember yana just means "vehicle" on the "path of enlightenment."

The Theravadas trace their lineage (from teacher to student) back to the dudes that originally followed Buddha (Gautama) around and learned from him directly, these guys were called the Sthaviras (or in the ancient Pali language, the Theras). Because the Catholics claim their authority from Peter who followed around Jesus Christ, that's why I call the Theravada sect the "Catholic Buddhists."

But that's not the only similarity as to why I call them the Catholic Buddhists. To explain "Maha yana" I gotta talk about something else, the Nikayas. The Nikayas were a group of about 20 schools that accepted as only the Pali Scriptures as being holy and they taught these holy writings in the Pali language. Kinda like Latin for the early Catholic rites. Well anyway, of the 20 Nikaya schools, only Theravada still exists. The rest of them have faded away. Interestingly enough, Theravada was also the first Nikaya and is therefore the OLDEST of the Buddhist sects.
Mahayana Buddhism is younger than Theravada, it doesn't accept the Nikayas as being the ONLY correct buddhist text. It also accepts other languages and other Buddhas (enlightened ones). It was formed in protest and opposition to Theravada in china, vietnam, tibet, korea, japan, and taiwan. That's why I call it the "Protestant Buddhism." Mahayana is more famous here in the USA thanks to the coolness of Kung Fu, Shinto, Zen, and all that martial arts stuff.

In Thailand, we don't have zen, shinto, or shaolin monks. We have Muay Thai aka Thai Kickboxing. You don't practice Muay Thai in a monastery, you practice it in the ring or the back ally. Muay Thai is all about breaking your opponent and making their bones pop. You bring out blood and pain with knees and elbows. Good Muay Thai fighter and good Theravada buddhist are two terms that don't go well together. Usually Muay Thai fighers ENTER monasteries when their time as a fighter is over and they are seeking forgiveness or sinlessness for a life spent hurting people.


Ok if you're still reading, you probably are interested in WHAT the heck Theravada teaches. So here goes.

At the most basic level, Theravada teaches that a person tries to become an Arahant, a Worthy One, and end the cycle of life-death-and-rebirth, where all good things have been accomplished and the spirit is ready to move on because the experiences of mortality are at an end.

The way to end the cycle is through Understanding and Meditation.

Understanding comes from learning. Theravada monks learn many secular as well as religious topics. Some of the earliest schools in Thailand were run by monks and even today, many schools are run/assisted or staffed by monks and are extensions of the monastery. To become enlightened required knowledge. If you're a dirt poor rice farmer in the jungles of north-east Thailand... "public school" is at the local temple. In a way, you could say that the countries that had Theravada Buddhism had "public schools" for centuries before anyplace else.

Meditation was to correlate the human mind with the human spirit. There are three main tricks taught to help attain this. These are the l33t monk skillz that you learn in the monasteries.

  1. Anapana - Control your breathing to control your circulatory system and muscles to attain true physical calm. Chanting is used intially. Then as the student becomes better, nothing is needed except their own mental control.
  2. Vipasanna - Once you're body is calm, now take a look inside your head and figure out your life. Also called "auto hypnosis" you basically know how to reprogram your head to stop bad habits. Basically you put your conscious mind in a state of "auto pilot" and let your subconscious do some work. Takes a lot of training. Yes, this works folks. Look it up in non-religious books on auto-hypnosis and self-meditation. The brain is an awesome computer and Vipasanna teaches you how to rewrite your own code. Usually the Mahayana meditations use "things" to help you focus - crystals, spheres, balls, drums, gongs, etc. etc. - Theravada usually uses nothing. You close your eyes, you sit down, you get inside your own head. Sometimes chanting helps with this as well. However sometimes they'll use flowers (usually an unopened lotus blossom) or incense sticks (old school aroma therapy).
  3. Metta - You seek to understand humans. You start with yourself, seeking to find goodwill and compassion towards yourself. Basically, self-forgiveness. Then you seek to find compassion and goodwill towards your family. Then friends. Then neighbors. Etc. etc. etc. until you have goodwill and compassion towards all humans (pacifist). Then all animals (vegetarian). You eat, sleep, breathe and live "peace, love, and happiness."


Now, once you've got the technique down, correlating the mind and spirit is accomplished in stages:

  1. The first Jhana - meditate to bring your mind into a state of calm. You're learning how to do Anapana.
  2. The second Jhana - "level two" you are meditating for inner peace and harmony. You meditate to fix specific problems with yourself by self analysis and discipline. You're usually a pretty happy person at this point. You've got some skill at Vipasanna.
  3. The third Jhana - "level three" you have attained complete emotional control. Most of the time, you're mellow. You've studied the human heart and histories so much you're a pretty cool person to talk with and learn from. You've got Vipasanna down, you're working on Metta.
  4. The fourth Jhana - "level four" The mind controls all. You really don't have any emotions at this point because you're in total control of yourself. You are pure. A being of pure harmony of mind and spirit. You're also probably fairly detached from the world and the cares and concerns of people. Usually those strange monks on mountains and in deep forests are seeking the fourth Jhana. If you're in Thailand, people will seek you out to ask you questions about their sister, cow, divorce, future, dead cousin, winning lottery numbers, etc. etc.

Through Understanding and Meditation, a person progresses through four stages in the cycle of life-death-and rebirth.

  1. Stream-enterers - You're starting to "get it" and won't sink back into lesser states of being. You're a good person. You belive in yourself, you have faith, you can easily control your doubts. You're an A type personality.
  2. Once-returners - Not only are you a good person, but you also are able to control your lusts, hatreds, and delusions. You try to see truth. You've only got a little bit left to learn.
  3. The Non-Returners - You've got it. You understand the teachings of gautama and have learned to control your desires. If you do return to the mortal life, you do so because you wish to teach. You've attained Nirvana. The Bodhisattva.
  4. Arahant - You're at Nirvana. You're done. You're gone off doing whatever it is that those in Nirvana do. In the Theravada religion, there has only ever been one Arahant that stayed in mortality to teach and that was Gautama. He spoke of the Maitreya (in Pali it's more like "Metteyya"), the future Arahant/Bodhisattva that will come to teach pure Dharma and follow after Gautama.

BAD STUFF

When people or other Buddhists gripe about Theravada buddhists, what do they usually gripe about?

  1. First - they believe in only the Nikayas and teach only in the dead Pali language
  2. Second - they seek enlightenment only for themselves (they don't seek good kharma for others)
  3. Third - Monks and Nuns, they maintain these structures and holy orders and disciplines

Classic Retorts of a Theravada Monk to these criticisms

  1. First - The Nikayas were written by students of Gautama himself. They are the best and most efficient path to true and ultimate Nirvana, ending the cycle of suffering forever. Why shouldn't they be followed? All other Nikaya are derivations of the Lotus Sutras. Pali was the language they were written in and all other languages lose nuances.
  2. Second - By seeking enlightenment for themselves first they avoid hypocrisy and ultimately Buddha taught that one must elevate oneself first. "World peace" happens because teachers pass knowledge to students and by following the process of seeking enlightenment, people find the harmony they need. However, it must begin with the individual.
  3. Third - A monastery or nunery makes it easier to find the order and discipline needed to attain the fourth jhana be reached. If not in a monastery or nunery then alone in the wilderness. Nothing about Theravada requires a monastery or nunery, however, they make things easier. Over 2000 years has shown that only away from the cares of mortality (the running around of ants) can the fourth Jhana be attained. However, Monks and Nuns teach and therefore the relationship between those seeking enlightenment and those that have attained it is maintained in these holy places.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. G.I.Joe.

As a bonus, I included a couple of the chants I remember from my childhood! Wonder what Pali looks like in an english-type transliteration? Read on oh ye glutton for punishment.

Before I went to sleep each and every night, this was my prayer.
"Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma-Sambuddhassa" repeated three times.
It means, "Honour to the Blessed One, the Exalted One, the Fully-Enlightened One."

Each and every morning I remember my Mom chanting this one.

Buddham saranam gacchami (I go to the Buddha as my Refuge)
Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dhamma as my Refuge)
Sangham saranam gacchami (I go to the Sangha as my Refuge)
Repeated three times.

Except the second time you prefix the lines with Dutiyampi which means "For the second time" and the third time you prefix with Tatiyampi which means "For the third time."

And this one too (this one was kinda fun, it's kinda fast and fun to say):
Panatipata veramani sikkha padam samadiyami Adinnadana veramani sikkha padam samadiyami Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkha padam samadiyami Musavada veramani sikkha padam samadiyami Sura meraya majja pamadatthana veramani sikkha padam samadiyami

Which means:
I undertake the precept to abstain from killing living beings. I undertake the precept to abstain from taking that which is not given. I undertake the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct. I undertake the precept to abstain from false speech. I undertake the precept to abstain from intoxicants.

Anyway... there are more. Many many more. If you want to read them google "Paritta chanting" and knock yourself out.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Goodbye Ludo

Today was the funeral for David Strand but I'll never remember him as that, to me he was Ludo.

I first met Ludo playing Live Action games and through the years knew him best for all the hours spent playing online games.

Ludo was the kind of guy that would get into a new game, or into the beta program for a new game, and play for countless hours. I was always amazed at how quickly Ludo would advance in whatever method the game used to measure progress. Ludo was always there, finding new places, besting new monsters, gaining new treasures and learning the tricks and methods of whatever game it was. Then, because it was the kind of guy he was, Ludo would turn around and spend countless hours helping his friends - he'd show us how to do thinks, ways to be more efficient at play, and he would slug it out in whatever method he could to help his friends either catch up with him or at least waste less of their time doing the trivial stuff. Sometimes I would feel like I was horning in on his enjoyment of the game, but every time I'd ask him he'd say that helping his friends was what made the games fun for him. If you were stuck, or needed some particular item that would be difficult for you to get, if Ludo found out you'd be dragged along as he battled whatever it was that got you stuck or you'd find the item in your inbox before you knew it. It didn't matter what game we played, Ludo was always the same. Sometimes Ludo would get upset with a particular game, or a character he was playing, and in true Ludo fashion - no drama, no debate, no muss and no fuss - we'd either find out he had started playing a new game or had deleted his old character to start a new one that didn't have the problems or frustrations that the old one did.

For me, nothing has changed. If I may use the above as an analogy, Ludo is still looking out for us. The Lord offered Ludo a chance to get in early on a new adventure. I imagine Ludo looked around, saw that his current avatar in this game was having a few problems, and decided to reroll his character on a new server. Like always, his choice was sudden and took the rest of us by surprise. For me, like always, when the rest of us finally catch up with Ludo, he'll be there to show us around the new place, help us get adjusted, and if we're stuck or need help with anything, he'll be there. For me, I'll always imagine Ludo in front of a computer (or two) figuring out new ways to play the game. We shall meet again Ludo, of that I am sure.

The following text is Benjamin Franklin's memoirs, he originally wanted it for a gravestone when he was younger, but changed his mind later.
"The body of B. Franklin, Printer
Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author."

Perhaps for those of us that waste countless hours and dollars playing our computer games ours would read..

"The remains of David K. Strand, Ludo
Like and old online game
Ruined by one too many patches
And broken by corrupted files and glitches
Lies here in its box, uninstalled from the operating system.
But the game will go on;
For it will (even if he was skeptical) be played again
Revised with a new graphics and gameplay engine
Perfected and republished
By the Lead Developer."

Rest in Peace Ludo

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Hong Kong #7

Day 7
Tuesday 1/11/05


I left Hong Kong at 12:05 pm local time after going by the office one
last time to say goodbye to everybody and wish James C. a happy
birthday. The flight to New Jersey took 14 and 1/2 hours. When I got
to New Jersey I was reminded again of how rude many yankees can get.
When I was in Communist China, I never once heard over a PA system
"Any unclaimed baggage will be confiscated by the United States
Government" ... nice guys... gotta love the Homeland Security folks,
they just make you feel so welcome. Compared to Hong Kong airport, New
Jersey was a festering cesspool of chaos. 2 hours sitting around
Newark airport and another 4 hour flight later I arrived back home in
Dallas. What a week.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Hong Kong #6

Day 6
Monday 1/10/05
This is my last full day in Hong Kong.

I wish I could say I did something interesting, but really this day
was all about final business. We ate lunch and dinner at the same
chinese restaurant nearby. The only really unique thing I had to eat
was Shark Fin soup. It was good but I probably wouldn't ever order it
on my own, I hate the way the commercial fishermen harvest the fins.
We did a lot of talking then in the evening they helped me go shopping
for trinkets to bring home, including a Chinese style jacket top for
Jay. At last I found a learning Cantonese language course, so I got
that. I spent the rest of the night packing.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Hong Kong #5

Day 5
Sunday 1/9/05

Once again when I got back I was too tired to write so now I've got to update my journal after having slept since then.

At an early hour I woke up, got dressed, and went down for breakfast. By 8:30 we were at the office and everyone met up to head down to the train station. Ken, Jim, and I walked to the station and picked up our tickets to get on the train. The train was very nice, the seats reclined like an aircraft's seat and like most everything else in Hong Kong, it was very clean. It was a Sunday and I was informed that most people were at home so the train would be very empty. It was. We were some of the few people in the car and certainly the only non-chinese (though I come close). The ride from Hong Kong to Dong Guan would take about an hour so I settled in to enjoy the scenery and conversation. The ride out from Hong Kong took us through the New Territories (paradoxially the area was named that a long time ago so it's actually quite old) where we got to see the dramatic drop off in urbanization once you cross the first set of hills. I saw tin huts, concrete scavenged to cobble together stone enclosures, and a lot of rubbish and trash all around. The highway system just shot over all the poverty and into the new housing developments. There were many skyscrapers and apartment buildings all over the place. I'm told that people commute 1 hour each day from the cheaper housing of the New Territories to Hong Kong. To give some sense of cost, in the paper I read about an apartment complex that opened this weekend and people were in line for yards and yards (hundreds of people) to have the chance to sign a lease at $2000 per month in rent for a 500 square foot apartment. The New Territories are larger apartments for cheaper (I didn't find out the percent less).

Quite unspectacularly we crossed the river into China. It really didn't feel that much different at first. Something I would be reminded of over and over again this day would be that China was different in many small ways but very few big ones. The customs agents greeted us warmly, asked us our business in China (and in the time honored tradition of asian businessmen we said 'leisure' to the customs agents) and asked us to please read the health notifications regarding SARS. The little ways that this was different from what I was expecting where the little digital cameras that you hand to stand in front of for three seconds and the fact that they were all wearing army uniforms. I mean the full communist army uniforms, red stars, shoulder boards, patches, jack boots, belt, I mean everything. Once we walked out of the train station Ken negotiated a ride with the cabbies out front. Actually, the cabbies all mobbed Ken and tried to shout each other down trying to get the fare and finally ken picked one based on vehicle size and price. The rest of the cabbies looked sad but then went on (one cabbie smaller) to the next group and mobbed them for their business.

Now I must say something about Dong Guan (the city we were in) and the roads. In the plus column is that the roads are well paved and arrow straight. Cross streets are at 90 degree angles to the main streets and they are very level and smooth. In the minus column is the fact that you have 4 to 6 lanes of traffic where a) there are no highway police b) the white and yellow lines are only suggestions c) there are no traffic signs and very few lights and d) if there's enough room to poke your vehicle's fender in or squeeze by, then there's plenty of room. The trip in the cab was an exercise in street anarchy. I couldn't help but grin the entire time as we were weaving in and out of traffic, squeezing by buses and dumptrucks or were being narrowly avoided by the same. Oh yeah, the sidewalks are not off limits. Motorcycles were everywhere and the best ones were the motorcycle cabs with 4-6 people on them or with only one farmer on it and several bamboo poles loaded down with packages or buckets of produce. One thing I noticed was that the Kawasaki 250 motorcycle was apparently used as the prototype for just about every motorcycle company there. Clone vehicles were everywhere with chinese nameplates I couldn't recognize, though I could recognize the vehicle. I saw a clone Toyota Corolla and tons of Kawasaki motorcycle knockoffs. The best vehicle had to be what Jim and I called "The People's Truck." Imagine if you will a four cylinder engine with two pickup truck wheels attached directly to it via a single axle. Then, put all your controls for that engine and the brakes for the wheels on a pair of long handlebars like a Harley chopper. Then attach this monstrosity to a flexing hitch that is itself attached to a single axle pickup bed that is dragged along behind the engine. Now put a tractor seat on the front part of the pickup bed and put a guy on it holding on the handlebars... that is the People's Truck. We saw it everywhere.

We drove past the largest factory in China. 50,000 employees. Yeah, fifty THOUSAND employees. They make toys for Mattel. Barbie keeps 50,000 people at a single factory working. The Chinese work ethic is amazing. Seven days a week, 12 hours a day, paid once a month... and if you as the factory owner/boss don't give them those hours they'll quit and go someplace that will. China had to legislate a maximum workday of 15 hours to keep national health up, the employees would work and not sleep and get sick. It's funny but in the US we'd think that it was the employers that were forcing them to work these hours, but not here. The factories are communes. The workers live there in apartments sharing the apartment with up to 3 other workers. When they get paid they send up to 85% of their paychecks back home to their parents or relatives in the agricultural commune where they grew up. Everywhere around Dong Guan are "people's gardens" where the communal workers all plant crops, raise the crops, then when they need food just harvest a basketful as needed or for a very small fee. Chinese workers also dress very well, in the factory I saw people airbrushing toys while wearing a sport coat. The ladies usually wear makeup while they work and they generally dress well when not on the clock. The toilets are the old school "squat" style that I remembered from my childhood in Thailand. In the factory we visted there were only one or two "throne" style toilets for foreign visitors. The flush mechanism on the squatters was a water handle you turn on and turn off when you're done. There's no premeasured gallon flush system on those. What little Mandarin I know served me very well in China. I was able to do very rudimentary communication with the factory chief engineer when he was trying to explain some mold and injection molding concepts to me. It was a very productive meeting and we discussed a lot of things that were possible and a few things that weren't. We went to eat lunch and I ate lots of really tasty food, including Duck Tongue, a delicacy. I liked it but I don't think I could recommend it to most folks in the US. You have to break open the duck beak to get to the roast tongue inside. After lunch we visted a Polyurethane factory out in the boondocks (well, it was in the city, but just at the edge so we had to drive offroad to get there). That was very educational as well. Polyurethane is an amazing material.

After the last factory we got back on the train and headed back into Hong Kong. It was dark, but not very late, so Ken and Peter went to go tend to family matters while Jim and I just grabbed some pastries and headed to sleep. This was the most productive day business-wise of my entire trip. I learned a lot about making products in china.

Saturday, January 8, 2005

Hong Kong #4

Day 4
Saturday 1/8/05

We woke up early again, grabbed breakfast, and headed into the office around 11. I was up working on the new game until the first meeting and then went off to discuss more things in preparation for heading to China on Sunday. I am a little sad that I won't be able to attend Sacrament service here in Hong Kong with the english speaking ward on Ku Shek street but I'll be far away by 11 tomorrow. Oh well. At lunch time we grabbed a bite to eat at the KFC near the office. The chicken was as good as in the states except they give you only one or two napkins but several thin plastic gloves and a moist towelette. I ate the chicken with a glove on and didn't really need the napkin since my hand never got greasy. I wonder if that would work in the states? I figure most Americans would be too lazy to even bother to put the glove on. Well, it works for us, we've got lots of napkins to wipe up the grease. Though the moist towelette would be a nice touch.

After lunch I went to a tailor and commissioned him to make me two suits and two nice 100% cotton shirts. He's not the cheapest tailor, but he has email and will keep my measurements on file. If I ever want something else, I am told to email him and he'll ship me the clothing item in the mail. I got two pinstripe two button conservative "classic" suits in a charcoal grey with pinstriping and two nice blue shirts with collar buttons and french cuffs for $1000 Hong Kong or $140 dollars. After the tailor we went back into the office for more projects and after it was all done Jim and I went out on the town with James. Ken went to go see his mother-in-law and fiance for pre-wedding planning.

So tonight, a Saturday night, I met "filthy gwailo" and discovered exactly why at times I am embarrassed by my fellow countrymen when I am overseas.

The first event was when we met up with a dozen or so american sellers and reps for the various toy companies in the Regal Kowloon hotel's smoking lounge. They were all getting drunk (one guy had several Vodka and Scotch on the rocks) and most of them were at least 3 beers into their cigars. The place smelled awful. Like most asian hotels, this room was waited on by two very lovely local girls in nice skirt suits and perfect makeup and hair. You can imagine the looks they got from these mostly married guys. They weren't, thankfully, touchy feely gwailo, I think the high dollar cost of the Regal Kowloon prevents the truly scum sorts from staying there. I don't want to be completely unfair to these gentlemen, I'm sure that when they're not together like a pack of hyenas they're nice guys. I am just going from firstimpressions and that's not always a good thing.

Anyway, I just sat there and listened. I am a representative of a manufacturer so I'm not fully part of the gang. I'm happy for that, let me tell you. One, business was bad all over the world it seems. There was a rep from Ireland, Australia, the US (of course), and Canada. They were all men. They were all complaining of how broke they were... sitting there in their tailored suits not made locally, one was in a Donna Karen NY suit with gold jewelry and high dollar watches... but it seems that sales where horrible compared to last year. Their primary gripe was that there were no major blockbusters with good licensing potential and no new fad toys. Their secondary gripe was of course the general downturn in the global economy. Every one of them asked me about Reaper and what we're doing next year, our new products and releases, and if we had any plans for collectible games. It was clear they were fishing to see if we would provide some flashbang for this year. They're hopeful, all indicators they talked about point to a better 2005 than 2004.

We then walked to Delaney's an Irish Pub near the Peninsula Hotel.This part of town is where all the tourists are. The street hawkers were thick as fleas. I moved my wallet and passport to my left front pocket and kept my hand in my pocket. I remembered reading in the airport that pickpockets were an issue. Apparently these pickpockets are from mainland China primarily. In the pub I ate one of the best Irish stews I've had in a long time. It was actually made with lamb from New Zealand and fresh bread with lots of potatoes and spices. The entire pub was full of British and American tourists and businessmen. The wait staff wasn't even Chinese, they were Filipino or American and spoke flawless English. We watched a rugby game on the wall from a projector. The entire place really felt like that it was the English-speaker's club. There was no hint to it being in Hong Kong at all except for the waitresses but once they spoke we could have been anywhere.

On the walk back we went to a music and video store. That took us deeper into the seedy part of town. We walked past a few dance and strip clubs. The worst part about those for me was the fact that the guys standing our front were just biggest slimeballs I've ever seen. Then even worse than them were the old grandmothers that would say "Hey, come in! Pretty girl! One trick before you go home" ... these were old ladies, I really mean Grandmothers. There were lots! Take your pick of seedy suit wearing slimeball or evil madame ... sheesh. As you can imagine, here in the seedy part of town were all the tourist faces. They didn't outnumber the chinese faces but they were about fifty-fifty. I'll be racially biased for a moment... they entire time I've been in Hong Kong there is one skin color I have not seen... black. Why is it that once I enter the seedy part of town, they're everywhere? They were Malay and Indians and a few Caribbean blacks, maybe Haiti or Jamaica. I didn't hear any British or American accents from them. Once we left that part of town, all I saw was asian and caucasian skin again. Is there some kind of political segregation going on? What's the deal?

As we came back after dropping James back off at his hotel we went past the Paris Club again, there I was actually propositioned by a hooker, referred to here as "Hello" girls. Prostitution is apparently legal or something in Hong Kong but solicitation is technically not (but it's only enforced when the cops want to enforce that). So the street hookers always begin conversations with "Hello" and allow the tourist or businessman to make the first questions about price, etc. etc. and that's how they avoid the whole "no solicitation" law... hence the name "Hello" girls. I have learned that most of the girls out on the streets are from mainland China. They come to Hong Kong to sell their bodies to tourists and businessmen because they can't in China (prostitution is illegal there and vehemently enforced) and because they want a shot at a more glamorous lifestyle in Hong Kong. I felt sorry for the hello girl that I saw, I could tell by her accent that she was not a Cantonese speaker. I wonder what kind of damage movies like Pretty Woman to do girls like her. I wish her luck and the opportunity to get out of that industry with her health and life intact and soon. In any case, we got back to the hotel room and I crashed. Tomorrow at 8:30 I get on a train for mainland China.

Hong Kong #3

Day 3
Friday 1/7/05

Woke up at O'Dark Thirty to see if I could find a Tai Chi group in the park. I was awake and wandering around Hong Kong's Tsim Tsa Tsui district at 4:30am this morning alone. In any other city I think I would have felt ill at ease, but not here. Here I just strolled around and enjoyed the cool morning air. I did find out that 4:30am is when all the girls are leaving the night clubs and heading home. There was one club, the "Paris Club" and all the go-go dancers were walking out of it as I walked by. A very smart noodle cart vendor parked her cart right in front of the club and was selling hot noodles to all the girls as they came out. Now that right there is a textbook example of"early bird gets the worm" and capitalism at its finest. There were red taxi cabs parked ALL OVER Tsim Tsa Tsui to take the girls home and there wasn't an unclaimed curb to be found at 4:30am. Anyway, I pulled up my hood and kept walking. Luckily I look enough like an asian (a 6 foot tall half asian wearing a Texas A&M baseball cap) but in any case none of the girls tried to pick me up or anything like that. I wandered around for a while, no Tai Chi folks, and went back to my room.

We grabbed breakfast at 7am and went shopping for souvenirs. As we passed the park I scoped out earlier in the morning I saw elderly folks finishing up their Tai Chi... curses... I woke up too early.

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Since our meeting wasn't until 11am we chose to go walk over by Victoria Harbour which was awesome since it's connected to the Hong Kong Walk of Stars which is dedicated to the actors and film industry of Hong Kong.

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As we walked past the Walk of Stars there was a group teaching tourists Tai Chi in English for free. Well guess where I was for the next hour.

That was absolutely awesome. We went through 10 forms (the very basics) and then we did those 10 forms over and over to the music from Once Upon a Time in China. So there I was, doing Tai Chi, in Hong Kong, to the music of one of the coolest martial arts movies ever with about 20 other people all lined up in lines and rows like what you see on the television. That was just freaking cool. After we did those forms for a while, the lesson ended with the main instructor and his wife or primary assistant doing the full Tai Chi Long Form with combat fans in their hands. That was awesome, the male instructor opened and closed his fan all through the kata and the lady instructor showed it with the fan closed and reversed (used like a club). When we finished I used what little cantonese I knew as well as my knowledge of the Kung Fu hand gesture (right hand in a fist touching the first finger knuckle to your first finger on your left hand which is held open) to say thank you to the sifu, which made him laugh and clap me on the back and say "Very good young man! Very good!." His next free demo is Monday morning at 8am... guess where I'll be at 8am on Monday?

Anyway, we went shopping and I found lots of little cheap trinkets and a few less cheap trinkets and also a few not even remotely cheap trinkets. Then we went to our meeting and we broke up late for lunch in the downstairs chinese restaurant (same place as dinner from yesterday). I ate a little of everything, Jim again just ate the rice, the beef dish, bok choy and avoided everything else. I even tried the steamed chicken foot... that was an experience. It was actually quite tasty but the texture took a little getting used to. After lunch we went back for meetings until the evening when the L's needed to do a few more meetings. The big thing today was getting the visa for us to be able to enter mainland China. We started the paperwork in the morning and them by 6pm. By then Ken and James had come back from China and had things to do so the company sent Jim and I out to see Hong Kong with Karen and Purple showing us the sights. They took us to the Peak, the highest point in the Hong Kong area. You can only get thereby hiking trail (bad idea) or by the Tram (much better). It is an amazing view from up there. I snapped some pictures then we wandered around the mall up there and then caught a ride over back to town.

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As we walked back we caught the Harbour ferry and rode it across the water. It's awesome to be in a place where the government hasn't gone crazy trying to protect people from themselves yet. That boat rocked and rolled on the waves when it was moored to the pier and you had to catch the gangway just right to get on. It was really fun. We rode across the water and there was a nice breeze, the view from the ferry was fantastic. When we got off the ship it was another adventure in timing to get back on the dock. After walking on the walk of stars at night and seeing it all lit up we trotted back into Tsim Tsa Tsui.

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We met up with everyone (Jim, me, Ken, Peter, Purple, Karen, James) for Pizza Hut and had spicy pizzas (Tabasco sauce in the tomato sauce and chilis on the toppings... it was good). We then walked back to the hotel and called it a night. My feet and back were really tired so I took a long hot bath and crashed deep.

Observations made today

  1. Street hawkers around the Peninsula Hotel will try to sell you watches, hookers, and cheap suits. So apparently if you want to avoid being bothered in Hong Kong you need to wear a suit, have a cheap rolex knockoff on your wrist clearly visible and go with your wife everywhere.

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  1. Hong Kong has people here from everywhere. At the Peak I overheard Italian, Japanese, English in the three major accents (standard midwest american, british, aussie) plus one guy that I think was canadian. I also overheard tagalog, russian, german, and french as well as both flavors of Chinese. It's funny but I can immediately hear the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese now. They sound so different.
  2. It's not quite like Thailand in the sense that prices are so cheap that you don't want to haggle. The only problem is that I can't even speak enough basic cantonese to haggle even a little bit. Still, prices here are half to one-third the cost of a similar item that you try to find in the US. The only exception are high end electronics that are only a few percent cheaper here.
  3. American chain restaurants are nicer here than in the states. Iwould be embarrassed to take somebody from Hong Kong to a McDonalds, Pizza Hut, or KFC in the US after eating in them here. There's something to be said for top notch uniforms. In the US the employees would probably destroy the uniform so I bet it would never work. I have come to understand that they get one uniform cheap, they have to take care of it or the replacement is garnished from their wages, and they're required to wear it or they can't work there. These uniforms would cost an arm and a leg from the US. The same one I see over and over again is a golfer's visor, a collared shirt, necktie and vest with slacks. Those that bus tables or that might get dirty like a cookwear a polo shirt and an apron instead of the nice shirt and vest. The necktie looks like a clip on.
  4. A lot of Americans I've known like to look down on other countries as being lesser somehow. After experiencing what Hong Kong (called the Jewel of Asia or The World City) has to offer after only a few days, I can't think of many cities that offer as much in such a small space for dirt cheap, cleaner, and with nicer people all rolled into one package. It's like being in a small Texas town where everybody is friendly but multiply that home feeling by a factor of 100 and give it a billion dollar budget and skyscrapers.
  5. Disinfectant alcohol gel based Hand Wash. If you ever come to Hong Kong bring it. I learned that ever since the SARS and chicken flu epidemics this city has developed a desire to keep their hands disinfected and clean with a vengeance. Once nice thing to offer to people is a little bit of your hand wash. You'll see them all over the place on men and women.

Friday, January 7, 2005

Hong Kong #2

Day Two
Thursday 1/6/05

Woke up this morning at around 7:30am. Opened the window and lookedout on Hong Kong, wow. I saw tall buildings, ships sailing in the harbour, a misty early morning haze (part fog, part smog) and it was just lovely.

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We went down and grabbed breakfast at the hotel kitchen,a very nice contintental breakfast but it also had Dim Sum and a fewother Chinese breakfast staples. Then we walked around Tsim Tsa Tsui (the name of this urban district) and grabbed some pastries and then went into the office. We met Purple L., Karen (I didn't catch her last name), David S. (another UK buyer) and exchanged pleasantries for a little bit. The seemed very busy so I used this opportunity to head to the Hong Kong Temple for a few hours.

The Hong Kong temple is very pretty (aren't they all?) and vertical.

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You enter at ground level and use the elevator to go everywhere else. Offices on the second floor, and all the other rooms go up from there.

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The highest floor in the Temple (the fifth floor) is where the Celestial Room is that you can see in the LDS "Temples" Magazine. I met the stake president and he taught me a few Cantonese words and phrases and discovered that today is the Area Temple day. Had I been able to come in at 9am I would have been in a session with the Area Authorities and Mission Presidency. I was wondering why there were so many Elders here today.

I rode the cab back to Tsim Tsa Tsui and we did more preliminary business stuff, mostly Jim's, tomorrow is set aside for my company. Then we went to dinner at a Chinese Restaurant (they're all the same, big room, big round tables, family seating) and ate some various Chinese dishes, lots of stir fry and steamed foods. Jim's a "meat and potatos" American so he didn't eat but a little bit of most of the dishes. He ate the rice, a beef dish, and lots of Bok Choy (chinese spinach I guess would be a good translation) but passed on most of the other things. Me? I'm part Thai and jungle people can eat anything so I fit right in at dinner. If the chinese were eating it, so was I.

Observations made of Hong Kong after one full day:

  1. Red cabs are for Hong Kong and Tsim Tsa Tsui and environs, Blue Cabs are for much longer trips
  2. Hong Kong is clean. I mean really really clean. They have no welfare system. If you want money for food, you work. They had streetsweepers out at all hours and even the cabs are cleaned regularly. If the cab has no fare, they fill up a water pail and wipe down the cab.
  3. Hong Kong feels comfortable. This area (Tsim Tsa Tsui) is mostly Chinese, not a lot of tourists, and you feel very much at ease here. No creepy looking thugs that look like they'll pick your pocket or rob you. I discovered the crime rate is very low as well, violent crime just isn't common according to the folks I talked to.
  4. Most everybody speaks at least pidgin English. However, Cantonese is king here. I was told that my Mandarin (what little I speak) is almost flawless but my Cantonese needs help. I'm going to have to learn Wongtongwa (Cantonese) first it seems. Mandarin is easy compared to Cantonese. I've listened to Mandarin and Cantonese side-by-side and Cantonese sounds prettier, I like it a lot.
  5. Hong Kong is just about unaffected by the 1997 handover back to China. This place feels like the most cosmopolitan place I've ever been. Business practices are more heavily influenced by the British than anything noticeably Chinese.
  6. Get an Octopus Card. These are credit card sized bits of plastic that you can get just about anywhere. They're an RFID card connectedto the Hong Kong Bank or some other financial institution like that.You can "recharge" them at any Circle K or Seven Eleven and they actas Urban Debit cards. Use them at convenience stores, bus stations, subway stations, railway stations, and on the harbour ferry... they rock. You can't use them with taxi cabs yet though.
  7. Wear comfy shoes. You'll do a lot of walking.
  8. Whenever you want to go someplace by cab, get the hotel concierge to write the chinese address on the back of one of the hotel's business cards and just hand the card to the cab driver. That saves so much headache.
  9. People hand out flyers all over the place (like Las Vegas)... just shake your head no and move on. They're probably for a strip club (aka a "Karaoke bar" or "Club" which is short for "Night Club"). If you want to dance you want a discotec or a dance club... not a night club.
  10. They tip here roughly 10% which is different than mainland China where they don't tip (might be seen as a bribe and goes against that whole communist we're all equal thing). Hong Kong 2 dollar coins are great for tips. You get a handful of these things after a day of buying things, just save them to give out as tips.
  11. HONG KONG DOESN'T GET STARTED UNTIL 10AM. There is just no reason to wake up early around here. The shops that are open at 8am you can probably count on one hand. By 9am, most offices and professional places are open (of course, major banks are open by 6am but they're global in scope). By 10am the bulk of the shops are open and by 11am they're almost all open. The Chinese work hard and stay late but they get started late as well. It's a nice system, you get to enjoy the morning weather and go for a stroll or walk in the cool morning air and eat some pastries (street vendors are open by 8am usually and bakeries are open early like the banks).

Thursday, January 6, 2005

Hong Kong #1

Adventures of a Texas gwailo in Hong Kong
I figure I better write down my thoughts and observations now or I'll forget them if I let too much time pass by.
Day One
Wednesday 1/5/05
We arrived in Hong Kong around 10pm. Ken L., our contact with the company met Jim F. and I at the airport. We rode a bright red cabback to our hotel, the Empire Hotel Kowloon, and got checked in. Once we got there, Ken, Jim and I went to meet up with James C. a UK buyer and Peter L. (Ken's older brother) for dinner at a little Japanese sushi bar. We sat around talking about business and how it sucked for just about everybody globally this year and various other things. Everybody else had beer and I drank water and enjoyed myself very nicely. We found out that Ken and James were heading into China in the morning for two days so we bid everyone good night and dragged our butts back into the hotel at 1am. The Empire Kowloon is very nice. Our room, on the 25th floor, has a view of Victoria Harbour from our window (can't see much in the dark right now). The room has a big bathroom, it's painted in nice colors, and is all in all a small but nice room. I took a hot shower and crashed in the extremely comfortable bed.