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Archive for September, 2008

private kitchens

wanchaiOne of the best dining options that Hong Kong has to offer is the private kitchen. Sprinkled throughout this city are family run restaurants located in your typical residential building. They are typically word of mouth places that only seat a certain amount of people per night. The food is excellent and cheap.

We have a favorite Thai place located in the ninth floor of the apartment building across from us. You go in and it’s like being in somebody’s living room, only the bedrooms and side rooms are all filled with people eating.

Last Friday we went to a private kitchen in Wanchai–Sijie Sichuan Dishes (which means four sisters in Mandarin), at Lockard Road. Brian and Eva made the reservation. Jeff and Jennie, Dana and Andrew, a friend of theirs, Joe and Sherry, and this new couple we just met. The place was rowdy, every table packed. Some of us had to wait 10 minutes just to get a chair at our own table. We ended up getting short stools instead. The first dish on the Lazy Susan was pigs ears. I ate one and barely swallowed it down. It’s cartilage with some sauce on it. Tables behind us roared every few minutes, cheering or reacting to something. We quickly learned that the one of the “four sisters” and owner of the restaurant, a 50-something Chinese woman, was challenging people to beer chugging contests. Wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, she’d pour beer in a small glass, do the same thing to a challenger, and beat them with a few gulps. Every time she won or lost, tables would erupt. Arriving at our table, she spoke Mandarin to all of us as if we were fluent. She lost her challenge to Andrew’s friend, but came back again wanting a rematch. When she came back, she looked around our table for anyone who wanted to join. I thought she was going to either raise a glass to toast the table, or do another one of those small glass chugs, either one of which I was game for.

Then she explained in Mandarin and hand gestures that it was a full can of beer chug off she was proposing. I only had a few sips left in mine, and thought I could fudge it. No way. She slid an ice cold can of Tsingtao across the table to me. I thought to myself, “well, I didn’t go to college for nothing.” All eyes were on me, Andrew’s friend, and this crazy lady. I could hear E razzing me in the corner–it was added incentive. The race was on.

As I gulped, I thought the crowd went silent, or groaned, and I immediately took that to mean that somebody had quickly won or something had happened. So I picked up my pace a bit, finished and squeezed the can above my head, facing up at first, then realizing the point is to face it down to show you’ve finished. When I flipped it, I expected the beer to pour down my face, but to my surprise there was nothing left. I won, and the crowd went wild. It didn’t matter who won. The crowd was gonna erupt anyway. It was one of the few times my fraternity years paid off post-college.

The thing is, Sichuan food is so hot that beer is like ice water. You’ll be happy to know the only person struggling from the chug-a-thon was the owner lady. I felt great, actually, though I didn’t expect my third can of beer to go down so fast. The food kept coming, including frog, which I also ate.

The best was this fish stew with noodles. I’m getting so I avoid the really hot stuff. The first time we did Sichuan I broke out into a sweat and I couldn’t feel my mouth for 10 minutes or so. That’s not an exaggeration.

By the end of the night, the owner lady was hugging every one at our table and telling them she wanted to marry them, even though her husband was right there helping to clean up the tables. You have to visual this restaurant. It was one square room with no rugs, cement floors and walls. Five tables, all jammed with people. Eating went from 9pm-11pm. It was a fantastic, filling meal that cost $40 per person, beer included. I left there feeling great. Outside, Wanchai was hopping, as it does every night.

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Okay, now that we’ve grabbed your attention, let us explain the Foreign Correspondents Club Charity Ball on Sept. 16. The lead act was the World Classic Rockers, a “power band” if you will made up of former members of the aformentioned bands (add to that list Boston and Santana). I really recommend you take a stroll through their website, as you’ll find that in some cases, it’s tough to find out exactly when or how they were part of these bands. (After a follow-up trip to the WCR website, I realized that that last line, was not completely fair. Also, forgot to add that my 2nd favorite person was drummer Ansley Dunbar. The guy was awesome.)

That said, they rocked. Here’s a sampling of the setlist: “Anyway you want it,” “Born to be Wild,” “Roseanna,” “More than a feeling,” “Here I go again on my own.” Note, you can look at their set list here, which appears to be their set list at every show. I’ll get to their performance in a moment. The event itself was great. Proceeds went to the following projects sponsored by the FCC: the FCC Scholarship Fund and the JP Morgan/FCC/Po Leung Kuk Language Training Program. Both of these projects support the children living in a Hong Kong orphanage not far from our apartment.

Two managing directors at separate Wall Street banks walked on stage with $1 million checks (hong kong dollars that is). The silent auction included a Harmonica signed by Billy Joel (HK300,000), a guitar signed by Bruce Springsteen, that E almost raised her hand for, (HK30,000) and property in Napa (I lost track). Somebody joked that the end of the night they were going to auction off Lehman Brothers.

While we ate our fancy meals in our black-tie attire, the kids from the orphanage sang on stage and even did a traditional drumming act that was excellent. I actually teared up as I watched them, thinking that these kids have no parents, and probably won’t ever (most of the kids looked to be between 8 and 12).

As we finished our meal, the band came on. Soon enough, about 100 or so people jammed into the dance floor area in front of the stage for a better view. When I watched these guys on stage, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them in a way. “This sort of reminds me of Spinal Tap,” said one tall dude standing next to me.

But then E reminded me of what a blast these guys are having on stage, and that they’re still traveling the world performing. That’s true. However, I kept hoping that the Convention Hall lights would not go up, which would show that the World Classic Rockers were playing in front of a 1,000 or so seated people, with a hundred-ish crowded onto the parquey dance floor.

It was one of those great scenes where everyone, locals and Europeans, knew the words to the song. There were some very spinal tap moments, like when David Coyle came out into the crowd to play his guitar. He actually stood on a table while playing, and then leaned down to strum with a guy in a wheelchair. I wondered if his guitar was even plugged in at one point, because he was draping it over people’s shoulders as if they were playing it.

The most incredible thing for me, however, were the stage rushes. At about half-way through the two hour performance, women started walking up onto the stage and dancing. Nobody said a word. There was a security “heavy” in the back, pony-tail and all who ushered women who got too close to the equipment. But otherwise, it looked as if this were something normal. Maybe out here it is? I have no idea. Then, with every song, more and more people came onto stage, including men. There is a video clip of one dude doing a ridiculous arm dance. And there are clips we decided not to post because some women, by the end, were doing some provocative dancing on stage. It never got X-rated, it was just downright bizarre how many people crashed the stage at this thing. A veritable bum-rush. Here’s another blogger’s summary of the night.

My favorite by far was Fergie Fredricksen. You couldn’t think up a better name. I actually saw him hanging out in the back of the ballroom midway through the performance. I shook his hand and told him how great the whole thing was. It was his first time in Hong Kong. He flew via LA, from Minneapolis.

By 2 am, the ball room was still filled with people. The band had gone, where, I don’t know. A group of reporters went to a local bar for a round, and then we all called it a night. There probably won’t be many other times when I’m wearing a Tux and listening to a live Whitesnake song.

(photo: Asiapix)

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joining the club

We were pretty convinced that our “club” while living here in Hong Kong would be Victoria Park (that’s a joke). But alas, we’ve come upon an offer we can’t refuse. The Hong Kong Football Club is located roughly ten minutes by foot from where we live (photo at right is a view from the club looking out onto the Happy Valley horse racetrack). A person I met through work (a source, actually) suggested I check the place out, and I assured him that we couldn’t afford the deposit–or debenture as it’s officially known–and monthly fees (you don’t even want to know what they are for normal members). But then he said you can join the club for a drastically reduced rate if you make one of the teams–he suggested squash. I figured my jock background would come in handy at this point. So at his request, I had a sort of try-out on their squash courts. If I were good enough at squash, I’d make the team and join the club. To put it bluntly, I got my butt kicked. Of 7 tries and three different opponents, I failed to win a single game. Around the same time that I learned of the sports membership someone mentioned to E that the club has a Netball team. Netball is a cross between basketball, women’s lacrosse and ultimate fresbie so she figured why not?

E went to three tryouts, before her final one this past Monday night. The pressure was on. Fail to make the team, and our access to a great facility with playgrounds, pool, gym, restaurants, bars, bowling alley, courts, fields, would be gone. Make the team, and we’d have all these great things, located 10 minutes from our house, not to mention access to more great people and potential friends. Of the six women’s Netball teams within the club, E was chosen for the second team–one down from the top! Our jock history, which hasn’t really been relevant lately, pulled through in the end (well, E’s did anyway). I have to admit, I feel a little weird about joining what is, in effect, a country club wedged into a Hong Kong city block. There are hoity-toity banker, lawyer types spread throughout the place. Some I’ve found a little off-putting, a lot, however, I’ve found to be great people. There are teachers, randoms, PR folks, who are members too. There is room there for a hack and an educational content producer.

I think it will be a great outlet for the whole family. Before you celebrate the moment with us, there is a catch. The night E made the team, she hurt her knee diving out of bounds. I’ll let her explain the extent of the injury. It was a pretty good twist. Fortunately not Tom Brady level, but we learned today that she has partial damage to her ACL and will have to rehab for the next 4 to 6 weeks. I know that sounds bad, but believe me, we thought it was going to be worse. A full tear and she’d probably need surgery and 6 months to recover. The team has been really supportive of her, offering her sympathy and a few rounds of post practice pints at Wednesday night’s session. E will go to most of the practices, check in, and re-hab, just as one would with any team sport. Hopefully she’ll be able to play for a good part of the season. The girls can’t wait to get their star recruit back on the court. I have to say that I’m hardly surprised that she kicked butt during try-outs.

When I explained our situation to my brother on Sunday, the night before the last tryout, he suggested I go out to the park with E to run her through some drills and sprints (he was kidding, of course). Fortunately, we didn’t need to do that.

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A popular thing to do here is rent a Junk boat and have them take you on a tour of Victoria Harbor–day or night.  The trips usually last 8 hours with a lunchtime stop at an island; night trips are around four hours. Last Saturday night, E, me and 22 others (including a 39-week old pregnant lady) hopped on a Junk and cruised the harbor, bumping past Kowloon, settling in Discovery Bay to view a fireworks display at Disneyland and then back. The occasion was meant to celebrate a collection of birthdays: mine last month, and our friends Jeff and Jennie (married) at around the time of the trip. The original trip was postponed due to a typhoon. The theme of the night was the Olympics, as the original date was supposed to coincide with the closing ceremonies. About half of the guests got decked out in Olympics garb. The best costume was Mark and Emma who dressed as a women’s doubles tennis team from Serbanistania. Emma wore her blond hair in pigtails, and Mark sported a matching pig-tailed blonde wig, plus a skirt and tennis gear. Jeff wore a toga. Jennie was a PLA secret service army person from Beijing. E and I dressed up as the Cuban track team, only we wore swimmies and goggles to slam home the point that we were defecting via the Carribbean (er, Victoria). Only one person got the joke and it serves us right, as we stole the idea from our friend Craig. Honestly, I was happy to stay in that costume all night because my swimmies were inflated in case the junk boat flipped or something. One person not happy with the outfit: F. She loved making the torch out of colorful pipe cleaners and a paper towel roll. She liked that we “jacked” our socks up high (she thinks the proper term for pulling socks up is “jack”.) She was upset, however, that we’d even think of taking her swimmies (they weren’t even hers. I bought them at Toys R Us that day).

“But Dad, why are you bringing my swimmies. And you have T’s swimmies too-ooh. Don’t bring our swimmies, Dad.”

“It’s part of the costume.”

“Why is it part of the costume?”

“It just is.”

“But you don’t need swimmies.”

“We do. It’s, it’s, it’s ironic. It’s just part of the costume. It’s, just, it’s difficult to explain to a child.”

I actually used the word “ironic” to a 3 year old. She was not happy when we left that night, and I think part of why she was so upset was she knew our costumes needed improving.

For HK$350 per person, the Junk provided us with all the food we could eat including a buffet dinner, all the beer we could drink and an open bar. Not bad for $45 US dollars. The crew was extremely nice and our captain was a character. He wore short shorts and nothing else, his pot belly protruding from an otherwise muscular body. We worried that we were 3 people short of our target, and that they might charge us more.

“No problem,” Thomas, the main man, said. “24 people.” His face lit up when he laughed, which was often.

E made an amazing party mix on the Ipod. We tried dancing but the water was too choppy. The captain’s skills were really put to the test when we dropped people off at the Central pier on the way to Noon Day Gun. Did I mention that one of our Junk boat attendees was 39 weeks pregnant? She was a very confident, calm, well-traveled journalist, who sipped water all night and had all the faith in the world that the baby was not near arrival. Everybody who de-barked at Central sort of jumped onto the pier. For the pregnant woman, the Captain had to get close to the dock and stop on a dime. He had to back up, crank forward, back up, crank forward a half dozen times before he could drop her off safely on the pier. When the captain succeeded, we all cheered, and continued on to Causeway Bay, where the trip ended at the famous Noon Day Gun cannon near the docks.

For those of you who’d like to know, the Junk boat came into prominence in China during the Han Dynasty around 300 BC. Real, true junk boats still cruise back and forth across Victoria Harbor, and other waters throughout the region, trolling for fish and transporting stuff. It seems like most Junk boat people live on the vessels themselves.

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