Asian Club Sandwiches

May 16th, 2015, 12:04 am PDT by Greg

[I know this is not the way one is supposed to blog about a vacation. I choose to ignore that.]

Club sandwiches have rules. As Mitch Hedberg would say, if you don’t follow them, you’re not part of the club.

The rules are: bread, chicken and lettuce, bread, tomato and bacon, optional american cheese, bread. All bread toasted. Mayonnaise. Cut in four. It comes with french fries and poorly constructed coleslaw.

Simple. Do that, and you’re part of the club.

A friend who has spent time in food services used to interview potential cooks by asking them to make a club sandwich. Acceptable variation is certainly allowed, but it seems like a good test of “can you just make some decent food?”

There are often things labeled “club sandwich” on menus in Asia. I occasionally order them hoping for some taste of home. After all, how hard could it be? There are rules.

It turns out that these rules have not been effectively transmitted to Asia.

The first example is actually a favourite of mine. It is from the Vineyard in Hangzhou, an expat place near the Yuquan campus where I lived while teaching there: (click through on any of the images for detail)

Vineyard club

It’s moderately club-sandwich-like. There are three pieces of bread. Ham is substituted for chicken. Cut in two instead of four. It doesn’t taste entirely like a club sandwich but it’s good. This is the high point of our journey.

The next example is from a cafe in the Shanghai Pudong airport and is much more typical of Chinese club sandwiches:

Pudong club

Three slices of bread, but crusts cut off. An egg for some reason, which I don’t mind since I believe an egg can be added to any savory dish to enhance it. There is some chicken salad like substance serving as a poor substitute for chicken. Ham substituted for bacon. One forlorn little piece of lettuce is split between the four quarters. An irritating amount of mayo. Only the innermost bite of each piece really has any filling. After that bite, it’s vaguely sweet Chinese “toast bread” with mayo. Four pringles act poorly as fries.

This happened at a resort in the Philippines. There was a picture on the menu, but I thought “no… they couldn’t legally serve that as a club sandwich. It’ll be different.” It wasn’t.

Resort club

Four (four!) slices of bread with the crusts cut off. A crumbled bacon and chicken salad melange. Lettuce, cucumber and tomato. A scrambled egg and thick slab of weak cheddar. Cut in two.

That kind of thing should get a cook sent to the Hague.

A final entry from a random western-ish restaurant in a mall in Cebu. I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but I ordered it anyway:

Cebu club

Three slices of bread toasted in a panini press. Ham, chicken salad with some egg in there somewhere. Roast beef, lettuce tomato, cheese. A poor entry overall.

I have developed a real love of the Philippines, but this is a serious deficiency in the culture.

There is no real conclusion to this post, other than perhaps “get your club sandwiches from diners in North America.”

The Starbucks Heuristic

May 18th, 2013, 5:07 am PDT by Greg

The algorithm I propose here starts with a city where you are unsure of the geography, and attempts to find the part of the city where there are things going on for a traveller to see and/or a neighbourhood where a western traveller will be safe and welcome. It is only a heuristic: I’m sure it can fail in some cases, but it’s pretty solid in my experience.

The method is this: (1) find the city you’re wondering about in Google Maps; (2) search for “Starbucks”; (3) look at the neighbourhoods with the greatest concentration of dots (not just the teardrop-shaped placemarks, but all of the little “here’s one” dots); (4) decide that those neighbourhoods are safe/interesting/happening.

I first applied the Starbucks Heuristic in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia. We went there knowing it wasn’t much on the beaten path for tourists. It guided us to a part of town where we found a nice hotel near the water, a food market, and some nice local shops.

Applying the heuristic in Shanghai finds the business area in Pudong, a strip along Nanjing Road, and somewhat smearing south into Xuhui. That’s probably right, based on my limited experience. I just checked this when advising a friend where to stay during an extended business trip to Shanghai. I think it verifies my initial advice.

Doing it with Manila finds Makati (the business district), another cluster around Ortigas (the other business district), and another around Fort Bonifacio. As I recall, those are pretty good bets for a foreign traveller in a city where not everywhere is particularly safe.

In Hangzhou you find the tourist/shopping area to the east of the Lake, moving north into a neighbourhood I should maybe explore more. In Vancouver, you find downtown and Kitsilano. In Portland you find downtown.

The algorithm fails for Barcelona where such things probably aren’t allowed in the old city, but it does find what I think is the business district to the north. In Rome, you find a very well-defined ring around the “tourist stuff”, which is probably what I’d expect.

My conclusion seems to be that the heuristic finds the business district in highly developed western cities. It finds westerner-friendly neighbourhoods elsewhere.

Please don’t confuse what I’m saying here with “I think you should go to Starbucks a lot on vacation.” Go to Starbucks however much you want: that’s none of my business. The Starbucks Heuristic simply finds the most foreigner-friendly part of a city. Whether or not you want to stay in that part of the city is also up to you.

Does anybody see any examples where this fails spectacularly, from the point of view of a slightly-ignorant traveller trying to find a neighbourhood for a hotel? Barcelona is the worst I could find.

Network Sanitization

April 23rd, 2013, 11:48 pm PDT by Greg

I have been spending a fair amount of time working in coffee shops in Hangzhou. The culture seems to be that buying a coffee also buys me several hours sitting in a table doing whatever I damned well please. It’s a nice change of scenery from my apartment. They usually have wi-fi, but it would be pragmatic to assume that whatever traffic goes over that connection is beamed directly to a billboard outside. I generally feel the same way about hotel internet, free airport wi-fi, and other dodgy connections: I just don’t trust that they have any interest in protecting my privacy.

I really want to encrypt all of my traffic over those links. I always encrypted my mail client connections anyway, and SSH is inherently encrypted. That really leaves my browser as the weak link in my average-day networking.

After considering some options, I ended up with just about the simplest solution, although it does take touch of technical know-how to get going. The basic idea is that SSH can provide an encrypted SOCKS server. Using it basically involves setting my browser to use the SOCKS tunnel for everything, and starting up the SOCKS tunnel with a command like this:

ssh -C -D 1080

It’s also possible to do this on Windows with PuTTY and on a Mac from the Terminal.

In theory, this can speed up a slow connection a little. It removes the TCP handshake from their network, and the compression (-C) might help for the right kind of traffic.

Of course, you need a server to SSH to. If I’m working, I use a computer in the department at SFU. I figure that’s kosher. Another option is Amazon: a Amazon Web Services free tier should stay free if you use a micro instance and keep the bandwidth under control. As I recall, I just used their most generic looking Ubuntu image and changed just about nothing.

You privacy is, of course, only as good as your endpoint. Sooner or later, your unencrypted web traffic has to get out there into the big-bad internet. It’s not that I particularly trust Amazon, but I don’t trust any other provider much more.

I have also experimented with sshuttle. It pushes your entire network interface over the SSH connection. That’s technically better, but the SOCKS tunnel usually passes the “good enough” bar for me.

Edit: …and Proxy Selector to flip the SOCKS proxy on when I need it.


April 5th, 2013, 9:55 am PDT by Greg

I decided to go to Shanghai this weekend, for various half-reasons, but mostly because I wanted to see more of it. We previously spent about two days here on a tour. That’s not enough time to experience a city of 23 million.

Random tourist crap I did aside, I’m glad I came. It has really put my China experiences into perspective. Basically, Shanghai is a global city in a way that Hangzhou really isn’t.

Sure, Wikipedia has a very in-depth definition of “global city” but here’s my functional definition. A global city is one in which the ethnicity of the food people are eating is not well correlated with their ethnicity.

As an example, take Starbucks. There are a couple of Starbucks (Starbuckses? Starbucki?) in Hangzhou, but in them I get a vibe of “let’s try the coffee drinks westerners have”. In Shanghai, it feels like people got there by saying “let’s have Starbucks”. Starbucks is part of the culture here.

In the same way, dim sum, sushi, Thai and Indian are part of Vancouver. To my mind, Beijing is less of a “global city” than Vancouver. Manila more than Montreal (I daresay).

So I think what I’m really getting here is something I didn’t know I was missing: time in a global city. I can have a burger if I want because I fit in exactly as well as the Shanghaiese group at the next table. Same at the xiaolongbao place, or an Indian place. Damn… I should find an Indian place.

It also puts Hangzhou into better perspective for me. Despite having a population of 6 million, it really is a small town. That’s not a bad thing, just a thing that’s true. The outside world is still a bit of a novelty, because the world hasn’t all come to visit yet. Some of the difficulties I have had living there boil down to that, and I think I have a better understanding of the place with that in mind.

Asian countries: which is the best?

February 19th, 2013, 10:17 pm PST by Greg

As we have been travelling, one can’t help but compare the places we have been. They were all good and I wouldn’t had dropped any of them from the trip. That being said, some were better in different ways.

Here are my comparisons, broken up by country or city, depending on my feeling about them…

How easy is it to travel there as a unilingual English speaker?

  1. Singapore. It’s basically a no-contest win for Singapore: English and Mandarin are the two effectively-used languages everywhere.
  2. Manila. English is effectively an official language here. Pretty much everybody has basic conversational English, and everybody we’ve come across has at least enough to do their job.
  3. Hong Kong. There is the occasionally place in HK with very rudimentary English, and a few more with none, but not many.
  4. Thailand. I was surprised how much English was spoken: they’re very much set up for tourists. There were maybe a few places we had to fall back to point-and-gesture, but not many.
  5. Malaysia
  6. Hangzhou. I suspect I’ll have a lot more to say about how inward-looking China is, as time goes on.

Where would I want to actually live for an extended period?

  1. Manila
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Hangzhou. It’s hard to give Hangzhou a fair comparison here. My thoughts on moving to Manila are “everybody speaks english and is friendly, wheee!” For Hangzhou, I have much more realistic problems like “where the hell is the laundry?” that aren’t on the radar for other places.
  4. Bangkok
  5. Singapore. I like Singapore, but it’s somehow a little too sterile. It’s like a Disneyland version of Asia for tourists who don’t want to get dirty. I don’t think you could get food poisoning in Singapore if you tried, and where’s the fun in that?
  6. Chiang Mai. The problem with Chiang Mai is that it’s a tourist town. Foreign and Thai, but it there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on except foreigners walking around.

Which would I want to come back to?

  1. Manila, with family involvement weighing heavily on the ranking.
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Hangzhou
  4. Malaysia (but probably not KK)
  5. Bangkok
  6. Singapore, but I’ll probably be back if travelling in Asia, again as a break.
  7. Chiang Mai

How willing would I be to drive there?

  1. Singapore
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Chiang Mai
  4. Kota Kinabalu
  5. Bangkok
  6. Manila
  7. Hangzhou

GDP per capita (PPP) in USD, according to Index Mundi.

  1. Singapore, $60,500
  2. Hong Kong, $49,800
  3. United States, $49,000
  4. Canada, $41,100
  5. Macau, $33,000
  6. Malaysia, $15,800
  7. Thailand, $9,500
  8. China, $8,500
  9. Philippines, $4,100 (but I suspect this doesn’t include remittance which is a significant amount, and a lot of wealth is concentrated in Manila)

Gini coefficient, according to Index Mundi. Higher numbers mean more uneven income distribution.

  1. Canada, 32.1
  2. United States, 45.0
  3. Philippines, 45.8
  4. Malaysia, 46.2
  5. Singapore, 47.3
  6. China, 48.0
  7. Macau, 48
  8. Hong Kong, 53.3
  9. Thailand, 53.6

Kota Kinabalu

February 13th, 2013, 2:38 am PST by Greg

Our only stop in Malaysia was Kota Kinabalu. This was a slightly unusual choice: if someone visits one city in Malaysia, it’s usually the capital Kuala Lumpur. KK is in Sabah, a province in eastern Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.

We went really for three reasons: everybody said KL is really just another big city and that if we had been to Singapore, it wouldn’t be different enough to spend the time; somebody Kat was talking to one day said KK was nice; a friend of ours grew up in KK so that was a nice connection.

On our first day there, we had booked a tour to take us up to Kinabalu Park. It was a nice day so we had good views of the mountain.

The tour took us up to canopy walk near the Poring Hot Springs. We opted to do the walk but skipped the hot springs themselves. That involved a bit of a hike up to the base of the walkway, so we got to see the mid-altitude jungle up close.

After lunch, we headed up to the botanical gardens in the park. That was another walk through the jungle. This was at higher altitude, and the jungle looked pretty different. It actually looked exactly how I imagined jungles should look.

For the last night in KK, we went out to the Gayana Eco Resort so we could sleep in huts over water. They were actually much nicer than I was imagining. I think I was kind of hoping for something a little more rustic, but if it had been, I’d probably be complaining about that. There were little geckos everywhere, so that made it feel a little rustic.

Mostly, it was a night of the resort lifestyle.

After that, off to Manilla…

Singapore: check.

February 4th, 2013, 5:24 am PST by Greg

We have been slow on the blogs… We left Singapore two days ago.

We only spent two full days in Singapore. We planned it as a mid-trip break: we figured it would be a nice easy place to stay for a few days. The consensus was that Singapore was a place to be for a couple of days, eat and move on. That’s exactly what we did.

Singapore is a super-easy to be as a English speaker: with Mandarin, English is the working language of the country. You can drink the tap water. Basically, it’s like Asia-lite. Asia for beginners. Asia on Disney.

There’s also food everywhere. You can’t walk a block without running into a collection of hawker stalls or a Kopitam. In each of those, each stall is independently owned, and each one makes a half dozen or so things. You can walk around to which ever one strikes your fancy and gather up a meal.

Do Singaporeans ever eat at home? Given the number of food stalls and restaurants, I can only imagine the economics working if nobody ever cooks.

But the nice part about Singapore, the easiness, was also the part I didn’t like. I’m firmly convinced that Richmond is a more confusing place to spend a day than Singapore. It’s odd spending double-digit hours on a plane and coming to somewhere so… normal. Also, a little anti-climactic.

My advice on the city would be to use it exactly like we did: as a break from weirdness in the rest of Asia.

We also had Singapore Slings at both the Post Bar at the Fullerton Hotel (a fancy hotel and bar), and at the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel (where they were created). Much to my surprise, the one at Raffles actually was tastier. On the other hand, the Post Bar had an atmosphere that made you think paying $20 for a drink made sense; the Long Bar was a little more rustic and tourist-focused (but not cheaper).

Idea 1: The Useless Traveler

January 29th, 2013, 8:25 pm PST by Greg

[While traveling, I have thought of a couple of things that need to exist. This is #1.]

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this ideal of what would happen when I get to a new country: I would know a few words of the language, and be able say at least “yes”, “no”, “good”, “bad”, “the cheque please”, etc.

So, I end up buying a traveler’s phrasebook, and I hate them sooooo much. The southeast asian phrasebook beside me has, on page one “yes”, “no”, “please”, “thank you”, “goodbye”. Fine, but worth poor phonetic transcriptions. On page two it has “I am a businessman/businesswoman/doctor/journalist/manual worker/administrator/scientist/student/teacher.”

If I didn’t know “hello” a page ago, how is that useful? Even if I had to convey my profession, I wouldn’t say that: I’d point at myself and say “teacher” and everyone on the planet would understand. The extra grammar is just there to give me something to screw up, and the nine-way alternation makes it impossible to actually use the translation.

A few pages later, “Do you accept travellers cheques/credit cards?” Once again, nobody in the world needs that translation: hold up your credit card and see if they take it. Also, the translations use “krub/ka” without explaining that which you use depends on the gender of the speaker.

What I want is like a spreadsheet with columns like “English”, “Thai (written)”, “Phonetic”. I want to be able to select words/phrases to populate the page, and then print it so I can either study it our point to it, as the situation dictates. I might reasonably learn the words for “hello” and “thank you”, but I want “Can you please help me order?” written so I can just point at it and hope the waitress has a sense of humour.

Thus I propose a web site with:

  • Crowdsourced translations of words/phrases that users want.
  • A nice interface to select the columns for each user’s needs. For example, in Chinese I’d want a column “Pinyin” since “xièxie” is useful to me, but many english speakers would want a “Rough Phonetics” column with “shay shay”.
  • A similarly-nice interface to build a collection of phrases that you’re interested in.
  • The ability to export that as a PDF for printing.
  • A non-free phone app where you can export the table of translations for use electronically.

As far as I know, this is an unfilled niche. I do know that I probably don’t have the time to do it. Somebody make it for me, okay?

Markets, Monkeys and Man-Clothes

January 29th, 2013, 3:00 am PST by Kat

For our first day in Bangkok we took the Thai Fishing Village Tour with “Tour with Tong”. The tour started out at the Mae Klong railway market outside of Bangkok. The awnings overhang the tracks, and the products being sold are placed right along the tracks. Many of the stalls have their produce on wheeled carts. The awnings and the carts are moved back when the train comes through 8 times a day. Unfortunately, the train was running late, so we decided not to wait for it.

Our next stop was the Damnernsaduak Floating Market, where vendors in boats sell produce, snacks, and cooked, hot food from canal boats to (mostly) tourists who are either also in canal boats or are walking along the sides of the canal. Here I was able to do something I’ve always wanted to do – eat noodles that have been cooked and sold out of a small boat while I am also sitting in a small boat. We were also able to get away from the crowded market area and see the more peaceful part of the canal system that runs through a fruit farming village.

Our final stop was a Thai fishing village. Here we boarded another boat, which took us into a mangrove forest along the banks of the Gulf of Thailand. We got to feed a troupe of monkeys that live in the mangroves. When we exhausted our huge stock of bananas, we left the monkeys behind and headed out into the Gulf where local fishermen have set up oyster and cockle farms. For lunch we had a seafood feast in a fisherman’s bamboo stilt house in the midst of the cockle farms that stretched as far as the eye could see. This was definitely the best part of the tour, and we would definitely recommend this tour!

On our way back to our hotel, our tour guide, Mook, recommended a tailor where Greg could get a suit made. One fitting and 48-hours later, Greg’s suit, shirt, ties and sport jacket were delivered to our hotel room!

Kat’s bite count: 3

Being Kneaded

January 25th, 2013, 3:30 am PST by Greg

We spent most of the day walking around the old walled city in Chiang Mai. I feel the same way about wats here that I feel about temples and churches everywhere: I never know the etiquette; it’s always awkward to be walking around like an idiot taking pictures, when there are people trying to have an honest religious experience; if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

This afternoon, we got traditional Thai massages. If you happen to be in Chiang Mai, The Peak was excellent. (800 baht ≈ CDN$27 for 90 minutes) But, here’s a quiz…

Imagine lying on your back. (I could try to draw this, but it’s more fun imagining you all trying to picture what I’m talking about.) Bend your left leg so your knee is pointing up. Move your left foot over your right leg so you’re making kind of a “4”. Now twist your body so your left knee is pushed toward the floor.

Now, have a small Thai woman put her right hand on your left shoulder and push down, and her body weight on your leg, pushing it down. How does this process end? (1) Your hip joint pops out, (2) your back snaps, (3) your left knee hits the floor to the right of your body, (4) you fart.

Trick question. The correct answer is that you make a sound in between a giggle and a gasp. The masseuse whispers “okay” in a kindly way and stops. But of the options above, I think the order would have been (4), (3), (1).

That aside, it was awesome.

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