In a strange turn of events that involved an exchange with a friend of a friend, this week I was a guest on Keith Petit’s Expatriate Act podcast. (Sorry, Keith, I mean internet-based-radio-show!). This somehow turned into a two-hour discussion over Skype on what it means to be an expat and the weird and wonderful experience that is living overseas.
I highly recommend that you give it a listen, even though it’s pretty long (maybe save it for a long car journey?). However, I warn you the language is strong (read: lots of swearing, sorry Mom) and the discussion touches on some rather controversial topics. Read more
Hey guys. So, I recently participated in the World Nomads Travel Writer Scholarship programme, where I wrote a piece on the theme ‘a place that is unfamiliar to me’. Devastatingly, I didn’t win the scholarship (next year, perhaps?), so here is my entry published here instead, entitled Chasing Home:
When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I described the city as a sensory overload.
Fresh durian and fermented bean curd in the steaming streets of Mong Kok. Strobing neon signs on Nathan Road. Soup noodles slipping from chopsticks held between clumsy fingers. The telltale salty tang of MSG. Tonal Chinese languages with staccato one-syllable words.
I loved it.
The longer I spent in the city, the more it felt like home. Weekends spent hiking in the New Territories or lapping up the sun on the trio of Tai Long Wan beaches. Evenings spent in TST or Central or Wan Chai, drinking overpriced cocktails in tiny bars or sitting on the waterfront with cheap beers from 7-Eleven.
Summers were coated in a thick layer of smothering humidity, while winters sparkled in red and gold, auspicious signs for the coming Lunar New Year. The sunlight was thick and creamy like milk tea in the day, then deep orange like the peel of a mandarin in the evening. Read more
In all my five years of living in Hong Kong I never got sick of that skyline. In fact, saying goodbye to that view was the very last thing I did before I left for the airport. And with so many incredible angles to see the city from, it’s hard to pick my favourite. Here are just a few of the best views in Hong Kong:
Tsim Sha Tsui Waterfront
We can’t talk about the best views in Hong Kong without talking about TST. This is where the iconic picture of HK’s epic skyline can be found, which is especially breathtaking lit up at night. Although the nightly light show is pure mature cheddar cheesy, it’s also worth a watch at least once. Read more
Hong Kong may be better known for its electric skyline, imposing skyscrapers and sky-high rent, but did you know that 75% of the Fragrant Harbour is actually countryside? Having called Hong Kong my home for the past five years, I love the city but I also love to get out of it! So, here is my list of the best hikes in Hong Kong, which offer the most scenic and breathtaking views of HK’s epic coastline, lush hillsides and pretty little islands.
1. Dragon’s Back
Difficulty level: 6/10 Starts: Shek O Road near To Tei Wan village Finishes: Big Wave Bay (Tai Long Wan) Beach
The undulating Dragon’s Back is easily accessible from the city, winding around the east side of Hong Kong Island, and offers beautiful coastal scenery without being too strenuous. As one of the most famous hikes in Hong Kong, you probably won’t find yourself hiking alone, but you will definitely be able to see why it’s so popular. Read more
The roar of the paddlers calling time, the drummer, the pounding of paddles pulling through the water, an undulating dragon skimming across the top of the ocean…
Boasting a 2,000-year history in Southern China, dragon boating stems from traditional fishing and Chinese folklore, which came together to form the Dragon Boat Festival – a public holiday and a day full of races in rivers and oceans all over Asia.
Some say that Dragon Boat Festival is held in honour of an honest poet who was killed by an emperor. Others say the man was a political rebel who drowned himself after growing disillusioned with those in power. In both cases, fishermen went out on the water, threw rice and pounded the surface with their paddles to scare away and distract the fish from feasting on his body. Lovely. On the other hand, many people say that the sport was simply thought up by competitive fishermen…
No matter how dragon boat racing first came about, what all present paddlers can agree on is the ferocious rowing power needed, the butterfly-symmetry of partnering rowers in the longboat and the deep rumble of the drum keeping the rowers in time; the dragon’s heartbeat.
And the best place to compete in Hong Kong is at Stanley. Though you have to sacrifice your public holiday morning lie-in for a 5am or 6am start, the races are worth it. The beach is packed with pumped teams in matching jerseys and enthusiastic spectators vying for the best view.
This year was my fourth dragon boat season as a paddler, and my second time competing at Stanley. In the morning sun, the longboats are lined up ready on the beach, painted with brightly-coloured scales. The dragon’s head fixed at the front of each boat has its nostrils flared, moustache blowing in the wind with its eyes bloodshot and bulging out of the sockets! The tail is flicked out at the rear, a thrashing spike that will trail foam and fizz in its wake when the race begins.
My first dragon boat race at the 2012 Deep Water Bay Regatta (front on the right):
Our first race of the day was at 8.45am. After warming up on the beach, we headed to boat number 13 and got in position. Women raised their hands for the officials to check we had the minimum number competing for the mixed category before we paddled out to the racing area.
In all the excitement and with the butterflies for the first race of the day fluttering in my stomach, I had forgotten my gloves and worried that I would blister my hands on the splintered wooden paddle. It’s not unheard of for paddles to snap mid-race.
Once at the starting line, our drummer held onto the roped life buoy to keep us in position and we placed our paddles ready on the sides of the boat. We listened to the adjudicators, moving forward or back as instructed.
The klaxon sounded and we were off on our starting sequence: three long, deep strokes, then a step up to a slightly faster three, then a speedy ten turning from the shoulder and a final ten at our fastest speed to get the boat going. Then we settled into our pace calling ‘Ready, and, REACH!’ but lost our timing in the transition. Paddling at the front, I could feel the boat lurching out of time with our strokes, but in such a quick race there is no time to correct it.
At Stanley, you race towards the beach, and when the nose of the dragon touches the finish line – that’s your time. However, there are only a few metres to stick the oars in the water to hold the boat and slow it from racing speed to stop it hurtling onto the sand, which is packed with other teams, race officials and spectators.
We looked up at our friends watching from the vantage point above us and they showed us six fingers. We had come sixth. It was a respectable place and put us firmly in the next heat. We were impressed with our time of 1min 17secs (the water was calm with very little chop), but we knew we could have been faster and our poor timing had slowed us down. Then again, any faster and we could have been fast-tracked to the top tier of teams where we would have struggled to compete.
The next race wasn’t until 1.40pm, so we returned to the junk and refueled, watched the GoPro video taken by our drummer and strategised how to improve for the next race. We were aiming for a time of 1min 10 secs and entry into the gold plate final. Last year we had come fourth in the silver plate, and our goal this year was to reach the gold level.
This time we were even more nervous as we paddled up to the starting line in boat number 8 (a lucky number in Chinese culture), our focus on the best result this time. There was no room for error. Clouds had covered the sun and the water wasn’t as calm as before. Perhaps that dream time of 1min 10secs would be out of reach today.
The adjudicators took forever asking boats to move forward and back before announcing ‘attention’ and everyone put their paddles up in unison.
‘Go!’ he called and we pulled back on our oars, starting the sequence again.
‘Stop! Stop!’ came faint calls over the shouting and drumming as slowly everyone came to realise it had been a false start. The adjudicator had called ‘Go’ but the klaxon hadn’t sounded. As one of the first teams to realise this, we didn’t have far to paddle back, but most teams had raced for the finish line full of energy, and then had to paddle back further too. As they paddled up out of breath, we knew we had an advantage now too.
When the klaxon sounded again and we started our sequence, we were slicker and transitioned better into our steady rowing pace. We had agreed that the rowers in the middle were to call out the timing to keep everyone together.
The lightest paddlers should always be at either end of the boat with the heavier ‘engines’ in the middle to give the boat its power. However, again, we got out of sync as the pace was too fast for everyone to keep up. But when we crossed the finish line we saw that we had come second – an incredible feat considering we still weren’t paddling at our best. And, most importantly, we had reached our goal – we were in the gold plate final.
Then there was another agonising wait as our next race was scheduled for 5.07pm. Rain fell in the afternoon and the races were delayed. We had also begun to crash, tired from the early start and the bursts of sudden adrenaline. Some napped, others had a drink to take the edge off and calm nerves. We warmed up and waited on the beach, practising our timing on land by calling out the strokes.
This time, we decided, everyone would call out every stroke together. It was a risk because we would be wasting our much-needed breath, but we knew that the key to speed was in perfect coordination, not in strength or power or how fast you could paddle. As long as one person’s oar is pulling while someone else’s is stuck in the water, the boat is being held back and the strokes are being wasted.
We paddled out in the evening sun, and this time I wasn’t nervous. It was our last race of the day and we wanted to enjoy it, and it was bittersweet as I knew this would be my last dragon boat race in Hong Kong. We called out good luck to the boats either side of us and stuck our oars in deep in the water ready for the klaxon.
As the race started and we pulled into the starting sequence, I could barely control my breath. The start was perfect and as we called out each stroke to transition into our regular pace we were going faster than we should have been but the adrenaline helped us sustain the speed and, at last, we were in perfect time. Watching the video back (see below), the symmetry is incredible. We couldn’t have paddled better.
My eyes were focused on my partner and the paddler diagonally in front of me – the technique used to ensure we were all flawlessly in sync. But behind them I could see the boat next to us pulling up alongside ours. We were neck-and-neck for the whole length of the race.
As we approached the final straight we called for power over the stroke timing, ‘REACH! REACH! REACH!‘ pushing through the final few strokes to try and get our dragon over the finish line first.
As we crossed the line and pulled on our paddles to hold the boat, we weren’t sure whether to celebrate. Had we won? Had we placed? It was impossible to tell. Our drummer said she thought we had come second, but it had been very close. Everyone was still in good spirits, splashing each other in the water and celebrating with beers on the beach.
Our Gold Plate Final Race (second from front, on the right):
We waited what seemed like forever for the results to come in. It had been a photo finish and the judges needed to confirm the final times. When the results finally came through we were astounded – we had come sixth out of thirteen boats, but we were only 0.8 seconds behind first place! In a race so close that half of the boats had finished within the same second, we had practically come joint first (and that’s the story we’re sticking with!)! Not only had we reached our goal of ‘going for gold’ and getting into the gold plate final, we had finished with a respectable place and paddled the best race we had ever rowed.
There were more beers back on the junk and celebrations throughout the evening. We had come so close to the top spot, but no one was bitter or had any regrets.
Four years ago, I participated in my first dragon boat competition at the Deep Water Bay Regatta, where the Chatteris Dragonfruits had just been happy not to come last in their hot pink jerseys! This year I had competed at gold plate level at Stanley and come millimetres away from first place. You can’t complain about that!
Sadly, next year I won’t be around in Hong Kong to compete in the races again, though I’m hopeful to find a dragon boat team (or start a dragon boat team) wherever I end up next. I never thought I’d consider myself to be a rower, but that first race four years ago sparked a passion for the sport and I hope I can continue to row in the future too.
As our junk headed for Aberdeen harbour, we saw a pink dolphin jump alongside our boat. Critically endangered, Hong Kong’s pink dolphins are rare to see even off Lantau where they usually live, let along south of Hong Kong Island next to the coast. It seemed like a sign and the perfect ending to a wonderful day and a wonderful five years in Hong Kong.
IP Global Dragons, it has been a pleasure. Next year, I expect to see you all at cup level!
My birthday is the 12th March. That means right now you must be saying, ‘Oh, I know someone with that birthday,’ or, even better, ‘That’s my birthday too!’ – and you are certainly not alone. A 12th March birthday can be a blessing and a curse, and must be shared with everyone else that was born between 5th – 13th March, which seems to be everyone else, period.
But one thing a 12th March birthday is not is uneventful. From summer dress snow days at primary school, to Comic Relief sleepovers throwing up, to pub golf mayhem at uni, my birthday always manages to be memorable, if not always for the right reasons. And moving to Hong Kong has not changed any of that. So, just in case you were wondering how to spend your own birthday in HK or elsewhere, here are some ways to do it (and not to do it):
22 – The ‘White Wolf’ Birthday
Hey, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling that 22 is the best age to theme your birthday after your favourite cheap vodka brand. White Wolf vodka, only available at the cheapo store in North Point, is HK$40 for a million litres, and thus the White Wolf theme for my 22nd birthday was born.
Highlights: inventive costume ideas from three-wolf t-shirts to Wolf gladiator lycra suits; getting so wasted that I would apparently only speak to party guests in Cantonese (except my Cantonese is limited to ‘Singapore noodles please’ and ‘Kam Ping Street, North Point’, even now).
Lowlights: taking a swig of ‘snake wine’ before leaving pre-drinks at our flat and not remembering anything after getting off the MTR at Wan Chai; waking up the next morning with no memory, no money, and a makeshift ‘wolf tail’ key-ring digging into my back. Safe to say that The Hangover wolf pack had nothing on my 22nd birthday.
23 – The ‘Harlem Shake’ Birthday
In the space between my 22nd and 23rd birthdays I had left Hong Kong, lived in Italy for six months, moved back to the UK and then moved back to Hong Kong. Not satisfied with my Wan Chai experience from the previous year, this time I made sure that I would actually make it to Wan Chai by living in Wan Chai, and had everyone round for drinking games on my balcony. It was the spring of 2013 and therefore it was obligatory to make a Harlem Shake video.
Highlights: Ian licking that mop.
Lowlights: if you’re trying to find me in that picture and can’t, it’s because I thought it was an excellent idea to bleach my hair for my birthday.
24 – The ‘Boob Hat’ Birthday
The best thing to do on your birthday is move house. Said no one ever. I spent the day in Ikea buying furniture (some of you may remember that this was the infamous year that a certain someone bought me an Ikea voucher for my birthday, ever the romantic), then moved stuff into my new place only to realise I had left all my clothes and make-up at my old place.
Regardless, I continued the tradition of getting drunk in Wan Chai on my birthday by consuming margaritas at Coyotes, wearing a sombrero that looked like a boob.
Highlights: did you not see the picture of the boob hats? Hilarity! And a free hat!
Lowlights: getting drunk and not being able to figure out whether to go home to my new place or old place.
25 – The ‘I missed it, I was napping’ Birthday
The best thing to do on your birthday is move jobs. Said no one ever. I had the day off between moving from one job to another, so I tried to go to the Art Museum for a cultural and classy birthday, but it was closed. Then, I came out in hives for no reason and had to take an anti-histamine, but the anti-histamine made me sleepy so I took a nap. All day.
Highlights: it was a really good nap, though.
Lowlights: no drinking, la!
26 – The ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Birthday
And so it arrived. The big 26. What birthday drama or epic fail would incur on this night, this year? Well… I hate to disappoint, but IT WAS THE BEST BIRTHDAY EVER.
Highlights: North Point cooked food market; beers in bowls; Belgian beers; cocktails with chocolate round the rim; Insomnia’s amazing band; TAKE ME TO CHURCH; McDonalds breakfast at Tiffany’s
Lowlights: I wanna do it ALL over again!
Many thanks to all that made it out for an epic birthday night out this year and even bigger hugs and kisses to those who sent cards, pressies, emails and even Facebook messages. It may be my fifth HK birthday, but I certainly don’t feel any less loved than when I had a birthday at home.
So now to my 26th year, the sixth year of being in my early twenties. What do you have in store for me, 26? Older, yes. Wiser? Maybe not yet.
Outside of the UK, I have lived in two places: Hong Kong and Italy. Therefore it sounds a bit biased to claim that the Italians and the Chinese are kindred spirits, because their countries are the only two places I’ve lived in away from home. However, living in these two very different corners of the globe, I have felt déjà vu more than a few times and have thus come up with a theory that Italianos and Heung-Gong-ers have more in common that you may think…
They are the best at food
Are there any cuisines more universally beloved than Italian and Chinese foods? You can find Italian and Chinese restaurants anywhere in the world almost as easily as you can find an Irish pub.
Interestingly, I can vouch that both Chinese food in Italy and Italian food in China are utter rubbish. Like Batman and Superman, I guess they are separately amazing and disastrous together. Sorry, Ben Affleck.) And for both Italians and the Chinese, mealtime is family time and everyone sits around the table and shares.
Mamma Mia! Ho May ah! Spaghetti = noodles, fried rice = risotto… coincidences? I think not!
They invented all the things
Paper, compasses, umbrellas, alcohol, kites, printing, the cuppa tea, clocks… Thank you, China. Roads, sewage systems and sanitation, concrete, the calendar, city planning, the coffee machine, really good wine… the Romans send their regards. I rest my case.
They were both home to powerful historic civilisations
I see your Colosseum and I raise you The Great Wall. I see your Chinese dynasties and I raise you the Roman Empire. And who wouldn’t want to see a fight between Mulan and a gladiator? Both places were once home to the most advanced civilisations of their time and have some of the richest and most fascinating histories in the world.
They are hypochondriacs
Oh mio dio! Honest to god, when I was working in English summer camps in Italy, water games had to be held at least four hours after mealtimes in case the children drowned. While in Hong Kong, people freak out if the air con isn’t on or a window isn’t open in case they get sick from the room being “too stuffy”, all while wearing a surgical mask that makes me think I’m really working as an extra in 28 Days Later.
Traditional values at heart
In both cultures, families of several generations live under one roof. Whether you call her nonna or popo, your nan probably lives with you at the very least. It’s also worth noting that both Italy and Hong Kong have some of the lowest birth rates in the world, mostly likely because couples don’t get too much privacy living with their parents.
Both Hong Kong and Italian families are generous, welcoming you into their homes like one of the family and constantly insisting that you should eat more of their food. And as for traditional values… let’s just say that neither Italy nor Hong Kong is going to be legalising gay marriage any time soon!
Who would I least like to meet on a dark night, a member of the triads or the mafia? Hmmm. Tough choice. There was a time when the mafia practically ran Italy, and their reputation is immortalised in films such as The Godfather.
In Hong Kong, the former Kowloon Walled City was filled with triad activity, opium dens and brothels, outside the reaches of the law. If rumours are to be believed, both underground gangster circles are still very much alive, thriving and influential, but I definitely don’t want to comment on that in case I wake up with a horse’s head on my pillow…
Mad about brands
Something I cannot fathom in general is a love of big brands, which are crazy popular in both Italy and Hong Kong.
As soon as a new iphone is released, people in HK are queuing up overnight to get the latest version, even if their current model is working fine (not to mention the amount that are smuggled over the border to be sold in China); no outfit is complete without a designer (or knockoff designer) bag; and the amount of luxury shopping malls that exist in Hong Kong is ridiculous.
Journeying to the West, Italians love their fashion, designers and brands, and the status it shows. The kids I taught in Italia all wore spotless converse or Nike trainers while dressed in plain white t-shirts with brand names printed in the corner. I’ve heard it said that Italians would rather save money on basics than scrimp on luxury.
Cultural kindred spirits
Of course, in many other ways, Italy and Hong Kong couldn’t be more different. The Italian relaxed pace of life and lack of urgency versus Hong Kong’s workaholic efficiency are polar extremes; a midday siesta in Hong Kong is as unthinkable as a skyscraper in Rome; a 24-hour 7-eleven or McDonalds in Italia is as out of place as a vineyard in the Fragrant Harbour.
Despite this, I love the idea that two complete opposite peoples can be cultural kindred spirits, affirming that deep down we are all human and also that I seem to have followed the my taste buds when I have chosen countries to live in. Did I mention that Italy and Hong Kong also happen to be the best places to live? I promise I’m not biased.
As for other cultural twins in the world, I have another theory that Brits and Koreans are soulmates, but that’s a discussion for another day…
Last week I made you question everything you thought you knew about Chinese cuisine by revealing 5 Chinese Foods That Are Not Actually Chinese (well, that’s what Confucius told me in my fortune cookie). So now, I would like to introduce you to some authentic Chinese foods and dishes that I have come to love, living in Hong Kong, that haven’t yet made it big in the western hemisphere: Read more
Yep, that’s right, Western world. You have been eating Chinese food wrong your entire life. But don’t feel bad as I too have made the same mistake in thinking that these dishes were the epitome of authentic Chinese cuisine. It wasn’t until I moved to Hong Kong that I learnt that these Chinese foods are not actually Chinese at all.
It turns out that these popular Chinese dishes may be beloved in the UK and other Western countries, but they’re about as traditionally Chinese as a family pack of Tesco Value spring rolls:
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 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 literally means ‘fried noodles’ in Chinese. Therefore, it is technically real Chinese food, but 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 heavenly!).
Sweet and Sour Chicken
What? I hear you cry, not sweet and sour chicken too! Never fear, the traditional Cantonese sweet and sour dishes do exist in Hong Kong, 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.
I have learnt the hard way that chicken in Hong Kong and China is vastly different from chicken in the west. The meat 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…
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.
You can blame the home of the free and the land of the brave for this one. Fortune cookies were invented in the US and are the definition of American Chinese food. Chinese people think they’re weird. And those badly translated quotes from Confucius? Also bullshit.
So there you have it! Five typical Chinese dishes 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 authentically 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 revealing the five Chinese foods you wish you knew about next week? Or, you could just order a Chinese tonight safe in the knowledge that your Chinese meals are being catered to your western taste buds. Order an extra serving of prawn crackers on me.