Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hong Kong

Because of my vacation, I have to ignore my usual boundaries, limited to lunches in lower Manhattan's Chinatown on weekdays. Please forgive me.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Our 15 1/4 hour flight was as comfortable as a 15 1/4 hour flight in coach can be. The plane was a 777, with the 270+ seats in coach, formatted 3-3-3, completely full. Passengers in first and business classes had individual pods which appeared able to sustain human life for at least one month. After reading, puzzling and sleeping on and off, I was able to watch Moneyball and three episodes of the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. While I enjoyed Moneyball as a movie, I take issue with some of its baseball ideas. The system that Billy Beane, a/k/a Brad Pitt, general manager of the Oakland A's, promoted only works, if it works, for veteran ballplayers, those who have spent enough time in the major leagues to provide a statistical base with predictive value. Prospects, rookies, young players haven't faced enough situations as batter, pitcher, fielder in the major leagues to assist a general manager in making meaningful decisions. By limiting its applicability to veteran ballplayers, the Moneyballer will build an older team that is likely to have a very short shelf life. While fans would be delighted by their team having success in the playoffs and the World Series, a sharp decline in performance soon thereafter will not be forgiven because of past glories. Also, Beane's own thwarted career, originally with the New York Mets, and some of the moves he made during Oakland's dramatic rag-to-riches season, portrayed in the movie, were rooted, not in statistics, but confidence. What sportswriters and fans usually call "heart." Beane was a high school phenom who busted out of baseball after a short, unproductive career, because, according to his confession in the movie, he lacked confidence, which defies algorithmic analysis. Finally, as many others have noted, Billy Beane is still waiting for a World Series.

We are staying in the Hotel Icon, in an area of countless malls, shopping arcades and plazas. It is architecturally distinguished, with a big square hole right in the middle. Our room is large and comfortable with some stunning design touches, including a deep soaking tub with a flat screen television mounted in front of it.

We went out for dinner around 6 PM, somewhat groggy from the flight and 13-hour time difference. The first two restaurants we entered, large and well-reputed, were entirely booked for wedding parties. This period right before New Year, the Year of the Dragon, is particularly propitious for weddings. We got into the Jade Terrace Restaurant, 67 Mody Road, Kowloon, which that ran about two blocks long, with one line of tables running end-to-end opposite a line of private dining rooms. Soon, the place started filling up with large family parties and groups of friends, or possibly revolutionary cabals. Jade Terrace was heavily staffed with captains, waiters, bus folk, but it lacked two things -- English and napkins. The menus carried straight-forward identification of dishes, but questions about contents, or anything else, seemed to echo hollowly regardless to whom they were directed. Every place setting at every table had those little wrapped, chemical-soaked hand wipes, but no regular napery. It took four requests, to four different waiters to get four napkins. Considering how some food required the legal use of hands, I was surprised that customers weren't hosed down at the end of the meal in the absence of something to clean up with. I later learned that this was customary and knowledgeable Hong Kong dinners brought their own napkins, tissues, wipes to handle the mess.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

We had the services of Ski Yeo, a professional guide, for six hours today. She is a lovely young woman, a graduate accountant from Singapore, who has lived in Hong Kong for four years. In spite of the murky weather, we walked and walked for hours, first taking the ferry over to Hong Kong Island, and then back to dense market-lined streets in Kowloon. We stopped for lunch at Lin Heung Kui, 40-50 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan (a locale on Hong Kong Island), one of the leading dim sum restaurants. It was packed at lunch time entirely with Chinese people except for one black man at a nearby table. Unable to hear his language or accent, I don't know what to put behind the hyphen after African-, if anything. The food was good, but no better than good New York dim sum. We had sticky buns with lotus paste and egg yolk, sticky buns with roast pork, shumai, pan-fried noodles with vegetables, rolled rice noodles with barbecued roast pork, and shrimp dumplings, which wasn't so much for five people, at atotal cost of 205 HKD, that is near $27.

Just a note to offer perspective on some of our meals. We are traveling with our stalwart companions, Jill and Steve, with whom we traveled to Italy in 2003 and China in 2008. Jill and Mayris, friends for 35 years, eat Kosher-style, that is, vegetables, noodles/pasta and fish, but not shellfish. Steve eats most everything, but does not like spicy food. I know no limits.

Being far from home did not dampen my piety, although walking hours through mist and drizzle today dampened almost everything else. We went to temple, Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong's oldest, although only dating back to the 1840s. In fact, very few structures around here evengo back 100 years. The temple was very crowded in this pre-yuntiff period. People were burning bunches of incense, provided free, and messages, express and symbolic, in tribute to their ancestors, seeking their goodwill, if not outright intervention in coming events. Adjoining rooms were covered with memorial plaques, either 2" (for the prosperous) or 4" wide (for the very prosperous), with the names and photos of ancestors who are thus honored and might consider returning the favor in matters of the heart or the wallet. Also, food, often oranges or apples, were brought to temple to capture the good spirits of ancestors and then taken home or work to do their magic. Very interesting.

The most unexpected sight on our tour today was not an artistic or patriotic endeavor, or a natural wonder. It resulted from the widespread use of Filipino domestic workers by well-off Hong Kongers, a surprisingly large segment of the population. These domestic workers get Sundays off; most were raised Roman Catholic. They seem to gather in large numbers on the northern edge of Hong Kong Island, near the ferry terminals to hang out with friends and family. However, they don't have much money and Hong Kong provides very few public spaces for anyone to rest and relax. So, bringing food, blankets, flattened cardboard boxes, computers, cards and games, and small music systems, they plop down on sidewalks, in the middle of streets, in passageways, and are left undisturbed by the authorities. In one area, in front of the headquarters of HSBC Bank, large clusters of Filipino domestics seemed to merge into a gathering of Occupy Hong Kong demonstrators.

Again, the restaurants near the hotel were jammed tonight and our first two choices were unavailable. So, we chanced upon Sze Chuen Lau Restaurant, 75 Mody Road, Kowloon, upstairs, a typical position for local restaurants. While we were the only non-Chinese patrons, several staff members spoke English and understood our need for napkins. We ordered chicken and corn soup (Steve only), eggplant with garlic sauce, sweet and sour boneless fish, prawns with chili sauce (all mine), and paper-wrapped chicken. While Steve preferred last night's crab meat and corn soup at Jade Terrace, all the other dishes were very well received. With one beer, a local favorite, strangely named San Miguel, and one diet Coke, the bill came to 605HKD, about $75. A winner.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jill and Steve visited an old fishing village on Lantau Island, a much less developed part of Hong Kong; imagine Staten Island to New York City, although the airport is on Lantau. Less energetic, my young bride and I visited shopping areas, notably Chinese Arts & Crafts, 3 Salisbury Road, Kowloon, a beautiful store with museum-quality antiques, jewelry, paintings, scrolls, sculpture and decorative items, very similar to Gump’s San Francisco, although I don’t recall Gump’s displaying a statue retailing for near $1 million, 7,000,000 HKD. We admired, but kept our hands in our pockets.

We made sure to make dinner reservations earlier in the day, before setting out on our separate paths. The concierge recommended Xiao Nan Guo Premier, One Peking Place, when we asked for a harbor view spot. It is on the 10th floor of a posh office building, about one block from the waterfront. It features six banquet dinners consisting of a dozen or so courses each, ranging from about $65 to $105 per person. We ordered à la carte, which seemed to present a problem to the staff, after a long initial delay in even getting their attention. We ordered among us, on a basic he-she divide, vegetable dumplings, special braised noodles, poached filet of grouper, tofu with vegetables, and a whole chicken stuffed with sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf. This meal would have been a failure without a 1068 HKD price tag. However, 44 or so high-rise buildings on both sides of the harbor are covered with light displays at night and, at 8 PM, they wink and blink and shoot off laser beams. Our table at the window at least provided an excellent view.

Hong Kong appears to have three significant socio-economic strata. Their top 1% amounts to 7%, the private automobile-owning population. Not just automobiles, but overwhelmingly BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis. On the low end, I saw some VW Jettas, but brand spanking new; at the other end of the bell curve were some Bentleys and Ferraris. These cars belonged to bankers, lawyers, industrialists, criminals (if you can distinguish them), and tutors. Yes, there is an elite corps of tutors, primarily for English language and British-style comprehensive exams, who advertise in the subways like rock stars.

Speaking of subways, which only means underground pedestrian passageways in any former British colony, the whole system is quite new, clean, comfortable and well-fitted out in equipment and amenities. Stations go on for blocks, filled with shopping arcades. Actually, I seemed to walk through the system as much as ride in it, especially when there was an interchange of lines. Switching trains made Fulton Street/Broadway-Nassau seem like a piece of cake, at least measured by distance, although Hong Kong presented fewer staircases to go up and down on your search for the connecting line.

Hong Kong's middle strata consists of merchants and their employees, civil servants, hotel operators and their managers, and other owners and managers in service industries. The third layer, invisible in the areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island that we visited, are farmers, mostly located in the New Territories, a large area between Kowloon and the Chinese border. The neighborhoods and habits of the first and second strata were easily identified by their archetypical retail establishments. The have-mosts were in and out of scores of jewelery stores featuring very expensive watches. The hangers-on support myriad sneaker stores, and I can only assume that the farmers try to buy time.


  1. Since you are in China, shouldn't you be reporting on the little neighborhood "American" eating establishments?

  2. So very American, Alan. Go to a restaurant in Hong Kong known for its banquets and insist on ordering a la carte, and having napkins (when you had been told previously that the local custom is to take your own) - and then complain about the service and the food. I chuckle each time I read that you observe mostly Chinese in the restaurants, often a sign of authenticity in NY but wouldn't finding a place filled with other nationalities and English speaking waiters indicate a tourist trap and therefore a place to be avoided? Hope you are all enjoying the trip. And, put a napkin in your pocket for goodness sake :-)

    1. Xiao Nan Guo Premier is designed for rich Chinese, and we didn't fit the part. The banquet menus were the real thing. I admit that the location and view influenced our choice.