Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017

© Jeremy Ferguson

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Hong Kong on a wire

Hop on and off the double-decker trams for a taste of the city's everyday pleasures

“It’s not for people in a hurry,” the foreigner is told. But then, the foreigner is a gwai lo, the venerable Cantonese term for “foreign devil” and unlikely to understand.

“But I’m not in a hurry.”

“All people in a hurry.”

We beg to differ. There are people who are native to Hong Kong and not in a hurry. They’re called seniors.

Confronted with the daunting crowds of the all-too-successful Hong Kong Metro, they choose the old-fashioned alternative: a leisurely, uncrowded and scenic way of getting around. Welcome to HK Tramways Ltd., known as the “Ding-Ding” for the bell that clangs merrily at every stop. The trolley has been around since 1904. HK, in fact, operates the largest fleet of double-decker trolleys in the world, 161 vehicles that carry more than 200,000 unhurried souls a day. It pauses at 65 stops and rumbles across most of Hong Kong Island. The downtown line runs east-west from Sheung Wan to Shau Kei Wan. The view from the upper deck is panoramic, bird-like. Windows open to allow for camerawork. No wonder, it's finding an appreciative new public among tourists.

Growing up in Toronto, whose unbroken romance with the streetcar goes back to 1888, I have a lifetime love of trolley cars. I love the sheer pokiness of it, the ability to observe with detachment the city’s neighbourhoods and its passing parade. When I was a youngster, the city was my oyster because of the streetcar. I couldn’t figure out why I would ever want to drive a car. I never did.

A day or two on the HK Ding-Ding, hopping off and exploring clear across town, is a plainly irresistible prospect. The Tourist Board even put together a clickable guide (discoverhongkong.com/tramguide) with information about points of interest around each trolley stop. We hopped aboard.

Antiques and potency pills

First stop: Sheung Wan, which seems a planet away from the glittering highrises of Central. This is Hong Kong as it was when I first read about in the 1960s, when you could walk into the Western Market and pick up a tailor-made silk suit for the price of dinner. The Western Market’s still here, but the bargains are long-gone: The tailors are all in China’s Guangdong Province now. That’s where Hong Kong people go to shop.

Sheung Wan’s hive of shops offers all kinds of health miracles from dried animal bits and herbal medicines to a bazillion wannabe cures for erectile dysfunction. Old-style apartment buildings painted in wretched colours and festooned with battered air-conditioners loom like crumbling buttes over life on the street. The neighbourhood has character. It’s also a good place to find a foot massage.

Hollywood Road begins here. It isn’t the treasure hunt it was 20 years ago, when I found a barrel of 19th-century Chinese puppets in a variety store. Now it’s strictly upscale, a gauntlet of classy art galleries and antique shops merchandising centuries of Chinese history and culture. Deep pockets walk the talk. The rest of us sigh and window-shop.

Tea house central

Next stop: Central. Hop off at Landmark, the department store that is a magnet for shopaholics. But beyond the shimmering towers and luxe hotels, there’s a low-rise world of temples, markets and alleyways of stalls offering every cheap trinket and garment they cobble together in mainland China, where the factories are: Hong Kong doesn’t make a sock.

But HK, the eatingest city in the world, does food, and food like you won’t find anywhere else. The Ding-Ding walks are a journey into the colours and textures of barbecued pork, barbecued duck hanging in windows, thousand-year eggs, dried fishes and entrails you’d rather not know about. They’re also candid encounters with the people who toil to give HK the unique personality of a colossal, non-stop market.

Pause on Gage Street for tea filtered through a stocking at the inventive Lan Fong Yuen (2 Gage Street; tel: 011-852-2544-3895). Then head for egg tarts at Tai Cheong Bakery (32 Lyndhurst Terrace; tel: 011-852-2544-3475), which prompted former governor Chris Patton to praise the owner as “the best baker in the world.” Stroll the Graham Street market, one of the area’s most colourful streets, HK in miniature.

If the appetite transcends peckishness, breakfast at the Lin Heung Tea House (162 Wellington Street; tel: 011-852-2544-4556). The spittoon in the corner has been there since the 1930s, part of its resolutely grotty atmosphere. The steamy kitchen rolls out spring rolls, fried rice, chicken feet and fish stomachs, take your pick. Dim sum trolleys roll through the crowd like tumbrels. Customers lunge at them. The food is coarse, but tasty. It’s the sense of place that lingers as an aftertaste.

From noodles to molecules

Next stop: Wan Chai. It started as a fishing village a century ago and evolved into the city’s buzzing nightlife district. Fifty years ago, it was the setting for The World of Suzie Wong. By night, it’s glitter city. But by day, it’s a tasting tour of the town, sip by sip, bite by bite.

Congee lovers must visit Sang Kee (2-3/F, 107-115 Hennessy Road; tel: 011-852-2575-2236), where the celebrated rice porridge boils for a record eight hours, instead of two, producing a silken consistency and the harmonic flavours of pork on the bone, dried scallops, tangerine peel, fried fish, meatballs and coriander. The house specialty at Chiu Yuen Chiu Chow Noodle (37 Spring Garden Lane; tel: 011-852-2892-2322) is deep-fried fish skin, which is far more delicious than novices can imagine. And at Yip Heung Lau (104 Johnston Street; tel: 011-852-8202-7207), it’s all about Kudzu vine tea, brewed for 10 hours, its flavour salty, sweet and sour all at once, and guaranteed to soothe the lungs.

For devout foodies, the ultimate stop is Bo Innovation (Shop 13, 2/F J Residence, 60 Johnston Road; tel: 011-852-2850-8371; www.boinnovation.com). Awarded two Michelin stars, Bo Innovation is perhaps HK’s most cutting-edge restaurant. Its specialty is molecular cuisine — Chinese molecular.

The chef is Alvin Leung, who grew up in the Toronto burb of Scarborough. He graduated from the University of Toronto as an engineer. He loves hockey. “I’m so Canadian,” he says, “I can remember the Leafs winning in 1966.”

Leung is the gleeful enfant terrible of HK chefs. He bills himself as “Demon Chef.” His stock-in-trade is “X-treme Chinese.” He looks plenty punk. He works in T-shirt and shorts. But what springs from Leung’s stunningly creative kitchen is no laughing matter.

He speaks of kokumi, the newly labelled sixth taste, which he personally defines as “rich and delicious, with a big aftertaste.” He whirls in the flavours of prawn oil (“pure umami”), lotus-leaf powder (he powders it himself), foie gras powder and sandalwood smoke. “People come here for my culinary DNA,” he says. “But that’s one of the problems: It can never be as good the second time because the surprise is gone.”

A Leung lunch is a treasure box of surprises: He takes har gow, traditional shrimp dumpling, up-market with tiger prawn, black truffle and prawn oil. His gyoza, Korean pork dumpling, comes with foie gras and Chinese vinaigrette, a triumph of sweet-and-tart. He refreshes the palate with crushed pomelo drizzled with sweetly spiced vinegar. He makes a tempura of tofu, sits it in a sauce of pine nuts, chili oil and bell pepper and adds a dollop of salmon caviar. This is the most inventive food I’ve ever found in Hong Kong.

A nickel for a curse

Next stop: Causeway Bay. From Gooseneck Bridge, it’s literally steps to one of HK’s most exotic phenomena: Meet the curse ladies. Curse ladies huddle under the bridge. You provide the name and birthday of an enemy. The curse lady burns an offering. She cuts a human shape from paper. She beats it with a shoe. She heaps curses. It disintegrates. Out of your life go bad people and bad luck. The price for such voodoo-like punishment upon one’s loathed is a mere Canadian nickel, a bargain at the price. Business is very, very brisk.

Next stop: North Point. Hop off the Ding-Ding into the hub of the Chun Yeung Street Market, which runs on both sides of the tram tracks. This is an ideal spot for photographing the Ding-Ding as it sweeps down the street, parting the shopping throng on both sides.

Last stop: Shau Kei Wan. Disembark and find your way to Ming Cha (Room D, 12/F, 8 Shipyard Lane; tel: 011-852-2882-9812) in the nearby Tai Koo Shing neighbourhood. Ming Cha sits on the 12th floor of a grungy factory building. But there’s nothing grungy about it: Sit down to a tasting of teas and chocolate in a way that marries scholarly pursuits and sensuality.

Proprietor Vivian Mak, a charming entrepreneur with a conspicuous love for her subject, guides gwai los on a tour of the teas — categories such as Tippy Puers, Premium Greens, Gungfu Reds and Wuyi’s — that represent the finest and rarest in all China. An hour with Vivian and it’s impossible to leave without the pleasure of a new appreciation. As souvenirs go, it ain’t shabby.

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