Hong Kong: A Flash of Nostalgia, Then Some Shopping, Then Some Eating Prologue

Whenever I try to describe Hong Kong, I end up sounding like an Amy Tan novel. My account would be chock full of the outsider’s awe at how brazenly, unabashedly Asian it is. The entire city is a heady assault to the senses, complete with shouted conversations, an obsession with food and money, colors everywhere, and even a pungent odor of pollution that welcomes anyone driving in from the airport. Yet, despite how much of an exotic, Far East novelty it may seem to me, there are also aspects about it that remain undeniably familiar. For a change, I actually half understand what everyone is saying. I’ll catch fragments here and there about someone’s cat, someone else’s Thai wife, opinionated rants against the newly rich of China. Everything I eat here has an element of deja vu about it. I’d be digging into a bowl of wantan mee that sorta kinda hearkens back to one of my countless meals at hawker stalls here in KL, only the fragrance and overall deliciousness of the food would be multiplied by 50. The whole place feels like somewhere I could have lived in a more exciting, more romantic past life full of intrigue, monsoon rain, rickshaws, forbidden love…

Anyway, before I get carried away with the cliches, the trip itself. Contrary to how it may sound, it wasn’t some month long sojourn with distant relatives, but a three night stay to get away from the monotony of summer and my dad’s laborious building projects. However, for such a short trip, it sure made an impression. The fun began as soon as we got onto one of the ubiquitous cadillac-sized taxis and drove towards the city. It had obviously just been raining; the sky over the many condos set in the lush hills was ominously cloudy. The driver confirmed this, and then some. We had apparently arrived on the tail of a fairly strong typhoon that had just struck that morning! Quite astonishing, as we hadn’t been aware that HK was plagued by these. When we got to the city itself, the adjectives that came to mind were “ultra-contemporary”, “developed”, “indestructible” even. It was a considerable testament to innovation, progressiveness and capitalism; the very notion of a typhoon there seemed a little incongruous. However, when we disembarked, the wind just about backhanded us. A typhoon? No kidding.

Yes, despite the continuing showers and the sight of a few unfortunate trees suffer whiplash at the hands of invisible forces, we thought with our stomachs as per usual and got the hell out of the hotel. We headed to Lan Kwai Fong, an area known for its clubs and crazy, crazy nightlife. There was this place that was renowned for its ngau lam mee, beef tendon soup noodles. Although we initially headed to the wrong restaurant, we finally found the place. It was in a cramped shophouse reminiscent of some of the older noodle joints in KL, replete with wet floors, great milky tea and backless stools. To my relief, we didn’t look too out-of-place. There was another table filled with non-Cantonese speaking Asian kids looking out of place and letting their parents order for them. I even knew a little more than them and was able to fake some street cred! And the main event, the food itself, was a spectacular thing. The soup in the tiny bowl was a beautiful, rich translucent yellow, hinting at the juices and fat melted into it from the meat. It tasted every bit as good as it looked, the fragrant meatiness of the broth coupling perfectly with the slippery smoothness of the noodles. The tendon was in no way chewy or stringy, but was so unctuous that it seemed almost like a gelatinous portion of the broth, with more flavor and texture of course. Even through all the indulgent greasiness, it somehow managed to remain light, balanced and just filling enough.

With that out of the way, we explored the neighborhood. Now, I wasn’t overly keen on exploring Lan Kwai Fong on this trip. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that nightclubs and parents do not a happy union make. Plus, hanging around a clubbing district at noon sounded pretty counter-productive to me. But upon our arrival, all those pesky pre-conceived notions were abolished soon enough….

I mean, just look at it! Streets steep enough to rival San Francisco’s, crumbling shop houses, indie boutiques, that Tokyo-style clustering of neon signs…. This place has character. It probably owes a lot of its upfront personality to the hordes of locals that swarm this area. Everyone here was no-nonsense, fast-walking and very, very well dressed. The crowd was just very daring with dress sense, lots of silver, purple, bright pink, but it all came together somehow. The metrosexual men in particular caught our eye.

Bad picture of a metrosexual clad in purple pants and a very fetching tie dye shirt

For a neighborhood junkie like myself, the whole experience was quite a turn on. XD

After a much-needed nap, we tried to head out again. But the weather was not co-operating at all, so we were forced to seek alternative means of entertainment. Fortunately for us, there was a Michelin star restaurant in our hotel. So naturally, we decided to sate our hunger in style.

Char siew!

Shark's fin!

Crab's claw with garlic

Roasted spring chicken

The char siew was the most tender I’ve ever had, with just a hint of savouriness peeking through the sweet marinade. The shark’s fin came in luxuriant spools in a clear consomme and was just the right texture, crunchy and gelatinous. The latter two dishes were all about letting simple, natural flavour shine through without overwhelming it with heavy handed seasoning, a very Cantonese approach to dining. What can I say, it was nice to accidentally stumble upon a place that actually deserved the hype.

After dinner, the weather decided to lighten up. To make the most of it, we decided to hop on the much-lauded Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui and see what the fuss was all about. As it turned out, it was about plenty. The Hong Kong skyline is probably among the most beautiful I have had the good fortune to witness, and I’ve seen a lot of skylines. From the water, the outlines of buildings are crisp and clear even against the murky sky. The coloured neon lights enhance their silhouettes and illuminate any clouds present from below, like stage lights below billowing dramatic puffs of smoke. They also stretch out onto the shimmering liquid surface below and become distorted by it, in direct contrast to the panorama above the water. The whole spectacle rises up around the ferry and surrounds it like a kind of open, vast canyon of skyscrapers. Warning: It is possible the pictures I took did not do it justice.

Apparently, even being passive spectators of this magnificent scene piqued our appetite. So when we got to Tsim Sha Tsui, we kind of had to eat some more. We chose this extremely bright, cheery joint that served the kind of fancy, colourful fusion-ish desserts that have become a trademark of young, hip Asia. Here are some of the concoctions we sampled.

Harsma (frog's innards) with dates and coconut milk

Coconut ice and a truckload of fruits, both tinned and fresh

Sister and frog guts (I think, anyway)

Me and other sister being an idiot, but when isn't she? XD

And all this was accomplished in, half a day? Wow. More to come!

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