Riding Escalators in Hong Kong

DSC_1583Hong Kong is awesome for people watching. You get a little of everything. Merchants and businessmen, international students, fashion models, expat teachers, wealthy retirees from all over the world, travelers and locals all moving about in a hurried, jumbled frenzy, in a mega city of just over 7 million.

Being the nosey person that I am, I hold a special affinity for good people watching. You’ll see someone and think “what the hell are they doing?” or “I wonder where they’re from” or “Damn, that lady has some fucked up teeth.” It’s wholesome fun for the curious soul.

If Hong Kong is the best place for people watching in the world, then the Central-Mid-Level escalators are its raison d’être. This series of covered escalators and moving walkways spans over 2600 ft. and climbs a height of nearly 450 ft. up Victoria’s peak–connecting the Central  business district to Mid-Levels, a tiered maze of high rise apartment buildings resembling Manhattan or Tokyo. The system carries an estimated 60,000 passengers per day.

I’d first read about the elevators while planning our previous trip to Hong Kong. They brought up images of 10-year-old me racing my brother up an escalator in the wrong direction or dance-walking at the entrance, before the conveyor belt turns into a step (yes, I was THAT kid.). Not that I planned on doing the same in Hong Kong, but I could. The escalators are included on many Hong Kong to-do lists, but few go beyond mentioning them as a “free” and “if-you-have-time” activity.

I viewed the Central-Mid-Level escalators in the fuck-yeah-I-wanna-do-it activity and let it be known that I wasn’t leaving Hong Kong until I saw them firsthand. This is even before I knew they had Guinness World Record status as the longest series of escalators in the world.

We’d reach a point in the day when a decision on what to do next had to be made and I’d float the idea of swinging by the escalators. My suggestions weren’t exactly met with enthusiasm, and I realize that a grown man excited about riding escalators is probably repulsive, but you needn’t be seeking cheap thrills to enjoy the Central-Mid-Levels. For one, the route (from Queens Road in Central to Conduit Road in Mid Levels) is lined with chill  bars and restaurants carved into buildings just out of arms reach from the escalators. Seating is outward facing so you can sip a cocktail or glass of wine while watching a never ending conveyor belt of people glide by–a sophisticated real life version of The Jetsons. Some establishments even place thigh high wooden tables in the walkway parallel to the elevators. The message: no need to sit;  just stop and have a drink. Brilliant.

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Hop off the escalators on Hollywood Road and peruse the nearby antique shops and art galleries. If you visit within the next couple of months, you can swing about the Graham Street wet market (Gage St. exit) for good photos and traditional seafood. Sadly market vendors may be closing down for the last time in March as the 170 year-old market will be demolished to make way for more high-rises. If you miss out on the Graham Street Market  you can still find a few vendors in the alleys and lanes around Wellington Street.

We make it to the escalators after a morning spent recovering from a night out in Lwan Kwai Fong and an afternoon at Chunking Mansion with its mob of Indian restaurant owners. We have time to kill before we need to meet up with friends in Mong Kok. I figure we’ll ride the escalators to the top and make our way back down on foot stopping for a drink or two and maybe checking out some antique shops, then catch the famous Star Ferry Back to Kowloon.  It’s 3:30 and theres a steady stream of people headed up, but it’s no too crowded; mostly tourists ascending through the narrow column of shop windows and loudly colored signs.

And the people watching is stellar.

On Shelly street two guys are exiting the elevator barefoot, wearing nothing but board shorts and carrying surfboards (still tethered to their ankles). My guess is that their were coming from nearby Big Wave Bay, but they could have at least put a damn shirt on.

There’s a guy jogging down the stairs in workout clothes near Cain Road. Helluva place to go for a run, buddy.

We decide to grab window seats at a small bar just as happy hour starts. People begin to pour off the escalators and onto bar stools and curbside chairs near tables that are just big enough to fit two drinks. It gets darker and Hong Kong’s iconic skyline begins to glow. A group of twenty-somethings is talking loudly behind us, two business men have beers at standing-only tables on the sidewalk and my Stoli martini is arctic cold. I take out my phone to snap an Instagram, then abort plan.

Another bar just down the hill has modestly priced mojitos and front row seats to the escalator. We give up on the idea of visiting antique shops. Cold drinks in the in the shade of skyscrapers is a powerful weapons against Hong Kong’s summer time heat.  I’m pissed we that we have to meet up with friends in an hour.

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There’s a family held up on the steps across from us. Mom has a glass of white wine, dad looks to be two or three beers in and their baby is happily kicking away time in it’s stroller.I contemplate riding out the rest of happy hour bar-hopping our way back down to Central. If only the drinks were a little cheaper.

The area isn’t as rambunctious as Wan Chai or Lwan Kwai Fong, but I was happy to take it easy and after a day of poking around the city.

My suggestion for the Mid-Levels: Do all your sightseeing and market scavenging early in the day then hit up the escalators in the evening (your feet will thank you).

Have a drink, people-watch the weirdos, grab dinner in SoHo (the area south of Hollywood road) and plan the rest of your night.

*Budget Tip: Drinks and food can get expensive. Swing by a 7-11 to grab snacks and libations, then park it on the large steps by Shelly street, just opposite Yorkshire Pudding. All the fun for half the price. For cheap(er) food options check the small alleys around the escalator exits and entrances or hit up the smaller concentration of bars and restaurants between Elign Street and Cain Road.

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How to get there:
Central MRT stop exit E2.

Keep in mind that the escalators only run uphill from 10:15 to 12:00 AM. If you’re too tipsy to make it back down via the stairs, Take the Green Minibus back to Central from Conduit road near the escalator exit or grab a taxi.

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Hong Kong Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan

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Tim Ho Wan--Taken after the lunch rush.

Tim Ho Wan–Taken after the lunch rush.

Ask an Asian cuisine foodie about dim sum and you’ll most likely see their eyes roll back in their head while they fire off a series of odd sounding food descriptions, making it seem as if dim sum is the best food on the planet that you should never try.

Google “dim sum in Hong Kong” you’re likely to find more information than you care to sift through on where to find the “best” and “most authentic” dim sum in arguably one of the best culinary countries in the world.

Enjoying a quality dim sum meal was certainly high on the to-do list when I visited Hong Kong for the first time last month, but not enough to sift through thousands of google hits and restaurant reviews to find the “best” one.

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Lunchtime host.

When the time comes to choose restaurant, I pick the closest place to our Airbnb room in Mong Kok: Tim Ho Wan. It’s earned a Michelin star and has received praise from food bloggers all over the interweb so I’m confident it won’t be a blank mission.

The restaurant is easy to find. We hop off the subway and stroll through a small street market and quiet neighborhood to get there.

It doesn’t look like much; sporting a boring green and white sign over a humble entryway with a few plastic stools. If it wasn’t for the group of 20 or so people waiting outside and the host shouting out numbers over a microphone, we might’ve walked right past it.

We give the host our name and snag an all-Chinese menu. I stare at it for a moment pretending to understand what I’m looking at before trying to sneak a peek at the people around me to see what they are ordering (a method I employ often but seldom have success with). When this fails I resort to comparing the Chinese characters on the menu to those on a few photos of a newspaper article the restaurant staff has hung in the entryway.  None of this matters because 20 minutes later we’re seated inside and given two menus printed in perfect English.

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As expected, the restaurant is packed tight and what little space is provided for walking is dominated by servers shouldering large trays of food stuff. As with the outside, the interior is nothing special–a simple black and white decor with little to no wall decorations and a glass case holding various awards. The cacophony of clanging tea kettles and plastic chopsticks might piss me off anywhere else, but here it’s shrugged off a necessary component of a popular restaurant. Also, I’m too hungry to care.

We’re seated next to a woman and her tween daughter who’s shoulder deep into her smartphone. Mom kindly instructs us to rinse our cups, chopsticks and bowls with hot tea before using them. Her daughter looks up for  moment to survey our work, then returns to Candy Crush Saga. We’re then told (through hang gestures and thumb ups) that we should order the baked pork buns.

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Rinse your dishes in tea and you’re good to go.

We tick seven different dishes on the menu (including the baked buns) knowing it would be too much but wanting to sample as much as possible.

The top favorites include steamed shrimp and pork dumplings (shu mai), steamed beef balls wrapped in bean curd and the steamed vermicelli rolls stuffed with beef (the version with BBQ pork seems to be more popular, however.

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Beef balls wrapped in bean curd.

The steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce and “Chiu Chow Style” dumplings were middle-of-the pack favorites but more than warranted a spot on our tiny table–save the slippery nature of the spare ribs which nearly caused me to shoot one into the lap of the woman sitting next to me.

I probably would have enjoyed the glutinous rice dumplings more if I wasn’t already stuffed by the time they came out, but I still had enough room to polish off some of the grilled pork inside.

The baked pork buns (char siu bao) recommendation holds up because it’s perhaps the best item on the menu; flakey and slightly sweet on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside, oozing with tender pork and a BBQ sauce that is nothing like you’d expect to find in this part of the world.

I was tempted to grab six for the road.

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Baked pork buns, vermicelli rolls stuffed with beef and a single “Chieu Chow” style dumpling.

By the time we are finished the restaurant has cleared out a little and we thank the the woman and her daughter for their recommendation. The entire bill runs us 129 Hong Kong dollars (about $17 USD).

Michelin quality food for less than twenty bucks.

Boom.

*Authors note

Tim Ho Wan has several locations. We Visited the Fuk Wing Street location on Kowloon:

G/F, 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon
九龍深水埗福榮街9-11號地下
8:00-22:00

Take the Tsuen Wan (red) subway line north to Sham Sui Po. Walk straight out of exit B2 and you’ll be on Pei Ho St. Walk through the market and take a right on Fuk Wing. It’s four blocks down on the right, just before Fuk Wing meets Tai Po.

Hong Kong Yam Cha has a complete list of Tim Ho Wan Hong Kong locations

What the Duck?

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Kaohsiung’s massive rubber ducky at night.

Last weekend I wanted to check out a Cafe near Kaohsiung’s Sihziwan bay, but plans had to be aborted.

The streets near our apartment were impassably clogged with vehicles containing people hell bent on seeing the 60 ft. yellow duck floating in Kaohsiung Harbor.

The duck is the work of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who has exhibited different versions of the childhood favorite in several countries around the world. In 2009 it was on display in Osaka Japan and it caught the attention of Kaohsiung city government officials including Mayor Chen Chu who–after hearing the duck would make a showing in Hong Kong–sent Hoffman a letter to persuade him to bring his duck to Kaohsiung.

You needn’t only search to hashtag, #rubberducky to see that the duck has been well received in the countries that it has visited, but Kaohsiung has gone absolutely crazy over this thing.

The duck was officially unveiled on September 19, as Typhoon Usagi was expected to hit southern Taiwan. The typhoon barely dusted Kaohsiung City and more than half a million people showed in the first week to get a glimpse of the floating giant.

500,000 people.

What exactly is the cultural relevance of a rubber duck? Remember Ernie from Sesame Street? He proclaimed his love for a rubber duck while taking a bath and the yellow fowl instantly became the symbol for bath time, but I doubt Hofman is taking his duck around the word in an effort to promote global hygiene. Do they even watch Sesame Street in the Netherlands?

Since the beginning of September everyone’s been looking to get their share of the $30 million in revenue the duck is estimated to bring in. Every 7-11 in Kaohsiung is selling small replica ducks and duck cups and duck hats and duck pens.  Bars and restaurants have put up duck decorations and have begun selling duck memorabilia, and some places have added duck inspired items to their menus.  The city has begun selling taxi tours that take in all of Kaohsiung’s sites before stopping to check out the yellow beast. Vendors near the pier sell  balloons, hats and other duck inspired souvenirs. Even the guy who usually sells peanuts in front of our apartment building has suspended his nut sales and is now offering 4-packs of miniature rubber ducks. It’s not the authorized merchandise you’ll find on the duck’s official website, but it doesn’t seem to have affected his sales.

Duck inspired birthday cake.

Duck inspired birthday cake.

Hoffman says his duck is meant to spread happiness around the world, but a comment he made for the Associated Press makes me question if he has other motives as well:

“This big rubber duck in your harbor, in Kaohsiung in this case, changes Kaohsiung. And it changes also your fantasy and your brain. And it’s a piece of art.”

My hope is that this is nothing more that artist jibberish, otherwise it sounds like Hofman is trying to induce all of Kaohsiung with a psychedelic animal fetish.

Whatever his intentions, some Taiwanese have wasted no time in comparing their duck with one currently on display in Beijing–also created by Hofman. Duck fetish or not, he may have just helped Taiwan stick it to China.

Taiwan’s duck is not only taller than the one in China (and second biggest in the world), but event workers in Kaohsiung have figured out a way to inflate their bird in a fraction of the time that it normally takes. In China visitors must pay to gaze at their duck whereas here in Kaohsiung it’s free of charge 24 hours a day. Both ducks had test runs before their official debuts, but the duck in China had a hard time staying inflated during it’s opening week.  Taiwan: 3. China: 0. Just saying.

It’s easy to poke fun at this for all of it’s whatthefuckery. Having a 60 ft. rubber duck parked in your harbor is certainly newsworthy, but is it really worth the hype? Is it worth battling the crowd and the heat to see a freakishly large piece of pop art? Can this even be considered art, given the amount of commercialism it’s drenched in? Are the aesthetics lost in a sea of cellphone photos and duck balloons?

Honestly I don’t know that any of these questions matter. The duck is a hit in Kaohsiung for the same reason that selfie foam art would’ve been a hit had it came to fruition: Taiwan is fascinated with displays of the quirky and strange, and if i there’s a line to view or partake in an weird spectacle, it only solidifies it’s legitimacy. That’s not a slam. If anything, Kaohsiung has turned it’s love for the odd into real dollars for the city. They can’t sell the official merchandise fast enough. On the duck’s website some items are completely sold out while others are waiting to be restocked. People have come from out of town to see the duck, so Kaohsiung hotels see a surge during it’s run.

Duck crazed tourist have an opportunity to take in other nearby sites as well. Glory Pier–where the duck is stationed–is a short walk or bike ride down one of the city’s bicycle/pedestrian-only paths to the Pier 2 art district. Go a bit further and you’ll reach Sihziwan bay and the beach. Go north along the Love river and there’s plenty of riverside parks and cafes to check out.

Clearly Kaohsiung has gone bonkers over this giant yellow duck, but at least the city has put itself in a position where it can benefit from the craze as much as possible. Really, Typhoon Usagi did nothing but help launch the duck to superstar status when it prompted event officials to suspend the exhibit for two days. A little drama just makes the fans love you even more.

The duck will remain in Kaohsiung until October 20, before heading to Taoyuan (10/26- 11/10) and Keelung (from 12/21). Should you want to see it in Kaohsiung head down to Glory Pier at night when there’s less of a crowd. There’s lights on the duck until midnight so photos are still possible.

Check out the Yellow Duck website for more info (Chinese and English) including a map with the location of Glory Pier.