Follow VSB '09 alum Paul Parisi

Follow VSB '09 alum Paul Parisi as he starts his international financial career in Asia

Monday, January 31, 2011

Goodbye Tiger, Hello Rabbit

Chinese New Year is fast approaching! The year of the tiger is coming to an end, and the year of the rabbit is upon us. There are rabbits all over the city—statues in the malls, posters on the walls, bunny-shaped lights on the outside of the towers, even people dressed up in rabbit costumes or wearing ears and cottontails! One of my friends, unaware of the approaching event, wondered, “Why are they decorating for Easter so early this year?”

"Year of the Rabbit" display I bought for our apartment door

In addition to the unending array of bunnies, there are also countless shops selling decorations, hundreds of flower markets pushing the iconic mandarin orange plants, and blood-red paper lanterns hanging from trees and streetlights.

Lanterns in Tai Po

It's a lovely time of the year in Hong Kong—the vibrant colors of the flowers, the shimmer of the lights on the harbor and the intricate displays are truly breathtaking. Last night, I went to the Chinese New Year Fair in Victoria Park with my roommate Pietro and two of his friends visiting from Italy, Fulvio and Juri. It was about as crowded as humanly possible, but it was still a very cool sight to behold.

A flower shop at the New Year Fair in Victoria Park

Chinese New Year is the biggest of the festivals celebrated in this part of the world. This year, it starts on February 3rd—this Thursday! It is a time for people to retreat to their ancestral homes, spending time eating and bonding with family.

A lantern display by the clock tower in TST Waterfront

But for expats in Hong Kong, it's time for vacation! After all, it does get us two or three public holidays, depending on when it falls. To boot, the weather in Hong Kong during Lunar New Year (as Chinese New Year is called here) is about as low as it gets, which is to say about 60°–65°. It might actually feel cold if I hadn’t spent December in New York! I have to laugh at the locals, busting out their scarfs, hats, coats and gloves every time the mercury falls below 70. They go a little overboard, but it isn't exactly beach weather. So we expats take the chance to go somewhere warm—Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, or, if you're me this year, the Philippines. I leave the day after tomorrow, on Wednesday morning!

Store in Tai Po selling New Year-related items

I’ve been looking forward to my ‘spring break’ for a few weeks now, but, as luck would have it, the part of the Philippines where I am going is projected to have an off-season typhoon right when I am trying to fly in!!! The first typhoon of 2011, and it has to come months before it’s expected, and during the only vacation I’ll have for some time! Oh well, fingers crossed I make it down safely! Typhoon or no typhoon, I am determined to enjoy this trip!

Young ladies with 'bunny ears' at the Victoria Park Chinese New Year Fair

With Chinese New Year barreling towards us, the time was ripe last weekend for my first trip to China. That’s right… I’ve been living in Hong Kong for fourteen months, and I’d still never crossed the border into Mainland China, even though it’s a mere seventeen miles north of where I live! I’ve flown to Thailand twice, made a trip down to the Philippines, visited Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, gone to Singapore and spent plenty of time in Macau, all further away than China. But for some reason, I never made it to Mainland. Finally, last weekend, I changed all that.

View of the Shenzhen from the 69th floor, the Meridian View Centre, of the Shun Hing Square skyscraper

I signed up for a Gray Lines day tour of Shenzhen, the border city closest to Hong Kong. The day included a guided bus trip around town, a visit to the tallest building’s observation deck, a stop at a local museum, lunch, admission to Window of the World theme park and, of course, a shopping stop at the famous Lo Wu Commercial Center, where high quality fake purses, watches and clothes are sold for a fraction of what they should cost.

Confused? You should be.

Look at the photo above, and for a few seconds, I'll bet you though I inadvertently put a photo from Europe in this blog. Think again!

What about this one?

Although I enjoyed the whole day, the highlight for me was without doubt Window of the World, a well-known theme park in Shenzhen that recreates dozens of the world's most iconic structures.

The "Louvre Pyramid"welcoming visitors to Window of the World

The main entrance to the park

When friends described a park that recreated some of the most famous attractions from around the globe in miniature, I pictured truly tiny structures. I mean, in my head I imagined diminutive models you could pretty much hold in your hands. So you can imagine my surprise when a three-hundred-foot tall Eiffel Tower was staring me in the face as our bus rounded the corner towards the park! A few sights were truly minuscule but many others were huge. And the attention to detail was often stunning.

Saint Mark's Square in Venice

Another view of St. Mark's

I went on the day trip with Paul, the American from our New York office who is spending some time with us in Hong Kong. We walked around the park, from Asia to Africa, next on to Europe and then to the States, all the while viewing intricately recreated wonders and landmarks, both natural and man-made.

US of A....Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Capitol Building and Mount Rushmore

Versailles, with its impeccable gardens and fountains, with Rome's St. Peter's Basilica in the background

One of the most impressive, most detailed recreations was St. Peter's Basilica....note the Chinese children on the steps!

The Cathedral of Notre Dame, one of my favorite sights in Paris

It was surely the most surreal experience I’ve had out here, or anywhere, and I was delightfully surprised with how much I enjoyed the park. Although a few of the sights, most notably Big Ben and Tower Bridge, were disappointing and rather phony-looking, the vast majority were exquisite in their detail, scale and presentation.

Surreal... the Eiffel Tower looms near the Taj Mahal

Transported to the Black Hills of South Dakota

It’s difficult to say whether I preferred seeing the sights I’ve personally visited in the past, or if it was cooler to see in three-dimensions things I’ve only ever seen in photographs before. I guess I’d have to go with the former, because standing before each model brought back a flood of memories from previous trips, stretching all the way back to family vacations when I was barely three feet tall, to my first trips overseas during high school, to my study abroad adventures in Europe while at Villanova.

In front of the 'miniature' Eiffel Tower, which is over three-hundred feet tall

View of the park from the 'Eiffel Tower'

The many Parisian monuments made me nostalgic for my semster abroad in Spring 2007.
Although I won’t be rushing back to Shenzhen for awhile, I would definitely consider joining the organized tour when family or friends are out to visit in the future. It was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had since returning from my trip home. And finally I've been to China!

Lady Liberty

L'Arc de Triomphe

Now I’m just counting the hours until I head down to the Philippines and crossing my fingers that some good wind blows Typhoon Amang away from Cebu, so I can linger on the beach during my upcoming trip.

Kung Hei Fat Choy from Hong Kong!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hong Kong High

It is so good to be back in Hong Kong! I definitely loved my trip home, but leaving behind the cold weather and transcontinental working hours was definitely a welcomed change. These first few weeks back have been nothing short of incredible, and I actually think I have hit a new Hong Kong high since my return. Honestly, I’ve never loved it more!

Coming back here from the U.S. felt kind of like returning to campus after Christmas break. Hong Kong is just that type of city. Since most people travel to their far-away homes for the holidays, that first week back is filled with lunches, dinners, nights out and other special events to help everybody catch up with what's gone on in each other's lives. The highlight was probably a 'scavenger hunt' around Lan Kwai Fong to celebrate my friend Sonia's birthday. It was a blast! While home, I really missed a lot of the people I've met out here, so, needless to say, it's been wonderful spending time with them again.

Our group during the Lan Kwai Fong birthday scavenger hunt

Part of my New Year’s Resolution is to live a healthier lifestyle. I decided I would start to walk home from work daily and also go on a hike each weekend. After six weeks of American-sized portions, Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts and little-to-no physical activity, I am very much in need of this new regime. So far I’ve been pretty good at it, but let’s see how long it lasts.

By the way, I’m not sure if I’ve written about it before, but Hong Kong is a veritable paradise for hikers. The HKSAR is made up of four parts: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the two hundred and sixty-plus outlying islands and a vast open area called the New Territories, situated between Kowloon and the border with Mainland China. Even densely populated Hong Kong Island has some wonderful trails, but for me, the real stunners are the outlying islands and New Territories. For my first hike of 2011, my roommate Valentine and I got up very early last Saturday and ventured out to Tai Po Market, about a thirty minute train ride from our apartment. Pietro, my Italian roomate (who, by the way, is a phenomenal cook), decided to stay home and work on his dissertation while also preparing the weekend's meals!

Valentine’s great aunt has lived in Hong Kong for years, and she has some cool old books describing various trails scattered all throughout the region. The books, however, were published over twenty years ago, so on the train ride, Valentine and I joked that we just might arrive at the start of our chosen trail only to find high-rise apartments and shopping malls. Luckily this part of Hong Kong hadn’t changed one bit. It is just as it was during the days of British rule..

View from the top of Cloudy Hill

After about a forty minute walk, we came upon the semi-abandoned village of Sha Lo Tung, nestled in a small valley. I have never seen anything like it before. Half of the village was functioning like any number of other small towns I have encountered during my time in Hong Kong. But the other half was completely abandoned. Several old Chinese-style homes were left exactly as they were, with photos on the walls and cups on the tables, as if one day, people just left and never returned. Weeds and vines had crept through broken windows and doors over the years, and the vibe was completely surreal. I made a promise to return some day with a high-quality camera because this place is a photographer’s dream. (Luckily my hiking partner did bring a camera that day, so the photos accompanying this entry come to you courtesy of Valentine.)

The abandoned houses of Sha Lo Tung

After exploring the village, and taking a short side-hike into a wooded area with streams and waterfalls, we climbed to the top of Cloudy Hill, which affords magnificent views of the surrounding landscapes. It was a strenuous walk but totally worthwhile. We are truly lucky in Hong Kong to have such wonders in our very own backyard. It’s a shame that far too many of those living here never make it out of the concrete confines of Central and Wan Chai because there is so much to explore in Hong Kong’s more remote areas.

Reward for a hike well done!

Speaking of escaping from the hustle and bustle of the city, I am going to Cebu, an island in the Philippines, for Chinese New Year. It’s funny, but I keep inadvertently referring to it as “Spring Break” on a regular basis. Still everybody knows exactly what I’m talking about and sometimes they don’t even bother to correct me. Honestly, though, Chinese New Year is basically a Spring Break for the expats living here: everybody packs up and goes on vacation with their friends for a week.

Until very recently, I had made up my mind to stay in Hong Kong for the holiday, since I missed the celebrations last year when I was in Thailand. But after realizing that it might be my only chance to get away for longer than a weekend for quite some time, I decided to book a trip. Some friends mentioned they were going down to the Philippines, and since I loved Manila when I visited last January, I figured I might as well piggyback onto their trip. I fly from Hong Kong to Manila on the morning of Wednesday, February 2nd, and then down to Mactan Island a few hours later. Last Chinese New Year in Thailand set the bar pretty high, but I will do my best to make this as great an adventure as that trip was. Even if it doesn't reach those lofty heighs, I still think it will be a fun five days in the sun!

On the work front, 2011 has gotten off to a good start. It’s a little slower these first weeks than the last few months have been, but I still love the job and look forward to things picking up as the year goes on. And Kevin and I also have company in the office! Confusingly also named Paul, our new colleague has worked in our New York office for years, and he's spending a few weeks here in the Asia office. Although it's only temporary—he goes back to the States on February 8th—it’s been nice having another American around, and it’s always fun to introduce a newbie to Hong Kong.

In short, things could not be going better than they are right now. Hopefully the saying "well begun is half done" will ring true for this new year!

So good to be back!