Jewish Journal

Jews in Hong Kong?

by Jonathan Kesselman

Posted on Jan. 8, 2004 at 7:00 pm

My mother used to say that there were people starving in China. While her words had the effect of making me guilty enough to eat her badly burnt chicken, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I'd get the chance to see all those starving people in the undernourished flesh. On Nov. 19, I visited Hong Kong when my film, "The Hebrew Hammer," was invited to the fourth annual Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival. No, my friends, that was not a typo. There are actually real live Jews living in Hong Kong, and they have a film festival.

You can imagine my curiosity before boarding the plane. What Jew in their right mind would want to live in Hong Kong? My mind was racing. Maybe this was some sort of bizarre sect of Jewish Chinese-food zealots who decided sometime during the Ming dynasty that the only place they could get dim sum authentic enough to satisfy their discriminating palettes would be in China. When I arrived in Hong Kong, would I be able to reason with these people that they could probably find pretty decent Chinese in New York or Los Angeles? Would I be able to steer these lost souls back to New York City?

Upon arriving in Hong Kong, the first thing I noticed was that I suddenly felt much taller. I hadn't played basketball in two years due to a chronic dislocating shoulder problem, but for some reason, I now felt an overwhelmingly intense urge to play a pick-up game of basketball.

I was whisked off to the home of Jason and Jess Budovitch, two transplanted Montreal Jews. This was to be my first opportunity to get some face time with some real-life Chews (Chinese Jews). Over some green tea, I quickly discovered that Jason was a venture capitalist who'd been living in The H.K. for 13 years, while Jess was a professional actress and jazz singer. When I asked the two why they chose to settle in Hong Kong, Jason pointed toward the window and said, "You ever played a pick-up game of basketball in China?"

The next day, I took a tour of the city. The streets were teaming with people. It reminded me of New York City on Steroids, but with lots of Asian signage ... wait a second. You know, on second thought, I can honestly say that the city looked exactly like Chinatown -- only bigger. And seriously, if I had known that going in, I might have skipped the 15-hour plane ride, rented a room in Chinatown and blown the rest of the money on Tsing-Tao and special "Chinese" Massages. What can I say, you live and you learn.

Later on, I found myself at a street market where live animals were being slaughtered in front of my very eyes. I suddenly became acutely aware of a slight cough. Convinced I'd come down with some new and exotic strain of Bird, Scallop or Giant Prawn flu, I decided it was time for me to go home and rest up for that evening's festivities.

That night, festival founder Howard Elias hosted me at a Hong Kong-style Shabbat dinner. I arrived at the Jewish Community Center and was immediately stopped by two Chinese guards at the entrance into the building. In broken English, they explained that because it was the Sabbath, I was to turn over my camera and cell phone immediately. Even when I've visited my Orthodox relatives' shul in Long Island, I'd never been asked to turn in the telltale signs of my irreligiousness at the door. Apparently, these Hong Kong Jews weren't messing around with God's law. I decided it'd be best not to make a scene. After all, I remembered what happened to Richard Gere in "Red Square."

At dinner, I met a whole host of Hong Kong Jews from all over the world: South Africa, Canada, the United States, Britain and Germany. Most were businesspeople with their trades in such things as plastics and technology. I discovered that in Hong Kong, a city of 7 million, there are only 4,000 Jews.

"Many people think it's strange that there are Jews in H.K., let alone that we have a Jewish film festival," Elias explained. "The Jewish community here is as old as Hong Kong itself -- over 150 years." "Although we come from places all over the world, we all have one thing that binds us together -- our religion," he continued. "Like most communities, we have been known to fight, but we still care very deeply for each other because we really are each other's families here.... I've visited Jewish communities all over the world, but I've never met one that was friendlier than this one."

Before I left Hong Kong, another one of my new Chewish friends, Dr. David Cosman, a chiropractor from Winnipeg, took me for dim sum in Stanley, a shopping village on the water on the south side of the island. For lunch, he ordered two kinds of chicken feet for me to sample. That's right. You heard me correctly. The feet of chicken. What's it like, you ask? Well, it looks like miniature velociraptor claws, has the consistency of, well, hard bone and, believe it or not, it tastes like chicken. Not my mother's burnt chicken, mind you, but more like the kind of chicken that makes you want to vomit violently into a trash can after you bite into it. And this Jewish man was eating it like it was the God's gift to the culinary arts. So in answer to the declarative statement your mother used to trump you with at the dinner table: While there may be people starving in China, the Jewish community in Hong Kong seems to be holding their dim sum down just fine, thank you.

Jonathan Kesselman, writer and director of The Hebrew Hammer, is an incredibly good looking (yet also modest), slightly neurotic, single, self-proclaimed 'nice' Jewish boy from the Valley, who enjoys writing run-on sentences.

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