Food, food, food, food, food. it’s been a month since my intensive two-week tour of Hong Kong restaurants and the non-fat, low-taste yogurt and Whole Foods berries staring back at me from the typical American breakfast table bring to mind a fallen civilization. What I wouldn’t do for a lardy egg tart for breakfast, a braised goose for lunch, and for dinner, I believe I would like several smoky fishes, two plates of tea-soaked shrimp, and one serving of barbecued char siu pork, the sauce bleeding into the rice, my nostrils awake and alive to the scent of everything.
Hong Kong is food. I heard somewhere that there’s shopping and finance, too. I know there’s a smattering of the arts, because my friend, the superb writer and Hong Kong resident Janice Lee—her atmospheric first novel, The Piano Teacher, is set in the former colony—invites me to a reading at an important shoe store. Oh, and there’s other stuff one probably shouldn’t miss—skylines and beaches, temples and spas.
But mostly there’s food.
From the free candy you get upon landing at immigration to the noodle-soup station at the business-class lounge dishing out shrimp wontons at dusk, a trip to Hong Kong is framed by sustenance. The relative compactness of the city, the tight embrace of its subtropical climate, the excellent subways and cheap taxis—everything conspires to move you about until you find the perfect little air-conditioned hole-in-the-wall where, at three in the morning, a small family will be slicing up mangoes. From the many-starred hotel establishments to the crowd of Filipina maids eating Sunday plates of gleaming rice in the lobby of Norman Foster’s HSBC skyscraper, everyone is in on the action and everyone’s a critic. A popular lunch, brunch, and dinnertime topic is the recent publication of the first Michelin guide to Hong Kong and how they managed to get everything wrong. Food is personal here, bad food an insult, good food a blessing, and the best way to see Hong Kongers at their most communal and animated is to follow them directly to the table.
To begin your Hong Kong culinary education, have your hotel wangle an invitation to Saturday brunch at the China Club, a members-only oasis taking up the top three floors of the old Bank of China building. This is as central as you can get in Hong Kong’s Central district. From the China Club’s outdoor deck, facing Kowloon across the harbor, all the restaurants I am about to visit stretch before me—from the cool neighborhoods of Causeway Bay and Wan Chai to the east to busy, authentic Sheung Wan to the west. The retro 1930’s Shanghai teahouse décor is beautiful. Note the elegant ceiling fans, the rotary phones, the Art Deco touches, and the extensive contemporary-art collection featuring Chinese “political pop”—for example, Yu Youhan’s hilarious painting of Chairman Mao exhorting his boys, next to singer Whitney Houston exhorting herself. The art has always been peppy and tasteful, but after a decade of unexceptional Cantonese dishes, the club’s members tell me the food at the China Club is finally holding its own.
My hosts are my friends and longtime Hong Kong residents Eunei and Ron Lee, both of fine appetite and unimpeachable taste—their six-year-old, Isaiah, is already comfortable distinguishing between Taiwanese and Filipino mangoes—and they steer me to some local favorites: the smooth liver in congee with nuts, a crispy barbecue pork that stands up decently to the char siu found on the streets, and a succulent, spicy razor clam.
The first word of the day is tai-tai, a wealthy housewife, and one who often lives to shop and lunch. (The state of the economy has given rise to the guy-tai, a former Master of the Universe now living off his girlfriend or wife.) I see a tai-tai crowd awaiting the arrival of attractively honeycombed shredded-turnip cakes and diving for the plate of sweet caramelized tofu. Their instincts are usually right. The second word of the day is gweilo, a fairly innocuous way of pointing out a white person. Things have changed since the handover of the territory from the British to the Chinese in 1997, and today at the China Club there are but a few gweilos circulating pinkly among the masses of helmet-haired Cantonese grandmothers and remarkably intact multigenerational families.