Damien Hirst Spot Challenge: Athens to Hong Kong - FINISHED!

Thanks to Andrew Luk of Gagosian Hong Kong for this admirable composition. The painting was hung a little lower than the one in Athens - probably because everyone in Honkers is 5' nothing like me.
The Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong was my last stop on the Spot Challenge. How awful to come all this way and fluff it ... but it nearly happened.

Unable to secure a China Visa "on the fly" to visit my cousins in Beijing for a couple of days, I'd moved my onward flight forward. This meant I'd have to sit for a few hours at Beijing airport, then depart for Hong Kong same day, as the immigration rules dictate. (It was cheaper to do this than re-book the flight).

An Etihad airlines officer summoned me to the counter. It appears, madam, you do not have a valid onward ticket out of Beijing. WTF? I'd spent an eternity at the Beehive Hostel in Rome calling the eternally inconvenient United Airlines office in the USA (can you believe it? A global airline that requires you to call long distance to their terminally busy home office!), trying to move that flight forward. The problem? The supposedly updated email confirmation didn't contain the new flight number.

"If we let you fly, they will send you back here and we get fined," she said.

After much head scratching and concealed panic I suddenly hit on the idea of looking at my United Mileage Plus account on the computer of Christina, a woman whose sole ambition in life is to solve flight connection glitches. We drilled down and bingo, there was the updated ticket number. "I LOVE MY JOB!" she whooped.

This is a serious procedural oversight by United, so be warned - check for your ticket numbers in the confirmation email.

Good Morning Beijing

People say good things about Middle Eastern airlines. Those countries have money, cheap oil and a lot of those pilots fly the Royal Family around. They *should* know how to fly a plane, right,  said one blogger. So I felt optimistic about flying Etihad, the airline of the United Arab Emirates. The stopover was in Abu Dhabi ($US595.40). The other choice, Aeroflot, had the cheapest Athens-Beijing fare (<$US500) but stopped over in Moscow. Hmmm, with one of the most treacherous European winters on record, do I choose a plane that goes north, or one that goes south? After overhearing that another Spot Challenger got stuck up north in tundra for 2 days, it was no brainer.
Like staring up a peacock's butt - in a good way. The ornate Abu Dhabi airport
It was an incredibly long flight. On stumbling out of the plane in Beijing. I walked for miles through a series of cavernous glass boxes, punctuated now and then by a lone food concession, to get to the China Air Gate Lounge. For a long time I was the only human being in that hemisphere of the airport. The food choices were utterly dismal: one cafe selling slices of white bread with a single slice of processed ham or processed cheese inside, or a hot dog roll with same. The cafe near my gate lounge was slightly better, I had a bowl of noodle soup for an outrageous $US11.
Glassy Beijing Airport - amuse yourself by making a free 3 minute call to a local 
The experience was sweetened by getting a free 27 minutes of yammering to my cousins in Beijing: The phone booths offered a free 3-minute call to a local number. You could not call that number twice from the same phone within 30 mins, so I trekked though 3 gate lounges, each with a bank of 3 phones, and worked my way through them.  I'm sure a camera lens above was swivelling about and following my thrifty ass ...

Good Afternoon, Hong Kong

I landed in Hong Kong on a Sunday night with four days to kill - two more than I'd hoped for. At this time of the year the weather is chilly and foggy; the Peak was completely obscured. And, the Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong didn't open until Tuesday.

The scenes that greet you in Honkers - a spectacular harbor, and rampant commerce, the old and the shiny new.
After being almost bankrupted by the Brit pound and to a lesser extent, the Euro, I was now in a far less expensive country, as long as I stuck to hostels and hole-in-the-wall dumplings. $HK100 is worth around $US12, which buys a 50-minute foot massage with change ... such an indulgence is 8-10 times that in the USA.

The first thing on my mind was to find accommodation. Unlike in Paris, I failed to ignite the hospitality of the HK CouchSurfers, so I headed for Mirador Mansion in Kowloon, an area known for cheap traveler accommodations. Here, you can get a "basic box" - a  little windowless room with a private bathroom for $US25-30 per night. The most famous of these buildings is Chungking Mansions, a multi-story tenement building with ground floor shops and a grimy, fluourescent-lit ghetto ambience of travelers (mostly African and Asian), permanent residents, mini sweatshops, pop up cafes, pets in cardboard boxes and little businesses small, shady and surreal. Mirador Mansion was simply a quieter version, with less itinerant corridor action and a few less cats.

The ins and outs of Mirador Mansion, a "ghetto of globalization" like its famous neighbor next door, ChungKing Mansion - only a little more laid back
One of the residents
From outside it looks like a simple shopping mall

What $US10 buys you. Ultra thin mattresses, roomates with a story and ... a free window! 
Just my bad luck: this was the weekend of a major Gemstone show, and even the crummiest rooms were booked out. Closets were being offered at $US36 or more. I went from floor to floor afraid of what I'd see when the elevator doors opened, wondering why I was risking taking the tiny, creaky elevator. Some places we're decked out like a bordello, with paper lanterns and gaudy bunting. Is there hot water?

"Of course!" came the snippy reply, "this is Hong Kong!"

Modestly appointed but security is high - cameras are trained on every corner of the Kung Fu Garden hostel
In my search I met a man who suggested the Kung Fu Garden Hostel down on the 3rd floor, which offered a dorm bed for an unprecedented $HK80 or $US10. At that price I was prepared for the worst. I discovered it was a little better than that, if you disregard the wafer thin mattresses, a shower nozzle grazing the toilet cistern, an itinerant Pakistani woman I found sleeping in my bed who refused to give it back and Changi prison aesthetics. It was actually a bona fide kung fu studio and was blessed by a semi-outdoor tiled sitting area - hence the name "garden" - the equivalent of palatial grounds in Hong Kong.

Making instant friends at the Garden Hostel - as one does in hostels!
Bizarrely, the place grew on me over three days. I met fascinating people, like the gal in the bunk above, a semi-precious gem broker from Shenzen; she was the go-between for an African gem supplier and her rolodex of jewelry clients in China. There was the transplant from Malaysia, who wanted to be on the cusp of the solar technology boom in China. I met a Californian gal who was teaching in Guangzhou, a Korean gal who had her iPhone picked from her pocket in the street the day she arrived, and a sharp young dude from Eastern Europe who bought up dated cellphones, unlocked them and sold them to his comrades. "Beats working for someone else," he said. He brandished a giant bundle of 2 gigabyte SD cards, a cash cow for him that we now spurn in our our unbridled lust for 16 gigabyte class 10 cards.

One of the guests was a wealthy, 70-year young Italian gent who was originally holed up in the Holiday Inn nearby paying $HK1000 a night, but wasn't meeting anyone "interesting."

 "I travel to meet interesting people," he'd said, booking into the Garden Hostel and happily tapping away on his iPad.

"You know there's a cafe down the corridor, right?" said Bob. "Near the cat in the box."   It was a private apartment, serving Hong Kong tea, omelette sandwiches and the daily paper. 
Bamboo scaffolding is quite at home among the glass and steel
Shopping because you have to.

Hong Kong is a shopping mecca, but being so close to China, you wonder if what you're getting is authentic or a knock off. I made the mistake of asking a store assistant if his iPads were real.

"What kind of question is that, look at the prices first before you make comment!" he snapped.

I ended up buying the first souvenirs of the entire trip - a pair of stainless steel stud earrings from the Swatch Shop (which I didn't see in Geneva) and a Morgan Paris top (which I didn't see in Paris.)

A great relief was the free and plentiful wi-fi in shopping centers, public areas and museums. Like a true internet addict, I think I sat in one mall for two hours surfing my iPhone.

As far as food goes, everyone heads for Temple St Night Market to buy $5 iPhone cases and eat even cheaper noodle dishes. By this time I was jonesing for a foot massage. My boots weren't made for walking this far, and I was more than ready to hand over the $HK100 ($US12) for 50 minutes of relief.

Temple St Market. Eat.
Get some relief! 
I found a place decorated with giant reflexology posters, which my sister says doesn't mean anything, just sly marketing. It was ground floor, which felt less dodgy than the neon signs beckoning you up to some godforsaken 5th floor. It was worth every shekel. The 60-something masseuse clearly knew what he was doing, and by the end of it, all traces of fatigue had disappeared completely. The rest of the journey home was like walking on air. I suspect that the painful poking of my calf at strategic points may have simply deadened nerve endings long enough for me to get back to the hostel. Chinese massage, called Tui Na, is spreading to many western cities, especially New York and Sydney where it is "$1 per minute." Tui Na competes with the $120/hour massages in luxe surroundings, so and if you're not worried about organic this or aromatherapy that, it's a bargain.

Gagosian Hong Kong - the final spot! 

The threshold to the Spotty Gates ...

Tuesday finally rolled around and I set off on the Star Ferry for the gallery in Peddar St. This was the culmination of all this madness, expense, jetlag and ridiculing by my art-educated pals. Behind the desk, Tammy had written at least three long and detailed emails to me about what to see, do and eat in Hong Kong, for which I was deeply grateful. Andrew, her colleague, patiently took a photo integrating my spot hat into one of the paintings, as you can see at the top of this post.

Tammy and Andrew display my completed score card.
The security guard was appropriately unsmiling and humorless. I wondered if there's an Art Gallery Security Guard University where they learn precisely the right body language that substitutes for the AK-47 that McDonald's security guards tote in Nicaragua. (The security guards at the Art Gallery of New South Wales must attend a different university - one came up to me and asked how much I knew about a Cy Twombly Tryptych, then proceeded to discuss its provenance.)

Andrew Luk is an artist - no wonder he took such a great shot finale shot.
"So how do you want your dedication to read?" said Andrew. Yes, this was the moment. Think carefully now. Should I wish to sell this work in the distant future, when I need to pay someone to wipe my tush while I dribble all over myself (don't laugh, it happens), would anyone want to buy a piece that said "Dear Bob, Nice one cobber! Love Damien?" Because at the Armory (Pulse? Scope? Can't remember which art fair) I saw one reading just that.

I could leave it blank, and then it would look like just one of his prints you can buy for $3500 in a cardboard tube from the Spot Shop or Damien Hirst online store. The adventure would be obfuscated. So after pacing around the gallery with the security guard eyeing my every move, I returned to the desk and scribbled "Spot On, Galfromdownunder" on the sheet.

Later, I thought, maybe it should read, "Bet your friends are laughing now." This, despite articles like this ...

So, Spot Challenge done and dusted. How best to celebrate? In Peking Duck style, of course!
Heading to Kowloon - and the Peking Garden restaurant - on the Star Ferry
The view from Kowloon at night. 
Virginia and her family treated me to dinner at the Peking Garden Restaurant.
Hunan chicken, jellyfish ... 
I had envisaged celebrating alone over $HK19 soup dumplings in Temple St,  but to my amazement Virgina, colleague of Mark "Father of Emerging Markets" Mobius at Franklin Templeton Investment, offered to take me to dinner with her family. Mobius spends most of his life darting from country to country checking out promising businesses - and riding a bicycle - including the Bike Friday I sold him a decade earlier. Thank you Zita for connecting me with Virginia. Here's an archived story about my ride with Mobius on a Friday

Biking with one of my first customers back in the day: the immortal Mark Mobius in Singapore, 2009. Read about this

The Hong Kong Art Gallery

The Peak was still shrouded in fog so I gave it a miss, and headed for the Hong Kong Art Museum. It happened to be showing works by Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong, who, conincidentally, is a minimalist "dot painter" of a different stripe. Read about it in the shot below. Was this exhibition set up in response to the Hirst show across the river? One can only surmise ...

Reminiscence of Jiangnan - in "just a few dots and lines."
Former Residence of Qiu Jin
Two swallows - so minimalist, there actually aren't any swallows. 
Nest, an interpretation of the Bird's Nest stadium which housed the Beijing Olympics
My last scouting effort was to try and find a yoga studio. 40 hours of sitting on planes and trains without time to stop and stretch was taking its toll. I navigated a labyrinth of steep streets in Central to locate a studio - only to discover it was charging $US40 a drop in class. YoGanesh, the Manhattan studio where I teach part time, charges $15 for a drop in. It was time to leave Hong Kong.

Land of hand sanitizer 

"About 300 people died," said a nurse in the Tsiu Wah restaurant whose table I was sharing for my last supper in Honkers. After the outbreak of SARS, door handles were being disinfected many times a day. "Everyone was scared to go out."

Sorry about this shot, but it says "This handle is disinfected twice a day" -  HK Art Museum.
On getting back to my dorm I discovered a woman sleeping in my bed who refused to budge. To save any hassles, I upgraded myself to a windowless private room for $25 to get a good night's sleep. One thing you have to be careful of:  set a reliable alarm if you need to catch a flight. Without a window, you wake up whenever and have no idea what time it is. Here's what a typical private room looks like in Kowloon:
View towards door. The door at left is to bathroom. My back is against the wall.
View of room. Alarm clock is essential as there are no windows to wake you up. My back is against the door. 
At 3am there was a loud banging on the metal door. It was the woman who had taken my dorm bed. She'd been evicted the day before for non-payment and her stuff dumped outside. She'd returned with a full week's rent and a vengeance.

"$10 buys you a lot of stories," chuckled Bob, the solar energy entrepreneur.

On the Virgin flight to Australia, the item below was considered "news."

Suddenly I don't feel so bad about spending the past week chasing colored spots.

Next: How I did this global jaunt with one Traffic Cone Bag

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