Ethnicity and modernity go together very well. On my first trip to Hong Kong five years ago – which was also my first trip to South East Asia – I was wonderstruck by the forest of looming skyscrapers that were lit up with Chinese characters. The road with the most western name – Des Voeux Road for instance – sold nothing but dried seafood: shrimp, shrimp roe, scallops, octopus and eel, that smelled for miles. The sleek business district of Central on the Island itself (as opposed to slightly ethnic Kowloon) has every multinational office on it, but there’s where you’ll also find a plethora of Chinese foot reflexology places where ladies who lunch take half an hour off shopping for Prada and Valentino.
I have wondered whether Hong Kong would be able to exert its magic on me once more, because since that last visit, I’ve traveled extensively through South East Asia. Exactly five years to the date, I was back in Hong Kong, this time to experience Chinese New Year. I needn’t have worried. Because of its national anthem of bigger, better, newer, flashier, it is impossible to be jaded as far as Hong Kong is concerned.
I made sure I ate in holes in the wall, or what passes for them in one of the world’s greatest food capitals. That’s where the true taste of Hong Kong comes alive. Tiny stalls, almost invisible because of the steam clouding up the interiors, bubble over with cauldrons of soup. A variety of ingredients are suspended from hooks – beef intestines, roast goose, pork liver. You choose what you want, and it’s chopped up, dunked into the broth and served to you on the side of the street.
A few notches up on the social scale are the strictly local eateries where you’ll get breakfast (Chinese style, naturally), lunch, dinner, and every snack-time that you can think of. For breakfast, the options usually are yin-yeung, or coffee and tea served together. Because I always think of it as the symbol of Hong Kong itself where you are so busy in pursuit of the God of Wealth that you don’t have time to sip one cup of tea, and a couple of hours later, a cup of coffee, that you combine the two, it’s my beverage of choice in Hong Kong. There’s also jok, the bacon and eggs of China. Rice porridge is cooked together for hours. Whether it is served with a couple of ingredients (preserved eggs, fried pastry rings, roast chicken) in it, or with an array of accompaniments like preserved bean curd depends on where it is being cooked.
I’ve also been to two islands: Lamma, a fishing village where a whole street serves nothing but freshly caught seafood and Lantau, in a corner of which is an ancient fishing village where I feasted on freshly roasted sun-dried fish roe and boiled eggs smoked with tea. I also visited a yum cha house, where nothing but dimsums are on the menu that was located in a ritzy mall.
Caption: For the faint of heart, there is every multinational chain from Delifrance to KFC, plus local ones too