Travels & Traditions with Burt Wolf
Season 14 Episodes 1 & 2
Hong Kong is a major commercial and cultural center with considerable influence throughout the world. It is a very modern city that’s continually being built up. Up being the operative word. Yet it has maintained much of what is traditionally Chinese. Which makes it attractive to tourists. We came to Hong Kong to see what it looks and feels like to have tomorrow being built on top of a 5,000 year old culture.
What's Your Sign?
Hong Kong is clearly a modern world-class city. But its contemporary sophistication is supported by centuries of Chinese history. You’ll find an ancient temple. And across the street a starred Michelin Restaurant. Antique junks sail through the harbor powered by Mercedes diesel engines.
Hong Kong has a number of markets in a layout that has been around for thousands of years. Streets filled with open shops where you can easily see what’s for sale. Communication takes place through direct contact. You can see, smell and often touch what is being offered.
When the ancient market became Main Street the products moved behind windows. You couldn’t touch or smell the stuff, but you could look at it. And because you were walking along a street you could stop and control the amount of time and attention you devoted to what was being offered.
The Hong Kong Goldfish Market, block after block is lined with shops that sell goldfish. During the Tang Dynasty, starting in the 600’s, people began the selective breeding of carp that had a genetic mutation. The result was a golden fish, and for over a thousand years they have played a role in Chinese culture. Goldfish are valued for their extraordinary colors, elegant swimming style and quiet temperament. These days there are over 300 different varieties of goldfish.
Goldfish are a recurring theme in Chinese art. They represent wealth and success, but they also send a signal that it is possible for anyone to achieve whatever they want. If you don’t have an actual goldfish living in your home, the next best thing is a painting of a goldfish. It is considered to have the same effect with a reduced level of maintenance.
The harbor area in Hong Kong is named after Queen Victoria and it dominates the landscape, just like she did. The harbor is a very deep, sheltered waterway --- one of the world’s great natural harbors. In fact, as I was looking out the window of my room, I caught a shot on my iPhone of the Queen Elizabeth sailing through.
The harbor separates the island of Hong Kong from the part of the city that sits on the mainland and is called Kowloon. Its strategic location in the South China Sea made it a major trading center. Today, the harbor offers the most spectacular views of Hong Kong Island from one side and Kowloon from the other. For over a hundred years, the Star Ferry has been running around the harbor. It’s part of the city’s public transportation system, but it’s also a major attraction for tourists. There’s a ferry that runs up and back between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. That’s the commuter. They also have a ferry that tours the harbor.
In English, the word “junk” is used to refer to certain types of bonds and other financial instruments of questionable value, the contents of most kids rooms and clearly everything my Aunt Margaret brings home from the flea market. In China, the word ‘junk” means sailing ship, and it has a very particular and highly successful design that was originally developed over 2,000 years ago.
In Hong Kong, a company called Aqualuna offers harbor cruises on a Chinese junk. The ship is a replica of a 19th century design that was used by a local pirate who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Apparently, income inequality was one of his major concerns. It’s one of the few remaining red sail junks and everyday it sails around the harbor. The tour takes about 45 minutes.
Each of the sails on a junk has a series of horizontal bamboo strips that run from one side of the sail to the other. They are called battens. At the edge of most of the battens is a rope that allows the crew to control the shape of the sail. The sail plan on a junk also allows one sail to direct the wind into another sail, which makes it possible for the ship to move in more directions and handle better in heavy winds and rough seas. The interior of a junk is divided into separate compartments like a stick of bamboo. Those divisions help prevent flooding and give the hull greater strength. Chinese junks also used stern-mounted rudders hundreds of years before the west.
The Feng Shui Master
The phrase feng shui translates as “wind and water”. It is an ancient system for balancing the forces of nature. When feng shui is correct the spirits are happy. But if you have too much feng and not enough shui and you’re in big trouble. One of the most extraordinary examples of feng shui is Hong Kong’s InterContinental Hotel.
During the early stages of its construction a feng shui master was called in to make sure everything in the plan was properly balanced. In general, the design was OK. But the architects were from San Francisco and completely unaware that nine very powerful dragons lived nearby and the hotel was going to block the route they used everyday to go for a swim in the harbor. Fortunately, dragons can easily pass through glass, so all the builders needed to do was put in a row of glass doors at the entrance of the hotel and a big glass wall on the other side of the lobby that looks out on the harbor. Actually, there are eight regular dragons and so there are eight glass doors. The ninth dragon is the emperor who lives with the dragons but tends to bathe separately.
The feng shui master also suggested that the hotel’s reception desk be placed between the glass doors and the glass wall, which allows the dragons to drop off some of their wealth before they hop in the bay. These days, it serves the same function for the hotel guests. The collaboration between the feng shui master and the architects had some amazing results. In order to avoid blocking the dragon’s route the lobby lounge was created and turned out to be one of Hong Kong’s great spaces. All of the walls had to be aligned with the forces of nature, which had the side effect of giving the rooms a knockout view of the harbor and Hong Kong.
The hotel’s Presidential Suite is considered to be one of the world’s most luxurious. In it’s double height living room is a grand piano. U.S. President Harry Truman was an excellent piano player. He would have loved this place. I always identify with presidential suites, you see when I was in the 4th grade I was the class president. Unfortunately I spent most of the term fighting a politically motivated attempt to have me impeached.
In 1900, the tire manufacturers Andre and Edouard Michelin decided to publish a guide for French motorists. At the time, there were only about 3,000 cars on the roads of France and their hope was that their guide would promote the sale of cars and the Michelin tires they road on. During the 1920s, they decided that restaurants should be included in the guides and they hired a bunch of inspectors to make sure only the best restaurants got into their books, with the exception of their cousin Pierre’s place in Leon which really wasn’t very good, but it was a cousin and you know when it’s family the rules change.
In 1931, they introduced a rating system based on stars. One star meant it was a very good restaurant. Two stars indicated a level of cooking that warranted a detour from your planned itinerary. A restaurant with three stars implied a gastronomic level so high that even if you planning on staying in your hotel room and watching reruns of Downton Abbey (or whatever the equivalent was in 1931) you should get up, get in your car (the one with the Michelin tires) and drive to the restaurant.
These days, Hong Kong has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world with equal population density. In fact, three of them are within 50 yards of each other. The Steak House is a wine bar and grill that has been awarded a Michelin star. Its steaks come from the United States, Australia, Canada and Argentina and they are cooked on a charcoal grill. The wine cellar has over 3,000 bottles representing more than 500 labels. But their specialty is the big bottle.
Spoon is a Michelin one-star created by Alain Ducasse, the peripatetic French chef.
Stephane Gortina is the executive chef and he prepared two of his favorite dishes. Homemade pasta with green asparagus and black truffles. And a Cook pot of seasonal vegetables and fruit.
We put the finished pasta dish on a table so we could come back later and shoot what we call the beauty shot. However, while we were filming, my son ate it.
Yan Toh Heen means the place you like to hangout with the great view. It has been awarded two stars by Michelin and is considered to be one of the best Chinese restaurants in the world. Its signature dish is Peking Duck. The recipe starts with the duck being boiled in water for a while. Then the duck hangs around in the kitchen for a day or two. Then it gets roasted in the oven and basted with hot oil. At your table, the skin is sliced off, placed on a freshly cooked pancake and dressed with an assortment of vegetables and sauces.
Many restaurants have a sommelier that advises guests on the selection of wines. This restaurant has a sommelier that advises guests on the selection of tea and which tea goes with which food.
I couldn’t cover the restaurant scene in Hong Kong without visiting Nobu. The Nobu restaurants feature a style of Japanese cooking reminiscent of the countryside in Japan where Nobu grew up.
Sean Mell is the executive chef here and he’s going to make two dishes. The first is Foie Gras with Pickled Cherry on Homemade Boa Toast. The second is Baked King Crab Leg in Sea Urchin Butter
The Hong Kong Jade Market is made up of a series of booths selling things made of jade and an assortment of souvenirs. Jade has been an important element in Chinese culture for at least 6,000 years. There are two basic types of jade. One is nephrite. The more iron it contains the greener the color. The second is jadeite. It is softer than nephrite and much more difficult to find. We think of jade as being green, but it actually comes in a number of colors including white and black. The Chinese consider jade to be more valuable then gold. My favorite jade dealer at the Hong Kong market is Alice at stand #148. Good jade and good English.
Now for something to eat ---Dim Sum. A little over 2,000 years ago, merchants began making regular trips from China to the Mediterranean. The route they traveled became known as the Silk Road because --- they sold a lot of silk. It ran for over 4,000 miles, and like any well traveled highway it needed rest stops.
At first, the rest stops just offered tea and that water. After a while, however, they saw business in offering snacks. And eventually, those snacks evolved into today’s Dim Sum. Dim Sum is made up of an assortment of steamed buns, dumplings, and noodle dishes. In the more elaborate dim sum restaurants you will also find steamed vegetable dishes, roast meats and desserts. The ancestral home of Dim Sum is in the Cantonese area in southern China, and the epicenter for Dim Sum in Southern China is Hong Kong. Going to a restaurant for Dim Sum is known as yum cha, which translates as “drink tea” and traditionally the meal starts with the selection of the tea you want to drink with the meal. And, of course, there are rules about how it is to be served.
If you are the designated tea pourer, you pour for everyone else before you pour for yourself. If you are poring for someone on your left you hold the pot in your right hand and pour. If you are pouring for someone on your right you hold the pot on your left and pour. If someone has poured for you the appropriate thing to do is to thank them by curling these two fingers and tapping them on the table. There's an old story that goes along with that. Apparently one day there was an emperor who wanted to pop into town and have tea while disguised. He went in with his entourage of course, and he poured the tea. Well everybody thanks the emperor when the emperor does something for them. And the way they thank him is by bowing, but they could not bow in public so they curled their fingers to look like a bow and tapped them on the table.
Bespoke tailoring is an English tradition. The word “bespoke” indicates the ordering of something, and in this case refers to clothing that is ordered and made to the specifications of the buyer as opposed to the mass produced stuff you find in a store. There are basically three ways for a guy to buy a garment.
The first is called “Off the rack”. You go in you pick out what you want, you’re a 42 regular and somebody has decided this is what a 42 regular is, you pay for it and you’re on your way. It was made in a factory but that's life. Next is called “ Made to measure”. They measure you a little bit, it’s still a factory made garment but this time they’ve altered it so it fits you a little bit better. The ultimate is called “Bespoke tailoring” they measure every part of you, at least those parts that you would allow them to measure. and then they make a garment that's just for you. It goes in where you go in, it goes out where you go out, it’s all about you.
Bespoke Tailoring became part of Hong Kong culture when the English moved in during the 1800s. But no one was in a hurry. Bespoke speed tailoring was introduced to meet the needs of the naval officers on ships. Hong Kong was and still is a major commercial port. But a ship only stays here until it can offload its cargo and take on a new one. The naval officers are still coming in, but bespoke tailoring is now designed to meet the needs of tourists.
PMQ stands for police married quarters, and that is what these buildings used to be --- the place where young married police officers lived. Eventually, the cops moved out and the creators moved in.
Today, the building houses more than 100 creative entrepreneurs. Each occupies a small retail space. There are jewelers, artists, a shop devoted to things made from bamboo and there is always an emphasis on conservation.
The Man Mo Temple was originally built in 1848 and honors two gods --- Man is the god of literature and Mo is the god of war. Man is on the right, dressed in red and next to a writing brush. Mo is on the left, dressed in green and next to a blade. If you were a student about to take the entrance exams for a job in the Imperial government and you wanted to pray for a higher grade point average, this was the place to come. The statues around the sides of the temple represent Buddhist and Taoist deities. Long coils of incense hang from the celling and burn for days. The length of the burn attracts the attention of the gods. It’s also thought that the smoke from these coils acts as food for the spirits in the other world.
Victoria Peak, not to be confused with Victoria’s Secret, who was widely known as Prince Albert, is the highest point in Hong Kong. It tops out at 1,800 feet and offers a spectacular view of the city.
The most interesting way to get to the Peak is the Peak Tram, a funicular railway that opened in 1888. It begins at St. John’s Cathedral and goes up towards heaven. Nice symbolism.
The Victoria Peak Restaurant was originally built for engineers working on the Peak Tramway. In 1901, it became a rest area for the guys who carried the sedan chairs. In 1947, it was rebuilt as a restaurant, and today it’s a rest area for film crews.
Lantau Island was one of the first trading posts set up by Europeans to do business in China. It takes about a half-hour to get to Lantau from Hong Kong, and the easiest way is by subway. The subways in Hong Kong are modern, clean and well designed. Each car has a sign indicating the rules for seating. If you walk with a cane, have a child on your lap, or one in your belly, or need assistance moving about --- you have priority.
When you arrive on Lantau, you want to take a ride on the Ngong Ping 360 cable car. It runs for three and a half miles and takes you through some spectacular scenery. The cable car ride ends near the base of an 85-foot high bronze Buddha, one of the largest outdoor Buddha statues in the world. The Buddha sits next to the Po Lin Monastery. The monastery has its own vegetarian restaurant that is open to the public. Hong Kong has one of the highest population densities in the world with over 6,000 people per square kilometer. Accordingly, from time to time you need a break and Lantau is the place to go.
These days the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system is the Central-Mid-Level system in Hong Kong. It runs for 2,600 feet and was built to provide an easier commute between two districts in the city. In the mornings, from 6am to 10am the escalators go down taking everyone down to work. At 10am it changes direction and takes everyone up until midnight. From midnight to 6am you're on your own. It’s a trip. The escalators run through some of the most interesting parts of the city --- popular bars, terrific restaurants, remarkable shops. It’s the hip place to visit. Or as my son would say, “ It’s super cool”