Tuesday, June 26, 2007

full of hot air in Hong Kong

3 days is too short for Hong Kong. Especially since the oppressive heat plus humidity requires half the day spent cooling down indoors. A friend had warned me about the heat. I wasn't ready. Upon finally finding my hotel, I was drenched in sweat. It was so humid that my camera lens would fog up each time I walked outside. On my last day there, I read an article in the South China Morning Post about billboards causing air pollution. The large ads that canvass many HK streets block air circulation, which suffocates the street with exhaust from street level restaurants. Walking down those stuffy streets on a Sunday afternoon––10 million HK-ers sweating it out with me––I had to duck into a 7/11 to escape the blasts of hot air. It was an outdoor sauna, with every smell and color in the spectrum assaulting all senses.

street level, billboards and hoards

It was a special time to be in HK. The newspapers and art galleries are devoting energy to the 10th year anniversary of the hand-over. In 1887, Britain signed a 99-year lease with China for control of HK. The tiny island's rise to financial prominence–beginning in the 70s with textiles and manufacturing–was under the auspices of English administration. Since 1997, HK has been governed, indirectly, by Beijing, yet remained–for the sake of business–liberal. "One country, two systems" is the catch-phrase of the unique system. As to how effective this system has been, attitudes range from sour to sweet, depending on who is asked. If it's good for business, if people continue to make obscene amounts of money, if the taxes stay low, most will not complain about not having direct elections. Activists would like to see politicians challenge China, to work toward a direct election system in HK and roll back Beijing's influence. However, HK is dependent on China's silent approval and economic muscle. No politician in their right mind would think to cross the Dragon.

The first day, after recovering from the sweaty walk to the hotel, I met with my friend Carli. We had met previously in Bangkok. She offered to be my guide slash translator while I was in HK. As always, traveling with a local is paramount. At dinner at a bustling, brightly-lit family restaurant, I would have been clueless as to what to order if she wasn't there. Over plates of mixed vegetables and plump scallops, succulent jumbo prawns with vermicelli, and thai-style rice, she laughed at a group of foreigners sitting nearby who were sharing a unsavory single plate of fried rice. Ha ha, they think that is "Chinese food," was the sentiment. To her, and most Chinese, the Chinese food eaten outside of China is watered-down crap. Chinese cuisine is as diverse you can imagine for a country its size. HK is unique because, unlike Beijing or Shanghai, there are large populations of people from all of China's provinces. So not just the Canton version–which is served in chinatowns in all corners of the earth–is represented. As were were leaving, the waiter taught me how to say thank you in Cantonese ("mm go SAI"). That was the only phrase I learned.

From dinner, we walked toward the spacious waterfront in Kowloon. It's the best spot to view the light show of Hong Kong's buildings, which sit across the harbor. A dazzling mix of neon, buzzing with money and energy. Yet silent. It was like looking onto a gigantic movie set that wasn't quite real. Nevertheless, it was something else, especially for a big city freak like me.
Light Show, Looking on HK

Our plan was to go to a few bars in the party district of HK, Lan Kwai Fong. It's a condensed (isn't everything in HK?) series of winding, hilly streets. Cossized bars are stuffed side by side, patrons and music spilling out into the street.

Apparently this is the place to get down in HK. I didn't get down. If the music blaring from the bars had been danceable–not cheese synth-house and brand-stamped hip hop for people who think Puff Daddy is talented–I still wouldn't have gotten loose. It was too old, tight, buttoned-up. Indeed, one feather-bowed club we approached had the sign, "no dancing aloud" hanging from the entrance. What?!! The message was clear: come to be seen and spend cash; not pull muscles and embarrass yourself on the dance floor.

Not surprisingly, most of the patrons in the streets were men. Dudes, tons of them, everywhere. In packs, drunkenly gripping each other at the shoulders; in pairs, overdressed and squeamish; alone, perched atop bar stools and gazing the passer-bys like out of commission watch dogs. The 9 to 1 guy to girl ratio was skewed more cruelly considering the maiden population took to fake tans and blonde mounds of hair spray. Loud, oversized–Dallas came to mind. After a few Carlsberg's, I was ready to head back to the hotel.

Getting back was a cinch, even though we were quite far from my hotel's neighborhood. That's a testament to the supremely organized transportation in HK. Cabs are cheap. The subway clean and easy. And best of all, there is a huge network of mini-buses that run all night. This should be mandatory in big cities where subways aren't 24 hours (this means you, Tokyo). For about $2, the minibus dumped me off at my hotel in record time. The cab would have been closer to $20 or $30.

Sunday was planned to be an introduction to dim sum with Carli and her friend Carol. In the morning I took the sleek metro to Central. I wanted to go to Victoria peak, the towering mountain from which you can see all of Hong Kong and the outer territories, and on a clear day, a little of Shenzen and China. I ran up, took a picture, pushed the families out of the way, and hopped back on the subway so I wouldn't be late for our dim sum.

dim sum with Carli and Carol

Carli took us to a restaurant in Mong Kok. Inside the banquet-style dining room, hoards of families snuggled around small wooden trays from which dim sum is served. It was my first dim sum experience. I will go back. The jasmine tea got me warmed up for the pork and cilantro dumplings, friend potato and carrot squares, cabbage with roasted garlic, seafood dumplings, and yes, chicken feet. The small dishes–each with distinct and intricate flavors–mixed into a concoction of greatness in my stomach.

The rest of the afternoon Carli and Carol went to karaoke. I went to the hotel pool. It was too hot and crowded to do anything outside. This means I missed my goals of hitting up a few art galleries. I missed...a lot. The heat was a lid, keeping me from venturing out. The trip wasn't a waste. At least I was satisfied with the culinary experience. I'm of the opinion that 80% of a culture is what/how it eats and how it parties. If that maxim is so, HK will fill you up. But you'll have a hard time getting down.


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