Hong Kong, a sensorial experience
January 1, 1970
by Simina Popescu
‘Japanese chopsticks are sharper, so you can grab the slippery food in Japanese cuisine. Korean chopsticks used to be made of silver because, back in the day, poisoning royalty was frequent and silver could detect poison, and these days they’re still made of metal. Chinese chopsticks are longer, because we usually have big sharing meals and you wanna be able to reach the food in the middle of the table”, my host, A., explains in one breath, demonstrating while filling up her bowl.
It’s my first meal out in Hong Kong. We’re in a dai pai dong, an open-air, no-frills type of local restaurant, often family owned, serving an amazing variety of local dishes.
I had left London bundled up in thick sweaters, almost 24 hours ago; a December dystopia covered in unexpected snow. After I stepped out of the aeroplane and by the time I’d passed customs, I had removed my winter clothes one by one. Hong Kong’s Kowloon side was welcoming me late-spring-warm and clad in pink-hued neon lights, buzzing with nightlife noise and rich smells of street food blending between alleyways.
Must-tries of the street food culture
Having previously travelled to China with family, it couldn’t be compared with the trip A. has prepared for me. During my one week stay, I discover that side by side with a local, Hong Kong cuisine has many unexpected jewels tucked away in street food stands and shopping centre food courts. I fall in love with intensely flavoured satay skewers, nibbled hot and spicy at busy street corners, cooled down with creamy sweet coconut milk drinks, and with fluffy Hong Kong waffles (hot and sandwiched together with peanut butter and condensed milk, drippy, shameless and delicious). A. and L. are eager to take me to the best spots all over the city, and, above bazaar trips and island hikes, food is always a top priority in our day plans. My weak resolve to maintain a low-carb diet crumbles quickly during the first dinner out, and if you plan on visiting here, you should abandon restraint too.
Hong Kong’s island side hikes
There is something to do for every taste, and I get the best of both worlds; from sensory overwhelming shopping sessions in busy Mong Kok and Central areas, bargaining for the best deal on impressively authentic looking fake designer bags, to breathtaking hikes on the mountains surrounding the city, overlooking the ocean.
Cheung Chau – the dumbbell island
After the shopping haul has been safely stored away in my suitcase, we take off for a restorative day trip in Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s islands, less than an hour on the ferry away. It is an antithetic experience to Hong Kong’s towering skyscrapers, bright neon lights and packed streets. There are no cars in Cheung Chau, a quiet fishermen village – one walks or bikes their way around. The streets are almost empty, a refreshing change – we pass through a small temple and the fragrance of incense seeps into our clothes.
We rent bikes and pedal the islands’ length down the ocean walk, stopping for treats, of which there are plenty, and, knowing my sweet tooth, my hosts don’t want me to miss any of the local desserts. I power through frozen pineapple slices, mango mochi, deep-fried ice cream balls and sugar cane drinks, and my bike slows down considerably. Hong Kong hospitality will truly make reuniting with my weighing scale at home a painful affair; when I’m sat down at A.’s grandma’s table in Cheung Chau and served homemade crisp spring rolls and massive, shameless bowls of congee, I don’t have it in me to refuse the firm offer for seconds, or thirds.
Shek O peninsula – The Dragon’s Back Hike
To make up for it, on the next sunny day we take on the Dragon’s Back Hike. Throughout the trip I’m lucky to catch t-shirt weather and clear blue skies; none of the notorious smog. I’m told it’s a tough hike and I’m a bit concerned, as the other day in Cheung Chau, when we had climbed up on a rocky beach, I’d been huffing and puffing as a locomotive weighed down by pastries. I huff and puff this time too, but not as I’d expected, and the view is well worth it – the mountaintop resembles the ribboning back of a Chinese dragon, and every peak overlooks, left and right, green hills dotted with Hong Kong neighboring villages, white stripes of beach and the sapphire ocean, fading away into the hazy horizon. I take in the sun on my back and the warm wind in my face with the satisfaction of the thought that it’s mid-December and thousands of miles away, at home, my friends and family must be cranking up the heating and grumbling about cold feet and shovelling snow. We pant uphill, gasp at the view, click our cameras away, and the winding path takes us down in the Shek O fishermen village, onto its smooth beach, at golden hour. Dragon’s Back trail, despite the warnings that have made my stamina, weakened by the past few days of copious, carb-heavy meals, feel threatened, turns out to be a delightful, family-friendly hike. We encounter many families of tourists (even with their pets, the hike is dog-friendly!) from all over the world.
Ma Shi Chau – Between mountain and sea
As I experience it, Hong Kong is all about self-indulgence. We take the subway from Kowloon Tong and get off in New Territories, where we take a twenty-minute cab ride to The Beverly Hills, and walk to Ma Shi Chau island and Tai Po fishermen village, a silver lining between the mountains and the ocean. L. takes us on the Ma Shi Chau hiking trail, which takes my breath away more than anything I experience throughout this intense week. The trail winds lazily between the tombstones – of fishermen buried, traditionally, facing the sea. Far out on the other side of the bay, an imposing Buddha statue profiles white against the rich green forest. I find out it is part of a private temple, but its form echoes the curves of the mountain’s spine for everybody to see. The hike ends on a narrow beach scattered with volcanic rocks and boulders, overlooking the silvery city skyline across a stretch of opalescent water. The landscape is saturated in white sun and strong gusts of wind make the bamboos and pandan groves sigh and whisper.
Nightlife: Hong Kong’s shisha bars
My last twenty-four hours round up ‘the full Hong Kong experience’ with a night of shisha in one of the stylish bars in Central, and a morning of last minute wanders and shopping in Mong Kok. I take in greedily everything I can at once – the sight of Communist-reminiscent concrete apartment buildings, painted in pastels to brighten up the cityscape. They tower over networks of busy street food markets, their fragrances blending between the streets, their fruit stalls with red paper lanterns displaying golden lychees and jewel-like dragon fruit. We pass through heartbreaking and beautiful Yuen Po Street bird garden, just down Prince Edward road – a vibrant, noisy market for seekers of songbirds, sadly often kept in small cages, which might shock the sensitive tourists.
Eventually, I gobble down my last pineapple bun (a delicate-flavoured, unmissable local pastry), squeeze all of the souvenirs in my suitcase and, after I ask A. to sit on it, zip it closed successfully. Hong Kong has given me her magnificently eclectic best – from its bustling city life, flavour-packed cuisine and splendid surrounding nature, in a short week I learned that Hong Kong is meant to be seen, heard, tasted and loved.