New York City: Coda

The San Remo. Book pictured is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, bought in McNally Jackson.

Much of my final days were spent wandering through Tribeca and Chinatown, alternately popping into antiquarian bookshops and – and I am not ashamed – Karlie Kloss’ favourite restaurants. There is something deliciously liberating about just doing everyday things in a foreign cosmopolis and imagining you were a local – especially when travelling alone. Besides, New York really does have the most photogenic cafés and desserts.

Disparate thoughts I had while racewalking the OG concrete jungle:

  • Is that wall worth asking a stranger to take my photo? Because 80% chance I won’t look good the first time round so I’d have to ask a few and wait in between so the previous stranger(s) won’t get miffed… Nah.
  • This is surreal.
  • Reading a book while eating makes eating alone 10-fold less awkward.
  • (When two men in front of me on the Brooklyn Bridge complained about how ‘humid’ the week had been) Hah ahaha haha. I’d choose New York summers over Hong Kong summers any day. Except in the subway. What is this, the Victorian era? It’s a friggin’ cast iron furnace.
  • The Bridge is definitely worth asking a stranger to take my photo.
  • This is surreal.
  • Fun fact: On the Manhattan side, the Bridge has purpose-built cellars for wine!
  • If Manhattan were Hong Kong Island and Brooklyn were Kowloon, then I’m still strictly an island girl.
  • But most of all, a Hong Kong Island girl. Manhattan is too organised; everything penned up in grids, unchanging horizons as you look down never-ending avenues and streets… I missed the hills and convoluted roads and glass skyscrapers glinting in the perennial sunlight. The homes and shops and offices and people spilling on top of each other in eclectic chaos. Besides, once you have grown up in the superlative clutter and crowdedness of Hong Kong, few other cities can ever compare.

Did I mention it was surreal? Though these posts may seem to suggest otherwise, I am not some jet-setting #richkidofHongKong with five-figure allowances and unspoken permission to jump onto last-minute long-haul flights. In the last three years, I had only gone on one vacation to Taiwan with my family. I am nevertheless ridiculously fortunate. But ask me two months ago, and a trip like this one would have been a frivolous fantasy.

I never would have entertained the possibility of my parents condoning it. Then there is the $$$. My life savings (all 18 years’ lai see money had remained untouched until now) may have been able to cover the exorbitant expenses, but as a Chinese child still living under my parents’ roof, they have the final word on how I use my money. And tanking it all did not sound very wise. Honestly, I have no idea why they said yes. Maybe they were just too shocked. After all, I never ask for birthday presents, let alone something like this. To be fair, I did jokingly ask my mother at 4:00 a.m. as she was desperately cramming for her Theology exams. She probably didn’t process what I’d said until after I’d bought the ballet tickets. 🙈

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Brooklyn skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge.

But about Days 6-8. I managed to get sunburned just from the 45 minutes I had spent on the Brooklyn Bridge because #pastyproblems. I also perfected the art of asking strangers to take photos – I haven’t reached iPhone-tripod-solo-travelling status just yet.

Back on Manhattan, I also bought myself Baron Fig notebooks. They open flat! Like, perfectly flat. So you will never have to choose between ugly spiral bounds and wasting expensive space in #aesthetic notebooks ever again. The dimensions are wider, which makes a surprisingly significant difference in handwriting comfort. The paper is thicker than Moleskine’s and Leuchtturm’s too = your fancy brush pens won’t bleed. Low-key checked out this start-up because Jennifer Chong (cult brand Linjer co-founder and my high school alumna) loves them.

What else? Oh! Food.

  • This will make me sound so basic but The Good Sort has the best avocado toasts, which they top with edamame, chilli and Chinese dukkah. Avocado + edamame = the best thing since, well, avocado toast. Their rainbow lattes are also very #Instaworthy.
  • Sprinkles has a 24/7 cupcake ATM and it’s the cutest thing ever. (HK please get it together.) They also claim to be the first cupcake bakery in the world.
  • San Remo only has the very basics (plain black or white coffee). But the marble tabletops and black and white mosaic floor are perfect accompaniments to your #ButFirstCoffee ‘grams. Plus, Bella Hadid was there just two days before me, so I’m basically a certified coffee shop hipster.
  • The eggs at the Egg Shop are indeed very good. The barista accidentally spilled water all over me and gave me free coffee. Thank goodness because it was near impossible to find flat whites in New York City.
  • Two Hands has really really good charred broccolini.
  • Taiyaki is overpriced but the presentation is hard to beat.
  • Gregory’s has good coffee but the barista judged me quite severely when I ordered a flat white out of habit. (Spoiler: They do not make flat whites.)

And thus concludes my all-over-the-place post. I’ve been struggling to translate the trip into words for the last two weeks. But the longer I leave it, the more I’m afraid of forgetting some small but significant moment or thought, so I finally hashed it out tonight. This is where I’m supposed to end with a memorable finale, but I don’t have one. So thanks for reading! Here’s to more crazy impromptu adventures. 🌃

Click here for Day 1. Click here for Days 3-4.

Mana! Fast Slow Food

The ‘green eating’ trend has finally seized Hong Kong. Not only have multiple raw ‘juiceries’ come onto the scene, they have actually managed to secure loyal streams of customers from a decidedly economical community, which would not normally care for puréed vegetables costing HK$70+ per bottle. Vegetarian and vegan eateries have also become much more prevalent, and one particularly successful restaurant located in the heart of Central is Mana! Fast Slow Food.

Mana! does not simply offer a ‘green’ menu – they strive to be eco-friendly and ethical in all aspects of their operations. Their utensils and packaging are completely biodegradable and made from recycled materials, they source fair trade, organic ingredients from local farms (yes, those exist in Hong Kong), send leftovers and food waste to local organisations to be used as compost, fitted their stores almost entirely with recycled furniture, use their cooking oils to make soaps… Overall, Mana! is certainly a model start-up subscribing to the ‘green eating’ philosophy.

So why is the popularity of these eating habits spiking now in a society that is otherwise perceived to be preoccupied with efficiency and more material luxuries (a sweeping generalisation, I acknowledge)? This inclination towards a healthier and more sustainable diet seems to coincide with a general increased tendency to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle. The milestones on the road to tackling climate change during the 2015 Paris Conference are a testament to our growing awareness and willingness to amend our destructive habits. Perhaps, in addition to a generation seeking to reverse the impacts of fast-food chains spread by globalisation, there is an underlying selfless desire to contribute to the international fight against global warming.

As for the actual food, Mana! wraps (the company calls them ‘flats’) continue to occupy the top spot in my ranking of wraps, probably because of the Lebanese Za’atar (a mixture of thyme, sumac, sea salt and sesame seeds) baked onto the bread. Their salads are just as appetising and filling, and make raw kale not only digestible (a miracle in itself), but actually delicious. And although I had walked for over half an hour under the scorching Hong Kong summer sun immediately before eating, I still could not finish their ‘small’ salad.

The menu is almost entirely vegan, with the sole exception being the option of adding an omelette to your flat. Gluten-free flats have also been added to the menu (though I have yet to try them), so coeliacs can rest assured. I cannot vouch for the rest of the menu, however, because I have not been inclined to buy their juices, burgers or fries. But I am sure that the latter items offer guilt-free alternatives to an otherwise grease-laden meal. I have also never visited Mana! Café because their open flats (envision healthy pizzas) do not especially appeal to me. Mana! Raw sells fresh juices and vegan sushi, but because I have heard that the latter is not as filling as their flats and salads, I doubt it is worth the HK$80-90 price band. Do comment if you think it is!

Photographs by Christy Lau.

Corner Kitchen Café

Sweet potato fries and chilli mayonnaise HK$65

Cafés have been so relentlessly romanticised in Western literature and films that they have become somewhat basic and clichéd, which is ironic because the quintessential coffee shop represents the independent and idiosyncratic. The displeasure of the French at Starbucks’ arrival in their country (evident in the transnational company’s failure to turn a profit there) and the wariness with which the Milanese are appraising Starbucks’ first Italian store are testament to the strong schema that Europeans hold dear for their cafés. The word offers cosy connotations for those who seek solitude, but also a warm eclectic community where barriers between strangers evanesce. Most negative criticism aimed at chain stores mention their ‘impersonal’ and ‘alienating’ atmospheres.

So it comes as no surprise that Corner Kitchen Café caught my attention. The name itself implies a friendly neighbourhood corner shop. It is a deceptively small, two-storey café tucked away on a hill in Sheung Wan, and serves burgers, wraps, tacos and the usual range of coffees. Situated 10-15 minutes away from the closest MTR stations, it is a pleasantly quiet location on weekdays. On weekends, however, be sure to arrive well before noon to secure a table. And even then, you may be asked to wait for 10-15 minutes.

After visiting four times, I can safely confirm that Corner Kitchen Café embodies the ideological coffee shop much better than either Starbucks or Pacific Coffee (the main chains in Hong Kong) do. The relatively inconspicuous location and the simple fact that it is a single, independent shop help it steer clear of the ‘fast-food feel’ that Europe so despises. The marble tabletops, wooden lawn chairs and comfortable couches add to the cosy-but-chic ambience.

My absolute favourite item on the menu is the pot of sweet potato fries, which comes served with a tin of the most delicious chilli mayonnaise that I have ever tasted. The wraps, although not as great as those at Mana! Fast Slow Food, are decent, but I would suggest avoiding the Greek yoghurt, salmon and coriander one. The yoghurt tasted too out of place – I would have preferred a dollop of another less tangy sauce. The coffee, served in Instagrammable mason jars and ceramic mugs, is smooth and creamy, and I would certainly rank it above Starbucks’ drinks. Unfortunately, it is just as expensive if not slightly more so. Prices for brunches are significantly cheaper; as Corner Kitchen Café offers all-day brunches on weekends, it is no wonder that the coffee shop is so popular on those days.

This tranquil coffee shop is perfect for catching up on your leisurely reading or lab reports on weekday afternoons, and for meeting up with friends for brunch on weekends.

Photograph by Christy Lau.