May 18, 2007 (written in Chiang Mai, May 28, 2007)
After sleeping off some of our jet lag, we got up the next morning and started off for our first dim sum experience. The East Lake Seafood Restaurant was in another huge office block a couple of streets down from our hotel. I’m mystified as to how you know which restaurants are any good in Hong Kong, because the vast majority of them are hidden on like the 5th floor of these huge buildings. To find a lot of the best places, you really have to have a recommendation or some idea already of where you’re going.
Anyway, we sat down in the huge room that makes up the East Lake Seafood Restaurant, feeling distinctly like tourists having wandered into some hotel ballroom full of dining conventioneers. East Lake had a much-abbreviated English menu, which we accepted gratefully (our Cantonese isn’t really up to snuff), and pot of tea was plunked down on our table along with a pot of hot water.
I saw several things on the menu I was curious to try, so we ordered a slew of dumplings and small treats and placed a Kleenex on our laps.
Husbear went to explore a table we saw over in the corner, where it appeared you could get fried wontons with honey (which we did, of course), and by the time he got back small steamers had started to appear on our table.
First to arrive were fried bean curd rolls stuffed with shrimp, along with steamed buns filled with barbequed pork. The rolls were good, though seriously greasy, and the steamed buns were nice – light, fluffy, steamy, but with only a little very sweet pork filling.
Next came the ubiquitous siu-mai, open-topped dumplings stuffed with shrimp and pork. These were good, savory and with a good chew. Perhaps a little bland, if I was being picky – some might prefer to call their taste “subtle.”
We also got some tender gingery steamed beef meatballs and an order of chicken feet in black bean sauce. Husbear was heartened to see the Hong Kong method of eating these – put a big chunk in your mouth, chew, and spit out the bones. Otherwise, they’re really hard to pick clean. He pronounced them delicious. I still think they’re an awful lot of work for not very much meat.
We were pretty stuffed, so we took the subway (MRT) to the center of town and started out on a walking tour from our Lonely Planet. Our first stop, after being disappointed to find there are no remaining rickshaw drivers at the old port, was at Hong Kong’s Statue Square. Most of Hong Kong’s colonial history has been bulldozed under to make way for shiny new buildings, but the Legislative Council building remains (with a tower in the background designed by I.M. Pei).
It’s not a very old building, having been built in 1912. According to our book, during World War Two it was the headquarters for the Japanese version of the Gestapo and was the site of many executions.
Statue Square is pretty heavily regulated, like most of Hong Kong. The loss of the food hawkers is the saddest to me, of course. Mobile food stands are everywhere here in Thailand, but there aren’t very many in Hong Kong – the authorities were afraid that the pressurized gas canisters (used for cooking) might be a little on the unsafe side.
We stopped into the I.M. Pei building, the Bank of China Tower, to check out their observation windows on the 43rd floor. We did snap a nice view of the bay and the enormity of modern Hong Kong,
as well as a reverse shot up the hill that makes up the back end of Hong Kong. The fact that many people lived in the apartment towers up this steep hill and worked down in the bay has led to an interesting solution that we took pictures of later. (You’ll have to wait.)
The elevator itself gave us another reminder of the germ-phobic Hong Kongers. They’ve been completely freaked out by avian flu, and have shut down the main market in town. There’s disinfectant carpet everywhere along with signs telling you to always wash your hands and that spitting spreads germs.
Outside, we walked along the streets of Central, taking in the huge streets and the glass and steel buildings. Here’s some double-decker transport, like I talked about yesterday.
We found the Hong Kong Park, a huge splotch of green in the middle of all of the tall buildings. It definitely took some of the heat out of the day to be in a place with waterfalls and plants. People milled about, slowly enjoying the park.
Since we have less than no idea about Chinese tea, we went into the Flagstaff House Museum of Teaware on the park grounds. It’s in a colonial building built in 1846, which makes it the oldest colonial building in Hong Kong still standing in its original location. (See – not too much colonial history left.) The exhibitions were really interesting and informative (and the a/c was quite welcome). There were old traditionally shaped teapots for different types of tea, along with information on the methods that have arisen through the ages to serve each type of tea.
We also saw the results of a competition to design artistic working teapots. Some of the specimens were amazing.
Having cooled down a little bit, we left the museum and headed over to the aviary, a large space full of birds enclosed by a net. It’s covered in signs warning you to thoroughly wash your hands if you come into contact with the birds or their droppings, as well as a friendly exhortation to avoid dengue fever. Which is a disease that does NOT sound like fun – perhaps it’s the name?
The aviary was terrific. Wooden pathways set 10 meters in the air wind through trees filled with singing and chirping birds, all of them native to Southeast Asia and many of them very, very colorful.
The buildings rising up outside the net enclosure remind you that you’re in the middle of a huge city – otherwise you might be tempted to forget, it’s that peaceful
By far the most common bird we saw were these guys, a sexy version of a pigeon. I can’t remember if they’re called imperial pigeons or emperor pigeons, but they definitely looked dignified and royal in their green feathered cloaks.
We also saw these black-capped lories playing around in a tree, flipping around each other – I think happily. Or perhaps they were trying to kill each other. I’m no ornithologist.
At this point, we were starting to get hungry (it had been like three hours since dim sum breakfast!) so we walked into a place that had a bubbling pot of tripe and tofu in the window as well as honeycomb tripe hanging up on meathooks.
Stupidly, we didn’t order tripe, at least directly, though I’m fairly certain the two dumplings we did order had more than their fair share of organ meats.
Then, we were off to see the solution to the steep Hong Kong commute – the longest escalator in the WORLD! Awesome. I was a little sad that it wasn’t continuous, though I guess that would be sort of difficult to maintain. It’s three moving walkways and 20 escalators and it’s 800 meters long, or almost half a mile.
It only runs one direction at a time – down in the morning and up in the evening. Luckily, it was going up when we wanted to take it, or it would have been a hot slog up lots of stairs.
Aside – want some Pizza Hut? Why is there no pizza on this Pizza Hut ad? Hrm?
After our explorations of the escalator, we went back to our guesthouse, did some blogging, and washed up – then out again, to the flower market! Where it started raining, just like it had done every day in London. Oh well… I guess some vacations are like that.
There were stores that specialized in one type of flower, like orchids or roses, as well as shops that made bouquets and centerpieces. It was blocks long and full of beautiful color.
Turning a corner at the end of the flower market, we discovered a street where people sold fish in small bags clipped to the front of their stores.
I’m really not sure what the deal is with these, but there certainly were a lot of them – along with places with crabs in bags and tiny turtles in tanks.
Having puzzled at the fish and sea creatures, we walked over to the Temple Street night market where we were hoping to get some dinner. (Yeah, time to eat again.) People sat under tents with designer catalogs out, saying “You want copy watch? Copy purse?” It didn’t seem like the best idea, so we kept walking.
This stand, with its enormous selection of eating things, jumped out at us – this seems to be the best and easiest way for an illiterate traveler to eat in Hong Kong, since everything is just there right in front of you, ameliorating the guesswork.
but what was going on at the very end of it intrigued me the most. I knew I’d seen these little frypans before… and then I remembered, takoyaki! They’re Japanese dumplings with breading mixed liberally with finely chopped octopus. I guess there are some places in Osaka (where they’re most beloved, if I remember correctly) where you can even fry them at your table. I had to give them a try.
Honestly, I was a little thrown by the liberal dousing with mayonnaise and eel sauce and seaweed, but hey, when in Hong Kong… eat Japanese food? They were completely awesome, but would probably have been even better straight out of the fryer with a cold beverage.
Having snacked, it was time for dinner… and a bathroom, so we went into a little hole in the wall advertising Shanghai fried chicken. We were drawn in mostly by this guy in the window making a huge array of dumplings, and we were able by using hand gestures to get an order of THE BEST POTSTICKERS I HAVE EVER EATEN (there IS need to shout about these, trust me) along with the strangest fried chicken.
Seems like most of Asia doesn’t really care so much about the delicate jointing and boning in a piece of meat (the stuff they obsess about in France) and so what we got were various parts of chicken that had been deep fried and then hacked apart by a cleaver. Bone shards were everywhere. The flavor was good, but the highlight was the soy sauce based dipping sauce.
Then the restaurant tried to overcharge us by like 40 Hong Kong dollars. Always check your ticket, people!
Then we ate dumplings on a stick from a place remarkably similar to the takoyaki joint. I love dumplings, and if you can put them on a stick, I’m that much happier.
Husbear had been seeing this strange looking waffle item on the tables at a lot of the snacketerias, so he ordered one from the dumpling on a stick ladies. Since we didn’t know if it was sweet or savory, he asked if he should douse it with some of the selection of dipping sauces on the ladies’ table. “Sauce?” he asked, gesturing at the waffle-thing. They said “Sauce!” but then when he made the move to put something on the waffle they both burst out laughing. “SAUCE! HAHAHA!” And we all had a good laugh together. Maybe sauce means something different in Cantonese or Mandarin?
Turned out the waffle thing was coconut flavored and sweet and probably would have been quite strange covered in fish or chili sauce. So. A yummy snack.
A question to end the day – how would you like to be seen exiting the HONG KONG HAEMORRHOID CENTRE? Well?