The In-Betweeners

We’ve been here for a few days already and the cold is getting to me. Immensely! I don’t know how the local Hongkongers do it (is Hongkie a bad word to use to describe them? Someone please tell me). They are wrapped up in thick sweaters but they go about their life as if the cold was just a mere fly.
As this is my 3rd time into Hong Kong (the first time I came during summer BEFORE 1997), we’re in that in-between category – neither tourists nor working expats. We’re the sojourners and that’s a label I use because I keep thinking to myself, I really cannot live here. The cold gets to me (even at 14C and it’s March) and I layer up like kuih lapis before I dare venture outdoors.
When it’s hot, it’s hot and that’s in July or August. That’s also when the summer sale starts.
Anyway, weather aside, it’s been great just taking our time traipsing up and down Hong Kong aided by nothing but the MTR Octopus card and a HK tourist map.
I can’t help but do a comparison and contrast while sitting at the park (and despite the cramped apartment conditions here, the irony that stares you down is that the supermarkets and shopping malls in HK are large, even those located in the boondocks and their gardens and parks are just as huge).
Food-wise has been nothing short of excellent. Just like Penang, you can’t get BAD food here. It’s just not possible. But what I would give right now for a piping hot ayam varuval or mutton periatal from Little India in Penang – in this freakingly cold weather, that kind of food will just energise me right up!
Of course the roast goose, roast duck and meats and stuff do make up for this craving for spicy food. And then there’s this preoccupation with afternoon tea which starts at 2pm right up to 6pm. As I was sitting about this morning warming myself up with a mug of hot water, I speculated that the HK coffeeshops here had to include afternoon tea because without it, their coffeeshops would be empty. And like all pragmatic Chinese, why waste good rent when you can maximize it? So average coffeeshops here (“char chaan teng”) does round the clock business, starting with brekafast, lunch, tea and dinner. It’s busy all the time. Business is competitive here.
HK as a tourist (forget your 3D2N trips) and HK as a sojourner (10 slow meandering days) are as different as kopi and nai-cha.
We came here to do a few things but mostly we came here so that we can fully appreciate the lives we have in Penang.
More of my insights later…. and photos too. Right now I am using my friend’s laptop to type this while waiting for Nic to get ready so we can go for … what else?… TEA!

The HK Sojourn Part 2

This continues from this HK sojourn Part 1. It chronicles my trip 10-day trip to HK. I’m the dissecting sort so I plan to take my own sweet time to journal these good bits of my travel.

Among the many galleries on Hollywood Road
Among the many galleries on Hollywood Road

SP told us that Hollywood Road housed a good many art galleries, many of them showcasing contemporary artists. As we’d just eaten a good dim sum lunch, we felt we could stroll down the streets of Central HK with ease. Everything looked and smelled fresh and new to us, who had just gotten off the plane early that morning.
Unfortunately many galleries weren’t open on a Sunday. We contented ourselves with peering through the glass, looking at quirky artwork.
One of those things I really love about HK is the ease of getting a glass of herbal tea. Of course there are modern shops like Hung Fook Tong or HerbalWorks which sold herbal teas (HK$18 per 500ml bottle, roughly about RM9) for every ailment you could possibly have – just ensure you know how to read and order the drinks in Cantonese.
Then there are those quaint shops which smelled like centuries old, dishing out herbal teas. (During one of our jaunts in Mongkok, we found more reasonably priced herbal teas at HK$6. But then again, Mongkok is one of those working-class neighbourhoods.)
Chinese herbal tea shop in Central district
Chinese herbal tea shop in Central district

One other thing I marveled at was the enormously expensive apartments.

Here’s a real estate advert I snapped off the shop window of a property agent’s shop. Tiny lots (which we call flats) are priced in the millions. Even the moderate 500-square foot apartment where SP is renting costs around HK$1.4 million (she’s living in east Kowloon so that’s literally the boondocks to HK folks). This advert for a 379 square foot flat costs HK$2.48 million. You know how small 379 square feet is?
The one shop SP dragged us into was G.O.D, the acronym for Goods Of Desire. In Chinese characters, G.O.D translates into Zhu Hao De or Live Well. This shop, says SP, is one provocation indeed. All the kitschy and kooky are sold side by side with common yet uncommon.
“You have to take a look,” she beckoned, drawing us into one shop that sold tongue-in-cheek items.
Apparently, the founder-owner-artist-provocateur Douglas Yeung has quite a history indeed. Educated abroad as an architect, he came home to HK and decided he wanted to pay homage to his HK roots. Like most people who’ve lived away from home, HK represented something strange yet familiar. Of course he was wealthy to begin with. His grandfather ran one of the bus companies in HK.
Douglas turns the familiar into something that’s worth a second look, and a snigger, and a giggle. He turns everyday pieces into conversation starters, or at least makes tongues waggle ferociously. I think he’s really clever and he enjoys a good joke.
Like the bum-shaped mooncakes sold during Mid-Autumn Festival, a collaborative effort between G.O.D and Kei Wah, a famous HK confectionary. A lot of what he does is tied closely to the Cantonese love of word play. That’s why it’s so hilarious. You’ll need to be an English-speaking Chinese person, immersed into the Chinese context, to grasp his subtle and not-subtle jokes encased in his products. If you don’t know why his bum-shaped mooncakes sold out, go ask a Chinese friend when Mid-Autumn Festival usually occurs.
He also takes a jibe at common HK emblems such as the Chinese T’ung Shu, a book which no respectable Chinese household in those days would be caught dead without. I still remember my Grandma having one. She refered to this book for picking auspicious dates. She used this book to learn English (imagine a word like ‘Mother’ – the T’ung Shu made it easy for the Chinese to learn English by putting 2 Chinese characters – ‘ma’ and ‘de’ which sounded like Mother!). The T’ung Shu is so recognizably Chinese; in the G.O.D shop, you can tote the T’ung Shu around because it is made into a woman’s clutch! I would’ve bought it if the price wasn’t so crazy.
Aside the jibes and jokes, G.O.D is as much as a controversy-stirrer as it is a retailer. I suppose that is extremely clever marketing because how else can you explain that Douglas and his employees were taken in by the police for questioning when they found out his shops were selling t-shirts with the words “14K”?
In HK, 14K is the name of a notorious triad. He says he didn’t know about that – he just wanted 14K because it was referring to gold, not to the triad. In HK, strangely, you aren’t allowed to wear anything, t-shirts included, insinuating that you belonged to a triad. Whether he knew or not, the t-shirts sold like crazy. Douglas’ point was, what logic held that you can make movies about HK triads but you can’t wear a t-shirt which seemingly has the same name as a notorious HK gang? Good point.
But he’s not stupid. G.O.D has made a name for itself in the area of décor and stylish living, whether the police love him or not. They’re quite famous actually despite their price points.
And inside G.O.D (yeah, one has to be cocky enough to name one’s shop G.O.D and then turn around to say it’s just an acronym!), there’s a line of products called Delay No More.
Again you have to be Cantonese and a bit filthy-minded to figure out what he’s really saying. Try saying “delay no more” in typical Cantonese fashion and a lightbulb will go off in your head and you’ll go, Oh I see! Oooh, that’s dirty.
Here are some of the photos I took inside the G.O.D shop. See if you get the joke behind each piece or item.
Welcome mats with caution

The best kind of dictionary for language

Finally, we got tired of G.O.D (imagine!) and decided to rest our legs with an early dinner. The sky had grown dark although it was only 6pm. The cold was descending too. A warm dinner would do wonders. This shop which called us was brightly lit.
Outside Ngau Kee Food Cafe, No. 3, Gough St, Central, HK
Outside Ngau Kee Food Cafe, No. 3, Gough St, Central, HK. Note the 3 stools on the left. For you to wait your turn when the tables are full!

Small with hardly enough space for two elephants, we were happily welcomed into Ngau Kee Food Cafe by the efferversent owner, a lanky Cantonese. We looked a bit lost so he happily rattled off his recommendations. We had to try the famous HK milk tea or ‘nai cha’ (HK$18 per mug) – it’s similar to our Teh C but with lots more smoothness with each sip. Don’t do any currency conversion because if you do, you’ll never want to drink their milk tea at RM9!
Our dishes arrived – claypot beef brisket stew, stirfried kailan and fried bittergourd with salted egg. I’ve never had such homely food and I never had such a good appetite.
Stirfried kailan HK style & beef brisket stew
Stirfried kailan HK style & beef brisket stew

It’s true that HK food, even those served by shacks, are very tasty. Our beef brisket stew was to die for, thick and rich beef chunks in a robust broth good to the last drop. The brisket was tender and smooth.
The kailan was firm and crunchy to the bite and not oily at all. And I’ve never had such good fried bittergourd either. Price-wise, it wasn’t cheap (HK$200 +) but taste-wise, I’d go back again!
Only later we discovered that this little shop on Gough Street, Central, was famous, having been featured in newspapers. What a serendipitious discovery!
Next: Up the Peak, down the Garden!

(While you wait for my Part 3 to roll around, why not go here for a map of Hong Kong and then take a look at the 40 best foods of Hong Kong.)

The Sojourner's Tale

Hong Kong was a good break.
We were there for 10 days but we did not go to HK Disneyland, having heard that it wasn’t such a big deal. Moreover I’d been to Ocean Park before so I didn’t want to spend a precious day at a theme park.
Funnily enough, most people go to HK on a whirlwind 5-day, 4-night trip to cover the must-see sights and popular spots. Fair enough.
But to truly understand a country, one must take time. Time is what you have the least when you have money. That is when you most need to get away.
HK, small as it is and dense as it may be, deserves more time particularly if you really want to get under their skin and find out what makes the Hong Kongers such a resilient, smart and quick workforce. They’re like ants, forever industrious and forever moving along speedily.
We had 10 days to explore and literally stop to smell flowers. In my case, I was forever stopping to bend over some osmanthus bushes to inhale the gorgeously sweet fragrance. Osmanthus (or “kwai fah” in Cantonese) is also a herb which you can make into a nourishing tea. You can get dried golden osmanthus flowers even here in Penang at herbalist shops.
But nothing beats the real thing, of course.
And stopping to truly close one’s eyes to smell the osmanthus is something one does not get to do everyday, not in tropical Malaysia where I heard this temperate plant cannot really grow too well.
In my head, I am always the journo with a keen eye for sights and sounds. Particularly when I travel, I try as much to absorb the experience so I can come home and transform these insights into my blog or journal.
Having said that, our trip to Hong Kong wasn’t so much of a break as it was an escape into the novel and new. Sometimes we get away so that we can be refreshed with ideas.
Many famous artists and poets recommend travelling and living abroad for a few years, if only to foreground the familiar. Comparisons, while odious, can be make easily because we humans thrive on differences.
We can only see differences if we get out of our familiar surroundings and stimulate our brains. In a new place, our brains work better somehow.
In an alien land, we start to ‘see’.
And so, this trip – worthy of more than a couple of blog posts – will be a subject for a few weeks at least.
There’s so much I want to share with you, if only to remind myself what humorous episodes we experienced or what culture shocks we had.
I spoke a lot more Cantonese in HK than I ever did in my life.
I started to really value how versatile and multifaceted we are here because we could speak in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and Bahasa Malaysia. (We met a Taiwanese man who was totally surprised we could speak Hokkien. The Hong Kongers we met often looked impressed that we could bark back at them in Cantonese, coloured by our Malaysian accent, nevertheless! And to bitch about the locals while riding the MTR, we used BM.)
In our 10-days in chilly HK where temperatures fluctuated between 14 to 18C and the day was mostly grey and overcast, I appreciated the sunshine a lot more when we landed in hot old Penang.
Heck, even landing on Malaysian soil and handing my passport over to the Immigration officer felt so familiar and comfy. In HK, the Immigration officer just throws the passport back at us, which I find (and I am sure I am not the only one) totally rude! (Hong Kong Tourism Board, you may have spiffy campaigns and great ads but you sure have to educate your Immigration officers on civil behaviour.)
We learnt so much about what made Hong Kongers tick which a 5-day trip would never uncover. It helped that we stayed with a Malaysian friend who works in HK. We had a temporary home for a while.
In travels, one can be a tourist or one can be sojourner. Nic and I do not wish to be the typical tourist, wanting to cover all tourist spots just so we could show off photos of where we’ve been or where we ate.
Travel is a private endeavour because only you and you alone can understand what you see and felt. And there’s really nothing more boring to your friends than forcefully showing them your hundreds of digital photos – they weren’t there and they really don’t quite care. What they cared about are your stories of your travels. The photos are secondary.
A sojourn is one where lots of reflection takes place as the new land unfolds its magic.
In the beginning, all is wondrous and strange. Then one finds one’s way slowly, navigating along, being curious about everything.
In a way, it is like becoming a child again. Everything fascinates, even the grumpy old lady who sells hot sweet potato and hot chestnuts. Everything feels new, like watching with growing interest as the piles of people busily flocked this way and that, while we stood at the kerbside, eating our ice creams.
Come back as our stories get told…