Origins: The Traditions of Hong Kong - #112

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

Hong Kong is a small island just off the southern coast of the Chinese mainland.  It’s a model of free enterprise.  A bustling metropolis.  And one of the world’s most important financial centers.  But it is also a focal point for traditional Chinese history and culture. Chinese music. Chinese art. Chinese theater. And Chinese food. And that unusual blend of western high-tech with Chinese high-touch has made Hong Kong the most important tourist destination in Asia.  Over ten million visitors come to Hong Kong each year.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Hong Kong is made up of four distinct areas. First of all, there is the original island of Hong Kong that the British took away from the Chinese in 1841.  And right across the harbor is Kowloon, the tip of the mainland which the British took away from the Chinese in 1860 in order to fortify the harbor and protect the British navy.  And right behind Kowloon are the New Territories and surrounding the whole place are 235 out-islands.

The north side of the island of Hong Kong, facing the mainland, is the home of the central business district.  The best way to see the place is to hop on one of the double-decker trams, sit up top and up front and see the city.  But don’t take your tram ride during the morning or evening rush hours.  The traffic is unbearable.

Next -- a ride on the funicular railway to Victoria Peak, the highest spot on Hong Kong island, from both the geographic and social viewpoints.  This is the place to live in Hong Kong.  If you are at the top of your game, you live on the top of the peak.

Hong Kong is also the home of a district called Western.  It was the first place settled by the British in the 1840s, but they soon moved out and left it to the Chinese who were moving in to get work.  Today Western is a typical, colorful, urban Chinese community.  It’s the place to see the most traditional Chinese craftsmen at work. Mahjong set makers.  Chop carvers.  Jade workers.  Fan makers.  Potters.  And eggroll bakers.  It’s also the neighborhood of the Chinese herbalists.

Ladder Street is lined with some of the city’s oldest buildings.  It’s thought to have been constructed with these broad stones in order to make it easier for men carrying people in sedan chairs to make it up and down the hill from Hollywood Road.  The sedan chairs are gone, but Hollywood Road is still here and it’s a great spot for antiques, furniture, snuff bottles, and porcelain.

WINNIE CHAN:  The road is named Hollywood is because the second governor, Sir John Davids, named this road according to have a home in England called Hollywood Tower, so he named this road Hollywood Road. 

BURT WOLF:  So it’s not about movies at all.


BURT WOLF:  It’s about somebody’s garden in England.

WINNIE CHAN:  Yes, that’s right.  When you look at the jade carving, the carving itself is very important.  Even though I give you a piece of best jade, and if you mess up with the carving, it’s not worth much.  You know, the carving itself is very important.

BURT WOLF:  It’s like cutting a diamond.

WINNIE CHAN:  Like cutting a diamond.  Burt, look at this -- a headdress.  Ladies’ one.  The blue one is the enamel, and then the pearls, and then the green one is jade beads.

BURT WOLF:  That’s gotta be for a special occasion.

WINNIE CHAN:  Yeah...Wealthy, wealthy people.

BURT WOLF:  You don’t wear that when you’re shopping.

WINNIE CHAN:  No.  And snuff bottles here.  And different carving, and colors, and all that.

BURT WOLF:  More lions.

WINNIE CHAN:  Yes, that’s right.

BURT WOLF:  Keep out those evil spirits.

WINNIE CHAN:  Oh look!  Here, a huge basket.  In olden times, the groom... the bride’s family carried the dowry to the groom’s home and they put everything in it...

BURT WOLF:  Silks and...

WINNIE CHAN:, and money, and gold, and all that.  Lunch.

BURT WOLF:  Lunch?  Did someone say lunch?

The island of Hong Kong is also the site of Wanchai, known also as the “Wanch,” and it’s home to one of Hong Kong’s great markets.


WINNIE CHAN:  Right, Burt, this is one of the oldest Chinese bakeries.  And you can see, first of all you can see all of these colored ones on the top there.  Those are all the wedding cakes.

BURT WOLF:  You give those to someone who’s having a wedding...


BURT WOLF:  ...or you get served that at a wedding?

WINNIE CHAN:  Well, give it away, it’s a sort of announcement, especially, it’s given out by the bride’s family to say that my daughter is marrying out now...

BURT WOLF:  Do the colors mean anything special?

WINNIE CHAN:  Oh, yes, these are all the lucky colors, you know, yellow is represent wealth and power; pink, basically, red is happiness, you know.  And they have very different stuffing inside.

BURT WOLF:  So if I get one of those, it’s somebody telling me that their daughter is getting married?

WINNIE CHAN:  You don’t normally get one.  You normally have a set. 

BURT WOLF:  Oh, I get a whole set...

WINNIE CHAN: Yes, yes...

BURT WOLF:  Oh, that’s very nice...

WINNIE CHAN:  Yeah...that’s right.

BURT WOLF:  Beats those little cards.

WINNIE CHAN:  Yeah, that’s right.

Hong Kong’s commitment to its Chinese heritage is expressed throughout the society.  The population continues to take part in all of the traditional Chinese holidays and follows the customs associated with paying respect to ancient gods and ancestors. This is the Man Mo Temple.  It was built in the early 1840s.

WINNIE CHAN:  First of all, we come to this very beautiful door.  And years ago when very important people would go through the door...

BURT WOLF:  Ah, so the rich and famous go through the door, the rest of us go around it.

WINNIE CHAN:  That’s right, the rest of us go around it.

BURT WOLF:  Ah ha, okay.

WINNIE CHAN:  The temple is for Man and Mo, two gods.  And the civil god controls the destiny of the civil servant.  And Mo, it’s actually marshal and we also named him the god of the war.  First of all we’re going to get some incense and then we do bison [sic], that means worship the gods. 

BURT WOLF:  Let’s get some incense.

WINNIE CHAN:  Right.  The money in the donation box and I’ll just help myself to have a pack of incense.  That’s always come in three sets, three sticks in one set.


WINNIE CHAN:  It represent the heaven, the universe and the hell.  Once you offer, you offer to God, human being and evil spirit...

BURT WOLF:  Three levels...

WINNIE CHAN:  Three levels... so come around here...

BURT WOLF:  Is there different power for the different sizes?

WINNIE CHAN:  Well, of course, the biggest one is the better one...

BURT WOLF:  Well, looks like I’m in deep trouble already....

WINNIE CHAN:  Okay, now, communication with God is a private matter.  So, you have a question, doubt in your mind, you bow and you say your prayer.  You don’t have to sing out, you just say it to yourself, and then, whatever wishes you want.  And after you finish your prayer, you can put the incense on here...

BURT WOLF:  And I bow three times?

WINNIE CHAN:  Well, uh, any, any, it’s not necessary...

BURT WOLF:  Depending on how much I have to ask....

WINNIE CHAN:  That’s right...

BURT WOLF:  Okay...

WINNIE CHAN:  Okay, I just want to show to you there are different incense about us and if some of the family, people, worshippers want to have a blessing they normally burn a bigger one.  One of these big ones last for two weeks.

BURT WOLF:  So these circular ones are incense....


BURT WOLF:  And you light the end and it slowly burns around.  For two weeks? 

WINNIE CHAN:  The big one is for two weeks, all right, and the smaller one maybe ten days and you normally write your wish, happiness, successful business, write it on the red tag underneath it, yeah...

BURT WOLF:  So that will burn there for all of those days expressing that wish for the family.

WINNIE CHAN:  That’s right.

BURT WOLF:  I’ve never seen incense like that, that’s very interesting....

WINNIE CHAN:  Yes, yes, very different, very different.  Okay, well, the last, last not the least, last things we put a bit of donation in it, and you can drum, and the bell, and that will bring us good luck.

BURT WOLF:  I put the donation into here...

WINNIE CHAN:  Right...put the donation in...

BURT WOLF:  And then I take this three times...

WINNIE CHAN:  Yeah...And the bell...

BURT WOLF:  That ought to do it!

WINNIE CHAN:  Right, you will have a fortune year coming...and then...

BURT WOLF:  That’s it?

WINNIE CHAN:  That’s right.

Across the harbor from the island of Hong Kong is Kowloon, which is on the mainland of China.  The distance is only a mile and you can cover it by car in the harbor tunnel, but the most interesting way to make the passage is on the Star Ferry.  These ferries have been running up and back on Hong Kong harbor since 1898, and these days they run every few minutes.  And at 25 cents per ride it’s one of the best transportation deals in the world.

The word Kowloon means “nine dragons.”  The folklore that goes along with the name tells the story of a boy emperor in the Sung dynasty who was forced to this tip of land by the invading Mongols.  While he lived here, he noticed that the peninsula had eight hills.   He called them the eight dragons.  An adviser to the emperor pointed out that an emperor was also a dragon and so he included himself and called the place “nine dragons,” Kowloon.

Kowloon has a land surface of only three square miles, but it’s the center of Hong Kong’s “shoppers’ paradise.”  The place to start is at the Chinese Arts and Crafts Store in Star House.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In China, tea is very important, but the equipment that the tea is made in is just as important.  Particularly the pot. 

Now this is the jade department.  Jade is very important in Chinese culture because jade is thought to have the power to lengthen your life and to keep away evil spirits.  When you’re buying jade, if you’re lucky enough to be doing that someday, you want to look for jade that has a deep green color and the color should be very even.  Here are two pieces.  Here’s a really deep green color, looks great, even.  This one is bigger, but less expensive because it doesn’t have the depth of color and it’s not even.  I guess you’ve got to assume that the deeper the color the more expensive the jade, the more evil spirits it will keep away. 

This is the department of traditional Chinese clothing, it’s ready to wear, I mean, the clothing’s ready to wear.  I’m not sure that I’m ready to wear it.  Dresses look fine --certainly would fit in any western wardrobe.  Red’s a very important color.  It means good luck.  And I think all of the women’s clothing here is nice.  The men’s clothing, it’s a little trickier.  This is a traditional men’s garment, it looks very comfortable.  I’m not exactly sure where I would wear it.  And I’m afraid that if I wore it once, it’s so recognizable, they’d know it when I wore it a second time.  They have an area where they reproduce the clothing of the emperors.  Very nice.  Only emperors were allowed to wear gold, so they wore it as often as possible.  This is actually an ensemble, you have the whole outside garment, those are the boots and the belts that go with it and the hat.  Hat’s very important, it’s a big deal emperor’s hat.  You wear it like this.  The tail in the back spins you into the wind.  If you’re an emperor it’s important to know which way the wind is blowing.  I can also wear it this way, it’s a fabulous fly-swatter during the summer or in southern countries, and, as a triple threat it works as a wonderful salad bowl which you can then move around the table with this end.  I always like multi-function things you know.

And then there’s The Golden Mile on Nathan Road.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The third area making up greater Hong Kong  is known as The New Territories, and it’s just up the peninsula from Kowloon.  And though it isn’t visited very often by tourists, its worth the half hour trip just to take a look at the nightly fish market in the small town of Sam Tung.  And finally, there are the Outlying Islands, a good place to see what this area actually has looked like for the past six thousand years.

Observers of the Hong Kong scene are quick to describe the community as addicted to commerce.  But the real addiction for the people of Hong Kong is Mahjong. Mahjong is a board game played by Chinese all over the world.  It originated during the Sung Dynasty about a thousand years ago.  In the beginning it was played with cards but these days small tiles are used.  Chinese characters are engraved on the blocks and the game is similar to gin rummy.  Get your matching suits together and get out.  Each player also has a pack of one hundred betting chips which are assigned a value by the players. Millions of dollars change hands at Hong Kong mahjong games each year.  It’s a game that is noisy, fast and, to the eyes of a westerner, a bit aggressive.  It is sometimes used to test the strength and intelligence of a newcomer to a group, a new employee, a merger partner, or a prospective bridegroom.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I learned about Mah-Jong when I was six years old.  I have no idea why, but every Thursday night my mother and three of her friends would play Mah-Jong.  The game wasn’t particularly important to me but on Mah-Jong nights she would serve a bowl of chocolate-covered raisins, a big bowl, and that made Mah-Jong special.  Now these ladies play a far superior game to anything that went on in my mother’s house, but they only serve tea.  It’s just not the same for me.

Hong Kong is a wealthy city.  It has the world’s third-highest per capita gross national product.  It has the largest gold reserves in Asia.  It has the largest per capita ownership of Rolls Royce cars.  It also has an appetite that goes along with its assets. Hong Kong is the world’s largest importer of cognac.  It is one of the world’s leading consumers of protein.  And it has the world’s highest per capita ratio of restaurants.  In Hong Kong, there is one restaurant for every eight hundred people.  Whatever it is that you want to eat or drink, this town will get it for you.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   But when all of the fads and fashions of international gastronomy have been pushed off to the back burner where they belong, and it’s time to settle down to some good eating and drinking, Hong Kong’s heart is Chinese and Hong Kong is home to some of the best Chinese cooking in the world.

The majority of the people who live in this city are of Cantonese heritage, and Canton is a part of China with an ancient reputation for good food.  The Cantonese kitchen is based on fresh foods of high quality that are prepared in ways that preserve their original appearance and natural flavors.

Barbecued meats... minced beef and egg flower soup... crabmeat and sweet corn soup... steamed shrimp... pan-fried boneless chicken with lemon sauce... baked salted chicken... sautéed diced chicken with chili... grouper filet with a sweet corn sauce... and broccoli with crabmeat.

These are the kitchens of Hong Kong’s Regent Hotel.  The executive chef is Cheung Kam Chuen, and today he’s going to prepare a couple of traditional Cantonese recipes.  The first is a dish of chicken with asparagus and macadamia nuts.

Vegetable oil goes into a wok, and as soon as it’s hot, a cup of macadamia nuts are added and sautéed for a minute... then drained.  Next a cup of sliced asparagus is sautéed for a minute and drained.  Then a cup of sliced carrots are blanched in water -- and drained!  The wok is cleaned... fresh oil goes in... and as soon as it’s hot, a cup’s worth of chicken is cooked and drained.  The chicken is skinless and boneless, and has been cut into bite-size pieces and marinated in an egg white for ten minutes before it arrived at the wok.  The chicken returns to the wok... a few slices of scallion... some minced garlic... a teaspoon of cornstarch that has been dissolved in a little water, and a little hoi-sin sauce goes in.  Then the rest of the ingredients return to the wok, heat up, and get plated.  The chef has a plating assistant who stands by to make sure that everything sits on the plate properly.  Ahhh, what luxury.

Next, the assistant will be plating the chef’s recipe for stir-fried beef with vegetables.  A cup of water and a little sesame oil are heated in a wok.  A cup of celery slices are added.  Then a cup of carrot slices.  Thirty seconds of blanching and both ingredients are drained.  Some oil goes into the wok, followed by a cup of sliced beef.  The beef is stir-fried for a minute and then drained from the oil.  This recipe is quite draining!  Some minced ginger goes into the wok.  The beef returns, a little chopped garlic, and the vegetables return.  As soon as everything is hot, the dish is ready to serve.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   But of all the gastronomic contributions of the Cantonese, perhaps the most significant is dim sum. Dim sum translates as “a point on the heart” or “touching the heart.”  And what does the touching is a collection of small foods designed to be taken with tea.

The best way to experience this tradition is to visit a restaurant that specializes in dim sum.  This the Ocean City restaurant in the New World Center, and it is one of the world’s great presenters of dim sum.  A dim sum restaurant should be huge, well lit, packed with eaters, noisy and somewhat chaotic.  Carts carrying steam baskets and dishes of food are wheeled around the tables by women.  Each basket or dish contains a particular food.  As they move through the restaurant, they describe the food on their trolley.  The diners yell for what they want, and the servers serve.  Each dish has a specific price, and each table has a card.  Your card is stamped for each dish that you take.  At the end of the meal, the waiter adds up the stamps and you find out what your meal cost.  You can eat as much or as little as you like.  But if you want to eat dim sum at its best, it’s important to get to the restaurant early.  If the place opens at noon, try and be there about fifteen minutes before.  The food will be at its point of perfection and you will get a table for the first round of service.  The later you come in, the more limited the selection.  Dim sum is at its most magnificent on Sunday morning, when it is a traditional family meal... a gastronomic bedlam, and lots of fun.

Sunday Morning in a Hong Kong family-style restaurant is the real stuff -- authentic Chinese food in a traditional setting, which is not always easy to find in a city that is continually modernizing itself.  There is, however, at least one more bit of genuine Chinese gastronomy that you might want to experience, and that is the night market on Temple Street.  Temple Street is just off the Golden Mile of international shops on Nathan Road, and the joint starts jumpin’ about 7 PM.  The street is free of automobile traffic and lined with food shops.  The authoritative technique for selecting a shop is to head towards the one that appears to be doing the most business.  I have used this system in a number of Asian street markets with considerable success.  My total inability to speak Cantonese has not been a barrier to good eating.  I point to what I want and it gets cooked for me.  Cooked is the operative word in this relationship.  These days, eating raw food, anywhere in the world, is like playing Russian roulette.  It’s just a question of time ‘til you get hit.  Properly cooked food is usually safe food.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The offerings on Temple Street may be a bit uneven, but the experience is always interesting.  And if you have found this experience interesting, I hope you will join us next time, as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.