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.

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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.

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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.


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.

Hong Kong, travel

The Chicken Head


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.


Hong Kong


549051_722245691134331_1552063638_nI didn’t travel on the mainland during my time in Hong Kong, for various reasons, but primarily the expense. In some ways, I’m glad, because it allowed me to understand my city, Hong Kong, more intimately. I think I know aspects of it better than most of the other exchange students, or even some residents.

I did take a short day trip to nearby Macau. Hong Kong and Macau are the two  “Special Administrative Regions” in China. Together they are sister “city states”, self- governed, with their own currency, their own police, and their own embassies (OK, technically “consulates,” even though they are older and bigger than the ones in Beijing). Macau is also the gambling capital of the entire world, with a revenue that is annually six times bigger than Las Vegas’s and growing. In fact, the owner of Sands casinos (one of the biggest in the world) is relocating their headquarters from Vegas to Macau.


But Macau is more than the gambling Mecca of a gambling-crazed China. It was a Portuguese colony for close to four hundred years, versus Hong Kong’s mere century and a half of British colonization, and the character of each city is much different from the other. Macau is going through huge changes, at lightning speed, but still feels Old World in a way that Hong Kong doesn’t.


DSC02347-001Much of Macau still appears and is as old as many Latin American cities, or even parts of Portuguese cities. There are the brightly colored houses found throughout the Latin world, the names are in Portuguese, and mosaic tiles are used for the old city square paving. Catholic churches from past centuries are all over the island. I recall my Mexican friend walking around saying: “I need to look at the Chinese faces because I keep thinking I am back home”. Truly there is nowhere else on earth quite like it. And in the typical dense fashion of a Chinese city, a few blocks from all this architectural beauty you’ll find yourself in a land of towering concrete skyscrapers and glassy casinos, mostly Western, though two of the largest casinos are local.

Despite the Portuguese charm, the city feels seedy, as if it truly is a den of vice. Hong Kong was long regarded as a tame city (despite its own triads, pirates, and smugglers), while Macau historically was famous for being the place to find prostitutes, gangsters, pirates, and various other ruffians. Shanghai in the 1920s stole that image from Macau, and it has now shifted further west to Bangkok. The vibe you get is as complicated as Macau’s history and identity, as you feel the Asian sensation of calm chaos, yet you imagine yourself being dragged into an alley by a gang of hooded figures, and you also feel like you’re somewhere you are somehow familiar with. Totally unique experience.

Macao ruin (1)

During my visit, we did a bit of everything, ranging from museums to venturing into the Casino Lisboa, the second biggest in town, and marveling at the thirty million dollar (you read that right) gold-plated, ivory-accented, jade-filled Ming Vases in the entrance, the diamond chandeliers, the golden dragon statues, the bright lights, the flashy cars and bars, the beautifully carved mammoth tusk. And yet, like Macau, this opulent palace is all based on bad habits and foolish choices, and felt tainted.

We went to the upper level restaurant overlooking the gambling floor. The carpets were bright orange, like a hippie’s rug for his van in the ‘60’s.  The lighting was off, the tables looked worn out, the men in purple suits looked like they could’ve been found as extras in a ’70s low budget crime movie, and the music being played was coming from the most decrepit bar band I’ve ever seen.  It sounded just as bad as it looked. Even the showgirls looked like they were on their last tour before being retired;  the entertainment certainly wasn’t on par with the legendary Las Vegas shows. However, unlike Vegas, which is billed as a place to bring the kids for some wild magic acts and amazing performances, Macau has only one concern and that is gambling. The money generated in one month at Macau is more than the GDP of some of the countries in South Asia. Per capita, after Qatar and Luxembourg, Macanese are the richest people on earth.  You’d never be able to tell by looking at the denizens of the casino.

The strange, conflicted image seemed very much like the rest of Macau, a city that was unsure of what it was, or what it is. You could walk along the wall from the 1500’s and admire the beautiful stonework while looking out over a city that resembled a dystopian future city from an ‘80’s movie, with its dingy houses along the polluted Pearl River.  Hazy air rolls in from four London-sized cities just across the river from Macau. When you saw Macau’s flag flying, it looked tired, as if it knew that in thirty years time, it will be replaced by the flag of China as they take over total control.

As we took the high speed ferry back to Hong Kong that night, I wasn’t sure of how I felt about Macau. It was just too confusing, the emotions and vibes the city produced puzzled me. You’d see someone serving up fusion foods of Portuguese and Cantonese food (some of the best food I’ve had) while standing in the doorway of a French owned bank, next to housing slated for demotion. There is nowhere like it, and Macau is definitely worth going to see, but unlike Hong Kong, it isn’t any place to live.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.