I am partaking in a journey where I will appraise every non-franchise restaurant in town and review their food as well as their service. It is an attempt to expand my mind and appetite. Simultaneously, I will also be taking what I learn from these establishments and attempting to remake them with my extremely limited skill.
Finally. Reviewing Shogun.
(In 2007, I went on a trip to southern China. This was a recount of my old trip. Excuse the quality of writing, I wrote these on the fly…)
DAY SIX “Golden Insanity”
I was not totally aware of the importance of the Golden Harvest festival. Jaime simply called it the autumn festival. No school for one week (Until Oct 6th). Get these figures: 200 000 people moved through gates into Hong Kong in the first day. 1.8 million are expected every day from now until the end. 300 million Chinese are traveling across the country. I hope I can escape in time. Jaime assures since my flight is out on the 9th, I should miss the crowds when I return to Hong Kong. I am not so sure.
Today, we are going to try to book a train to Shinzen. 80 000+ people have crammed into this colossal train station. Every single train out of Guangzhou booked. There is no way to Shanghai. I discover Jaime has a problem with big crowds. It may even be described as Enochlophobia. She starts to shut down and get frustrated in large collections of people. I do find it odd considering she lives in one of the most densely populated cities on Earth. Jaime tries to be supportive. She claims many of the travel agencies hold tickets for their customers and we may be able to snag one. So we bounce between a dozen travel agencies (which, oddly enough, are all next to each other…in the travel district). I remain outside to keep prices low. Agency after agency…nothing. We are both getting frustrated. Finally we find a plane ticket available…Jaime says she will pay for herself…but at 1250Y a ticket, its far too expensive a luxury…I might as well go see the Montreal GP next year.
I finally give up.
The daylight has wasted away. We spent all day trying to find tickets. We continue with our plan to go to Guilin. We find and purchase our tickets. Originally, we had planned on going right away, but the earliest ticket leaves on the 3rd of October. We snag two train tickets and leave.
Jaime takes me to another Walking street. This one lacks the pushy salesmen. This is because I am the only White guy in a field of 100 000 Chinese. It’s like a sea of short hair I wade in. All the signs are in Chinese. Nothing is translated here. Unlike the Beijing Walking Street, built new over ancient ruins, this Market Street (whose name escapes me) was never built overtop of anything. It naturally is 100 years old. We eat at a three level restaurant 120 years old. There is another we find that is 150 years old. Obviously, they had adapted with the times, adding bathrooms, new kitchens, and adding chefs with more and more medals. There is a Daiwo Sushi on this street as well.
I don’t purchase anything this time. I notice many side streets people walk into. Some have a few lights but most are totally dark. These areas exist for those truly unofficial exchanges, where people purchase drugs, stolen goods, and women.
We return home after a lengthy bus ride. It’s hotter than the night before. I take a cold shower without turning on the heater and toss and turn on the flat bed again. Tomorrow, we have plans. There is still a zoo and a garden to visit. We’ll see what happens…
…Tomorrow…war be declared…
(In 2007, I went on a trip to southern China. This was a recount of my old trip. Excuse the quality of writing, I wrote these on the fly…)
DAY FIVE “Hello, Thank You, Armani, Rolex”
Yes, I slept like shit. No mattress and no A/C makes Chris unhappy. However, the shower refreshes and I have gotten used to the smell. I realized the burning smell I’m always picking up is construction…non stop. The city has done a fairly good job modernizing considering its only been doing it for twenty years. The oddest example of this are the shopping centers…but I am getting way ahead here.
After Peanut butter and jelly on something that resembles bread and a few more of those meat buns, Jaime and I head out into the hot Guangzhou…check that. I head out. Apparently, Jaime never really talked to her family in detail about her visitor and her Mother objects to my presence so close to Jaime. Apparently, she is worried about the neighbors and what they will say. Jaime and I may have a great romantic adventure on these two weeks but a long lasting relationship is looking more and more bleak. As it turns out, I have to leave 5 minutes ahead of Jaime to give the impression we are separate. Now unless the average Chinese person is an idiot, no one is going to fall for this considering we will be arriving within the same time span.
No matter, while I wait for Jaime, a guy offers me a ride on a bike. Don’t look too far in this. It’s a Taxi-Bike. Even though Guangzhou carries a level of dust an inch thick, the cars all look clean and new. As you get further away from the core that begins to change. What happens here different than Canada is that when someone buys cheap transport in Canada, they buy a used car. In China, they buy a bike…or a moped, or a scooter. The point is those that afford actual cars love them to death. Even the Taxis look spotless. So the bikes? They are everywhere. I have seen 4 people on one. I saw a 12 foot I-beam on another. Bikes are truly multi-purpose. Each bus looks like an art statement. Each and every one is a different color with different adverts plastered over it.
Jaime lives in a miniature apartment block her father owns. The whole family lives there. Above the first floor garage, the first floor has the TV, main kitchen, and the parent’s and Jaime’s bedroom. Third floor features her brother’s room and the top floor is unoccupied. Each floor has the same kitchen and bathroom set, and you enter the room via the same double locking steel doors. Every level features a patio. However, it’s no longer an apartment building, now just a home. Every bedroom has AC save for mine. They offer a fan which powers onto my face constantly. Her mother insisted on the squat and drop for sanitary reasons even though apparently many homes in Guangzhou have normal toilets.
Okay…so one yuan gets you a bus with sliding windows. Two Yuan gets you a bus with A/C but with harder seats. Four yuan snags you better seats and better A/C. Finally there are the 10 yuan which are tour buses that take you to your home. Please remember that 7 yuan is 1 cdn dollar, meaning the best bus is still a little more than a buck. We travel for a full hour before reaching the subway…which really is a subway unlike the HK MTR. Some stations are bilingual but most are not.
Our first destination is the Bayoun Temple, which towers 10 stories in the center of Guangzhou. Firstly, Jaime takes me to have Dongbei food. And why this has not been imported into Canada is anyone’s guess. Imagine Chinese food but instead of soy, use garlic. Now friends will remember I love garlic. The first plate Jaime orders is shredded beef in oil. At least 7 cloves were chopped inside and then four more were diced and sprinkled overtop. After, a type of cold fat noodle was served, also with garlic. I should remind that all meals except for the first two in HK involve communal plates. You receive a bowl, a teacup, a saucer and you bring small portions to the bowl from the served food. No one orders individual dishes. This food is great. Two nice dishes…oh dear…we weren’t done. Then comes the 20 dumplings with red pepper inside. Oh my god. Then the two plates of flatbread, one with onion, the other with crushed red bean. I am about to explode here. Eight plates later, I am close to shitting a full-sized Chinese waiter. The meal comes to 15 dollars for everything. What the hell?
After the best meal of the trip, we arrive at Banyoun temple…which is bigger up close. After touring the surrounding buildings, I dare to make the climb. This place must have been assembled by people whom, after generations, turned into midgets. The first few floors are normal but the stairs get consistently shorter as I climb. The stairs are steep and tiring… Level 6, level 7…oh god, how tall is this thing? At the ninth floor, you get a pretty good vision of the city and the smog layer that permanently overcasts. The cost to enter this is 10 yuan, just be sure to avoid the bums that seek out the white guys. I couldn’t help but drop a few coins to a man with no hands.
The Genetic Rainbow.
As we rode on the East Rail from Hong Kong into Shinzen, Jaime leaned over and warned that everyone in Guangzhou looks like her. Just after she said this, a woman entered and sat across from us. She was the same height as Jaime, wore similar pants, similar striped shirt, and the exact same type of glasses. They both had similar skin pigment, lips, and eyes.
My god, she wasn’t kidding.
After I pointed this out, Jaime said she didn’t mean it that specifically. But the majority of people in Guangzhou do resemble more of the other South Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia. The skin is darker on average and their faces are more rounded, in contrast with the whiter, taller, northern Chinese. After centuries, many of these cultures have mixed, resulting in a blend so equal, I could hardly tell.
I explained to Jaime that I can tell Asians apart no problem, despite some people’s complaints to the opposite. She says it’s a myth, but then questioned if the girl on the train “really” looked like her. I followed up with the fact that not everyone is a unique snowflake. When I was 14, I saw myself on the side of a Matchbox playset.
After shooting a few photos, Jaime decides to drop me off at the big Imperial Park. It doesn’t look big from the outside…She said she will come back in three hours. Three hours? What will I do for three hours? It looks like I will have this covered in 30 minutes. Oh well…I guess I will find something to do…
…The Imperial park is 865 000 square meters…Its all hills. Off in the distance, I spot a huge red museum and even further stands a small tower. They both look a mile up ahead and hundreds of feet high. Alas…that’s actually true. By the time I reach the stone tower, I am almost in a coma. Like Jeffery Chaucer in Knights Tale, all I can do is soldier on. Hundreds of steps lead up to a tower 35 meters high. More steps rise to the museum. Steps to travel down; steps to rise up. I drink 8 bottles of fluids and never go to the washroom. However, it is beautiful. The park features a full Olympic-sized stadium, three artificial lakes, and a 5 goat statue which, despite my many efforts, I could never find. Other tourists here include many Asians, one of which insists on taking my photo several times, with him, his father, just me…in all defense, I am the only white guy in this park.
Surprisingly enough, in the massive modernizing of the city which has been going on for the past two decades, a push has occurred to unearth the relics of the old world. Little did anyone know there were 2 thousand years of history under this sprawl. The museum artifacts, dating all the way back to the Nanyou kingdom, have mainly been found in the past 15 years.
I try to find my way back, but end up getting a little lost. Every time I try a new path, it involves trekking down stairs I will eventually have to climb again. I swear I must have lost 5lbs on this walk. Too many steps…too much walking. I need a break.
Finally Jaime arrives and, near death, we hop on a subway to the Beijing walking street.
Police and other Bums
Yes, Hong Kong had bums…but they were few and rare on the tourist spots. On the three days we traveled, I only saw two. In Guangzhou, they migrate towards tourist attractions, begging for any coin. Begging involves getting right into your face, blocking your path. As mentioned, I dropped two coins to a man with no hands…later, I saw a man with no arms but by this time, I had gotten rather jaded.
A common practice is for the beggars to dress as monks, hoping to con some passersby. Jaime finds this most reprehensible. One offers me a card and then asks me to sign a ledger. Jaime grabs me and shouts at the beggar. I am still not sure what that was about.
Want to tell the difference between a bum and a monk…easy. Are they begging? They’re a bum. Monks don’t beg. They will accept donations as they pray on the side of the road but they will not ask…nor will they even acknowledge your presence. I spot that only once on my journey. Most monks remain in the temples. I even had my photo taken with one.later he took one of me with his digital camera…sigh…
At night, the homeless lay down a blanket, take off their shirt, and sleep. This seems very normal for them. At the Guangzhou main bus terminus, dozens slept on the corner walls. I would not necessarily call these people homeless. They have a home…the Guangzhou Metro Terminus.
But fear not, China’s best are always on duty. In fact, I am shocked at the presence of uniforms. They are everywhere. At the Beijing Walking Street, not only is there a station there, but four police Cars Park at either end of the street. Not all of them are police. Many uniforms are traffic wardens or security for the many outlets in the city. How do you tell them apart? By all the nicely colored uniforms and hats. All the security guards do their job keeping the criminals out of hotels and stores but Jaime adds the actual police do very little and a really quite lazy. That’s reassuring. I start to walk with my thumb in my back pocket. Yes, my wallet is on a chain but I want to be on the safe side. When I wear my kakis, I go one further by placing my big bills on my button thigh pocket along with my credit card and bank card. I only keep the small bills and coins in my main wallet.
Yes, the Beijing walking street. Built on the ruins of a market street 1000 years old. Now it sells cheap imitation watches and handbags. Of course, there are a few respectable places but those are not the ones harassing passing white guys. Jaime drags me by these pushy salesmen on the streets. They look like miscreants. They approach and flash a postcard of what their store sells, all the while announcing the few English words they know:
“Hello, thank you, Armani? Rolex? Gucci?”
Now I have to repeat myself again. In Hong Kong, I bought very little because I wanted to buy stuff I couldn’t buy in Canada. I don’t care to buy name brands for cheap just because they are names. The same goes for imitation goods. Who cares what brand (real or not) features on my belt buckle? I know my sister wanted a cheap bag but for me…what’s the point? I have no interest in any of these products…
…Five minutes later, I bought a Tag Hauer for 35 bucks…
Jaime impresses me when we try to purchase a handbag for my sister. She drags me from a crook trying to pass off imitation leather for real. This is when your girlfriend being a fashion designer pays OFF! She is concerned that customs will confiscate any imitation product, especially something large and noticeable like a GUCCI handbag. So I decide on something smaller.
Okay…the price listed is 180 yuan. Although quiet and reserved, Jaime, in her native tongue, starts haggling with the lady at the counter. She brings it down to 100…then asks 50 for two. They say no and Jaime drags me away. Twenty feet away, she stops and tells me to go back to offer 70…I love this girl. Yup…they go for 70 for two. Dammit, where was Jaime when I bought the watch? She could have cut the price down to 20 bucks! This is the limit of my nefarious dealings. We decide to eat.
My obsession on finding Sushi on this trip finally pays off as I stumble on Daiwo Sushi. I walk into Japan. Bright orange walls, yellow uniforms, and JPop slams into our skulls as we enter. Unlike the relatively old-school restaurant I frequent every week back home, Daiwo features a huge conveyer belt that orbits around a massive sushi bar. Sitters plop around the bar, grabbing what they want from the belt, or asking for specifics from the menu…which I end up doing since almost everything on the moving line is eel.
Dammit, no Tuna. The individual pieces are smaller but way cheaper. I was expecting fish so close to the Ocean to be better, but it actually tastes inferior to the kind back in Canada. It’s still good and I stuff my face for 15 bucks for both of us. Here is how it works. Green plates are 8 yuan; red plates are 12 yuan; the blue is 15 yuan. At the end of the meal, the waitress adds up the colors and knows the cost. Tea is served from fountains every 3 feet and Wasabi is served when you sit. This is a good place but would only work in cities with the right population demographic. However, I love the decor and leave happy and satisfied.
As the day winds down, I realize the full day we have had. My legs are shaking with exhaustion. I must have belted down 10 bottles of Pepsi and Gatorade. Beijing Market Street was an odd experience to say the least. I can’t say I approve of the forceful tactics of Guangzhou salesmen. In Hong Kong, the tourist influx has made the sellers more laid back. In Guangzhou, White man seeking missiles lock on from across the block and will go to even grabbing your arm to sell you something. The walking street is beautiful and packed with more people than my entire home town. The night might have cooled but it doesn’t seem like that with the body heat and rays pouring from neon tubes above.
Jaime and I return by 11:00. We hardly try to be inconspicuous; she walks 15 feet behind me. That night, Jaime finally agrees to go with me to the Chinese GP. That means we have two days to find and book hotels and train tickets and arrive in Shanghai to watch the third to last race of Michael Schumacher before retirement. We make a plan…we find a hotel…
…Tomorrow, everything falls apart…
Chairman Mau’s wild ride
I should go into details on money. Hong Kong and China take two different types of currency, the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) and the Yuan (Y). When China took Hong Kong, they never messed with anything, including the money. The exchange rates are virtually identical. Jaime told me I should get money out from the bank in HKD and transfer it to Yuan as I will get a better rate. The ratios are so close, it’s hardly worth mentioning. HKD transfers to cdn$ at 6.89 - 1 while Yuan transfers to cdn at 7.01 - 1. Hardly worth mentioning unless dealing with large amounts.
However, the prices of services and items change depending on where you go. In Hong Kong, food and living is more expensive than China but products and souvenirs are cheaper…while in mainland China (at least in Guangzhou), products and souvenirs are more expensive and the food and living (and transportation) are much cheaper. So here’s a lesson: Buy your stuff in Kong Kong, see the sites in China. Hong Kong must aggressively price their products due to competition. Tourists have saturated the city, so they are used to their presence. In China, the moment a tourist walks in, everything goes up. I mentioned earlier in Hong Kong that the English menu was more expensive than the Chinese one. In China, Jaime actually made me hide my face when buying something to make sure the price did not go up. The normal prices on products were higher as well. I purchased 4 little action figures in Hong Kong for 80 HKD. In China, those same figures were 49 Y each. Even with the exchange rates, it’s pricey. Now, as it stands, it is still cheaper than buying it in Canada, but the price is far lower in Hong Kong.
Also, never buy anything at the tourist spots in China. I was burnt once already. You can find everything at those spots far cheaper at stores in the streets of the main markets. It doesn’t matter how good it looks. You see a nice piece of Jade in the Bayoun temple…wait. There is a whole Jade market street which sells it all half as much. The same goes for clothing and hanging scrolls. Painted crystal balls that retailed for 500 y in Bamoa garden I could snag for 180 in a shop two miles away.
And then there’s the bargaining. You read how Jaime got one item for 180Y to 2 for 70? All prices of negotiable…especially for Westerners. That piece of Jade I bought in a temple priced itself at 600 Y. They brought it down to 540. I still said no. They brought it to 440. Finally I got it for 400Y. I still think it was too high. Plus there are so many imitation Jades out there. I saw a real Jade Dragon for 1350Y and then an identical imitation jade dragon for 180Y. I could not tell the difference. One thing a vendor taught me (and Jaime agreed), if the Jade scratches glass like a diamond without damaging itself, its most likely real.
And then there’s the Golden Harvest. That’s the week-long holiday infecting all of China. Everything has jacked up in price. All hotels and trains and planes have all almost doubled. It’s getting harder to find those deals now.
Even still, I decided after a few days that I will keep my purchases to a minimum and wait until I return to Hong Kong to spend the rest of my money. I will most likely be changing my Yuan back to HKD by the end.
Like Queen Victoria and John Brown, Nixon and Frost, Luke and Leia, and the entire Lannister family, my relationship with Hummus Brothers is complicated. My last review praised the quality of its food but judged the overall experience lacking. I concluded it was a restaurant desperately attempting to be hip, sacrificing the enjoyment of its patrons in order to achieve it. When a place tries to ape Moxis, you have to ask yourself why you shouldn’t be at the franchise with a proven pedigree. I weighed and measured Hummus Brothers and found them wanting. They desired a certain metropolitan chic, tossed together a melange of conflicting ideas into a blender, loaded it like rock salt into a shotgun, and blasted a confusing pattern against a blank canvas. Like Homer’s makeup gun, they set it too high, and what emerged was a confused mess made ever worse by a blatant misleading name and a criminally deceptive subtitle.
I’m sorry, is this getting too dense for everyone? Let me sum it up this way: Hummus Brothers is like Wesley Snipes when he did that role in drag or Keanu Reeves when he faked an accent in Dracula; you are fooling no one. Hummus Brothers is a restaurant not owned by coincidentally named siblings, and the titular dish is virtually absent from the menu, found as a single entry with the dinner service and utterly absent from the lunch. At least that was last time. Also discovered was its notable lack of their other expected cuisine. You see, Hummus Brother also calls itself a tapas bar, but the only tapas could be found on the dinner menu. Further, the selections appeared more like full-size appetizers and a relative diminutive selection of them to be perfectly honest, especially when compared to an actual tapas bar. Oh sure, I praised the food they did serve but felt the experience disingenuous. Who goes into a place called Hummus Brothers Tapas Bar and orders a hamburger?
I was criticized for my initial review, with some claiming a restaurant in this town has to compromise in order to remain in business. At the time, I countered that a name change should have been in order. Otherwise, I’d claim their customers were mooks for believing they’re experiencing a traditional tapas experience when they clearly are not. Nowadays, I’d bring up Shiraz as the icon for what Prince George’s population is willing to accept, proof that restaurants don’t need to compromise.
I swore I’d give Hummus Brothers a second chance during a dinner service. And here’s a shock…it turns out my previous judgement was right on the money. And flames will surely follow.
Clearly I must be missing the point. My companion, James, is becoming a regular with my excursions and his frequency may be increasing with further dinner reviews. We both understand what’s expected and the company and conversation is appreciated. He also provides vital feedback considering his culinary background. That being said, this appraisal was entirely my own. Instead of the oddly misplaced bar-height table I sat on last time, we were given a booth. Well, it’s not exactly a booth. It looked like a booth except the couch wasn’t attached to the ground, and how many people have tried to shoehorn themselves past the armrest, only to have the whole thing slide out from under them? It couldn’t have been just me. Was this meant for one or two? It looks wide enough for two but the crescent shape discourages strangers.
And why the fuck do they have pillows? If two people were to sit there, the cushions would have to go somewhere. This isn’t my mother’s living room, with pillows occupying every chair like they’re seat fillers at the Emmy’s. Do we put them on the floor, behind our back? I sat dead center, realizing how awkward two people would sit unless they had a body type that would make Jessica Chastain envious.
They still haven’t fixed the bathroom signs. I had this problem last time. Are those nipples? Is that a dress or the tails of a tuxedo? What do these symbols mean? I just need to take a piss, not configure the Lemarchand’s Box. Should I exclaim, “Klaatu Verata Nicto” before opening the door? If you assume this situation was isolated to just me, I’ll add that despite not mentioning my issue with James, he to encountered the same confusion.
So the initial impression matched my previous assessment, but at least this time, we can order tapas…or rather what they claimed as tapas. There is a difference between tapas and appetizers but it looked like Hummus Brothers simply renamed their appetizers as tapas. Every “tapas”—which from now on will be referred to ironically—platter is the equivalent of a full-priced plate, and despite having a few interesting offerings, like their Faux Gras and Pistachio Crusted Tuna, I found much of the rest lacking. I mean where the hell are the sardines on toast, the chorizo, and the olives? You know the stuff less than 10 bucks? How can customers experiment with tapas when each plate costs as much as a meal? Two people won’t be picking up more than three plates. The Pesto Chicken for two is actually a pizza, so that was boring—Boston Pizza offers a pesto chicken on their menu. The hummus—the only hummus—was…decent, which is probably best compliment I can levy.
I’m trying not to be mean, but I really can’t help it. In most other restaurants, this menu would be dynamite. Most of the dishes actually suggest a Mediterranean origin, and I can appreciate that. The cook is talented. The food is good. Many people can totally find fulfillment coming to Hummus Brothers. But. I. Just. Can’t. I’d call this as much Spanish as I’d call a Michael Bay subtle and artistic. Maybe it was because while I was in England, I stumbled upon a Hummus Brothers off The Strand. It was a quaint little nook nudged off a crowded street. One glance at their framed menu confirmed the origin of the name. They didn’t serve just one hummus dish; it was every dish. Literally, every dish had hummus. It was all about hummus. They didn’t claim to be a tapas bar because they didn’t offer tapas. When other restaurants like Cimos offers tapas, it comes in the form of a large plate of various offerings. It’s still not great, but that restaurant doesn’t claim to be a tapas bar. What’s shocking is that the selection on Cimos’ tapas platter is nowhere to be found in a restaurant claiming itself a tapas bar.
I once bitched at the lack of Dim Sum in Prince George, with our only glimmer being a depressing selection of pre-frozen sick tossed on a separate menu at one Chinese restaurant which doesn’t promote the option. I still insist that one would work in town, even if it does have to simultaneously offer the standards of western Chinese cuisine. And I will still insist that a traditional tapas bar would work in Prince George as well. Offer your stupid Spanish burger. Offer your spicy chicken Panini. But if a place is going to claim itself a tapas bar, don’t create a colorful selection of appetizers and just call them tapas. It’s more than that. You’re selling an experience and not delivering. Hummus Brothers is not bad—it’s actually quite good in many ways—but I find its disingenuous presentation and confusing décor indigestible.
OVERALL: 6.8 out of 10
Did you spot the Hellraiser reference?
I really think I’m in the zone for my follow-up review for Hummus Brothers…
“And they still haven’t fixed the bathroom signs. I had this problem last time and chuckled when James returned confused. Are those nipples? Is that a dress or the tails of tuxedo? What do these symbols mean? I just need to take a piss, not configure the Lemarchand’s Box.”
Will be up tomorrow.
(In 2007, I went on a trip to southern China. This was a recount of my old trip. Excuse the quality of writing, I wrote these on the fly…)
DAY FOUR “The Brick Bamboo”
After pushing ourselves to leave early, Jaime and I travel to the opposite side of Hong Kong, to a place called Po Lam. Once again, the trains are an easy transport. Every station is a virtual megaplex shopping center. The major junctions and track stops feature multi-level shopping malls. However, don’t expect the $40 Rolexes or the 40$ Converse shoes. Most of these are chains recognizable to all (Gap, Gucci, and Starbucks). We find Jaime’s Aunt in a large restaurant at the far end. It’s refreshing to see Aunts are Aunts the world over. She insists on paying. Jaime refuses. A fight breaks out. The Uncle moves in to settle. Her Aunt reminds me of my Godmother, replacing a Chinese control complex with Portuguese Christian guilt. Her Aunt works here so the food keeps coming well after the gag reflex sets in. They serve meat buns exactly as they look in the Dynasty Warriors game, albeit much smaller and these don’t regenerate my health like I was hoping.
We exchange photos and her Aunt offers me a charm. It’s a small string flower hanging over a jade pig, hanging over a bucket. I have to ask…
“It means lucky, long life and good finance…”
…I swear, this must be a national joke…
The charm remains attached to my camera for the remainder of my vacation. Jaime and her Aunty proceed to take me on the dyslexic tour of this mall. We double back three times, passing by the same store twice. We leave one section, only to turn around and re-enter. I will admit getting a little frustrated. I am a master at mall navigation. I can clear all of Metrotown (Vancouver) in a matter of hours. Her Uncle knows it right. He follows patiently, staying outside of the stores, carrying all their stuff. I find a DVD store and snatch some region-free Asian DVDs. Don’t look down on me. These are not bootlegged, but region free DVDs which are legally available in Hong Kong. These are all movies unavailable for purchase in Canada. However, Jaime is starting to frustrate me. When she doesn’t know what to say, she won’t say it, breaking communication between us. I want to take charge. I want to go where I want instead of following her Aunt as we frequent the medicine stores looking for drugs. Jaime also has a bad memory and forgets I am even following her, passing through the gate to the MTR before I even get my ticket. I just know this will get worse before it gets any better.
After two hours, we have seen half this mall and we are hurried onto a double-decker bus taking us into the heart of the biggest shopping district in the world, Tsim Sha Tsui. Imagine a shopping centre like West Edmonton Mall (largest indoor mall in the world) and make it open-air. Then compress the mall so each store is the size of a studio apartment in downtown Tokyo. Then stretch it over 30 square miles…and then stack it by 15 floors. The buildings sport no features to distinguish them. I have no idea where her Aunt is taking me. We enter through a parking garage and enter a freight elevator. The door is grated steel. We see the concrete floors slide by. We rise to floor 13 and make our way down…
Floor 13: No flash, no lights. We simply walk down a concrete hall into a shoe store. There are Converse sneakers for 50$. There are name brand shirts at half-price. I come to understand the idea of “Factory Surplus.” The deal is that the company makes a million sneakers. The factory is allowed to overrun to make more for exclusive sale to their residential population. Since there is no overseas shipping or additional cost for sale or presentation, the prices become dirt cheap. However, some policies dictate the names be removed on several pieces.
Floor 12: Basketball Jerseys. Backpacks. Shorts
Floor 11: There is a store here called NOS. No…It stands for Not Just Shoes. It’s smaller than my bedroom. I see shoes…only shoes. That’s all they sell…
Floor 10: Sports again…
Floor 9: MP3 players and cell phones…
You may be wondering what I bought. Nothing. Not a thing. I tried to explain to Jaime my position on it. I have no desire to buy brand name products just because they are cheap. If a no name product is as good as the name product, I buy the no-name. Quite simply, I see Converse sneakers that cost $300 cdn back home. Here, at 700 HKD, that puts them at $70 cdn. However, here’s the catch…I would not pay 70$ cdn for Converse sneakers if they were for sale new in Canada. I just have no interest in them. The same goes for everything else. I have a good MP3 player. I have a decent cell phone. I buy the same watch every 5 years (Timex Ironman) without deviation.
Floor 6-8: Textile company.
Hello Kitty to rule the world.
There is no stopping the onslaught that is Hello Kitty. Not just a phenomenon in Japan, the short, fat, hairy furball has taken Hong Kong and Greater China. Every level of that shopping center had knick-knacks dedicated to Hello Kitty. I asked Jaime and she added it’s very popular in China.
Adding on to Japan…that’s about 1.5 Billion people…not even Hitler could command those numbers…
Floor 5: A dozen mini-stores with women’s clothing.
You see, I would only buy product I CAN’T buy in Canada. Those DVDs are simply not available anywhere in my city. I don’t want to buy the cheap T-Shirts because they are not who I am.
Floor 4: Tents and Hiking equipment.
I don’t hike. Where are all the traditional Chinese clothes? Those I want. This place is more like Japan than I thought. They are more dedicated to the brands they wear over why they wear it. And another thing—
Floor 3: Race attire.
A full store stocked with shirts dedicated to Formula 1. I take over. I snag a Renault and a Lucky Strike shirt. Now I am in business.
Floor 2: Hobby.
I spot the Hobby sign and lock on the robot image. I zero in on the store and find the largest selection of mech models in my life. And for $25 bucks a pop, I go to town. I walk out with a 30 lbs bag of toys. How the hell am I going to pack this? We also change my money into Chinese Yuan. The same guy is on every bill.
Her Aunt asks Jaime for us to stay in HK one more day. We decide to leave (we should have stayed). And we lug our 80 lbs bags through Hong Kong, through two trains, across the border (FUN), on another train and finally into Guangzhou. I try to explain to Jaime my problem with our communication. When she gets frustrated trying to explain something to me…she goes quiet…making it impossible at that point to understand her. And when I am upset, she stops smiling and goes quiet again. We talk it through as we enter mainland China.
Guangzhou is not Hong Kong. They only started modernizing their culture 20 years ago. Where the HK skyline is dominated by “Canon”, “Philips”, and “Sony”, the Guangzhou skyline is dominated by just Chinese letters. The roads are breaking down; the traffic lights are ignored by everyone.
…and the smell. Let’s take the Hong Kong smell and increase by 2 fold…then add a nice dose of raw sewage and that begins to compare to the smell of Guangzhou. And even though its night and we’re 100 kms north from where we started, its at least 10 degrees warmer in Guangzhou with a humidity so high, the heat can only be described as “Ark Opening.”
Here, the car horn is like a “how do ya do”, and Chinese people talk a lot. I am so tired, I almost pass out exiting the mini-bus we take from the train station. Jaime assumes this is how it is everywhere so she doesn’t explain the differences between 1 yuan, 2 yuan, and 4 yuan busses and the mini busses that drive alongside. I’m getting frustrated again.
Finally arriving at her home, I meet her nice family. Her brother knows more English than Jaime mentioned. I can think of nothing else than sleeping. I know I get the fourth floor all to myself. However, the surprises have not finished. I know there is no AC on the floor…but there is no mattress on the bed either. I check the bathroom…
…squat and drop…
…God help me…
My level has water but no shower, forcing me to use the brother’s level. As mentioned, there are no mattresses, only blankets, which I sleep on. However, as the first night proved, I need some cushion. I sport bruises on three different places around my pelvis. Of course, I can’t complain here; I am simply stating fact. This room is free for my stay here
DAY THREE “Lucky, Long Life, and Good Finance”
For reasons unintentional but not accidental, Jaime and I end up leaving the Hotel almost at noon. Our first meal once again takes us to a street-side restaurant. I order wonton with a soup. The wonton is not IN the soup. I ration the spice more skillfully this time. Far more pleasing than the first meal, we finish quickly and take two subways trains to the island station of Tung Chung. It’s almost 1:00 when we arrive. I notice on the station map, there is a cable car lift. I wanna take that! I wanna take that! The map in Jaime’s hand claims the lift is coming soon and is not yet finished. Coming soon must mean 2 hours, because it’s finished and working by our arrival. However, before I can convince Jaime that I could pay for it on my Visa, she has already booked a bus ticket. Doh. She says we can take it if I really want. I sulk comically and wait for the bus. I was not aware both the cable car and bus ventured to the same location of Ngong Ping.
Screw the cable car. If you are an arrogant tourist wanting a lift above the people below, go right ahead, but you are missing the most enjoyable bus ride in my life. Okay, let me take a moment to explain the wonders of driving in a mid-sized bus at unsafe speeds down a single lane mountain road. You heard right. Basically, at every corner (which occur ever 100 to 150 feet), the road widens to two lanes. If one vehicle reaches it first and notices oncoming traffic, it must yield outside and let the car pass. The lack of traffic obviously makes this technique work. This journey is more exciting than an E-Ride at Disney. Trees slap against the windows, potholes nearly throw me off my seat. We pass a prison which must be for rich inmates, as it breaks every cliché you would imagine for an Asian jail.
By the time we reach Ngong Ping, I am jazzercised and ready for anything. Ngong Ping is the huge fat Buddha statue atop the hill many see in tourist books. Its huge…check that, it’s colossal. So, by unfortunate side effect, the trek up those stairs is deceptively short. Ten minutes later, near death, we reach the peak. The view is spectacular. No pollution, the blue sky and cool breeze makes me want to remain there forever. Ngong Ping underwent a major updating to welcome western tourists. Normal toilets are just the beginning. They take Visa. Oh dear. I pick up a Happy Buddha. Everything here is a Happy Buddha. Obviously, the Happy Buddha never needed to walk up those stairs, thus the happy. He was probably carried up there by the “Broken Back” Buddha and the “Belligerent Bitter” Buddha. They don’t sell any of those anymore apparently. The Happy Buddha, Jaime explains, means “Lucky, Long Life, and good Finance.” Gotta get that. There is also a crystal Asian symbol. I ask and the response is that the symbol represents “Lucky, Long Life and good Finance.”
And the Bell charm I also buy?
“Lucky, Long Life and good Finance.”
Well, honestly, you can never get enough lucky.
Tea and other dishes…
One this day, we had a good Wonton meal. For the second time, we are delivered warm brown water in a cup. The first day, I assumed it was tea.
…it was not tea…
…at least nothing I know of tea. Four leaves in a pot stewing for three hours is not tea. Later, in Guangzhou, I would have real tea. Tea replaces water in China as the standard beverage…which can often times be unwelcome when you are melting in 30 degree weather. In fact, the problem of water arose quickly. In Taipei, the water fountains carried a disclaimer indicating the water passed through a treatment so it was safe to drink.
In the hotel in Hong Kong, there were glasses but I was too paranoid to catch Hepatitis F or whatever they call it now. So I seldom drank cold clean water on my trip. When you need refreshment, Pepsi became the drink of choice, which is odd considering I never drink coke or pepsi in Canada. Alas, I fear I am drinking in most of my calories on this trip. If you can believe it, I think I am actually gaining weight. Everyone said I am not going to want to eat anything and that I should close my eyes when I eat. So far this is not the case. Because of traveling, I only have one or two full meals a day. However, each time, I eat like a pig. Even with the red spice…
I come across the fact that my deductive reasoning can sometimes work better than Jaime’s direction. I find the Tea House even though her lead gets us misplaced more than once. Sponsored by Coca Cola apparently, numerous signs advertise this famous restaurant. They show happy people drinking tea and eating tofu. This place must be great.
It looks like a refugee hut in a demilitarized zone, albeit one with a coca cola sign hanging off of it. The sweet tofu is astounding and must be tried. It’s also a buck cdn a plate so don’t feel guilty. After a brief stay, we continue to the Wisdom path—a hike pierced by dozens of wooden planks rising 30 feet into the sky. On the way there, I come across a bright orange, tricked-out, 93’ Sylvia—a very nice Japanese sports car. How it got up here is anybody’s guess. The driver must work at the Tea House…the illusion is shattered.
We finally reach the Wisdom Path. It should really be called the Constitution path as the climb involves steep, broken stone steps at a 60 degree angle. I could sip atop this peak for hours. Hiking paths around this range snake around several other temples in the region. However, Ngong Ping still has several other sites and its getting late.
We spend another two hours snapping photos around the other temples. By the time we end up leaving Ngong Ping, it’s nearly 5:00. Another rollercoaster bus ride takes us to Taio O. Okay, Taio, I will be honest, is a fishing village on the edge of…civilization. The tourism movement built the bus stop right to this traditional village, plowed pavement into the town, and stopped. The houses look a century old and the people go about their business, ignoring you unless want to buy a bag of dried fish. Its 5:00 now and the temple is closed but apparently there is another one of the opposite side of the village. We snake our way through the narrow roads, following the paper signs indicating “Shaolin”…Shaolin? Awesome…Kung Fu.
Its one guy pacing on Astroturf listing to an IPod. Is nothing sacred? The building around him looks like a shopping centre still under construction. I snap a single photo and we return. I would rather not be here at night. China apparently prides its religious equality which I am sure explains the influx in Canada of Catholic Chinese. The ten-foot high barbed fencing around the China Church of Christ School sure enforces that equality.
Jaime claims two more temples await us but by the time the bus arrives and heads East, it’s gotten dark. Equal night and day rises and sets the sun at 6:00. I decide we need to cut the day now. Good thing to because by the time we return to Tung Chung, it’s nearly 10:00. Really hungry, we find a nice establishment in a large shopping centre. This place must be good; there is a picture at the entrance and in all the menus of the head chef with six medals around his neck. I could have sworn I saw this guy on Iron Chef last week dueling wheat grass. It ends up being the best meal of the trip so far, with shredded beef and deep fried tofu. We eventually collapse almost at midnight.
I call the bank…my card problem is cleared up. I will have money tomorrow.
So…here lies the mistake. The keypads at ATMs in Hong Kong do not have letters on them. Oddly enough, I did half expect them considering it was an English colony until 9 years ago. No matter, I also know the pattern of the numbers. As Aliando likes to explain, Man is a pattern recognition machine. I only know my code and password at work from the patterns on the keypad and not by the numbers. Here is the where it gets tricky. Hong Kong keypads are upside down. So after three failed entries, my bank card is frozen. I have to wait two days to call TD Canada Trust on Monday to clear it. No matter, I have VISA. I pay for my train ticket to
Kowloon but when I also try to get a cash advance, it says no. Hmmm…How am I supposed to get a taxi? This is a CITIbank ATM and I have a CITIbank Visa. There is a courtesy phone there so I use it. I explain the situation and the only explanation they can offer is that the lines between Canada and Hong Kong are down.
What am I supposed to do? No Taxi will take credit card. I am trapped. The card Jaime gave me which tells the hotel address is taken by a cab driver who fails to return it. Now I lost her address. I am stranded in Hong Kong with no money.
I am screwed.
The MTR station
…Let me talk about the Hong Kong MTR, (Mass Transit Rail?). I only know the Vancouver Sky train from memory. Like the Skytrain, the MTR moves from below and above ground. However, unlike American subways, the Hong Kong MTR trains are huge. 50 foot train cars all connect as a single, large, unbroken tunnel. No doors or walls separating the segments. With 8 cars long, these trains snake their way through the tunnels like a rocket propelled earthworm. It’s odd seeing this train from the inside, as the tunnel snakes and bends to the rails. The breeze from the AC is most welcoming. Within a day, I am an expert at this system. There are LCDs on the train, against the walls, on the ceilings. Inside the train, there is a map of the total system, all four networks, including the “Sunny Day” train that only travels to one destination, Asian Disneyland. The Mickey Mouse windows make it fairly obvious. The station map is illuminated with upcoming stations and train directions. Announcements are bilingual. Station names bounce from English and Chinese titles. Station names sound like, “Po Lam”, “Mong Kok” (heh, I said kok), “Yau Ma Tei”, “Jordan”, “Lei Chei Kok”, “Choi Hung”, “Prince Edward”, etc…
Almost every single major metropolitan location can be found from this network and with a cost of 1$ to ride it, it’s a good value to be had. My hotel as a mere 3 minute walk to Jordan Station, which is dead centre of the network.
…and it’s clean. I mean you could eat off this floor (but you really shouldn’t). A 5000 HKD fine for any littering obviously encourages people to pick up their garbage. Homeless people must go along with the refuse considering I only saw two on my entire HK vacation.
An agent for the bus takes pity and offers a free airport shuttle. I only know the hotel name though…Guangzhou Hotel. He says it must be Guandong hotel because there is no hotel called Guangzhou. I get dropped off at a very ritzy establishment…And it’s not the right one.
Great…bad to worse. The owner takes pity…and after charging my credit card for 50 $ cdn, allows me to make a long distance call. I wake up my mother who holds a copy of the hotel card. Yangcheng Guangzhou hotel. My mother cannot read the phone number or address in her tired state, angering me considerably. She rambles off random numbers useless to me. Finally, she lets out a phone number. The real hotel is 8 minutes away. The Guandong manager files me into a cab and sends me off.
I just hope Jamie has money to buy the cab.
She does. Suffice to say, seeing her in person is a relief. I am tired and upset, almost to tears. It should be noted that Yangcheng hotel is a single level on a 14 floor building called the Pak On. It’s not even the first…it’s the seventh. Its only entrance is two elevators on either side on a narrow alleyway that splits the bottom level. There is no way I would have known this even if I did have money. Jamie should have met me at Kowloon station. We are both a little naive about what we know about our respective countries. I tell her no building in Canada is built like this. We find the hotel and settle inside a very tiny room. There are no towels but the A/C is a welcome sight. Without a pause, we drop our luggage and head into the afternoon heat…I mean we went shopping.
Now a little lesson on crosswalks in Hong Kong. They have an issue with sound pollution. The sound of a cross walk is a continuous cowbell drum roll. When the cowbell oscillates, it means don’t go. When it is loud and monotone, it means go…and when it is flashing green, the sound hits a high pitch every 3 seconds. It never turns off. Imagine every intersection in the fifth largest city doing this. This partly explains why people prefer A/C to opening windows. Oh yeah…A/C machines—they stick out of every orifice on a building like…like…okay…its 11:15 at night, my simile well has dried up. Suffice to say, every window on a building has one.
We go to a small restaurant. I order sweet and sour pork. This could be that meal people warned you about…the meal that gives you the runs for two days. The sweet and sour pork still has bones. I think I am going to puke. Jaime says her meal is horrid as well so I chalk this up as a bad first experience. However, I do encounter the “spice” for the first time. This is a total no-show in American Chinese cooking. It is a pepper paste suspended in oil. I try it quickly…and my mouth melts. It is as potent as Wasabi…and they give you a vat of this stuff with every meal. The second meal later is much better. As you might suspect, Jamie is paying for everything for the next two days. I owe her my life and sanity. (Granted I could still just get a hotel on my VISA but without a guide, I would slowly go insane)
We tour around the subways and I get a handle on the network mighty quickly. We are dropped off this famous temple called Bao Lian…and I see them for the first time…my nemesis: Squat and drop toilets. Holes in the ground is not an insulting descriptor. I pray this is not common on my trip (Ed: They were everywhere). Thank god my hotel has a normal toilet. I hold it until then. Are you sensitive to smells? Avoid Hong Kong. If you don’t smell the fried spice of the city, you smell incense, nicely covering up fried smell. Bo Lian is impressive and a good Temple to start the trip. If you start with Ngong Ping, everything else pales.
We eventually enter a large shopping district which depresses me since no one takes Visa. These next two days are going to suck. We eventually walk up a flight of stairs and come face to face with the most beautiful sight of the trip, I should have did Hong Kong last, the skyline of the Avenue of stars. The avenue resembles the Hollywood walk of fame, except reserved for those keeping the last four letters of the alphabet alive. The entire length of the avenue looks over the water to HK Island, where all the big corporate HQs reside. Reminding me of Blade Runner, each building features ground to sky neon lights, sporting lasers and HID spotlights on the roofs. At 8:00, they dazzle the viewers with a nightly laser show, in the Guinness book as the largest laser show repeated nightly.
It’s beautiful. For once, smog helps, casting bands of light across the water. Like Close Encounters, the buildings on Kowloon’s side respond with their own laser and light show, a beautiful duet of lights and lasers on a grand scale. However, by 10:00, the “wake-up” I took when I arrived bleeds away. I rub my neck and peel away grease. The realization washes over me that I have not had a shower in 36 hours in 30 degree humid weather. Time to return to the hotel.
Suffice to say what could have been a major Chernobyl, turned into a mere Three-Mile Island. I only hope at midnight tomorrow, I can get money finally. I doze off quickly that night…tomorrow…we go to Ngong Ping…
Final note: Jet Lee has tiny tiny hands…
While at the first temple of Bao Lian, I came across many of the traditions of China. Jaime, not a religious person, still bows at every Buddhist statue we pass. I guess when a Chinese person says they are not religious, Buddhism is a default they don’t bother mentioning. The praying by burning incense I was well aware of but I was not aware of the sticks in the cylinder technique. This basically entails shaking said sticks in mentioned cup until one drops out. Eyes closed. Two drop? Repeat. I get a 14. By the end of this day, I am still not sure if it means I will live a long life or die soon of gout.
Inside the temple is like stepping back in time. Large gold (looking) statues look as clean and pristine as the day they were built. Nearby, I see piles of offerings to the statues in the form of fruit, vegetables, Pepsi, sprite—pyramids of cola cans.
Around this island of tradition, 50 floor apartment blocks blot out the surrounding hills and mountains. During the spring festival, the dancers break out the Dragons (“Long”). Alas, this does not occur during the autumn festival, coming next week.
The first temple.
DAY ONE “Smells like Hong Kong”
Okay… First mistake was not not getting any HKD (Hong Kong Dollars) before arriving. I fully admit this error on my part.
The flight to Van was easy enough. I pranced around the last vestige of English before climbing aboard an EVA Flight 747 carried over from late 1970s. Seriously, I actually think I was riding a Pterodactyl. I half expect Grog and Mirax to pass out refreshments (“Coffee?”, “Tea?”, “Fire?”). I lovely lady visiting family in Taipei offers some advice.
“Ask for the Emergency Exit.” She is an angel. There is like 10 feet of leg room at the exit. I wish for a window seat but settle for an aisle. This ends of being a blessing since the “inflate-ramp” blocks the foot room for the window.
I am already getting an eyeful of the scenery. All the flight attendants on EVA air look amazing, snuggled in tight one piece suits. Two of them sit across from me during take-off and landing (their collapsible seats are reversed). Add to that a real gorgeous Japanese girl sits beside and we not only talk during the fight but also chat and hang out in Taipei airport as well.
The flight itself passes by quickly considering the screaming kids and the nonstop lines to the bathroom (right next to me…mixed blessing). Oh…on that. The bathroom has holes for Kleenex, paper towels…and used razor-blades. So not only are there people who actually want to shave on a flight, but they are doing it so frequently, they are actually using UP razor blades? We are served handiwipes via metal tongs three times, drinks are served 6 times, and three meals. The in-flight movies were Nacho Libre and Akeelah and the Bee. The irony of having a movie about an American Spelling Bee dubbed in Mandarin with Cantonese subtitles is not lost on me.
I notice lights outside…I assume since the Pacific does not have streetlights, we are nearing the city. Nope…6 more hours to go. Turns out that was Tokyo. This flight takes us over the entire long path over Japan, covering as much landmass as possible. Ironic my new friend flies over her country and backtracks on another flight.
The Taipei airport is…well…long. It’s several long hallways. The arrival terminal is one lone, unbroken hallway…about three kilometers long. You think I am kidding? I started walking from one end and it took me 30 minutes to cross it using the motorized sidewalk. After entering into the duty-free zone, I pass into another equal-sized hallway! I pass separate prayer areas for Buddhism, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Yes, I enjoyed the fact the Buddhist swastika was next to the Jewish praying area.
It’s raining all day in Taipei. Alas, EVA air apparently gathered all the good looking Tai girls. I arrive at 5:00 am and leave at 10:00, arriving in Hong Kong at a little after 11:00. The thrill of having 4 hours sleep on a 747 and being up for 18 hours wanes fast. After passing through customs, I am hit with a smell almost familiar
it’s like being in an Indian restaurant. Curry mixed with fried…everything. I notice several open air restaurants and assume they are the source. I leave HK airport and realize the smell wasn’t from the restaurants…
Welcome to Hong Kong…
…and that’s when my day turned to hell…
—Where our lights go green, yellow, red, green, theirs go green, yellow, red, yellow, green.
—The signs on the crosswalk say “Look left” and “Look right”. Remember, in Hong Kong, they drive on the left while in the China (and most of the rest of the world), they drive on the right.
—No Fortune cookies. No Western Chinese cuisine at all for that matter. It seldom resembles any Chinese food you know.
—Chopsticks are all plastic and virtually impossible to grip food with. Wood contains natural ridges to grab food. Smooth plastic chopsticks kinda go against why they use chopsticks in the first place.
--The only traditional Chinese clothing anyone wears are in Chinese restaurants.
—Crosswalks are suggestions, not rules…for all involved.
—All English speaking Asians on TV sport British accents. And their TV commercials and programs glorify proudly every cliché you know about Chinese people.
—The prices on English menus in many restaurants are more expensive than the identical menu in Chinese. Jaime pointed that one to me.
The low point of driving to Thanh Vu is passing by the packed parking lot of the Great Wall Restaurant, observing the morbidly obese patrons parade their smocks and track pants through the double doors. The minivans and pickups pack the parking lot like MSG packs veins, overflowing onto the street like the curb is a leather belt clasping solely through its strong nuclear force the bloating gut of our increasingly fat culture. Thankfully, enough people have some modicum of taste as Thanh Vu is filled as well, thought mostly with people older and wider than me, something I can say with confidence despite my hairline.
I hate sitting at tables. I feel so exposed compared to a booth. And yet, despite an inviting stall not ten feet from me, I was plopped on a table meant for four in clear view of an entire geriatric bowling team. It was odd seeing such a wide divide of customers between Thanh Vu and U&Me. Both are Vietnamese restaurants with identical cuisine less than a mile apart from one another. Why does U&Me get mostly young people along with “apparently” the entire Asian population of Prince George? Maybe because U&Me is more comfortable while Thanh Vu feels more like an ethnic restaurant franticly covering its cuisine under the umbrella of a family restaurant. And yet, it doesn’t go that far down that sinful path. For one, the menu is listed with all the regional verminclature intact. Mi Xao bo, Cha gio, Goi cuon, I felt like I was learning something. Granted their English translation flanks the foreign, but it’s a nice touch. The menu is massive, with twice the options of U&Me, though I wouldn’t call that praise. Too many options is an attribute of many Chinese restaurants, leading customers into “choice-glaze”, the same problem with many big-box grocery stores. You have thirty seconds to pick a bag of potato chips; there’s far too many, so you always end up with the same bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Small menus offer intimacy, allowing you to study each item offered, encouraging experimentation. It’s what prompted me to try virtually every item on Shiraz’s menu (which I’ve almost completed).
The Cha gio is described as the same shrimp salad roll offered at U&Me. Mi Xao bo is their famous pork-packed spring roll, so I ended up getting two appetizers. Yes, I know I was planning on inviting some people, but this was a spur of the moment and I had no one to blame but myself. I didn’t even bring my cell phone with me.
I can appreciate the ethnic touches Thanh almost conceals, like the paintings way too high for the casual observer to even notice or the subdued ethnic music barely audible over nearby table chatter. The two appetizers arrived together and despite already knowing the pork roll would arrive with a surface temperature more akin to a summer morning on the surface of Venus, I still dove in, burning my mouth in quick seconds before scrounging around maidenly for the water like I’m Nicholas Cage reaching for vodka in Leaving Las Vegas. It was good as always, though I swear these things are getting smaller each time I order them. The shrimp salad roll was a disappointment. Firstly, this oversized doobie (yes, that’s right) wasn’t even cut, so I felt quite…inadequate grasping this flaccid lump of tough shrimp and limp lettuce. To compound it, the peanut dip was runny and light in flavor, a big point in favor of U&Me. Perhaps what U&Me specializes in Thanh Vu lacks.
Onto the main, and given the level of steam rising from it, I gave it a minute to cool. When I did finally dive into it, it was initially a little underwhelming but eventually I got into it. I usually prefer ordering dishes with strong flavors but the Mi Xao bo was more subtle. Its primary flavor kick came from lime leaves rather than from curry. It wasn’t at all spicy, something I usually brace for when eating Vietnamese or Thai.
Thanh Vu hasn’t changed much from my last review; it still remains a great place to eat. It doesn’t gain or lose much from its dinner appraisal. However, one thing this review crystallizes is how inferior Thanh Vu is to U&Me, though that still makes Thanh better than many of the restaurants in town, way better than its neighbors. In fact, Thanh Vu is virtually alone when it comes to quality in the region. It does lack that evening romantic appeal U&Me manages to tap, an amazing feat when considering the pho bowls separating conversation are larger than the reservoir behind the WAC Bennett Dam. Thanh Vu is going for the same crowd as those wanting something more than Boston Pizza but not enough to risk a purely unfiltered ethnic experience like Shiraz. It takes a middle of the road approach, which works for some, but when superior Vietnamese cuisine sits three minutes away, I’ll opt for that.
OVERALL: 7.5 out of 10