The brilliant thing about Hong Kong is that you don’t have to worry for a second about all the culture you’re missing. That’s because there’s absolutely nothing to do there except shop (I got a seriously nice bespoke dinner jacket for just £400 from Lafarfalla Tailor) drink and, most importantly, eat.
Oh all right, so there are some half-strenuous walks you can do in the surprisingly uncrowded countryside just outside the city (you can cab it from the centre to the pretty Shek O beach — which on weekdays is half-deserted — in just 25 minutes) but even then the main purpose of the exercise is to end up in another restaurant.
‘Basically, as soon as you’ve finished your last meal you start thinking about your next one,’ says my stepson the Rat, who has lived there for three years and has just married a local. But he’s not fat, nor is his very gorgeous wife Chloe, nor in fact is anyone. That’s because, as another of my guides, a Hong Kong taipan, explained: ‘Chinese food doesn’t make you fat. You eat till you’re bursting. Then ten minutes later you’re hungry again.’
The taipan took us to dark and elegant Mott 32 where, in the traditional way, he entertained the Rat and me while his wife amused the womenfolk. It’s quite a civilised arrangement, meaning the boys can do boy talk while the girls are free not to have to pretend to be interested in whatever drivel the men are spouting. Also traditionally, the male host serves you by turns the choice titbits he retrieves with his chopsticks from the middle of the (always) round table and plants in your bowl. Only one other person, by custom, is granted this privilege: his mistress.
Mott 32 is renowned for its Peking duck, its dim sum and, most especially, its Iberico pork char siu, which is quite impossibly delicious and melt-in-the-mouth. Also, because it’s imported from some special artisanal producer in Spain, you can be sure it has not been fed on whatever hideous things they feed Chinese pigs. Go there definitely if you can, but don’t be disappointed if you miss out, because there are plenty of other places just as good, and it’s often pot luck whether you can get a table.
This is one of the consequences of the uber-capitalist culture of Hong Kong. In such a rampantly free market economy, the consumer — who is not so much king as fickle and jaded emperor — is on a continual quest for gastronomic novelty. Many new bars and restaurants die quickly and bloodily in the arena, but those that make it make it big, with round-the-block queues desperate to try today’s hot new thing until the moment when, just as suddenly, it becomes yesterday’s so-totally-over old thing.
Pop-ups are especially fashionable right now. They let groovy chefs fly in from around the world and recreate their restaurants — Dottir from Berlin, Birds & Bubbles from New York — in some temporary space in Hong Kong for a few days, milk the applause and then vanish, leaving punters craving more, and without having to commit to exorbitant rentals.
Yes, there are a few constants: the Sevva terrace bar will probably always be ‘a thing’ by virtue of its stunning view of the Statue Square (best at night when the city is all lit up), and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (whose uninterrupted sea view and corresponding feng shui are protected by contract in perpetuity). But cool dives like Havana Bar, which does great mojitos and where you get to wear a special Cuban hat if you buy the house cocktail, possibly not.
For your Peking duck, I’d recommend Peking Garden. The bird is carved in front of you with enormous ceremony; the meat is juicier and the pancakes are flakier, more chapati-like, than the stodgy, rubbery things you get in Britain.
And for your seafood, you absolutely have to take the ferry across the harbour to Cheung Chau — one of the outlying islands, which has a sort of Blackpool feel because it’s one of the places where locals go for their rare leisure time. Turn right as you disembark, follow the waterfront and you’ll come to a restaurant with more fish tanks than an aquarium, all of them open at the top to display a truly spectacular array of prawns, shrimp, crabs, cuttlefish, clams, squid, lobsters and so on.
Pause to admire the fare. Fight the voice in your head that says: ‘We’re not stopping here. It’s a tourist-trap rip-off’, for the voice is wrong. It’s absolutely bloody fantastic, quite ludicrously cheap and incredibly fresh and delicious. What you must remember to do in dives like this is to use the hot tea they serve first to rinse out all the bowls and cups and to wash the chopsticks. They won’t think you rude: this is just normal practice.
If you want to eat like a proper local, you’ll need to try somewhere like Cha Chaag Teng, which is the equivalent of a greasy spoon and does traditional Hong Kong noodles interspersed with typical English cuisine they’ve devised to please the gweilo, such as sai dor see (fried eggy bread with peanut butter inside). This last is Rat’s recommendation, not mine. When he moved to Hong Kong, the first thing his Chinese wife’s uncle made him do was eat cockerel’s testicles (‘Quite chewy at first, then they sort of explode on your tongue’) as an initiation test. Since then he’s gone native.
We stayed at the Lanson Place Hotel, Causeway Bay which was comfortable, reasonably priced and gives you a very handy free mobile phone with internet for the-duration.