There’s an episode of How I Met Your Mother in which Marshall recounts his first weeks in New York, and how he happened upon a tiny burger place which served, he claimed, the Best Burger in the City. The episode follows him as he drags the rest of the gang around the city searching for that Best Burger. Eventually, he finds it, and in a moment of pure bliss, he discovers that it was just as good as he remembered, despite the doubts of his friends that it would be, in fact, that good.
Hong Kong, and Cantonese food in general, isn’t known for its burgers. (And thank goodness for that; without a kitchen, I’m at the mercy of the city’s restaurants, which thankfully have incredible variety). But when I came here in 2008, I found my own version of Marshall’s capital-B Burger in a local specialty known by a great number of variations on the same name. I know it as “Under-Bridge Spicy Crab.”
Back in the days when the only business in town was fishing (we’re talking way back in the day here), fisherman would have to take shelter during typhoons and other heavy storms. Crab fishermen would park their boats beneath a typhoon shelter and cook their specialty dish – a whole, fresh crab covered in a salt, garlic, and chili crust, lightly fried. Eventually, they wouldn’t have to take their boats out of the docks. People would come onto the boat to have the dish. Eventually, when fishing was sidelined by other, more lucrative industries, the fishermen moved their businesses onto (relatively) dry land. A classic was born.
Today, spicy crab joints can be found all across the city. In Kowloon, especially around the Temple Street night market, it’s common to find a spicy crab restaurant directly across from another spicy crab restaurant, the proverbial joke about Starbucks in the US come true. On Hong Kong Island, most of these restaurants can be found in Causeway Bay, beneath a highway overpass (a typhoon shelter for dry land, the “bridge” in the title of my favorite restaurant) on Lockhart Road. The dish is incredibly popular; even on a rainy Sunday night, you’d better have a reservation if you want to eat.
On my first trip to Hong Kong, in 2008, my family and I ate at one of these restaurants. It was, without hesitation, the greatest meal I’d ever had. When some family friends promised to take me back on this trip, I was excited, to put it lightly. But I started to wonder – could such a legen-wait-for-it-dary meal truly be recreated? Was it even that good in the first place? There was only one way to find out.
The dish came covered with the salty, spicy, garlic-ey mix, piping hot, lightly fried, but not greasy. We had a few dishes to go with the crab, but the restaurant’s specialty was the feature of the night. I made a mess digging the crab out from beneath its crusty covering, and an even bigger mess digging the meat out of the shell. But how did it taste?
It was, to my surprise, just as good as before. Until they have smell-o-vision for computers (we’re waiting on you, science), you’ll just have to visit and find out for yourself. Marshall knows what I’m talking about.
Macau – the Las Vegas of Southeast Asia. If Las Vegas had once been colonized by Portugal, been imprinted with old-world, colonial European architecture, and its own, unique blend of the two regions’ cuisines. So, it’s not much like Las Vegas, save for one glaring similarity: casinos.
Lots of them. The MGM, the Wynn, the Grand Lisboa, the Golden Dragon, the Casa Real. Even the smaller casinos, slightly farther removed from the city center, are filled with marble, gilded surfaces, and blinking, beeping slot machines. It’s a display of wealth that signifies the harsh, yet ever-so-cleverly sugar-coated reality that the house really does always win.
I’m not a gambler. I don’t even play friendly, $5-buy-in Texas Hold ‘Em games with my friends do, although I like to watch how frustrated they get once someone starts running away with the pot. So why in the world would I go to Macau for the weekend? From what I’d heard from some of my friends here, there still is much to be seen in Macau, given its unique cultural history. So I booked a ferry ticket and a hotel room and decided to see for myself just how much “culture” I could find.
Turns out – spoiler alert – it’s far more than you could ever possibly see on a single weekend.
To start, merely walking around the city center, albeit the area away from the casinos, is somewhat like looking into the past. Old, colonial arches and vibrant pastel colors decorate the buildings of Senado square. Just like Hong Kong, though, the shops in Senado square are mostly decidedly modern – there are cell phone stores, jewelry stores, high-end fashion outlets. It’s a culture clash of old and new, much like the clash between the more “family-friendly” activities on the island and its many casinos.
Macau is also known for its unique food, a blend of Asian and Portugese traditions. The island is particularly famous for a kind of egg custard pastry, “Po Tat.” The pastry is similar to a Chinese egg tart you might find at a dim sum restaurant, but bigger, with a flakier crust, and with crème-brulee-style burnt sugar on top. If you aren’t already convinced that you should try one, let me directly come out and say it: try one. They’re delicious.
I kept walking through the square, and made my way up the city’s main hill to the ruins of St. Paul’s church, an old cathedral that was almost completely taken by a fire, save for its front façade. It’s a beautiful landmark, and one of the island’s most popular attractions. Just across the road from the ruins is Fortress Hill, which is exactly how it sounds. It’s a fortress, on a hill. If you walk around the barricades, where the old-style cannons are still in place, you can get a surreal view of the city. Casinos litter the skyline, and if you happen to look along the top surface of one of the cannons, you’ll see that many of them are aimed squarely at the tallest and most decadent-looking casinos, the Grand Lisboa. It’s a fun photo to take, and getting to the top is a great and easy late-afternoon walk.
There’s so much more to see in Macau than what I’ve mentioned here, especially since the city is also connected to two smaller islands, Coloane and Taipa. I didn’t even have a chance to get to those islands, which only means one thing: I’ll have to go back.
To see all of my photos from Macau, go to my Flickr page!
Well, my trip is over one quarter over. I’ve gotten through the first week of my internship, and I’ve done some good sightseeing in between. What have I learned so far?
Minibuses are a convenient way to get around the island, especially on routes not traversed by the regular, double-decker buses here. One catch with these minibuses, though, is that they don’t stop at every stop, and they don’t have stop-request buttons like big buses do. So, I’ve learned that there are three ways to get one to stop once you’ve gotten on:
1. Know Cantonese (I don’t), and know how to politely tell the driver to pull over at the next stop (I don’t.)
2. Happen to need to get off of the bus at the same stop as another passenger (convenient and requires no speaking.)
3. Keep saying “stop!!!” in English and gesticulate wildly toward the sidewalk.
This third option makes me stick out like, well, a white guy in China. Once, the driver started responding to me, in Cantonese, while pulling the bus over. If I had made some kind of mistake in the whole minibus process, I didn’t know it. I don’t usually take minibuses, partly because the big buses are more spacious (and sometimes even have Wi-Fi), and partly because I’m always just the slightest bit fearful that I won’t be able to get the driver to pull over, and that I’ll wind up in some unknown part of town. Getting to and from work on the double-deckers is just a bit easier for this foreigner.
On the subject of work, you may be wondering just what I’ve been doing. Well, let me tell you: although I’m on a public health internship, I haven’t really done much public health work. I’ve mostly been working on a review of background literature for a professor researching the link between sex hormones, economic development, and heart disease. This professor’s topic is really quite interesting, and the research has been rather enjoyable. I get to use some med school knowledge outside of my exams, for once, and I’ve gotten to do a bit of academic research, a process I’ve missed since graduating from undergrad.
But the greatest extent of the public health work I’ve done has been to go to a journal club meeting, in which the department gathered to discuss a couple of key articles that had come out recently. It was a real treat to be back in the journal club atmosphere; I started to miss arguing about research from my undergrad days. Plus, at the meeting, I got an interesting insight into the HKU view of public health. The leader of the journal club, another professor in the department, asked some of the students in the room to identify what they thought was the defining feature of an infectious disease.
A couple of answers were batted around, but eventually, the professor clarified the main point: in infectious disease, each individual case should be viewed in terms of their risk of infecting others.
This is a very different viewpoint from what I’ve experienced so far, especially in my non-public-health classes, and it highlights two contrasts. First, it shows the difference between public health and individualized medicine. In public health, the concern mainly lies in preventing things from getting worse on a grand scale. While your doctor prescribes you a course of antibiotics when you get sick, people in public health (who are often doctors too) are deciding when to close schools, when to restrict travel, and how to tell the public how to prevent the spread of disease.
Second, it highlights the unique perspective on public health in Hong Kong, a city with the rare distinction of having been the epicenter of two of the major infectious disease outbreaks of the 21st century: SARS and H5N1. Given the interconnectedness of the modern world, the threat of pandemic is more real than ever, and although it sounds melodramatic, time wasted equals lives lost. The U.S. has been fortunate in that it was largely spared from the threats of SARS and H5N1, and in my public health classes (at least so far), that sense of urgency was not expressed when talking about infectious disease. Here, to put it bluntly, they don’t mess around.
I hope to get more exposure to this kind of learning in the next few weeks. As my trip moves forward, I’ve been getting more and more accustomed to traveling around the city, finding new restaurants to try, and digging up new sights to see. I’ve still got plenty of time to explore, and plenty of content to post here, so keep checking back for more updates!