I’ve formulated a number of rules to explain the weirder bits of life Asia. One of my favourites is about food: “if it moves you can eat it; and if you can eat it then you can eat all of it”.
Simply put, when it comes to eating in Asia, nothing is off-limits. Get your head around this rule and you will understand, if not necessarily enjoy, the practice of eating things like snake’s liver, dog, live silkworms and seahorses, fermented eggs with half-formed embryos inside, cocoons, cow udder, deep-fried cockroach, or durian fruit that stinks like a pair of used army socks. Ignore this rule, and, well, let’s just say that Asia will hold a few culinary surprises for you.
However, before you get too excited, today’s story is not about me eating simmered toad in Hong Kong, so sorry to disappoint. (Although I have on occasion enjoyed the pleasure of boiled frog soup, considered a bit of a delicacy right across Asia).
No, what I am referring to in today’s story is the “boiled frog syndrome”. Apparently, if a frog is dropped into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately, but if dropped into a pot of cold water that is slowly heated, it will not notice the gradual change in temperature, and will sit in the water until it is eventually cooked to death, and quite literally croaks.
Whether the boiled frog syndrome is actually true is a question of some debate. Various folks have conducted frog boiling experiments for over two hundred years now, with no clear proof one way or the other, apart from a bunch of dead frogs. Still, this hasn’t stopped some people from becoming passionate about the subject. Like one particular American journalist, who is reported to have made the boiled frog his cause célèbre, mounting a personal crusade to convince us all to “stop retelling this stupid canard story”. Honestly, I am not sure what is more stupid: a frog that boils to death; or a journalist obsessing about it.
True or not, “the boiled frog” aptly describes our quintessentially human capacity to not notice gradual change as it occurs around us, even if happening right under our noses. Sometimes it is only with time and distance that we come to fully appreciate the extent of the change.
So what has all this boiled frog stuff got to do with Hong Kong?
I first visited Hong Kong in the early 1990s. It was my first trip to Asia, and I was completely blown away by the experience.
For days I walked the streets of Hong Kong Island, in awe. My neck ached from looking up at the forests of skyscrapers, so tall I could barely see the tops. I soaked up the hustle and bustle that comes from millions of people being packed into a small space, and where every one of them seems to be personally engaged in a never-ending dance of commerce: buying, selling, trading, eating and shopping, always on the move from one place to another.
Back then everything in Hong Kong was new and exciting for me, even if it was something as simple as standing on a street corner, waiting for the traffic light to change. The crowd around me would swell, growing spontaneously in seconds from a few people to hundreds, packing in tighter and tighter but unable to move, as if held in place by an invisible barrier. And then the light would turn green, and there would be a sudden rush as everyone stepped out into the street, pushing forward at exactly the same instant. A raw type of crowd-sourced energy I had never experienced before, yet in Hong Kong it was being played out thousands of times, every day, on every corner.
That trip to Hong Kong was also my first encounter with bizarre foods, Asia-style, although with hindsight what I considered “bizarre” back then was actually quite tame.
On my first night in Hong Kong I went to an open-air food market and ordered sea-cockles. The waiter plonked a plate of these little crustaceans in front of me, and I almost jumped out of my skin when a few of them picked up and began scurrying away, off the plate and onto the table. How was I to know that this was normal – bringing the live cockles to the table proved that they were fresh. Once I had recovered from the shock and verified that they were indeed alive and kicking, the waiter swept up the strays and whipped the whole lot off to a nearby wok. Five minutes later, every one of those poor little sea-cockles returned to the table, only now lightly steamed in oyster sauce. RIP.
More than anything though, the overwhelming memory I left Hong Kong with on that first visit was of a far-flung, but absolutely integral part of, a decaying British Empire.
Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842, and apart from a few years under Japanese rule, remained part of the Queen’s realm for over 150 years. During this time, a city that was Europe’s gateway to Asia grew and prospered, becoming one of the wealthiest places on earth, and a global centre for shipping, transport, and finance. For her part, Great Britain exported fine institutions and governance to Hong Kong, things like hospitals and schools, common law courts and the police. Not to mention a vast supporting cohort of foreign workers: civil servants, businessmen and entrepreneurs.
On that first visit, I stayed with the family of my girlfriend at the time, whose father had lived in Hong Kong for almost twenty years. By birth he was Australian, but by orientation he was entirely English. Every day he went to work in a pin-stripe suit, starched white-shirt and tie, even if the temperature was a sweltering thirty-five degrees. He lived on the Peak, an enclave almost entirely inhabited by the army of ex-pat bankers, lawyers, and accountants who ran much of British Hong Kong.
My girlfriend’s father had a life that seemed cosy and predictable in a very English sort of way: kids at private school; afternoons in the exclusive surrounds of the members-only Hong Kong Club; shopping at brand name stores in Central; dinners at Italian and French restaurants; drinks at British style pubs and bars; weekend golf games, or visits to the Happy Valley racecourse, or sailing at the yacht club; summer holidays and Christmas in England. China and its billion people, not thirty kilometres away over the border, could just as well have been on the moon.
British sovereignty over Hong Kong was formalised in the 1890s, as a 99-year lease. The British diplomats negotiating the lease at the time must have considered it as good as securing Hong Kong for all eternity – I mean, who ever really thinks of anything that might happen one century into the future? But on 1 July 1997, the British lease over Hong Kong came to its inevitable end. The Union Jack was lowered; the red flag of China was raised; Prince Charles made an emotional farewell speech before sailing off into the sunset on the Queen’s boat.
And just like that, Hong Kong became part of China.
For many of my friends, the Handover was the pretext for a quick visit to Hong Kong, a three-day extravaganza of parties, fireworks and pomp and ceremony. For many of the territory’s more well-heeled residents, however, the Handover was less a cause to celebrate and more a time to fret – what would life under Chinese rule be like? There was a mad scramble to get money out of Hong Kong and to secure alternate passports (Britain, Australia, Canada and the US were high on the list, but I know of several people who became Mexican, Portuguese and Dominican-Republicans as a result).
In the end though, it was all a giant fizzler, a lot like the Y-2K virus that followed a few years later: speculation and worry and frenzied activity, but when the time actually came, all a big nothing. The morning after the Handover everyone in Hong Kong woke up, and what do you know, it was still there. The Chinese army had not invaded. The financial centre of Asia continued to hum, and apart from a new flag fluttering in the breeze, you would never have noticed a difference.
Certainly, over the next fifteen years I didn’t notice any difference. I moved to Singapore about ten years ago, and began travelling to Hong Kong frequently; sometimes if working on a China-related project it could be as often as every other week, for months on end. Hong Kong was and remains the Western world’s main doorway into China. Every major investment bank has their Asian headquarters in Hong Kong, as do most Asian investment firms and private equity funds. It was impossible for me to work in Asia’s financial industry and not spend time there.
I was a perfect boiled frog: for me, travelling there so frequently meant that Hong Kong was always the same little slice of England, clinging to the south-eastern shore of China. Comfortably ensconced in the familiar surrounds of the Grand Hyatt, surrounded all day by English-speaking lawyers and bankers and businessmen, it never occurred to me that Hong Kong may have been a-changing.
Then, following a brief visit to Hong Kong in late 2011, I did not travel there again until last week. This might not sound like much of an absence, but after having been there at least once every few months for over a decade, a fifteen months break was a very long time away from the city indeed. Certainly, it was long enough for this little Australian froggie, on jumping back into the pot of water, to notice just how much the temperature had actually changed.
First, Hong Kong has become really, really crowded – much more so than I ever recall being the case. Streets are old and narrow and often quite run down, and jammed to capacity with cars and taxis and trucks, with masses of people seemingly everywhere.
Second, just like so much of mainland China, Hong Kong struck me as being polluted and dirty, the wind bringing in the accumulated smog of thousands of factories belching smoke just over the border, in Guangzhou.
Third, Hong Kong is not nearly as modern and slick as I remember it in my mind’s eye. Sure, in and around Central there are eye-popping steel and glass skyscrapers, but I hadn’t really ever noticed the hideous concrete-block tenement buildings that occupy every free space in between, grim and grey and desperate for a coat of paint.
But mostly I noticed how English, once Hong Kong’s lingua-franca, is well and truly on the way out, along with much of the city’s British heritage. Previously, almost every taxi driver in Hong Kong understood English well enough to get me where I needed to go. Now, just like in mainland China, climbing into a Hong Kong taxi without written instructions in Chinese can be a crapshoot. In many places it looked to me like English has all but disappeared from street signs and road names. I don’t ever remember advertising on the sides of Hong Kong’s buildings entirely in Chinese, but this is now the norm; for the first time I noticed stores with absolutely no English lettering on their shop-fronts, and newspaper stands without any English language dailies on offer.
In short, fifteen years after the Handover, with the benefit of some time away, I was now able to see the extent to which Hong Kong has well and truly become a part of greater China.
As if to drive the point home, on the final day of my visit last week a work colleague and I had lunch at the Lin Heung Tea House. I had asked the hotel concierge to recommend somewhere that served authentic dim sum, and this was his choice.
The concierge advised us to get there before noon so as to beat the lunch rush, but even at that early time the dining area was a pulsing, throbbing place, packed to capacity with at least five hundred people, every single one of whom (apart from us) was Chinese.
The Lin Heung Tea House has no formal system of seating. Nor, for that matter, does it have any system of seating at all. Instead, it is a mad free-for-all where everyone stalks around the room like predators on the prowl, ready to pounce on any empty spots that may became available at any table. And I mean at any table, no matter who else is already seated at it.
So we wound up sharing a small round table, under a whirring ceiling fan, with a young Chinese guy and girl, both of whom spoke not a word of English. The girl used sign language to show me how to pour hot tea straight onto the table, and then use it to clean (or perhaps I should say disinfect) the chopsticks and bowls a passing waiter had unceremoniously thrown in front of us. Two old Chinese men at the next table laughed at my efforts, all the while jabbering at me in what I can only presume was Cantonese – they too spoke no English at all.
Neither did any of the waiters, nor any of the tea-ladies pushing trolleys piled high with steaming dim sum in bamboo baskets. There wasn’t a word of English printed on any menu (what menu?) or on any of the signs on the wall, and I felt completely alien in exactly the same way I do when in any large Chinese city.
We waited for a tea-lady to come past. After about fifteen minutes a wizened old grandma shuffled by, pushing her trolley. She was almost bent over double with age, so that you could barely see her behind the mounds of dim sum. I called out to her, and what followed was an elaborate hand-signal pantomime, in the course of which we secured a slice of steamed sponge cake, and a single bamboo basket containing four glutinous rice dumplings.
Hang on – fifteen minutes in a dim sum restaurant and only two measly items to show for it? Normally, in a place like Lin Heung it is all you can do to stop yourself from being drowned under a tsunami of food.
We looked around the room, and quickly realised that we were doing it all wrong.
At strategic spots around the dining hall, the buzz of activity was even more pronounced than elsewhere, where a tea-lady would be standing beside her trolley, surrounded on all sides by a mad, frenzied mob, a lot like a queen bee holding court at the centre of the hive. The more savvy of Lin Heung’s customers (ie: everyone besides me) had figured out that waiting in hope for a trolley to come past was an exercise in pointless futility, and the only sure-fire way to get food on your table was to intercept the trolley-lady as soon as she exited the kitchen into the dining room. It we had continued sitting there, meekly waiting for the food to come to us, we would have starved.
So I ambled over to the nearest tea-lady, and after a brief moment’s hesitation threw myself head first into the human crush around her. I was immediately squashed on all sides, hands reaching in all around me and grasping at the bamboo baskets, loud voices shouting in Cantonese right in my ear. It would have probably been easier to rake the ball out from the middle of a scrum at a Wallabies vs All Blacks rugby game, but I persevered and a few minutes later I emerged triumphant, holding my prize close to my chest: one basket of chicken with taro root wrapped in bean curd, another of barbecue pork buns, and a third with a kind of Chinese sausage-roll inside.
I returned to the table, where in the meantime the young Chinese couple we were sharing it with had somehow managed to procure a plate of quivering steamed chicken feet, and a little basket of duck tongues, which they were hoeing down with enormous gusto.
We ate and ate, and ate. Every now and again, when our supplies began to dwindle I would throw myself into the ruck around a tea trolley, returning each time with an ever more bizarre assortment of mystery meats. Just about everything was in one way or another starchy – wrapped in a steamed bun, or stuffed with taro, or deep-fried in flour. After a while, it began to feel as if I had poured wet cement directly into my stomach. The carbohydrate-heavy food expanded inside of me, distending my belly as it set into a single, solid lump.
Eventually, stuffed to the gills, we couldn’t eat anymore, and so we crawled away. The whole meal wound up costing less than $30, but I would have paid ten times that, just for the experience. The noise; the chaos; the sight of hundreds of diners virtually crash-tackling the diminutive tea-ladies in the quest for food; surly waiters circling around the room, pouring tea, tossing used bowls into giant vats of soapy water, and cleaning up by sweeping crumbs and bones off the tables and straight onto the floor.
The Lin Heung Tea House is one of those mad, crazy places that really must be seen to be believed.
Later that night I was doing a bit of reading on the internet, and I learned that Lin Heung is one of Hong Kong’s oldest tea houses, in business since 1926. Amongst Hong Kong’s Cantonese community, it is legendary – everyone knows about it. It is as close to an eating “institution” as you can get, and has for almost a century been exactly the same: a hustle and bustle, no seating, fight for your food, Chinese-only kind of place.
As I read, it occurred to me that perhaps I had the whole “boiled frog” thing backwards.
I had thought that when Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese rule, the English clock had stopped ticking, and in its place a Mandarin clock had started up, so that slowly, albeit imperceptibly to me, the place had begun to change. I thought that a place such as the Lin Heung Tea House, so emphatically and unmistakably Chinese, proved this.
But maybe what the Lin Heung Tea House really proves is that Hong Kong is the same as it has always been. I had been blinded by a sense of wonder at the place, the ex-pat environ into which I had been parachuted, the London-style street trams, the English language street signs – these “British” things had blurred my vision, and stopped me from seeing Hong Kong for what it is, and always has been: just another Chinese city.
In the end, perhaps Hong Kong hasn’t changed at all, and what has really changed is me.