Saturday, April 7, 2007

Hong Kong / Macau / Shenzhen

Bamboo clams, HK. It's amazing what people eat. Someone said "Ew, it looks like a penis!"

I hope no one ever tells me, "Ew, it looks like a bamboo clam!"

When cooked in black bean sauce. Looks marginally more appetising.

Feasting at "Under Bridge Spicy Crab" Restaurant. Can you tell who had too much to drink at the rugby?

Weird Chinese food
In the global food chain, the Chinese function as the top predator, since they are famed for their penchant for eating anything. Like any other great cuisine, Chinese culture has its share of bizarre foods. Examples are durian (a SE Asian fruit that tastes and smells like a mango marinated in raw sewage), jelly made from seaweed (very nice actually), salted dried plums (take a perfectly good dried plum and then cake it with salt - urghh), and "fragrant meat" which is a pleasant euphemism for dog meat.

Then there is the century egg. All the Chinese folks I know seem to like this. I think its one of the most horrid foods I've ever tasted. For those who don't know, you make it by taking an egg and burying it in some combination of minerals for a long time, until the white of the egg turns black and translucent, and the yolk becomes mushy and greenish grey. The taste is not quite as bad as it looks, but the texture is ghastly.

The new thing to try on this trip was chao do fu, which translates as "stinky bean curd". It's the Chinese equivalent of blue cheese, made by leaving a block of tofu lying around until it reaches the desired level of stinkiness, then deep fry it and add salt. The smell can best be described as a disgusting cross between smelly feet and garbage. Surprisingly it doesn't taste too bad, not too different from regular deep-fried tofu. Which then begs the question, why not just eat regular deep-fried tofu?
The unmistakable rank odour of chao do fu can be found on many street corners in Mongkok, where we have been staying. If you eat it, be warned that this odour will follow you around for a while, as it attaches itself to your hands and face. Ew.

Another thing Hongkies like to do is take various foods that shouldn't go together, and combine them to see what happens. Andi ate a dessert which consisted of seaweed jelly, mango pulp and glutinous rice-flour dumplings stuffed with icecream. All good things individually, but didn't make much sense when served up together in one bowl. At the same place I ate a thick sweet soup made of pulverised cashew nuts, while Carissa ate cold rice noodles with mango puree and pieces. Not too bad either, but it adds to the suspicion I have that Chinese chefs just spin a wheel to decide which random ingredients they are going to combine in each dish.
Oh, and only the Hongkies would invent Lemon-Yoghurt flavoured Mentos.

Cooked papaya filled with sweet milk, Shenzhen. Interesting.

Deep fried hedgehog. Or fried custard buns, I can't remember.

Only the Chinese would make a delicacy out of "bird's nest", which is basically the saliva of a species of SE Asian cave swiflet. Or turtle jelly.Or frog jelly, which you can have with coconut cream and mango in a popular HK dessert chain. The main appeal of many of these products, dog meat included, is their alleged ability to increase sexual potency. This quest for sex-god status is also one of the driving factors behind the extinction of many animal species - tiger's penis and rhino horn are also considered aphrodisiacs. No wonder there are more than a billion Chinese - to quote the late Richard Pryor, "Somebody in China's doin' some serious f*ckin!"

And speaking of which, there are quite a few hotels that charge by the hour in Mongkok. Which I don't understand; it seems ridiculously expensive to pay an hour's rate for something you can easily accomplish in 3 and a half minutes...

From a Malay/Viet restaurant in Macau. For those who like their crap on the spicy side.

Maid in Hong Kong
6 days a week, HK is a city populated by Chinese, with a few gwai lo ("white ghost" - Westerners) and hak gwai ("black ghost" - Africans and South Asians) scattered into the mix. Then on Sunday, something odd happens - the city is invaded by an army of South East Asian women. These are the Filipino and Indonesian maids who do HK's household chores. Sunday is their day off, and they congregate in little groups all over the city, sitting on mats playing cards, chatting and eating. Then on Monday they are gone from sight again, back washing dishes and cleaning floors.

Public Transport
HK's public transport system is fantastic. In comparison, Melbourne's MET network is a steaming pile of poo. HK's trains are spotless, fast, run every few minutes, and are cheap and user-friendly. The smartcard ticketing system is fabulous. It boggles the mind how Australian governments have managed to ignore such an efficient system.
This sign was seen on a train wall: "Show you have a loving heart. Offer your seat to someone in need." Nice.

Lantau Island

A lost scene from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".

Me with the Buddha.

(The Buddha is the one at the back.)

Macau and its Tarts
Macau is what HK would look like if the Portuguese had ruled it rather than the British. Now back under the control of China, it has the same level of autonomy as HK, a country within a country. But Macau is a more thoroughly Chinese place than is HK. All the street signs may be in Portuguese, which is still one of the official languages along with Mandarin, but the only people who speak it are the 5% Portuguese minority, and Cantonese is the language most widely spoken.
Possibly the best thing ever to come out of Macau are its Portuguese egg-tarts. I ate about 8 over 3 days. Haven't been to Portugal, but its hard to imagine they make them any better than the ones we had.

Macau is a city of 2 faces. On one hand it is a city with a charming colonial heritage and unique cultural fusion. On the other hand, it is the Las Vegas of Asia, with the tacky glitz of casinos popping up everywhere, an economy driven almost entirely by gambling. And where there is gambling there is inevitably sleaze, with most casinos providing a "sauna" service which seemingly offers a whole lot more than the sauna at your local swimming pool.

Macau's Grande Lisboa casino complex has a corridor that runs in a circle linking the casino, hotel and various restaurants. This corridor is the haunt of the local call-girls. The law prohibits them from staying in one place, as this would be solicitation, meaning they have to keep on the move. So upon entering the hallway, the visitor is confronted by the odd sight of some stunning well-dressed women doing laps of the complex. At first I thought they were all on their way to a function, but they just kept on reappearing, going round and round. Thus this part of the complex has earned the name "The Racetrack", or "The Chicken Walk."

It is well known that Chinese are fond of the number 8, as when pronounced it sounds similar to the word for fortune or prosperity (fatt). Similarly the number 4 is avoided as it sounds to similar to the word for death (sei). In some circles, the number 168 has a special significance. When pronounced in Cantonese this number sounds very similar to the phrase "the road to good fortune" (yat look fatt). Which is innocent enough so far, but "the road to good fortune" is also a euphemism for "happy ending" in massage circles. So if someone mentions the number 168 when you are getting a massage, or if they seem keen on you taking the road to good fortune, be wary!
Just want to add that all that stuff was told to me by Suraj, who works at a casino, and I do not speak from experience!

Shenzhen is in Guangdong (Canton) province of China, right on the Hong Kong border. Its a good place to buy cheap DVDs, although whether you want to risk getting fined for bringing them back to Australia is another thing. Shenzhen is hardly a widely-known city in other parts of the world, yet it is the country's fastest-growing population centre - 10 million people now live there, whereas in the 1960s it was less than 1 million. Most of its inhabitants do not speak Cantonese, as they have migrated from all over China, and the diversity is noticeable in the people you see on the street.

Years of austere communist party rule have had an effect on the people here, and there is a real contrast with neighbouring HK, at least in the retail sector. In affluent HK, sales assistants are usually indifferent to customers. In Shenzhen they work really hard for the money - often too hard. In a shopping centre, we were mobbed by people desperate to sell us things. One guy followed us around for 5 minutes, and seemed to have access to everything ever invented by man. Here is a snapshot of the conversation:

"Hey, my friend you want DVD?"
No thanks.
"You want watch?"
No thanks.
"You want jeans?"
"What about playstation?"
"You want t-shirt?"
No, I don't want anything!
"What about DVD, you want DVD?

And so on. I actually got lost momentarily in that shopping centre, because I was so preoccupied in shaking this guy off my back that I lost my bearings. Perhaps its an insight into why Hongkies convey that front of rudeness or indifference - look too friendly and people will hassle you.

I guess that guys' products were nicer than the constant offers that I get on the streets of Bali, Thailand and Springvale ("Hey Mister, you want porno/heroin/'massage'/mushroom/girl/marijuana/jiggy-jig/ping-pong show?", which suggest that I look some kind of deviant.

Driving the Asian way - see how many people you can fit in a van. Answer: 13!

Winnie, Andrew, Vivian and Ada at a great Korean Restaurant in Shenzhen. Spicy!

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