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BrewDogging #xx: Hong Kong†

I had to stand in the middle of a busy street to fit in that 'End' sign on the right hand side, so I hope you appreciate it.[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton, Berlin, Warsaw, Leeds North Street, York]

Here's how the timeline goes.

February 4th 2016: BrewDog opens a new bar in Hong Kong. As regular visitors to the territory, The Belated Birthday Girl and I note this news with interest. Our next trip isn't going to be until 2017, but that shouldn't be a problem.

February 18th 2017: We start planning our visit to Hong Kong. We find a hotel close to where BrewDog Hong Kong is located, and book ourselves in for a few nights at the end of April. We're good to go.

March 8th 2017: With zero warning, BrewDog Hong Kong permanently shuts down. The first we hear about this is via reports on the bar's social media accounts describing the closing night party. A couple of days later, as is BrewDog's standard operating procedure, the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the bar are wiped from the internet, so that there's no way of finding out that it doesn't exist any more.

The review of BrewDog Hong Kong is going to be shorter than usual. This page won't be, though.

For several days after the closure, BrewDog's shareholder talkboards were awash with speculation, not to mention concern at how sudden it all was. Gradually, a sort of formal explanation emerged: the bar wasn't doing enough business to match the outrageous rents that are charged for properties in Lan Kwai Fong. Anyway, as shareholders, it wasn't something we needed to worry about, because like most of BrewDog's overseas bars it was run by an overseas partner rather than directly by the company itself: so there was no real reason to mention it at, say, the Annual General Meeting. I'm not convinced by that argument, because you didn't know it was a franchised bar until I told you, did you? The average punter on the street just sees a BrewDog bar going bust, and that's not a good look for their brand. (And it's still happening: in the, um, five months that have elapsed between our Hong Kong visit and this writeup, another overseas bar has got into trouble, with Warsaw having to close temporarily owing to an unexpected problem with the local partner.)

Possibly the worst part of all this is the way the bar's been erased from history. Because, towards the end of April, we went there anyway: we knew it was going to be closed, but we were in town, and curious to see what the place looked like. Well, it looked just like the photo you can see at the top of the page: shutters down, with no indication anywhere as to how temporary or permanent that would be. Which possibly explains something you can't quite see in that photo: a small clump of people standing nearby like they're waiting for it to open. Being English, we're obviously too polite to tell them they'll be waiting a long time. They may even still be there now.

So there it is: BrewDog Hong Kong, the first bar where I've had to put a death sign against its name without even seeing what the inside of it looked like. That visit took up about ten minutes of our time when we went to Hong Kong in the spring. However, we were there for a full week, during which we achieved other things: luckily, those other things divide neatly into three two-day sections. Structure!

Yes, the best Chinese food on the planet is out there too, but COME ON1: Hong Kong Island and Beer

We're flying with our old chums at Cathay Pacific, and the journey's up to their usual standard. It's an overnight flight, so most of the way we're sleeping, with breaks for the occasional movie (in my case, the terrific Keanu and the wongjingtrocious Fight Back To School 3). Once again, Hong Kong immigration disappoint us with their ongoing refusal to stamp anyone's passport - these days, we just get a pre-printed slip with entry details (and this time they don’t even staple it in). From there, a ride on the airport express train followed by lots of wandering around the Central Station area eventually takes us to the Sohotel in Sheung Wan. It’s a cosy, stylish little place, with wifi so strong it can actually be picked up from the other side of the street. But you don’t need it: one of the excellent perks of staying here (which many local hotels seem to be offering) is free use of a smartphone for the duration of your visit. It’ll prove invaluable as we navigate a set of streets we haven’t been on for nearly four years. Sohotel doesn't have a restaurant, but their alternative is a rather delicious continental breakfast that's delivered to the room. Quoting The BBG (as I will be a lot when it comes to food): "a really nice breakfast, with boiled eggs as a bonus, and good quality buns (continental seems to mean 'European' here rather than 'bread')."

We're in Hong Kong, so we go for a ride on the Peak Tram, like we always do. Not having learned our lesson from our 2013 visit (when we encountered massive queues of people because it was the Mid-Autumn public holiday), this time we've gone on the May Day holiday. This time round, there's a newly-implemented system where a long snaking queue has been organised across the road from the main entrance. There are also sneaky tour groups who'll help you jump that queue if you buy a joint ticket for their own attraction as well as the Peak. We stay put, and the queue turns out to be moving fast enough that we get to the Peak itself in around eighty minutes. Once we're at the top it's the usual spectacular view, although the amount of public viewing space seems to be getting smaller and smaller, as more of the Peak Terminus area is taken up with commercial businesses. Mind you, when one of those businesses is Kala Toast, you can't complain that much. It's a stall that specialises in novelty cheese toasties, with the show-stopper being the Rainbow Toast made out of four different colours of cheese. For people like The BBG who aren't as impressed by gimmicky presentation, they also offer more unusual combinations like durian cheese toast, and a selection of exotic teas to accompany the food. “It seems a bit of a cheat eating here, but they're not like the cheese sandwiches back home - you wouldn't see durian there. They did the job,” is her verdict.

One of our other regular haunts, the nightly Symphony Of Lights show, turns out to be a bit of a disappointment thanks to a change in viewing location. Normally you'd watch from the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade where the Avenue Of Stars is, but that's currently undergoing a controversial and long-delayed bit of redevelopment. So they now recommend that you head to Golden Bauhinia Square to view it, which is a long way from anything else interesting and actually in the middle of a building site itself. On top of all that, I suspect that the display was specifically designed to be viewed from the promenade, and the view from the square isn't anything like as good. As a result of all of this, the numbers of people watching are comparatively small, and it makes for a slightly dismal atmosphere, which is a pity.

Enough of the old favourites, how about a New Thrill? Well, new to us, anyway. I can now reveal that The BBG and I have been taking tai chi classes since the beginning of the year - the ninjabread men pictured on our first day in Edinburgh were leftovers from a batch we'd made for the rest of our class. Ever since we started, we've been carrying around a romantic notion that we'd get up early one morning on this holiday and join the old folks in the park practising their moves. When we discovered that Hong Kong Park (next door to the queue for the Peak Tram) has a dedicated tai chi garden, it seemed like the perfect thing to do. In retrospect, we probably could have done with getting up a bit earlier, although visiting two different breweries the previous day probably reduced the chances of that happening. We get to the garden around 7.30am and it's relatively quiet – sure, there are a few people around doing their stuff, but not as many as we'd expected. What's most surprising is the layout of the garden, which has a small series of booths around its perimeter which mean you can practice in relative privacy – to me, it feels like the difference between a karaoke bar and one of those places where groups of friends get to sing in isolated rooms. Still, given our relative inexperience, it means we don't humiliate ourselves: and it's fun on the way out to see a few people are eschewing the booths and doing their tai chi in the more open areas of the park.

But in the absence of a BrewDog bar, beer is the main focus of this section, to the extent that only one of our meals during this two-day stretch of the holiday was in a restaurant (Sai Yung Kee, close to Sohotel, of which The BBG says “a really good local chain, but not one the guide books point out: I'm glad that our first meal in HK was Chinese food, so I didn't feel guilty about not having any later”). We spend the first of our two nights in town circling the Lan Kwai Fong bar area where BrewDog was located, and sussing out the competition that presumably helped accelerate its demise. First up is Motu Kiwi, a lovely little New Zealand bar only let down by its slightly disappointing New Zealand beers. From there we go off in search of the Hong Kong Brew House, which we tried and failed to track down on our previous visit – I’m not sure how we managed that, because it’s pretty big. It’s got a decent enough selection of the usual imported beers, but we’re more interested in trying local ones. (Turns out it closed down one month later. Maybe it's a trend now.)

Luckily, more interesting stuff is happening nearby. The barman at Motu points us in the direction of the Lan Kwai Fong Street Food Festival, with lots of spicy food and miscellaneous beers, both local and imported. We grab a couple of the former, Naam4 San4 and Lady (both part of a collaboration between the W.burger restaurant and Mak's Beer), and they're a definite improvement on what we've had so far that day. We wrap the day up at quasi-English theme pub The Globe, which is reassuringly unchanged since our previous visit in 2013, except that now it also stocks a solid selection of interesting local brews alongside the British classics. Young Master's Classic is the standout of the half dozen or so we try, going very nicely with our fish & chips and steak & kidney pie & chips, of which The BBG says "it feels wrong to be having this on holiday in HK, but the fish was perfectly cooked and the chips nicely hand-cut, doing the job well in terms of both beer and food."

On our final night dinner comes in two parts, with a son et lumiere intermission for the Symphony Of Lights. For the first part, we head further into Causeway Bay to track down the Coedo Taproom, the brewery bar of a Japanese brewer whose beers we've occasionally tried back home. The BBG says "decently done yakitori-type food: it seemed fitting with Japanese beer to have Japanese food with it" - we get through a selection of skewered meats and vegetables, accompanied by a flight of five of Coedo's beers. Later the same evening, we head out to Kennedy Town, where Little Creatures is another brewery taphouse cum brewpub – I initially assume they're from HK, but it turns out they're actually Australian with interests over here. The food selection is a little disappointing for veggies, and The BBG has to settle for corn on the cob and chips, while I get a little more protein from a board of Angus beef sliders. The BBG's verdict: "the corn had an interesting spicy quinoa coating, the fries were OK and a generous portion. It's a shame there aren't many snacks for non-meat eaters, so good job we'd had another dinner earlier." As before, we go for a flight of six beers to sample what they do: they're fine, but nothing really stands out. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide if these eleven beers had any impact on our tai chi the next morning.

Unusually, a shot from the inside of the Pink Pig that's centred on iced tea rather than local beer2: Cheung Chau and Buns

"You have to tell everyone that Cheung Chau is shit," Evan says to me over a beer. By this stage, I've been on the island for about ten hours, and I'm really not sure what to think any more. To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect when we were on the 50 minute ferry ride to the island. After all, we're here specifically for a large, well-known Bun Festival - yes, you read that right - which takes place on a island small enough that you can walk from one side of it to the other in five minutes (providing you go across the narrow bit in the middle, like we did when we briefly passed through in 2013 during an inter-island ferry tour).

It's definitely busy when we get off the boat, with hordes of people wandering up and down the waterfront. We barge through them to get to our accommodation for the next couple of days, the B&B Hotel – actually, it seems to be the only hotel, with several different buildings spread across the island. We check in at one of them and drop our bags off at another: the building we're in has the breakfast restaurant in it, so that definitely helps. The reception staff have given us helpful directions to where all the action's going to be, so we head straight towards the main town square where the Bun Festival is centred. Strictly speaking, what we're just seeing here is buildup, with the main Festival events taking place tomorrow: but that buildup is enormous. Lion dance troupes and martial arts display teams are roaming the streets giving impromptu performances: while along those streets, multiple stalls are selling the same three types of stuffed white buns with a pink logo stamped on them. (You can tell one of these stalls is the 'original', as the queue for it is a few hundred yards long.) And taking pride of place in the centre of town, waiting for the next day, is a series of gigantic towers constructed of those same buns (or, in the case of the largest one, constructed of plastic replicas of those buns, for health and safety reasons to be explained later).

What's all this in aid of? Well, the Bun Festival is basically a Taoist celebration that coincides with Buddha's birthday. As such, one of the key features of the Festival is that the island is technically meant to go wholly vegetarian for a couple of days, in honour of the big guy's own dietary requirements. It soon becomes clear that the tourist restaurants are doing nothing of the sort – with the astonishing exception of McDonalds, who are boasting via signs in their window that they're only serving veggie burgers until after tomorrow's parade. I'm tempted, but The BBG is less so, and we compromise with lunch at the Rainbow Cafe, which has its own special menu for the celebrations: she says "nice to see they were following veggie tradition, even though it was just a salad in pita bread." Other places bend the rules a little: Oriental Fusion have a holiday menu, but seem to also offer the normal menu as well if you ask them. We stay well behaved and have a veg platter to share, veg curry with chick bean croquette, and braised eggplant with crispy beancurd: "very good, shame they didn't just have the veg menu, but at least it was the prominent one." At the other extreme, breakfast service at the B&B ignores the restrictions altogether, offering a choice between a meat fryup and a fish fryup. ("More confusion over what they meant by continental breakfast: slight disappointment that it wasn't veg, but the fish option was nicely done.")

While in the Rainbow Cafe, we use their wifi to see if there's anywhere on the island that claims to serve craft beer. This turns out to be a really good move on our part. We end up at the Pink Pig, a small waterside shopfront with a fridge full of surprisingly good beers from HK brewers, such as Heroes with their beautifully designed cans. We grab a couple (Hangry Donut and AP-09) for a pre-dinner tipple. We assume our chances of a post-dinner tipple are slim, because most of the island businesses shut their doors at 8pm, but we wander back anyway to see if opening hours have changed for the festival. They haven't, but the owners Ruby and Askey are having a lock-in for some of their expat regulars, and as they recognise us from earlier on they invite us in. Things go berserk from this point, with even more spectacular beers (Young Master's Add Oil being the highlight), including a couple paid for by Askey himself. We get chatting to several of the regulars, notably an American guy called Evan who's working here as a teacher. This is where he insists that I have to tell everyone back home that Cheung Chau is shit, because he's absolutely loving it here on the island and doesn't want more people coming in and ruining it. Evan and his mates are a gloriously friendly bunch, keen to recommend all the best things nearby: at one point, a French girl called Severine leads us down the street and shows us a secret 80s karaoke bar hidden behind an unmarked door. It's that sort of crazy night. What's it going to be like on the day of the actual festival?

This is what it's like. Things don't really get started till lunchtime, so in the morning we try out a recommended walking route around the coastline, along Cheung Chau's amusingly tiny replica of the Great Wall and stopping off at a couple of well-timed viewing pavilions. As a bonus, we bump into Evan from last night, in his costume for the Bun Festival parade, with a few of the schoolkids he's looking after. We're actually heading back to the Pink Pig ourselves, as they've suggested that we'll get a good view of the parade from inside there. It's a bit busy, but we get ourselves seats next to the side window and prepare with iced teas and coffees along with mushroomy rice and spaghetti dishes. The BBG says "it wasn't bad, and followed the veggie rules - the iced teas were excellent too."

At one stage it looks like they're going to put crowd barriers in front of our viewing spot, which takes the shine off it a little. And then Ruby from the Pink Pig says they've got some reserved seats for customers on the street, and a couple of them are going spare, and would we like to bagsy them? Well, yes, obviously. We grab a couple more cans of Hangry Donut and settle down for what turns out to be a perfect view of the parade, although we have to move our seats three times to make way for emergency vehicles coming through. Even more lion dances, parade bands, and children suspended from complex rigs to make it look like they're floating above the parade: it's got the lot.

This is only half of the fun, though: the highlight of the day comes later on, when that 14 metre high tower of replica buns I mentioned earlier becomes the site of a midnight climbing race. It's the event that this whole holiday's literally been built around, so it's a shock when we find out by chance at 7pm that we need tickets for it, which are free but only being handed out from 10pm. It puts a bit of an edge on our dinner at the New Baccarat seafood restaurant ("the food was all right, not as spicy as I'd hoped, but they were big portions and it tasted good"), as I spend the whole time looking at my watch and wondering how soon we need to be in the ticket queue. When we join it at 9.15pm, it's enormous, and we've no real idea how many people are in front of us. Luckily, the answer turns out to be 358 (judging from my ticket number), so we enter the huge arena without any problems. After a long verbal preamble, and an introduction involving pole-climbing lions and firecrackers, we get to the two races of the evening. The first involves solo competitors trying to pull as many buns off the tower in a defined time (after which, surprisingly, quite a few of the audience drift off): the second is a relay race with teams of three grabbing individual buns from the top of the tower. A long awards ceremony follows, and then they more or less blow up the tower with fireworks for the big finish. I've had worse Wednesday nights out.

Because a) it's a skyline I never get tired of, and b) it means I've used all the possible aspect ratio options on my cameraphone for this post3: Kowloon and Culture

Rain was forecast for the entire day of the bun festival, but it never happened. The day after, the heavens open over Cheung Chau. It's preferable on the whole, but it does make for a very wet crossing on the ferry back over to HK. From there we take the MTR to Whampoa station and a short walk to the sav hotel. The understated pretentiousness of its lower-case name extends to its facade, to the extent that we walk past it twice before we find it – it doesn't really help that the ground floor's a pop-up fashion shop, with reception located at the next level up. Still, we get ourselves successfully checked in, and have another complimentary smartphone to play with for the next two days of our stay (although whoever had it last has worn the charge down to nothing when we first get it).

Whampoa's not an area we're familiar with, so part of our initial orientation involves searching for suitable places nearby for both lunch and breakfast (sav's own breakfast option looks a bit overpriced). Lunch on our first day is at Iconic H Hot Dogs, which has a splendid array of dogs available including some interesting non-meat choices like ones made out of salmon. The BBG says "I wouldn't think hot dogs could be HK food! I liked the hugely filling salmon option, but the sloppy fish egg omelette on top made it hard to eat." For breakfast, we have to rely on chains like Tsui Wah, which offers yet another 'continental' breakfast (fish, egg, beans and a toasted roll) that's nothing of the sort. The BBG, of course, always likes to have "a more local breakfast: puffy fish balls with very tasty soup." ‎We start our second and final day at MX, the fast food self service arm of the Maxim chain. Both of us have what are described as 'Western' breakfasts, but as The BBG points out "only Hong Kong would offer fried fish for breakfast like that: pity it was the only substantial non-meat option. Very efficiently run, which was good as it was our moving-on day."

For this final section of our Hong Kong visit, we've got entertainment lined up for both nights: we booked it online ages ago through Urbtix, and we pick all the tickets up in one go from a machine in the foyer of the Ko Shan Theatre. (When we get back to the theatre later for the show, there will be dozens of people queuing at the box office to collect their tickets – for some reason, these machines don't seem to have caught on.) We've got a bit of time for dinner before the show, and nearby cafe i's corner does us proud with burgers, spaghetti, a glass of wine each (plus a second thrown in for happy hour) and coffee. The BBG says "cool and friendly atmosphere, with decent portions of tasty food, plus extra wine and quirky coffee cups."

From there it's back to the theatre for some Chinese opera, where we've got good cheap seats in the front row of the balcony, coincidentally sat next to two more westerners. All four of us are handed an English synopsis at the end‎ of the first scene, which is when we discover it's actually titled Lin Chong (after the lead character). It's actually a straightforward enough plot to follow by that point, so we don't really need the synopsis for anything other than character names: man A (Gao Yanei) tries to cop off with the wife of man B (Lin Chong), is rebuffed, and so plots to destroy the life of man B in revenge. After that, the synopsis proves to be useful to establish the relationships between characters, and clear up odd bits of plotting like the significance of a sword that's frequently passed around.

It's staged rather traditionally (unlike, say, what Kabukiza does with its theatrical equivalent in Japan), with painted scenery and limited props, though there's still a five minute lump of dead time between scenes. The story also moves at an incredibly slow pace - I'm very conscious that the final sentence of the act 1 synopsis takes a full half hour to perform – but nevertheless, it's a shock at the interval to discover that two and a half hours have passed by without you really feeling it. The audience behaviour is fascinating: applauding actors on their first entrance, cheering bits of gymnastics and the delivery of especially complex lines, but not reacting at all to the ends of scenes, even at the end of the first act. The other two foreigners leave at the interval (they spent most of the first half on their phones anyway), so they miss the much shorter, more action-packed second half, featuring a fire, a suicide and an enormous fight (the latter comes closest to the fragment of an opera I saw in China during my 1993 visit).We're never bored for the running time of nearly four hours, though both of us have a little drifty moment early on in the performance that I'm blaming on the wine.

The following night we have more culture lined up at City Hall, and we end up eating in the fancy Maxim's Palace on the venue's top floor, albeit way near the back and as far away from the harbour view as possible. The BBG reports "we shared our dishes, but the deep fried iced belt fish was more mine: it was high quality and good value. I was pleasantly surprised, I'd expected from the location and the huge hall it'd be lowest common denominator." Then we head downstairs into the hall itself for the concert of Chinese Chamber Music a la Liu Xing. It's a collection of 1990s works by the composer, arranged for an 8 piece band - four strings, two wind, two percussion. There are lots of western influences audible in the 75 minutes or so that they play: we get the plucked textures of Mike Oldfield, the rhythmic attack of Steve Reich, and one atonal bit which sounds like the soundtrack to a 1960s short animated film from Canada. Somehow it sounds distinctly Chinese despite all these influences, and not just because of the instrumentation. We don't know Liu Xing's work at all, but it's an enjoyably diverse collection of tunes. There's a fun bit at end when the four lead musicians are given flowers, and then the composer comes on stage for a bow and they all give their flowers to him.

We only fit in one beer-related thing here, but TAP: The Ale Project turns out to be the best of the craft beer joints we find in HK. We grab several local beers from the various brewers we've discovered over the past week, and accompany them with spicy toast and a huge amount of fried chicken on sourdough bread. The BBG says "a terrific place, probably my favourite bar of the holiday. The toast made with beer bread was particularly appealing, and went very well indeed with the excellent beers." It's enjoyable enough on a lunchtime, but at night it's even better: and gratifyingly full of Chinese drinkers, rather than the foreigners who've been cluttering up the various other craft beer places we've visited over the past week. We celebrate with more beers from Heroes and Young Master, the brewers we'll miss the most once we leave.

So, regrettable as it is that BrewDog Hong Kong barely lasted thirteen months, it turns out that the local craft beer scene is doing quite nicely without them. You could draw parallels with how Hong Kong itself is doing without the involvement of the UK generally, but that would probably be both tasteless and inaccurate. Anyway, once again, we've had a great time here, and HK shouldn't draw any hasty conclusions from the way we're running off after just a week and going to the one Asian country that does have a BrewDog bar. Expect a report on our 2017 Japanese excursion to follow shortly, once we've got this film festival out of the way...

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