Fish Heads, Goose Butts, and Making Women Cry: Hempton Back in Honkers

One of my favourite moments as a slightly-taller-than-average human is walking down a supermarket aisle and seeing a little old lady reaching for a high shelf. I pull myself up to my full height, slap a reassuring smile on my dial, and make my way nonchalantly towards her. I know what’s coming. “Dear will you reach that tin of jellied tongue for me?” she’ll ask. “Certainly, madam”, I’ll reply, “no trouble at all”. I’ll effortlessly retrieve her revolting selection and hand it to her, perhaps with a small bow. “My, aren’t you tall?”, she’ll say, admiringly. “Why, yes I am. Good day, madam.” I’ll smile benevolently and stride off, as she says to herself, “and so polite!”. I’m a good samaritan. A saviour. In many ways a hero. I’ve recently discovered this same experience can be replicated by hopping a flight to China. While the country has produced some extremely tall folks (that one guy whose name I can’t remember was a whopper wasn’t he!), I think we can agree that by and large, the Chinese are a relatively compact people. And those overhead bins are a long way up. I just stand there tall-ly, and wait for a tug on the sleeve, and play the part of magnanimous tall-guy. My pompous manner comes at no extra charge. 

For my two nights in Honkers, I’d picked a strategically located hotel called the Mini. Size
seems to matter today… A 10 minute walk from the gig, it was also, Google assured me, a mere 15 minutes walk from the Airport Express train. Google failed to mention that the walk was vertical. Horn on shoulder, pouring with sweat, and muttering obscenities, I dragged my enormous suitcase, packed with a ludicrously optimistic number of CDs, up the sheer face of Ice House street, passing a surprising number of attractive young women, who managed to look at me pityingly while clearly stifling laughter. Aching, drenched, and humiliated, I reached the summit and checked into room 813 of the Mini Hotel. 

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This was taken at the front door

I can only assume “Hilariously Microscopic” wouldn’t fit on the business cards. This room was not built for swinging cats. I put my card in the front door and knocked the soap out the window. If I wanted to consider multiple points of view simultaneously I had to put my bag in the hall. The cockroaches had hunch backs. It was small I tell you! It was late when I arrived, so I put aside thoughts of a relaxing post-flight crouch, and headed out to find food. I soon recognised my surroundings from previous visits- the late night, expat part of town- a mess of aggressively loud beer bars full of drunk shouty Aussies and Brits pawing at tired prostitutes and puking on each other. Plenty of restaurants open, but of the sad, neon-lit variety, mostly Indian and Thai, with pushy spruikers out front grabbing desperately at passers-by. Things were looking grim, when just outside the danger zone, I glanced down a narrow alley and saw one of my favourite sights: groups of locals sitting on low stools slurping stuff out of bowls. I was down there like a shot, sharing a table with a toothless, grinning old bloke who seemed to know everyone. I couldn’t decide between the fish head and the pork intestines, so at about 3 bucks each, went with both. And a big bottle of the local water-beer. It had been a long flight. The waiter motioned at his head and stomach to be sure I knew what I was ordering, and we were away. Old mate and I cheers’d each other as the food arrived and I scarfed the lot, to the apparent amusement of the staff closing up around me. Another beer and i was feeling floaty and fine. It’s the only way I know of dealing with the soul-shock of reentry- immediate immersion. Local food, drink, people, as quickly as possible. 

 Jet lag jolted me awake early next day, and it being my only free day (till the night’s gig), I went wandering. I had no grand plans, aside from losing myself in the city and eating good things. I started with a joint I’d meant to try on previous trips- Mak’s Noodle. I sat at a tiny table across from a young couple, playing a game of inadvertent kneesies with the poor fellow, and had a bowl of noodle soup with brisket and wontons which would have been delicious if I wasn’t expecting it to be transcendental. One day I’ll learn.IMG_9032 I then sloshed down to the lovely Victoria harbour to take a ride on the Star Ferry. I do this every time- I don’t know why, nobody I take on it seems overly impressed, but I think it’s brilliant. It costs 35 cents for a ten minute ride on a grand old tub from the fifties, across unusually green water from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. All manner of craft drift by, from ostentatious millionaire yachts to ancient barely-afloat fishing junks, the glittering modern skyscrapers crowding around the shorelines, and the towering Tao Mo Shan mountain in the background. It’s very cool. Kowloon itself is the shopping mecca- Prada and Gucci and what-have-you- and doesn’t do much for me. The idea of traveling somewhere to go shopping baffles me; so I had a stroll, drank some kind of tapioca tea concoction and ferried back.

 I’ve drooled before on this blog about the offerings at Kam’s Roast Goose- the cheap, IMG_9036Michelin-starred meat paradise in WanChai. Last trip I tried to take the folks there for dinner, but they were sold out, so this time I got in early. I waited about 45 minutes for seat, checking my place on the list only occasionally with the truly intimidating woman who runs the place (deep down I arrogantly assume she likes me, but I’m definitely wrong). As usual I was seated with others, this time a party of charming older ladies clearly celebrating, but demurely. I ordered a quarter of a goose, from the animal’s lower half- fattier and more expensive than the upper quadrants- and inhaled the whole dripping meaty mess. I was simultaneously proud of, and appalled at, myself. Ideally this would have been the time for a nap. But I had a gig to get to.

 Wiping the goose juice from my chin, I hustled back to my matchbox and suited up. The night’s venue was Peel Fresco- ostensibly a jazz club, and the only one in town, but really anything goes, the jazz posters on the walls thoroughly outnumbered by those of posturing rock gods. There’s no piano, so it’s electric keyboard all the way, and the house drum kit is a clapped out old rock setup desperately pleading for retirement. As a bar it’s great, with lovely people on staff, but a town of this size, with this much money deserves more than half a jazz venue. The gig was hooked up by my old mate Blaine- a killer alto player a year or two ahead of me on the Sydney scene in the old days; the band was all Aussie aside from our New York-born pianist, and we had a ball ripping through some classics. The crowd was friendly and engaged aside from one old bag who was loudly and drunkenly abusing a poor young lass at the next table. Eventually I entered bar-manager mode and charged over to give her an earful, in the process knocking a drink into the lap of the poor innocent woman who’d been receiving all the abuse, who then ran out in tears. I really must learn not to get involved.

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I had a nice late hang with the cats, my delirious jet lagged brain unable to grasp concepts like time, and impending flights, eventually stumbling back to the Mini for a refreshing four hour nap, then back to the airport. Next up, breathless in Beijing! 

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Buffalo, Bia, and a Smelly Punch in the Face: Hanoi pt 1

At some point during my short flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi (ok it was immediately after take-off), I decided a cooling beverage was in order, so I cleared my throat pointedly in the direction of a passing attendant and inquired about the possibility of procuring a cold beer. Seconds later I was presented with a can of warm lager and a cup of ice. “Pardon me”, I ventured politely, “but what the fuck is this?” Fortunately by this time she was well down the plane, attending to another poor sucker- possibly providing him with a bag of wine and a spoon- and missed my impertinence. I closed my eyes, downed my beer on the rocks, and accepted that things were different here.

In his fine book, Down Under, Bill Bryson reflects that after flying as far as Australia from the US, he expects to find at least people on camels and swarthy men puffing on hookahs, when in fact he lands to find Sydney comfortable, clean and familiar. Arriving in Vietnam is quite the opposite, and one of the reasons I love visiting SE Asia: it’s really different. Within five minutes of leaving the airport I was passing fields being ploughed by water buffalo, shirtless rickshaw drivers leering toothlessly around their cigarettes, old men riding even older scooters while balancing impossible piles of building materials on their shoulders; all accompanied by my cab driver’s taste in Vietnamese trance. This joint is nothing like home.

It was only the most cursory glance at some travel websites that made me settle on Hanoi, and even less research to choose my neighbourhood, but boy did I do good. Half an hour from the airport, things started to get crowded and noisy; streets narrowing to a single lane, the noise of gunning motorbikes and shouting shopkeepers penetrating the disco daze. We slowed to a crawl as we got deeper into the Old Quarter, the streets thick with scooters and stall owners wheeling trolleys. And right in the middle of this was the Oriental Suites hotel. Brilliant.

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I saw this, but I borrowed this excellent photo from https://restlessabandon.com

Once checked in, I showered and set off for a look around. Pushing the hotel doors open and passing from my hushed air-conditioned haven back out into the outrageous cacophony of the old quarter took some real adjustment. In fact this happened every time I left the hotel- the sudden onslaught of intense humanity was like a punch in the face. The noise, the colours, the smells (fish sauce, gasoline, dog shit), the stifling humidity– it’s quite intimidating. But the only way to do it is confidently, otherwise you’ll be crushed. Probably by a Honda.

I’d been told about a northern Viet tradition called Bia Hoi (the discovery that the word for beer is “bia” immediately doubled my vocabulary), and that I needed to check it out. On street corners throughout the Old Quarter, low plastic stools are set out on the street, and (almost exclusively) men sit around and get plastered on cheap local beer. This stuff is brewed in the morning, delivered in the afternoon, and whatever’s left at closing time is dumped. In the corner of every Bia Hoi joint, an old bloke sits with his thumb over the end of a length of garden hose attached to a keg, and fills glasses all night. As soon as you park yourself, a beer magically appears in front of you, and they keep coming until you say stop, or fall over.

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Old bloke in training. Via http://yolotrautz.blogspot.com

I realised that the spot I’d picked was really just a drinking room: the keg was in the bar across the street. And one young fellow’s job all night was to carry armfuls of beer from one place to the other, weaving and dodging his way through an endless phalanx of kamikaze motorcyclists. It was better than TV. And the price? 40 cents a beer. It’s not the best beer I’ve ever drunk, but it was cold, the weather was stinking hot, and at that moment it was ambrosia. They also serve food at these joints- snacks to help with the drinking, really- but often very good. I gave my usual performance of gesturing helplessly at plates on neighbouring tables, and ended up with some kind of fish cakes which were salty and spicy and bloody delicious. Bia Hoi is a great way to start your evening: a little appetiser and a dozen beers, and you’re all set for a good night.

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Fish cakes, bia, and the ubiquitous fish sauce/lime/chilli combo

 

In Part 2: Ghost turtles and the murder of Glenn Miller

Marinated Intestines and an Offering to the Gods of Smooth Jazz: Hong Kong

I was supposed to write this weeks ago. I was just back from an amazing time in Asia- 10 days of pop stardom in Hong Kong, followed by three days of gallivanting anonymously around Hanoi- and I thought you needed to read some more of my garbled disorganised travel stories. And then Bourdain went and died, and that really put me on the back foot. I’m not going to gush about him- people have been doing that ever since, and way better than I could. But I will say that the big guy was an important presence in my life- his attitudes to food and travel, the way he experienced other cultures, definitely informed my own approach. And he was never on my mind more than when traveling in Asia. So after two weeks of him peeking over my shoulder, silently judging my restaurant choices, the news of his death was a nasty jolt. I guess it would have been anyway. Fortunately his ideas are not going anywhere, and I’ll continue to heed his words when hitting the road. But enough of that- let’s get bonkers in Honkers.

The nice thing about this trip was that, after a half dozen visits to Hong Kong, I’ve seen a lot already. I didn’t feel that panic to get out and do, see, and eat, everything. I know where to go to get my roast goose fix; I’ve eaten my own weight in dumplings and noodles at the places the foodie websites told me about; I kinda feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the joint. And this time I had the parental unit in town for a few days, so I got to play the expert.

This was my fourth tour of duty with the Bianca Wu band (or the New York Jazz Cats as we’re officially titled- please don’t tell anyone). Bianca is a renowned pop singer in Hong Kong, and likes nothing better than to come to New York, record an album, then fly the whole 9-piece band down for a gig or two. Musically, it’s pretty far from what I usually do, and I can’t say I listen to much Cantonese pop in my downtime, but the band is ace, Bianca and her crew are lovely, and it’s fun to be a part of a big pop show playing to thousands of people.

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This was the biggest show to date, with dancers, light shows, giant video screens, a moving stage– lots of intricate parts to be connected, requiring an enormous amount of precision work done by a large group of very talented people. Fortunately none of this involved me. For real, sometimes it’s sweet being the sax guy. Honk my way through the half of the show with horn parts, rip out an occasional 8-bar smooth jazz solo, then take a seat and watch the dancers. My mates Art and Dan (piano and drums) carry most of the show while I sit back and try to look cool for the cameras. Life just ain’t fair.

IMG_7889Before the first show, the entire outfit converged on the parking lot for a good luck ceremony. This involved our star Bianca and various associated bigwigs performing a complicated series of manoeuvres around some large smouldering incense sticks and sheets of burning paper. Nobody seemed able, or inclined, to explain to me what was going on, but I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention anyway, being occupied as I was in staring lasciviously at the ceremonial centrepiece: a glistening whole suckling pig. I dutifully did my bit- held some burning sticks, said some words I didn’t understand, all the while elbowing my way artfully through a group of people all considerably smaller than me, to be first in line for the blessed pork. A master carver hacked his way deftly through the porcine offering and handed me my dripping pile of ears, skin, and tongue. I scurried over to a corner and scoffed the lot, calm in the knowledge that least I didn’t have to worry about playing well: the fate of my performance was no longer in my own greasy hands, but in those of some Chinese deity. That night’s insipid smooth-jazz licks were positively divine.

At midnight one night after a particularly long, late rehearsal (Mum: haven’t you got it right yet??), Dan and I got back to the hotel starving. The helpful hotel staff suggested that the only things open would be around the train station. I’m not sure about you, but experience tells me food gets worse the closer it gets to public transport. But with little choice, we set off. And sure enough, once we crossed the tracks, we entered a magical make-believe world of kickass 24-hour restaurants. We walked along a winding, bustling street with noodle joints, dumpling spots, roast meat emporia, each more tempting that the last, and all open and overflowing with happy, partying locals. Of course we decided food could wait and headed for a bar.

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The Hong Kongers don’t really go in for bars the way I know them. They like to drink beer in restaurants, or cocktails in uber-fancy dens hidden inside office buildings. So when you find a good old fashioned dive, you make the most of it. This joint was packed with smiley locals, getting hammered and playing indecipherable bar games. Shortly after we took our seats at the bar, an unconscious patron was dragged past us. My kind of place. We chatted with some friendly folk and downed a few aperitifs, before stumbling back out to find the restaurant on which we’d settled. A big bowl of steaming spicy broth, with some noodles, meat, and veggies, slurped down in an over-lit, crowded, humid, family-run joint, with nothing but open doors and giant fans to combat the intense heat, may be one of my favourite experiences ever; and throughout Asia you can replicate it over and over. This place had marinated pig intestines in at least half their menu items, so I figured that was the way to go. Bloody good it was too.

After Cantopopping our way through the last show, most of the band headed back to NY, but Dan and I decided to hang out for a couple of days. I really needed to unwind after the several notes I’d played that week. We stayed in a part of town which I believe is called Dried Seafood Street, or if it’s not, should be. I spent the days gaping at displays of desiccated denizens of the deep, and nights drowning in noodles and beer. It was a brilliant way to tie off another visit to one of my favourite towns, before hopping it over to Vietnam. About which I’ll tell you next time. Righto.