The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Hong Kong was Bing Crosby’s deep voice crooning through the airport loudspeakers: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.”
Then I noticed the three massive Christmas trees standing in the glow of festive colored lights, alongside a blinking sign that exclaimed, “Merry Christmas!” As I walked a bit dazed into the nearest convenience shop, I ran smack into a Chinese sales person wearing a Santa hat. What the…
“I’m so not in China anymore,” I thought to myself and, admittedly, with a bit of a smile.
While technically a part of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong enjoys its autonomy as a “special administrative region” or SAR—a fancy term allocating Hong Kong its own judicial, political and economic systems (in a nutshell, Hong Kong controls all state issues, except national defense and diplomatic relations).
A British colony for over 150 years (this explains the Christmas cheer), Hong Kong was “re-unified” with China in 1997. This “one country, two systems” policy was the brainchild of then leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, as a solution to dealing with Hong Kong’s advanced capitalist market and economy under Mainland China’s socialist system. (See? Only ONE China…2 systems, but only ONE China. Got it?)
One of the world’s leading international financial centers, this tiny speck of land is packed to the gills with people (over 7 million), business, retail, skyscrapers, glitz, glam, fashion, and FOOD of any type imaginable (seriously, you want Haute cuisine? Got it. Snake soup? Well they got that too.)
We enjoyed our first dinner at upscale CuCina on the 6th floor of the Marco Polo Hotel. Approximately 3 hours slipped away as we gorged ourselves on delectable fried crab in garlic crumbs, a large array of pork, crab and veggie Dim Sum with 3 incredible dipping sauces, rare beef fillets in wasabi sauce with spicy asparagus and, lastly, traditional Chinese fried noodles that put to shame the greasy variety I get in Shanghai (sorry, Shanghai, you lose in the chǎo miàn department)—all the while, licking our lips and gazing on arguably one of the best harbour views in the world. See below.
For our next large meal (and there were many) we decided to go the more traditional route and found ourselves in the most famous and long-standing Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong: Yung Kee.
Since the roast goose has been the talk of the town since 1942, we had to try this specialty dish which boasts a perfectly juicy and succulent experience for the senses. The restaurant itself was an upscale version of traditional Chinese “canteen” dining rooms and I was happy to see that most of its customers were locals: businessmen and women and typical Hong Kong families
The menu was daunting, with over 10 pages devoted to its culinary awards alone (it is the only Chinese restaurant to ever make Fortune’s “Best 15 in the World” list). With over 30 award-winning dishes to choose from, many of which I had never heard of (Pig Trotter anyone?), we decided to play it safe and go for the “Deluxe Fixed Menu for Two.”
This entailed the Roasted Goose with Preserved Pig Trotter (Best of the Best Culinary Awards 2002); Deep Fried Prawn with Mini Crab Roe (Best of the Best Culinary Awards 2001); Abalone with Mushroom in Superior Soup; Steamed Garoupa with Chinese Ham; Wonton Noodles; and for dessert: Fresh Mango Pudding.
The goose was by far the best dish and well deserving of its culinary blue ribbons. The rest of the dishes served won points for their exotic nature and fun names (what exactly IS an Abalone and what makes the soup “superior”?). However, the general consensus was that our “fixed” menu was on the pricey side and perhaps packed more fan fare than culinary punch.
I’d surmise that apart from its glorious food, the second most indulgent aspect of HK is its nightlife. Basking in the afterglow of our goose with 5 dish accompaniments, we decided to hit up Lan Kwai Fong—the epicenter of HK nightlife and hedonistic happenings. A set of narrow streets and winding alleyways, Lan Kwai Fong is dotted every few inches with swanky bars, mellow jazz clubs and bumping discos.
Much of the area is closed off from traffic, giving the bar patrons freedom to spill out onto the street with drinks in hand, resulting in a perpetual block party on every corner. The dancing, drinking, shouting street scene looks like New Year’s Eve debauchery , but to the residents of HK, it’s just your typical Friday night. The video below provides a quick soundbite of the scene.
We christened the night off with seductively sweet lychee martinis at the dark and heady 2121 bar. According to my guide-book, it’s the place to “see and be seen.” Well the people I saw were typical Western suits, drunk tourists and incredibly attractive and swanky Asian men and women—alright by me. From there we wandered through the pulsing sea of street minglers outside and found ourselves at The Cavern—a music joint where we were able to catch a live performance of a hip-hop/pop group. Typically, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z covers are not my cup of tea when it comes to catching live music. However, with a 6 piece ensemble ranging from drums, base, keyboard, 2 guitars and an incredibly long-legged female singer with a great set of pipes, the band was surprisingly very good and we even stayed to catch a second set (although, this might have also been in the spirit of my fresh mango and gin cocktail).
The rest of the night involved various stops at lounges such as Dragon and Tivo (as well as befriending a guy named Vikram on the street and making plans to be friends forever). Although this might come as a total shock, we ended our night at yet another food locale (I think I have a problem)—this time an Indian dive located down a tiny alleyway where we sat outside at folding tables and slurped spicy masala while listening to stories about India from the owner and his adorable 5-foot- 1″wife. A perfect and delicious way to recover from chaotic Lan Kwai Fong.
The last highlight of my short jaunt to HK was a trip up to “the Peak”—the highest point in Hong Kong and the place to catch spectacular views of the urban jungle below and the water beyond.
As I boarded the plane en route back to Shanghai the next day, I wondered what exactly made this trip to HK so….(I searched for the word and surprisingly found..) comforting? Hmmm, was it the warm weather, delicious food, vibrant nightlife or gorgeous scenery that tugged at my heartstrings and made it hard to leave this island behind? Although all of those aspects made the trip pretty damn fun, I have to admit: what made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside from the very start of my trip until the last moments on the Peak, was the constant and overwhelming Christmas spirit. The cheerful decorations and fabulous lights around every corner, the families bustling in and out of shops carrying bags of goodies, those old but so familiar Christmas carols playing in the background—all of these cheesy and commercial aspects created a context of comfort for me that I reveled in for 4 days and was only cognizant of once it was gone. Well, I guess living abroad for the past year and half kind of sneaks up on you sometimes… and suddenly, you find your eyes misting over at a “Merry Christmas” sign in the Hong Kong airport or a Santa Hat on a Cantonese child. Who knew?
Full digital album of my trip here.