Travels & Traditions: The New Hong Kong - #110

Hong Kong thinks of itself as “The City Of Life”... filled with energy... always in motion... vibrant during the day... and exciting at night.  A modern commercial and financial center.  A match with the great cities of Europe and North America.  And that’s true.  But that is only half the picture.

The other half can be seen and understood by taking a look at Hong Kong’s most popular religion.  It’s known as Taoism, and it’s more a philosophy than a religion in the Western sense of that word.  Taoism’s teachings go back over two thousand five hundred years.

The most important graphic symbol in Taoism is the yin and yang.  It’s a statement of the constant oppositions in life:  dark and light, good and evil, male and female.  These opposing forces are in conflict, but they also complement and counterbalance.  Each takes over a spot at the very center of the other.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In the end everything is brought together and united in a single turns out that all things are one thing.  The word Tao means “the way’ and what Taoism tries to do is teach people how to get in step with the way of the universe.  And the most important skill in getting in step with the way of the universe is the ability to balance opposites.  And that is what Hong Kong is all about.

Hong Kong is old and traditional, but it is also new and futuristic.  It is a capitalist city in a Communist nation.  It speaks English and it speaks Chinese.  It is Eastern and it is Western.  The old hand-made junk sails past the computer-designed cruise ship.  And it is this city’s skill at balancing opposing elements that makes it such a fascinating place for a tourist.  So join me, Burt Wolf, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS in Hong Kong.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, England bought large amounts of tea from the Chinese...purchases that put a great strain on England’s balance of payments.  To even things up, England forced the Chinese to buy opium from English traders who brought it in from India.  A nasty business and the Chinese tried to put an end to it by forcing out the English, European and American opium traders.  In response, the English sent in the marines and forced the Chinese to give them the island of Hong Kong as a trading base.

In 1997, after more than one hundred and fifty years as a British Colony, the English gave Hong Kong back to the Chinese.  Most people thought that Hong Kong would change drastically,  but that does not appear to be the case.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I was here just before the handover and I’ve come back to see what changes have taken place, and from the point of view of a tourist, they seem very small.  The tension that built up prior to the handover seems to have dissipated, everybody’s gone back to work, the city seems a bit more relaxed and enjoyable, and the first thing I noticed when I arrived at the airport is the royal coat of arms is gone and the pictures of the Royal family.

The Bauhinia flower, known for its ability to endure difficult conditions and still flourish, has become the official emblem of Hong Kong.  The Central People’s Government gave a gold-plated sculpture of the flower to Hong Kong as a gift.  It’s called “Forever Blooming Bauhinia,” and it stands in front of the new Convention Center.  The flower has replaced the profile of Queen Elizabeth on the Hong Kong coins.  The Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club has lost its “royal” standing and now sits alongside the rest of us as merely “The” Hong Kong Jockey Club.  The shopping is better than ever and there’s good value for your money... There’s a magnificent new airport with more direct flights from Europe and North America... and the world’s longest road-and-rail suspension bridge has opened and become something of a sightseeing attraction along the lines of the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

Below the bridge is the harbor of Hong Kong, which is the busiest harbor in the world.  The best way to see it is on a Star Ferry. The ferries shuttle between Hong Kong island and the mainland district of Kowloon.  These boats have been making this one-mile trip since 1898, and at 25 cents per ride it’s a great value.

Your next ride should be on the funicular railway to the top of Victoria Peak.  This is the highest point on Hong Kong island, and the ideal spot for an overview of Hong Kong and the mainland across the harbor.

Another high point for most people visiting Hong Kong is shopping... and the person to shop with is Helen Giss.  In 1978, Helen moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Hong Kong.  As the wife of a corporate executive, she often found herself offering shopping advice to her husband’s American and European business associates during their visits to Hong Kong.  Today she is considered to be one of the world’s great shoppers, and she has built a substantial consulting business along the way.

HELEN GISS:  This is Mode Elegante, it’s one of the tailors that we use, and this is Bacon Lee... This is Burt Wolf, Bacon.  We’re here to take a look at some beautiful fabrics for Burt for a jacket.

BACON LEE:  Sure.  Some kind of cashmere, or...

BURT WOLF:  Well, you tell me what I should be looking for.

HELEN GISS:  Okay, I think you should be looking for a fabric that you would never buy at home.  And I always encourage people to get a cashmere blend, or a wool blend which includes mink, or something kind of unusual.

BURT WOLF:  A mink and wool...?

HELEN GISS:  Yes, mink and wool.

BURT WOLF:  Can I see... what does that feel like?

BACON LEE:  Let me show you some sable mink.

BURT WOLF:  Mink...

HELEN GISS:  Sable and mink.

BURT WOLF:  ...sable, and cashmere.  I am not going to find this in my neighborhood store.

BACON LEE:  No, they don’t make a ready mix.

HELEN GISS:  Not a chance.

BURT WOLF:  And it’s a good idea to bring an example of what it is you want, and they’ll fit it.

HELEN GISS:  Absolutely.  If you have a favorite jacket, or if you have some pictures of some things that you think might look good on you.  You know, it’s always wise to give them as much input as you can.

BURT WOLF:  What would a double-breasted blazer in cashmere-mink...?

BACON LEE:  Roughly it would cost you around, say about 480 something.

BURT WOLF:  Four-hundred and eighty U.S. dollars for a sable, mink and cashmere double-breasted blazer.  That is a good buy.

HELEN GISS:  That is a good deal!

BURT WOLF:  I never thought I was going to get a mink!

HELEN GISS:  And we’re in Trio Pearl which is one of my favorite places.

BURT WOLF:  Oh!  This is very serious stuff, isn’t it?

HELEN GISS:  It’s very beautiful.  Almost all of our clients, when they come into Hong Kong, one of the first things they ask me about is jade.  Jadeite.  The precious... every range of it, every color.  A lot of people don’t realize that it comes in a lot of different colors.

JEWELER:  This piece is brown.

BURT WOLF:  Brown jade.

HELEN GISS:  Brown jade.

JEWELER:  It used to be a belt buckle.  That’s half of the buckle.  It was cut off from a buckle.

BURT WOLF:  What other colors besides green and brown?

HELEN GISS:  The beautiful lavender...

JEWELER:  The lavender, yes.

HELEN GISS:  The lavender color, here.

BURT WOLF:  That’s quite surprising.

HELEN GISS:  It is surprising and most people don’t really... I think a lot of people don’t realize that.

BURT WOLF:  Why is green more popular than the others?  Why do we think of jade as green?

HELEN GISS:  It just goes way back in history.  The more green, the more... you know, the better.  And one of my Chinese friends said to me one time that the very best description of supreme quality jade would be what you and I use at home – Prell shampoo.  That color – 

BURT WOLF:  That’s the right color?

HELEN GISS:  That’s the right color!  The color green, the fact that it’s translucent, it’s even – 

BURT WOLF:  So you see people shopping for jade and they have a bottle of Prell in their hands?

HELEN GISS:  Absolutely.

BURT WOLF:  They’re skilled shoppers.

HELEN GISS:  They’re skilled shoppers.

BURT WOLF:  I’ll remember that.

HELEN GISS:  Right.  Usually, when they set a piece of jade like this they will leave it open on the other side so that you can hold it up to the light and see how gorgeous the color is.

BURT WOLF:  That’s an important thing to know.

HELEN GISS:  And also you can see that they didn’t do anything to it.  You know, they haven’t touched it up or done anything like that.

JEWELER:  You see, like all our setting, the back is all open.  Most jeweler’s shops close the back, so they make the back piece of metal like a mirror so it gives more light underneath.  So it gives...

BURT WOLF:  The stone looks better but it really isn’t.

JEWELER:  That’s right.

BURT WOLF:  So I got a bad stone and a good mirror.

JEWELER:  That’s right.

BURT WOLF:  And it looks great, but it ain’t.  Okay.  Good to know.

HELEN GISS:  Hollywood Road is where most of the antiques in Hong Kong are located right now.  Not all of them, but most of them.  And one of the things I really enjoy showing my clients are the antiquities.  Here we have a Han Dynasty stick man, and the stick men were excavated in the nineties – the early nineties – and I think National Geographic did a big article on them.  And the Han horse here that is without his legs because his legs were originally wood, so they –

BURT WOLF:  It’s amazing that things of this age and quality can be purchased just in a shop.

HELEN GISS:  It’s absolutely amazing.

BURT WOLF:  Not in a museum.

HELEN GISS:  It’s absolutely amazing.  And it’s really... this is where a lot of the antiques that are in the museums in America are coming from.  All along this street.  And over here we have a whole set – the groom and the horse, it’s Ming Dynasty, so that’s four to six hundred years old.  The attendants, and the sedan chair and the sedan chair carriers.  And it’s probably, it looks to me as if this whole set was excavated from one site.

BURT WOLF:  And they’re burial objects?

HELEN GISS:  Yes, they are burial objects.  It wasn’t just the really wealthy people that were buried with what they needed in the afterlife, but also the farmers were buried with what they needed in the afterlife.  And this probably dates, I’m sure it’s pretty... it’s Han Dynasty.

BURT WOLF:  Two hundred B.C.?

HELEN GISS:  Two hundred B.C.  And it’s even got a little pig in the yard.

BURT WOLF:  I’m just astounded that this stuff can be bought in a little shop.

HELEN GISS:  And this is the jade market.  It’s had a couple of different lives since I’ve been in Hong Kong.  But the most wonderful thing about it is that you really can buy bits and pieces here that don’t break the bank.  All kinds of... and a lot of it is new – newly carved.  But that’s okay.  You know, I think...

BURT WOLF:  That’s white jade?

HELEN GISS: ...if it pleases you.  This is white.  And if it pleases you, you know, it’s kind of fun for you.

BURT WOLF:  Hong Kong dollars.  Okay.

HELEN GISS:  Yeah... It’s kind of fun for you to be able to have it.

BURT WOLF:  That’s like twenty-five bucks!  That’s really nice.

HELEN GISS:  Right, exactly.  Which is terrific.  It’s really wonderful to pick up things like this here at the jade market – where the stones are natural, and they make wonderful little gifts, and you know, they’re reminiscent.  Generally, the carving is something that is reminiscent of a traditional Chinese carving.

BURT WOLF:  And you can bargain here?

HELEN GISS:  And you can definitely bargain here.  Absolutely.  It’s part of the fun.  Definitely.

BURT WOLF:  Are there general shopping rules that apply almost all over the world?

HELEN GISS:  I think so.  I think that the main rule is knowing what things cost in your home country.  You know, doing your homework, and knowing what it is you want to buy, and not going out with a preconceived idea of what you’re going to find.  I want people to buy things they wouldn’t normally buy at home.

The serious shopping takes place in the Kowloon district on the mainland or on the north shore of Hong Kong.  But there is one light-hearted spot for shopping on the south shore of Hong Kong that you may want to visit.  It’s known as the Stanley Market.  A bazaar-like structure selling clothing, souvenirs, inexpensive jewelry, and just about everything else in the tourist shop inventory.  I’m getting a traditional suit for my grandson.  It will give him a certain look of authority when we go out for Chinese food.

Hong Kong has about six million residents and about 15,000 restaurants, which gives it one of the world’s highest ratios of eateries to eaters.  Stephen Wong is a local food authority, and he gave me an excellent gastronomic tour of the city, starting with a traditional Chinese breakfast.

STEPHEN WONG:  We should actually start the day with the congee.

BURT WOLF:  Congee?


BURT WOLF:  And this is a rice soup.

STEPHEN WONG:  Yes.  And this is normally eaten with deep-fried batter.  This is the most famous of all the deep-fried batters. [Speaks Chinese]

BURT WOLF:  What’s it called?

STEPHEN WONG:  [speaks Chinese] It means “oil-fried ghosts.”

BURT WOLF:  Ghosts!

STEPHEN WONG:  Demons.  You know, in the old days, there was a couple who were villains to the emperor.  So people hated them, and this is the couple.  So they dump it in a wok and deep-fry them they were so hated.  Nowadays, it’s one of the most popular snacks in Hong Kong.  [Speaks Chinese]

BURT WOLF:  Deep-fried bad ghosts.  I got it.

STEPHEN WONG:  You got it.

BURT WOLF:  I eat this with the rice soup.


BURT WOLF:  Porridge.

STEPHEN WONG:  Porridge, right.

BURT WOLF:  I have seafood in mine, what do you have in yours?

STEPHEN WONG:  I have thousand-year-old egg and preserved pork.  It’s an acquired taste, I must say.

BURT WOLF:  It certainly is.  And the rest of this stuff?  Are we eating it in the right order?

STEPHEN WONG:  Any order, but this all goes with the congee.  The congee is the center.  Anything goes with the congee.  Normally it’s a chow mein with fried noodles, really simple, inexpensive, but very tasty.

BURT WOLF:  Now, when I’m taking noodles and they run very long like that, am I supposed to put it in my mouth and then stuff it in?  Or am I supposed to...?

STEPHEN WONG:  No, no, please.

BURT WOLF:  Never like that?


BURT WOLF:  Okay, how do I do it?

STEPHEN WONG:  Do it from there – from below your chin... Yes!  And then slurp it up.  Right.  Never do this.

BURT WOLF:  Never.


BURT WOLF:  Never!  I’ll never do that again, I promise.  What does this stuff cost?

STEPHEN WONG:  Well, you know, we are having a larger than normal breakfast today.  But it’s not costly.  You see, your congee is $2.50... mine is $2.00... this is fifty-cents per piece... the soybean milk is fifty-cents... this is a dollar each... So, altogether about ten dollars for two for a huge breakfast.

BURT WOLF:  But it’s really enough for four.


BURT WOLF:  So about two and a half dollars per person for a breakfast like this – U.S. dollars.


BURT WOLF:  It’s a great value.

Another group to take up residence in Hong Kong came from the northern city of Shanghai.

BURT WOLF:  How can I tell Shanghainese cuisine?

STEPHEN WONG:  Well, Shanghainese cuisine is identified by its use of sugar, vinegar, and fermented white rice.  So it tends to be a little more sweet and sour, but also a fine balance between the tastes.  Now Burt, on the table we have four bowls of 

most authentic Shanghai dishes.  This is the most representative of that region.  This is the stir-fried freshwater shrimps – quickly stir-fried to perfection.  Stir-frying is spectacular.  It retains the flavor.  It’s not a long process.  It’s a short process retaining the actual flavor of the ingredients.  So, the Shanghainese stir-fry their food, we Cantonese stir-fry our food.  This is a braised pork ball, we call it “Lion’s Head” because of the size of the pork.  Look at this.  Huge pork ball, minced pork, served in a casserole with Shanghainese cabbage.  Over here, is of course the pea shoots.  Stir-fried again and served with crab meat.  Over here, we have the freshwater fish served with a sweet and sour sauce.

BURT WOLF:  Mmmm.  Now that means the same in Chinese as it does in English.


BURT WOLF:  This is a restaurant that serves Chiu Chow cuisine.  That is the northeastern corner of the Jiuong Dong [sic] Province, which is the province that Hong Kong is in, if I recall.

STEPHEN WONG:  That’s right.

BURT WOLF:  And it’s known for more intense flavors, lots of dipping sauces, lots of seafood, lots of homemade sauces.

STEPHEN WONG:  Chiu Chow is also a coastal area, so seafood is caught in abundance.  And they make very wise use of different fruit sauces to compliment the seafood.  Over here we have the deep-fried shrimp balls, normally eaten with a honey sauce or a tangerine oil.  This side we have the Chin Jiu [sic] scallops with pepper leaves.  And over this end we have the deep-fried crab balls, again eaten with a honey sauce.  So this is a real good starter.  Over here, as you know, yin and yang, tai chi, this is a very famous tai chi vegetarian soup with a spinach puree – the dark green side representing yin.  And then, of course, the lighter side – which is a chicken mash with egg white – representing yang.  And not all yin are yin, there’s a little bit of yang here.  So it’s excellent.

BURT WOLF:  You always need a little bit of yin in your yang, that’s what I always say.

STEPHEN WONG:  Over here is the signature dessert because this is what we call pan-fried Chiu Chow noodles.  Normally eaten with vinegar and sugar.  So you can call it a noodle dish, but then also you can call it a dessert because sugar is used.  Probably this is the only noodle dish in China where white sugar is used for enjoyment.

BURT WOLF:  Oh, here’s one of the ancient foods of China.  It’s called the maraschino cherry.  Many years ago you found them in Buddhist and Taoist temples, but now they’re in Shirley Temples.

When Hong Kong’s Happy Valley racetrack opened in the mid-1800s, big British companies supported the sport of horseracing, and many people believed that the Jockey Club controlled Hong Kong.  The members seemed to exercise more power than the British Governor, and it was no coincidence that the colony’s Legislative Council met on Wednesday afternoons.  That was Race Day – and the only day of the week that all the members of the council could be expected to be in town.

Each year,  more than three and half million tourists and residents visit the original Hong Kong racecourse in Happy Valley, or the new course across the harbor.  There are 75 race meets each year, and the betting totals over twelve billion U.S. dollars.  More money is bet each race day in Hong Kong than at any other track in the world.

WILSON K.M. CHENG:  Horseracing is the most popular sport in Hong Kong.  On a race day like today, we have about fifty to sixty thousand people coming to the track, and we have about one million people from all over the country participating in the game in one way or another.  They can go to our off-course betting shops or do their betting through telephone and at the same time watch the television.

The Hong Kong Tourist Association has a “Come Horseracing” tour that will guide overseas visitors to the track and through the rituals of racing.  And don’t feel sad if your bet doesn’t win.  The Club is a non-profit association that supports medical, educational and welfare organizations.

People have been living on Hong Kong and the surrounding islands for over 6,000 years, and you can get a look at what this area has been like for many of those years by visiting one of the outlying islands.  The largest is called Lantau.  It’s twice the size of the island of Hong Kong, but it has very few inhabitants.  The peaceful atmosphere has made it a haven for Buddhist monasteries.  The most famous is Po Lin, home of the world’s largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha.

The 250-ton statue is more than one hundred feet high.  The upraised right hand represents compassion, and the left one offers happiness.  He sits on a lotus, symbolizing purification.  Surrounding the Buddha are six additional statues, each of which is presenting an offering – light, fruit, flowers, musical instruments, incense and ointment.

The Buddha was built in Nanjing, China, where sculptors paid special attention to the eyes.  The trick is to get a serene expression that looks down benevolently on the monastery below.

Outside the main hall is an area where incense is burned and messages are sent to deities and ancestors.  The main temple has a series of sacred hangings.  Buddhists believe that if you pass underneath these hangings, your sins will be forgiven and your soul will be saved.  The Po Lin monastery also has a number of restaurants open to the public.  They specialize in traditional Buddhist vegetarian recipes.  A meal of vegetables, mushrooms and bean curd is believed to cleanse the system.

True to the tradition of balance, a day of serene soul-searching at the Buddhist monastery of Lantau finds its opposite in the Hong Kong night.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Taoists don’t see life as following a straight line.  They think of it as twisting and turning back on itself and forming a circle.  And in forming that circle, they remind us that all things are one thing.  When the government of the city of Hong Kong was given back to the Chinese, it completed a circle.  A circle that took over 150 years to make a turn.  But in making that turn, it turned Hong Kong into one of the most interesting cities in the world.  I hope you have enjoyed this brief visit to The City Of Life and I hope you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.  I’m Burt Wolf.