a bucolic side of hong kong

i dragged my luggage over the sloped walkway, its four rotating wheels that usually serve me so well rendered useless by the hard, bumpy surface that’s clearly not designed for any big or heavy piece of travel gear. after all, the ferry that’s waiting at the end of pier 4 is intended for lamma, a small outlying island of hong kong – at just over 13 square kilometres, it’s second largest after lantau – located about 3km off its south west coast that’s visited by few tourists.

it’s a world away from the main hong kong island, where shiny steel towers crowd the skyline while a cacophony of cars and people form an incessant congestion on the ground. there’s a lot to take in but little space to breathe. lamma is on the other extreme; with a population of just several thousand and mostly concentrated in the fishing villages where few bother to lock their front doors, it is quiet and bucolic. its narrow winding roads are meant to be traversed only by foot, bicycles and small motorised carts nicknamed vv for village vehicle. lamma’s most famous son is actor chow yuen fatt, who grew up in the village of tung o and still visits from time to time.

that peace and quiet is what draws locals to make a day trip of it, or rent a holiday apartment for the night. my travel buddy and i had decided on a private apartment instead, the occasional weekend home of an expatriate couple. lamma has always been popular among hong kong’s expatriate community, who either own or have long-term lease on properties here. some prefer to make this island their home, commuting to the city only when necessary.

this is hong kong, i had to remind myself, even though it felt like anywhere but

the owner met us at the pier in yung shue wan village, one of two docking points for ferries from hong kong and from where it’s supposed to be a 10-minute stroll to the apartment.  except it took us twice as long, with a lot of huffing and puffing along the way, as we navigated the weekend crowd along the one main road in the village where low buildings – nothing over three storeys is allowed – house seafront restaurants, cafes, pubs, grocery shops and specialty stores offering souvenirs, dried seafood and gourmet produce. a lively, almost festive atmosphere hung in the air; it was noon and day trippers were milling about, deciding on where to lunch or waiting in line at the more popular restaurants. reflecting its residential make up, a variety of western cuisines is as readily available as seafood restaurants dishing up the freshest catches, cantonese-style, and the ubiquitous char chan teng.

just as we were about to melt into a puddle from the noon heat, we arrived at the apartment, housed in a block of walk-up nestled on a quiet lane off the main road. i caught my breath from the balcony, which looked out to flowering shrubs in the garden below and beyond the road we had walked in from, a sliver of the sea.

this is hong kong, i had to remind myself, even though it felt like anywhere but. to begin with, the two-bedroom apartment cost just a little more than a standard hotel room in say central, but offered what would be a rarity there: space. with more than enough for two and homey to boot, it’s almost surreal. altogether, it’s a refreshing departure from the hong kong i had previously encountered. i wanted to see more, and to find out how lamma fares on the food front compared to the culinary heaven that is the main island.

we headed back to the hub of shops we had passed earlier, the walk a lot more enjoyable this time and began to notice more of yung shue wan’s charms. makeshift stalls lined the way, with vendors selling everything from artistic jewellery to homemade pastries, kitschy souvenirs to traditional sticky cakes. it was like a large open-air flea market that only takes place on weekends. ancient banyan trees that gave the village its name stand imposingly, their aerial roots dripping onto thick trunks and their canopies spreading out to cast wide shady areas underneath.

underneath one such tree, we spied a food stall with a sign hanging above that says ‘thai thai food’ offering spicy delights like tom yam soup and minced pork with basil. with the sweat on our back and the sun still beating down on us, the thought of eating chilli was a bit daunting so we decided on something to cool down with instead: green mangoes, which the proprietor told us were imported from thailand.

ancient banyan trees that gave the village its name stand imposingly, their aerial roots dripping onto thick trunks and their canopies spreading out to cast wide shady areas underneath

delightfully crunchy and a lovely balance of sweet and sour, they put us in the mood for something fresh and green – like the vegan fare at bookworm cafe, a shrine to hippie chic. shelves of books on spirituality line one wall while parked against the other are booth seats salvaged from old bing sutt (traditional coffee shops) and given a lick of green paint. rainbow-hued cushion covers, handwritten chalk boards and a motley vintage decor items make up the rest of the cosy interiors. on the menu are organic teas and fruit drinks, and a good variety of non-meat fare. i dug into my vegan salad bowl, a generous serving of raw greens and nuts that would have been mere rabbit feed if not for the garlicky hummus.   

foregoing their homemade cakes, we skipped next door instead to hunt for some healthy sweets at justgreen organic convenience store, stocked to the brim with all manners of superfoods, nutritional supplements and freshly-baked breads. i had my eyes on the freezer of happy cow ice cream, a home-grown artisanal brand that churns their icy concoctions from coconut cream, the sugar from coconut tree flowers and other plant-based ingredients. i went for the original coconut flavour and was rewarded with a silky, milky cup of happiness that satiated my sweet cravings without being cloying.

a few doors down, lamma gourmet beckoned with chillers of cold cuts while platters of salads and vietnamese spring rolls sit alongside freshly baked loaves and house-made hummus on the shelves. their roast chicken is popular too; pick up a salad and a bottle of wine along with it and you have a complete dinner.

we walked further up, towards the pier we had arrived at. on our left, a slew of pubs and seafood restaurants make the most of their seafront location to offer meals with views.  but we were more excited by the farm harvests at the market stalls ahead: luscious tomatoes on the vine, leafy vegetables with plump stalks, sweet corn bearing fat kernels in an intense shade of yellow that were simply begging to be transformed into a gratifying meal. that was it, dinner was settled – we would cook our own. after all, we had an apartment with a fully-equipped kitchen and not just another hotel room. why not make use of it to make ourselves completely at home and pretend, even if it’s only for a few days, that we’re not just visiting lamma but living here?

a run through the small but well-stocked grocery stores in the vicinity completed our haul, while a quick stop at the dried seafood goods shop yielded a pungent salted fish preserve and dried mantis prawn snacks. we also picked up some bottles of chinese herbal teas to help beat the heat as well as a packet of earl grey cookies from shelly cake express. the latter is a tiny cafe that specialises in cheese cakes, coffees and other baked goods. the cookies were light and crumbly, with a good amount of earl grey tea infused into the batter.

we headed back toward our apartment to drop off the goods, in the same direction that visitors take if they want to go to hung shing yeh beach. at about the halfway point, most will stop and join the queue at kin hing ah por (grandma) tau foo far, a local institution that’s little more than a stall under the shade of trees and tarpaulin sheets. grandma herself, a sprightly lady with her greying hair in a tight bun, stands at the stall preparing orders. you only have to choose between hot and cold. she will scoop the smooth, airy pudding into bowls and then pour over a mildly spicy ginger syrup from a big kettle. grandma’s stall is said to have been around for over two decades now and the long queues – and newspaper clippings from over the years, displayed on a board by the stall – speak for themselves. 

the beach is also called power station beach because it overlooks hongkong electric company’s plant that generates electricity for this and the main island. located at one end of the rocky beach, the cluster of grey buildings with three tall chimneys stick out like sore thumbs from the rest of lamma’s landscape. it is, perhaps, a reminder to the city folks soaking in the sun-dappled sea and basking in the idyllic atmosphere that while lamma may be a stark contrast to the city’s madness, it’s really not far from it.

we dried off on the flat rocks on the shore while a slow evening breeze brought the temperature down a few notches and the sun began its descent into the horizon. waves wash to shore just as surely as we felt ourselves awash in a calm, peaceful state of mind. solitude and serenity in hong kong – who would have thought?

we headed back once darkness fell, a stroll of under 10 minutes that gave us plenty of time to prepare dinner before hunger hit. the corn is boiled with salt to bring out its sweetness; the tomatoes halved, seasoned with salt, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and served with fresh basil leaves. the salted fish preserve is stir-fried with steamed rice, served with a fried egg and sprinkles of spring onions.

it was a home cooked dinner enjoyed in the comforts of a home, and it set the tone for the days to come. after the weekend vacationers had departed, it felt as if we had all of lamma to ourselves – to immerse in its idyllic pace, to cool down in the shade of the yung shue (banyan tree) and watch more sunsets from the beach. this is hong kong, not the one i knew from before but one i would like to get to know more about.

this article first appeared in crave and the malay mail online on 7 sep 2014