Visiting the Stites family in Hong Kong, April 2006

Captions on individual pictures, or:

The airplane ride was pretty much as expected. Because I typically book quite early (a couple months, in this case), I’m used to getting my preferred seating—window seat, but for whatever reason, this didn’t happen this time. Instead, I was placed between two older women at least my age and about twice my size (which is not small). They were traveling together, and had presumed that the airline would give them the seat between, too. The plane was full, as has been my experience for a few years now, and they got me, instead. But just before we took off, a flight attendant asked whether I’d care to take an aisle seat that was available in nearly the last row of the plane (a 747). Sure. I think she was trying to balance the aircraft, as the three of us in that one row on the left side would have created a problem for the flaps system. Incredibly, the aisle seat had even less room than my middle seat, but it was preferable for a lot of reasons, and I settled in quickly.

My row-mate (we were back so far that the normally three-seat configuration had been reduced to two) turned out to be a great stroke of luck. Young Alec Newcomb works with a small Vermont company (www.houseneeds.com) that specializes in environmentally friendly energy products for the home (and its construction). He was going to Hong Kong to train into mainland China for the semi-annual Canton Trade Fair, where he would be on the lookout for environmentally friendly products that are even more reasonably priced than the ones they now sell. But best of all, Alec is interested in some of the web-related things that interest me, and we had much to share.

Our route was a first in my experience, as we lifted off from Chicago and then flew the polar route down through Siberia and across mainland China. Alec had heard something about Russia opening its air space to such traffic, and we were—evidently—benefiting from this. I can tell you that Siberia is a staggering sight—textured whiteness as far as the 30,000-foot eye can see. I didn’t see anything of mainland China, as our window shades were down, both for resting and also for watching movies (I think we were shown four, and I watched a couple).

Although it seemed endless at the time, the flight finally landed at the new (to me) Hong Kong airport, and there was Rich to pick me up. A freeway system now (I hadn’t been to Hong Kong since 1992) took us away from the airport and into downtown Hong Kong from which we would ascend to the Peak, location of the residence our government has procured for use of our diplomats. No arguments here.

The family watched a film, after an episode of 24 Hours (you’ll know about this, but I didn’t), and then I crashed. Had only slept two hours the night before my flight, and about an hour during the flight, so I was ready. But, true to form, I awoke at my usual 4:30 am, my body having made the change more or less instantly.

The plan was for attending Easter service, a very strange (but not unique) event in my life, and I ended up, once again, at an Episcopal Church on a Sunday, the church probably having originated as Church of England when it was built around 1840. As we approached the church from our US consulate parking place, we saw hundreds of black-haired young (mostly) women  1  making their way to the Catholic church a block away. This was part of the infamous “Helper” phenomenon that gives Hong Kong so much to talk about. The Philippines exports thousands of women (mostly) each year who contract with various agencies to serve as domestic workers in the wealthier areas of the world. Often, the women are married with children, but economic circumstances make it a strong option for many to leave those homes, and work abroad. I understand that there is a leave policy in most contracts that ensures the woman gets back home for a month each year. There are so many aspects of this phenomenon that are worth discussing, but it’s not the place here. We’ll just say that on Sunday—the maids’ day off, thousand of Filipina gather wherever they can to sit in the sun (or not) and talk with their sisters.

 The church (St John’s) we attended  1  was certainly magnificent, and there was some indication of the British past (and present) of Hong Kong in the congregation. But the overwhelming presence in (and outside—attendance exceeded capacity) that church was that of the Filipina. I don’t know whether the Catholic church had filled earlier, but there they were, those Catholic exiles, crossing themselves to Episcopalian themes. It fit just fine. The Episcopalians even do the incense thing, and I’m sure the young ladies felt right at home.

This church attendance was a moving experience, not the first in a church for this agnostic. To see so many people of varied backgrounds come together for a single purpose, and to be part of that, is an experience beyond what a human experiences in everyday life.

I was sitting next to Shira the Younger, who had just sung the lead in her high school’s production of Cinderella, so the hymn singing around me was of a better quality than I’m used to. By the way, the choir was fine, but all in all, I got the feeling that the non-Easter congregation is not enormous. Probably, the changeover to Chinese rule in 1997, when nearly all British officials would have returned to England, greatly affected the congregation of this 150-year-old church. It was nice to see the integration of the Chinese population into the ranks of the clergy, and in fact the cultural make-up of the various offices of the church was about half-and-half, Chinese and Western. I liked, too, the sermon. Its point was that Easter is the crux of all things Christian. That Jesus was born on Christmas Day is of almost no importance. That Jesus awoke from the dead to live again and to rise to Heaven is the whole point of Christianity, and that happened (if you so believe) on Easter.

Another aspect of this experience occurred as my rows made their way to take communion (a task necessarily divided among several officials, considering the size of the crowd). I passed a section of pews which had by this time been re-occupied by the newly sanctified Filipina who had communed before us, and it was little like walking past a huge box of chocolates—“I’ll take one of those. No, maybe that one. Ooh, but that one looks great!” My hostess remarked that my impulse would probably have been welcomed by at least a couple of the chocolates, but that is a subject for something other than this pious reporting.

We had a reservation at a restaurant on The Peak  1   2 , the mountain that is Hong Kong Island, and upon which the most wealthy in Hong Kong history have lived. My current residence is so located, and is therefore next door to the highest ranking Chinese military official, as well as to the governor, president, grand poobah—whatever it’s called—of Hong Kong. After a superb brunch (much influenced by the not minor influence of Things Indian in this region of the world), we walked a sightseeing path back to the house  1   2   3 . Like many areas of the world formerly occupied by the very privileged, this area is now a kind of pilgrimage for those of less privilege who can easily appreciate the spaciousness and luxury that their own domestic situations do not exhibit. Not unlike the magnificent Dupont estates of Delaware and Pennsylvania that have been opened to the public over on the US East Coast, where I live. In both locations, I would argue that the great value is not in showing us how the wealthy lived (and live), but rather in preserving pieces of the world that are not likely to see development beyond what we currently see. “Private parks,” if you will.

In the afternoon, Alison and Shira took me into one of the  1   2   3  lesser privileged areas of Hong Kong, one quite reminiscent of the remarkable Wan Chai area that hosted the story behind The World of Suzie Wong, a 1950s Hollywood “exotic romance” that my hosts tell me was recently made into a stage musical right here in Hong Kong! After this intimate encounter with the density that is Hong Kong,  1   2  we took the famous Star Ferry back to our island and The Peak. I took a picture of the area of the ferry where William Holden first met Suzie Wong (hasn’t changed one bit in fifty years). A quick gelato, and then a convenient taxi  1  back to our mansion on The Peak. A few hours with the little people. It’s good for our perspective...

Monday 17 April

Today’s errand was to check Shangwu Publishing Company for a certain book that interests me. It is a book of essays on Chinese grammar written by a famous scholar of a couple generations ago. Although said scholar—Chao Yuen Ren [Zhao Yuanren]—was Chinese, he had been living in the US for years by the time he wrote this book, and it is in English. Hasn’t been available for years, but when I was still in DC I had found it in the catalog of a mainland publishing company. They’ve expanded into retail, and Hong Kong hosts at least one of their stores.

We made our way downtown again, dropping Young Samuel off in the famous Wanchai district, and then taxied over to the district that held the Shangwu shop (about $3 from where we’d left the car). It took us a while to find the store (it wasn’t as if the store were alone somewhere), and then walked in to find the street-level floor (highest traffic) dedicated to English-language books. This surprised me a bit. But a trio of clerks soon gathered to answer my question about the book by Zhao Yuanren. I remembered the Chinese characters for ‘Yuanren’ but couldn’t remember how to write the common surname ‘Zhao’. I pronounced it clearly in Mandarin (it is zhao4), but the first of the Cantonese speaking clerks wrote a character and asked whether this was what I wanted: ‘zhou’. No. I could see that in Cantonese the sounds of ‘zhou’ and ‘zhao’ might well be similar (for example, the ‘Wong’ of Suzie Wong is spelled and pronounced ‘Huang’ in Mandarin), but I can recognize the character, and that wasn’t it. Then another clerk offered ‘Zhang’, which I thought must be way off from the sound of ‘zhou’, but then I think of such Chinese words as ‘dong’ turned into the sound like ‘toe’, and I realize that while not just anything is possible to be different between these two dialects, plenty is different, and Cantonese ‘zhang’ might well sound like Mandarin ‘zhao’.

But fortunately, the first clerk has used the spelling I provided to look it up on his computer inventory, and there was the proper surname Zhao with the hard-sought personal name of Yuanren. “We only have two books by this man, one on [something] and one on grammar.” “That’s the one I’m here for,” I offered delightedly, and off we went to find it. Easy enough, but the trouble was that it was in Chinese! Turned out that a subsequent scholar of Chinese language—famous to me—had translated this book in English into Chinese, and that’s what this particular Shangwu store sells. Not a wasted trip, by any means, but fruitless. So, off we went to have lunch.

The Stites had found a fine Japanese restaurant in the vicinity, and so we went upstairs to see what they had. The Monday after Easter is a holiday in Hong Kong, so business was much lighter than this store would normally see (you certainly wouldn’t have known this from the amount of foot traffic on the street). Alison tells me that—just as in so many areas of the United States—people might well work downtown but they don’t live there. If you want some space (relatively speaking) and the most reasonable price, you live as far away from the city as you dare. Hong Kong has expanded northward into its area called The New Territories, and there is much housing up there. The general impression held by the Stites’ is that there aren’t any houses in Hong Kong (we passed one known exception—in our neighborhood, of course—on an after-dinner walk), so that housing would still be the high-rise building that even apartments seldom see outside New York City in the United States.

Coming back into Central, we passed through Hong Kong Park  1   2   3 , which is a lovely enough place right smack in the middle of the city, but was especially active on this holiday. I have noticed that many people in my own neighborhood in Virginia take advantage of free public spaces on holidays, especially when their income doesn’t support something more sophisticated and their family is large, and we saw much evidence of this phenomenon in the park this day. We got some sun for a change, and the flowers were in full spring glory, and the whole experience was heavenly. There is a fine “tea museum” in this park, and it was nice to visit that (its inevitable store has many items I might have purchased save for the dangers of packing Precious Items in my backpack for its return trip).

We passed the flower store that sits across the street from the US Consulate. Rich says that the proprietor of this modest little shop (the orchids of which I photographed  1 ) is dropped off each morning from a Mercedes.

Oh, and I had my first Starbucks coffee. I found it strikingly similar to the US experience. The clerks (two, it was a very small kiosk kind of place in a shopping mall) said pretty much the same things that US Starbucks employees would say, and the price was the same ($3+).

The sophistication one feels from experiencing Hong Kong is largely due, I think, to the intensity and density of development here. With land as expensive as it is (Rich thinks that it has surpassed Tokyo for value), you build 50-story buildings on tiny plots of land. And when you build a 50-story building, you naturally do so with the latest technology so that you can pack as much into it as possible. A recent visitor from the United States (and, admittedly, from a somewhat rural part) claimed she’d never even seen anything so modern as Hong Kong. It is not really shocking to me, but then I live in a major US metropolitan area, and I have experienced this density before (previous visits to HK).

As a friend notes in his blog about his trip to Beijing, Chinese here are all for the phenomenon called ‘globalization’. Although this has the sad effect of erasing distinguishing characteristics among peoples, it has the beneficial effect of making everyone economically equal, and it’s doubtful that the world will see its oft-desired world peace until everyone in it has more or less the same opportunities for living. That will happen in one of two ways. Either the rich (us) will be brought down to the level of the poor, or the poor will rise to our economic level. Or, I suppose, a little bit of both.

The evening brought another marathon of watching episodes of 24 Hours, which it would be easy to fault as an incredibly extended and complex soap opera, but we turned it off at midnight, and will probably finish Season One this evening. We’ve heard that it’s in something like the sixth season back in the States (or around here, I would imagine), but the idea of watching something so exciting interrupted every ten minutes or so by four minutes of commercials would be Too Much for me, and if I had to experience this TV show, I’m glad that I have done so through its DVD publication. I saw a nice article in Slate that said the same thing about another show—The Sopranos, I think—so we are experiencing yet another media phenomenon: television programs first viewed completely out of their intended broadcast period, but then again I suppose that this is just another aspect of the TV-R phenomenon, where folks record their normal TV programs either for purposes of time-switching or to escape the commercials. Works for me.

In one of those ironies that make life so interesting, I finished reading—over the Easter weekend—a remarkable new book for which I’d seen a rave review in Slate: The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier. Its subject matter—the dead—is not only appropriate for Easter, but also for my current location. Many Asian cultures see the recently departed as having a kind of existence for the living, and from a purely practical point of view, the more distantly departed would appear to have a different kind of “existence.” In this remarkable novel, Brockmeier posits three states of being: what we call the living, the recently departed, and those who have departed long enough ago so that they have no existence in any living person’s memory. Fascinating. Takes place in the future (although not that far away), and although not by any means a Feel Good book (there must be such a category to correspond to Feel Good movies), its brilliance justifies it at every page.

Tuesday, 18 April

My brother Leonard’s birthday. Happy birthday, old buddy.

Went off on my own, today. Descended the peak via a pretty trail that is well integrated into the slope management program that keeps the mountain from washing into the sea. I passed some more houses of unimaginable value, and eventually emerged into the bustling, incredibly dense road system of the mountain base. They put in sidewalks where they can, but the limited space prevents sidewalk stretches everywhere you like them, and more than once you take on the taxis, one by one, head-on.

Having arranged to lunch with my hosts around the area of the consulate, I decided to begin by exploring that neighborhood. As great fortune would have it, the apparent botanical garden I happened into turned out to be the Hong Kong Zoo  1   2   3   4 , and I spent a couple hours or more engrossed in watching animals of the rain forest do their thing. Which, for the gibbons, anyway, consisted of swinging around their cages in the most graceful way imaginable. One cage held a family with a 6-month old. When I first saw the baby, it was connected with mom, but later on she decided to do some exploring (and look into the apple sections that had been left by a keeper), and she more awkwardly than her parents and sibling made her way down to the apple, which was then promptly taken away from her by her father, who devoured it, himself. Ah, the lessons of life, so soon among gibbons.

On the way to lunch (a mid-Eastern restaurant), we passed the ordinary office worker having his and her lunch. Typically, you wait in line for a spot to sit, eat for 5-10 minutes, then free the spot and, I presume, go back to work. Gone, I think, are the lovely post-lunch naps that were so common among Chinese when I lived on Taiwan. A sleepy town makes possible sleepy moments, but there’s nothing sleepy about Hong Kong.

Before returning home with the kids, we went into one of the massive malls that constitute what I think I’ll call “non-native Hong Kong.” There is a tremendous international feeling about much of Hong Kong, but there are distinct areas that I’ve already seen that are purely Chinese. When I lived in this part of the world, that international part would have been pretty much for foreigners. No longer true, not for this generation. People of a certain means (anyone with a modern job, that is, not one where you’re moving a crate of vegetables from a truck into a store) go in and out of both ways of living. The native areas are perfect for getting certain things cheaply, while the international areas are life as you’d like to live it.

I encountered a curious thing, when I was at the zoo. A Cantonese mother and her 8-year-old son were walking around the grounds speaking English. They both have the accent that betrays their native language, but were carrying on ordinary conversation in the language that mother had decided son would learn. He, therefore, almost certainly attends one of the schools that teach in English. His future has a certain destiny.

My friends (admittedly, American) see a preference among “educated” Hong Kong Chinese to plan for a life that involves the United States. The only post-high-school education I’ve heard discussed has been in the US. There must be a significant influence from Britain on the residents of this former British colony, but it has not been apparent to my brief exposure to these folks. If they are truly looking for something from my country, it is likely to be because of the seemingly innate sense Chinese have for “#1.” You don’t hitch your wagon to a loser (by which I in no way intend to imply that our former mutual motherland has lost anything except her empire). I suspect that the prospects of Hong Kong might seem limited, to some parents, and if Chinese can be characterized in any way, it would be in their concern for the future of their children.

Of course, simply learning English and American and English ways of living is not the same thing as a ticket to move away. Hong Kong lives on business, and business is done throughout the world in English. The more international experience one brings to a job in Hong Kong, the more valuable he is. Alison tells the story of a Russian man who married a US citizen and works in Hong Kong—very successfully—doing trade with Russia and other Russian-sphere areas of the world. The US citizenship gives him travel rights throughout the world, while the native Russian ability gives him the key to success with the folks with whom he does business.

We ended the day with more episodes of 24 Hours. Rich says that this show is criticized for its impossible plot twists, but when you’ve set about to do what they are doing—packing absolute non-stop excitement into 24 hours, then you must leave the realm of reality, and give imagination its full measure.

19 April

A walking day. I descended from the mountain again (evidently, I don’t use certain muscles in my calves, until I descend from mountains), and decided to walk to a certain goal on the harbor. Distance-wise, this was easy. But Hong Kong is such a maze that I needed constant help from the minimal map I had, as well as some personal help from a passing Frenchman, to stay on course. Once in the city proper  1 , it wasn’t difficult to find my way. The streets are adequately marked, and the big ones form their own landmarks. And, quite remarkably, the city really isn’t all that big. The streets are at least nominally laid out in a grid, where the reality of the hills forces accommodation every now and again.

I stopped early for a cup of coffee and a Lamington (thanks, Linda!), at a Starbucks competitor called Pacific Coffee (at least, the word ‘Pacific’ is in there). Very nice. I’ve been in two now, and they’re on the top end of such establishments. I saw one Starbucks of similar quality, but the one at which I actually bought coffee was just a counter in a mall somewhere.

I’m not a shopper (if Amazon can’t ship it to my door, I don’t need it), but I was much intrigued by an upscale place on the harbor called China Arts and Crafts, which I seem to recall from an earlier life, although I could be confusing the names. If this is the shop I remember, it is directly associated with the Chinese government. But if so, miracles have happened, because the display windows and what I could see through them into the store showed a revolution in taste. This was Nice Stuff. I wished I had an excuse to buy some of it.

The temperature is very reasonable (low 70s) but this is Hong Kong, and the humidity is with us. I was absolutely soaked—in a way with which I’m quite familiar as a resident of Washington DC, at least half-way through my walk. Which walk, I soon decided, would cover the waterfront. Easy enough, and a good glimpse into various aspects of life in Hong Kong. I considered having lunch with a group of laborers (or, at least, buying same at the same place they did), but wasn’t hungry enough, and ended up with a sandwich at a Pacific Coffee downtown.

I then took the famous Peak Tram back up the hill on which I’m staying, and began the trek down about half way to our residence.

But I encountered a grocery store, and there’s little more interesting than seeing what kinds of foods foreign grocery stores stock. I never found out, really. I had had in mind picking up some beer closer to home (beer being seriously lacking in this otherwise well-stocked home), and when I entered this store, there right in front of me was one of the greatest collections of beers I’ve never tasted (and some that were old friends, like San Miguel). I immediately decided to stock up and take a taxi home. $20 later, I was on my way. Taxis? Hundreds—all going in the wrong direction and full of people. Turned out, the most common way down was the other side. So, I ended up carrying many pounds of beer down a mountain on a warm, humid day. Except for dodging trucks on the wildly curving road, it was a pleasant walk. After all, I was going downhill.

We went out to a superb dinner at a kind of beach resort—very low-key, which we ended with ice cream that seemed to be a cold moist version of whatever fruit we had chosen. Coconut, in my case, lemon in that of another. So, the domestic beer supply has been little touched. Tonight!

20 April

The general temperature has been very pleasant while I’ve been here, but over the past couple days any sort of exertion generates chule yi shen de han—I’m soaked in sweat. It’s actually been sort of embarrassing, because I seem to be the only one (in a store, for example) who is reacting this way. I’m not uncomfortable, just sweating. Perhaps, my DC adaptation to humidity hadn’t kicked in before I left. Certainly, only laborers exert themselves as much as I’ve been doing (with my walking, etc), and they’re down to their shorts in many cases.

The buildings are ice-cold, a most remarkable change from my first visit in the late 1970s when the only air-conditioned building in Hong Kong (it seemed) was a mini-mall intended for tourists. The whole town tried to fit into the space, and there wasn’t much room for tourists, who were scared to death of all those people standing around in the air conditioning. I’m regretting not bringing a sweatshirt, which would be comfortable to wear here in the house. Outside, you want as much air movement and exposure to air as you can get.

I climbed to the top of The Peak, in the morning. Sort of. I got lost in some way I guess I understand now (I was supposed to have entered a road marked No Entry; of course, I’m in China), and I ended up in a section of development that included the residence of the French Consulate General. I certainly didn’t mind the actual walking, but there are few sidewalks (or space for them), so you’re contending with the working trucks (absolutely everything is under construction in this Special Administrative Region (SAR)), and walking on The Peak is not something I’d recommend. Still, it was a good diversion, and I stopped at another store, this time for ginger beer, which I figured I’d find in this former British colony. Did, but it’s Australian, and a brand I had a few times when I was there.

Did a wee bit of shopping in the afternoon. Alison had pointed out that Yue Hwa, the state-owned store of Chinese-produced goods, was having a Relocation sale, so I took a look. Much, much better selection of items since my last visit 30 years ago, but I am less interested in buying things than I was then. Found a little something for a friend, and then found my way to a mini-bus stand, which conveniently dropped me a few yards from the consulate living quarters in which I’m staying.

Pizza Hut delivered last night, a fine thin-crust pizza from a menu that included escargot. Here in Hong Kong, both Pizza Hut and escargot seem absolutely what you’d expect...

21-23 April

I got distracted with a book or two, and failed to continue the journal. I remember that I went over to Kowloon for lunch, and visited the Ocean Terminal (that had been such a fixture in early—1970s—memories of Hong Kong). It’s much expanded since my last visit, and I had lunch at one of the many lunch spots serving European-style cuisine. I guess that’s ‘international’, now. Anyway, it was superb. I also ordered a lemon smoothie, and it was so good (and lemony) that it took great reserve—and an attempt to preserve some dignity—to keep from ordering another. And another. Which reminds me that when the Stites first discovered the beach restaurant that I note in the entry for 19 April they had finished a hike with friends. The group downed 5-6 pitchers of what they had discovered was the finest lemonade they’d ever tasted, when they also discovered what they were paying for said pitchers. The simple fact is, unless you’re somewhere in Lower Slobovida, quality costs money. Fine with me.

Friday evening, the Stites family dressed up a bit  1 , and went off to a fancy country club for dinner with a family even richer than they are. Chinese, of course. Li Ma made a delicious chicken and pineapple dish for those of us dining in that evening.

On Saturday, we all had the wonderful experience of attending a reading of English-language children’s books  1   2   3   4   5  to a very young Hong Kong Scout group. We had come to believe that these kids were orphans of some sort, but evidence suggested that they’re just normal kids whose parents put them into this fine organization for weekend activities. Their spirit was infectious, as was their patience remarkable. None yet spoke English, but a few had had some exposure to it (no one was older than about 10), and no more of them understand Mandarin, the language into which our only interpreter resource—Alison—was capable. Fortunately, Mrs Mok happened in, and took over as one of the most able interpreter/story-tellers I’ve encountered. The kids got right into the experience, and kept shouting out suggestions to the characters in the stories about how they should deal with whatever trouble their stories had gotten them into.

A most impressive experience. Hong Kong is in good hands for its future.

The trip back was the usual grind (sitting in Economy class for a 14-hour flight is a true test of one’s ability to cope with discomfort), but it was brightened somewhat by the fact that the middle seat (I was in my usual window position) was occupied by a young woman (Li Songzhu) from Beijing who was part of a business delegation going to Allentown, Pennsylvania (no, I’ve never heard of it, but I got to practice spelling ‘Pennsylvania’), and she wanted to practice her English. It didn’t need much, and no amount of questioning really satisfied me as to how it had gotten that good. Sure, people differ in their language abilities, but you can’t absorb any language unless you’re around it. This was her first visit to the US, although she’d made a previous trip to several European destinations (and Brazil!) as part of her company’s business, which appears to be to create manufacturing automation for the aluminum industry. I just looked, and there is, indeed, some evidence of same in Allentown. She said that the Allentown company is actually owned by a firm in Denmark, which shows something of the way the world has become now.

I left this woman (and her group) as I got off the plane, but I felt like a traitor several minutes later when I discovered how difficult negotiating Chicago’s [O’Hare] airport security system is. I realized that there was no way they could get through that system and make their connection to Allentown on time, and even when I checked and discovered that the flight would be delayed two hours, I felt little better—they didn’t know the flight was delayed, as they were working their way from insufficiently marked station to insufficiently marked station. I found myself cursing my country for not including Chinese instructions in the airport signage, but then I realized that if you do that, why not German, French, and Croatian, all of which I heard as I walked to my own gate. Life today is plenty tough, and like it or not (I do!), most of it is being conducted in English.

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