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4 Days in Shanghai 上海 – 1st Day, Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008 November 24, 2008

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4 Days in Shanghai – Oct 11 – 15, 2008 上海

Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008 – Shanghai 上海

Yesterday I checked the shuttle bus schedule posted on the bus stop near our hotel 龍堡大飯店. The shuttle bus is supposed to come every 24 minutes and the first bus arrives at 6:30 every morning. I figured that we need to be out there around 8:30 AM to catch the K5 shuttle bus to Kowloon Station and that would give us plenty of time to catch our flight to Shanghai at 11:15 AM. We got there at 8:35 and waited for the bus. We waited, waited and waited for at least 24 minutes. And we didn’t see any K5 bus. Maria got nervous and wanted to check with the hotel front desk. I told her not to because if the shuttle came, we had to leave her behind. Many big buses also stopped by to pick up hotel customers to the airport. We had to wait but I began to get worried a bit. The shuttle finally came around 9:05 and it took less than 5 minutes to reach Kowloon Station because our hotel is the last of the five stops on this route. We got on Airport Express (light rail) and arrived at the airport near 9:30. Check-in at China Eastern Airline was swift and easy. The front desk agent was very courteous and efficient. We went through security and custom with little delay and arrived at the gate with plenty of time to spare.

The flight was pretty full and the meal was quite enjoyable probably because we haven’t had anything to eat since this morning. We arrived at Pu Dong International Airport at 2:40 or so in the afternoon. I decided to keep one of our two pieces of luggage at airport so that we didn’t have to drag both of them around. The luggage storage counter near the luggage claim wasn’t working because they were testing the facility. I had to go to the top floor near Gate 4 to check in my luggage. Based on the info the guy told me, it probably will cost me around 20 dollars. I thought that was a good deal. However, I didn’t realize that China Eastern is in Terminal 1 while Air Nippon Airway is in Terminal 2. This created a bit of hassle on the day we left Shanghai. That’s for another day though. We would stay here 4 nights.

I checked the options to downtown and decided to take the express bus. It would stop at 人民公園 People’s Park which was not too far from our hotel in Shanghai: 中福大酒家 The Charms Hotel on Jiu Jiang Lu. The bus was crowded and it made several stops before dropped us off at a busy intersection near the People’s Park. Before getting off the bus, I asked the girl who was in charge of the tickets about direction to the hotel. She said that it is quite far and it would be better to take a taxi. After getting off the bus, I realized that it would be quite an effort to drag a luggage and walk a mile or two to the hotel. We called a taxi and told the driver where we were going. He asked us to put the luggage in the trunk (he had no intention to give us a hand) and took us there in less than 10 minutes. 中福大酒家 is a government managed hotel in the heart of Shanghai downtown 黄浦区. It is one block south of Nanjing Dong Lu 南京东路 or 南京路步行街 on Jiujiang Lu 九江路. It was renovated about 6 years ago and our travel agent in Vienna, Virginia chose it for us.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were surprised to see my brother already there waiting for us. My brother left the US about 2 weeks before we left for Japan. He was visiting his college friends in Shanghai and we had planned to get together in Shanghai after we got there. I was going to call him after we checked into our hotel. Now that he was here, we were quite happy to see him. After we checked in and got our luggage, he wanted to take us for a body massage before dinner with him and his friends. He said that he had enjoyed body massage since he arrived at Shanghai three weeks ago and swore that massage has benefits such as relaxing over-stressed muscles, promoting blood circulation, soothing pressure points, etc.

I have never been to a massage place because I wasn’t used to be handled by a stranger. My brother promised us that it would be a nice treat to our bodies after a long flight and encouraged us to go. I finally agreed because on one hand I might be embarrassed to be touched by a stranger but I was also curious and wanted to know what it is like in a massage parlor. The place he took us to is called 益力(雪莉)保健按摩中心Yili (Shirley) Massage Center. The massage center has 6 stores in Shanghai and we went to the one in the 虹橋 section of the Shanghai metropolitan area. The 虹橋 store was close to where he stayed in Shanghai; an apartment rented by one of his friends. It is also very close to where the dinner was.

The Massage Center was located on the second floor. My brother took us to the front desk and told the receptionist that we liked to have a full-body massage. The Center wasn’t very flashy at all. It has no decoration, no fresh flower, no soothing music, no paintings on the wall, and no comfortable lounge chairs in the small lobby. It appeared that lobby was a common area shared with other businesses on the second floor. In fact, it was just like an ordinary office with separate rooms. The center has probably 7 or 8 small rooms, each about 150 square feet in size. The female receptionist looked like a supervisor or the leader of this division office. She asked us whether we like to have a masseur (Male) or a masseuse (female). We both requested a masseuse. My brother also requested a masseuse as well. The supervisor then called out for 3 masseuses for full body massage and asked another lady to take us to a room just around the corner. The room has 3 massage tables and she asked us to wait in there. Soon, a boy in his late teens or early 20’s stepped in the room and gave each of us a pajama and a wash pan. He asked us to change, put our dress in the wash pan and leave it under the massage table. He came back later, dimmed the light and left.

Soon after we changed into our pajama, three ladies showed up and asked us to lie on our stomach on the massage table. From our conversation, I believed that they were in their 20’s or early 30’s and they came from Shan Xi province. They learned the skill from school and have done this for many years. They are all certified by the city and have the important relationship between pressure points in our body 穴道, qi 氣 (our body’s vital energy,) meridian or channel 经络 and circulation of blood. My brother forewarned me that it might hurt and if it did, I could tell her to put less pressure on the pressure points. Since I didn’t know what to expect, I decided to see what it was like without any restrictions on their hand strength. They proceeded to massage us according to a pre-determined procedure. They started from the upper body and gradually worked their way to the legs. My brother was right! It really hurt at times but I didn’t yell or ask for mercy. Not too far into the procedure, she said to me that my stomach seemed to be a trouble spot in my body. Maria said to her that I had some problem with my stomach for some times now. Although it wasn’t very serious, I had to take medicine to fix the reflux problem about a year ago. It occasionally still gave me some problem in the night, but for the most part, the problem had gone away. I am not sure how she figured that out but I was amazed. I have heard from a friend of mine who has studied traditional Chinese medicine that there are hundreds of pressure points in our body and many are related to our internal organs in our body. If an organ is not well, it will be reflected on pressure points 穴道 along the meridian 经络 corresponding to that particular organ. I guessed that there was something on that pressure points 穴道 which let her make that comment. She also said that many muscles on my upper body especially around the shoulders were very tight. I didn’t know whether that was from the 3-hour flight or that was like that all the time. She kept telling me to relax but I couldn’t help but to resist the pressure she put on my pressure points 穴道 because it really hurt. This last an hour or so and at the end I couldn’t tell whether I felt better than I first came in. I did feel kind of warm all over my body probably from loosening up those pressure points 穴道 which might have promoted blood circulation in my body. In any case, it was a nice experience and Maria liked it too. The fee was $60 RMB (about $9 USD) with $20 RMB ($3 USD) tips for each of us. It was a great deal and I might want to come back for one more time before we left Shanghai. Also from our conversation with the ladies, I figured that they each had 7 to 10 customers in any given day. These ladies do not receive any salary from the owner. For each customer, I figure that they could keep $20 to $30 RMB or so. Add $20 RMB tips, that comes to about $50 RMB from each customer. Each day, they could make some where between $350 to $500 RMB.I guessed that wasn’t too bad for a skilled person from a small village.
We then took a taxi to the restaurant where my brother’s friend had arranged a dinner party to welcome us. The restaurant is called 来天华 万都店. It is a Shanghai restaurant. We were led to a small private room on the second floor. My brother’s two friends were already there. They also brought their girl friends too. Both of them were my brother’s college friends and I have met one when we were here last time in 2001. Back then, we accompanied our parents to our home town in Hubei Province. We flew into Shanghai and my brother’s friend, who works here as a manager for a solar company based in Taiwan, invited us for a memorable dinner. The restaurant was called 當紅炸子雞. It was a huge restaurant with capacity for 3000 people. The big open hall downstairs was so large that waiters and waitresses wore roller skates to take customers orders and bring food to their tables. Near the entrance along the right wall were two banks of 20 live seafood tanks. In addition, there were about 50 big buckets which also filled with live seafood. We ate downstairs but took a unscheduled tour upstairs. We were told that the up stairs had 99 private rooms of various sizes. It was amazing. The other friend studied law in Taiwan and worked for Department of Legislature in Taiwan for 20 years. He has recently retired after 25 years and was traveling several cities to look for business or working opportunities.

After introduction, the waitress started to bring cold plates to the room and we started to drink a bottle of 8- or 10-year old Chinese wine 黃酒 called 古越龍山. When I was in Taiwan and sometimes after I came to the US , I occasionally drank 黃酒 called  陳年紹興酒 made by Taiwan’s Bureau of Tobacco and Wine Sales , mostly with friends. I have never liked it because it wasn’t very smooth nor it had any body or finish. This wine was quite different and quite drinkable: smooth, full of flavor and has some body. I will look for it after I came back to the US. There were six or eight cold dishes and all of them were very light but full of flavor. The presentation was beautiful too. That’s what I like about Shanghai Cai 上海菜: no heavy sauce to overshadow the original taste of the meat or vegetable. There were 8 entrée including the famous 水晶虾仁 Crystal Shrimp and 红烧肉 Pork Stew. The shrimp was small but tender. It came without any vegetables at all: all shrimp and lightly covered with a creamy sauce. The Pork Stew was soft and not greasy at all. I could do the pork stew but can cook the shrimp as good as it does. The diner last about an hour and half and I invited them to a dinner on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, our host couldn’t make it because he has to go back to the plant about 2 hours away from Shanghai.

Since it was still early, they took us to a very popular place called Xin Tian Di 新天地 which was on img_0783img_0785

my list of places to visit. I have also picked restaurant T8 in Xin Tian Di 新天地 to try its contemporary cuisine. It looked like I have to put this off along with either Jean Georges or Laris on the Bund until next time we are in Shanghai. Xin Tian Di 新天地 is a neighborhood of old Shikumen 石庫門 which is a type of houses with stone carvings, on the wall, raw stone streets and brick walls found only in Shanghai. The area was renovated several years ago and converted into a chic place full of boutiques, restaurants and night clubs. The area was very crowded with foreigners, tourists and young local people. Every restaurant and club was busy. We first walked around and saw a small Shikumen Museum there but didn’t go in because it required paid admission to see the inside. We then went to a bar (Spanish?) and had some beer there. The bar was small with a small band. The music was loud, people were yelling when they talked and our pretty, tall and young waitress pushed us to buy Heineken in a small keg. My brother’s friend went to the front and checked out the band because he is an armature musician specialized in bass guitar in Taiwan. He and a few of his friends had a band playing at various functions. We sat there for about an hour and left. We then took a taxi back to our hotel. My brother told me that another of his friend would invite us to dinner tomorrow (Sunday) night. I told him that we’d return the favor the night (Tuesday) before we left Shanghai. He agreed and said he’ll talk to his friend and look for a place. We agreed to meet at the restaurant tomorrow night at 6:30.

It was still early when were got back to our hotel. We decide to walk a couple of blocks and check out 南京路步行街 in the night. We were told that Shanghai is a very safe place and there were many people there even at around 10 O’clock in the night. We walked around the blocks and had some ice cream. Tomorrow we would be on our own. We planned to visit Yuyuan Garden 豫园, Temple of the Town Gods 城隍庙 and The Bund 外滩. I also planned to call a friend of mine who has retired from restaurant supply business in Maryland. I tried to contact him before we left for the trip but was unable to get hold of him because he was in Shanghai. His wife, still in Maryland, got the message and called him. He called me about a week before our trip and I said that I wanted to meet him and wanted to talk to him about the real estate market in Shanghai. Well, that’s for tomorrow.

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香港三日游; 3-days in Hong Kong 10/8 – 10/11/2008; 10/10/2008 – Macau 澳門 November 18, 2008

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香港三日游; 3-days in Hong Kong 10/8 – 10/11/2008

Friday, 10/10/2008 – Macau 澳門

We have heard a lot about Macau 澳門: the Las Vegas of Orient, the gambling revenue in 2006 or 2007 topped that of Las Vegas, every big casino in the world is building newer and bigger casinos in this tiny place. Of course we were excited when we finally have a chance to visit this place and place our bet here.

We got up early and walked to The Sweet Dynasty 糖朝 for breakfast. It wasn’t very busy but had a steady stream of customers in and out while we were there. Most of them were office workers grabbing a bite before taking the bus to work. We order皮蛋瘦肉粥 and some dessert. The pier to Macau is only a few blocks away. The fare with First Ferry to Macau was about $20 USD each way and it took about 70 minutes to get there. The ferry was crowded because I heard that the Chinese government has stopped issuing visa to Macau for Chinese tourists. To get to Macau from mainland China, one has to travel through Hong Kong or Kowloon. The reason for the policy change, I was told later by our tour guide, was because many Chinese transferred money, legal or otherwise, from China to Macau through gambling losses. In addition, a lot of money has moved out of China into Foreign countries through gambling in Macau.

After we got out of the ferry into the terminal, many people tried to get us to take their service for a city tour. A 3-hour tour would cost $350 HKD per person. I initially just wanted to take a taxi to a few places for a short tour and then to the casino to test our luck. We then discussed our options and decided to take a tour with a lady tour guide because we felt safer with her.

Our tour guide was in her late 30’s or early 40’s and was very courteous the entire tour. She first explained to us the places we would visit on a map and drove us around to these places. As we walked toward her Toyota Sienna mini van and as we were driven around the city, I couldn’t help but noticed that Macau was actually quite poor: the place was dotted with casinos with their glittering neon lights and flashy entrances but right behind the casinos we saw ordinary Macau people living in small houses and the street was filled with motorcycles. The streets were narrow and many of them were paved with stones. Quite often we would see a line of motorcycles parking on the street. Our tour guide told us that it is easier to maneuver the narrow streets with a motorcycle and a car is generally beyond the means of an ordinary family. The casino business has dropped in 2008 because of the visa limitation adapted by the Chinese government. There were many high rise apartments which were all built with in the last five years or so. Before it was returned to China, the Portuguese government did do a very good job developing the colony and people of Macau was basically quite poor because of limited jobs. Since the arrival of casino, the gambling business bought in a lot of jobs but it also created the unavoidable high inflation. People in Macau have had a difficult time to buy an apartment and inflation has pushed up the prices of everything many folds. She took us to a place where we could see Zhu Hai珠海 in Canton, China just a few miles away. The city has many high rise apartments because businesses big and small have came here to set up plants and shops to support the casino business. Our tour guide told us that a mere 10 years ago the entire city of 珠海 had no tall building at all. It was a fishery village for centuries and it didn’t start to attract Chinese migrant workers until about 7 or 8 years ago.

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Among the tour spots were a Guan Yin status which I though was gracefully done, The Macau Tower at the Convention & Entertainment Centre, the Sam Ba Sing Tzik (大三巴牌坊the remaining front wall of the Sacred Ruins of St Paul’s Church), The Monte da Guia Castle 大炮台城堡 , Ma Zhu Miao 妈祖庙, Macau Downtown, the original Macau casino in downtown Macau, and Margaret’s Café 瑪嘉烈where we had a chance to taste Macau’s best egg custard 葡式蛋挞.

The Sam Ba Sing Tzik (大三巴牌坊) was definitely a tourist spot. Many tour guides parked their cars their waiting for their customers to come back. We did the usual like everyone else: took a few pictures, walked the place and imaging what it was if the church wasn’t burned down 300 years ago. We then climbed several hundred feet to the top of the Monte da Guia Castle 大炮台城堡 which had a nice view of Macau. We were glad that there was a escalator to take us down to the bottom of the hill because it would be hard to climb the stairs to the street level. I didn’t particularly like the place and “been here and done that” was good enough for me. I don’t think I will ever come back here again. On the way up, we saw a newly wed couple under the hot sun walking with their photographer looking for places to take their wedding pictures. The bride even had a dedicated person carrying an umbrella for her.

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The Ma Zu Ge 妈祖阁 is the oldest temple in Macau which was built about 400 years ago. The Temple has many halls and they were built by a cliff. It took us some efforts to climb the winding stairs to see all of them. I particularly like the bell, the verses inscribed on the rocks, and the traditional building style of the temple. Many people paid their worships to 妈祖and we did our shares of praying as well: wishing our loved ones have a safe and healthy life.

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The egg custard was quite nice: the custard was moist, tasty, and warm with a few characteristic burned marks on the top; the crust was flaky, crispy and buttery. The small store front 瑪嘉烈 was very busy with a line of 5 to 10 people waiting to buy the custard. We bought two and ate them right there. It was a nice treat since we didn’t have anything to eat for about 6 hours by now.

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Our tour was supposed to take 3.5 hours but it only took us less than 2.5 hours to finish the tour because we didn’t stop at several places. Since our tour wasn’t over and it was almost 2 O’clock in the afternoon, she wanted to take us to a famous Portuguese restaurant in downtown for lunch and waited for us there. We decided to have our lunch at the casino which would give her more time to try for another tour at the ferry terminal.

The largest and newest casino in Macau was Venetian and that’s where we wanted her to take us to. Before leaving, she walked us to the entrance and pointed out the waiting area and reminded us to take the correct exit to the bus. She was very nice and we were very glad to choose her as our tour guide.

The first thing we did was looking for a place to eat. Since it was lunch time, we decided to have something light at the food court. The casino was large but its electronic directory wasn’t very helpful. It took us a while to find the food court at the other end of the casino. The casino was very nice and glamorous with shops, restaurants, bars canals and gondolas. There were many shops along the three separate canals but most of them had no shoppers. We also saw many restaurants on the way to the food court: Chinese, Thailand, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, steak and seafood, McDonald’s and a Starbucks. They are all lavishly decorated with gorgeous interior to match the theme of the restaurant. From the menu displayed outside, the prices were comparable to those found in the US. I particularly liked the names of the Chinese restaurants such as楓竹自助餐 (Maple and bamboo Buffet)﹐ 海王老記﹐ 赤龍面館 (red Dragon Noodle)﹐ 帝王點心 (Imperial Dim Sum), etc. I liked all of them and wanted to try them one at a time. Unfortunately we only had about 3 hours here because it was around 4 PM now and it would take at least an hour and half to get back to Kowloon: shuttle ride to the ferry and another hour or 70 minutes to Kowloon. I wanted to go back to Kowloon around 9 PM to have dinner at Temple Night Market. I also wanted to buy some stuff there.

The food court is quite large and has at least 25 restaurants there; Cantonese, Northern Chinese, Sichuan, Congee, noodles and dumplings, Japanese, Pizza, Chicken, Thai, Korean, Vietnam Pho, Xiao Long bao, Hamburgers, Portuguese and many more. I also liked the name of the food court displayed on the electronic directory: 琳琅美食廣場. How nice and how appropriate! We had a small bowl of Ginseng chicken soup from 富臨門 (Fu Lin Men or wealth at your door; a Cantonese restaurant specialized in shark fin soup). It was served in a Chinese ceramic pot about 5″ OD and 8″ tall (almost $25 USD,) a plate of Portuguese chicken with rice (about $10 USD) and a beer ($2.50.) The ginseng soup took almost 20 minutes to get ready because it had to be steamed. The soup was nicely done with intense ginseng flavor. It also had a huge piece of Ginseng about 2/3 inches round and 3 inches long along with several pieces of black-bone chicken. We enjoyed the soup, shared the ginseng but didn’t eat the black-bone chicken meat. The Portuguese chicken plate was just okay with curry flavor and some vegetables. Nothing special! The Peroni beer was cold, smooth and surprisingly cheap. One dish I wanted to try but didn’t was a dish prepared with Chinese medicine龟苓膏(Gui Ling Gao) from the 龜苓寶 (Gui Ling Bao) restaurant not far from富臨門. A small bowl would cost $6 or so. Larger ones will set you back about $15 USD. 龟苓膏 is a diet supplement or Chinese medicine made from several Chinese herbs. It was said that this kind of medicine food had long been prepared for Emperors in Qing Dynasty because of its ability to heal and to promote blood flow in one’s body. Well, maybe next time if there is one. And next time will be a longer stay; say 2 days.

After the late lunch, it was gambling time. We found some slots kind like penny slots in Tropicana and Bally’s in Atlantic City. Instead of a penny (US) per credit, the cheapest slot in Macau was about 1.5 US cents per credit. Maria felt at home again, settled down at a slot machine she liked and started to play immediately. As usual I tried my luck at slots near by but didn’t do very well. Maria was also on a losing streak. The odds here seemed not as good as those at Tropicana but definitely better than slots at Borgata. I stopped playing at slots and decided to walk around the casino and check out table games. There were several gambling halls in Venetian and all of them have names favored by Chinese:

Red Dragon 赤龍殿
Imperial House 帝王殿
Golden Fish 金鱗殿
Phoenix 鳳凰殿

The table games I usually play are 3-card Poker, 4-card Poker, Caribbean Poker and Texas Hold’em. I didn’t see any 3- card poker, 4-card Poker or Texas Hold’em table at all. There were many Black Jack tables and equal number or more baccarat tables. I also found a few Caribbean Poker tables and many roulette tables. I saw many oriental and many Chinese placing big bet at baccarat and black Jack tables. There were also many female gamblers too. Many tables had a minimum bet amount of $25 USD or $50 USD. Some were much higher. They were definitely more than what I wanted to lose. Besides, I really don’t like Black Jack and don’t know how to play baccarat at all. The only option left was the Caribbean Poker.

Since I was in Macau, I had to play a few hands so that I could claim that I have been here and have played at the biggest casino in Macau. I walked to one of a few Caribbean Poker tables and started to test my luck. The minimum bet was about $15 or $100 HKD. The dealer was a middle-aged American guy who couldn’t stop talking to the floor manager, also an American guy, while I was there. I played 7 hands and won ever single one of them. I ended up winning $1,200 HKD after tipping the dealer $100 HKD. When I threw him the $100 HKD chip, he started to give me 2 decks of five $10 HKD chips thinking that I needed them to play for the jackpot. I said that this was for you. He looked puzzled, stopped talking to the manager and wondering why I would quit the game when I had such an incredible winning streak. I walked away and felt very glad at my record. I went back to Maria and told her about my good luck. I then played the penny slots and promptly lose about $200 HKD before time to leave.

When we got back to the place to take the shuttle, there were a long line of people who also wanted to go back to the ferry. I wanted to take a taxi but Maria wanted to wait for the bus. We went for a taxi but couldn’t get one after about 10 minutes. We had a little argument and then went back to the shuttle line. Fortunately the wait wasn’t as bad as I originally thought. We went back to the ferry terminal and took the 7:30 ferry to Kowloon.

As our ferry slowly moving away from Macau in the midst of a light shower and as the neon lights from The Sands fading away in the darkness, I said to myself that I was glad that we came to Macau and had a short tour. I also liked my bragging right of my gambling record at Venetian Macau. But I actually didn’t like Macau that much. The casinos were not concentrated in a central location therefore they lack the festival atmosphere like what you can find in Las Vegas. The neon lights aren’t impressive at all. The areas near some casinos and people who live there are obviously very poor which keep reminding me the class difference between the haves and have nots. On top of them, the one casino we visited, the largest and newest one had no Texas Hold’em and 3- or 4-card pokers. That’s simply not acceptable! Maybe one of these days we will go back to Macau. We’ll try the restaurants and test our luck again. Hopefully by that time, the city is more vibrant and the living standard for common people is much better than now.

We got in Kowloon at around 9:30 PM, took a taxi to the Temple Night market and went directly to the street restaurant for dinner. We ordered a plate of crabs, a vegetable dish and a couple of beers. The food was okay but we enjoyed the atmosphere a lot. After dinner, we bought some stuff here and then went to 女人街 again and bought some more stuff.

We then took a taxi back to our hotel, started packing the stuff we bought and went to bed. Our flight to Shanghai tomorrow was 11:15 in the morning. We need to take the 8:30 AM K5 shuttle to Kowloon Station then airport Express to the airport.

Dinner at Annangol Restaurant, Annandale, VA 11-17-2008 November 18, 2008

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I have been sick since Thursday last week and slowly recovered after taking some medicine. I felt good enough to go out for a late dinner. We decided to try a Korean restaurant; any one we have never been before. We started to do this a while back: pick a Korean restaurant randomly and order something we like from the menu. Last night our pick was Annangol Restaurant. It was a little windy, dark and cold. The outside temperature was 38 oF, perfect for a hot and spicy tofu stew in a stone pot.  We arrived at the restaurant at about 9:15 PM.

The restaurant is located at a strip mall not far from K-Mart. It is small with 16 tables and simple menu. We chose a medium spicy beef soup, beef rib with rice in a hot stone pot (bibimbap) and tofu stew with seafood and vegetable. There were six side dishes: soy bean sprout, bok choy, pickled pepper, spicy radish, green bean jelly, and kimchi. We also ordered a small bottle of 真露烧酒 soju 소주which was served cold. The business was slow and we saw a total of less than 10 customers when we were there.

All side dishes were very nice: not too spicy and not very salty. We quickly consumed most of the side dished with soju. We then asked for more bean sprouts and bok choy.

The beef soup came out first. It was hot and slightly spicy.The beef was tender and the vegetables wasn’t over cooked. Rice in the stone pot came out next. It was sizzling and steaming when our waitress placed it on our table. Maria put in some sauce that came with it and mixed up the beef rib and vegetable before gave me a bite. The stone pot was very hot and the rice at the bottom was slightly burned to form a layer of “Guo Ba.” It was crunchy and the aroma was very good. The rib was tender, tasty chewy and a bit on the sweet side. A small bowl of soup came with the rice. It was beef based soup with vegetables. It was okay but not very special. Tofu stew came out last bubbling in a steel pot. There were a few pieces of tofu floated on top of the reddish broth.  We each gave a quick taste, looked at each other and then said “It was as good as that at the Lighthouse Tofu House a few blocks away.” We finished the tofu stew, rice in the stone pot, all side dishes, soju, and some white rice. We packed the left over beef soup and left the restaurant at about 10:45 PM.

Overall, last night at Annangol was a very nice experience. The total came to $40.91 including the soju.

We will go back for sure.

香港三日游; 3-days in Hong Kong 10/8 – 10/11/2008; 10/9/2008 – Hong Kong and Hutong Restaurant November 15, 2008

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香港三日游; 3-days in Hong Kong 10/8 – 10/11/2008

Thursday, 10/9/2008 – Hong Kong and Hutong Restaurant

We got up very early today because Maria wanted to visit the Bird Market 鳥街, Flower Market 花街, and Jade Market 玉街. I wanted to go to Hong Kong Island for lunch and check out a few places there. We then have to come back to Kowloon because our big dinner at Hutong was at 8:30 in the evening.

I have already checked the map and decided to take the subway. We stopped by a small restaurant on the way to the Jordan station and had our breakfast there: a bowl of pi dan shou rou zhou 皮蛋瘦肉粥 , a piece of you tiao 油條, a small pan-fried cong you bin 蔥油餅, and a bowl of dou jiang 豆桨. It was okay but it definitely can be improved. Subway was convenient and was a little crowded with students and office workers. After getting out of the station, we only had to walk a short distance to the Bird Market.

We were early arrivals. It was on top of a small hill about several hundred feet long and 100′ wide. Only a few others with their bird cages had arrived before us. A few shops had just opened their doors to start today’s business. We walked around and saw about ten birds in their cages singing and chirping as if they were greeting their old friends. Later on, more shops opened for business as more people arrived with more birds. They all seemed to know each other and had their usual places to sit and hang their bird cages. Some birds had much clearer and beautiful voices and we could hear them from far away. What was more interesting to me was that the shops were selling insects, mostly grass hoppers big and small, and people were actually buying some in the hundreds to feed their birds. The green ones were selling for $18 HKD a bag. The colored ones were selling for $33 HKD a bag and the smaller ones were asking for $48 HKD a bag. I wasn’t sure how many grass hoppers to a bag but it must have at least 50 of them in each bag.

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I saw a guy preparing grass hoppers for his bird. He first cut out their feet and wings to prevent the grass hoppers from jumping or flying away. He then feed them to his bird through the cage. I also saw a post looking for a parrot that was lost on June 5th, completed with a picture and a detail description. It also promised a reward but didn’t give any amount. I didn’t bother to find out how many bugs a bird ate at a time. We left there after a half hour stay.

The flower market was just around the corner. Many shops had just opened for business and shop owners and helpers were still preparing their flowers before any customers show up. Some were unloading flowers from delivery truck while others were watering or re-arranging flowers. The place smelled great and looked very beautiful in the morning sun. It was a sharp contrast though to the sidewalk which was dusty and in need of cleaning. There were many kinds of flowers and they were all very pretty. The most unusual ones were Lotus flower buds and Lotus seed pods. There were also many orchid plants. They were all blooming nicely, a lot better than what we had at home. I wished I was good at raising orchids like they do.

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Before arriving at the Jade Market, we passed by five or six cars parked under an elevated highway. They were all from different driving schools and were waiting for students to come for road driving training. We also stopped by the tian hou miao 天后廟 or Empress Goddess Temple and paid our respect to guan yin 觀音. The temple was very small but the front yard of the temple was quite large. Many people sat under several old 榕樹 Banyan trees enjoying the nice sunny day.

When we arrived at the Jade Market on Canton Road 廣東道, I was very disappointed because the place was kind of running down and didn’t have quality stuff for sale. The open market was inside a large building with no walls. It had about 20 make-shift stalls selling stuff which can be found at 女人街. Maybe the owners kept the high quality jade pieces hidden and you had to ask to see them. Maria looked around but I had no interest at all. After we left the open market, we saw quite a few antique shops that were actually jade stores. Here the quality of the jade was much higher and prices were in the tens of thousands Hong Kong dollars. Maria actually had the nerve to stop by a store and asked to see a few jade pieces and jade ear rings. Since her knowledge and mine in jade were very limited, we wouldn’t dare to buy any. We looked around a bit more and decided to take the subway to the Hong Kong Island.

Although we had been in Hong Kong two or three times before, we only came to the Island once to attend a lunch in a huge restaurant about 10 years ago. Most of the time, we stayed at Kowloon because Damon, Maria’s brother-in-law, lived in Kowloon. This would be the first time we actually visited the island.

We got off at the Central Station 中環 and walked along Queen’s Road 皇后大道 and many side streets. Hong Kong is different from Kowloon in many ways. I now realized why Damon and people who live in Kowloon don’t want to come to Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong looks and feels like a business district while Kowloon is more like a huge busy shopping center. We decided to go to the restaurant I picked out earlier for a dim sum lunch.
While visiting Hong Kong, one has to try dim sum. The restaurant I picked out in Hong Kong Island was Lu Yu Tea House 陸羽茶室. It was touted as a unique, traditional and authentic tea house with changing weekly menus, traditional dim sums, stylish interior, and old waiters in their traditional white shirt and black pants. We sat down and the waiter asked us what kind of tea we like. I said “jv pu 菊普.” Do you know what he said to me? “We don’t have jv pu. You can have “pu er 普洱 .” I immediately said to myself”What kind of Cantonese restaurant is this? It didn’t even have my favorite tea.” Well, surprise aside, I took his offer and order a pot of pu er 普洱 tea. I then saw the menu which was printed on a sheet of whimsy paper; the kind of paper I used to see when was a little boy back in Taiwan. I glanced through the items on the menu and picked out several that I like to eat. I gave the order to the waiter who had been on my side waiting to take my order. I then said to him “I like to have an order of 鳳爪 (Chicken feet) and 荷葉飯 too.” Did you know what he said” We don’t have 鳳爪 and we don’t have 荷葉飯 either.” And he pointed to the menu and said “That’s all we have.” What? No more than 20 or 30 items? I can’t believe what I hear. Not to mention that their prices were almost twice as much as I would get in any Cantonese restaurant here in the United States.

It turned out that none of the dim sum dishes were special or worth writing home about but their specialty dishes looked interesting. I was totally disappointed at limited selections and disgusted at missing a good opportunity to try great dim sum that we like.

We then walked around the side streets but didn’t see anything special. The Grand Millennium Plaza 新記元廣場 was a nice place to take a break. The IFC Mall 國際金融中心商場 was very busy with many students on their way home from school. We stopped by for ice cream and enjoyed the view of the Hong Kong harbor.

Instead of taking the subway back to Kowloon, we decided to take the ferry since we are just a few blocks away from the Start Ferry 天星碼頭. The ferry ride was less than 20 minutes and it was very pleasant under a clear sky. We then walked back to the hotel and get ready for our dinner at Hutong 胡同.

Hutong is one of the most popular chic restaurants in Hong Kong. It is in the heart of 尖沙嘴 Tsim Sha Tsui, less than 10 minutes walk from our hotel. It is on the 28th floor of One Peking Plaza and I have reserved a window table for 2 at 8:30 PM.

The term hutong 胡同 refers to the small ancient alleys of Beijing’s traditional courtyard neighborhood. Although Hutong the restaurant bears no resemblance to Beijing’s hutong, the name reminded me of old world Chinese charm as if I am taking a leisure walk along the back alleys and immersing myself in the daily lives of people along the narrow streets. We took the elevator to the 28th floor and were met with several attractive hostesses in traditional Chinese dresses. We were a bit early and I told them about the reservation. The hostess asked to wait for a while at a private dinning room near the entrance. The ceiling to floor windows in the room provided a beautiful view of the gleaming skyline of the Hong Kong Island. The interior is traditional old Chinese with wooden screens and wooden doors completed with 門聯. The private dinning room has a 60″ round table just like what we have at our house. It was set up for ten guests with ten high back wooden chairs. After we had a chance to take a few photos, the hostess came and led us to a window table in the middle of the dinning room.

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The interior of the dinning room was dark with a few red lanterns. Long red silk curtains were draped from the ceiling. The tables and chairs were old style Chinese. The window is on one side of the dinning room and it is probably 12 to 14′ tall. There were 20 tables or so and the restaurant wasn’t very busy when we got there. I saw some flash lights when customers took pictures to remember the special occasion. I liked the interior of the restaurant because it is modern and trendy yet it retains the old charm of China. The wood screens were beautifully carved. From the entrance to the dinning room and then to the bathroom, all décor was traditional Chinese. There were a bronze Buddha’s head, a big bird cage and statues of a few Chinese warriors. The ceramic plates and bowls were heavy and nicely done. Of course, the awesome view of the glistening Hong Kong harbor night scapes provided a nice backdrop for a very romantic dinner. I especially like the menu with Chinese calligraphy and the smart use of Chinese phrases to name their dishes.

We ordered a bottle of Sancerre from Domaine Thomas and three appetizers:
• 雲海白玉 Yun Hai Bai Yu – White Jade in a Sea of Clouds
o Scallops with fresh pomelo or Chinese grapefruit,
• 芝麻苦瓜 Zhi Ma Ku Gua – Sesame Seed Bitter Melon
o Bitter Melon with Black Sesame Seeds
• 胡同小物 Hutong Xiao Wu – Hutong Little thing
o Braised Lotus Roots with Assorted Mushroom

For Entrée, we had
• 小蹄筋 Xiao Ti Jing; Small Pork tendons
o Pork shank Tendon fried with Golden Scallions and Pawn Roe
• 王府烤鴨 Wang Fu Kau Ya; Roasted Duck for Imperial Family
o Imperial Golden Crispy Duck Fillet

For 主食, we ordered
• 水滸擔擔面 Shui Hu Dan Dan Mian; Spicy Noodles
o Spicy Noodle with Minced Pork and Peanut Sauce

And finally for dessert, we had
• 黃面魚 Huang Mian Yu’ Yellow Face Fish (It doesn’t sound like a dessert.)
o Chilled Mango Pudding served with Mango Milky Sauce

White rice cost $18 HKD a bowl, Chinese tea went for $18 per guest and coffee was $38 HKD. All dishes were very tasty and nicely presented. They retained the northern Chinese flavor with a twist of fusion flavor. However, the Dan Dan Mian wasn’t very impressive though. The service was polite and tentative but not pushy. It took us almost 2 hours to finish our dinner and the wine. The meal cost us $1,965 HKD or about $280 US at a little better than $7 HKD/$1 US after fees.

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On the way back to our hotel, we noticed a nice looking restaurant called The Sweet Dynasty 糖朝. The name caught our attention and we decided to check it out. It turned out the place is famous for their sweets, thus the name 糖 or candy. We got a table upstairs and ordered 百合红豆沙 and 木瓜炖雪耳; both are excellent, way better than what we could get in the US.. The décor is simple yet quite trendy. It also serves hot meals and dim sum. The place was great and worth coming back to. Since it wasn’t very late, we strolled to the Temple Night Market again for a night tour. The place was still very crowded but many places had started to close for the day. We walked around a bit and returned to our hotel. Tomorrow would be our day to gamble in Macau. I couldn’t wait.

香港三日游; 3-days in Hong Kong 10/8 – 10/11/2008; 10/8/2008 – Kowloon 九龍 November 15, 2008

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香港三日游; 3-days in Hong Kong 10/8 – 10/11/2008

Wednesday, 10/8/2008 – Kowloon 九龍

From Japan, we flew to Hong Kong on All Nippon Airway. We left Narita at 10:15 in the morning and arrived at Hong Kong a little past 2:00 in the afternoon. The flight was uneventful and the lunch was good but the hot meal was just so so this time. We have booked 龍堡大飯店 BP International Hotel through the local travel agent and we decide to take public transportation to the hotel instead of a taxi. After a short inquiry, we found out that the cheapest way is to take the Airport Express to Kowloon Station 九龍車站 and then take the free hotel shuttle bus K5 at the station to 龍堡大飯店. The fair was $160 HKD round trip for each of us which would be about ½ the price if we took taxi to and from the hotel. The Airport Express was clean and comfortable and took about 20 minutes to Kowloon Station. We then waited for about 5 minutes before getting on K5. It then stopped by four other hotels before dropping us off at 龍堡. We checked in and were given a $50 HKD discount ticket to their seafood buffet at the hotel which cost $260 HKD. Since I have already decided which restaurants to go to, we had to skip this offer.

龍堡 is in the middle of 尖沙咀 Tsim Sha Tsui just north of the Kowloon Park. It is a few blocks from the Temple Night Market 廟街 , two subway stations; Jordan and 尖沙咀; and the Nathan Road 彌敦大道, the widest and busiest street in Kowloon. It is also within walking distance to Star Ferry, Peninsular Hotel and Huton Restaurant where I have made reservation for tomorrow night for us. In addition, taxi fares to 女人街, 鳥街 and 花街 are less than $30 HKD, about $4 in US dollar. Our room was on the 12th floor facing south but it wasn’t tall enough to see the night sky of the Hong Kong harbor.

We settled in the room and decided to go to Peninsula Hotel 半島酒店 for the legendary afternoon tea since we had a light lunch on the way to Hong Kong on the airplane. We decided to walk to get some exercise. Besides it wasn’t very hot outside. It was a good and relaxing stroll and it took about 20 minutes or less.

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The Peninsular Hotel was, and probably still is, a popular place for movie stars, businessmen, businesswomen and politicians to meet and chat. It is also a place for tourists to get a taste of high class life style. We got there at 3:30 PM and the lobby was about 1/3 full. It the has old world charm and a touch of class. The light was kind of dim and the level of conversation was quite low. We sat at a table away from the entrance and foot traffic of hotel guesses. It also gave us a good view of what’s going on in the lobby.

We ordered the pre-fixe menu which cost about $80 for the two of us. Maria had coffee and I had tea. The food came on a silver-plated 3-tier tray. The top level had French pastries. Finger sandwich was on the middle and the bottom tray had several scones. They came with crème and jelly. We each also got a cup of crème brulée which was soft and creamy. The greenish-colored crust on the top was even better than crème brulée. We took our time and enjoyed our moment of quietness. We didn’t want to finish the scone and pastries because we wanted to save some appetite for dinner. The hotel staff gladly put them in a beautiful box for us to take back top the hotel. We also checked out the level on the 2nd floor above the lobby. It had many stores selling top class fashion clothes and jewelry. There was a tea house there. However, all had more store clerks than customers

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We got out of the lobby and walked toward the hotel. It was quitting time for office workers and there were many people on the road and at the bus stops. We put the left-over pastries in the small fridge in the room and got out to our next stop which was 女人街. It took a 10 minute taxi drive and $29 HKD.

女人街 or Lady’s Market is actually a 4-block stretch of 通菜街, or Tung Choi Street, between Dundas and Argyle Streets. It has probably 100 vendors in make-shift stalls selling mostly ladies goods; including fake name-brand handbags, clothes, socks, pantyhose, ear rings, shoes, toys, fake jade Jewelries, CDs, DVDs, fake antiques, bronze statues, tea pots, paper fans, watches, suitcases, electronic gadgets and accessories for cell phone and iPods. We have been here 3 times before and we liked it very time we were here.

The place is the no. 1 tourist stop of the entire Hong Kong where prices for every merchant are open for negotiation. The right technique, I was told, is to ask for the price first, divided it by half and then start your offer a bit lower than that. The vendor will probably say something like:

“This is too low. How about so and so?” They will usually add:
“This is the lowest I can go. I won’t make any money at all,” or
“We haven’t sold anything yet today. You are our first customer,” or
“This is lower than my cost. How about so and so?”

Never take the second offer because it is usually still way over-priced. If you don’t like the second offer or you knew that you were offered something lower at the last stall, you’ll turn around and start walking away. More often than not, the vendor will call you back and ask for your offer. You will then add a little and insist that this is your last offer. Usually, you will get what you want but don’t need at a price that’s mutually agreeable.

Never do something like what this couple did with a vendor after we have just bought a pair of Kung Fu dresses from her; a white one and a black one:

The young couple was interested in the Kung Fu dress and signaled the vendor of his choice. The vendor took it down from the top shelf and said in her broken English: “$120 Hong Kong Dollar.” The guy showed the dress to his female friend and discussed the offer with her in less than 10 second and said: “We are not willing to offer anything more than $80 HKD.” The vendor then said “$100 HKD.” The guy looked at his female friend for less than 5 seconds, turned around and said “We’ll take it.” They looked happy and walked away without knowing that we had just paid $80 HKD for the same dress. Of course, it probably cost the vendor $40 or even lower to get her supplies from a wholesaler.

We walked from one end to the other and back. On the evening of the last day, we went back to女人街again for a quick look around. In two trips, we bought 20 paper fans, 2 fake Gucci bags, a small clutch with the same design and several Chinese movie DVDs.

The Temple Night Market 廟街 in 油蔴地 Yau Ma Tei was the next stop. It was less than a mile away and cost less than $20 HKD by taxi. 廟街 got its name from the temple 天后廟 Tian Hou Miao (Heavenly Empress Temple) near by. This place is similar to 女人街 because it has many stalls which sell everything you can find at 女人街 .

However, it is different from 女人街 in the following ways:

• 廟街 is also called 男人街 because there are many vendors who carry sports T-shirts, man’s dresses and pants.
• Because it is close to a temple, there were many fortune tellers 算命 who would check your palm lines, look at your face, touch your hand and then tell you what future holds for you. If you want to know whether you will be filthy rich, he’ll tell you when. If you need to know whether you will have a boy in your life, he’ll probably say that you are destined to have a boy after you are 40 years old. If you want to know whether you will marry a beautiful girl next year, he’ll tell you very much so.
• There are many restaurants with tables on the street corner selling Cantonese food and seafood.

We wanted to buy a voltage converter because both Hong Kong and Shanghai; our next stop, have 220V, instead of 110V, outlets. We talked to a couple of vendors and they wanted to sell us multi-function plug that works with 220V wall outlets. However, this wasn’t what we need. Since I didn’t know whether it would actually do the job, we decided not to buy it. Actually, we were afraid that it may damage our cell phone or electrical shaver.

We walked around but didn’t buy anything this time. We also walked by several busy restaurants where many customers had their midnight snack at tables on the street. The 10 or so small tables actually took over almost ½ of the intersection forcing cars and tourists alike to get by the tables slowly. We liked the bustling atmosphere a lot and the food and beer looked very tempting. However, we would not eat here because I have already decided to have 粥tonight. We did return here on our last night in Hong Kong and bought 2 Kung Fu dresses, 10 cashmere scarves (probably fake ones,) 6 pairs of underwear and a small bronze Guan Yin statue.

Our dinner was at the 40-year old Fu Ji Congee Restaurant 富記粥品, not far from the Temple Night Market. 粥is something one has to try when visiting Hong Kong and, according to some web sites that I researched, 富記is the place to go for 粥. Congee 粥 (Zhou) is different from xi fan稀飯. The former was cooked over low heat for a long time and the structure of the rice grains disappears completely while the latter was cooked rapidly with rice grain intact. In addition, xi fan 稀飯 is bland in taste and is usually eaten with side dishes. Congee 粥 is made in two steps: a pot of rice is first cooked with water until the grain of the rice disappears. It is then set aside. The rice is then cooked with meat, seafood or inners of pig (all have been prepared separately earlier) depending on customers’ order before it is served. I ordered 及第粥 ji di zhou or zhou with pig’s inners (豬雜粥) because I wanted to try something that’s different from what we usually order: 皮蛋瘦肉粥 pi dan shou rou zhou. 及第粥 was a staple of common people in canton. It uses all parts of a pig to make the zhou without wasting anything at all. It has the following ingredients: 瘦肉片、猪肝片、猪肚and 猪肠. The zhou went well with shredded ginger 姜丝and cilantro. However, we didn’t it finish all the inners because of their high cholesterol contents. The steamy zhou was good to the last drop; silky, tasty and full of flavor too.

State of Chinese restaurant Business in NV November 15, 2008

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We had to hire an employee to work at the front counter at our restaurant. I placed an one-week ad on the Chinese World Journal about a month ago looking for a full-time or part-time employee. I was totally surprise by the response this time. Normally we got one or at most two replies. At times, we had to place a second ad because of the poor response. This time, we received so many phone calls indicating many Chinese people are actively ;ooking for work. I believe that this was due to the poor condition of the local Chinese restaurant business.

On one hand, we have so many buffet restaurants offerig a good value at such a low price. On the other hand, we have so many new national chain restaurants opening up all over the places in the last couple of years; such as Panera, Five Guys, Pei Wei, Cosi, Potbelly and Chipotle to name a few. They are taking away a sizable amount of revenue, especially the lunch businmess, from Chinese restaurants big and small. As a result, many Chinese restaurants are not able to take the hit and have to close their doors. On top of this, the recent real estate bubble caused an average of 40% jump on monthly rent, which contribute to the demise of these restaurants.

Unless the buffet restaurants close their doors all together, the situation in Chinese restaurants will not improve any time soon.

Reserve Steak House at Bally’s in Atlantic City; DON’T GO! DON’T GO! November 8, 2008

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I was totally disappointed with Reserve steak house in Bally’s casino in Atlantic City. I will never go back again. And you should not either.

Kevin came back home from SF on Sunday for Stella and Xiaodi’s wedding on Saturday, 11/8/2008. Jennifer and Bobby took the bus from NY to AC and we picked them up at the Bally’s around 11:30 PM on 11/4/2008.  We got two free rooms for two nights at Tropicana.

Maria and I have stayed at the Tropicana more than 10 times over the last 7 or 8 years and we have never seen it so slow on Tuesday night. I swear that there were more dealers, workers and guides than gamblers. Maybe it was the election night, but I think it was the economy. It turned out that the gambling revenue in September has dropped a whopping 15.1% from that a year ago. Bogarta’s revenue dropped 5%; Tropicana’s dropped by 13% and the Resorts’ dropped by a stunning 32.5%.

We wanted to have something to eat at 5 to 1 AM and found out that all restaurants at the Quarter were closed. The Seaside cafe was closed and what was amazing was the Buffet was open: at 1 O’clock in the morning. Who wanted to pay $18 to have a lousy buffet at midnight? We decided to drive to Borgata and had some Chinese food there.

I wanted to have something good for kids and Maria so I made a reservation at the Reserve at the Bally’s. I had first wanted to try Nero’s at Caesar but they only opened 4 nights a week. Since Reserve is more expensive than Nero’s, I had high hope for the Reserve.

We arrived on time at 8:30 PM and was told to wait a couple of minutes because they wanted to [set up a window table for us.

The table was nice but the outside was pitch dark and windy. All we could see was some tree tops waving in the wind. We ordered 3 squash soups and 1 onion soup. Both were okay but not great. We also ordered two appetizers: Ravioli and deep-fried cheese. Again, not great.

For entree, we ordered a 22 oz. cowboy (Ribeye) steak, a fish fillet (kind like salmon) and pan-seared duck breast. The steak came out very good but I don’t think they used prime grade meat. The fish was over-cooked and a bit bland. The worst of them all was the duck breast: it was hard and tasteless; kind like chewing rubber. The two sides we ordered were better than the entree: baked yam was soft and tasty. the chocolate flavored butter made it a notch above an ordinary baked yam. The deep-fried potato cake was okay but by that time, I wasn’t in the mood of eating at all.

The service was attentive and the waiter did a good job taking care of us. It wasn’t busy when we were there so he probably had more time taking care of us. The food was lousy and very disappointing. I will not go back again. And I advice you not to go there unless you are a risk taker and don’t mind throwing your money away.

With a bottle of French wine ($135), the total tab came to $465, not cheap at all. We didn;t order any desserts because I didn’t want to throw away any more money.

香港三日游; 3-days in Hong Kong 10/8 – 10/11/2008 – Kowloon 九龍 November 8, 2008

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香港三日游; 3-days in Hong Kong 10/8 – 10/11/2008

Wednesday, 10/8/2008 – Kowloon 九龍

From Japan, we flew to Hong Kong on All Nippon Airway. We left Narita at 10:15 in the morning and arrived at Hong Kong a little past 2:00 in the afternoon. The flight was uneventful and the lunch was good but the hot meal was just so so this time. We have booked 龍堡大飯店 BP International Hotel through the local travel agent and we decide to take public transportation to the hotel instead of a taxi. After a short inquiry, we found out that the cheapest way is to take the Airport Express to Kowloon Station 九龍車站 and then take the free hotel shuttle bus K5 at the station to 龍堡大飯店. The fair was $160 HKD round trip for each of us which would be about ½ the price if we took taxi to and from the hotel. The Airport Express was clean and comfortable and took about 20 minutes to Kowloon Station. We then waited for about 5 minutes before getting on K5. It then stopped by four other hotels before dropping us off at 龍堡. We checked in and were given a $50 HKD discount ticket to their seafood buffet at the hotel which cost $260 HKD. Since I have already decided which restaurants to go to, we had to skip this offer.

龍堡 is in the middle of 尖沙咀 Tsim Sha Tsui just north of the Kowloon Park. It is a few blocks from the Temple Night Market 廟街 , two subway stations; Jordan and 尖沙咀; and the Nathan Road 彌敦大道, the widest and busiest street in Kowloon. It is also within walking distance to Star Ferry, Peninsular Hotel and Huton Restaurant where I have made reservation for tomorrow night for us. In addition, taxi fares to 女人街, 鳥街 and 花街 are less than $30 HKD, about $4 in US dollar. Our room was on the 12th floor facing south but it wasn’t tall enough to see the night sky of the Hong Kong harbor.

We settled in the room and decided to go to Peninsula Hotel 半島酒店 for the legendary afternoon tea since we had a light lunch on the way to Hong Kong on the airplane. We decided to walk to get some exercise. Besides it wasn’t very hot outside. It was a good and relaxing stroll and it took about 20 minutes or less.

The Peninsular Hotel was, and probably still is, a popular place for movie stars, businessmen, businesswomen and politicians to meet and chat. It is also a place for tourists to get a taste of high class life style. We got there at 3:30 PM and the lobby was about 1/3 full. It the has old world charm and a touch of class. The light was kind of dim and the level of conversation was quite low. We sat at a table away from the entrance and foot traffic of hotel guesses. It also gave us a good view of what’s going on in the lobby.

We ordered the pre-fixe menu which cost about $80 for the two of us. Maria had coffee and I had tea. The food came on a silver-plated 3-tier tray. The top level had French pastries. Finger sandwich was on the middle and the bottom tray had several scones. They came with crème and jelly. We each also got a cup of crème brulée which was soft and creamy. The greenish-colored crust on the top was even better than crème brulée. We took our time and enjoyed our moment of quietness. We didn’t want to finish the scone and pastries because we wanted to save some appetite for dinner. The hotel staff gladly put them in a beautiful box for us to take back top the hotel. We also checked out the level on the 2nd floor above the lobby. It had many stores selling top class fashion clothes and jewelry. There was a tea house there. However, all had more store clerks than customers.

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We got out of the lobby and walked toward the hotel. It was quitting time for office workers and there were many people on the road and at the bus stops. We put the left-over pastries in the small fridge in the room and got out to our next stop which was 女人街. It took a 10 minute taxi drive and $29 HKD.

女人街 or Lady’s Market is actually a 4-block stretch of 通菜街, or Tung Choi Street, between Dundas and Argyle Streets. It has probably 100 vendors in make-shift stalls selling mostly ladies goods; including fake name-brand handbags, clothes, socks, pantyhose, ear rings, shoes, toys, fake jade Jewelries, CDs, DVDs, fake antiques, bronze statues, tea pots, paper fans, watches, suitcases, electronic gadgets and accessories for cell phone and iPods. We have been here 3 times before and we liked it very time we were here.

The place is the no. 1 tourist stop of the entire Hong Kong where prices for every merchant are open for negotiation. The right technique, I was told, is to ask for the price first, divided it by half and then start your offer a bit lower than that. The vendor will probably say something like:

“This is too low. How about so and so?” They will usually add:
“This is the lowest I can go. I won’t make any money at all,” or
“We haven’t sold anything yet today. You are our first customer,” or
“This is lower than my cost. How about so and so?”

Never take the second offer because it is usually still way over-priced. If you don’t like the second offer or you knew that you were offered something lower at the last stall, you’ll turn around and start walking away. More often than not, the vendor will call you back and ask for your offer. You will then add a little and insist that this is your last offer. Usually, you will get what you want but don’t need at a price that’s mutually agreeable.

Never do something like what this couple did with a vendor after we have just bought a pair of Kung Fu dresses from her; a white one and a black one:

The young couple was interested in the Kung Fu dress and signaled the vendor of his choice. The vendor took it down from the top shelf and said in her broken English: “$120 Hong Kong Dollar.” The guy showed the dress to his female friend and discussed the offer with her in less than 10 second and said: “We are not willing to offer anything more than $80 HKD.” The vendor then said “$100 HKD.” The guy looked at his female friend for less than 5 seconds, turned around and said “We’ll take it.” They looked happy and walked away without knowing that we had just paid $80 HKD for the same dress. Of course, it probably cost the vendor $40 or even lower to get her supplies from a wholesaler.

We walked from one end to the other and back. On the evening of the last day, we went back to女人街again for a quick look around. In two trips, we bought 20 paper fans, 2 fake Gucci bags, a small clutch with the same design and several Chinese movie DVDs.

The Temple Night Market 廟街 in 油蔴地 Yau Ma Tei was the next stop. It was less than a mile away and cost less than $20 HKD by taxi. 廟街 got its name from the temple 天后廟 Tian Hou Miao (Heavenly Empress Temple) near by. This place is similar to 女人街 because it has many stalls which sell everything you can find at 女人街 .

However, it is different from 女人街 in the following ways:

• 廟街 is also called 男人街 because there are many vendors who carry sports T-shirts, man’s dresses and pants.
• Because it is close to a temple, there were many fortune tellers 算命 who would check your palm lines, look at your face, touch your hand and then tell you what future holds for you. If you want to know whether you will be filthy rich, he’ll tell you when. If you need to know whether you will have a boy in your life, he’ll probably say that you are destined to have a boy after you are 40 years old. If you want to know whether you will marry a beautiful girl next year, he’ll tell you very much so.
• There are many restaurants with tables on the street corner selling Cantonese food and seafood.

We wanted to buy a voltage converter because both Hong Kong and Shanghai; our next stop, have 220V, instead of 110V, outlets. We talked to a couple of vendors and they wanted to sell us multi-function plug that works with 220V wall outlets. However, this wasn’t what we need. Since I didn’t know whether it would actually do the job, we decided not to buy it. Actually, we were afraid that it may damage our cell phone or electrical shaver.

We walked around but didn’t buy anything this time. We also walked by several busy restaurants where many customers had their midnight snack at tables on the street. The 10 or so small tables actually took over almost ½ of the intersection forcing cars and tourists alike to get by the tables slowly. We liked the bustling atmosphere a lot and the food and beer looked very tempting. However, we would not eat here because I have already decided to have 粥 Congee tonight. We did return here on our last night in Hong Kong and bought 2 Kung Fu dresses, 10 cashmere scarves (probably fake ones,) 6 pairs of underwear and a small bronze Guan Yin statue.

Our dinner was at the 40-year old Fu Ji Congee Restaurant 富記粥品, not far from the Temple Night Market. 粥is something one has to try when visiting Hong Kong and, according to some web sites that I researched, 富記is the place to go for 粥. Congee 粥 (Zhou) is different from xi fan 稀飯. The former was cooked over low heat for a long time and the structure of the rice grains disappears completely while the latter was cooked rapidly with rice grain intact. In addition, xi fan  稀飯 is bland in taste and is usually eaten with side dishes. Congee 粥 is made in two steps: a pot of rice is first cooked with water until the grain of the rice disappears. It is then set aside. The rice is then cooked with meat, seafood or inners of pig (all have been prepared separately earlier) depending on customers’ order before it is served. I ordered 及第粥 ji di zhou or zhou with pig’s inners (豬雜粥) because I wanted to try something that’s different from what we usually order: 皮蛋瘦肉粥 pi dan shou rou zhou. 及第粥 was a staple of common people in canton. It uses all parts of a pig to make the zhou without wasting anything at all. It has the following ingredients: 瘦肉片、猪肝片、猪肚 and 猪肠. The zhou went well with shredded ginger 姜丝 and cilantro. However, we didn’t it finish all the inners because of their high cholesterol contents. The steamy zhou was good to the last drop; silky, tasty and full of flavor too.

Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Ginza (銀座) and Narita Hilton November 2, 2008

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Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Ginza (銀座) and Narita Hilton

Tuesday, 10/7/2008 and Wednesday, 10/8/2008 – Ginza (銀座) and Narita Hilton

After lunch, we went to a Toyota showroom by the Tokyo bay and a near by shopping center called Rinka Fukutoshi. This part of the tour was boring and the shops were too expensive for us to buy anything. From there, we took the bus to Ginza and stayed there for about 3 hours and had our dinner there. On the way to Ginza, Yuri asked us to fill out a survey form and gave it back to her in a sealed envelop. She also told us about tips for her and the driver. She said that the company asked for $50 from each guest for her and the driver. We liked her a lot and gave her and the driver more than asked for.

Our bus dropped us off at one end of the Ginza district. We then walked with Yuri and admired the fancy stores and neon signs which were even flashier than what we saw at Time Square in New York. Ginza has the most expensive real estate in the entire Japan and probably the entire world. It has some of the world’s most recognized brand names there: Tiffany, Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Sony, Apple, LG, Dior, Samsung, Armani, Chanel, Cartier and many others. There were also many huge department stores and fancy boutique shops and restaurants.

We passed by the most expensive piece of real estate in the entire Ginza: Tokyo Kyuukyodo (東京鳩居堂.) It turns out that this store is at the geographic center of Ginza. A square foot of the store is said to be worth more than 100 million Japanese Yen at the height of the real estate bubble back in the late 1980’s when Tokyo’s stock index stood at close to 40,000. It was a small store; about 25 to 30′ wide and no more than 30 or 35′ deep. Yuri said that the store specializes in traditional Japanese paper products and is a popular tourist stop for foreigners. We didn’t have time to stop by otherwise I would step inside and check out what they sell and their prices.

After the short tour with Yuri, we were on our own for about an hour before we have to meet at the entrance of the 松坂屋 Matsuzakaya Department Store which is about a few block straight ahead. We walked around and watched people young and old walking briskly on their way home. W didn’t buy anything because there was no point to shop here. We did stop by 松坂屋 Matsuzakaya Department Store because it was where we would meet again. The store was huge and busy. There were many Japanese women and young girl; many dressed in their designer’s suits, carrying their LV bags and wearing beautiful shoes, checking out cosmetics, designer bags and fashion dresses. They were actually buying stuff, talking to store clerks behind the counter and checking out the stuff they like. They were serious shoppers and not window shoppers. The store was huge and it must have more than 10 restaurants and a food court based on in-store directory. We went to the basement and checked out their fruit vinegars. We fortunately found something that’s equivalent in quality and price to what we could find at 高岛屋 (Takashimaya.)

On the way in of the 松坂屋 Matsuzakaya Department Store we saw many people lining up near the entrance to buy something. We stretched our neck and saw a line of people about 15 to 20 deep waiting to buy some kind of cake. We didn’t pay too much attention and thought this was something on sale near the end of the day. After we bought the fruit vinegar, got out of the basement and walked toward the waiting bus, we again past the line of people waiting to buy the same stuff. We curiously walked around and found out they were buying a loaf of cake that’s about 4″ or 4.5″ OD with a 1.5″ hole in the middle. The outside of the cake wasn’t round like a smooth cylinder. Instead it has probably 10 or so rough groves along the length of the cake much like a worn out gear. A package of the golden and layered cake was about 14 or 16″ long. As we waited on the bus for other members to come back, someone in our group said that a loaf of the cake was selling at ¥4,700 or $47. Wow! I would call that expensive.

Our next stop was a shabu-shabu restaurant at a near by restaurant all-you-can-eat style. The place was below the street level, a bit small and crowded with all of us in there. Maria and I shared the hot pot which was made with clay. The broth in the pot was clear and had a little salt. The beef was thinly sliced, fresh and very lean. It came out on a deck of 3 bamboo trays, each about 10″ square and 2″ high. Each bamboo tray had about 6 or 8 slices of beef. There was also grounded chicken meat served in a piece of cut-out bamboo. I didn’t remember we had any shrimp but there were some good mushrooms, like enoki 金針菇 and oyster mushrooms, tofu, toro root, fresh vegetables, fish cake and clear noodle made from green beans. There were two kinds of dipping sauces: miso-based and soy sauce-based. Both were very light in taste and color. And they were not very salty. There was no “sha cha jiang” or 沙茶醬 though. Too bad! We chose not to eat any beef but asked for more ground chicken instead. We used the ground chicken meat to make meatballs which was very tender and tasty, even without the sauce. If you wish, you could order some soda, juice, beer or sake. But these were 有料, meaning you have to pay for it because it was extra. The beef, chicken and vegetables were 无料 because it was included in the fees we paid for the tour.

After dinner, the bus took us back to Narita Hilton. We got out luggage and went back to our room watching Japanese TV and worked on sudoku again.

The trip was fun, informative but short. The tour company, Signet Tours 超值旅遊, is a fine tour company. Yuri was a capable and professional tour guide. The hotels were all very nice, clean and comfortable. The rooms weren’t fancy or huge but big enough for us. Some hotels have Chinese programs on TV but most had only one channel. Services at the restaurant and front counter were all very courteous and quick. Hotel staff was polite and efficient. Bus rides were comfortable and the seats were wide enough to accommodate even tall people. The places we went to were worth going except a couple of spots. Although I wish we could stay at Ginza a bit longer. Over the entire trip, we didn’t even feel like we were rushed. Yuri was capable and funny at times. Her stories were interesting and informative but I couldn’t help but think that many stories probably reflected her own feelings. Here we have a woman living in a foreign country almost all her life; a country that is rigid and close, especially to women. I thought that she must be very happy to meet people from her own country even though we live in a foreign country. I felt a sense of friendship between us at the end of the trip but I knew that we probably will not meet again.

We didn’t interact too much with other members of our tour group except a couple who lived in Chicago; the guy came from Hong Kong and her wife was apparently from China. Both went to the US even before I did. He is in his early 70’s but looked much younger. He studied in Pennsylvania and liked us back then had to work during the summer to pay for tuition, room and board for next year. He was told that he could only make enough money if he went to New York Chinatown. He did and made $2,000 the first summer there as a waiter. Back then, tuition probably cost $20 to $25 a credit. Room would go for $35 a month or less if you share with others and $50 to 100 would take care of a month’s food. A new Japanese sports car like Datsun’s 240Z probably cost less than $3,000 in the early 70’s. His wife jokingly told us that she married him because he was good at making money. We asked him about Hong Kong and he reminded us that we should go to the Peninsula Hotel 半島酒店 for the afternoon tea. I have checked this out on the Internet but wasn’t sure whether we would go or not. After his recommendation, we decided to give it a try.

Another group of tourists we had talked to came from Las Vegas. Three of them had missed their connection flights to Tokyo at Los Angles and didn’t join the tour until after we had our dinner and karaoke at Atami 熱海市. The father is in his 80’s. He served in Chinese air force like my father and Maria’s father did. He looked much younger than his age and walked even faster than Maria did when he was climbing the hill with everyone else to the place selling black eggs (in Owakudani near Hakone.) His two daughters are in their 50’s and the other two are probably their cousins. The younger daughter has a Chinese restaurant in China Town in Las Vegas. She also works as a real estate agent. Her father helps out at the restaurant and stays there the entire day; from 10 or 11 in the morning until 11 or sometimes midnight. He said that he helps out with everything big and small and takes care of the restaurant when his daughter is out for other things, He did say that he takes nap in the restaurant in the afternoon when it is not busy there. She told me that their 牛肉面 “niu rou mian” is the best and asked us to stop by her store when we visit there. I may just take her advice and check them out next time when we are in Las Vegas.

The next morning, we had a quick breakfast, checked out and went to the lobby as instructed by Yuri because we had a 10 AM flight to Hong Kong. Yuri wanted to ride the hotel shuttle with us to the airport saying that this was her job. We asked her not to because we could take care of ourselves. Besides, she had to take other guests to a temple nearby for those having afternoon flights. We got to the airport in less than 10 minutes, checked in our luggage, and changed our Japanese yen into US dollar. Since the US dollar has strengthened in the last 2 days, we had a very favorable rate of 104 Yen/US Dollar, better than waht we got when we entered Japan.We then went thought the security (Didn’t have to take off our shoes) and wait for our flights with All Nippon Airway to Hong Kong. The flight was on time and that concluded our 6 days Japan Kanto tour.

Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Yuri November 2, 2008

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Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Ginza and Narita Hilton
Tuesday, 10/7/2008 – 10/8/2008 Ginza and Narita Hilton

Ginza still baffled me after that many years:

  • On one hand, many office workers in their characteristic black suit and white shirt carrying their briefcases under their armpit on their way home stopping only by the traffic light at the busy intersection.
  • On the other hand, middle-aged women and young girls in their stylish and chic dresses shopping in boutique houses and gleaming department stores spending the hard-earned money by their husband or father.

This is the Japanese way, Yuri said.

Yuri came to Japan from Taiwan with her parents some 40 years ago. She got her education from Japanese schools, integrated into Japanese culture, married a Japanese man, changed her Taiwanese name into由裡 and adapted her husband’s last name佐藤, became a Japanese citizen after many tries, took their yearly vacation somewhere in Japan, lived in a small apartment not too far from Ginza and raised two daughters who now live in the US. In many ways she is a typical Japanese housewife in her age group: she respects her husband who has worked for a Japanese company all his life and has the ultimate power over her. Yet she was different because she has worked as a professional woman and worked hard for a better retirement in a couple years. While we were on the bus, she shared many things with us: the aging of the Japanese population, the most serious social problem facing the Japanese middle age couples, the enormous pressure Japanese men face in the work place, the life of Japanese housewives and the sad facts about young female employees in a company.

The aging of the Japanese population has been a serious problem for many years. Worse, it has reached the crisis level because it has crippled the Japanese economy. Japan has been in and out of recession since the early 1990’s partly because the aging population put their savings in banks and post office earning a paltry 0.5% interest per year instead of spending it. The younger generations have delayed their marriages and, once married, they have few children because of high cost of living in Japan. Allowing people from other race to settle in Japan could alleviate the demographic problem but Japan has been against social integration by people from other countries. The government has adapted many incentives to entice young Japanese couples to have more children such as monetary reward for their 2nd and 3rd children. This and other measures have largely been ineffective because the birth rate has stubbornly stayed below the replacement level. In recent years, Yuri said that the decline of the birth rate has apparently been arrested recently because the three major companies in Japan have heeded a request by the government to pay for the cost of university education for the children of their lifetime employees. This is considered a huge amount for any family in Japan and it has apparently holding back the many young couples to have more kids.

The most serious social problem facing Japan now is the alarming divorce rate of the middle age people. Many companies in Japan, especially the largest ones, had and still have the lifetime employment system: a young man graduated from a university, joined the company, and worked for the same company until he was eligible for retirement at the age of 60. At this time, he was eligible for a one-time lump sum payment of about $350,000 to $3,000,000, depending on his position in the company. When a typical Japanese couple got married about 30 to 40 years ago, they enjoyed a happy marriage life like any newlyweds for about 3 months; however they slept on separate beds in the same room. This continued until they had their first kid: that was when the wife moved to a different room; usually with their child. Most wives didn’t work back then and stayed at home their entire life. On a typical day, the wife first took care of her husband, prepared him a big breakfast, packed him a light lunch, sent him away to work with his briefcase at the front door and said that she wanted him to have a good day and asked him come home quickly after work. She then took care of the kids and sent them away to school. After that, she would get together with her friends, other stay-at-homes wives, talked about weather, Crown Prince and Princess, politics and what’s on sale in local markets; everything except her private life. Sometimes she would go to the stores and spend the money her husband made. In the afternoon she shopped at a local market and prepared dinner for their children and husband. However, the husband usually didn’t come home until after 9 o’clock if he was lucky.

The husband’s life wasn’t pleasant either. He got out early in the morning, took the bus then subway to the office before his boss did, worked his tail off all day, ate a small lunch at work; sometimes a rice ball and some xiao cai, and stayed after his boss left the office. In his black briefcase, he would keep his lunch, comic books, a novel or two and an electronic game. When his boss wasn’t looking, he would read his comic book or novel, played the game, and acted like he was busy working. After his boss left the office, he would get together with his colleagues in a local restaurant, drank sake, ate some food and talked about how bad their bosses were. This continued until it was 7 or 8 in the evening. He would then take the subway and bus home and his wife would prepare a “cha pau fan茶泡飯 or rice in tea” for him before went to bed. He had to stay this late because his neighbors would say that he wasn’t important in the company because he came home early. He also had to go out with his colleagues after work because if he declines two or three times, no one would invite him again and he would be isolated in the company. And that would spell the end of his career. On Saturday or Sunday, the whole family would have a huge lunch or dinner together. Of course, the wife did all the cooking and washing and the husband would watch TV and enjoyed his day off. Yuri said that at one time she had to use 49 plates, big and small, to prepare this meal for her family of four.

The social and family pressure on wives of Yuri’s generation and the fact that they never discussed their privacy with others made them easily depressed and isolated from their husbands. With the westernization of the Japanese society, many middle-aged wives chose devoice after their husbands retired from work and started staying at home. This became unbearable for many wives after living their lonely lives for 30 to 40 years. Many wives transferred the lump sum retirement money into their own bank account on the day of their husbands’ retirement and left her husband forever. The husband, ashamed by this, usually chose not to make this a big deal and live in retirement like nothing ever happened. However, Yuri told us not to worry for her because she and her husband are happily married. She more than one time talked about her appreciation to her husband by letting her working. Her husband still has 2 more years before retirement and they both work very hard to prepare their retirement in a couple of years.

From Yuri’s discussions of her family and her husband, I could sense that she was envious of many Chinese couples from the US who openly show their affection to each other; holding hands, smiling to each other, and talking intimately. I almost heard her choking back her words when she said that she liked “家後;” the Taiwanese song about a wife who has given her entire life to her husband and her family since she was a young girl. She also said that she tried to get her husband to open up to her but he had a hard time to get out of the social burden and express his feeling to her. Well, I wish she gets what she wants and a happy retirement life with her husband.

Yuri also talked about the unfair treatment female employees received from their male colleagues in a company, probably even to this date. Usually, the first year of a young female employee was spent on clerk duties and pouring tea for their boss and male colleagues. This unfair treatment last until there was another new female employee who can take over this responsibility. Yuri’s first daughter is in her early 30’s now. Yuri told us this true story which happened to her daughter probably some 10 years ago: After Yuri’s daughter graduated from a university, she joined a company as a new employee. She was introduced to her colleagues and her boss on her first day of work. She then spent her first week on taking letters to other employees of the company, doing typing jobs for others and pouring teas for her boss. At the end of the first day of the second week and after everyone has left the company, a female supervisor took her to the janitor’s room and told her to vacuum the floor before going home. She was surprised, probably showed some resentment to this unfair treatment but couldn’t say no to her supervisor because if she did, it would spell the end of her career in this company. Fortunately, the vacuum machine was out of order and she didn’t have to it that evening. However, the female supervisor said to her “Didn’t your parents teach you anything?” Yuri’s daughter went home and told their parents about this. Yuri was very upset and asked her husband to talk to the company. He refused and said that this was the Japanese way. He then called this female supervisor before work first thing next morning and apologized for not properly teaching her daughter the way it should be. She ended up vacuum the floor as instructed. What a ridicules policy! It could only happen to an old and closed society such as Japan!

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