Thursday, April 27, 2006

Would you like a piece of my soul to go with that?

Remember the apartment that I told you all about (the one with the nice kitchen and a double fridge)? Jason liked it too and we put in a bid for it. After a few rounds of back and forth we came to an agreement with the landlord on the rental price. This happened over the weekend, and I was so happy that this saga was finally coming to an end that I went furniture shopping. Then yesterday we received a copy of the lease. Now I think we might be back to square one, looking for another apartment.

What can go wrong after the rental is agreed upon? Let me quote some of the terms from the lease so you can get an idea:

Under Tenant’s Obligations: “To reimburse to the landlord the cost of all broken and damaged windows and glass whether or not the same be broken or damaged by the negligence of the Tenant.

Huh? Forget about typhoon or heavy storms, which HK is known for, let’s say the landlord takes a rock and throws it into the window. Window breaks. I have to pay for it?

Another example under Exclusions of Liability:
“The landlord shall not in any circumstances be liable … of any loss or damage to person or property sustained by the tenant … caused by or through or in anyway owing to any defect in or breakdown of any lifts, fire and security services equipment and/or other facilities of the said building…”

So if the elevator that the landlord is supposed to maintain breaks down and kills me, he is not liable??

The list goes on and on. The entire 28-page document was filled with tenant’s obligations, restrictions, prohibitions, and exclusion of landlord’s liabilities, except for three short paragraphs on landlord’s obligation, and it doesn’t even mention maintenance of electrical appliances that come with the apartment.

When we put in a bid for this place, one of things we thought of as being positive was that the entire complex was owned by a very well-known developer. We thought it would be easier to deal with a big corporation rather than a private owner, that they’d be fairer and less likely to cut corners. Our agent assures us that this is a so-called “standard” contract singed by all the tenants, but I just can’t imagine anyone in his/her right mind will sign a contract that so overwhelmingly protects the landlord’s interest. For instance, there’s a whole section on buying third party insurance to cover the contents of the apartment. We are not talking about our personal belongings here. Apparently the landlord wants us to buy insurance to cover any damage to the apartment, including appliances owned by the landlord! When I asked our agent if the landlord is out of their mind for making such ridiculous demands (well, not in those exact words), she said not to worry because all tenants sign it and nobody buys the insurance. Incredulously, I pointed it out to her that it states explicitly in the contract that the landlord has the right to demand proof of insurance including premium payment. She laughs it off and says the landlord never asks for proof, therefore there is no need to either buy the insurance or worry too much about the details. Excuse me, but are we not speaking the same language? Is the concept of a contract completely foreign to them? If I don’t have to do what’s written in the contract, by extension, am I to assume that even if the contract says the landlord has to maintain the apartment, which this contract actually doesn’t, they don’t have to do it, because… well, they didn’t think it was binding??

When we talked to friends in Hong Kong who are either renting from landlords or who are landlords themselves, they all agree that this is the weirdest contract they’ve ever seen. So now we’re in a really bad situation where on the one hand I want to move out of this serviced apartment a.s.a.p. so our normal life can resume, but on the other hand I refuse to enter into a contract that puts us in such a disadvantage where the landlord has iron-clad protection on all sides and we have nothing.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, right after we put in our bid, this apartment complex was all over the news for two days because a buyer sued the developer for falsifying sales record. The story goes that this guy from China bought two units in the complex for an obscenely large amount of money, after seeing past sales record from the developer of twelve other units in the complex sold for similar prices. He later found out that the two units he bought were the only units EVER sold after the building’s completion two years ago. Of course we’re not buying (who would at that ridiculous price!) and we wouldn’t have given it any second thoughts under normal circumstances, but it doesn’t exactly boost our confidence in the landlord/developer, does it? If they can conjure sales records out of thin air, who knows what they are capable of doing to us armed with a contract we ourselves signed?

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Graceful Libby

Hi Jason-san

Libby-chan left Japan as scheduled. She is so cute dog. We let her drink some of the water before just before giving to CX also filled some water to the dish. She was shaking when I put onto the car but by the time we arrived NRT she was fine. At the quarantine inspection she was just walking around the room and looking for way to go out. After the inspections when I said 'HOUSE' she just went into the cage by herself.

Thank you very much for using our service and I hope you will enjoy HKG life with Libby-chan.

Best Regards
Kotaro Kino

We received the above email from our pet-mover in Japan. That same night, Libby arrived in our serviced apartment in Hong Kong. A little dazed and dehydrated but otherwise healthy, she gave the apartment a quick sniff and proceeded to drink all the water in the dish. Perhaps still in shock, she didn’t seem too happy to see us, but now, a week later, she’s fully adjusted to her new life in yet another crazy, busy, fast-paced Asian city.

From time to time, we still think back on the day almost eight years ago when we brought Libby home. She was so tiny that I used to take her outside holding her in my palm. Her nose would be at the tip of my fingertips and her little bum would just reach my wrist. When she was little, she looked remarkably like a German Shepherd puppy. As she grew up, however, her unmistaken identity of a Singaporean drain dog became apparent. In a nation where some so-called “dog lovers” hold a piece of pedigree paper to greater importance than the dog itself, poor Libby was unjustly ignored and discriminated against. We had another dog at the time, a handsome rambunctious beagle that demanded everyone’s attention wherever we went. Libby lived under his shadow quietly but gracefully, always the more obedient and better-behaved one.

When we moved to Tokyo, not only did she have to adjust to a drastically different climate, she also had to deal with a city that has much less green. She quickly changed her toilet habit and went from only going on grass to making do with dirt patches. As the temperature dropped, she slowly grew a thick coat of soft fluffy fur. My little scrawny dog was starting to look like an exotic beauty. Unfamiliar with her looks, many Japanese asked me what breed she was. Despite the fact that she was a mongrel through and through, they embraced her uniqueness all the same. That’s what I call true dog lovers.

This time around, what does Hong Kong have in store for us, I’m anxious to find out. I wasn’t sure how Libby would react to the small cramped space of our serviced apartment. Having lived most of her life in a place with an open garden, I also worried about her toilet schedule. Now a week later, all my worries have vanished. It took us a day or two, but Libby and I found a quiet street in the middle of SoHo (I later discovered that it was a prison on the other side of the tall wall) where she can do her business in peace. She’s even gotten used to going on concrete too. It just means that her human has to carry a bottle of water to wash it off. But hey, if Libby can adapt to such drastic changes without complaint, what’s toting a bottle of water around every time we go out?

Friday, April 14, 2006

House Hunting in Hong Kong

Jason has a strange fascination with apartments and houses. Back when we were in Tokyo and looking for a property to buy, he would sit at the computer and sift through hundreds of web pages, looking for something to catch his eye. When it became pretty clear that we were moving to Hong Kong, his attention turned to Hong Kong rental properties. He found about half a dozen property web sites and systematically searched the major neighborhoods that we were interested.

Me? I have no patience to do the sifting. I just want to find a place quick. I am also entirely practical when it comes to a place we don’t own. All I need is a nice and spacious kitchen with an oven that’s big enough to fit my baking sheets, and a fridge that has a spacious freezer compartment; plus a balcony or terrace so Libby can get some fresh air and where I can start a little herb garden. Very reasonable, won’t you say?

Combined with Jason’s requests, here’s the “LIST”:
- fully equipped gym
- easy access to Central, where Jason’s office is
- nice and spacious kitchen
- balcony or terrace
- unobstructed view i.e. not looking into someone else’s living room
- white walls and wooden or marble floor with simple finishing
- closet/built-in wardrobe in the bedrooms
- a maid’s room that’s not the size of a shoe closet

Is that too much to ask? Maybe it is. There must be some kind of unknown gold and green/brown marble quota to be used up by the contractor, because it is damn hard to find a place with just plain white walls and nothing gaudy such as ugly-assed chandelier-type light fixtures and gilded faucets everywhere you look.

Hard enough as it is to find a place that doesn’t make you go “ewwww”, there’s also the husband who doesn’t know how discouraging it is to see apartment after apartment that’s nothing but crap, and the elation of finally finding one that doesn’t have as much gold or green marble that you could actually see yourself dealing with it. After I showed him one place that I thought was not half bad, he turns up his nose and goes, “You actually LIKED this?” as if I’m the one with such unforgivingly poor taste that he can’t believe I’m wasting his precious time like this.

Then I finally found one as close to being a dream home as you can get for a rented place: spacious regularly shaped living/dining space with floor to ceiling windows, on top of Victoria Peak with an open view, a nice kitchen with a DOUBLE fridge, plus a fully equipped gym, swimming pool, and tennis court. What does Jason do (before even seeing it)? He decides the landlord’s asking price is way too much after hearing his buddies’ advice. Yes, I do think the rent is a little ridiculous but what can you do about it? Hong Kong rental price went up by almost 40% over the past two years after SARS, but is it our responsibility to take on the landlords and make a statement by depriving ourselves the place we really want to live in? Isn’t our happiness and peace of mind so much more important than the vindictive satisfaction in knowing that we didn’t yield to the landlord’s squeezing? What are we going to accomplish except getting stuck in a tiny serviced apartment for months on end under the illusion that one day a perfect place will come up on the market for us to grab for a reasonable price? Why does Jason always have to become a man with principles at the most inopportune time? I only hope that he will like the place as much as I do after seeing it and put things into perspectives. Fingers crossed.

Monday, April 10, 2006

For the Love of Libby

Take a good look at this picture. Can you find the bed? This is Shama SoHo, the one and only serviced apartment building in Hong Kong that will accept a dog. Located in the heart of Hong Kong’s SoHo district, it’s a stone’s throw from the famous bar and club district Lan Kwai Fong and just around the corner from the mid-level escalator. Not a bad place to be if you are into hanging out in pubs all day and clubbing all night, but definitely not ideal for walking our four-legged princess. Still, we were more than thrilled when our moving coordinator told us that he had found a place where Libby could stay with us. After putting her through a five-hour flight, I wanted to do everything to avoid sending her to a dog hotel for potentially a whole month before we find a permanent residence. I surfed through the hotel’s website and was satisfied with the services they offered. I did, however, have my suspicions when I spotted the word “boutique”. From past experiences, whenever a hotel calls itself “boutique” or “quaint” it invariably translates to overpriced and tiny. This one is no exception.

When our driver deposited us in front of the building I couldn’t quite believe that this was any kind of residence. The iron gate is only about shoulder-width. Although the stairway is nicely lit and tastefully guarded by a Buddha-like statue, there is no any semblance of a front desk. How do we get in? Luckily our driver from the car service is a man with a sense of responsibility and decided that he couldn’t just leave the two of us standing in the street with our bags. After a few phone calls he told us someone was coming. Two minutes later a young guy in a gray uniform materialized with mobile in hand. He unlocked the door and motioned for us to follow him. No elevators, and we are on the fourth floor!

While the boys, mainly Jason because the guy from the hotel looked like his arms would break if too much weight was applied didn’t do much to help, wrestled with the bags, I did a survey of the place that we would call home for the next month. It didn’t take long since there was only one room plus a little nook as “kitchen” and a bathroom. “Where is the bedroom?” I asked as soon as the hotel guy came in. “Ah, let me show you how the bed works,” he replied cheerfully and proceeded to the kitchen nook. At the push of a button, a bed started to lower from the ceiling, directly above the dining table. Jason and I stared at each other with the look of “you’ve gotta be kidding me” on our face. I mean, seriously! Not only is this room is smaller than my bedroom in the two-bedroom apartment I shared with someone while in grad school, we also have a bed that drops out of the ceiling? I was starting to think that Libby would have more space to move around in the dog hotel that I checked out with big air-conditioned rooms than this. Remembering seeing something about a one-bedroom apartment on the website, we decide to find out if we can move to another unit first thing the next day (the guy turned out to just work there and didn’t know the answers to anything we asked him except for how the bed worked).

Bad news came pretty early the next day. Our apartment was the last vacant one in this ten-unit building. Unless we are willing to ship Libby to a dog hotel, this is home until we find a place. Resigned to our fate, I started to unpack. Miraculously, everything fit, and this place is starting to grow on me. For one, the bed is surprisingly comfortable and it brought back childhood memories of sleeping on bunk beds at school (yup, Jason and I went to the same boarding school when we were little). The roof terrace is pretty nice and I discovered a little herb garden in the corner that had some pretty healthy mint and rosemary, among other things. I’m immediately thinking of mint tea or rosemary lamb chops. But above all, it’s the best incentive for us to find a place as fast as possible so we can move out of this tiny little thing of a “boutique” serviced apartment.

From Tokyo to Hong Kong

Let’s see, in my last blog entry I was telling you the secrets to perfect macorons. Two months passed by without a sound from me, and now I’m writing in a tiny little serviced apartment in Hong Kong’s SoHo district, sans dog, with a pot of hot soup simmering on the stove, waiting for Jason’s return from work.

Yes, life can be funny sometimes. Just when I thought I had everything planned out (I was going to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu and open up a cooking studio/language school at home, teaching French pastry in English or Japanese, depending on the students’ wishes) Jason decided to take a job in Hong Kong. Within a month we sold most of our furniture and the car, packed up everything, and voila! We are in Hong Kong!

I don’t quite yet know how I feel about the move, but let’s just say I am experiencing a sense of true sadness leaving Tokyo, something that never happened the last two times I moved (from US to Singapore, and from Singapore to Tokyo). I don’t think I fully admitted to myself that we were leaving Tokyo for good the whole time I was selling off furniture and household appliances. It didn’t hit me until the captain of our flight announced the final descent into Hong Kong airport. At that moment it was like a sledgehammer hit me in the chest and the wind was knocked out of me. That’s the moment that I realized that Tokyo is no longer my city. It made me want to cry.