A vegetarian in Hong Kong part 2

When I was reading up about Hong Kong, the best piece of advice I got (in hindsight) was that the best option for vegetarians here is to eat at the specifically vegetarian restaurants. While this is not 100% true, it does make life a lot easier and saves a lot of legwork, menu reading and disappointment. My brother, who’s not a vegetarian but happens to dislike a lot of the more common meat and seafood offerings here, tends to eat mostly Western food (in particular, fast food), which is very common here and does occasionally offer more in the way of a single veggie option on the menu. I don’t eat fast food at home, though and I wouldn’t even go into a McDonald’s to piss in their toilet, so I’ve had to do a bit more research. Frankly, the “research” involved looking at Happy Cow and reading my copy of Lonely Planet Encounters. Considering LP is like the McGuide, I’m actually really impressed with the food choices.

Here’s a rundown of some places I found:

The first dim sum I had was actually at Din Tai Fung a Taiwanese place on Canton road in Kowloon that happened to be the first restaurant for the area in my little Lonely Planet guide. Canton Road is sort of like Fifth Avenue. It’s so packed of expensive stores like Tiffany’s and Armani that even labels like Miu Miu have to be tucked down a side street from there.
The book made the restaurant sound almost like a fast food joint, so we assumed it was further down the road, where things stopped looking so diamond-encrusted, but when we found it, it was in the poshest shiniest shopping centre and each table had 5 different waiters and waitresses looking after it with security-staff-like earphones and an endless supply of water and tea to fill up your glass with as soon as you’ve taken a sip. Not quite the food court we’d envisioned, but we went for it anyway.

Menu

Pick your poison

The menu helpfully has little drawings of the type of thing that went into the dim sum – tiny little brown pigs, shrimp, fish, etc. and little green leaves for me.
There were two different types of veggie dim sum, at least 5 different types of lovely sauteed greens, plus some interesting fried cucumber dish I never got around to trying.
They also had amazing desserts. We flipped a coin to choose between red bean paste buns and taro paste buns. The universe chose taro and the universe is never wrong.
It wasn’t even that expensive, surprisingly, especially considering how much we ate. We also managed to miss the rush. The place gets insanely busy at times and people were queuing up outside the entrance when we left.

Waterflow

Hide your shame!

 

The ladies’ toilet also had this awesome device, which I’m guessing is used to hide your toilet sounds by playing a flushing sound. I thought that was how you flushed, to begin with but only a tinny watery sound came out. Very confusing.

 

 

Fancy a swim? The famous power station beach on Lamma Island

The Bookworm cafe is on Lamma Island, the island known for its pretty beaches and giant power station. There are no cars allowed on the island, just bicycles and these little mini tractor cart things.

There was a big sign advertising it as I left the ferry saying it was purely vegetarian and organic, so obviously I had to try it.
The place is bright and lovely and does have used books for sale in both English and Chinese. Most of the English books are your usual blend of abandoned travel guides and traveler fodder. The food all looked amazing, though I was a bit disappointed that it was mostly Western-inspired stuff. There was a healthy amount of fusion, though, I’m guessing because of the ingredients that are available.

Soba noodle pasta salad

Yummiest salad at the Bookworm Cafe

There are lots of vegan options on the menu, but I went for this “pasta salad” that had feta cheese in it, as well as soba noodles and loads of veg. I had a ginger, honey and lemon tea (memories of Mcleodganj…) and this version also had cloves, which was nice. This was one of the best meals I’ve had in months. Lamma Island was the perfect day out anyway, because it’s sunny and green, but I would actually go back there just to eat at this place again.

Veggie noodles at Po Lin Yuen

The next place I found is  Po Lin Yuen right next door to the building where my yoga place is, which is about 2 minutes from home. It’s some sort of Buddhist place that looks sort of like a worker’s canteen, but with the round tables that seem to be popular even in proper Chinese places at home. It’s super cheap and seems to be into the Chinese equivalent of fake meat dishes (veggie shark fin soup, veggie pig’s intestine dim sum). The food wasn’t the greatest, but there was plenty of it and a huge amount of veg I couldn’t finish. It sort of reminded me of Chinese takeaways at home in London. I brought the rest home and my brother loved it. It’s encouraging to know that we can both eat one dish there and save even more money.

 

Up next – possibly my favourite vegetarian restaurant in the world. It totally deserves its own post.

Sweet city music

Jetlag has some advantages. One of my favourite things to do when I’m in a big city is to listen to the city at night. There’s a point in time when most normal people are alseep, the same point, I assume when most burglaries happen – somewhere between 3:00 and 5:00 AM. If you listen very carefully then, you can hear the sounds the city makes almost of itself. So I lie in bed, or hang out a hotel window and listen to the ambient, industrial soundtrack provided by the city. It’s almost like the city is singing to itself and if I figured out how to interpret what it was saying then I could really get to know it on some sort of extra intimate level. In the past few years, it’s mostly been American cities – San Fran, Seattle, Vegas, LA and even Black Rock City (yeah, it counts) But when I got to Hong Kong and was up at 4:00AM I was taken by how incredibly melodic this city is. I was beginning to think there was someone nearby actually playing music, till I realised it was just my soundscape/ambient noise ready mind that was attributing musical qualities to what I was hearing. There was a certain repetitive hum of some sort of machinery and what sounded like water running through pipes. Then the creaking of trucks and the trams from De Veux road kicked in (it sounds sort of like a whale song).
I’m not even officially jetlagged anymore, but I still seem to be staying up really late every night. Maybe I just want to hear more of the song.

Going underground in Hong Kong part 1 – Hidden Agenda

Hidden Agenda toilet

This is what an underground toilet should look like

Most people I spoke to about Hong Kong before I came here didn’t know much about the underground music scene here. Actually, a few people were quite doubtful as to whether there even was a scene here at all. I was pretty sure there would be, because you don’t get a massive urban area populated by millions of people without at least a modicum of dissent. So the good news is that yes, there is definitely a scene here and from what I’ve seen so far, it’s damn good. The bad news is that the scene is quite small and the truly underground places are facing the same sort of hassle underground places always face all over the world.

Hidden Agenda out in deepest darkest Kowloon Bay is not an easy place to find, even though it’s possibly the most famous underground venue in Hong Kong and a favourite of the local Time Out. It’s going to be even more difficult to find soon, because they have been forced out of their location by the government putting pressure on their landlord. At the end of this month they have to find somewhere else, or cease to exist altogether. Apparently the government is keen to redevelop this dead light industrial area into yet another collection of the massive commercial buildings and identical shopping centres most visitors associate with Hong Kong. It’s the same old story and it’s a real shame, because Hidden Agenda is the sort of genuinely cool, unpretentious, true underground place any city in the world ought to be proud to have.

It operates, without a license (not for lack of trying) out of the 6th floor of a big old Chinese factory building. The street it’s on is pretty much dead on a weekend’s night and lit in that dim sort of way half-deserted industrial places often are. The place is close to two different MTR station and if you choose one of them you get to go through a massive, glitzy shopping centre full of high end designer stores and happy shoppers loaded with shopping bags and tiny little dogs. Then you exit the busy building into a practically deserted industrial wasteland and you’re on your own. When you get to the building, you can hear the music coming from above you, but the door is locked and you can’t get in. Eventually you work out how to get to the back alley, where you can take a big, old service lift (with two sliding manual doors) up to the 6th floor. It takes so long to get up there that you have plenty of time to think about how Angel Heart-esque or David Lynch-like the experience is, especially if you get to share the lift with some of the other curious residents the building has (nobody’s meant to be living there, so what are they even doing here at 10PM on Christmas eve?).
Then you open the lift’s doors and find yourself inside the venue itself, with street art on the walls, loads of stickers everywhere and, of course, well cool underground toilets.

My first visit here was actually what you could call a complete disaster. Following a tip from Time Out’s website about a dubstep party happening there, five of us piled into a taxi and had somewhat of an epic journey trying to get to the venue. It took about an hour, a detour to the wrong MTR (the local tube) station and an angry driver who didn’t let the fact that he was going to get extra money stop him from being pissed off about having been right all along about where it was we needed to go. Throw in some extra comedy in the form of the driver trying to navigate by my Google Maps while I was actually sat behind him (while driving, of course) for good measure. We got dropped off in seemingly the middle of nowhere – a deserted street by a half deserted highway. Then we get there and the party was last week. Oh, but actually there was a really good gig tonight, but it just finished.

At least it gave me the opportunity to speak to the cool (and very apologetic) people who run the place and learn more about it.
I came back for the first of their Relocation events – a few long days and nights of live fundraising events featuring a huge list of local underground acts. They’re hoping to make enough money to be able to afford to rent another place in the area, where they hope to be able to stay a little bit longer before undoubtedly being kicked out again (this is going to be their second relocation in 2 years). I only got to see three or four bands, but they were all remarkably good. It was apparently the metal part of the evening. If you’re wondering how Chinese lends itself to metal then the answer is very well. At least, one assume they sing in Chinese. Metal lyrics are pretty much impossible to figure out no matter what language they’re sung in. These guys, Evocation, were my favourites. Tight guitars, awesome frontman  with a really impressive vocal range and they even do that head banging thing where their hair spins round and round in a circle. This is proper shit.

Evocation at Hidden Agenda

Evocation at Hidden Agenda's Relocation

I really hope this place manages to survive. The world needs more places like this. I’m not sure how people can support them from outside of HK (as in how to give them money without attending next week’s gigs on the 31/12 and 1/1), but talk to me while I’m here if you want me to buy you a T shirt 🙂

A vegetarian in Hong Kong part 1

Oyster advert

Oh darling, you shouldn't have!

I’ve been in Hong Kong for nearly two weeks now and I’m very much liking the place so far, but as expected, being a vegetarian here takes some getting used to. But before I start to rant and whine and end up putting people off visiting, I must say that in real terms, it’s actually very easy to survive as a vegetarian or even a vegan here. I’ve been places like Cuba where there was literally nothing veggie to eat apart from bread and cakes in some places (cue “let them eat cake” joke) and not even fruit and veg to buy to make my own food. Hong Kong is totally not like that. Even if you’re the strictest vegan alive, you’ll be able to feed yourself here, at least if you have a way of cooking for yourself. There are loads of places selling all kinds of fruit and veg and if you can deal with going to a “wet market” and being surrounded by chopped up fish, entrails and god knows whats hanging off hooks you can get good quality produce at much less than you’d pay at a supermarket. You can also get all kinds of tofu in markets and supermarkets everywhere and all supermarkets I’ve seen carry tofu-derived desserts. Beans and pulses are plentiful and there’s a huge variety of stuff, including some I’ve not even heard of. Everywhere has soya milk (a big favourite here) and some supermarkets also carry whole walls full of almond and rice milk. Armed with two Lonely Planet guides ( a standard one and a pocket sized one) and a couple of visits to Happy Cow I’ve even managed to find a relatively large list of veggie restaurants, cafes and organic stores to try. My self-catering vegan friends who are more or less used to cooking for themselves wherever they go will probably think of this as some sort of heaven on earth (you know, apart from the live animals in baskets and cages and aquariums everywhere and the ubiquitous dead animal medicine stores selling bits of endangered species).

Supplements

There are also Kangaroo capsules, in case you're wondering

Of course, for me, it’s actually a big thing when I travel to try out the local food places — the street food, the restaurants without an English name where all the locals go and eat and most Westerners fear to tread — all that stuff that makes me feel like I’m integrating into the culture a little bit more and going beyond my comfort zone. Going to the market and buying stuff is also fun, but I always end up cooking stuff I already know how to cook or looking online for something I feel fits the place I’m in and ending up feeling sort of expatty and pretentious. Not being able to eat out in the real, every day places makes me feel like I’m missing out on a lot of experiences, which I know I am. Considering my last traveled country was India where the veggie options often outnumber the non-veggie ones, this is a major shift.

Hong Kong has a huge foodie culture and eating out at restaurant seems to be a major part of living here. The food here is by all accounts amazing and I can confirm that I’ve already had some really good food here. Unfortunately for me and anyone else veggie, it’s practically impossible to get veggie food anywhere that doesn’t specifically cater to vegetarians. you can forget about going to pretty much all the famous restaurants you may have heard of. No scenic views and quirky adventures for you today! You could go and watch your friends eat or have plain rice and, if you’re lucky, some sauteed greens (which are actually pretty damn nice, but not always available sans dead bits).
The one veggie option rule that’s pretty much the norm nowadays in the UK is practically nonexistent. I passed a place called “just Salad” the other day and checked out the menu for a laugh. Out of 20-25 dishes, only two were vegetarian. Not one of the 10 or so sandwiches was veggie. That’s more or less the level you’re dealing with. If it doesn’t specifically say “vegetarian” on it in big letters, assume it’s got some sort of dead thing hiding in the ingredients somewhere.

Ox gallstones

The streets of sheung Wan are full of these stores

I had fun trying to buy frozen veggie dim sum at the supermarket. I picked out one pack that said “vegetable” (on closer inspection, it had a big picture of a slice of ham next to the veg) and “spinach” (first ingredient: shrimp). I even had to put back the packs of sweet dim sum I picked up because the food allergy warnings told me they might contain traces not only of nuts but also of fish and crustaceans. Yum. I guess if my Cantonese was better than nonexistent (I am working on being able to say “Thank you” and “hello” in a way that doesn’t make people visibly cringe), I could have a better hope of maybe asking some places to make me a dish without anything dead in it. I suspect, though, that even if we spoke to same language, they’d still find it difficult to understand.

Maybe it’s a culture that I’d never quite be able to integrate into. I’m still learning to deal with the fact that real animal fur is everywhere, in every store and on practically half of the winter items of clothing I’ve seen. I think some kinds of fur are obviously cheaper than plastic, which is a pretty dark and menacing thought. Today I saw the first pair of shoes that had the materials marked on them and believe me, I look at a lot of shoes. Those stickers you see on shoes made in China in the West that tell you if it’s leather? I’m guessing that’s added especially for the Western market.

But all is not lost. In my next post I’ll write about all the wonderful veggie things I’ve found in Hong Kong and I am discovering more every day so that might be a pretty long post too.