Tag Archives: Asia

You’re history! (Like a beat-up car!): Hong Kong Museum Of History review

‘The History Museum perpetuates the myth that Hong Kong has no culture by providing a sterile and clinical retelling of Hong Kong’s rich past.’

History geek boyfriend (shown above) on Hong Kong’s History Museum

This review of Hong Kong’s Museum Of History was a long time coming. You may have seen my review of their special exhibition The Evergreen Classic: Transformation Of The Qipao but I actually managed to check out their main exhibition, The Hong Kong Story, twice in the space of two weeks. Not through scholarly enthusiasm but on a trip with my kindergarten class and again, when my boyfriend and I showed up a month early for aforementioned qipao exhibition – and I’m afraid that I wasn’t too impressed.

The Hong Kong Story contains a lot of what I brand ‘fake history’ – lots of replicas and not many authentic artefacts. It traces Hong Kong from its beginnings as a barely-populated jungle filled with tigers (apparently) through its time as a British colony via displays about traditional Chinese folk culture before reaching modern-day HK. But given it opts for building replicas of trams, boats, fishermen, puppets, a tower of buns, schools, banks and practically everything else you can think of, the true authentic visceral sense of history is forsaken. Most of your information is gleaned from reading the placards beside each replica (or listening to your audio guide!) and looking at blown-up reprinted old photographs, meaning that you’re not really getting that much of a different experience from reading a history textbook, except you’re getting to stretch your legs and battle snap-happy visitors in the process.

In my opinion, the most riveting part of Hong Kong’s history is wartime and the Japanese occupation – parts which are dealt with much more effectively and movingly in the Museum Of Coastal Defence, which at least has some genuine bullet-strewn walls, cannons, caponniers and torpedoes to make for a more well-rounded experience (plus there’s currently the amazing Escape To Wai Chow exhibition – check out the full review here).

Elsewhere, it’s only interesting to those who have absolutely no working knowledge of Hong Kong’s history and given the plastic-ness of most of the exhibits, it doesn’t really reward repeated visits – although obviously I overdid it a bit! It’s certainly not an essential tourist stop nor, speaking from experience, is it much fun for very young visitors.

My photos illustrate the few parts that, not being too bothered by models of Neanderthals making fire in prehistoric HK, I actually did find interesting. And oh dear, déjà vu, it includes some vintage calendar prints of girls wearing qi pao. Moving on…

This is the interior of one of HK’s oldest traditional Chinese medicine shops. A REAL interior, not a fake replica. When it closed its doors for the last time, the LCSD managed to procure its décor and stick it in the history museum. There’s also an audio recording from the shop’s owner (plus English translation!). It’s interesting because it feels real and what with Hong Kong’s record in demolishing sites of historical interest, the sort of thing the government should be doing much more of. You’ll find it in a street filled with less interesting replicas of other early Hong Kong shops.

Social history inevitably has a lot more to offer than a plastic model. The section on Hong Kong’s early schooling system has glass cases filled with old exercise books and report cards. and, if you can decipher the spidery handwriting, being basically quite nosy is always absorbing!

I know it might sound like my bugbear, having gone on about it at other tourist destinations (like the Museum Of Coastal Defence and the Botanical Gardens), but the eating facilities here would be the laughing stock of any Western cultural hotspot. The Museum Of History’s school cafeteria may be cheap, clean and offer an abundance of chicken wings, but it could be so much more. Flogging a mix of instant noodles and junk food (not in one dish… although I wouldn’t put it past them), it mostly serves as a last resort or for people looking for somewhere quiet where they can crab free Wifi for as long as possible. It did, however, have beautiful lamps made to look like birdcages.

Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by having “real history” in practically every back garden in the UK, but I found the Hong Kong Museum Of History’s Hong Kong Story exhibition rather uninspiring. I’d rather pick up a history book from Page One and hop across the way to the Science Museum, which is a LOT more fun. And hopefully you’ll believe me when I say that I’ll review that museum very soon – i.e. sometime before 2012, fingers crossed!

The Hong Kong Story, Hong Kong Museum of History, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui East, Kowloon, 2724 9042.

Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday- Saturday, 10am-6pm, Sunday and Public Holiday 10am-7pm, closed Tuesdays. Admission $10 (free on Wednesdays). For further details, visit their website here.

Ice is back with a brand new invention!

I remember there being quite a lot of hype for these ice-cold Coke vending machines when the first one popped up under Island Beverly (near Sogo) in Causeway Bay. Alas, Hong Kong’s combination of heat and humidity meant the machine apparently didn’t work too well during one of our trademark sticky sweaty summers. It quietly disappeared a few months later.

But that wasn’t the last of these icy Coke vending machines. We spotted one, classily located next to a dingy back alley, on our epic trek round Wan Chai on my quest for Gosh cosmetics. My boyfriend (a Coca-Cola connoisseur… or simple addict… who has fizzing black gold constantly coursing through his veins) decided to give it a go, at $11 a bottle (Octopus card only). I was on hand to commemorate the experience photographically.

Alas, the Coke didn’t arrive via a polar bear wearing shades.

As you can see above, there were handy pictorial instructions, plus plenty of choices of beverage…

The first step was to open the bottle and take a quick sip – I presume this was to prevent the bottle exploding due to contraction/expansion caused by freezing (science geeks, feel free to clear up my ignorance in the comments). This step was boring so no photos here.

Second, slowly turn the bottle upside-down, whereupon ice crystals start to form in your Coke. To compensate for no pictures of the last step, I took two pictures of this one. Yay! Ice magic! You can really see it in the close-up below.

Finally, tip back your head and quaff that frozen Coke right away! Dingy back alley optional.

It was a cool day so everything worked perfectly and the Coke stayed icy for ages. It tastes like a Coke slushie, only you don’t have to put up with a surly-faced cinema employee to get it. It would probably taste even better on a hot summer’s day – providing the technology still works, that is!

I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for this, but I prefer to think the Coke fairies did it.

What next for vending machines?! Umbrellas?! Oh wait…

Hong Kong Banksy?

If you’ve been in Hong Kong longer than oooh… twelve hours (and that’s a conservative estimate), the sign on the right will be very familiar.

A symbol of Hong Kong’s ceaseless quest for construction, the apologetic workman usually appears overnight on a sign next to a hole in your road. Apparently the touching of helmet is a gesture of apology for the fact that real-life workmen will be ruining your daily bus journeys and attempts at lie-ins for the foreseeable future.

The piece on the left appears to be a clever riff on the sign, in one of Hong Kong’s few examples of graffiti. Adorned with a pair of devil horns and the slogan ‘Sorry we come again’, plus Hong Kong’s international dialling code (the cool kids’ slang for HK itself i.e. ‘Holla! I’m back in the 852!’), it’s hopefully intended as a witty and searing critique on HK’s interminable schedule of building work. Or something like that. What with the stylised stencil-look of the piece, could we have a Hong Kong Banksy on our hands?

If we do, it’s safe to say he ain’t responsible for the “artistry” displayed below.

Pity the poor tourist who asks his taxi driver to pick him up from ‘Stoned Nuttah Lane’ (it should read ‘Stone Nullah’ but they’ve done a quite convincing job). What’s the reckoning this was done by some oh-so-hilarious international school kid en route home from a wild night at Carnegies?

I think I know which type of graffiti I’d prefer.

Update: I think this is the work of Hong Kong street art collective Start From Zero!

Satay King restaurant review – ahoy there, mateys

The food is possibly the least interesting thing about Satay King, a very popular chain of restaurants in HK (their website suggests traffic of 22 million people monthly, which seems staggering and could be Google Translate having a laugh).

Instead, it’s all about the décor – a local re-imagining of Pirates of the Caribbean that makes you feel like you wandered into a lost zone from The Crystal Maze (‘a mystery game please, Richard!’) – and the ingenious ordering machine. The sooner every restaurant installs one of these babies the better, as it cuts out at least half an hour of waving at waiters determined to ignore you. Basically, you press one of five buttons (Order, Water, Bill, Service or Cancel, just in case you’d jabbed the wrong button in excitement) and lo and behold, someone appears. Magic, especially for a restaurant as busy as this one.

The décor really is something else. The designer clearly took the theme and ran all the way with it – with a yo ho ho and bottle of rum from the looks of things. In Disneyland Paris, there’s a restaurant called the Blue Lagoon which is actually inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (you can wave at people!) and the Imagineers really should take a poke round Satay King sometime to see the madness they may have inspired. The place drips with pirates – by the entrance, hanging off the ceiling, you can even sit next to one! But even then, there’s a few touches that you can’t quite account for – this grinning table leg totally freaked me out and I just love the madcap way they’ve attached this wheel to the ceiling and draped it in multi-coloured fairy lights. You can never go wrong with multi-coloured fairy lights; as Caitlin Moran once said, they’re the MAGIC ONES. At least it’s all relatively unobtrusive – it’s not like the waiters are dressed as pirates and thrusting their cutlasses under your nose – and it’s certainly not boring. I’d say it’s good for a HK restaurant to have a sense of humour about it’s interior, but I’m not entirely sure humorous was what the designers intended.

Once we cut out the magical machine and the pirate theme, we’re left with average, although very reasonable for sit-down-on-proper-chairs waiter-serviced restaurant, food. Lots of it is cheese-baked, deep-fried or possibly some combination of both, so not the best place to head on a diet. And they have a full English menu, so gwei-los can get it on the action too.

The best thing to order is the set meal of Pork White Curry. It’s totally delicious – the sauce is creamy with a subtle lemongrass flavour that’s very moreish and there’s lashings of it (I’m one of those that can’t eat my rice dry). The pork is lean and crispy on the outside and ordered as a set, it comes with a big bowl of rice that was enough to share between the three of us, a side of your choice (we opted for Prawn Rolls – tasty and light) and a drink. Bargain at only $50 or so (sorry, I didn’t note prices and the receipt is in Chinese).

My boyfriend is obsessed with soft shell crab and this double portion ($88) was not the best we’ve had, but definitely not the worst. It comes peppered with that amazing rock salt/spice stuff that would probably make sawdust palatable. Together with another three dishes (two snacks and one main) plus three drinks and 10% service charge, it still only came to $80 each. And you get a free bottle of their signature XO chilli sauce at the end. Yes, you can probably eat much cheaper at your local cha cha deng, but you wouldn’t be getting the pirates then would you?

489 Hennessy Road, 9/F Causeway Bay Plaza, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, 2893 6667; see all branches of Satay King in Hong Kong here


SML restaurant review – does my tum look big in this?

UPDATE: SML is now closed.

Originally, this was going to be a write-up for one of my fave restaurants in HK, Tapeo on Hollywood Road, Central. Alas, once the tapas arrived, I was simply too ravenous and dug in without a second thought to the camera kicking about in my bag (so until I visit again, let me just tell you their Squid a la Plancha is the most tender, flavoursome squid I’ve ever eaten and their platter of Manchego cheese, honey and toast is more divine than words, photos or thoughts can ever do justice to – we polished off two plates, one rather spuriously as ‘dessert’…).

sml baby

Never fear though because the restaurant I am going to write about is pretty much the next best thing to a tapas joint, without actually being one. SML is one of those genius/ridiculous concepts that seems so head-smackingly obvious, you wonder why it hasn’t been done before (and yes, I’m expecting to be inundated with people telling me it has been). All dishes come in the eponymous ‘small, medium or large’ sizes, meaning complaints about portion sizes at least will not be gracing your end-of-meal comment cards. Cute concept, right?

The menu features dishes from nearly every cuisine you can think of; basically, an international tapas! I think you’ll get a fairly good idea of this from our selection (we ordered small everything), which basically reads like we threw a handful of pushpins over a culinary map of the world and ordered accordingly. I would describe the food as solidly good rather than great – true of the truffle prawn toast ($38) and lasagne ($43), with the creamy, meaty lasagne being the better of the two. The Jamaican coconut chicken curry ($48) was an aberration to nearly every element of its description though; there was very little Jamaican, or even coconut-y, about this ‘boil-in-the-bag’ curry and the chicken was distinctly unappetising, two huge hunks still on the bone and when cut open, revealed gristle, fat and disturbingly pink meat.

We tried to correct our mistake by going for the sizzling chicken fajitas ($67), a little pricey given you only got two wraps (although enough filling and dips for more!) but tasty nonetheless. The star of the mains was, in fact, a mere ‘bits n bobs’ player – the chips with sea salt, truffle and some sort of unidentifiable, probably very fattening but obviously therefore delicious dip. These were fresh and hot, soft yet crispy and guess what, the only things we ordered in medium ($26). You can take the girl out of Britain but you can’t take the Brit out of the girl… I swear that you could sprinkle that sea salt on paper and I’d probably lap it up though.

Desserts definitely require further exploration, as we only had room for the pot of chocolate ($27 – unremarkable and with two bricks of fudge on the top that we weren’t fans of) and the to-die-for profiteroles ($20). Well, in the small size, that should read profiterole singular but the pastry and cream was feather-light and it came bathed in a gorgeous butterscotch sauce, like melted Werther’s Originals floating to heaven. I’m not ashamed to say I practically licked the bowl clean. The drinks menu, with an extensive list of lip-licking cocktails, is also worth a look although I’ve heard the sizes for wines is a bit of a joke (one gulp max even at large, apparently).

lights

The quirkiness of the concept is followed all the way through, from the décor to the small design details. So I loved the little messages on the crockery (‘scrumptious’, ‘more please!’, ‘still hungry?’) and the ingenious way the menu was split up – the mains divided into Land and Sea (for where the animal making up your dish roamed when it was alive), Liquids for soups, Bits n Bobs for sides, Raw & Green for salads and Happy Ending (keep those perverted sex jokes to yourself!) for desserts. The ambience was lovely and relaxed, with some interesting little features; pictured are the punked-up Lego ‘SML baby’ outside the restaurant, the cool light fittings and one of the sweet $10 Ikea cacti that are thrown about the place with artful abandon.

It’s the little things that are ultimately what make the big picture great (as is always the case with Press Room Group restaurants, like The Pawn and The Press Room itself), so I can safely say it is those small touches and quirky twists that will have me coming back to SML again. Well, that and the angelic butterscotch sauce of course.

SML, 11/F, Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, 2577 3444; open 11.30am-11pm.

Sephora no mora…

Terrible headline aside, the very serious news this post brings you is that Sephora is closing in Hong Kong.

As a VIP member of Sephora (i.e. I have a loyalty card), I received an oddly-worded email last week telling me Sephora was ceasing ‘operations in Hong Kong market for strategic reasons’. All my VIP points would expire on March 31 but in the meantime, there was a clearance sale with up to 70% off to be had. My boyfriend and I duly made the trek to Mong Kok this Saturday and the photo of crazed women screaming that accompanied the email (see below) turned out to be scarily accurate. The shop was literally teeming.

sephora 2

I duly deposited my boyfriend in the 40-minute long queue that snaked around the entire shop whilst I tried to grab some bargains. What became obvious was that half these bargain-hunters had never set foot in Sephora before – as they jostled over the near-empty concession of Sephora’s own range of make-up to grab one of the few horrible shades of eyeshadow that remained (who cares?! It’s only $10!!!), I simply darted downstairs where an identical counter stood, albeit much better-stocked and in a location where I was able to breathe without getting my face wedged up someone’s sweaty armpit.

HKers are notoriously crazy for bargains – I’ve seen a line snake down an entire road in Causeway Bay for what turned out to be free mini-packs of Tic-Tacs, cordons set up at midnight for the Lane Crawford sale and when Happy Valley Racecourse gave away some free souvenir gift-sets, several elderly people were injured in the ensuing crush and commotion – so the crowds at Sephora did not surprise me. They certainly surprised the staff who looked on with an air of bewilderment and fear, like aliens shown the store to illustrate the concept of ‘crowd’ (or merely ‘crazy HK people’).

I might not know much about business (although according to Sir Alun Sugar, all it takes is an ability to not bull-shit or arse-lick, in which case I’m good to go) but I do know about make-up and Sephora’s demise is frustrating because they were doing so much right and had spotted a unique position in the sprawling HK cosmetics market. Unlike standalone stores selling just one brand (MAC, NARS, Clinique), Sephora housed several under one very spacious and luxurious roof. So do department stores like Lane Crawford, I hear you cry – but there, each concession is manned by an individual who takes the trouble to give you the hard sell for their brand alone. Other cosmetics stores in Hong Kong offering several brands certainly do not fall into the leisurely shopping experience category. Watsons and Mannings are more pharmacists, stocking standard drugstore cosmetics brands alongside cough medicines and condoms, whilst the likes of Sasa, Colormix and Bonjour are akin to cosmetics cash-and-carries – yes, their stuff is a little cheaper than the recommended retail price but that means stock supply is unpredictable (we couldn’t possibly speculate as to its ‘fallen off the back the van’ nature), any customer service above the likes of ‘That’ll be $20 please’ is out the window, and goods are stuffed into the shop with about as much care as a toddler cramming toys back into play-box.

Sephora’s staff were genuinely knowledgeable about all their ranges and offered relatively unbiased recommendations. The downstairs floor that so many of the bargain-hunters didn’t even know existed housed dressing tables where you could get free make-up consultations and apply different products to your heart’s content. The VIP card was not exactly a great deal (then again, what loyalty cards ever are?! but at least it was making an effort to give something back, with less strings attached than most VIP cards I’ve picked up along the way (ridiculously-high minimum spends are a perennial favourite).

And Sephora’s own range of make-up was brilliant. Their range of cosmetics was huge, covering every product under the sun, and married quality with reasonable prices. Their skincare range was equally dependable without costing the earth and their range of accessories (brushes, bags, tweezers etc) was extensive. This range was, of course, the most heavily discounted in the closing down sale and I stocked up on their eyeliner pencils (with a range of colours in such great quality bettered only by Urban Decay’s 24/7 pencils IMHO) and their cleansing water, a fantastic product that tackles eye make-up too whilst being gentle and not at all greasy. Basically, for someone that misses Boots and its brilliant Advantage Card as much as I miss anything from England, Sephora was the closest I could get.

That’s not to say they didn’t do anything wrong. The Mong Kok location raised expertly-plucked eyebrows from the start. Mong Kok may be a tourist hotspot for its Ladies Market (an open-air street market selling cheap tat souvenirs and designer fakes) but with its array of street food, pokey shops and hectic bustling streets, the atmosphere is very “local”. Sephora, with its feeling of quality, luxury and an airy ambience, would have fared better amongst the designer stores of Tsim Sha Tsui, the fashionable shopping mecca of Causeway Bay, or in gweilo central, the cunningly-named Central.

Elsewhere around the world, Sephora stores stock brands or items exclusive to their stores as prime draws to make-up mavens like myself. But Sephora HK was filled with brands that you could have procured easily at the same price in department shores or even in their own shops in malls without having to brave the Mong Kok masses (and potential acid attacks), whilst the few exclusives they did garner (excepting the BareMinerals range, for which there was a lot of positive press) did not have great brand recognition. Take just one look at the list of brands on either Sephora France or US to see how we’ve been short-changed here.

And, as the bargain brouhaha described above shows, a few more sales, promotions or freebies couldn’t have hurt – Sephora’s regular VIB promotions are the stuff of legend on beauty blogs worldwide. I hope somewhere out there a Sephora executive is reading this blog and making careful notes, as I’m sure Sephora will return soon enough (they already have 41 stores in China and over 1000 globally, though strangely none in the UK). And next time, Mr Sephora man, please bring Urban Decay with you.

Causeway Bay Flower Market: Feelin’ Floral

Another Chinese custom (yes, keep up, there are many) is to have fresh flowers in the house at CNY for good luck. Every year, there is a big Flower Market in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay for you to purchase your flowers at ridiculously over-inflated prices but it’s become almost as much of a tradition to take a spin round here for luck as it is to have fresh flowers in the first place. And it is spectacular to visit – the perfume of all those blooms is just amazing (indescribable – you have to experience it first-hand) and the flowers themselves…! Wow! Forget the Chelsea Flower Show, there’s nothing quite like seeing the most beautiful perfection of orchids, lilies and gladioli in a rainbow of colours accompanied by squawking Chinese hawkers yelling ‘Good price, lang mui, good price!’ with the smell of curry fish balls hanging acridly in the air.

Nowadays, you’ll find as much CNY tat (giant inflatables, cuddly toys and costumes of whichever animal’s year it is) and dubious street food as you will fresh flowers, yet that’s all part of the appeal. Last year, my auntie and I discovered a stall selling deep-fried ice cream on sticks. We started with one to share between us to try – and five each later, we were hooked. I barely remember if we bought any flowers that year… but alas, battered ice-cream wasn’t there to distract us this time. Novelty windmills also appear to be lucky judging by their prominence at both the fair and the stalls around Chinese temples; we bought this very pretty ribbon-y fish one (pictured installed on our balcony).

We’re savvy sorts so we didn’t actually buy any flowers from here, merely “got inspiration” before getting them cheap at our local wet market. Buying fresh flowers always seems such a silly idea as they’re dead almost before they’re alive but they really do look gorgeous and bring you some sort of unique special feeling and pleasure. These sweet peas were my choice, as they were never strong enough to survive the hardships of British weather in my garden at home. I guess a garden is one of the few things I miss about home – but I never had to look after it did I?! Perhaps the life span of fresh flowers is just about right for my current level of responsibility-taking.