Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A Cocktail Of Two Cities

We slept like logs, whatever that means. I mean, logs are just bits of dead tree, so basically, we slept like bits of dead tree, but in a nice bed in a nice hotel, with a coffee machine and a flat screen TV and a view of the harbour and a wardrobe to hang our bark and our leaves up... see this is what jet-lag feels like. Anyway, on with the trip.

We had breakfast in a little place we'd seen on Trip Advisor which was near our hotel and sounded more authentic than Starbucks. We found a table and looked at the menu, which, quite reasonably, was full of strange Chinese symbols. If Ready Brek or Frosties were an option on this menu, I certainly couldn't spot them. The nice lady who came to take our order could tell we were confused and brought some special menus for us, which had the options in English. Still, no sign of Coco Pops though! So instead, Jus ordered condensed milk buns and a red bean and coconut ice smoothie (which was lumpy) and I had rice noodles in a ginger and spring onion broth, with a couple of fried eggs on top, and a cup of coffee with condensed milk... they really like condensed milk here. Now admittedly, this was no Weetabix, but it was all rather nice and we ordered more bits and bobs before moving on after a very filling, and cheap, breakfast.

After our breakfast, we took the Star Ferry over the harbour and joined a walking tour in Kowloon which dramatically demonstrated the difference between the shiny global financial centre of Hong Kong, and the day to day lives of people born here. Our guide took us on a tour of the sights which you wouldn't normally see.

We saw the Goldfish Market, where people came to buy, you guessed it, goldfish, because; 
(i) a goldfish swimming in water is very good feng shui, and 
(ii) space is so scarce that if you want a pet, a goldfish doesn't need much floor area to run around in.

We saw the Bird Market, full of caged birds which are sold by, and to, an elderly section of the Hong Kong population. Keeping birds used to be a popular activity and people would take their cages out into the parks, or bars and hang them on hooks while they socialised with their friends, and the birds socialised with each other. This hobby is less popular with younger people, partly from an animal-rights point of view, but also since the first occurrence of the H5N1 virus (bird flu) transferring to humans was recorded here in this very district of Hong Kong in 1997, there has been an understandable drop in enthusiasm for bird-keeping. 

We visited the Flower Market, which bloomed (sorry) after the British took control, due to a need for men to buy flowers for, shall we say, "ladies of the night" in this area of the city. This is why I never buy Justine flowers. I don't want to give the impression that I think she's a... well, you know...

We learned about the lack of space for housing and the various political and economic forces which had created a situation in which this country is the least affordable place in the world to buy a house. We visited a room above a laundry which was 10 square metres, just enough room for a bunk bed and a small table with an electric hotplate - no bathroom, and though this had a tiny window to let some air in, some internal rooms didn't even have that. The rent per month for this would have been 80% of the average person's salary. Some people have resorted to renting cages to live in (because they're cheaper), or even "coffin rooms" which are just big enough to lie down in. We've seen much, much poorer people on our travels, but they've either been poor countries or ones with "unusual" regimes. This is a hugely successful nation with a higher GDP per capita than that of the UK, but most of the population can barely afford to live in it.

The tour ended in the middle of the Sham Shui Po district, and we went into a small cafĂ© where we were squeezed on to a table with locals who were tucking in to bowls of noodles. We ordered something from the menu and two large bowls arrived, filled with broth and with dim sum parcels bobbing on the surface. The total cost of our evening meal, £5.60.

Later we returned to Hong Kong Island and visited a few bars. Our final stop was J Borowski, a bar we'd seen in a guide book and had caught our eye thanks to the amazing interiors created by industrial designer Ashley Sutton. Having just visited Iron Fairies a few doors up the road (another of his designs) which had hundreds of cast iron fairy figurines, scattered around the tables, and what can only described as mini furnaces with comfy seating benches inside, we felt we needed to see more.

This time the bar's curved ceiling and walls were decorated with hundreds of beetles - not John, Paul, George and Ringo - no, these were Steel Scarab Beetles (maybe a Fab Four tribute band from Sheffield?).

While Iron Fairies had been dark, busy and pumping with loud music, J Borowski felt quieter, more grown up, sophisticated. The barman explained that they don't have a cocktail menu. He simply asked us to describe the sort of things we liked and he would create a bespoke drink for each of us. Jus said she liked "chocolate, vodka, cream, men with a good sense of humour, Scandinavian design, and gin " but didn't like "whiskey or coffee or red wine or carrots or Michael McIntyre". I told him I like "dark rum, coffee, smoky (not Smokie, the band) whiskies, hoppy American style IPAs, port, gin and Radiohead", but don't like "tequila, absinthe, mango, liver, reality TV shows, Veuve Clicquot or John Smith's Extra Smooth". From this brief, getting to know you session, our cocktail psychologist was able to assess the precise ingredients for our perfect beverages and got straight to work.

As we sat and chilled out to the down-tempo acid-jazz beats, we watched him scurry back and forth picking bottles, sniffing their contents, adding and stirring, sometimes pouring only the tiniest drop, tasting every now and then until after about 10 minutes of pure entertainment, Justine's cocktail was done. He disappeared in to the back and Jus tried her drink. She thought it was quite nice!

He then reappeared with a freshly microwaved espresso and proceeded to build my drink. He melted some chocolate into the coffee, he added some whiskey, some chartreuse (I think), then it all got a bit difficult to follow. There was pouring from a height into a different vessel, and then back again presumably to strain it or aerate it, or just to look good. It might have had a bit of jam stirred in at one point, it was hard to tell, but finally it was poured into a little pot with a lid and then smoke blown through it with a custom-made mad-science smoking device. I was told to keep the lid on for a few seconds, then removed it and tasted it. It really was very good and didn't taste of liver or mango at all, but to be honest, even if it had just tasted like a Baileys with ice, the whole experience would have been worth it.

So we sat, in a very cool cocktail bar with some very cool music, drinking our made-to-measure liquid masterpieces and reflected on a day of contrasts in a city of contrasts, where the contrast between our spending for the day came to;

Dinner for two: £5.60
Cocktails for two: £86.50

Sorry Mum!

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