Mong Kok blocked

Shopping in Mong Kok, Hong Kong

Shopping in Hong Kong | Photo by Lauren Girardin

The social melee in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok neighborhood induces our first bout of culture shock on this trip. Most of the past three months we’ve traveled slowly overland through swaths of mellow and, relative to Hong Kong, underpopulated Southeast Asia. Here, we face a wall of people every way we turn.

Especially at night, Mong Kok is thronged with tens of thousands of teenagers, wandering aimlessly yet manically in a crowd so vast and dense that streets are closed off to traffic to accommodate them. Between the teens and the crowds of fixated shoppers, it takes us a half hour to walk three blocks. At this pace, we can do little else than shuffle along, try to adjust, and search for a place to eat.

Mickey is about $6,000US
Mickey is about $6,000US | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Throughout Hong Kong, at any time, day or night, the restaurants, like the streets, are packed. Tucked into tiny storefronts, hidden down alleys, and layered both above and below ground in Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, there are more places to eat than a person could sample in a lifetime.

Every day, we breakfast on dim sum, including fried taro cake dotted with bits of salt pork; thick, slippery rice noodles; dumplings filled with pea shoots or shrimp or scallops or shitake; chewy pork ribs in bean sauce; and sweet bean soup with ginkgo nuts.

 Dim sum decadence
Dim sum decadence | Photo by Lauren Girardin

We snack on street food like waffles, gigantic cream puffs, grilled mystery meat on sticks, and custardy, Macau-style egg tarts for sale in the subway stations, yellow and shiny like the sun that never once breaks through the clouds over Hong Kong.

Dinner is at whatever restaurant we think we’ll have a chance in hell of getting our order across using gestures, grunts, and the rare bit of English. A meal of plump pork wontons dressed in spicy chili oil, thick soy sauce, and what seems like a whole head’s worth of raw garlic leaves us in a glorious stink for hours.

Death traps a.k.a. Hong Kong's apartment buildings
Death traps a.k.a. Hong Kong’s apartment buildings | Photo by Lauren Girardin

On another night in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, a woman in a doorway easily persuades us into Sing Lum Khui restaurant by pretending to eat, rubbing her stomach, and simulating a happy food dance. Once at our table, on a piece of paper with so many multiple-choice questions it looks like a standardized test, we customize our Yunnan rice noodle soup.

How much minced pork? How much sourness? Which of the dozens of toppings do we want, including three types of tofu, octopus balls, and abalone? We pinpoint our love of tongue-searing heat from an impressively specific array: “no spicy, very little spicy, little spicy, little medium spicy, medium spicy, very spicy, super spicy.” Soon, we’re each served a bowl as large as our heads and many times larger than our stomachs. Luckily, we have correctly guessed that American “very spicy” translates to a perfect Hong Kong “little medium spicy.”

 Yunnan rice noodle soup in Hong Kong
Yunnan rice noodle soup | Photo by Lauren Girardin

One afternoon, hoping to find a calm place to relax, we sneak a bottle of red wine into our water bottles head to a park for a local music concert. Perplexingly, we’re the only people that sit on the grass, even between sets. We watch Chinese hipster lesbians in ripped jeans, plaid flannel, and mullets dance and flirt the afternoon away.

Quiet? In China? Yeah, right.
Quiet? In China? Yeah, right. | Photo by Lauren Girardin

As we take a different route out of the park than the one we came in by, we walk by a sea of a thousand families popping a squat, packed shoulder-to-shoulder over picnic lunches. In this park – and perhaps in all of Hong Kong’s parks – there seem to be designated areas where picnicking is allowed (areas consequently bare of grass) and areas where it’s not. Perhaps we were forgiven our out-of-bounds picnicking because we were so clearly out of place.

Before we have the chance to get to know Hong Kong, the authorities approve our Chinese visa and we decide to move on to the mainland before we lose ourselves in the crowd.

Photos from Hong Kong

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.