My First Month in Hong Kong
Riddle’s resident chef has swapped London for the sights and smells of Hong Kong
Article by Sam Sinha
I was chatting with a restaurant consultant friend who has been in Hong Kong for many years, trying to figure out what I could do for work here. I was a chef back in London, and also was writing freelance, and I was open to possibilities in Hong Kong. What he said stuck with me and it helped me to get my head around this city.
“Hong Kong is built on the financial industry, everything else is sucking on that teet.”
Basically, if you want to make money, you have to give the bankers what they want, “big-ass steaks, rare whiskies and harbour views.” He also told me you have to open with at least $700,000 (£70,000) to have a chance of staying open. Perhaps I’ll go with writing then, I thought.
As it happened I landed an internship at Time Out magazine, writing for the food and drink section, which is has been a great experience so far and has allowed me to get to know the food industry here and meet a lots of useful contacts (including the aforementioned restaurant consultant).
Whilst I’m still green in this new city on the other side of the world, I thought I’d share my impressions and perhaps make some comparisons with London, since it’s the only other major city I’ve lived in.
The non-urban jungle
I remember the smells, traffic and poverty shocking me when I first arrived in New Delhi, travelling when I was 18, but Hong Kong’s skyline, rising up between the sea and the mountains, with highways and flyovers snaking in between, has to be the most arresting view I’ve ever experienced as a newcomer.
I couldn’t believe the amount of green! Obviously the thousands of skyscrapers caught my attention too, but I was expecting them. Lurking behind the urban jungle, was a real jungle; walk five minutes out from the skyscrapers in some of the busiest parts of the city and you reach steep slopes covered in a thick bush of trees and tropical plants.
It turns out Hong Kong is not just about bankers and fine-dining. Out from Central, there are tons of beaches, great hikes, frequent “junk” boat parties – where you sail out to a secluded bay and drink, eat and float around in the sea all day. In fact 40 per cent of the land area of Hong Kong is taken up by country parks and nature reserves and there are over 250 islands, many of which are fairly uninhabited and boast picture perfect sandy beaches.
Driving past the port was eye-opening too. One of the world’s busiest, it’s an uber-efficient industrial marvel. Thousands of containers, being loaded on and off huge ships, and stacked in towers, everything controlled by a central computer system. The port’s trade is the reason the city managed to establish itself. Its frontage, where ships can berth and unload, is as long as 77 football pitches.
Hong Kong seems to be a land of juxtapositions; the wealthy bankers alongside the obvious poverty all over the city, the clash of the Chinese and British culture, and of course the wild jungle versus the shiny financial centre.
As the city grew rapidly during the last century it had nowhere to go but up. There are over 7,000 high rise buildings, with 316 over 150m. To put that in context, London has only 17 buildings rising to that height, a city of more than a million more people. I found it strange at first, that all the addresses start with the floor number but this has become normal. It’s often difficult to find the entrance to a building and you spend a lot of time going up and down in lifts, or just waiting for them, but the most annoying side effect of living under the shadow of thousands of monster buildings is that GPS location hardly works; often it will tell you are facing the opposite way from where you are, or the pointer swings around wildly. Navigating the city becomes much trickier than back home! It highlights how reliant we all our on our phones these days.
Socially and culturally, there was no great shock. I had an easy introduction, my girlfriend is a teacher at an international school and they looked after us well, plus there was a whole school of British teachers to socialise with straight away.
There’s plenty of fascinating Chinese culture to experience here, but it’s also very easy to slip into an expat bubble. There’s all kinds of Western and international restaurants and bar to enjoy, and almost everyone speaks English so there’s no need to learn a word of Cantonese if you don’t want to.
I have started to see more of the local Chinese culture and to understand that there is “Hong Kong” culture which is a mixture of British and Chinese. Starting at Time Out, I have met more local people which is absolutely the best way to learn about a new place, of course. I’ve picked up a few words of Cantonese, like “m goi” which means “thank you”, “please”, and “hey!” plus a bunch of other things – it’s a very useful word. Next month I should have more to add on this subject, for now I am still soaking it all up. One thing I can say is the dim sum and roasted meats are great!
I wouldn’t be a true Brit unless I talked about the weather. It’s actually not as boring here. Within the first two weeks of arriving we experienced a T10 typhoon, the highest warning level for the frequent tropical storms. A typhoon is the same as a hurricane, the names just depends on the region, so this was a pretty big deal.
The whole city was on alert, schools and offices closed, and everyone got a day off. For us this meant a hotel buffet breakfast where we heard that some of the teachers had been out in a bar the night before playing “Typhoon Roulette.” It was a Tuesday night and they were hoping that school would be cancelled so they wouldn’t have to wake up at 6am the next morning. Some bars offer free shots and very cheap drinks deals to those brave enough to venture out in a T10, so they got absolutely smashed, the jeopardy being that the alert level might never rise. They got lucky though!
As we sat in the hotel all day, WhatsApp messages started circulating of flooded underground car parks full of cars, people being blown across the street, and even one horrible video of a man being crushed by a truck whilst trying to stop it being blown over. We woke the next morning to a city of fallen branches and battered signs, but everything went back to normal pretty quickly. People still talk about the 1988 hurricane back home, but this one will soon be forgotten.
Apart from typhoons, the weather in August is very hot, on or above 30℃ (day and night), with humidity of 75 per cent or above. There are frequent tropical rainstorms that will suddenly pour down and then just as quickly cease. Everyone carries umbrellas and they’ll be out (at eye level) rain or shine, as people use them to shade themselves from the sun too.
As a result of the constant heat, you’re usually a sweaty mess by the time you’ve made the two minute walk from your building to the MTR (tube) station. Every building has air conditioning though, so you’ll soon by blasted by freezing air, so people also carry around blankets for when it gets too cold inside.