It's early on the morning of Sunday September 22nd, and The Belated Birthday Girl and I are facing ALMOST CERTAIN WATERY DEATH.
Okay, I'm actually writing this exactly eight months later, so this is the point where the whole present tense literary device breaks down. But at the time, it's all very worrying indeed.
Typhoon Usagi, the largest storm to hit Hong Kong in 34 years, is expected to reach us here by the end of the day. We watch the local news for updates, and catch an interview with a female American tourist who's going down to the coast to watch Usagi coming in, because she thinks it sounds really cool. This is the point at which The BBG and I realise that we have to do whatever we can to survive this, because we don't want to look as bloody stupid as that tourist does. It's not so much a question of saving our skins, more protecting ourselves from post-mortem embarrassment. If that's a very British reaction to a natural disaster, then so be it.
Here’s the problem, though. Today, we’re due to move out of the safe inland haven of Butterfly on Morrison, and into a hotel on Lantau Island that literally opens out onto the sea. So the first thing we need to do is contact the Lantau hotel and find out how Usagi is affecting things there. However, the only phone number we’ve got goes to an automated service for connecting directly to a room - any attempt to reach reception results in us being cut off. We also send emails, but get no response. They might be having a Sunday lie in: they might have evacuated the place in preparation for the coming storm: they might already be dead. It’s impossible to tell.
We decide that we can't risk travelling to Lantau, and look for a replacement hotel in a less vulnerable area. As the Butterfly is a small chain, we do a quick skim of their availability online – there’s no space at the Morrison, but the one on Hollywood has some discounted rooms available. We go down to reception to ask the staff to make the booking at the Hollywood for us... and that’s where it all goes weird. Reception assumes we’re primarily looking for a cheap room, and start moving heaven and earth to get us another few days at the Morrison at a comparably low price. The more I insist that we’re not haggling for a deal, the more they keep lowering the rate: it's Zen bartering at its finest.
In the end they force us to stay at the Morrison, by reducing the price of a 23rd storey suite to fractionally above that of a basic room at their rival hotel. We spend an hour or so looking out the window at our vastly improved view, and laughing ourselves silly: but then we head out to make the most of the rest of the day, before Usagi hits the fan. We spend the afternoon in a café with postcards, writing numerous variations on ‘having a lovely time so far, but there’s a possibility we may drown tonight’. We pick up tea bags and doughnuts for emergency in-room supplies, and watch the businesses in Causeway Bay shut down one by one, putting gaffer tape across their windows to reduce the risk of shattering. By 9pm we're back in our room as the typhoon officially hits category T8, waiting to see if we'll be safe there.
Short answer: yes, we are. The typhoon ends up skirting the edges of Hong Kong rather than blasting it completely: mainland China gets it much worse. Through the night, we can hear loud gusts of wind outside, and the intensity of the rain hits some sort of peak around 7am (to the extent that we discover afterwards that the windows have leaked a little bit). By 9am, it’s calmed down significantly, as we eat our doughnuts for breakfast and watch the Zingzillas sing a song on TV about thunder and lightning, the cheeky bastards. At 10.20, it's officially announced that we’re back down to T3. By noon, we’re out on the streets, and things are visibly getting back to normal. As if to prove how great the Morrison has been through all this trauma, when we get back that night we find that The BBG has been given an award in the shape of a towel rabbit for being the hotel’s Guest Of The Day. Typhoon Usagi takes its name from the Japanese word for ‘rabbit’, unintentionally making this act of kindness possibly the sickest joke of the entire holiday.
As for our original Lantau hotel, they eventually email me back at around 3pm on the Sunday, long after we’ve accepted the deal at the Morrison. They insist that they're going to stay open through the storm – yeah, thanks, you could have told us that that six hours ago – and that they’ll charge my credit card even if we don’t turn up. Unfortunately, thanks to an admin cockup by my bank, my credit card number has been changed since I made the original booking, which means that the hotel has no way of getting the money from me. Want to know why I haven’t mentioned them by name at any point? That’s why.
But criminals just can't keep away from the scene of the crime, and a mere 48 hours later we’re on Lantau walking past the very hotel itself. Our original plans for the final few days of the holiday were based around the island and its neighbours, using Lantau as the jumping-off point for a series of explorations. Usagi has forced us to squeeze our island adventures into a shorter timeframe, and commute in from Causeway Bay each day. I remember my first visit to Lantau in 1997, when the only way you could get there was by a ferry to Mui Wo, followed by a rickety bus across the island. These days, the MTR subway takes you all the way as far as Tung Chung, which is fine as long as you don’t accidentally follow everyone else when they get off at the stop before for Hong Kong Disneyland.
During my second visit in 2005, there was a huge amount of construction going on. Eight years later, we now have the Ngong Ping 360 cable car, which takes you on the final stage of the journey from Tung Chung to the Po Lin monastery where the giant Buddha statue resides. Despite some irritatingly grey skies on the horizon, the view from the cable car is breathtaking, gliding past the airport, over the mountains, and casually passing by the Buddha in its final few hundred yards. It may feel like a tourist trap (even at the bargain price of eight quid or so), but that’s nothing compared to the huge development of stalls and sideshows they’ve built around the monastery at the far end. It’s a very silly mixture of East and West, and sadly I don’t have the nerve to take a photo of the perfectly symbolic scene I encounter there: four monks sat at a table outside Starbucks, serenely contemplating a single slice of cheesecake.
The monks at least remind you that there's still a monastery here. Po Lin has all the classic features it’s always had, including its vegetarian restaurant (more on that later). In a token sop to the creeping commercialisation of the whole area, they now won't let you into the upper levels of the Buddha exhibition hall without you buying a meal from the restaurant first. That’s not really a problem, as all the best bits are at the lower level, which is still totally free to enter. Highlights include a display on the epic story of the construction of the Buddha itself, and a small, touching shrine to the singer Anita Mui. And looking at the Buddha is still as jaw-dropping an experience as ever: maybe even more so once you know that, for example, its face was cast as a single piece of bronze.
From there we get the bus back to Mui Wo ferry port, which has changed enormously since the time when it was the only route between Lantau and Hong Kong. These days, it’s turning into a little bit of an expat enclave, its restaurants and streets full of gweilos discussing the Premier League results and how hard it is to find a good cleaner. But the ferry port still has its uses, particularly if you want to explore the other islands close to Lantau. There’s an established Inter Island Ferry route which allows you to do a loop around three other islands in the vicinity. The only one really worth getting off the boat for is Cheung Chau: it's theoretically pedestrianised, but in practice the streets are full of marauding farm trucks and bikes which creep up silently on pedestrians from behind. Apart from that, the island's a pleasure to get around on foot, just a couple of hundred metres from coast to coast at its narrowest point. Chi Ma Wan and Peng Chau are by all accounts not as interesting, but the ferry is priced cheaply enough to just sit on it and enjoy the ride.
We'd initially assumed that this food section coming up here (put together with copious input from The Belated Birthday Girl, as ever) would focus exclusively on restaurants on Lantau and the other islands. Thanks to the weather, though, we end up spending a significant part of these final few days on Hong Kong Island, so there are a few more places to tell you about there as well.
Brunch Club Causeway Bay becomes a very handy spot for breakfast, located just around the corner from the Butterfly. They do all the eggy brunch options you’d expect (scrambled, Benedict, fried and more), served with particularly good coffee. You’d imagine this would be a pure expat venue, but that isn’t the case at all: it’s friendly and full of locals indulging themselves in a little bit of Western cool. The prices can be up there with brunch in London, but it’s a very enjoyable place that feels worth the money.
One problem of writing about restaurants in Hong Kong is that the turnover is even more rapid than back home: places that the guidebooks were raving about last year could well have been shut down and replaced by now. Take, for example, the interesting sounding Macanese restaurant in Wan Chai across from the Old Post Office: by the time we get there, it's become a Mediterranean joint called Quemo, owned by the same company that runs Nanhai No. 1. As with that restaurant, prices are high, with a full Sunday brunch running at $388 per person: we go for a couple of a la carte selections instead, featuring Spanish tortillas, grouper and a couple of San Miguels. They’re perfectly acceptable as a Sunday brunch: the most memorable thing about the meal is watching the staff lashing down anything that moves in anticipation of the coming storm.
It's almost typical of The BBG that later on, as we're barricaded in our hotel room with a T8 typhoon warning in operation, she starts wondering if we can still get a sit down dinner somewhere. Heading out onto the wet and deserted streets, we discover that the Leighton Road branch of local chain Tai Heng has a sign in the window boasting that it will stay open even if the typhoon hits T8. (Most other restaurants nearby have similar signs, but with ‘even if’ replaced by ‘until’.) There’s a jolly atmosphere inside, a shared realisation that all of us value food more than personal safety. They can only offer a subset of the full menu, but our dishes of roast pork and pompano fish accompanied by mandarin and honey tea go down very nicely indeed.
The day after the typhoon, we stay on Hong Kong Island waiting for things to settle down, and spend the evening wandering around the mid-level area, which in terms of eateries is definitely the white people's ghetto. The restaurants operate on what we in London call the Brick Lane principle, assuming that if staff stand outside and yell at you repeatedly, that’ll somehow make you want to come in. Only one restaurant on the whole of Elgin Street has the self-confidence to allow us to read the menu and then say “have a look at the others and come back if you’re still interested.” Which is why we end up coming back to Posto Pubblico, a terrifically atmospheric Italian place where we don’t feel guilty about eating veggie lasagne, pizza and chianti in the middle of Hong Kong. The quality of the staff doesn’t drop once you’re inside: when the advertised pepperoni pizza runs out, they improvise by throwing some salami slices on top of their standard margarita. It’s a fine location for people watching, especially once you notice just how many tables are occupied by middleaged Western men with younger Asian women.
Over on Lantau, we’ve already mentioned the restaurant at Po Lin monastery, still offering a fine veggie lunch for no more than a few quid. The basic menu features a strange mushroomy soup with murky broth and twigs, chili tofu, spring rolls and some nicely flavourful mushrooms: a supplement entitles you to a few more veg. It may not be the nicest vegetarian food in Hong Kong, but at least you know they’re not telling you lies about it being meat free, and your cash helps to support the monastery. Across the island, near Mui Wo ferry port, Bahce is the most commonly recommended restaurant in the guide books: we went there in search of the local beer made on Lantau itself, only to find that they're on a brewery break as well. It’s a meze heavy menu, and we're able to mix up one hot and one hot/cold meze to split the meaty and veggie bits between us perfectly, except when I end up with the one scorching hot chili out of the four we're given.
Part of our extra time on Hong Kong Island includes a return visit to the President Theatre, where we saw the Chapman To comedy Mr And Mrs Player just a few days earlier. And now we’re seeing another Chapman To comedy, The Midas Touch. Compared to the Wong Jing movie this is a much more slapdash affair, and it’s rare that a Hong Kong film fan gets to use those words in that order. To plays a debt collector who accidentally ends up in charge of a model agency: he vows to help the girls become stars, with the aid of another agent who knows what she's doing. The ultra-broad comedy stops me from spotting what The BBG realises: The Midas Touch is little more than a cynical ploy to introduce eight new starlets to the public, even recycling the actresses’ real audition tapes over the end credits. The film’s so focussed on this as its goal that the story meanders like crazy, frequently going down dead ends and forgetting to make its way back. If you’re familiar enough with HK cinema to be amused by a shot of Nicholas Tse reading a newspaper on the toilet, then at least there’s that: otherwise, it’s best forgotten.
Still on the Island, we also explore the mid-level areas, possibly thinking that it may be good to stay above sea level in case Usagi decides to come back. The places where people work are all on the lower levels of Hong Kong, while the places where they live are generally further inland and much higher up. To link the two, there’s the Mid-Level Escalator, actually a series of connected escalators that take people between the two locations. In the morning, the escalators all run down to get people to work: in the evening, they run up to get them home again. Which means you can spend a very enjoyable evening riding all the way up to the residential areas, and then taking a slow walk back down again, stopping at restaurants like Posto Pubblico along the way.
But after all this excitement, it’s eventually time to head back home. Our plan has always been to spend our final night at the Marriott Sky City Hotel by the airport, so that we’re nicely positioned for an early plane back to London. After unexpectedly spending a terrific week at the Butterfly on Morrison, it’s surprising to move to a large chain hotel and find the facilities somewhat wanting. The best facility just might be the free shuttle bus running between the hotel, the airport, and Tung Chung MTR station. The wifi is irritatingly limited, free in the lobby but chargeable in your room. The Sky Bistro is anonymous and international, offering us a passable dinner of burgers and tuna fillets. But it's redeemed by the bar, which turns out to be the first and only place that can offer us Hong Kong beer, a rather tasty red ale that we can guzzle while leeching the bar’s wifi.
The journey home is relatively event-free (compared with ALMOST CERTAIN WATERY DEATH, at least): get the shuttle to the airport in good time, have a decent breakfast at Café Deco, watch even more of Parks And Recreation season 5 on the Cathay flight interspersed with classic albums from my childhood. (Surprise discovery: Songs In The Key Of Life has shedloads of filler.) Within less than a day, I’m sleeping in my own bed again, only to wake up in the middle of the night a) not knowing where the hell I am, b) feeling surprised that this hotel has a similar layout to our bedroom back home, and c) convinced that wherever I am, our luggage must be somewhere else. It’s nice to be back home, but sometimes I find it takes a while to re-adjust. Being a monkey, and all.