Monday, 21 February 2011

One of my favourites: Wan Chai

We live in Central Hong Kong – behind us is Victoria Peak, to the west is Sheung Wan and to our east is my favourite part of Hong Kong, the district of Wan Chai.

Wan Chai is a great mix of everything Hoingkongish. It comes with the shopping centres which this city is known for, but also creates a link between this city’s western and eastern communities. While Central has a plethora of British pubs, and Kowloon (the portion of Hong Kong which sits on the Chinese mainland) has very few, Wan Chai manages to host the most mixed crowd you’ll find here – local Cantonese, local British-sounding folks, tourists, long-term residents, people who work in banks (from executives to tea servers), those creepy old men with young Filipino girlfriends and so on, and it is because of what this district offers.

Although it is peppered with 24-hour strip clubs and a plethora of drinking establishments, the real charm of Wan Chai lies in its small cheap restaurants called cha chaan teng (which loosely translates to “tea restaurant”) where great Asian food can be found for only a few Hong Kong dollars escaping one’s wallet. There is also western food available but it is mostly of the chain variety – Subway, McDonalds etc.

Cha chaan teng generally look a bit grubby and cramped, but I am yet to be disappointed by one. There’s no fucking around when it comes to eating in these spots – no one has hung fancy tapestries all over the place or has a leatherbound menu. The menu is either a laminated piece of paper or a giant poster stuck to the wall – with a whole lot of complicated combinations (always in Cantonese, sometimes in English, often in a hodge-podge of both) which can allegedly save you money.

Usually there is enough English on the menu to work out what is going to come, but often a little understanding of how cheap restaurants work here is required – and I am not expert yet. Do not expect a vegetarian meal. Even if you order a meal without meat, it has probably been cooked in some sort of animal fat. Those of you that hate fish? Some random dishes are cooked in XO sauce. In fact, there is one cha chaan tang restaurant we often pass in Central which keeps beef brisket and some kind of sea sponge thing warm in the same pot. If a dish says “offal” avoid it like the plague - it means entrails (you may know it as innards). Outside these few points, one can eat great food for not much money.

Cha chaan teng have sparked off similar kinds of restaurants – same set up, different food. And our discovery in Wan Chai this last weekend – this post’s Serious Travel Tip – was a Filipino eatery set up like a tea restaurant in Jaffe Street, right near Wan Chai station called Mang Ambo. We had no idea what Filipino food would taste like, but for $30 each we got a grilled beef kebab (sosatie, not schwarma) with some amazing (kind of like basting, but with something awesome added) sauce on it, two kinds of beef curry, chicken and beans cooked in a peanut satay sauce, and two portions of steamed rice. If I was more of a foodie, I would be able to tell you what was in this delicious concoction of morsels. All I can tell you is that the food was superb, the waiter/chef/maitre de spoke English and talked us through another set of (labyrinthly-construed) combos which bypassed the usual guesswork involved. And did I mention that the food was good?

A stroll around the district afterwards revealed the largest and cheapest sweet-shop which I have seen in Hong Kong – a splendour of candy, chocolate, little fragments of goodness all over the place just waiting to be forced through my greedy jaws. Cafes, furniture shops, knick-knacks, some dodgy clubs and allsorts lined the streets all the way back to Queens Road before we began strolling home.

And towards Central, the roads became cleaner, the shops became classier, the buildings got higher and shiner, there was English everywhere and we couldn't afford things anymore. I missed Wan Chai from when we were about thirty metres out of it...

If you visit Hong Kong, Wan Chai is easy enough to get to. From the mainland you can take underground trains (MTR) to Central or Hong Kong Station and then change to the Island Line (the blue one) to go two stops to Wan Chai. A ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui will also bring you to Central and if you don’t fancy trains, trams or buses, it is only about a fifteen minute walk eastwards to Wan Chai, down Queens Road.

PS. Also available in Wan Chai: western egg.

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