Sunday, May 07, 2006

Suicide Motel
That's where I woke up Friday morning. Actually, "Suicide Motel" is the nickname of the Bella Vista Villa, the very un-Chinese official name of a macabre lodge in which I was sharing a small, hard, cramped bed with a male reporter from a communist paper, China Daily. It was about 6.30am. We'd been asleep only about 3 hours and was startled awake by the clanging and banging of incessant gongs, drums, and the infernal shrill blatting of Chinese trumpets.
It was then that I briefly felt like taking advantage of the motel's reputation. Not that anything untoward had occurred between me and Teddy, the commie paper reporter. I haven't sunk that low. But I had a headache and had slept poorly having arrived on short notice and a late hour via ferry to a small island off Hong Kong called Cheung Chau to cover a "bun festival." Accomodations were hard to find and strings had been pulled by another Standard reporter - a young woman, W, who was shacking up elsewhere with a friend on the island -- and Teddy and I were thrown together at the Suicide Motel.
It faces the sea as befits a melancholy lodging where lovers and others go to die. It's also - a no brainer - reportedly haunted, though I found it haunted only with the silent, mournful spirits of toilet paper and towels, of which there were none.
W had told me the Suicide Motel was a popular last stop for Hong Kong young people who were stressed out over love, money, examinations or parents as well as just-curious types there to scare themselves.
The most popular method? Carbon monoxide poisoning and a charcoal burner. I wondered if the clerks (of which I saw none, not even a front desk, W's friend had prepaid for us and had given us the key which we returned to him) frisked the guests for hibachis and charcoal before check-in or if they just took note and scheduled an ambulance and extra cleaning staff for the next morning.
The bun festival itself is the island's two-day cash cow. A population of mostly 40,000 fishing families nearly doubles with an influx of tourists to watch parades, worship at temples and at midnight on the first night watch 12 young men scramble up a huge tower of steel scaffolding covered with 8,000 plastic wrapped buns. The winnner is the guy who can collect the most buns while climbing the highest and returning soonest. This year it was a 27-year-old Hong Kong firefighter who bagged 705 of them.
The bun scramble - which dates back more than 100 years and originated as attempt to ward off the plague -- was banned from 1978-2004 after the (then-bamboo) scaffolding collapsed and hundreds were injured. Purists griped in 2005 when steel replaced bamboo and climbing safety harnesses became manditory, as well as climbing lessons, but it hasn't seemed to dampen the enthusiasm for the spectacle.
The next night features a huge paper effigy of a god set ablaze to ensure good luck. Kind of like Burning Man in the US minus the bacchanalia.
I found the parade more interesting for two reasons. There was the weird cultural mix and match which, in addition to unique and traditional Chinese garb, floats and displays included things like a group of islanders dressed in Japanese robes, beating Japanese taiko drums and sporting Peking Opera masks followed by a Hong Kong marching band, complete with drum major, blowing out a rousing brassy version of Get Ready, a 1966 hit for The Temptations. And there was the fact that a criminal organization -- with help from Coca Cola -- lead the whole parade. Thanks to W's friend who is a Cheung Chau native, I learned the large group of men heading the march were the island triad, called Tai Pan Shan.
Hundreds of largely menancing and sullen tattooed guys and their more cheerful looking wives, mothers, children, girlfriends paraded and waved, dressed in identical white T-shirts with Chinese script and dragons on the front and Coca Cola logos on the back.
I wondered if Coke's Atlanta headquarters knew it was the festive corporate sponsor for the Tai Pan Shan mafia. I can't imagine them doing the same for say, the Gambino or Bonanno families for the Annual Feast of San Gennaro street festival in New York but maybe it was pitched to them as a pure, exotic religious and cultural event and Coke saw an opportunity for a cheap plug in the already saturated Chinese market.
Anxiously awaiting a new thread from you since I read this one :-)
A bun-tower climbing event...Ok, so I find myself wondering if a reporter from China could possibly find such strange goings-on in America. Then I remember that in Boulder they have annual events like (this is for real) a mountain climbing race up the third Flatiron on cross-country skis and another competitive dash up Flagstaff Mountain on unicycles. My people across the pond started heaving telephone poles and big rocks for sport. We always figure that they set out to build a house, tied in to the single malt and got distracted--started throwing the building materials instead of building with them. I guess it's not China, it's not America, it's humans....and maybe too much grain alcohol and time on their hands.
You forgot the two weirdest festivals of all -- both in Colorado, Ben.
1. Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, every March. It celebrates the still frozen, unburied and packed in dry ice Nederland-located corpse of an elderly Norweigian guy whose grandson had him frozen in hopes of bringing him back someday.
Highlights? A silent auction for a cemetery plot in Denver, or maybe the Ice Queen and Grandpa Lookalike Contest and Ball.
2. Mike the Headless Chicken Festival in Fruita. Celebrates the freakishly long life (18 mos after he was decapitated) of a local chicken in 1945. Highlights include the "Run like a headless chicken 5K."
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