March 8, 2019
Dear Friends Still Longing for Justice,
We send our warm greetings to you as we observe the beginnings of Lent and head into the last 3 weeks of our stay here. It has been a good trip. Bill has a three hour lecture each Wednesday with about 20 graduate students, researchers, and post-docs in attendance. Otherwise, he is free to write and do whatever he wants. Genny’s schedule is even less structured! She has made about 8 baskets with the supplies she brought with her and has spent time looking around and, of course, getting the laundry taken care of !
This is our third consecutive year of visiting Hong Kong for about 2 months. We stay at the same hotel and eat breakfast at the wonderful buffet in the hotel each morning. As a result we have made friends with some of the wait-staff, in particular three women who have served us so well. Cherry used to be the manager, but she has now moved on to manage at a larger hotel. Yonda served us with great attention last year, but now has been promoted to a position where she does bookkeeping. Both of these moves were motivated, in part, by desires to have more time with their children and families. Cherry seemed to work about 75 hours a week, and Yonda about 55. Alice is our third friend. She has had the same position as a server for all of our visits but just recently was given a two-step promotion to a somewhat supervisory position. The wait-staff is highly organized with people holding different levels of authority indicated by whether or not they wear a jacket or by a shirt color. The organization seems to us to be a bit excessive, but this seems to be a way to reward people for good performance without actually changing their responsibilities.
Last Sunday, these friends invited us to join them and their children for “yum cha.” Because living spaces are typically very small, families get together by going out. Such a gathering in a Chinese restaurant is called yum cha, which means they will drink tea, eat a little food, and sit around and talk. We met at a huge Chinese restaurant. This is a place we have seen in the mall but which is totally impenetrable to us.
There is not a word of English in the place, except for the name “Crystal Palace.” We are certain Genny and I were the only non-Asians. The ordering was done somewhat mysteriously from photocopied pieces of paper filled with Chinese characters. We sat at a large table. The first thing that happened was that Yonda collected the cups, bowls, chopsticks, and ceramic soup spoons that were at each of our places. She got a large bowl, put a smaller bowl in it, and poured tea into the small bowl where she washed all of our dishes, continually adding tea which overflowed from the small bowl into the larger one. Once every thing had been washed, she washed it again with hot water. Yonda must have asbestos hands, as the tea and the water were extremely hot. After this ritual was completed, we all got our dishes back, and the plates of food began to arrive being placed on the lazy Susan at the center of the large table. We probably had 15 different items ranging from dumplings, to fish, to meat, to things cooked in rice paper to steamed bread with custard, and so on. We had never eaten any of these things before and likely will not again. We do not know any names of the food, and it is only available at a place such as the Crystal Palace which is really not geared to Westerners. Our friends said that if we tried to go there alone, they would raise the prices significantly. Cherry said there are likely 30 to 35 chefs in the kitchen at one time, all who are dim sum specialists of various sorts. The tea that we got to drink was great too, and we had a most remarkable and eminently affordable feast. After this, we went to Victoria Peak which provides a wonderful view of the surrounding region (see photo).
One of the remarkable things about Hong Kong is the amount of green public spaces and walking areas. Because the living spaces are so small, families gather in restaurants or in parks or esplanades. On Sundays we see many family groups, as well as groups of friends, who are out enjoying the public spaces and each others’ company. Also gathering are all the “maids”, mostly women from the Philippines who are live-in helpers for families where both parents work long hours and grandparents are not around to take care of the children. The only day these workers are guaranteed time to themselves is Sunday. So, they gather together and set up a little camp for enjoying the day together. It’s a situation where one feels sad for their working conditions but glad that they are able to help provide for their families working in Hong Kong making money to send home. Also, it is fun to watch how much they are enjoying being together.
Genny has mentioned in her occasional short notes that one of our favorite green spaces is the garden surrounding the Buddhist Nunnery in a locale called Diamond Hill. Another is Hong Kong Park, in the central part of the city. It has some beautiful water features including a pond with a huge number of turtles (see photo) and a waterfall that we can walk behind without getting wet! There are wonderful plantings throughout the park; and on an expedition with a friend last weekend, Genny discovered there is a wonderful conservatory. Unfortunately, it was discovered ten minutes before it closed so will require another trip to be fully explored.
The reason for the delayed discovery was a visit to the Tea House that is in the park. Genny and her friend stopped in for a little snack (see photo) and ended up having a very interesting experience. First of all, they were told that the place would be closing in 90 minutes and asked if they would be able to finish by then. It seemed like an awful lot of time for a snack but with dumplings, spring rolls, gelatinous bean pudding, and tea, the time was easily filled. Each selected a different pot of tea and were given very specific instructions about how to handle it. Genny had a small iron pot with some Chrysanthemum black tea and her friend had a delicate small white cup with a lid containing a green mint tea. The table was equipped with a hot plate where a kettle of water was available at all times. Each had a small cup to drink from and Genny had a small pitcher. Genny was told to only allow the water to stay on the leaves for 10 seconds and then decant it into the pitcher used to serve herself. Her friend needed instructions about how to use the lid on her cup to block the leaves as she was pouring into her tea cup. Very complicated for a tiny little cup of tea! Genny ended up liking her tea very much but her friend let the tea steep too long and required sugar to drink it. Asking for sugar is a very unusual request; and the waiter mistakenly brought her salt, adding to the drama. Quite an adventure and, with the challenge of chopsticks thrown in, it must have had the staff quite amused for the full hour and a half. Life at St. Andrew’s, our “parish”, is also good. We go to the 6PM Mass on Saturday evening. Bill goes there at about 4:30PM to meet with a young man, the leader of the team of 76 altar servers, who wants to practice his English in hopes of doing well on the university admission exam. Then Genny joins him in time to secure seats in the full church of maybe 700 people. A few weeks ago, the presider, a priest from the Philippines, asked Bill to serve as deacon of the Mass. Father Mech introduced Bill to the people, we think, as they clapped and smiled. Bill did not proclaim the Gospel and otherwise managed not to be in the way too much. It was a privilege to join Fr. Mech in blessing the children and adults who come forward after Communion for an individual blessing. It has been really enjoyable to be with people who seem to be happy in their parish and celebrate liturgy with joy and enthusiastic singing. The floral decorations that are distributed throughout the church are works of art that many people photograph each week (see photo). Last week after Genny took her photos, we were walking around the church. Toward the back there is a large baptismal pool and a baptismal font. As we walked by, we saw a young couple quietly blessing each other with holy water and then making the sign of the cross with the water on the woman’s protruding stomach as they blessed their baby. We felt a little as if we were intruding on a private moment, but it was special to see it.
During the week, we attend the 1PM Mass at the Caritas Institute of Higher Education (CIHE), usually with about 40 people. CIHE is a college which aspires to become the first Catholic University in Hong Kong by 2021. It will be St. Francis University. We can get to Mass in 10 minutes from our 35th floor hotel room, down the elevator, through the mall, onto the MTR train, one stop, up three escalator flights in another mall, and outside into CIHE and into the chapel. The Mass is in Cantonese, but the people are very welcoming to us. The chaplain is from Mexico. His Cantonese seems good to us! Last week on Tuesday, Fernando Cardinal Filoni was visiting from Rome to provide some information on the conditions necessary for a school to be “Catholic.” The Cardinal said the Mass. All the priests in Hong Kong were invited to attend, and about 50 did. The chapel is not that large and there was some concern that seating would be a problem. Genny was a bit under the weather, so Bill went alone. When he walked into the building, the people who attend daily Mass waved to him and called him over so that he could queue up properly for the Mass. It is good to be a part of the community even though communication, for the most part, is difficult. The Mass was very dignified and in English. The reflection of the cardinal during his homily was on the importance of the priesthood and how vocations should be both nurtured and treasured by bishops, priests, and all people. Too bad a local bishop we all know could not be reminded of this. At the end of Mass, the Cardinal gave a wrapped gift to the chapel. Thousands of pictures were taken of the Cardinal with various groups and individuals. Everyone was in a joyful mood, proud of their chapel, proud of CIHE, proud to have the Cardinal present, happy to be celebrating together at a liturgy. On Thursday, Bill went to Mass at CIHE. Genny stayed in our room still fighting with her cough, a gift from Bill. At the end of Mass, the chaplain showed the people the gift from Cardinal Filoni, a beautiful new white chasuble. It was greeted with oohs and aahs and a round of applause. This day was also the last day an elderly man who plays the organ would be here. He is Dutch and is leaving Hong Kong to return to his home. At the end of Mass, the organist was called up to the front of the chapel. Some remarks were made by a member of the community, and then the people sang a lively song in his honor from their hymnal. They sang all four verses! Sound familiar? One of the Cantonese women, named San, whom we have come to know a bit came over to me to explain what was going on and to ask for Genny. I told her that Genny was at the hotel coughing. She offered advice of eating noodles (which is various kinds of pasta in broth with vegetables and/or meat, etc.). I have the impression that “noodles” is the Chinese equivalent of Jewish chicken soup. San was very concerned about Genny and also told me to tell her to stay inside as the day was a bit cool and rainy. Then the organist played a very upbeat classical piece as his gift to the people. They gave him, also, a couple of mementos. Of course, there were a lot of smiles and clapping after each bit of music or gift presentation. There were pictures by the hundreds, of course, as the people lined up with the organist in front of the altar. Bill was waved up to line up with them but thought he was too much of a visitor. Possibly a bad decision! Anyway, the spirit of joy that the people expressed was quite moving. The showed that people can be celebratory and joyful, even in Lent!
The CIHE daily Mass group is a funny little community. I am sure the organist speaks very little to no Cantonese, yet he was treated with genuine affection, as are we. The little celebration served as a sad reminder of St. Isabel in the days before October 28, 2016 when we could worship with joy with people we care about and people we miss when they are gone. It also served as a sad reminder of Scott McDonald and Mike Baldwin, of all they brought to St. Isabel through their music, and of the way their service was ended. We must never forget, never stop working to rebuild our community in faith.
We send our best wishes to all and look forward to seeing you in April. May God bless you and bring you much happiness and peace in this Lenten season.
Genny and Bill