Archive | April, 2013

RIP Ngau Kee: So long and thanks for all the frogs

26 Apr

HK night viewWhen we come to the end of days, when Hong Kong is nothing more than a giant shopping mall, devoid of culture, originality, character – an antiseptic playground for billionaire mainlanders. When we finally all decide we’re probably better off elsewhere, then 2013 may well be the year we look back on as the time everything started to go wrong.

Why am I reaching for the Prozac? My beloved Ngau Kee (pr. ‘now gay’) is no more. After 62 years serving the citizens of Sheung Wan, owner Mak Ping-keung has been forced to shut his family run Canto-food shop by a money-grabbing bastard masquerading as a landlord. Apparently the avaricious arse wants more than the HK$49,000 (£4,000) currently being paid and he’ll probably get it, such is the appetite for property in and around trendy Gough Street.

It wasn’t always this way. Well before the over-priced ponceholes moved in and family-run businesses were pushed out, Gough St and its environs was a pretty ropey part of town – home to printing presses and not much else. Not now. Now it’s filled with furniture shops selling shit no-one wants, posh cafes crammed with buggies and mummies and poncho-wearing bell-ends, and art galleries that look like clubs.

Ngau Kee was great. It was dirty, noisy, cramped and probably hadn’t seen a health & safety certificate in its entire life, but it had a long and delicious English menu, cheap Tsingtao, and a garrulous bunch of (mostly) friendly staff. Basically, everything you want from a local restaurant. And fresh frogs! Local celebs crowded round its tables, ordering braised beef hotpots and mountainous platters of salt and pepper squid, film crews shot regular pieces with Mak and his missus – and her amazing mulleted barnet – and the punters always went away full and happy.

There’s no word of them relocating. To be honest they already moved from an original site in Bridges St so I wouldn’t blame them calling it a day. Wherever they go they’ll have only a year or two respite before the rents price them out of the area again. In the meantime, what is Hong Kong left with? Already club favourite XXX has been forced to close, artsy bar-hole Sense 99 looks like it has become a block of flats, and now this.

So as you walk past what was Ngau Kee, soon no doubt to become a boutique fashion outlet selling clothes no-one wants, spare a thought for the old place, and the city that used to be Hong Kong.

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Chinese diaspora hurtles UK towards Milkageddon

17 Apr

glass of milkIt’s rainy season again.

Not rainy like those insipid drizzly squalls we used to get back in Blighty – this stuff comes in full tilt, balls out, end-of-the world downpours. And it’s usually accompanied by the kind of thunderstorms you’ll rarely see outside of 70s horror films. The urge to sit staring out of the window with a cigarette in my mouth writing some terrible poetry is almost crippling.

Anyway, one potentially positive side-effect of these daily drenchings for young Hong Kong mothers is that it may put off the local milk powder smugglers from their despicable cross-border trade.

Yeah, public confidence in the safety of baby formula sold on the mainland is so low these days that a huge parallel trading industry has grown up whereby powder is bought up en masse in HK and sold for a profit across the border. It has become so bad that the LegCo last month slapped a restricted export license on the stuff, making it equitable to rough diamonds and high grade pharmaceuticals.

Get caught carrying more than the personal allowance of two cans without a license these days and you’re in for a potential fine of HK$500k (£40,000) or two years in the slammer.

I read with much mirth last week, that the UK is now suffering the same fate, with major retailers restricting restricting the sale of milk powder as Chinese tourists and students rush to send the stuff back home. Perhaps more to blame though are the wily entrepreneurs who are snapping the stuff up at source before it can be distributed to the retailers and shipping it out to China for a profit of up to double what they paid for it.

Reuters says that, apart from the public health concerns of milk powder made in the PRC, demand is also being fuelled by an increase in middle-class working mothers – wherever they are in China.

All of which encouraged me to ponder what the future holds.

In a country where dead pigs float, rather than fly, in their tens of thousands down rivers, and air pollution levels regularly oscillate between “extreme danger: stay indoors” and “it’s eaten through the doors! Fuuuuuuck!”  there’s unlikely to be an improvement in public confidence about food safety in the near term.

So unless China’s young Mums decide to go “back to basics” (cue Benny Hill music) with their baby feeding habits, are we headed for the Milk Wars?

I envisage a dystopic future post-Milk War III (MW3) in which the planet has effectively becomes a servile colony producing milk powder, high-powered sports cars, Burberry handbags and terrible hip hop for its economic masters in China. Maybe Ridley Scott to do a film to raise public awareness.

At least we can thank our stars China’s leaders have for the past 30-odd years in their infinite wisdom enforced a very fair and humanitarian one-child policy in the country. Can you imagine the rush on Cow & Gate if they hadn’t? It turns the blood cold.

Oh, it’s stopped raining…

Noodle in ‘Nam: fun times in a former war zone

5 Apr

IMG_1416

War is brutal and dehumanising. It destroys lives, tears families apart and obliterates places of beauty and wonderment. Amazing, then, that in just 30-odd years Vietnam has largely bounced back psychologically and physically from one of the 20th century’s most brutal conflicts and in one swoop become my new favourite country to visit in Asia. I’m sure the locals are all thrilled by the latter.

reunification palace saigon

Saigon’s Reunification Palace: scene of last chopper fame

Being a newcomer to ‘Nam, the Easter plan was to hit Ho Chi Minh up first and then fly up to the capital Hanoi in the north. Everyone has their favourite. Some had warned Hanoi can be a little intimidating for tourists – less friendly and certainly more hectic than Saigon – while others enthused that its colonial charm and tree-lined old quarter more than make up for any deficiencies.

Bui Vien Street

Backpacker street: Ho wd be proud

To be honest they’re both bloody brilliant and the perfect location to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. You’re not going to find the same level of English fluency among the locals, and nor should you, but a few words of the local lingo and a lot of patience will go a long way. For me, Saigon is in danger of being a bit bland – a SE Asian-city-by-numbers, albeit one studded with some fine old colonial architecture and a heaving backpacker district that’s great for party people and singlet wearers.

halong bay

Halong Bay: worth a detour from Hanoi

I think Hanoi definitely has more character: more alleyways crammed with roadside food hawkers dishing out everything from national dish pho to warm baguettes slathered in pate and chilli sauce. It also struck me that the locals there are not unfriendly or lock in hanoiintimidating, as long as you try at least to say your Ps and Qs in their mother tongue. Sadly, because of an unfathomable curfew at midnight, it’s not really a place for largeing it till the wee small hours. Lock-ins can be found though. Or just sit tight as we did and watch as the owner pulls the metal shutters closed and you are literally locked in while the Party police pump propaganda messages from their trucks outside.

hanoi street

Never far from the 30 pence beers, the bubbling cauldrons of street-side noodle soup and endless stream of scooters, however, is the past. Taking a last day tour around the fabled Metropole hotel in Hanoi’s French Quarter our irrepressible local guide related his own personal memories of nightly B52 raids on the city and the brutal war with the French that preceded the notorious US conflict. Of climbing up into a tree one morning and seeing the total destruction of entire neighbourhoods. An elderly Aussie on the tour was there because his mate had been conscripted in the 60s, went off to Vietnam and never came back.

beer and scooters

Beer and scooters: Hanoi

Yup, Vietnam has a lot of balls. It’s noisy, dirt cheap, crammed with delicious street food, eye-opening sights and heart-rending tales … and full of friggin’ scooters. It’ll probably give you the shits for a couple of days, it’ll probably be damp and suffocatingly hot and you WILL have a near death experience with a motorbike but on balance these are all part of the charm. (Actually, maybe not the unusual pooing). What else could you possibly wish for in a holiday?