Saturday, April 19, 2014

So much food, so little time - Hong Kong

The biggest draw of Hong Kong for us was the food but we weren't sure we would have time to scout out all the great eats, since our schedule was so hectic.

But we did! We were very fortunate that the Festival folks put us up in a very conveniently located hotel. We stayed at Lan Kwai Fong Hotel @Kau U Fong which is in Central, Hong Kong (our accommodation was kindly sponsored by NAC). The room is not large but its location can't be beat - walking distance to two MTR stations and many famous eateries.  

We had free buffet breakfast at the hotel everyday, which suited us fine cos we were usually too nervous to eat a lot before our talks anyway. What I like about breakfasts at Hong Kong hotels is that they usually have a very decent local selection.

But dinner is when we head straight for our much-anticipated meals. The first evening after we were dropped back at our hotel, we dumped our bags and made a beeline for Yat Lok at Stanley Street - famous for its roast goose. This is a little shop with limited seating so at peak periods, you may need to sit elbow to elbow with other guests. But since we were there early (5.15pm), we had a table of 6 all to ourselves.

I don't speak Cantonese but my friend, Lilian taught me how to say "goose drumstick" (ngor bei) so I went in, confidently held out two fingers and said, "ngor bei fan!" And lo and behold, the majestic drumstick!

That was some serious greasy goodness. The skin was crisp and the marinade extremely tasty. Lesley-Anne and I wolfed each of our portions down in under 10 minutes. I'm told that they run out of drumsticks pretty quickly so it's good to go early. The waitress said something to me in Cantonese but I gave her a blank look so she probably thought I was PRC. She was very nice though, and smiled at me. None of the hostility I was warned about. Another reason to go during off-peak periods when they're less hassled.

Each portion was HK$72 (about S$12). Not cheap but a must-try when you're in Hong Kong.

The second evening, we headed to the other famous joint near our hotel - Mak's Noodle on Wellington Street. How famous is this place? Well, they've got Anthony Bourdain's face and review plastered all over their tables.

Again, this is a small shop but we were there at about 6pm and it wasn't too crowded. This place is known for their wanton noodles and we could see why. Each bowl has four wantons bursting with plump and flavourful prawns. The noodles were super duper fine and the soup stock very tasty.

Be warned though, the portion is tiny. The bowl is a soup bowl, not the typical noodle bowl you get in Singapore hawker centres. So you might need to order two bowls to fill up. Each bowl is HK$35 (about S$5.80). Again, not cheap but one of those must-try places.

We didn't order double portions because we had another goal - to fill up on egg tarts! Lilian had told us about these egg tarts that are to die for, but we couldn't find the shop the night before. After she had posted a photo of the shop, Lesley-Anne went "ohhh! we did walk past the shop!" The shop is called Honolulu Cafe and it's on Stanley Street. The reason we couldn't find it was because it looks NOTHING like a place that sells egg tarts. As you can see from the picture, it looks like a restaurant and there are roast meats hanging in the display. Furthermore, there's no English name on the sign.

But walk up the stairs and you'll see a counter with pastries on the right...and the egg tarts! And glory be, they're as good as my friend Lilian says they are. The pastry is feather-light and the texture of the custard is perfect. As good an egg tart as I've ever tasted. We bought four to bring back to the hotel and after gobbling them down, we wished we'd bought more! I think the four egg tarts cost only HK$28 (about S$4.60).

The third day, we had a free day to ourselves and decided to wander around the vicinity after breakfast. Unfortunately, it was Sunday morning and everything was closed.

By the way, I find it absolutely terrifying that there seems to be little regard for safety here. Just check out the two men balancing on the scaffolding!

For lunch, we decided to try out Wah Fung restaurant, which was recommended by the Festival consultant. Three minute walk from our hotel and what caught our eye when we had walked past it previously was the tantalising picture of roast pigeon. Yes, pigeon! That's something we always try to eat in Hong Kong as it's hard to find in Singapore.

This is a proper restaurant where they serve you water and it was packed for Sunday lunch. We ordered a portion of suckling pig rice and two roast pigeons.

I think this was both Lesley-Anne and my favourite meal this Hong Kong trip. The suckling pig slices came with a thick layer of fat which I usually don't like but these were sooo delish I ate every bite. The pigeons were perfectly roasted and super tasty. What we like was that this restaurant had a lot of variety. Scores of youngsters ordered set lunches and we saw a tray of roasted meats that looked wonderful. Go in a group so you can try more food!

They have an English menu and one of the young waitresses spoke pretty good English. When I cancelled my extra order of rice (cos the suckling pig dish came with a large bowl of rice that was enough for Lesley-Anne and me), I expected a scolding or at least a scowl but no, she was very nice about it. And the best part was, the whole meal set us back only HK$145 (about S$24)! No service charge. That's really a fantastic deal.

After lunch, we went to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre to catch a contemporary dance performance. We were fortunate enough to be invited for this event, thanks to my ex-boss and long-time friend, Tisa Ho, who is executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

She bought us dinner at Peking Garden which is known for their Peking duck. Not the type Singaporeans are used to where you just wrap the skin and the meat is cooked some other way. This one, they slice the meat and you wrap it all in the pancake. Yummz.

Tisa is one of those people who never fail to amaze me. She has boundless energy (which puts me to shame), and is so witty and sharp, she always makes me laugh. After the waiter helped us take this photo, she looked at it and said, "It's great! You can see the duck!" Lol

We had a fabulous time catching up.  Wish we could do so more often.

That was our last night in Hong Kong and the next day, we caught the Airport Express to return to Singapore. Airport Express Hong Kong station, we attempted to have one last memorable meal at Tim Ho Wan but this was the crowd outside the restaurant:

Lesley-Anne refused to fight for her food so we ended up at Itacho next door. So it's not local but it was reasonably decent, all the same.

Our verdict of Hong Kong - its best attraction is its food. Just for that, it's worth visiting and re-visiting.

Public speaking baptism by fire in Hong Kong

Our trip to Hong Kong is a little different from the usual posts on this blog because we traveled not for a holiday. (These posts are also up on my Of Kids and Education blog, which I reproduced here.)

Lesley-Anne and I are co-authors of the newly launched children's book series Danger Dan and I'm also the author of The Good, the Bad and the PSLE. As authors, we were both invited to Hong Kong to participate in the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival. It was a whirlwind speaking tour - four talks and one workshop within two days! Part of the reason why it was such a rush was because over-achiever Lesley-Anne has a ballet exam this week and she insisted on flying home in time for the last lesson before the exam.

I decided to write about Hong Kong in two posts - this one is on the talks we did and the next one will be about... the food! (Cos we all know that's a very important aspect of travel and deserves it own post).

We flew into Hong Kong late on Thursday night. By the time we reached the hotel, it was almost midnight so all we did was take a shower and crawled into bed.The next morning, we were up bright and early for breakfast as I had to be at Radio Television HK for a 9am interview. This was followed by an interview with Sing Tao, one of HK's main Chinese newspapers.

Then we were chaperoned to our very first talk. This was a lunch talk sponsored by Mayer Brown JSM, a posh law firm at Central, HK. Mayer Brown JSM had invited their clients to hear me talk about my book The Good, the Bad and the PSLE and writing with Lesley-Anne. Together with some of their staff, the attendees numbered 40 or so.

Can I confess how intimidated I was? There they were - all these high-powered corporate folks in their suits and heels, many of them expats. They were coming to hear me speak? Gosh. As you can imagine, I didn't eat much at the luncheon (also because it was a stand-up buffet and I was afraid I would do something stupid like drop my fork or my food. My kids will tell you this is a common occurrence with me.)

The host, Gabriela was very sweet and reassuring but I was a nervous wreck. Lesley-Anne was seated at the head table with me and she saw my hand shake as I was holding the microphone. Glory of glories, I got through the presentation and no one fell asleep. In fact, they all seemed rather interested and laughed at my jokes. Many of the audience members were parents and they started asking questions about the difficulties of navigating the education system (HK's system is remarkably similar to Singapore's) and parenting in general.

And then... something miraculous happened. For some reason, I wasn't nervous when answering questions. I shared my views and philosophy, and how we often have to hold on to our beliefs even when society tells us otherwise. I shared my own experiences with Lesley-Anne and Andre. The audience listened. And when the session ended, Lesley-Anne whispered to me excitedly, "You made them cry! I saw three people cry!"


A man stood up and asked, "Is there a recording of this session? I ask this because my wife is a Tiger Mum and she needs to hear this."

Another lady to whom I'd earlier confessed that I hated public speaking told me, "If you're a bad speaker, then your book must be really incredible cos that was a wonderful talk!"

Oh wow. Cannot believe it. The reason I write this is to share with you (and remind myself) something a friend said to me before I'd left for Hong Kong - "God equips the called." Indeed. I think it's extremely comforting to know that if God has a reason for wanting you to do something, He will enable you to do it. It's truly a lesson in faith.

Mayer Brown JSM had generously bought The Good, the Bad and the PSLE for all the attendees. Here I am, autographing the books. (I deliberately chose a photo where you can't see faces, for privacy reasons).

The outcome of that talk did wonders for my self-belief and that much needed cos the very next talk was at a local school - Po Leung Kuk Ho Yuk Ching (1984) College, where we spoke to 270 13-15 year-olds.

We were warned that local students in Hong Kong are very reserved but we were not prepared for just HOW reserved they are. I mean, I was so thankful that we had just done a similar talk at St Hilda's Primary the day before and we got lots of laughter and applause so we knew the content of the talk was just fine. Cos what we got at the HK school was... silence. It's a little unnerving to not receive a response to any joke. Possibly it was due to their command of the language (English is their second language). Maybe they didn't really understand us even though we spoke slowly and didn't use complex words. Or maybe they're just very shy.

Anyway, the eagerness of the teacher made up for it - she was very welcoming and even bought a copy of Danger Dan for us to autograph.

That ended the first day of talks and the next day, we gave a few more, which I'll just list:

We conducted a creative writing workshop for kids and it's a world of difference when you deal with international school kids. These kids were vocal, participative and extremely imaginative. We were astonished at how imaginative they were and how much they could write within a short period of time! We had so much fun conducting that workshop. A parent later told us it sounded like the kids really enjoyed themselves cos she heard a lot of laughter from the room.

Lesley-Anne was a panelist in a public session called Becoming A Writer which featured young writers. The moderator was Jennifer Wong, a poet and on the left is Anna Ginsburg.  

I was part of a panel discussing parent-child relationships called Growing With Your Children, with Reenita Malhotra and Theadora Whittington, moderated by Crystal Kwok of Radio 3.  
Reenita Malhotra and Theadora Whittington

Finally, we were also interviewed by Daily 7/Daily 10 which is a kids' newspaper. 

The Hong Kong press has really been very supportive of us and our books, especially The Good, the Bad and the PSLE. South China Morning Post did an extensive interview with me that was published on 11 March 2014. You can read the article here.

Sing Tao also wrote a feature on me on 31 March 2014. You can read the article here.

Perhaps in time, our books can be distributed beyond Singapore's shores. A dream to hold on to!