Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Different Kind of Fever Hits Hong Kong

This post dates back to last year's Hong Kong trip that coincided with the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Hong Kong is ranked #116 in the world by FIFA. It’s more than a continent away from Germany yet as soon as you touch down at Chek Lak Kop International Airport, you can’t help but feel that you aren’t too far from World Cup fever.

In the middle of this fully modern airport in Lantau island is a large vid-screen with a life-sized cutout of France’s Thierry Henry telling travelers to “Fly Emirates.” The chain of Newslink Bookstores have gotten in the action with their magazine stands and tables decked with football publications and tomes on past greats such as Pele, Diego Maradona, and Paul Gascoigne.

In the departure area before you reach immigration and customs there is a stall that attracts a queue almost as long as a ticket booth. And why not when it has kits of almost every famous football club and country in the world? A young Australian lad of nine years tugs his mum’s hand. There’s a big “wow!” on his lips as his eyes are ablaze with wonder. Once his hands gently touch those red Umbro English tees with a “Lampard” on the back, it’s sold for HK $447. So much for being a Socceroo fan.

I’m staying at my favorite stomping grounds of Tsim Sha Tsui and this swinging part of town is a microcosm of an island gone soccer mad. If it isn’t the Netherlands' Ruud Van Nistelrooy on the side of a double decker bus, there are bus stops adverts of England’s cross-cultural icon David Beckham, the joyous Brazilian striker Ronaldinho, and France’s brilliant mid-fielder Zinedine Zidane. Everywhere you go there are people in football unis. I’ve spotted more than a few Filipino tourists in football gear (if you’re a stickler for numbers, that’s 25 Pinoys with various football kits versus a lone one wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey).

Prat Avenue is one of the few streets in the shopping maven of TST that doesn’t have tourist shops. Instead it’s arrayed with bars and restaurants. From the avenue’s tip where the 7-11 is filled to the ceiling with soccer buntings and soccer ball stickers to its end where it intersects with busy Chatham Road, it’s like the United Nations as most shops are decked in the flags of the 32 nations competing in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Ironically it is Schurrnapp’s, a German Bar and Restaurant, that is the only establishment that provides a soccer-free haven for people who don’t have a thing for soccer. “You’d be surprised that there are folks in this world who don’t like soccer,” says Rolf a regular bar patron. So how’s business lately? “Oh, they’re all next door watching the games,” he throws his hands up in cheerful defeat. The Jockey Club, a betting station beside a Vietnamese restaurant, is working overtime. The betting is fast and furious. Tonight it’s Italy vs. the USA. With Eddie Johnson sounding off the war cries and Italy’s adverse reactions to the American’s comments, you know that it’s going to be one hell of a match. And despite their game being slated for 3am the bars will have full occupancy. It’s a good thing, it’s the weekend. According to the South China Morning Post’s Tim Noonan, HK employers have decried the high absenteeism during World Cup season. Fortunately, it happens once every four years and employers are willing to concede that. Besides, the employers themselves stumble into their swank offices in Central with their eyes bloodshot the following morning and seemingly jet-lagged albeit from an all-nighter of soccer action.

The fashionable shops along Nathan Road and the ritzy inter-connecting malls of the Gateway to Harbour City have gone soccer mad as well. Even the more affordable trendy stores like Bossini and Giordano have shown their true colors. “World Without Strangers” is Giordano’s new advertising campaign in reference to the global game of football. It’s got shirts designed in every nation’s colors. If you get three shirts (now there’s a retailer’s hat trick score if there was ever one), it comes at a more affordable price. While the bulk of the items everywhere are geared for a male audience, the Giordano outlet in Peking Road offers a concession: “We apologize for your having to endure your boyfriend’s soccer-mania. For that we are offering 20% off on your shopping needs.” Tres cool. Football for men; shopping for women. Only the women are just as into it. A pretty Chinese lass in designer jeans and shoes walks by. She’s wearing a Beckham. Why not? After all, she’s proud of her country’s British heritage. “Yes, but also because he’s hot,” she adds.

Hong Kong is 95% Chinese with the remaining 5% made up of different nationalities. If you find the various ethnic cuisines of Nepal, France, Portugal, Vietnam or whatnot (check out them yummy places along Stanley) too pricey, then you might want to settle for the less expensive fare of that neighborhood carinderia that is McDonald’s. But as you descend the steps of the McDonald’s along Granville Road, there’s a huge poster of the in-store Fantastic World Cup Cards promo to greet you. There’s no escape whether from football or the hamburger chain. For every HK $17 purchase, you get a card. If the team on the card wins that day then you get a free McDonald’s meal.

Back in the hotel room after a day of shopping and sight-seeing, you switch on the tube. If your hotel doesn’t get cable then unless you’re Chinese, then you’re doomed to local tele-novelas and game shows. You only have the BBC and National Geographic to keep you company. But wait a minute... they’re showing Football Planet on National Geographic.

Der Spiegel’s Dirk Kurbjuweit’s writes in their Planet Football International Edition that football “isn’t just a game.” And more than a continent away from Germany in this Special Administrative Region that is Hong Kong, he is so right.

It’s a way of life.

Hong Kong Getaway

Hong Kong. The former British Crown Colony may be the quintessential quick getaway for Filipinos since it's just an hour and a half away yet this shopping paradise is oh-so cosmopolitan so I never get tired of going there. I've always said that it's a microcosm of the fast-paced life of the western world and it is. Life here sort of prepped me for NYC a couple of years ago.

Going to Hong Kong was our reward for nailing a plum video assignment for our alma mater Ateneo De Manila. And the four days and three nights there were some of our best times. And since this vacation was in the middle of the FIFA World Cup, the atmosphere was even more electric. You just have to read my account on the World Cup fever that gripped this island nation.

It's been years since I've been here and the changes especially on the waterfront that separates Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are magnificent. We enjoyed hanging out at the Avenue of the Stars outside the New World Hotel. We tried out different cuisine: Portuguese, Vietnamese, and Thai. There were the usual Italian and American fast foods as well.

The night market in Jordan and Mongkok is always fun. Ocean Park -- I always love the dolphin and seal shows. But that's about it. I'm a party pooper when it comes to park rides coz my acrophobia makes me too chicken to get on anything outside the world's longest escalator. So I tend to enjoy stuff like the aquarium, the jellyfish display, and the games. The cable car is something I have never gotten used to. I still ride it with my eyes closed and my hands gripping the steel bars ever so-tightly.

I felt bad that the three-story HMV along Sands St and Haiphong Road has shrunk. Arrghhh! I used to spend hours and hours there just browsing that people thought I was an employee! And the Toys R Us at Harbour City isn't as lively and big as it used to be. But shopping here is always fun.

Hong Kong is just one of my favorite places in the world.

I Love Boracay commercials series

Here are three of the four-part series of Boracay commercials that I did early 2006. The music is "All Possibilities" by Badly Drawn Boy off his "Have You Fed the Fish?" album. Being a fan of 70's soul music like "The Sound of Philadelphia" and Barry White's "Love's Theme" that was used for an airline commercial -- God, a prize to anyone who can tell what airline that was coz I don't remember it -- I wanted a retro feel to the commercial's soundtrack.

I loved Damon Gough's (aka Badly Drawn Boy) music since his first album and I was eating in a burger joint in La Jolla, CA when I heard his "All Possibilities" come on over the radio. I freaking loved the song to pieces and was able to get a copy at Virgin Records in Times Square a bit later. In the midst of doing this commercial (that was low-budget to begin with) with Juan Elizalde, my former boss and long-time friend, it suddenly hit me that this was the soundtrack.

And it works, doesn't it?

A side note to the scenes from the sea... we took Juan's speedboat around the island and shot a lot of footage. This was the second time we encountered rough and choppy seas that it made some people feel real sick. It was hard getting decent shots lest the cameras be thrown overboard. I think a few days before we did the shooting, some island folks were lost out at sea so we were all quite antsy.

I have yet to edit the Corregidor footage. But since we're going to Macau in early August, Bangkok in October, and Micronesia next it's going to be one fun travelogue.

Hope you like the series of commercials. No fancy effects. Not too many equipment. Just simple stuff that we wanted to do using images that haven't been overexposed such as the hammock between two coconut trees.

But as Gene says, "I take my coffee break facing the sea. You get the sunrise and the sunset -- I think these are the perks."

Oh yeah!

Bora Sojourn

I’ve never ridden on small planes so this was a first. Not that it bothered me. Incredibly despite my acrophobia, I ride planes pretty well. In fact, I would oft ask for window seats.

When we were ushered out to the tarmac at the old Manila Domestic Airport, I immediately looked at the plane. It was a Dornier 328. I recognized the make of the plane: it’s German. And if anything, I trust German engineering. The turbo-prop 35-seater has a pair of Pratt & Whitney engines that enable the plane to take to the skies in 22 seconds on a short runway. I kinda felt safe on this Sea Air flight as opposed to the Inter Island Air flights that use Russian planes that date back to the 70s.

The ride was blissfully quick. Cruising at an altitude of 15,000 feet, the plane’s parabolic arc catapulted us into Aklan airspace within 30 minutes. I couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement when the islands came into view. The descent into Caticlan Airport on the other hand took our minds off the beach paradise for a bit. I wasn’t sure if it was the buffeting winds or the sharp turn the plane took but the descent elicited a few concerned “whoas” from the passengers. Juan Elizalde who has made this trip hundreds of times looked at me and smiled, “Pretty freaky landing, huh?” I made sure to profusely thank the pilots upon disembarking but guys, er, take it easy next time, huh.

Caticlan Airport is one of the busiest in the country. This tiny airstrip accommodates up to 55 flights a day or an average of about eleven flights per hour during its 11-hour operating period. There would be more were the airstrip better equipped. The last flight out of the island is at 6pm because of the lack of landing lights. So inclement weather can be a bitch when it comes to delayed and canceled flights. Juan tells me that one time, a delayed flight arrived way past six and airport officials had to use a car’s headlights to guide the plane in! Remind me never to book a flight close to dusk!

From the airport, tourists normally take a trike to Jetty Port (which was put up during Erap’s time) for a 15-minute banca ride to Boracay Island. Being with the heir to the Elizalde business empire has its perks for we have an L300 that will instead bring us to a private port owned by Fil-Estate. The Elizalde’s private speedboat is docked by the shore. I have to take off my rubber shoes and wade in the cold and knee-length water.

If the flight in was freaky, the boat ride to the island made me nervous. Uncharacteristic rough seas greeted me by splashing salt water on me. I stood up and held on to the rail putting up a brave front. But heck, I was nervous! Talk about a warm welcome. I certainly hope my three-day stay will be much better.

Instead of heading for the Elizalde Beachfront residence, we get off the beach fronting the family-owned D’Mall Boracay. There are a couple of huge and intricately-designed sandcastles close by for tourists to take snapshots of. The grainy masterpiece took about four hours and three men to make, according to the sandcastles’ architect. Around 1am when night life fronting the D’Mall area dies down for the day (those who still want to party-on move over to a trio of popular watering holes: Hey Jude, Summer Place and Nigi Nigi – the latter two cater mostly to foreigners), they demolish the structure only to put it up again the following day with slight changes. They make their living through donations. In my first day there, I noticed that there was a Php 50 bill. For my photo op, I plunked down a 20 figuring that a 50 was too much. The following day, just as the structure rose up again, the 50 was there again. I told myself, wise mga ‘to; they leave that there so that tourists will think that the average tourist donates a Serge Osmeña (a fifty peso bill) is the minimum donation.

I get to see Aria and Café Del Sol, two of Juan’s business here in Bora up close for the first time. Several years ago, I helped design the menus and the standees of the restos; now I get to see and eat in them. And D’Mall… wow. It isn’t what I thought it was. When you hear “mall” the first thing that comes to mind are the lavish concrete and commercial behemoths that have become national landmarks and tourists spots in the metropolis. D’Mall isn’t anything like that. It’s an open air mall that resembles a small village (the size of a small parking lot) with several “avenues” with lots of:
• Small stores: Rudy Project, a magazine stand, stands for tiangges, a store for surf and kite boarders, a shop that sells burned copies of Chillout and House music (Ironically, while going through security check at the old Manila Domestic Airport, Airport Security was checking all baggage for pirated CDs and DVDs!), a mini-mart, and the ever-present cellphone stores,
• Restaurants: they’ve got Mongkok, Lemon Café, Cindy’s, Andok’s (that also sells soft-serve ice cream!), a transplanted Hobbit House, Fruits In Ice Cream, a restaurants that offer Greek, Korean, and other ethnic cuisine,
• And entertainment stalls: they’ve got this basketball ring where you try to beat the clock by canning all these shots, there’s a kiddie Ferris Wheel in the middle of the mall (really!), and a Sex Shop for those into kinky stuff.

In the four years since D’Mall began operating, it has literally become the center of all island activity. Pretty amazing.

I follow Juan around as he checks on his other business. Mongkok, Julie’s Bakery, and the Budget Mart are his too. Wow, is all I can exclaim. Around 12:30pm, we have lunch at Aria. Aria is an Italian Restaurant that has the only wood fire oven in the whole island. They’ve got an authentic Italian Chef – Gino is his name – who overseas all the food. And everything is just delicious. My first meal at Aria is a bowl of Caesar’s Salad and pizza (their pizza is one of the best if not the best I’ve ever tasted here in the Philippines much more anywhere else).

Juan introduced me to Paolo, his Italian business partner. Paolo has been living on the island for 24 years now. He has seen it develop from a virgin forest into a premiere tourist destination. During the rainy season, Paolo goes back home to Italy or Germany where his live-in partner, Suzy originates from. They have two children already. The only one I’ve met is Farah, a beautiful young girl. Suzy worked in Manila for two years and during a vacation in Boracay some seven years ago, she fell in love with the place and like her beau, decided to make it her home. When she isn’t taking care of her kids, she helps manage Café Del Sol.

Around 3pm, we meet up with Paul Henares who is a Bacolod native who has made Boracay his home. Paul is the Executive Director for the Boracay Eco-Educational Campaign and Material Recovery Facility (MRF) Project. In short, the waste disposal and environmental protection program of the island. Incredibly, it isn’t the Philippine government that funds them but the Canadian government! Paul explains to me what is being done about Bora’s embarrassing waste disposal problem. Juan offers a simple and brutal summary of the problem: the inefficient local government, the undisciplined locals, and the overdevelopment of the island.

Around 4:30pm, we head over to the MRF site of Balabag in a golf cart (!), one of the three sectors of the island to meet up with the Barangay Captain Glenn Sacapaño who is the only Barangay Captain seriously dealing with the garbage problem (Barangays Yapak and Manoc Manoc are still a long ways off from doing anything substantial about the garbage problem). He shows us how the garbage is segregated and how they will either be recycled or grinded into a more compact and disposable manner. 30 minutes later, we’re on our way to the island’s dirty little secret – Bora’s own Smoky Mountain garbage dump that has been closed ever since that Philippine Daily Inquirer expose of a few years ago that first put the island in bad light. It’s a 25-minute ride up a narrow and uphill trail frequented by ATV-riding Koreans. Before you get to the dump, the first thing
you notice from afar are all these things swirling in the air. Seagulls I thought to myself. But as we got close, they weren’t any winged creatures but plastic bags whipped up by the wind blowing from the sea. The stench isn’t as overpowering as the dump in Payatas but it assaults your senses just the same. After taking a video of the place we zip over to a sewage plant where sewage is converted into fertilizers. The smell here is obviously worse. Its downhill this time and the golf cart isn’t exactly designed for off road terrain and the ride gets pretty hairy once the vehicle picks up speed. “If it looks like we’re going to crash, jump,” jokes Juan. That’s thrice on my first day about perilous rides. If I make it back to Manila unscathed, God must have a serious plan for me. The brakes on this thing must probably be shot after this trip.

Once back on normal terrain, we drive past the beach on the other side of the island. The roar of the surf on the sand is both frightening and beautiful at the same time. We go to the Elizalde residence to freshen up before heading back to D’Mall area for dinner.

In one of the rooms of the Elizalde’s beach house is a painting of Boracay unspoiled by human hands. The painting is some 20+ feet long. The only discernible structures in the coconut palm dotted beach are the original beach house of Don Manolo and the hut of property caretaker Jony (who tricked the Elizalde’s out of ownership of one of the properties to put up his own hotel resort house called … Jony’s). Walking the length of the 4k western side of the island which where the famous powdery white sand beaches are located, I can’t help but notice the crass commercialism of the place. Pump boats, bancas, and hobie crafts prominently feature the logos of the major telcos. Except for the a few establishments that have kept the tropical theme of Boracay, most seem to be transplanted malls out of crowded Manila. The Regency Hotel (that is about 120 meters long) seems better suited to the well-manicured and cosmopolitan Makati.

The Elizalde residence and the white sands outside the property are the only ones left unsoiled by progress. No need for them. After all, they have D’Mall, D’Talipapa (their own wet market that is a five-minute drive from D’Mall), and a few other tracts of land that they have rented out.

The cottage I'm staying in is the highest one on the lot. Like all the others, they’re all air-conditioned with spacious bathrooms. It is simply furnished with a huge bed and a bare bones home entertainment system. Not bad. I could live in a place like this.

I freshen up with a nice cold bath then head out after a bit to do some sightseeing. I was hoping to catch a glorious sunset but the dark clouds prevented the sun’s rays from peeking through. So I just walk around checking the sights and sounds.

Around 7pm, I meet up with Juan again at Aria where we have dinner. This time I have vegetable soup and carbonarra. I meet Gene, a transplanted Manileño and fellow Atenean (batchmate of my cousin Keith Olivares) who manages Aria. He moved here a couple of years ago and despite the disparity in pay prefers the more laid back atmosphere of the island. Juan introduced me to several friends of his.

There’s a couple of French guys George and Xavier (pronounced Sa-vee-yay). George lives here for several months of the year before heading back to Manila where he works. Xavier is an Engineer who calls Greece home. His accent isn’t that thick since he studied and lived in America for a while. George is always on the lookout for hot chicks while Xavier is still recuperating after getting sick while swimming on the other side of the island that was polluted by the sewage.

A little later, three more expats join us at the table. There’s Keith who has been working in Manila for the last six years. Every Friday he goes to Boracay to unwind with his petite and bodacious girlfriend whose name I cannot remember. And there was this Spanish expat Alberto who was celebrating his birthday that night. He treated us out for dessert at Fruits in Ice Cream afterwards. Alberto owns the English Baker somewhere nearby. Alberto married this local girl who eventually separated from him and took away his business that he had built from scratch. It was only recently that he was able to recoup and rebound from that unfortunate affair.

Beside FIC is this Mediterranean restaurant with a British chef. He personally serves this large party of 12 having a late dinner. The food looks and smells great that Juan says that maybe we should try out the place sometime later.

By 1130pm, Juan and I are ready to call it a night. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow. We don’t take the golf cart going back but walk the beach instead, his three body guards some ten feet back.

I take a bath then change into more comfortable sleepwear. The English Premier League is on and I watch ‘til my eyes drop. Thank goodness it isn’t Real Madrid playing or else, I’d stay awake for two hours more watching TV.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Empire of the Senses

“We touched the ground at JFK …”
from U2’s “Angel of Harlem”

"I wish I could sleep like that," admired the red-haired man from North Carolina. He was referring to my blissfully long sleep from Narita Airport in Japan all the way to JFK in New York.

"You'd sleep like that," I revealed to him as my squinted eyes adjusted to the bright cabin lights, "if you’ve not slept for two days."

We touched the ground at JFK at exactly 2:12 pm (U2's "Angel of Harlem" was playing in my head) nearly an hour ahead of schedule coz of the way the earth turns and the blowing wind as explained by the purser). I picked up my hand carried luggage and bade goodbye to Mr. North Carolina who harrumphed about switching flights for the umpteenth time.

I exited JFK and stood outside for a minute to look around. Guys in dreadlocks. Kids in replica Yankee pinstripes. People chatting rather noisily in their own language. There were biker dudes, chic couples, a couple of guys in turbans, and the high-pitched tones of some kababayans speaking in the vernacular.

I knew I was home.