Hong Kong: Get your Chinese visa…and the best food in the world!

I don’t know if I can say that I’ve really been to Hong Kong. According to my passport, I’ve been here 5 times, and all 5 times I’ve been stuck at the visa office.

My experience of Hong Kong is basically limited to a few stops on the metro, mainly Wan Chai, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. Wan Chai is where the visa office is, and that’s where I have to go two to three times on every trip to Hong Kong.

Everyone who’s ever had to get a Chinese visa will know that it’s a trying experience. The lines are long, they don’t always open when they say it will, and the policies always seem to be different than what’s on their website. Which is what I found out after waiting 2.5 hours…and on my birthday too!

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That’s right, a little over an hour before they stop giving numbers, and there’s still 210 people ahead of me…

There really isn’t any reliable way to know exactly what you need to obtain a Chinese visa. Sometimes you need proof of accomodation (hotel) and a return flight to get a tourist visa, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you need proof of relation if you’re visiting a relative, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes they ask for an invitation letter sometimes you don’t. At the Chinese office in Thailand, I was asked to get a health evaluation for my work visa, even though it wasn’t listed on the website. I’ve tried every single time to get a multiple entry visa because it says I can on the website, and it’s never worked before, but I got it this time. You just never really know what will happen, and the infuriating thing is, you just have to deal with it.

In general, Mondays and Tuesdays aren’t a great time to go for a visa. If you are planning to go on those days, you should go half an hour to an hour before opening, or the line will be heinously long (see above picture). They won’t give you a number unless you have a completed form; they pass out applications while you’re waiting in line. I wouldn’t recommend downloading the forms from the website, because they’re often outdated;I think there’s only been once or twice where the form I downloaded was accepted. You should have the information ready (in general, home address, work address, address in China), as well as a passport picture. If you’re visiting an individual, you’ll need an invitation letter from that person, as well as a copy of their Chinese ID or passport. A foreigner with a residence visa in China is allowed to issue invitations. Oh and disregard the “Applicants are advised to apply his/her Chinese visa from the Embassy or Consulate-General of Peoples’ Republic of China in the country where he/she resides or works permanently” notice on their website; they do allow people who don’t reside in Hong Kong to get a visa.

*Disclaimer, all this information is up to date as of November 12, 2013. I can’t guarantee it’s accurate in the future…

Hong Kong is a mix of the old and new; you’ll see evidence of traditional Chinese culture mixed with all the amenities of the modern world. You’ll see the bright white Apple store and Louis Vuitton on one street, and herbs and street vendors on the next. There old hostels and glamorous five-star hotels. You can have wonton noodles for $3 at a local cha chaan tang (tea cafe), or crab and winter melon soup at a 2-star Michelin restaurant. There’s something for everyone!

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Taken in Wanchai. Some women doing Taichi under an office building!

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Taken on one of the many skybridges in Hong Kong.

The one bright side of my terrible visa ordeal was that I found this great restaurant, Yin Yeung, in Wan Chai. Usually they don’t take walk-ins (they require a reservation 5 days in advance), but I told him it was my birthday (it really was!). I’m really glad they let me in, because it’s one of the best Cantonese food I’ve ever had! You don’t order anything, they have a set tasting menu. I spent HK$200 on this meal, but mine was a special order and not their full-course meal.

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Taken at Yin Yang in Wanchai. Make a reservation before going!

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Organic vegetable soup. All the vegetables used at this restaurant are grown in a local organic farm.

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Organic vegetable with shrimp sauce. No idea how they make a simple stirfry vegetable dish so good!

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Claypot rice with Wagyu beef and music egg. Not sure what a music egg that is but it’s good! I personally don’t like to eat it with soy sauce, I find it covers up a lot of the natural taste of the beef and rice.

There’s a dessert place at Causeway Bay that I always go to, because they make the best Hong Kong-style desserts (imo of course). It used to be located under the Holiday Inn Express (near Time Square), but now they’ve moved one street down to Yiu Wa St. If you go later in the night, you’ll have to wait in line if you want to sit down, although it’s mostly empty during mealtimes.

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Taken of  Cong Sao Star Dessert. The long lines of locals prove me right!

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My mango milk custard dessert! Got takeout to avoid the line…make sure you eat it quickly though, it’s best eaten cold.

On the same street is an interesting coffee shop called Coffee Academics, offering a huge variety of coffees, prepared they way they would in Europe. Unfortuanately, the service was a little lacking, and the salad I ordered was substituted for another one without my consent. They also didn’t have a lot of the things they have listed on the menu, which was disappointing. However, the manuka honey latte I ordered was definitely different; coffee lovers should still give this coffee place a shot.

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Taken at Coffee Academics.

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Mauka honey latte! I’m a sucker for coffee art…

I’d heard that the famous ramen shop from Osaka had opened up its first overseas branch in Hong Kong, and being a ramen fan I had to check it out. I was advised not to go during mealtimes, as people have reported waiting in line for FOUR HOURS. Four hours for a bowl of ramen? No thanks.

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Taken at Ichiran at Causeway Bay.

The ramen here is served in the Japanese way, designed to expedite the eating process. Each person gets a little booth and fills out an order form that allows you to customize your ramen. Everything is optimized so that as little time as possible will be spent on waiting for service; there’s tissues on the wall, a water tap and cup in each booth and a button to call for service (usually to order food).

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They might have booths for groups, but if you come yourself or in couples, most likely you’ll get this a little one like this.

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The Japanese way is to provide instructions for everything in order to minimize confusion.

The ramen appeared quite quickly after I handed in my order form. You can choose the type of soup base you want, how soft the noodles are as well as the condiments and toppings.

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Ramen with thick soup base, medium soft noodles, spring onion, chashu and a salted soft-boiled egg.

The cost of this meal was HK$101 ($13), which is quite a lot for ramen. The ramen was exceptional, but the price and location (it’s quite hard to find) make me reluctant to go for it again.

I swear, next time I’ll go just for Hong Kong, and really get to know it better. It’s definitely a place worth returning to!

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Off to Hong Kong & China~

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I’m heading to Hong Kong for work tonight, which means I won’t be posting for awhile! While I’ll still be able to access WordPress in Hong Kong, apparently it’s not accessible in China, where I’ll be for 4 weeks. I’ll definitely have interesting things to post when I get back though!

Stop Webcam Sex Tourism – Sign the Petition Now!

Just saw this video on Youtube, and it made my heart break for the thousands of children who are being abused. The group Terre des Hommes Nederland created a 10-year-old Philipino girl called “Sweetie”, and used her to identify over 1,000 pedophiles in just over 2 months.

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See video at : http://www.youtube.com/sweetie

Sweetie isn’t a real girl, but there are thousands of real children whose bodies are being sold. It’s sex tourism, whether it’s in person or not. Help stop more children from being exploited by signing this petition.

http://www.avaaz.org/en/wcst/?copy

Have you eaten yet? – Food Culture in China

This is a conversation I had often when I first arrived in China:

Person: Hi, how are you?

Me: Great! What about you?

Person: Good, good. Have you eaten yet?

Me: No, not yet. Want to get something to eat?

Person: Oh no, I’ve already eaten.

Me (thinking): Well then why did you ask?

This was before I found out that “Have you eaten yet?” is basically the Chinese version of “How are you?”.

Food is very important to Chinese people. There’s a Chinese saying, “The person who’s eating is as important as an emperor” (吃饭皇帝大, chi fan huang di da), nothing is as important as eating. Almost everything revolves around food; when a baby is born, family and friends gather for a banquet to celebrate its birth. When someone is promoted, it’s customary to for that person to buy dinner for other people in the office. Business meetings are held during meals. It’s social, it’s business, it’s a way to maintain relationships.

What I don’t like about Chinese meals is the waste. Things are getting better now, but when I first went to China almost 10 years ago, nobody ever took any leftovers home. It was considered “stingy” or “greedy”, like you’re so poor that you’d want to eat leftovers. I almost always take leftovers; I found that when I did so, others almost always followed my example. Most people do think that it’s a waste, but they don’t want to lose face by being the first.

And there were a lot of leftovers. Hosts often order way too much food for the amount of people eating, because not having leftovers meant they didn’t provide enough food for their guests. Wealthy men and women would order extravagant amounts of food, often expensive items like abalone and shark fin, only to throw most of it away in order to show-off that they could afford to do so.

The custom of “hosting” was also something I had to get used to. In the US, when I went to eat with friends, I almost always paid for myself, except for special events like birthdays and celebrations. It’s interesting to note that in China, the birthday girl or boy pays for everyone’s dinner as a thank you for the birthday gifts. In China, someone almost always buys dinner for everyone, even if they didn’t know some of the people at dinner very well. I felt very uncomfortable having dinner paid for by people I don’t know well enough, but found that when I tried to pay for myself, it was often taken as an offense.

One guy asked me if he wasn’t good enough to buy me dinner. After asking my Chinese friends and coworkers, I came to the conclusion that “hosting” was a give and take situation. When someone buys you dinner, you’re “taking” and you’re eventually expected to “give” back. By refusing to let him pay, I was saying I didn’t want to owe him anything, that I didn’t want to “give” back later, and basically drawing a line between me and him. Huh?

Men almost always pay for women in China, whether or not they’re their girlfriends, or even friends. Most women wouldn’t think twice of having a male coworker or friend pay for their meals. If a man’s girlfriend brings a (female) friend to meet him, he’s expected to pick up the bill. After struggling with it for a year, I eventually gave up and just let them pay.

Another faux pas I committed was trying to pay when everyone else had accepted the offer of the person paying for dinner. Apparently by offering to pay for myself, I was making them look bad because they didn’t offer. Who knew that trying to pay for myself was so complicated?

At meals, you’ll often see two or several people fighting for the bill. It’s a sign of wealth, that you’re able to pay for others’ food. While there are some people who always “have their hands in their pockets” when the bill comes, there are others who grab for the bill. A person who never pays is considered “抠门 kou men” (stingy) or “爱占便宜 ai zhan pian yi” (likes to take advantage of others). Someone who always tries to pay whether it’s their turn or not is called a “凯子 kai zi” (someone who’s easy to take advantage of, indiscriminately generous).  Both are considered to be bad; like I said, “hosting” is a give and take kind of thing.

Most of the friends I’ve gotten really close to while in China accept splitting the bill with me now. For a while I was very anxious whenever the bill came. Should I pay? For all of us? For myself? Is it my turn or theirs? How do I make it clear that it’s just a meal and not anything more if I don’t pay? Is that offensive? I even began to avoid eating out with people. Friends eventually caught on to the source of my anxiety and offered to do it my way. They confided that sometimes they don’t even know what’s proper and what’s not, and male friends told me about the pressure they feel when they have to pay for a meal they can’t really afford. Some girls are completely willing to split the bill, but are worried they would make their boyfriends feel like “less of a man”.

I guess we’re all confused.

Qingdao, China: A different beach experience

I’m a west coast girl. I’ve lived in California and Vancouver, and been around beaches all my life. It’s weird, beaches are basically oceans and sand everywhere in the world, but each has its own distinctive personality. Hawaii is all turquoise waters and soft sand, Abu Dhabi’s beaches are man-made and perfect. Qingdao, China is no different.

Qingdao is a coastal city in the province of Shandong, and widely known as one of the best cities for living in China. It’s known for its fresh seafood, clean envionment and beaches. But this is definitely not the kind of beaches I’m used to.

I went to Qingdao with my friend Paris in May of 2011 by train. Just our luck, it basically rained the entire time. That didn’t stop us from having a great time though!

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Taken at the harbor in Qingdao. I love coastal cities. Nothing beats the view!

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Not as impressive as the Shanghai and Beijing skylines, but beautiful all the same!

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European-style buildings…

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Some sort of government building…felt like I was in Holland

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Church?

And of course, like usual, we were tricked. Our accents and relatively pale skin (everyone there had a permanent tan) immediately marked us as tourists. We went to the same place almost everyday by taxi, and it always came out to 30 yuan (about $4 at the time). So naturally we thought that was the standard price. Then one day, we took a taxi back to our hotel, and the total came out to 18 yuan ($2.50). I gave him 30 anyways, since he was the only honest taxi driver we came across while we were there. In smaller places where the taxi drivers don’t get as much work, they tend to take the REALLY LONG routes. The amount of money is negligible, I just don’t like wasting so much time on the road.

Another taxi scam involved the taxi driver making up a story, telling us the place we’re going to is closed off because an important government official was visiting today. That sounded reasonable to us, it happens quite a bit in Beijing. He then proceeded to recommend a restaurant to us at the top of a mountain. I was starting to get suspicious, but my friend told him we’d try it out. After he took us to this mountain, we were told to buy tickets to get to the top of a TV tower. Nope, no way. Paris was already heading towards the ticket counter when I yelled at her (in English) that he was cheating us and for her to head back. After taking some quick pictures and admiring the mountain view, we walked down the mountain. Yup, WALKED. And here I thought bringing a native Chinese person who’s spent her whole life in China would ward off the scammers. Thanks a lot Paris.

In case you’re wondering, taxi drivers in a lot of touristy areas have agreements with shops or landmarks to try and bring tourists to these places in return for a cut. Beware of ultra-friendly taxi drivers.

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It was a nice view up there at least…

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View from the bottom…man that was a long hike!

Now for the beaches…we’d brought our bikinis, but turned out we really didn’t need them. Was it that cold? Nope, it was alright. Forgot to wax? Nope, we were good in that department.

Then what’s the problem?

Well this is what everyone else was wearing on the beach..

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I feel like she’s about to walk in…and never come out…

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Looks like they’ve come right after work…

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That’s what they call a bikini, and she was already getting the “she’s so slutty” looks…

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Chinese beach activities include, getting their feet wet and having their pictures taken.

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I bet that girl in the red dress has a party to go to right after…

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Finally some skin! Chinese men wear speedos when they want to swim (to my dismay).

Naturally we were both uncomfortable at the thought of wearing our bikinis in this environment. We did take off our shirts for a brief while to take some pictures, but the howling and leers that followed prompted us to quickly cover up. As it was, our pale skins stood out in the sea of tans, and men made loud lewd comments as they passed by. Oh, I forgot to mention, Chinese men like their women pale.

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It was too cloudy to sunbathe, so we did what any two girls would do when bored. Make faces at the camera!

When I lived in Beijing, fresh seafood was hard to come by. Being right by the ocean, Qingdao’s seafood is not only fresh, but cheap! Every meal was simply delectable.

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Eating is the best part of traveling!

My boyfriend has requested that I mention that Tsingdao Beer is actually pronounced “Qingdao” and is made in this area! When Tsingdao Beer came into being, the Chinese pinyin system hadn’t been invented yet, so they used Taiwanese pinyin.

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Pronounced CHINGDAO and not SINGDAO!

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Drink beer Qingdao-style!

Two Years of Traveling, Two Years of Happiness

I wasn’t a traveler before I met my boyfriend two years ago. Yes, I’d gone to China for work, but I was content to stay in one place. He’s the one who opened up my eyes to the rest of the world.

Today is our 2nd anniversary. We missed our last anniversary because we were doing long distance, literally flying across the world every few months just to see each other. This post is to commemorate all the great times we’ve had together. (If anyone else sees this and wants to gag, I understand.)

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Beijing, 2011. Where we first met.

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Dubai, 2012. You know I’m happy when my eyes start looking more Asian…

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Beijing/Shanghai, 2012. Can’t get enough of that Chinese food!

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Washington D.C, 2012/2013. We didn’t get to spend our anniversary together, but we did have Christmas and New Year’s!

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Turkey, 2013. Culture, food and nature. Yup, this place had everything!

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Vancouver, 2013. Enjoying the Vancouver food tour!

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Hawaii, 2013. Finally, someone else was there to take a picture of us…

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Prague 2013. The John Lennon Wall makes a great background!

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Prague 2013. Oh dear…

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Vienna 2103. On the old school Ferris Wheel, enjoying the view of the sun setting over thecity.

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Abu Dhabi 2012, Abu Dhabi 2013

I can’t wait until next year. I just know we’ll never stop having fun together! *mu~