Sunday, June 20, 2010

Discovery Bay ferry

We met our project manager, who had more hard questions for us, in Mui Wo over the weekend. Which colour laminate for the kitchen cabinet? What about the bathroom? How about the floor tiles, black or grey? Ceramic or stone? You want non-slip?

After one hour of brain-numbing selecting (especially considering that we both go into option paralysis after about 10 minutes), we were knackered. If we had to choose another bathroom tile or ponder the merits of glossy finish versus non-slip, we were going to scream.

So we decided to give ourself a pseudo-holiday and take the kaido (ferry) to Discovery Bay, that Disneyland-meets-Singapore Housing Board development one bay along. We've seen the kaido arrive often enough, disgorging passengers, dogs the size of a small calf and bicycles, but we've never taken it before.

Thank goodness we did because the half-hour ride is lovely. There is a closed compartment below but the open-air deck upstairs is the place to be. You may have to sit on hard plastic seats but there's no beating the breeze and the views. On a good day, you can see Cheung Chau, Lamma, Aberdeen, Disneyland and Peng Chau. All that for a mere HK$12 per person.

Discovery Bay itself is not that great. Purpose built with expats in mind, it has a soulless piazza (which turns into a heat trap in summer), a half-empty shopping centre called DB Plaza, and a beach that is not a patch on Mui Wo beach... but it also has some good restaurants like Zaks, Moorings and Hemingway's By The Bay.

After wandering around aimlessly for a bit and paying homage to The Bookshop, the sister to the Mui Wo branch, we ended up at Caramba, where we had the chimichangas and chili con carne. Hubby polished off his share and mine too.

Satisfied, we got our freebie ferry tickets (which you get if you spend above HK$100 per person at one of 14 selected restaurants) and were back in Central in half an hour. A nice tranquil end to a potentially-stressful day.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mongkok madness

I know this is supposed to be a blog on Mui Wo living but honestly, you can't talk about doing up a flat in Mui Wo -- or anywhere else in Hong Kong -- without mentioning Mongkok's famous Tile Street. Unless you are a money-no-option person who has left it all to your interior designer, you will eventually end up here. It's the place to go for all your renovation needs.

Our contractor said he would show us some tiles his company had for sale but for bathroom and kitchen fixings, we were on our own. So, after getting some sketchy details from renovation-savvy friends (along the lines of "somewhere in Mongkok, you'll never miss it. It's got all those tiles on the sidewalk"), we girded up our courage to cross to The Other Side.

Located in Portland Street, near Argyle and Bute Streets, Tile Street (that's just a nickname, not a real one) has rows and rows of shops selling bathroom fixings, tiles, window frames, mirrors, wallpaper, cookers and lights. The busiest area is between Exits A2 and C2 of the Mongkok MTR station.

It is any budding interior designer's dream. You can get anything from tiles that cost HK$10 per piece to taps that make you gulp at HK$20,000. Those daring enough to venture through dingy corridors into rickety lifts (escorted by some of the most persistent touts I've ever seen) might just be rewarded by the sight of shops selling custom-made kitchens finished off with the holy grail of countertops, Corian.

You can spend an entire day just walking in and out of the shops in a daze... as we did on our first trip there. Should we have colour-changing LED lights for our ceiling? Or maybe a shower door etched with dolphins? How about a sandstone slab for the living room, with a tasteful little waterfall? Ooooh, that mosaic looks just like something from a Greek church!

On our second trip, we were smarter, zooming in exactly on what we needed: a toilet and a bathroom sink. Veterans now, we grabbed cards and noted down dimensions, looking so purposeful the touts knew to avoid us. In the end, we bought our very first item for our new flat: that Grohe mixer you see in the picture.

One down, another 100 more to go. And we haven't even started on our kitchen yet.

<---- Guard cats. Some assembly required.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Demolition derby

We thought buying a flat in Hong Kong was painful, but that was before we started renovating our new place. Now, just the thought of it is enough to make me sit bolt upright in bed at 3am, with dry mouth and fast-beating heart.

Here's why: It isn't easy dealing with Hong Kong builders at the best of times. But now we're dealing with Mui Wo builders. And believe me, this is a whole different breed.

They are the prima donna of contractors.

Firstly, they know they have a captive audience because access to the South Lantau Road (the only road in and out of Mui Wo) is restricted. Contractors from other parts of Hong Kong would have to apply for a special permit for their trucks. Most prefer to turn down jobs rather than put up with the hassle of dealing with the authorities -- which leaves the field open to the few contractors living in South Lantau to grab all the business.

Secondly, many village houses have been bought by rich expats wanting a bit of country life. They have deep pockets and are willing to pay for all the extras -- like open kitchens, French windows, new bathrooms -- put in. They're an easy source of income for the contractors, who would understandably prefer those jobs over our measly one-bathroom renovation.

Which meant that, we were left in the strange position of having to woo contractors to take up our project instead of the other way round. We spoke to six, got rejected by three (one didn't even bother to come over to take a look, turning us down by email) and only got three who looked even mildly interested.

Of the two, one quoted HK$145,000, another HK$100,000 and the third, HK$55,000. Yup, all for doing the same work and providing the same materials. Before we could even decide, the HK$100,000 one dropped out. "Ho mong," was his reason. Too busy.

And then there were two. We went with the cheaper one, gave him the deposit and waited for demolition to begin. Finally, we could relax.

Or could we? Yesterday, he called. They had started removing the bathroom fixings but remember he promised we would be able to get a washing machine in the bathroom? Er well, maybe not, according to his measurements. Funnily enough, when we offered to pay a bit more, the measurements suddenly expanded to accommodate the machine.

Tomorrow, we're meeting him again. The sink needs "accommodating". I think it's our pockets we need renovated by the end of this ordeal.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The natives are friendly

So what are the Mui Wo people like, those who know we are moving there want to know. Are they friendly? Are they all fun-loving hippies like those in Lamma or burnt-out city dwellers who all "freelance" (translated: jobless and need a cheap place to live)?

Well, if you look at some websites, you'd think the place is a centre of debauchery where people drink their pensions and get up to all sorts of village politics.

A post in one chat stated: "Mui Wo is one of the Lost worlds, it seems in this lost world, there is an amount of these lost people, maintaining their drag life by doing the odd bit of TVB or commercials, for a few dollars.

"There is also your local gweilo triads, who would as sooner look at you as beat you up. I am sure there is a few nice people around there, but its not the nice people we need to put up with, its the not so nice ones. I wouldn't live there."

Another agreed: "I don't get along with European expats, so I would not enjoy living there. I do remember seeing many of them sitting around the waterfront drinking beer. I thought they were disgusting, and give a bad image to the Chinese. So I would skip the place."

It's enough to put you off Mui Wo for good.

But actually, what attracted us to the place was its small-town friendliness. In one of our early trips there in winter, we got accosted by a guy in a fur coat, asking: "Are you mad?" Oh dear, was my immediate thought. The folks here must be mad, going around asking others if they are mad. Then we realised what he was saying. We'd just come from a trek from Discovery Bay and were in short sleeves when the temperature was 8 Celsius. He was just making conversation with us -- something we city dwellers weren't used to.

When we were looking for a place to buy in November, we took a walk around the area to see if we could live in Mui Wo. We hadn't got beyond the Toilet Bar (more on that later) when we were hailed by two total strangers. Victor and Mark were having an afternoon drink at the bar. "Come and stop a while, let me get you guys something," said Victor. We stayed for an hour, chatting, and when we left, my husband turned to me and said: "You know, I could live here."

Since then, we have had lots of casual conversations with strangers in town. It must be the laidback atmosphere, making people more inclined to take time out for a chat.

Or maybe it's the offer of beer by the waterfront. We must go check that out.