Yes, without having tried all of them, I think I’ve found the worst restaurant in Hong Kong. It’s the enticingly named Champagne House in deepest Kwai Chung, of course situated in a shopping mall. Ostensibly set out like a normal Chinese restaurant, it is actually a kind of holding pen for cooks who have been kicked out of every cooking school they ever attended, or possibly a halfway house for special needs people without tastebuds. We should have got the hint when the tea was served in glasses but didn’t run screaming from the gaff as we were starving and had two hours to spare (I hate the expression “killing time”) before a concert.
What I thought was prawn spring rolls turned out to be a kind of deep fried dough with one prawn, a piece of mango and loads and loads of mayonnaise. It was, to be charitable, inedible. The next “thing” was deep fried tofu, always a safe bet I thought, but it was a kind of goo that had once looked at a soy bean, then turned tail and run headlong into a vat of fish paste, staying there for the next few months before turning up at our table looking exactly like infant’s poo and being, again very very charitably, totally inedible. With the third thing, four season’s beans, we thought we couldn’t go wrong. But even this, the thing any mainland hole in the wall can do to perfection, was here a soggy, greasy mess with some strange (possibly pork) gristles on top. Being ravenous though, I got at least some of it down me, fuming with every swallow.
When I finally managed to fight my way out of the labyrinthine mall, I found my two friends downstairs eating waffles from a street snack cart …
I was thinking how, almost every time I eat out in Hong Kong, I get some crap that is passed off as food, and forced to pay through the nose and being patronised by the staff into the bargain. How come the food, service and presentation is normally so great on the mainland, and so crap in Hong Kong?
Then it was the place, Kwai Chung. The exits from the MTR led straight into shopping malls of all persuasions, and only one to street level, where we found ourselves having to walk 300 meters just to cross the road as all sides of the building (a MTR mall/station) were enclosed by railings. Once we found an opening in the railing and crossed the road, it was only to run headlong into another railing without any gap, and forced to walk another fifty meters on a heavily trafficked four lane highway before finally finding a pedestrian crossing.
It made me think about China under Mao. During his worst excesses, the country was little more than a gigantic labour camp with everyone living in communes, doing what amounted to slave labour without pay, forced to eat in communal canteens with “conjugal visits” once or twice a month to produce yet more “rust-free screws in the socialist machine.”
Here in Hong Kong we feel we have so much freedom compared to those worker ants. But what kind of freedom, really? Isn’t it the freedom to buy exactly what we want – from Mannings, Wellcome and Park’n’Shop, all owned by the same five guys?
More and more MTR stations are situated in malls, where people have to walk through kilometers of crap to even get to their own front doors. To cross Salisbury Road in TST – 50 metres wide – now, after the road has been “improved”, takes at least ten minutes of determined walking – through an underground shopping mall. That is if you know where you’re going, because the “signage” is certainly not any help.
Every day on every road in this city more and more railings are being erected, making walking on street level a nightmare unless you want to walk in the street, made too dangerous because the railings give car drivers a carte blanche to go as fast as they can without the need to ever look out for pedestrians. ( For you didn’t for for a moment think the railings are “foryour safety”, did you?)
The Hong Kong government will go to any length to inconvenience the people who pay their salaries, while at the same time selling us this idea that we have unlimited freedom – to go to work, take transport, shop and spend leisure time – all in institutions they have set up “for our convenience.”
Try to walk – on the ground – from the new Star Ferry Pier to Wan Chai. I used to do that 10 years ago when most of my students lived in Wan Chai and beyond. It used to take 20 minutes’ leisurely stroll from the old Star Ferry Pier to, say, where Central Plaza is now. Last week the same walk took me 45 minutes, in and out of malls, up and down pedestrian walkways. There is just no way you can walk on the ground and stay on the ground for any walk longer than a few minutes anywhere anymore. And yet, this is promoted as being “for my convenience” and even “progress.”
Drivers of private cars, 5% of Hong Kong’s population, have it increasingly easy though, that has to be said. Unless they want to park anywhere of course. Then it’s into the parking house conveniently situated in a mall, with its unlimited possibilities for shopping to further enhance the buying power of the five guys who own Hong Kong, aided and abetted by the Hong Kong government, whose salaries are paid by your tax money. As well as a percentage of all the money you freely spend in Mannings, Wellcome and Park’n’Shop, through the “shopping experience” they “deliver” there.
Both the Hong Kong and mainland governments have realised that the Maoist way to force people to work for them doesn’t cut it in the long run. The smart way that really pays off, they have come to realise, is to give people the illusion that they have a choice to buy what they want , and then it doesn’t matter in which tiny, enclosed space they do just that.
If you don’t believe me, try to take a walk along DesVeux road in Central at rush hour, which in pedestrian terms is any time of day. You have to patiently fighting your way through the throngs because the railings force everyone to stay on the pavement without any means of escape. You think it’s for your own safety? Think again. The railings are there to force you to be near shops, forced to look at their attractive displays. I don’t need to tell you that the buildings housing those shops are all owned by the same guys. The five guys who own Hong Kong.
But if the food in Champagne House had only been something marginally resembling edible, I would perhaps have been pacified enough that day not to get into all of this.