On the Trail of Anthony Bourdain–The Chungking Mansions-A Return to Spanish–Warner Sits Like Buddha–An Outlet Mall–Where the People Buy Gold Fish–Night Ferry Across Causeway Bay-A View From the Top
Monday was my day to explore solo, which I was keen to do considering I had yet to truly venture away from the Westernized side of Hong Kong. First on my list was a little field trip on the footsteps of one Anthony Bourdain and the enchanting bamboo noodle-maker he encountered during his stint in Hong Kong.
The scene I’m referring is one of the more mesmerizing moments on his culinary travelogue series, “No Reservations.” A simple man makes simple noodles by hand. Everyday he mixes the most basic ingredients to make one of Asia’s staple foods in his cramped apartment. The difference between his technique and that of a utility noodle factory is his use of a large bamboo rolling pin of sorts to fold the flour, egg, water, and salt mixture together. The dough isn’t mixed but rather kneaded together and, well, you can take a look for yourself.
The act is drenched in, “last of its kind” family tradition and I felt obligated to make the pilgrimage.
A quick survey of some foodie websites and message boards gave me an address in Tai-Po, a university district in the northern part of the New Territories, an area I had been intending to check out anyway. This seemed like an ideal place to grab a late breakfast and uncover the less-traveled side of Hong Kong.
It’s amazing how the city transforms when you leave HK central with its many Western reminders. The New Territories truly have the China feel I was looking for.
The aforementioned gentleman is the proprietor of Ping Kee Noodles, which is your average, run-of-the-mill noodle stand. To be honest it was also a bit of a challenge to find.
Hong Kong has a number of giant indoor markets, which were built to rid the already crowded streets of food vendors (sadly Hong Kong doesn’t have the street food scene that makes Taiwan such a treasure of a place to live in). On the outside these buildings look like giant park lot structures. They’re void of windows and have very few signs indicating what they house. The first floor is butcher and fishmonger territory, which is always a fun place to take a stroll. Seafood in this part of the world never fails to impress. The variety can be overwhelming and just furthers the notion that our planet’s seas are still quite mysterious.
The locals seemed a bit puzzled by this tall foreigner leaning over their stock with a camera and a face plastered with curiosity. Surely they must have been thinking, “Boy, he must be lost…they’re just fish, you know…Why is he wearing such large hiking boots? Why does his hair stand up by itself?”
It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, markets are a great place to be. It’s prime turf for people watching as you are granted that rare peek into the day-to-day lives of everyday folk. At 10:30A.M. on a Monday, the Tai-Po market was alive with the sound of commerce.
People were yelling orders at shirtless vendors slinging an array of flesh from land and sea, the floor was wet with run-off ice melt, and there was a curious mix of odors–some pleasant, others foreign. This is the setting.
The open warehouse space was flooded with flimsy plastic tables and chairs and the walls were lined with various food stalls selling damn near anything you could possibly want to eat. Cheap dim sum snacks, ducks dripping off hooks, steaming woks at every corner, the bustle of the Cantonese eating and socializing and of course, noodles.
Despite its notoriety around Hong Kong and by way of Bourdain’s trustworthy global recommendations, Ping Kee Noodles is a fairly unassuming place. I ordered a simple bowl of thin bamboo noodles served in broth with small fish wontons. As far as noodles go, these were very good. Mind blowing, not quite, then again noodles are one of those essentials that ranges from bad, so-so and good. The notion that this man’s simple trade was passed down from generation to generation gives the noodles more of a romantic feel than an overpowering sensation to the taste buds.
I spoke briefly with the man himself (his English was minimal and Mandarin doesn’t fly in this part of the China), who upon seeing me instantly pointed to a framed news-clipping of he and Bourdain standing next to his noodle work station, which looks more like an archaic painter’s drafting table, an appropriate comparison I think.
After a couple hours spent surveying the rest of Tai Po’s outdoor markets, I boarded the MTR and headed back towards Hong Kong Central by way of the Kowloon district. Kowloon is directly across from Central and seems to be the bridge between the surreal Westernized business district of Central and China proper. If Central is Manhattan, the large Kowloon is an outer borough, possibly its Queens.
My first stop was the world famous Chungking Mansions, which the notable setting of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai’s masterful film, “Chungking Express.”
The mansion, which is more a run down apartment complex situated in an otherwise fancy drag, is literally a giant melting pot. Its hotels, hostels and guesthouses (all three of which seem to be equals in terms of quality/safety) remain Hong Kong’s most affordable lodging for travelers. Its short and long term residents, not to mention the vendors and shop keepers that inhabit the bottom floors, span the globe in their diversity.
North and West Africans, Indians and Pakistanis, Turks, Persians, Mainlanders, Southeast Asianers, you name it, are all under one roof. It serves as a cheap place to lay one’s head during the transition period for immigrants and is also supposedly one of the cheaper indoor markets in Hong Kong City.
The bottom floors are flooded with vendors of countless tongues pushing used cell phones, replicas of coveted Prada and Gucci handbags, DVDs, computers, and pretty much all other odds and ends you could imagine. There are also a number of food stands serving up simple, but tasty native dishes from Indian/Pakistani curry pilaf and Turkish kebab stands to Ethiopian fast food.
I spent a good hour in and outside of this massive complex, which, it’s safe to say, somehow manages to avoid being shut down by the Hong Kong Fire Department annually (a peek inside some of the upper level hostel floors, by way of an antiquated elevator, furthered this observation). I got a steaming plate of Dhal Makhani at a South Indian food stand situated next to a guy selling rebuilt fuzz-busters and handheld GPS units. The food vendor, I learned, has lived in Hong Kong for 23 years, speaks fluent English, French, Cantonese and is even capable in Mandarin. When I told him that in Taiwan we don’t have anything even remotely similar to the Chunking Mansions he said, “you would have a hard time finding a place like this anywhere else in the world.”
Clearly I had found the other side of Hong Kong, the underbelly to all the glamour that makes up most of the island. I instantly realized how unique a city Hong Kong really is. Its varied history of foreign occupations has left the city a multi-cultural oasis in the middle of the Far East. Its ports, economic ties with Mainland China and pretty much the rest of the modern world, gives the city quite a unique look and feel with a lot more to see under its surface.
Eventually I left the Chungking Mansions (though I could have stayed longer) and made my way down Nathan Road, the major drag in this area, to the waterside of Kowloon where the Hong Kong Museum Campus is.
I took a quick run through The Hong Kong Museum of Fine Art, checking out a current exhibit titled, “The Prosperous Cities: A Selection of Paintings from the Liaoning Provincial Museum.” A nice dose of history was a perfect cap to the afternoon. The paintings, many of which were nothing more than faded, yet detailed glimpses into day-to-day life of the Chinese during the Ming and Qing dynasties, were fascinating. The merchant scenes depicted were a nice supplement to what I had just experienced in Tai Po and at Chungking, the latter being the results of globalization on merchant life in China.
I took the ferry back to Central to meet up with Stuart. The choppy boat ride offered stunning views of both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and I believe was actually cheaper than the MTR. Nothing like a good ferry ride. Memories of a similar ride crossing the Bosphorus came to mind.
Monday night I accompanied Stuart to a weekly Spanish class he attends. Spanish speakers are hard to find in Taipei and ever since starting my fairly intensive Chinese courses (six months of classes, five days a week, three hours a day) the linguistically savvy part of my brain seems to want to merge Spanish and Mandarin together into one incomprehensible mash up. Sunday night Stuart and I exchanged words in Spanish and while my listening and speaking skills were still sharp, I found myself adding Mandarin words into the mix. Without even thinking about it I might, for example substitute the first person singular pronoun, “I” in Spanish (yo) with the “I” in Mandarin (wo) or replying to interesting conversation with “zhende ma?” (really? in Mandarin).
Stuart’s night class was a mix of British businessmen brushing up on their foreign languages, a handful of local Cantonese, two Americans and Stuart, who was the youngest in the class. The teacher, a cordial woman from Colombia welcomed me to the class and an elderly British man, a retired barrister who has lived in Hong Kong for 30+ years brought a celebratory spread of Spanish munchies as a, “welcome to our class” treat.
As we munched on Iberian Manchego cheese (which I hadn’t tasted since the States but was a regular staple in my refrigerator in Chicago) and chorizo sausage, and drank Rioja we read through a couple Spanish reading passages on Cristóbal Colón and did a short exercise reviewing the vocabulary of weird body parts. The three words for different parts of the cheek and upper face were new.
Attending a Spanish class in the middle of downtown Hong Kong would be the last thing most tourists would do but I have to say it was a memorable experience.
Tuesday I rose early and headed by MTR to Lantau Island, one of the outlying islands that is adjacent to the airport and is home to not only Hong Kong Disneyland but also the giant 34-meter-tall bronze Tian Tan Buddha, perched high in the hills overlooking the Po Lin Monastery.
For all the glory of the awesome spectacle of this oversized Buddha, Lantau Island seems to be nothing more than an extension of Central’s shopping district, only outletified!
I exit the train station and immediately am thrust into a surprisingly large outlet mall that is literally connected to the train station. Nike, New Balance, Timberland, The Body Shop, you name it. I felt comfortable knowing that after I paid my respects to the holy Buddha I could successfully purchase a new pair of trainers, on discount no less. There was even a Mrs. Fields Cookie depot, which, along with East Asia’s fascination with KFC, essentially equates to the globalization of the protruding gut. With Disneyland a mere bus ride away one could easily be persuaded (by the Lantau urban planners I might add) to skip the Buddha all together, purchase a sun visor at the North Face store, and head towards Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. for the complete mock-American experience.
The giant Buddha is something to marvel at. It’s just one of many large Buddhas scattered across the globe and a quick Wikipedia search clued me in to some of the other even more eye popping examples, take, for example, the Leshan Giant Buddha in Leshan, China, which was first built in 713 and took 90 years to complete.
I spent a good hour or so at the top of the peak where the Buddha resides. The views of the valley below were stunning as were the adjacent smaller statuettes that praise and make offerings to the big boy Buddha.
I struck up a conversation with an Argentine who asked me to take a photo of him with his iPhone. He had been traveling primarily in Japan and S. Korea and was working his way down and eventually towards Sweden where he had what sounded like a cushy engineering job lined up. I didn’t ask but he informed me that he had been studying Swedish by way of an audio lesson program he discovered which he claims to be the best way to learn a new language. The more travelers I meet, the more I am impressed by certain foreigners’ aptitude for picking up new languages.
Europeans have the advantage of small countries and open borders, which means if you are born in say the landlocked country of Switzerland, it is not uncommon for you to graduate from university with perfect fluency in German, French, Italian and English. That this Argentine spoke clear English and was picking up Swedish by way of essentially in-flight language lessons, made the linguistically challenged American in me jealous.
On my way out I talked with a father and son duo from Belfast who were doing a two-week East Asia tour that included Shanghai and Tokyo. Their masterful grasp of English with a wicked sounding accent made me feel more at ease.
After I had gotten my Buddha fix for the day I headed back towards the northern parts of Kowloon to a famous outdoor street market where I heard one could find just about anything they wanted, with that beautiful fine-line between legal and illegal. As I exited the MTR station and was immediately offered a supposed new pair of Bose headphones and later some coke, I couldn’t help but remember John Goodman’s Walter character in the Coen’s “The Big Lebowski” infamous line, “You want a toe, I can get you a toe by three o’clock, with nail polish. Believe me, there are ways.”
Hong Kong’s notoriety as a shopping enthusiast’s Mecca is understandable. Kowloon is flooded with electronics pushers of all sorts. There were old cell phones and used cell phone accessories. VHS players with serial numbers that had been scratched off years ago sat next to other relics of the home entertainment golden age–Laserdisc players and even a Betamax. There were kitchen appliances and cookware sets, neon lights, and heavily discounted fleece jackets, which I would later learn were often the spawn of mad fusions of various companies’ products, say, for example, a North Face jacket with sleeves sewn on from a Colombia Gortex product and Mountain Hardware zippers.
A used camera vendor caught my eye with his collection of vintage to modern lenses and bodies. I fondled an old manual Leica and was instantly given a pitch from the Cantonese gentleman who told me, “no scratches…good photos…good photos. 1000HKD,” which is a little over $100US.
Sprinkled throughout the glut of used electronics were various hole-in-the-wall food stands. I picked up two steamed buns (which in this part of the world never cease to tickle my taste buds), one meat (meat as in I don’t know what it was), the other filled with sweet red beans, and continued down the massive street back towards the MTR.
Later after another couple hours of walking I met up with Stuart and we made our way to the Temple Street market for dinner. Our first stop, however, was a curious sounding goldfish market, which proved to be exactly what it sounds like.
One thing that I’ve noticed living in East Asia is that certain markets or streets will be famous for one thing and one thing only. In Taipei there is one heavily concentrated computer related market, and similarly one that only caters to cameras and camera accessorizes. These markets essentially bring in all the competition into one small area, making it a one-stop shopping bazaar for exactly what you are looking for. This might not seem like a viable business model but it works. The Goldfish Market is no exception.
The Goldfish Market in Mongkot is essentially a four-city-block strip of goldfish sellers. It’s a sea of overcrowded aquariums, anxious onlookers looking for the perfect specimen and with a subtle smell of flakey fish food and brine shrimp lingering in the air. Goldfish in East Asia are considered prized possessions, especially when allowed to maturate to ridiculous mutant sizes. The Longshan Temple in Taipei has an impressive waterfall and goldfish pond outside of its main gates. At said pond I always manage to locate a great black spotted one that has the distinguished body girth of a fish that seems to have spent a lifetime devouring its foe and offspring.
After a surreal stroll along goldfish mile, we headed towards Temple Street, which is probably the most touristy night market in Hong Kong and seemed like a perfect capper to the day/trip. We ate at an unassuming three-wok, open door restaurant with sidewalk seating and big bottles of beer for the offering.
Later after doing the market rounds we made are way back towards Central by way of the night ferry across Causeway Bay and stopped for a surprise outdoor glass elevator ride to the top of Hong Kong’s Hopewell Center building. This is one of those rare experiences that only a local would know about. The building is quite tall and offers a great view of the city lights at night by way of an unnerving outside glass elevator that hugs the building’s exterior wall. While one could exit the elevator and have a drink at the overpriced top floor bar, we opted to just go up for the ride and quick view.
My flight back to Taipei the following morning was easy and when I got home I had originally given myself a tight window of time to leave the airport and rush to work for my two o’clock class. Luckily while on the airport express bus back to Taipei my boss sent me a text message informing me that my first class would be canceled for the week on account of two of my students–Eileen and Angel–contracting oink-oink flu. With a couple hours of free time I went to my apartment, showered, unpacked, uploaded some photos and let the trip soak in some more.
My first foray outside of Taiwan made me anxious to see more, and then some.
This is a terribly exciting and lively part of the world. The clashing of modern the world with traditional sensibilities is everywhere you go, especially in China. Visiting Hong Kong’s Western suburbs gave me a glimpse into what Mainland China might be like (Shenzen continues to fascinate me) and I am already planning an elaborate overland travel route through the monolithic country that is hovering over Taiwan as I write this prose.
I hope to visit Hong Kong again, but if this were my last trip to the massive metropolis by the sea, I feel I did the it justice.