Hong Kong

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Some like it hot

Written by Emmy on 16 June 2011

I love spicy food. I’m not sure at what point I realized that — no one in my family is a huge fan — but on most ethnic menus, I first look at the items with chili peppers or little bonfires next to them. Sometime before we left on our trip, Chaz and I were talking about spicy food with our friend Joanna. She is not a huge fan, and commented that she doesn’t usually like spice because of the tongue-numbing feeling that comes along with it. In most cases, I can ignore that feeling as long as the underlying flavors still come through. In certain moments I do agree with her. At my favorite Thai restaurant in Providence, I had to downgrade from four-star to three-star spiciness on a frequently ordered chicken and eggplant dish after I lost all sensation in my mouth.

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When Chaz and I were sampling hot-and-sour soup in Hong Kong, something new struck me about the familiar dish. Whenever I order hot-and-sour soup at home, my father predictably tries it and proclaims that it tastes “like battery acid.” And to be fair, hot-and-sour soup can have that tendency and often is hit or miss. Too much hot and there’s no flavor; just eye-watering liquid. The soup we had in HK was spicy, but there was more to the spice than there ever is at home.

Hot and sour soup

The same was true of the chili pepper chicken we had at a Szechuan dinner in Hong Kong. Yes, it blew my head off. But when the steam cleared, there were tastes on my tongue I had never experienced before. The spices had been soaked into the chicken in a way that never happens when I try to make chicken myself.

The food here in Thailand is incredibly spicy, but every dish is a different kind of spicy from the next. The herbs and peppers we have seen in the markets resemble nothing I have ever seen before, and the resulting flavors are just as colorful as the ingredients they come from. In several different restaurants, we have been presented with tiny chopped-up spicy peppers to season our dishes. The effect of these peppers versus, say, dolloping hot sauce on your food is like day and night. Even buying street food comes with a delightful spicy experience: a plastic baggie of sauce, ranging from red to green, sticky to liquid, spicy-sweet to almost lime flavored. The ingredients just taste different here, and help to accent the vegetables, noodles and meats, rather than mask the natural flavors with indiscriminating heat.

The spiciest thing I have eaten on our trip to date was a papaya salad. Papaya salad is very common here, sliced and diced in the middle of bustling streets and beautifully prepared at the city’s nicest hotels. At one of Bangkok’s most visited sites, the Jim Thompson house, we took a recommended mid-afternoon break at the museum’s cafe. The papaya salad, garnished with peanuts and fresh shrimp, truly lit a fire in my mouth.

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Normally when I think of spicy food, I think of peppers (like the ones above) or goopy sauces. And yet, it was the subtleties of a citrusy salad dressing that sent sparks shooting through my head. (Truly: it took about 10 glasses of water and two pieces of gum before I felt totally normal again.) The appreciation for market ingredients and how they fit together continues to surprise me as we try new foods. It seems like there is just so much more attention paid to detail in the cooking here.

In one of our first meals in Bangkok, we ordered papaya salad on a street corner. Though not as beautiful as the one photographed above, it was still spicy and flavorful, with a light sauce picking up on the natural crunch and zest of the fruit. The woman serving us barely spoke English, and so we had ordered mostly by pointing. Before serving our food, she brought over a spoonful of warm broth for me to try. It was the dressing for the salad: she had been stirring in spices over a simmering pot and wanted my approval on intensity before she poured it over the salad.

And when all is said and done, just in case the food isn’t blowing your mind in every sense of the phrase, every table comes with a full selection of extra spices, ranging from baby jalapenos to finely grated red pepper. So until I lose all feeling in my tongue, bring on the heat. For now, it tastes delicious.

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Touchdown in Thailand

Written by Emmy on 11 June 2011

IMG_0526We left Hong Kong Wednesday morning in the pouring rain, returning to the airport on the express train that we had taken in total bewilderment days earlier. We checked in with no problems at Terminal 2, and then somewhat nonsensically, had to commute to Terminal 1 for our flight. We quickly passed through security and customs, but I was then aggressively approached by a woman in an official-looking uniform. Normally, such an event might be unnerving in a security setting, but the exact same thing had happened to me the day before when leaving Hong Kong to go to Macau.

A woman had walked up to me while I was waiting for Chaz to clear passport control, and she asked if I could answer a few questions. After years of conducting polls for The Herald, I have a soft spot for surveying, and I also figured it was a bad idea to say no while still in view of someone who could easily detain me. The questions were all pretty benign: What country are you from? Have you ever been to Hong Kong before? What is the purpose of your visit? I was asked for my five-digit ZIP code, leaving me to imagine some Hong Kong official looking at the results quizzically and thinking, “Where the hell is Mill Neck, N.Y.?” I was also asked who I was traveling with, and by this time Chaz had caught up to me. I responded, “A friend.” The woman looked at me knowingly and said, “Oh, you mean boyfriend.” “No,” I said, pointing at the “none of the above” option. “Friend.” She apologetically changed it and dismissed me shortly after.

Our flight to BangkokWhen I was approached yet again — this time in the Hong Kong airport — I told the woman I had already taken her survey. She insisted I take it again. The only answer that changed was that because I had left Hong Kong to go to Macau, I had now technically visited HK twice. Because I knew what the questions were, I began to answer the survey questions before she asked them, loudly replying “SIGHTSEEING” before I had been asked why I was visiting Hong Kong. The experience reminded me of my dealings with Julie, Amtrak’s automated answer service. I’ve yelled “I ALREADY HAVE A RESERVATION” enough times to know the drill.

Finally, after surveys and finding a food establishment that would sell us coffee for the minimal HK money we had left, we boarded our flight. We received our pre-ordered meals and a “comfort kit” we had pre-ordered mostly out of curiosity. (It turned out to be an Air Asia blanket, among other things.) We landed in Bangkok and managed to beat most of our plane to customs, but waited in what turned out to be an epic line for reasons we couldn’t quite discern. But we made it through, gathered our baggage and located the representative from our hotel who had come to pick us up.

We drove into downtown Bangkok with a fantastic soundtrack: a CD of pop songs from the U.S., all slowed down dramatically in tempo and sung by a woman with a soothing voice. Hits included Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” Usher’s “O.M.G.” and Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.” We couldn’t figure out whether the CD had been put on for our benefit, or if it was the musical choice of our middle-aged male driver.

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Driving into the Thai capital, it was difficult to get a good sense of geography, mostly because the city is so sprawling. Home to about 7 million, Bangkok is enormous. Traffic can get pretty grueling, and according to Chaz’s uncle Bruce, cab drivers used to have to carry bladder bags. Things have improved drastically in the last 10 years, mostly following the construction of the SkyTrain. I imagined something like the Disney World Monorail, but the SkyTrain is really just an elevated subway, running through the more developed and bustling parts of the city. The train system is rapidly expanding: Our Lonely Planet book from a couple years ago shows the line ending two stops before it does now. The current maps displayed on the trains, on the other hand, show stops that don’t yet exist. Our hotel is at the end of one of the two Skytrain lines, which makes it infinitely more accessible than it might otherwise be.

IMG_0660Eager to explore, we took the aforementioned Skytrain to Silom Road, which the guidebooks call the Wall Street of Bangkok. We were also eager to eat, and pounced on a little cafe — chosen simply because the noodles and fresh ingredients on display on the street looked so appetizing. We had two small dishes, ordered, eaten and paid for in rapid-fire fashion. The two dishes plus two water bottles barely rang up to $5, though the price did sound high when quoted in Thai baht (the exchange rate is 30 to 1). We walked out satisfied, but not full. Luckily, we immediately happened upon a woman and her barbecue… she happily sold us a little bag of spring rolls. She asked if we wanted spicy sauce and when we vigorously nodded yes, she handed over a little baggie tied up with a rubber band. We ate our snack on the side of the road and then cleaned up thanks to the baby wipes my mom suggested I carry around.

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IMG_0668We wandered around, walking through a big park where countless Thai men were exercising. We strolled up a busy road filled with international embassies and found the American one, enormous and behind barbed wire. We tried to go in — I wanted a map, among other things — but were told that they only see American citizens before 11 a.m. Rude. I also almost got taken down for trying to photograph the embassy. Sorry!

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We walked around for a while more before taking the Skytrain back to our hotel to clean up for dinner. We chose a location that appeared in one of our guidebooks, wrote down the address and asked the hotel to help us get a taxi. Cabs are everywhere and incredibly inexpensive here. The only problem: We absolutely cannot communicate with the drivers, beyond words such as “meter” and “stop here.” We have a little business card with our address in Thai and the people at our hotel are very helpful, but basically we can only take taxis when going to or from the hotel.

It took a little work to find our restaurant of choice — it was located behind a market that took a some effort to get through. Ban Khun Mae turned out to be quite lovely, and filled with a combination of tourists and locals — a good sign for both authentic food and communication possibilities. We were overwhelmed by the lengthy menu, with dishes we recognized listed alongside totally foreign dishes. A man at the table across from us leaned over and asked if we needed help. “You’re taking too long to decide,” he said. He turned out to be very nice and conversational, and offered advice about what color curry to choose. He and his wife hailed from India and their tablemate, who helped flag down a waiter for us, was a native Thai. When we told the man where we were from, he said, “Oh, New York? My daughter is a housewife there.”

We eventually ordered and were promptly served spicy papaya salad (a favorite Thai item of mine), little pastry cups with minced chicken and corn, chicken with cashews and chicken in red curry. Chicken with cashews is something I often order in American Thai restaurants and this version tasted familiar, but tangier and a bit more spicy.

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After our delicious meal, we navigated the politics of hailing a cab, handed over our business card and returned to the hotel for bed.

Reflections on historical memory: Hong Kong

Written by Chaz on 10 June 2011

As we explored Hong Kong, several things kept striking me about the contrasts we observed throughout the city. Hong Kong felt very much like it could have been any major Western city: it was cosmopolitan, busy, modern and vibrant.

View from the Peak

Of course, this is in large part because there are still so many holdovers from Hong Kong’s former life as a British colony. Some of these are obvious on the surface. Unlike the rest of China, one drives on the left side of the road in Hong Kong. Just like on the streets of London, flashing yellow globes atop lampposts warn drivers of a crosswalk. And many, even most, of the white people on the city’s streets that I thought might be American turned out to have British accents on closer inspection.

But there was also a more intriguing sense that the former dynamic of an external colonial master, so to speak, has not completely gone away since Hong Kong’s transfer back to China in 1997. The hordes of domestic helpers assembled all over the city on Sunday right away suggested a city in which there are plenty of people who have the means to take advantage of the ready availability of relatively inexpensive labor in their homes. And many of the street markets — in particular, the jade market, where dozens of stalls were selling the same wares at what cannot have been great margins — suggested that there is a large underclass of people barely scraping by. The low cost of taxis also suggested that, in spite of the city’s incredibly development, there still exists a big labor surplus.

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This stood in stark contrast to much of what we saw as we walked around in the city’s trendy central district, which contained outlets of nearly every upscale brand I’ve ever heard of. It was Gucci, Armani and Prada at every turn. Though we saw many, many Western brands, we did also visit one upscale Chinese store, Shanghai Tang. Western food brands like Starbucks and Subway are also all over the place. I imagine these stores cater to a mixture of wealthy expats and rich Chinese who come over from the mainland to shop. The contradiction between these beautiful, over-the-top shopping centers and parts of the rest of the city could not have been more stark. Even my aunt and uncle’s role in Hong Kong — working at an international school — illustrates the two worlds that collide in the city.

Pretty mall!

In spite of all this, I also got a sense during our time in Hong Kong of the ancient majesty of its Chinese heritage. Both in the tranquil gardens we visited and in the chaotic dim sum restaurants, it was clear that Chinese culture permeates every part of the city, in spite of the overtones of colonialism that were evident in other ways. Food from every region of China can be found everywhere, from street carts to the finest restaurants, alongside the food of every other world cuisine, not least from the West. Interestingly, though Mandarin is so widely taught in the United States — and, in fact, it is the dialect of Chinese taught at my uncle’s school — Cantonese is the most popular language in Hong Kong, spoken by 91 percent of the population.

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Hong Kong was a great way to start our visit to Asia, not least because staying with my aunt and uncle was a much easier way to get accustomed to the time change and culture shock than if we had gone directly to a hotel. But it was also a fascinating introduction to the region’s rich cultural history. Seeing the vigil in the square and realizing we were technically in an area ruled by the oppressive Chinese government and then seeing the opulent malls, replete with dozens and dozens of escalators, that could have fit in on Fifth Avenue was an interesting lens for beginning to unravel this part of the world, and I couldn’t be more excited about the rest of our trip.

Hong Kong’s finest ramen

Written by Chaz on 9 June 2011

Armed with a recommendation from the New York Times travel section’s incredibly trusty 36 Hours feature, we set off for lunch on Monday at Butao Ramen, supposedly one of the finest ramen places in Hong Kong. Accompanied by my aunt, we found ourselves in a tiny dead-end side street buried in the heart of the city’s central district. Most of the shops on the street appeared to be closed — except one. Butao’s popularity meant that a line had formed on the other side of the street.

Chaz and Wendy at Butao Ramen

IMG_0475We got in line and were advised that the wait would be 30 to 45 minutes. The store itself was smaller than many walk-in closets, with only a few tables and chairs that literally spilled out of the storefront onto the sidewalk. Its diners share the table in very close quarters, dressing their ramen with daily special toppings that the store lists each day on its Facebook page.

As we waited, we were invited to fill out little order cards. We could specify what kind of broth we wanted, as well as several different toppings and fixings. Had there not been an English version of the order card, I don’t think we could have figured it out.

IMG_0465We got seated after about 50 minutes — Emmy and my aunt first as two seats opened up, and me after a couple minutes more. We were served very quickly, and I immediately began trying to negotiate the chopsticks and spoon we had been given to enjoy the delicious mix of spicy soup and noodles that lay before me.

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IMG_0482Ramen is, perhaps, a uniquely international food. One of my fondest memories of my time studying abroad is a meal with my friend Vernie, whom we’ll be visiting in Singapore, at a wonderful little ramen place called Ki-Mama on Birger Jarlsgatan in Stockholm’s Östermalm neighborhood. I remember thinking at the time what an idiot I’d been all my life, thinking that ramen was basically instant noodles. In fact, ramen can be as gourmet as you’d like it to be, combining a potent broth with meat, seafood, and any number of vegetables. Originally a Chinese invention, ramen migrated to Japan at some point, and has since become culturally synonymous with that island nation worldwide.

The ramen was incredibly delicious. I cleaned out my bowl of spicy, salty and flavorful noodles as quickly as I knew how — which wasn’t very fast at all, given my low skill level with the utensils. As we left, someone came out from the kitchen to chat with us. When he heard where we were from, he asked whether we had read about them in the Times, and we admitted that we had. It was a very interesting contrast to the dim sum place, which, though also exposed to foreigners in various travel publications, seemed very uninterested in doing anything to welcome tourists and the like.

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After our meal, we took the subway under the harbor to the Kowloon side, where we walked to the jade market, a warehouse-like market of stall after stall of jewelry. Emmy was almost convinced by one particularly aggressive saleswoman, but my aunt very helpfully intervened — all of the woman’s jewelry was fake, she said.

We walked back to the subway through a street market that was selling mostly produce, and my aunt chose a bunch of exotic fruit for us to try when we got back to the house. I had never seen most of them before, but dragon fruit and lychee turned out to be delicious, and very unlike anything I had ever had.

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When we got back to Repulse Bay, my uncle joined us for a quick dip in the ocean. We sat on the beach for a while, enjoying the twilight and talking about everything under the sun. By the time Emmy and I were ready to head back into town for dinner, it was nearly 9:00, and the restaurant we had chosen turned out to be closed. We ate at an unremarkable Chinese restaurant nearby and headed to Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s busiest bar street. We were still feeling pretty tired from our jet lag, so we nabbed a quick drink at one bar that my cousin had recommended before hopping one of the last buses back to my aunt and uncle’s flat.

A day at the races

Written by Emmy on 9 June 2011

The annual Dragon Boat Festival in Hong Kong combines legendary myth with competitive sport, and of course, with a side of traditional food. The holiday fell on Monday, meaning there was no school or work, and thus total mayhem on the beaches of the southern part of the island. From eight in the morning until sundown, the shores were packed with locals and tourists, racing boats and spectating.

Dragon boat races

The festival honors Qu Yuan, who drowned himself over 2,000 years ago to demonstrate his objections to the corrupt government. According to the myth, as people tried to save Qu Yuan, they beat drums in order to scare the fish away from him.

Dragon boat racesFrom this passed-down legend, the people of Hong Kong created a holiday centered around the sea and the drums. The race is made up of teams of up to 20 in long dragon boats, who row to the beat of the coxswain’s drum. Hundreds of teams crowd the beach, each with themed costumes and a cheering squad. Many of the teams were sponsored by large companies, including several American names we recognized. Each team had a tent for its racers and spectators, complete with a full buffet of Asian snacks and sandwiches. The boats do not belong to any particular team; following each race, the dragon boat was passed from one team to another.

We watched the races from Stanley, the southernmost part of Hong Kong island. The beach was packed and the road was blocked with buses and car traffic all the way up the shore. What is generally a short bus ride from Repulse Bay took longer than usual because of the heavy crowds. Once we made it to the beach, we were surrounded by locals, tourists and expats, who had all gathered to watch the races. Bruce cheered on some of the kids from the school where he works, who were rowing in one of the younger competitions.

Like all good legends and holidays, the Dragon Boat Festival also has a food element to it. When Qu Yuan was floating in the river, the people threw cooked rice into the water to further protect his body from the fish. Somehow over time, through evolution of the legend and a desire for a more exciting holiday food, the item de jour became a cooked rice dumpling. Wrapped in a lotus leaf, the rice is bundled around items ranging from red bean to pork fat. The dumpling is boiled for six hours in order to let the flavors seep together. After this whole process, it is unwrapped and ceremoniously eaten.

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We did not eat our dumplings at the race, but partook in a lotus-seed filled one back at Bruce and Wendy’s apartment. The rice was so thoroughly cooked that it had lost all flavor, taking on an almost glassy taste. I was glad to find a sweet fruit, rather than a scary animal part, inside, but I can’t say I’ll be seeking out lotus seed again any time too soon. Still, it was fun to eat… it was like unwrapping a food present!

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Sunny Sunday

Written by Emmy on 8 June 2011

After the insanity of our dim sum luncheon on Sunday, we headed for a more tranquil setting: the Peak, a mountain in the middle of the city, with unbelievable views of all of Hong Kong.

Domestic helpersOn our way to the tram terminal, we passed massive crowds of Filipino women sitting on picnic blankets underneath and inside the city’s many overpasses. Filipino women come to Hong Kong to work as domestic helpers through a complex visa process. These women work for Hong Kong families and send their wages back to the Philippines, where the money goes much further and helps to educate children, among other things. On Sundays, all of the domestic helpers in Hong Kong get the day off. Because they usually live in fairly confined quarters within their families’ homes, they don’t have a place of their own to socialize, and so they gather downtown, bringing card games, picnics, pedicure equipment and other activities to pass the day.

The line for the tram wrapped around the block, so we took a taxi to the top of the Peak. Taxis are remarkably inexpensive here as compared to cities in the U.S. The car ride, along dramatically winding hills, resurfaced some of my childhood motion sickness problems.  But we made it to the top in one piece, and the views were breathtaking.

After looking at (and photographing) the city from various angles, we boarded the tram for a ride back down the hill. We stopped for a snack at a little shop that could have just as easily been on a New York street corner as one in Hong Kong. Tuna sandwiches and Diet Coke traverse all borders and people.

View from the Peak

We visited some of the fancier shops of the city, almost all of which are enclosed in giant, luxurious shopping malls. There are more escalators in this city than I have ever seen in my life. We also took a stroll through ThreeSixty, Hong Kong’s Whole Foods equivalent.

Downtown Hong Kong is bustling and crazy, but a 20-minute bus ride to the southern side of the island, Repulse Bay, where Bruce and Wendy live, puts you in an entirely different world. We went for a sunset swim on the beach, which makes Hong Kong seem more like a tropical island and less like one of the world’s major metropolises.

More red pepper than chicken

Though people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, different strains of mainland China can be seen throughout the city. We had Szechuan food for dinner, which is known as the spiciest of the different regions’ cuisines. Even the dishes not indicated as spicy required several glasses of water to get down. One chicken dish we had contained more red peppers than meat. Even just smelling it made my eyes tear. Appropriately, there was a big box of tissues on the table.

We ended the night with a trip to the Ritz Carlton, which occupies the top portions of one of the city’s newest towering buildings. On the 118th floor is the world’s tallest bar, where the swaying sensation one feels comes from the wind, not the alcohol.

Atop the tallest bar in the world

After enjoying a swanky drink and the view, we headed back and immediately fell asleep. (I admittedly could not stay awake in the taxi.) Adjusting to a 12-hour time difference is hard!

Chaz, Bruce and Wendy at the Ritz Carlton bar

The Chinese influence

Written by Chaz on 8 June 2011

On Saturday, we headed home after exploring the street markets of Kowloon to shower and recharge a bit. I was feeling pretty jet lagged and took the most productive 30-minute nap of my life. In anticipation of our evening plans, I put on a shirt and pants, and it really gave me a new perspective on the heat and humidity.

Before our trip, my uncle had emailed me to suggest we go to a candlelight vigil being held in Hong Kong on June 4 for the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Naturally, we were eager for such a cultural experience, so we wrote back that we were definitely interested.

So, after we had cleaned up, we took a cab with my aunt and uncle to Victoria Park, which is near Causeway Bay in downtown Hong Kong. The taxi driver couldn’t quite approach the park since the area was pretty busy, and as we first walked into the area, it wasn’t immediately obvious that there was a vigil going on. It looked like there were a few people with candles and someone talking on a loudspeaker. As we circled the park, though, it became clear that there were thousands of people assembled.

The event was particularly remarkable because it was technically taking place in China, whose government forbids discussion or acknowledgment of what happened at Tiananmen. But because of the “one nation, two systems” model under which Hong Kong and Macau are administered, those regions do have free speech, a free press and freedom of religion. As a result, the vigil was the only of its kind in China, though a few families of victims did gather in Beijing amid intense police supervision.

Candlelight vigil to remember Tienanmen SquareWe read in a local newspaper the following day that police claimed 77,000 people attended the commemoration, though the event’s organizers said there were 150,000. According to the newspaper, the vigil had added significance because of recent crackdowns on demonstrations and protests in China as the nation’s speech restrictions have come under scrutiny thanks to the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to award the peace prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo. My uncle also told us that Chinese officials have for the first time mentioned giving compensation to victims’ families, which seems very politically risky (even if it is a moral imperative!). It’s hard to compensate someone for what you did to them while denying you did it.

To me, the vigil was a great introduction to the two systems model. It raised lots of questions about the role of the Chinese national government in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. As a condition of receiving Hong Kong back from the British in 1997, China promised not to intervene in the city in many ways until 2047, when those rules are set to expire. I’m impressed with the degree to which they appear to have stuck to their word. My uncle suggested that Hong Kong’s economic prosperity and success serve as their own enforcement mechanism for these rules. But it seems to me that this makes China look aimless. Do they want to get rich through capitalism, or is socialism the one true way? Seems like they need to make up their mind. (Though I understand the situation is more complicated than that.)

Dumplings with soup inside

After the vigil, we walked to a Chinese restaurant, Din Tai Fung, that is very proud to have been written up in 1993 by the New York Times. We enjoyed a delicious selection of standard Chinese dishes, including noodles in peanut sauce, fantastic dumplings with various fillings, and hot and sour soup.

SkylineWe left dinner and walked to the American Club, whose swanky bar overlooks the Hong Kong skyline and harbor. We arrived at about 10:30, and the bartenders, who served us on the club’s beautiful terrace, kept warning us that the electricity in the building would be shut off at midnight, so we needed to make sure we rode down in the elevator before then.

We enjoyed the evening breeze for a while with our drinks before catching the bus back to Repulse Bay, where I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The SciLi goes to Asia

Written by Emmy on 7 June 2011

An obsession turns international:

But seriously. Can’t you see the resemblance??

Some dim sum

Written by Emmy on 5 June 2011

On day two in Hong Kong, we decided to go for a truly authentic dining experience: dim sum.

My friend Margaret lived in Hong Kong for a few years and recommended one of the more traditional locations in the city. Her suggestion could not have been more spot on: the clientele were all locals, there was no menu and the experience was delicious mayhem.

Dim sum

We arrived at about 11:30 am — peak hours for a Sunday morning dumpling experience — and pushed our way to the front of the line. I signaled to what appeared to be the hostess that we wanted a table for four (I held up the appropriate number of fingers) and she told me in limited English that we should find ourselves a table.

Cruising around the very crowded restaurant, we stood over tables of locals until four seats at a table of ten opened up. We snatched them, sat down and exhausted from the heat and the pushing, started to pour ourselves some tea. One of our tablemates was a young man out to lunch with his father. He spoke some English, and instructed us that before we used our bowls, cups, chopsticks or spoons, we needed to wash them all in a bowl in the center of the table … using tea.

From here, we were given no directions; just a sheet of paper with Chinese characters and a front-row seat to the most action-packed lunch I have ever had.

Dim sumThe staff of the restaurant rolled carts out of the kitchen into the center of the room, piled high with steaming baskets of dumplings, buns and other traditional dim sum items. Each table sent at least one representative charging at the waiter or waitress, paper in hand, to claim the desired platter. There was no time for clarification or explanation. Seize your moment or lose your food.

I took an item that we almost had to spit out, just because it was the first basket I had access to. Our strategy was “perfected” after that: spot a crowd, push your way to the front, grab at something you could kind of identify. On one cart run, I pointed at a basket, the waiter said “chicken” and so I gave the universal thumbs up. Turns out it was chicken feet. On another journey up from the table, I pushed my way to the kitchen. Standing next to an English-speaking man, I awaited what looked like shrimp dumplings. “Very good,” he said, before claiming his own portion. Pointing at me, he told the waitress, “same for her.” Before I could collect my own plate, I was full-on body-blocked away from the food.

Using a combination of the skills honed fighting for train access in Penn Station and ball access in intramural soccer, I managed to shove my way to a couple different carts. I cannot identify several of the things I managed to eat, though many of them were good.

MmmmmDim sum is a community experience. We saw several families with young children, teaching them how to eat their dumplings. The man at our table was out for a nice lunch with his elderly father. Young couples attacked their joint plates with gusto. And everyone was remarkably friendly to the four confused Americans. Despite the serious language barrier, those who could help us tried.

When we walked out of the restaurant and paid our bill (it was an option to do so with an Octopus card, the refillable plastic card used for the subway), the result was almost shocking: 140 Hong Kong dollars, which is not even $20.

 

A tree grows in Hong Kong

Written by Emmy on 4 June 2011

Once upon a time, when Chaz and I worked for Brown’s newspaper, he was a news editor and I was a features editor. He covered the hard-hitting issues and I covered, as he once put it, the fluff. In accordance with tradition, I’ll leave the factual details of our time in Hong Kong thus far to him, and I will instead paint a more flowery (literally) picture.

Pagoda V City

We started our morning by heading into downtown HK (the Kelshes live in Repulse Bay, on the quieter south side of the island). What immediately struck me was how tall the apartment buildings were, and how many of them there seemed to be. Before I left, my mom commented that her first impression of the major Asian cities was that they were “teeming with humanity.” After seeing the soaring buildings, I could not agree more.

And then, out of nowhere, was a beautiful garden. Smack-dab in the middle of high-rises and surrounded by a freeway was a Buddhist garden filled with golden temples and magical-looking rocks. We explored the greenery — somehow silent, despite its surroundings — before heaving a vegetarian lunch in the gardens.

The beauty of a vegetarian meal is that I have zero fears of what might be on my plate. With meats, things can get a little creepy (i.e. the mysterious animal feet I saw in the markets today), but  I will take on any vegetable with gusto. And that we did.

Shredded mushroom with bean sproutVegetable-stuffed bean curdEggplant and diced mushroom "casserole"

Following lunch, we visited the Buddhist nunnery that sponsors the gardens and the restaurant within. We witnessed a lot of incense, fortune telling and a game that seemed like the Eastern equivalent of a magic eight ball: asking a question of a jar of incense sticks, and then shaking them until one fell out. It seemed to be a do-it-yourself art though; one woman shook her jar about five times, clearly unhappy with the answer she had been given. I didn’t know that the spirits have a “sorry, try again later” option.

Shaking out good fortune

Following our calm respite, we hit the open streets for sheer mayhem. For the full portrait of what we saw, it’s best to go the picture-says-a-thousand-words option and just check out the slideshow. There were foreign fruits and foreign meat products, and a whole lotta people.

More photos and stories coming soon (the 12-hour time difference is creating a whirlwind of jet lag), but as a sneak preview, you can expect a bus teetering along cliff-side roads, a whole table full of dumplings, a high-rise whose elevators shut down at midnight and another full day of adventures.