People often think of Hong Kong as a city, but in reality, it’s a sprawling archipelago. A sprawling archipelago where concrete meets jungle, islands are packed with lego-like high rises and the modern world vies for space at every traditional street corner. Basically, it’s a mess; a glorious, Kung Fu Hustle-style, Michelin-rated mess.
We spent a couple of days eating hawker noodles, making friends on trams and shooting late night timelapses on the streets of Sheung Wan, using the iDiscover app. This rad digital directory breaks the (otherwise overwhelming) city down into neighbourhood walks, taking you on a tour of Hong Kong’s crazy cultural underbelly.
Normally, we aren’t big on tours. We’re more of a hit the back alleys, get a little lost and hope for the best kinda travellers. But this app doesn’t involve following a leader named Dave or uncompromising schedules – you just get to read, wander, and make as many pork bun pit stops as you feel necessary. Take that Dave, we don’t need you or your judgement.
Here’s how the two of us, a few cameras and the iDiscover app tackled 48 hours in Hong Kong:
TIM HO WAN & MICHELIN STAR PORK BUNS
Sure, you can get A-grade wagyu and first class whiskey on the island but the good stuff is down the street. Straight off the plane and we’re told to make quick tracks to Tim Ho Wan’s for the Michelin-rated, more famous than Kanye, BBQ pork buns.
The decor is basic, the service no frills, but if you can handle the queue then you’ll be rewarded with next level yum cha treats. It’s a sensory smackdown of the greatest kind and a Hong Kongese brunch that won’t break the travel budget. Winner winner Michelin stars for dinner.
SNAKE SOUP & STEVEN SEAGAL
We wander into the Wan Chai district – actually, scratch that – we don’t wander, we walk with some serious purpose, in a hurry to meet Mr. Sun the Snake King. Mr Sun is a 60-something former snake charmer, sometimes philosopher and Chinese medicine extraordinaire. His tiny, family-run shop front sees thousands of locals traipse through its doors, downing bowls of snake soup and chugging back snake wine.
We learn many things in Sun’s shop. Such as, snake flesh helps clear the body’s pathways and lower cholesterol; citrus ginger soaked snake is good for coughs; daily snake soup improves a man’s vital organs; and snake wine is, well, disgusting. But extremely good for you, apparently. I feel healthier already.
Sun tells us that everyone in his family live to their 90s and only ever die of old age; I tell Sun that this snake soup thing is keeping him young. He disagrees and points to his receding hairline. He then points to the full head of hair he’s sporting in the photograph of himself and Steven Seagal. I’m not sure whether I should be more impressed by his locks or the fact that he’s shaking hands with an action movie star.
MAHJONG AT THE GOLD DRAGON
The noise is loud. Like, really loud. A strange clacking. It’s the only sign that we’re standing out the front of one of Hong Kong’s oldest mahjong parlours. My nanna and I used to play mahjong (a Qing Dynasty tile game) which makes me foolishly believe I have what it takes to enter The Gold Dragon ring. Boy, am I wrong.
These guys know how to play. Watching them is mesmerizing – the constant shuffle, the feeding of tiles. It’s a tabletop dance. We ask if we’re able to film inside, but one of the workers shakes his head. I figure it must be a rule that dates back to the days these parlours were used as meeting grounds for local gangsters and triad society. You know, for when you want your business with a side of mahjong. And a cheeky bitter tea.
DAI PAI DONG AT DINNER TIME
Arguably Hong Kong’s greatest adventure scene is its back alley, open air dai pai dong restaurants. Uniquely Hong Kongese, these traditional eateries once dominated the Kowloon streetscape but are now down to fewer than 25 restaurants. The pace inside is frenetic – in the corner, tattooed Cantonese men play cards; a family of young kids squawk over the last duck breast; a local soap opera blares on the tv; and outside, two half naked men dance over the flames of a red-hot wok.
The style of cooking here is known as the ‘wok hei’ method, which loosely translates to ‘crazy performance art performed by scantily dressed men over intense heat’. Or something like that. It’s a wonder to behold, and a wonder to eat. I particularly love our waiter, who is bare chested beneath his apron, covered in sweat and knows little English outside of “more beer”. But he always comes bearing the deliciousness – fried beef, peppered squid, bbq pork and a side of simmered chicken feet, just for fun.
CRIME & PUNISHMENT AT MAN MO TEMPLE
There’s nothing quite like a temple in the morning; the silence, the peace, the smell of freshly lit incense. And the Man Mo temple is no exception to that travel rule. In fact, it has one of the most interesting temple histories we’ve come across in Asia.
Basically, Man Mo is dedicated to two very, very different gods. One being Man Cheong, the god of literature, and the other Kwan Yu, the god of war. Ever since the 1900s these gods have overseen disputes that couldn’t be solved by British law. A defendant and a plaintiff would stand before the Man Mo committee and make a promise, along with a curse or punishment, and write them on a piece of yellow paper. They would then chop the head off a chicken, drip its blood on the paper and burn it. The locals believed that if the promise was broken, then they’d suffer the punishment written on the parchment. Kind of like self-inflicted karma.
I’d like to tell you that we saw the ghosts of hundreds of headless chooks roaming the temple, but alas we just saw an old guy drop half his pork bun on the altar.
JINNY’S SECRET HERBS & SPICES
Just a few doors down from Mr Sun and his house of reptiles, sits Jinny’s herbal tea store. First established more than 100 years ago by Mr Yeung, Jinny’s doctor grandpop, this tea store is home to some serious third generation brewers. And guess what? The recipe is still the exact same. And Jinny plans on passing the secret brew further down the family line.
Jinny is fun. She’s quick to laugh and quick to pour, both traits I highly admire. As we stand out the front, sipping on the bitter concoction of Chinese herbal medicines, we watch as a string of customers drop by for a cuppa on the run. Jinny tells us that locals come here daily, treating the tea like a detox. It’s meant to expel heat from the body, a novel way of combatting the stick Hong Kong humidity. It’s also good for pimples, she tells me. Note to self.
OH BANYAN, MY BANYAN!
Banyan Trees are amazing. They’re my new favourite tree. Before this, I loved a good Bonsai. But there is something to be said for sitting in the shade of a Banyan tree in the middle of Hong Kong island. These trees are huge and they’re magical and they provide welcome relief from the sweaty midday sun.
If you find yourself in need of a little BnB (Banyan and Breather), head to Blake Garden in the artistic oasis of Sheung Wan. Here, you’ll be able to watch the young kids play soccer from your prime position on one of its cool roots. Banyan trees are also known to represent eternal life in both Hinduism and Buddhism, and according to Dung Kai-Cheung “Banyan trees lock in the souls of the dead, their benign roots driving out putrid vapors so that everything implied by the name “peace mountain” came true”. He was talking about Blake Garden, FYI.