Saturday, September 19, 2009


HONG KONG - One of the things I did in Hong Kong - in addition to making mooncakes for the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival, taking the reliably enchanting Star Ferry across Hong Kong Harbour and sampling molecular Cantonese cuisine - was visiting a senior center just outside the city proper and "helping'' the residents make traditional red paper lanterns for the festival.

I put "helping'' in quotation marks because in reality they helped me. This was my first stab at voluntourism - giving something back to one of the communities I was visiting, if only briefly. I made the connection with the immaculate and well-run Lan Oi Tong Senior Center through the Kowloon Shangri-la Hotel, which has an on-going relationship with the center. The hotel's sparky director of communications, Patsy Chan, arranged for me and a scrum of fellow journos to bus to the town of Tuen Mun in the outlying New Territories to meet the residents of the center.

Red Lanterns are made from red paper envelopes, folded, stapled together and hung up all over town - they bring a colorful and festive touch to the weeks-long annual celebration, held all across China. Upon arrival, I was ushered up a flight of stairs to the center's library, where a cheerful collection of older men and women greeted me and sat me down at a long, rectangular table. My assignment: Make crisply folded and neatly stapled lanterns for the festival.

Folks, fine-motor skills are not my forte. The very nice lady seated to my right showed me how to proceed, then waited expectantly for me to match her own expert efforts. She was incredibly fast, her hands a blur, her red lanterns perfectly made. I was - how to say? - not quite as good as she. Oh, I tried to take my game to another level, but I was battling adversity, and adversity was winning. The lady said a few words in Cantonese. A center employee helpfully translated: "She says you are very fast and good.'' Uh-huh.

But the truth will out, and it did. After a few more minutes, the center employee overseeing the library gently took a half-finished, half-mangled wanna-be lantern off my hands. She then began rapidly extracting the staples I had just put in. She folded the paper the way it was meant to be folded. And then she held out the paper in my direction: "Staple!'' she said. Then again: "Staple!'' Then a few dozen more times in rapid succession: "Staple!''

At last, there were red lanterns. The elderly lady by my side took my hand and led me out of the library and onto a balcony above the center's spacious, rather nicely equipped gymnasium. There, we hung the lanterns, tying them onto the balcony railing. They looked lovely.

When the Shangri-la employees who accompanied us joined us in leaving the senior center, a line off healthy, happy-looking residents waved goodbye and shook my hand. I felt a tug at my sleeve. It was my teacher from the library. She had made a red lantern for me.

I guess I saw more spectacular things in Hong Kong, but if there was anything sweeter, I can't imagine what it was.

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