I have been coming to Hong Kong for more than 20 years, and have witnessed a quite incredible transformation since the colonial British administration handed power back to China in 1997. It is as if the local residents have rediscovered their ‘Chineseness’, becoming both confident and proud again of their nationality and heritage. The result turned the city into one of the most exciting and cosmopolitan destinations in Asia.
The inhabitants of Hong Kong possess their very own ingrained food and drink culture. This is a people who eat out on average over six times a week, who rather than talk about politics, football or fashion, prefer to discuss their favorite restaurant or their latest foodie discovery, which no one else knows about. In the age of the I Pod, a fun local pastime is to snap amazing dishes you just ate to show friends or post on Facebook. And there are an awful lot of restaurants to choose from, around 12,000 at the last count, meaning you can pretty much eat what you want, where you want and at any time, 24 hours a day.
The bar scene is just as eclectic. In the heart of Hong Kong island, you can join the jet set crowd on the 23rd floor penthouse Sevva Bar to sip cocktails and look out over a futuristic vista of towering skyscrapers. Or back down below, plunge into murky backstreets, which don’t seem to have changed in centuries, and join the locals at a gritty tea shop for a glass of Leong Cha, a ’24-flavor herbal tea’ that is meant to keep every illness away. But the part of town that is most seductive right now is Wan Chai, once the sleazy red-light bar neighborhood that inspired the cult 1960s movie, The World of Suzie Wong.
Barflies can still find louche locales with names like High Heels and Pussy Cat in Wan Chai, but today, instead of demolishing old buildings and replacing them with anonymous multi-story office blocks, Hong Kong is taking pride again in its architectural heritage and a host of new bars and restaurants are opening up in restored colonial buildings. An 150 year-old pawn shop has been lovingly preserved and transformed into Pawn, a fashionable three-floor bar, lounge and restaurant complex. Hong Kong’s hippest chef, Alvin Yeung, chose Wan Chai for his new flagship restaurant and was immediately awarded two stars by the Michelin Guide. But the address to track down is the intriguingly-named Yin Yang.
Yin Yang is part bar, part salon, part restaurant and part delicatessen, the brainchild of Margaret Xu, the unofficial queen of organic food in Hong Kong. Yin Yang refers to a favorite local drink, an extremely strange mix of tea and coffee with milk, and this place is quite unlike anything else you’ll find here. A four-storey 1930s colonial Chinese shop house has been beautifully restored into a temple for Margaret’s feisty views about healthy living – not something that is usually high on the agenda in Hong Kong. In fact, this is probably the only genuinely organic restaurant in the whole of Hong Kong. Customers can come in for a health drink – soya bean milk, organic fruit juices, even the dreadful yin yang beverage. There is a counter selling all of Margaret’s homemade products – star fruit sashimi sauce, Chinese rice and plum wines, oyster sauce, fruit preserves, tangy chilly oil, her own bread.
And most of all, people from all over Hong Kong come here for the restaurant, which showcases her unique cooking style. She grinds flour using a traditional stone, grows 100% organic, non-GM vegetables and herbs on her own farm, and has built a giant clay oven out of two upturned Italian terracotta pots. This is where she slow cooks for hours her signature dish, a quite incredible roast chicken, served in an unforgettable manner at table by the chef herself.
“I won’t let the meat be carved with a knife,” she explains, “and use the traditional Chinese way of serving – tearing and shredding the meat off by hand. Customers – especially foreigners – do tend to look a bit worried at first, but then they realize this is probably the best roast chicken they have ever tasted!”
Margaret Xu is a self-trained chef. A few years ago, she was living a very different, high-pressured life as the creative director of an advertising agency. Then, four years ago, she started a unique private dining concept – ‘Cuisine X’ – in her rural house out in the New Territories, near the border with China. At first the restaurant was open only at the weekend and had just one table. Here Xu served solely organic vegetables grown in her own garden, and was soon cooking a couple of nights in the week too.
Last year, she decided to give up the advertising agency job and open Yin Yang, determined to create a fresher approach to Chinese cuisine. “I think people are fed-up with the old habits of traditional Chinese cooking, which is becoming outdated. People use far too much monosodium glutamate, the way of cooking is too complicated, too long, with flavors and tastes that are just too strong. People live differently now and I think they want to eat differently, and with this in mind I try to utilize the best traditional Chinese methods but in the simplest manner, using the highest quality products. I just want my customers to enjoy the real taste of the vegetables, seafood, poultry and meat, rather than all the sauces and spices.”
Yin Yang is packed each night with a curious and enthusiastic mix of locals and expatriates, and rather than being a passing trend, it is just possible that Margaret Xu may be starting a revolution in Hong Kong eating habits. Health and wellbeing are already an integral part of Chinese culture, from Tai Chi in the morning to the regular use of tonic foods and remedies that have been around for thousands of years.
Vegetarian dishes have always been essential elements of Chinese cooking, while a whole zen Buddhist cuisine exists that creates mock meat and seafood out of vegetables. Margaret is already collaborating with several other well-known Hong Kong chefs in a World Wildlife Fund project to educate people here about sustainable seafood dining. And she believes that if local farmers are finally given the financial incentives to clear their fields for two years and then begin planting non-GM crops, the people of Hong Kong will embrace a new, healthy Chinese cuisine.
18 Ship Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, tel: 2866 0868
John Brunton is a British journalist and photographer