As mentioned in my previous post my visit to HK took place in October. At this time the unrest taking place was a different level than the unrest that is occurring now. The violence has now moved into the Polytechnic University, in response to the death of a 22 year-old-student. I read about what happened on the BBC. I wrote this post prior to the escalation of events and agonised over publishing it for a while. I’ve decided to do so, my visit to Hong Kong occurred at a crucial point and my experience of this mid-unrest environment is an interesting and rare one. My view of Hong Kong as a place to visit remains positive despite the unrest and I persevere in my interest and hope for Hong Kong’s resolution. It would be an uniformed opinion if I were to discuss my thoughts of the protests, I lack the knowledge to do so. All I can talk about is my visit, written soon after the trip itself.
After a happily hectic day in Kowloon I woke early, before Matt and Ling, the friends who I’d travelled to visit and who’d let me stay at their place. I took my time getting ready, feeling excited to see Hong Kong Island, my eyes and stomach hungry to explore. It was a nice change to be able to slow the pace of my morning and have some time to myself. I used that time to get ready, organise my bag and do some writing while I waited for them. When we were all ready, it was brunchtime and Ling was ready with recs. She suggested a dim sum place that she visits with her mum; she said it was great and I trusted her judgement.
On the way to dim sum, we passed a small recycling centre on the ground floor of one of HK’s many high rises. The room was filled with carboard and other materials, cluttered would be putting it lightly. Apparently, recycling isn’t a big hype in HK and so businesses like this one offer a small amount of money to people, usually elderly, who bring the materials they need. I was still thinking about the logistics of this system when we got to the restaurant.
A woman stood behind a narrow front desk facing directly onto the street and people sat on chairs along the wall inside. There were also people standing, some inside the room and some onto the street, as there was no wall dividing them. We weren’t sure how long the wait would be, so we added our names to the list and went for a walk. Being close to the seafront, it made sense to head there. After using a hipster coffee shop for it’s second-floor view of the sea we headed back, on the way passing a real estate agent.
The ads were overwhelming; apartment after apartment littered the window. There were no houses, which makes sense in the urban jungle where the currency is space. Apartments were advertised with price, the size of the whole accommodation and of the usable space of the accommodation as key selling points. In Hong Kong space is most definitely a luxury. Secondary to space is view, but just like space, if you wanted a room with a view it was going to cost you. Otherwise you’d be going full Rear Window and getting to know your neighbours extremely well, think ugly naked guy, but a LOT closer. I got the feeling that finding somewhere to live in Hong Kong would be a lot easier if you knew someone who knew someone. Eventually we pulled away from the ads and got back to the restaurant, gave our names and headed up to eat, as the restaurant itself was on a higher floor.
The quiet elevator exploded with sound when the doors opened. Straight to your left were aquariums full of exotic sea animals, which would no doubt soon be eaten. Round tables covered in white linen were filled with families; chairs of one table back to back with the next table.
I was surprised.
My experience of dim sum in the UK was mainly from Mr Lau’s in Warrington; a pretty quiet, kinda pricey venue. This was nothing like Mr Lau’s, in fact if I was going to compare it to anything UK, it would be a carvery pub on a Sunday. After Ling explained the cultural significance of dim sum in HK, that comparison seemed to make more sense. She told me how spending time with family at dim sum on the weekend was the norm here and that it was something she’s enjoyed with her family for a long time, continuing the tradition even into adulthood. As I looked around again, people chatting, texting or reading absolutely ginormous newspapers, I got a second hit of that homey community.
As is now veggie second nature, I’d checked the meat-free options beforehand and was happy that there was a fairly decent amount to choose from. To order at dim sum, you just tick which dishes you want and hand the sheet to the waiter, kind of like the lottery, but a pre-determined food edition.
The waiter brought us our cutlery and crockery; a bowl, spoon, teacup and saucer. I was surprised to learn that in HK you wash the cups etc. with boiling water at the table. While I know that some of my friends in Japan would suggest that this method tells of the ‘dirtiness’ of HK, I couldn’t help liken it to the washing part of Japanese tea ceremony.
I’ve been practicing tea ceremony for a while now and before you can get to work on whisking that matcha, you use the same process of washing all the utensils with boiling water. The only ‘messy’ thing about this was the accidental splash of water onto tablecloth, which I think I’ll get over, and you’ve got yourself a completely logical and hygienic method. I once trial-shifted as a kitchen porter (worst working time of my life, actually a bit scarred) and I learnt there that even washed dishes would benefit from sterilisation before use in a public space.
I was especially happy to try the jian dui (sesame balls). I’d tried them at a dim sum restaurant in Nagasaki and was ready to have them again, especially in Hong Kong. It’s a dessert, with a mochi-like ball surrounding anko (red-bean) filling coated in sesame seeds and fried. Now, I usually hate anko, but in these little beauties it’s so good!
After eating our fill and Matt freaking me out with his choice of black custard buns we left dim sum and nipped back to the apartment. I had a quick look at the rooftop view and we were off to see Victoria Peak, a famous viewpoint on HK Island. On the way we got bubble waffles, yes again, and continued walking. Inspired by Matt’s choice the night before I went with chocolate filling and got a strawberry smoothie to go with it.
Trotting happily down the street with my sugary snack we passed a building, with an open entrance on the first floor. Ling told me that this was a ‘wet market’. She said that wet markets are a part of everyday life in HK and asked if I wanted to see, of course I said yes. We stepped inside this indoor/ outdoor market and the first thing I noticed was the wet floor. I guess that’s one reason for the name. As I looked up, I saw a plethora of stands selling fresh fish and meat. Now when I say fresh, I mean fresh. As in filled with the fresh breath of life fresh.
One of the first places we came to had just one guy, a fishmonger, standing behind a wooden block. He hauled a GIANT fish out of a nearby tank and I heard the splashing of water hitting the floor. Comparing the size of the fish to the man pulling it out of the water, I was surprised he managed so well. People quickly gathered and spoke to him in Cantonese, apparently telling him which parts of the fish they wanted.
Now the fish monger, armed with a heavy-set cleaver, got to work hacking away at the live fish. I felt like the smell of the markets was sinking into my bubble waffle, slipped it into its box and looked away. I could feel myself getting teary.
The crunch of blade wedged in flesh made me shudder and every time I pushed myself to turn around and look, the brightness and vividness of the red blood shocked me, step aside Tarantino. After getting a little shaky I had a word with and reminded myself that I was in Hong Kong to experience the culture and that I’m not going to get much culture from looking at the wall. So, I turned ‘round and looked at what was happening. At this point the fish’s head had been completely cut off and the insides were being pulled out. It was a strange experience, watching the transition from animal to food.
After some more cutting the fishmonger started to weigh certain parts of the fish for a woman who I can only guess had successfully shouted her order. She stood watching with keen interest. After the gore was over, we walked on. While I was still thinking about the first fish, we turned the corner to see meat hanging from a stall on one side and a fish stall on the other. This stall had some more live fish, I didn’t even know what these fish were. Again, people gathered at the stalls and I couldn’t stop staring at the still beating heart of a fish resting on the corner of the chopping board.
On the meat side there were live toads, also giant, piled into a cage which was stained with fresh blood. Ling explained that in HK toads are a popular food. As I looked at the blood on the cage and on the floor, I couldn’t help wondering which animal it was from and how it could just as easily be human blood from the way it looked. We saw a few more meat stalls and then Ling and Matt said that upstairs was just vegetables, so we carried on towards the underground.
We started to discuss the wet market as we headed out. Ling told me about the importance of freshness in HK and how people won’t be interested in a dead animal if they can see the live one. I understood this straight away. Seeing animals as food products, it makes total sense that you want the freshest, it’s like pumpkin picking.
I had a respect for the wet market and talked with Matt about the differences between meat and fish consumption in HK vs the UK. We agreed that there’s so much emotional distance allowed in the UK. People just get to see the neatly, plastic-packaged products on the shelves. It’s easy to forget that slight metallic smell one you leave that isle and head off to buy ready meals and biscuits. In HK, that distance slams shut like an accordion. You watch the animal that you choose to eat die. Although this is a heart-breaking concept for me, I think it is an essential method for meat eaters. It just doesn’t seem right, being so distanced from the product that you forget it was once a sentient being. I’ve never been one of those preachy veggies, even when I started out at 15, but I have to say that there is an emotional responsibility to eating meat. One that we all should acknowledge.
We got off the metro and walked along the harbour to the bus-stop. There were lots of groups of women at the waterfront and Ling explained that they were nannies to rich HK families. The women were mainly from the Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia and other countries and came to HK for work. I learned that these women work 6 days a week, on what we’d consider in the UK pretty low pay and spend their one day off chilling with friends. Lots of the groups practiced dances, were drinking alcohol or sat on laid out carboard boxes in the shade. I even saw one group celebrating a birthday, with banners stuck to the wall above the carboard boxes.
The groups of nannies continued all the way to the bus terminal. Seeing them sat around, if I hadn’t just learnt about them, I would have assumed they were homeless, especially with the cardboard boxes. Instead, I was reminded of the Japanese ‘hanami’ festival, during cherry blossom season, where friends and family gather under cherry blossom trees to eat, drink and socialise. Our bus passed the nannies and travelled through the city, past the protester paint and up into the mountains. I got to look out across HK and was hit with the powerful contrast of the deep green of the mountains with the high-rise buildings. As we got higher, the buildings got fancier, there were private schools and gated residences, sitting at an unimaginable price with that amazing view out of their windows.
We arrived at Victoria Peak and, of course, it wasn’t just a viewpoint. It was a full shopping centre with restaurants, a 3D museum and a sweet shop from the UK! We stayed at the peak to watch the sunset and I got to watch that Dolby Digital ZSHHMMMMM of city lights from a higher vantage point than the day before. When we were all viewed out, we took the tram down the mountain (which felt like a rollercoaster going backwards) and off to dinner.
Ling and Matt took me to this place right. It was vegetarian. All vegetarian. I’m not talking we have 3 items on the menu per day kinda deal. I’m talking full page-turning menu of HK specialties served veggie-version. We ordered sweet and sour ‘pork’, char-sui, honey ‘duck’, shark-fin soup and a mushroom dish. I got teary. Actual human tears. It wasn’t a substitute. This food was made passionately as a vegetarian dish and it was so delicious, I’d travel back to HK just to eat it again.
After eating we did some wandering around the shops and I happily bought a LOT of UK chocolate, as it’s hard to find in Kyushu. I also reluctantly returned a 6 pack of Lucozade due to liquid restrictions at the airport. On the way home we saw police in the underground. They were dressed in green with round clear shields, as HK police usually wear blue my friends told me that these guys may be from Mainland China. We passed them by and carried on home.
As I bussed my way back to the airport at 7am, desperately clinging to bus wifi to talk to my friend, I felt both sad to be leaving HK so soon and excited to be heading back to Japan. I was looking forward to taking onsen in a place near the airport when I got back. When I got to onsen, I perched in the scenic public bath, all relaxed and clean I reflected on my trip.
It was definitely a special trip. It was my first visit to an Asian country outside of Japan. I visited at a time of political unrest and was able to see what was happening both through the media lens and through my own eyes. I was also able to visit a friend who at one time seemed miles away from me and this visit made me realise that our current positions made us a lot closer. Rather than the usual feeling I get when I travel- to admire, Hong Kong inspired me to explore. I felt a sense of adventure in HK, feeling in the moment. Reflecting on those feelings allows me to realise that being in HK was actually a practice of mindfulness, keeping my mind present and aware of what was going on around me.
Seeing the unravelling events in Hong Kong since my visit has been a complex experience. Hong Kong is no longer just a protester-police battleground to idly watch on a screen. It’s a place that I’ve visited, I’ve spoken to people with differing opinions on the unrest, that it’s scary and disruptive and that it’s a necessary disruption in the endeavour for democracy. During my visit the protests always existed in the corner of my eye, often literally, and I’m aware that if I visited again currently, that awareness would take a more central position. I said at the start of this post that I would not give comment on my opinion of the protests; all I will say is that I plan to see HK again soon, hopefully during a more content time.