Perfect days in Hong Kong are a dime a dozen. With so many great things to do in endless combinations, you’re well on your way the moment you step out the door. What I present here is one example of mine, but there are millions more – enough to fill many lifetimes.
Before I begin, though, a caveat: An actual perfect day in Hong Kong for me would include unstructured city exploration. Hopping on a minibus without really knowing where it goes, getting off in a neighborhood I’ve never visited, and breathing it all in without any specific goal or agenda to follow. When I first arrived here – a small-town boy getting his first real taste of the big city (劉姥姥進大觀園!) – the notion of going off the map petrified me. What if I get lost? How would I get help if I couldn’t communicate? Those fears dissipated as my confidence in Cantonese and general geography grew, and now I’ve gained some of my most treasured discoveries through destination-unknown serendipity. I can’t very well write about experiences I haven’t had yet, though – this isn’t fiction – so what I present here will be missing that component of spontaneity.
Let’s start with the first of two breakfasts. (On my perfect day I suspend any rules I might have of healthy eating and stuff myself with reckless abandon!) Just down the street from where I live in Tai Kok Tsui is Wheatfield Cake House 麥田餅屋, an individually-owned bakery run by a young couple. It might look just like any other bakery, but by my estimation they make the single best bread item in Hong Kong: their 墨西哥奶黃包 (lit. “Mexican custard bun”).
Generally speaking, I would crown 菠蘿包 (pineapple buns) as the best category of bread in Hong Kong, but this particular bun at this particular shop can’t be beat by any pineapple bun (including a pineapple bun made by the same baker). The bread is so soft and pillowy that it virtually melts in your mouth like cotton candy, and just as you’re being intoxicated by its buttery aroma, smooth custard spills out, mixing with the salty-sweetness of that flaky topping. It takes all my willpower to just eat one! (If you’re curious: “Mexican” buns were originally invented in 1947 at Mexico Cafe 墨西哥冰室 by a baker who had returned to Hong Kong after years of living in Mexico.)
For my second breakfast, I’m off to the cooked food centre above Kowloon City’s wet market.
Inside hides Lok Yuen 樂園 (lit. “paradise”), a tea restaurant that’s only open in the morning and early afternoon, and I’m here for two things. First, 番茄炒蛋湯通粉加沙嗲汁 (lit. “tomato and scrambled egg macaroni in soup with satay sauce”).
It’s not much to look at, but your taste buds won’t care. This is a merger of two typical Hong Kong foods in a way I’ve not seen anywhere else. Macaroni in soup is a traditional breakfast item, and ordering it with satay beef is common, but ignoring the beef and only including the sauce is somewhat unusual. Scrambled eggs and tomatoes is also a common dish, but it’s normally found at lunch or dinner, and very few places add it to soup noodles. (Star Cafe 星座冰室 in Tsim Sha Tsui comes to mind, but their version has a completely different texture.)
Lok Yuen also sets the gold standard when it comes to French toast, so I’m not going to pass that up…
Hong Kong style French toast is most commonly a peanut butter sandwich dipped in egg batter, deep-fried until golden-brown and crispy, then slathered in butter and golden syrup. (Some places omit the peanut butter, but that’s nothing short of heresy in my book. I’m looking at you, Shui Kee 瑞記!) At Lok Yuen you can get it four ways (peanut butter, kaya, red bean, and even satay beef), but I go with the classic. To keep my thirst under control, I order a cup of 茶走 (lit. “tea without”), one of Hong Kong’s “secret” beverages.
You can get this almost anywhere that sells milk tea, but you’ll never find it written on a menu – knowledge of it is passed by word of mouth. It’s milk tea that uses condensed milk instead of evaporated milk, which makes it thicker, sweeter, and creamier than typical milk tea. Because the condensed milk needs to be melted, you can only order it hot, though I’m sure you wouldn’t be denied a cup of ice if you really wanted it.
The park is lovely, sometimes attracting local musicians to play for passers-by, but I’m there for the seedy history. Gambling, drug manufacturing, prostitution, unlicensed dentistry(!), and – at its peak – 33,000 people living in a lawless, densely-packed six-acre plot. I wish I could experience it in-person, but browsing the on-site museum exhibit and recreating it with my imagination will have to do. (This video helps too.)
While this walk in the park did jumpstart my stomach’s digestion, I’m nowhere near hungry yet, so I think a hike is in order. It just so happens that the trailhead for one of my very favorite routes is about a kilometer due north in Wong Tai Sin, and a short bus ride later I’m beginning the two-hour ascent to the peak of Lion Rock.
It’s a moderately challenging hike – the number of stairs will get your chest heaving – but the payoff is spectacular.
Lion Rock isn’t just a spot with a great view, though, it’s long been a monument of inspiration for Hong Kong. Generations of those living under its protective shadow sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears to forge Hong Kong into the success it has become, and on the way they collectively defined a never-say-die attitude that has become known as 獅子山下精神 (lit. “below Lion Rock spirit”).
Though I wasn’t raised here, I am deeply appreciative of those sacrifices – maybe I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to live here without them! – and visiting Lion Rock helps me feel closer to the people who made them.
By the time I finish my descent, I’m ready for a meal, and no perfect day of mine is complete without a little adventurous eating. Pearl’s Authentic Xiamen Snack Shop 廈門風味阿珠小吃店 in East Kowloon’s To Kwa Wan neighborhood has Fujianese cuisine that fits the bill.
These are 土筍凍 (lit. “chilled earth bamboo”). Don’t let the innocent name fool you: you’re looking at diced sandworms suspended in an aspic made from their own juices. They’re bite-sized, topped with a homemade horseradish sauce, accompanied by strips of pickled daikon, and – despite what you are thinking – surprisingly scrumptious. (Wrapping your mind around the idea of eating sandworms is by far the hardest part.) Sandworms aren’t the only star dish at this restaurant, though – they share the limelight with 香芋盒 (“taro boxes”).
Savory mashed taro stuffed with chives and ground pork, then deep-fried. The thin, crispy shell and smooth filling create a most satisfying combination of textures. Trust me, you’re going to want a plateful to yourself.
Pearl’s has a number of other dishes worth trying, but I’ve got more restaurants to visit before the day is over, so I stop myself from ordering anything else and dash to Mei Foo for my appointment with…
It’s easy enough to describe what one does at Dialogue in the Dark – deprive your sense of sight and experience the world through the other four – but it’s nearly impossible to accurately communicate how it feels. Sure, stepping into an environment that is completely void of light is disorienting and terrifying at first, but all those survival responses quiet down soon enough. As you begin to successfully navigate the world without your eyes, reassured by the voice of your guide, your fear is replaced by the wondrous sensation that you’ve stepped into someone else’s shoes. Empathy in a way that’s hands-on both emotionally and physically. It’s immensely uplifting every time I visit.
Not far from Dialogue in the Dark, just over a district to the east, hides Tai Chung Wah 大中華飯店. It’s a modern dai pai dong serving traditional Cantonese fare, including dishes that have otherwise been lost in time, and a few fusion surprises. The makeshift dining rooms spread organically through multiple buildings in the neighborhood and, despite always being fully-packed, it can be a more quiet and intimate dining experience than similar restaurants in this category. I enjoy everything on the menu, but on this visit I’m looking for one thing only…
黑椒鐵板豬手 (lit. “black pepper iron board trotter”). Yes, yes – a trotter is a pig’s foot – but this is really the whole thigh and there isn’t anything cloven to be found. It’s bathed in the most flavorsome black pepper sauce you’re likely to encounter, and everything on the plate (the meat, the grilled onions) soaks that flavor right up. Presentation has a wow-factor too, as it’s brought to you on a sizzling iron skillet with appetite-arousing aromas filling the air in its wake. Heads turn.
Strolling easterly through Cheung Sha Wan, now not long after sunset, I happen across a branch of Neway Karaoke Box.
Before I moved to Hong Kong, I could never imagine myself picking up a microphone, but a few years into my stay here I was talked into trying karaoke and I became hooked instantly! All those years of singing in the shower came pouring out and now it’s a favorite pastime of mine. I’ve tried the original open-format karaoke joints where you’re one in a crowd of strangers who trade turns on the stage, and that’s fun, but I find the private-room format in places like Neway and Red Mr much more satisfying.
For me, it’s about connecting with friends and music that I love instead of performing for strangers (but the reduced wait-times of a private room are welcome too!). I’ll admit that the songs I choose tend to be repetitive – everlasting favorites like “Africa“, “Don’t Stop Believing“, and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” – but I also use this as an opportunity to practice my Cantonese singing with the likes of 陳百強, 張國榮, and 許冠傑. Those guys made incredible music that defined their generations.
Before I draw the night to a close, there’s time for a late night snack just around the corner from where I live…
油渣麵 (lit. “oil leftovers noodles”) from Ying Kee Noodle 英記油渣麵, an all-night shop that specializes in this dying dish and serves almost nothing else. Why “oil leftover”, you ask? The rich broth is flavored by pieces of skin, meat, and fat that remain after lard is rendered from pig parts. (It was invented when times were tough in Hong Kong and nothing was wasted.) I know that doesn’t make it sound very appealing, but it’s out of this world, and no other place does it better than Ying Kee. The perfect end to this perfect day.
Now enough about me! Go out there, make a perfect day of your own, and – if you feel like company – invite me along!