London and Me

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July 1st, along with its massive protest march in Hong Kong, has come and feels long gone. I’d meant to write something on it, but I kept stumbling and life got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. Ultimately I ended up on a very hastily arranged business trip to London – a trip with very mixed results from a business perspective but also a trip that further enhanced my love affair with London.

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(Forgive me if any of this repeats old stuff.)

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In the summer of 1972, I’d just completed my first year at college (university to you Brits) and was working an awful summer job – pushing a hot dog cart at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. A school buddy asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to London and my parents gave the okay for me to spend my Bar Mitzvah money on the trip.

We stayed in England for about 3 weeks, starting off in bed and breakfast places that cost only a pound and a half per night – though the beds were so uncomfortable that we ended up sleeping on the floor. Our days were divided between doing all of the standard sight seeing stuff and hitting every record store we possibly could. (I remember buying Roxy Music’s first album and spending weeks staring at the cover wondering what it could possibly sound like.)

Nights were for music – at one point I figured out that we saw more than 70 bands in those three weeks. David Bowie doing Ziggy Stardust at the Rainbow. Yes’s world premiere of Close to the Edge with opening acts that included Mahavishnu Orchestra. Renaissance playing for free in a pub before their first album came out. The Chelmsford Folk Festival, which included The Strawbs, Al Stewart, and Sandy Denny. (Sandy offered us a ride back to London but my idiot friend was too scared to get in her car with her two large dogs.)

We also went to Torquay for a weekend for reasons I can no longer recall – long before Fawlty Towers – where the only thing to do at night was go to a Mungo Jerry concert.

We just about ran out of money long before the end of the trip. We stayed in some park where they’d set up tents with double decker beds, 50 pence per night, one concrete building with lockers and showers, and basically existed on a diet of lentils.

My second trip didn’t happen until 12 years later. My first wife and I were tipped off about the hotel where all the bands stayed. So we’d go see Echo & the Bunnymen in concert and then the next morning we’d be having breakfast with them. This trip was also – believe it or not – the first time I ate Indian food.

In 1990 I started working for Barclays Bank in New York. This is when I first learned about the concept of business travel. I managed to get myself into a position where I spent large chunks of 1992 and early 1993 in London in a service flat in the central City (according to the guest register, the previous occupant of that room was J.G. Ballard). I got to see a lot of great live music (Julian Cope was a standout) and fell in love with a bi-polar poet whom I met at a party one night – my American accent came in handy in a variety of situations.

I knew I wanted to live in London and my boss at Barclays tried to make it happen for me. There were no suitable openings and then she found something in Manchester. I’d never been there but figured with Manchester’s fame as a music center, I’d be okay. The deal fell through at the last minute and I ended up leaving Barclays for the job that would eventually bring me to Hong Kong.

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For the past 20 years and across several jobs, I’ve traveled to London often enough to know my way around and feel extremely comfortable there. Of course these are business trips and I’m staying in nice hotels in central locations (this trip I was staying just off Trafalgar Square) and my expenses are all covered so it’s not quite the same experience as actually living there. This last trip I had lunch with my friend Kevin Westenberg, an American who has lived in London for 30 years, and I got to hear about how crazy expensive London can be when you live there.

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At any rate, I found myself with a decent amount of free time during this trip to London. I walked at least 5 miles each day, usually on a circuit that included Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and Soho.  I got up to Camden Market, got to the music stores on Denmark Street, spent time in Forbidden Planet and Foyles and browsed in some of the few remaining record shops.

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And as I walked around, I found myself constantly comparing London to Hong Kong.

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Of course there’s the big stuff. The beautiful architecture, monuments and parks everywhere. On the one hand, one might say it’s merely reminders of Britain’s history of empire and imperialism, the spoils of war and conquest. I think it’s more than that. There was an aspiration to greatness, individually and collectively. And to let everyone share in that aspiration, at least by surrounding people with beauty, even if their own lives were drab.

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Hong Kong has none of that. There are no world class museums here. There are very few buildings left to reflect the 150 year history. Skyline? Yeah, it’s a bunch of drab office buildings gussied up with neon and lasers that is only impressive because of the water in the foreground and the mountains in the rear.

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(Tacky, right? But a step up from the fake Buddhist monks scamming for change all over Hong Kong.)

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The cultural diversity of London is staggering when compared to Hong Kong. You see this walking down the streets, you see it in shops, you see it in the selection of restaurants everywhere you go.

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And then there’s the commercial aspects of daily life. Everything from banks advertising their credit cards based on competitive interest rates and telephone companies advertising no additional charges for data when roaming globally (HK’s Three is one of those companies; meanwhile for HK Three customers, one could buy a special “deal” for roaming data for HK$198 per day). This is what happens when you have true competition and a level playing field – something Hong Kong does not offer on almost any level.

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(Outdoor seating at a pub in central London. This is actually illegal in most of Hong Kong.)

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The buses are hybrid buses – the seats are set a decent distance apart (seats in Hong Kong buses mostly offer less leg room than economy class flights) and the windows are not covered with ads. The trains may be old but at least they do not have video screens blasting advertisements at a captive audience.

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(Here’s a minor pet peeve – as a photographer who follows dozens of photography blogs, I always see the companies whose equipment I use offering rebates and cash-back offers. These offers are never valid in Hong Kong.)

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I think the things that get to me most are the lack of choice and diversity combined with the second rate status of ordinary citizens.

Yes, mass transportation is pretty darned good here – it’s cheap and runs on a predictable schedule and the consumers of the transportation system are for the most part treated as captive targets of loud advertising that isn’t even clever.

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Taxes are low. That’s thanks to the revenue the government collects from real estate transactions and also, perhaps more importantly, because Hong Kong doesn’t have to support an army, navy or air force. We get that from China – it’s an army that has already proven once that they will fire upon their own citizens when so ordered to, and the odds are increasing that one day it will be used against Hong Kong citizens for daring to request that they might have a say in how their home is managed and getting fed up with receiving nothing but meaningless sound bites in return.

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Oh, new flats measuring all of 200 square feet are going on sale in Tai Po this weekend and expected to sell out. And Monday I’ll go back to the office and have to make my way down the streets in between hordes of mainland shoppers dragging suitcases behind them. And that’s after waiting 20 minutes for the bus standing in the blazing sun or the pouring rain because a simple thing like a decent bus shelter is a joke here.

I live in a town of 250,000 and there is only one supermarket out of dozens here that sells simple things like dijon mustard or Italian salami or bacon not made in China or a crusty baguette. (Said supermarket is a mile from any bus stop and offers all of 8 parking spots.) The only place in this town that has a half-way decent hamburger charges US$20 for it and the pizza is mostly embarrassing. Thai, Japanese and Korean food around here has been localized to an extent that renders it almost unrecognizable. I’m exasperated not by the fact that the only interesting new restaurants open in Sheung Wan or Kennedy Town but by the fact that there seems to be practically no demand for them almost anywhere else.

Look, I get it. If there was a utopia, everyone would move there and then it might not be so utopian after that. I always say that every place has its issues and compromises and if you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where you live, then you choose the compromises you’re more able to deal with. And for many years, Hong Kong was the place for me.

But right now I feel that today is the best that Hong Kong is ever going to be. And by that I mean that I feel that the quality of life in Hong Kong is devolving to the point where each day is going to be worse than the day before. Each day will bring its share of corruption, greed, humiliation and assaults upon the daily existence of every day people.

There are days that I give serious thought to living almost anywhere else except here. Well, I never consider a return to the U.S.  But the list of places that I think I would enjoy living in more than Hong Kong seems to grow almost daily.

It’s a funny thing. The grass is always greener. I’ve got this friend, he’s American, he used to live in Tokyo and travel throughout Asia. Now he lives and travels all over Europe. And half the time he blogs about wanting to get back to Asia and posts Facebook comments about being jealous whenever I mention anything on bars (and women) in Wanchai or Lan Kwai Fong. I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.

Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood today? I won’t say it’s impossible. I am a moody bastard, you all know that.

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Weight

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Graham Elliot, chef and one of the stars of the US version of Masterchef, has lost 155 pounds. I may have found some of them. My trip to the U.S. tomorrow won’t help matters. Diet starts once I return from the U.S. – and after I finish off all of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups I’ll probably be bringing back to Hong Kong.

Pastrami, Thai Food, Louie, Fargo

If there’s one New York food I miss in Hong Kong, it’s pastrami. I’ve been able to find just about everything else here, or some reasonable approximations, but the few times I’ve ordered pastrami in Hong Kong it has just been horrendous.

Here’s a great piece on New York’s famous Katz’s Deli (as seen in When Harry Met Sally) and how they make their pastrami. Two to four weeks to cure the brisket. Two to three days to smoke it, in a smoker the size of a Hong Kong apartment.

But I don’t get to Katz’s. It’s too far away from where I stay in New York and not convenient to any of the places I visit on my brief trips there. But back when I was a taxi driver, I used to pray that I’d get fares that would leave me somewhere reasonably close to Katz’s around lunch time. Some days I’d luck out, but not many.

I’m off to New York on Saturday, and here’s the pastrami sandwich I’ll be having on Sunday, at Liebman’s Kosher Deli in Riverdale.

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Anthony Bourdain’s next episode of Parts Unknown is in Northern Thailand, and he’s got a great accompanying blog post just up.

To be fortunate enough to be able to visit Thailand, to eat in Thailand, is a deep dive into a rich, many textured, very old culture containing flavors and colors that go far beyond the familiar spectrum. Given our limited time on this earth, and the sheer magnificence, the near limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available, you don’t want to miss ANY of it. 

I’ve only made it to Northern Thailand once. And the decision to go to Chiang Mai saved my life. Because that Christmas I was in Bangkok and was going to go to Phuket but at the last minute changed my mind and went north instead. My last day there, I was woken in the morning by an earthquake. I watched the scenes of the devastation in Phuket from the airport as I was waiting for my flight to Bangkok. Had I chosen Phuket, I almost definitely would have stayed in some beach front place, and I almost definitely would not be blogging now.

Louie season 4 is almost over. They’ve been showing 2 episodes per week – 8 episodes so far and I think this season is just 12 or 14 episodes. As in previous years, this show resembles nothing else on televison. Louis C.K.’s in the midst of a 6 episode arc that’s psychologically deeper than anything he’s ever attempted before. Essentially it’s contrasting the state of his previous marriage with the relationship he’s now in – with a Hungarian woman who speaks no English visiting NYC for just a month.

Note that in the series Louie’s ex-wife is played by a black actress (and both of their kids have blonde hair and blue eyes).  And in an extended and very painful flashback to the early days of his marriage, the wife is played by a white actress. What was the Bunuel film in which two different actresses portray the same woman, switching off almost completely randomly?  It’s almost like that, but it’s not.

Anyway, things with the ex-wife are contentious, they always have been. But the relationship with the girl friend is a fantasy. She speaks no English, she makes no demands, she’s just there. I think this will end badly and Louie will be alone again and still have no idea of what he wants.

Oh, Ellen Burstyn plays the Hungarian girl’s aunt and Charles Grodin portrays an extremely cranky doctor. They’re both terrific.

And Fargo? Are you watching this? I watched the first episode out of curiosity, convinced that this was spitting on the legacy of the Coen Brothers’ film, even though they’re listed as executive producers. It didn’t hurt that there’s a great cast, which includes Billy Bob Thornton, Keith Carradine, Martin Freeman, Oliver Platt, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Goldberg, Colin Hanks. (They’re all almost blown off the screen by relative newcomer Allison Tolman.)

It’s not a remake of the movie. It’s a very complicated multiple murder mystery set in a nearby town with characters reminiscent of those in the film. It’s the “same universe,” in a manner of speaking. All episodes written by showrunner Noah Hawley, another relative newcomer, and it’s clear that he’s someone to keep an eye on.  I was hooked from the first episode.

Then last week we got to episode 6. Oh. My. God. I’ll put the last 15 minutes of this episode up against the entire season of True Detective.  Episode 7 this week was a bit of a letdown. Three more to go to wrap up the season and the mystery.  Hopefully more seasons to come.  Fabulous stuff.

 

Please Don’t Make Me Fly Philippines Airlines Again & Other Tales

And it’s not because they’re a bad airline. It’s because they fly into and out of Manila’s NAIA Terminal 2, which is a disaster.

See, my Manila trip this week was a business trip. My company normally books Cathay Pacific for the route.  Cathay Pacific flies into and out of NAIA terminal 1, as do most international flights. So it’s not only a crappy old terminal but the lines at immigration can be ridiculously long and slow moving.

I asked my company if I could fly Cebu Pacific instead. It flies into and out of Terminal 3, which is a new terminal and not heavily used. You zoom through immigration. Plus it’s the closest terminal to where I’d be staying. And it’s a “budget” airline. The ticket price would have been at least HK$1,000 cheaper than CX.

But I was told this is against company policy. We are not allowed to book our own travel. The company only uses a single travel agent and that agent can’t book Cebu Pacific. And, no, they can’t make an exception for me, even if it would save the company money.

As it turns out, there were no available flights on Cathay for my return flight, so they booked me on Philippines Airlines instead. Same price as Cathay.

Hong Kong to Manila

Philippines Airlines doesn’t get to use Terminal 1 at HKIA, it uses Terminal 2, which is not really a terminal, it’s a series of check-in counters surrounded by a crappy over-priced shopping mall. After you check in, you have to go down two sets of escalators, walk under the train tracks, and up three sets of escalators to get to Terminal 1 to go through immigration and security and go to the gate.

On arrival at NAIA Terminal 2, it took one hour to get my luggage.  The staff said the bags were being x-rayed, and apparently this was one bag at a time, and I don’t know why this was even necessary. Weren’t the bags x-rayed before they were put on the plane? Did they think that terrorists somehow snuck on the plane in mid-air and hid bombs in the suitcases?

Oh, and there was no air conditioning there either. Finally one woman, Asian, started screaming at one of the staff there. She was holding her young son. “How can you do this to us? Look at the babies! Look at the babies!” Well, she may have been right, but she was screaming at a guy who just worked the luggage belt.

So someone else, Caucasian with an eastern European accent, started screaming at her. “Don’t use that bad language! What’s wrong with you? You come here and you think you can yell at people because this is the Philippines? You wait like everybody else!”

Bags arrived, entertainment over.

Then you walk past customs and you’re immediately outside.  Where there are no ATMs. There are only currency exchange counters giving you crappy rates. I changed just enough to cover my taxi ride to the hotel, since I already knew there’s an HSBC in the same building.

And then there are no meter taxis. Only “coupon” taxis, which charge on average 2 to 3 times over what a metered taxi would cost for a ride into town. And even if I’m getting reimbursed for the taxi fare, something in me won’t let me pay those kind of stupid rates. So I had to schlep upstairs to the departure area and grab a taxi that had just dropped people off.

Manila to Hong Kong

The World Economic Forum is meeting in Manila. Roads are closed and there’s gridlock everywhere. Even worse than usual. But I know this in advance and so I head to the airport plenty early.  At one point, when the taxi was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on EDSA just before Makati, the driver turned to me and asked me what time is my flight. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “We’ve got plenty of time. You can see I’m sitting here relaxed and not nervous.”  It ended up taking 90 minutes, which was the exact amount I thought it might take.

But once I got to the airport, it took more than an hour to check in and go through immigration. And yes, you guessed it, no air conditioning.  It was 35 degrees outside and within 30 minutes I was a sweaty mess. I think I would not have wanted to sit next to me on the plane.

So you line up to check in. Then another line to pay your airport tax, because apparently they can’t figure out how to collect this when you pay for your plane ticket, like almost every other airport in the entire world. That was a short line.

Then onto the miles long line for immigration.  The sign simply said “Immigration” with an arrow. After 10 minutes on the line, a guard told me that line was for FIlipinos only and not for foreigners, and that I had to go all the way to the other end of the terminal. “Where’s the sign that says this line is Filipino only?” I asked. I knew it was pointless, he’s just the guy standing there, not the guy in charge of signs.

The foreigner line was even longer. I’d say easily 100 people on the line for just two counters. And then for some reason they let a tour group of about 20 people cut the line. All I could do was stand there and sweat.

The only saving graces were that once I finally got through immigration, the security line moved fast and there was a well-air-conditioned smoking room right next to my boarding gate.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. I know the Philippines is a poor country, the government is rife with corruption and a lot of people avoid paying their taxes, leaving precious little left over for decent infrastructure.

But on this trip I also went to the new SM Aura mall at the Fort, which was huge and modern and everything worked perfectly. I went to Greenbelt, which is always a great place for shopping, eating, drinking, hanging out.  And at the SM Mega Mall they added an entire new higher end building and even though it wasn’t finished yet, the bits that were working were all world class.

Maybe what they need to do in Manila is let SM and Ayala build the airport?

Telephone

Oh, since I was asking about some roaming alternatives in a previous post, I guess I should let you know that I went the path of least resistance and decided to only go with a local SIM card. The problem then was that I had to go to 6 different 7-11s and Mini-stops till I found one that had the nano SIM that fits the iPhone 5s. It was from SMART and half the time I couldn’t connect to the Internet at all (even with good reception) and when I could get online, it was mostly so slow that it was next to useless. So a waste of money, but just a couple hundred pesos, around US$5, no big loss.

A Fun Taxi Ride

Taxi rides in Manila are always fun. Actually I never have a problem getting a driver who will use the meter (except when it’s raining). Mostly they’re nice and we have good conversations.

Thursday night, I waited to go out until almost 9 PM. I was hoping that the traffic around Ortigas and along EDSA might have died down by then. But with the World Economic Forum and lots of road construction, it was still seriously bad. I had to wait 15 minutes for a taxi, and the driver told me it was gridlock everywhere and that I was lucky to get a cab in just 15 minutes, at the malls they’re waiting 2 hours.

So, yes, he hit the meter right away, but he didn’t want to take EDSA and he didn’t want to take C-5. He took me through back streets and barangays, down roads filled with kids playing ball in the street and cats lying out in the middle of the road scratching themselves. Every time we’d hit a main street he’d cry out, “Oh my god, traff-eek!” But I had to say to him, “You really know Manila!”

And then we got to Rockwell. And all of a sudden he practically started crying. “My stomach hungry, sir! My stomach hungry!”

No, he wasn’t trying to hit me up for money. He wanted me to get out of the taxi in Rockwell and switch to another so he could go eat. “So many other taxi here sir, easy for you. My stomach hungry!” At first I refused. I tried telling him that I hadn’t had dinner yet either. That didn’t mean anything to him.  Then as we turned onto the road that leads from Rockwell to Burgos, and it was bumper to bumper, he started up with the “Oh my god, my stomach hungry sir!” again. So finally I paid him and got out.

So I get another taxi and finally reached Greenbelt. There was a massive line of people standing there at 10 PM waiting for taxis. I felt lucky to have reached there while some restaurants were still open. I had no idea what I wanted to eat and ended up having some surprisingly good pasta. Then I thought I’d go and have a drink or two over at Sticky Fingers, but the cover band there seemed to have received a list of all the songs I hate and by the time they got to 99 Red Balloons, I couldn’t take it any more and got out of there as fast as I could.

Fortunately, by midnight, things had gotten somewhat back to normal.  I had to fight off the swarm of ladyboy hookers who congregate around Landmark late at night, as always,  and the first taxi driver that stopped for me had no idea where I was going but the second one was the best driver I had the entire trip and I told him that, handing him 200 pesos and telling him to keep the change (the meter was at around 113).

Anyway, I’m glad to be home.

 

Roamer – Has Anyone Tried This?

I’m traveling to the Philippines on Monday. The daily roaming packages for data offered by the mobile phone companies I use (3 and SmarTone) are ludicrously priced at around HK$198 per day – that’s US$26 a day. I’m not going to do that.

I used to have a pocket WiFi device and if I still had that, I could get a SIM for it in Manila and use that for mobile internet (but not calls), the problem being that the device I had had horrible battery life and I’m not going to go out and buy a newer one because I don’t travel that often these days.

So I just came across a mobile app called Roamer.  Here’s how it works, if I understand their web site correctly.

Before you leave your home country, you forward your number to a number they assign you. It’s not clear what happens to calls you receive when it’s forwarded to their number but it’s easy to guess that they won’t be going over to my voice mail.

Once you reach your destination country, you buy a local SIM, put it in the phone, and then use the Roamer app to link things up.  Roamer will then forward all calls made to your original number to this new number.  And, if I have this right, calls back to your home country will get forwarded somehow to your home number.

They charge you for this though.  Their site says that 10 Euros (around HK$106) will get you 48 minutes of incoming calls and (or? the web site isn’t really clear) 40 minutes of outgoing calls. They say that calls are charged by the second and that you can top up your account via in-app purchases. I don’t make or receive that many voice calls so this amount would probably more than suffice for the trip.

Then once you get back home again you just turn off call forwarding and things go back to normal.

So the advantage over just buying a local SIM card and not using this would presumably be that if anyone calls my HK number, they’ll still be able to reach me. SMS won’t work, which would be an issue, though now I could have WhatsApp active at all times, which would be good.

One thing though – they’re up to version 2.1.2 (updated less than a month ago) and yet there’s only a total of 21 ratings (15 5-star ratings) and 18 reviews (13 5-star reviews) across all versions. It just seems like a low number for an app that seems as globally useful as this one.

So I’m curious if any of my readers have tried this app?  Or have an alternate roaming suggestion?

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014

We all love lists, don’t we? I’m a sucker for some of them. I click on every frigging Buzzfeed link of movie lists on Facebook; I just can’t help it. And restaurant lists too. Like the annual Diner’s Club 50 Best Restaurants in the World list, and their 2014 list came out last week.

I’ll note which ones on the list are in my neck of the woods.

13 – Nahm, Bangkok (also gets Best Restaurant in Asia award)

14 – Narisawa, Tokyo

17 – Gaggan, Bangkok (also gets Highest New Entry award)

24 – Amber, Hong Kong

32 – Attica, Melbourne (also gets Best Restaurant in AustralAsia award)

33 – Nihonryori Ryugin, Tokyo

37 – Restaurant Andre, Singapore

50 – Waku Ghin, Singapore

58 – Ultraviolet, Shanghai

60 – Quay, Sydney

66 – Lung King Heen, Hong Kong

67 – 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Hong Kong

76 – Mr & Mrs Bund, Shanghai

84 – Iggy’s, Singapore

85 – Caprice, Hong Kong

86 – Les Amis, Singapore

97 – Bo Innovation, Hong Kong

99 – Ishikawa, Tokyo

100 – Jaan, Singapore

I’ve been to exactly 1 of the places on the top 100 list, Bo Innovation, and that was probably at least 5 years ago. Here’s the list of 50 Best Restaurants in Asia from the same people. Hong Kong places on the list, aside from those mentioned above, include L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Fook Lam Moon, Yardbird, Tenku Ryugin. Maybe I should turn this page into a 100% food blog so that I can get lots of invitations to local hot spots as long as I give them glowing reviews.

Of course these guys aren’t the only ones publishing a list like this and no matter how scientific you try to make it, the whole thing is incredibly subjective.  I take these lists for what they are, something fun but not something to spend any time agonizing over.

 

Paris Trip Notes

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As many of my readers are aware, I got married on December 1st. I took a few days off following the wedding but postponed the honeymoon till late January. The reason for this was that I knew I had a business trip coming up to the UK (Windsor, outside of London) and I figured that with my plane ticket paid for, that would be a nice savings for the trip.

When I looked online to check out visas for Filipinos visiting the UK, I saw that visa approval could take up to 6 weeks. Then I checked France and saw that it would take just 3 to 10 days. So I told my wife we’d be going to Paris. She’s never been outside of Asia in her life and I knew that anywhere in Europe would be exciting for her. Yes, the weather would probably suck in January but who cares – it’s still Paris.

The only flaw in my plan was that my flights were HK -> Heathrow, Heathrow -> Charles DeGaulle, CDG -> HK. She would have to fly on her own to Paris and I couldn’t get her on the same return flight as me. As it happens, we saved quite a bit of money by booking her via Amsterdam, and I was able to set a schedule for her that had us arriving at CDG at almost exactly the same time and departing from CDG on flights that were about an hour apart.

The next nerve-wracking bit was the application for the French visa – actually the Schengen visa, good for the entire Euro zone. The French consulate requires one to make an appointment online, and the earliest appointment I could get for her was January 16th – too close to her January 22nd departure date for comfort in my opinion. But in the end, it all worked out.

Now, Anthony Bourdain’s advice for Paris is that people who go there exhaust themselves by trying to do too much. He suggests just getting drunk and eating cheese. Cute, but a bit arrogant as well, coming from someone who has probably been to Paris at least 100 times and will return there at least another 100. For people who get there just once or twice in their lives, you gotta do what you gotta do in order to see the things everyone wants to see. I tried to find a middle ground – an itinerary that would leave us plenty of time for relaxing as well as fitting in the core sightseeing activities.

So on the evening of the 22nd, we met at CDG and took a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Jardin Le Brea, located right at the border of the 6th and 14th arrondissements.  We arrived there around midnight, tossed the bags into the hotel room and went out in search of a late dinner. The first few places we walked into had already taken last orders.

Then we found a cozy spot called L’Atelier (not Joel Robuchon’s place). “A friendly pub with a great atmosphere” is how they describe themselves on their web site – and the description was accurate. I just went with a croque monsieur, I forget what my wife ordered, and we had a cheese plate and a lot of wine. And made friends easily with the people at the tables around us. (Everyone else there was French except for one guy from Morocco.) A nice start to the trip.

On Thursday, following breakfast at the hotel, we took a leisurely stroll through the back streets, looking longingly into the windows of classic boulangeries, patisseries, bucheries, charcuteries and fromageries. We made our way over to the Montparnasse Tower, possibly the only skyscraper in central Paris (not including the Eiffel Tower, of course). You can buy tickets to go up to the 56th floor and from there to the 59th floor rooftop deck, which we did.

From there, we bought Metro passes and made a beeline for the Arc d’ Triomphe. No, we didn’t climb the stairs to the top. Instead we did a leisurely stroll down the Champs D’Elysee. (I can report that, just as in Hong Kong, when you’re out on the town and in need of a toilet, McDonald’s is always there for you.)  We stopped into a branch of Paul for some baguettes (jambon and brie for my wife, saucisson for me) and some cake.

Back to the hotel to drop off the results of our shopping and then over to the Eiffel Tower – I’d bought tickets online for 4:30 though this time of year, advance tickets are probably not required. Also this time of year they don’t sell tickets in advance for the top of the tower, just the “2nd floor” due to the possibility of shitty weather and indeed, once there, the booths on the 2nd floor selling tickets to the top were all closed. So we strolled around, got some hot chocolate and found a comfy place to sit. But outside on the deck, it was just too damned windy to stay out there for long.

For dinner that night, I chose Vagenende Brasserie, a brasserie along Boulevard Saint-Germain that’s more than 100 years old and the place where I had my very first meal in Paris. It was every bit as good as I remembered and my wife was delighted with the quality of their classic fare.  After dinner, the combination of jetlag and wine was really hitting her, so it was back to the hotel and time for bed.

Following breakfast on Friday, we went to Notre Dame. We then walked around the area a bit, doing some souvenir shopping and then picking up our tickets for the Louvre. (You can buy your tickets in advance but unlike with the Eiffel Tower you cannot print them out yourself and you can’t pick them up from the museum; you have to find a branch of the ticket agency – Virgin’s shop on the Champs D’Elysee used to be the most convenient but that’s gone now. And again, this time of year, the advance tickets probably were not necessary as the line to get in was quite small.)

We had one of our few bad meals of the trip – a cafe chosen at random, a tiny menu that led me to think, “well, if they just have a few things, they must really know how to make them,” but both of our dishes were really poor.  It was following this lunch that my headaches with HSBC began.

Anyway, after giving up on the bank, we hit the museum.  We saw two of the “big three” – The Mona Lisa (which you could actually get a clear view of, the gallery was not jam packed) and the Venus De Milo. Sadly, for some reason Winged Victory of Samothrace was not on display.  We walked around randomly for a couple of hours until our legs started to give out (well, mine anyway). Back outside the museum, there was a Japanese video crew and a life-size Hello Kitty. Before they could stop us, my wife ran out and I was able to grab a few quick shots of our “celebrity sighting.”

Back to the hotel to rest up before dinner. My plan was for us to go to La Coupole, a historic brasserie near our hotel. But it was Friday night, 9 PM, and we hadn’t booked. We were told we could wait at the bar but it would be at least an hour and we were too hungry to wait.  So we went a few doors down to Le Dome, another art deco jewel (one Michelin star), where we were served a platter with enough shellfish (at least 20 varieties!) to feed an entire country. Crabs, prawns, langoustines, many types of oysters, mussels, clams, cockles, whelks and stuff I didn’t even know the names of. We didn’t finish it all but we came damned close.

Saturday was shopping day. Actually we started by going to the Palais Garnier and then the rooftop of Les Galeries Lafayette for another magnificent view. Another lunch at another branch of Paul, some browsing at Printemps, and then over to Les Marais for some serious shopping.  And then another patisserie where we could sit outside with some amazing cake and coffee before collapsing back at the hotel. Dinner that night was at Le Relais de l’Entrecote – one of its four branches was close to our hotel. The line was out the door but it moved fast.  One thing about this place – it’s cheap (by Parisian standards).  You pay around 23 Euros for salad, steak, fries and bread. The menu only offers cheese, desserts and wine. The only questions from your server are basically “how do you want your steak cooked” and “what do you want to drink.” I don’t think any wine on the list cost more than 40 Euros.

I had everything planned for Sunday, our final full day. I wanted to start off at Centre Pompidou and finish off with a stroll around Montmartre. Alas, it was not to be. I woke up on Sunday morning sick as a dog. I was showing all of the signs of food poisoning. How or where I got it, I can’t say. My wife certainly didn’t have it and we’d eaten all the same stuff, sharing everything. But I was so sick that I got to the point where I’d just drink some water and then throw that up moments later.

Of course my wife had to eat so I went out with her for lunch. She selected an Italian restaurant called Auberge de Venise.  This place seemed to have some history to it – some photos on the wall were from the 1920s when it was an American bar called, I think, Dingo. And the food looked amazing. She had some pasta, that was perfectly cooked. I had to order something and went for a bowl of minestrone. It might have been the best minestrone I’ve ever had but the bowl was the size of my head and I barely made a dent in it. The manager actually seemed quite upset by this but I told him I thought it was amazing but I was ill and really couldn’t eat and he let us escape with our lives.

I went back to the hotel to die some more while my wife walked around Montparnasse one final time.  For dinner, I still wasn’t ready to eat. She wanted to try a branch of a chain called Hippopotamus.  I was afraid this would turn out to be the Paris equivalent of Outback and, unfortunately, I was correct. I didn’t order anything and the only thing she enjoyed there was the bearnaise sauce. After dinner I picked up some yogurt from a nearby market (nope, couldn’t keep that down either).

Fortunately by Monday morning I was feeling better and we left the hotel early for our flights back to Hong Kong. Yes, it was a damned shame that I was sick for that final day. But the rest of the trip was fantastic – and the best part of it might well have been when my wife turned to me and said, “I know you love me, because you brought me here.” (She did also ask if my company had an office in Paris and if so, could I request a transfer there.)

I do want to add that my second visit to Paris was every bit as amazing as my first, probably even better because this time I wasn’t there alone. And once again, despite the stereotype, I found Parisians to be universally warm, friendly and helpful. It may be that I can speak a little French (albeit with a horrendous American accent) or that I was accompanied everywhere by a beautiful woman (and more than few times she got hit on when I’d leave her alone to go to the toilet). It was every bit as memorable as my first trip there.

I know some of you are probably wondering where all the photos are. I’ve been to Paris before and taken all of the standard shots of buildings and monuments and I think you can find better examples in any guide book. Most of the photos this time are the touristy shots – my wife in front of the Louvre, the two of us on the Eiffel Tower, and so on. Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook can see them there; I’ll spare everyone else. (For those who care about this sort of thing, I did not bring my Nikon D800 with me as I didn’t want to deal with the weight and also the bulk of carrying multiple lenses. I brought my Sony RX-10 as my main camera, and it did a mostly excellent job. I also brought my Sony RX-100 to have something pocket-sized for carrying around at night and that did okay too.)

And We’re Home

Our trip to Paris was mostly great – mostly but not entirely because I woke up on Sunday morning sick as the proverbial dog. I had all the symptoms of food poisoning but how I got it, I don’t know. My wife and I basically ate all the same food (because we shared everything) except on Saturday afternoon, when we stopped for coffee at a patisserie and I had this amazing piece of chocolate cake called L’Elegance (which I pronounced the best candy bar I’d ever eaten).  Sunday, the first time I threw up, the first thing I tasted was chocolate.

At any rate, that put an end to our Sunday plans. Eventually I got to the point where I would drink some water and then throw even that up. It was crappy weather – cold and raining – so we stayed close to the hotel, going out twice so my wife could eat. After her dinner, I tried having a cup of yogurt, but even that didn’t want to stay down.

By Monday morning I was feeling weak – as you might expect – but strong enough to travel and so we left early for the airport and the long flight home. Fortunately I was able to eat two meals on the plane and keep them down – no small feat considering the quality of Cathay Pacific’s food in economy.

We will now proceed to be jet-lagged as hell.  Our flights left Monday around noon (we were on separate flights, long story) and arrived Tuesday morning and neither of us managed much sleep. We’ve both slept a lot today, which is okay for her, as she doesn’t have a job to go to tomorrow. I do.

I might post more details of what we did later on (not that there was anything really remarkable) but for now, I would like to recommend the hotel we stayed in – Hotel Jardin le Brea.  A three-star hotel costing well under 200 Euros per night, the staff all spoke English and were all amazingly friendly and helpful. The room size was small, of course, but adequate for our needs. The buffet breakfast was small but great quality. Free WiFi. Cable TV – which we didn’t think we’d need but of course did when we got stuck in the hotel for a day.

The location, just off the intersection of Boulevard du Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail, meant that we had just a 2 minute walk to the metro and had dozens of bistros and cafes within a 5 minute walk.

The last bit to mention for now – HSBC. I was 110% certain that I had activated the overseas withdrawal thingie for every account I had months ago, when the new policy was enacted. But when I went online to check on that, I saw that it was enabled for every account I had except my Current account. Was it possible that I had omitted that one? Was it possible that the bank reset it when issuing my new Plus card? I’ll probably never know. Once I did activate it for the account, I was able to withdraw cash from an ATM with no problem.

However, that still doesn’t explain why HSBC ATMs told me my HSBC Union Pay card was “defective” and it doesn’t explain why that card didn’t work in ATMs of other banks that are on the Union Pay network (and oddly enough, I did manage to find some in Paris). Nor would it explain why the manager of an HSBC branch in Paris told me that I would probably have success using my HSBC ATM cards at almost any bank other than HSBC.

Upcoming Trip to Chicago and New York

In just a couple of weeks I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage back to Da Bronx to see my mom and catch up with some other family members and friends.

But first, I’ll be spending 4 nights in Chicago. That’s business, though I’ll have at least a day and a half on my own before the meetings start. I’ve only been to Chicago once before and that was for 2 nights, at least 25 years ago. Let me tell you how much that trip sucked:

  • First night: We arrived late and hadn’t had dinner. We found one open place. The boss (Aldous Huxley’s grandson, as it happens) insisted on ordering soft shell crabs for an appetizer, took one taste and told us they were horrible and said we couldn’t stay there, cancelled the rest of the order, and we couldn’t find another open restaurant. I think my dinner that night was a bag of Oreos.
  • Second night: On my own, thank Buddha, but no idea of where to go. I ended up in some bar where the bartender not only decided that I had to be Chris Elliott, he also needed to confirm it with everyone else in the place. My “celebrity status” yielded me no ill-gotten gains as no one else there had any idea who Chris Elliott is.

So, any recommendations for the place gratefully appreciated – probably mostly places to eat Chicago hot dogs and ribs, places to walk around with a camera in hand, perhaps a bit of night life/blues bars if I’m not too jetlagged.  (I’m staying in the Magnificent Mile area.)

Since I’ll be in NYC for a full week this time (but as always will spend most of my time in The Bronx), I’m hoping to be able to sample a bit more of what appears to be a burgeoning food scene there – Latino stuff, Asian stuff, and hopefully a visit to Arthur Avenue for some of the Italian American food I grew up with. And of course at some point a pastrami sandwich and roumanian tenderloin steak (which I have made in HK but have a hard time finding hanger steak here). I know my mother will never try sushi but I think she’ll enjoy pho.

A Week in London

Yes, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted.  I’m just back from a week in London.

I first visited London in 1972, spending 3 or 4 weeks with a friend, seeing as many bands as possible.  I returned in 1984 with my first wife, doing all the standard sightseeing stuff.

In the early 90s, I worked for Barclays and ended up spending a significant time working in London.  I had a girlfriend in London for awhile, a beautiful and dangerous punk poetess who damned near psychologically killed me.  My boss at Barclays tried to relocate me there, an opportunity I would have eagerly embraced, but it was not to be.

In the 00’s, my work at Warner brought me there several times.  But it’s been at least 5 or 6 years since my last visit.    This trip was related to a short term IT consulting contract I’ve picked up – several meetings plus the opportunity to photograph a business conference.

Sunday

My hotel was in Islington, an area I’ve never been to before that I quite liked.  A ton of international restaurants and pubs, a small shopping mall and a relatively central location that meant I could get everywhere else I wanted to get to relatively quickly.   I arrived very early Sunday morning (flight landed at Heathrow just before 5 AM).  I was really hungry (because the food on BA economy is seriously horrendous) but found that nothing was open around there at 7 AM – except Starbucks so my breakfast was there.

It was a beautiful sunny day and so I went to Camden Market, a place I haven’t been to possibly in decades.  I walked around and got sick.  Seriously.  I had my winter coat and soon found a wool cap and gloves at one of the shops but by then perhaps it was too late, or perhaps I was just susceptible being tired from the long flight.

Most of what’s in Camden might remind HKers of Temple Street or Ladies Market.  It seemed that mostly people were selling t-shirts – rock, goth and Banksy.  Lots of shops with the usual knock-off Beats headphones and zippo lighters and tacky London souvenirs.  I saw better, more interesting things, inside some of the market buildings, but nothing that I wanted to buy.  Except for the food.  Food stalls everywhere with an amazing array of international treats, all at low prices.  My original intention was to find a pub but eventually I couldn’t resist the stuff in the stalls.  There was this guy carving up an entire roast pig – he told me it had been a free range pig from a farm in Sussex – served on a bun with apple sauce, sweet and hot chili and rocket, I almost asked for a second one.  But then I spotted a stand making fresh churros, filling them with caramel and chocolate, so that decision was made for me.

Back to the hotel, my few purchases in hand, and the beginnings of a severe cold.  It was even colder at night and, maybe because I was getting sick, I found myself wanting comfort food.  There was a branch of a burger chain called Byron right near the hotel, Time Out said it was pretty good, so I went there.  It was okay.  Burger was big, lots of choices of toppings, tasty enough but just okay.

Monday

Yeah, I woke up sick. Crap.  I stayed in the hotel until it was time for my meetings.  I had a bit of time to kill after that.  Somehow I managed to get completely turned around on Oxford Street before heading into Soho.  I walked down Carnaby Street and was completely shocked to find out that it was now nothing but global chain stores.  It had morphed into a complete tourist trap.  Oh, there was a pop up Rolling Stones store there.  I went inside, browsed, bought nothing.

Then I went over to this hotel called the Courthouse to meet a friend.  Apparently this really was a courthouse before it was a hotel, and it had a bar in the area that used to be the prison.  I spent a couple of hours there with an old friend, drinking tea.  Really.

Stopped off at a Boots (the London version of Watsons or Mannings) to load up on cold medicine.  I have no recollection of what, if anything, I had for dinner that night.

Tuesday

Up early, suit on, camera in hand, over to the conference.  I shot for around an hour but it wasn’t pleasant.  Sneezing, runny nose, coughing, and I soon realized that it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to be in a crowded area infecting a thousand other people.  So I gave up.

I went to a kebab shop.  Had to have a real kebab instead of the crap that most of the HK places offer.  This was just your ordinary, chosen at random, tiny shop and for the same price as Ebeneezers got something about 4 times the size with about 27.3 times the flavor.

More IT meetings in the afternoon that I coughed and sneezed my way through.  Despite being sick, Tuesday night was going to be my one opportunity to meet photographer Kevin Westenberg, an opportunity that I was not about to pass up.  (Kevin is an American based in London for more than 30 years and he’s shot almost every band that matters – Zeppelin, Arctic Monkeys, Nick Cave, Coldplay, Paul Weller; his current obsession is a singer well worth recommending, Jake Bugg.) (I remember when I came across a photo he shot of Scott Walker in 2006, I asked him if I could have his life.)

I got to Soho way too early, hit a couple of record shops and then took refuge in a place called Yum Chaa.  From the name, I thought it was going to be a dim sum place but it turned out to be a hipster tea shop, with about 37 types of tea and some cakes and scones and stuff.  Then Kevin and I met up in a restaurant specializing in soba and udon and talked for a few hours.  He had an interesting perspective on the state of the photography business, at least the corner of it that he’s in.  The virtual collapse of the music industry means there’s less money to be made and smaller budgets for shooting – but creativity trumps all, just check his recent Jake Bugg photos.

Wednesday

By now I’m completely sick.  I don’t think I’ve got any fever but I’m otherwise feeling at death’s door.  Back to Boots for more drugs, one IT meeting during the day, and otherwise spending the day in bed.  Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t put more videos onto my laptop.  My hotel room’s TV has 17 channels.  One seems to have nothing but reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  Two seem to be running constant adverts for Jersey Boys.  Another one seems to be 24 hours a day of Adam Richman’s Man vs. Food.  As a result, I spend too much time playing Fieldrunners 2 on my iPad.  For dinner I want something hot and there’s a branch of Wagamama right near the hotel so I go there for a steaming bowl of ramen.

Thursday

My cold is starting to subside but I’m feeling weak.  One meeting in the morning, one in the afternoon.  Lunch is at a nearby branch of Indian chain Masala Zone.  Their big thing is thali but I choose something simpler and smaller from the set lunch menu.  They’re kind of fusion-y with their Indian food, at least the stuff I order, but it’s tasty and filling and the price is right.

My buddy Luke (aka The Fat Photographer) agrees to come and meet near my hotel.  We go to a nearby pub where I start out on tea but soon move to cider.   Magner’s Irish Cider, to be precise – spiced apple with honey to be even more precise.  This was a splendid beverage.  Can it be found in Hong Kong?

Friday

It’s my last day so of course my cold is starting to subside.  No meetings today, I have the day to myself.  I head back to the same pub from the night before and have maybe the best pie I’ve ever had in my life for lunch – steak and mushroom sauce, the pie had this amazing light flaky top, served with mashed potatoes and a great salad, for under 10 pounds.  I know it’s a thing that the day of the independent pub in Britain seems to be gone and this one was part of the Nicholson’s Pubs chain, but jeez, the place looked like a proper British pub, they seemed to have at least 20 beers on tap (even San Miguel – I spotted someone drinking a bottle of Sol, god only knows why, I suppose it’s seen as an exotic import there?), the food was fabulous and relatively cheap, I didn’t mind it at all.

I’d thought I might spend the afternoon in a museum – perhaps the Tate Britain or Tate Modern – but at the last minute thought I’d just do a bit of touristy walking around. It had been 30 years since I’d visited any of the tourist spots and I was in a mood to see them again, so first a walk around the Tower of London and Tower Bridge and then a walk around Parliament and Westminster.

On my way back to the hotel, when I went to turn in my Oyster card at the Tube station, the guy there acted as if no one had ever done that before.  He wanted me to show a picture ID and proof of address, apparently to prove that I hadn’t stolen the card from someone.  It then took him 15 minutes of typing away at a computer, touching the card to a terminal 38 times and printing out a yard of receipts for me to get back my 5 pound deposit and the few pounds of stored value remaining on the card.

Back at the hotel, there were no taxis to be had.  They called a mini-cab for me.  A Mercedes Benz showed up.  “That’s a hell of a mini-cab,” I said to the driver.  I told him I was going to the Heathrow Express train and he told me he’d heard it wasn’t running that day.  Was he trying to push me to have him drive me all the way to the airport?  Wasn’t going to happen.  He called someone, talked for a few moments, then told me okay, it’s running, just congested.  When I got to Paddington Station, it was of course running just fine and dandy.

So that was pretty much my trip.  Mostly spent being sick in my hotel room.

I love London.  I still wish I had moved there back in ’92.  And it seemed actually improved over my past few visits.  It seemed more open, more friendly, more multi-cultural.  Not to mention all of the choices that a city like London provides – music, shows, museums – none of which I took advantage of during this short trip.  I find myself still wanting to live there.

I know that despite going there for 40 years, I’m seeing it from a tourist perspective.  One hears about this issue and that issue, but I’m not confronted by those everyday realities on short visits.  It’s the way tourists see New York, the place I’m from and have no desire to return to.

Or maybe it’s just my current pessimism about Hong Kong.  Not having a full time job, dealing with the increasing China-fication here … well, I always get this feeling when I return from a trip to a place I like.  A feeling of, “I’d rather be anywhere than here.”  Except wherever you go, there you are.

Photos?  Kind of random, I’m afraid, as I was too cold to take anything other than quick snapshots walking around.  But here’s a few.

Let’s start with the kebab.  Here’s the “small” chicken kebab I got:

All of that was around 5 pounds.  Just goes to show what good food can cost when you’re not being raped by your landlord.  (Did you see that thing last week that some Hong Kong restaurants are actually upset that they got Michelin stars because they figure it means their rents will go up?)

Here’s a shot of that pie:

A Chinese restaurant in Camden:

A restaurant called Hong Kong in Camden:

No, it’s not all food-related shots, here’s “Evil From The Needle”:

Carnaby Street, brought to you by the Rolling Stones:

Wanchai Corner, in London’s Chinatown:

Maybe the best of my touristy walking around shots (haven’t really looked at all of them yet):

And that’s about it.  I’m home.  Job interview Monday.  Seeing The Hobbit in IMAX 3D on opening day.  Shooting headshots for a client on Thursday.  Shooting an Underground show on Saturday.

And don’t forget, this Friday, Open Show launches in Hong Kong at PASM.  Here’s the Facebook event page.

It’s free and it’s going to be fabulous – come check it out!