Hong Kong

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep Moans round with many voices. “Come, my friends, Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho‟ much is taken, much abides; and tho‟
We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Tennyson, Ulysses

FROM MELBOURNE, I flew the nine hours northwards to Hong Kong, the first stop on the Asian leg of my travels. Hong Kong is a true metropolis, and it‟s the leading South-East Asian tiger city. Since 1997, Hong Kong has been a “Special Administrative Region‟ (HKSAR); officially part of the People’s Republic of China but in most matters (bar defence) self-governing. Hong Kong is comprised of three main areas: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories; the latter two are part of the Kowloon Peninsula attached to mainland China, with the New Territories being the closer to mainland China. Hong Kong Island, as its name suggests, is separated from the Peninsula by water. Hong Kong has around 7 million people packed into just over a tiny 1,000 km2 making it one of the most densely populated places in the world, explaining the relentlessly high-rise nature of the skyline. Despite Hong Kong‟s position as a global city, it‟s remarkably un-multicultural with 95% of the population being Han Chinese.

To understand Hong Kong, you need to know a bit about its history. Hong Kong was a sleepy, undeveloped Chinese territory until the 1840s. In a dispute over the opium trade (i.e. Britain wanted to force China to continue importing its opium, generally on the black market), China became embroiled in the First Opium War with Britain. As a result of losing this war, Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842 in the Treaty of Nanking. That wasn‟t the end of it, and, after losing the Second Opium War, the colony was enlarged to include much of the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860. Then, in 1898, a 99 year lease was granted to the British for the New Territories. Hong Kong was finally transferred back to China in 1997 on the basis that its autonomy would be largely protected for at least 50 years (were it not for the 99 year lease, Hong Kong might still be under British governance today). Whilst under British control, Hong Kong became one of the most developed places on the planet. Its freedom and strategic importance helped make Hong Kong an economic powerhouse and one of the world‟s foremost financial centres. Its history gives Hong Kong an almost unrivalled duality; a true nexus of both Eastern and Western cultures; a cliché that‟s thrown around a bit loosely when describing Hong Kong. However, there‟s definitely more than a grain of truth to this: as opposed to cities such as Beijing or Bangkok, an English-speaking visitor to Hong Kong can orient herself easily; you can be an expat in Hong Kong and never have to learn Cantonese. Then again, however, the cliché isn‟t always as true as you might think because despite the visible Western influences, as we shall see, Hong Kong‟s psyche, culture and traditions remain firmly Chinese.

My cousin, Jerry Kwan, kindly picked me up from the airport at 5am and, for the duration of my stay in Hong Kong, I stayed with him and my aunt, Deborah Chan, in Kwai Chung in the New Territories (they were fantastic hosts and a huge thanks to them for making my stay so enjoyable). Arriving that morning, I was too excited to sleep, so I persuaded him to join me for a walk around Kowloon for some food and some exploration. That morning, we walked through Mongkok, Jordan, Prince Edward, and Yau Ma Tei and turned around at Tsim Sha Tsui at the Harbour. Surprisingly, nothing is open at 10am in Hong Kong. Jerry explained that the shop owners don‟t close until late at night and were probably still asleep. The next day, we went to the Hong Kong Island side for a long walk from Tai Koo Shing to the Peak, a thin stretch of land between the harbour and the mountainous terrain of central Hong Kong Island, an overall journey of around five hours. Tai Koo Shing is a middle class area in the heart of old-school Hong Kong in the east of Hong Kong Island, with impressive views of the harbour, achingly modern high-rise buildings and enormous commercial malls. It‟s the Hong Kong that I fondly remember from childhood holidays. From here, we walked westwards through Quarry Bay where it’s more traditional with makeshift food stalls lining the streets and a more sedate pace of life. It wasn‟t long until we reached Fortress Hill and North Point, two districts which are classically Hong Kong, with tall buildings from the 1960s with iconic neon signs hanging off the sides of the buildings and over the roads. The shops sell everything from dried mushrooms to dried fish to cosmetics to Chinese cakes to traditional soups brewed with fearsome-looking fungi and primeval roots. We followed the tram tracks to Tin Hau and Wan Chai and turned southwards towards the Peak. Normally, you access the Peak by the world-famous Peak Tram; instead we walked it and it took us more than an hour to reach the top. At 552m, Victoria Peak is the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island and the views are truly stupendous! You can see central Hong Kong with its massive skyscrapers sprawled out beneath you with Victoria Harbour beyond that and Kowloon in the distance. You can appreciate exactly how pushed for space Hong Kong is, and, with hardly any room to build new property, the only way forward was upwards. The Peak is one of the most visited attractions in Hong Kong; it‟s not hard to see why. It‟s easy to spend hours up here until dusk when the lights start to appear below on one of the most instantly recognisable skylines in the world.

I‟ve been to Hong Kong six times before; five as a child and once as an adult. I‟ve seen all the touristy stuff before such as the Victoria Peak, the Star Ferry, the futuristic Central, the boozy district of Lan Kwai Fong, Wan Chai, the theme park Ocean Park (although I did go again this time – they‟ve got red pandas now!) etc. on previous visits; this time, I definitely wanted to see a bit more of how the locals lived and absorb as much as possible of the “real” Hong Kong. I also wanted to catch up with my many relatives who live here. My dad‟s from Hong Kong; he‟s one of seven siblings so I‟ve a large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins including Eleanor and Joe, Perry and May, Diana and Frankie, Bill and Lorry, Deborah, Jerry, Stephen and Mendy, Andy and Jenny, Eric, Davy, and uncles and aunts from my dad‟s mother‟s side. I caught up with all them over several teas, outings and delicious meals. It was great to see how they were all doing. It was also really good to catch up with an old friend from law school, Yu-Wing Man, who took me to off-the-beaten-track foodie haunts in Central and Soho on Hong Kong Island.

For me, seeing how locals live always starts with food, particularly seeing how and where the locals eat: I wanted to try everything. Chinese food is made up of various influences, both from within the wider China and from abroad. Within China, there are 22 provinces, the most notable, food-wise, being Guangdong (particularly famous for dim sum); Sichuan (famous for super-hot hot-pots of chilli infused stock in which various meats, vegetables and noodles are cooked); Chiu-Chow in the East of China (particularly famous for soy and vinegar marinades); Shaanxi (noodles); Shanghai and Beijing (famous for dumplings).

Almost every day, I ate at least one meal in a Cha-Chaan-Teng, which are simple tea houses of the sort where the vast majority of Hong Kong people go to eat a breakfast of congee (a delicious rice based soup or porridge eaten topped with fried fish skins and crispy deep fried bread), noodles, or cheung fun (a rice based thin dough often steamed or sometimes fried (filled with pork, prawns or beef) and eaten with soy sauce and chilli oil), and Hong Kong-style coffee (with condensed milk) or yuen-yeung (half coffee and half tea with condensed milk).

You also can‟t miss the countless hole-in-the-wall (mostly Chiu-Chow) operations where you simply walk down the street and there‟ll literally be a hole in the wall where you can see the kitchen and big pots of sauce (soy-based) and stock for cooking various meats such as geese intestines (they‟re thin, tubular, incredibly soft, remarkably delicate and eaten with a sauce of finely crushed ginger, garlic and oil).

However, for the quintessential Hong Kong eating experience, head straight for a Dai Pai Dong. The Dai Pai Dong originated around the turn of the 20th Century when impromptu stalls were set up by enterprising cooks to feed the vast numbers of industrial workers busily building Hong Kong. The government of the day actually encouraged these establishments and gave out special licences for them, which happened to be physically bigger than the previous licences, giving them their name, literally “big licences”, Dai Pai Dongs. These are really old-school places of the sort where you sit on reclaimed beer crates or tiny, plastic stools; they‟re communal, people often share tables, and they‟re pretty untidy. This may be why the Government is now trying to slowly phase them out. However, in recent years, many locals have realised the importance of these restaurants and a grass-roots campaign to preserve the Dai Pai Dong is beginning to gain momentum. The food at Dai Pai Dongs tends to be incredibly cheap and it‟s also characterised by its use of the mythical wok hei (lively wok), or the flavour that can only be imparted by the wok being heated to an insanely high temperature prior to cooking. Classic Dai Pai Dong dishes include chilli-fried aubergines and fu yu chow tung choi, a spinach-type vegetable, cooked in a fermented beancurd sauce – delicious! The experience is rough and ready; just how I like to eat. There‟s friendly bustle and a liberating absence of niceties; in many places you can just spit bones out onto the table or into a bucket on the floor. One thing I noticed, particularly in the Dai Pai Dong, is the emphasis paid on hygiene. You get a jug full of hot tea (the first brew) with which to wash your chopsticks, spoon and bowl. Post SARS, and the ensuing explosion of interest in ultra-hygiene, this practice is almost ubiquitous.

I ate so much in Hong Kong; I really wanted to eat everything that a local might enjoy and that I may have missed before. I ate small frogs (there‟s very little meat on them and, I know it‟s a cliché, but they really do taste a bit like chicken!) in rice claypots (glorious, sticky rice) on Temple Street. I salivated over deep-fried rotten beancurds on a stick in MongKok (they really are rotten; they wait until a thin layer of rot forms on the outside; they then deep-fry it to kill the bacteria and mould; they smell really funky and you can sniff them a mile away! Whilst not for everyone, they taste salty and crispy and best eaten with chilli sauce.). I wolfed down soy-marinated geese intestines in Yau Ma Tei, where you sit outside on tiny stools on the pavement and they give you a plateful of tiny chopped up intestines that look like tubers and should by all accounts be a bit rubbery, but they‟re soft and slightly salty and with a hint of sweetness – delicious. I ate turtle shell soup in Causeway Bay; literally a jelly made from turtle shells which is solid black. It tastes bitter like black tea and is best eaten with lashings of honey to take the lip-pursing edge off. It‟s supposed to have a „cooling‟ effect on the body (about which more later). I ate pigs‟ ovaries in Tin Hau which are surprisingly large, pinky-white organs (similar in shape to an ear!); they‟re chewy and tasty. I tried pigs‟ blood jelly for the first time (gelatinous, supernaturally and disconcertingly smooth) in Tsuen Wan in the New Territories, where I also had the best wor tip dumplings I have ever eaten. I was walking down the street with my cousin when I suddenly caught wind of something delicious. It came from a small alleyway where someone had set up a tiny stall with wor tip; dumplings filled with pork and vegetables encased with a crispy, thick pastry and usually fried; they‟re also called „pot-stickers‟. These were hot, sticky and filled with the most delicious broth and pork. I would find their equal in the Shanghai variant later in my trip. I also loved my new favourite fruit, durian (known as the King of Fruits in South-East Asia due to its large size, its heavily spiked exterior and its pungent odour which honestly smells a bit like shit, going some way to explaining why it‟s not allowed on planes!); it‟s rich, custardy, sweet, spicy and utterly delicious! I also ate in one of the oldest dim sum houses in Hong Kong, the Lin Heung Tea House on Wellington Street (with my Aunt Diana and Uncle Frankie) where there are no reservations and everyone shares huge tables regardless of whether anybody actually knows anyone else; people wait behind you waiting to grab your spot the second that you‟ve finished. This is a slice of old Hong Kong; one where they still serve tea in pots with no spout (just a dish on top) which makes pouring a cupful for yourself and your guests a very messy experience! Here, I enjoyed steamed buns, plump and juicy king prawn dumplings and steamed chicken feet in black beans.

What else is part of Hong Kong culture? Gambling is hugely popular, even though by law, there are only three places where you can legally gamble: at the racetrack (there are two in Hong Kong: Happy Valley and Sha Tin, where I saw the last meet of the season and watched HK Cantopop legend, George Lam, perform), on the Mark Six Lottery and on football. However, such is the appetite for gambling, that it often spills into other games, one of which is mah-jong: a wildly popular and addictive ancient Chinese gambling game involving different sets of tiles; the object of which is to be the first to arrange your tiles into an acceptable winning format, and, following this, into a winning format that attracts the most points possible (generally the more difficult a format is to achieve, the more points you win). There are four players, one player acts as the „dealer‟, a designation that moves around the table. One revolution constitutes a round and a session might last six to eight rounds and, in total, takes about six hours. I played quite a bit of mahjong with relatives and family friends; I‟m not very good at mahjong; good enough not to get knocked out early but not so good so as to win overall. At my level, mahjong is a war of attrition, not blitzkrieg, and, at the moment, I generally bleed slowly to death!

I also tried another popular Hong Kong pastime: foot massages. These parlours are everywhere! I went to one with Deborah and Jerry in Yau Ma Tei. You sit next to each other chatting over a cup of tea, watching TV, which is all very convivial but then the heady mix of pleasure and serious pain begins. The masseurs start gently but then begin to apply some serious pressure to all points in your feet, ankles and calves. There‟s a tendon linking the heel to the toes that, when pressure is applied to it, just killed me! I was told that the pain was caused by an imbalance in some cartilage in my feet; whatever it was, it really hurt. I‟m not sure if my health was improved as a result of the massage but I‟d recommend trying the experience.

I enjoyed Hong Kong-style drinking which generally involves drinking games and getting hammered as fast as possible! One game is called Liar and involves dice and some cups. Each player must shake their own five dice onto a table and not reveal their outcome. Instead, you merely state how many of a particular face you think exists in total between the players. For example, with two players and five dice each, I could declare that there are five “fours” between us i.e. if both of us revealed our dice immediately, there would be five or more “fours” between us (minimum possible = no “fours” between us, maximum possible number of fours that there could be between us = ten “fours”). My opponent must either call my bluff (she might have no fours herself giving rise to the relatively improbable scenario that I have five “fours” to make the stated belief that “there are five „fours‟ between us” true) or she must raise the bet by stating that there are six or seven or eight or nine or ten instances (i.e. must call an occurrence greater than the original five “fours”) of the same face “four” or of another face such as a “two” between us. I can then call her bluff or continue escalating the bluffing. Once a bluff has been called, the „truth‟ is revealed and someone has either been exposed as a „liar‟ or has called the „wrong‟ bluff. Whoever this is must drink. It‟s a fast game and gets you roundly battered very quickly and is just one of a whole raft of immensely popular drinking games amongst young people in Hong Kong.

Traditions and deference to ancestors are particularly important to Hong Kong people. Religion doesn‟t play a huge part in people‟s lives but Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian thought provides the framework for the maintenance of centuries-old customs, such as when incense and paper money are burned in ancestors‟ honour. I took part in this tradition when paying respects to my grandparents whose bones reside in a huge Taoist-style cemetery in Sha-Tin in the New Territories on a side of a forested hill so big that you need an escalator to get around it. We went to a shop that specifically sells incense for burning to your ancestors. The offerings have become ever more elaborate over the years; you can buy paper mobile phones for example, or suits and paper whisky bottles; anything that you think your ancestors might need or want in the afterlife and might have run out of since your last offering. Symbolic paper money is always a good bet and we bought a sackful (literally!) of paper offerings to burn at the cemetery. The burning takes place in a cast kiln that reaches fearsomely high temperatures and, once burned, you go off to find your ancestors‟ remains. You light some incense sticks and bow your head several times and place them in ash to slowly burn and smoke away. This is a ritual that takes place all over Hong Kong and beyond, whether at cemeteries like this once or twice a year perhaps, or daily in peoples‟ homes. It‟s a part of life here and wouldn‟t even be considered to be particularly spiritual or religious; it‟s more like a tradition and an essential strand of the culture.

I saw a lot of this aspect of Hong Kong culture and, after I visited the massively impressive Buddhist-style Chin Lin nunnery in Diamond Hill in Kowloon and the huge Buddha statue on Lantau Island (on a hill overlooking the nearby airport), I had my fortune told in a Taoist monastery in Wong Tai Sin. You‟re given a cup of sticks numbered from 1 to 100. You kneel down in front of the altar and, holding the cup in both hands, gently and repeatedly bow, which shakes the cup. Eventually, one stick will slowly emerge and fall out (I‟m not sure about the physics as to why only one comes out!). You need to look up that number (I think mine was number 67 or something like that) in a fortune book. Apparently, the possible fortunes really are all different and, whilst there are some fantastically good ones, there are also some truly terrible outcomes possible in that cup! Mine was apparently pretty good, not supremely amazing, but pretty good.

Hong Kong people are huge fans and believers in Feng Shui, an ancient belief system that that can perhaps best be described as the search for balance and harmony. Feng Shui beliefs influence anything from how and where buildings are built to what to call your child. One of my cousins, Stephen Chan, even named both his daughters after consultation with Feng Shui masters. Apparently, one of them needed a „cooling‟ name to temper a possibly tempestuous nature. During my visit, I became a huge convert to Chinese fortune-telling having had my palms and face read. This is based on Feng Shui principles and well-trained masters can determine facts about your life just from your palm and your face, both past and, hopefully, of the future. Mimi Chan, my aunt‟s friend, read my face and my palm (left hand for people under 30) and her ability to identify many of my personality traits (which I‟m not going to divulge here!) was spookily accurate.

Hong Kong people are firm believers in the principles of Chinese medicine which, I think, can be summed up as not too much yin and not too much yang, or, in Hong Kong parlance, not too much “hot‟ and not too much “cold‟. In the body, too much “cold‟ will cause a weakened immune system leading to illness, and too much “hot‟ can, amongst other things, lead to nose bleeds, indigestion and spots! “Cold‟ foods range from dairy products such as yoghurt to turtle shell soups. “Hot‟ foods are generally fried and spicy (obviously!) foods, but also, strangely enough, durian. It‟s well known that if you eat too much in the way of “hot‟, you‟d better take on some “cooling‟ food, or accept the consequences.

Another aspect of the Hong Kong psyche is the insatiable appetite for consumption. Hong Kong is highly consumerist and shopping is a major pastime. There‟s at least one major mall in every town filled with mad-keen shoppers. The malls are amongst the most modern and expansive I‟ve ever seen, filled with every shop you can think of, cinemas, ice-rinks and huge food courts. Even on Friday nights, people spend their time in the markets and in the malls. There‟s everything from the most exclusive of luxury brands to the most enterprising of street markets. You can get almost anything you want here at highly competitive prices, primarily because retailers can import almost anything and only certain imported products such as alcohol, cars, tobacco and petrol attract tax.

You may also like