Monday, September 12, 2016

Making myself at home on Hollywood

That’s right, it’s on, not in, Hollywood. When I visited my son, B, who had just recently moved to Hongkong, his tiny apartment on Hollywood Road became home for a few days. I re-acquainted myself with Nom Nom, his cat, who seemed to have settled in nicely and showed me a new trick or two. I also took to exploring his Sheung Wan neighborhood, and discovered some gems that might escape the eyes of the casual visitor.

The few times I had visited the island city in the past, I either stayed in hotels or with friends who kindly ferried me around to places of interest, spanking shopping malls and ritzy restaurants. Even when I walked along some of the streets on my last visit, I was only presented with a highly sanitized view.

This time around, when B was at work, I was pretty much left to my own devices. And so I took to sussing out the neighborhood. With map in hand and app on my phone, I set out each day.

Sheung Wan, like old and established pockets such as Greenwich Village in New York and Nottingham Hill in London, remains a timeless bastion of old world charm. Yes, the skyscrapers are just a subway ride away, paeans to big time global commerce, but here, in minuscule hole-in-the-wall shops and stalls lined along steep alleys, locals are out buying groceries, picking up hot pastries or the latest gossip.

Graffiti as wall art?
In just about a one-mile radius of steep hillside streets, criss-crossed by stairs and the famous Mid-level escalator, there is a host of trendy cafes, restaurants and bars. We dined at some excellent ones. Chom Chom, a Vietnamese restaurant on Peel Street, featured an open kitchen that wasn’t any bigger than my own tiny kitchen. Manned by four or five chefs who moved about seamlessly with balletic grace to produce some amazing food, it was packed out, and it wasn’t surprising to see why.

Hongkong probably has more luxury cars per sq mile than anywhere else!
I also had my fix of wonton noodles. I have to admit that I don’t remember what shop I went into (yes, another hole-in-the-wall) but it was full of locals so I knew the food had to be good. Noodles cooked to al dente perfection. Wontons that were practically crunchy and bursting with flavor. I picked up some egg tarts hot from the oven afterwards and wolfed them down at a cafe with my long black, practically cooing as my tummy rumbled in contentment.

I managed to cook a meal or two in B’s mini kitchen, and Nom Nom kindly showed me how the stove worked! I had even more fun shopping for ingredients. A large market just two blocks down had just about everything I needed. A rare sight was live chickens which I guess would be slaughtered to order. I balked at this and retreated to a nearby supermarket for my chicken. I was reminded again of what finicky cooks and diners the Hongkong Cantonese are, demanding the best. I wouldn’t be surprised if housewives in the neighborhood did their grocery shopping twice a day to make sure they got the freshest possible produce for both lunch and dinner.

A few of the steep alleys were lined with produce stalls selling everything from fresh vegetables and fruits to even meat and fish. I swear, no matter what time of day I walked along these alleys, the stalls were always open. Seeking respite from the humid summer’s day, I ducked into shops selling tea or spices or nuts, sampling the goods and making small purchases. I have to admit that many of the dried good stores were just bewildering to me, selling Chinese medicinal products and dried seafood that I hadn’t seen before, much less sampled. All I knew was that they were very expensive.

Hollywood Road and its surroundings are a mish-mash of old and new that practically assail all the senses. High end art galleries abut Man Mo Temple, a 150-year old temple just a few doors away from B’s apartment.

Couture boutiques have to share sidewalk space with junk shops. Even out walking, everything passes in a colourful blur, until you pause, look around and notice the gems.

A rice merchant with all manner of the grain. Another just full of exotic spices. A shop selling only dried noodles, presented like precious gifts. Just a few doors away was another shop, selling Iberico jamon!

Fun activities for children on weekends
After a few days of acquainting myself with the neighborhood, I started to feel pretty much at home. I knew which supermarket had a good selection of wines (all of them do actually!), which cafe served coffee just the way I like it, and where to pick up fresh tofu. Can I get used to living here, with Hongkong’s frenetic pace and steep, steep streets? Probably not, but it sure was fun pretending to be a local for a few days and tapping into a little of what makes this city so vibrant and alive.

1 comment: