Monday, August 08, 2016
On our last trip to Hong Kong I finally returned to one of the city's most picturesque locales, quaint, remote and relatively unknown 25 years ago when I first visited. Since then it has gained minor popularity among foreign and Mainland Chinese tourists, though the quaintness and remoteness still stick.
Getting to Tai O is always an experience in itself -- this time we took the little ferry from Tuen Mun (45 minutes) on the way in, and the meandering bus ride (60 minutes) to Tung Chung MTR Station on the way back. Counting the various Green Vans and MTR rides from urban Hong Kong, we could have easily taken a day-trip to Shenzhen and back. Of course, Tai O is a thousand times more charming than shady foot parlours.
Tucked away at the sparsely populated northwestern edge of Lantau Island, Tai O is about as inconvenient as it gets among Hong Kong's tourist attractions -- though one could argue that it's the same inconvenience that has saved the village from the insatiable urbanization that turned nearby Tung Chung into yet another satellite city to Kowloon.
The smell of sundried shrimp paste greets visitors as they arrive at the little concrete pier, dotted with line-fishing anglers who would spend hours of their spare time hooking a few humble (but increasingly hard to find) Lai Mang fish for congee. This is worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Central District.
As tourism brochures focus on Tai O's signature stilt houses on mud flats, its centuries-old artisan industry of salt-curing fish and historical relics from the Tanka ethnic minority, most first time visitors would miss exploring the plethora of hole-in-the-wall eateries serving authentic Hong Konger street snacks. This time we purposely arrived with empty stomachs and visited four different street snack vendors, in addition to a classic Tai O lunch spot, on this half-day trip.
STREET SNACK #1
Just steps from the Bus Terminal we came across arguably the most popular of Hong Kong's original hawker food, some ginormous fish balls in original or extra spicy flavor served at an anonymous roadside stand. For HKD$12 (CAD$1.7) we shared two tangerine-sized fish balls, the curried version being my perpetual favorite.
STREET SNACK #2
Following the stream of villagers north of the terminal, one would inevitably pass by the popular Bus Terminal Soft Tofu at Wing On Street No.57, best known for the summer favorite of stone-ground Tofu Fa, or soft tofu dessert.
Compared with other artisan Tofu Fa makers such as Mongkok's Kung Wo, here the texture was slightly thicker and the flavor of soybeans was more pronounced. While the price of HKD$10 (CAD$1.4) per bowl was comparable with similar shops in urban Hong Kong, the owner here was undoubtedly making a fortune considering Tai O's cheaper rent.
A tiny wobbly Sampan boat used to be the only means of crossing the narrow creek when I visited many years back. Now a narrow footbridge carries the pedestrian traffic as well as offering spots for villagers to sun dry their sieves-full of salted fish and roes.
Less than a minute's walk north of the bridge stands one of heritage symbols of Tai O, a Qing Dynasty shrine with the ornate glazed roof tiles to tell the stories of Guan Di, a historical-character-turned-minor-deity in the local tradition.
Fans of Hong Kong films would know Guan Di as the deity revered by local policemen and Triad gang members alike, but judging by the dusty altars this shrine probably receives less visits from worshippers than curious tourists dropping by to play with the cowhide drum.
STREET SNACK #3
A few minutes west of the temple, we discovered this hidden gem of a hawker specializing in the traditional Hakka snack known as Cha Guo.
On first glance it's nothing but a crumbling, makeshift stall with a middle-aged guy selling Cha Guo out of a styrofoam box. But look again at the huddle of local housewives and grannies, and we knew this place was definitely legit. The exact location is difficult to describe, but it's about 5 minutes walk northwest of the pedestrian bridge, near Shek Tsai Po Street No.100-ish.
Fans of Japanese Sasadango would appreciate Cha Guo's uncanny similarity in the chewy glutinous rice dough and wrappings of bamboo leaves, except this was 2500 km away from Niigata. Compared with sweet Sasadango, these Hakka delicacies came with a sweet version with crushed peanuts and sesame, and a savory version with minced pork and Mei Dou beans. The price? Just HKD$5 (CAD$0.7) each.
Further west of the Cha Guo vendor was the Tai O Post Office where one could still pick out the insignia of Queen Elizabeth II on the post box, a colonial era relic now painted over with a hideous teal green instead of the blazing red of Royal Mail.
For lunch we took advice from some Hong Kongers and successfully found Wang Shui Do Siu Chu, located at Kat Hing Street No.33 just northeast of the pedestrian bridge. The specialty here? Old-fashioned Cantonese recipes of fresh caught or salt-cured local seafood, with heavy influence from the Tanka ethnic minority.
One such traditional -- and time-consuming -- recipe calls for the deboning of white cuttlefish, assiduously hand-pounding to achieve that highly desired chewiness in texture, and deep-frying until these patties become golden crispy to the bite. Seasoning was hardly necessary with ingredients this fresh out of the sea.
We did not leave Tai O without a taste of its famous shrimp paste. The robust, alluring aroma of crustaceans filled the entire restaurant long before this dish of Mixed Stir-Fry ended up on our table. Despite being highly prized by Cantonese gourmands, strong odours from shrimp paste's organic fermentation has marginalized its production to such remote villages at the periphery of Hong Kong. This seafood lunch for two come to about HKD$190 (CAD$27).
After lunch we took a stroll along the creek side, passing by this tiny landing flamboyantly named Tung King Ma Tau, or Tokyo Pier, after the popular corner store that has served as a Tai O institution for decades.
Widely embraced as the most eccentric sight in Tai O, Tokyo Store hosted a mishmash of cheesy gnomes, overgrown bonsai and an overabundance of bizarre characters painted onto plywood boards, with themes ranging from 16th Century classic novels to animals from the Chinese Zodiac to sexy ladies in bikinis doing hula hoops. And on top of all that, the store sign was flanked by what almost passed for a Chinese couplet ... except that the poem didn't follow any lexical rules.
The creativity behind the folk art, 86-year-old Lo Sai Hei, scurried around his store as usual, chatting up curious tourists and serving a few bottled pop on this sweltering afternoon. Every visitor would take an obligatory selfie with the legendary statue of Snow White, donated and shipped all the way from New Zealand after a Kiwi couple saw Lo's "bounty" for a Snow White to keep company with the Seven Dwarves he already owned.
STREET SNACK #4
Just steps from Tokyo Store, a 30-minute queue was developing outside this rundown shed of a workshop, clouds of white smoke billowing from the store front. As the mostly local clientele patiently waited, we joined the queue not knowing exactly what we're getting into except for the curious sight of a vintage 1950's style charcoal stove.
As the first batch came out with the enticing aroma of burnt butter, our mystery snack turned out to be the Hong Konger favorite of Gai Dan Jai, or Bubble Waffles, broiled over an old-fashioned charcoal fire that has become extinct in urban Hong Kong amidst 21st Century air quality legislations. The elderly artisan would then start handcrafting the next batch, taking close to 40 minutes before finally getting to our order. HKD$15 (CAD$2) was a small price for a made-to-order waffle from the master's hands.
This was easily our favorite street snack of the day, and as close to a perfect Bubble Waffle as anyone could ask for -- expertly charred around the edges, crispy on the crust, pillowy soft at the centre but not at all soggy. For any reader planning to visit Tai O, this nameless stall was located at Kat Hing Street No.59, about 5 minutes walk northeast of the pedestrian bridge.
On our return leg the bus negotiated some seriously winding roads, slowing down around the occasional feral cow before delivering us to Tung Chung and its high-end outlets catering to affluent Mainland Chinese tourists on their short layovers at the HKIA. While visitors may love or hate the eccentricity of Tai O, there are simply too few of these compared with too many Tung Chungs in 21st Century Hong Kong for my preference. I'm sure most Hong Kongers would agree.
Friday, June 24, 2016
I revisited Macau with someone who spent part of her childhood here in the 1980's, during the Portuguese era and before the former colony developed into the Vegas of the Sinosphere. A quarter century later she returned, roaming her old playgrounds and bringing me to photograph the old city through her eyes.
For two days I was guided through crumbling backstreets, snacking at the fast disappearing Dai Pai Dongs and gaining an in-depth appreciation for the little pockets of Old Macau that have endured into the 21st Century.
While many of these photos were shot within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, such street corners are typically skipped by tourists for their anonymity and largely ignored by locals for their state of decay. Another 20 years and much of this could be gone, which was why I wanted to capture this intimate perspective of Macau before it's too late.
Rua dos Mercadores No.121. Revered as the oldest existing pharmacy in Macau, Hang Wo Tong is a living fossil for everything you'd expect at a Traditional Chinese Medicine shop -- jars of aged Xinhui Citrus Rinds at the storefront, Lingzhi mushroom everywhere, and a century-old Baizi medicine cabinet with individual little drawers for a plethora of herbal and animal ingredients. Sadly the 4th generation descendants have said their generation will be the last to operate this family heirloom.
Rua da Felicidade, outside No.26.. The aroma of seaweed-wrapped egg roll biscuits permeates the air at this infamous former red light district, which saw its golden age after the English enforced the ban on brothels at nearby Hong Kong in the 1930's. Now the neighborhood is all about artisan-made biscuits and restaurants specializing in old-fashioned Cantonese recipes from the 1950's and earlier, many of which had gone virtually extinct in Hong Kong.
Travessa do Auto Novo No.25. Still fighting a flu picked up three days ago in Sichuan, I was brought to the venerable Cha Medicinal Un Iec, a Macau institution that has cured the local populace of coughs and flu for generations. For 7 Patacas (CAD$1.2) I was served a scaldingly hot bowl of their secret recipe Medicinal Tea, arguably the most representative Cantonese remedy for the common flu. The taste? Imagine Fisherman's Friend times ten, served in a coarse liquid form.
Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro No.611. Foodies around the world have long familiarized with the Cantonese invention of Oyster Sauce, and this little shop was the birthplace of it all. With humble beginnings in Macau in the late 1800's, Lee Kum Kee has since blossomed into an international operation with factories as far away as Los Angeles. Today the pillars of this Tong Lau building are still graced with red-character advertisements from the pre-WWII period for its well-loved condiment.
Largo do Carmo on Taipa Island. Incense curls and prayer sheets hang inside the Qing Dynasty shrine of Pak Tai Miu, or the Temple of the North Emperor. Established by a local community of fishermen, the Taoist shrine not only honoured the deity in charge of all sea creatures, but also served as a village court for the settlement of disputes in the presence of local tribe leaders.
Rua de Camilo Pessanha No.38. A throw-back to the 1950's is still alive and well in the form of Carvoaria U Wo, supplier of charcoal from a variety of hardwoods. Once a household necessity during the short but bone-chilling Southern Chinese winter, charcoal is now consumed mostly by specialist gourmet eateries focusing on traditional recipes such as Roasted Geese or Cantonese Claypot Rice.
Rua da Felicidade No.36. Sharks Fins as tall as a small child grace the display window at Sai Nam Restaurante, yet another Macau institution that has stood for over a half century. To environmentalists though this small street is the epicentre of the Sharks Fin trade in Macau, where the wealthy can blow their casino winning on the ridiculously expensive (300 Patacas per Tael, or roughly CAD$1 per gram) and controversially harvested Sharks Fin.
Rua dos Ervanarios No.42. The clanging sound of Mahjong tiles proclaims break time at Veng Kei Latoaria where shop owners and hired hands alike put aside the anvil for a little afternoon entertainment. Demand for galvanized-iron goods has been declining for decades, and the current stock on display are mostly Chinese Woks and baking cups designed for the Portuguese specialty of Pastel de Nata.
Rua de Cinco de Outubro No.197. Occupying the ground floor of an old 4-storey Tong Lau building is Sum Ip, the neighborhood handyman for all your air conditioner and refrigerator servicing needs. Such repair shops for home appliances and electronics are slowly becoming extinct even in Macau, amid the rise of disposable consumer products.
Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro No.396. The words "Maturity Date 6 Months" still adorns the walls of Tak Seng On, one of the last traditional pawn shops in Macau to close its doors. After serving this gambling town for nearly 80 years, this fully functional multi-storey bank vault has been turned into a quaint little museum. Entrance fee? A measly 5 Patacas (CAD$0.8).
While entire blocks of Tong Lau, old tenement buildings with a mixture of indigenous Chinese and neoclassical Western features, are becoming increasingly rare in neighboring Cantonese cities and Hong Kong, the Macau Peninsula is still lined with streets upon streets of this nostalgic backdrop.
Avenida de Carlos da Maia, Taipa. Across the bridge from the Peninsula lies the idyllic former island village of Taipa, a relatively new annex to the Portuguese territory just 160 years ago. While the island isn't protected as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, its slow-paced island vibe and cheap bites make for a good half-day trip.
Rua da Figueira, Taipa. Just one of an impossible number of temples on this short alley, Yi Ling Miu is a Qing Dynasty shrine dedicated to a multitude of historical figures associated with the medical profession. Apparently back in the day this also served as the community centre, adult night school, banquet hall, and storage space for a spare coffin for the occasional neighbor in such need.
Avenida de Carlos da Maia, Taipa. Just up the hill from the countless indigenous shrines, the neoclassical Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo dates from late Qing Dynasty when Taipa fell into Portuguese hands. To this date it remains the only Catholic church on Taipa.
Avenida da Praia, Taipa. Situated on what used to be the southern shoreline of Taipa Island, prior to the land reclamation project that turned the shallow bay into the brand new casino strip of Cotai, this row of colonial Portuguese residences has always been popular for first dates and wedding photos. The Wedding Registrar is housed in yet another gem of colonial architecture, conveniently just up the street.
These former colonial residences for government staffers have since been restored and converted into a folk museum of Portuguese-Macanese culture. The return of Macau's sovereignty to Beijing had become the final straw in the Macanese diaspora, and there are now more Macanese in Brazil or Australia than in their native Macau.
At the museum we chanced upon this fascinating Fotomo exhibition by Hong Kong artist Alexis Ip, who had captured this moment in history with a massive model of the entire Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro. In a sense this is also what I'm doing with this series of photos, but far from the grand scale and gorgeous style demonstrated by the master.
Rua do Guimaraes No.286. Back on the Peninsula we wrapped up in the Baia do Mastro neighborhood, once famous for its hand-sculpted mahjong tiles and extravagant ivory carvings. This is the end of my photos on Macau's architecture and cityscape, and in the upcoming posts the focus will be on the lip-smacking Macanese cuisine, from Michelin 3-star restaurants to the cheapest Dai Pai Dong street stalls.
Friday, June 10, 2016
"What's the best day-trip from metropolitan Hong Kong?"
This article is my answer to the popular and difficult question. As much as I appreciate the quaint and colorful Cheung Chau or the laid-back vibe of Tai O, my top recommendation for any would-be visitor to Hong Kong is actually Macau.
That's right -- this isn't technically Hong Kong. But being only 60 minutes away by Hydrofoil from either Central District or Tsim Sha Tsui, Macau is arguably a logistically simpler day-trip than Lantau Island or the Fanling Heritage Trail, and with some world-class architecture and exceptional cuisine to boot.
Routinely dismissed by casual tourists as the Las Vegas of the Orient (the reverse of which is true, as Macau currently beats Vegas in terms of gambling revenue), the historic city of Macau boasts something neither Vegas nor Monte Carlo can compete with -- its cultural richness from 450 years of fusion between East and West.
For centuries this was the Portuguese Empire's easternmost stronghold and the missionary base of the Jesuits in the Sinosphere, the earliest and most lasting example of an intimate union between European and Chinese architectures. Amid its cityscape of 19th Century apartment blocks are countless unique gems that has become collectively declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Every time I end up in Macau, my first evening always includes a stroll to Largo do Senado and its surrounding cobblestone streets, flanked by the 16th Century Santa Casa de Misericordia and the Leal Senado. This is the epicentre of all major sights -- 2 minutes' walk to Igreja de Sao Domingos, Lou Kau Mansion or the Chinese shrine of Sam Kai Vui Kun, or a 7 minute hike to the unmistakeable Sao Paulo.
The photogenic Travessa de Sao Domingos leads to the Colegio Diocesano in the uphill direction, and across the square to the Yee Shun Milk Company and its famous Steamed Milk Custard in the downhill direction. While the custard has become more expensive over the years, it remains one of my favorite rituals when visiting Macau.
Gracing the cover of all tourist brochures is the 17th Century ruins of the Jesuit college of Sao Paulo, the first European university in the Far East. Merely 20m from the foot of the former Catholic college stands another World Heritage building of a different faith, the small but colorful Na Tcha Temple from the Qing Dynasty.
Overlooking the Grand Lisboa and the rest of the glittering casino strip, Sao Paolo and the adjacent Fortaleza do Monte are known to be popular with dating couples -- and apparently texting teenagers -- after dark.
Even older than Sao Paulo is the Igreja de Sao Domingos, a 16th Century Baroque gem that predates the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Interestingly here the bottom half was covered by a traditional Chinese bamboo scaffold and the classic sight of a red-white-blue nylon tarp, typical of renovation projects anywhere in Southern China.
The phrase Jiao E Zhi Wei (Prowess Renowned Among Sharks and Crocodiles) graces a Qing Dynasty wooden plaque overhanging the main hall at Sam Kai Vui Kun just to the west of Largo do Senado. The little shrine is dedicated to Guan Di, revered among businessmen, Triad members and police officers alike as the personification of the code of brotherhood.
Hidden in an alley to the northeast of Largo do Senado is the splendid former residence of Lou Kau, Macau's first casino (and allegedly opium) tycoon from late 19th Century.
One of the best preserved examples of courtyard houses from the Qing Dynasty, this mansion of imposing grey bricks was constructed in traditional Xiguan style, popular at the turn-of-the-century with the rich and famous from the regional capital of Guangzhou.
Even though admission is free-of-charge, the easily-missed entranceway apparently foils many unsuspecting tourists and the compact yet gorgeous mansion remains mostly uncrowded despite its central location. That said, there exists an even more stunning and yet lesser-visited traditional Chinese residence in town.
My favorite spot in Macau is an out-of-the-way Qing Dynasty complex known as the Mandarin's House, a ginormous mansion of multiple courtyards and over 60 rooms, situated in the hills between Largo do Senado and the A-ma Temple to the south. On this weekday afternoon we encountered no more than a dozen other visitors, which is virtually unheard-of at any UNESCO World Heritage Site anywhere in China.
Suspended above the magnificent greeting hall are the words Yu Qing, or Overflowing Fortunes, as quoted from the I Ching to remind the mansion's upper-class inhabitants, a locally prominent family of merchants and scholars, of the importance of charity and benevolence.
One member of the family, scholar-reformer Zheng Guanying, did benefit his countrymen with a legacy of influential ideas that would help nudge Feudal China into the modern age. It was during Zheng's time that the compound was expanded to 4,000 square feet of living quarters and courtyard gardens, interconnected by these elegant moon gates.
Macau's uniqueness as crossroad of cultures is clearly evident at every corner of this exquisite residence -- Portuguese wooden shutters on the second floor, Chinese gourd-shaped windows on the ground floor, and a system of British plumbing pipes stylishly disguised in the shape of bamboos.
But the Mandarin's House hasn't always looked this immaculate. For decades this compound had disintegrated into a shanty town, with hundreds of impoverished tenants each divvying up a grimy corner of the former aristocratic residence. It took a lot of political will, not to mention 43 million patacas, to restore this extraordinary specimen from the colonial era.
Aside from its World Heritage architecture, Macau is better known among locals and Hong Kongers alike for its Portuguese fusion cuisine as well as its recipes of traditional Cantonese dishes, many of which have gone virtually extinct in Hong Kong. While it is possible to visit Macau as a day-trip from Hong Kong, I would recommend spending a couple night and fully appreciate its nostalgic ambience and exotic flavors, to be covered in the upcoming articles.