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Archive for March, 2012

Hong Kong Tailor

And what would a trip to HK be without a visit to the HK tailor? I’ve been looking forward to this for months, and the chance was almost spoiled by a very long work day, but I did break away, two colleagues in tow (one as a guide, one as a style consultant), to go shopping.  We found a shop that looked good – not too shoddy, not too posh – and I was ready with my questions:
“How long to make a suit?”
“Three days, with one visit for fitting.”
“Order on Monday night, ready by Thursday night?”
“Can.”
“Let’s start looking at fabrics.”
“Medium weight, traditional?”
“I’m thinking dark grey. Maybe something with just a little flair, like a little red windowpane stripe?”
“Have. See? Very faint stripe.”
“Excellent!  Beautiful!  How much?”
“$4000, one pair of pants.  Extra pair of pants, $1100 more.”
“One pair will be fine.  Let’s measure.”
“For the lining … something colorful?”
“I think I’d like a medium maroon to bring out the stripe.”
“Can.”
This is definitely something I cannot get off the rack.

As I was getting measured, I realized that I had taken the first price I was offered.  Big mistake. I should have been shocked by the price, reluctant to continue, and waited for the price to drop about 10%.  But, it had been about what I was prepared to pay and I hadn’t mentally prepared for the bargaining. As I stood for the tailor to wrap his measuring tape around various parts of me, I thought about it and decided to ask for a tie to be included.  It wouldn’t lower the price, but it would increase the value anyway. That seemed like such a good idea that I changed my mind and asked for a shirt instead.  In Singapore, a tailor-made shirt goes for about $90, so I prepared for some bargaining.

“Ok.  What kind? White? Blue? Stripes?”
Not even a hint of objection from the salesman. The shirt was my 10% concession.
“Cotton, French cuffs. Maybe a nice pink to bring out the stripe,” and call me Beau Brummel.

And at $4000, with $500 shirts, call me Rockefeller? No, it’s all Hong Kong money, making the shirt about $80 Sing and the suit about $600, or US $65 and $500 – pretty reasonable for made to measure and definitely no more than off the ready-made shelves in Singapore.

A day later
The fitting suit is ready.  It’s a very rough cut jacket and pair of pants that are approximately the right size.  The legs and sleeves have been basted to what they think might be the right length.  Other bits of it get pinned and marked with chalk.  The basting gets ripped out and re-pinned the get the lengths right.  The jacket only has one sleeve.  This is a chance to make all the final decisions about style and fit. Ditto for the shirt.

In Singapore, when I got a couple of shirts, they were made to the measurements without a fitting, because I had no time to go in.  When they were delivered, they fit beautifully – none of that off-the-rack business where the sleeves are either a little too long or a little too short because they don’t have odd numbered sleeve lengths.  I’m looking forward to the HK shirt that was carefully fitted.

Fifteen minutes for the fitting, then off we ran to a client meeting.

Three days later
After a long day, I drafted my guide one more time (I still don’t think I could find this place on my own) and off we went to collect the clothes. As promised, they were ready, excellent fit, and didn’t I look dashing in my new pink shirt and snazzy suit with the red stripe and maroon lining!

And now I have a problem.  The clothes are beautiful.  They have my measurements.  The price is not outrageous.  I can order another from anywhere in the world just by sending email.  I’m getting seriously spoiled by wearing clothes that fit so well.  And it’s really going to be hard to justify a closet full of these clothes when I start spending all my time on the golf course.

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This is the week of rugby Sevens, and who knows what that means? All I know is that the Sevens seems to be a very big deal that involves booking all available hotel space.  As a result, the posh hotels have raised their rates well beyond the corporate limits, and the travel agent got our rooms at the Marriott Courtyard in the old part of Hong Kong.  Sounds charming, but in fact, the buildings are from the 50s and 60s and are generally quite run down.

On the taxi ride to the hotel, the urban landscape got more and more industrial as we got closer to the hotel.  I began to see policemen on the corners.  Police presence = good.  Need for police presence = not so good. Then, I saw knots of policemen, and a little later small crowds of policemen. Obviously, something was going on, and it seemed likely to be a protest that the police were very serious about managing. Even though the police had a relatively calm demeanor, I hoped that the streets were not blocked and that whatever it was had nothing to do with relations with America.  Slumping down in my seat, I held my breath and hoped that the taxi driver would continue careening down the road at breakneck speed.  (Hong Kong taxis are an excellent lesson about why you should buckle up, even in the back seat.)  Finally, we passed the protest crowd and the guy with the bullhorn and the shouted slogans.  Police numbers were easily the same as protesters, if not more.  I couldn’t tell what it was all about since my Cantonese is non-existent, but I was grateful to feel the acceleration as the taxi dived between a truck and a bus to gain an extra little bit of ground. [Later: It turned out to be a protest over the new government officials who were appointed rather than elected. Similar protests took place in different parts of the city, and one was cleared with pepper spray.  Ours was noisy but, by comparison, quite peaceful.]

Having settled into the hotel, I went for a walk through the neighborhood.  This section of HK is near the old docks, and the streets have a memory.  They are lined with small shops that are full of dried things from the sea.  Dried fish, dried fish maw, sea cucumbers, seahorses (small), seahorses (large), seahorses (extra long), star fish, shark’s fin, and things too mysterious to guess. Other shops have dried mushrooms of all shapes, colors, and sizes, dried almonds (that are really apricot pits), blanched dried almonds, ginsing (in regular, medium, good, excellent, superior, and imperial qualities), snakes, lizards, and more things too mysterious to guess.  Why? All for traditional Chinese medicine.  What, for example, is the good of dried seahorse?  Boil it into a disgusting tasting broth and drink it to gradually reduce heat and restore balance of warm and cool to the body.  Got headache?  Drink seahorse.

Between the protesters, the police, and the strange-dried-ingredient shops, I didn’t see any tourists.  I guess this must be the authentic Hong Kong.

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Two Reasons

 Here is one reason I like the Conrad in Hong Kong:

Good night bear hug

and here’s another:

Rubber Ducky for the tub

Tough travel schedule for the past months leading up to three killer weeks, already in progress: a week in Hong Kong, then direct to Kiev [Ukraine – where it’s like winter], Singapore overnight, Chiang Mai [Thailand] for a little holiday/temple touring, Singapore overnight, and a week in Tokyo.  Then things “slow down” when Nancy gets home: Hong Kong for a couple of days to talk to the government (and a weekend stay with Nancy), home for a week (to host colleagues from South Africa, Hong Kong, and Tokyo), and finally we take some time off for sailing in the Greek Dodecanese.  I have to say that life has become almost impossibly exotic. And that’s why blog writing has been a little slower. 

But I still have good intentions of catching up.  🙂

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A few weeks ago, Nancy and I went to Mustafa’s in Little India.

The Mustafa Centre is an institution in Singapore. Begun in 1971 by Mustaq Ahmad as a small shop selling clothes, it moved to a larger space in a 900 square foot shophouse on Serangoon road,  but moved to Serangoon Plaza when the government acquired the Serangoon shophouses for conservation. When 40,000 square feet in Serangoon Plaza Serangoon Plazastarted to get crowded, Ahmad took over the shophouses on the adjoining Syed Alwi RoadSyed Alwi Road shophouses to create a total of  150,000 square feet of shopping displays, four floors, open 24 hours a day, with over 1200 employees. Bigger than Costco, bigger than Sam’s club.

Everybody in Singapore knows about Mustafa’s.  Groceries, clothes, jewelry, house wares, garden wares, car accessories, books, and who knows what else is on offer at Mustafa’s.  Take your choices to any of the cashier’s that are scattered throughout the store – literally throughout, not just at the exits – and they’ll take your money, put your purchase in a plastic bag, and close it securely with a zip tie.  You can buy things as you find them, or you can take everything to one cashier.

That is what Nancy and I wanted to explore one Sunday.  What we didn’t know is that on Sunday afternoon, the streets around Mustafa are packed, packed, packed with Indian construction workers who are doing their shopping and meeting their friends on their day off.  Dense crowd, all young men, shoulder to shoulder, visiting with each other, enjoying someplace other than a building site.  Nancy immediately noticed that there was no fair complexion, no blonde hair to be seen.  No other women, either.  Her grip on my arm tightened.

It was something of a push, shove, fight to get to the front door of the center.  Once inside, we found a warren of narrow paths through tall shelves and plenty of people wandering along.  It was difficult to explain what we were looking for – a dehumidifier – but we eventually discovered them (and decided they were too expensive for now).  We bought a few necessities (toothpaste) and experiments (pre-packaged spice for chicken masala) and then confronted the thought of trying to get out again.  Eventually, we decided to have dinner – quite a good curry – at the rooftop restaurant and hope that the crowd would dissipate in the meantime.  It did, but only a little, and Nancy decided that she did not need to go to Mustafa’s again.  Ever.

Would it be as bad on a Saturday morning? I decided to give it a try while Nancy is on a home visit.  No crowds – the construction workers are still busily building a new Singapore on Saturdays – but the same warren of paths, the same difficulty in trying to find anything.  I left with the decision that Mustafa’s is manageable, just, but maybe not worth the effort.

Leaving at lunch time, and being in Little India, I decided to have lunch there. Syed Alwi Road is packed with little restaurants across from Mustafa, and the street is packed with cars, and the sidewalk is full of vendors’ wares.  Walking requires some agility in moving from the covered sidewalk (out of the sun and the rain), down a steep step to the roadside, and sometimes out through the stalled traffic.  A little bit of Third World in Singapore. For no particular reason, I chose a restaurant and ordered the North Indian Platter:

Lunch

It turned out to be vegetarian: a lightly curried paneer (a cottage cheese-like product, with the shape and consistency of tofu chunks) , some very nicely spiced kidney beans, some very nicely spiced potatoes, rice with herbs, a bowl of raita (yoghurt), a papadum (crisp), a nice bowl of naan, and a big slice of raw onion.  The top right compartment has one gulab jamun (deep fried fritter soaked in sugar syrup). Pretty good, but all carbs – not exactly Dr. Atkins friendly. My tray and a bottle of water set me back $9.10 (Sing) – a little more than hawker center prices, but I got some atmosphere with my lunch:

Vegetarian restaurant in Little India

And what did I bring home from this trip to Mustafa?  I found some tea and some warm-and-eat packaged Indian side dishes. And another Singapore adventure.

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