We were expecting Hong Kong to be chaotic. Not chaotic like India, but chaotic in a New York City kind of way. I was also expecting Hong Kong to be very modern. But one thing we weren’t prepared for was how westernized it is!! My first thought as we walked through the mall near our host’s house was, “Are we back in the mall in Dubai?” It might not be quite as showy as Dubai, but it’s hard to tell when you’re passing Coach, Armani, and Burberry.
In the mall and in the city, we saw one familiar thing after another. 7-Elevens were everywhere; there were McDonald’s, KFCs, and Subways. When I commented about the Cheetos I ate in Dubai, our host said, “We have Cheetos here!” As an aside, it turns out they only have Cheetos Puffs and jalapeno flavored Cheetos – not the actual plain Cheetos. But I was still pretty amazed.
We took a walking tour of the Central and Western District of the city one day and were easily able to see the coming together of eastern and western cultures. There were towering, modern skyscrapers made of steel and glass all around us – my favorite has round windows like a cruise ship. Then we’d walk a block or two and we’d suddenly be in the middle of something we’d call China Town back home, where store after store featured containers and barrels full of dried seafood and Chinese herbs. There were scallops and squid and turtles and sting rays and all types of fish, plus many more items unidentifiable to our western eyes. And the smell of the sea would suddenly be all around us, so strong we’d have to quicken our pace.
The street names often revealed the Eastern personality of Hong Kong. After Dried Seafood Street and Herbal Medicine Street, we walked along Ginseng and Bird’s Nest Street. On these two streets, as you might guess, shop owners sold their ginseng and bird’s nests. (Our host later explained that yes, the birds’ nests are real, but only part of the nest is taken so the bird is not harmed. Yay for not harming the birds!)
Next up was Cat Street, famous for its curio shops, followed by Antiques Street, where there were all kinds of tables full of interesting Chinese items for sale. Everything seemed so much more exciting than antiques and flea markets back home. My favorite items were the large fish and turtle padlocks, and the Mao wrist watches.
We spent a little time checking out Man Mo Temple, one of the first traditional-style temples built during the colonial era in Hong Kong. This temple pays homage to the Taoist gods of literature (Man) and war (Mo). I found all of the large incense coils hanging from the ceiling very interesting, as well as the offerings. In India, offerings usually consisted of ribbons and banners. Here in Hong Kong, people left everything from candy to fruit to muffins to fully cooked ducks. I am still curious as to the reason for leaving such physical things for gods who clearly can’t use them. And I’m a little bit interested now in the job of the guys who eat, I mean clear out, the offerings.
After leaving the antiques area we rode on the longest covered escalator in the world – 800 meters long! Of course, it wasn’t quite as exciting since a bunch of it was under construction and unusable! I was still impressed with the novelty and “westerness” of advertising such a Guinness-style World Record.
After the escalator non-ride, we walked south of Hollywood to SoHo – the area with coffee shops, funky bars and chic restaurants of all cuisines. Then it was down some wide gorgeous steps on Duddell Street, where gorgeous old trees tower and original gas lamps still light up at dusk. At the bottom of the steps we took a short walk to the old Supreme Court Building, with a beautiful fountain in front and many more modern skyscrapers in back.
Our final stop of the day was a section of the city known as Mong Kok. As we stepped off the metro and saw five different exits from the station, we wondered which one we’d need to take to get to the market our host has said was “right outside the train.” We picked one, and sure enough, when we stepped outside there were vendors everywhere. And neon signs. And people. “Wow, I didn’t expect Hong Kong to be this chaotic,” I proclaimed. “This is exactly what I expected,” Elliott responded. It reminded me of Las Vagas but with as many people on the streets as a crowded day in New York City. It is the home of street vendors hawking knockoff electronics and clothing under the garish neon lights of Hong Kong, and we pushed our way through the crowds as long as we could stand it in order to check it all out.
That evening we went out with our host and some local couch surfers to what we were told was a “typical Hong Kong restaurant.” It was crowded and loud, and their shtick was their “$1 Chicken.” The Hong Kong locals ordered our meal for us. We began with drinks from the drink/dessert buffet where we tried mango and strawberry slurpees, almond milk, sodas and a vinegary fruit juice. Then for dinner we had a delicious watercress stir-fry, sweet and sour fish, a tofu dish, a pork dish and plenty of rice. Elliott and our host enjoyed getting all sorts of spices and hot sauces and herbs from the drink/dessert/spice buffet and making tasty creations in which they could then dip everything else. We preferred all of above-mentioned courses to the $1 chicken, which was boiled and cut in slices like a cake roll would be back home! The best part was that each plate of chicken came with its own chicken head. After much playing with the chicken heads, it was back to the drink/dessert buffet for some warmed sweet sesame paste and bean something-or-other. Oh how I miss cake and brownies and ice cream!