Concluding Hong Kong: Featuring Conspiracy Theorists And Some Fish We Didn’t Eat

As my previous posts on Day I and Day 2 have indicated, most of the fish we’d encountered were on our plates, steamed, stewed. Appreciating them for their aesthetic, rather than culinary, value was nice for a change; I’m exactly the kind of person who likes looking at fish as much as eating them. Call me Asian, I guess.

Fish Street is located in Mongkok, which on the Tsim Sha Tsui side of the city. We took the metro across the strait and surfaced in a section of the city that seemed a lot more “down home”, less trendy than Lan Kwai Fong. There were a lot of small neighbourhood shops, the types where you get giant bottles of shampoo for a dollar and dried fruit. It was a little hard to find Fish Street itself, among the untidy sprawl of the dime stores and many, many street intersections we came across.

At long last, we came upon a series of fish signs floating above the heads of the passersby and stacks of tanks full of bright, predominantly orange, blobs swimming around in them. We had hit the motherlode! Unfortunately, we soon found out that we had arrived far too early to witness the spectacle of hundreds of aquariums and their exotic inhabitants lining the street. The shops that were open were few and far between; we wondered if everyone stayed up the night before to party in Lan Kwai Fong and Soho. Ah well. At least we were rewarded with a fraction of the full fish street experience. The places that were open displayed their wares in abundant clusters of plastic bags that collectively looked like the magnified spawn of some aquatic alien.

What really interested me, quite aside from the display, were the creatures themselves. I’d expected to see only standard freshwater fish, maybe about two rare species of goldfish to set the place apart. I certainly hadn’t counted on encountering some of the animals, a few of which are quite possibly considered endangered….

Not sure what this is, but it might be related to a stonefish somehow....

Perhaps, this factors into the ridiculous prices for caviar....

My suspicions strengthened after we came across this store where they absolutely refused to let us take pictures of their merchandise. Granted, most of the creatures were probably photosensitive and hated flash, but still. Most of the inhabitants of the tanks were marine, and were not restricted to a few clownfish and anemones. There were rays, jellyfish, sea horses, and a whole slew of others that would not be the first things I look for when I go to a shabby, roadside store. It’s instances like this when I feel a bizarre combination of outrage and guilty admiration for the mother continent. Asians are well-known to be thoroughly cavalier about animal rights. We’ll cram a bunch of ailing fish into a tank with barely any breathing space only to slice them up while they are still alive, nonchalantly chop fins off of sharks and toss them back in the sea, and fill claw machines with jars of little critters (no kidding, saw this in Japan). I don’t condone animal cruelty at all; as a kid, I used to be traumatised for days after watching those sobering ads on the Discovery Channel about shark find. However, there is definitely a part of me that feels ever so slightly refreshed by our political incorrectness.

What we did next doesn’t sound too exciting on paper; we went to a mall. However, this is listed as part of the quintessential shopping experience in Hong Kong. I was initially sceptical myself, but Langham Place was an evolved specimen. Even as far as aesthetics went, it attempted to impress. The architect probably envisioned some form of sculpture when he drew the plans.

Content was not lacking either. Instead of the generic Gap and Zara chains, we found quirky, even avante-garde Japanese brands in abundance. And Muji was ridiculously well stocked. Yep, the mall was definitely run by Japanophiles. However, we didn’t get much of a chance to forget where we were. At lunch in a fancy tonkatsu place, the chef bellowed loudly at one of his underlings for all to hear in a display of very local effusiveness. Not quite the image of Japanese restraint, I imagine.

We’d put off Victoria Peak for a while, but as it was the last day, we didn’t have much of a choice. We braced ourselves for the queue, and weren’t disappointed. Like a vast tapeworm, it looped several times around the tram station to accommodate traffic. As there were so many bends in it, we were treated to several interesting vantage points of some very important public service announcements stuck on the fences surrounding us.

In case that was difficult to read, the CIA is using wireless mind control! Osama was a victim, and you will be too if you don’t watch out. If you have any concerns whatsoever, give Dr. Yan Xu a call. The world is a dark, dark place…..

His choice of venue for his ads was a pretty strategic one. The building towering over us would have been right at home on a mind control facility. In Mars.

All this was good build-up, but Victoria Peak was…. a letdown. It really shouldn’t have been. Cities always make fantastic panoramic vistas, especially at sunset and all that jazz. But to get a full view of everything, you had to pay to get on top of this structure…

If not, you only got views in segments.

Can anyone say ripoff? Views should always, always, be free because nothing else ever is. 😦

Dinner made up for it though. As usual. We had velvety, rich Asian style goose and foie gras in its own juices…

The best shark’s fin I can profess to have had, in clusters in a golden-brown broth..

The inevitable whole steamed soon hock. Make a note to yourself, steamed in soy is the best way to eat fish, hands down.

I'm getting hungry looking at this. Are you?

And bitter gourd steamed with stock in a claypot with pork mince.

This was the best meal we had, on a trip where there were virtually no bad meals. Wicked!

We decided to spend our last day doing what we do best, eating. We decided on Yong Kee, supposedly the best place in the city for roast goose. Now, my parents had been there about ten years ago and were disappointed, but we bowed to the accolades and peer pressure and went. It was duly crowded, with a combination of locals, gweilos and mainland tourists jostling to get in. We were all assigned numbers and told to occupy every available square inch of space on a staircase landing, in anticipation of our food. Thankfully for us, the wait lasted only (!) half an hour. We were ushered to our seats and soon found out that my parent’s former dissatisfaction with the fare was rather unfounded. Maybe they were just having a bad day?

To start with, century egg. I’d always been brought up to think of century egg purely as a textural component, rather than a dish with any particular culinary merit of its own. Obviously, the people working here would have been aghast, had they been aware of my barbarism. They’d elevated it to an art form, with the tea-coloured “white” beautifully translucent and richly brown and the yolk disintegrating to semi-liquid bliss at its core. In other words, wow.

This was what we came here for. It’s so much better than roast duck, gamier and more intense. Add just a hint of the spicy salt it came with, and it suddenly took on a crisp, tangy edge, the very definition of umami.

My dad wanted some larger pigeons than we had the last time, so we ordered some. It turns out that the guy knew what he was talking about. These were bigger, but they didn’t have the same concentrated flavour is the last batch and were just alright. However, they made for very artistic, macabre photo opportunities, which were graciously set up by our obliging waiter.

As we are on most vacations, we were sad to leave. It was for all the usual reasons; we’d spent too short a time there, we’d miss the food and shopping, and we were just getting used to the place. However, the last reason played a larger role here; it took less than a day for us to feel at home. It may have been the excellent food, which put the Cantonese fare at home to shame but still seemed undoubtedly familiar. The snatches of Cantonese everywhere around us were at least half-intelligible and made the intimidating, metropolitan space around us more friendly. It felt like we were visiting our immense extended family, so large in size, attitude, ambition and an innate sense of style that it needed its own brazen, autonomous capital.

Hong Kong, Part 2: And So It Continues

It is said that if New York is the city that never sleeps, Hong Kong is the city that never even sits to catch its breath. Yet, it made a pretty good pretence of slowly rousing itself to greet the day. The daytime denizens of the city were gradually opening up shop all around us. We saw queues of people waiting outside shop lots selling congee and yew char koey, conversing raucously. The iconic double decker buses and Cadillac sized taxis formed the backdrop to the steadily increasing hum around us. Add the vibrant signs in Chinese that glow neon even in bright daylight and you have before you a pretty invigorating, atmospheric scene to wake up to. And I say this having been brought up in another bustling, “exotic” Asian city.

Well, what did we do today? After some very good congee, unfortunately eaten amidst a gaggle of boisterous Little Emperors, we took a van from Causeway Bay to Stanley Market. It’s a bit of a ways off from the city proper, so we drove for about 45 minutes on a path cut into lush, verdant South China Sea coastline. It actually looked a good deal like the tropical shores back home, with the same humidity and polluted water but without much beach to speak of. Stanley Market proved to be a little too touristy for us. Not to sound elitist, but it was somewhat grating hearing my parents play the tourists and feign ignorance of their native tongue by speaking in English to the vendors. I can’t exactly explain the linguistic shift, but I’m chalking it down to the atmosphere of foreign backpackers and cheap mass-produced souvenirs. We left pretty soon afterwards.

This excursion took up quite a bit of the day, so we ended up heading back and emerging from our rooms only at dusk to feed, of course. But first, some shopping. We headed back to Lan Kwai Fong, which was becoming a bit of a favourite with us thanks to its quirky (but expensive) boutiques and ridiculously steep, narrow streets. Again, I should really have taken more pictures. Our next encounter is one that sticks in my mind as one of those interactions with locals that are such an essential part of every travel journal. My sisters and I got into one of the small boutiques perched at an intersection of dramatically sloped streets. The windows were crowded with an array of eclectic inhabitants, from felt gorillas to vintage dolls wearing Sixties pop-art shifts. It just seemed to implore us to dive in and bask in the craziness. We were all quite nervous, as we were armed only with very rudimentary Cantonese skills and were bound to run into misunderstanding at one point. Our worst fears were confirmed when the bubbly salesgirl launched into a excited tirade of greetings, questions and exclamations that I alone had to decipher, as my sisters promptly hid behind me the moment she opened her mouth. Surprisingly, I actually managed ok, despite one embarrassing moment where I asked her for “ears” instead of “earrings”. In my defence though, no one has ever described my ears as “cute” before; I simply assumed she was complimenting my earrings. At least I know the difference now. And she offered to come shopping with us in Causeway Bay should we ever end up in Hong Kong again.

Dinner was a bit of an event. Happily, I was much smarter and actually charged my camera. Good thing, the food was definitely worth taking note of.

Does this look innocuous to you? Mild, milky? It is, and yet it isn’t. Take a mouthful of this and you do get a subtly creamy, dairy smooth undertone, but it all underlies a broth that explodes into fragrant, meaty juiciness on the palate. Yes, this is a carnivorous indulgence. And it’s pig’s lung soup, no less. And to illustrate my point…

There’s the lung!

And then there was the deep-fried oyster hot pot, my personal favourite. Crisply savoury on the outside, luxuriant and redolent with pungent oceany flavour on the inside, they were probably the best cooked oysters I’ve had.

We decided we couldn’t leave Hong Kong without having our roast pigeon. The restaurant’s version was dense, rich and gamy as all good pigeon should be, but we were a little disappointed by the size of each scrawny bird. However, the manager assured us that we were not simply getting the short end of the stick; apparently, the ganglier the pigeon, the more flavourful its meat would be. Concentrated juices, methinks.

After dinner, we wandered around Soho and Lan Kwai Fong, checking out the nightlife. Admittedly, it was a little awkward with the parents and little brat sister (you know who you are!) in tow. Moreover, at the risk of sounding like a snob again, I must add that the drunk, rowdy gweilos weren’t helping the situation too much. We decided to look for some tong shui, desert in a soup. With the help of yet another taxi driver, we found a very, very local hangout that would have been virtually invisible to the untrained eye.

This shady looking joint was apparently well-known among insiders as the place to have tong shui. And we can attest to this. The desserts served were of the traditional variety: creamy walnut soup, red bean soup, almond soup, and kai dan cha (egg tea, with an actual hard-boiled egg floating in murky brown liquid). This was the very antithesis of the bright dessert place of yesternight filled with teenagers and pretentiously fancy concoctions. It was simple, no-frills and superb. And sadly a dying business; not a single waiter or cook there was under 40, by the looks of it.

Clockwise from left: walnut soup, almond soup, kai dan cha, red bean soup

This was quite the antidote to the foreign invasion at Soho. I just felt lucky we actually got to sample these before the owner’s grandchildren sold the business and turned it into an Apple store.

June 2017
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