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Trip 20 -- Asia, Cold and Hot

Part 2: Welcoming the Year of the Pig (Hong Kong)

For the second straight year, I watched the Super Bowl on a Monday morning in Hong Kong, with a more favorable result in 2019. Many places forced people into all-you-can-drink deals, which were reasonably priced at around US$40 but not what I wanted at 7 a.m. Fortunately I found Taboo, which was offering its regular menu, and I had a disappointingly sour Bloody Mary and then switched to tea. I walked around the Wan Chai area and found the new-year fair, which was packed with people buying stuffed animals and grilled oysters and vendors hawking the latest vacuum cleaners. Then it was time to head up to Tai Po, near the border with mainland China, to meet Manchi's family for dinner.

I met Manchi because of a typhoon that hit the South China Sea in June 2017. I was on a one-night stop in Hong Kong, and I'd gone to the one bar on that touristy stretch of Lan Kwai Fong that didn't have touts outside and looked simultaneously populated and reasonably calm. It happened to be salsa night, which had been postponed from Monday to Tuesday because of the typhoon. Manchi looks for any excuse to dance salsa. I don't, but we started talking. We've kept in touch, and here I was joining her family for the Chinese new year.

Manchi found me at the MTR station. She has walked me through Tai Po several times, but I'm hopeless to know where I'm going. We always traverse a specific but nondescript route through parks, shopping malls, and alleys. We had three hours to kill before going to her family's place to celebrate the lunar new year.

"I'd like to buy some wine and flowers," I said.

"Just wine," Manchi said. "My mother doesn't like flowers."

I picked two reds and we joined the long queues of people getting ready for the holiday. Manchi's family's tradition is a big meal on New Year's Eve and then a trip to a temple the following morning. She lives with her mother and her father's brother-in-law, known as Camel for his childhood penchant for carrying heavy loads. We'd be joined by Manchi's sister, Zenki, and Zenki's husband, Tico.

Manchi's mother and Camel were still cooking while the rest of us started eating. The first course was Chef Mom's prized delicacy, fish-bladder soup. It's a good source of collagen, they said, and one piece, similar in dimensions to a potato but light as a balloon, cost around US$40. The soup was made with pork leg (the calf muscles, they indicated) and giant snails.

Then came Manchi's favorite, steamed egg with preserved sausage; roasted pork with parsley; and a kind of hairy mushroom with dried preserved oysters, green cabbage, and fat choy, a thin, kelp-like moss. This was also a delicacy, at about US$85 per pound. Because its name sounds like part of the auspicious new-year greeting "Kung hei fat choy," it's popular at that time of year.

Not to be outdone, Chef Mom's partner in the kitchen served us "Camel curry," a bright, yellow dish with chicken, potato, meatballs, and a generous amount of curry powder. There were also giant prawns Camel had brought from Fan Lau, the nearly abandoned village where Chef Mom grew up. It can be reached only by speedboat or by a walk of several hours through the woodland hills.

I'd visited Fan Lau for Manchi's birthday two months earlier, and we'd spent two days hiking, eating seafood, bouncing from house to house -- whoever was cooking something -- and getting sprayed by the village's two resident dogs after their swim in the bay. I'd gone out fishing with Camel and another relative, a process that involved setting traps of long nets and then coming back later to collect the fish and crustaceans and remove the debris in order to throw it back into the water so that it could be recaptured later. "Camel said you were very helpful," Manchi had said. It had taken me ten minutes to extract an old plastic cup from the netting.

At the New Year's Eve dinner, we also enjoyed two kinds of flat whitefish, one with smoother flesh, one with rougher. Manchi and I were partial to the rough one, her sister the smooth one, and everyone had a strong opinion on the matter. It took me a while to feel comfortable joining the family tradition of discarding shells and bones directly onto the table, to be swiped away before the next course.

We finished the wine and I was stuffed, but I wasn't allowed to leave without one more helping of Chef Mom's fish-bladder soup.

"What time are we going to the temple tomorrow?" I asked.

Manchi consulted with her mother. "Ten-thirty."

Well, that wasn't so bad. "We used to go much earlier," Manchi explained, when her grandmother was alive. Then the time gradually got pushed back, first eight, then eight-thirty, and so on.

I was ready for bed, but first we made a stop at the night market, which was even more crowded than the day fair. Manchi's friends had a stall here, selling stuffed pigs and red balloons. The balloons were attached to string, and one could make a game of bouncing them off the hands and into the air, making a pit-a-pat sound similar to a drummer playing the toms. "Only fifty dollars!" (about US$7), they called out.

The Hau Wong Temple is a Taoist temple near the Tang Chung metro station, near the airport on Lantau Island. This is also from where one can take a bus for 45 minutes to Tai O in order to get to the speedboat for Fan Lau. When Manchi's grandmother lived in Tang Chung, it was a remote country village with green fields. Now it's all built up with modern apartment complexes, shopping malls, and the popular cable car to the giant Buddha up in the mountains.

From the road we walked for about ten minutes to get to the temple. "Don't step on the threshold," Manchi said, and she repeated it several times during our visit.

Inside the red temple were about a dozen statues of gods. Each of us received three large sticks of incense and a fistful of smaller sticks. After lighting the larger ones, we lit and placed three of the smaller sticks for each god, after which we bowed three times. The smoke started to burn my eyes, and the embers sometimes landed on my fingers before I had a chance to place the sticks, but it was a beautiful ceremony. At the end an officiant threw two wooden blocks in the air. On the first try, one landed right-side up, the other upside-down, ensuring us all a healthy Year of the Pig.

Another tradition was the giving of pocket money: a note of HK$20 up to HK$500, placed in a red envelope. Chef Mom, Camel, and Zenki and Tico had given envelopes to Manchi and me at dinner the previous day, and they did so again the first morning of the new year. It was very generous of them to include me in such a tradition, and I wondered what I could, or should, do to reciprocate.

"Should I also give pocket money?" I asked Manchi.

"Only married people give pocket money," she said. Chef Mom and Camel weren't married, but they lived together, so perhaps that was close enough.

What better way to cap a morning at the temple than a dim sum feast? We drove to a nearby shopping center and loaded the table with chicken feet, rice rolls, tripe, shrimp dumplings, preserved-sausage buns, and other goodies. This place was fancy and provided everyone with two sets of chopsticks, one for serving and one for eating, a nice step toward better hygiene. Chef Mom gave pocket money to our server but got annoyed when another server, who was not helping us, stopped by to collect pocket money for herself.

After lunch we went back to their apartment and spent the afternoon playing mahjong. This was my first time playing on my own, but I'd watched Manchi win everyone's money in Fan Lau and picked up on most of the rules. Much as every retirement community in Florida seems to have its own canasta rules, it seems every complex in Hong Kong has its own specific requirements and payouts for mahjong.

I never quite figured out the payouts, but I understood how to play the game. The hardest part for me was turning up my hand of tiles at the beginning, and I was the slowest at preparing them face down for everyone to draw from. I was sure I'd drop them or reveal them. Chef Mom was an expert and always had her tiles ready long before everyone else.

I got the hang of it and think I played reasonably well; the others were very patient. The hours went by quickly.

"Do you want to stay here for dinner?" Manchi asked.

I most wanted to go along with whatever everyone else was doing; they seemed happy to stay together. Besides, we had all that left-over food, the fish-bladder soup and so on. It made sense to finish it.

"Sure!" I said.

"We're bringing in pizza!"

Not just pizza, but fried chicken and pasta as well. A cover was put over the mahjong tiles, turning it instantly into a dining table. After dinner, we had a dessert of sweet glutinous rice balls.

Then the games continued: more mahjong and then "three-face poker," which was more like baccarat. There was no strategy; everyone got three cards and the goal was to get a higher last-digit total than the dealer. In the case of a tie, the person with more face cards won (so jack-five-ace beat two-two-two), and if that was also a tie, the dealer won. Three face cards was an automatic win.

Then came "fish, shrimp, crab," a variation on craps. A betting mat with six items -- fish, shrimp, crab, chicken, coin, and teapot -- was placed on the table, and people placed their bets on which items would show up on the three dice. A win paid one for one -- easy. And finally, blackjack, with splitting pairs allowed but without some of the other options such as doubling down.

Each of us had the chance to be the dealer for five hands of each game, incurring all the attendant advantages and disadvantages. When we had gone around once, it was dealer's choice which game to play. Stakes were low -- people could bet anything up to HK$20, a little under US$3, per hand. Somehow I did poorly at three-face poker, both as player and dealer, and somehow the teapot kept coming up in "fish, shrimp, crab" -- and Manchi kept betting it. I made my money back at blackjack, especially when Camel assumed the dealer role for the long term at the end.

I flew to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the primary city on Sakhalin Island in Russia, via an overnight layover. Thanks to an establishment called Visti Stay, I didn't even have to leave the airport to find a place to sleep. The room photo on Hotels.com showed a bare room with a reclining chair not dissimilar to one that might be used as a set piece for the musical "Assassins" in the scene where they electrocute Leon Czolgosz.

So imagine my surprise when the staff member showed me to a proper single bed in a resting space that I could actually stand in, with much more room to move around than at The Millennials. But in fairness the walls didn't go all the way to the ceiling, so I could hear the people around me, and they played the airport announcements softly throughout the night. Most importantly, I didn't have to go outside in zero-degree weather or do the building security check the next morning. I boarded the little Dash-8 propeller plane and two hours later was the only passenger on a bus from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk's airport whose destination poster mentioned polyclinics and hospitals. I verified that the bus was going to the city center and wondered what I was heading into.

Go on to part 3: Minus thirty-two (Russia)