Hong Kong, travel

The Chicken Head

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Hong Kong is a city of the highest caliber. And, despite its scale and complexity, many of the things that give it distinctive character traits are found in individual neighborhoods. Most are things that you’d only know if you were a local, or lived like one.

My most distinctive HK memory is of a place with a name I never knew, but the name doesn’t matter. While everyone in my extended multi-tiered Lingnan University Family went to Mr Wong’s at least once, often several other times, and some went to Fred’s (also in Kowloon, I think) very few had the privilege of going to the place I dined. Even most locals didn’t know of it, and the ones who did had a hard time finding it. It was truly a hidden gem.

This nameless place was intense. Before I get into it, for a non-Chinese speaker like me, HK’s vendors can be intimidating, fighting for your attention in a language you don’t even remotely understand. Not only this, but the sheer number of them, the density of them, the intensity of them, can be overwhelming. Usually, locals know how to handle this behavior. This place, on the other hand, offered a challenge for even the hardiest of the Hong Kong kids.

We arrive:  three Chinese, an American, A German, and a Dutchman at a “late night” and are instantly swarmed by fast- talking, shouting really, Asian men and women who own the various restaurants that filled the entire block. A sea of tents and flood lights, full of tightly-packed tables with only Asians eating there. I should note, this place is located in Tuen Mun, an almost exclusively Chinese area of Hong Kong, and three white people (their term), two of whom are in the six-foot range, offered quite a spectacle, enough that people at tables were shouting for us to come over as well, in the hopes we’d sit next to their table. In China, white people are accessories, often asked to stand with someone to make them look cooler;  in the mainland, they are sometimes paid handsomely to show up in a suit and just stand there. We weren’t exceptions to this practice. While dozens of Chinese are shouting at us simultaneously, the only thoughts on our minds were,

#1, We’re starving, just choose a place” (and giving anxious stares that said: HURRY UP to our Chinese friends, who’re struggling to deal with five offers from all directions at once). The other thought we had was:  “What have we gotten ourselves into, this is freaking insane.”

Finally the two girls and Champy, one of the Chinese guys in our group, accept an offer from someone who seemed slightly more sane than the others, and we sit down for what turned out to be a delicious, reasonably priced multi course meal. They kept offering us alcohol which I found funny, because when we accepted their offers they told us we had to go buy the beers elsewhere as they had lost their liquor license.

We enjoyed various meat dishes, but more importantly, dabbling in conversation with the whole gang, about everything and anything, and our mixed group gave the table a real Hong Kong vibe, it was cosmopolitan chaos

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This sort of insane atmosphere, of having literally dozens of stalls full of people all wildly talking and taking photos and eating and shouting is quintessentially Hong Kong, or I suppose Chinese in general. But it’s not something to experience in the states.

The highlight for me, was being immersed in the whole crazed atmosphere, which one can simply not experience in America or the West.

 

IMG_1963The highlight for my friends was different.  They got to watch me kiss the chicken head.

Now to explain, we ordered a chicken, which arrived dead but just recently from the looks of it and it looked as if he had a rough time during his untimely execution and boiling. The bird arrived without feathers but with everything else, including a very unhappy-looking head, which was removed by an expert chop and left on the table. We were told not to eat the meat of the head as the chicken was killed by injecting poisons into it’s brain, and I thought it’d be foolish or rude to bring up the fact that the rest of the bird probably wasn’t any safer to eat. So, before we left I had the job of kissing the chicken head for the amusement of my friends. So I did. Again, another distinctive Hong Kong experience.

Footnote: We went back here 1 month later, as a final meal before leaving HK.  It wasn’t as overwhelming, but I wanted to experience it again, and share the experience with a few others, so this time another German and his mainland Chinese girlfriend accompanied us to the street with no name and we dined across from where we had last time. The reason being, it was raining enough that it was flooding slightly and the other was closed, so we went to a shabbier- looking place where the waiter was watching TV while serving us, the cook was smoking two cigarettes at once, one in each hand, while cooking, and a random dog kept walking around the tables and barking at people. Only the Westerners, and by that I mean myself and my German friend, seemed alarmed by this.

The chicken head. Before being kissed.

The chicken head. Before being kissed.

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hiking, Hong Kong, travel

Hiking in Hong Kong

1452020_321359154672621_78306175_nHong Kong defines the word “anomaly.” I say this because it constantly deviates from the expected.  The city may be one of the most densely populated in the world (although not as jam-packed as Macau), but even HK Island and Kowloon still have surprising swathes of green space.  One of the biggest surprises of this city, is that it’s one of the best places on earth to hike, with several hundred miles of trails traversing it’s rocky edges and mountainous spines.

Many tourists will only visit Victoria Peak (“The Peak”).  Although it’s a pretty modest height (1800 feet), about a third of Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks, Victoria basically rises up right from sea-level, and gives a pretty spectacular view.  There is a funicular railroad, appropriately enough a gift from Queen Victoria, still running, so there is no hiking required.   But there are much higher mountains within city limits.

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view from a trail above the city

I started with a hike on Lantau, which is the largest island by far, almost a mountainous world of its own.  It’s mostly a wooded mass of dormant volcanoes.  There is one major developed area, Tung Chung, perched along the rocky coast, and HK’s new airport is on a manmade island just offshore.

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You can travel to Tung Chung’s super modern train stop, and then by cable car to see  the world’s biggest Buddha. I visited the Buddha several times, and although I am not a religious person, each time I felt an indescribable sense of spirituality.  And in tropical Hong Kong, where rain and storms are a constant occurrence, it seemed like more than coincidence that the Buddha was the only part of the island that was always in sunshine.Lantau 2013

Apart from the colossal Buddha, Lantau is home to some serious hikes, including “Sunset Peak” which is the optimal place for a romantic evening, and “Lantau Peak” the baddest of the bad boy mountains. I climbed this peak with a team of Filipino hikers during the nicest weather I experienced Hong Kong. We climbed up the trail to the peak, and could stare directly down on both the airport and the Buddha. But, perhaps trying to impress their American guest, my Filipino guides decided we weren’t taking the trail back down, so we just descended straight down the beast. I’ve always loved hiking and rock climbing, and this day combined both on a hair-raising, elbow-bruising descent,   going through dense jungle vegetation, sparsely vegetated rocky crags, and plains of grasses in unbelievable hues.

We ended up in the valley of the Giant Buddha. It was truly an amazing experience. There is much writing out there about the magic and beauty of nature, and I won’t try to outdo the words of Wordsworth or Thoreau, but on this day, their writings felt absolutely right.  The day was a respite from the constant buzz of the city, and yet conveyed an equal amount of vitality and life in an environment just as extreme as the urban one.

This is part of why I love Hong Kong. When you imagine a super city, you think of public squares and park, but they don’t contain miles of pristine wilderness. Hong Kong does

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Diamond BackPerhaps even more amazing than the spectacular hike on Lantau, was the “Dragon’s Back Trail,” voted the best hiking in all of Asia, seven years running.

This trail is on Hong Kong Island.  To get there, you take a bus from one of the most crowded districts of Hong Kong, Wan Chai, and wade through a sea of people with climbing gear. Then you drive up over a ridge and immediately the city fades away as if it was never there. You cannot hear it, and you see only fleeting glimpses of it. There you are, in the mountains, walking along the sleeping volcanic dragon’s back. You look in one direction and for a minute, there is Hong Kong in all its manmade might. You look the other way and you feel like you’re on the edge of the world, as the spiny mountain fades off into the azure sea below.

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Shek O, the village at the end of the Dragon Back Trail

You end the hike at Shek O, a beach community forgotten by time, with seasonal houses that hasn’t changed much since 1950. It struck me that you might almost mistake it for a slice of Cuba, minus the vintage cars.

 

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Hong Kong, travel

Karaoke in Hong Kong

I believe this was a Bob Marley song....

I believe this was a Bob Marley song….

One of the defining memories of Hong Kong was one of the first experiences I ever had in that city, a trip to Neway Karaoke.

Karaoke originated in Japan and has become a Korean pastime – and now has found a niche in Hong Kong as well.

I don’t sing. I’ve never taken singing classes, and with the exception of shower anthems, I tend to not sing, as I’m self-conscious about my voice. So when I jokingly suggested   that this large group of people I just met, representing nine nations, go to a Karaoke place, and they said “Yes!”, I felt my heart sink.

I was jet-lagged and had no desire to get to a drunken-enough-to-sing point, which was the plan for the Europeans in the group, so I went sober like most of the Asians.

I don’t regret it. What started out with people all awkwardly finding excuses not to sing

(I have a sore throat, I don’t know the words, etc) turned into me and another  American starting the night off by singing a duet of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”. After that, perhaps after seeing me doing this willingly, the whole group became lively, and the entire evening was spent belting out songs, dancing, and eventually people enjoying themselves, but having no idea what they were singing, and then finally just making noises into the microphones. I impressed everyone, myself included, with my rapping skills.

While most bars in the US have a karaoke night, the atmosphere is different. In the US, or the UK where I’ve also lived, people go to karaoke with two things planned.

First, they’re going to get hammered.

Second, they’re going to laugh at everyone else but not sing themselves.

In Hong Kong, and I think the rest of East Asia, the focus is on going out with friends late at night and singing, there is none of the not-always-friendly mocking of the singers.  Nor is there a focus on getting so drunk that the people you came with, the ones who are considerably more sober, want to leave you on the floor of a bathroom and never talk to you again. The atmosphere in Hong Kong was supportive and welcoming, and once the initial shyness passed, everyone bonded, perhaps deciding that if they could sing in front of a group of random people, they can definitely be friends with them.

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