Hong Kong Markets

flower market

The Kowloon side of Hong Kong (where I was staying) was full of historical markets all within a few subway stops. Maybe it’s a bit touristy, but I like open air markets and was curious to see what Hong Kong had to offer. The first was the flower market. It was a series of flower and plant shops all open to the street with their flowers pouring out onto the street. Many had their handwritten signs in English and Chinese. Everything from bouquets, to live plants, to seeds were available. It was fun to walk from scent to scent as it seemed the most fragrant flowers were set out on the street to draw you in.

bird market

It was easy to walk through from the end of the flower market to the bird market. The bird market was a bit dirtier and noisier of course. Sellers displayed cages with birds of many varieties and wild birds came to play as well. Some of the sellers gave their birds clean, beautiful cages with plenty of room, but others put several birds together in one cage. Some of those sharing cages were clearly stressed, picking the feathers from their chest. So, the bird market was a little bit sad actually. We didn’t visit there for long. But it seemed as though some local people were taking their birds for a walk. They brought their birds in a small cage to visit the market, get fresh air, and sing with the other birds.That was interesting.

night market

Next was the Temple Street Night Market. I went to the Shihlin Night Market in Taipei and found  it be awesome. Night markets aren’t a thing in the US, so it was a cool experience. We arrived at Temple Street a bit too early for the market to be in full swing, so we went to the nearest Cafe de Coral (which is the nicest “fast food” chain ever). When we returned, the sky was growing darker and the merchants were setting up their booths.

To be honest, the Temple Street Market was disappointing. If you’ve never been to a lot of open markets, you’ll probably have some fun, but it was nowhere near as nice as the Taipei Night Market or the street market around the duomo in Florence. There weren’t a lot of handmade crafts. It was mostly mass produced tourist souvenir style stuff. That was disappointing. Then walking back through, we decided to walk down the side, instead of through the sellers again. After a moment, I realized that was a bad plan, because the back side of the market seemed to be full of prostitutes. I suppose you can really buy anything at the night market.

If you like open air markets, Hong Kong has an interesting variety of options to explore in Kowloon, but for an amazing Night Market experience, it might be worth a stopover in Taipei.


Observations from Hong Kong: Green Space

I have been a little slow at posting about my trip to Hong Kong. Apologies. I have been distracted by a project I have been working on (which I will post about in a week or two), and MERS of course more recently. Hong Kong made a largely positive impression on me.

Hong Kong Botanical Gardens and Zoological Park, Hong Kong Island
Hong Kong Botanical Gardens and Zoological Park, Hong Kong Island

One thing that had me salivating was the mingling of nature within urban landscapes. Seoul doesn’t have much nature within the city, unless you want to climb a mountain. But mostly you’ll find people getting drunk off the path, not communing with nature. There are some parks in the center of the city, but most of them are concrete bike path spased with some flat lawns for picnics sprinkled in between. (The exception to this is Seoul Forest which is in the north eastern corner of the city– therefore, too far for me to enjoy often. Taking public transit makes that journey about 90 minutes one way.)

In Hong Kong, the landscape was much more interesting thanks to the bay, but also thanks to the many parks and gardens. My flatmate and traveling companion for this trip wasn’t terribly fond of Hong Kong (she is secretly Korean and couldn’t bear to be out of Seoul for so long).However, when we stumbled upon a flower show in Victoria Park, she was delighted. Near the tennis courts, a large portion of the park was covered by tableaus made of hedges and flowers, and there were tents full of flowers from local schools and professional florists.

We stumbled upon another park in the posh central district. It had wide flat lawns where clubs and study groups were meeting, people were practicing music, eating lunch, and enjoying the warm spring weather. Trees and shrubs gave shade, and large fountains refreshed the scene. What struck me most was how feminine the population of these parks was. There were three women for every man in the park. And many of the women were part of Hong Kong’s large and diverse immigrant population. Women from the Philippines, Indonesia, mainland China, even some western countries, were all enjoying some green in the middle of the city.

On Hong Kong island we found a Botanical Garden and Zoological Park that was free and open to the public. It ended up being a steeper climb than we anticipated (we should have taken the bus instead of walking the whole way), but when we arrived, it was gorgeous. There were many primates in the zoological park as well as birds, and small mammals.

The garden had tropical native plants of Hong Kong. In their greenhouses were gorgeous orchids.


The park was full of family enjoying time together as well as people looking for a quiet retreat to eat their lunch or get some exercise.

And The MERS Continues… (but not because of the camels)

This week Korea reached over 100 MERS patients, more than the UAE. Almost 4000 exposed people are in quarantine. And Korea has quarantined all the camels in their zoo even though none of them came from the Middle East. They were all born in Korea or Australia.

Sigh. Some of the handling of MERS is a bit… incompetent. They issued public health warnings about consuming camel products. Because camel meat and milk are staples to the Korean diet! (No.) It’s quite obvious that camels are not the source of all these newly contracted cases. And even though no foreign residents have been confirmed to have MERS yet, they are also encouraging people to stay out of neighborhood with larger foreign populations, especially those with families from the Middle East.

After Korea wouldn’t let WHO assist at the beginning of the outbreak, I started to lose a little bit of faith in the way they are handling this. They finally did let WHO in, but only after it started passing from person to person on a larger scale. Most of the new cases have been contracted at medical care facilities. In Korea because medical care is so cheap and widely available (see my post on going to the doctor in Korea), people often go for smaller things like a cold or a bad headache. This has exposed many people to patients who had the disease.

Korea has come under fire for its mishandling of the disease. It took them about two weeks to start introducing health measures and issuing warnings. To me, it would make more sense for Korea to crack down on public hygiene (see my usual complaints about spitting in the streets, coughing and sneezing uncovered, not having proper soaps or hot water in public restrooms, lack of disinfectant used in cleaning public spaces), instead of making the Korean-born camels suffer. Those public health measures are ultimately what beat back SARS in China and Hong Kong.

Last week I asked the staff at my school if they had cleaning supplies (so I could wash up behind my little nose-pickers). They handed me widow wash. They did not have disinfectant in their regular supplies. A school. With children as young as four does not disinfect the classrooms. (????!!!!!!???!!) I had to go out and buy my own cleaning products– though I was unable to find any plain old disinfectant spray at the markets. I ended up with bathroom cleaner and hand sanitizer that I bought with my own money.

MERS is lingering on longer than it should without any strict measures to stop it. Ultimately it comes down the the split I see so often in Korean society: this disconnect between a very old-fashioned society where the oldest members dictate how things should be run, and a fast expanding economy attempting to globalize and modernize. New world problems are being met with largely traditionalist thinking. But Seoul is too big for that. And problems like MERS really tests the infrastructure of this still very new democracy.


MERS is about to blow up in Seoul… and I’m stuck here

I have joked that the next major plague would probably have its epicenter in Seoul. Now it’s actually sort of happening and I’m super annoyed. Last week MERS has appeared on the scene. That stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. Originally it passed to humans through camel milk and meat. Now, however, it’s passing mainly from person to person.

It arrived in Gyeonggi province, south of Seoul last week, carried by a Korean who had been traveling abroad. When he went to the clinic with respiratory illness, he didn’t mention he’s been in the Middle East. It took him three visits to separate doctors offices until they caught the fact that he had this illness. In the meantime, he exposed hundreds of others. 41 cases have been confirmed in Gyeonggi, and 4 have died.

Then a doctor who was exposed to MERS came to Seoul to attend a community meeting, two meetings with other other doctors, visit the mall, and go out to dinner, exposing an estimated 1500 people before he received a quarantine order. 14 cases have now been confirmed in southern Seoul. A family member of one of the first Korean victims ignored a quarantine order and flew to Hong Kong. What a selfish knob. Hong Kong was very angry that Korea had “exported” what proved to be an infected party to them. He was caught and isolated, so no cases have been reported in HK yet. So far over 1300 exposed parties in Korea are being quarantined.

There are several factors working against the containment of this virus. First, there are very few health and safety initiatives in practice in Korea. Health inspections are extremely uncommon so hygiene in public facilities is very lax. Among the public as well, freely spitting in the streets, and neglecting to wash your hands after using the toilet is rampant. Virtually no one in the older generation covers coughs or sneezes either. For such a big, hyper modern city, personal hygiene is not emphasized much. On my trip to Hong Kong, I saw a huge contrast. Spitting is punishable by a large fine, hand sanitizer is widely available in public areas, and disinfectant sprays are used in cleaning regularly. These practices have yet to be adopted in Seoul, though disinfectants are now being used in public areas due to this outbreak.

The second factor that may exacerbate the problem is the culture of communal eating. Groups of friends and workmates will frequently eat from communal dishes. Chopsticks don’t have a lot of mouth contact with the user, but spoons do and they are used almost as frequently as chopsticks. If you share a meal with someone who has contracted MERS but hasn’t shown symptoms yet, it puts you at a high risk.

Anyway, it hasn’t blown up yet (hopefully it won’t), but I’m being a little extra cautious and enjoying some time catching up on things around the house. I am avoiding Gyeonggi and Gangnam and trying not to bite my nails (which is the biggest challenge for me, honestly). I’m also wearing a mask on public transit. Though masks are mostly useful when worn by sick individuals to keep from spreading particles via spit, I figure I may as well take the extra precaution, since research does support that it provides some extra protection.

We’re waiting to see if schools in the north start closing next week. The biggest risk in in medical facilities, but if they do keep closing schools as a precaution, who am I to argue? Those kids are undeniably dirty in their habits (as all kids are). And I can’t object to some time off– even if it is confined to my apartment. I have instant noodles, wine, and a pile of books to read.