Category Archives: non-fiction/reporting

Ganga aarti in Varanasi

Ganga aarti ceremony in Varanasi is a Hindu ritual not to be missed. The ghats are filled with classical Indian music and pilgrims flock to the sacred river to watch this audio visual fest every evening.

Chai-wallas hop from boat to boat to sell their sweet milky concoction. Interesting to note that the flags of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were in attendance.

A forgotten corner of old Kunming

The following article is one that I wrote for GoKunming.com during my writing internship there in December 2015.

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Mrs Tang knows her way around her little street. Situated right underneath the large bridge on Yuantong Jie crossing the Panlong River and mimicking the shape of Hong Kong’s Tsing Ma Gate, albeit much smaller, lies a little treasure trove of a bygone time.

The old alleys of Kunming are rare and hard to find these days because of an intense modernization effort that began back in the 1990s. But the Lingguang Jie (灵光街) area near Yuantong Mountain remains much the same as it has for decades. The characters roaming the street appear nonchalant about the hustle and bustle in nearby commercial neighborhoods, finding respite just beside the river. But no one knows how much longer this way of life will continue.

Today, like Mrs Tang, most of the vendors sell clothes, shoes, antiques and various knick-knacks.

Inside the neighborhood’s vividly painted brick buildings, you may find the compressed Pu’er tea cakes so popular in Yunnan — packed tight to conserve freshness, as well as for the convenience of bringing them back to family members in faraway villages. You may also find massive smoking pipes, an assortment of odd Chinese pharmaceutical products, Vietnamese coffee and Buddhist paraphernalia. On one end of the road, there are food stalls that get increasingly busy in the evening selling famous grilled tofus, while on the other end, sit noodle shops serving ersi and mixian.

“The street has at least 300 years of history,” said Mrs. Tang, sitting next to an array of her bargain shoes. Walking down the entirety of Lingguang Jie takes you no more than five minutes, yet one gets the impression of traveling back in time to another era. The surrounding modern area seems like a sexier and swankier older brother who traded his traditional Mao suit for a sleek leather jacket.

Between 2007 and 2011, then Party secretary of Kunming, Qiu He, launched an aggressive campaign to modernize the city. His development policies for the urban core of Kunming were seen as largely successful, particularly in constructing a relatively sophisticated transport infrastructure. But Qiu ended up being mostly remembered for demolishing the dilapidated quarters of the city called Chengzhongcun, which where old and poorly built ‘urban villages’ razed to make way for large-scale real estate projects.

My gaze straying from the cold skyline to the vibrant old alley before me — like a child opening a box of chocolates — I poked around in all the different shops, exploring the various drawers with jade bracelets, old coins from Indochina, Tibetan-style bags, and Maca root powder products.

That was when I stumbled upon a nondescript little shop, into which I could barely see through the steel-barred windows from the outside. It piqued my interest. I stepped inside, and asked the owner numerous questions about the area, but she seemed reluctant to answer, eyeing me with a suspicious look on her face. Then, I asked her about a toothpaste brand that I had never seen before, the box indicating it was made in Kunming and called Sanqi Toothpaste.

“So this is a herbal toothpaste? Do a lot of people use it here?” I inquired. She looked at my camera, with the lens unattached. “Are you a reporter? Get out if you are here to ask me questions and take photos. Get out. You won’t buy anything anyway,” she chided. Not at all trying to mask her growing annoyance, she shuffled me out of the shop.

I could not help but feel bad for her, so I bought the five-yuan toothpaste and thanked her before leaving. She appeared appeased but I could tell that her frustration was resonant with a lot of the other shopkeepers. They see tourists waltz into their neighborhood, take a bunch of photos, but not stop to spend a penny. The disruption is tolerated and life goes on.

“There are tourists who come here, but we depend on old customers who come back here to keep buying the goods we sell,” Mrs Tang confided. Later on I found out the street has been covered extensively in local media, and is admired by many Chinese travelers who visit Kunming. The discussions in online forums point to one conclusion — people do not want Lingguang Jie to disappear.

Having said that, the underlying issue is a double-edged sword, pitting the city’s drive for modernization and desire for preservation simultaneously. It occurred to me that the locals did revamp these old buildings not so long ago, as I could see a veneer of fresh red paint concealing the mud brick walls behind.

But as reflected by the reactions of many locals, this corner of Panlong District is also at risk of becoming an antiquated area. The inhabitants are anxious for a faster pace and rising standard of living. They are concerned with access to clean water, more electricity and high-speed internet, as they realize that keeping the old structures may result in remaining apart from the rest of the city grid. Such concerns are exemplified by the obviously outdated sewage system evident on Lingguang Jie.

These concerns were palpable, but since it was a bright sunny afternoon, everybody was in a merry mood. My stomach began to grumble at this point. But the rumbling noise was muffled by a melodic tune coming from a man fiddling with a mandolin. In a nice coincidence, the shop behind the street musician was serving all sorts of noodles. I hurriedly entered and ordered a bowl of ersi, a kind of chewy rice noodle served in soup with minced meat and vegetables.

“How do you call this instrument in Chinese?” I asked the enigmatic performer, while waiting for my food. “We call it wenziling,” he replied. ‘Wenziling’ literally translates to ‘mosquito bell’ and, come to think of it, the high-pitched tones did remind me of the buzzing sounds mosquitoes make.

“He is always here, can’t kick him out,” the owner said as she brought my bowl of hot noodles over. Another man walked past and commented, “You already played this 70-80 times!” The old musician ignored him and kept playing.

So, the afternoon ended with a bowl of ersi and some cathartic strumming, with the cries of children and growls of zooming motorbikes. Last but not least, there is still a tube of old Kunming herbal toothpaste in my bag as a souvenir.

Read more: https://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/3644/around_town_exploring_a_forgotten_corner_of_old_kunming

Grandma Leong will chase the bad luck out of your life

“Good fortune for you! Good fortune for you!”

Surrounded by iconoclasts of the goddess of compassion and god of warrior, Grandma Leong conjured invisible forces and began to hit sheets of paper with a traditional embroidered shoe, attracting curious and awestruck passersby in the middle of the bustling Wanchai neighbourhood. Behind the performance lies a woman who is amongst the hundreds of thousands of people who flock to Hong Kong and struggle to make a living.

The crowds gathered around both the old woman and her customer, a well-dressed young lady from Taiwan, who seemed simultaneously bewildered and impressed at the strength of the 80-year-old. The young Taiwanese woman said she had waited almost half an hour for her turn.

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Grandma Leong, as many Hong Kongers call her, runs the business of cleansing “bad spirits” in your life — the so-called “Little Person” in Chinese —, from her perch right underneath the Canal Road Flyover in Wanchai. You may know this “Little Person” in your life or you may not. But you could definitely write down a person’s name on a sheet of burning paper and let Grandma Leong hit it away until only the pulp is left behind. These “Little Persons” could be those who are saying bad things behind your back, such as colleagues at work or even relatives.

This ritual is one-of-a-kind, to the extent that even local media has reported on the “Hitting Little Person Old Woman.” But offering antidotes to “bad omens” in one’s life is a not uncommon business, thriving on the local superstitious culture.

In Hong Kong, there are many “spiritual practitioners” who help their customers dispel negative forces in their lives and encourage them to wear precious stones to bring fortuitous events into their lives. Conveniently, they also sell these precious stones to them.

“Usually people who work in business and finance go to these practitioners to help them get ahead in the game. They really believe in them,” Aston, a young local said.

But in Grandma Leong’s case, she had not always been a spiritual practitioner.

“I came to Hong Kong from Mainland China in 1983 and collected cardboards for a living,” Grandma Leong said during breaks between her flowing queues of customers. “But so many people do that and you don’t even earn enough for a dignified life,” she complained.

Now, at the age of 80, without children, she is still keen to make a living on her own and declared that, “I don’t like to depend on others, even the government. If I can still walk and talk, I will earn my own money”.

A large plate engraved with all the names of Chinese mythology’s protectors sat in the middle of a makeshift shrine-like space, next to pots of candles and dragon fruits. At the beginning of the ritual, one has to write down his or her name on a stack of red papers. Then, one is supposed to write down the Little Person’s name if one wants to, on another stack of green papers. Afterwards, Grandma Leong will give you seven incense sticks, of which you are supposed to put three of them in each pot and give her the last one that she herself will put inside the pot.

And now, show time.

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Grandma Leong begins her ritual by muttering spells and set about to hit the stack of green papers on bricks, with a worn out embroidered shoe.

She continues to mutter incomprehensible words as she smashes the sheets rigorously, ending on the note, “good fortune for you, good fortune for you!”

Finally, she stops hitting, sets the sheets on fire and throws them into the trash, filled with ashes.

But the ritual is not over.

She picks up the previous stack of red sheets with the customer’s name, and waves them around your face and blesses you with more spells. Then, she once again sets them on fire and throws them into the trash.

For the finale, she stands up and scatters some rice around the makeshift shrine-like space and throws two pieces of wood dice that are part of her trolleys of paraphernalia on the ground. If one side is facing up, and the other side faces down, then that means the “Little Person” will stop backstabbing you. If not, she will throw them again until one side faces up and the other side faces down.

Grandma Leong also reiterated the fact that she won’t hit public persons such as Hong Kong’s chief minister, CY Leung or the richest tycoon in Hong Kong, Lee Kah Shing. She said that many people came to her to express their anger at those who are successful but she rebutted with, “What do they have to do with you and me?”

Usually, she charges HKD 50 for each session that lasts 30 minutes. Sometimes, she receives tips and earns more that way.

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“I will go back to Aberdeen (home) around 7pm and come back here early in the morning,” she said, pausing for a moment and shouted, “But it is not easy as I have to push the trolleys back and forth and take the 97 bus. Once, some guy stole my plate and I had to replace it! It was expensive!”

With incense smoke still wafting in the air, her next customer came up to her and sat down on a little plastic stool, waiting for her turn to rid the bad spirits in her life away.

“I will keep hitting ‘Little Person’ until the day I can’t hit anymore,” Grandma Leong said determinedly, with a booming voice of a woman who won’t let life beat her down.