How to Eat a Fried Prawn in Hong Kong

bird cages hanging from ceiling in hong kong restaurantMy feet were swollen and it felt like there were hot coals stuffed in my shoes between my toes, after having spent the day traipsing around Hong Kong City searching for silk. Our dinner companion said we couldn’t take a taxi because the driver would get mad at us for such a short trip. “It’s just around the corner,” she said.

Fresh out of the shower and dressed, already my clothes were sticking to my sweaty body. My companions took off ahead and left me limping along behind. I tried to keep them in my sights, even as the busy world around did its best to distract me. I moved along the current of people who were free after a day of work, now off to socialize with friends or run errands on their way home to cook dinner. I tried not to get swept away in the riptide. Around me, visual chaos, neon signs with Chinese characters, here and there splattered with English words. Color everywhere, lots of red and pink. Advertising surrounded me with huge billboards plastering the sides of buildings, brand logos some recognizable and some not. We travelled up one street, dashed down another. turned this way and that. At a corner our leader paused, finger in the air, deciding, then pointed, “this way.” and off we went again.

To the relief of my burning feet, we finally arrived at our destination, her favorite seafood spot. The door opened and welcome air conditioning hit my face. We were soon seated in one of the close packed tables filled with families and large groups out for the night. The discordant clamor and clang of stacked china, and chairs scraping the floor was trapped in the small space, and the riotous babble of conversation bubbled up around us.

Perusing the menu, we salivated over each delicious looking offering. Our companion and soon-to-be etiquette teacher suggested favorites and morsels she thought we’d enjoy. One of the first items to land on the table were deep fried prawns in the shell. Huge, whole prawns, dipped in batter and fried in a vat. My husband pinched one with his chopsticks (he’s quite adept) and placed it in the center of his plate. When he then picked it up with his fingers and started to peel it, she tut-tutted, mildly appalled at this uncouth behavior. She explained that it just wasn’t done to eat with your fingers, and besides, you don’t want to miss all that yummy, crispy coating he was peeling off.

She demonstrated the proper way to eat a prawn. Pick it up with your chopsticks, suck and nibble at the batter first. When that’s done, stick the head in your mouth and bite it off. Now drop it from your mouth, onto that side plate. Now, use your teeth to peel off the skin and legs. Spit it onto the plate.

I found myself in awe, not only of the amazing dexterity this takes, but of how widely different proper etiquette is viewed across cultures. By the time the meal was finished, my fingers were cramping and bumbling as I dropped food from my chopsticks. This eating lesson had pushed all kinds of buttons for me about how to behave at the table. It’s ok in the US and Australia to use your fingers in certain circumstances: pizza, chicken wings, french fries. You do not spit food out of your mouth. If you absolutely have to because of a bit of unchewable gristle, you delicately spit it into a napkin – excuse me, serviette – hopefully without anyone seeing you do this.

While the server poured the tea, our teacher inconspicuously tapped her fingers on the table. When my husband refilled the tea, she did it again. Another learning experience! During the Qing Dynasty, the emperor liked to travel the countryside in the guise of a common man. One time, he was in a tea house with his accompanying officials. When he took his turn to pour the tea, the officials didn’t know how to act; they needed to show their respect without giving him away. What they chose to do was to tap three fingers on the table; one signified the bowed head, the other two the prostrate arms. Today, when someone pours your tea, say ‘thank you’ by tapping your fingers on the table top.

Well fed and feeling full of knowledge and a new glimpse of the world, we readied to go. Our companion caught the eye of a server and mimed writing in the air – the signal for the bill. I won’t be spitting in my plate, but this is a dining tradition I’ve brought home. It’s quite handy. I don’t know if it will work in the US. “What? What do you want? Why are you writing in the air? Do I need to call the police?”

More Hong Kong Stories: The Silk Road

Our first morning in Hong Kong, I headed north to Hong Kong City. Thoughts of silk had been running around my mind since the moment I first found out we were going to Hong Kong, so had done my research. I’d read a great deal about Cheung Sha Wan Road in Sham Shui Po being a mecca for fabric and embellishments. This area is considered the fashion district and is where the designers go for supplies. I’d also read several accounts of a silk merchant named Angus, who was over in Ho Man Tin, who was said to have quality silk at the best prices.

I emerged from the subway onto Cheung Sha Wan Road and set off to find the fabric shops. I walked up and down the road and couldn’t find them. I found lots of fashion retailers, with merchants that looked askance at my large American size body in their shops full of size zeros. Those clothes were so pretty though, dresses the color of the ocean, with filmy, floaty layers that brought to mind frothy waves lapping the shore. But I was just looking for someone who I could ask where the fabric was. I was learning that English wasn’t going to get me very far.

I had read that most shop owners or clerks in the city had enough English to make a sale, but that wasn’t my experience. One woman told me it was two streets over, so I went in that direction. On the way, I stumbled upon a market street, filled with vendors selling all sorts of things. On one table I found a small, but very heavy, bronze statue of a mermaid. I wanted it really bad, but knew that carrying that in my bag all day would be a pain. I reluctantly put it down and turned to go. The seller chased me down, punching numbers into a calculator, jabbing his finger at it insisting, even as I walked away shaking my head. I had no language to explain my dilemma. Now I’m wishing I had sucked it up and carried it. At the time I was saving my bag space and carrying muscles for silk.

ribbon shop Hong Kong cityI turned my attention back to the hunt. I wandered into a shop selling handbags and found a very helpful English speaking woman. She told me I could find what I was looking for over on Tai Nan Street. Along the way, I found shops that specialized in ribbons and others in buttons or lace, the goods spilling out the doors and onto the sidewalk. As I approached Tai Nan Road, the smell of leather grew strong. I realized then that she must have thought I was asking where to buy leather to sew my own handbag. Tai Nan was one long street full of leather shops.

I continued to wander. I finally found fabric on Ki Lung Street. Shops lined each side of the road and canopied stalls filled the sidewalks with more fabric. Many of the stores just had swatches for the customer to peruse. You make your selections, then have the fabric lengths delivered to you (so I’m given to understand from what I read online). I had also read that most of the fabric stores were wholesale, but that many will sell to the retail customer.
I didn’t see much silk, and what I did see, I really had no way of knowing if it was real. Not without a match to burn it with and I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have gone over well. I was already guilty of being American. Again, I had no language to discuss fabric content or prices.

I did find a nice piece of Japanese linen printed with owls. It was hanging on a rack outside of a shop and had a sign with a good price. I carried it inside to pay. The clerk punched a price in a calculator that was not what the sign said. I turned to go point at the sign and the guy came running after me. He may have thought I was stealing it, or then again, he did have his calculator. I got it for the published price.

The day was hot and humid and my tongue was dry. I’d brought one bottle of water, not accounting for the liters I would sweat out. I had passed a couple of convenience stores on my journey and the thought of getting additional water flitted in and out of my head. Now, I was done looking at fabric and ready for the next stops on my itinerary, as I made my way toward the silk merchant. I couldn’t even be bothered to buy a length of ribbon or packet of buttons; I needed water.

Hong KongAs I wandered on foot to Flower Market Road, I was moving away from the more commercial district. Hot and thirsty, I finished the last sip of the water I carried. I told myself I’d stop at the very next convenience store I found. Except I couldn’t find one. I must have been getting delirious with dehydration and heat because I could see on the map a fairly straight shot from the flower market to the bird market but I seemed to have gone in a big circle out of my way.

I finally found the bird market, but still no water, and by this time I was really questioning my reasoning of “I’ll be fine.” I’ve been in Australia too long; I’m starting to fall for the “she’ll be right” line of thinking. After winding my way through the birdcage-filled lanes, and considering drinking out of their water cups, I turned in the direction of the silk merchant’s home. I saw on the map the MOKO shopping mall sat between me and the silk, so I headed there first. On the way, I was blessed with a brief misting of rain. I had to fight the temptation to turn my open mouth to the sky, and tried instead to imbibe the moisture through my skin.

I decided to have a liquid lunch, but not the fun kind. I sat at a table and pointed to the liquidy looking items on the picture menu. After a bowl of soup and a pot of tea, I was ready to continue my quest, but not before finding another bottle of water.

I walked out of the mall, heading in the direction of the silk. Sometimes I am amazed at the difficulty I have with simple tasks. I could not for the life of me find a pedestrian path across the street I was on to get to the street I needed to traverse. It appeared the only way to do it was in a car. There were no sidewalks, no room to walk between brick walls and the busy road, and a tall wall stood between the east and west sides of the street. I kept going, hoping not to be run over, and finally found my way out of the maze.

fabric shop in Hong Kong cityThe silk merchant was at 8 Soares Avenue. “Go up to a penthouse apartment and knock on the door,” were the instructions I’d found on the internet. OK, except you can’t just walk in, you need a key for the front door of the building. As I stood there wondering what next, someone else came along and held the door for me. There was a woman sitting just inside in a small, dark foyer, at a tiny table, who appeared to be the gatekeeper. I told her the name of the person I sought and she sent me up a rickety lift to the penthouse level. At the top I stepped out. There was a door to an apartment, some stairs leading to the rooftop and a confusing sign that made it sound like the fabric sales took place on the roof. But that didn’t make sense, so I went back and knocked at the door. Mrs. Silk Merchant opened the door, and wiping her hands on her apron, told me that Angus had retired from the silk business just one year ago. I think she questioned the sanity of this strange American woman laughing hysterically in her hallway.

Flash Back to Hong Kong

flying over northern Australia

Last August, I boarded a plane to Hong Kong. I was accompanying my husband on a business trip, and like on so many of our travels, this was to be a few days of him going to meetings and me wandering around the city.
I tried to sleep through the flight, but my eyes were constantly drawn to the window and, even though we were miles above it, the parts of the Australian landscape I’ve not yet experienced. Watching the earth from above, the lines of rivers and land forms always start me thinking of how I might be able to recreate those lines with needle and thread.

first glimpse of Hong KongEventually, the view turned to blue water and clouds. Now I was looking at tiny boats, wondering, if a whale breached could I see it? and checking the screen on the seat in front of me to chart our route and note which islands we were flying over. There’s Papua New Guinea. Those green mounds over there must be the Philippines. Finally, nine hours later, another green mass rose before us. My first glimpse of Hong Kong, emerald green mountains, and behind them a mass of skyscrapers crowded into a strip of land along the coast.

Once again on land, we traveled from Lantau Island where the airport is, over the bridge and through Hong Kong City, and over another bridge to arrive on Hong Kong Island, where we were staying at Lanson Place, a small boutique hotel.

After unpacking and freshening up in our beautiful, light and airy room, equipped with complimentary smart phone for our use, our stomachs led us back out. We stopped to ask the concierge for restaurant suggestions. Instead of just telling us, he went out of his way to walk us to the dim sum restaurant.

Hong KongHong Kong, for me, was a good introduction to Asia. It was foreign and exotic in its sounds, sights, smells, and tastes, and yet in its city-ness it was familiar enough not to be overwhelming.  The subway was super clean and easy to navigate. I had heard stories about being crammed into crowded train cars, but they were no more crowded than Sydney trains at rush hour.

foodstuffs Hong Kong city

old men making hammered metal vesselsAlthough, I typically have an aversion to heat and humidity, as I walked along the Hong Kong sidewalks, all of my senses alight with the bright colors, questionable odors, and the hum of Cantonese punctuated by the sound of clanging metal, machinery and honking cars, I was happy to have the heat searing the experience into my skin.

Usually when I travel, I like to familiarize myself with the area before I arrive, and have some idea of sites I’d like to visit, but keeping just shy of having an actual itinerary; I want the freedom to just sit in cafes and watch the locals, or to wander and see what happens. This time though, there were so many places I wanted to go and only two and half days to do it, so a detailed itinerary is what happened, with lots of walking between locations in order to soak it all in. My itinerary did not include any giant Buddhas or climbing to high places so I could look down. I have no interest in huge statues that were constructed only 25 years ago, and I think my view of the city from the plane was pretty good.

On our first morning, after a buffet breakfast in the luxurious hotel lounge, I traveled north to Hong Kong City, where I visited the fashion district in Sham Shui Po, on a search for fabric and embellishments that I’ll write about more in a later post.

orchid shop on Flower Market Road Hong Kong cityAfter my fabric search, I headed south and east to Flower Market Road. I found this orchid shop, and next to it a shop selling assorted tropical houseplants. Many were varieties I’ve never seen, which caused me to have brief fantasies of trying to sneak them through quarantine back in Sydney. But I know better.

bird market Hong Kong cityMy next stop was the bird market. Teetering stacks of small rattan, wooden, and plastic cages teeming with songbirds lined the walk, while little old men sat smoking and conversing with their friends. I found the place fascinating, but I did have to put aside all of my ideas about birds in cages and a strong desire to run through the market opening said cages.

bird market Hong Kong cityI was surprised by the variety of birds that one might expect to have as a pet. Some were familiar faces from Australia, like the Noisy Miner Bird, but most were birds I’ve never seen. It made me think about culture and what we think of as normal. Of course, the parakeets and canaries that I’m familiar with in the pet stores at home have family members living in the wild, too, but somehow we think a canary is a proper pet and a blue jay isn’t.

Stanley Market Hong KongDay two’s itinerary began with a bus ride to Stanley Market at the south end of the island. I was happy to escape the crowds of the city! I found a completely different atmosphere down there, quiet, fewer people, and much cleaner air.

The Stanley market sells just about everything you can think of.  You can find pearls and jade, tea sets, handbags (be careful of knockoffs), and assorted souvenir type items. There are clothes, but you’re not going to find much in the way of American sizes. One fun thing is to have a name seal, or chop, carved while you shop.

Stanley Market Road Hong KongThe Boathouse was a good place for a seafood lunch, on a verandah looking out over the water. If you are tired of dim sum, you’ll find variety here.

Tai Wong TempleMany small temples dot the Hong Kong countryside and towns. On my way to visit the Tin Hau temple in Stanley, I passed the Tai Wong Temple.

Tin Hau TempleTin Hau is the Goddess of the sea. She was originally a mortal girl named Lin Moniang who lived during the Song Dynasty. She was said to be able to predict storms at sea. When her brother and father’s boat sank, she lost her life trying to save them. Because of her great sacrifice, she rose to heaven to become a goddess. She later was named Tin Hau, Empress of Heaven. Sailors pay respect to her, praying for her protection.

The original temple was built in 1767; the current site is a rectangular brick and mortar block building.  Inside I found a man selling joss (incense) sticks to place in front of the deities. He sold me a large handful, then proceeded to show and tell me what to do – in Chinese of course. Tin Hau’s image is center stage, flanked by a multitude of other gods and goddesses. The joss seller lit my sticks – he wouldn’t let me do it as I might have lit myself or the temple on fire. He showed me where to start, on the end, giving each deity up three sticks. Tin Hau must have more, though.

That’s enough of my rambling. Later in the week, I’ll be back with some stories of my search for silk and of a lesson we received in eating etiquette, along with some random things to know about visiting Hong Kong.