Any of you who have ever lived in Victoria, or the Gulf Islands, or on the Sunshine Coast know what it’s like to have your life dictated by a ferry schedule. That’s what life is like for me on Cheung Chau.
I know I’m becoming a real islander because instead of racing to arrive ten or fifteen minutes early, I now know how to time it so that I calmly stroll in thirty seconds before they raise the gangplank.
As far as daily commutes go, the ferry from Cheung Chau is pretty glorious. When you leave Cheung Chau, you see a picturesque fishing village. When you arrive in Central (the ‘hub’ district of Hong Kong where most of the corporate headquarters and the Legislative Council reside), you get a million dollar view of the incredible Hong Kong skyline. The ferry beats a bus or train any day.
Or ferries, I should say, for there are two different ferries that operate between Cheung Chau and Central: the ordinary ferry and the fast ferry. The ordinary ferry takes between 50 to 55 minutes; the fast ferry, just 35 minutes.
Despite the longer time, I’ve actually come to prefer the slow ferry. The fast ferry only has cramped passenger seating. The slow ferry, on the other hand, has an upper deck with tables and chairs which means you can dine on the ferry in a leisurely fashion.
On a typical day, I take the 8:40 am slow ferry to Central with a typical Hong Kong breakfast of congee and an iced milk tea. I get my congee from an outdoor stall (called a dai pai dong or 大排檔 in Cantonese) near the Cheung Chau ferry pier.
When I order from here, it occurs to me that I probably wouldn’t have done too well on Cheung Chau four years ago when I didn’t speak or read a word of Chinese. Cheung Chau still has many restaurants, cafes, and dai pai dongs where no one speaks English and the menus are Chinese-only.
It wasn’t until 2008 that my wife and I started studying Mandarin. We studied in Toronto for two years before we moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake. After a two year hiatus, we’ve only recently begun studying again with a tutor in Richmond.
Anyway, after two years of tutelage, I am nowhere proficient in Mandarin and I still don’t speak much Cantonese. But I’ve learned enough to read a menu (Mandarin and Cantonese share a written orthography) and order in Mandarin.
So my morning congee transaction usually goes something like this. I order in bad Mandarin (“pi dan yu zhou”, or fish congee with century egg); then the owner – who understands Cantonese and Mandarin – translates for me and repeats my order in loud, slow Cantonese (“pei daan jyu zuk”); and, bingo, I get my delicious congee and I learn some new Cantonese vocabulary.
(On a complete tangent, I’ve become addicted to my iced milk tea. And I’m proud to report that a competition for the best milk tea in Hong Kong was won by Canada’s own Harvey Lin.)
Of course, it’s not always congee for breakfast. There’s also a dim sum stand by the pier. And a few bakeries. And several excellent cha chaan tengs. The thing you quickly discover about Hong Kong is there’s never a shortage of food options.
After rehearsal, I often get some dinner from the City Super in the IFC Mall on my way back to the Central Piers. The takeout counter there has both Western and Asian foods, including an excellent sushi bar. After a day of rehearsal, a perfect way to unwind is on the deck of a slow boat with a hamachi roll and a cold bottle of Asahi beer as the sun sets over the Hong Kong skyline.
Keep your fast ferry, I’ll take slow any day.