I am SRLSY jet-lagged, y’all. I dunno what it is about this particular trip, but the jet-lag has clubbed me harder than usual. Still, I had an amazing time in Asia.
First stop was Hong Kong, which I had always wanted to visit. Since I had to fly through somewhere in order to get to Manila, this was the perfect opportunity. I had never been to China before, and Hong Kong is an excellent entry point for Westerners because of its hybrid Chinese-Western sensibility. Until 1997 it was one of the last remnants of the British Empire, and since it returned to Chinese rule, China has allowed it to operate relatively unchanged as a Special Administrative Region that has more freedoms than the rest of China (the other SAR is the former Portuguese colony of Macau nearby. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have enough time in my schedule to go there too.) For example, in the cavernous plaza under Hong Kong’s huge HSBC building sits an outpost of the Occupy Wall Street movement:
Needless to say, the Chinese government would never allow this in any mainland Chinese city. But the protesters had been encamped there for more than a month when I took this picture, and have been left alone by the authorities.
English and Chinese exist side-by-side in Hong Kong, which made it very easy to get around. The subway, shops, and restaurants are bilingual. The street names are shown in both languages, if you can find a street sign; the streets are not always well-marked, which meant more than a few wrong turns during my excursions. Even in the less-touristy parts of the city, I could always find someone with a workable command of English. For a jet-lagged English-speaker, the prevalence of English was a huge relief. It’s Chinese now, but Hong Kong feels very much like a crossroads city—the vibe is international, dynamic, and very capitalist.
The Peak, a high mountain outcropping that overlooks the city and the harbor, is Hong Kong’s the main tourist attraction. You get to the top either by bus, car, or by taking a little tram up the mountainside. I opted for the tram, which looks like a trolley in “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” It goes up the mountainside on a track so steep that you can’t get out of your seat or gravity will make you slide down the middle of the car and go splat on the back windshield (this almost happened to me when I tried to stand up to get a good photo). At the top of the Peak is a shopping center, an overlook restaurant, and a beautiful paved walking path that wraps around the mountain. The views from the path are spectacular; it’s tropical and quiet and totally removed from the urban frenzy below. You can occasionally glimpse the gates of the extremely expensive houses of extremely wealthy people who can afford to live on the Peak.
Here’s a beauty shot of Hong Kong from the Peak:
I am really grateful to Harpyness commenter Melody for her restaurant recommendations. I went to the very popular dim sum restaurant City Hall where I stuffed myself with small plates of different foods. Dim sum is not the kind of meal meant to be consumed alone—each little plate has at least three things on it, so you could potentially make a meal out of only two or three plates. But I was determined to try as many things as looked good, so I wound up getting about five different plates and just not eating everything. The best things I had were a glutinous rice ball filled with a seafood-and-pork mixture and steamed in banana leaves, and steamed buns with sweet lotus paste. They set you up with a bottomless pot of tea and you eat until you can’t eat any more and have to be rolled out the door.
Melody also recommended Yung Kee, where I ate one of the most perfect meals of my life—simple roasted goose with rice and sauteed greens. The restaurant is huge and has a whole take-out section off to the side if you’re impatient and want to get your goose to go (they serve other Cantonese delicacies, but goose is the big deal). That goose was worth braving the crowds and the long wait. M’goi, Melody!
All that food fueled a LOT of walking. Hong Kong is best seen on foot, but that can be exhausting because much of the shopping districts of Lan Kwai Fong and Sheung Wong are steep up-and-down hills, almost like San Francisco. There are a lot of good street markets, including the Graham Street Market, which is a large, open-air collection of greengrocers, butchers and fish vendors.
Near the market is the Man Mo temple complex, an arcade of one-story old-fashioned temples set into a street of high-rises. The main temples are dedicated to Man Cheong, the god of literature and Kwan Yu, the god of war. Inside, the incense smoke was so thick it blurred my photos:
I managed to see a lot of central Hong Kong and its shopping districts in the first day. If you’re into shopping, Hong Kong is a materialist’s wet dream. In central Hong Kong and Tsim Sha Tsui, there were more luxury brand stores per square mile than anywhere I’ve ever been, including Fifth Avenue in New York. I could care less about Tiffany and Hermes and Dior, but there must be a lot of people in Hong Kong who love them, because the stores are everywhere. There are also a ton of American chain stores like Starbucks, Outback Steakhouse and the Gap, plus some British stores, including Marks & Spencer, where I was able to buy a few pairs of my favorite knickers without having to go to London.
On my second day in Hong Kong, I took the Star Ferry from Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui, a peninsula across the harbor with another very upscale shopping area. The ferry itself is a Hong Kong landmark. For the equivalent of 50 cents, you get a 10 minute ride across the harbor in old-fashioned wooden ferry boat:
The interior looks the same as it did when the boat was built in the 1950s:
Tsim Sha Tsui is home to a long shopping strip called Nathan Road, which contains even more fancy designer stores, some lower-end electronics and camera stores, and—in contrast to the Chanel stores and five-star Peninsula Hotel nearby—you can visit the notorious Chunking Mansions, a giant block of apartments that have been turned into what’s essentially a small city of homes, extremely low-budget hotels, shops, moneychangers, and restaurants. Over 4,000 people, most of them immigrants and guest workers, live in the buildings. Chunking’s been called the “unofficial African quarter” of Hong Kong, and, indeed, the neighborhood around it the only place I saw people of African descent anywhere in Hong Kong. I poked around the street-level entrance area a bit but didn’t feel safe wandering around inside the buildings by myself—Chunking has a reputation as a haven for muggers and the interior is a rabbit’s warren of interconnected halls and apartment blocks where I knew I’d get lost quickly. Here’s a great article with good pictures by someone bolder than I was who spent some time there.
After my second day in Hong Kong, I headed to Manila, where I was attending a conference. I didn’t see quite as much of Manila as I did of Hong Kong because I was working fairly long hours, and because Manila is a big sprawling city connected by choked freeways and packed side streets. There is a metro system but it’s not extensive or convenient and has short hours: 5:30 AM to 10:30 PM. The heat and humidity and tropical downpours also make it unpleasant to walk for more than a few blocks at a time, and there aren’t a lot of sidewalks in many parts of town. So people either drive or get around on jeepneys, a sort of stretch jeep with a crowded row of bench seats inside and a chrome-d, pimped-out outside, brightly painted with saints or the Virgin Mary, or cartoon characters. Here’s one:
I did manage to make it out of Makati, the neighborhood where I was staying. Makati basically felt like Midtown Manhattan or the Metro Center area of Washington…just generic business district. So I went to Intramuros, the oldest part of Manila. A walled Spanish colonial city, it looks exactly like every other Spanish colonial city I’ve been to, from Cartagena to Havana to Colonia. Same two-story stucco or stone buildings with balconies, same old stone churches. In fact, one of the colleagues I was traveling with said that we could have been in South America or the Caribbean and he wouldn’t have known the difference. Here’s a picture of the colonial Augustinian church in Intramuros:
Outside that historic district, Manila is a modern city of shopping malls. Seriously, the number of malls is astonishing. I went to about six of them in the five days I was there—a different one every time and all within about a half-hour’s drive from my hotel. They’re full of American chain stores, luxury brand stores and the occasional British import, like TopShop or M&S. My Filipino hosts said that mall-going is a major pasttime in Manila, and judging by the sheer number and scale of the malls, people must spend a lot of time and money there to justify the cost of keeping them open (and air-conditioned in a city where it’s very rarely below 80 degrees). I had some excellent meals—mainly adobo, which is the national sauce of the Philippines, made of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and spices, and kare-kare, which features meat (usually oxtail or tripe) in a peanut-y sauce a little like curry and a little like satay, served with bagoong, a fermented fish paste. The fresh fruit juices were especially wonderful—lots of watermelon and mango, green mango and a little citrus fruit called calamansi, which tastes like a cross between lime and tangerine.
I got home late last night after a looooong but uneventful flight, during which I watched the entire first season of “Game of Thrones” and knocked off a couple good novels by Filipino authors that I had picked up in one of the many mall bookstores I visited. Now back to work for two days before Thanksgiving vacation. I’m unpacking one suitcase and packing another…