Yesterday we spent time shopping and eating lunch at the IFC building in downtown Hong Kong. Home to some of the city’s most upscale shopping, IFC is a long way from the hagglers and cheap wares found near Temple Street, Stanley market and other open air markets (where I can afford to shop). We strolled through the malls watching designer brand after designer brand pass us by: Burberry, Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, all lined up one after the other. In the past several years, these brands have established themselves in Hong Kong. They’re targeting the Asian market and especially the growing number of wealthy Mainland Chinese who cross the border into this region looking to buy the status and quality offered by these upscale European designers.
But I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where are the American designer brands?” Where are Anna Sui, Calvin Klein and DKNY? Coach has several stores throughout the region, but it seems like many of the big names are missing.
During an interview with Simon Galpin of Invest Hong Kong, we talked about the exploding market for luxury goods in Hong Kong and how it is all but dominated by European designers. Powerful European brands can negotiate prime real estate for their stores in Hong Kong’s most exclusive areas, and being established in those areas helps them build brand equity in the Asian market and appeal to new audiences.
The largest nation of consumers in the world – Mainland China – is next door, and American luxury retail brands need to jump in!
Wednesday morning, we drove to Lantau Island, just across the way Hong Kong Island. Lantau Island is home to beautiful beaches, lots of greenery and the famous “Big Buddha.” The contrast between Lantau Island and Hong Kong Island is immediately noticeable. It’s obvious that Lantau is a quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island. The Big Buddha sits on a peak, sort of as the cherry on top of the lush green cake that is Lantau. I was standing at a nearby shopping center , looking up at the larger-than-life bronze statue, when I suddenly looked to my left and noticed a posh Starbucks store. “I guess we can’t escape Starbucks,” I said jokingly to one of my group members. Later, we were joined by a tour guide who explained that the Big Buddha was created by some engineering company circa 1989. An engineering company? , I thought. Well that certainly demystifies the statue. A Western company producing one of the most mystical symbols of Eastern religion seemed odd. Initially I was a bit disappointed by this information until I realized that the Big Buddha’s peculiar origin was just another example of Hong Kong’s dual identity. Hong Kong not only fuses Western and Eastern values, but does so proudly. For Hong Kongeans (well, at least for the tour guide), the authenticity of the statue was not compromised by its origin or by the strip of Western stores nearby. Instead the statue represents a beautiful blend of Western pragmatism and Eastern idealism.
As someone who enjoys gambling, I couldn’t have lived with myself if I came all the way to Hong Kong and didn’t make the one-hour ferry ride to Macau, the Vegas of Asia.
I was surprised at how different the casino experience was in Asia compared to the States. The best example comes from the blackjack table, and it illustrates the differences in our cultures. In Macau, the other people sitting at the blackjack table with you can actually bet on your hand in addition to their own. There was a period in which I was doing well, so several of my table-mates started betting on my hands (and winning, I might add!).
I was so used to the American system that it took me a while to figure out what was actually happening. I think this ability to bet on others is a simple demonstration of the differences between the rugged individualism of Americans versus the collective nature of Asian cultures. Something tells me this kind of system wouldn’t fly in Vegas.
More important than this fun cultural lesson: I won a few bucks at the table. Viva Macau.
A view of the Casino Lisboa from across the street
I visited my aunt Neela Ramanathan last evening. An expat who has lived in multiple countries, including India and Singapore, she gushed with joy while describing Hong Kong. “I love the city. It is so efficient, you can plan and time your life out well… and then again, it does take unexpected turns and is full of surprises!” she said. So is the city perfect? “If only they would clear up the smog that clouds Hong Kong all the time”, she pointed out. As a lawyer and mother of three adorable girls, she is glad her family experienced Hong Kong these past few years. She is moving shortly to Jakarta, Indonesia and declares they will all certainly miss HK.
So what is it about the place that makes people around the world pack their bags and move their lives over to the territory? Some say it’s the meeting point of the East and the West. Others say that Asia is where it’s at and Hong Kong represents the best of Asia. All say that there is just something addictive about the city’s vibrant culture.
In our interviews, we met several expats who head companies and important divisions. A common thread across all is their desire to make the world see Hong Kong as they see it. Chris Jackson, Assistant Executive Director, Hong Kong Trade Development Council said, “If Hong Kong were a person…she would be a vegetable vendor standing in a crowded market, shouting, calling out to people to buy the best ware in the market – hers…and she will succeed in what she set out to do.”
Couldn’t agree more. HK has a tremendous impact on its visitors. In the five days that we’ve been here, the place has impressed,enticed, surprised, amazed and thrilled us. We hate to say goodbye, Hong Kong.
Last night after a long day of interviews, we decided to
- Compliments of mercuryrev.com
explore a different part of the city. Following the advice of some of the locals, we ventured to Kowloon. Kowloon is famous for its open markets, bustling night life and — at least according to one member of our group — its clay pot rice dishes.
In the midst of basement bargaining and sight seeing, we stopped to grab a brew. The restaurants in this area are literally tables set up in the street with step stools for chairs. Five minutes later, a group of 10 guys dressed in black rolls through. Long hair, carefree style — clearly these guys looked the part of rock stars. After some liquid courage one of the members worked up the nerve to find out the actually were rock stars. Mercury Rev was sitting next to us. They were in Hong Kong opening for Coldplay.
After a while, we jokingly asked them for tickets to their show. Group member Jeff Mercel, though, took us seriously — they gave us tickets and back stage passes to the concert. Only in Hong Kong.
English is one of two official languages in Hong Kong (the other being Mandarin–no love for Cantonese). But its status is obviously a result of the period of British colonization. While most locals have a basic comprehension of the language, it’s far from the most commonly used, especially outside the central business district.
To get a feel for some non-English local goodness, I set out to find a place for dinner last night that had no signs or menus in English–I was determined to put my communications skills to the test. I wandered around the Wan Chai neighborhood until I found the kind of place I was looking for: hot, crowded, nary a word of English in sight, packed with locals, and adorned with glistening pieces of crispy-roasted meats.
After attempting to give my order to the waitress (whose patience was greatly appreciated), I found it easiest to just walk to the kitchen area and point to what I wanted, to the great amusement of other diners. What followed was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had. I’ve always been a fan of what some people call peasant food: big ol’ hunks of meat cooked slowly and simply with great care. The simple things are usually the best, and it’s true of all cuisines (think barbeque, osso buco, coq a vin, Mexican beef stew, etc. and you start to get the picture).
Two heaping piles of suckling pig and goose arrived from the kitchen, along with a plate of rice and a sinus-clearing dipping paste. The meat was the embodiment of perfection–moist and tender flesh, crispy skin and just the right amount of fat. A belt-loosening meal like this for one person in the U.S. would easily run somewhere in the neighborhood of $25-$30, but here in Hong Kong where the pretension is stripped from cuisine, I walked out the door only $6.15 lighter.
I may just have to move here.
If you pick up any travel book on Hong Kong, there is sure to be a great deal of information on the Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon Peninsula. It’s always listed as one of the top “must sees” for visitors to Hong Kong. There is a good deal of touristy schlock to it, but there’s also a nice counterbalance of local people and good, honest food.
It’s hard to beat a mega-sized, ice-cold Tsingtao and claypot rice with Chinese sausages (for my money, the rice is really all you need). Taking a seat on a sidewalk at Temple Street was one of my top priorities for this trip. For those who enjoy people watching and experiencing a culture through food, it’s hard to do better than this.
Life is good: claypot rice and beer