Daisann McLane is the founder of Little Adventures, a Hong Kong-based bespoke orientation service that provides educational neighborhood walks accompanied by cultural insight for curious visitors and locals alike. Originally from New York, she’s also a musician and photographer as well as respected journalist who’s worked for The New York Times, Rolling Stone and National Geographic. We hear about life in Hong Kong from McLane’s point of view.
Pounding the Pavement
One of the things I picked up, as the “Frugal Traveler” for the New York Times, was really you could drop me off at any place and I’ll have it kind of figured out. I’ll have my bearings, I’ll know where to go. Cities are templates — it doesn’t matter whether you speak the language or not, you can usually figure out where to go.
Same Same, But Different
Hong Kong is a predominantly Chinese population. The culture of Hong Kong is cosmopolitan Chinese. It’s cosmopolitan in outlook, but not cosmopolitan by race. The DNA of Hong Kong is super Chinese. It is very arguable that Hong Kong is more Chinese than mainland China. The continuity of Hong Kong is unbroken. There was no cultural revolution. The language is unbroken.
But [at Little Adventures] we try to explain to people who see China as this big monolith, we try to get them look at China as though it was Europe. Where Beijing is like Germany, and Hong Kong is like Italy.
A Hong Kong Minute…
Walking two blocks in Hong Kong is like walking two miles any place else. Because the layers and layers of visual, aural, scent, everything, is coming at you every which way. If New York is juice, then Hong Kong is Ribena.
It’s All About the Food
Cities like Paris, London and New York have old buildings and stuff you can go look at. Hong Kong, besides being a relatively young city, has always placed a relatively low premium on holding on to its buildings — even to the very point of changing the coastline of Hong Kong. There are a very few places on the north of Hong Kong island where you can actually be at the original coastline.
When you come here, one of the only continuous things you can tap into is a food tradition. It’s still possible to have a bowl of wonton noodles that I would imagine hasn’t changed all that much from 75 years ago. In a real way, food is our Eiffel Tower, food is our Statue of Liberty.
A Cultural Barrier
I went to school to learn Cantonese, but I had to hire someone different to teach me menu reading. For years I was asking cha chaan teng staff for fat sik daw si (French-style toast) because I was just translating it literally. I knew how to say French, I even knew how to say ‘style.’ But I would get these looks like, what in the world is this person asking for?
And then it hit me: it’s actually called sai daw in Cantonese, or “western toast.” I always make mistakes based on what logically would be true.
We were going through the dishes [on a cha chaan teng menu] with my tutor, one by one, and we got to this dish called saam bo. Ok, it means “three treasures,” but what is it? The tutor told me it was eggplant, tofu, and peppers stuffed with fish paste and pan-fried. I asked, how are you supposed to know that?
And she just looked at me like, everybody knows what saam bo is. That’s when I realized that it’s not about just learning Chinese characters, or how to read a Chinese menu — you have to learn the culture behind that if you have any hope of understanding the food.