I’ve received mixed messages in the feedback I’ve gotten back on the blog so far. Some people have really dug the travelogue-y way I’ve been writing. Others have mentioned that they’d appreciate a more concise reading experience; more a series of observations, rather than a running commentary. Fair enough. I figured I’d try the latter option for my post on the non-Lantau parts of our Hong Kong experience. To that end, this post will be more like a listicle of things that we got up to during our time in Hong Kong. Going forward, I may opt for posts in this vein, but honestly, I kind of like the catharsis of the more personalized writing approach I’d taken so far. We’ll see how this goes.
The Coffee Academics
When you’re in Hong Kong, forget Starbucks. The Coffee Academics is where it’s at.
Founded in 2010 as a sort of training academy, designed to share and teach techniques for high-quality coffee roasting and brewing, TCA opened its first coffee shop in 2012. After the flagship store in Causeway Bay came eight other locations in Hong Kong (as of September 2017, they’re preparing to open a tenth location), as well as two shops in Singapore, one in Shanghai, and one in Beijing.
Before our day trip to Lantau, J and I stopped in at the Coffee Academics location in Wan Chai, on Johnston Road. Stepping off a street that’s an eclectic mix of colonial-era architecture and new development, there was an instant familiarity to the coffee shop itself; exposed brick, reclaimed (or more likely, artificially aged) wood, moody Edison-type incandescent bulbs… it made me think of just about every high-end coffee place back home.
J had been talking up The Coffee Academics’ coffee since we’d landed in Hong Kong, so I picked a particularly enticing (but pricey) pour-over single-origin brew, and prepared to judge, while J ordered a small stack of pancakes (sadly, there was nothing on the menu I could eat) and a latte. After a short wait, in which we went over the plan for the day, our server returned, and I took my first sip of what Agent Dale Cooper would happily term “damn good coffee”. I was still a bit bummed out there was nothing vegan on the menu, but the coffee was easily among the best cups I’ve ever had (I still have my favourite in Ottawa, but this was close).
The Coffee Academics has a reputation as one of the best coffee places in the world. I, a man of limited travel experience, can’t necessarily confirm that, but I definitely do believe it.
I’d been looking forward to shopping for camera gear in Hong Kong since we’d booked the trip, months earlier. I’ve read for years that Hong Kong is a mecca for photographers looking for hard to find gear, as well as cheap gear. While it probably falls short of the promised land that is Tokyo, there is certainly no shortage of well-stocked stores selling everything from 10USD Holgas, up to 10000USD black paint Leicas (and beyond).
For our (or, let’s be honest, my) shopping trip, J and I met up with her friend from law school, Johann, who was in Hong Kong visiting family. I was on the hunt for a reasonably priced film camera in a Leica M-mount, lusting in particular after a Konica Hexar, a camera made by Konica in the late 1990s. After striking out at Sunrise Professional Photofinishing —an otherwise excellent little camera store, as well as a development lab — in Sham Shui Po, we took the metro back down to Tsim Sha Tsui, bound for a building called Champagne Court.
An aside: In the classic Simpsons episode, “You Only Move Twice”, there’s a joke where Homer’s new boss, helping him with the purchase of hammocks for his employees, talks about a number of hammock store, located in the “hammock building”, to which Homer replies, “Oh, the hammock district!” That’s kind of what Champagne Court felt like. A warren of little camera shops, overloaded with gear, all crammed into the same building on Carnavon Road.
I did wind up finding a Hexar, at a reasonable price of around $700 CAD, but by this point I’d been hunting long enough that my rational brain had taken back over, and I decided I should hold off on purchasing any more gear for the time being. Some day, however, I’d head back to Hong Kong, and nab myself the camera of my dreams.
Pottinger Street, and the Angel’s Share
After our little bout of camera (window-)shopping, Johann, J, and I headed over to Hong Kong Island, bound for Pottinger street. Johann had told us that the street, restricted to pedestrians only, turns into a photogenic makeshift night market. What he neglected to mention was why the street was pedestrians-only; it’s basically a giant staircase. No such thing as a leisurely walk up this hill. Still, he was right, it is a very photogenic street.
Vendors line the streets, clearly geared towards tourists. Overhead, Chinese lanterns alternate with powerlines to break up the stretch of sky looking down on us through the canyon of buildings. We took our time on the walk up, not so much because of the incline, but more because there was so much to take in.
Near the end of Pottinger Street, Johann beckoned us down Ezra’s Lane, a little side street that stretches towards the Mid-Levels and its outdoor escalator (d’oh!). We passed through a nondescript doorway, took a small escalator up a floor, and emerged into a paradise; Angel’s Share whisky bar.
The place is a whisky-lover’s Shangri-La. The menu lists a massive variety of whiskeys from all over the world, from Scotland, to Ireland, to the US, to Japan. They even carried a single malt from a Taiwanese distiller called Kavalan (which, though interesting, wasn’t really my thing). Between the three of us, we ended up racking up a $1000 bar tab.
Though to be fair, that was 1000 HKD… closer to $150 Canadian. And the biggest reason for the hefty bill was Johann’s love of Bruichladdich (though, from the taste of it, it seemed worth it).
Lan Kwai Fong
The bar district of Lan Kwai Fong, or LKF for short, is a weird place. Maybe my impression of it is uncharitable, and rooted in the fact that it had been a long day by the time we got there, and I was getting what the kids are calling “hangry” (angry, caused by hunger). Whatever the reason, I wasn’t a fan of LKF.
Maybe it’s the touts who aggressively accost you out front of the bars, even crossing the street to badger you into checking out their establishments. Maybe it’s the fact that it felt like a Disney-fied version of someone’s mental picture of Bangkok’s infamous Khao San Road, full of shitfaced expats out “slumming it”. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the buildings and business are owned by a single obscenely wealthy expat Canadian, which means the whole gritty feel is a complete affect (also weird, the fact that the dude who owns a bunch of scuzzy bars is himself a teetotaller).
J and I didn’t stay for a drink. For one, like I said, I was getting hangry by this point. For another, the touts turned me off (especially the one towering gentleman who’d growled “white boy” at me, and followed me a short way down the street after I blew him off).
Besides, I’d just had a couple drinks at the Angel’s Share. The psychic whiplash from going from a beautiful establishment like that to an LKF dive bar might have killed me.
I’ve written at some length about my experience finding vegan food in China. When we were planning the trip, I had originally figured that, of all our destinations, Hong Kong would be the easiest city in which to find vegan food, but J quickly disabused me of that notion; cuisine in Hong Kong, as in the south of Mainland China, has a much bigger fish/shellfish component than the food up north.
That being said, we did have at least the one trick to fall back on: look for establishments that advertise as being buddhist. Typically, they’ll be at least vegetarian, and in every case we experienced had plenty of eggless/milkless options.
Aside from that, we did try one place that really stands out: Veggie SF, a short distance from Lan Kwai Fong in Central, is a completely vegetarian restaurant that serves up vegetarian takes on stereotypically American foods — the vegan burger I had was terrifyingly beef-like, but so, so good. The Americana theme extended into the decor; the entire place was festooned with old street signs and American flags, packed with 1950s vintage games… even the tables are decked out with vintage ads tucked under their glass tabletops. For the admittedly small subset of people who are both vegans and 1950s aficionados, Veggie SF must look a lot like heaven.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that no trip to Hong Kong is complete without a trip up Victoria Peak. It looms large over the city, dwarfing even the tallest of the skyline’s glass and metal spires, a bastion of greenery above the urban jungle.
After returning to Hong Kong proper from our trip out to Po Lin and the Big Buddha, J and I boarded a bus right in front of the pier, and began the 45 minute ascent up to Victoria Peak, over 500 metres above us. Like on Lantau, we opted again for the bus over the alternative — in this case, the Peak Tram, rather than a cable car — for the same reasons as last time: the bus was much cheaper, didn’t really add much time to the journey, and we both enjoy trips up and down winding roads.
The goal was to reach the Peak, go for a short walk along the path near the top, and find a good spot to look out over the city, in time to catch twilight falling over the city. I wedged myself in amongst a gaggle of other photographers at one particularly open corner of the trail, with a wide open vista of the city stretching out below us, and waited as the sun set for the perfect shot.
Getting back down from the Peak was a little hectic. We had to wait through a massive queue for the busses, as the post-sunset exodus had throngs of people milling around the bus station. We wound up waiting around 40 minutes in line.
Still worth it though.
And so, that wraps up our Great Trip to China. On the morning of our departure, we sent our bags from Kowloon Station to the airport (there are special bag check counters there, so that you’re not stuck carrying your bags all day before your flight), and did a last little bit of shopping. That afternoon, we boarded the express train out to the airport, and hopped on our flight to Vancouver (where we had a brief layover, and I got to meet J’s aunts who both live in the city), and then onwards to Ottawa.
And thus ended my first trip overseas.
I’ll be putting up an actual wrap-up post soon; a sort of “Stray Thoughts for the Whole Trip” thing that summarizes my opinions and experiences. For now, stay tuned for the second installment of the “Interview with a Traveller” series, which will be up shortly!