HONG KONG: FEAST MEETS WEST
If Japan proved to me the kindness of strangers, then Hong Kong proved to me the kindness of friends. Well, friends of friends, at least.
It seemed like an obvious decision to include Hong Kong in my schedule. Over 90% of the books I was involved with in my time in Publishing would have been printed by companies in Hong Kong or main land China and I had, over the years, met many people from this former British Protectorate.
Not only for that reason, however, this is a food trip, after all. Hong Kong’s range of cuisine is legendary with hot pots, roast meats, dumplings and noodles being available on just about every street corner and some of the finest “Western” restaurants in Asia serving the large community of Ex- Pat workers.
I also, quite correctly as it turned out, thought that Hong Kong would make an easy transition point to the joys of Main Land China with all the benefits of a developed economy alongside some of the challenges I expected to face on the next major leg of the journey.
As has so often proved the case as I EAT MY GLOBE, I again encountered extraordinary generosity when I least expected it.
A few weeks before my departure on this extended leg of the journey, I was sitting with my friend and former Penguin boss, Fiona and boring her to tears with my trip plans between gulps of half decent Martini’s at The Kensington Garden Hotel.
When I mentioned Hong Kong her eyes lit up and she said “ you must stay with my friends David and Francine” as if it was the most natural thing in the world that two complete strangers would take me in to their home on the recommendation of one of their former neighbours. I smiled politely and then thought no more about it.
In typical fashion though, Fiona was on the case and a few days later she called me to say that she had spoken to them and they had taken her at her word that I was unlikely to soil the carpets and my accommodation was sorted.
The journey from Tokyo was fraught to say the least. Not, for once, because of transport woes, but because, for the first time in about three weeks, I came back into contact with large numbers of Westerners.
After the gentle civility, politeness and elegance of the Japanese, encountering a large tour group of Americans from the mid West with their lumbering gait, glass shattering voices and squealy demands grated on my system like fingers on a blackboard and, after I heard one particularly noxious individual berate the staff at the inevitable Mc D’s because she could not super size her meal, I fled to the relative safety of the club lounge and ate free nuts until the pain in my stomach went away.
The flight itself was, to use an entirely inappropriate metaphor, smooth sailing and Hong Kong customs a breeze. Within thirty minutes of landing, I was ensconced in my comfortable room in the airport Novotel from where Francine had agreed to pick me up the next day and within an hour, I was asleep with Japan nothing but an already distant, but rather blissful memory.
My slumber was broken by an alarm call I hadn’t booked but which they insisted I had. Welcome to Hong Kong. So, trying to make the best of a bad job, I dragged my weary carcass down to their excellent gym and tried to remind my body, much blubbered by soba noodles, what it was like to do some hard work before a quick shower followed by a stroll around the mall adjacent to the hotel to find breakfast.
About an hour later, as agreed, Francine burst into the hotel lobby, every inch the whirlwind of energy Fiona had warned me about and with my baggage bundled into the back of an unfeasibly large SUV, we set off across the islands to her house in The New territories where it turned out that I had turfed her four year old daughter out of her room and was comfortably set up amidst more Barbie products than you would find at FAO Schwartz.
David and Francine are a true Hong Kong mix. Francine, a Hong Konger, born and bred. David a relative interloper from New Zealand. Their splendid home was set in one of Hong Kong’s multitude of gated communities with security guards, live in maids and all the other accoutrements I associated with the Ex pat lifestyle. However, in the case of Hong Kong, I was soon put straight when Francine told me that over 80% of the population in these communities is now Chinese and the Ex Pat population is decreasing all the time as the influence of China begins slowly to exert itself.
Whatever the demographics of these communities, they are certainly welcome havens of peace and quiet compared to the rest of Hong Kong as I was to find out in the next few days. But, for now, I just wallowed in the luxury of a family home, an incredibly hospitable welcome and the chance to eat Western food. Which, despite my best efforts, I have to admit a huge craving for as I travel.
When Fiona told me that Francine was, by trade, an importer of New World Wines into Hong Kong, I just knew we were going to get along and it was not long before the first of many excellent bottles had been cracked open and I was beginning to get to know this charming family over more than a few glasses of decent Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. I headed to bed early in preparation for my first day proper in Hong Kong.
I awoke next morning to the sounds of the children of the house as the older brother inevitably took the opportunity to torture his younger sister. It may have earned them a quick telling off from their mother, but it roused me and I was soon showered and shaved and walking the twenty five minutes to the local commuter train station.
Well, that was my first mistake. I had wondered, in the cool, clear air of the Holden home why Francine had looked at me as if I was not quite right in the head when I turned down the offer of a free pass for the shuttle bus to the nearest Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR) station (not a mistake I was to make again) and said I would walk. She said it might be a bit hot and dirty and she certainly has a talent for understatement. By the time I got to the Tai Wo station, I was soaked with sweat and also drenched from one of the seasonal downpours that was a precursor to a pretty serious typhoon. To be honest, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.
However, my first port of call cheered me up no end. Mong Kok is everything you imagine Hong Kong to be. Bustling streets of restaurants, stores selling just about everything and stalls selling everything that the shops may have forgotten.
The main artery through Mong Kok, I fact through the whole of Kowloon is Nathan Road and used that as my guide point as I went on a bit of an exploration through the backstreets, past the Po St Bird Market, The Flower Market, The Ladies Market and Temple St Night Market. As I walked, I noticed that there seem to be a disproportionate number of hairdressers with their unmistakeable swirling signature poles at the front of the store. It was not until I was talking to David about this later in the evening that he mentioned that these were split into two very different types, those that offered a wash & blow dry and those that offered a wash and, well, blow job, ahem.
Mong Kok is a wonderfully seedy area with literally hundreds of strip clubs and girly bars sitting alongside the other stores and restaurants. They are not subtle about it either with large neon signs advertising hotel’s hourly rates and massage services provided.
I can well believe that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. Every last grimy side street and titty bar and every street food stall that would give a western health & safety officer a heart attack.
By now, I had walked a long way down Nathan road towards Tsim Sha Tsui on the Southern tip of Nathan Road and I was beginning to get more than a little hungry. I had begun my days eating near the Bird market with a fried dough stick and a bowl of beef tendon soup,
but now, I was in need of something a little more elegant. I stopped into the highly recommended Sweet Dynasty which, although popular for Dim Sum and main courses, is best known for, as the name suggests, its desserts. A set meal of noodles was fine, but topped off by a silky bowl of sweet custard like tofu that slipped down all to easily when guided by some black tea.
Enough sustenance to get me going again and head across to Central by The Star Ferry.
The ferry has been crossing from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island since 1888 with only a short break during WWII. Up until 1978, when a tunnel was built, it was the only way to cross between the two points and also another glorious symbol of British Colonialism with whites only being allowed to travel on the breezy top deck with the local Chinese being confined to the diesel fume smogged lower decks. Even today, when anyone can sit anywhere, you still have to pay a whole HK0.30 more to sit on the top deck. Me? I am a man of the people so took my place below stairs with the common herd as we crossed over the water to Hong Kong’s business hub.
I had planned to spend much of the next day wandering around Central and its bustling foodie area of Lan Kwai Fong, so I used this day’s brief time there to get my bearings before heading to the nearest MTR station and the one hour journey back to the glorious comforts of my New Territory home.
That evening, I had invited David and Francine to be my guests for supper by way of a small thanks for their generosity and they suggested dining at Chun Shin a restaurant offering a slightly quirky combination of a Cantonese take on Thai food.
It was certainly busy enough. While the restaurants on either side stood forlorn in their emptiness this one was packed with families and filled with fantastic smells and a cacophony of noise.
The food was good too with the highlights being some dainty stuffed chicken wings and a dish of stir fried crab that came in a sauce so rich, thick and delicious, that I was fighting my guests off at the end as we all tried to scoop up the last few dregs from the bowl.
With some splendid Sauvignon Blanc that Francine had brought along, the meal came to about HK$600 ( about £40 ) for the three of us.
I went to bed in a slightly woozy state amongst dolls, toys and books about princesses realising that I rather liked Hong Kong.