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One Night in [Mong] Kok…

And I was strongly considering a stint in the monastic life, not so much with making the world my oyster.

This past January, my mum and I were in China for just shy of two weeks, the first and technically, primary stop of our three weeks abroad (truth be told, both of us were shaking with excitement over the little Japan tour that would close out our trip–which I’ll get to, booooooy will I get to that–but don’t tell my grandparents!). Though both of my parents immigrated to the United States over 30 years ago, the lion’s share of our relatives live in China and as with all the sporadic trips my mum’s made in the past (this was only my second time back), it was a whirlwind. From Shenzhen to Zengcheng and half a dozen points in between, it was one night here and two nights there at a cousin/maternal grandmother’s old friend/former classmate/etc.’s place as we made our way through a laundry list of “Need to See” relations. The flurry of stays was punctuated by a parade of restaurant dinners so numerous that Hakka-style pork belly with taro blurred into omnipresent plates of poached chicken and steamed lotus seed buns, the edible onslaught a bok choy green, tea steamed fog in my memory.

We hadn’t even made it to the main event.

After a few days spent hopping from house to house on our way north from Shenzhen, we arrived at my paternal grandparents’ home in Zhencheng, where we’d remain for the rest of our time in China–it was a small comfort to put our feet up for more than 48 hours. There I rekindled my love for the afternoon nap, which may or may not have been the best thing seeing as 50% of the hours I spent conscious involved a) dim sum in the mornings with one or both grandparents, b) dim sum in the early afternoon with my uncle and his wife’s family in the absence of a), c) lunch with one or 14 of my mum’s old classmates, and d) dinner at one of my mum’s old classmates’ houses or at a restaurant with… you know. The first two or three days I was very adamant about playing tetris with our luggage in order to clear space on the floor for some half-hearted crunches and planking on a diagonal, but there was a wedding to consider with two nights of Chinese wedding-level dinners planned and I grudgingly embraced the porcine life.

The wedding. My cousin’s. My dad couldn’t make it because of his work schedule and the bride-to-be was his younger brother’s daughter–a preeetty big deal–so it fell to my mum and I to represent our little stateside piece of the family.

It was a surprisingly sedate few days leading up to the ceremony night, with the only signs of bustle seeming to center around the rapidly growing bags of mandarin oranges filling the house and how many pieces of furniture could be sacrificed to store them all.

Afternoons where I wasn’t otherwise occupied with eating, napping, or regaling my grandparents with everything that had happened in my life since I last saw them (2007) were spent lazing in the living room, sunlight slanting across the floor as I thumbed through Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country with citrus-dyed fingers. Sometimes Grandfather would be slumped in his chair across from me, dozing off to the tune of the 1940s period drama on TV. Time had slowed down to something akin to peace.

A day before the wedding I was introduced to new company: a mother hen and her brood of fried pastries. They’re a local specialty if I remember correctly, like the sesame balls (jian dui) you might be familiar with in taste.

I’ve been to all of three weddings in my life so far, but I suppose I should count myself lucky in that I’ve basically had the sampler platter of the nuptial world; from a more traditional, rolling green lawns and “Canon in D” affair (traditional up to the point where our sizable swing dancing contingent took over the dance floor… just a bit) to the three-day, roast lamb at midnight and fresh doughnuts at dawn marathon of a Moroccan wedding weekend, the bar’s been set pretty high.

There weren’t many surprises when I arrived at the venue that Saturday night. The entire main floor of the restaurant had been rented out for the evening to accommodate the 30+ tables of guests scheduled to arrive. My uncle paced around the room, cutting a comical, but endearing figure in a vest and tie he rarely wore, as he checked that each table had been given a starting spread of mandarins, roasted peanuts, mini sweetheart cakes (lou po beng), and two boxes of cigarettes (I was sorely tempted to stow away the ones at my table, but I settled for commandeering the ashtrays as my peanut shell and orange peel receptacles).

The ceremony itself was remarkably brief. Lit by a massive video montage of their engagement photos projected on the wall behind them, the bride and groom exchanged vows and rings while the emcee stirred the guests into a round of applause, all while the restaurant staff wound through the room setting out the dinner courses. No sooner had they filled their glasses with some bubbly and gone off to toast each table did the scrape of silverware against dishes crescendo into a celebratory din. More plates of Hakka-style pork belly spun past my eyes, jostling for space on the Lazy Susan with steamed vegetables, fish balls, and a lobster atop a bed of pasta (instead of eyes it had small, blinking Christmas lights–there’s a Cthulhu joke here, minus the tentacles, wings, and embodiment of evil bit; it would’ve been an even more memorable occasion if the lobsters starting taking flight, I’m sure).

Not long into dinner, my grandmother took me by the elbow and brought me around to each table of arrived guests, introducing me to more faces than I can keep straight in my head. Faces who bickered (in good fun) loudly at one another over whether I looked more like my mum or my dad (I stand by “neither”); faces who had, in their youth, done alongside my dad what little boys do around rivers when boredom and summer days mingle; faces shelling peanuts and tipping drinks to their lips; faces that were family, even if it was just for one evening and I can’t sort out the exact specifics to save my life.


After China’s endless social engagements and lugging our, frankly, embarrassing number of suitcases in and out of elevators for the better part of 10 days (the forecast said Japan would be chilly and coats and knitwear take up space, I swear! There were also the four books I’d brought to while away the hours in China… and an umbrella… possibly snacks for the tour bus), the three days my mum and I had to ourselves in Hong Kong before our flight to Tokyo on February 7th seemed like a boon. I could use a few days to decompress from the sheer amount of people I’d seen and polite mingling I’d done, and if I saw another overladen Lazy Susan it would be too soon.

But this is Hong Kong we’re talking about and I seemed to have selectively forgotten that food and people, people, people (roughly 7 million across 426 square miles) are its qualities du jour.

Ever since my parents transitioned to their smartphones, they’ve reached remarkable heights of social savviness that I can only dream of ascending to. They’ve found classmates they haven’t spoken to in 30 years, cultivated staggering emoji libraries, and not an evening goes by where I’m not given newborn baby news in real-time as my mum frantically scrambles to take a photo of our sunset skies for her friends in China.

So it was that we found ourselves ambling down Jaffe Road under a canopy of neon lights our first night in Hong Kong to meet an old classmate of my mum’s that she hadn’t seen since middle school, who just so happened to be available while we were there and just so happened to be a restaurant chef.

There was a lull in the customers because of the late hour and we were promptly seated and served tea, only to hurry to our feet a few minutes later when a baritone laugh attached to the solid body and slightly graying hair of a man came jogging out of the kitchen. The Chef clapped a hand on my mum’s shoulder, cheekily noting how she’s ‘just as beautiful as she always was’, before there was another peal of laughter over how unrecognizable he’d become (Mum quickly scrolled through her phone and pulled up a class photo from the 60s–three rows of young, black and white faces looking dour: “Look at this stick of a boy… what happened??”). How would you greet a friend you haven’t seen in decades? Because with a chuckle and a quick word of apology, he disappeared into the kitchen to whip up his restaurant’s greatest hits.

A plate of clams, crock of some kind of fish congee, and pan-fried noodles made their way to our table before The Chef appeared again, swinging a bottle of red wine in one hand and balancing a big ol’ plate of crab in the other; it was their signature dish and blanketed in a potpourri of fried garlic, chili peppers, and shallots (The Chef gave us a jar to bring home), with some torn basil scattered throughout. I had a nibble of half a leg, but my mild shellfish allergy kept me from delving too deeply into that heavily spiced pile.

Deep fried salt and pepper “nine stomach fish” (the literal Cantonese translation–I haven’t the foggiest idea what it’s actually called). I’ve never tasted anything quite like it: mild flavored with only a few small, soft bones, each piece got as close to “melt in my mouth” as fish can get.

Crab-related shrapnel flecked the tablecloth and we were slumping further into the crooks of our elbows with each clam and bite of rice–we had better call it a night. That was when The Chef emerged from the kitchen once more, two steaming bowls in his hands: fatty roast duck piled over greens and slippery noodles. My mum took a bite and not-too-subtly nudged the bowl under my nose. The broth was a bit too salty and oily a nightcap, but some of the leaner cuts of meat were quite tasty.

I spent a good portion of our last morning in Hong Kong scouring the Internet for a suitable HK-style café (cha chaan teng) for breakfast near where we were staying in Sha Tau Kok. There’s an eponymously named Hong Kong Cafe here in L.A. our family likes going to on the odd weekend–milk tea sweetened with a hearty glug of condensed milk, fresh pineapple buns with a slab of butter sandwiched between them, slurping up rice vermicelli in a light chicken broth while literally rubbing elbows with folks you may or may not know–so I had a vague idea of what to expect.

Finding the café took a couple of circles around the residential towers (how were we supposed to know that there was an entire commercial center tucked into the third floor, invisible from the street?), but we were quickly seated at a table for four already occupied by two older gentleman (daap toi: during busy mealtimes, seating customers with strangers saves space and speeds things along for others who are waiting). A throng of schoolboys brushed by in uniform, chattering among themselves as our table partners drank their tea and read the day’s paper in silence.

The tea had a slight bitter note and wasn’t nearly as sweet as what I had become accustomed to at home, but there was a boldness to it that I enjoyed. My meal set came with a chicken and rice dish, while my mum opted for wonton noodle soup.

We took the train to Wong Tai Sin Temple and spent the rest of the morning wandering the grounds there. A row of stalls had sprung up a little ways from the main entrance, boasting displays of incense sticks and every decorative New Year whatchamacallit you can imagine–a wash of red and gold flowering at the foot of monochrome residential towers.

After passing through the main entrance (and rubbing the nose and claws of the dragon statues standing guard, if that’s your style) and taking the stairs on the left, we were greeted by a platform ringed with bronze statues of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac, festooned with bows for the Lunar New Year.

Below: Rat in profile, with the main altar gate in the background
Featured image: Three Saints Hall

Outside the temple–and adjacent to a minibus station with its riot of green, red, and yellow vehicles sputtering by–was a lone corner stand selling freshly roasted chestnuts, quail eggs, and sweet potatoes (or are they yams? I’m still trying to find an easier way around this tuber conundrum!).

Even through the incense on the temple grounds we could smell the faint, smoky sweetness in the air and my nose–as questionable as its olfactory powers now are because of that one cold I had a couple of years ago that may or may not have left some baggage behind when I sent it packing–didn’t need any persuading (that, and no less than four tour buses had pulled up to the temple and we weren’t looking forward to the influx of visitors). A few dollars exchanged hands and that’s the story of how I ended up cradling two paper bags filled with roasted chestnuts and a single, ponderous sweet potato yam–all crackly skin and borderline custardy flesh–in my lap as the minibus we had boarded sped towards Mong Kok.

Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and having only visited HK twice and for a grand total of five days, my insight on the place holds about as much water as the L.A. River. That said, making our staccato way down the streets of Mong Kok, one of the busiest districts in HK (and possibly the world), it felt at times like a caricature of itself. It couldn’t possibly be like it’s popularly portrayed in film, in its two tones of:

  1. Soaring steel and glass and “international glamour”
  2. Dark streets in varying shades of black, the seedy underbelly of a city, the only light it catches the flickering neon god tangled above

But looking around, looking up–at the rabbit warren of buildings clustered without a break above an endless expanse of stores, neon signs jutting out above the street like so many branches off of a concrete trunk (so dense that it’s a wonder the buildings don’t groan and sag outwards from the sheer amount and double-decker buses can pass under without scraping their roofs)–it’s a thought.

We walked around for hours, ducking into towering Langham Place–with its “Xpresscalators” and glass atrium–to polish off the sweet potato we bought earlier. As night fell, and the streets fizzed and popped into a different kind of light, the pedestrian foot traffic only increased and as extremely lively a scene as it was, the whole “being swept off to an isolated convent in the middle of who-knows-where” idea you encounter in literature didn’t seem like much of a punishment. I think I hit my People Quota for the next five years.

One of many street food stalls on Mong Kok’s Dundas Street. From fish-shaped pastries stuffed with ice cream to curried fish balls, egg puffs, grass jelly, and grilled squid tentacles, it’s standing room only most nights under those fluorescent lights.

My mum’s skewer of turkey/pork/etc. offal drizzled in some kind of sweet sauce. It’s an acquired taste that I’ve yet to acquire.


Whew, that was a formidable wall of text and if you made it all the way through thank you so, so much! I’m still trying to finesse my voice for this blog–elegance? wit? a fine balance of both?–and kick my patootie into a more regular posting schedule, but if you’re already on board with whatever I’m doing here, thank you for trusting in this runaway train. As I was typing this, the soy milk I was reheating on the stove boiled over. Very poetic, seeing as most days I feel like that pot of boiling over soy milk, but four posts in and this blog is already proving to be a soothing space for me, even if it took me approximately 15 years to finish this post.

Happy Wednesday!
x

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Filed under: Travels

About the Author

Posted by

Give me a curtain call, a flaky pastry, and put me on the next flight to Somewhere, Anywhere and I couldn't be happier. Heyo! I'm Julia, green tea-drinking extraordinaire and avid muser based in the United States, but always following my nose and my taste buds to the next destination.

7 Comments

  1. Pingback: 14 hours, 6 asleep | Skilly 'n' Duff

    • Oh hush, oh HUSHHHH, Ms. Amazing Colour Wizard! I actually retired my little, beat-up, water-damaged Canon after all these years and got a shiny new Lumix (literally) a week before we left, haha. I had zero time to actually unpack what it’s capable of so my photos continue to be 50% pointing and 50% praying to the Photo Gods. And now I’m putting them all through PS and just tweaking for contrast/exposure/etc.

      Sheer, dumb luck at this point 🙂 BUT the Lumix has an actual “food” setting which is the most beautiful thing.

      Like

  2. Cam

    Do you know what I found most thrilling about this post? The way food plays such a strong role in all (most?) of the different aspects of your life. I mean, everything with the wedding so nicely coming back around to food. Also, that bit about sitting in your grandparents’ place with sunlight streaming through and a book under your fingers and lazing the days away reminded me so fiercely of time at my grandmother’s house and how nice it is. Not really having anything to do. Anyway, that said, how was that book??? Which also sparked another question for me – I know you have a nice little collection of cookbooks – will you ever do any book reviews? (Not necessarily cookbooks, though yes those too, but just books wherein food plays a role. Or travel. Or whatever. I’d read anything of yours, we all know that~)

    Like

    • Cam, as ever, you give me too much credit! I never would have realized the extent to which I circle back to food if you hadn’t pointed it out–it’s just second nature to me at this point? Sure I love trying new things and enjoying a good meal, but food is so much more than a matter of taste, y’know? What resonates with me the most is the stories that go into whatever it is that’s on your plate, the hands and the people involved in making that all happen–it’s all about context.

      Snow Country was excellent! It’s a quick read in the sense that it’s a short novel page-wise, but there’s so much going on emotionally that’s belied by Kawabata’s writing style. It’s a study in isolation and loneliness, but cathartic in its way.

      Yes! I’ve definitely thought about doing cookbook/food and travel-related book reviews, it’s just a question of format?

      Like

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