Hong Kong Part II

Weekend Getaway:
Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

Part II

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

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.

Fruit vendors, miscellaneous dry goods sellers and knock-off purse pushers occupied the second floor, which only required a quick walkthrough. The third floor is where the magic was though.

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

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.

Advertisements

Hong Kong Part 1

Weekend Getaway:

Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

Part 1

A Brief History–Seven Million Can’t Be Wrong–A Walk in the Hills–The Ongoing Book of Pork: Part 2–A Swim at Dusk–Makumba Africa Bar–Dim Sum, and then Some–Sunday in the Park with the Filipinos–A Hookah in a Whorehouse–Salsa: The Revenge

It was only a matter of time before I made the trip across the Taiwan Strait to Hong Kong. Since coming over I’ve have a constantly evolving checklist of places to see while I’m living in this part of the world and Hong Kong had always been the first on the list–a sort of training wheels for other adventures in the region.

For foreigners working illegally in Taiwan the city serves as a convenient destination for the daunting visa runs, weekend or single day getaways taken every thirty days solely for the purpose of leaving Taiwan and renewing the tourist visa. It’s a bizarre loop in Taiwan’s immigration system that seems to have been implemented for managing the amount of foreign laborers coming to the island to work. For teachers who aren’t fortunate enough to land visa through their individual schools, it’s a bit of a hassle, albeit one that allows for travel.

I travel to Hong Kong strictly out of leisure.

For the Taiwanese trips to Hong Kong are easy and the national frame of mind is that the city is less a tourist destination and more a convenient hub for shopping. This “shop to you drop” notoriety was originally a bit of a turn off but then I did my homework.

It’s safe to say Hong Kong is unlike any other place on the planet. It’s a huge, densely populated city packed into a series of small islands that, like Taiwan, is “China Lite.”

With the city center’s population at roughly seven million (15 million if you include outlying suburbs and the city of Shenzhen, China) not to mention a flood of Westerners (primarily Brits) the city at times feels like a New York City of the Far East. Having not ventured to other East Asia metropolis’–Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and Osaka–this is merely my initial reaction. That Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay, a decadent part of the city that is one of the most expensive places to live in the world, is on par with say New York City’s Fifth Ave, only furthers this comparison.

The city is extremely diverse (something I’ve come to realize Taipei is not) with not only its European and American pockets but also large clusters of immigrants from India and Pakistan, the middle East, West and North Africa, and of course most corners of Asia proper.

Coming from Taipei where English is seldom heard other than amongst foreigners (or in my case at work) Hong Kong was also quite a shock when I discovered how easy it was to speak my native tongue.

As part of China’s Guangdong Province, Cantonese is the preferred language but the British rule has the left most of the city a linguistically pleasurable city. With the comforts of the English language at every corner and all the luxuries of Western culture at your disposal it’s easy to get lost in the city’s glamour and even easier to forget you are in China.

My gracious host in Hong Kong is one Stuart Wallace, my ex-housemate during my Salamanca, Spain stint, a fellow traveler and to readers of this travelogue, my first and only out-of-town guest in Taipei.

The best way to describe Stuart in Hong Kong is comfortable. He openly admits to being spoiled by the city he has resided in for over a year and a half now. His job is the kind of teaching gig most serious foreign teachers strive for–a well-established Japanese International School, tucked away in one of Hong Kong’s wealthier districts that pays a generous salary, grants extended PAID vacations, and allows for all the perks of living in Central Hong Kong. His demeanor throughout my stay in Hong Kong was that of a jovial king surveying all that was at his disposal.

He shares a flat with his old college buddy who previously worked for the International Herald Tribune (sigh…) and now has a cushy publishing job. Hong Kong can be an expensive place to stay so I was fortunate to be welcomed into Stuart’s world for my four day sojourn.

Hong Kong is made up of a series of small islands, with Hong Kong Island serving as the central hub for all commerce, in many ways a miniature Manhattan. To the North is the Kowloon peninsula, which is a much more realistic look at Hong Kong’s Chinese influences with only subtle Western influences, primarily in regards to shopping. The northern regions bordering Shenzhen and Mainland China are referred to simply as the New Territories but are hardly as menacing as they sound. The New Territories are the result of what happens when you can no longer build UP in a densely populated urban center–it’s a sprawling suburb district of dotted high-rise utility housing complexes.

Shenzhen lies directly over the border with Mainland China proper and is also, in many ways, a suburb of Hong Kong, although its notoriety as the fastest growing city in China and one of the fastest growing cities in the world seems to proclaim that the young city is catching up with Hong Kong as a major East Asia port.

Shenzhen’s close proximity to Hong Kong (it’s on an extension of the city’s MTR metro train line) makes it entirely possible to live and work in Shenzhen and commute to H.K. for play. Shenzhen is also predominantly a Mandarin speaking city, despite its location in the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong Province, due in part to an influx of immigrants from other parts of Mainland China coming to the region for work. If I head back to Hong Kong (and after this trip I’m almost certain I will at least once more) Shenzhen will be toured.

Let’s get back to the trip.

The October 10th weekend in Taiwan is a celebration of the island’s independence from China. For foreign teachers, it’s a free Saturday, which meant early on that some sort of trip was in place.

I left Taipei late on Friday after my classes, catching the Airport Express Bus, which is, I might add, anything but. At the bus stop I met a nice Dutch woman who was heading back to the Netherlands for three weeks to see family. She’s lived in Taiwan as a missionary for the past 20 years and what she had to tell me about her experiences was fascinating, filling the entire duration of the bus trip, and spilling over into the time spent walking to our individual departure gates.

She came to the island through a missionary training program that paid for intensive language lessons in return for volunteer work with the homeless, female prostitutes, drug addicts and other parts of Taipei’s underbelly, many of whom are kept well-hidden from the general public’s knowledge.

I’ve noticed that there are certain parts of the city that have homeless problems and the old ladies who collect my trash and recycling on Saturday nights (a self-made form of social welfare–a couple kuai dollars for each bottle of Taiwan Beer, etc) seem to have been left behind in Taipei’s economic boom of the last couple decades. Still what I heard from this woman was shocking.

Taipei’s homeless men are exploited by the local crime syndicates through identify theft. They don’t have many options it seems but the ones they do come across only bring eventual doom. People will pay or offer drugs to these poor souls in exchange for their identity, which is then used to obtain marriage certificates for women from the mainland looking to cross the strait for a better life (one, mind you, that is often in the seedy human sex trafficking industry). Once on Taiwanese soil, the women split, leaving the men with the bulk of the blame if officials get involved.

Drug addicts I learn are rarely granted opportunities for kicking the habit and instead are locked away in over-crowded prisons with the keys seemingly thrown away.

The conversation was of course not all bleak in theme. We compared teaching stories, discussed Taiwanese food, which I’m starting to think is a terribly underrated world cuisine, just waiting to be discovered, and, like all fellow travelers, discussed our past and future adventures.

***

Before boarding the plane I picked up a thank you gift bottle of Green Label from the duty free shop. Scotch is surprisingly cheap over here, which I must say is a net positive for all parties involved.

The flight across the Taiwan Strait is just shy of 90-minutes, though you wouldn’t have guessed it on the luxurious China Airline 767 that flew me over. A meal was served as soon as the Seat Belt Sign went dormant, I had a wide selection of movies to view on my personal LCD television (though I was buried in a secondhand copy of Lonely Planet’s Hong Kong guide for most of the flight), and the plane’s leg room was just begging for me to stretch my shit out.

At 11 PM Hong Kong airport was bustling with business travelers from all over the world. An American suit spotted my passport and approached me in the immigration line. He told me of his past two weeks of business trips from Boston to Hong Kong by way of Zurich, Tokyo, Osaka, and now H.K. He noted that he did, however, fly Business Class the entire way, which he cited as reasonable at just under $7,000. I’m not sure if he saw the serious businessman in me hidden beneath my giant-ass hiking boots and traveler’s backpack but my indifference to his travel tale caught him off guard.

Hong Kong is best summed up as a city of commerce. Everywhere I went it seemed like some deal was being made and I seldom strolled down a street where I wasn’t offered heavily discounted designer suits, “copy watches,” and cocaine, which may or may not aid the fast-paced nature of this city. After all before Redbull energy tonic, there was blow to keep the markets rolling.

The airport express train, a futuristic modus operandi, which looked like the inside of the plane cabin I had just left behind, was packed with business travelers of all types with their neatly packed carry-on suitcases tucked away in a the train’s luggage compartment like perfectly erect black rolling monoliths.

Arriving late Friday night didn’t allow for more than a bit of catch-up conversation. We were both tired and Stuart had to put in a half-day shift at work the following morning.

Saturday

I rose early and left with Stuart towards one of many hiking trails that wrap around Hong Kong’s outlying hills. I’ve been a bit spoiled in Taiwan with its abundance of hiking opportunities but Hong Kong still managed to deliver.

The Wilson Trail is an impressive 78K trail that goes from Hong Kong Island and continues on into the New Territories. I started at around eight in the morning and had until 12:30 to explore. A co-worker of Stuart’s told me that Stage Two of the massive undertaking offered the best views of the city and the smaller islands. This particular day the trail was a bit congested with locals participating in a massive 78K thru hike sponsored by the Hong Kong chapter of Raleigh International, a British adventure travel and outreach organization.

There was an unfortunate haze settled over the city but the views were still superb. The city’s sea of tall edifices look almost artificial from the hills, like a city planner’s twisted dioramic vision of a perfectly efficient city by the sea.

Along the way I encountered some pleasant surprises–a dam lake, a quarry of sorts, and most notably a shrine of various porcelain effigies that sit by a clearing just waiting to be stumbled upon.

This particular leg of the trail descends down into a densely packed urban residential jungle, a more realistic look at the vast array of towering buildings I peered down at before.

The high-rise apartment complexes are truly remarkable in a looming and hideous fashion. They bring to mind the Soviet era concrete slab housing projects that are scattered all over Eastern Europe.

These homogeneous utility dwellings dare onlookers to conduct mental calculations of the number of windows to people ratio. The speckles of garments hanging on lines outside each window do however rescue these sights from being completely bleak by adding a human element to their otherwise sterile nature.

At the bottom of the trail I rehydrate in a small park while watching the local elders play Go. The rules and strategy of this game continue to elude me but the Chinese (and Taiwanese) can’t seem to get enough of it.

At around 12:45 I rendezvous with Stuart at a landmark near his house and we head off for lunch, which, after the long walk, “must be,” as I explained, “an orgy of meat.”

Hong Kong is a foodies’ utopia with a steady diversity of cuisines, not just Chinese, and it seemed appropriate that the first proper meal be pork or duck related.

Siu mei restaurants are essentially hole in the wall establishments that specialize in glowing bbq meat products hanged window side from glorious hooks and skewers to beckon streetwalkers. Char Siu pork was described to me in an earlier email from Stuart as, “BBQ pork that will make your pants wet.” This is a prime example of Stuart’s twisted way of embracing food that instantly brought back memories of our culinary adventures in Spain, particularly with the drip off the bone goodness of Serrano ham.


No comment.

Stuart ordered for us his usual, two heaping servings of char siu bbq pork (the soy and color red glazed slabs hanging bottom left) and siu mei, which is a fatty cut of cured roasted pork that looks like bacon (pictured bottom right). The meat is served over unassuming white rice, drowned in a sweet soy sauce blend with a handful of delicious sauteed Chinese greens for roughage and color variety. A rather odd complimentary soup is served but only a fool would waste stomach space on such an undertaking when the challenge of way-too-much-meat lays before you.

A wise nuclear family man once said, “You don’t make friends with salad.”

Zen and the art of pork

We stuffed ourselves and were content upon leaving to the point that both of us could’ve used a good old-fashioned siesta. Still we decided to go back to apartment to change and then head back out to explore the Stanley district and its Repulse Bay.

Repulse Bay

Stanley is a charming albeit Westernized boardwalk getaway that is a simple double-decker tram ride away from Central Hong Kong island. There are tourist shops, over-priced lemonade stands and plenty of English style pubs with outdoor seating overlooking the picturesque bay.

We walked the area and ended up finding a place for a beer before hitting the beach for some casual Frisbee and a sunset swim.

The leisurely swim out to a stationary floating raft (which instantly brought to memory Northern Michigan lakes) with the city lights of the hills around us and a series of small islands lit from the descending sun brought on that daily feeling of pure bliss when I need to blink to realize that I’m really here in this part of the world.

Later that night we grabbed a quick sandwich at a Doner Kebab joint near Stuart’s house (despite the fact that neither of us were hungry it was agreed that it was necessary to prepare our stomachs for the tortuous libations that we were undoubtedly going to indulge in later on in the evening).

Our first stop on the booze train was Hong Kong’s legendary Lan Kwai Fong street, which is an overwhelming and fairly obnoxious Central nightlife drag that is unlike anything you would find in the States. The street, which is built surprisingly on a rather steep hill, is a cluster of open-door bars that issue loud club music and even louder inebriated foreigners. The closest thing I can compare it to is a similar drag in Lisbon in which nobody actual drinks in the bars but rather congregate in the street forming one massive amalgamation of belligerence.

We walked the area twice soaking it all in. Later we popped in a tourist trap Russian restaurant for a taste of vodka in its refrigerated ice bar. The bar is decorated with, well ice and its female patrons are greeted with the option of wearing lavish fur coats, you know, just like the Siberians. I hear the desert oasis city of Dubai has an ice bar, which is equally if not more ridiculous, and is truly a piss in the face to environmentalists all over the world.

A ten-minute walk away from the lights and noise of Lan Kwai Fong brought us to Makumba Africa Bar where we met up with a number of Stuart’s Japanese co-workers. The girls were sipping exotic cocktails and a live afro-funk group was just warming up. This was my kind of place and something I probably wouldn’t be able to find in Taipei.

The night was capped on a ritzy rooftop club overlooking the impressive night skyline and the towering IFC Building, which was where that latest Batman film staged a remarkable paragliding stunt. While the club itself was hopping none of else felt any urge to leave the amazing view before us.

Sunday

Completely spent from Saturday’s FULL day we took it easy on Sunday. We had a nice dim sum brunch with the Japanese friends from the night before and walked around the Causeway Bay area.

Too tired/hung over to notice, Stuart and I somehow managed to wear similar shirts to Dim Sum at H.K City Hall

There is a large population of Filipinos working in Hong Kong, primarily as housekeepers and nannies for the city’s middle and upper class. Sunday in Hong Kong is Filipino day.

Diasporas have always interested me in my travels. Certain places seem to attract particular ethnic and cultural groups and when you find their tightly knit communities it’s always intriguing. Moroccans have flooded parts of the Netherlands in recent years, Portugal has a surprisingly large Eastern European population, primarily from Ukraine, and sweet home Chicago at one point was rumored to have had more Poles than the city of Warsaw.

In most cities you find these groups congregated in their own neighborhoods but in Hong Kong most of the Filipino women are live-in helpers for families, therefore the city’s public corridors become their meeting areas, and every Sunday they gather, like clockwork.

Sunday is their citywide day-off and the majority of them spend the entire day picnicking with friends on blankets or makeshift hoboesque camps outside of MTR stations, covered underground walkways, and around Hong Kong City Hall and various other building vicinities. From morning to night they socialize, often over the sounds of small radios. They play cards, share food, both homemade and bought, and seem to ignore the rest of the world around them. It’s their day and they know exactly how they want to spend their free time.


Filipino Sundays

It’s a fascinating sight to see and I actually felt like an intruder with my camera out, hence this sole snapshot. We have a fairly large Filipino population here in Taipei, many working as kitchen line-cooks in restaurants. I have yet to find their common ground, if it even exists. In Hong Kong its damn near impossible not to stumble across these charming gatherings. At one point I asked Stuart why they chose these mundane concrete settings–underground walkways seemed to be the most populous of all the ones we encountered–over say, a nice city park. His responded with the intriguing, “oh the parks, those are the Indonesian’s turf.”

***

Sunday afternoon we somehow made are way to a hookah bar that Stuart had been to once prior to this excursion. Unlike most casual hookah/tea cafes that you find in most cities this particular setting was a seedy night club of sorts that seemed to be just cleaning up from the previous night’s escapades at four in the afternoon.

Over an apple flavored shisha we reminisced about the nargile café we frequented in Salamanca, switching between English and Spanish the entire time to let the nostalgia truly sit in. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the bar itself had another agenda especially after an eager Indonesian girl in a skimpy outfit approached Stuart while I was in the bathroom. The Turkish men who may or may not have owned the place seemed to have a number of these wide-eyed girls hanging around. Later after an hour or so we realized we were the only ones left lingering in the establishment and the upstairs office room overlooking the bar had a heavily fogged window.

That night we dined on Malaysian curry and made are way to a Salsa bar, where Stuart and one of the girls from work take lessons every Sunday night. While I wish I could put “Salsa dancing skills” on my resume, I simply can’t. I’ve tried at various stages in my life and it’s safe to say these hips DO lie. Normally I blame my awkward dancing skills on the fact that I tower over most dancing partners but a 6’4” gentleman who must have been well into his twilight years terminated this plausible excuse after he repeatedly humbled everyone in the bar with his masterful moves on the dance floor. Later, after I had spent a good 20 minutes trying to get a simple twirl step down, he had the audacity to ask me if I was having fun, while we occupied partnered urinals. The bastard.

Up next, tales form Monday and Tuesday.

A Trip to the New Territories, Spanish lessons, Indian food at the Chungking Mansion, Warner sits like Buddha, and an examination of Hong Kong’s market scene.

A glimpse at the amazing Tai-Po indoor market