Musings of An (Aspiring) Optimist

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On Saturday morning at 7:30 am, as I appended my fatigued self to the end of the ridiculously long, serpentine ticket queue for the famous Hong Kong Chinese New Year Night Parade, I started to debate internally the value of advance planning.

I am not a morning person. So a 7:30 am arrival time on the other side of the harbour (which meant a 6:30 am alarm), on a Saturday morning, is my idea of personal torture. However, I knew weeks ago that at 8 am on this day, parade personnel were going to start issuing numbers to enthusiastic throngs, anxious to have assigned seats at the biggest party of the year. I was among the throng.

Especially this being my first New Year celebration in HK, I want to experience the spectacle up close and personal – and with a view other than the rear end of a child on the shoulders of his dad in front of me. And honestly even more, I hope to capture some great photographs. So I thought, I’ll get to the ticket center a bit earlier and beat the crowds – it will be worth it.

I was so very wrong. About beating the crowds, that is.

Like with many other things here, clearly I had a lesson to learn. As I disembarked the Star Ferry in TST and approached the queue, I initially thought – nice, this isn’t so bad! Until I realized that hundreds preceded me, snaking behind the ticket office. I sighed in disappointment, and with some self-reproach, felt myself instinctively rolling my eyes.

To be fair, I was previously advised by a family friend to arrive by 7. She got there at 6:30. Then I learned through the (thankfully friendly) staff that the first few in the queue had gotten there at 10:30 pm the night before. Hell – anyone willing to sleep overnight outside the ticket office deserves the best damn seats! I couldn’t be upset with them. I was upset with myself.

See, I am a planner. It’s in my nature, it’s inherent to who I am, for better or worse.  And while many who think they know me believe that I really enjoy planning, let me take this opportunity to correct that tidbit of fiction. I really don’t enjoy planning. But I really, really enjoy the (usually very positive) outcomes of solid planning. I hate missing opportunities. I hate negative experiences. And a lot of that can be avoided by doing one’s homework.

But obviously in this case, my attempt at planning was misinformed, or I suppose, just incomplete. But I clung to the idea of getting a seat still, almost any seat. So I stood there for another hour and accepted my number in turn. For the tickets themselves, I had to return later in the day at an assigned timeslot to select among the scraps. My timeslot was 3.5 hours later. No guarantee of (good) seats. Sigh. My foggy, decaffeinated brain (even Starbucks wasn’t open when I made my morning trek) was struggling to process my blunder.

If you’ve been following my blog for a little while, you may recall me mentioning that moving to Hong Kong, and my whole experience here thus far, has to my surprise, turned me into a bit of an optimist. I have been accused of being on the opposite end of the spectrum for a decent part of my adult life (even though my firm stance is that I have been a neutral realist). Semantics. In any case, I have of late found myself much more interested in looking for the silver lining.

So I was late to the queue. But…back on the opposite side of the harbour, as I crossed the footbridge leading from the pier to the heart of Central, and after a quick search on my trusty iPhone, I realized that I was just in time for an early dim sum at Tim Ho Wan!

Everyone living in HK at least knows of this spot, but for those who are not familiar, it is one of the most famed dim sum (Cantonese small plates) restaurants in HK, and for dramatic flair – therefore possibly the world. It gained a loyal and dare I say cult-like following after being named the least expensive Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. More on that another time. Despite living here for 7 months, I had not yet had the proper timing to make a trip to Tim Ho Wan work out in any reasonable way. The original flagship across the harbour in Mong Kok often sustains queues lasting hours. When I’m hungry, I don’t have the patience for that.

But the one near IFC, buried 2 floors down in the undercarriage of the Hong Kong subway station, opens at 9 am, and I arrived blissfully at 9:10. Perfect! The low-key place was already 3/4 occupied, but I slid right into a spot wedged between two couples at a long communal table. At this point, I was beyond tired and hungry, desperately craving caffeine and some great grub. So after a few jagged pencil marks on the order sheet (standard fare for ordering dim sum), steaming hot pu’er tea arrived. Caffeine – check.

My still-somewhat-hazy state led me to over-order. No matter. Each dish here generally averages HKD 20 (~2.50 USD). I will leave more detailed commentary on the food for another post. But for now, suffice it to say that their most famous dish, the baked barbecue pork buns, was like biting into a little present. Especially at that moment. It’s amazing how (at least to me) a few bites of a delicious dish can somehow make things feel right again. I exaggerate slightly, but you may know what I mean. Hunger satisfied – check.

Tim Ho Wan pork buns

And as I continued on my way to take care of a few errands before having to take the ferry back to the ticket queue once more, I found myself walking past Central Oasis, a public amenity space offering a bit of unexpected greenery and rotating art exhibits inside the old Central Market building. As I’ve found past exhibits here a bit lackluster, I almost blew past.

But this time, there were some beautiful photographs mounted on the wall that nearly stopped me in my tracks. As it turns out, the Hong Kong Professional Photographers Network (HKPPN) was displaying “The Portfolios 10” annual members’ exhibition, which concludes today. Partly centered on the theme of ‘Tender Love’, the exhibit is not nearly as cliché as the title might imply. In fact, it is a generally well-curated selection of photographs, with several interpreting the theme in variations, representing a broad range of photographic styles – from fashion, to fine art, to street.

And beyond the photographs, I found myself waxing poetic when I saw a little girl out of the corner of my eye walk into the exhibit. I don’t know really how old she is, but young enough to still pull off pigtails. I instinctively grabbed my iPhone and snapped a shot of her. I enjoy this image, not because it is a great photo in and of itself – but because it captured a moment of engagement.

Girl Central Oasis rev

She was peering into the photographs on the wall with a curiosity and emotional connection that I found delightful. It represented, in a fleeting few moments, what I love so much about photography. No matter your age, an image can pull you in, compel you to contemplate its meaning, and its very best, evoke an emotional response. That is powerful, and what I strive to achieve when I am photographing ‘for real’.

To date, one of the finest compliments I ever received on my work was from a colleague. In an office hallway hangs a portrait I took of 3 Vietnamese children left home alone to fend for themselves while their parents worked the rice paddies. My colleague told me it inspires her to be a better mother everyday. I remember fighting tears.

While some do not understand why I would want to hang this same image in my home, it is because it also inspires me everyday – as for me, it symbolizes strength and the power of unity in the face of difficult times. I have never experienced the pain these children face, and this image (and the recollection of creating the image, etched in my memory) remind me how fortunate I am and how much help others may need. I do not know the fate of these children, but I can only hope that their family bond at the very least helps make their existence a bit more bearable.

Three of the strongest children I've ever come across - outside Sapa, Vietnam

Three of the strongest children I’ve ever come across – outside Sapa, Vietnam

Artfully satiated, I slowly headed toward the Central piers to catch the next ferry back to TST and stumbled upon Pier 7 Cafe & Bar at the top. I was drawn to the potential view, which is fine although not stellar – but I did have the place all to myself – not another patron in sight just before lunch hour struck. Just me and a coffee to help me gel my thoughts and reflect a bit more carefully.

To think I began my day with angst about parade tickets. As my close friend likes to remind me, ‘first world problems’.

So despite my somewhat misguided early morning, the rest of it turned out to be very enjoyable and completely unexpected – and a wonderful opportunity to put things back into perspective. Here’s to serendipity! I still won’t break my planning habit. But sometimes it clearly pays not to plan.

Oh – and as for the tickets? Surprisingly, and with some sound advice from a very helpful staff member, I managed to snag a couple very good ones. Somewhat separate seats, but still. Fortunately, my husband is very understanding – and something tells me the photographs next weekend, and the experience, will justify all the upfront effort.

Things are looking up.

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For more information on the parade, Star Ferry, and spots I mentioned in this post:

Hong Kong Chinese New Year Night Parade (seats are sold out, but there is public viewing along the parade route – brace yourself)

Star Ferry

Tim Ho Wan

Central Oasis (in case you are trying to catch the exhibit that concludes today, see below for quick venue info)

Central Oasis Zone B1-3 and Zone C7-8, Central Market, 80 Des Voeux Road, Central

9:00am to 10:00pm

Pier 7 Cafe & Bar

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

8 thoughts on “Musings of An (Aspiring) Optimist”

  1. Great post, Deb. 🙂 I felt the same frustration when I went to Chiang Mai last year. I was really looking forward to seeing the mass lantern launch at Mae Jo University, but when I saw in one website that it wasn’t happening the weekend we were there, I thought that was that. Turns out it also pays to check out other sources (!!!) because it DID happen on our first day there (I found out the following morning on instagram). Major booboo on my part. I’ve always thought myself a good planner so it took a few beers to make me feel better. 😛

    And those pork buns are made by the hands of god. I went to the one in Mongkok a few years ago and Tim Ho Wan totally ruined regular pork buns for me. 😀

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    • Thanks, Tricia! I hear you – it’s the worst feeling to me, to know I missed something because I flubbed on planning! Well – the consolation is, hopefully the new direction offers something even better, or at least different? 🙂 I can try to reason with myself. Doesn’t usually work!

      I agree – those pork buns are ridiculous! 🙂 Great food can do that – ruin other items you might even have once enjoyed!

      Thanks for reading, as always!

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  2. I read this and three words came to mind: Beijing, Forbidden City. I, too, thought I was a pretty awesome planner and decided to get there before what I thought was peak hours. Got there and lo and behold, there was half the population of Beijing already huddled in front of the ticketing office! Mind you, it was the summer vacation, and so we had that working against us to begin with, but good heavens, I was pretty bummed. I guess the planners in us have an inexplicable way of working against us sometimes 🙂

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    • It’s almost impossible to avoid crowds at places like the Forbidden City. What can you do? 🙂 We try! And maybe something even better happens, who knows? I have had great experiences sometimes come about because plans changed. Even waiting in a long line – sometimes you meet someone interesting or get to photograph a great face 🙂

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    • Indeed, the pork buns are delicious!

      And thank you, that is one of my favorite images from my travels, as it’s always carried such meaning for me.

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