Tag Archives: Hong Kong

48 hours in Hong Kong

First published in Sawubona Magazine – July 2019 edition

Twenty years ago and before, at a time when an incursion into the Mainland was too forbidding for most, Hong Kong offered a précised and sanitised ‘Chinese experience’.  For travellers and traders alike it was a window to China.  This view of things is now a footnote in history, completely outdated, redundant: the world has shrunk and liberalised China is on our doorstep, readily accessible.  The territory’s days as a cheap destination are similarly long gone – the shopping’s still good, but don’t expect the fabled knock-down prices of the past, and as for the rest – food, accommodation, entertainment – you’ll by and large be paying top dollar.  But despite these changes, or maybe because of them, Hong Kong is a sexier and more rollicking ride than ever before.  Its essence, as a confluence of East and West, continues to define its course, but not in any cartoonish sense.  Instead it has evolved into an established hybrid, both reflective and independent of its progenitors – an inimitable, compelling amalgam of cool sophistication, warm hospitality, and vibrant energy.  The place just keeps raising its (gripping!) game.  For a visitor with a few days to fill there’s little to beat it.

Stay

Your lodgings can make or break a trip, so ensure the former with an astute selection.  You’ll struggle to find a better choice than the Island Shangri-La, the pre-eminent scion of a home-grown group, and the epitome of unpretentious refinement.  The typical benefits of a great hotel are superbly delivered – large rooms, lavish breakfasts, premium facilities, with the skyscraper-surrounded pool-deck a splendid highlight, especially in a city known for having more of them than any other in the world – but it’s with the finer touches that the hotel really excels: from the traditional welcome tea on arrival, beautifully presented in an insulated tea caddy, and the uber-comfortable mattresses and linen, developed by Simmon’s and Frette specifically for Shangri-La, to the day-of-the-week inscribed carpets in the lifts, and the L’Occitane and Acqua di Parma toiletries, they amplify the accommodation to an indulgent celebration.   The hotel houses eight restaurants on site, including the Michelin-starred Summer Palace, but it’s Restaurant Petrus that’s perhaps the star attraction.  Set on the 56th floor, in elegant, conducive surroundings (the ceiling frescoes and piano-accompanied strings live large), with breathtaking views over Victoria Harbour, the place offers classical fine dining, fine wining fare, but with just enough of an edge to stir the imagination.  Sample the green pea tart with yoghurt, meringue and coriander for dessert.

Island Shangri-La, Pacific Place, Supreme Court Rd, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2877 3838

Move

Taxis are plentiful and relatively affordable, but it’s often quicker and more convenient, especially when crossing from island to mainland and vice-versa, to use Hong Kong’s outstanding public transport system, one of the most effective and user-friendly worldwide, encompassing buses, trains, trams, and ferries.  The Octopus card, which you should definitely invest in on arrival, is probably the world’s leading fare collection and contactless smartcard payment system (and the model upon which London’s Oyster card was based), allows you to breeze on and off for the duration of your visit without worrying  about buying individual tickets.

See

Hong Kong is intense.  Visually spectacular, with a compact frame of sea, city, and mountain, and densely constituted, with its bustling population of enterprising people on the go, there is no shortage of things to see and do.  In geography there are some resonating parallels with Cape Town.  Victoria Peak, like Table Mountain, offers a spectacular vantage point from which to view and contemplate the city, and indeed the whole of Hong Kong Island on the walks around its circumference.  It’s accessible by foot for the fit and energetic, or otherwise by tram.  The Southern District, like our Southern Peninsula, is dotted with picturesque day-tripping towns – Aberdeen, Stanley and Repulse Bay notably – all easily accessible via the excellent public transport network.  Aberdeen in particular is something unique.  Historically the channel separating its settlements was home to a floating village of fisherfolk.  The boats remain, a ragtag but impressive fleet numbering in the hundreds and bearing testimony to this heritage, although fewer and fewer people still reside aboard permanently.  The area is also renowned for its cheap and cheerful fish ball noodles – test your chopsticks technique on the rendition at Nam Kee Noodle on Main Road.

 The Peak Tram Lower Terminus, Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2522 0922

 Exchange Square Bus Terminus, Ground floor, Exchange Square, 8 Connaught Place,

Central (Bus 70 to Aberdeen, from Aberdeen Bus 73 to Stanley via Repulse Bay)

 Nam Kee Noodle, Shop 1-3, G/F, 208 Aberdeen Main Rd, Aberdeen

+852 2552 2731

 Drink

A dark passage, a nondescript staircase, and an unmarked door.  This is the low-key entranceway to Stockton, one of Hong Kong’s coolest bars – a pre-emptive measure maybe against intrusion by the roving bands of Jack the Lads from neighbouring Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s notorious party district.  Or other random arrivals.  If you’re not in the know, clearly you shouldn’t be here.  Named for Hunter Stockton Thompson, reporter, writer, reveller, the place is inspired by literary themes and influences, from its seasonal cocktail menu, the latest being a dive into Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (featuring drinks such as “The Berry Picker”), to its eclectic collection of vintage furniture and decorations, allusions to a private library or a reading room.  You get the sense that everything here has been well thought-out and deeply considered: it’s a place of substance for people of substance.  There are intimate crevices and alcoves, a thronging bar, a “secret” cigar den (known as the “Rake Room”), a discerning selection of fine liquors, a toilet with a two-way mirror (!!), and a menu featuring unusual delicacies like duck scotch eggs and cauliflower fritters.  Treat yourself to an exceptional Old Fashioned, hit repeat, and spend a rewarding evening at this superb, atmospheric venue.

Stockton, 32 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2898 3788

Eat

You can get the best of pretty much anything you want in Hong Kong, but it’s always a good idea to eat local.  The speciality here is Cantonese, the style of Chinese cuisine most internationally prevalent:  chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and dim sum being typical dishes. There’s a gaping chasm though between what you get at your local Chinese, and the finer exponents available in situ.  Duddell’s, an eatery-cum-art-gallery in the heart of Central on the island, gives you exactly that, the finer if not finest exponents of the style, but with a modern interpretation.  Their dim sum is off-the-scale, the scallop dumplings with caviar and asparagus good enough to break the gauge, whilst their use of non-traditional ingredients such as Wagyu beef and ibérico pork exemplifies Hong Kong’s flair and individuality.  Other highlights include the a double-boiled mushroom, bamboo and cabbage soup, shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice sheets, a vegetarian ensemble of asparagus, mushrooms, lily buds and black truffles, and their signature chicken dish: marinated, air dried and then deep fried.  The best approach though might be to explore their unlimited Weekend Salon Brunch, with an option for free-flow Veuve.  Go hungry (and thirsty)!

Duddell’s, Level 3, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central

+852 2525 9191

Over the bay, in Kowloon, you’ll find the pinnacle of an unpretentious, uniquely Hong Kongese speciality being served from a tiny, humble outlet.  Whilst the physical structure belies the presence of something special, the constant queues give it away.  Mammy Pancake serves egg waffles, a base batter of eggs, sugar, flour and evaporated milk, supplemented with various other ingredients, such as chocolate, peanut butter, and banana, according to taste, prepared on a waffle iron which moulds interconnected little pods (which you break off and eat by hand), and served in a brown bag.  Simple and delicious.  Try it as a breakfast snack, or at any time of the day.

Mammy Pancake, G/F, Carnarvon Mansion, 8-12 Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

 

 

 

Hong Kong’s best bars

First published in Sawubona Magazine (February 2015 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

After a day of pounding pavements in the overcrowded sauna that is Hong Kong, you could be forgiven for contemplating a retreat to some sedate air-conditioned refuge. Or rather – that might be your expectation from afar. The electric reality though is that despite its tropical climate this city is overflowing with an infectious energy that the shirt-sticking, brow-slicking humidity just can’t restrain. You’ll soon be craving to paint the town a balls-to-the-wall shade of garish Chinese red. As my friend Jim, a legendary party guy, might have said: the east is a feast, get here and we’ll let out the beast.

Here are a few suggestions – tried, tested and trusted – for when (not if) the mood strikes. Brace yourselves.

Ozone, perched on the 118th floor of the fabulous Ritz Carlton in Kowloon, is apparently – not that I doubt it – officially the world’s highest bar. The mainland may be less fashionable but you wouldn’t think it here. With viscerally glam décor by Japanese design house Wonderwall, with a bar selection that commands both the premium and the niched, and with wrap-around views of the peninsula – the boats, the mountains, and the skyscrapers merging with the blue sky – that from this astronautical height are palpitating, sinking sundowners in this place is an indelible, knock-your-socks-off experience; no matter who you are or where you’ve been you will be impressed. I was particularly enamoured with their gin and tonic promotion, consisting of eight combinations of different gins and different tonics, and a variety of garnishes and additional ingredients ranging from Acacia honey to green tea syrup. Whiskies too feature in pleasing proportion – I counted 48, including six Glenlivets.

Alchemy, in the unhinged Central district of Hong Kong island, where it all goes down, has styled itself as a “gastronomic lounge”. An apothecaric alcove at the entrance appears to be a dead end, before a sliding panel opens to grant you access. It’s a nice touch that sets the chic tone maintained throughout. The emphasis is culinary, but that doesn’t mean you get short-changed elsewhere – quite the opposite. The bar is stocked with the usual generous assortment of premium spirits that I came to expect in Hong Kong, it demonstrates a passionate proficiency in the making of mojitos with its offering of ten different varieties, and it also holds a few surprises up its sleeve – notably a couple of options of Calvados, rare outside of France, and an uber-cool bottle of Chivas Revolve. Their “treble” notwithstanding, Alchemy is all about that bass. A three-star Michelin chef caters a tapas menu for the loungers, but the serious action takes place in the basement: dining in the dark (!), the idea being to augment your sense of taste by depriving you of your sight. Intriguing.

The evocatively named Angel’s Share is Hong Kong’s premier whisky bar. I’d heard murmurings about “secret” Japanese whisky bars, worth investigating further, but I can’t imagine that they’d top this venue on all-round appeal. The assemblage of whiskies is pleasing and considered (and indeed there’s a beefy-ish Japanese offering), with enough variety in provenance, style, and vintage to satisfy most whisky lovers, and the setting is plush and tasteful, with lots of the leather and wood that pairs so well with whisky. The centrepiece of Angel’s Share however is the cask, life-sized but not live (it has a stainless steel membrane), that dominates the entrance, and which they fill with private bottlings – on this occasion a 17YO Glenlivet, with punchy notes of citrus and spice. It may be a bit gimmicky but even as someone who’s drunk whisky in an actual dunnage warehouse it warmed the cockles to be served from a cask with a valinch.

I’m tempted to say that I’m showing you the way to the next whisky bar but whilst the Shangri-La’s Lobster Bar and Grill has a brown spirits bedrock it aspires to more than just whisky. This place is heady mix of the unashamedly masculine colonial – my stiff dram of Glenlivet (theme for the trip, 21YO this time) was served in a weighty gentleman’s club style crystal tumbler – and the majestically modern – on the adjacent roof terrace Hong Kong’s skyscrapers watch over you like towering sentinels. This is the type of place where you can listen to live music (six days a week), smoke a cigar, and have a few drinks with the friendly (and also naughty!) bar staff. Time beautifully filled.

Cocktails have become increasingly elaborate and nowhere more so than at The Envoy, whose concoctions are global award winners. This bar is so serious about its cocktails that it even has a rotary evaporator on site which is used to redistill spirits with a variety of added ingredients. I tasted an Absolut Vodka and pandan leaves distillation that demonstrated an incredible, integrated infusion of flavour. The bar offers cocktails ranging from barrel aged Negronis (which I think they consider ho-hum), and tea-centric cocktails (which they pair with their afternoon tea menu), to arrangements like the bizarrely spectacular True Blood (a deep red, ginseng flavoured liquid served in a blood bag on a metal “kill” tray).

Last but not least is Le Boudoir – a pulsing “speakeasy” for the trendy, in-the-know crowd. You’re virtually guaranteed to be one of the only tourists in the place. I walked past its unobtrusive entrance three times before identifying it. Inside you can party with a friendly throng – in my case some French and Russian expats – into the early hours to the insomniacal beat of various outstanding DJ’s, including South African Ryan Ashton.

Out and about with whisky

The Hong Kong episode

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2012 edition)

As it appeared.

There is little that’s quite as interesting for a whisky lover as a whisky excursion, whether it’s in the immediate locale, or somewhere a bit more far-flung.  Out there is a whisky world teeming with possibilities: there are maltings, distilleries, maturation warehouses, cooperages, bottlers, heritage centres, speciality shops, and bars aplenty, all waiting to be visited and explored.  I’ve tasked myself to get out and about and report back on my findings in a series of intermittent episodes, of which this, a bar tour, is the first.   It’s a tough slog of a job I know, but someone has to do it and it may as well be me.

Almost everyone it seems is travelling east these days.  China became South Africa’s leading trade partner in 2009, and its importance to our economy will almost certainly continue to grow in the future.  Despite this situation, it’s near impossible to fly there direct.  There are infrequent flights from Joburg to Beijing, but failing this somewhat impractical option one would likely be flying via the former British enclaves of Hong Kong or Singapore (subject of the next episode); and, finding oneself in either of these vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, one might be tempted to hang around for a bit.  So peripatetic whisky lovers – take note.  Here’s what one needs to know about Hong Kong.

Prince Charles was quoted as saying that Hong Kong has created one of the most successful societies on Earth.  If his opinion is valid then it would stand to reason, by my standards anyhow, that a whisky culture should be prominent.  And true it proved to be.  After a spot of preliminary research on the city’s whisky scene, and a predictably overpriced dinner in the mildly loutish Lan Kwai Fong, the famous party district, I set out to visit the two places at the top of my list: Angel’s Share and The Chinnery.

The most striking feature of Angel’s Share, dominating the entrance to the bar, is a large cask…sufficient to set the heart of any whisky lover aflutter.  My immediate impression was that this might be a “live” cask, an exciting thought.  Imagine drinking a theoretically different whisky every time one ordered from the cask!   Most distilleries however do not sell casks lock, stock, and…uh…barrel to the retail trade, and legislation now prevents single malts or single casks from being bottled outside of Scotland and effectively from being dispensed out of anything other than a bottle, so this was unlikely.  And indeed Eric Wan, my genial host, confirmed that the cask was a replica, and that its inner surface was lined with a metal membrane.  The illusion persisted nonetheless and I thoroughly enjoyed the undisputedly authentic ritual of being served from the cask – a heavy dram of Highland Park 1997 vintage having been drawn for me with a valinch*.

I would be doing the venue a disservice though if I were to fixate exclusively on the cask.  This is the ideal place to enjoy a superb evening of whisky appreciation and casual conversation – it is all dim-lit, intimate-nooked, and leather sofa’d elegance.  Whilst the brash whisky-drinking classes emerging in the Mainland might be quaffing the golden nectar with green tea (shudder), the clientele here is rather more refined and sophisticated.  Hong Kong after all has always been, and remains, the leading edge of the wedge.  The menu is somewhat modest by upper-tier whisky bar standards, but with a selection of 150 odd distinct whiskies, it is ample regardless.  I spotted a Macallan 1936 at HK$ 1240 (about the same in Rands) for a 30ml serving.  Perhaps when my ship comes in….

Eric twisted my rubber arm and had me linger longer over a glass of the excellent Laddie 17YO, his favourite of the moment.  This was my first rum-casked whisky, and its big exotic fruit flavours were well worth the wait.  Eventually however I reluctantly dragged myself away and hurried over to The Chinnery.  They hadn’t responded (in time) to my request for an appointment but I thought I’d just pitch up anyhow.  I arrived just before midnight only to encounter a massive disappointment – the place had closed for the evening.   The Chinnery has a laudable reputation, and I’m sure that it’s spectacular, but I have to ask: what kind of whisky bar closes at 11pm on a Saturday evening?  Especially in Hong Kong.  I’ll have to wait for my next visit to get an answer.

As my train headed over the horizon and my leaving became palpable I felt my spirits buoyed by this visit to a very special bar in this very special town.  If in the vicinity be sure to follow suit.  May the dram be with you!

*Valinch – A tube-like instrument used for drawing liquor from a cask via its bunghole.