Whenever we go travelling, food is always at the heart of our experiences, whether it is eating from a food stall with rats running around you or watching a ladies husband using a telephone box as his washing up space. Whilst in Bangkok we managed to combine the amazing floating markets with delicious Thai dishes, so now that we were in Hong Kong, it was time for another tour.
Wanting to get the most out of each experience, as well as value for money when travelling on a budget, we always use review sites to see what companies are ranked highly and then go direct to get more information about the costs. We knew that a Hong Kong food tour was a must so had been looking into the options since Melaka. What we would say is that if you want to do it, book as early as you can. We were surprised to find that quite a few of the best ones were already fully booked for our chosen dates, with the next available tour being after we had left the city. After plenty of searching and some great correspondence with the owner, we managed to book with Big Foot Tours, a small operation that tailor make the tour to your own needs and tastes. We had found that many of the other tours would involve us being in a large group or if we wanted to book a private trip, was completely out of our budget. With Big Foot it was just going to be us and the guide who would take us on an adventure around Hong Kong.
A couple of days before, we were asked to email the company to confirm what we wanted. It didn't have to be a food tour but we planned it so that we could see some of the culture and history of the city combined with foodie treats a long the way. With the alarm clock sounding early, we jumped on the metro, excited to find out what the day had in store for us. Arriving at Central station, we made our way up to ground level to meet Joe, our guide for the day. Due to meet at 10am, we decided to get there a little early to make sure we found the right meeting spot. The tour was supposed to be a 4 hour experience so there was plenty of time to see and eat as much as possible.
Within minutes, Joe had arrived. He was a fantastic guide, a little younger than us but had lived in the UK, studying at Sheffield University, so his knowledge and English was fantastic. One of the best parts about it as he led us through the day was that you didn't feel like you were with a guide, it was more like exploring with a friend as he told us about how he was from the territories and how his family still lived there with his mum an interior designer and his dad in construction. The first place he took us was literally paces away from where we had met. Standing in the heart of the financial district, we got to see the last remaining symbol of the British Empire, a crown on the roof of a building. If it had not had been pointed out to us, we would have never even spotted it. As we stood taking in the architecture, Joe explained how life has been very different over the previous decades, especially since 1997, when the British era ended and China regained it's control. We got to learn how literally the day after the handover, all telephone and letter boxes (apart from 16 post boxes which were painted green so that they could be saved) were removed, iconic symbols of Britain no longer wanted for the changes that would be coming. Many residents when asked 'where abouts in China are you from?' will reply 'I am not from China, I am from Hong Kong', and this perspective really does show the differences which exist in the city. There is much uncertainty as to what the future holds, especially once the 50 year free market economy policy introduced by the British expires and so residents continue to wait and see how life will change once that day arrives.
Moving on, the next lesson we learnt was about the importance of Feng shui and how it is incorporated into every aspect of Hong Kong life. Feng shui translates into 'wind and water' and comes from the ancient beliefs about connecting to the energy of the earth. It is amazing that considering the city is in such short supply of space, architects still adopt and respect those beliefs. One example is that when walking around the city, you will spot buildings which have a hole in the middle of them. Believing that dragons who live in the mountains travel down to the water to bathe and drink means that blocking the path down is actually illegal as it would prevent negative energy from escaping and positive energy from flowing. As skyscrapers become higher and to prevent this from happening, these gaps within the buildings are put in place to allow the dragon to travel through and down to its destination.
Another example of how foreign architects adopt the principles of Hong Kong is by looking at the story of one of the cities most iconic buildings, the home of HSBC. Designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, the team worked hand in hand with a Feng shui master to pinpoint the areas which had the most positive chi for prosperity. Due to the structure being on four stilts, it meant that there was no grounding for the spirits to make contact with the earth and so it was at those points suggested by the master where the now famous escalators were placed. Another way that the architecture was influenced was that do to the open public space at the base of the building, one side was made lower than the other as they did not want the dragon to go underneath, instead, a glass roof was constructed so that the spirits could travel down and through the centre of the building, promoting positive energy and in turn, hopefully, economic success.
Whilst we were in the financial district, Joe also showed us the Lippo building. Owned by an Australian, the shape of the building is made to look like Koala bears scaling the outside, I never would have noticed that. The next building was owned by the 7th richest man in the world. Apparently, on the top of his building there is an infinity pool which he swims in and gives him a panoramic view across the city in which he built one in seven of the buildings, crazy! I hope i'm not boring you with any of this but it was fascinating hearing about the legends that exist and it showed us that without the tour, we would have left Hong Kong without seeing it's true heart and people.
One last little snippet on the Feng Shui front and possibly, the most controversial concerns the construction of the Bank of China. The building known as the butchers knife by locals is the complete opposite of the principles of Feng shui. It's sharp knife like edges and crosses are just some examples of the negative aspects of this landmark. Within the city, there is a long running argument of superstition versus public opinion. During the process of getting planning permission, the Singaporian architect in charge would not budge literally one inch on the location for the building, arguing that it had to be that specific spot. Seeing the final building complete, residents noticed that the sharp edges creating negative Feng shui were positioned directly towards the British built HSBC and Australian Lippo buildings, with many believing it was a statement depicting that their time would soon be up. The other main conspiracy revolves around the top of the Bank of China. Each morning at sunrise, the angle of the light which hits the points of the building form a shadow which resembles the tip of a dagger and where should that dapper land every single morning, but on top of the governors house. Of course, it depends on your beliefs and whether you would opt for superstition rather than public opinion but it was so interesting to hear that ever since this shadow was formed, every single governor has refused to live in the house, even the current one and even though China says it is nonsense, he still chooses to listen to residents opinions rather than his governments. Wow and all of that was just in the first half and hour of the tour.
After a very educational start to the tour, it was then time to turn to the foodie part, hurray. Walking down one of the main roads, we passed designer names like Prada and Luis Vitton, so it was a real surprise after a quick turn down a side street to find that behind all of those designer names, was actually home to some of Hong Kong's best food markets and the stalls where locals crowded to eat congee and many other dishes every morning. One thing we soon noticed after Joe had pointed it out to us was that Hong Kong's markets were very different to others we had visited. Often when wandering around markets, you have to contend with strange smells, many really bad but here there was nothing. He put it down to the strict monitoring that goes on within the stalls. Vendors are constantly monitored for their practices to make sure everything is clean and legal and this process if done by 5-6 officers in charge of the area. Walking past the fish stalls, Joe told us how freshness was key to the people that shop at the markets. To show how fresh the fish was, the fishmongers left the bladders in the fish. Looking closely, we could still see it moving, maybe not something to visit if you are squimish but really good if you are into learning about other food cultures.
Similar kinds of methods were used at the butchers. Here, every part of the animal was put on display. In Hong Kong, it is a sign that they are a very skilled butcher as they had been able to prepare every part of the animal, it is also seen as a sign of respect for the animal giving up it's life. Continuing to wander around the vendors, we got to see such fresh looking vegetables and fruit as well as hearing some of Joes stories about visiting the market with his grandmother as a child. When visiting different countries, you will notice that different parts of animals are delicases. In Hong Kong, chicken feet are quite common. When Joe went with his Grandmother she taught him how to find a healthy chicken. They would always be alive and the first thing would be to check it's feet. Then you would make sure that it had healthy feathers and then finish going over the head and back. If you were happy, the next thing was that you would hand the chicken back to the butcher and he would hold a knife to it's throat. He would ask, 'do you want me to kill this chicken?'. You could not just reply with a yes or similar answer, you had to give a reply of 'yes, I want you to', as it was a sign that you accepted moral responsibility for the animals death. Again, this really showed the cultural differences that exist throughout the world and it was a really informative experience to add to our time in the city.
Well, after a complete information overload, it was time for us to try our first meal of the day. Joe took us a short distance into the market and to a small shop that had all different kinds of roast meet hanging in the window. We were the only ones in, but greeted warmly by the owner. His wife spoke little English and seemed fascinated by our video camera which was on the table. To feed her curiosity we let her have a look and a giggle as she tried to work out what to do with it. Inside, a huge pig carcass hung ready to be put into the roaster. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to go into the back and see the process but the bbq pork, roast duck and goose with rice were delicious. It is a common sight to see people just spitting the bones out onto the table and we were invited to follow the same custom, but I just couldn't do it, it must be the lady-like side of me. Knowing that we had plenty of food to come, we didn't finish it all as we wanted to leave room for the next stops along the tour. During the booking process, we had emailed the company the types of food we wanted to try and with this in mind, they had tailor made the tour so that we got to try the dishes at the best places they knew.
A few steps away, Joe asked if we wanted to try a milk tea. Grabbing one to share, the little shop selling it was bustling with locals as we stood at the kiosk waiting for ours to be prepared. It was quite an unusual taste and Az wasn't a fan but it is really popular in Hong Kong, just not for us. As we wandered around the streets we noticed how so much construction continues to happen in the city. A sight that seemed really strange to us was the scaffolding that they use, even on the tallest of high rises, it is made of bamboo. With Joe's dad working in construction, he explained how strong and secure it is as a structure and even though the poles look like they are tied together with string, the knots used prevent it moving under any condition, maybe we should try it over here! Next on our nibbles list was to try some street snacks. Making our way along the different stalls our first bite was an octopus skewer with a hot mustard sauce, I am sorry to say, it definitely wasn't for me, followed by a fish ball skewer, a common snack amongst locals, but again not a favourite. One of the best things about a walking tour though is that it gives you the chance to try everything, even if only once.
Now, we had heard that snake soup was a delicacy and even though the thought may be horrible, was intrigued enough to take Joe up on his offer of taking us to a snake restaurant. Wandering down a street, we didn't even realise we were there until suddenly we stopped wondering what this small group of people we watching, it was a snake on the owners desk. Entering to grab a table, it didn't even feel like a restaurant, more like you were sat in someone's office as we were surrounded by tall cabinets made up of wooden draws, these in fact were all full of live snakes. The inside of the place reminded me a little of the wand shop from Harry Potter with it's aged and mysterious feel, Az even had a sneaky peek in the back where the snakes were in baskets ready to be prepared. Unsure of what we would make of it, we just ordered one to share. As the main event arrived, it came in a small bowl with some herbs on the side and what were similar to little crispy crackers (reminded us a little of prawn crackers). Letting Az go first (I know I'm a wimp, it was not like it was going to turn back into the whole snake) it was soon my turn. In appearance it looked similar to mushroom soup but to taste was more like chicken with a gluey texture. Some snake soup restaurants used only poisonous ones and luckily we made it out alive, in one piece with no unexpected visits from Mister Slither!
One thing that became more apparent throughout the tour is how locals truly believe in listening to their bodies and this is a huge determining factor when it comes to the food and drink they consume. Hot teas and certain foods are eaten to increase the bodies temperature if felling unwell or if it is a cold season and this is also linked to the herbal remedies and goods they buy from the abundance of Chinese medicine shops that can be found within the city. Before we reached that part of the tour, we were taken to a herbal tea shop. A friendly lady greeted us at the counter where we stood and observed the different kinds of tea on offer. Again, depending on how you were feeling and what you wanted to get out of the drink e.g. energy or a restful nights sleep, depended on the one you were given. In front of us was a selection of small bowls, eat filled with different teas. Many locals come and grab a cup before or during work and whilst we were stood there deciding, a man came, ordered and had drunk it before we were even ready. The smell coming from the shop was quite unique and we were told that when drinking it, not to think about the smell but focus on the taste. It was actually a lot nicer than we expected and obviously is a key to many peoples healthy lifestyles in Hong Kong.
One of the great things about the city is how you experience different communities and lifestyles with every turn you make. Taking us to where he grew up, Joe started to teach us more about what it is like living in the city. The cost of accommodation is so high that even the run down tower blocks that can be found flanking the most sparkling of skyscrapers will still cost the owner a ridiculous amount of money. Within the base of these tower blocks were small parks and recreational areas, with many geared up to provide facilities for the elderly, which is something a lot of countries could learn from. Exercise areas were set up as well as reflexology parks. When you first see it, it just looks like a lot of stones set into the ground but after a demonstration from Joe and Az giving it a go saw that it was actually a real skill. The trick is to take off your shoes and walk around the path so that it is touching the pressure points on you feet. At first Joe really struggled but explained that after weeks of practice he now each morning comes down before work and does 25 minutes on it. The majority of people that use it are the elderly and he said the stories he gets to share with them and the energy he gets from doing the reflexology has really improved his life, again it was another moment when you got a glimpse into other peoples beliefs and experiences.
Walking past groups of old men playing chess and cards, a sad thing to hear was that in order to survive, one in three of the cities pensioners have to go around and collect items they think they can recycle for money. It is the only way they can support themselves and get money for food and shelter, it just made you wish there was more help for those that were in need. One thing I have to admit to is that I judged a book by its cover at one point during the tour. Walking down some stairs, we spotted a man lying in a sleeping bag on a makeshift bunk. Making the usual assumption that he was homeless, I was really surprised to hear that he wasn't and in fact he was a shift worker. Apparently, for the amount of time they have off in between their shifts, there is not enough time to get home, so instead they set up a little area where they can get some sleep before it is time to return to work.
A must on the tour was to try some of the cities dim sum. Joe knew the perfect place, within a building on one of the main streets in the city. From the outside, it just looked like an office building, but after squashing into the lift with a hoard of other people that knew about this hidden gem, the doors burst open to reveal a massive room, similar to a dinner hall, packed full of people enjoying lots of dishes. Apparently, the place was that big that there was another identical floor above us and just as busy. Finding a table, we started the usual tradition of having some tea and washing the bowls and crockery before eating. Whilst we finished doing that, Joe went in search of the traditional trolleys that were being pushed around the room. As we started tucking into things like turnip cakes, dumplings of all varieties and a different kind of fish ball, he kept vanishing and ended up on the next floor raiding those trollies as well. The one thing I have forgot to mention about the tour is that you have to pay for the food you eat as well, it was not included like the one we did in Thailand, so you get to monitor how much you spend depending on the number of dishes you try. Joe brings tourists here that often that he is so well known he now calls the boss, dad. The best dim sum he found us were called bbq pork puffs and they were amazing, the best thing all day. Considering the tour was only supposed to last four hours, we were nearing the end of our time but it didn't seem to bother Joe and he continued to show us around the city. We jumped on a traditional wooden tram to get to the Chinese medicine streets and what they call ghost shops. This is where locals come to buy incense sticks, candles and items which they use to celebrate the life of someone that has died. At these shops they have what look like paper lanterns in the shapes of anything you can imagine whether it be a T.V. McDonalds meal, house, car etc. People come and buy something that resembles a favourite thing of their loved one and it gets burnt as a tribute to their spirit and memory.
Walking past the medicine shops, we had to be careful when we were taking photos as some shop owners were a little sensitive regarding the items they sold. Shark fins are a very lucrative business. It is not uncommon to wander down a street and see trays of them drying out in the street. Another animal product used often are fish bladders. Again we saw piles of them drying out in the street alongside the hustle and bustle of everyday life. People can pay $700 (£55) just for one piece, the higher the quality, the more they are prepared to pay and then it is boiled and put in soup. To improve his knowledge of Chinese medicine for his tours, Joe actually visits a particular shop quite often where he teaches the family English in exchange for lessons in medicine. They seemed lovely people as we saw the different kinds of things they sold, many we didn't have a clue what they were but others such as sea horses we recognised.
Now that we are completely addicted to egg tarts, we got to go to a shop that Joe has been visiting ever since he was a child. Unable to resist the temptation, there was no way we were sharing this one so grabbed one each, heaven. To finish off the tour there was one last dish that Az had been hoping to find ever since we set off and had not managed to try some yet, sesame dumplings in ginger soup. We were given a couple of options of places to try it but Joe said that if we didn't mind jumping on the metro, he would take us to the best one he knew, just around the corner from his house. Travelling down to Fortress Hill, we got to briefly see more of local life. The dessert soup shop was just steps away from the station, tucked under a stair case and was actually really quiet. It is at night that this place comes alive and spills out onto the street with locals trying to get a bowl of this tasty dish. Ordering us a selection, it came in a glass bowl filled with a clear ginger syrup/ soup. Floating on top were six round dumplings. Thinking there were all sesame, we were surprised to get a couple of peanut ones but each was like a paste inside. They were so tasty but really rich and it is definitely something to share, so good. Absolutely popping, we grabbed a few tips from Joe about where else we should visit in the city for the rest of our stay. It was then time to say bye to not our guide but an encyclopaedia of knowledge and foodie secrets, a great day and a fantastic company to do a tour with.
By Aaron Watson & Helen Whitter