hiking, Hong Kong, travel

Hong Kong. On Top of the World.

 

DSC02702

One of the clearest and best memories I have from Hong Kong was taking a hike.

I took many hikes in Hong Kong, mostly solo, or with one other person. This hike was the only one I took as part of a group (save for a memorable day on Lantau with the Filipino Mountain Club).

A bunch of Lingnan friends and I planned to hike the “WWII Trail,” that connects all of the relics from the war — from old pillboxes and bunkers, to gun emplacements, to a part of an old plane — where soldiers from England, Scotland, India, and Canada, as well as professional and volunteer soldiers from the city, fought the Japanese invasion force in 1941.

This plan, like most plans I made in Hong Kong, didn’t really work.

First, I hadn’t counted on the fact that the trail wouldn’t be completely connected. So even when we found part of the trail, we realized another whole section was totally missing. Wandering between the Cricket Grounds, beautiful stretches of highway lined with forest, mountains thick with trees, and even the “Riviera” of Hong Kong…we never found the trail.  So, we improvised.

The “Riviera” is an area of Hong Kong known as Repulse Bay, and it was here we could see how the “other half” live, or really, how the 1% live.  Mansions lined azure waterways and were nestled into tropical hillsides, dense with vegetation and money. A smugness pervaded the area, but, maybe due to the public beach or the walkways leading right to their homes, the area felt welcoming. They wanted to impress you with their wealth by letting you see it up close. It was a unique experience, one you’d never get in America, with our gated communities and irrational fear of those outside our circle.

It was to this neighborhood that my friend and I rode a bus, stuck in the back away from the rest of the group, and overheard what we thought might have been a hit man speaking, a man with a huge scar across his face…and yet he was willing to give us really complex directions for the trail.

Complex, and wrong.

As I mentioned, they didn’t work, and we never found the trail connecting the 1941 battle sites.

But we did find other places to hike, settling on the “Wilson” trail, since anyway, some members of the group felt it was a less strenuous hike.

They were wrong.

DSC02717Climbing almost straight up a mountainside on a sand path, we hiked up through five zones of vegetation, and, just as some began to wonder out loud why they came on this hike, we reached the top.

DSC02699

HK flowering tree

The top of this mountain, the dividing line between Hong Kong Island Central/Downtown, and the rest of inhabited HK, gave us a stunning 360 degree panorama of the city. Victoria’s Peak is touted as the best view, but that’s wrong. The best view is from on top of this random mountain. We looked down on Victoria’s Peak, hundreds of yards below us. Kowloon stretched out before us, and Hong Kong Island of course. We couldn’t see Shenzhen from there, but we could see all the way to the other half of Hong Kong Island, and see the South China Sea. It was there I saw the largest ship I’ve ever laid eyes on, so big I thought it was part of the Island. And then I noticed it’s wake. This ship could’ve held all the other ships I’d seen prior to this and still had room, it was incredible.

DSC02715

The defining moment was when we reached the top, and had this view — we were seeing Hong Kong from up high, giving us a view that few in Hong Kong, and even fewer foreigners, would ever see. And it helped me to see Hong Kong in it’s true form — from up high the sounds and smells died away and I saw only the dreamscape of the city.  I could see from one end to the other, so I saw how thickly packed it was, and how tall, and how this seemingly endless city was really only a tiny part of the Island.

DSC02714

The idea of traveling and studying abroad is to gain perspective. Having a new way of thinking, which you gain from conversations with locals, or what you see, or how you feel. This day was literally a new perspective — standing on top of a city and looking down. I also took this hike at one of the biggest moments of self-change in Hong Kong, when I began to question everything and wonder about the world, my world, and myself a lot more. And then this reset my mindset quite literally.

The day was perfect.  Often, in Hong Kong, I loved the city-feel, but wouldn’t consider myself to be elated moment-to-moment, as I dodged millions of people on cramped streets, and even when I enjoyed myself I often found myself wondering, how can anyone live like this?

But on this day, those negative feelings were gone. Perhaps cause we weren’t in the crowds — we woke up early to get to Repulse Bay and Stanley districts for the hike, walking in a beautiful and pristine wilderness part of the city, almost like being somewhere totally different than Hong Kong.

We ended the day by eating in Wan Chai, one of my favorite districts and the least visited due to it’s location (with my schedule, I tended to avoid going to HKI more than parts of Kowloon or the New Territories). While we were in Wan Chai, we ended an amazing hike by eating on a streetside restaurant, everyone grabbing green plastic chop sticks and devouring delicious Shanghai and Singapore noodles, sitting on small stools outside of a smoky restaurant. We sat curbside, below the street level.

I found this ironic — one minute we were literally on top of the city, and our view was better than the penthouses of any of the towering buildings below us, and the next, we’re sitting at a table with people’s feet above our heads.

I think I was the only one who had the energy to notice the absolute flip in perspective  —  my less-fit friends all being too exhausted and hungry. Admittedly, I just slurped down noodles and didn’t ask them if they saw the irony of our new perspective, but looking around, I saw only the look of sheer tiredness from the climb, and now a pervasive contentment from the meal.

As we took the train back, soaked in sweat and with our stomachs full, I thought, this had to be the best day in Hong Kong. It wasn’t THE best, but it remains one of my fondest memories.

DSC02716

Standard
History, Hong Kong, travel

Star Ferry to the Imagination. Hong Kong.

IMG_5547

One of the most iconic images of Hong Kong is the sight of the Star Ferry, crisscrossing the harbor since the 1880’s.  IMG_5556

A ride on any of the ferryboats offers amazing views of the city’s waterfront and skylines.

IMG_5552

The crossing from Tsim Sha Tsui to the central city has wonderful views, but the most stunning trip is from Lantau to Hong Kong Island. The view from the water seems almost like a dreamscape of impossibly tall buildings in extraordinary settings, backed by mountains peaks.  All these millions of people, sounds, smells, lights, and colors coalesce into sensory experience that can seem both exhilarating and overwhelming.

IMG_5550

The ferry ride from Lantau is only a half hour, perhaps even less if you don’t account for embarking and disembarking time. IMG_5530You might think that essentially, it’s just a commuter ferryboat, but the ride is extraordinary, as your little vessel sails through greenish-blue waves past rocky crags of dormant volcanoes, and past island-sized oil tankers and container ships.

IMG_5555

Here and there, a traditional junk is still sailing, like a time-warp relic, with complicated wooden hulls and strange sectioned sails, sometimes colored dull red.  Then, after this exciting ride through the ship traffic, in the distance you see, as if rising straight out of the ocean, dozens of skyscrapers. It seems like a fantasy, to suddenly have buildings that reach the sky rising up from sea level.

IMG_5554

NYC from the water is also spectacular, but the sudden drama is absent, because you see the buildings gradually rising up, from miles out to sea.

IMG_5549If you happen to be crossing Hong Kong harbor in early evening, the “Symphony of Lights” is an added bonus, perhaps the largest sound-and-light show in the world: music, colored lights, lasers, and spotlights shooting up from dozens of buildings all around the harbor.  It’s a magical experience. You can ride boats around many East Coast cities or Great Lakes burgs, but this dreamworld effect is exclusive to Hong Kong and Hong Kong alone.

IMG_5551

Standard
Hong Kong, travel

Eating at Mr. Wong’s — Mong Kok, Hong Kong

When I think of “Hong Kong,” a barrage of images comes to mind:  friends I met there from around the world, Bruce Lee films,  the incredible skyline — in a setting with perfect Feng Shui, juxtaposing mountains, harbors, the ocean, and man-made wonders… and fantastic food, like dim sum, the tantalizing delicacy that no one outside of Hong Kong is able to get quite right .

And out of all this, a stand-out.  One of the quintessential Hong Kong experiences is dining at Mr. Wong’s.

994090_10200597522375534_1854138346_n (1)-001

photo: Elliot DeGuillme.

Wong’s is located in the heart of Mong Kok, the neighborhood that looks like a movie set, an assemblage of Westerners’ images of Asia:  narrow alleyways packed with people, bright neon lights, vague [?] food and diesel smells, and anything and everything  being sold, re-sold and haggled over.

Mr Wong's Xmas

kind of hard to capture the fun of dining under the influence of Mr. Wong’s weird charisma and manic energy

In this casbah of a neighborhood, perhaps the world’s densest, Mr. Wong operates his restaurant.  A hole-in-the-wall operation, yet amidst hundreds of dining options, Wong’s stands out like a beacon. It isn’t just the all-you-can-eat bargain. It is also Mr. Wong himself.

You’re greeted by the affable Wong, and often told to wait while they prepare the food.  For eight US dollars,  you can potentially spend all night eating and drinking cheap beer with friends in a dense and byzantine environment.

Wong, like so many figures in Hong Kong, is “shrouded in mystery.”  Rumors abound that Mr. Wong is a gold-plated Ferrari-driving money launderer with ties to the elusive Hong Kong Triads. Others have speculated he sells drugs to supplement his income. And still others say he is just a shrewd businessman, who has made deals that boosted him to remarkable heights and returned to the only job he’s ever loved, running his own restaurant. Personally, I think his low prices are only possible by tax evasion, but he has a standout reputation for his all-you-can-eat option and excellent customer service. Whatever the case is, Mr. Wong’s is an essential attraction, and every local insists “you must go to eat there”.

The sterling reputation is for the cheap price and quantity.  The food itself is not the best in Hong Kong.  Like Mr. Wong himself, the food has a questionable image.  His kitchen and entire establishment are incredibly shabby, and perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, it has been blamed for causing mass food poisonings.   However the threat of hospitalization is merely part of the essential experience.

1535483_10200597522575539_587212231_n (1)

photo: Elliot DeGuillme

In the United States, there are places that are real dives. But even at the shadiest restaurant, you know that the FDA or health department has them on their radar, making sure they play by the rules and are safe. This type of inspection isn’t as common in Hong Kong, though they have been trying to police things in recent years. But Wong’s entire establishment, with its plastic chairs,  enormous communal tables, and cramped but friendly quarters, is just essentially Hong Kong-ish.  The tables are so close that other diners are inevitably included in your group photos (which are constantly being taken, this is Hong Kong after all) and yet the tables are broad enough that you feel like you’re almost dining privately.

This contradictory vibe is common in Hong Kong, which is a place of extremes and contradictions.  Mr. Wong is rumored to be richer than the CEO of the biggest pharmaceutical company in Hong Kong, and yet he offers meals for people on a budget.   He allows you to have fun, but he has his own rules, too. Wong’s displays a sign that says “Welcome” in thirty languages, but he won’t seat you if you don’t have at least one Chinese-speaker in your group.

If Hong Kong is a living contradiction, it also has one overall rule.  It is lorded over by capital. Money is the key, if you can keep spending, you can keep doing whatever you want, but as soon as the funds dwindle, so does service. That’s the Hong Kong way, and Mr. Wong, like anyone in that city, also feels that way. If you’re white or clearly Western, you are assumed to have money and he’ll try to accommodate you, though he wants you to have excellent language skills or else come accompanied by a few Chinese-speakers.

In the US, most establishments don’t have the owner hovering around, making sure the food is good while also serving you.  But here is Mr. Wong, a man with quite a few employees, bringing the food to you personally.  He is a one-man show.

IMG_1940

Of the many memories from Mr. Wong’s, I most remember a large group of multi-nationals behind us, stacking their beer cans to the ceiling, and having Mr. Wong walk over, look at it, smile and give a thumbs up, and then karate chop the center of it so the cans flew across the room while he laughed maniacally.

Hong Kong, as I have said, is constantly contradictory.  But here is another rule.  On a personal level, it is a city of characters. Everyone, from the coolie laborer, to the CEO of HSBC, has a story to tell, and even the expats have their secrets. Mr. Wong is just one of the seven and a half million examples of this, and perhaps the best known in the surrounding neighborhoods. One thing I love about Hong Kong and that distinguishes itself from America is that you aren’t told someone’s life story within five minutes of meeting them, and yet you know that this person you’ve just met has a history as rich as any protagonist in an adventure yarn. Wong, with the rumors circling around him like buzzards, is no exception to this, nor is he extraordinary by the standards of this city, just better publicized.

People go to Mr. Wong’s on the same night, as part of the same group, and leave with ten different stories and ten different opinions about the man. It’s part of the allure of Hong Kong; the mystery, the sex appeal, the otherness. That is why, among dozens of stories about my time here, I have to write about Mr. Wong’s.  Nothing else does Hong Kong justice more than the man who is a personification of the city’s energy and fascination.

Mr. Wong's Xmas 2-001

Photo Credit (for the picture of the wall of languages, and the street scene) goes to Elliot DeGuillme, with thanks.

Standard
Hong Kong, travel

The Chicken Head

DSC00715-001

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

.

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.

1378220_10151737306040098_127249105_n

Standard