Weekend in Hong Kong

Hong Kong, SAR China – 7 & 8 October 2017

Ak arrived quite late on Friday night – really great to see my BFF, though we were both pretty exhausted by the time he arrived at our modest-but-serviceable digs. But we slept reasonably well and woke up Saturday morning with a full day ahead of us.

We had the first of two walking tours with Hong Kong Free Tours. This one focused on Hong Kong island, covering not just some of the usual tourist sights like the HSBC and Bank of China buildings, but also delving into some of Hong Kong’s recent history – including the Umbrella Revolution and the really poor treatment of Hong Kongers in general, first by the British and now by the Chinese. Learning about this from the perspective of our guides Michael and Beverly – both Hong Kong natives – was fascinating and certainly eye-opening.

Lunch at Yat Lok afterward, my second visit and Ak’s first. I actually liked my char siu better this time than last, but Ak wasn’t thrilled with his roast pork. Oh well! Did a bit of exploring in Central, wandering along Elgin and Staunton Streets, before ambling back to our home base on Hollywood Rd. in Sheung Wan.

Had a fun evening, starting first at Foxglove, a “speakeasy” type place that really dresses the part. It’s entrance is through a secret panel located inside of a supposed “bespoke umbrella” shop. The bar itself has the feel of a mid-century ocean liner. The concept is all pretty great – though the execution could use some work frankly. The secret entrance was on the fritz, so we just entered through a curtain. Not the end of the world, but disappointing. The cocktails were just OK – and breathtakingly expensive – so we moseyed off to Honi Honi Tiki Bar a bit further up the road.

These cocktails were priced just as dearly – though they were also pretty delicious, so that was a big plus. Dinner was at Little Bao, where we shared an amazing starter of caramelized brussels sprouts fried up with fish sauce, peanuts, shallots and chiles. Ak had a fried chicken bao and I went with fish tempura. After having had an assortment of underwhelming meals, we both really loved this one.

One last round of cocktails at Happy Paradise. Really cool space with colorful neon lights on the ceiling and an open window looking down onto Staunton St. Cocktails were tasty and we had a super friendly bartender who we chit-chatted with until it was time to head back to the hotel for some sleep.

Sunday was a similar schedule as Saturday, as we had another tour with HK Free Walking tours, though this time we’d be in Kowloon. Started off near Mong Kok and spent most of our time in the more “typical” neighborhoods of HKG, which feel quite different than the the gliz of Central.

Our guide Alla shared her insights into the nature of Hong Kong and why it is the way it is – focusing quite a bit on the role that its unfettered free market has in a host of issues that contribute to the difficulty of living in the city for all but the very rich. The Hong Kong government derives a significant portion of their income from property taxes and sales and leasing of the land they own. With no VAT and a very low income taxes, this reliance on property as a source of income results in a lack of incentive for the government to implement any serious reforms to the way the housing market works – meaning the prices stay high and rents exorbitant. Hong Kong is not an easy place to live for many of its residents.

As was the case on Saturday, virtually all of the parks, over- and underpasses and other public spaces were filled with young women hanging out. Some of the folks on the tour wondered if they were homeless. In fact, these women – the majority of them from the Philippines and Indonesia – are working as live-in domestic servants, typically caring for children or the elderly while also cooking and cleaning house, allowing married couples to both work and maintain the two incomes necessary to make ends meet in Hong Kong. These domestic helpers get one day off a week, so Saturdays and Sundays they spend time eating, chatting and catching up with their friends. Since most of their salary is sent to their families back home (and because Hong Kong’s minimum wage law does not apply to them), their free time has to be inexpensive.

It seems a rather difficult way to make a living – though one of our guides indicated that there’s a wide-range of experiences, with some families treating their helpers as members of the family while others insist that the helpers eat separately and alone, keeping them very distinctly in their place as servants. Regardless, these helpers are not eligible for minimum wage or other benefits that permanent residents and citizens receive – all while playing a critical role in Hong Kong’s economic infrastructure.

Anyway, I really recommend the tours offered by Hong Kong Free Tours. Great guides offering a different take on a very complex city.

We wrapped up our Kowloon tour near Sham Shu Po station – which is also a hop, skip and a jump from the OG location of Tim Ho Wan, a dim sum place that made its name as the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. They’ve since expanded, with locations across Asia, but I’d not yet been so I was excited to try the first location. The wait wasn’t too long and the dim sum was OK. The baked pork buns were pretty great – the rest of what we had was frankly nothing special. Not bad per se, but I sure didn’t see what the fuss was about.

Took the Star Ferry back across the harbor and then had an argument with Ak over something that I’m sure was totally important and consequential. We talked it out, sulked for a bit but managed to get our shit together in time for something really important: dinner! We had wonton noodle soup at Mak’s Noodles and it was great. We followed up with a couple more snacks and some wine at Ho Lee Fook which we also really enjoyed – despite having to interact briefly with a couple of very loud Americans.

All in all, a pretty great weekend in Hong Kong – but tomorrow, the main reason for our visit: Disneyland!

 

More from Hong Kong

The one nice thing about jet lag flying from US to Asia is one generally wakes up early. So, on Sunday morning, Mom and I were in a taxi to Victoria Peak before 9AM, bypassing the popular tram to the top in favor of trying to beat the crowds. It turned out to be a good decision. The ride up was quick and the Peak was still pretty calm.

It’s always a bit of question mark as to whether or not it’s really worth going to tourist spots – be they peaks or tall buildings – whose primary attraction is a view. In this case though, I think it was worthwhile – not just because the views are pretty spectacular, but I also felt like I had a better grasp of Hong Kong’s geography (at least the parts north of Victoria Peak).

It certainly looks like one could make a whole morning of a visit, thanks to trails that circle the Peak – but Mom and I took in the views and posed for photos with our feet in the fetid, ringworm-infested pretend Nikes in front of Bubba Gump’s (no we did not) before taking the tram down the hill.

The tram was great fun – not least because there was no line to board and only about a half dozen other passengers headed down the hill with us. And what a hill! I’m a semi-regular rider of the California St. cable car back home in SF and I think the Peak Tram has it beat in terms of how steep some portions of the ride are.

Upon arriving at the terminus, we were even happier with our decision to get an early start, as the line was already huge to ride the tram up. I love feeling like a smart tourist!

Took the subway over to Causeway, primarily so I could visit the basement food hall at Sogo, home to an outpost of Bake, one of Japan’s more well-known cheese tart purveyors. The food hall was fun to see (though rather unassuming compared to some I’d seen in Tokyo #humblebrag) and I got us a couple of cheese tarts to go.

We went off in search of lunch at Times Square mall. I guess I was expecting something more akin to my favorite malls in Bangkok – namely a huge and tempting food court and wide variety of restaurants. This was not the case. There were a few cafes and restaurants, but pretty limited in scope. I did find another place on the map and they had a good selection of restaurants up on the top several floors – though sadly it was only 11AM and most hadn’t yet opened. But we found a place serving dim sum and had a reasonable meal before heading back to the hotel.

Oh, and about those Bake cheese tarts? We ate them back at the hotel and they were sublime. Tangy, creamy filling; not too sweet; and the crusty like the happy offspring of a cookie and a pie crust. Delicious! Thankfully they have an outpost in Bangkok, so I’ll be able to find another one this trip.

Our afternoon was taken up with our last walking tour. I’ve included some of the photos I took during the tour – but I’m not going to go into much detail about the tour itself other than to say Mom and I were extraordinarily disappointed, particularly considering its exorbitant price (though we did have a good lunch and I loved my beef brisket noodle soup). Of the three tours we took in HKG, this was by far the least enjoyable – and with a price tag more than triple the others.*

But we did visit parts of Hong Kong away from the center, so it was nice to see a different part of the city. We also stumbled across a dragon boat race competition, which was fun to watch.

Later that night, we had drinks at tiki bar I’d read about called Honi Honi. It’s up on the third floor of one of Hong Kong’s many non-descript looking office buildings – but inside is like a little slice of ersatz Polynesia and even includes an outdoor terrace. We really liked this place – and my favorite drink was the Maori Spring Punch: vodka, watermelon, lemongrass, Thai chile. Yum!

Dinner was at Little Bao. I’d heard about it in my research for this trip and Yvonne, our guide from the other day, pointed it out to us on our walk and said it was really good. She was not wrong! Started with a plate of brussels sprouts, prepared Thai style with fish sauce and chiles – really delicious.

We got a fish sandwich and a fried chicken sandwich for dinner. Very tasty! I was pretty full but forced myself to have some dessert – a fried bao sandwich filled with matcha ice cream and topped with condensed milk. Oh man… I was super-full, but glad I made room for it.

Made another early night of it and hopped on the tram back to the hotel. Tomorrow we visit Lantau Island and the Big Buddha!

* I contacted the owner of the tour company once I was back home in SF and provided a detailed account of all of the things that made for a sub-par tour. I’m happy to report that she refunded the entire price immediately (over US$500) with no questions and an apology that she hadn’t done a successful job matching us with a guide. I was very happy with this response – though even if we’d had an excellent guide, I didn’t see how there’d be much to differentiate this company’s tours from those offered by other companies. Certainly not enough to warrant a price more than triple any of the others I took in Hong Kong – or anywhere else in the world for that matter.