Sunday 5 February 2012

Kung Hei Fat Choy 恭喜發財 Happy New Year

It's strange looking out of my window at a blanket of snow, to think that only a week ago I was walking up The Peak in the Hong Kong sunshine.  I was in Hong Kong by kind courtesy of the HK Tourist Board, to experience Chinese New Year as a prize following a blog I wrote for them back in September, which you can read here. It really was a fantastic trip, jam-packed with so many fun, interesting and fascinating experiences, and it went like this...

I flew with Air New Zealand who have deservedly been awarded 'Airline of the Year' with their friendly staff, great food and punctual service. But strangely no on-board duty free shopping. On arrival in Hong Kong, I was swept away by a limo from the airport to the Marco Polo Hotel in Kowloon where I stayed for four very comfortable nights. Space is a luxury in Hong Kong, so it was lovely to retreat each evening to such a spacious room and enjoy the spectacular views over Victoria Harbour.  The decor is a bit dated and it may not be as luxurious (or expensive) as The Peninsular or Shangri-La, but for a well-situated, clean, comfortable and convenient place to stay, I highly recommend the Marco Polo Hotel. The service was friendly and impeccable, and I was fortunate to be given access to the Continental Club floor for breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails. Breakfast offered such an impressive and diverse spread, there was even dim sum. A surprise favourite was the blueberry smoothie as for someone who doesn't like fruit, it was probably the nicest smoothie I've ever tasted! A perfect start to the day. The hotel very kindly gave a friend and I dinner in their fantastic Cucina Restaurant (offering Italian and Asian cuisine) where we enjoyed a delicious meal and excellent views of the Chinese New Year firework display across the harbour. 

As well as being within hopping distance of the Star Ferry with its regular crossings over to Hong Kong Island, the Marco Polo Hotel is located on Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and right next to Harbour City, so it couldn't be better placed for those who like to shop til they drop. And believe me, shopping is a national sport in Hong Kong. Harbour City was the first major shopping mall to be built and remains one of the best, if not the best shopping complex in Hong Kong. It is absolutely huge and hosts a multitude of high-end designer shops, department stores and restaurants. I met up with the PR team who gave me a comprehensive and informative tour of Harbour City. Being Chinese New Year, there was an interesting art exhibition by David Chan of modern calligraphy with a dragon theme for 2012. As well as the popular Chocolate Trail Festival with over 20 gourmet chocolatiers from around the world and some fun chocolate-themed art on display throughout the mall. 

Shortly after arriving at my hotel, I met Koko, my appointed guide for the trip, who knows anything and everything there is to know about Hong Kong (if you go there, I suggest you find him). Our first stop was the Symphony of Lights show which takes place daily at 8pm.  It's a multimedia display of laser beams and colourful lights across the harbour and is accompanied by narration and some synchronised 80's style music. To be honest, I found it quite naff, but it's very popular with locals and tourists alike, who gather in their masses to watch it, especially busy at Chinese New Year.

Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon has the greatest concentration of shops in Hong Kong, and in vast contrast to the upmarket haven of Harbour City is nearby Nathan Road which at 2.5 miles long, is a maze of neon signs and hundreds of shops and stores tucked away on various levels including the well known Ladies Market and Night Market for cheap goods where bargaining is essential. One thing the Chinese love is a spot of reflexology, so there are foot massages available on every corner. But as Koko pointed out, you've got to make sure you get a good, clean and professional one. I was treated to a foot massage at Royal Foot Spa in Kowloon, and it was superb. My feet were literally dancing when I left.

Hong Kong skyline at night

I also got to experience some delicious food in Harbour City, including dinner on my first night at Nha Trang which does the most amazing Vietnamese food and is a Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand awarded restaurant. I went there with Koko, where we bonded over soft shell crab, pork & shrimp rolls and the house delicacy - pickled lotus stem salad which was surprisingly tasty with a strange texture like eating fine silk strands or a spider's web. Odd but very good. There are four branches of Nha Trang in Hong Kong and it was definitely one of the best places I ate on my trip. I hope they open a branch in London! 

Lotus stems with prawns

A veritable feast at Canton Deli in Harbour City
'Thousand Year Old' Eggs with pickled ginger

The Harbour City PR team took me for some excellent dim sum at Canton Deli. It has a great buzzy atmosphere and we ordered an interesting array of food including pork & pineapple puffs, prawn dumplings, Chinese custard tarts and congee (rice porridge). The most curious dish was the pidan, also known as a 'Thousand Year Old Egg'. The egg goes through a special preserving process over a matter of weeks or even months, where it's soaked in a mixture of clay, ash, salt and lime. The egg white turns into a dark brown jelly, whilst the yolk turns dark green/grey with a gooey texture and an unappetising smell of sulphur. Despite being a Chinese delicacy, and to the amusement of my hosts, this was the one dish I simply couldn't bring myself to try, not for all the tea in China! Especially in the company of strangers. Saying that, I was intrigued to try an infamous birds nest (used in soup and medicinal purposes) which is literally a rare nest glued together with bird spit and resembles a small white cocoon, but at around $1000 (£100) a nest, sampling one wasn't an option. I also spotted a bag of dried duck tongues in the sweet shop and very nearly bought some for my work colleagues as a treat, but decided peanut sweets would be the more appreciated option!

One other great restaurant I went to was Lee House in Wan Chai which specialises in Cantonese food. Discreetly located slightly off the beaten track on the first floor of an office building, it is a popular place with locals and those in the know. Koko and I went there for dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve where it was packed full with families all enjoying their last meal of the year together. The food was fantastic and we enjoyed giant prawns and the best egg fried rice ever. Unlike the UK, new year's eve in China isn't about going on the lash and swinging your pants at midnight. Being a lunar new year, it's a far more civilised affair. It lasts for 2-3 days and very much focuses on families getting together as well as a time to clean your home and de-clutter your life, in preparation for a fresh and positive new year ahead.

One of the other highlights of Chinese new year's eve is a visit to the Victoria Park flower market in Causeway Bay. This runs for several days until dawn on the first lunar new year day. I went there after dinner and it was really crowded but with a good, happy atmosphere. The market has row upon row of stalls selling all kinds of things, but predominantly flowers which are an important part of the new year decoration for homes, especially the cherry blossoms and miniature orange trees which I saw in abundance whilst I was in Hong Kong. The flowers were amazing, I've never seen so many different types of orchid under one roof, and the peach and cherry blossom trees were so beautiful, I would love to have been able to bring one back for my garden.  The rest of the market is full of various pieces of tat, decorations, toys, balloons and food, with everyone bartering like crazy. I'm sure it means much more to the locals than visitors, as to me it was like a glorified large-scale Saturday market in Peckham.

New Year decorations for sale at the Flower Market

Before I embarked on my trip, I was slightly bemused to read in my itinerary that I should pack a pair of sensible shoes and a windbreaker for one of my outings. As anyone who knows me will tell you, Miss Immy has a multitude of heels, but nothing sensible in the footwear department. Apart from one pair of trainers and some flip flops. And as for a windbreaker, well I had to ask a friend to define exactly what that was, as I could only imagine one of those roll-out stripy jobs on sticks that you take to Camber Sands to stop the wind blowing sand in your face.

Cable car up to Po Lin Monastery and Giant Buddha

So with all the hustle and bustle of skyscrapers and chaotic street life in Hong Kong, it was a pleasure to escape to the countryside and with such ease.  Just hop on a train to Tung Chung station, then connect onto the cable car  to Ngong Ping village (operated by Ngong Ping 360) where you can then walk up the 268 steps to the Tian Tan Giant Buddha - the world's largest bronze statue.

We took one of the crystal cabins on the cable car with a glass floor (very cool). The 5.7km journey takes 25 mins with panoramic views of Lantau country park, Tung Chung Bay and the airport. It's a 'must-see' when in Hong Kong, but I'd advise doing it on a clear day, as when I went it was so foggy, the cable car was a bit like being in a washing machine, and even standing up close and personal to Buddha, I could only see his outline looming eerily in the mist. But despite the weather, it was an enjoyable day, and my pink spotty raincoat sufficed as a perfect windbreaker.

Just along from the Giant Buddha is Po Lin - a Buddhist monastery founded in 1906 where you can wander around peacefully and see the monks going about their daily duties. I loved all the colourful flower arrangements, the giant incense sticks the size of fireworks, and the fantastic vegetarian lunch at the monastery. That was a good day.

Monk at Po Lin Monastery chimes the bell 108 times a day to relieve 108 vexations

Another special day for me was experiencing the lunar new year's day at the Wishing Well Festival in Tai Po out in the New Territories. Koko and I joined a few other media representatives and joined in the festivities which included writing a wish on a card, attaching it to an orange, then hurling it into the Wishing Tree, which by the end of the day, looked so pretty and colourful, laden with all those wishes. Let's hope they all come true...

Wishing Tree

Wishing Well Festival on New Year's Day in Tai Po, New Territories

A little Chinese boy in traditional dress on new year's day

We also witnessed the lantern lighting ceremony for a new born from the nearby village of Lam Tsuen, before joining a room full of people for a special new year meal called Pun Choi which literally translates into a 'large pot of vegetables'. It is prepared in advance so as to save families having to cook on new year's day, and instead it is gently heated on a hot plate, whilst the family or party gather around the table and all tuck into the vast pot of food, containing all sorts of interesting vegetables, mushrooms, noodles and bean curd. I don't think it has to be vegetarian, but the one we had was, and delicious it was too. 

As it was quite a cold day, we later huddled together in a little cafe where we drank very strong sweet tea and tried a bean curd pudding with brown sugar. Interesting, but not a patch on creamy rice pudding.

I think this man represents good fortune and financial security for the new year. Or maybe not...

On new year's evening, I was lucky to be given a seat in the grandstand so I could watch the Cathay Pacific International Chinese Night Parade. Televised live to the nation, it was a colourful, dazzling and vibrant show, full of wonderful costumes, impressive floats and of course, being the Year of the Dragon, there were dragons galore.

New Year's Day Grand Night Parade

Festivities at the Grand Night Parade

On the second day of Chinese New Year, I was taken off to Tai Po in the New Territories to meet a local Hong Kong family. Our hostess was a lovely woman called Rita Chan who along with her family, and their beautiful dog, gave me a very warm welcome into their home. Being new year, we exchanged gifts - I gave them a smart tin of English biscuits which seemed to go down well, whilst I received my very first lai see, which is a little red envelope containing a monetary gift and is typically given by those who are married to those who aren't married, including children.  Lai see are very much part of the Chinese new year tradition and the little red envelopes can be seen dangling off blossom and orange trees everywhere you go, symbolizing good luck, health and prosperity.

Enjoying traditional Bai Nian with Rita Chan and her family

Another Chinese new year tradition is the chuen hop which means 'Tray of Togetherness'. It's a round tray containing a selection of symbolic sweets and candy to be offered to friends and guests to give a sweet start to the new year.

I was invited to partake in the traditional new year family get-together of Bai Nian which includes a home made meal of rice crisps, lo bak gau (pan-fried turnip cake with ham), water chestnut jelly cake and some sweet rice balls with crushed peanuts. Rita's mother-in-law was busy preparing these tasty dishes in the kitchen, and we then all enjoyed them with endless cups of Chinese tea and interesting conversation around the table. It really was an honour to experience such a special and personal family tradition like this.

Once Chinese New Year was over, it was time to bid farewell to Kowloon, Koko and the HKTB team. But luckily my trip wasn't over quite yet, as I am lucky enough to have a good friend who lives in Hong Kong, so I stayed on for a few more days to experience life on Hong Kong Island and the interesting area around Mid Levels and Central.  I popped along to the lovely St John's Cathedral (where my mother got re-married), dwarfed by all its skyscraping neighbours.

Old Hong Kong
I ambled along Peel Street, Graham Street, Aberdeen Street and Hollywood Road, exploring all the nooks and crannies and shops full of antiques, curios, jade carvings, silk clothes, Ming vases and Chairman Mao retro souvenirs. This to me is the real Hong Kong where you can roam around little open air markets, marvel at the seafood stalls and enjoy a bowl of prawn dumpling won ton noodle soup for a bargain $20 (£2) at the wonderful Tsim Tsai Keen noodle shop on Wellington Street. And one of the things which still baffles me about Hong Kong, is the way they still use bamboo for their scaffolding. I guess it's tried and tested and does the job perfectly.

Hong Kong bamboo scaffolding

Prawn dumpling won ton soup at Tsim Tsai Keen noodle shop

I headed along Man Wa Street (also affectionately known as 'Stamp Street') which is a pedestrian street full of 'chop shops', and I'm not talking lamb or pork. A chop is a Chinese stamp or seal, which are beautifully hand carved from a variety of stones, ivory or even jade. You just pop along, decide which chop you like and what you want carved, and they make it to order. I had a couple made, including this one for me which says 'Imogen' with a dog design, as I was born in the Year of the Dog.

There are a lot of steps in Mid Levels, and I mean a lot. It's a very steep area and whoever decided to build the Mid Levels escalator, is surely a genius. Yep, a series of escalators going all the way up from Queen's Road in Central to Conduit Road in Mid Levels, it climbs 800 metres and takes around 25 mins. Being a series of escalators, you can stop off en route and enjoy a beer on Shelley Street in Soho, which is a very Westernised area full of ex-pats, but a great place for a night out when you want a break from the chopsticks.

The Mid Levels escalator isn't the only good clever solution for getting around. I have to say, the transport in Hong Kong has got to be one of the best in the world, as well as one of the most affordable. The MTR puts the London Underground to shame with its cheap, reliable and fast service. The Octopus card (their equivalent of an Oyster card) can be used everywhere, and $50 (approx £5) will last for days! Even the taxis in Hong Kong are cheap and plentiful. It really is such an easy place to get around, and not forgetting the wonderful Star Ferry which costs about 20p to cross the harbour whilst taking in the views. And the Airport Express has got to be the most stress-free airport travel I've experienced. You can even check your luggage in at the station, then retrieve it at Heathrow. Brilliant. 

Market stall on Upper Lascar Row

Hong Kong wouldn't be complete without a trip up The Peak. I was worried the bad weather may scupper my plans of going up there, as it seemed pointless going on a dreary day as the view really isn't the same, although it's quite cool seeing the skyscrapers peeking up through the clouds. However, luck was on my side for my last day when the sun finally made an appearance and the temperature soared from 7 to 21 degrees in a day. Even though there is a perfectly good tram which will ferry you all the way to the top, my friend and I decided it would be a much better idea to walk up the 2,800 metres instead. And even though it was quite a trek (well I thought so anyway), I'm so glad I did, as it was rewarding in every sense of the word. A fitting way to round off a brilliant trip and an ideal way to work up a hearty appetite for one last dinner of delicious Chinese grub. I love Hong Kong.

View from The Peak

A very warm thank you to the HKTB, Marco Polo Hotel, Harbour City, Koko, Rita Chan and everyone who played a part in hosting such a happy and memorable trip. Kung hei fat choy to you all. I think the Year of the Dragon is going to be one to remember.


Family Parson said...

Wonderful Immy - I'm so jealous!

By the way, and I promise I'm not joking, but the word human verification thingy for me to post this comment is "quitimm"!!! Please don't...

Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful article! I want to go to HK so bad!

adam said...

Wonderful words as always Immy and pictures too! Brought back such memories as this was where Mrs Bird and I had our honeymoon! Fortunately for us we had amazing weather and the trip to see the big Buddha was much the better for it, even though Mrs B had her eyes closed the whole way!

Here is my (rather lengthy!) account of my own experience -

Anonymous said...

Wonderful miss immy

roz said...

Well done Immy great read as always. looks like you had a fun-filled and interesting time with plenty of delicious (and strange!) food along the way to try. Roz xx

Missimmy said...

Thanks Roz and everyone for kind comments. Yes, I did eat some rather odd things and was quite glad to get back to some fish & chips! x

Anonymous said...

You didn't mention the 24 dumplings you made us order on the last night! Good job we made made some room burning off the cals walking up tut Peak.
xxxx SE4 Sarah

Missimmy said...

He he, yes I didn't spot the dumpling quantity on the menu, but we somehow waded through all 24 of them. Still full in fact! xx

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