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Hong Kong Jew-y

by: Jonathan Kesselman - Last updated: 2004-01-06

Jonathan Kesselman

Director Jonathan Kesselman and Adam Goldberg

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 the 19th of November, I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong when my film, 'The Hebrew Hammer' (which by the way is playing in, NY, Miami, Boston, and Dallas - please tell your relatives there to go and see it), was invited to the 4th Annual Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival. No, my friends, that was not a typo. There are actually real live Jewish people living in Hong Kong.

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 you could get dim sum authentic enough to satisfy their discriminating palettes would be in China. Or perhaps, many decades ago, before they left war torn Europe, a cluster of Jewish families inquired as to where in the world they would be accepted. And perhaps when they got wind that the East Coast was a 'Shangri-La' for Jews, these brave immigrants got seriously, seriously confused.

When I arrived in Hong Kong, would I be able to reason with these people that they could probably find pretty decent Chinese in NY or LA? Would I be able to steer these lost souls back to America?

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. "No," I told myself, "you're here as a special undercover secret investigative reporter for the Jewish Journal. Basketball is just going to have to wait." 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 HK 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 towards the window and said, "You ever played a pick up game of basketball in China?"

The next day, Jason gave me 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. On second thought, I can honestly say that the city was just 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.  Anyway, we found ourselves 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, or 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, I was invited by festival founder Howard Elias, to 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. They proceeded to explain (or at least I think they explained) in broken English 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 tell tale signs of my irreligiousness at the door. Apparently, these Hong Kong Jews weren't f--ing around with god's law. I decided it'd be best not to make a scene. After all, I'd seen 'Enter The Dragon' and 'Red Square' too many times to not know better. I'm happy to report, that at least for that night, I did not end up in a scary Communist prison, and my ass went un-kicked.

At dinner, I met a whole host of HK Jews from all over the world: South Africa, Canada, the US, Britain, and Germany. Most were businessmen with their trades in such things as plastics and technology. I discovered that in Hong Kong, a city of seven million, there are only four thousand Jews. Howard Elias explained, "Many people think it's strange that there are Jews in HK, let alone that we have a Jewish film festival.  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.  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." I tried to have Howard rephrase his quotation in order to make it feel more organic to the piece I was writing for the Jewish Journal. I attempted to explain that the JJournal editor, Rob Eshman, would probably reprimand me for what was to be a serious tonal issue in my article. Howard ignored me, asking instead if I could, "…please pass the Challah." I responded to him by saying, "Sure. Here you go," before passing the Challah from my left. He then said, "Thank you." Rob, I'm sorry. I tried.

Before I left HK, 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. 

Related links:

The Hebrew Hammer