• Peter Alton

Hong Kong: Enter the Gweilo

Since the earliest days of my childhood Hong Kong has been a magical place for me, a land of mysterious dancing dragons and the legendary Bruce Lee. I have always had a fascination with the island, so much so that I vowed from an early age that I would one day fulfil my dreams and walk amongst the fabled dragons. Even now many years after my first visit, Hong Kong is still a place that never fails to capture my imagination, constantly delighting and surprising me with that same magic and joy I felt as a child. Since that first trip I have been lucky enough to come face to face with the dancing dragons of my childhood and even walked the same streets that were once home to a young Bruce Lee. Even today many years later I am pleased to say that here in Hong Kong the childhood magic I felt as a young boy remains stronger than ever. The magic and wonder of the past and present lives on here in a culture that successfully blends both the ancient and the modern into something that is unmistakably Hong Kong.

As I write this I am surrounded by many souvenirs gathered since that first trip; jade and soapstone figures of Chinese lions and dragons, a laughing Buddha, ornamental chopsticks and even some lucky Chinese coins. These all serve to remind me that the greatest gifts I have taken away from the island are not the objects themselves but the memories that they represent. Memories of good times spent in the very heart of Asia learning about the people, culture and cuisine of this very special land. Hong Kong as many people have found is an addictive place that gets under your skin and into your heart within a very short period of time. Even the most hardened of travellers it seems can’t help feeling a strange affinity with this most fragrant harbour.

Fragrant harbour I should explain is the literal translation of Hong Kong or more correctly Heung Gong as it is referred to in Cantonese, the predominant language of the region. Fragrant harbour may be a touch optimistic, as you will know if you have ever visited the waterfront or strolled along Des Voeux Road West on a windy afternoon. The name is actually derived from the area between Aberdeen and Wong Chuk Hang where it is said that fragrant incense trees imported from North Vietnam once grew in abundance. Nowadays Victoria Harbour, the stretch of water which separates Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, is more famous as one of the busiest and deepest natural maritime ports in the world.

In modern times the description of fragrant harbour may perhaps be more appropriately used when it comes to food, as the smells of cooking seem to beckon and entice you from every open doorway. Whether you are walking down the street or simply enjoying the sights of the famous skyline, chances are that some delicious aroma will captivate your senses and stimulate your appetite. Hong Kong and food go together like love and marriage; a happy association blending the culture and cuisine of a myriad of ethnic societies into what over the years has become a multi-cultural gastronomic paradise.

Hong Kong is a place of many contrasts with vast green National Parks and expansive Nature Reserves living in symbiotic harmony with some of the finest and most recognisable modern architecture on the planet. Huge skyscrapers dominate the skyline looking down as sentinel like guardians over a wide and varied multi-racial community who for the most part coexist in a remarkable social harmony. It may be a cliché but Hong Kong is really the land of east meets west, a land where all nationalities irrespective of religion or beliefs are welcomed and embraced into its heart. Hong Kong is one of the most diverse places on the planet where old and new coexist happily side-by-side. Where else would you find a McDonalds, KFC and Marks & Spencer living happily in the same neighbourhood as Chinese medicine shops, food markets and the famous dai pai dong takeaway food stalls? Even the names of the shops and restaurants are wonderfully simplistic and innocent, quite often surprising and amusing the average Western shopper. Who could resist the delights of shopping at Wanko, a curiously named clothing chain found all over Hong Kong? Just seeing the shop assistants wearing their name badges emblazoned with Wanko is enough to bring a childish grin to my face. Another clothing store proudly bears the name Fuk Yu which somehow doesn’t seem that welcoming.

If you are feeling hungry how about eating at the quaint Dear Restaurant, or if that sounds a bit pricy you might want to try the aptly named Nice Restaurant. You may even want to pack your shoulder pads and take some tea at the famous Dynas-Tea restaurant or for the more adventurous how about a trip to the nearby Lamma Island where you can sample the delights of my personal favourite the Deli Lamma!

If you really want to appreciate the cosmopolitan quality of Hong Kong then you could do no better than visiting the Central District on a Saturday or Sunday around the World Wide Plaza or the HSBC Hong Kong buildings. The whole place is alive with the local Filipino community, so many that you would think that the whole of Manila must be deserted with its entire population transported across The South China Sea to this one spot. Everywhere you look are friendly faces in little community groups all busily engaged in conversations about their week or catching up on the news from back home. Many come purely for the social contact while others come to shop, looking for that famous Filipino bargain or simply to send money to their families back home. Their conversational chatter is melodic providing a constant heartbeat to a thriving community. As a Westerner walking through the crowds of Filipinos you become instantly aware of just how tall, white and alien you are. You are immediately immersed in a sea of the most gloriously tanned faces who never fail to melt your heart with their warm smiles and friendly dispositions. Despite the cultural differences you are always made to feel welcome and any greeting will always be acknowledged with a friendly smile. The area is so busy with members of the Filipina community that Chater Road running past Statue Square in Central is actually shut to traffic every Sunday to accommodate them all.

I am eternally grateful that throughout my culinary travels I have met and dined with many of the local Asian community who have taught me a great deal about the food and culture of Hong Kong. My long-suffering constant companion is my wife, Eden, a quiet unassuming Filipina whose support has been unflinching in my search for new culinary experiences. Whether it is snake soup or durian pancake, Eden has always been there to advise and point me in the right direction. Likewise my Chinese friends Max (Sailo) and Gucci (Mui-mui), along with Filipinas Mel, Mikki, Minda and Alice have all helped and humoured my obsession with food. I hope that I have grown in their eyes from a strange culinary obsessive Gweilo (an affectionate term for a Westerner literally meaning ‘ghost guy’) to an honouree Asian who is willing to adapt to and learn their respective cultures.

I will never forget my first meal with chopsticks in Hong Kong; it must have given my friends much amusement although they were much too polite to say so at the time. I can remember trying unsuccessfully to pick up peanuts from the centre of the table with chopsticks. I carefully observed my fellow diners nonchalantly picking up the tiny treats filling my head with images of crabs on the seashore grasping the smallest of morsels in their oversized claws. I managed to snare the occasional nut but could never quite carry it across the table let alone get as far as actually eating it. Peanuts were rolling everywhere as I stabbed my chopsticks at my intended targets. It was a scene reminiscent of the snooker player Jimmy White, cue in hand on his way to a 147 break leaving no pocket (or lap in my case) on the table empty. If you add to the equation the various dishes of soy and chilli sauce perilously scattered about the table it was obvious that things were likely to get messy.

I snared my first target almost managing to get it to my plate before it dropped on to the tablecloth leaving a volcanic eruption of sauce spreading from its epicentre. I felt like a kid at the funfair using one of those grabbing machines to pick up a cuddly toy. The concentration and excitement were the same as was my disappointment as it dropped just short of the target. Doing a very plausible impression of the famous ‘Bouncing Bomb’ I launched many a nut across the table seemingly effortlessly bouncing through soy and chilli with unnerving accuracy leaving a sea of devastation in their wake, before disappearing out of sight over the edge. The pristine white tablecloth around me looked like a painting done by a chimpanzee or an elephant at the zoo and thanks largely to my efforts my companions also were also left more than a little battle scarred. Bear in mind that this was just my attempt at the appetiser before the actual meal arrived, so I must admit I am grateful for their perseverance and patience with me. Now many years later I can eat without worry and much to the relief of my dining companions can now emerge from a restaurant with more food in my stomach than on the front of my shirt.

So where does my love of food come from? I firmly believe that my love of food and my willingness to try almost anything stems from my childhood and my family upbringing. My much loved Nan and Granddad must take most of the credit as from a very early age I was introduced to a wide variety of home-grown and home-cooked foods. Some of my fondest memories as a child are of the big family meals we had at 218, London Road in Waterlooville (sadly now demolished) when at various times during the school holidays my cousins, uncles and aunties would all come to stay. We would have fantastic traditional roast dinners with all the trimmings and yes if you didn’t eat your vegetables you most definitely wouldn’t get any dessert! To be honest I wasn’t a fussy eater even as a kid. As I recall it was only Brussels sprouts and Stilton cheese that I could have quite happily avoided throughout those formative years. The only real problem I had at these family meals was whether I could finish my meal and get to that last roast potato before my cousin Glen, who despite being younger than me could always match me for appetite. My much missed Mum carried on the tradition set by her parents and although home-cooking has changed a lot over the years she has always instilled the same values in me to experiment and try everything at least once.

My love of food lead me to train as a Chef at Highbury College in Cosham. At the time I went there as a fresh faced sixteen year old it was very new and the top catering facility of its type in the country. I studied there for three years from 1981 to 1984 and was as proud as anything to emerge with my Diploma in Professional Cookery. If my family gave me my love of food then the lecturers and college definitely fed my addiction. It was one of the happiest times of my life and I am forever grateful to all my lecturers and fellow students who taught me so much that stood me in good stead for later life. I would heartily recommend to anyone thinking of studying catering to go ahead and do it. Even if you never cook professionally after you leave, the skills you learn there will be with you for life.

I can still remember my first day at college as one of the new influx of PCD (Professional Cookery Diploma) students. We were all resplendent in a sea of spotless white jackets and blue checked trousers, wearing our new uniforms with pride for the very first time. Our aprons were trailing down to the floor and our starched hats were pointing proudly to the ceiling, we really must have been quite a sight. Over the years our aprons shortened until eventually they were folded into nothing more than miniskirts that just about covered our crutches; while the starched Mohawk-like hats were replaced by neat uniform disposable paper ones. We had finally come of age and were ready to launch our talents onto an unsuspecting world. Looking back it was hard work and frightening at times but honestly worth every second and an experience I would do all over again if I had the chance.

I genuinely love food and will try just about anything if I feel it is something that I might enjoy.

I am not a food snob and enjoy eating food whatever the surroundings. I was guilty as are most Westerners of seeking out the glitzy pricey restaurants when I first arrived in Hong Kong in the mistaken belief that because the menu was expensive and that I would be dining in nice surroundings the food would be good. My wife and my friends taught me to eat where the locals eat, sometimes in the most dingy and uninspiring of places. More often than not the food in these places is fantastic and worth the discomfort of sitting on a wooden bench or out in the street on plastic patio chairs under the watchful gaze of yet more Filipino shoppers looking for a bargain. Don’t get me wrong some of the glitzy places serve unbelievably good food but there is nothing so satisfying as getting a great meal and paying no more than the price of a McDonalds for the privilege.

I will say it again, eat where the locals eat and you can’t go wrong. Most ordinary residents of Hong Kong do not have a great deal of money, so they are after just two things; good food and value for money. The choice of restaurants in Hong Kong is huge, so if one restaurant is consistently attracting the locals take note because the chances are it is damn good. The language needn’t be a problem just look what people are eating and point, it works in any society and chances are you will have recommendations coming at you from all over the restaurant. I have eaten at the most basic food stalls and been served food as good as anywhere in the world, so surroundings really do not make good food. The ambience of a restaurant with nice decor might enhance the dining experience but it does not guarantee you a good meal. Please don’t get me wrong I am in no way cavalier about hygiene and will not eat in a dirty, empty restaurant or one that reeks of neglect. Eating good food is a game of chance and if I come across a place that looks like my Granddad’s old air-raid shelter, but I can see the chef or proprietor cares about food then I am more than willing to roll that dice. We can’t throw sixes all the time but occasionally you might so it is really worth taking that chance.

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