What masochistic desire possessed me to return to Yung Kee after so many years, I am not quite certain about. There was certainly a time when a visit to the famous roast goose joint was as essential to a Hong Kong visit as a ride up the Peak Tram or crossing the harbor on the creaky Star Ferry. And there might actually have been a time when it was an unassuming little shop a few steps up from Queen’s Road that happened to serve really excellent roast goose, and not a tourist trap that has one hand in your pocket groping wallet.
There are better places to eat in Hong Kong, especially these days when the floodgate of visitors and migrant residents from the mainland has released a steady stream of cash into the economy. I’ve given this recommendation before but if you’re serious about your roast goose then you owe it to yourself to take a taxi out to New Territories’ Sham Tseng Yue Kee. The ride will cost about 300 Hong Kong dollars each way, and the food is not cheap either, nor is the ambience anything to rave about.
But it seriously is the best roast goose in the world. On most days you will have to queue: the numbers are called out in Cantonese, so you need a good dictionary app. But once you’re in that’s it. Families come out here on the weekends, and in the dingy parking lot you’ll find Mercedeses and Audis of food-loving commuters from the island.
At Yung Kee, however, you will need to keep one hand clamped to your wallet at all times. From the moment you enter and are informed that the downstairs casual dining-room is full and are ushered to the garish second-story padded cell, to the moment when your credit card is swiped, they are intent on extracting every cent they can from you.
The goose is listed on the menu for a quarter bird at HK$200, but—conspiratorial whisper—this is for the front end, which is very bony. If you want the good bits, that’ll cost you HK$60 extra.
You’ll have tea, of course? That’s HK$15 per head. How about some vegetables? 280 Hong Kong dollars. The bill comes as scraps of handwritten paper, in Chinese, and includes two items that we didn’t have.
I knew this coming in, so we escaped relatively unscathed. Many youngsters these days don’t remember when everything about Hong Kong was about the art of the con: you’d buy a camera or a camcorder from one of the dealers in Tsim Sha Tsui, and it would be missing an essential part, which they would then sell to you for an exorbitant price.
And if you dare raise your voice in righteous indignation, you’d have a roomful of Cantonese men yelling at you at the top of their lungs: and that is a very loud sound indeed.
In the years after the handover, the country decided they needed the business and got their act together, and introduced civilities such as fixed prices, a tourist police with a hotline to call about scams and fakes, and the famously rude salesmen deigned to speak English or Mandarin, let you see things before buying them, and waiters would help you out with the menu.
It was fairly dramatic how the entire place changed its demeanor overnight, like one of those quick-change facelifts that they give their shop fronts. Cathay Pacific ran a good economy class service, the Hong Kong dollar was not entirely unfavorable, and you could stay at the Peninsula and take the ferry to scavenge the antique and art stores on the island, which were selling interesting stuff just coming out of the mainland.
If you harbored any nostalgia for the grumpy old days, then rejoice, because Hong Kong is back to being rude, expensive and extortionist. On any given weekend, the whole of Kowloon is overrun by tourists from the mainland, who are every bit as rude as they are made out to be. They shove, they kick, they slap their kids—the latter, of course, are wearing shorts that are open at the back so that they can go at any time; this is good for the environment, but not so good for the sidewalks.
Oddly enough, I don’t see this sort of behavior on West Nanjing Road in Shanghai, so I figure that weekend trippers to Hong Kong are a self-selected lot, in the same way that the Brits who invade Ibiza or Majorca or Costa del Sol every summer are not the most courteous creatures around, either.
Aside from the economic uncertainty, one of the consequences of the handover in 1997 was that the Hong Kong Chinese who remained were forced to rethink their identity not as a part of Canton that was under British sovereignty, but as an ethnic group that was differentiated from China, even those across the increasingly porous border between Guangzhou.
The Heung Kung Yan, or Hongkonger, was an identity that more and more people chose to assert; in a recent survey, 84.3 percent of the 18-29 age group defined themselves foremost as Hongkongers rather than Chinese. They see themselves as not just more economically advantaged, but also more cultured and better-educated.
But Hong Kong is also one of the places where rich mainlanders like to park their wealth, driving property prices and the cost of living up, and the millions of tourists (over 35 million per year according to the latest figures) who flood the MTR and the buses—and drive up the prices of hotel rooms and restaurant prices in tourist areas. So the Hongkongers are back to being rude—not just because they aren’t particularly fond of the mainlanders, but because they can be, and are extortionist, because they can get away with it.
Where does this leave us, the Filipino tourists who have been visiting since jet travel was invented?
The roast duck at Yung Kee is just as good as it was in 1978, when we got our first taste of Cantonese hospitality, and the restaurant scene for both Chinese and Western food is more vibrant than ever, the chefs cooking to even more exacting standards as the cream of the labor market makes its way across the border.
Just expect a queue of 35 million tourists ahead of you, all with their elbows out and waving fistfuls of cash.