Hong Kong: Are We In China Yet?

June 1, 2011

In a word: No. You may remember that Hong Kong was ceded from the British to the Chinese on July 1, 1997. But you probably don't realize that the agreement stipulated that Hong Kong is officially a "Special Administrative Region". That means it has its own government, a capitalistic economy, its own laws, no "One Child" policy, etc. For example, you don't need a visa to visit HK but you do need one for China. And, unlike what happened in many other countries when a new landlord took over (e.g., Viet Nam), it still has its original English street names (such as Chatham, Carnarvon, and Prince Edward), and children are still required to begin studying English when they enter kindergarten (although that is probably more for practical reasons than any lingering allegiance to Her Majesty). All of the street signs and other public info are in both English and Chinese. A little more background that we've learned: There are 7 million inhabitants, and the 200,000 Filipinos comprise the largest minority (can you spell "homogenous"?). We really should say "Filipinas" since most of them are here as domestics (nannies and housekeepers). Geographically, HK is comprised of the mainland peninsula of Kowloon and 200+ islands (the largest of which is Hong Kong Island).

OK. Now about our experience so far (note: we've been here since Saturday so there is a lot to relate! Also, our tour didn't actually start until Tuesday night, so the first 3 days we were on our own.): We arrived at the Shangri-La in Kowloon hotel about . We immediately noticed that the carpet in the elevator had a center medallion that said "Saturday" in English and Cantonese (or Mandarin...not sure which). We then went out to walk around the neighborhood. It looks an awful lot like many areas of Manhattan! It has the same "international" feel to it. Two big differences are: they drive on the wrong side of the street and there are many banners and lighted signs which hang across the streets. also looks a lot like every "Chinatown" in every city we've seen. We had a light dinner in the hotel casual restaurant (steamed cod for Wendy and boiled chicken and rice (just like Gramma used to make!) for Wayne).  Our hotel overlooks Victoria Harbor (with HK Island across the water), so the next morning we got up early (and the elevator carpet did indeed say "Sunday"!) and walked on the Promenade along the waterfront. Part of this is HK's "Walk of the Stars", an homage to their movie industry, so there are hand prints in the cement and a big statue of Bruce Lee. We saw the sun come up and people doing tai chi. After breakfast we went down into the subway station, but did not take the train. Each station has a network of air-conditioned underground passages that lead off to many streets in that area. An excellent idea as by this time (9 am) it was already in the 90s with a humidity reading of about 175% (or so it felt). We walked about 3/4 of a mile to the next station and came out and were right at Kowloon Garden, a major park in the center of the city (but only about 2 blocks by 2 blocks big). There was an aviary and many ponds with fish and turtles, beautiful trees and flowers. Then we went back into the subway and actually rode the train. The MRT is very efficient (trains arrive about every 3 minutes!), extremely clean (no graffiti) and very quiet. It is easy to buy tickets from the machine: you press the name of the stop where you are going on the map and it tells you how much the ticket is! Our first ride was to a station 6 stops away and it cost about $1US each! Each train is made up of many cars, but there are no doors between it is one huge tube with people walking through at ease (and of course "Mind the gap" when boarding or exiting). Since it was Sunday we thought it would be fairly empty, but no....we were stuffed in with a multitude of people. We got out and walked a block to the Wong Tai Sin Temple; lots of incense burning, chanting, and an 8 foot statue of each of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac. Right across the street was a mall, so we went in to get something to drink (HOT! DRY! THIRSTY!). Had a quick lunch at a Japanese eatery: we split another bowl of boiled chicken and rice! Plus cold beverages. Then back to the hotel on the subway. We were so enervated from the heat and had a little jet lag, so we napped for 2 hours.

If you have been reading this far you are probably perplexed why we haven't included a full-court press culinary description.  Well, here it is.  We chose two (off-tour) dinners in Hong Kong both written up in the NYTimes travel blog--Felix and Cuisine Cuisine. Restaurant Felix was first.  It is a chi chi fusion retaurant on the 28th floor of the Peninsula Hotel (the grande dame of hotels in HK).  The room is extraordinarily sophisticated and high tech and overlooks Victoria Harbor (and each night there is a laser light show from the tall buildings on both sides so we watched that as we ate).  The place was full of foodies with everyone snapping photos of every course and we were no exception.  Wayne started off with pan-fried scallops, green apple chutney and salad with Japanese pickled plum dressing.  It was exquisite and he proclaimed the "best scallops I have ever eaten."

I chose a crab and lemon confit with citrus-cardamon jell, braised endive and crunchy endive which was certainly the best (and only) crab and lemon confit I had ever eaten.  Very light and delectable. 

Our next course was a small cup of soup-- only notable because, apparently, there had been some error in the kitchen and they didn't want us to wait too long.  Piece de resistance came with the main dishes.  Wayne chose roasted chicken breast with spinach-stuffed chicken leg, black olive sauce and green mashed potatoes and I chose the challon duck breast, with szechuan pepper-teriyai sauce, green vegetables and spinach coulis. These dishes were inventive and fantastic. 

As previous readers know, there was never a dessert I didn't like.  I chose a caramelized mango and lemon cream sandwich with pistachio ice cream and mango coulis. 

It was among the top five desserts ever.  Oh my goodness.  Suffice it to say I did not do a good job of sharing.

Monday we took another early walk on the Promenade in the other direction. We commented on how quiet it was, and how little traffic, only to discover it was a Public Holiday in honor of the Dragon Boat Race! We also noticed on our many walks that there are no dogs or cats roaming around (and very few dogs on leashes either), and certainly no other animals (as we saw in India). No homeless people either. So while it certainly has the flavor of New York, it is still very much different from there or Hanoi or Delhi. (And, hardly anyone wears a hat or sunglasses!) After breakfast we took the subway to the area where there is: the Flower Market street, the Bird market Street (hundreds of birds of all sizes and colors in beautiful cages, and bags of live worms and grasshoppers to feed them!),

then the Ladies Market street, and the Pet Market Street (rabbits, turtles, other reptiles, etc.). We stumbled on another of those indoor food markets where they have 3 floors of live fish, freshly butchered meats, roasted chickens and geese (and "pick your own" live ones!), and stall after stall with rows of beautiful and exotic fruits and vegetables.

Then it was time for another light lunch. We opted for the Hotel's main floor sitting area and ordered dim sum. There were 8 pieces of delicious scallop, shrimp, pork and chicken "pot stickers"...and this was an order for 1 person!

Then we took the subway over to HK island. Aside from a narrow strip of land right on the water, the island is very mountainous. So we went on what is, according to Guiness, the world's longest escalator.  In actuality it is a series of escalators (at least 15 of them) that goes for almost 1/2 mile up to the top of one of the hills! It is elevated over the busier streets, and breaks at each smaller street along the way and then starts again on the other side!

It runs in a "down" direction only from each day so people can use it to get to work. Then it runs "up" from until . At the top, we took a circuitous route down the adjoining stairs...even going down it was hard work (and of course, it was tres hot!). Near the bottom we came across another market street with (again) fish, meats, flowers, and veggies.

Back on the subway to change for dinner.

Monday night dinner took us to "Cuisine, Cuisine" for an amazing Michelin-starred contemporary/traditional Cantonese feast.  This restaurant was situated at tree-top level of Kowloon Park and was decorated primarily green.  The room was stunning and quickly filled up; we were the only Caucasians there--generally a good sign that the food is superb and it did not disappoint.  The menu was probably 12 pages long--with seasonal options, set options, specialties, and food offerings by category. Since it was only the two of us, we needed to limit ourselves.  With the maitre’d's guidance, we chose an appetizer, two main dishes, fried vermicelli, and a dessert.  A word or two about Cantonese cuisine in HK so far.  The food is more delicate than the Chinese food we've known and loved at home.  No corn starch anywhere to be seen and each dish is pretty much limited to one or two key ingredients.  Presentation is everything.  We started with an appetizer of fried "duck fish" per our waiter's suggestion.  It was very lightly dusted--almost like a very upscale Cantonese fish'n'chips without the chips.  This was followed by barbequed  pork slices---not that different from BBQ pork we've had in the states. 

The next course was a seasonal specialty--spec prawns displayed on a tempura lotus blossom chip perched on a cucumber slice.  This was amazing and was accompanied by vermicelli wit barbeque pork and shrimp.  We closed out this luscious meal with fresh fruit (we are yearning for chocolate already). All in all, the food was ethereal and sublime!

Tuesday we went back to HK Island and walked around Victoria Park. But it was so hot and humid we soon had to head back to the hotel! Rested in the afternoon and then (FINALLY!) had the tour's welcoming dinner: 12 courses --including, but not limited to spring rolls, shrimp and vegetable dim sum, scallop sweet and sour soup, Peking duck in pancakes, sirloin with vegetables, vermicelli,  Peking duck in lettuce cups, and fresh fruit. The food was fantastic (particularly for a banquet meal) and we are coming to understand why travelers to China take a break every now and then for Italian, French, or other cuisines.

Wednesday: our first actual touring day. Of course we were on the tour bus, and so rode one of the many tunnels under Victoria Harbor back into HK Island. We switched to a double-decker open-air bus and got a guided tour through one of the world's most important financial districts. Learned that Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world where the government does NOT issue the money. It is made and distributed by the three largest HK banks (70%. 15%, 15%)! Then we boarded the funicular to ascend the 1,400 feet to the top of Mount Victoria (gee! She must have been popular!). This one-car vehicle is almost identical to the one we rode to the top of Corcovado in Rio two years ago. The views from the top were incredible, and we were fortunate that there were no clouds to block it (which is a common occurrence). Then back down via bus to the dock where we took a ferry back across to Kowloon. The trip used to take about 12 minutes, but due to the aggressive program of landfill and building on both sides of the harbor, it now only takes 8! We walked a few blocks to the Jade Garden restaurant where the group feasted on..............DIM SUM!!!!!  We plan to have a small room service dinner tonight...probably not dim sum. Early tomorrow we fly to Shanghai....which, they tell us, is in China!

wendy and wayne

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