5 Chinese Foods That Are Not Actually Chinese

Yep, that’s right, Western world. You have been eating Chinese food wrong your whole life! But don’t feel bad as I have made the same mistake in thinking that these dishes were the epitome of Chinese cuisine, and then I moved to Hong Kong and felt more than a little bit silly. It turns out that these foods may be popular in the UK and other Western countries, but they’re about as Chinese as a family pack of Tesco value spring rolls:

Prawn Crackers

Prawn Crackers - Chinese Food
© See Ming Lee via Wikimedia Commons

Prawn crackers served with every meal? Pure fiction. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I sat down in a restaurant and perused the menu, wondering when the waiter was going to bring over a basket of crunchy and moorish prawn crackers for me to munch on while I made a decision on what to order. How long was I waiting? Well, I’m still waiting now…

The closest things I have found to prawn crackers are prawn flavoured crisps on supermarket shelves (and they’re not even cracker-shaped). They’re not the same and they definitely don’t come with every meal, or with a sweet dipping sauce, or in a white plastic bag on top of the foil containers of your Chinese takeaway.

Chow Mein

Chow Mein - Chinese Food

Chow Mein literally means ‘fried noodles’ in Chinese. Therefore, it is used to describe any kind of fried noodles. ‘Chow Mein’ in the style that we eat it as a dish in the West does not exist. However, there are a million different kinds of fried noodle to choose from, some familiar (Singapore fried noodles, always an excellent choice) and others you that may surprise you (there is a kind of ‘chow mein’ where the noodles come as a hard basket and you pour hot sauce over them to cook them on your plate and it’s just as tasty as it sounds).

Sweet and Sour Chicken

Sweet and Sour - Chinese Food
© Alpha via Flickr

What? I hear you cry, not my beloved sweet and sour chicken too! Never fear, sweet and sour dishes do exist here, but just not in the form that you might imagine. Sweet and sour pork or sweet and sour fish are the preferred versions, and rightly so. Chicken in Hong Kong and China is vastly different from chicken in the West. It is often grey in colour, served on the bone and the emphasis is on the fat and skin rather than on white breast meat. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste…

Spare Ribs

Spare Ribs - Chinese Food

Ribs are often on the menu here, but, like sweet and sour chicken, they are far from the delicious fried ribs in a finger-lickin’ sticky-sweet barbecue sauce that you may order at your local Chinese restaurant. Instead, the ribs are often steamed and served in their own juices. Yes, you read that correctly – steamed meat. That’s a thing.

Fortune Cookies

Fortune Cookie - Chinese Foods

You can blame the home of the free and the land of the brave for this one. Fortune cookies were invented in the US. Chinese people think they’re weird. And those badly translated quotes from Confucius? Also bullshit.

So there you have it! Five scrumptious ‘Chinese’ foods you have been stabbing at with chopsticks (before sheepishly asking for a knife and fork) from the local Chinese takeaway or at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet (also fictitious) all these years without them really being Chinese at all.

But don’t worry, I also share in your despair and I’m not ashamed to admit that I actually crave Western Chinese food living in Hong Kong (oh, what I’d give for a big plate of Yuk Sung at The Big Wok in Birmingham right now!). However, I hope I can take the bitter taste of disappointment out of your mouth by writing on five Chinese foods you wish you knew about next week? Or, you could just order a Chinese tonight safe in the knowledge that your ‘Eastern’ food is being catered to your Western taste buds. Order an extra serving of prawn crackers on me.

What is it like living in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong Skyline

What is it like living in Hong Kong? I get asked this question often, especially when I’m back in the UK.

So, I thought it was about time that I put a little more care into my answer rather than just shrugging my shoulders and saying something non committal like, ‘Uh, ok, fine, I guess…’ while wondering how best to describe this curious and crazy place to someone who has never been to Asia.

So here it is – the best answer I can come up with to summarise what its like living in the paradoxical and bewitching vertical jungle that is Hong Kong, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting The Fragrant Harbour:

Tamar Park in Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: Tamar Park and skyline

What is it like living in Hong Kong?

– The language is hard, the language barrier isn’t.

– Public transport is cheap and fast, though the bureaucracy can be slow and frustrating.

– The job market is good, though it should be noted that the majority of expats teach English or work in finance.

– The politics are messed up, but, then again, they’re messed up everywhere (I’m looking at you, Trump fans).

– People wear surgical masks when they’re sick, kind of like a zombie film.

Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: The Chi Lin Punnery… I mean, Nunnery.

– The skyscrapers look like something out of the future; the temples make you feel like you’re stepping into the past.

– You think of Hong Kong as a city until you venture into the New Territories and realise that you’ve been wrong the whole time, the majority of Hong Kong is spectacular countryside.

You cross your fingers and hope that the breathtaking country parks won’t be bulldozed and turned into MTR shopping malls any time soon.

Chinese food is delicious and constantly surprises you in its diversity, from dim sum to dumplings to hotpot to barbecue. However, going for a meal is a bit like Russian roulette for your stomach.

You regularly eat Asian cuisine that you didn’t know existed before, such as Vietnamese pho, Korean bibimbap and Japanese curry, which are all readily available because everyone eats out all the time rather than cooking.

You also try popular food fusions such as Korean-Mexican or Japanese-Italian, and wonder where it all went wrong.

Chicken feet, a Chinese dish from Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: Mmmm. Tasty chicken feet.

– Staying on the topic of food, local people assume that if you’re British then your favourite food must be fish and chips, and will ask you how much you miss it or how much fish and chips you ate the last time you were back.

In truth, you could give or take fish and chips, but you do miss proper cheese, proper bacon and a proper roast dinner.

– You start to refer to yourself as a ‘Westerner’, much to the confusion of everyone you know back home.

– The rent is high, but apartments are small.

A bad T-shirt translation in Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: Bad t-shirt translations

– There are cockroaches, tree spiders and snakes. There may be a lizard living in your flat, but that’s a good thing because it will eat your cockroaches.

– Summers are scorching hot, sticky and humid, but you’re cold all the time anyway because the air-con is on full blast everywhere.

– The local TV is mostly awful, although sometimes so bad it’s good, and the news can be shamelessly censored.

– During storm season you pray for a typhoon warning from the Hong Kong Observatory so that you get the day off work.

Drinking at 7-Eleven in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: Club 7-Eleven

– Ladies drink for free on Ladies Nights, and you’re not sure how you feel about it. Sometimes you are disgusted by the sexism and effectiveness of a cheap marketing ploy, while at other times you drink for free because alcohol that is not bought at club 7-Eleven is bloody expensive.

– You will buy drinks at a 24-hour 7-Eleven and drink them on the street making new friends with people who are doing exactly the same thing.

– There is a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark (and I lived in it for the first three weeks that I lived in Hong Kong).

Noah's Ark on Ma Wan Island, Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: Noah’s Ark

– Chicken tastes weird.

– The most expensive real estate in the world is here and the city is home to millionaire tycoons. On the other hand, poor old ladies go through rubbish bins at night to find recyclable material that they can sell just to earn a little bit of money.

– It’s cheap to travel to the rest of Asia, though a trip to the Chinese embassy to get a visa to Mainland China is a nightmarish experience.

– There are day-long junk boat parties every summer.

Junk boat party in Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: Go home boat, you’re junk.

– Many households have a ‘helper’ – a maid/nanny/servant who usually comes from the Philippines or Indonesia.

– Over time, you develop an ‘international’ English accent, mixing British idioms and turns of phrase with American vocabulary, peppered with slang from just about everywhere else around the world.

– You discover that queuing is a Western cultural norm, not a global one.

– The smog is gross, but the skyline is magical.

– The education system is crazy competitive and most children have no free time because they study so much and take a load of extra-curricular classes in the evenings and at weekends.

There are even infomercials on TV that remind parents that children should have at least one hour of play every day.

Tai Long Wan beaches, Sai Kung, New Territories, Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: Tai Long Wan Beaches

– The ocean is dirty, but there are still some secret beaches hidden away with white sands and sparkling turquoise waters, if you know where to find them

– You eat more McDonalds than you have ever done before in your life, as the majority of branches are open 24/7 and the food is consistent with what you would have in a McDonald’s back home (if you ignore the corn pie and crayfish bisque, that is).

– Even though you will try, you will never truly understand the concept of ‘saving face’ in Asian cultures.

Ten thousand buddhas, buddha statue, Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: Ten Thousand Buddhas. Hands for eyes. HANDS FOR EYES.

– Tax is low and paid once a year rather than being taken out of your paycheck every month, but it is near-impossible to work out how it is calculated.

Once the tax is collected, the government decides it has too much money and reimburses high-earners the majority of their tax in a ‘sweetener’ deal rather than spending the money on real issues… Yep, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.

– The crime rate is one of the lowest in the world and you feel safe walking alone at night just about anywhere.

– The birth rate is also one of the lowest in the world. There are also infomercials on TV that remind people to have more children.

– The expat community is small and you will inevitably know everyone through everyone else within a year. You will also, inexplicably, bump into someone who is from your tiny hometown and marvel with them at how big and small the world is.

– There are times when you miss your family and friends back home, and there are times when you remember that you get to live in Hong Kong!

Big Buddha on Lantau Island in Hong Kong
Living in Hong Kong: The Big Buddha

Phew, so there’s my HK life in a nutshell, both the good and the bad. Sound impossible? Well, you could just come and visit me and find out what this mad place is like for yourself…

The MacLehose Trail: Stages 1 and 2

Happy Chinese New Year! Wishing you all prosperity, happiness and health for the coming year. Speaking of which, I am currently bedridden after attempting to hike the MacLehose Trail over the Chinese New Year holiday.

When I try to walk I look like I’ve had an accident in my pants and the po pos with their bent backs and walking sticks tut as they overtake me.

Oh, the MacLehose Trail, you say? You can do it in three days! Hiking only 10 hours a day! MacLehose was the Bear Grylls of his time! (Ok, no one really said that.) Contrary to what we heard, it turned out that the trail was not what we expected as old Mac had a few tricks up his sleeve…

MacLehose Trail beach view

Who was MacLehose and why does he have a trail?

The MacLehose Trail is a 100-kilometre walk, divided into 10 stages, which stretches across the New Territories from the east coast to the west of Hong Kong. It starts in Sai Kung and ends in Tuen Mun. It’s one of the toughest, but also one of the best hikes in Hong Kong.

Sir Murray MacLehose was the longest-serving British governor of Hong Kong (1971-1882), who established the country parks and was supposedly an enthusiastic hiker himself.

Funnily enough, there is no evidence that he actually ever attempted the MacLehose Trail either in stages or in its entirety, though there are some references to him enjoying visits to Sai Kung in his private helicopter. How lovely.

The MacLehose Trail is also famous for the Oxfam Trailwalker, a fundraising event that takes place every November, where crazies endurance runners run and hike the whole thing in one go. It takes between 24 to 48 hours

(How do they eat? How do they sleep? And How do they see in the dark? Who are these ridiculous people?).

MacLehose Trail Sign

Getting to the start of the MacLehose Trail

We aimed to set off early, so we left North Point by taxi for Sai Kung around 5am, then took a second taxi to the entrance of Pak Tam Chung Country Park, arriving about 6am. If you would like to try Stages 1 & 2, but don’t fancy a pre-dawn start, there are buses that go there at a godlier hour.

MacLehose Trail Start
6am start in Pak Tam Country Park

MacLehose Trail Stage 1 – 10.6 kilometres – Pak Tam Chung to Long Ke

Stage 1 starts near the entrance of Pak Tam Chung Country Park and is less of a trail and more of a flat and pleasant walk along country roads.

It traverses through the Geopark with its impressive dams and cutesy information boards about hexagonal columns formed by volcanic activity (the cartoon rock introducing himself with “Hello, my name is Dike,” certainly made us titter), eventually turning into more of a trail with steps down to the scenic Long Ke beach.

MacLehose Trail Sunrise

Highlights: Watching the sun rise from behind the mountains, across the reservoir.

Long Ke Beach
Have you ever seen a Long Ke beach than this?

Lowlights: Next to the stunning Long Ke beach there is a super-creepy drug rehabilitation centre. Think faded and peeling pastel paints, rusted white gates and pictures of smiling animals whose eyes seem to follow you as you walk away… pretty sure they shot the opening credits to True Detective there.

MacLehose Trailing

MacLehose Trail Stage 2 – 13.5 kilometres – Long Ke to Pak Tam Au

Stage 2 is a little harder and longer than Stage 1, with lots of ups and downs. However, the views were amazing and totally worth it. We saw the gorgeous Tai Long Wan coastline from angles that we had never seen before.

The trail then winds into familiar territory as we came into Sai Wan village (where the excellent Surf Hong Kong Surf School is) and passed the beautiful natural rock pools made by the spring that feeds into the ocean (no time for cliff diving today though).

Then, it’s up and over a final hill to Ham Tin beach, where we stopped for a double helping of Yang Zhou fried rice, Singapore noodles and beef udon to keep us going before heading back up the hill to the end of Stage 2.

MacLehose Trail Stage 2
Squint and you can just about see us…

Highlights: incredible views across to the aptly named Sharp Peak as well as Tai Long Wan; Singapore noodles, get in my belly.

Ham Rim Beach Bridge
What’s a trip to Tai Long Wan without testing your core strength on this wonder of engineering?

Lowlights: couldn’t MacLeHose have built a bridge from one mountain to the other to save our hamstrings?

Tai Long Wan Coastline

MacLehose Trail Stage 3, camping and (sob) turning back

Our good friend MacLehose certainly had a sense of humour, as his trail from the east to west of Hong Kong involves doing a full circle up and down mountains and around the reservoir before actually going inland. So, with two stages out of three down, we were nearly back where we started.

We started Stage 3 around 4.30pm, knowing there was probably no way we would get to our intended campsite before we lost the sun (10.2 kilometres away up a very steep hill on the most difficult leg of the whole trail).

Sure enough, we lost the light with six kilometres still to go, but found a smaller campsite to stay at rather than attempting the last two to three hours of walking in the dark.

MacLehose Trail Marker
Stop taunting us, Mac…

We had originally planned to make up the time the following day by rising early, setting off before sunrise and trying to walk at a faster pace. However, the night proved to be incredibly cold, with none of us sleeping a wink and one of our party spraining an ankle when trying to run about to keep warm.

In the morning, seeing the frost on our tents (frost in Hong Kong!), Sabrina’s swollen ankle and knowing we wouldn’t be able to camp another night in those conditions, we decided to turn back and get a bus home.

On the plus side, we saw a monkey! On the first day of the Year of the Monkey – that’s a good omen and cancels out our bad luck, right?

Camping
Yep, that is FROST on that tent.

Lowlights: walking about a thousand steps up a mountain, being the coldest I have ever been in my life, having to turn back the next day and walk the thousand steps back down the same mountain, blisters, swollen knees, sprained ankles, sunburn and very sore legs.

Highlights: it turns out that 7-Eleven’s finest King Robert whiskey does have some use – swigging it around a campfire and looking up at the rarely-seen stars is the best way to keep warm.

Chinese New Year Monkey
Cheeky Chinese New Year Monkey!

MacLehose Trail Stages 1 & 2 Review

So, even though we didn’t manage the full trail, we were still very proud of hiking a very hilly 20-something kilometres in 13 hours and I take my hat off to those that manage to walk the whole trail, especially those that somehow do the whole thing in one go!

We may have been overly ambitious, but we’ll definitely return to do the following stages (but maybe just as day hikes next time). Perhaps the MacLehose Trail really is best enjoyed as it is marked out – in shorter stages.

Or, even better, as MacLehose himself enjoyed it – from the passenger side of his private helicopter…

To be continued…

MacLehose Trail Stage 1

MacLehose Trailer Trash

For more about hiking in Hong Kong, read my post on the best hikes in HK. For more technical info about the trail, visit the Discover Hong Kong website.

10 Surprising Things About Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year

Kung Hei Fat Choy! (Happy Chinese New Year!)

The lanterns are up, the banks are busy and preparations are well underway for the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar: Chinese New Year! And when you consider how many Chinese people there are in the world, does that make it the biggest and most-celebrated festival on the planet? Probably.

But before you say, ‘Oh yeah, Chinese New Year, isn’t that like their Christmas?’ have a read below to get clued up on ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. Here are 10 surprising things I have learnt about Spring Festival (‘What? It has another name?!’ – see what I mean) during my time living in Hong Kong:

God of Wealth Prosperity Fortune
Chinese Santa…?

Chinese New Year is not ‘Chinese Christmas’

So it turns out that Chinese New Year has been around for over 4,500 years. When you remember that JC has only recently celebrated his 2,000th birthday, he pales as a moody teenager in comparison.

If anything, Christmas is a Western Chinese New Year. Except of course that it isn’t because they are completely different things.

Year of the Monkey

Chinese New Year moves every year

The Chinese lunar calendar follows the moon’s cycles, so Chinese New Year always falls in a different place between 21st January and 20th February each year.

It also means that you just get back from Christmas break and before you can look miserably out at the cold January weather and sigh, ‘I really need a holiday…’ bang! You are already in one.

Fireworks Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is super-long

Think Chinese New Year is just a countdown from ten to one followed by a fireworks display? Think again. Chinese New Year goes on forever, and there are celebrations and parts of the festival that traditionally continue up until the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.

There are also all kinds of rules about certain days when you should visit one side of your family, and then other days when you visit the other side, and days when you should just stay at home… the list goes on.

Lai See

People give you money

People give each other money for Chinese New Year rather than gifts, though a box of biscuits or traditional snacks for the family in a ‘tray of togetherness’ doesn’t go amiss. The cash is always a crisp, new note and is handed over in a red envelope called a lai see.

If someone gives you a lai see, you should receive it with both hands, say thank you (doh je) and definitely not open it in front of the person giving it to you.

You should also only give lai see if you are married, if you are giving them to your employees (or your doorman for instance), or if you are a person of seniority.

The amount of money you give is up to you, but obviously you don’t want to look cheap. Tip: if you are working as a English teacher, you get all the lai see and this will be your yearly bonus!

Lion Dance Chinese New Year

No one goes and sees the parade

If you want to see what three million tonnes of glitter and shameless marketing looks like, by all means go and see the big televised Chinese New Year parade in town. But you won’t catch me waiting in the cold and rain to watch the ‘Sponsored by HSBC!’ ‘Visit Ocean Park today!’ floats.

Instead, I’ve found that there are plenty more traditional and authentic dragon and lion dances (you can hear the drumming a mile off) that pop up around town during the festive period.

Firecrackers Chinese New Year

There are no firecrackers

Contrary to all the cute pictures of kids playing with firecrackers that you see in many depictions of Chinese New Year, firecrackers are super-illegal because they are super-dangerous.

They are banned in Hong Kong, Taiwan, urban areas of Mainland China, and many other places (though I hear that those rules don’t always stop people setting them off).

Vietnamese New Year
Not just China? Are you kidding me?

It’s not just China

China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore obviously celebrate Chinese New Year, but many other countries celebrate a Lunar New Year during this period too (Korea, Vietnam and Japan to name but a few).

Not to mention the huge Chinese communities that live all over the globe. I hear that San Francisco has one of the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations in the world!

Haircut China

It’s the best time of year to get a haircut

Chinese New Year is also known as Spring Festival, so it’s only fitting that a spring clean is in order. Houses are thoroughly cleaned before the New Year, people get their hair cut and nails done, and buy a new set of clothes (and underwear) to wear on New Year’s Day.

Then, they leave it as long as possible after the New Year before they throw out rubbish, get a hair cut or have a shower. Even though it’s gross, it’s about not throwing out your New Year luck. Plus, all the expats get free reign over their hairdresser’s empty schedule for a few weeks!

Year of the Monkey - Monkey Mountain

If it’s your zodiac year, you’re in for a surprise

After 2015’s confusion over whether it was the Year of the Ram, Goat or Sheep (the Chinese word doesn’t discriminate between these, and it can also depend on where you live and which animals live there), at the time of writing this, the clear and finite Year of the Monkey is finally upon us.

But if you’re going, ‘Hey! I was born in the Year of the Monkey! Does that mean this is my lucky year?’ then hold your bananas, because it actually means that this year will be much harder for you and ‘full of surprises’… whatever that means.

Chinese New Year Flower Market
But what are you?

There are a million other things to get your head around

Don’t cut your noodles because the Chinese word for noodles sort-of sounds like the word for ‘life’ or something. You should definitely go to the flower market and get one of those trees with the weird-shaped yellow things on. Wear red. Here’s an orange, eat it!

There’s a guy dressed up in a costume with a long droopy moustache and he brings good fortune. Why? Because Chinese New Year.

After four years, I’m still just a gwei mui (ghost girl) with a foreigner’s perspective, only managing to scratch the surface of Chinese New Year, while also wondering where best to spend the public holiday dates.

Yet, with each passing Spring Festival, I’m learning more and more about Chinese New Year and Chinese culture in general, so there’s always next year to learn just a little bit more. Plus, I now know the best time of year to get an appointment at the hairdresser’s…

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous Year of the Monkey!

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