September 18-22, 2013 [previously: Sept 14-18]
Autumn: season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Well, maybe that’s more of an English thing. In Hong Kong, it’s a season of mooncakes, lanterns and huge dragons made out of fire and joss sticks.
It’s even got an official holiday associated with it: the Mid-Autumn Festival. The date slides around from year to year, as it’s dependent on the full moon. In 2013, i.e. now, literary device, shut up, that date is Thursday September 19th, and we're in town for it. Mid-Autumn Festival isn’t anything like as big a deal as New Year, but it gives you a flavour of what a huge Chinese holiday celebration can feel like. Which may not always be a good thing.
Mid-Autumn festivities happen all over Hong Kong, but the biggest official ones take place on the Island itself. So the day before the holiday, we leave Kowloon and take an MTR trip under the harbour to Causeway Bay and the Butterfly on Morrison Hotel. Initially, we have our concerns. The hotel is undergoing a lot of construction work when we arrive, so you could easily get the impression that it’s got a lobby and a lift and nothing else. The website is full of pictures of the breathtaking views you can expect, but our seventh floor room looks directly over the street and into a tatty office building, which annoys The Belated Birthday Girl no end.
In fact, things aren’t quite as bad as they first seem. Granted, it’s a bit of a trudge between the hotel and Causeway Bay MTR station, but that’s not the only way to travel – there’s a tram stop just a minute or two away, so we're nicely positioned for one of the island’s most distinctive forms of transport. Our view from the window may not seem so great when approached head-on, but just off to the side there's a glimpse of some mountains and part of the Happy Valley racecourse (you'd be perfectly positioned to catch some free racing action if there was any going on this week). We’re also pretty close to a number of decent restaurants, which will be covered in more detail later. But the best thing about the Butterfly is the staff: even though huge swathes of their hotel appear to be shut right now, they’ll do anything they can to help. And, it turns out, they'll do even more than we would have reasonably expected.
The Mid-Autumn festivities actually start the evening before, with the Tai Hang fire dragon dance. It’s a ceremony that takes place over three consecutive nights, where a 67-metre dragon constructed out of 300 guys and 72,000 burning incense sticks rampages through the streets of Tai Hang. Inevitably, the crowds lining those streets are huge, and we have a horrible feeling that we’ll never get to see anything. But the parade does several circuits over a few hours, during which time there’s enough churn in the spectators to ensure you get at least a few minutes at the front of the crash barriers. Which is the point where you realise that a large group of over-enthusiastic men are basically running towards you carrying a flimsy 67-metre long structure made out of burning wood. It smells nice, though.
And so to the day itself. As the holiday is based around the celebration of the full moon, all the important stuff happens after dark. But people still get the day off, so it’s a busy time before that as well. For the sheer hell of it, we choose this day to take the traditional tram ride to the top of Victoria Peak. The queues are fairly big when we get there mid-morning: they’re even more insanely huge by the time we leave after lunch. As ever, more and more commercial junk is cluttering up the top of the Peak once you get there, but the views are still as sensational as ever, and the extra $30 we pay for entry to the Sky Terrace platform turns out to be well worth it on a gloriously sunny day.
Eventually, night falls, everyone breaks out the lanterns and the real fun begins. Theoretically, anyway. The main gathering place for celebrations is at Victoria Park, and when we get there it’s already fairly crammed. As we make our way round the park, there’s lots to enjoy: entertaining musical performances, pretty light displays, and enjoyable participatory bits like drumming lessons for the kids. But as the evening wears on and the crowds get bigger and bigger, it gets harder to actually get near anything of interest. The highlight is a huge LED-covered dome constructed in a reflecting pond to look like a full moon: however, the queueing time to get into it is at least 90 minutes.
If the attractions are impossible to get at through the crowds, then the food stalls are doubly impossible. There simply aren’t enough of them, and they're offering fairly unappetising junk. In what strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the whole affair, there’s a gigantic mooncake stall near the main entrance, mooncake being the classic snack food associated with the festival. When you get close to it, though, you find it’s just a facsimile, to show you what mooncake stalls would look like if you were somewhere that had one. I start having Monty Python flashbacks at this point. (“It’s very clean, sir.” “Well, it’s certainly uncontaminated by mooncake.”) Being English, of course, when a girl from the HK tourist office ties us up for ten minutes with a questionnaire to ask our opinions, all we can say is “oh, it’s all very nice.”
The tourist office girl gives us a cheap LED lantern in exchange for our opinions, and we stomp out of Victoria Park feeling thoroughly dispirited. Not having any real backup plan to speak of, we simply get on a tram with the intention of getting as far away from the park as possible. And that’s how we stumble across the Mid-Autumn Festival party at Kennedy Town by accident. Miles away from the big-budget official do, there’s a tiny park where families are picnicking by candlelight, kids are throwing glowstick bracelets into the trees to decorate them, and happy people are wandering around carrying lanterns. We turn on our freebie LED lantern and join them: within minutes, all the hassle of Victoria Park is forgotten, and I’m finally seeing the point of it all. If you ever make it to Mid-Autumn festival, don’t assume that the official ceremony is the only way to celebrate: look further afield, there’s probably more fun to be had elsewhere.
Happily, it's much easier to get food pretty much anywhere else on Hong Kong Island. In association with The Belated Birthday Girl, here are a few recommendations of places to try. (If you’re still looking for those mooncakes, you could do a lot worse than Kee Wah bakery, who for all I know might be the Hong Kong equivalent of Greggs, but they came up with the goods when we asked for them.)
The Luk Yu Teahouse is one of the island’s institutions when it comes to dim sum. Google them in the English language, though, and what’s everyone talking about? Yeah, that awkward incident in 2002 when some guy got whacked at his table. Put morbid curiosity aside, and it’s a lovely building to eat in, though the downstairs tea ‘n’ cakes area is prettier looking than the upstairs dim sum parlour. Don’t expect conversation – the staff are pretty curt, but will hand you an English list of dumpling options to tick. You may find cheaper dim sum elsewhere, but it’s worth it for the environment.
Close to the Butterfly on Morrison, there’s an interesting stretch of eateries along Leighton Road. Only one of them has its own Wikipedia page, though. Mak’s Noodle is another Hong Kong institution, although it’s possibly the Wellington Street branch that’s been getting attention from the likes of Anthony Bourdain. If you’re looking for a tasty, cheap and cheerful wonton soup (albeit one that may have some cheeky traces of pork in the broth), you could do a lot worse, although again you could probably find other places nearby that aren’t so stingy on the noodles.
We try to keep away from the obvious expat hangouts on these holidays, but sometimes they’re just too convenient. Blue Lemon, for example, which is one of a whole string of Western-aimed establishments on the outskirts of Tai Hang. On the evening of the fire dragon dance, we prepare ourselves with pigeon risotto and scallop/garlic spaghetti. Both are perfectly fine, and the atmosphere isn’t too aggressively Westerners only, which is more the case when you get to the hardcore expat places near the midlevel escalator.
As we're beer ponces now, we're determined to try a pint of locally brewed ale while in Hong Kong. It's not easy, though. There may well be a craft beer scene here, but several of the brewpubs recommended in our guidebooks have shut down, and the only one that we find open reports that HK’s two key microbreweries are both on hiatus right now. That pub is The Globe, which at least manages to be a good buzzy bar rather than merely a British theme boozer. Taking the attitude that British colonial history is part of HK anyway, we use this to justify ordering very good fish & chips and steak & kidney pie, washed down with beers from back home (Punk IPA, Baird Angry Boy Brown, St Austell Admiral) and further afield (Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout).
When we were in Hong Kong in 2005, we raved about M At The Fringe. That’s another venue that’s gone the way of those brewpubs, sadly. But the good news is, a couple of the chefs went on to set up the unlikely ABC Kitchen - unlikely because it’s part of a dingy food court inside the Queen Street Cooked Food Market, sharing table space with two or three other restaurants. Head for the tables with the ABC menus and checked tablecloths, and prepare to be astonished, like we were with beautifully tender lamb and cod cooked three ways. The food’s just as terrific as it was at M, with decent wine also available. It’s such a small scale operation that I don’t think they take plastic, so plan your budget accordingly.
Finally, to segue us into the next chunk of this piece, a few thoughts about eating on Lamma Island. It’s very much a tourist trap, with one whole side of the island dedicated to a string of seafood restaurants. Which to choose? Partly because it’s a place whose name could leave it open to a crippling lawsuit in the future, we plump for Lamma Hilton, which has a lovely combination of good food and fine views. It seems largely geared towards tour groups, but there are a few smaller tables near the back looking directly out onto the water. It all looks very pretty if you get there just as the sun’s starting to set, and you may even get to see the jaw-dropping sight of a speedboat pulling up next to you so they can get to the adjacent table a bit quicker. As for the food, it’s mostly set menus, the one we choose having a lovely combination of seafood of decreasing complexity (prawns, scallops, clams, squid, rice).
It’d be nice to have the sort of lifestyle where you could just take your speedboat out to Lamma Island for dinner of an evening, but we use our Octopus cards on the ferry from Hong Kong instead. The island has two ports, which leads to an obvious plan for a day trip: take the ferry over to Yung Shue Wan, walk across from one side of the island to the other, grab a seafood dinner, and get the ferry back from Sok Kwu Wan. It’s a well-worn path known as the Lamma Island Family Trail, but somehow we end up doing the first part of it offroad because we miss the signposts. Once we find them again, it’s a very enjoyable walk, although doing it on what turns out to be one of the hottest days of the year is possibly a mistake. They say it’s an island associated with reggae, but the only music we get to hear during a couple of hours walking is Air Supply's All Out Of Love from one of the many stalls selling overpriced drinks and provisions to people who forgot to buy them at the start. Come prepared.
After a day spent in that sort of unnecessary exertion, a movie before bedtime seems like the way to relax. Even if it is one by Wong Jing, Hong Kong’s most notorious hack director, still banging them out in much the same way that he's done since the early eighties. Our visit to the President Theatre is for a late night preview of what promises to be a rude film, because Mr and Mrs Player has one of those Category III ratings that all us HK fanboys used to cream our jeans over in the nineties. Actually, it’s not that rude at all: it’s very much a post-Vulgaria sex comedy, to the extent that at one point, there’s a kind of self-critique of the story so far which bears a strong resemblance to the criticisms made by China about Vulgaria. Sure, there’s a plot – shag-happy Chapman To makes a bet that he can share a house with Chrissie Chau for 100 days without having sex, because reasons – but like Wong's other films it’s all about the injokes, the hammy references to other movies, and the random bits of delightful crudity. “Don’t beat my cock!” pleads To to some mob heavies. “Beat only his cock!” insists their boss. That’s the quality of the humour we’re dealing with here, and you’ll either laugh or you won’t. I did.
With one more day on the island before we head off, we decide to seriously hit the trams, riding up and down along the main island route to produce the video you can see up there (all on a budget of around two pounds fifty, amazingly). At the Shau Kei Wan end of the line, we get off and do another one of the self-guided walks from our handy tourist board leaflet, eventually ending up at the Hong Kong Coastal Defence Museum. It’s much much bigger than you'd expect, a former redoubt converted into a memorial for the damage caused to HK over the years by the British, the Japanese and the People’s Republic of China respectively. The Japanese come off worst, mainly because of a temporary exhibit called Anti-Japanese War Heroes which looks at the people behind Hong Kong’s resistance movement during World War 2. By comparison, the British presence is handled sympathetically, while the post-1997 discussion of the PRC’s involvement in the territory is presented in a totally different style and feels like it’s come straight out of a propaganda manual. Nevertheless, it’s historically fascinating, and there’s lots of old military hardware to examine as you make your way back down the redoubt.
It’s during our journey back from the Coastal Defence Museum that things start to unravel. When we arrived at the MTR station earlier that morning, there was a sign up featuring a T1 typhoon warning, the weakest one possible, illustrated with a fabulously cute drawing of a man holding an umbrella flapping in the wind. But as we’re heading home that evening, there are weather forecasts playing on the big screens in town: they seem to be suggesting that it’s been upgraded to a T3. By the time we’re back at the hotel, the word is out that by tomorrow evening we’ll be in the middle of a T8, the strongest storm to hit Hong Kong in 34 years. Instead of a man with a flappy umbrella, the news chooses to illustrate this with footage of a 2008 typhoon destroying the Lantau village of Tai O.
All of a sudden, our plan to spend the final third of our holiday at a beach resort on Lantau appears to have a fatal flaw. Possibly literally.