A lot of people tell me they don’t like Hong Kong. At first, neither did I. The first time I came here in the mid-90s, I had just spent couple of really nice weeks in pre-casino Macao. The comparison was pretty stark: where Macao was nice and quiet, full of piazzas and egg tarts, Hong Kong seemed noisy, polluted and distinctly lacking in chouriço.
Of course, the problem was that I only stayed a few days, and spent those days in the wrong places. For most of this semester at CUHK, I lived in Taipo 大埔墟, which is not only much less crowded, it’s also a real place with real history. The way it was explained to me was that Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British because the land itself was not valuable. It’s the peninsula, especially further up towards what is now Shenzhen that had the good land and the thriving villages. Unimaginable though it may be if you are sitting in a Starbucks in Mongkok, Hong Kong is still mostly rural, and many of the villages are centuries old. My friend and colleague He Xi took me on a tour of some of these villages in Fanling, and yes, they go back to the Ming dynasty.
Taipo itself isn’t much to look at, but it has real charm. Since my apartment consisted of a little doggie bed and not much else, I spent most of my time outside. I got to know the fruit sellers and the restaurants, and spent a lot of time in the community gym, which was full of retired guys who just hung around and pumped iron on fairly decrepit equipment. These guys were serious — 40 pull ups in a row serious. Some just wanted to work out, others wanted to chat. Later we would see each other in the street and say hi. It was awesome.
Now where this is all going is food. My colleague Igor memorably described mall food in Hong Kong as “tragic.” The stuff in real restaurants is infinitely better – not more authentic or any of that nonsense, it’s just better, as in properly prepared. One of my favorites is the Chaozhou dish of stewed beef brisket. It’s stewed, then steamed, so it has the layers of fat, but it is not greasy. Then its is cut against the grain and served with rice or rice noodles. My favorite place for this is just outside the Taiwo MTR station.
This morning I went back to my favorite dim sum place, which is a wet market in a big tent outside the MTR at Shatin wai. Again, there’s a specific charm, especially if you are there alone. I sat down with some old folks (who no doubt spent the whole morning and much of the afternoon in that same spot) and had some really good shao mai, har gao, and cuttlefish rice porridge. My new friends didn’t speak Mandarin, and I don’t speak Cantonese, but conversation flowed, mostly them insisting that I have some tea, or else I wouldn’t be able to digest my food properly. It was just so – nice. The kind of thing that fills your belly and puts a smile on your face for the rest of the day.