Sunday, 26 March 2017

Weekend Wander: Braemar Hill

Hong Kong is more than just a concrete jungle. In fact, the ease at which you can hop from bustling cityscapes to natural landscapes is one of Hong Kong's most endearing features. And with around 70% of the region being covered in lush countryside, there's no shortage of hikes to escape on.

Hike Name: Braemar Hill
Duration: 2 hours
Difficulty: Easy
I’m always on the lookout for great sunset spots in Hong Kong and I was delighted to add this one to my list recently. It’s rare in Hong Kong to be able to get a vantage point encompassing both sides of the harbour and the setting sun but Braemar Hill manages to achieve it. What’s even more impressive is that it’s a very gentle stroll to get there. If you want to bag the really spectacular views, there’s a bit of off-road scrambling to be done but it’s nothing too strenuous and the reward is more than worth it. Bring a book, a beer, some headphones - anything that helps you relax - and thank your lucky stars you chose such a breathtaking place to live.


Getting there: Go to Admiralty MTR station (Island Line/Tsuen Wan Line/South Island Line) and take Exit A. Turn left and take minibus 24M to the terminus. Then follow Mount Butler Road/Sir Cecil's Ride to the vantage point. After soaking up the view, you can either retrace your steps and return on the 24M or follow the trail all the way to Tai Koo MTR station.

The 'Bible' of hiking in Hong Kong - Hike Hong Kong - is one of the best resources out there for budding hikers in the region. There are a wealth of hikes on there with easy-to-follow directions and pictures to each one.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Weekend Wander: Tai O Heritage Trail

Hong Kong is more than just a concrete jungle. In fact, the ease at which you can hop from bustling cityscapes to natural landscapes is one of Hong Kong's most endearing features. And with around 70% of the region being covered in lush countryside, there's no shortage of hikes to escape on.

Hike Name: Tai O Heritage Trail
Duration: 4-5 hours
Difficulty: Medium
Lantau Island is an unexplored frontier for me as far as hiking is concerned. There are loads of fantastic hiking opportunities on Hong Kong’s biggest island and some of Hong Kong’s most arduous treks can be found here. The Tai O Heritage Trail is one of the less strenuous but longer choices available on the island. It runs for 16km from Lantau’s main town of Tung Chung all the way to the charming fishing village of Tai O in the south, snaking through mini villages, temples, sweeping hills and the eerily gigantic Hong Kong – Macau bridge that is being constructed. It’s long but makes for a fantastic Sunday walk.

Getting there: Take the MTR to Tung Chung (orange Tung Chung line), Exit B and head down Yu Tung Road. You should see signs for the trail and Hau Wong Temple which signals the beginning of your hike. At Tai O, you can hop on bus 11 back to Tung Chung. Be aware that the queue will be very, very, very long on weekends, especially Sunday.
The 'Bible' of hiking in Hong Kong - Hike Hong Kong - is one of the best resources out there for budding hikers in the region. There are a wealth of hikes on there with easy-to-follow directions and pictures to each one.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

A Taste of Sham Shui Po

Since my spectacular fall from the vegetarian wagon during an overly exuberant Cumbrian Christmas, Sham Shui Po, a district in Kowloon, has started to look a little different. When I first moved here I was distinctly unimpressed by its garish displays of neon lights and the promises of foot massages on every corner. Perhaps this is unsurprising given my only previous exposure to cosmopolitan living has come in the form of Shrewsbury and the leafy suburbs of South Dublin, however in recent months I have come to appreciate all of her perks and count myself very lucky to live here. Mingling with the bankers and insurance brokers on my rugby team who reside in the more traditional expat enclaves, I have begun to see just how unique our experiences as CNETs are. We have an opportunity to live and work in areas rarely seen by outsiders, allowing us to sample a true taste of Hong Kong life.
Sham Shui Po (hereafter referred to as The Po) fits this bill entirely. I have always found a certain pleasure in wandering around aimlessly but, being conscious of the lack of time that I have perhaps left in Hong Kong, I have decided to make these meanderings a little less aimless by coupling them with my search for exciting and authentic food. In doing so I hope to gain a clearer picture of the unique and eclectic place that I have called home for the past seven months.
Whilst traipsing around The Po I am reminded of my impatient seven year old self, already three years into a relentless Haribo addiction that would refuse to release its nectarous embrace until my teenage years. I remember the huge crowds of people blocking my path to Space Mountain on a family holiday to Disneyland and my mother leaning towards me and saying ‘Queues are a good sign, you know.’ This was too much for my sugar-addled brain to handle at the time however when I saw the snaking line outside Lau Sum Kee I finally understood what the poor woman had been talking about. In The Po long queues are your Tripadvisor, your bread and butter, your Church. They are the embodiment of a pleasure worth waiting for although, in retrospect, Space Mountain was rubbish.
Lau Sum Kee, however, is not. A Kowloon institution, be prepared to share a cramped table with complete strangers. In true Po fashion the atmosphere is convivial and lively, it’s a great place to people watch and to eavesdrop on conversations that you have no hope of understanding. They are particularly well known for their shrimp roe noodles and slow-cooked beef brisket. Being the maverick and trend-setting figure that I am, I went for neither of these options, instead opting for a wonton soup. For around 30 dollars it was a steal so I even treated myself to a Coke (other carbonated beverages are available). The soup itself was laden with an impressive depth of flavour reminiscent of long simmered beef and an array of spices. This cacophony of deliciousness was complimented well by the homemade pickled radishes whose jars adorn every table. They even have an English menu for those of you who don’t like to adhere to the point and hope method of food ordering.
Next on my culinary Hajj was the Kashmir Curry House on Yen Chow Street. The Po has a large South Asian community and as such is one of the best places in Hong Kong to sample some fare less commonly available, in a setting less foreboding, than the den of iniquity that is Chungking Mansions. For more information on Chungking Mansions please see also ‘Inferno’ by D. Alighieri.  I was originally attracted to this unassuming place as they had some nice looking samosas and parathas outside and the friendly proprietor was only too happy to stop and have a chat when she saw my admiring glances (at the samosas not her you understand). The restaurant itself is fairly cramped but the food more than makes up for this with its hearty portions and excellent service. As for its authenticity, please remember that this article was written by someone who was once a regular at University rugby socials held at the Curry Lounge, Nottingham. Needless to say I am an expert and Kashmir Curry House definitely gets my highly sought-after seal of approval.
For those, like myself, who have Mediterranean blood, there are also some al-fresco dining options to be enjoyed in The Po. One such place is Keung Kee, a traditional ‘dai pai dong’ street food restaurant and one of the few left in Hong Kong. Essentially this means that you might end up enjoying your food in the close proximity of an overflowing skip so be warned. The skip aside, I feel that these places encompass all that is so special about Hong Kong and The Po in particular. The tables on the street are packed every night of the week with families and friends laughing and joking over plates of shared food. It reminds me of a Madrid tapas bar or an Irish dinner table where the social aspects of eating are really emphasised, perhaps something that is missing in a more conventional restaurant atmosphere. This is a place to bring a few friends on a warm evening, order a few bottles of Blue Girl and have a good old giggle.
So there you have it, not an exhaustive list admittedly but hopefully some food for thought. If you missed the pun, re-read the last sentence. Happy eating.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Weekend Wander: Wilson Trail (Section 2)

Hong Kong is more than just a concrete jungle. In fact, the ease at which you can hop from bustling cityscapes to natural landscapes is one of Hong Kong's most endearing features. And with around 70% of the region being covered in lush countryside, there's no shortage of hikes to escape on.

Hike Name: Wilson Trail (Section 2)

Duration: 3 hours

Difficulty: Medium

There are a number of huge trails that span across Hong Kong, leading to them being split up into various sections. The Wilson Trail is one of these, meandering all the way from the south of Hong Kong Island up to the border with China, 78 km in total. Section 2, however, stays on the island and I love this section because it’s got a bit of everything. It kicks off with a gradual incline up to Jardine’s Lookout (above) with sweeping views of Hong Kong’s harbour. Then, to your right, you get equally gorgeous views of Tai Tam Reservoir. Finally it snakes up over a dam and provides you with a bit more of a workout. It’s the hike that keeps on giving.

Getting there: Take bus number 6 from Exchange Square (Central) and alight at Wong Nai Chung Reservoir Park stop and then there's sign posts most of the way. The trail finishes at Tai Koo MTR station (Island Line).

The 'Bible' of hiking in Hong Kong - Hike Hong Kong - is one of the best resources out there for budding hikers in the region. There are a wealth of hikes on there with easy-to-follow directions and pictures to each one.

Friday, 10 March 2017

24 Hours in Bangkok


If you, like me, have friends who took a year to ‘find themselves’ before university then the title “24 hours in Bangkok” may well conjure up some unfavourable images.  In my head, Bangkok was a sin city of Ping Pong shows and Lady Boys, packed into seedy bars on the Khao San Road and best epitomised by scenes from ‘The Beach’.  So as we planned our Christmas trip around Thailand, I was keen to keep our time there to a minimum: 24 hours to be precise.

Christmas Day on Koh Jum Island

We arrived from the beaches of the Andaman Sea and an incredibly chilled Christmas swinging from the hammocks of our beachside bungalows.  Dumping our bags at the hostel, we set off in scorching heat to the Jim Thompson House.  Not your average first port of call in the Thai capital, the museum houses the furniture and art collection of an American entrepreneur who mysteriously disappeared in the late 1960s.  It’s an architectural and design gem with an excellent cafe to boot.  Already, Bangkok was defying my expectations.

From there we hopped on the water bus and sped along an offshoot of the Chao Praya, for the princely sum of 5 pence, to arrive at the Grand Palace.  There we were greeted by thousands of mourners, all in full black despite the glorious sunshine, paying their respects to the late King Bhumibol.  

Mourners in a procession outside The Grand Palace, Bangkok.

It was a strangely humbling moment to see and a privileged glimpse into the depth of Thai cultural sentiment.  Too often Thailand seems to be synonymous with Full Moon Parties, scamming Tuk Tuk drivers and Brits abroad.  Watching the mourners felt like a peek behind the tourist facade and into a deeply rich nation imbibed by its history as one of few Southeast Asian countries not to fall under colonial control.  

That evening we did, I admit, brave the Khao San Road and indulge in a bucket or two of G&Ts.  The experience was far less heady than I had anticipated and a shadow of the iniquitous ‘Pub Street’ (Pham Ngu Lao) in Ho Chi Minh City.

Chaos on the Khao San Road

But the real highlight of my 24 hours was an early morning trip to MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the following day.  With a flight looming, I set off in an Uber to the outskirts of Bangkok.  Now, Bangkok traffic is perhaps best described as cacophonic.  A discordant symphony of hot pink taxis, Tuk Tuks, songthaews and precarious bikes laden with street food all wind through the chaotic streets and creep slowly onto an eternally gridlocked toll road.   The gallery is an enormous white structure set just off this highway and after forty minutes of horn honking and hair raising lane shifts, I was beginning to see my outing as a bit of a pilgrimage.  


This feeling continued as I entered the gallery, its first visitor of the day, and encountered the vastness of its five floors.  I wandered the gallery in complete awe.  Much of the collection plays with Western tropes but much also exposes traditional Thai art forms.  It’s a celebration of both artistic lineage and the mind-bending trends of cutting edge contemporary art. In one installation, you enter a dark corridor strewn with small lights that echo the night sky.  By the time you’ve wrapped your head around the fact that the walls are actually velvet, you’re spat out into a perfectly white space - picture, if you can, one of those movie scenes where a character wakes up in a hospital bed, blinking to dizzying light.  I stood there for five minutes, staring in all directions, before I realised I was in a something spherical, which turned out to be an egg.  It’s as weird as it sounds and the experience is as extraordinary as the rest of the gallery.  
Art work at MOCA Bangkok.  From left to right, ‘The Passage Across the Universe’ (aka. the egg), ‘The Travelling of King Rama IX’ (1963) by Sathit Thimvattanabunthoeng, ‘Violin’ (2006) by Prateep Khochabua.  

I rejoined the gang for our fifteenth Pad Thai of the week in an adorable restaurant hidden behind Pratunam market.  From there it was time for the airport again and on to Chiang Mai for elephant bathing and temples galore.

Bangkok had surprised me.  It remains a backpacker’s mecca and a place where anything goes but it is also burgeoning with millennial creativity.  It took almost no effort to scratch beneath the gap year veneer and experience a dynamic Asian city, bursting with history and ready for the future.  

Monday, 6 March 2017

Urban Farms: A Trip to Rooftop Republic

Image result for rooftop republic fringe club

As Chinese New Year draws to an end and semester two unfolds here in Hong Kong, my campus garden continues to grow little by little with Spring, and increased humidity, just around the corner. Having set up the garden last semester on my post secondary campus, I have formed a tight knit group of gardening students who have helped me to create a small but sustainable green space on campus for both students and staff to enjoy.

Spurred on by my recent research into the area of urban gardening in Hong Kong, I decided to get in contact with some of the enterprises most established in the urban farming scene to try and organise a group visit with my students. I was quickly put in touch with Rooftop Republic, an urban gardening venture formed only two years ago but with over 20 farms set up so far, who invited the students and I to visit one of their most famous rooftop gardens in Central at the Fringe Club.

It proved to be a wonderful excursion for us, as we met Michelle Hong, one of the founding members of the social enterprise who gave us a tour of the garden and explained the key concepts and frameworks behind the venture. The company essentially specializes in providing professional services to set up and maintain farms for businesses and clients across Hong Kong life, whilst equally encouraging people to get involved with growing their own produce and promoting sustainable living. They consist of a team of experts in farm design and installation, permaculture, and farm management, as Michelle was able to give us invaluable advice on how to improve different aspects of our own gardening club, which had begun to feel rather small scale by this point.

With the garden placed on top of the prestigious Fringe Club in Central, a well-known not-for profits arts space and organisation which also doubles up as a restaurant, we were right in the heart of Hong Kong’s cultural core. The garden’s main use was to provide fresh vegetables for the restaurant downstairs, yet a large amount of the company’s food harvests also goes towards local food banks like Feeding Hong Kong as a communal gesture. They also use this garden to host regular urban gardening workshops for those with little to no experience, aiming to use urban gardening as a tool for transformative change at a social and educational level.

Gardens like this essentially demonstrate how the growing realities of food security and organic farming can be realised and sustainably managed within an urban setting. All it needs is a little care and communal investment for such green spaces to take off, and the students and I were suitably thrilled to have visited such a productive and stable urban garden environment.

Following on from our last trip, we have been invited to visit one of their largest gardens in Tung Chung in the coming weeks, to get a glimpse of how larger scale farming works in an organic and sustainable setting. Talks are also in place to organise an urban gardening event with Chatteris in April, to increase CNET’s eco-awareness and try to encourage more of us to set up our own gardens on campus. As our understanding of urban farming develops, our gardening club continues to grow, and hopefully we will be able to apply these practices to the garden in the coming months to help leave a sustainable mark in the future.

Image may contain: 6 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

Myself with the students and Michelle Hong at the Fringe Club garden

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Weekend Wander: Garden Hill

Hong Kong is more than just a concrete jungle. In fact, the ease at which you can hop from bustling cityscapes to natural landscapes is one of Hong Kong's most endearing features. And with around 70% of the region being covered in lush countryside, there's no shortage of hikes to escape on.

Hike Name: Garden Hill 

Duration: 15 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Not so much a hike as an urban diversion, Garden Hill is one of my favourite chill spots in Hong Kong. A 15 minute climb up some pretty severe but well-maintained steps provides you with a dazzling view over Kowloon and it’s a prime photographer’s spot at sunset. Even when the hordes gather to get those coveted snaps, it manages to maintain an aura of tranquility about it as you watch the madness of Hong Kong below. Sham Shui Po is close to the popular residential areas of Prince Edward and Mong Kok and this is arguably one of the most accessible viewpoints in Kowloon. I'll never tire of visiting this place - the perfect tonic to the buzzing city.

Getting there: Take the MTR to Sham Shui Po station (Tsuen Wan Line) and head to exit D2. Walk straight until you reach Berwick Street, turn left then follow the sign and turn right up the steps.

The 'Bible' of hiking in Hong Kong - Hike Hong Kong - is one of the best resources out there for budding hikers in the region. There are a wealth of hikes on there with easy-to-follow directions and pictures to each one.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Sports Day

The 14th of February was a very special day in the North Point Methodist Primary School calendar. Not because the students, and teachers, were waiting to give or receive that special love letter. No, this was Sports Day. A highly anticipated event where the whole school joins together and spends the day at Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground.

Now, I think I need to clarify the term ‘Sports Day’ and what it means to a Hong Kong primary school, compared to expectations for a primary school sports day in the UK. Firstly, there was no egg and spoon race. I know, tragic. It also did not include a sack race, three-legged race or even a celebratory cheap choc-ice to finish.

Sports day in Hong Kong is comprised of events like the 100m sprint, 200m sprint, 4x100m, long jump and a very competitive bean bag toss. Even the youngest students got a chance to take part in these events which was nothing short of adorable. The day started with a walk-a-thon where every student and their parents, walked around the athletics track, as a way to fundraise for the school, while a few chosen students lined the track and did a synchronised warm up routine. The students were all extremely excited for the races to begin and to have a day away from the classroom.

Selected students leading the synchronised warm up.
My role for the day was to stand at the finish line and judge who placed in the top four in the different races. It was a really sunny, if slightly windy, day and it was fun watching everyone compete and cheering them on from the line. Everyone was in good spirits, despite some very close finishes and some rather dramatic injuries. One poor student face-planted mid race and had to be taken to the waiting first aider who suspected a fractured elbow. Ouch!

The very last race of the day was the Teacher's’ Race, which was a relay race with students, teachers and parents making up each team. Unfortunately, my team did not win, there was a baton exchanging issue, which I am still not bitter about and it was a good time nonetheless.

My highlight for the day was watching the sports day chants. Each class had to perform a chant in front of the whole school, and there were prizes awarded in each year group. There were obviously different expectations for these chants, with the lower primary performing in Cantonese while the older students had to chant in English. I had spent many weeks prior to the event changing lyrics of popular English-speaking songs and recording them so that the students could listen and practice at home.
Primary 5 students doing their sports day chant.

The songs included ‘ABC’ by the Jackson Five, ‘500 Miles’ by the Proclaimers, ‘Sugar’ by Maroon 5 and ‘Drag Me Down’ by One Direction. I think my proudest achievement as a Scot was watching class 6B sing, ‘I will run 500 miles and I will run 500 more, just to be the class that ran one thousand miles to win that gold medal.’ It was really funny. Accompanying these chants were full routines with pom-poms and everything, as each class pulled out all the stops in the hope of winning.
Whatever age group you work with in Chatteris, the work schedule is always peppered with fun and sometimes unusual events such as this. It can provide a good opportunity for comparison with the school culture that you experienced growing up in the UK, and also to learn more about the school environment in Hong Kong.


Primary 6 students doing their sports day chant. Can you guess the song?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Wet Market

If you venture deep into Kowloon and stray further and further off the beaten path you will maybe find your way into Shek Kip Mei where you can find a building of delight, of wonder, of fear and of wide eyed amazement. It is the Shek Kip Mei Commercial Centre and it is straight out of the 1950’s brutalist playbook, bristling with purpose and utility. It is one of many wet markets which are peppered throughout Hong Kong where you can buy all and sundry.

Here you can find pretty much any vegetable, animal or mineral. There are things I have bought- strange fruits, weird vegetables, suspicious baked items- of which I am absolutely clueless about. There are fruit both fragrant and exotic. The poet, Tony Harrison was, apparently, able to find Kumquats in Leeds and Newcastle, where and how I do not know, as the bitter sweet fruit for his middle age but here they are found in beautiful abundance.

Eggs in ridiculous variety, which since the descriptions are in Cantonese, I do not appreciate. Though I think I can see duck egg blue among the hen’s brown. There are salted numbers too, and other ovoid shapes coated in sawdust, which are the dreaded thousand year egg with its white transformed into brown jelly.

Further up the aisle, and I can never work out the floorplan for the market, you will find the butchers, without any refrigeration, skillfully carving up the carcasses or perhaps blow torching the hairs off a pig’s head. In another section you will find a cluster of fishmongers selling fish, alive and dead as well as all manner of shellfish. There are beautiful clams, a beautiful mossy green which when cooked turn a fantastic pink. There are lobsters, and crabs and all other sorts of marine and aquatic life including frogs.

It is all, as David Dickinson would say, cheap as chips. I suspect that the traders are inflating their price for me, though they also point at the sign and smile and it is so very cheap. The eggs are 10 dollars for ten, though you do have to bring your own tray otherwise, and as I have learnt to my own misfortune, they come in a bag. Mushrooms in fine fettle are likewise priced and all the wonderful verdant shades of the brassica family are there for a fistful of dollars.  

The smell is strong, not just at the butchers and fishmongers but throughout the whole market.  At times it can feel like entering a film set for a bygone age, with the red bakelite lights, and the tremendous noise all around but it is wicked fun. There amongst the Chinese grannies, with their floral blouses and trollies and knitted hats you will find me struggling to buy supper. I never venture in and leave without a smile.