Tuesday, December 22, 2009

4 Hong Kong

The heartbeat of Hong Kong thumps loud, fast, and neon. Views of the skyline from the top of Victoria Peak paint Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan city made up of colorful, towering skyscrapers. But down in the crowded streets of this urban jungle, with the smell of fish and spices in the air, you realize there is a great balancing act here between uber modernity and traditional culture.
At the cross hairs is the national sport of shopping. The outdoor stalls of the Ladies' Market fill ten blocks of pedestrian streets with clothes, purses, and other standard cheapo fare, and the unique Goldfish Market has hundreds of plastic-bagged little swimmers. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the shiny storefronts of Gucci and Louis Vuitton where bouncers moderate long lines snaking outside. For those not wanting to brave the queue--or shell out the big bucks--there are plenty of men trolling the streets with offers of "copy" watches and custom suits.

By far the most extreme evidence of Hong Kongians' enthusiasm for shopping was the annual Products Expo. The week-long event showcased hundreds of local vendors organized in sections like "Beauty and Healthcare," "Living and Household," and "Ginseng, Dried Seafood, and Soup Packs." It was a mob scene just trying to walk down the aisles let alone grab a taste of one of the mysterious samples. Musical entertainment was provided by a troupe of Santa-hatted schoolchildren singing a bilingual, choreographed rendition of "Jesus Christ is Coming to Town", led by a smiley middle-aged woman we assume was a local celebrity based on the crowd's enthusiasm.

On Sundays, another popular diversion is the Happy Valley Race Track. There were no horses the day we were there, but plenty of spectators watching and placing bets on the races taking place outside town. We joined the fun and wagered a few Hong Kong dollars on two losing horses. Still, it was a very elegant setting for the afternoon. Beer was even served with a straw--now that's fancy.

But let's get serious: eating was a top item on our Hong Kong agenda. Katrina has long been a big fan of dim sum, the Chinese-style small plates of dumplings and yummy bites, and was eager to try out the real deal. Our first taste was at Tim Ho Wan. We already knew that this place is the world's cheapest Michelin Star-rated restaurant, but the obscene line out the front door let us know we were in for a real treat. After about an hour and a half of waiting we joined 18 other diners inside to feast on delicious steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings, beef vermicelli noodles, and more. Since the MO at this establishment is to make your selections from the menu while you wait, the food was fresh from the kitchen, but the downside is you don't get the pick-and-choose from a rolling cart which is the part that makes dim sum so fun. So for our next try, we found a bustling place on the third floor of a nondescript building in Kowloon. The restaurant was crowded and every head turned to watch us as we found a table and were given some tea and utensils. The staring might simply have been because we were the only people in the room who did not speak Cantonese, but it certainly didn't help that we did not know we were supposed to wash our own bowls, spoons, and chopsticks in the first pot of tea provided. For the duration of brunch we ordered food by waving down the rolling carts, examining all the options, and eating what looked good. We had inconsistent success with guessing the deliciousness of each item, but the overall experience was lots of fun.

For our last meal in town we ate at a little diner near the Kowloon YWCA where we stayed. Upon seating us, the waitress added forks and knives to our place settings. The pork was scrumptious, the duck deliciously juicy. But the best part of the meal was when our waitress returned, after watching us eat the first half of our dinner with chopsticks, and took back the Western cutlery in a great gesture of approval. After two and a half months in Asia we had finally made it.

View more pictures from Hong Kong here.


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