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The cuisine of the north

Written by Chaz on 23 June 2011

During our time in Chiang Mai, we explored all of the city’s major tourist sights. This meant we saw quite a few temples, known as wats. After our time in Bangkok, Thai temples started to get a little bit repetitive. I can sum up what we saw with a few pictures:


Multiply that a few times and add in the hot sun, and that was basically our wat-going experience in Chiang Mai. Very beautiful and historic, but basically an interlude between meals, which were obviously the main attraction of our time in Thailand.

We had two delicious northern dinners in Chiang Mai, as well as two amazing vegetarian meals that Emmy will write about soon. There weren’t very many upscale restaurants in Chiang Mai, which, on the whole, was much more parochial than Bangkok despite a very visible presence of Western tourists and expats. But Adit, of interview fame, had recommended that we check out Ginger Kafe for its unique Eat Me–esque take on northern Thai food. It turned out to be a great meal, and we ended up going twice after a restaurant that we tried to go to another night turned out to have closed.

We started with an appetizer platter that featured our favorite betel-leaf snack and some kind of deep-fried leaf. We also had a phenomenal papaya salad with soft-shell crab. It was super spicy, but really tasty and flavorful.


We moved on to two northern dishes for our entrees. Khao soi is a curry with cooked noodles in a spicy broth made from coconut milk, usually served with chicken and topped with fried egg noodles. Originally Burmese, it’s served widely in northern Thailand, especially as street food. We also had a dry red curry, much less soupy that a traditional red curry.


I really enjoyed khao soi. It was one of the few dishes in Thailand that’s customarily eaten with chopsticks, so it made a nice change as well as a good transition to our time in Vietnam. Most other curries that I’ve had aren’t served on noodles, and the crunch of the egg noodles gave the dish a very different texture than many others. Though the curry came with rice, it hardly needed it. The meat was full of flavor on its own, and the sauce was thick enough that it didn’t need another solid to act as a vehicle.

Ginger Kafe was also a really fun place to have dinner. When we walked in, we were asked whether we were there to eat or to shop in their boutique, then asked whether we wanted to sit at a table or on a sofa. We were boring and opted for a table, but it still made a neat atmosphere.

Our other distinctively northern experience was at Huen Phen, a restaurant in central Chiang Mai that serves khao soi on the street at lunch and a full northern menu in an ornately decorated house at dinner. We had a whole hodgepodge of items, thanks to the restaurant’s relatively low prices: a vegetable and crab dip, served with vegetables for dipping; a spicy northern salad, with crispy egg noodles and unidentified meats; chicken in green beans, eggplant and a spicy northern sauce; and a northern curry, which is much soupier than a traditional one.


The spicy northern salad was fantastic, walking a fine line as it was both refreshing and green while also having a nice kick to it. The rest of the dishes, though, let me down a little bit, making me long for more traditional Thai cuisine. The chicken dish was fairly bland compared to a normal stir-fry, and the curry was more watery than hearty.

All in all, I guess it’s not surprising that I preferred straight-up Thai food to its northern cousin, which shares a lot with its Burmese and Laotian neighbors. Thai food reflects a proud, uncolonized heritage that’s made obvious in its strong tastes and fresh, local ingredients. Northern cuisine, though still quite good, just wasn’t the same.

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.


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.


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.

Exploring Portuguese influence in Macau

Written by Emmy on 9 June 2011

Macau, Hong Kong’s nearby neighbor, is a land of strange juxtapositions. In one tiny place, there are elements of a European colony, provincial China and artificial Las Vegas.


Map of China's special administrative regionsThe first European conquest in the far east, Macau was settled by the Portuguese in the days of Marco Polo. China later formally gifted the area to Portugal in the hopes that the rich European empire would protect against pirates. For over 400 years, Macau was populated by the Chinese, but governed by the Portuguese. In the late 1990s, in a symbolic ceremony much like that between China and England over Hong Kong, Portugal returned its colony to China. In the future, Macau will be fully incorporated into Mainland China, but for now, it occupies the same status as Hong Kong: Special Administrative Region. We had to go through customs and exchange currencies in order to visit — we picked up some MOPs, or Macanese patacas, upon our entry. China, Macau and Hong Kong are all quite close — we took an hour-long ferry and we could see the mainland once we exited the boat — but the areas remain starkly different.

Macau’s biggest tourist appeal is evident as you approach the shoreline: gambling is legal here, and the coast looks just like Vegas, complete with the towering Wynn, MGM and Venetian casinos. After clearing customs, we were mobbed by representatives from all the casinos, all vying for our attention and wallets. In lieu of taking a cab from the harbor to the center of the Macau peninsula, we hopped on board one of the casino shuttle buses, as did nearly every single tourist, because we had read that one of the casinos was walking distance to the central historic square of the city.


We made a beeline out of the casino to a recommended restaurant in the more authentic part of the peninsula. Macanese food is a truly unique experience, combining Portuguese and Cantonese influences and taking advantage of the abundant and fresh seafood. We started with stuffed crab, which looked upon first glance like the rendition I’ve had before on the shores of the Atlantic, but the spices were quite different than those used at the Oyster Bay clam bar. One of the hallmark dishes is African chicken, which has been cooked on the bone and left to simmer in a sauce of chilies, garlic and coconut. We also enjoyed a baked dish of curried crab and shrimp. Before ordering, we had been offered a photo book of the food served in the restaurant and had been puzzled as to what we might receive. The unusual pairings of seasonings from around the globe proved to be quite delicious.


After our lunch, we embarked on a walking tour of the more legitimate, less Vegas portion of Macau. When I was studying abroad in Spain, I took a brief trip to Lisbon. While in Portugal’s capital city, I remember being struck by how provincial it seemed in comparison to Spain. Despite the mere miles that separated the Iberian metropolises, Lisbon seemed to have held more closely onto the traditions of its founding, while the Spanish cities had forged ahead. Similarly, Hong Kong has taken on the future with gusto (more on this later), whereas Macau, underneath its flashy casinos and bright lights, bears much more of its past on the surface.

IMG_0596The historic squares and churches look like direct replicas of their Lisbon inspiration. But in the alleyways between the preserved Unesco heritage sites are Chinese families, attending school, minding little shops and barreling down the narrow passageways on motor bikes. Despite being a tourist paradise, Macau is genuinely Chinese; dilapidated apartment buildings with drying laundry flapping in the wind populate the same skyline as the world’s fanciest casinos. On one street filled with bakeries, we visited one of the more famous outlets. With a very Chinese-sounding name and countless varieties of mystery meat jerky, the store also featured the eggy custard tarts and almond cookies ubiquitous on the streets of Portugal.


There is a sense of colonial imperialism to all of Macau, with its Portuguese street names and Chinese translations as an afterthought. The Chinese may have taken back their land in 1999, but they opened it up to international gambling enterprises in 2001. Since the exit of the Portuguese, the wealthy chains of Las Vegas lore have set up shop. Even if governing power has begun to return to native hands, the driving force of the economy is very clearly Western. The local people are employed by the casinos, but just as in the Portuguese bakeries, they are promoting a culture seemingly different from their own.


Desperately in need of an air-conditioned respite, and genuinely curious about what we might find, we visited the massive Wynn casino. We walked in a circle for close to 20 minutes, passing table after table of poker, baccarat and black jack. The floor had just opened, and so it was largely empty. Every table was staffed by a dealer in a Wynn uniform, but few players were out yet. We were unable to find an answer, but left very curious as to who visits Macau’s many luxury resorts. We saw very few Western-looking people walking around Macau, and the few we spotted seemed to have British accents. The majority of tourists looked like they came from Mainland China, making this tropical peninsula seem even more like Las Vegas or Atlantic City. We were definitely not alone in our touring of the historic sites, but you have to wonder if the other people scoping out the old churches with us would be retiring to the gaming tables and slot machines after their trip down historical memory lane.

Before leaving for Macau, we had stopped by the international school where Bruce and Wendy work. While waiting for Bruce, we had made conversation with his secretary, who is a native of Hong Kong. She commended the travel choices we had made us far. She was especially impressed by our authentic dim sum choice (although she scoffed that the restaurant had been for locals only, until it was featured in Lonely Planet, which we didn’t even realize). She said it was good we were going to see Macau; in its rush to economic glory, Hong Kong had destroyed some of its more historic treasures, whereas Macau had managed to hold onto its history — at least for now. Our Asian adventures never included a trip to Mainland China, but the back streets of Macau did provide some perspective on what we perhaps could have witnessed.

Ferries in Macau

We boarded a ferry back to Hong Kong as the sun was setting. Our TurboJet looked more like an airplane than any ferry I’ve ever seen (although to be fair, my experiences on the Cross Sound Ferry feel more like a crossing to Ellis Island than a 21st century boat ride). After a long wait to clear customs, we were ushered into an air conditioned mall and welcomed back to Hong Kong.

IMG_0617Where’s Waldo: Chaz and Emmy edition