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.

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Bonkers in Honkers Part 2

When I left you, we were about to start playing at Hong Kong’s Lyric Theater- technically the reason for us being there. For an out-of-touch bebop musician like me, a relatively big pop show like this is unfamiliar territory. I’m used to playing with two or three cohorts, minimal amplification, minimal audience, almost nothing in the way of stage fog or strobe lights, and a fairly reliable absence of rampant slavering groupies; and in most ways the Bianca Wu show was very different.

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Most of this pop lark is an absolute gas. Now I may have a reputation as an elitist; an intellectual and artistic snob, but I can assure you that, as Tolstoy said, “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.Read more at http://www.notable-quotes.com/t/tolstoy_leo.html#k6TJxtMzHcru8zuC.99”… The music is great fun to play; the songs are all in Cantonese, meaning we can come up with dirty juvenile approximations of the lyrics; the singer is easy on the eyes, it’s great watching the swooping video cameras narrowly miss the absurd set designs, the enormous number of seemingly inept stage crew bumping into eachother provide constant amusement, and taking a bow in front of a cheering crowd never gets tired. But a few things take some getting used to. In order to hear in a room this size, we have to listen to ourselves, and each other, through headphones, otherwise the amplified sound bouncing back from the room sounds like a garbled mess. So each of us is outfitted with a pair of “cans” (headphones, not breasts), and a small mixing desk with a knob for each instrument. Pop music- it’s all cans and knobs these days. This means I can adjust the volume level of each other player in my headphones, usually based on how much I like his shirt, and how nice he was to me that day. Our drummer Dan has the added pleasure of being surrounded by a thick sheet of perspex, giving him the appearance of a caged animal, which is not doing much to help the reputation drummers have already.

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And our musical director, Art, has a microphone stuck in his face at all times that feeds directly to us, so he can verbally hold our hands and lead us though the show. Add to this the fact that we can rarely see or hear the audience, and it sometimes feels like an elaborate prank. Albeit a fairly well paid one. The Hong Kong crowds were also presumably disappointed by the dearth of saxophone solos, but they’re a stoic people. After the shows, Bianca would chat and take photos with hundreds of fans individually, and sell more of her CDs in a night than I have of mine under my couch. We’d sneak out the back door, grateful to security for doing such an amazing job of keeping fans away from the band, and then it was off into the night.

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On our last trip, after an evening spent dodging aggressive prostitutes and bloated, ruined expats in Wanchai, Dan, Art and I (allegedly) drunkenly stumbled into a bar with what I’m going on record as saying was an awesome cover band. ACDC, Bon Jovi, Van Halen- these guys played note-for-note recreations of ‘em all. And after sheepishly asking around, it seems it’s a bit of a Hong Kong thing: Filipino bands working their arses off playing the hits for drunken idiots. Now I’m a closet hair-band fan, but what really impressed me here was the talent and stamina. These guys tear it up hour after hour, night after night, segueing from one song to the next, while showing no outward signs of the gaping chasm of crushing disappointment that presumably inhabits their souls. I like it when they do Cherry Pie. Now I’ve played in my share of cover bands, but when we had to play three 45 min sets in a night, we’d stomp our feet and refuse to put the wigs and body glitter back on until we got a pay rise, a massage, and a week off. I’m impressed, I tell you. And somehow, magically, this trip we fell into the same bar, with the same band, playing the same songs. I saw it as fate’s way of telling me to rip my shirt off, douse myself in Chartreuse, and scream the wrong words to Livin’ On A Prayer. It seems Hong Kong bouncers have a more indeterminist outlook than me.

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This photo has no relation to the story.

As I mentioned in my last outpouring, this city is known for is its food, and I’d decided to shove as much in as possible. I’d had limited success with expert recommendations, so I tried listening to the internet. One highlight was a dumpling joint 20 mins walk from our hotel where Dan and I, both fairly large lads, were politely and graciously wedged behind the smallest table available, in a greasy nook under the stairs. Crammed in amongst the mops and Kitty Litter, we perused the menu. Occasionally I like to gamble and not read the English translations, ordering based on what I think the Chinese characters might mean. Got a lot of respect for my excellent taste too- as one dish was served the room went silent and the other customers started filming me. In fact several fainted in admiration. I also waited for an hour outside Kam’s Roast Goose to have an incredible Michelin-starred lunch for 10 bucks- more of that amazing fatty crispy awesomeness. I liked it so much I offered them a slogan: “Our goose puts the “Honk” in Hong Kong!” I’m not welcome at Kam’s anymore.

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We finished up the tour with an after-party. I think you know what I’m talking about. Rock and Roll! Am I right?! Try and imagine the most debauched, depraved, orgiastic rock band party ever. Then please describe it to me, ‘cause that’s as close as I’ll get. The spring rolls were delightful. I think they had some shredded seaweed in them. Next stop: Sydney!

 

Bonkers in Honkers Part 1

The following was written in Hong Kong, but posted in Sydney. I’m really not very good at this. Enjoy!

If you’ve been enduring my incessant social mediafying, you’ll know we’re about half way through our Hong Kong escapade, and I thought a rundown was in order. I’m here with a gang of killer musicians from New York to play with Hong Kong pop star Bianca Wu. We’ve all worked with her many times over the past six-or-so years, and this is our third visit to the area. Bianca’s a pretty big deal in these parts, and we’re here doing three shows at the 1200-seat Lyric Theatre in Hong Kong’s Academy for the Performing Arts. The shows are big- 26 songs over two and a half hours; it’s a real workout for the rhythm section, and an absolute doddle for me. The horn section is only on stage for about two thirds of the show, and much of that is spent adjusting our music stands and losing count of bars of rest. The rest of the time I’m offstage, wandering the labyrinthine hallways shouting “ROCK ’N’ ROLL!!” in a bad cockney accent. Never gets tired. There’s altogether too much rehearsing and sound checking, but we’ve had a bit of time to get into some trouble.

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To start at the start, we were met at the airport by our producer Patrick, and bundled into cabs to the city. It’s a fair hike- the airport is located on the always-satisfyingly named island of Chek Lap Kok (yep, still there), and the trip takes you through several islands, Kowloon, and under Victoria Harbour- none of which is visible from the endless freeway. We were all pretty dazed after the marathon flight, but steeled ourselves for a welcome dinner at a local restaurant. My spirits lifted noticeably with the discovery that the joint’s specialty was roast meat. Suddenly, it became clear that the only things missing from my life were dead animals and weak Chinese beer. I mentioned this to our host and was presented with a whole fatty, crispy, juicy, life-affirming roasted goose, which I ate. I would have ordered another one, but fellow diners were starting to look at me with genuine concern. I wiped enough goose fat out of my eye to wink reassuringly at them, then lay down under the table. Eventually I slid back to the hotel where I took a handful of Melatonin and slept like a greasy baby.

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Next morning, I jolted my addled brain into action with a visit to one of the excellent coffee shops which are multiplying throughout the city. Traditionally, China has been associated with coffee in the way the US has been associated with thin healthy people, but this is changing fast, and I had numerous quality caffeinated options in walking distance from our digs. Alert and teeth-grindingly jittery, I joined the band for a hair-raising van ride through the city to our first rehearsal. For an hour we were thrown about like sneakers in the clothes dryer, while our lunatic driver veered across lanes and ploughed through vegetable carts and stacks of empty boxes; all the while juggling a dozen cell phones emitting incessant, piercing alerts and ringtones. When we arrived at rehearsal, it was all I could manage to crawl to a couch, close my eyes, and do nothing for two hours. Fortunately, that’s what I’m being paid to do.

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The Afterthought Horns and the rhythm section. Both doing what they do best.

Honkers is a glutton’s paradise, with noodles, dumplings and delicious animal parts of every imaginable species within arm’s reach. I had a bit of time on Thursday, so I went searching for a couple of joints that had come recommended. I wandered down to the stunning Victoria Harbour, surely one of the loveliest city harbours in the world, and hopped on the ferry to Kowloon. It’s madness over there- an engorged, throbbing, quivering mess of humanity. Tourists, locals, hawkers, beggars, millionaires, all conspiring to stop me getting anywhere. I had some pretty amazing dumplings at the famed Din Tai Fung, then fought my way back through the throng. By the time I got back to the harbour, I’d somehow managed to buy a dozen watches, four suits, and a Filipino wife. Don’t know how I’m going to fit them all in my bag.

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Ferry and junk

Then it was another ferry over to the part of town creatively titled Central, where I was aiming for a little noodle place endorsed by Anthony Bourdain. I slogged up and down tiny alleys till I found the spot Google had assured me was the one. Three mouthfuls of impenetrable, leathery noodles were all I could get down before I pushed my plate away in defeat, grudgingly paid the bill and plodded home, cursing Bourdain, that lanky, septic bugger. It was then I discovered that I’d been at Mak An Kee, ONE BLOCK from my noodley holy grail, Mak UN Kee. I’ve just checked my Cantonese-English dictionary, and it seems “Un” means yummy, and “An” means rubbery tasteless shit reserved for idiot westerners.

That night we had our first crack at the stage of the Lyric, about which I will tell you… next time. Cheers!