I spent a wonderful vacation at the end of January in Hong Kong. It was truly an eye-opening experience with such cultural diversity—I was able to try a mix of cuisines both local and multi-cultural. My traveling companion and I arrived late on Wednesday evening, so our trip really did not begin in earnest until that following Saturday. We were visiting my friend Lee’s daughter, Rae, and her husband, LY, who have been living in Hong Kong for almost four years and are about to become parents. Both are teachers at a private school in the Cyberport area; Rae is from the U.S. and LY from mainland China. It was such a privilege to have them as our tour guides, as they were able to show us Hong Kong from a non-tourist as well as tourist perspective, and we were able to cover a great deal of ground in a short period of time.
First item of note, everything in Hong Kong is small and compact (so clearly I stuck out like a sore thumb!). Apartments, for example, are anywhere from 300 square feet to a huge and expensive 1,100 square feet. Storefronts are tiny and mostly tiled to be easily gutted with the change of proprietor.
Our hosts lived in an area called Mid-levels, so on our first day we walked down towards the harbor to explore the “wet markets.”
This was an entirely novel idea for me, and what an incredible experience. These markets are in large buildings that house very specific products on each level. The one we visited had product on the first floor, seafood on the next and poultry and pork on the next, each stall with a different proprietor and all with items I had never laid eyes on. After a day of walking and exploring (all of which is straight up hill, I might add), that evening we met friends of our hosts—other teachers—for dinner at another wet market. This one had several restaurants on the top floor and it was quite a show. When you enter it is loud and bustling, and I was never quite sure which restaurant started and ended where. We were seated at a large table with a large lazy Susan in the center. Our dinner mates did all the ordering, as most all the offerings were on the exotic side.
Most interesting was when the dishes were brought to the table, they came in a large bowl filled with tea. I was a bit concerned at first, but was quickly told that this was customary so that each plate, bowl and spoon could be rinsed in hot tea and dried for use. Okay. Next came the extremely large bowls of… beer! It was, it seemed, a never-ending bowl of one of my favorite dark beers, Erdinger, and the other options were mostly European imports, I assume due to the large Western population in Hong Kong. The food came out in rounds: salt-and-pepper fish, fried rice, pork knuckle, squid ink pasta with shrimp balls, delicious chicken complete with the chicken’s head, and on and on. What a feast!
Interestingly enough, LY is from China and his native language is Mandarin, and the language spoken locally in Hong Kong is Cantonese. He explained that he can easily read the written word, but Cantonese has nine separate tones as compared to the four in Mandarin, so the languages are quite different. LY felt a bit unwelcomed among the Cantonese, as with most cultures, they are nationalistic and not always the most accepting.
For breakfast the next day we decided to venture into a local favorite (mostly these are small, shanty-like stands in storefronts) for a traditional Cantonese breakfast of congee—thick rice porridge with shredded pork and 1,000-year egg.
They will put most anything in it, but that is the traditional version. It was definitely filling and would qualify as cold weather comfort food in my book. We also went to a dim sum place with classic Cantonese fare, and among the dumplings was a classic version filled with shrimp and pork (yes, it tasted as odd as it sounds), stuffed pork buns, rice with beef and egg, and of course, no dim sum would be complete without chicken feet. They were tasty, but in my opinion, much like cracking and eating crab—way too much work for little reward. After a couple traditional Cantonese meals, it was becoming apparent that the food leaned toward the bland end of the spectrum. It was time for some more classic northern Chinese fare: hot pot with lamb, chicken and veggies along with spicy fish, spicy fried frog and a build-your-own hot sauce dipping bar!
We tried a couple different Thai restaurants, one in another wet market on the eve of Chinese New Year (it was also one of the only places open). An interesting twist on a regular Thai salad, the restaurant used green mango rather than papaya, and it was delicious. The spicy fare was definitely a welcomed change.
Shopping in Hong Kong is also quite peculiar. While they certainly have shopping malls with all the Western frills, street shopping is another story. Certain items are only sold in particular areas, for example, you will find a whole street with shops that just sell buttons and other street with shops that just sell material. We went to a large open market in an area called Sham Shui Po that was packed full with all these tiny shops.
We spent a day hiking up to the peak from Mid-levels, and after 3,000 meters the mountain opens to, yep you guessed it, a shopping mall complete with Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.
It seems that much of Hong Kong is filled with “Western-centric” stores: a 24-hour McDonald’s and KFC delivery. And yes, I did try the McDonald’s—you would have no idea you were in China except for the red bean pies and chicken wings. We spent a day in Kowloon across the harbor and had a delicious Indian meal in an old mall (there are lots of Indian, North Africans and backpackers in this area) and drinks on the 120st floor of the Ritz watching the sun set, talking about everything from one end of the spectrum to the other.
At the end of our trip we took a ferry to Macau, an island owned by China but recently handed over from the Portuguese in 1999. When the Chinese government took it over they set up gambling throughout the Southern island and in small areas in the North, while still preserving the old Portuguese neighborhoods as well as the original temple of the island, A-Ma. Interestingly enough, Macau generates four times the revenue as Las Vegas, but with very little excitement—no shows, no bustling restaurants. The island is all very subdued, very Eastern. We had a lovely Portuguese meal in a side street café recommended by a gentlemen passing us on the street—the Baccala was my favorite, it reminded me of my childhood (oddly it was no one else’s).
Our last evening was relaxing and we rehashed the trip and made plans for next year to travel northern China. Stay tuned.