Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Kowloon Walled City Park

Let's visit the Kowloon Walled City Park, a small park in north-eastern Kowloon, Hong Kong. It's named after the Kowloon Walled City, a densely-populated city block that existed on the site until it was demolished in 1994. During the 1980s around 40,000 people lived there, in a thirteen-storey shanty town that had the footprint of a couple of football pitches.

The walled city was famous for its narrow alleys and its unusual political setup, In 1898 the British Empire took over Hong Kong's New Territories, but the walled city remained part of China. It was a little Chinese island within Britain's Hong Kong. The Chinese authorities pulled out after a year and the British never tried very hard to police it, so it became a magnet for ne'er-do-wells and businesses that wanted to avoid regulations. It also attracted refugees who were prepared to put up with tiny apartments and poor-quality infrastructure in exchange for cheaper rents than the rest of the Hong Kong. In the 1960s and 1970s the almost total lack of building regulations meant that it expanded upwards, leaving the lower levels shrouded in darkness.

The walled city is generally portrayed in documentaries as a sci-fi dystopia that resembled something from Judge Dredd or the Fallout games. I have no idea what it was like for the people who lived there. By the time I visited in late 2019 it was long-gone.

North-east Kowloon was originally under the flight path of Kai Tak airport, and until Kai Tak was closed in 1998 there were no high-rise buildings. The approach was such that pilots had to make a sharp right turn just before reaching Chequerboard Hill, which is slightly west of the walled city; they didn't go directly overhead, but planespotters brave enough to climb to the top of the city had a great view.

Of television antennas. Antennae. They had a great view of television antennae. Nowadays north-east Kowloon is covered in tower blocks - the former residents of the walled city had to go somewhere - so the park is a little low-rise island in a high-rise world.

The park from the north-east; many years ago there would have been a huge shanty town across the road.

The walled city of the modern popular imagination had a relatively brief history. The original late-1800s-early-1900s shanty town was demolished at the end of the 1930s, and after the Japanese beat away the British at the very end of 1941 the rubble was used to expand Kai Tak airport. In the 1950s thousands of refugees from the Communist regime moved to Hong Kong from mainland China, and in the post-war years the walled city again became a lawless, tax-free magnet for refugees, Triad gangsters, and unlicensed dentists. Mao's Communists continued to uphold China's claim on the walled city, although they didn't push the issue very hard. China's Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s sparked off another wave of refugees.

Such were the extreme living conditions that the walled city became infamous across the world as a hive of scum and villainy. This parliamentary debate from 1974, recorded in Hansard, captures some of the flavour of its reputation at the time:
"LORD KENET: ... Throughout the 6½ acres, the streets or alleys are nowhere more than 3 feet wide. Mostly they are 2 feet wide, in some places they are only 18 inches wide. This in itself is perhaps not too remarkable in an Asian slum, but what is remarkable about the Walled City of Kowloon is that the buildings standing on these 18 inch-wide alleys are 10, 11 and even 13 storeys high.
No wheeled vehicle can get in there - not a lorry, not a car or even a bicycle. Nothing can get in except a pedestrian. The alleyways are unpaved and of earth. Down the middle of each runs an open drain with the sewage running down it, because the site is on a slope; and in the sewage you see very large rats."
Lord Kenet went on to point out that the walled city was popular because average rents were one-third lower than the rest of the Hong Kong. He batted away the suggestion that rents in the rest of Hong Kong were too high, because as a British Lord the suggestion that rents should be made lower was anathema to him.

In 1984 the governments of Britain and China formalised the handover of Hong Kong. This sealed the walled city's fate. The British didn't want to hand over a slum and the Chinese authorities wanted nothing to do with it, so in 1991-1992 it was cleared out and in 1994 it was demolished. The people who lived there had no say in the matter. They might have resisted, but it would have been futile. The walled city wasn't large enough to sustain agriculture and even a small fire would have been disastrous.

A park was built in its place. Chris Patten officially opened it in December 1995. Did it smell? I have no idea. When I was there it didn't smell of anything. It's still hard to think of Chris Patten as a major world figure, but there you go.

When I think of the walled city I think of a maze of wonky corridors, lit by neon, but that version of the city only existed for a few decades. Until the 1960s the walled city was no more slummy than the shanty towns surrounding it; construction didn't really get out of hand until the 1970s. The Hong Kong police greatly reduced the power of the Triads in the 1970s, so by the 1980s its reputation as a cesspit was over-exaggerated. It turns out that all those Hong Kong action films of the 1980s and 1990s with Triad assassins dual-wielding pistols were exaggerated. The Killer was not an accurate picture of contemporary Hong Kong. I feel betrayed.

I'm not a local and I have no idea what modern-day residents of Hong Kong think of the place. British society exists to benefit landowners and landlords, and throughout British history there have been numerous waves of slum clearances, Every few years a generation of anonymous, voiceless poor people are made homeless, while their former homes are demolished in order to make room for exclusive properties aimed at the wealthy, and if the McMansions fail to sell they are subdivided into houses of multiple occupation. By this process a new set of slums are created.

In contrast the clearance of the walled city seems to have been relatively benign. The residents were offered compensation and were assigned new social houses managed by the Hong Kong authorities. Were they glad to leave? Here in the UK tower blocks tend to be associated with crime and decay, but residents who had been rehoused in tower blocks in the 1960s spoke highly of having plumbing, and electric heaters, and not having to go outdoors to use the toilet. I can't even begin to understand England's history, I am completely out of my depth when it comes to Hong Kong.

But what about the park? It has a couple of audio-visual displays that show some of the walled city's history, but this aspect is very low-key - it's more a park than a monument. It has a pleasant bonsai display and is in general a lovely place to relax. I went late in the afternoon and the people were greatly outnumbered by birds. The park also has a baseball court and a sports area off to one side. I saw a turtle and a woman performing tai chi. I photographed the turtle because it asked me to; I didn't photograph the woman because people aren't props.

The turtle.

There is a woman performing tai chi behind that tree.

They have spunk, the people of Hong Kong. They have spunk.

In the streets surrounding the park I saw a golden Range Rover:

It dawned on me that it probably wasn't a good idea to photograph golded Range Rovers in Hong Kong. That street - Hau Wong Road - was full of cars parking next to each other, so either the shopping was good or a bunch of gangsters were torturing someone to death in a back room somewhere.

Google Street View reveals that Hau Wong Road is always busy, so perhaps it was the shopping after all. Perhaps they just had nowhere to park. The nearest underpass was full of protest stickers:

"Wave upon wave of demented avengers march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream"

How do you get to the walled city park? North-East Kowloon is an MTR desert where the underground line doesn't go. I popped along to Kowloon Tong MTR in north-central Kowloon and took the 22 bus to Kai Tak airport. The bus goes down Prince Edward Road, which passes the park.

There is a McDonalds a couple of roads along from Hau Wong Road. As mentioned elsewhere in this series of posts the Big Mac Index is very favourable in Hong Kong, so for the entirety of my trip I gorged on Big Macs, sometimes eating three or four in one sitting. It dawned on me that the more Big Macs I ate, the more money I would save, until perhaps I could pay for my trip to Hong Kong by eating Big Macs.

McDonalds does not serve beer in Hong Kong. The local speciality is an unbreaded chicken thigh burger called a GCB, which I think stands for "grilled chicken burger". It was vile. The mouthfeel in particular was like eating internal organs. McDonalds serves breakfast all day long in Hong Kong, but that's probably because Hong Kong is a very busy place, and for people who work the night shift the afternoon is the morning, the end.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Eating a 17-Year-Old MRE: Menu 4, Country Captain Chicken

Let's have a look at another MRE. This one is Menu 4: Country Captain Chicken, but to make things real spicy-like the MRE was made in 2002. It's now seventeen years old. In theory it's old enough to get married, if it has parental consent, but that's impossible because MREs don't have parents. They're meals, not people. You can't eat people.

MREs are only designed to last five years or so. Even if an MRE is refrigerated the dairy products become noxious within a decade. I have no idea how well my MRE was stored - I bought it from eBay - but I can confirm that it was not a delicious tasty crunch.

The date code on the toaster pastry is 2029, which means that it was packaged on the twenty-ninth day of the second year of the decade, 2002 in this case.

What is Country Captain Chicken? I learn from the internet that it's a curry-style dish popular in America's southern states. It's not widely available here in the UK. I've never had it before.

The meal includes country captain chicken, some noodles in butter flavoured sauce, a cappuccino mocha drink, a toaster pastry - e.g. a Pop Tart - a pair of crackers (not pictured), cheese spread, some M and Ms, a spoon, and an accessory packet.

Country Captain Chicken was added to the MRE menu pool in 2000, apparently as a tribute to General George Patton, who was a fan of the stuff. It was discontinued after just four years, but its time in the sun coincided with invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, so a lot of soldiers experienced it. It regularly appears in "worst MRE of all time" lists, which is why I wanted to try it out. How bad could it be?

The accessory packet has some Taster's Choice coffee, a teeny tiny Tabasco sauce bottle, some gum, salt, sugar, non-dairy creamer, matches, a moist towelette, toilet paper.

How bad could it be? Well, the universe is an entropic system inexorably degenerating into a state of uniform disorder. Our sun has a limited lifespan, as do all the other suns in the universe. New stars are created all the time, but more stars die than are created, and eventually the universe will consist of ashes floating in darkness. Even if we could extend the lifespan of our bodies and escape the death of our sun we would eventually find ourselves alone in the universe.

We could conceivably approach the problem of immortality from another direction. What if we could alter our perception of time, so that subjectively our lives would feel as if they lasted millions of years?

There are two problems with this. The practical problem is that time proceeds in discrete quanta. It is not a smooth, analogue flow. Instead it ticks and tocks like the second hand of a wristwatch, and as a consequence we cannot completely stop the subjective flow of time, we can only slow it down. We would still be mortal.

I assumed that sealed coffee would last forever. That it might lose its taste but still be drinkable. Internet sensation Steve1989 regularly drinks coffee from the 1950s, but this packet of Taster's Choice did not last.

The creamer looked okay but smelled odd, so I threw it in the bin.

The second barrier to an escape into dreamland is more philosophical. Imagine if the world around us was a simulation created by people who only live for six weeks, for whom three score years and ten is an incredibly long time. Imagine if their planet - in the "real" world - only coalesced from interstellar dust six hundred years ago, and that it will be consumed by its parent star in just two hundred years' time. Imagine if our world was their escape. Imagine if we already live incredibly long lives. The problem is that our perception of time is elastic, and if we could extend our lives so that they appeared to span millions of years it would still feel inadequate. It would all be over in the blink of an eye.

There is no future for any of us. No hope, no salvation. Even if God were real, it is just wishful thinking to suppose that he created an eternal afterlife for us. Why should he? Did he create an eternal afterlife for mosquitoes and viruses? Why us, and not them? No, there is no hope. The only escape is the oblivion of alcohol and drugs, and compared to that horror the unpleasantness of my 17-year-old MRE was relatively mild, although still bad.

I've shown you the coffee. Now you are forever broken. Let's have a look at the M and Ms, which I have to write as "M and Ms" because the Blogger platform messes up ampersands.

They look okay but smell wrong. I tried one. Just one. It was no good. The sugar coating was still edible, but the chocolate inside tasted stale. It tasted like a Hershey bar. Hershey bars are supposed to taste horrible but M and Ms are not, so I decided to throw the rest away.

I could conceivably take some along to London Zoo and test them out on the monkeys, but what if it takes several days for them to fall ill? How could I tell that it was the M and Ms, and not something else? What if the guards apprehend me and force me to eat the M and Ms? Too risky.

The packet's "Hit the Code" promotion apparently finished in April 2002. The grand prize was $1,000,000 in yearly $50,000 instalments for twenty years, so whoever won is still receiving cheques. Sadly the competition expired in 2003 and the website is long dead. The Internet Archive has a backup; it had a spy theme. It looks unusually bad even for 2002.

Let's try the cappuccino mocha, and remember that cappuccino is two-two, and Mississippi is three-three, and accommodation is two-two, and Philippines is one-two, and cappuccino is two-two. I didn't expect much of it so I put it in a bowl, which saves me having to sterilise a mug.

The powder smelled okay. The sugar must have kept. But when I added water it smelled off. I tasted a little bit and it was indeed off, in fact it tasted a little bit like the M and Ms. Down the sink it went.

I firmly believe that you have to face up to horror. You can cower and shield your eyes, but that will just make the horror more bold. At the very least people might be inspired by your sacrifice. Let's have a look at the cheese. The cheese. From 2002. Seventeen-year-old cheese.

Seventeen-year-old artificial MRE cheese. Let's do this. Rock and roll. Let's do this. In the pipe, five by five. No problem boss. Let's do this. One down, thousands to go. Even in death I still serve. Thank Mr Skeltal. Tryin to make a change. Let's do this. I'm psyching myself up by repeating internet memes. Let's do this. Dated internet memes from a few years ago. Mlem. Let's do this. But first the crackers.

The crackers smelled fine. Not even musty. I don't know if the recipe has changed over the years but these crackers felt tougher than modern MRE crackers - modern crackers tend to break into flakes.

The cheese smelled of feet, and not in a sexy way. It was slightly less bad than I expected. I was expecting an awful rotten room-filling stench of death, but it was no worse than some speciality cheeses I have encountered. It reminded me of those times I would take a week off work, and tell everybody I was going to the Cotswolds, but in reality I spent the week in bed drinking and occasionally rolling over to pee in a bottle. Was I happier then than I am now? The cheese did however give me a use for one of the MRE beverage bags I have accumulated, as an improvised body bag:

A body bag for cheese. MRE beverage bags are airtight and thus odour-tight. I don't like the idea of being assailed by the smell of cheese every time I open my pedal bin.

The crackers were just fine. Very mild wheaty taste. MRE crackers are light, dry, but a lot easier to eat than Polish hardtack. Let's drape a shroud over the corpse of the stinky cheese and move on to the next thing, which is a Pop Tart:

Or rather a "toaster pastry", but it's a Pop Tart. I assume it's supposed to be cooked in the flameless ration heater, but I microwaved it for thirty seconds instead. It tasted slightly off, but only slightly. Perhaps the apples had gone bad, but they made up such a tiny part of the ingredients that they hadn't ruined the rest of the Pop Tart. It was edible, not great, but edible, and I finished it off.

Moving on, let's heat up the noodles and the main meal.

There's a typo on the packet. Dehyrdrated.

My heart has a warning label on it as well. Do not overfill. No danger of that. No danger of that. The flameless ration heater had an unusual design. The heating element was in a little pocket that attached to one side of the bag. Modern FRHs have the heating element as a separate pad so that you can put it in between two packets of food - this FRH could only cook one thing at a time. It activated and got hot, but not hot enough to properly cook the meals, so I boiled them in a pan for a couple of minutes.

Consistent white balance? I've heard of it. The noodles smelled unpleasantly sweet but they tasted okay. There was a slightly strange aftertaste, but I couldn't tell if that was because they had gone off or if they were like that in 2002.

My impression is that modern MREs are of a consistently good standard. After thirty years of refinement the food technicians have finally cracked it. There have been a number of infamously bad MRE meals since their introduction in the early 1980s, but the most notorious - the vegetable omelette, the frankfurters, the country captain chicken - are no longer in production.

How would I describe the noodles? They didn't look like noodles. Here in the UK noodles are long stringy things. There was no buttery taste at all. Imagine really cheap pasta with a mild taste of plastic and cardboard. They were edible but I wouldn't want to repeat the experience.

Let's try the main meal. Let's try it. Let's try the meal.

Country Captain Chicken was widely disliked even when it was new, and this one is seventeen years old, so that's a double-whammy, but I was astonished, nay amazed to find that it smelled really nice. It had a distinctive, rich curry aroma, with a touch of southern-style sauce. Perhaps the curry preserved it. I stuck my finger in the sauce and it tasted great, so I threw caution to the wind and ate the rest of it. It was good!

It's essentially a piece of reformed chicken with a lot of curry sauce. Do Americans eat a lot of curry? Curry is huge in the UK. Perhaps it was unpopular because Americans aren't used to curry. Who knows. The sauce had raisins, bits of fruit, and almonds, although it all just tasted of curry.

Now, it's still MRE food. The chicken had the consistency of perished rubber, and without the curry sauce it would have been "food mass". There was enough sauce for two pieces of chicken; if I had designed the meal I would have added more chicken or taken away some of the sauce. It would have gone well with chips.

On the whole I liked the main meal. It's curry-lite with plastic chicken, on a par with a basic microwave meal from Iceland. I suspect that its infamy comes more from the target audience's unfamiliarity with curry than from its inherent naffness. Furthermore it survived to the present day without being frozen so the designers can congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Anything else? The gum took a while to dissolve, but it tasted okay. Vaguely minty gum, slightly better than modern MRE gum. From what I have read the little bottles of tabasco sauce tended to evaporate even though they were screwed shut and sealed. The MRE packet didn't smell of tabasco, and the bottle hadn't leaked onto the other meals. It had just dried up and evaporated into space:

And that was that. The main meal held up well, as did the crackers. The rest, not so much.