Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hong Kong Holiday

I recently took a weeklong vacation in Hong Kong with the wife and kid, and here's what happened. It's a rather long account, so I have included an executive summary for those who prefer a thumbnail sketch.

Executive summary:
Jumbo seafood, dim sum, Victoria Peak, Repulse Bay, beach fashion, Stanley Market, reflexology, more dim sum, Macau, egg tarts, 10,000 Buddhas, give or take a few thousand, old town in New Territories, dog growls, Cherisse howls, Margarete scowls, still more dim sum, Soho, Kowloon, Temple Street, Goldfish Street, Flower Street, Nathan Road, spaghetti.

We arrived in Hong Kong on a Friday afternoon and took a bus from the airport to our hotel in the western part of the island. Getting around Hong Kong is quite easy. Parts of the city have old double-decker electric trams (like the San Francisco cablecars) running down the middle of the street, and there is an extensive train system. We took many trips on the train at various times of the day, including evening rush hour, and were never once packed in tightly like I am in Singapore. And we were able to board every train that arrived, without having to wait for one that wasn’t already packed to capacity. The bus system is also good, and there are many taxis. However, we were able to get around quite easily without taking a taxi.

We had a small suite, which was more spacious than most accommodations in the city, although the shower was cramped and resembled a glass coffin standing upright. The tram stopped right outside our hotel and took us to the city center. We walked around the city and took a sampan (an old wooden boat) to the floating Jumbo Seafood Restaurant (left). This is an ornate, three-story ship-like structure with a few dining rooms covering several acres. We weren’t in the mood for a jumbo meal, so we sailed back to the city and found a ramen shop for dinner, then returned for a walk around our hotel neighborhood.

Our neighborhood was an older part of the city, which is a nice way of saying it was sort of rundown but not a slum. Most HK buildings are not painted regularly or well-maintained and are eyesores. The streets are largely litter free and bustling, lined with all kinds of small shops, restaurants, 7-Elevens, purveyors of shark fins and other Chinese remedies, and reflexology joints. We stopped in a small supermarket for fruit and yogurt for the next morning, but the pickings were slim. “Supermarket” is quite a stretch given the small selection; “barely passable market” is more like it. Found some pears and yogurt and returned home.

Next morning we had dim sum in the neighborhood. That’s what Hong Kongers do every morning – they have dim sum for breakfast. This became our morning ritual, though it was more of a noontime ritual – bear in mind that I was accompanied by two women, ages six and ?, so a late start was par for the course. At least I had a pear and yogurt for breakfast. Most of the dim sum was pretty good, though I would have preferred to duck into one of the many bread shops to grab a few rolls or pastries and get an earlier start. Cherisse would have too, as she is not a big dim sum fan.

In our family, dim sum works like this. I order a couple of steamed items, knowing Margarete will order a bunch more and I will have to help her eat them. I always end up having to eat more than I really want. So Margarete eats one siew mai (pork dumpling) and I eat three, Margarete eats one char siew pau (barbecued pork bun) and I eat two, and so on until Margarete is full and I am overstuffed. Cherisse will complain that she doesn’t like any of it, and might end up with an egg tart.

We took the faithful tram to town and went to Victoria Peak. This is atop a mountain (though technically it may be just a big hill), and you get to the top by riding in another tram, newer and more spacious than the ones plying the streets. This thing ascends at about a 40 degree angle, which is pretty steep. This gives the illusion that the buildings outside are toppling over. A lot of people live in these buildings, which must be pretty expensive and have fantastic views. At the top of the peak is a shopping mall of about six stories. Nothing interesting there – Burger King, Sunglass Hut, 7-Eleven, some electronics stores, gift shops selling the same touristy junk as Chinatown, and the bane of every shopping mall in the world: a Swarovski crystal store. Who the hell buys all these crystals, anyway?

After ascending the five or six mall escalators we came to the observation platform and enjoyed a spectacular view of skyscrapers below us (left). Had the air been clearer we probably could have seen for miles. Yep, the air in Hong Kong is not that clean, and is hard to breathe after a few days.

After looking at buildings, hills, sea, and air, and taking a few obligatory photos, we took the tram back down and boarded a bus for Repulse Bay, so named for a battle in which the British repulsed the enemy. I will resist the urge to make an anti-British joke here.

Repulse Bay is a beach area with some upscale homes and lots of tourists. The tourists walk onto the beach fully clothed, often carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun, and take photos. It seems that most of them have never seen sun, sand, or sea before. About 5% of the people were in swimming attire and either sunbathing or frolicking in the surf like normal beachgoers. The bay is protected by a net to keep out sharks. If I were a shark in an area where my fellows have their fins cut off and are left to die I would be out for blood, too.

This place was hot, so we ducked into a 7-Eleven. 7-Elevens are very popular in Asia, and in Hong Kong you can stand in any randomly chosen spot at see four or five of them. Most do not have Slurpee machines, but this one had a three-spouted one – how advanced! In addition to the usual cola and green apple flavors, they had banana. I never had that before and had to try it. Poor Cherisse – she likes Slurpees but hates bananas, so she had ice cream.

Having partially beaten the heat, we got on another bus to Stanley Market. This is an area with a few winding paths lined with tourist shops, art galleries, clothing stores, and Western restaurants. There are a lot of tourists here, drinking beer, watching soccer, and eating pizza, sandwiches, and everything except Chinese cuisine.

At this point we were quite tired of walking around, so we went back to the neighborhood for dinner at a local dive. The food was decent and reasonably priced. I should mention that there are few tourists in the area. Then we went for a reflexology session. This involves soaking your feet in a tub of hot water, then getting them kneaded and massaged by a woman with very powerful hands. A relaxing end to a long day of walking.

The next day was Sunday, and we got out early (before nine!) to take a ferry to Macau. Macau, formerly a Portuguese colony, is (like Hong Kong) a special administrative region of China. It looks like any other Chinese area, but with more Catholic churches. We decided to wander about free and easy rather than take a tour, and started in the old town area with the Church of St. Paul (left). This is really just the facade of a church that used to be there, with a lot of steps full of tourists taking photos. We walked around the winding cobblestone streets eating Portuguese egg tarts (small pie shells filled with custard that are famous in the district) before settling on a local dive for lunch. The specialty is fried rice with eel and crab roe, which was decent but not great. Then we found another church that looked like a poor cousin of a European cathedral, but still nicer than most modern churches.

Afterwards we walked to the casino district and ventured into the new wing of the grand old dame, the Casino Lisboa. This place was really opulent, with many spectacular pieces of Chinese art. There were urns, statues, and huge, elaborate carvings of ivory, jade, and wood. Cherisse didn’t have her fake ID, so we couldn’t get onto the gaming floor. I’m sure it was a gambling frenzy in there. We took the ferry back in time for dinner in the neighborhood and another reflexology session.

Monday began with noonish dim sum as usual, followed by a ride on the MTR (train/subway system) to the New Territories. This area is more remote. We visited the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas, which is a series of small sanctuaries going up a mountain. One of them had thousands of small Buddha statues lining the walls in niches, though I don’t think there were ten thousand of them. Then we walked to a mall full of modern furniture stores, with a lot of stuff nicer than we have in Singapore.

We weren’t in the market for furniture, so we took a small bus down a series of one-lane streets to the remains of a 12th century village. Much of the original wall surrounding the village is still standing, along with some old temples and houses under restoration. Within the walls are also some newer homes with actual residents living within. We entered a walkway guarded by a big brown dog. The construction workers outside assured us he was harmless; anyway, he was asleep. Defying the “Do not enter” signs, we walked around the compound. A few more large dogs appeared, and it was too late to ask the workers about their disposition. I am not afraid of dogs, though I noticed one was growling in a menacing fashion. I was mentally evaluating our options, but Cherisse acted first – she screamed. This didn’t help, so I decided to walk slowly and avoid making eye contact with the beast, with Cherisse clinging to the back of my leg. Margarete seemed disappointed that I was not bulky enough to shield her completely as well, and followed nervously at a distance. I guess the dogs were convinced that we were not a threat, and we made it back to the little road and hopped on the next bus.

We got out at the train station. This was very much like in Singapore, where the train station is under a neighborhood mall full of fast food outlets, bubble tea stalls, bread shops, cheap clothing stores, and 7-Elevens. The mall is surrounded by tall blocks of flats and is populated by kids in school uniforms spending their pocket money on snacks. We bought some cherries at a little fruit stall and rode back home.

We had a short rest before taking the tram to the city center and ascending what is billed as the world’s longest covered escalator. It is actually a series of covered outdoor escalators leading up the hill to the nightclub district and Soho, a trendy restaurant district. This area is peopled with local yuppies and expats. We found a nice Italian restaurant that served wonderful bread, and I had a good lasagna with layers of pasta, minced beef in tomato sauce, and cheese – without the peas and carrots found in Singapore lasagna. Cherisse was delighted with her spaghetti and left nary a strand on her plate. Margarete also had a nice linguini with clams and a bowl of lobster bisque, and we were all pleased with our selection. Then we strolled around the city’s alleys, lined with little shops and stalls, before heading home for the night.

Tuesday we loaded our bags onto the train and moved across the water (under the water, actually) to a boutique hotel on the Kowloon side, just north of Hong Kong island. This was not as roomy, but was nice and had a normal sized shower. It was in a bustling neighborhood filled with neon signs and tourists. However, our daily program of dim sum and exploring was the same.

There are several streets with different themes. Temple Street is much like Chinatown in Singapore or anywhere else, with streets lined with stalls selling souvenirs, clothing, belts, handbag copies, watch copies, fruit, snacks, etc. Over the next two days we also meandered down similar streets.

Goldfish Street was lined with shops selling all kinds of freshwater and saltwater tropical fish. Many of them, including relatively expensive specimens, were sealed in small plastic bags hanging from racks outside the shops. Cherisse and I decided we are definitely going to get an aquarium soon. We also took a quick walk down the flower market street, but skipped the bird market street due to time constraints.

The main street in our Kowloon neighborhood is Nathan Road. This is very touristy, and you cannot walk down this street without being overwhelmed by touts imploring you to visit their tailor shop to be fitted for a shirt or suit, or to check out their handbag copies and watch copies (“counterfeit” and “fake” are bad words here). I actually did consider getting a shirt made, but I didn’t think they could make a T-shirt that said “No, I don’t want a shirt, suit, handbag copy or watch copy.” I don’t think it would have made a difference anyway.

One night we took a bus to Sai Kung, a fishing village known for its strip of seafood restaurants. These places all look the same, with indoor and outdoor eating areas and large banks of aquariums containing live seafood of all kinds to be cooked and consumed on the premises (left). We had a good meal featuring a whole steamed fish, large steamed shrimp, crabs, some small abalone, some kind of crayfish-like crustacean, and a green vegetable. Cherisse would have none of this, so she had a plate of fried rice. She pretty much had her fill before the seafood arrived, but she patiently waited for us to finish a rather lengthy meal. We decided to reward her good behavior by letting her choose the next night’s meal, which would be our last in Hong Kong.

On our final night the American 1½ of our family was rebelling against the Chinese 1½, and Cherisse chose a local chain serving Italian food. It wasn’t as good as the place in Soho, but Cherisse thoroughly enjoyed her spaghetti, and my spaghetti in squid ink with scallops and fish roe was not bad. Margarete had cannelloni stuffed with spinach and crab meat in cream sauce and a mediocre lobster bisque, and at least two of us were happy with the meal.

Arising early the next morning, we took a bus to the airport and headed home. It feels good to breathe again.