I didn't expect Hong Kong to move me like it did. It wasn't my first visit -- I'd been three times before -- but arriving only a week after I'd left Dubai seemed to amplify the stark differences between the two. Dubai was new and burgeoning and developing at a rate faster than cartographers could handle; Hong Kong felt busy but steeped in history and hundreds of untold stories.
My mother grew up in Hong Kong, and for the first time I felt some sense of kinship with this city as I wandered the steep and narrow streets. I pictured my mum as a teenager, and tried to imagine how different the city must have been. When I alighted the MTR near her old high school, I excitedly told her that maybe I'd retraced a journey she had done in the past. She quashed my sentimentality with a bemused laugh and said the MTR wasn't even built back then. "We only had trams!" she snorted.
Residential buildings and balconies overlooking Gage Street
Hong Kong has more than its fair share of skyscrapers, but it was the older parts of the city that I loved best. The rickety buildings, the washing hanging on balconies and the barrage of air-conditioning units... each layer of grime on the old buildings made me think of every generation that had come to this city in pursuit of dreams. If those walls could talk, they would share stories of blood and sweat, of laughter and tears. I felt like I was in an Amy Tan novel come-to-life.
Hand-pushing a trolley up Gage Street
The other detail that struck me most was how hard people worked here. Physical labour is a part of everyday life. Hand carts and trolleys are everywhere on the streets, heaved up hills by men and women, young and old. The men would often be bare-chested as sweat dripped down the smalls of their back and across their forehead. They'd be lean with muscular backs and shoulders, the kind of rippled muscles that hadn't been primed in an air-conditioned gym, but developed naturally from years of manual work.
Al fresco dining, Hong Kong-style!
Accompanying me on this trip were the two best traveller companions you could ask for: Hong Kong ex-pats and fellow food lovers, Mr and Mrs Pig Flyin'. We criss-crossed all over Hong Kong during the course of a week, but we ended up pottering around the Central district the most. And here I kept gravitating toward the street markets, clustered mostly along Gage and Graham Streets.
Wet markets and street markets in Central
Hustle and bustle of Graham Street market
Food markets are my favourite thing to do in a new city. You get to see the local produce, see what's in season, mix with everyday people and quickly work out what's prized based purely on price.
The markets along Graham Street date back 160 years and are Hong Kong's oldest, continuously-running street market. They also make an appearance in Jackie Chan's 2001 film, Rush Hour 2.
Fresh soy bean sprouts
Small fridges and a keenness for the freshest food mean that many locals shop everyday for supplies. Everywhere you looked, there was a bounty of choice. We saw glistening and plump soy bean sprouts, fat blocks of freshly cooked tofu and neatly arranged pyramids of bright green vegetables.
Mung bean sprouts, fresh tofu blocks and preserved tofu in jars
Salted duck eggs
These zebra-looking eggs caught our eye immediately. They're salted duck eggs that have had their black crusts carefully scraped off to create a striped pattern.
Stalls and shoppers at the Graham Street markets
Live seafood is important to locals too, as a guarantee of freshness.
Fruit and vegetables
We laughed when we saw these young coconuts with ring pulls and bought one immediately. It ended up being more of a design gimmick than anything else. The ring pull didn't work but the lines had been lasered so it only needed a little bit of knife work to prise open the "tab" where a straw would go.
Fresh tofu blocks
Market stall owner trimming vegetables
Tofu and bean sprouts
Fruit and vegetable stall on the hill
Fresh water chestnuts
So that's what fresh water chestnuts look like!
Fresh straw mushrooms
... and fresh straw mushrooms!
Cakes of dried egg noodles
Selling fresh rice noodles
Imported salad greens from Australia, the USA and Holland
We thought the idea of importing salad greens from Australia, the USA and Holland to be odd, but apparently these are often sought out by ex-pats or locals who are keen to cook fancy Western-style dishes.
Weighing seafood using an old-fashioned balance scale with weights
Old skool balance scales are way cool. In Hong Kong markets, they tend to sell things by the "catty", a traditional Chinese unit of mass that equals about 605 grams.
Pottinger Street, one of last remaining streets in Hong Kong with granite steps
Cabs on Des Voeux Road, Central
Giant incense coils in Sheung Wan or the Upper District
We wandered up to Sheung Wan or the Upper District - a calf-busting workout involving steep hills and hundreds of steps.
Steep slope of Aberdeen Street
Hills are everywhere in Hong Kong. I used this as an easy justification to eat more.
Street cart selling pan-roasted chestnuts and sweet potato
We stumbled upon this street cart selling pan roasted chestnuts and sweet potato roasted over coals one afternoon in nearby Wanchai.
There was a basket of quail eggs in one corner, set over a simmering pot of water to keep warm.
Whole roasted sweet potatoes
I only had eyes for the sweet potato though, roasted slowly in their jackets until the skin crinkled like old newspapers.
Roasted sweet potato
Would you believe me if I said it was the best sweet potato I've ever eaten? Incredibly sweet, slightly nutty and a fluffiness that can only come from slow roasting in its own skin.
Stone wall tree
I loved finding stone wall trees too, a common sight across Hong Kong. Predominantly banyan trees, the trees have adapted themselves to make use of the stone retaining walls that protect much of Hong Kong from landslides. They have a symbiotic relationship with the wall because by absorbing the water and moisture from the soil, they actually strengthen the wall and reduce the risk of the wall collapsing.
The spiderweb tangle of roots are a calming sight. It's believed there are more than 1200 of these stone wall trees across the city with most of them over 100 years old.
Father and son and bamboo scaffolding
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6/26/2014 01:17:00 am