Old-world charm

When you’ve got visitors in town, the China Club is a fantastic spot to head to  for an evening to remember – the 1930s Shanghai teahouse-style interiors, the “noodle show”, the great food and the city-scape views from the little roof terrace all make for a great night out.

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China plate in the entrance lobby – it used to be full of fish but these fun figurines are very cute.
The club is stuffed full of eye-catching nicknacks and paintings – my favourites are the legs eleven plate (pictured above) and the Churchill picture in the dining room (pictured below). I could spend many happy hours snooping around these interiors, the old library on the top floor is particularly fascinating.

The venue has nestled very comfortably into the top three floors of what used to be the old Bank of China Building. The site used to be occupied by the eastern part of the old City Hall, which was constructed in 1869. The western end of this doomed building was demolished in 1933 to make way for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank Building, while the eastern end was flattened in favour of the Bank of China in 1947.

The Bank of China Building rose out of the ashes of City Hall in 1952 – the goal being for it to be the tallest building in Hong Kong at that time, at a cute 15 storeys – these days it pales beneath the towering skyscrapers surrounding it (ICC, today’s tallest building just over the Harbour in Kowloon, comes in at over 70 storeys).

But things moved on, and in 1991, the bank moved to new headquarters in the nearby Bank of China Tower. Today, along with the China Club, the old building is used as a sub-branch of the Bank.

The China Club and restaurant opened its elaborate doors, thanks to Sir David Tang (of Shanghai Tang and Tang Tang Tang Tang fame), in 1991.

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The China Club’s infamous “noodle man” gets to work, showing diners how it’s done.
A gorgeously-decorated dining room (think old world ceiling fans, modern artwork, art-deco mirrors, fans and elaborate chandelier-lighting), delicious food, and a couple of “shows” – the tea ceremony is fun but doesn’t quite match the lovely noodle man and his deft mastery of traditional noodle-making – seem to be just the right ingredients needed for a fun night out.

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Eye-catching artworks and historic photography adorn the walls.
After stuffing ourselves with crispy duck pancakes, dim sum and an assortment of Sichuan and old Hong Kong dishes, we wound our way up the stairs to the small roof terrace and bar to the side of the library. The cityscape views over the Harbour to one side and the twinkling lights of mid-levels and the Peak to the other are spectacular.

And for good luck we did race around to the front of the neighbouring HSBC building to pat Stephen the lion’s paw while we were waiting for our ride home. You can never have too much good luck, even when you’re fortunate enough to call Hong Kong home.

To dine at the China Club you need to be a member, or be dining as a guest of a member. The China Club, 13, 14/F, Bank of China Building, 2A Des Voeux Road, Central, 2521 8888.

 

Tapas in Taipa

 

Don’t miss the Macau international fireworks contest this weekend. Carolynne Dear takes a stroll through the peninsula’s cultural other half, pretty Taipa Village, which is also home of the firecracker. (Originally published in the September 2016 issue of Expat Parent).

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The sun sets on pastel-hued Taipa Village, a world away from the bling of the Cotai Strip.

Cobbled alleyways and pretty pastel-coloured terraces don’t exactly spring to mind when you contemplate booking a weekend in Macau.

But before the builders moved in after the Portuguese pulled out in 1998, the peninsula and surrounding islands was just that – an attractive, low-rise, quiet destination by the sea.

However, the early 2000s saw the transformation of Macau into a glitzy casino capital as much of the land between peninsula Macau and Taipa and Coloane islands was reclaimed. Taipa and Coloane eventually ended up connected via the flashy Cotai Strip. The casino era had arrived with a bang.

Today, having welcomed resort after resort, the Macau government is looking to its past and showing some love for the older parts of the peninsula, namely Taipa Village.

Taipa village was originally a fishing hamlet located in the south of Taipa Island which was home to local residents who made their living through fishing, firework production and handicrafts. Despite the recent years of dramatic urban change, it remains a living community that has retained its culture and heritage.

“Our goal is to promote Taipa Village as an exciting and culturally rich non-gaming destination,” says Pamela Chan, senior marketing manager for Taipa Village Destination (TVD). Billed as the “authentic Macao”, Chan explains that TVD is offering the area as an alternative to the city’s casino resorts.

Following a decade of regeneration in the area, Chan and her team are now hoping to attract locals and tourists back to the area, offering heritage attractions, dining, niche retail offerings and a diverse arts and entertainments scene.

On a blustery day, I catch up with Hilda Leong, from the TVD team, and after a delicious tapas-style lunch at Casa de Tapas, one of the many Mediterranean-style restaurants that line the laneways, we set out to explore the village.

We start at the Pak Tai temple, one of the biggest and most significant temples in Taipa. As the two main village industries used to centre around fishing and firework-making, it follows that the local community worshipped the god that was believed to protect against both floods and fire.

Next door to the temple is the locally renowned “Si Toi” bicycle hire shop. The flat, cobbled streets, many of which are too narrow for traffic, make for an ideal cycleway for families. The square outside the temple is covered with bikes for hire come weekends, says Leong.

We wander around the corner to the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History. The compact mint-green and white building used to house the Municipal Council of the Islands. It now promotes and preserves the history and culture of Taipa and Coloane with a small but interesting range of exhibits spread across its two floors.

Back on the cobbles outside, Leong leads me to the edge of Taipa Village where the elegant low-rise buildings rather dramatically collide with the golden monolith that is The Galaxy. The paved area marking the edge of Taipa was once a little beach overlooking the sea. While Leong reasonably points out that the gaming industry has brought both money and jobs to the peninsula, I can’t help thinking that the hotels loom like rather unfortunate toads over a pretty, pastel-hued pond. But I guess that’s progress.

We move on to the Taipa Houses-Museum, five colonial houses that were once the residences of the Portuguese governor and other high-level civil servants and their families. They are situated on what was once the seafront, but is now a lily-festooned lake that is all that is left of the original waterscape. Leong explains that the lilies were introduced for their ability to change salt into freshwater, and when they bloom in the summer they make a dramatic backdrop for the little Museum houses on one side, and the shiny skyscraping hotels on the other (reclaimed) side.

The houses are currently shrouded as they are repainted and smartened up, but inside each one offers a different display focusing on Macanese and Portuguese culture and history. In 1992 they were acclaimed as one of the top destinations in Macau for outstanding beauty and important architectural value.

We walk back to the restaurant for a restorative coffee, passing by the old fireworks factory. It is immense, the old yellow boundary wall running the full length of one of the main thoroughfares. After a fire on the peninsula in 1925, the industry was moved lock, stock and barrel to one location in Taipa Village, employing thousands of locals during the 1950s and 60s. However, by the 1970s the industry started to dwindle in the face of mass production in mainland China.

The Village is bursting with art galleries, boutiques, enticing restaurants, museums and stunning colonial architecture. If you’re looking to escape the crowds and the bling of the Cotai Strip, Taipa Village is a real breathe of fresh air.

 

Getting there

Take a boat from the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, Shun Tak Centre, Sheung Wan to Macau. Crossings take approx. one hour, don’t forget your passport and HKID.

From Macau, take a taxi to Taipa Village (approx. fifteen minutes).

For more information about Taipa Village, see taipavillagemacau.com.

 

Taipa’s blast from the past

Although Taipa Village was originally a fishing settlement, it was also once an important hub for the firecracker industry.

Macau was not rich in natural resources, but it was able to offer cheap, skilled labour in the 1950s and 60s, which gave rise a large, productive fireworks manufacturing industry.

At one point, Macau was home to five fireworks factories, creating many job opportunities for local residents. By the 1980s, however, fireworks production began to slow in Macau as workers left in search of more lucrative jobs and safer working conditions.

The Iec Long Firecracker Factory in Taipa Village is the best preserved industrial heritage site in Macau and stands today as a reminder of the village’s manufacturing past.

Macau celebrates its explosive past every autumn when the world descends on the peninsula for an international firework contest.

Now in its 28th year, the contest will be held this September 24 and Oct 1. It’s free to view – head to the waterfront or on top of Penha Hill on Macau peninsula for the best spots.

For more information, see taipavillagemacau.com and fireworks.macaotourism.gov.mo.

 

The sun is shining, the water is sweet

Make the most of a glorious mid-autumn weekend with a family kayaking trip, writes Carolynne Dear. (As published in the August issue of Expat Parent).

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Fun on the water at Long Ke, Sai Kung Country Park. (Photo courtesy of hkestonian).

It’s a balmy morning in Sai Kung as we wait for on the New Pier for our speedboat pick-up out to the famous Hong Kong Geopark.

We’ve booked onto a family kayak and hike adventure day with local water sports specialist, Paul Etherington, and have been promised kayaking, a “light” hike, snorkelling, a speedboat tour of the geopark, and a Chinese seafood late-lunch by the beach to finish off. All in all, we’re pretty excited to get going.

We are soon bouncing our way across Sai Kung’s Inner Port Shelter to Yau Ley, or High Island, located within Sai Kung East Country Park. This is where the kayaks are stored and our point of departure for the paddling part of the adventure. The sea kayaks are all twins or trios, and Etherington soon has us appropriately teamed up and equipped with paddles and life-vests ready for the short trip round to Millionaire’s Beach in the next bay. My seven-year old son has been allocated the middle seat, with my eleven-year old daughter taking the front, and me in the engine room at the back.

We have a quick snack and a cool off on Millionaire’s, before hitting the water again for the longest paddle of the day, across to Bluff Island. We are accompanied by several safety kayaks and a safety speed boat. It’s a gorgeous paddle, although the seven-year-old is relegated to “wave watching” duty after a few near misses between the end of his wildly enthusiastic paddle and the back of the eleven-year-old’s head.

We pull up triumphantly on the beach at Bluff – even the teen and her friend in their twin kayak are quite proud of themselves.

Now for the hiking part of the day. We pull on socks, trainers and hats and scramble through the undergrowth at the end of the beach to the beginning of a rugged trail that takes us up to the highest point on the island. The views are breathtaking – the shimmering Sai Kung Inner Port shelter and its emerald green islands on one side, and the wild, sapphire blue ocean on the other. The jewel-like imagery is richly deserved.

Then it’s back down to the beach where Etherington pulls out some snorkels and shows us a small patch of coral to the west-side of the sand.

Incredibly, Hong Kong boasts more species of coral than the Caribbean, but it has been systematically destroyed over the years. We were lucky enough to spot clown fish, angel fish and some colourful corals, and the water was beautifully clear.

From Bluff, we jump onto the speedboat for a whizz around the spectacular geology of the area. Etherington is a wealth of information, and the kids are enraptured to discover that they’re speeding around on what used to be the crater of a super-volcano.

Once on the beach again, it’s back into the kayaks for the final, and toughest, paddle of the day, around to the ocean-side of Bluff and through a sea-arch. The sea is pretty rocky, which adds to the adventure, but we are so well escorted it’s great fun skimming through the surf. The sea arch itself is one of the finest examples in Hong Kong and it’s really special floating through the arch and having an up-close look at the rock formations. The water is so clear we can see right to the bottom. In fact it’s so impressive we paddle round and back through a second time, while Etherington and the rest of the group patiently wait on the other side.

Even I’m beginning to feel slightly weary by this stage, so it’s a welcome relief to climb into the speedboat and be driven back to Yau Ley, the kayaks roped up and bobbing along behind us.

While Etherington and his team pack the gear away, we enjoy a delicious seafood lunch at laid-back High Island restaurant. Dishes of steamed fish, fried rice, noodles, garlicky scallops, prawns and sweet and sour pork are ravenously consumed, with ice creams all round for the kids. Once little tummies have been topped up, the children have a great time fossicking on the beach and leaping from the pier into the cool water, while we adults kick back with a beer and re-live our day of adventure on the high seas.

Kayak and Hike can be booked at kayak-and-hike.com.

 

Heritage Hong Kong – The Helena May

(Originally printed in the September issue of Expat Parent, http://www.expat-parent.com)

By Carolynne Dear

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Club founder Lady Helena May with her husband, HK Governor Sir Francis Henry May, and daughters Stella, Phoebe, Iris and Dione, 1916.

 

There’s a gentle buzz of conversation and the chink of cutlery scraping china as I am whisked through an elegant Edwardian dining room and into the even more glorious confines of the “Blue Room”. It is lunch time at the Helena May, as members and their guests enjoy a cool catch-up over a meal or a drink, on what is a stinking hot day outside.

This is Hong Kong’s “club for women”, a private institution for Hong Kong’s ladies to meet, socialise and network, and I am here to find out more about its remarkable past from current chair of council, Tina Seib.

It was set-up and initially run by Lady Helena May – wife of Hong Kong’s then governor, Sir Francis Henry May – and financed by various wealthy donors of the day, including Ho Kom Tong, the Ho Tung family and Dr Ellis Kadoorie.

Its raison d’etre was as a safe and comfortable refuge for the increasing numbers of single, expatriate women arriving in Hong Kong. As a mother of four daughters, Lady May was no doubt well aware of the lack of facilities in Hong Kong for single women at that time.

The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of increasing independence and social mobility for women. The suffragette movement was in full swing in Britain, while new technology – such as the telephone and the typewriter – was opening up jobs suited to “female characteristics”, namely “nimble fingers” and a “polite manner”.

Many women ventured overseas – in search of employment and adventure – encouraged by advertising from the British Women’s Emigration Association, as well as male migration.

“Of course a certain percentage came on a husband-hunting mission, as was common at the time,” explains current chair of council, Tina Seib. “But many others came to work. Whatever their reasons, these women needed a safe place to stay, a respectable address for job applications, and somewhere they could meet other women.” Modern Hong Kong is a world away from the city of the 1900s where disease and neighbourhoods of ill-repute were widespread.

Over the years, the club has become somewhat synonymous with its matronly 10pm curfew and “no gentlemen upstairs” rule. But this should not detract from the role it played in enabling many single women to live and work comfortably in Hong Kong in what was then a strongly patriarchal society.

The club still boasts accommodation, both for long and short-term stays. “The residents effectively live in a grand mansion house and have the run of the place,” enthuses Esther Morris in her book “Helena May”. “There is nowhere else quite like it.”

One such resident was Joan Campbell, current principal of the Carol Bateman dance school housed within the Helena May building. She arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s as a young dancer and initially stayed in the Blue Room at the Helena May, the residential area of the club being full at the time. This year, she found herself on the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list and received an MBE for her contribution to dance in Hong Kong.

 

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The Helena May’s current Chair of Council, Tina Seib.

“We are lucky to have an immense pool of talent and skill-sets amongst our membership today,” says Seib. “Whether they are homemakers, mothers, lawyers, journalists, bankers or architects, Hong Kong born-and-bred or here on a fleeting two-year contract, our members all have something positive to contribute to the club. The varied membership also continues the club’s tradition of being an excellent networking base for women.”

Indeed all members are expected to volunteer towards the running of the Helena May in some shape or form, whether it’s manning desk in the library from time to time, advising on building maintenance, or helping to organise charity and social events.

The grand Edwardian building itself is an adaptation of the Renaissance style, designed by architects Denison, Ram & Gibbs, who also worked on the Matilda Hospital and the Repulse Bay Hotel. It originally boasted a recreation ground, a lecture and concert hall, a reading and writing room, bedrooms on the first floor, and a room “for afternoon teas, where members are allowed to bring in their gentlemen friends.”

Seib is keen to impress that the maintenance of the building, the outside of which is listed, is the responsibility of the club’s council. The last three years have seen extensive renovations, including re-wiring, damp-proofing and the opening up and restoration of original ceilings covered over during the 1980s, most notably in the elegant Blue Room.

The Helena May was deliberately positioned close to Central, close to the Peak tram (the Peak was home for most colonial ladies who would have been involved with the club), close to the Governor’s house on Upper Albert Road, and just across the road from St John’s Cathedral. In those days, Garden Road was just that, a leafy enclave. These days the club battles somewhat with the noise from the concrete overpasses that now thread their way through mid-levels.

To non-members, the club is probably best-known for its extensive library, and for its ballet school – The Carol Bateman School of Dancing – which has seen thousands of tutu-bedecked children trip through its doors since it was founded in 1948. Bateman had been interred in Stanley during the war and was anxious to start children’s dancing classes as she had done in Shanghai before the war – she began with four sessions a week, renting a room for 20 pounds.

The library was founded in the 1920s and today holds the largest private collection of English-language books in Hong Kong.

During the second world war, all the books were removed and replaced with Japanese tomes in a propaganda drive to impress Japanese culture onto an unreceptive local Chinese population. The club itself was used for stabling horses and was completely looted by the Japanese.

After the war, members were encouraged to “bring a book” each time they visited the club in an effort to return the library to its former glory. The children’s section now contains over 6,000 books and junior club membership is offered for free so children can use the library (“book borrowing by children is surprisingly on the increase,” notes Seib).

The Helena May is also still very much a charity-driven institution. It supports a different charity each year – this year the Marycove Centre in Aberdeen. There is a student mentoring programme in conjunction with Hong Kong University, and the club also offers two scholarships each year for the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. A former recipient of a Helena May scholarship, Pik-sun Chan, now a professional musician, returned to perform at the club’s centenary launch celebrations in February.

In a rather nice twist, the club shares its centenary with the Hong Kong Girl Guide Association, a group with which it still retains links. Each year, English-speaking members volunteer to test local Guides working towards their English Conversation Badge at an Annual Assessment Day, where the girls and their families are invited into the club.

Its graceful interiors coveted by many a bride-to-be, the club also hosts around 50 weddings a year.

It may not be the hippest club in town, it has no sporting teams to boast of and its facilities are minimal, but in its own way the Helena May has quietly stayed true to its mission of supporting Hong Kong’s women for one hundred – often tumultuous – years.

As I take my leave, Seib points out a golden plaque that has recently been hung in the front porch. It’s engraved with all the women to have taken the chair of the club since 1916. “We’ve never had anything like this,” she says, giving it a quick polish. “The club has  never really boasted about what it has achieved. And then I thought, why not? These women have quietly worked so hard. So we had this little plaque made.”

Indeed, as remarked by the Bishop of Victoria during the opening ceremony: “The management of this Institute… shall not be an easy task. I shall watch your work with an interest.”

It would seem that the ladies have done him proud.

 

Private island paradise is just an hour from Singapore

(published in the September 2016 issue of Expat Parent, http://www.expat-parent.com)

 

 

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Barefoot bliss on Nikoi Island, Indonesia

A few years ago I was corresponding with a “mummy friend” who had recently moved to Singapore with hertoddler.

“Oh, we’re renting a desert island with some of our playgroup friends,” she breezily told me when I asked what she was up to over the summer. At the time, pre-Hong Kong days, my own playgroup get togethers consisted of a dusty community hall, an urn of over-stewed tea and several vegemite-smeared children playing noisily on a plastic climbing frame.

Phew, I thought, what a life! And with nothing much to reply to a statement like that, the conversation swiftly ended.

And yet, several years later, here I am, settling back on the silky sands of said private desert island, while the kids disappear down a leafy jungle path to play, not an i-pad or a pokemon (or a vegemite sandwich) in sight.

Welcome to Nikoi, a modern day shangri-la for weary parents everywhere.

Nikoi Island lies in Indonesian territory approximately 80kms south of Singapore, nestling serenely off Bintan Island, close to where the South China and Java Seas meet.

To reach it, we flew into Singapore and caught one of the regular high-speed ferries from Singapore’s Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Bandar Bentan Telani on Bintan Island (an easy journey of approximately one hour). From there, a car met us to whisk us across Bintan to a private launch (a 45-minute journey), and this powered us over to tiny Nikoi in under half an hour.

As we approached the island, the white sandy beaches, swaying palms, and wooden grass thatched beach huts felt a million miles away from our early breakfast in downtown Singapore.

Nikoi was “discovered” by long-term Australian expat Andrew Dixon, and American Peter Timmer (who had been living on Bintan for the past eighteen years). Dixon, disenchanted with what was on offer for holiday-makers in the region, had decided to explore the then undiscovered east coast of Bintan.

Fed up with either flea-ridden beach shacks or grandiose marble and chandelier be-decked resorts, Dixon was looking to create something of good quality but genuinely in tune with the natural environment.

So, the pair hired a tiny fishing boat to take a look at a nearby island that was reputably up for sale. On landing, they were amazed to discover gorgeous beaches, pristine reefs, extraordinary rock formations and verdant rainforest. “It was hard to believe a piece of paradise like this could remain uninhabited and untouched a mere 50 miles from Singapore,” says Dixon.

Significantly, the pair do not describe Nikoi as an “eco-resort”, considering the term to be overused. While creating a quality destination, they just wanted it to respect the natural environment – “as much as possible, we have left Nikoi as we found it – a desert island,” explains Dixon.

“Our plan was to develop a private island, not a resort,” he says. “We wanted guests to enjoy the best of local dishes and appreciate service that is relaxed and genuine – not bound by training manuals and fake smiles.” He likens the island to “luxury Survivor”.

It would appear they have achieved their aim. Entirely constructed of driftwood, with a grass roof and exciting tree-top walkways linking the bedrooms and two bathrooms, our beach hut is what dreams are made of for our seven-year-old boy. There are no doors, no windows, no air conditioning – just gentle sea breezes, ceiling fans, graceful mosquito nets draping the beds (although I have to admit we didn’t have a single problem with biting insects, a welcome change from our own New Territories backyard), simple bathrooms, extremely comfortable beds – and a handy torch for after-dark.

Almost paralysed with excitement, the seven and nine-year olds decide to move their mattresses and sleep in the huge wood-hewn window seats.

And as you would expect of a quality resort, the gentle staff visit every morning to sweep our sandy floorboards and mop the bathrooms.

This is barefoot living at its best, and our days quickly relax into a stunning early morning kayak around the island (even the seven-year-old can manage it by the end of the week), followed by jetty-jumping and snorkelling for the kids while I catch up on my pile of magazines on the beach, and finally an indulgent lunch.

 

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The kids enjoying an afternoon in the resort pool. 

 

The catering on the island is what impresses me most – the dining room consists of a long, polished table – perfect for our large group of friends from Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong – in an open-sided, sandy-floored, dining hut by the beach.

The daily “menu d’hote” is chalked up on a board at breakfast-time, with sensible alternatives for the children (thank god, not a chicken nugget in sight), which mostly consist of local dishes using fresh ingredients – fish and seafood feature regularly. Parents everywhere will appreciate the bliss of not having to navigate an a la carte menu plus fast food-laden kids menu every mealtime.

In the afternoon, the children disappear to do their favourite thing on Nikkoi – Yogi’s kids club. Yogi is amazing, he spends hours with them, carving wooden objects for them, showing them how to mix mocktails behind the little bar, designing complicated adventure games covering the length and breadth of the island – this is about as close as you will get to an Enid Blyton childhood in the age of tech. Rather marvellously, they disappear for hours on end, leaving us parents to retreat to the pool on the other side of the island with books, i-pads and cocktails.

A couple of evenings we did manage to rouse ourselves for a tennis match with the kids (on the immaculate grass court – Wimbledon eat your heart out), as well as enjoy the odd massage (a team of masseurs are happy to stop by your beach hut).

Dinner is served early for the kids, so they can disappear off with Yogi for an evening by the beach bonfire or watching a movie on the huge outdoor screen at the kids club hut. Again, we adults are left alone to linger over our food and wine.

By the end of the week, none of us is ready to go home and the eleven-year-old virtually has us in a headlock promising to come back next year. “Seriously mum, it’s our best ever holiday!” she pleads with us.

To be honest, I’ve never seen our well-travelled, been there, done that children quite so animated about a holiday. We will certainly be back some day…

 

More info…

There are fifteen beach huts on Nikoi, with either two or three bedrooms.

The island can be rented privately, or as individual huts (nikoi.com). We travelled with other other families with similarly aged children, which worked well.

From Hong Kong, we broke our journey with an overnight stay at the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport (crowneplaza.com).

The Bintan Resort Ferries can get busy and should be booked in advance (brf.com.sg), as well as the car pick-up from Bendar Bentan Talani (this should be organised through Nikoi Island, nikoi.com).

The group is launching another, adult-only luxury destination on privately-owned Cempedak Island at the beginning of 2017 (cempedak.com).