Monday, February 8, 2010

Hong Kong

We kicked off our 48 hours in Hong Kong with dim sum for breakfast at the southern tip of Kowloon.  The restaurant had a sweeping wall of windows looking out over the harbor toward Hong Kong Island.   I’d never had dim sum before, despite the fact that we’ve got a proper Chinatown in Boston- after this meal I couldn’t believe I’d been missing out all these years!  Pan fried pork buns were sweet airy snow-white bread like a pillow around shredded pork with a tangy sweet barbecue sauce.  The deep fried turnip pastry (I later saw it described on another menu with the much better name of  “Radish Crunchiness”) was like a flaky buttery sweet croissant concealing a steamy filling of slivered turnip and diced ham in a smoky salty broth.  The pork wontons came with a sweet and spicy chili and garlic sauce with sliced scallions.  We washed it all down with a pot of delicate, fragrant jasmine tea.  I left breakfast stuffed and hoping I’d have room to try more soon.

Ah, but we made more room quickly.  I spotted a Starbucks, our first in several countries, and we treated ourselves to expensive ($4 USD) cups of drip coffee, and decided to try one of the Hong Kong Starbucks pastries for dessert.  We selected an “Ugly Dome”, despite its curious name.  It was an airy puffy refined sugar, over-processed flour bun of deliciousness with a surprise center of sweet yellow paste.  Sweet potato perhaps?  Oh so bad for me, and oh so addictive.  We made a mental note to make room for more Hong Kong bread later.

It was a grey day and the city was shrouded in an atmospheric mist that enveloped the top of the tallest buildings.  We checked the weather forecast and saw that it’d be misty for the next 7 days.  Does the sun ever shine in Hong Kong?  We took the Star Ferry across the harbor to Hong Kong Island, and set off on foot to explore.

We wandered on Cat Street past the street stalls selling antiques and bought a carved wood panel with flecks of red paint remaining around the edges. The stall proprietor told us it was a piece of an old door, more than a hundred years old.  We ducked into Man Mo Temple and watched ladies unfurl fortune-telling bundles containing brightly-printed papers and incense sticks.
We took the steep cable-powered Peak Tram to the top of the mountains (Or hills?  It’s hard to tell when the tops have disappeared into the fog) backing the city.  The view was disappointing but must be spectacular if the clouds ever lift.

Hong Kong charmed me.  It’s a city of contrasts, history and modernity all entangled together.  Girls walk by talking to their friends on video-screen cell phones.  “The future is here” said Mohit.  Then we walked by a shoe repair store where a shriveled old man was crouched over a pair of black leather shoes using the most ingenious, and ancient-looking string powered hand drill contraption.  “The past is here too."

On the corner nearby, vegetable stalls with big baskets of bok choy on the sidewalk.  Herbal medicine stores with dusty bins of dried scallops, dried whole fish, dried unidentifiable alien-looking sea life.  Impossibly tall sleek glass skyscrapers rise almost organically up from winding old streets and clusters of dusty, crumbly, old Chinese buildings with laundry hanging from every balcony and on plastic hangers hooked onto the edges of ancient window AC units.  A surprising number of place names are strictly British; Connaught, Wellington, Queens, Harcourt.

There are countless, endless glittery jewelry stores displaying diamonds galore, the biggest diamonds I’ve seen, 16 carats, elaborate cocktail rings and decadent necklaces dripping with gems.  Big chunky yellow gold jewelry, even a huge pig necklace with small pendant piglets hanging off each of her golden pig nipples.  Stores on every block advertised expensive watches; Rolex, Patek Philippe.  Conveniently, there are also men on every street corner whispering "copy watch madam?  copy handbag?"

We poked around the Lan Kwai Fong neighborhood looking for a dinner spot.  In Hong Kong for only two days, we were determined to eat Chinese food, but we had difficulty locating a Chinese restaurant among the Lebanese, Argentinean, Australian Grill, Filipino, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Nepalese, Indian, Japanese Sushi, and American burger places.  We finally found a suitable place and Mohit ordered a dish of sautéed shredded pork in a sweet orangey-brown Beijing sauce.  The pork was accompanied by a plate of crispy pastry pockets paved with sesame seeds on the outside, and with warm flaky insides that we spooned the shredded pork into.  Delicious.

Afterwards, we wandered into the SoHo neighborhood, grabbed seats facing the sidewalk, and settled in to watch the locals meet up with friends for after-work drinks.  We were in heaven to have access to Guinness on tap (Mohit) and a glass of plummy, full-bodied Cabernet (me); we realized these were the “comfort foods” from home that we’d been missing (yes, we’re spoiled!).  We talked about how we’d love to come back and explore China more, walk on the Great Wall and see the karst landscape of Guilin.  I commented that this trip is making the world feel remarkably smaller, incredibly accessible.  That realization came with some regret- I enjoyed the days when travel like this was exotic, dreamy, impossible, a distant “maybe someday”.  I feel thankful, humble, incredibly grateful for this amazing experience.

We returned by ferry to Kowloon, just in time to catch the nightly light show across the harbor.  Rainbow-lit skyscraper facades and green rooftop lasers danced in time to cheesy cartoonish music blaring on loudspeakers.  We enjoyed it like little kids.  Later, we wandered inland under neon-lit streets to the Temple Street Night market.  Mohit considered buying a fake Rolex, but escaped without making a purchase.

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