When I was first told that I was being sent on an all-expense paid media trip to Hong Kong, I heard and saw nothing else from my editor. After the first 5 words — “You’re going to Hong Kong” — everything else tuned itself out and I saw only the shiny reflective glass of skyscrapers taller than I have ever seen and clean efficient streets where every road-user obeyed every law ever written and people kept to the sidewalks.
That was a Hong Kong I had conjured in my mind from the many years of watching Jackie Chan movies and TVB dramas with my dad on school nights after dinner. In my naive little mind canvas, I had painted Hong Kong to be a clean and pristine metropolitan where the men wore suits so sharp they can cut you if you accidentally brushed against them and the ladies waltzed stylishly by in their 6-inch heels looking pristinely primmed and polished even in the heat and humidity.
I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t spot on either.
Hong Kong at first impression is breathtaking. The air smelled of purpose and everything you come into contact with felt like tangible motivation tinged with an undying sense of drivenness. Appointments were met to the dot and not a single minute was left to waste because time here was money. And money? Money was everything.
Initially I was awed at how efficient every person I came to meet was — from the limo driver who picked us up from the airport and sent us to our hotel at Mandarin Oriental, to the smiling waitress who showed us our way to our table for our afternoon tea on the highest floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. They didn’t doubt, hesitate or pause in the slightest and just trying to catch up with them left me a little breathless. I thought it was because of the sudden flurry of activity of having newly arrived at a foreign country. I soon realised it was due to something else.
As the perfumed haze that clouded my mind began to fade along with the novelty of being, for the first time, so many miles away from home, faint, thin cracks began to show on the shiny surfaces and smooth gilded paintings of the city. They were very small, very fine and very attenuated that it’s easy to miss it altogether, but they were there nonetheless — cracks in the city that the citizens themselves try desperately to cover up but are slowly, steadily showing itself bit by bit.
They show in the tired lines of the faces of the same waitress who waited on us, who at first glance seemed the very vision of cheeriness and energy. Under her makeup and perfect hair, she is but a crumbling doll, hunching a little bit every day to the weight that Hong Kong.
They showed in the coarse voice of our cab driver, who chatted most passionately with us about how beautiful the city is that he drives through everyday. He sings praises about his home, about this beautiful place that draws tourists like us by the flocks of thousands daily, but one cannot miss the dry, haggard coughs that rack his chest every time he pauses in between sentences.
Hong Kong is the painting of clean and pristine metropolitan that I conjured up in my head, but it is just that. A painting. Everything at first glance looks vibrant and alive and startlingly vivid and animated.
Scratch the top coat of paint off and the real Hong Kong will be revealed.
The real Hong Kong are the hundreds of wafer-thin high-rise buildings built so close to one another you wonder how the people living in them breathe. Peeling paint and blackened walls whisper the truth of life for those not so fortunate to have made their money fast enough. Narrow roads suggest trails between these buildings that zig zag to form the true pulse of the overlooked parts of the city. Everything building in Hong Kong is plastered by a giant, blinking signboard, but only to distract you from the ugliness that hides behind it.
Case in point, we saw only this golden gilded building (possibly some bank or another where money by the millions get made daily) from our cab-ride. Going on foot to hunt for some local food revealed to us the shocking back side of a city that seemed only all things pretty and luxurious at first, but with a giant skeleton residing in its closet.
Walking through the streets made me wonder how much money divided the people who sashayed down the prettier end of the city with their Louis Vuitton bags and Louboutin shoes from those on the other side who cramped into small squatters and sweated themselves dry in the heat and confined spaces?
In Hong Kong, I was awed and had my breath stolen at the majesty of their advancement as a city, but heartbrokened at how far they have left their humanity behind in pursuit of that very thing.
But it wasn’t all dread and despair, no. If there was one saving grace to the country, it was its culture and and serious expertise in streetfood!
I had fun in Hong Kong nonetheless thanks to these girls. Clarise (on the far left) took such very good care of us and Lynnett (on the far right) brought us to all the best places for food, sightseeing and shopping, basically the three things you need to do when in Hong Kong. Julia (centre) entertained all my craziest requests for touristy photos and was all in for trying the most random things. They definitely were the highlight of my trip, without whom I would have been quite miserable spending all my time only in the hotel room.
Where the pace of the city and never-ending chase for material things of the people left my heart and conscience wounded and winded, the local food nursed and healed me back into good spirits.
Put tao kou! A traditional glutinuous rice cake steamed in a small metal bowl with red beans and brown sugar then scraped out and stuck on a stick like above. It is starchy, chewy and gummy but the fragrant red beans made up for all its toughness to eat. It wasn’t sweet like I expected it to be either. It was very mild in taste, with only the smallest note of the rice reaching your nose before the red beans all but take over.
Grilled squid and of course, curry fishballs! I’ve always seen Hongkees eat these fishballs on TV that I was adamant to order a whole cup to myself even though I was stuffed from lunch. They were not bad, except the curry could be spicier, but that could just be the Malaysian in me speaking hahaha. We’re used to our sambal belachan after all. That grilled squid was the single most amazing skewer of sotong I have ever tasted. Succulent, springy and chewy to the bite without coming off as rubbery, the mustard explodes in your mouth at first bite before you are introduced to the delectable sweetness of the squid, laced with a slight smokiness from being grilled over an open-fire charcoal bed. Yums!
Of course, no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without trying its dim sum! Before this, I have a favourite place in Penang that I absolutely love and swear by. After this, however, sorry Red Tea House, I can never look at your dim sum the same again. Everything here was just something else. Every bite is soft and fluffy and so rich in flavour and texture. That har gao — I’m almost crying tears of joy recalling its taste — has the thinnest, most translucent skin I’ve seen on a dumpling yet holds its insides so well. Once you pop it into your mouth and sink your teeth in, juicy prawns dance on your tongue led by minced meat that is so perfectly seasoned, it is neither too salty nor too bland. Beautiful.
Best. Beef. Noodles. Ever. EVER!!!
Clarise said it’s not even the best she has had in Hong Kong (apparently she went to this place in Lan Kwai Fong the night before where the beef noodles were orgasmic) but I’ll take this over any sad excuse of beef noodles we have back here any day. The soup is a thick broth that is flavourful to the last drop so when the noodles soak it up, you get mouthfuls of the softest, smoothest bites. The beef was completely melt-in-your-mouth, so much so that I hardly had to chew. I don’t eat the fat of anything under normal circumstances, but with this I polished off every sliver of meat and fat and noodle and vegetable. This is what real beef noodles taste like!
It looks startlingly simple and unassuming, but that toasted bun with butter and a dash of condensed milk in the centre is like the best bun I’ve ever tasted. I seriously do not know what makes it so different from our regular roti bakar here but omg it was crispy on the surface but fluffy and cottony soft in the centre. The butter lends just enough saltiness to balance out the sweetness of the condensed milk so they both marry to provide the richest, creamiest texture in your mouth. Washed down with the real Hong Kong Pantyhose milk tea next to it, it was pure bliss. Here is the simplest of luxury on a hot and suffocating afternoon.
Hong Kong carrot cake, aka, the yummiest carrot cake I’ve ever tasted!!! My younger brother, Benny, and I loved these so much as kids that we would always order at least 3 plates when we go out for dim sum. Even then, we almost always end up fighting over who gets the last piece. When I popped a small bit into my mouth, I had to fight the strongest urge to hog the whole plate to myself. Best carrot cake ever! A small part of me was sad because it would have been nice to share this with Benny, who is the next biggest fan of carrot cakes after me, but the part of me that was just in carrot cake heaven from this three wonderful slices shoved whatever sadness down my throat along with more delicious cake.
Hong Kong unveiled its true beauty to me at night. Like a cloak, night enveloped the heat, the dust and the grime that the daylight sun revealed all too starkly and left only the beautiful in sight.
Billboards, signs and advertisements shone like jewels amidst the night sky that for a few hours, it is easy to forget the uglier and more dilapidated parts of the city. Lights lit up not only the streets but the skies above the buildings that even though it was well into 9pm, it looked no where later than 7pm.
And the people, they were EVERYWHERE!
At 8pm, I thought it was just the after-dinner post-work crowd. 9pm, I thought maybe Hongkees just love staying out late. By the time 10pm rolled around, it really began to boggle me why these people never seem to need to go home.
They clog up the already very narrow streets and walk in the same steadfast manners into stores, malls and restaurants. It was easy to distinguish the tourists from the locals too; the tourists would be have on the minimal amounts of clothing like we did whilst the locals would make their way through the crowd in their suits and blazers and vest and coats. I do not know how they don’t die from heat under so many thick layers. I was already sweating like I just finished a marathon in my stretch jeans and tank top.
Hong Kong at night is like a whole other universe. With the rush hour traffic receded and unforgiving sun gone to sleep until the next day awakens it again, a quiet calm and serenity falls over everything. Muted, tranquilised, and more settled down, the city revealed a whole new facade to us.
Behold the view from where we stayed in the vicinity of the International Finance Centre.
The pier at which the boat that will take us to Tsim Sha Tsui docks.
The Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower.
The Hong Kong Avenue of Stars where some really famous people supposedly have their names carved into the ground and the imprints of their hands forever immortalised in the concrete. I didn’t recognise a single name there so the view was more amazing to me.
I can see what the draw of Hong Kong is. It is a beautiful city with a booming nightlife and an excess of luxuries to spare if you can afford it. When money isn’t an option, a whole new world for dine, shop and play presents itself quite unlike anywhere else.
We spent an evening at one of the best rooftop bars and fine dining restaurant in town, Sevva.
Everything about it was pretty — the view, the drinks, the food, even the staff. They spared no expense. Here lies perhaps the best temporary gratification that money can buy.
Swanky music seeps into your bones so you’re constantly in the mood to dance and fuelled by over-priced but extremely delicious cocktails, you truly feel like you’re the queen of the world.
It was beautiful, there’s no denying that. For a short while, you can even convince yourself this utopia is real and whatever troubles you carry with you can be solved with another expensive cocktail or, worse case scenario, a tall glass of champagne.
Hong Kong has that air to her, I’ll give her that. She can be whatever you want her to be, so long as you have the currency that speaks her language.
She is an old mistress brought up by the strictest whipping canes of culture and tradition but in recent generation, is trying her hardest to break free. You see it the older generation with their tired bones and silver grey hair just trying to hold on to the fast pace of another sky-high building being constructed into the air. They are trying to catch up but in failing to do so, get swept back into more unsightly parts of town. The rest of Hong Kong? They move on, along with the expansion of yet another mall, yet another trendy restaurant that plays live jazz music.
But after all is said and done, I will always remember Hong Kong, if not for how things work there, then how the country made me feel. When you find a place where the old and new co-exist almost peacefully, like the intersection of this quaint neighbourhood that branches into Hollywood Road, it feels kind of abuzz with life and hope and dreams that is really quite invigorating.
A part of me feels like I’ve seen enough of Hong Kong to last me a while because everywhere I got off the cab, it looks the same as the last place I just left. More buildings, more roads, more taxis and more hurried people on their way. Yet, another part of me knows that in as short as couple months, things might look completely different here and for me to say that I have seen enough would be so foolishly arrogant of me.
Truth is, I thrive on seeing new things, experiencing new places and getting to know new cultures. For that alone, I will never bore of a place no matter how often I’ve been because the buildings and streets may stay the same, but the people, their stories and their lives are ever changing. So another part of me also cannot wait to return and see what may have changed and if nothing has, then at least to taste it all again with someone special — be it the Ninja or my family.
Hong Kong you are one city that stands your own ground. I still don’t know how I feel about you, but for now, I am content with just letting it sit and see what seeps out from that.