Monthly Archives: October 2010

Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens: Green there, done that

It’s a nice day, you’re unemployed and at a loose end. What to do that’s cheap, interesting and actually involves leaving the house? How about a trip to Hong Kong’s Zoological and Botanical Gardens?

Admittedly, now probably isn’t the best time of year to visit as most of the 1000 plus species of plants are no longer flowering. Yet given it was an absolutely beautiful summer’s day and I wasn’t sure if we’d be having any more of those this year, my boyfriend and I decided to make the trip to Central and have a calm and gentle stroll around.

Trek not helped by The Stairs To Nowhere. HK Planning Department Fail.

Of course, we forgot that beautiful summer’s day = getting hot and sweaty. Especially as it’s a bit of a trek to get there, much of it uphill, and one problem of an open-air park is that there isn’t a blast of cool air-conditioning to welcome you there! (I still think the LCSD is missing a trick by not making its museums and parks have proper restaurants and cafes. It’s something many places in England have done, making them destinations in their own right. But most places I’ve visited in HK make do with an amateur-run eaterie, akin to the school cafeteria, with plastic chairs, dishing up instant noodles – and that’s on a good day! HKZBG was no exception, sporting a few fast food kiosks. Given the number of young families and yummy mummies visiting, I think a beautiful café could make a killing here). However, it’s still a lovely place, especially since this spot of lush verdant greenery is nestled right in the heart of Central’s towering skyscrapers.

The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens is one of the oldest of its kind around the world, with construction starting in 1860, opening to the public in 1864. The pagoda inside is the oldest structure in the garden and there are a few other historical statues, like a bronze one of King George erected to commemorate the 100th anniversary of British colonial rule in HK and a memorial arch as you walk in dedicated to British and Chinese soldiers who died in the war. I was also surprised by how many animals there were, an eclectic bunch of simians, reptiles and around 400 exotically-plumaged birds.

But I was here because I missed green stuff. I missed plants. I missed grass. I missed trees and shrubs and my garden. I missed walking around in green spaces, breathing in fresh air and being a bit removed from the rumble of pollution and the smog of concrete. So most of my pictures are of that. Enjoy. (As ever, click to enlarge). And yes, I will be going back in Spring.

This plant was called mother-in-law’s tongue! *Insert mother-in-law joke here*

Some form of Heliconia, also known as ‘false bird-of-paradise’. You can see why! Birds-of-paradise were always my favourite house plant in Sims!

Another hibiscus – not HK’s national flower, but it might as well be.

I want to call these catkins. They might not be but whatever, it still reminded me of my Flower Fairies books.

The Education and Exhibition Centre currently houses a display of orchids. Most were fairly standard (or as standard as orchids ever can be!), like those at CWB’s Flower Market but these were unusually beautiful.

I thought these tree roots were amazing – like a labyrinth or a witch’s hand! Better than any modern art sculpture!

Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Albany Road, Central, 2530 0154. Free admission. Fountain Terrace Garden (the fountain was closed when I visited!), open 6am to 10pm. Green House and Exhibition Centre, 6am-4pm. All other areas, 6am-7pm.

Get a bus or get the MTR to Pacific Place, Admiralty. Go up the escalators at the side by Grappas and Lane Crawford to Hong Kong Park and follow the signs to the HK Zoological and Botanical Gardens.

The Pawn restaurant review – the Pawn identity

UPDATE: The Pawn has since been renovated with an entirely new menu!

So we’ve talked history, we’ve worried about heritage and we’ve waxed lyrical about the views – but what about the restaurant itself? Well, it’s safe to say that The Pawn acquits itself fairly nicely on the food front as well.

So what does The Pawn have in common with The Press Room Group’s other restaurants (The Press Room and SML)? Amazing attention to detail, that’s what. Part of what makes all three of those places real dining experiences is that no expense has been spared on the décor, the ambience and the little niggly things that all contribute to giving you a great feeling about eating there. Consequently, The Pawn makes the most of its old shophouse setting – airy high ceilings, balcony seating, long iron-grilled windows and decoration that totally fits with the simple grandeur of the place.

It feels like a comfy dining room. Not a posh snooty one where you daren’t clatter your cutlery, not the one in your gran’s sitting room with the conked-out sofas, but somewhere nice in-between. The chairs are proper rustic wooden dining chairs, with embroidered cushions and arts and crafts style engravings, but all slightly different so it’s obvious they weren’t just bulk bought from Ikea. There are strips of beautiful bespoke floral wallpaper (designed by HK artist Tsang Kin-Wah) that, when viewed up-close, is basically pretty graffiti. There’s lots more honest brown furniture that feels old without feeling ancient, like it had a life before The Pawn rather than being created especially for it, whilst the famous HK pawnshop symbol recurs throughout, on their personalised crockery, restored on the wall outside and even on the platter that your bill arrives on. Add a few Hong Kong touches, like simple dangling plastic ceiling lamps and views over bustling Wan Chai with the audible dinging of passing trams and you have beautifully-executed design that’s obviously had hours of thought poured into it but that still feels relaxed and unobtrusive, rather than fake and try-hard. As you may be able to tell, I loved it.

Meanwhile, the menu is pure British gastropub. Ham hock, bone marrow, liver, hearty portions of red meat and mash in various guises, sticky toffee pudding, apple crumble… but all posh-ed up, with modern chef-y twists and served in a becoming manner, hence just about justifying charging $180 for a plate of fish and chips.

The lunch deal, however, is pretty amazing. $150 for three generously-sized courses of such quality is fantastic value and bizarrely, cheaper than ordering any single main from the a la carte menu.

I started things off with pumpkin and ginger soup, definitely only suitable for those that don’t mind their soups being sweet. Despite it being part of the set, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they hadn’t stinted on portion size and despite it being a piping hot day, I was pleasantly surprised that my piping hot soup still felt summery. It was rich, thick and creamily sweet and I loved the warm fuzzy kick that the ginger gave. There were also two glazed crispy toast type things providing a snappy crunch that complemented the soup perfectly.

Onto my main of Dover sole, with a lemon butter sauce, mash and assorted leaves. When my boyfriend tasted it, he commented ‘The sauce is the best thing on there.’ He was absolutely right, begging the question: why wasn’t there more of it?! One of my pet hates (can you tell I watch too much Masterchef?!) is when sauces are dribbled about for artistic effect rather than actual consumption. Yes, it looked pretty, but it tasted even better and I wanted more! My fish was nicely-cooked and, combined with what little drizzle there was, tasted lightly lovely, but the mash was oddly cold and there was too much of it (a problem endemic with mash in general). And, to me, leaves will always be just leaves.

My boyfriend had the fish and chips. I tested the waiter was genuinely curious and asked what type of fish it was – sole again, apparently. Given how thin sole is, chef did well to fry this without making it dry and flaky. It was soft and moist, coated in golden crispy batter that was just about the right thickness. We knew it’d be a good ‘un when my boyfriend stuck his knife in and it crackled and crunched nicely! The boring peas would have been better as mushy peas, with some appropriately chef-y twist like mint and again, the overall portion was huge. But the chips were the star. In Hong Kong, you’ll get served a lot of supposed chips, with very few of them equating to anything like a British chip. French fries, frites, wedges, criss-cut, curly, julienne, slightly fatter frites but still definitely not chips, very obviously formerly-frozen chips out a bag – we’ve seen it all. These chips were the real deal. Reassuringly fat, crispy on the outside, meltingly soft on the inside, piping hot and made from quality spuds, they were just about the closest I’ve come to real chips so far in Hong Kong. Steak-cut slabs of gold.

Finally, dessert. Otherwise known as heaven. It was a banana walnut cake with toffee sauce, which I was ordering mainly for the toffee sauce, hoping it would be similar to the a-maz-ing butterscotch sauce in SML’s profiteroles. I don’t even like banana walnut cake… I’m now banana walnut cake’s biggest fan. Often, banana can be an overpowering presence but here it was a pleasant fruity undertone and the earthy flavour and crunch of walnuts ran through the cake, in addition to some very Chinese candied walnut clusters on the top (often seen as appetisers in Chinese restaurants). The sponge was light and I’d practically scoffed it all before I realised I’d started. But oh, the toffee sauce! I’m in raptures just reliving it now. Sticky, gooey, dark, rich, sweet, syrupy caramel. I would have licked the plate clean if I could (and as you can see, I gave it a good go with my spoon!). My boyfriend kept catching me give little gleeful grins as I set about demolishing it; I think I was hugging myself with delight by the end. Imagine the infamous scene from When Harry Met Sally and you’re probably not far off.

So yes, the prices are a little steep. Yes, the food is not really aiming at Michelin-starred ingenuity. And yes, you’re paying as much for the atmosphere as for the ingredients. But for a special occasion, a luxurious lunch or just because you fancy treating yourself, I think it’s worth it. And if you really can’t stretch to it, just shimmy up to the roof garden instead!

The Pawn, 2F, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, 2866 3444

Banner photo from Urban Renewal Authority’s website

Pawn Again: views from The Roof Garden @ The Pawn

When I used to work in Wan Chai, my colleague and I used to dawdle about the streets until the dying seconds of our lunch hour, bemoaning the lack of pleasant public spaces in the area where we could sit and avoid returning to the office for as long as possible. Little did I know that one such place did exist and could have saved us from being harangued by strippers and grimacing over grotty tattoo parlour displays in the streets of WC.

The Roof Garden (and yes, those are real plants and they’re gorgeous), on the third floor of The Pawn restaurant, is a quiet haven from the heaving hubbub of Wan Chai. It offers spectacular views over the city, a chance to drink in the different styles of architecture and savour the fact that somehow, a little piece of old Hong Kong has been preserved. Admittedly, preserved by becoming a set of swanky restaurants, but preserved nevertheless.

Photo contrasting the old Woo Cheong Pawnshop with the new development, from HK Man’s Flickr, which you need to check out like, now. Hundreds of amazing photographs like this comparing old and new HK.

The Pawn occupies the former premises of century-old Woo Cheong Pawnshop (hence the name), a set of four tenement houses (known as “tong lau”) originally built around the turn of the 20th century. “Tong lau” were unique to Hong Kong and Southern China, balcony-type shophouses featuring a mixture of Chinese and Western architecture, where the ground floor was usually devoted to a family business whilst the upper levels were residential. These ones have four stories, with high ceilings, French windows to the balconies, verandahs facing Johnston Road and other typical Tong Lau features that you can see in some of my photos, like the balustrades and decorative urns on the roof, which have been restored and revitalised. Columns on the ground floor supported the upper levels, forming a covered pedestrian arcade – a feature more HK buildings today could do with, saving us from the beating sun and dripping air cons!

Another nice little detail – the shophouses did not have toilet provisions. Instead, the “nightsoil” was collected by government scavengers at night from the pail latrine (i.e. a bucket). How do I know all this stuff? Well, upon visiting the Roof Garden, you’re met by an attendant from the Urban Renewal Authority (who bought the building in 2003 and helped restore it), bearing a pamphlet snappily entitled “Welcome to The Pawn Roof Woo Cheong Pawnshop Building Cluster”, full of such interesting facts and photos! Apparently, this was a response to The Pawn not exactly encouraging non paying-customers to enjoy the Roof Garden but I certainly had no such problems on my visit. Sadly, the attendant didn’t speak much English so couldn’t answer any of my other questions – like whether some of the racks on the roof were actually from the Woo Cheong Pawnshop itself (they definitely looked rusty enough!).

The preserved terrazo front sign for Woo Cheong Pawn Shop

It’s easy to get frustrated with Hong Kong’s attempts (or lack of) at historical preservation. Many old buildings have ceded to anonymous modern developments already and it always seems to be an uphill battle to prevent sites of historic interest from being ripped apart and swiftly following suit. Although it isn’t exactly ideal that these century-old tenements have survived as a luxury commercial development sold to the highest bidder (with Woo Cheong shunted out elsewhere in Wan Chai to make way for them), I’d rather concentrate on being happy that it’s survived at all, that a stunning part of it is easily and freely accessible to all and that The Pawn has put real effort and thought into making the most of its setting and history (review of the restaurant itself here!).

[And what with The Press Room Group paying homage to the pawnshop, having previously done so with The Press Room itself (its name references the Overseas Chinese Daily News / Hua Qiao Daily newspaper, the 1920s residents of that building), perhaps they’re getting a taste for this kind of thing?!]

View showing the orange lift going up the side of the Hopewell Centre, which at the time of its completion (1980) was the tallest building and first circular skyscraper in Hong Kong

As for the Roof Garden – well, the pictures speak for themselves, don’t they? (As ever, click for enlargements.) It’s a spot of serenity with absolutely breathtaking views and a humbling sense of heritage. (And it would be absolutely great for a private party as well, they have a bar and everything!) There is also a small computer screen attached to one of the columns downstairs as part of the Wan Chai Heritage Trail (quite how it hasn’t been carted off by some hobo yet I’m unsure) which details some of the history of the area – including jaw-dropping maps showing how much land has been reclaimed. Basically, I’d have been standing in the sea!

Whilst we were enjoying having the place to ourselves, my boyfriend wondered when Hong Kong’s legion of “helpers”, who swarm in the thousands upon HK’s various public spaces every Sunday in a sea of fried chicken, hip-hop dancing and piercing babble (making many such areas impossibly crowded and near inpenetrable to the average pedestrian… never mind the amount of debris and mess left at the end of the day – will save that rant for another day!), might discover it. So get down there before they – or anyone else for that matter – does and savour this hidden oasis set in the midst of our concrete jungle. Enjoy.

Ding-ding!

Photos showing the redevelopment and restoration

The instantly-recognisable HK pawn shop logo. Wikipedia reckons it represents a bat (signifying fortune) holding a coin (signifying benefits). The character in the middle is the symbol for pawn shop, the two upper characters the name of the family who own the shop.

Roof Garden, 3/F The Pawn, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai.

For more information and photographs about the restoration and preservation of 60-66 Johnston Road, check out the Urban Renewal Authority’s website here.

Zoya Bekka nail polish review

Ever wish that nail polish manufacturers had a direct hotline to your imagination, so that the perfect colour you envisage yet are never quite able to find actually becomes reality? Well, it seems someone at Zoya has such a hotline, because Bekka was exactly the colour I was looking for.

Ever since I saw the video for Pixie Lott’s Boys & Girls (below and still my favourite song of hers, by the way), I’ve been madly in lust with the fluorescent yellow nails she sports whilst whipping out a pinkie-perfect dance routine. Admittedly, over a year is quite a long time to be hung up over a nail colour and it had thus developed mythical properties in my mind. After torturing my boyfriend by umming and ahhing over various yellows in Cher2 for several agonising minutes (too yellow… too neon… too pale… not yellow enough), I eventually settled on Zoya’s Bekka, despite it having a gold glitter in it.

When I got back into the nail polish groove, I made several promises to myself and one was: NO GLITTER. I just felt it was too immature, reminded me too much of playing dress-up and, from what I remember, was a total pain to clean off. But Bekka was the colour that most closely resembled the edgy fluro yellow in my mind so I put my prejudices aside and gave it a go – and thank God I did, because it was a gamble that paid off.

Firstly, a bit about Zoya itself. Not a brand I’d heard of before and at $80, the most expensive in Cher2, despite seeming to have the dinkiest bottles of the lot. It’s formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) free, which is a very good thing indeed as I’ve since discovered this ‘Big 3’ of nasty-sounding nail varnish chemicals can, amongst other concerns, cause severe allergic reactions. The brush is more of an Essie than an OPI, i.e. smaller, thinner and much easier to use (for me, at least). In fact, I’d say it’s my favourite brush so far. Thin enough to get into the nooks and crannies, fat enough to cover the nail nicely, whilst the way the brush fans out ensures pretty perfect coverage with minimal mess.

But onto the colour. It was PERFECT. Though I was dubious about the colour in the bottle, it looked exactly as I’d imagined in the flesh (or should that be on the talon?!). It was a light, bright, eye-catching yellow with just the right amount of fluorescent to it, boasting flashes of lime green undertones. Unlike so many of the yellows I had seen, it was neither sunny, buttercup-y nor highlighter pen-y, but instead the perfect shade of lemon-lime I’d been hoping for. Zesty, edgy and super cool. Even the much-feared gold glitter turned out to be nice – a subtle shimmer that enhanced the colour, made it less flat-looking and was only noticeable if you really got up close and personal with it. And it wasn’t a total pain to clean off. Pixie would be proud.

However, the consistency was thin and streaky, with at least three coats needed for even opaque coverage. If you’re a perfectionist, you might even need four. Although initially impressed with how quickly it dried, a word of warning – even when it’s totally dry to the touch, it’s still alarming susceptible to smudges, knocks, scratches and dents, so be delicate! But the best thing is, once it’s there, Bekka doesn’t budge. It remained chip-free even when I eventually removed it, seven days later.

It’s an unusual colour that just exudes cool. When it looks good with something – which it does surprisingly often – it doesn’t just look good, it looks great. Expectedly, it looks awesome with black but also with other dark shades, like navy, aubergine and grey. More suited to nights out than high tea and distressed tees than prom dresses, I think it’s a brilliant alternative for people who don’t want girlie shades but are bored of always going for dark colours.

Of course, when I later re-watched Pixie Lott’s video, I wasn’t sure her nails looked anything like mine after all. But you know what? I think I like mine better anyway.

Looks good with: dark colours, vintage look t-shirts, nights out, dancing shoes
Drying time: 3 mins (but be delicate!)
Coats required: 3-4
Chips: +7 days

Zoya Bekka nail polish, Summer 2008 Chit Chat collection, $80, Cher2

Little Sheep, HIPOT, Mou Mou Club and Gyu Yin hotpot restaurant reviews – top of the pots!

Is it wrong that I define my seasons more by food than the colour of leaves on trees? If summer’s all about salads, ice cream sundaes and sizzling barbeques in the sun, then the arrival of autumn makes my mouth water over the prospect of hearty stews, heart-warming curries and now I live in Hong Kong, hotpot.

In England, hotpot is normally of the Lancashire kind, filled with day-long baked mutton, root vegetables and lashings of gravy. But any Brit wandering into a Chinese hotpot restaurant expecting more of the same will be in for a shock!

As with most of the best Chinese eating experiences, having a hotpot is best done as a communal experience. As many people as possible gathered round a steaming pot of stock into which goes… nearly any type of food you can think of! Seriously, we aren’t fussy. Meat, fish, seafood, veggies, dumplings, tofu, noodles… if it can be cooked, chuck it in! And if you aren’t too sure… well, chuck it in anyway!

Everything comes dished up to you raw and it’s down to you to do the cooking by submerging the items in the boiling soup base. Consequently, all the meat is sliced see-through thin and the fattier, the better to keep it as tender as possible. [As someone who’s lived my life picking all traces of fat off my meat, this came as a bit of a shock but trust me, it cooks beautifully and doesn’t go rubbery or chewy as you might expect.] You also get a choice of stock, from the bland to the spicy, and different sets of chopsticks for handling raw and cooked food (although I’m terrible at remembering to do this as I’m in such a hurry to get the grub in my gob). No need to painstakingly let the waiter know your dietary requirements or your life-long hatred of fungi – if you don’t want it, don’t cook it. Simple as that.

The most traditional hotpot restaurant I’ve been to is Little Sheep, a franchise so huge that you can even buy their own branded hotpot stock from supermarkets. Here, the huge metal pot is sunk into the middle of the table with a Lazy Susan round it, so everyone mucks in, cooking bits either for themselves or leaving them to stew for communal consumption! It all gets a bit hot and steamy so they even put covers over your chairs (and coats hanging on the back of them) to prevent you getting too much hotpot vapour on your stuff!

This place has a banquet feel and is definitely one for parties or family gatherings. As a result, there were masses of beautifully-presented items to choose from – my favourites were the huge variety of different meatballs and these amazing tofu spheres that started out crispy (like latticed batter) but once submerged, collapsed in on themselves to become a gooey delicious mess. The best thing is that even though you only have one pot between everyone, it’s divided into two sections so you can get two different soups going on – especially useful if you’ve got some spice fiends and others that spontaneously combust on the sight of the stuff. We seemed to have endless platters of food arriving and in the end, it only came to about $100 each. The meat if top quality and apparently, staff sometimes answer the phone ‘Baaa! I’m a little sheep!’ What’s not to love?

Little Sheep is styled after Mongolian hotpots, but Japanese hotpots are increasingly gaining in popularity here. Also known as shabu-shabu (Japanese for ‘swish swish’ to describe the sound of stirring stuff in the pot) or suriyaki, the two restaurants I’ve tried offered buffets rather than set platters (see above), with the hotpot a saucepan brewing on an electric hob in the centre of your table where you control the heat (see below), rather than the huge metal vat boiling away at Little Sheep. Given the cost of all-you-can-eat, plus side platters of fatty beef/pork, the choice and quality of ingredients is a little lower. Cocktail sausages, fish balls, leafy veggies and different kinds of bean curd, mushrooms and noodles are the main players. You also get a sauce bar (see above), where you fill a dish with whatever condiments you choose, most notably chilli, garlic and spring onions (and you can never go wrong with extra soya, right?) to dip your food in after cooking. Although I saw one person chucking their dishes of sauce into their hotpot, so anything goes. There is also a time limit, normally of an hour at lunch, 90 minutes at dinner.

At Mou Mou Club, we opted for the spicy soup base, which was really moreish, even if it did boast a bit of a kick! Their beef was an absolute delight as well – really flavoursome and tender – and it came piled high! The price varies depending on the quality of meat you pick and whether you’re content to stick to just one platter or want the option of getting more. Including a soft drink, it came to about $100 and there’s also all-you-can-eat ice-cream, including lots of toppings destined to take you back to your childhood. And everyone knows that rainbow sprinkles make everything better. Alas, no-one saying ‘Moo! I’m a cow!’ here though.

Over at Gyu Yin, it was much of the same. Their buffet was a bit better stocked but there was a bit less beef for your buck and our choice of soup base was bland. But the main draw of this joint (also coming in at around $100) was an unlimited supply of Häagen-Daazs ice-cream in four different flavours, which change regularly. My dining companion and I had absolutely no compunction in cutting short our stewing time to devote ourselves to dessert – and wielding that ice-cream scoop was a bit of a work-out, let me tell you!

My favourite, however, is HIPOT (which was the banner photo). This seems to be a fusion of all styles of hotpot (bar Lancashire) with a HK twist – there’s the Japanese array of dipping sauces yet also a more eclectic range of soups and ingredients. I absolutely adore their satay soup, super-tasty, just that little bit spicy and with that unique satay taste. Perfect for those like me who want a bit of a kick without having our socks blown off, it’s wonderfully moreish and the flavour really seeps into your food. But there is a stock for every taste, from the more aromatic mild coriander to the super-spicy ‘devil’ brew!

You can either opt for a set platter or individual dishes, ordering them like dim-sum. I had a set for lunch (a bowl of veg, a bowl of your choice of noodle and a bowl of ‘other’) and added a plate of beef extra, which still came to a quite ridiculously-cheap $58. The beef was surprisingly good, given its cost (although I could have done with another plate) and I really loved the dumplings. The yellow-and-white striped one was cheesy and creamy and generally lush. There was also a yummy veggie one and although the prawn/shrimp/crab ones looked a little dubious, they tasted lovely and the sweetness of the meat really came through. I gave the dry and unloved looking seafood a miss though, especially as it tends to overcook and get tough easily (especially if you forget about and later discover a rubbery lump at the bottom of your pan).

I also went a la carte at dinner and even with twenty or so dishes headed at our party of four, it came to just under $100 each, including an unlimited flow of soft drinks and juices of your choice. I’d highly recommend their range of bean curd (the wrinkly tofu skin becomes chewy milky deliciousness upon getting the hotpot treatment), the fish balls, the prawn dumplings and the smaller slices of fresh beef. Sorry I can’t be more exact but here we come to HIPOT’s downfall – the menu is only in Chinese! So I’m not sure if we ordered the wrong thing, but that night, the fatty beef was really tough and grisly whereas the ‘fresh’ beef was much nicer.

The real bonus about HIPOT is that you all get individual saucepans, which is great if you have a vegetarian in your midst or fancy trying a few different stocks. For those hygiene-inclined, it also means you are less likely to be sharing your germs with the entire table! It’s great for mulling over, having a chat and getting gradually full as you go, although you might initially be a bit pushed for space on your table!

[In general, I also can’t get enough of having udon noodles in hotpot. There’s just something about their fat, chewy, slippery unctuousness that tastes extraordinary in hotpot.]

So Hong Kong hotpots are cheap, tasty, filling and fun. With autumn well and truly here, there’s only question – what are you waiting for?!

– See all branches of Little Sheep in Hong Kong here
See all branches of Mou Mou Club in Hong Kong here
See all branches of GyuJin in Hong Kong here
See all branches of HIPOT in Hong Kong here

 

A Tamagotchi is for life, not just for Christmas

Remember the Tamagotchi craze that swept schools in the late 90s? Back in the day, there was barely a rucksack that wasn’t making beeping noises as some cyber-pet demanded having its poo swept up. Like all good fads, it died out as soon as I’d actually managed to get my hands on one (… or seven), elbowed out by another set of strange Japanese creatures (Pikaaaaaaa-chu!) but now in Hong Kong, it seems to be undergoing a bit of a revival and lots of my kindergarten kids had them.

Admittedly, we’re now on something like Version 629 of the Tamagotchi and in an effort to keep up with the kids, it’s evolved a bit since the simple days of my childhood version. I seem to remember an endless routine of feeding, playing, cleaning up poo and occasional beatings, whilst the paltry reward for your efforts was seeing the creature run off once it had grown-up. Ah, the joys of being a parent! But these days, it seems looking after your cyber-offspring is a lot more challenging.

I spotted a half-price Version 452 in my local Ella (home of novelty tweezers and windmill pens) and in a mixture of impulse and nostalgia, snapped it up. I told my boyfriend it would be like one of those projects they get feckless teens to do at school, where they make couples look after toy babies to show them the realities of parenthood (and given the amount of Coca-Cola my boyfriend drinks, there’s all likelihood of his baby looking just as alien as a Tamagotchi). So we got home, unwrapped the Tama and yes… things have definitely changed since my day.

Here are the instructions. Reminder: it has three buttons.

Nowadays, Tamagotchi has to go through intensive schooling, with different stages of kindergarten, school and finally, job interviews leading to actual employment (already one up on me then). You have to keep the little sod entertained with five different types of game, all as boring as each other. There’s a shop, where you can buy overpriced pencils, balls and building blocks that Tamagotchi just stares at nonplussed until you offer to play one of the boring games with it instead. He’s a sophisticated soul, eating sushi, checking his mailbox, going on holiday and even sending a postcard along the way. But it’s not all wine and roses in Tama-Town (and yes, there is a Tama-Town, more of which later) – there are thieves, someone sends you poo in the mail (!), he can get ill, lonely and fat and yes, he still defecates an awful lot as well.

These days, infra-red technology means you can connect with other Tamagotchis and make them your friends but alas, I didn’t know any other twentysomethings attempting to relive their youth in the silliest way possible. Chinese culture being what it is, I was soon being pestered by some old crone who didn’t want my Tama being left on the shelf, desperate to match-make her with some other Billy No Mates. Refuse too often and your Tamagotchi dies of old age (insinuation: sad lonely spinster); allow the match and your baby will soon have a baby of its own! Which, showing a bit less responsibility than you’d hoped you’d instilled in its upbringing, it abandons after a day for you to begin a new cycle of feeding, playing and poo-sweeping. It’s the circle of life and it moves us all!

The most amazing thing about Version 391 is that you take your pet to visit Tama-Town online. This is a place that looks more happening than my hometown – you can buy stuff, play at the arcade, go visit your old school and family (i.e. your original pet that ran off once it found love) and pay your respects to the King. In a feat of technology that I haven’t quite worked out but that Japanese children probably master before learning their times table, the website knows what creature your Tamagotchi has evolved into it and even has a record of its name. Spooky stuff.

Anyway, I named our first offspring Juicy – a bit porn-star but the boyfriend’s best suggestion was something involving Coke and I’m working with a 5-character limit, people! – and so the cycle of feeding, sleeping and pooing began. So exhausting was the level of care and attention I lavished on our newborn that I fell asleep; upon waking, my boyfriend told me it had been beeping. ‘Did you see to it?’ *Shrug* When my boyfriend eventually left, I tried to persuade him to take the Tamagotchi with him. How was I supposed to look after it at work? *Shrug* Hmmm… I see a pattern forming…

My colleagues were slightly bemused with my new toy and I had to keep sneakily feeding and poo-cleaning during my working day, but eventually Juicy grew up to be one of the prettiest Tamagotchis in the manual. ‘Is it a cat?!’ my colleague asked, squinting at the strange alien that seemed to have flowers for ears. But eventually, the old crone matchmaker practically set up shop on the postage-stamp sized screen, so I gave in and married her off.

Like mother, like daughter?

By the time she’d given birth, the novelty had worn off, even if this was Version 897. Looking after the new baby was a hassle, I’d named it in a hurry at work meaning it went by the delightful nom de plume of ‘ZZZXY’ and, as all those who didn’t take good care of a Tamagotchi well remember, it consequently evolved into an ugly little brute. This one was so ugly, it actually wore a mask over its face. It looked like Jason Voorhes from Friday the 13th for God’s sake! When it was happy, it bared its gleaming teeth in a freakishly bloodthirsty manner so it was frankly a relief when it died. And the infamous image of a floating halo and angel wings has remained bobbing on the increasingly dusty screen ever since.

So what have we learnt? That’s it’s alarming what can be achieved with three buttons (TV remote control designers, take note). That 90s toy crazes are best left in the 90s for those that actually experienced them first time round. And that I won’t be having babies, alien or otherwise, anytime soon!

Tamagotchi Version 4, $98, Ella

Canada’s Next Top Model, Cycle 3: Ticket to nowhere?

Been feeling out of sorts lately but unable to work out why? Well, I might just have the answer! It’s been over a fortnight since I did a Top Model post!

Cycle 3 of Canada’s Next Top Model was the best Canada had seen yet. Given that Season 1 was fronted by Long John Silver’s wooden stump (I’ve heard she goes by the name of Tricia Helfer), populated with a cast of ugmos and won by an anorexic who gave up modelling before she’d even begun, you can see this isn’t exactly the most glowing of endorsements. Thankfully, Tyra freed Mister Jay in time for Season 2 and by Season 3, he had rounded up a vaguely attractive cast, half-decent panel and enough budget to ensure that shoots no longer looked like they had been done by that dodgy bloke who hangs round your mall.

Although it was the most recent cycle of CNTM, the series still felt like it was occurring in the medieval ages of Top Model-dom – a too-short run, a dated look and a distinct lack of drama. But it was good to see an unshackled Jay Manuel declaring he hated the word ‘fierce’ – take that, Tyra!

What drama there was started off pretty low-key. One girl walked before anyone had even learnt her name. Another girl didn’t really fit in. There was the obligatory meltdown at makeover – ‘I look like a muffin!’ – and the most un-dramatic outing of a lesbian I think I’ve ever seen on reality television. And then there was Maryam.

Maryam was originally from Iran, meaning she was the one who would make incessant references to her culture every time she had to reveal so much as an ankle on tv. So far, so standard. But as the girls screamed, whooped and jumped up and down on discovering they’d be Bahamas-bound for a bridal-themed photoshoot, it transpired Maryam didn’t have a passport. Poor girl probably thought she wouldn’t need it, given CNTM had thus far been so low-rent that the furthest the girls got from Canada was probably being made to flick through American Vogue. Everyone thought Maryam was a goner and Barbadian-born Ebonie thought she had her best shoot yet but the show stumped up a special shoot for Maryam, using better green-screen effects than Clash of the Titans, and girlfriend absolutely rocked it.

Come panel and Ebonie’s photo (above) was truly horrible and looked like she was having the worst period OF ALL TIME (judge Yasmin Warsame: ‘I’d buy that, I’m sold!’ *on seeing close-up* ‘Oh dear, I change my mind!’). Ebonie still thought she’d done brilliantly and was promptly sent packing, still protesting her brilliance. Surely I’m not the only one who gleefully cackles when stuff like that happens?!

I absolutely loved this shoot because I’m a sucker for bridal. A childhood spent collecting Barbie stickers and swooning over Disney movies has meant that seeing a bridal gown triggers some primal urge that sets me off squealing and clapping my hands like a seal. Contrast tropical setting and pretty dress with looks of intense pain and sorrow and I adore it even more, regardless if it’s an idea as old as (certain parts of) Janice Dickinson. My favourite photo of the entire cycle was Heather’s (the banner photo), the perfect balance between serene beauty and utter wretchedness. I also love how true Rebeccah’s feels – a quiet moment of sadness captured on film. [Her story about how she achieved it, by thinking about when her dog died, would have made even the most Botoxed-up fashionitas shed a tear… if their ducts hadn’t been frozen solid, of course.] And as for Maryam? Can you tell her signature look was ‘fierce’? She was the only girl to show some attitude and look pissed and I think it pays off. [Below, left to right: Rebeccah, Maryam]

Just when you thought the passport dramz was over, cue more screaming, whooping and jumping up and down because the girls were headed to New York! And guess what? Maryam still didn’t have a passport!

Having blown the budget on two international trips and green-screen technology, there was no special treatment for Maryam this time. So whilst the rest of the girls did some fancy shoot portraying two different characters in one photo, Maryam called upon a photographer mate (quite likely that dodgy bloke who hangs round your mall) to make her own picture. As she was shown posing in what appeared to be someone’s cloakroom, rattling on in her thick Iranian-accent about being pictured with a gecko, this was hide behind your pillow viewing. Clutching her brown envelope at panel, containing what you imagined was some amateur snapshot of her gallivanting with a lizard she probably found in the streets (very common in HK), I could barely watch for fear of this sweet little Iranian flower being brutally stamped out by the judges. And yet, it somehow turned out awesome, better than the stupid New York shoot and she even escaped the bottom two! Only to be given the boot a week later…

Overall, I was pretty impressed with the standard of the shoots, although after a bit of digging on forums, it appears that’s because most of the ideas were nicked from other (better!) fashion editorials anyway! Photographed in Week 1 by Nigel Barker (*groan*), I initially thought the concept of being shot at random with a wild animal was a bit of a stunt. But, combined with glam 80s styling, big hair and a liberal dose of fierce eyes, it worked (in fact, something pretty similar was done this current season of AusNTM). [Below: Maryam, Nikita, Rebeccah, Heather]

Meanwhile, I simply loved the styling in Week 2. It looked, as good old Alex Perry would say, ‘expensive’. These lushly opulent designer frocks are works of art and were shot and styled accordingly. I could do without the random flashes of bright light but Nikita (the ‘muffin’ makeover girl, who was a great contestant – quick, witty, bitchy but still likeable) looks regal and exquisitely untouchable – bow down! I also really liked Rebeccah doing something a bit different and channelling Twiggy, which really works with her outfit and haircut. [Below: Rebeccah, Tara – purely because I love her outfit, Nikita, Heather]

Finally, beauty shots avec duct-taped mouths. It’s such a great concept for a beauty shot that I refuse to believe it hasn’t been used before, but the CNTM girls do it justice. It would be easy to fall into an oppressed woman trap so I love how defiantly Nikita eyes the camera, but still in an aloof sexy way. And those are some quality cheekbones (and nails)! Heather’s ethereal, almost resigned look heavenwards manages to transcend both the duct-tape and the huge hair whilst Rebeccah channels Twiggy… again! And I’m still going to love her for it… again! Her make-up is more cutesy than the other girls, so the big eyes look great with it and the composition of the shot, with her peeking out from one side of the photo just like she’s peeking out from one side of her hair, is kookily clever. [Below: Nikita, Rebeccah, Heather]

So, a solid season with solid photos, a solid cast and enough drama to keep things ticking along for eight episodes that can be wrapped up in a weekend. Basically, just enough reason to forgive and forget for a few weeks that Canada is responsible for both Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne. Oh, ok, nothing can make up for that!