A lot of “firsts,” Part 2

Surviving the Autumn Shanghai Hairy Crab festival, I began to become better acquainted with daily life here in “The Fragrant Harbour.” The island of Hong Kong, as shown on its map, is populated mostly on the northern side facing Kowloon and the New Territories. The district names that one has to known (and memorize) to get around on public transport on Hong Kong Island, for instance, are best seen by the Hong Kong Subway Map that runs from west to east along the northern part of the island.

So you come to know at the western end is Kennedy Town and Hong Kong University and then moving east you have in quick succession: Sai Ying Pun, Sheung Wan, Central (where the ferries are located), Admiralty, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay (my stop), Tin Hau, Fortress Hill, North Point, Quarry Bay, Tai Koo, Sai Wan Ho, Shau Kei Wan, Heng Fa Chuen, and Chai Wan at the easternmost point.

Between the north shore of Hong Kong Island and the opposite sidfe of Kowloon and the New Territories you have Victoria Harbour, a bustling hub of ferries and ships of all sizes, as well as bridges and tunnels crossing over between the two opposite sides.

Aside from Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories, you have the enormous Lantau Island, a booming new area where one finds the new Hong Kong International Airport, as well as the Disneyland Resort. It also is the location of a well-known Trappist Monastery where a former Maryknoller who had my same surname, Fr. Ted McCabe, left Maryknoll and entered this strict monastic community for the rest of his life.

Other islands that are part of the Hong Kong Territory, which you will hear about again, are Cheung Chau Island to the west and southwest of Hong Kong Island, as well as Lamma Island, to the immediate south of Hong Kong Island (Maryknoll Father, John Ahearn is pastor on Cheung Chao, and Maryknoll Father Ed Phillips serves the English community that gathers at a convent on Lamma Island).


These geography points will be raised now and again below.

Introduction to Ferries and dinner on Cheung Chao Island

Soon after my arrival, the pastor on Chueng Chao island, Father John Ahearn (native of Brooklyn, ordained when his family lived on Long Island, and who was in both Maryknoll College [Glen Ellyn, IL] and Maryknoll School of Theology with me) decided to host a small get-together of Maryknollers of our age group. Fortunately, another younger Maryknoller, Fr. Tim Kilkelly, was in Hong Kong after spending a few weeks traveling around the Mainland (which always means… China), where he coordinates priests and religious who study in the US under Maryknoll’s auspices. So we decided to all meet around 4:00 p.m. at Pier 5 at the Central District to take the ferry to Cheung Chao.

I spoke with people here at the parish, and they told me that I would not need to leave until 3 p.m., but they forgot — I had little (or no?) idea how to get a taxi. I finally managed to figure it out, noting that Hong Kong people here in my side of town, generally congregate in lines at specified taxi stands. I found such a line right behind the Times Square shopping mall… a LONG line, but thankfully, a line that moved under the watchful eye of a Taxi Guard who made sure no one cut the line.

I had already downloaded the TAXI-for-FOREIGNERS app for my phone where you can key in a central point or address in English, push a button, and viola’ — your destination pops up in Chinese characters and with a helpful Google map for your taxi driver. Although the taxis are generally small vehicles and somewhat old, they are efficient, they give receipts, and you are not expected to tip (although you can round it out for the driver if you wish), and trips from one end to the other of the island only cost about $12.

Once I made it safely to the ferries and was dropped exactly in front of Pier 5 which is for ferries to Cheung Chao island, I was early and I had a chance to snap a few photos of both the ferries, and across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon.

Kowloon skyline Facing Kowloon across Victoria Harbour Ferry in a slip, facing Kowloon

By 4:00 p.m. both Frs. Tim and John had arrived and we boarded the ferry, with me getting to use my very special “Elder” Octopus card (for those over 65, granting very cheap access to most transport). The ferry took about 45 min and was pleasant and breezy seeing the northwest side of Hong Kong, then making our way around the western side of the island to the West Lamma Channel and on southwest to Cheung Chao island. Tim and John graciously posed for a photo.

Fathers Tim Kilkelly and John McAuley on ferry to Cheung Chao

From the harbor at Cheung Chow it was a nice walk of about 10-12 minutes from the harbor to Our Lady of Fatima Parish. We passed an old tree that has many sacred emblems on it as it was a place where Chinese had been hung and killed by Japanese invaders during WWII, and continues to be held as a sacred sight, so it had Buddhist prayer cloths and other items hung in the enormous gnarled branches.

We also came upon a new item to Cheung Chao – “US and European style Hotels,” meaning B&B’s. As the island has cheap hotels, nice local places to eat, and a nice beach, and the ferry is also pretty reasonable, foreigners as well as locals like to visit the place for a day or a few days.

As we turned on Church Street, at the end of which is the parish, we passed this beautiful Chinese gate opening out to the calm sea.

Ceremonial gate facing the beach Cheung Chao

All in all it was a great night to just sit and relax, share some drinks, some “tapas” (Fr. John Ahearn’s famous style of feeding guests… and it works as you eat a little of this, a little of that, and can stop whenever you want). By 8:15 p.m. or so we headed back to the ferry and back across the channel to Central Harbour, and had a great welcome (despite the misty evening) of Hong Kong by night.

View of harbor area east of Central ferries Skyline of the Central Harbor

I made excellent time by cab back to the rectory and even got in before they lock up the place (10:00 p.m.).

Getting introduced to the parish schedule

Throughout this first week, a big challenge has been to gradually meet the people with whom I will be working and who I will serve. We are blessed with Mrs. Rosa Fong, the parish manager and the one who makes this whole physical plant work so smoothly. No matter what obstacles I come up against, Rosa can somehow get me out of them. It was Rosa who had everything organized for my arrival (recalling that photo posted earlier on what she had arranged on my desk when I moved in a week ago)…

On arrival all this information

This past week she has undertaken seeking out, ordering or procuring odds and ends I need for either my room or office. Noticing my alb that I brought from the States needed some hemming and alterations, she had it done by our amah in 3 days. Some low-lit lamps for my overly bright room arrive this weekend; my new bedding is ordered, new sheets and towels have arrived, my over-sized room desk is back at the carpenters being cut to size, I have a temporary phone and cell phone number (the phone belongs to Rosa’s son away in the UK for college, as my Samsung does not have the ability to “hold” a Hong Kong SIM card, and since without my ID card I am unable to purchase a phone here… more on that next week), my e-mail address for the diocese is set (jvmccabe@catholic.org.hk), I have an Octopus card (for the honored and revered elderly!), and my office is tastefully decorated.

My liaison with the English community is another woman, Mrs. Angela Leung, who volunteers her free time (she has a very prestigious full-time job in an international company). Angela keeps me on my toes with schedules, and by Saturday had me meeting all the women volunteers who teach the children’s CCD (religious education) classes on Saturday mornings from 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. I then also met all of the students in two groups, the lower grades and then the upper grades (all grammar school aged, and a real mix of Chines, English, Filipino, and all combinations of these). Many sets of twins are in the classes (the teachers told me, NO, it is not because of the water, but the result of fertilization methods for parents having difficulty conceiving).

Meeting the kids was fun but also I met a few cultural challenges. Most have clearly Chinese or English (or Flemish, or Irish or whatever) names, but one boy came up and begged me NOT to call out his surname. I was a bit stunned, but one of the teachers nodded to me… and so I dropped calling surnames for his entire class. Other than that, and having the kids correct my bad pronunciation of their names (I had more trouble with the Irish names than with the Chinese ones…go figure?). Each class has from 12-18 students and we have 6 classes. The women teachers are all absolutely fluent in English (as are many in Hong Kong in general), and they run a good program.

Angela and I then tacked our very out-of-date Faith Formation library. I will spend the coming two weeks cleaning out old and out-dated books and begin seeking new materials.

As a side comment here, any of you following my blog who have materials for grade-school catechetics, high school programs and RCIA programs, and have “left-overs,” such materials along with DVD’s for catechetics and spirituality would be most welcome, and mailing things to me is easy (and efficient). Address will be at end of this.

Angela organized a day when I can meet all the Readers of the English communities (aside from the parish here at St. Margaret’s – also known as SMC I am also responsible to 3 other English communities that meet in the boundaries of the parish, and so whatever I do here at SMC is also sent to them.

So my calendar is filling up with with Masses, luncheons, meetings, and I inaugurated a registration today for an adult catechumenate, and happily had two inquiries after Mass already.

I also had time to meet a couple at whose wedding on April 2nd, 2016 I will preside, and we will meet in the coming weeks.

Father John KWAN, the pastor see photo below and photo taken at the “Hairy Crab Festival” above) has been great. Knowing what I face down the road, he is helping me put the breaks on too much work. I will have a position to fill in the diocesan tribunal in the coming week or following week, and I have to begin formal language study in Mandarin sooner than later. I also am expected to be chaplain to a community of Vietnamese and Chinese Sisters in the parish at St. Ann’s Convent (up Caroline Hill Road) every Tuesday morning. So for now, this is more than enough to keep me busy.


What’s in a name?

A big part of inserting oneself into Chinese culture is being given a Chinese name, a name that becomes “official” in all government documents issued once I get the coveted I.D. Card.

From the day I arrived at the parish, the question of what my Chinese name will be has been brought up at meals and in small conversations around the office.

One thing they try to do is incorporate a part of your surname into the first root or character. So we began all sorts of permutations on the “Mc” or “Mac” sound. They have something close to it for the “Mag” in St. Margaret, but discussions ensued between the priests who speak Cantonese (Fathers Kwan and Chau) and those whose mother tongue is Mandarin – the language I will be speaking (Fathers Li and Tan).

At one point, the Cantonese speakers brought out the 3 characters (or 3 combination characters) but when the Mandarin speakers started turning it into the Mandarin pronunciation my name was something along “buyer of chicken parts!” Yes, it is both in the intonation as well as in the use of simple vs. traditional characters.

Finally by dinner Friday night (a meal where we ALL gather, perhaps the one time per week when all 5 of us priests are at the table as well as Sister Bernadette Woo and Deacon Bernard Tang), we were going over some variations and Father Kwan sat next to me and handed me my name.

Final rendition of my Chiense name

Once he did, the others passed it around, and to my relief, both sides (Cantonese and Mandarin) agreed that it was most suitable and sounded right in both languages. The underline in the photo is a line that led to Father Kwan’s signature, making it “official,” and by yesterday afternoon, our office secretary, Mr. Dominic NG  Kit Ming gave me a detailed explanation of my new name, (Father) Joseph Mai Ji Yi.

My name printed out

Or (get ready). Father Joseph Mai (Wheat stalk), Ji Yi, the Righteousness of Christ (a plug for my canon law background). The parishioners will know me now as Father MAI (which is great as my real surname, McCABE, was utterly destroyed in announcements today).

Reflections on my first week

Sitting here at the end of my first full week, I have lots of thoughts going through my mind.

How will I ever be able to learn any Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese)? At least a first step is I can somewhat tell the difference between one or the other listening to people talk. Cantonese is very tonal, while Mandarin has some very difficult gutteral or deep sounds but only half as many tones. It has been recommended that I take seriously learning the way to write and read (and interpret) characters as they are similar to both languages, and at least I could conceivably read signs… So, I know that soon I will face attending classes, something I definitely had not wanted to do after the 6 semesters at The Catholic University of America. But at the same time, my missionary roots impel me to learn to speak, to communicate, and to be able to at least express myself – albeit badly – in the language of the people I serve.

Some friends know how I expressed a certain aversion to Chinese food before arriving. Well, that is way in the past. The meals we are served are generally very tasty, unique, and surprising. There have been many changes to my diet, and they will continue. I rarely (if ever) see a fork these days, and a knife is generally only for cutting fruit at the end of a meal, although certain foods demand some cutting. My skills at using chop sticks (thanks to my parents) are deeply appreciated each day.

I have learned that aside from banquets that serve tea in tiny cups, here at the house no beverage is ever served with lunch or dinner. What substitutes is a soup, which is poured in a small soup bowl and placed at the left at every meal, consumed before, during and after the meal to wash down the food and cleanse the palate. Some of the soups are in a vegetable broth, others in a meat or fish broth (and NONE with even a grain of salt or seasoning… literally scalding hot, bland-tasting water with some bits and pieces boiled in to give color. Most soups are savory, but we occasionally have what could best be called a scalding fruit compote (such as pears and almonds).

Our meals are always fresh, always with varied dishes, and our white rice is steamed with grains such as millet, Quinoa or other healthy things steamed onto the top. A future blog will be dedicated to the cuisine here, a combination of Cantonese, Shanghai and Beijing cuisines in a Hong Kong style.

I have re-learned from both my Tanzania and Russia years to always carry small shopping bags whenever I go for a walk, never knowing if you will find something you need or want. I have a half-dozen bags I brought along from Maryknoll from our Centenary back in 2011 and they are sturdy, roomy and helpful.

Walking is necessary for getting anywhere in Hong Kong, although what the local people call a “distance” for me is just a few minutes. We are 5 minutes or so from a main road where buses head east and west along the north coast, and I am about 10 minutes from the closest subway stop (Causeway Bay). I am learning where to find small buses and trams for other parts of the island and how to use the ferries and the subway to get across the harbour to Kowloon, the New Territories and beyond.

This is a culture fixated on cell phones and APPS — they have APPS for just about everything, and they want to communicate that way (I am hesitant, naturally). So, once I do get the I.D. card and can get a permanent phone and cell number, I will have to you WHATSAPP to communicate as that is how everyone in the parish communicates! I thought our US culture had too many people staring and texting, but we have nothing compared to the Chinese (Hong Kong) culture.

And this being Sunday evening, after a day in meetings, confession, Mass and greeting people after Mass, I see ahead a large challenge bringing alive God’s WORD in this cultural milieu. I looked out this morning again to a completely packed church (people standing at and outside the doors). I found people (like I found in Russia), hanging on the words and repeating them as I gave the homily. I used a device I rarely used in the past, repeating a phrase or thematic few words over and over — and so many came out of church repeating this, others wrote it down. It challenges me to improve, change, edit and adapt more clearly what I am trying to bring out in the Gospel.

As I bring to a close this Part 2 of this week’s installment of the Blog, I end with this photo I took last evening as I came up the hill to the parish after a walk, and people were crowded into the church for the evening Mass. The light on the church sitting in this valley surrounded by gigantic high-rise apartments is the Light of Faith, the Light of Hope, the Light of Christ’s love at the heart of this community. How fortunate Father Mai Ji Yi can now serve here! I just pray I am worthy to serve here.

SMC Saturday evening Mass


  1. Joe Trotta · November 9, 2015

    I don’t know how you found the time to document your first week in Hong Kong. You have done more in one week than I could imagine. Lot’s of Luck, with your new adventure.


    • Father Joe · November 11, 2015

      Joe, always good to hear from you. Yes, my time is full – sometimes I feel too full, but I also believe the lord has a plan and I am just going along with it. My best to you and your family!


  2. Carol Hogan · November 11, 2015

    Wow! what a challenging future Father Mai Ji Yi If anyone is up to it is


    • Father Joe · November 11, 2015

      Carol, thanks so much. Please keep the prayers coming from the Martha’s Guild and other groups in St. Ignatius parish!


  3. Diane Morgan, OP · November 11, 2015

    A new name… a new beginning …. Pray to your founders!!!!!


    • Father Joe · November 12, 2015

      Thanks, Diane.I have an application in for a Visa to travel into and out of China and one of the first trips will be to the See where Bishop James E. Walsh served as Apostolic Vicar and later Bishop of Jiangmen (which is just a short distance inland from Macau, across the straits from us.


  4. Joseph Sparacino · November 12, 2015

    You are amazing, Father Joseph Mai Ji Yi, and you are in an amazing land. God bless! Joe and Fran


    • Father Joe · November 12, 2015

      Joe and Fran, always great to hear from you, and miss seeing you after Masses on weekdays and weekends!


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