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My Secret Other Life


This particular post I’ve been worrying over for days. Weeks probably. Because I have a whole other life back in Australia that I never really write about on this blog – the life I left behind when I moved to China – and I really don’t know if it could possibly be of interest to anyone. But I told Maryanne, fellow Shanghai writer and blogger of A Totally Impractical Guide to Living in Shanghai, that I wanted to know about her other life in her hometown – Vancouver Island – even though she didn’t feel inspired to write about it when she recently visited. It’s sometimes easier to write about the unfamiliar than the familiar. 
I never had any intention of taking such a prolonged break from my old life, and my job, when I came to live in Shanghai but that’s just how it happened. Six months in Shanghai became twelve, then eighteen, then two years, and there’s still no immediate prospect of coming back permanently to Australia. And yet really important parts of my old life, like my family and friends, and my career, got left behind there. 

I had a really great job as a kids ER doctor in Brisbane. For the medically challenged, this means I looked after the many and varied emergencies befalling any small person under the age of sixteen. Swallowed pieces of Lego. Severe vomiting bugs. Broken arms. Meningitis. Beads up noses. Drownings. School refusal. Car accidents. From the mundane, to the funny, to the tragic. I still remember the kid who swallowed his mother’s gallstones, recently removed from her body and sitting in a jar by her bed, who taught me that children are capable of swallowing anything, no matter how disgusting. And the little girl who drowned in a dam after chasing after the family dog through a hole in the fence, and her family’s unimaginable grief. And the mother who waited for four hours to be reassured by me that yes, indeed, her two year-old son’s penis would grow with him and he wouldn’t have a weeny one all his life.

The work was challenging in every way – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually – and taught me many things about life and about myself. But in Shanghai, I can’t do the work I trained for, largely because of I don’t speak Chinese to a high enough standard, and Pediatric Emergency Medicine doesn’t yet exist as a medical specialty in China, which severely limits my working options. But as six months stretched into two years of not working, I began to worry that my old skills might be getting rusty, and that combining a trip home with a working holiday might be a good idea. Luckily for me my old boss thought so too.

When I arrived home three weeks ago I hit the ground running – literally. I was back at work, in my old job, within 24 hours of arriving, with no real time to think about whether or not it was a good idea. I’d dug my paediatric stethoscope out of a box, where it was tangled up with five pairs of earphones that come free with mobile phones, and packed it in my suitcase along with some work clothes, and hoped for the best. Would I have forgotten how to set a fracture? Or put a drip in a newborn baby? Or to explain how to use an Epipen to the terrified parents of a child suffering their first peanut anaphylaxis?  

As it turns out, I hadn’t forgotten any of those things and I slipped back into that old self like a second skin. It felt very comfortable, and I enjoyed the reassurance of knowing that this was a job I could do well, and that I loved working with kids every day. The reaction from my old colleaugues was worth bottling – I felt so loved and welcomed I wanted to keep that feeling in store for cold dark days in China when I wonder what on earth I’m doing there. And yet. It was exhausting, the work, and not just because I’m unused to it. I never used to think that working in the ER was stressful or particularly tiring, despite the emotionally charged nature of the place, the changing shifts, and the constant pressure to avoid error.  But it is exhausting, and I remember now how I was constantly, wearingly tired, and it is stressful. Looking after very sick children and their frightened families is very stressful.  

I do love medicine, and it is a vocation, a career that never goes away, even when you do. It’s like being a nun, or a teacher.  Giving it up would be like cutting off an arm. But living away from medicine has brought me so much creative pleasure and opened so many possibilities to me that I can’t begin to tell you how exciting, and scary, that is.

So after three weeks, I’ve made some decisions. I’m not ready to give up on doctoring, despite those downsides. And I’m not ready to give up on writing and photography, even though trying to make a go of these newly found skills terrifies me. I feel constantly like an uncertain intern again, lacking in confidence and constantly taking wrong turns and stepping on toes. It’s risky, but I think there must be some way to combine both of these into a life that keeps me happy and busy. Doctoring pays well and Emergency Medicine lends itself brilliantly to part-time work. Writing and taking pictures pays poorly, but I love both, and they allow me to have a creative side to my life that medicine doesn’t fulfill. I hope, with fingers crossed, that I can combine both of these very different lives into one whole. Wish me luck!

Ming Court Hong Kong: Worth Two Michelin Stars?

What equates to a Michelin star? What’s it worth? These are the questions I thought about after eating a memorable meal in Hong Kong at the two Michelin-starred Ming Court restaurant, inside the Langham Place Hotel Mongkok. At the time, I enjoyed the meal tremendously, and it was surprisingly inexpensive – about $60 a head including wine. We ate until ready to burst, and didn’t skimp one bit on the ordering. 

In the days afterwards though, I wondered how worthy of two stars the restaurant had really been – after all, the last two-starred meal I’d eaten was at Les Crayères in Champagne, which easily surpassed the meal at Ming Court in every single regard, from the waitstaff to the taste and presentation of the food, the wine list and the table setting. And there’s the difficulty. Les Crayères is a French restaurant, in France, where the Michelin Guide first began in 1900. After one hunderd and eleven years of judging French restaurant quality, those Michelin inspectors know exactly what they’re looking for and I suspect they rarely get it wrong. Les Crayeres will remain one of the most memorable meals of my life because it was, simply, extraordinary.

For those not familiar with Michelin Guides, they list restaurants of good quality in a given location (Paris, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo), and will award one to three stars to a smaller subset of these restaurants exhibiting outstanding quality. One star indicates “very good cuisine in its category”, a two-stars “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and three stars “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. 

But exactly how do you judge a great Chinese restaurant? The Michelin Guide has only very recently made a foray into Asia, with the first Tokyo Guide released in 2007, and guides now available for Tokyo, Kyoto, Hong Kong/Macau. The real question is whether the Michelin inspectors have sufficient knowledge of the length and breadth of Chinese cuisine to make informed choices. As China Daily journalist Pauline Loh remarks:

“True connoisseurs of the Eight Major Cuisines…are more likely to be scrutinizing the credentials of the Michelin inspectors more than their recommendations.
In a country that has four thousand years of culinary heritage, the Little Red Book from a tire manufacturer may find it hard to make an impact beyond a superficial circle of foreigners and novices.”

From Michelin’s Chinese Dilemma, by Pauline Loh. China Daily Feb 13, 2011

Is it possible for a European inspector to develop a sufficiently experienced and sophisticated palate for Chinese cuisine (in all its magnificent forms) in just three short years? Michelin says they can, ensuring global consistency in their judging because:

the anonymous inspectors adhere to the standard five criteria for awarding stars in all areas and countries: product quality, preparation and flavours, the cuisine’s personality, value for money, and consistency over time and across the entire menu. These criteria are appropriate for all types of cooking, including Chinese.”

It seems, from the slowly dwindling firestorm surrounding Michelin’s choices in the original 2009 Hong Kong Guide that their judging is becoming more informed and consistent with time, and that the porportion of Chinese restaurants in the guide is increasing (70% in 2011).

So back to Ming Court. Chef Tsang Chiu King has designed a menu that sounds incredible on paper, and some of the dishes deliver the kind of elegance and sophistication you would expect from a restaurant sufficiently good you would ‘make a detour’.

We began with chilled bean curd, cut into delicate flowers and layered with black truffles, topped with gold leaf. Exquisite, and for me the best example of innovation and surprise on the night.

We followed with prawns, with Chinese figs macerated in Shaoxing wine. Not wanting to waste a single delicious morsel I ate all the heads too.
The best vegetable dish was a crunchy diced concoction of stir-fried lotus root with preserved olive leaves, served with crisp lettuce for wrapping.

This was followed by pan-fried chicken filled with minced chicken and black truffles on squares of slow-cooked pumpkin, a great combination of textures and flavours.

Lastly came sticky, gingery lightly-spiced jumbo shrimps curled up and sitting on crisped and crunchy cakes of puffed rice. We also ate, with relish and gusto, an enormous platter of roasted suckling pig and barbecued meat combination, with roasted goose in chiu-chow style; and baby pea sprouts with bean curd skin and crabmeat.

It was all very good, but just not excellent. The waiters were a little haphazard and plates remained unchanged between courses, and when they eventually were waiters reached awkwardly in front of us to collect them.  Our pot of good quality oolong tea remained empty of hot water for most of the meal despite refill requests. The desert menu looked so uninspiring we left it out altogether and ate icecream in the nearby night market instead. All small things, but they did add up to a decidedly less than two star experience for our group.

What will be interesting is to see whther Michelin will brave a China Guide at some point in the future. Pauline Loh has probably hit the nail right on the head when she concludes:

“Hong Kong is a baby step into China, an easy entry because it is a small and manageable territory. The real challenge will come when the Michelin inspectors work to hunt down the best restaurants in every alley and every hutong when they are confident enough to go into the mainland.”
For as every Chinese knows, the best cooking has nothing to do with the size or decor of the restaurant, nor the fame of its chef.”

The Stilt Houses of Tai O Fishing Village

Tai O fishing village, on the far, far side of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, is a tiny settlement as famous for its pungent shrimp paste as it is for its stilt houses perched on the edge of the sea. They’re funny little dwellings, like miniature wartime Nissen huts on rickety wooden stilts, painted all over with silver rust-proofing paint. They look like the homes of sea-faring hobbits, everything being just a bit more miniature than usual – 8/10 normal height doorways, 3/5 normal size windows, 1/2 strength satellite dishes on the roofs, and 1/3 sized letterboxes. Tai O’s residents aren’t really that much smaller than any other Chinese people I’ve met, but they must enjoy the snugness of cramped living quarters and constantly banging their heads on the door lintel.
Pint-sized house, normal sized human.
The village can only be reached by a long and winding road up and over the tropical green hills of Lantau, and while it was once an important port for salt production and fishing, now it relies heavily on tourism and dried seafood for income. The main street is festively lined with garlands made from unidentified dried and flattened marine creatures, strung on long strings from the shop awnings. They look quite lovely but I have no clue what they actually used to be before they were dried and flattened. Squid? Sea cucumbers?

I pass by the stalls selling the local specialty and I’m all but handing over the money for a jar of really fragrantly stinky shrimp paste when common sense finally gets the better of me. My freezer is full of unused shrimp pastes, usually bought for the cool colourful labels, and stored in the deep freeze to mask the smell. I do not need another cutely labelled jar of stinky stuff. 
I like Tai O because it’s unlike any other place I’ve ever visited, with its quaint pint-sized architecture and dried seafood. I also like it because the tourism side of things is extremely half-hearted, with tatty old boats offering to take us for rides to see Hong Kong’s famed and endangered pink dolphins (it seems unlikely we will spot any), and occasionally someone asking us in to their restaurant for a feed. It’s as though the locals don’t really believe an entire village of houses on stilts could be of interest to tourists, so they’ve given up on tourism and are all waiting for the day when they can move to the modern side of Lantau Island and get a real job in finance or IT, like everyone else in Hong Kong.

Adding to the sense of quaintness I walk past a house with a very strange and surreal-looking tree in the garden, bearing enormous prickled green fruit hanging directly from the trunk and branches. Durians! Growing wild! And in the background a giant blue tub of….shrimp paste. Bet that house smells nice on a hot day……

It’s an intriguing little place and I highly recommend a day trip next time you’re in Hong Kong just for the sheer…oddness…of it all. 
Getting to Tai O
Tai O can be reached by taking the MTR to Tung Chung Station. Exit the station and walk towards the cable car where you will find the terminus for Bus 11, running every twenty minutes to Tai O (approximately 35 minutes).
Alternately, take a ferry from Central Pier 6 to Mui Wo on Lantau Island, then catch Bus 1 to Tai O.