A Travellerspoint blog

Getting ready for the New Year

Slowing down

sunny 70 °F

Undoubtedly, the Lunar New Year, which is also called spring festival, is the most important and celebrated holiday in China. It is similar to Christmas in the U.S., except that there are way more people celebrating the spring festival:) given the population of China. The official holiday is from Jan 1st to the 7th of the Lunar calender, a total of 7 days off work. It is important that people travel home and be with their loved ones, therefore it is the very peak of the travel season in China. The annual "Cui Yun" (spring travel) officially starts about a week before the New Years and ends a couple of weeks after the New Years. It was reported that 30 million people left Beijing for home during the spring festival this year, more than the population of many countries in the world. I suspect all major cities in China had a similar number of immigrant workers leaving for home for the New Year, Guangzhou is certainly one of them.

The community Zhexiong lives in started to feel more and more deserted as the New Year neared. The lights in the buildings became more and more sparse and the play ground finally became what I consider reasonably occupied. Streets outside became empty, and crowds and crowds of people suddenly seemed to have disappeared. No traffic jams, no horns, no loud music spilling out shops, no chaos. It was as if the city was gradually falling asleep: it actually felt peaceful! I would say Guangzhou is a much more pleasant city to live in during the New Year holiday. We drove out almost everyday, and could actually stay in our lane given the space that was available on the roads (those who have been in China and seen how Chinese drivers drive will know what I am talking about here). The buses were running, mostly empty.

mostly empty bus, very rare in Guangzhou

mostly empty bus, very rare in Guangzhou

Cooking was probably the most important aspect of the New Year when I was growing up. Back when I was a little girl, it was only during the New Year that kids would have abundance of various foods besides for sure get a set of brand new outfit. It always amazes me to think about how our lives have changed. The market today is filled with everything you can think of. Whenever we want, we can eat those food that used to be treats for the New Year. Even though the tradition has continued: people still stock up candy, nuts and various meats and fish for the new year; it is really for the atmosphere more than anything else. When I was growing up, my entire family on my father's side, all my aunts and uncles and their kids will gather at my grandparents' house. We would start deep frying, roasting, steaming a week before the New Year's Day. I remember the back room next to the kitchen, being used as a natural refrigerator in the cold winter months of Wuhan, filled with foods of all kinds that the entire family of almost 30 people ate for an entire week.

Since I moved to U.S. 14 years ago, I have not spent a single spring festival at home. It was a rare opportunity for me to be in China with my family during the holiday. Per my request, I asked my father to prepare some of the traditional foods, which you might not find palatable. It is worth mentioning that there is certainly a regional difference in terms of traditional foods. For example, dumplings are typical for the new year in northern parts of China where as I did not grow up with that tradition.

roasting pig hocks

roasting pig hocks


chicken feet and stomach waiting to be roasted

chicken feet and stomach waiting to be roasted


deep frying meat balls (we used a wok at least ten times as big when I was a little girl!)

deep frying meat balls (we used a wok at least ten times as big when I was a little girl!)

Another thing kids are excited about is to get red envelops of money during the Chinese New Year from family and friends. In Guangzhou, red envelops are particularly common and are not restricted to kids only. January 8th of the Lunar Year, when people are officially back to work, younger unmarried coworkers may ask married, older coworkers for red envelops. People with lower ranks may ask their supervisors for red envelops. When somebody asks for red envelops, they are supposed to say "gong xi fa cai", which translates to "wish you wealth". Often times, kids can get red envelops for just being kids, without such formality. The amount of money in the red envelop depends on the closeness of the relationship. People tend to carry different size envelops with different amounts of money, and decide which amount is appropriate seeing who the person is. The money you use in the red envelops should feel crisp, if not brand new from the bank.

Zhexiong prepared 100 red envelops of 5 yuan each, which is about $1. This is for anybody at work who might ask for one. He also prepared 10 envelops of 100 Yuan each, for those at work he would consider friends. My kids each got a red envelop of 300 yuan from him, which made the kids ecstatic. I, when meeting JiePing's (my good friend from college who is in Shenzhen) daughter, gave her a red envelop of 1000 yuan. I suppose I might have overdid it as Jieping called me that night saying it was way too much after opening the red envelop at home. I believe after being away for so long, I am probably becoming more and more socially awkward in the Chinese society.

wrapping red envelops

wrapping red envelops

P.S. Zhexiong reported to us that he used about half of the 100 5-yuan envelops he prepared when he went back to work. When he got to his bureau, there was a line of service people waiting at the gate to say "gong xi fa cai". Those were the cooks, cleaning lady, guards who at the bureau, but he does not personally know.

Posted by suveri 23:12 Archived in China Tagged guangzhou Comments (0)

The flower fair of Guangzhou

so pretty!

sunny 82 °F

Guangzhou, with its subtropical climate, is known as the flower city of China. Every year right before the Chinese New Year, there are flower fairs of various sizes throughout the city. We went to a good sized one nearest to Zhexiong's apartment.

It felt like a beautiful summer day in Michigan, temperature in the low 80's and sunny. After a few days feeling inappropriately dressed and sweating, I finally broke down and opened the suitcase of summer clothes that I thought I would not need for at least a few more months. In our T-shirts and shorts, we were finally comfortable. The interesting thing is that you can spot my kids so easily in a crowd from how little they were wearing in comparison to the local population. Chinese really like to bundle their kids. The typical Chinese reaction to a sick kid is that s/he must have caught a cold. The word "cold" here really refers to the child being cold, either by not being sufficiently dressed or by not being sufficiently covered at night for the temperature. I can understand one's immune system can be weakened if the body temperature is particularly low, but still, 3 layers in 80 degree weather?

The flower fair we went to was set up on this giant piece of empty concrete land. Both the front and back entrance had huge popups that are red and gold, which are the colors for the New Year. In Chinese culture, red symbolizes happiness and is the classic color for weddings; gold symbolizes prosperity and wealth. The Chinese characters over the front gate read "Bai Yun (white cloud) Hua Shi(flower fair), 2013".

Two happy looking fake animals with gold YuanBo (one type of old currency of China before paper currency was introduced) on their tails guard the front entrance. As I looked at the kids posing under it, it dawned on me that they were supposed to be two snakes. 2013 is the year of the snake! Do they look like snakes to you?

at the front gate of the flower fair

at the front gate of the flower fair

posing under the snakes

posing under the snakes

Inside the gate, there is a traditional style lantern in the shape of a hexagon with Chinese style painting on the sides and strings of fake firecrackers hanging at the corners. Chinese New Year is not officially over until the 15th of January of the Lunar calendar. The 15th of January is the first holiday after the New Year's Day and it is called "Yuan Xiao". On this day, the traditional activity is to light the lanterns and appreciate them; the traditional food is called "Tang Yuan". "Tang Yuan" are small balls made of sweet rice flower with fillings such as sesame paste. Its round shape symbolizes "Tuan Yuan", which means family gather together.

the big lantern just inside the gate

the big lantern just inside the gate

The entrance would not be complete without live plants. We saw rows of mums line the big sign. As a matter of fact, mums of various sizes and colors are the flower for the new year in Guangzhou, as well as tangerine trees of various varieties. You can see them sold on the street everywhere in the city. The reason is that in Cantonese, the local dialect of Guangzhou, Mums and tangerines are both pronounced "Jv", which is also the pronounciation for the word that meant "good fortune". At least half of the fair was covered by mums and tangerine trees. People making purchases will hire a cart to send the plants home.

mums are the No 1 flower being sold

mums are the No 1 flower being sold


"golden coin" tangerine trees

"golden coin" tangerine trees


more tangerine trees

more tangerine trees


taking the tangerine tree home, taking good fortune home

taking the tangerine tree home, taking good fortune home

There are various live and fake flowers and plants being sold at the fair. The overriding theme is good fortune, good luck, smooth sail, all the wonderful things one can use in the new year.

orchids

orchids


plants that climb symbolizing getting higher in prosperity during the new year

plants that climb symbolizing getting higher in prosperity during the new year


gold fruits stacked together

gold fruits stacked together


"smooth sail"

"smooth sail"


Ellie's favorite:"it is so pretty"

Ellie's favorite:"it is so pretty"


Skyler's favorite: "it is orange"

Skyler's favorite: "it is orange"

Besides flowers, there are also New Year's decorations being sold at the fair as well as kids' play things. The decorations are just red, red and red. It is so much red clustered at one spot I actually felt discomfort in my eyes looking at them. Skyler and Ellie each got a big wind wheel, spinning and spinning in the wind that could also cause a headache if I stared at them too long.

all you need to decorate your house for the new year

all you need to decorate your house for the new year


wind wheels that are as tall as us

wind wheels that are as tall as us

As we leave the fair at the back entrance, we saw a guy dressed in the costume of "Cai Shen" (a god that brings money). Believe it or not, he was hired by a french wine shop to hand out red envelops to kids in the effort to attract attention to the shop. You have to admire the things people come up to promote their business! Each red envelop has one gold chocolate coin inside. Ellie was happy as she got two of them!

"Cai Shen" with red envelops

"Cai Shen" with red envelops


Ellie got two

Ellie got two

The day ended with us having dinner in the nearby shopping mall. The kids' fascination with escalators continued. They rode it up and down, up and down with their wind wheels in hand. It looked like a dangerous operation. The dinner at the restaurant on the third floor of the mall was so so. It is a restaurant called "ninety nine cents". Every dish in the restaurant has a price that ends with ninety nine cents. Smart, isn't it? The food featured are Shanxi style, which is a lot of flour based entries such as noodles and dumplings. The northern parts of China are known for eating a lot of flour based foods. Maybe I am from the south and is used to eating rice instead, I found the food not so exciting. What impressed me was the open kitchen just inside the entrance of the restaurant, watching the chief cutting noodles out from a giant piece of flour dough.

riding the escalators

riding the escalators


open kitchen inside the "ninety nine cents" restaurant

open kitchen inside the "ninety nine cents" restaurant

Posted by suveri 20:38 Archived in China Tagged flower fair guangzhou Comments (0)

Learning to skate

success!

sunny 70 °F

Roller skating is quite popular among kids in China, particularly guangzhou given its mild temperature even in winter months. The second day after we arrived, we went to a shopping center for lunch with Zhexiong's friends. On the big empty square in front of the shopping center, a school for teaching kids roller skating was busy recruiting students. Two male young instructors were skating around, handing out pamphlets about their programs. Skyler and Ellie started watching them with acute interest. One instructor noticed the business opportunity presented by these two kids, started doing some demonstration among the cones and strings that were set up on the ground. Both Skyler and Ellie sat on the stool and watched him for quite some time. I asked some questions, not sure if their instructional program would work for us given our short stay in Guangzhou. Skyler had some experience with roller skates when he was in the summer camp at the YMCA last year. Back then, he was too timid to let go of the wall even for a second. His version of roller skating was to walk around half leaning against the retaining wall. I thought this would be a great activity to get the kids outdoors.

Zhexiong picked up our interest and ordered both kids a set of equipments online a few days later. Each set includes the whole nice yards: roller skates, helmets and protective pads. Here are Ellie and Skyler trying on skates the day they arrived.

trying on the skates

trying on the skates

The thick rug in the middle of Zhexiong's living room provided a good spot for the kids to try walking on the skates. The friction is big enough to allow them steady steps. The stone floor though was too slippery and hard to be the first practice surface. So for the first day, we just walked on the rug.

In the next few days, we went downstairs and tried to skate in the corridor. Xinxin came with her skates one day, and she was really good. This provided good motivation for the kids. Instead of going to a school, I decided to teach the kids myself.

I skated when I was a teenager. The skates we used back then had four wheels, two at the front and two at the back. I still remember skating with my friends in big circles holding hands occupying the entire arena some late nights. However, I never got on the roller skates that had one column of wheels, so when it comes to teaching my kids, I was really just a theorist with related experience. I told the kids that they needed to lean forward so that the center of their gravity is forward, to always walk in the pattern of Chinese eight "八“, left and right, left and right.

Skyler got it on his 3rd time putting his skates on. He was first leaning on me a lot, which really did not help in him getting the sense of skating. I walked by him, holding his arm, then hand, then just one finger. All I did was to call out "left, right, left, right, make an eight, make an eight". The next thing I know, he was holding on to only the tip of my finger and I could let go of it completely. He was skating on his own!

His interest peaked once he could move himself freely on the skates. He kept on skating and skating that he was completely drenched. His accomplishment made Yeye so happy that an ice cream was awarded.

Skyler enjoying an ice cream the day he learned to skate

Skyler enjoying an ice cream the day he learned to skate

Ellie, being 2 years younger, spent a little more time getting a hang of it. I think the weight of the skates itself is a challenge for her little legs. Initially, she complained about her legs getting tired about 10 minutes of walking in the skates. I could feel her complex sense of jealousy and disappointment when everybody rushed to praise Skyler for his newly learned skill. Of course, she is not a girl who easily gives up. It was not too long before she started skating on her own as well. She has this amazing ability of balancing herself by swinging her little arms rapidly back and forth.
Ellie skating on her own for the first time

Ellie skating on her own for the first time


"I can do it too."

"I can do it too."


swing those arms

swing those arms

Now it was time to try out my own theory on myself after 20 some years. One day, when Zhexiong was around, thus I am sure there was somebody who was strong enough to catch me if I fall, I decided to put on the skates myself. The single row of wheels definitely felt funny under me, and it was much harder to keep the balance in the standing position than I remembered. I started walking slowly, constantly reminding myself of the theory I used to couch my kids. As I stumbled and fell, I started admiring my children and their amazing ability to explore and learn so quickly. Gradually, I could move on my own, slowly. The kids were delighted to see me on the skates and asked for a match. Of course, Skyler was the fastest, and Ellie, with her little arms swinging, came in second. I, the mother, who was too afraid of falling, was the turtle. With the bystanders watching, I took in comfort that they might think I was letting my kids win. The truth is, I really could not keep up with either Ellie or Skyler.
"mama, you can do it."

"mama, you can do it."


do I really want to do this?

do I really want to do this?


At least I am standing!

At least I am standing!

For most of our skating adventures in Guangzhou, We frequented this shopping center made on the old spot of Guangzhou airport terminal building as the spacious square between the parking lot and shopping center is smoothly paved. Zhexiong, Xinxin, Skyler, Ellie and I skated together, with my parents watched. This has become a regular outing for the entire family.
Getting ready together

Getting ready together


Zhexiong and Xinxin are the real pros

Zhexiong and Xinxin are the real pros


Skyler coming in first in the race

Skyler coming in first in the race

My father, being quite healthy and active, believes that he would have no trouble on the skates whatsoever. His confidence was boosted after he met and chatted with this 60-year old skater, who seemed to be really enjoying himself.
a 60 year old skater

a 60 year old skater


We almost wanted to dare my father, but thought better of it given the potentially dangerous consequences in an accidental fall of an almost 70-year old. I am happy to report that I can now catch up with Ellie in terms of speed even though Skyler still goes way faster than me.

During the week of the Chinese New Year, a hugh blown-up play structure and some trampolines were set up in the square for the kids to play in. The set up is similar with what you normally would encounter in U.S. except that you have to pay to play and the place can be quite crowded. Ellie was slightly too young for the tall slides, but Skyler had a blast with them every time he went in. All in all, I am grateful for this great location and all the fun time we had together. As much as I am trying not to accumulate things for the trip back, I am happy to take the kids' skates back to Michigan!

The play ground set up

The play ground set up


Skyler drenched again

Skyler drenched again


Skyler playing in his underwear, too hot for any more pants

Skyler playing in his underwear, too hot for any more pants


Ellie cheered Skyler on taking a break from skating

Ellie cheered Skyler on taking a break from skating

Posted by suveri 23:23 Archived in China Tagged skating guangzhou Comments (0)

Visit Carrefour

A French-owned supermarket chain in China

semi-overcast 72 °F

It is only 10 days before the Chinese New Year, and even the air smelled like celebration. On our way home from the piano lesson today, Skyler and I stopped at Carrefour, which is a french chain of supermarkets that is everywhere in the major cities of China. Michael wrote about visiting one during our visit in 2008.

We took an escalator into the store. The special escalator is at about a 30-degree angle and stays flat instead of rolling into steps. This design allows the shopping carts to move up and down as the supermarkets have three floors. The moment we walked into the store, our entire vision was filled with red, red and more red. It goes from red lanterns, red envelopes, red posters, and red trinkets and things with good fortune messages for the new year. The entire store is dressed up with red banners that translates into "big happiness for the new year".
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Adjacent to the decor was a section of special foods that came abundant for the Chinese New Year: candy, jello, cookies, nuts. Skyler was immediately drawn to the gold chocolate coins and we wound up buying 10 of them.
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We first looked around the produce section. The price is at least tripled from what I remembered back then, but it still does not match up with the growth in the price of meats. The price for pork has skyrocketed. Pork is much more expensive than what it would be in U.S., even after the conversion of the two currencies. I suppose the amount of meat a family can afford to consume is still a measure of its wealth in the Chinese society. I remember just three decades ago, pork was such a scarce and luxury item that families could only afford it very occasionally. Even for the families that can afford it, they could only buy it when they had the "meat tickets" due to the tightly controlled supply by the government. We saw a lot more service people around, stocking shelves, cleaning up, cutting meat and etc. There are weighing stations almost around every corner. Customers have to take their bagged fresh produce to be weighed there first before checking out. At the weighing station, a price label is produced and attached to the bag of groceries. The bag is sealed using a machine that uses this special tape. The only way to open it is to rip the bag open, or should I just say it is not openable at all.

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There is an obvious abundance of food, all kinds of food. What fascinated Skyler most was the cooked food section where you can purchase ready-made food, or even order food to be made on the spot.

cooking on the spot

cooking on the spot


pickled vegetables

pickled vegetables

Skyler with all kinds of cold noodles

Skyler with all kinds of cold noodles

Here are some pictures showing the fascination Chinese people have with feet, all kinds of feet.
chicken feet, cooked in different styles

chicken feet, cooked in different styles


cooked duck feet

cooked duck feet


cooked pig feet

cooked pig feet

At the checkout lane, the cashiers were wearing uniforms of a traditional style. There was no exchange of pleasantries between cashiers and customers whatsoever. Many of the cashiers seem to have a serious, matter of fact look. I bet many of them are overworked and are poorly paid. One thing I liked is that plastic shopping bags have to be purchased and cost 1.5 Yuan each. There are way too many plastic bags in the markets of China, and it probably adds tons to the landfill every single day. One thing I still need time adjusting to is how little 100 yuan can buy. If I spend $100 in a grocery store in Michigan, I would have a pretty decent variety of foods that can last my family of four at least half a week. Here in China, I will have to be very smart if I want to even feed my family decently for a day. Immigrant workers from rural areas in the service industry does not make much: 2000 to 3000 yuan a month at most. I wonder how those people are living in a city as expensive as Guangzhou. It would not surprise me a bit if they still have to budget for their meals.

Check out lane at carrefour

Check out lane at carrefour

Posted by suveri 21:24 Archived in China Tagged guangzhou carrefour Comments (0)

Hongkong

Not my favorite place

overcast 68 °F

This is my second time in Hongkong. My first time was last May when I brought a group of American students. I thought Hongkong would offer an easier entry for American students for many reasons. Hongkong was a British colony from 1842 to 1997. It was not until 1997 that Hongkong became a special administrative region of China, enjoying high level of self-governance and economic freedom. English is widely understood, utilized and spoken in Hongkong, with westerners commonly seen on the streets. Hongkong ranked number eight among the world's most wealthy countries and regions in terms of per capita GDP. It is known as "oriental pearl", "food heaven" and "shopping paradise". I have to admit all this glamour gave Hongkong a very mysterious veil that made it attractive before my initial visit. Maybe my expectations were too high, because I was quite disappointed when we actually spent two nights there last time. This visit only confirmed my initial impression, especially in contrast to Shenzhen. Hongkong is definitely NOT my favorite.

Streets in Hongkong are narrow and crowded, with little green space. Being the most densely packed city in the world, expect to be surrounded by people everywhere you go. Buildings lining the streets are old and have a run-down look. I peered into those dark windows and tried to imagine what it would be like for the residents to live there. ABC News reported Hongkong as the most expensive real estate in the world, which is unimaginable to me. I wonder what makes people want to live in a place like this? What bugs me most is the attitude from some natives that they are somehow better. The enormous amount of ego that is evident even from the cleaning lady in the subway station who refused to answer my question about the location of the restroom. I have encountered friendly and open people in Hongkong, but they seem to be a definite minority. I don't understand how being a colony that gave people a somewhat different identity can make them feel so privileged over the mandarin-speaking Chinese population, yet at the same time, so friendly towards the English speaking people? Do they possibly want to continue to be a British colony??

street view of Hongkong shot #1

street view of Hongkong shot #1

street view of Hongkong shot #2

street view of Hongkong shot #2

crowded alley way in Hongkong

crowded alley way in Hongkong

To be fair, the self-governance of Hongkong seems to be effective. The streets seem orderly, as narrow and crowded as they are. I have not seen a traffic jam in Hongkong yet. Furthermore, Hongkong residents enjoy much more freedom of speech in comparison to mainland Chinese. Here is a picture we took at Victoria Harbor where you can find massive amounts of banners and signs of both supporters and opposers of Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline that is strictly forbidden and suppressed by the central Chinese government.

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After we crossed the border into Hongkong, we got on a bus and then a subway for our first destination: the Avenue of Stars. Ave. of Stars is a walkway along the waterfront of Victoria Harbor, modeled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It has a series of floor plaques that pay tribute to eminent film workers of Hongkong, some of which with handprints and signatures of the person being featured. Here is Skyler fitting his hand into Jet Li's handprint.

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There were also multiple bronze sculptures on the Ave. The most popular one is Bruce Li's life size sculpture that everybody seemed to want to have a photo with. Here is my favorite one.
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The Avenue of Stars also offers outstanding and unobstructed views of Hong Kong Island across the Victoria harbor. It was a cloudy day when we were there, and it was too hazy for us to see the other side well. The Philips Headquarters building definitely brought memories back for my dad though. He used to be a senior engineer for Philips before he retired. Almost twenty five years ago, he attended a two-week long training program in the Philips building in this picture before heading to work for Philips in Germany for six months.

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We took the Star Ferry to go to Hongkong island. The Star Ferry is a Hong Kong icon and has been plying the route across the Victoria harbor between Kowloon Peninsula and Hongkong Island for over 100 years. We were heading to the Victoria Peak.

In search of a restroom for Skyler, we stumbled into a Hongkong park with a wedding registry inside. The not-so-big park felt like a paradise with the obvious man made waterfalls, beautiful plants and flowers. The entrance was nicely dressed up in preparation for the Chinese New Year. We came across a newly-wed couple taking pictures in the park after their official ceremony. They were in western-style wedding dress with the bridesmaid, best men, the whole nine yards. What was the most unique were their wedding vehicles. They had an old pink Volkswagen beetle for the new couple and an old yellow VW bus for the rest of the party. I would say their parked vehicles definitely got more attention from people in the park than themselves. Ellie fell in love with the pink beetle on the first sight. Several days later, she asked me if she could have a pink beetle for her wedding when she grew up! :)
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We took the tram to go to the top of Victoria Peak. Built over 100 years ago, the tram climbs at an improbable angle, but affords some excellent views over the city below. Here is a picture taken from the tram.

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Thanks to its height the peak was the residence of choice for many of the city's early colonial administrators, who were trying to escape the oppressive humidity and persistent mosquitoes in the city below. Nowadays, rock stars, politicians and the city's playboys call the Peak home. Property up here is the most expensive real estate in the world, a sale of 12 Mount Kellet in 2006 went for a very reasonable $5,417 per square foot. The Peak has continued to be attractive thanks to the lack of humidity, stunning views of the city and it's greenness. (about.com)

Despite the stunning view even on a hazy day, my kids seemed to be more interested in simply running around and getting into fights with each other. I honestly was too busy being a policeman to make my visit even worth my while this time. I have decided that for the next visit to the peak, I would come at night time and without children under age 10.
At the peak: Skyler does not want to be in the same picture with Ellie

At the peak: Skyler does not want to be in the same picture with Ellie


At the peak: Ellie does not want to be in the same picture with Skyler

At the peak: Ellie does not want to be in the same picture with Skyler

Posted by suveri 05:09 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged hongkong Comments (0)

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