China, Part 4: Hong Kong
After seeing more branches of my family tree in Jiangmen than I ever have in my life, we sojourned by bus to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is about a 4 hour bus ride away, considering you have to stop in Shenzhen to go through customs and immigration. One of the most interesting things I saw here was the groups of commuter students. And by students, I mean six year old schoolchildren. While we lugged our suitcases off the bus, into the customs building, and waited on lines, we saw herds of kids dressed in matching school uniforms and bright bookbags and ID badges running through the building to get from the Shenzhen side to the Hong Kong side, and vice versa. My dad said these were kids who lived on either the mainland China or the Hong Kong side and had to commute to and from school every day on the opposite side. Wild! I thought it was bad just passing through once and waiting on lines and getting my passport stamped and all that, but these kids had to do it at least twice a day.
Anyway, we entered Hong Kong without any issue and dropped our things off at a tiny hotel. We would soon learn that Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places in the world, particularly for real estate, so goodbye to the giant hotel rooms that we had in Guangzhou and Jiangmen, and hello to bargain hostel rooms.
We wandered fairly aimlessly, first stopping for a late lunch at a noodle joint across the street from the hotel. Mom ordered fried fish skin, and while I blanched and gagged at the idea, I was actually the one hogging most of the skin bits. If I closed my eyes while eating fried fish skin, I could be convinced that they were shrimp chips (those colorful styrofoam-like chips that come with whole roasted chicken at Chinese restaurants): some people think they're gross, but I could eat an entire barrel. I regretted a little getting a meatball noodle soup dish because while it tasted fine, it was like 90 degrees and 100% humidity outside. We had to quickly come to accept that sweating through your clothes was entirely the norm.
We walked down the very crowded and commercial Nathan Road that took us directly to the Tsim Sha Tsui ("sharp sand mouth") area right on Victoria Harbor. Here was when I started acclimating myself to the geography of Hong Kong. Hong Kong actually straddles both sides of Victoria Harbor: there's Hong Kong island and then half of Hong Kong (called Kowloon) that is actually attached to mainland China. We spent most of our time on Kowloon. The aimless wandering was perfect, because we got to hop inside some shops to take advantage of the air conditioning, look at how locals go about their day in HK, and count all the high end retail and jewelry stores that lined the street.
It was down at Victoria Harbor when we learned the irony of Hong Kong: the city's name translates to "fragrant harbor" but here by the water, "smelly swamp" might be more accurate. Though Hong Kong Island across the way was a beautiful sight to behold - with huge skyscrapers and old fashioned ferries dotting the harbor - I couldn't stand there for much longer without my gag reflex kicking in.
My parents were tired from the heat and walking (though I found HK a pretty walkable city, I'm also like 30 years younger than my parents and love walking long distances in the name of sightseeing), so they retired to the hotel while my sister, Alex, and I went onward. We found an awesome shopping mall called K11, where we had earl grey cheesecake tarts, spent a long time marveling at candy makers at Sticky (incredible craftsmanship! These guys take big slabs of moldable candy, shape them into intricate designs from the inside out, and then hand-roll and hand-cut these candies that end up being the size of a fingernail), and eventually had dinner at Pizza Express. After two straight weeks of Chinese food, we just wanted something different. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The next morning was the gastronomic highlight of the entire trip: TIM HO WAN.
A couple of my friends from Hong Kong had told us about Tim Ho Wan before we left. Tim Ho Wan is one of the cheapest Michelin starred restaurants in the world, due largely to the fact that it is dim sum, and it is delicious. (Recently I saw that a Singapore street vendor had won a Michelin star, so that might even earn the title, and that might necessitate a trip to Singapore.) The restaurant is sparse and clean, not as grungy or sketchy as some dim sum restaurants at home. It was packed for a weekday morning. We were very lucky to not have to wait too long for a table of five. Eventually, they even sat a local Hong Kong fellow at our table (again, space is a premium) and we wound up chatting.
My dad ordered a few dishes: fried spring rolls, cheung fun, roast pork bun, chicken feet, dumplings, and shu mai. I was simply in heaven. I don't even know if it was the auspiciousness of the Michelin star, but everything just tasted so darn good! The cheung fun was, again, the same kind of thin, fresh noodle that we had elsewhere in Guangdong province. My favorites were the deep fried spring rolls and another kind of fried roll with a gravy-laden chopped meat inside. They weren't greasy or overly oily, but rather they were crisp and airy and richly flavorful. In fact, everything was very fresh and obviously carefully crafted and considered. Their most famous dish, though, is probably the roast pork buns. As I probably mentioned in previous posts, I'm not the biggest roast pork bun fan, but mmm these were something otherworldly. The buns are smaller than the ones you can get for 90 cents at a Chinese bakery, and have a golden brown crisp crust that gives way into a gooey interior filled with savory barbecue pork bits: not too sweet, not too gristly, just right. Tim Ho Wan might have converted me into a roast pork bun fan, if only I could have theirs over and over. I wasn't even hungry by the end of brunch but I wanted to order every single item again.
That afternoon, we explored Hong Kong Island and the glamorous shopping malls filled with high end retail: Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Cartier everywhere you turn. We then took the tram up to Victoria Peak, nature's observation deck overlooking Hong Kong. It was a steep and slightly nauseating ride up the side of the mountain, and the view from the top was pretty cool.
The next day, our last in Hong Kong, was dedicated to all the myriad of outdoor market streets. First, we went to the Flower Market district, with stalls after stalls of all sorts of beautiful flowers, at pretty good prices too! If I were a local, I would not hesitate to decorate my tiny HK apartment with flowers from here every week! A little bit down the road was the Bird Market...which was actually one of the most frightening things this whole trip. When you walk into the main market area, you hear a cacophony of bird chirps, cries, and squawks. The smell is...extremely unpleasant. Like a million bits of bird poop marinating in the humidity. Undoubtedly there were beautiful creatures in the cages, like the rainbow-colored lovebirds, little brown sparrows, and parrots. What was really sad was a couple of very elegant old birds like a grey parrot and a large cockatoo that were chained at the neck and these birds clearly couldn't stand it anymore because they started plucking the feathers out around their necks and were trying to make a great escape. What was even worse was the back stalls, which sold bird food...like, wicker baskets overflowing with wriggling maggots and plastic baggies full of the largest grasshoppers and crickets I've
ever seen never wanted to see in my life. Alex and my sister thought it would be sooo funny to call me over to look, but I ran out of there screaming!
Last, we found the Goldfish Market down the road, which also had house pets like cats and dogs. First, the goldfish part of the Goldfish Market was like those carnival booths where you throw ping pong balls into fish bowls and can win a little goldfish or betta fish. Entire walls were covered in neat rows of baggies filled with water and various sea creatures. There were goldfish, betta fish, tiny koi fish, and even little crabs and lobsters and scorpions. How the crustaceans didn't poke their way out of the bags was a mystery to me. There were also creatures sold as, I guess, food for other sea creatures...like a plastic basin full of tiny albino frogs. One shop sold large box turtles that were stubbornly and sadly trying to ram their way out of their plastic enclosures.
A little down the road were the cuddlier creatures like puppies and cats and rabbits and hamsters. My sister was falling in love with every single thing and was probably formulating a plan to bring home a floppy-earred bunny.
After a quick lunch at a food court within a mall (where I discovered and fell in love with curry omurice (a Japanese dish of rice wrapped in a thin omlette and, in this case, drizzled in curry sauce, i.e. omelette rice), we were back on a bus headed to Jiangmen for the last leg of our epic vacation.
If China wasn't enough of a culture shock, Hong Kong added an element of sensory overload: every nerve in my body was constantly firing, whether it was "geez, it's hot, I'm going to sweat bullets" or "that dim sum was mouthwateringly delicious" or "is that what the harbor smells like?!" accompanied by a crinkled nose. It was a lot of fun and I think I've only just scratched the surface.