Wednesday, December 30, 2015

15 things that I keep coming back to in Hong Kong.

The view from the tram (#11), somewhere in Causeway Bay. Source: my Instagram

Here's a break from my usual kind of posts - none of that soppy drivel today. As 2015 comes to an end, I wanted to share the 15 things that I do, see, experience, or eat every time I'm back in Hong Kong.

As you might know, I lived in Hong Kong between the ages of three and eighteen, and it's where I tell people I'm from. I attend a college I really love in another country and spend at least two-thirds of the year there, making me question what "home" is to me right now. That said, I'm really glad I get to go back to the 852 after every semester to see family and old friends. Even though I'm not sure what "home" is, and if I'm only allowed to call one place that, these things give me a great sense of familiarity and comfort, kind of like a security blanket which is not a hypothetical example because I still have one at the ripe old age of 20.

(Disclaimer: this list does not strive to be a guide for tourists, nor does it strive to encapsulate a "classic Hong Kong experience" - it's just the city through my eyes and these are just my own special things. Another point: I don't really take good pictures [#hkig], so just conjure your own vivid images through my literary prowess. Oh, and last point: all prices are in Hong Kong Dollars.)

1. Chicken and macaroni in tomato soup
Fairwood | Multiple locations | Approximately $30
Fairwood is a local fast food chain, but this specific dish might actually be my favorite breakfast in the world (and I've travelled a fair bit). A few months ago, my suitemate noticed and pointed out that every time we went for brunch on the weekends at the college dining hall, I wouldn't choose breakfast foods if other options were available. I think my cravings in the mornings have been shaped by the breakfasts I had growing up on this side of the world. Omelettes and waffles are fine, but there's something so wondrous about this soupy, salty, tomato-y dish. For some reason, they have never given me a knife with this dish and so part of the experience involves imperfectly cutting the chicken with a spoon and pacing the consumption of chicken pieces along the consumption of macaroni. Fairwood's preparation (clearly visible, rushed, think assembly lines) is far from grand, and I'm not a Fairwood fan in general, but they have this going for them.

2. Taro milk tea (with bubbles)
The food stall on Cannon Street; behind Sogo, around the corner from the minibus stop | Causeway Bay | Approximately $20
I have never not gotten this exact drink from this exact place within the first three days of being back in town. I'm sure there are like 2082309 food stalls in Hong Kong (lolz, I just realized that if this number/keyboard smash was factually true, the "people to food stall" ratio would be under 4:1), but ever since a friend took us on a detour to grab a snack from this place back in eleventh grade, I've just always come back to this one. I love whatever artificial flavors and coloring passes for taro, and it's impossible to find it in the rural town my college is in. I like, but do not love, classic bubble tea because I feel it lacks something that I can find in the taro kind.

Alternative #2: Taro green tea (with no bubbles)
Eslite Bookstore, 10th floor, Hysan Place | Causeway Bay | Approximately $25
This version is pretty different to the kind you typically get in food stalls; the sweetness is way milder, and there are what may or may not really be taro bits (which is why I always get it without bubbles). I am slightly ashamed to say that I've gone to this large bookstore for the drink more times than I have for books.

3. The basic Beef Pepper Lunch, large (optional: with an egg + cheese)
Pepper Lunch | Multiple locations | Approximately $50-60
The combination of beef, rice, pepper, corn, and a scoop of their special buttery mix on a teppan (a special plate on which the food gets cooked for a while) is so, so, so ridiculously good. It's salty and peppery (wow, what original descriptions), and the corn bits provide a nice comforting crunch while also adding a new dimension of flavor. Getting the dish in large gets you more beef. The egg and/or cheese can be added for a few extra dollars, but sometimes I feel like it detracts from the basic essence of Pepper Lunch.

4. Any salad combination at Urban Bakery Works
3rd floor, The Landmark | Central | Below $100
I've honestly never enjoyed salad more than I do at this place. They have a range of options; you pick and choose three for a small box, or five for a larger box. Even though their range isn't that large and choosing five is a matter of not choosing two or three of the options, it's tough because everything looks and tastes so good. Examples of options include miso-glazed eggplants, Thai noodle salad that's slightly spicy, and whatever they do that makes the cauliflower salad really yummy. I first stumbled upon this place in the summer of 2014, and it's been a go-to since.

5. Kingduck
3rd floor, apm Millennium City 5 | Kwun Tong | Approximately $100-200 per person
Growing up, my favorite random place for Shanghainese food was this restaurant named China House. I was devastated when I heard that it closed in 2014. But I realized soon after that the restaurant that opened in its place was run by the same people (King Parrot Group) and the menu at Kingduck was almost identical to that of China House's. Maybe KPG decided that the place just needed a slight makeover? Maybe they were trying to capitalize on the hype that frequently surrounds newly opened places in Hong Kong (see also: queues spanning entire streets when Forever 21, Cotton On, American Eagle, and Abercrombie and Fitch first came to town). Anyway, I'm very grateful that I can still go back to the same place to get my usual stewed chicken and vegetable noodles with chilli bean paste on the side. Oh, and they make pretty good wontons too.

6. Brunch Club & Supper
1st floor, 13 Leighton Road | Causeway Bay | Approximately $100-120 per person
There is another branch in Central, but I've never been to that one. I had brunch in this branch with a bunch of friends (wow, what a tongue-twister) to celebrate turning 17, which was my last birthday in town before I left for college. The ambience is something distinct from that of other places - the best way I can describe it is that it has a hipster-chic charm of its own. Unlike many places, I don't have a specific dish that I get every time (though I like their set lunches - again, not really a breakfast foods person). My friend who goes to Le Cordon Bleu and writes a foodie blog on her experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants chose to come here the last time we met up over the summer, so take that as some indication of the quality of food at Brunch Club.

7. Aladin Mess
2nd floor, 60 Russell Street | Causeway Bay | Approximately $60-100 per person
The location of this hidden gem (spelled with one "L", not two) is hard to describe over the phone to a friend who has never been, so the process of converting new people to Aladin Mess usually involves meeting them at Times Square (see below), which is a minute away. The restaurant, which serves unexpectedly fantastic Indian curry, can be found if you know which nondescript entrance to duck into amidst all the neon signs and buildings and make your way up the slightly sketchy-looking, dusty staircase. I have a weakness for their fish madras with plain steamed rice. A friend first brought me here in high school, and I've been back many times since.

8. Foo Lum Palace
438 King's Road | North Point | Approximately $100-150 per person
This place has generally negative reviews on Openrice, and I'm not really their biggest fan either. Foo Lum Palace earns a spot on my list mostly because it is somewhere I go every time I'm back. My grandmother lives in the area, so this is the default place for dim sum with her. This tradition goes wayyy back to the dim sum place that previously occupied this space (kind of like Kingduck, see above). The food is meh, but I think their glutinous rice and chicken wrapped in lotus leaves, cha siu baos, and Yangzhou fried rice are decent.

At this point, I have devoted a whole lot of words and over half of the spots on this list to the subject of food (Hongkongers really do like food). Also, I'm making myself hungry so I'll switch gears.

9. The scent of IFC
Everywhere in the IFC mall | Central | Free
No, "the scent" is not a store or a restaurant. Over the past years, I have thought numerous times upon walking into this mall that the literal smell of the place is one of my favorite things in Hong Kong. I associate it with happiness, and I'd consider marrying the first man who bottles that scent and uses it on himself.

10. Cycling from Tai Po Market to Tai Wai (or vice versa)
Outside the Tai Po Market/Tai Wai MTR station | New Territories | $70 per person (and someone has to show ID before bikes can be rented)
One of the happiest days of my life was when I was in kindergarten and we went on this field trip to a place where we rode tricycles around a mock city; there were street lines, traffic lights, bridges, tunnels, and underpasses. I think the purpose of the field trip was for us to learn about traffic rules and respecting each other on the road. Apparently, I ignored my mom every time I cycled past where the parents were hanging out - I remember being so damn happy because I felt so independent and free to move at my own speed, which might say something about what I'm like even today. I really wish I knew the name and location of this place. Maybe I will become unspeakably happy when I learn to drive and get to relive these feelings on a daily basis, but for now, this biking trail is the next best thing. The trail almost never integrates with the regular roads, making the journey a bit safer, and you get a pretty lovely view of the city. All the uphill roads make for a good workout too, especially when compounded with breathing in polluted air. There are a number of bike rental companies that cover similar routes. This specific route takes about two to three hours to complete.

11. The tram
Almost anywhere on Hong Kong Island | Under $2.50 per ride
It's excruciatingly slow (as my friend and I confirmed, with the speed filter on snapchat), but it's a nice change of pace if you're in the mood for that. A lot of my hangouts involve eating, and then walking about aimlessly in malls after (spontaneously going to someone's place for no specific reason is considered kind of unusual here). That's where the tram comes in; I've had many good conversations with people as the tram chugged along its tracks. If you can get seats (not too difficult during non-rush hours on weekdays), you can just stay there until you feel like getting off or until the tram reaches its end stop, whichever happens first. Chances are, its the former. Taking the tram from its most eastern (Shau Kei Wan) to western (Kennedy Town) end (or vice versa) is pretty chill journey that takes about two and a half hours. If you get a seat near the front of the upper deck, you can get some pretty sick "middle of the road and looking down" pictures (like the picture above - which again, must come with #hkig). It also costs (very little) pocket change.

12. The ground floor of Times Square
Times Square | Causeway Bay | Free
My mom jokes that if she can't reach me, she'll go to Times Square to look for me because that's where many of my meet-ups begin, happen, or end at. In middle school, the clock tower was the default meeting spot for my friends and I. Since then, the default meeting spot for my friends from different circles has become "under the big TV". There is also always some major display related to a recent movie release in the open area on the ground floor. While I think it's silly that so many people frantically crowd around these displays to take pictures (and I silently judge them), the crowd is also part of what I consider so synonymous with Hong Kong, and no trip back would feel familiar without this sight. Side note: the food stall kind of halfway between Times Square and Aladin Mess (see above) makes pretty good siu mai.

13. Bungalow
Ground floor, The Centrium, 60 Wyndham Street | Central | Cost varies
Upon looking Bungalow up for its address, I have just learned that it serves French cuisine during the day. Clearly, I'm referring to this place as its other form (mode? function?); a nightclub. The bouncers hand out drink vouchers pretty liberally, and I've had a number of good moments here in the past year. The music is pretty good, and I've never seen it so crowded that you lose your friends.

14. Big Wave Bay Beach
The middle of nowhere? | Shek O | Free (sort of)
Relatively clean and accessible (a $10 ride on the minibus from outside Shau Kei Wan MTR station), Big Wave Bay is a nice place. This is where I incurred the two major, skin-on-entire-body-peels sunburns that I've had so far, both in the summer of 2013. The showers and bathrooms are not horrendous, which is a plus. The combination of seawatered, salty, sandy skin, and the nearby (very informal) restaurant's food (in particular, their instant noodles with egg and sausage, or their snack platter with spicy pork neck), topped off with either a young coconut or a red bean ice, collectively forms the first image that comes to mind when I think of Hong Kong summers.

15. The Hong Kong Story
Hong Kong Museum of History, 100 Chatham Road South | Tsim Sha Tsui | $10, free on Wednesdays
This permanent exhibit takes at least four or five hours to get through if you want to be serious and not just breeze through everything. I haven't retained much and I'm no expert on Hong Kong's history, but I fall in love all over again with the way the story is presented every time I go; the exhibits, recreations, and explanations are so detailed and thorough. I'm not much of a museum-goer in general (I don't really know how to appreciate art), but this is one exception. My mom bought us annual passes to the consortium of museums when I was younger and would constantly bring me to the Science Museum in hopes of making me more interested in science, but this is the best thing I got out of those passes.

So that concludes my list of 15! It definitely says something about me (unadventurous - no outlying islands, no hiking trails, and always eating) but it is what it is. I hope this was a mildly interesting read for you. If you're also from Hong Kong, hopefully you can relate to at least one of these things. Also, this is most likely my last post of 2015. So if you read this in time, happy new year!