Asia: Go East, young man . . .

By Julian Hanton

Julian Hanton relives his top five highlights making Travel Channel New Zealand's brand new series, Asian Times

Julian Hanton on the Great Wall of China.
Julian Hanton on the Great Wall of China.

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend a number of weeks filming in Asia for my new TV series, Asian Times, on Travel Channel New Zealand.

The premise of the series is to look at how Asia has changed since I first visited as a child in the 1970s. I've been asked to outline five highlights of my journeys to the east and have decided not to focus on things I may have enjoyed, but more on things that I will remember. As is always the way with travel, it's the experiences that you treasure, so here are five of my most treasured experiences.

1. Hong Kong - One-Inch Punch

While in Hong Kong I investigated one of the city's most famous sons: Bruce Lee. I managed to find an old friend of the famous actor and martial artist who was happy enough to put me through a few training procedures. After the stock-standard punch, block, punch, block, he told me about one of Bruce Lee's favourite moves: the "one-inch punch". It is a punch thrown to the body from only one inch away, but carries all the strength of a full blow.

He demonstrated the punch on me before I could get voice my concerns: BOOM! - straight to the solar plexus.

Julian Hanton tries the food in Hong Kong.
Julian Hanton tries the food in Hong Kong.

As I recovered he seemed to be saying that his first demonstration wasn't quite 100 percent, so before I knew it SLAM! Inch number two! Queasiness overtook me right at the site of the punch and stumbling to the nearest bathroom I purged myself not from one end, but both. I was slightly embarrassed, but at least I can say I've taken two one-inch punches.

2. Shanghai - Marriage Market

As I'm getting married later this year I headed along to what the locals call a "marriage market" in the people's square of Shanghai. Rather than the usual dresses, cakes, photographers and venues vying for the punters' attention, it had only one type of retailer - mothers, all advertising their sons or daughters. A typical sign reads "Female, 1980, 156cm tall, professional, no children, seeks man 30-40, professional". Not really what I was expecting but, as is usually the case in my shows, I soon found myself in the action, creating my own sign for the scores of parents patrolling the square looking to marry off their single children. Although my sign was obviously for filming purposes I attracted rather a lot of attention, with one mother hounding me relentlessly: "My daughter is perfect for you," she kept saying, "well paid, same year, speaks English, very beautiful" and pulled out a photo. She then confessed she had been looking for a match for four years, insisting that I give her my number. At that point, I decided it was time to make a quick escape.

3. Vietnam - Dog-meat

Vietnamese cuisine offers some of the best food in world: fresh rice paper rolls, heartening pho soups and spicy salads are to die for. However not everything on the menu there was to my taste.

Julian Hanton emerges from a Viet Cong bunker in Vietnam.
Julian Hanton emerges from a Viet Cong bunker in Vietnam.

I had been told they eat dogs but had never believed this to be true until I arrived in Hanoi and saw dog meat on the menu. It's a very popular protein apparently, especially in the north. In Hanoi I was taken to a local restaurant where the most popular item on the menu was roast dog. When I asked whether it was rottweiler, poodle or a basset hound, I was told it was just "normal dog". I pride myself on my wide variety of culinary conquests but I just couldn't bring myself to try the roasted dog - I just kept thinking of Lassie, so settled for a pint of the local watery beer and a saucer of peanuts.

4. Philippines - Superman

I meet quite a lot of interesting people on my journeys and one my favourites so far is Herbert Chavez, the Filipino Superman. Herbert has had 17 plastic surgery procedures in order to make himself look like his childhood hero. He holds the world record for having the most items of Superman memorabilia and is looking at opening a museum dedicated to his obsession. Many people may write him off as crazy or just a fool (as perhaps I did, before meeting him), but Herbert lives his passion on a daily basis. A truly nice guy who's inspired by his belief that Superman, and heroes in general, have a lot to offer society.

5. Thailand - my undercover bust

I got the chance to tag along with Thapanee Letsrichai, one of Thailand's top undercover investigative TV reporters. Thapanee was staking out an illegal gambling ring and needed footage for her broadcast.

Julian Hanton has his feet cleaned by fish in Thialand.
Julian Hanton has his feet cleaned by fish in Thialand.

Her team's mission was to infiltrate one of the gambling dens and film the activity with a tiny camera disguised as a watch. It all felt very James Bond. I was to act as spy number two and covertly film the outside of the gambling den. I couldn't think of a worse undercover agent: I was the only white guy in a Thai market wearing a bright yellow T-shirt. My covert skills lacking, I tried to hide in the shadows, but that didn't work as everyone was trying to sell me something. Almost ready to run away it dawned on me that I actually had the best disguise of all: a stupid lost tourist. Though my footage didn't make it on the Bangkok evening news I can always tell people I was once a spy, well, for a few hours at least.

Asian Times screens on Travel Channel New Zealand (Sky 025) on Wednesdays at 7.30pm.

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