Almost two years ago, in the middle of my first winter back on the east coast, I decided that, come March, I was going on a trip. As somebody who likes to travel, there wasn’t anything terribly novel about this decision. But I suppose you could say that, given that I was planning on going alone, as well as traveling to Asia–to Hong Kong, in fact, where my former roommate and one of my closest friends was living at the time–for the first time since 2006, it wasn’t exactly a run of the mill journey, either. If you’re wondering why I’m blogging about this now, there are two reasons: 1) blogging takes time, and my backlog of posts may ultimately run deeper than the supposed “deep state”; and 2) a few weeks ago now, I woke up on Monday morning to tell the Greek that I was more than certain that something good was going to happen. Since my grandma had her surgery and is doing fairly well, that could be the positive outcome my good feeling had foretold. That was, however, not the only news we received that week; in addition to a few rejections (the academic job market is nothing if not brutal and utterly Darwinian), we also found out that the Greek got a job at a very good university in southeast Asia, in Singapore to be exact.
While I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about all this, nor has anything been decided, I’ve been doing my due diligence and reading up on southeast Asia. And, of course, while Hong Kong is not Singapore (though in southeastern China, it also isn’t really considered part of southeast Asia), the news of the job offer made me want to return to these photos and to relive the trip.
At the time, I had assumed that it would probably be a good, long while before I returned to Asia. While that could still end up being the case, I’ve officially given up on making predictions about the future. You go where the universe tells you. Choice may be the grandest illusion of them all, and the whole trip could actually be indicative of this truism.
After a 15-hour flight from Newark International, I arrived healthy, albeit a little dazed and confused. Although my flight was thankfully both direct and uneventful, I was maybe not entirely prepared for the time difference, which can be fairly debilitating and is something I hadn’t really experienced since the age of 23. That said, on my first full day there, I was raring to go.
What I hadn’t really anticipated was the utter lushness of Hong Kong; despite being a maze of skyscrapers, high rises and hills–lots and lots of hills– it is also remarkably green, with vegetation ranging from grasslands to a secondary rainforest. I was perhaps most surprised by the spindly branches of the banyan trees growing on the surfaces of walls all over Hong Kong Island; not only is it an arresting sight to see the fusion of nature with manmade masonry, but the trees also create a refuge from the humidity and the sun.
Our first order of business was to hike up to The Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island and home to some of the city’s wealthiest citizens and best views. It was, by Hong Kong standards, a pretty clear and warm day, with a breeze cool enough that laksa, a spicy curry coconut milk-based soup with rice vermicelli, felt like the most obvious choice for lunch.
It was an exhilarating beginning to the trip, going up and down The Peak on foot and past Hollywood Road and various food stalls with their pungent smells and sizzling offerings, but it may be that the totality of the first day was, for my fatigued body, the beginning of the end. According to my Fitbit, my jet-lagged legs, by the end of the day, had logged over 30,000 steps (over 15 miles); I’m not sure my lungs, which have not always proven to be the strongest in cities with high pollution, were up to the challenge. But my increasing stuffiness aside, nothing was preventing me from eating well. One of my favorite Hong Kong meals was also one of my first in the city: a trip to Little Bao, which calls itself a “burger” restaurant, but is really much more creative and interesting than that description lets on; imagine deconstructed steamed pork buns with different fillings (I had the Szechuan Fried Chicken, vegetable-forward sides, and ice cream bao (sandwiches) with green tea ice cream drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. Believe me, if you travel to Hong Kong, it’s a restaurant you want to seek out.
Although I became increasingly congested as the week progressed, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from enjoying myself. When you have only a week in one of the world’s major cities, there’s really no time to sit back and rest–even if that’s the very thing that you need.
This is how, on the second day of my trip, I found myself in a cable car suspended over the Tung Chung Bay and heading towards Lantau Island, where the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery are located. The whole experience is incredibly surreal; as you sit in this very modern cable car, looking at the misty mountains all around you and finally catch a glimpse of the the peaceful expression on the Buddha’s face through the window, you feel like you are approaching something primordial. Then you arrive, read the signs everywhere and realize that the construction of this Buddha was completed in 1993. Even if this diminishes your excitement a little, it doesn’t take away from the sense of awe that you feel as you walk up all 268 to reach this “modern” Buddha and the six devas surrounding him.
After exploring two of Hong Kong’s major sites, as well as exploring different parts of the neighborhood on foot, it seemed only right to venture out and explore something “outside” of the city. While many people use Hong Kong as a springboard to visit places like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, I decided that, since my trip was short, I just wanted to capitalize on being in Hong Kong proper, although I was curious about the former Portuguese colony of Macau, which is known as the “Las Vegas of Asia.” On our way to the ferry station (traveling around Hong Kong means traversing the many bodies of water that surround it), we stopped at a Japanese cafe, Café Deadend, which, as per the Japanese standard, was as aesthetically pleasing as it was delicious.
By the time we got to Macau and found our way to the Ruins of St. Paul’s, which was destroyed by a fire in 1835, I was already hungry again.
It’s a good thing that in Macau, thanks to the Portuguese influence, you can find Egg Custard Tarts on almost every street corner. There is no word for these but delectable; it doesn’t matter where you find yourself (Portugal, Hong Kong, Macau), they are all equally wonderful–soft, creamy, and bruleéd–although there are differences in the crust: in Macau, it had the textured layers of puff pastry; in Hong Kong, it was flaky like pie crust. Did I have a preference? Not really, since an egg custard tart is an egg custard tart and they are so dangerously tempting that you could easily eat your weight in them.
Because Macau is a strange hybrid of the east and west and old and new, you never quite know what you’re going to discover. In a lot of ways, the day I spent there felt more like a preview of what was to come on the Greek’s and my honeymoon in Portugal (posts coming soon), from the colorful and Baroque architecture we weaved our way around to the rich lunch of salt cod and potatoes cooked in cream that I enjoyed, than like being on the south coast of China. As my friend and I also ended our trip to Macau with a trip to a fabulous little wine bar, Macau Soul, that is run by two British ex-pats, my whole sense of the place was decidedly confused. But then again, when you come upon a storefront selling Hello, Kitty! egg custard tarts, you know–and quite firmly–that, even if Kitty-chan is with the Barcelos Rooster, you can only be in Asia.
While I don’t remember every meal I had in Hong Kong, I do remember that the night we returned from Macau, my friend and I met her husband at a place that, if you didn’t know better, you would walk right by. Hidden behind what appears to be a stamp shop is a little speakeasy, Mrs. Pound, with brightly painted walls with trinkets and mirrors hanging everywhere. The decor is cute and retro, and the story behind the place is that Mrs. Pound was a burlesque dancer who traveled and ate all over the world; eventually, she fell in love with the wealthy Mr. Ming, who gave her the stamp shop so as to hide her away from her many admirers. In keeping with this theme, the food has a fusion-y flare and is supposedly based on Mrs. Pound’s travels; think rendang poutine and avocado fries with panko, sesame, and Sriracha. Both the food and restaurant itself had character, with a fun vibe and tasty cocktails.
After Macau and the glory of Mrs. Pound, however, I was rapidly approaching peak congestion; neither all the spicy food in Hong Kong, nor what seemed to be a massage tailored to my specific needs, nor a seemingly medicinal cocktail of activated charcoal, Greek yogurt, and gin at the Aberdeen St. Social, could reverse my fate of being well and truly sick. With the birthday party of my friend’s husband’s business partner and friend in the works for the evening at a popular izakaya, Yardbird, my friend and I decided to have a fairly low key day ourselves. We started at the Flower Market, where my hope of being surrounded by blooms of every shape and color, might help me to breathe, if not brighten my spirits. While I can’t say that there were ultimately any medicinal benefits to wandering around the various flower stalls, the sheer beauty of the market did make me happy. The only disappointing thing about the experience is that, living on another continent, I couldn’t buy anything to take home. Next to the flower market is the Bird Market and, although I wouldn’t call myself the biggest bird fan around (we can blame Hitchcock, as well as my Russian host-mom and her pet parrot, for my ambivalence), it was worth a quick stop and definitely felt like a unique, one-of-a-kind place.
The culmination of our leisurely day was afternoon tea at The Peninsula, the favorite spot of tourists and wealthy Hong Kong housewives alike. The presentation was as lovely as the setting, and, although Hong Kong is full of interesting places and crowds of people, you couldn’t find a better place for people watching. Even if you don’t go for tea, which would be your mistake, the hotel’s interior is stunning and the hotel itself played an important role in Hong Kong’s history, having been the headquarters of the Japanese occupying forces during World War II.
The last few days passed in a blur of ferry rides, the famous Hong Kong Symphony of Lights, and a trip to Lamma Island, which appealed to me because, like Hydra in Greece, no cars are allowed on the island (recall the respiratory problems that were, at this point, plaguing me quite seriously). Besides the lack of cars, the island itself is quite charming and bohemian with lots of graffiti, cute cafes, and beaches. It may be that I am easily pleased, but, while hiking along one of the island’s trails to a traditional Chinese fishing village (only a few remain), we stumbled upon a coconut cart and, for a ridiculously low price, the coconuts were cracked, straws inserted and, voila, island and vacation paradise. Never mind that we sat by a trash can full of tropical fruit; the view was fine and the company good. Lamma Island provided what was perhaps my vacation nirvana moment.
Well, it was one of a few nirvana moments. From Little Bao to Ho Lee Fook (this may mean “good fortune in your mouth”–and it certainly tastes like it–but say it aloud and you realize that the name is nothing if not brazenly cheeky), I ate well on this trip, but few things can top a breakfast feast of dim sum at City Hall Maxim’s Palace. I love the sight of those little carts rolling around and the excitement of waiting and hoping that vegetable dumplings, congee or steamed pork buns will make their way to you. It’s a highly organized operation, but much of it can feel like luck of the draw; truly, the only thing that can disappoint in such scenarios is your own inability to sample absolutely everything. Since there are limits to all things, I’ll just have to go back one day. This hardly seems like a tragedy, since even though I saw many of the city’s highlights, there was so much more I could have seen and done, especially had my respiratory system been cooperating. But, given the way the universe seems to be working, maybe another trip to Hong Kong will be in my immediate future.