Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lost (in the) Supermarket
When I moved into my Hong Kong shopping center cum apartment complex about three years ago there were two, count 'em, two super markets. As of last week there are none, though Telford Gardens houses 15,000 or more souls, many of them seemingly on the far side of 118 years.

Expired leases and raised rents are the explanations, though the space where the latest one closed is supposed to be reoccupied by another grocer, in, "oh, not sure, maybe ... two, maybe three months?" according to the zombie housing management officer whom I beat senseless with a shovel in order to extract the informaton.

Meanwhile, if old Auntie Kao or I want basics like toilet paper, rice, eggs, chicken feet, fish heads and fresh bovine bronchial tubes the nearest option is either a shuttle bus that runs only between 8.30am-12.30pm -- perfect for the day shift working stiffs! -- to some other super market several time zones away or to hump it on foot up and down over 170-some stairs, through sweaty throngs, monsoons, 90% humidity and an overpass or two to a slightly closer purveyor of expired freshness-dated goods.

I wanted to complain, find a solution, start a petition, rally, organize, march -- whatever it took to change this sad state of affairs. After failing miserably at the housing management office where my Ugly American act got me virtually nothing but blank stares and contrived "apologies" I decided to try my luck with my District Councillor, a fiftysomething grandmother named Winnie Poon. I'd seen her office almost daily but had never ventured inside.

Winnie was thrilled to see me. "You are only the second gweilo to visit this office!" she enthused. What happened to the first? I wondered, but didn't ask.

Winnie has been a District Councillor (the HK equivalent of an alderman) for more than 20 years. She's a staunch liberal who admired the "Support the Tiananmen Mothers" T-shirt I was wearing, and she had already fought the good fight to no avail to keep uninterrupted access to groceries for Telford Gardens residents. She showed me a petition with 10,000 signatures pleading for the management to help keep a store open.

Result? Nada. "No one cares," Winnie said of the management. She also showed me pictures of creaky, wobbling outraged elderly residents picketing and waving Chinese language signs protesting the closure. It was Winnie who arranged for the shuttle bus -- she said the limited hours were the best she could do -- and said she'd also offered to collect money and grocery orders for delivery service if someone wanted to spend HK$400 (about US$50) for a minimum order.

I thanked Winnies for her efforts, declined the delivery option because of potential language/brand name snafus and then learned that she had an American son-in-law.

"Where's he from?"

"Utah," she replied. Then the kicker. "I'm a Mormon!" she said smiling broadly. She might as well of said, "I'm a transsexual Venutian bobsled racer!"

I'd never met a native Hong Kong Mormon, though I've encountered plenty of the white, ever-smiling USA and English LDS missionaries here with their name tags, permanent press shirts, cheap ties and clunky black and brown shoes trying to buttonhole me and others into believing that in 1827 a guy named Joseph Smith dug up some magical gold tablets in upstate New York courtesy of an angel named "Moroni." Joe needed two years and some magic glasses to read and translate them as The Book of Mormon, a work aptly described by Mark Twain as "chloroform in print."

"You know, it just all sounds like a fairy tale to me," I said after I'd impressed Winnie with my minimal knowledge of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Moroni, Nephites, Urim and Thummim and Jesus's post-death Tour of the Americas. I didn't press her on why Indians used steel bows in pre-Columbian America or why the Lord took until 1978 to reveal to LDS honcho Spencer Kimball that it was finally okay to allow blacks to be priests. And I didn't make any polgamist or Osmond Family jokes or mention a nasty little LDS secret called the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

"All religions sound like fairy tales," she replied, smiling.

"Yeah, a dead guy comes back to life three days after being nailed to a tree ... waters part miraculously ... Mary's face appears suddenly on the hood of a 1977 Chevy Nova..." I mumbled more to myself. I cleared my throat.

"Maybe you could pray for a new supermarket soon, though," I said more clearly. "A miraculous supply of fish and loaves that we wouldn't have to walk a couple miles to find. That would be a fairy tale I could believe in."
Good stuff as usual, Justin. Maybe you should turn mormon and pray with her. You know many small creeks make a big.... or something...
I imagine that the grocery real estate in the Gardens is way too lucrative to remain vacant for very long. I've heard the Kong has begun experimenting with a so-called "market economy," and this spooky "invisible hand" will probably come and bitch slap something into action.

Also, trying desperetely to resist making any off-color comments about Winnie Poon's totally righteous name.

Mormons are our friends in Christ.
"Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb."
You, know, even in the backwaters of upstate New York, specifically, Syracuse, we have 3 major markets with international foods, within 5-20 mins of home! Not to mention assorted import stores (Russian, Italian, Middle Eastern, Asian)...butchers, bakeries, specialty chocolate shops, local breweries and wineries and coffee shops...

You sure you don't want to come back to the states?
If Winnie Poon does come on to you, remember that if you go into Tabernacle Square in Salt Lake in front of the Mormon Tabernacle you will find a statue of Mr. Smith. He has back to the Church and his hand out - facing the bank.
How appropriate can you get?
"Winnie the Poon, Winnie the Poon..."
I've worked near Telford Gardens for 9 years, and wondered recently what everyone would do now the two supermarkets have moved... PITA I imagine, luckily I live in Sai Kung :)
I've been shopping in Shau Kei Wan on my way home from work. It's only a slightly lesser hell to haul four bags of groceries through two MTR reroutes during rush hour back to Telford than it is to hump them up and down stairs and an overpass from Amoy in the scum soup humidity. At least the MTR has AC.
Why not just order from PnS online? My wife does it all the time.
Sincere thanks. But the key phrase in your msg is "my wife does it all the time."

I'm guessing she's a native, fluent Cantonese speaker with a near-encyclopedic memory of what your local P&S carries and when it does stock the goods.

I'll also take a wild leap and say that she also hasn't called anyone in HK connected with commerce and d to conduct a rational English conversation regarding customer service.

Unfortuantely (and to my shame) I have to shop in Hong Kong in English, in person. I have also long since despaired of deciphering the complex P&S grocer supply system except to know that they absolutely-without-fail stock the most goods during the busiest hours in the worst-jammed aisles.

And as you and your wife must know, the P&S supply varies radically according to the store's neighborhood demographics and Icelandic tidal waves.

For instance, a P&S in Central or Wanchai where more hairy barbarians live and congregate will routinely stock a wildly exotic array of bizarre foreign goods such as "mustard," "cheddar cheese," "chunky peanut butter" and "tuna fish" whereas one in, say, Shau Kei Wan can be depended on to supply a comforting, uninterrupted flow of Mainland chicken feet and swine intestines, but otherwise depend on the whims of lunar cycles, lottery numbers and the little purple men who live in the assistant managers' heads to keep the "eggs" stocked.
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