The HK Sojourn, Part 1

This is the beginning of the many parts of our Hong Kong sojourn, a trip we made in late March this year.
Nic and I decided to make good on our promise to visit a dear friend who works in this vibrant country. I’d been to Hong Kong in 1996 but that was a long time ago, when my uncle was working over there. I’d also gone in the summer of 1996 so my first impression of HK was a humid, sticky, sweaty city which frankly I didn’t enjoy. I hadn’t gone exploring much on my own as I’d gone with my grandmother, grand-aunt and aunt; they were worried I’d get lost! So much of what I saw was part of Nathan Road despite my two-week trip to HK when I was in my 20s.
HK was beautifully cool this time around, with daytime temperatures of 18C and night-time temperature of 14C. The days were not wonderfully sunny as some days were quite overcast but it did not rain. Strolling down the narrow streets wasn’t tiring but exhilarating as the wind could really get into your bones.
If you intend to visit around March, it is best to bring a jacket as the days can get quite chilly. I had always wondered why HK people were always talking about the weather. I fully understood this preoccupation with the weather because the temperature can dip and you can be caught unawares and feel all cold and uncomfortable as evening falls.
Days get dark quickly and as early as 6pm, the sky would turn onyx black as our 8pm here in Malaysia. Plus the chilly weather really didn’t make it easy to hang about outdoors so most HK people huddled inside cafes and restaurants or went home.

Inside the HK MTR, efficient, clean and fast

From the airport, we’d bought 2 single-journey tickets costing HK$160 to the Hong Kong/Central MTR station where we would meet our friend, SP. We’d be bunking with her for the next 10 days. Later on, we realized that one could very well reach the Hong Kong/Central MTR station using a cheaper route.
View of Tsing Yi from the MTR, our highrises are nothing compared to theirs

As the airport sits on reclaimed land, it is technically an island on its own. This island is connected to Tai Yee San or Lantau Island (where the famous Big Buddha statue is) via a bridge.
Now if you wanted to save some money, you can take a bus from the airport to the Tung Chung MTR station on Lantau Island which is a quick and efficient 5-10 minute bus ride. This being HK, everything is pretty damn efficient so when I say 5 to 10 minutes, it is really 5 to 10 minutes and nothing more than that.
At the Tung Chung station, you can buy your ticket to Central station which is really much cheaper! We got ourselves the popular debit card called Octopus which allowed us to travel easily on the MTR and buy stuff without needing to use cash.
Most, if not all HK shops allow you to use the Octopus card for your transactions. Initial cost of this card is HK$150 where HK$50 is the deposit (which you get back once you surrender the card, minus HK$7 as processing fee) while HK$100 is the actual usable value. Topping up or checking remaining value is easy with Octopus reload kiosks everywhere.
By the way, the Tung Chung station houses a huge shopping mall of most big name brands. This is the must-stop for brand-conscious people as the mall consists of factory outlet stores for Adidas, Nike, etc. Apparently the branded items are cheap but since I have never been a fan of branded wear, I didn’t know if the prices were dirt cheap or not.
I’d gone direct to the supermarket and bought luscious strawberries (the size of ping pong balls) and blueberries! In fact, for all of the 10 days we were in HK, I didn’t really go shopping nor did I visit Disneyland which is odd because most people’s travel itinerary to HK means shopping and Disneyland.
Dim sum breakfast HK style, note the curry fishballs on the right

The first thing we did upon meeting our friend, SP, was to get to her apartment, dump our luggage and go for breakfast! She lived on the east Kowloon side, in Tseung Kwan O which the MTR conveniently serviced.
Actually in HK, the MTR services every imaginable place you wish to visit so you can get from city to boondocks without breaking a sweat. I wish we had a similar train system in Penang. Imagine going from Bayan Lepas airport to Georgetown in a train in just 10 minutes. No more haggling with scheming taxi drivers.
HK urban planning is such that new apartments are built a distance away from the central commercial areas. It’s all right because the MTR services the outskirts well. I noticed that most new apartment developments (usually a collaborative partnership with the MTR company and the developer) are on top of sprawling shopping malls and these malls are located near MTR stations. The irony is this: the apartment sizes aren’t spectacularly huge and it gets claustrophobic if one stayed too long indoors BUT the malls are gigantic (even the ones located off the central areas or what I consider a bit “ulu” kind of place) with lots of space for walkways. What gives?
After we ditched our luggage at SP’s apartment, we took the lift down to the mall for brunch, a typical noisy affair at the mall’s Chinese restaurant which served dim sum. I was raring to try some HK specialties like ‘har gow’ and ‘siew mai’.
True to HK style, the waitress almost flung the white plates at us as we sat down to order. I found this rather disconcerting. Much later, I realized most HK people aren’t really rude; they are just too quick to the point of impatience. They may not even realize that their quick actions may come across as rude to most travellers.
On the flipside, I’ve encountered some really amiable HK people, from waitresses in the regular ‘char chaan teang’ (HK tea house, much like our kopitiam) to the ‘ah sum’ (auntie) who cleans the supermarket toilet to strangers on the street. Even the security personnel of the apartment we stayed in were highly polite and accommodating.
It was only much later that I understood why taking Sunday dim sum (“yum cha”) was such a big deal for HK families. Sunday “yum cha” was a time for families to catch up leisurely, peruse the newspapers, watch news (yes, there are TVs rattling off news while you munch your dim sum) and gossip.
More than that, it was special because they didn’t have the space at home to do so! Unlike us here in Malaysia, we could sit around our dining table and chat away while having breakfast or lunch or dinner. For them, weekdays are days where they have to rush off to work.
And even if they didn’t have work on weekends, they wouldn’t have space in their own apartments to linger leisurely. Five members of a family might be living in an apartment of approximately 500 square feet. Where would one put a dining table in such confined space? Hence, getting out on a Sunday and lazily eating lunch was a pleasure and pastime.
Of course, it helps that dim sum items are half their price once it is past 2pm. So brunch spills over to a very economical lunch and tea and beyond if you arrive after 2pm. SP says it is rather unfashionable to arrive too early on a Sunday for dim sum. We are Malaysians so we really didn’t care as we dug into our dim sum. Plus we were hungry as hell after our 3 hour 40 minute flight.
A note here – portions of HK food do not reflect the size of their population. HK people often are slim and petite and we didn’t really see any fat folks during our 10 days there. But their food portions are humongous. Their dim sum portions are large – even their braised chicken feet seemed larger than (Malaysian) braised chicken feet. Their all-time fave is curried fishballs which we sampled during our dim sum session.
Do not let the word ‘curry’ fool you. It’s bloody mild, more like turmeric-infused fishballs. It tastes more like Japanese curry than our Indian or nasi kandar curry. I don’t know why fishballs are so popular, they’re sold on street corners, ladled piping hot into bowls; they’re even sold in the frozen section of the supermarket. Then again, I am not a fishball fan unless the fishball is made with real ‘sai tow’ fish meat. Not for me the rubbery commercial fishballs with a ton of preservatives.
Next post (coming soon)… we explore Central, snigger in Delay No More, stumble upon dangerously good food in Gough Street….
Walking about Central after a hefty dim sum brunch