Sunday, September 02, 2007



Hong Kong proved to be the perfect antidote to my travel weariness. Being able to wake up in a nice soft bed in a comfortable home, albeit not my home, made the start to each day just that little bit more gentle. After the flowing wine of the night before, I certainly needed a gentle start before heading out for another day’s exploration.

I showered and dressed and spent a few minutes playing with David and Francine’s two delightful children who, quite rightly, seemed far more interested in what was on The Cartoon Network than what this bald, big eared interloper had to say. The temperature was already in the high 20o’s by the time I left the house, so this time, I took up the offer of the shuttle pass to the station and was soon sitting on a thronged bus.

At this time in the morning, the majority of the occupants were the household for the people living on the estate. Reading my trusty Lonely Planet guide, it would appear that Hong Kong has over 65,000 maids employed by locals and Ex-pats, the majority of them being Filipino with a few coming from Thailand and Sri-Lanka.

While they are usually well provided for by their employer, certainly in the case of the Holden’s maid who had live in accommodation, her own bathroom and large screen TV, it is not an easy life and most endure it because their wages are sent to support families in the rural areas of their home countries.

They work six days a week with Sunday being the traditional day of rest when most of the maids head to Central or Stanley to gather and chatter, play cards and catch up. When they do, the noise can be ear splitting and the atrium of one large bank and shopping plaza in Central has been renamed The Birdcage because of the constant chirping of Filipino maids on their rest day.

I had decided to head to Central too for my last couple of days. But first, I wanted to see some more of Mong Kok and decided, to the bewilderment of my hosts, to walk the length of Nathan Road from its beginning, to its end at the very tip of Kowloon, about twelve kilometres away.

Given the heat, it probably was not the best idea I ever had, but, even though by the end of it, I was dripping like a leaking tap, I thoroughly enjoyed pottering down the main artery of the city, ducking down side streets, stopping at food stalls and snapping away with my little digital camera.

Perhaps my favourite area of all was Chungking Mansions, an old mansion block to the North of TST which now houses low rent accommodation, some slightly dodgy Indian restaurants and enough tailors to cloth the territory a few times over. Hong Kong tailors are legendary and the ability to buy a suit for a tenth of the price one may pay in the West is well known. Competition is fierce and, consequently, so are the tailors, each employing many people to walk up and down their section of Nathan Rd to persuade visiting westerners into their store with the cry of “ good suit, good price, come and look” They are persistent and sometimes aggressive and it can become more than a little wearying when one has turned down the offer of “ two trousers for HK$400 for the fifth time in as many minutes. But, it is harmless enough and, by midday, I was at the tip of TST and admiring “ The Avenue of Stars” a tribute to the icons of the growing Hong Kong film scene including a statue of the legendary Bruce Lee, rippling muscles and all.

It was lunchtime by now, so I caught the Star Ferry again ( bottom deck being a man of the people, of course) and headed for Lan Kwai Fong. At night and at weekends, this area close to Central is party town and, even at lunchtime, I could see why with its streets full of bars and restaurants. I had arrived just as most of the CBD’s occupants had decided to head out to lunch so just about every place of interest had a line of hungry office workers pushing for their order.

But, with a bit of queuing and determined elbowing, I was able to find my way into two very worthwhile places indeed with Dragon Roast meats supplying a huge bowl of steamed rice topped with slices of roast pork and goose

and Mak’s Noodles providing a plate of “Chutney Pork Noodles” which turned out to be spicy slivers of pork on top of a pleasingly chewy pile of noodles”

It turned out later that both of these places are local institutions. I should have gathered this when I saw the recognisable features of Mr Anthony Bourdain smiling at me from an article sported proudly in the window of each store both of which he had visited while filming A Cook’s Tour.

After walking off my lunch with a perusal of the pleasingly vast shopping malls of Central, I decided to head back home to freshen up before what promised to be another wine and fun filled evening.

Obviously, it is not true for all the inhabitants of this extraordinary place who all seem to be sources of perpetual motion, but, in my brief stay, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to combine East and West in the most exciting of mixes. So, days were spent amongst the hustle, bustle and let’s not deny it, grime of Mong Kok or Lan Kwai Fong and at least two evenings were spent in elegant bars, swish restaurants and in charming company.

The second evening was a perfect example as the Holden’s invited me to join them at a wine tasting evening to be held at The Crown Wine venue up towards Victoria Peak which formerly was a WWII bunker but had now been converted into a restaurant, club and cellaring facility for the wealthy of Hong Kong.

As an added bonus, we were joined by their impossibly attractive neighbour, Alison. It was not until we got out of the car at our destination that I realised she towered over me like an Amazonian warrior.

It was a fun night. Shared tables meant that different diners came and went and, as they did so, shared selections from their own collections. A huge selection and, by the end of the evening, I counted at least twenty glasses in front of me which had once contained everything from light crispy white SB’s to enormous, jammy, fruit driven reds from Australia. I hasten to add that we did not drain every glass, but quite enough for me to know that I would regret it again in the morning.

I was also pretty sure that I would regret voicing my forthright views of some of the wines on offer, particularly some of the less impressive ones from Australia, but no one seemed to mind too much. That is with the exception of one woman who offered up glasses of Pinot Grigio for us all to try. Now, I hate this grape. It is a nothing grape and I have yet to encounter a single example in all my 43 years that is worthy of spending any time on at all. It is an obvious grape to spot and I did at once.

I tried to like it for company’s sake, I really did, but it was grim but I found myself uttering the words “ I really begrudge the five minutes of my life it took to try that wine” the woman looked mortally offended and made her exit soon afterwards. As she left, she offered everyone a business card while studiously ignoring me. Mind you, if she is going to offer wine like that in public, I am not too hurt.

Depsite my usual misbehaviour, I am pleased to say that it proved to be yet another fun night in Hong Kong and I staggered home to bed ready for another deep grape induced sleep.

Hong Kong had been experiencing unexpectedly clear weather. For once, the winds were blowing in the right direction to keep all the pollution from the mainland off the islands and gave locals and visitors spectacular views of the city. For me, it meant the perfect excuse to spend my last full day heading up to The Peak from where the city can be seen sprawling below.

I decided, in full traveller mode, to head up there by public bus rather than by the rather more use friendly cable car. Not a mistake I would ever repeat. The journey from the bus station to The Peak outlook takes about one hour. One hour climbing high above the city on twisty, turny streets in an old double decker bus on which it is apparently absolutely fine for passengers to fill to standing capacity and beyond on both top and bottom decks.

As the bus lurched its way up the steep climb, I had ample opportunity to look downwards at the sharp drop to my left and wonder if we would plunge off the cliff or if I would vomit first. I am not ashamed to say that when we finally reached the top, I offered up a quiet little prayer of thanks to the almighty.

Was it worth it? Well know, of course not, mainly because, given my own personal cloud which follows me around the globe, the weather had turned from clear and sunny to cloudy and threatening (what turned out, as it happens to be the precursor to a typhoon) and I was only able to grab a quick picture of the city before scuttling back to the cable car and heading back to the house.

By the time I got back home, I was, of course, drenched. Soaked to the skin in fact and, you will be shocked to hear, feeling horribly sorry for myself.

Still, another shower and a shave later, I felt much more human and changed into some of the few glad rags I had packed in anticipation of the most upmarket night of the trip to date.

Hong Kong is famous for its private membership clubs, the most famous of which is The Hong Kong Jockey Club. The next day was Francine’s birthday ( and the day I was leaving, so they had double reason to celebrate) so David had arranged a table at The Derby Restaurant for supper. Now, this being Hong Kong, this restaurant ( for members and guests only mind you) was no after thought. HK$7million had recently been spent on fitting it out, attracting a chef of note (Donavan Cooke, once of The Savoy and sous chef at the legendary Harvey’s) and the very best front of house staff money could get.

But first, we had some cocktails to fit in and headed to the bar at The Mandarin Oriental for some very decent Martini’s. I was delighted to find out that the impeccable Alison was also joining us once more. She had been a fair bit taller than me the previous evening, I will leave you to imagine the scene now she was wearing heels. Let’s just say, she could have rested her pint pot on my head without any trouble at all.

Cocktails to the good, we headed to The Derby where tasting menu with wines proved to be certainly worthy of one star if the good folk from Michelin ever get around to Asia. Excellent wines too although, given all of our propensity to talk at length about wine, not one of us recognised a single one of the wines in the pairing until we were told what they were by the sommelier.

It was well past The Witching Hour as we left the club and headed home through what had now become a full scale tropical storm. Through a head muggy with good cocktails and great wine, I pondered on the possibilities of my flight the next day being cancelled, but only for about as long as it took for my head to hit the pillow.

I woke up the next morning to the sounds of The Holden family serenading Francine on her birthday. Wanting to leave the family in peace to celebrate, I stayed in my room and began to pack through the fug of my hangover and then, when I finally emerged, I did nothing at all except sit with the two children and watch Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory on DVD.

About midday, Francine drove me to the bus station where I caught a local bus that stopped right outside the airport with about three hours to spare before my flight to China.

So that was Hong Kong. I would not claim for one second that I saw much of it or even as much of it as I would have liked, but I did see an awful lot of it and, what I saw, I liked a great deal. There remains, despite ten years of increasing encroachment from the mainland, a fabulous mix of developed and developing, of Chinese and Western and of grimy and glamorous. Many people had told me that there was no place like Hong Kong on Earth and they were absolutely right.

Another person who was absolutely right was my chum, Fiona who told me that David and Francine Holden would not only put me up but show more generosity that I thought possible. They certainly did that and more. Staying with them and their lovely children and having access to their world for only a few days gave me an insight into one aspect of life in Hong Kong that I would never have seen if I had been staying in an hotel.

I began writing about Hong Kong by saying I have often depended upon the kindness of strangers and friends of friends. I hope that I can now say that in Hong Kong, I now have two new friends I can depend on.

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