Many years ago when Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony, I spent a lot of time there as a P.R. guy. In the 1950s, I was the publicist in the United States for Cathay Pacific Airways, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, CAAC (the airline of the People’s Republic of China), and even the Hong Kong government. I fancied myself as a quasi-diplomat on a bamboo bridge between the United States and Asia. But that’s another story for another time. This tale is one of dining out in Hong Kong in those days when dining was (it still is) about as good as it gets.
LEI YUE MUN FOR DINNER
When I was a regular visitor to Hong Kong, there was a tiny fishing village on the Lei Yue Mun channel, a narrow passage several hundred yards across, between the Kowloon mainland and Hong Kong Island. It was on the Kowloon side of the harbor, and the villagers sold their catch commercially and also displayed all manner of sea creatures in tanks and holding pens for anyone hungry who happened by. The small village was not then widely known, and it was high adventure to visit it with a group of friends, purchase live seafood from the fishermen, and take it to one of two or three simple village restaurants and have the cooks prepare it. As I recall, there was no real menu in those Lei Yue Mun restaurants. You turned your catch-of-the-day over to the cook who had only rice, onions, garlic, chilies and various greens in his crude kitchen.
On hot nights, we sat outdoors beneath the stars and beneath the big jets taking off and landing at Kai Tak Airport, then the international airport for Hong Kong. The Lei Yue Mun fishing village was directly below the airport flight path.
A PUTT-PUTT FERRYBOAT
The tiny village was almost unapproachable. During high tide, it was separated from Kowloon by fast-moving, shallow water from the South China Sea, and at low tide by mud and silt. But there was a small ferryboat. It putt-putted from a pier near the airport on around to the channel side of the village where it landed at a rickety dock. And that was the way my Chinese and British friends and I occasionally got to the Lei Yue Mun village to eat incredible seafood dinners and drink cold beer.
But I’m ahead of my story.
COFFEE IN THE PEN LOBBY
Before noon one day, I was sitting in the lobby of the famed Peninsula Hotel having coffee when an American travel writer I knew walked in attended by a group of teenaged, uniformed Peninsula bellmen. They were dragging his luggage, a Louis Vuitton collection, properly scuffed and well stickered.
I invited him to join me for coffee, which he did after he signed in at the front desk with a fine journalistic flourish.
He had just arrived from Bali where he said he was allowed to witness the sacred monkey dance. He would be writing about it, he told me. Now he was in Hong Kong for a few days of R&R before flying back to the States. “I have to pick up my laundry here. I bring my shirts over just to get them done here at the Pen.” Yes, he talked like that.
Well, one thing led to another, and soon we had agreed to get a group together and go out somewhere to dinner that night. I suggested Lei Yue Mun.
My friend frowned, but gamed it through, saying it was probably the only restaurant in Hong Kong he hadn’t tried. I could see he wasn’t aware of Lei Yue Mun and explained about the fishing village. He smelled a good story.
THE SILVER PLASTIC JUMPSUIT
That evening, eight of us, led by the travel writer who was now in charge of our group, engaged two of the Peninsula’s green Rolls Royce limos, and their liveried Chinese drivers who drove us to the Lei Yue Mun putt-putt, which then ferried us out for a Dutch treat dinner. There were three Chinese civil servants and their girlfriends, the travel writer, and me, the budding diplomat.
For the occasion, the travel writer wore a crinkly, silver plastic jumpsuit. It was a memento from some first-class inaugural flight on Singapore Airlines, I recall, and he wore handmade, tan leather jodhpur boots. A Lufthansa flight bag slung over his shoulder completed the ensemble. So off we went into the hot night with the travel writer perspiring profusely.
Soon the eight of us were jammed onto the small sputtering ferryboat. We sat on wooden benches that ran along the sides of the craft. Lei Yue Mun village fishermen and their families were returning home with their purchases after a day in the big city with electric rice cookers, rubber boots, and big cloth bags of rice.
WE PASS ON THE GEODUCKS
In a few minutes, we stepped ashore onto wooden duckboards that kept us above the muddy water, and into a scene of frenzy. There was a din of merchant-fishermen hawking live seafood. One man held aloft a huge spiny lobster. Another pointed to active large blue crabs scuttling around in a concrete tank. There was an enormous plastic basin filled with squirming something-or-others — huge and slimy — geoducks, I found out later. Despite their reputed aphrodisiac qualities, we passed.
The travel writer whipped out his camera and slung it around his neck. His tape recorder dangled from a wrist cord. He was using both hands and directing an old man to stand in front a glass tank full of small swarming fish. He used the word “smile” and pointed to his own face to indicate what he wanted. The man with the lobster came over to get in the picture.
The travel writer got the photo and held his tape recorder forward.
“How much for the lobster?” One of the young Chinese women with us translated. “A lot,” was the answer. Fresh seafood wasn’t then, and isn’t now, inexpensive in Hong Kong, or most anywhere else.
THE MOTHER OF ALL GROUPAS
The travel writer led our party from stall to stall and we purchased live crabs, a bucketful of large shrimp, clams, sea scallops, abalone, and periwinkles to ferret out of their tiny shells with a small straight pin and slurp down. No geoducks.
Then came the episode of the Mother of all Garoupas. And in succeeding references this fish certainly deserves an honorific capitalization.
The travel writer led us to a series of large glass tanks in which many disconsolate fish were swimming aimlessly. He was looking for the centerpiece for our dinner. And then he found it. In one tank, almost stationary, its fins lazily fanning back and forth, was the Mother of all Garoupas — a huge, fat, nuclear submarine of a Garoupa, almost a yard in length, with a girth like the USS Trident, or perhaps like a middle linebacker. Its eyes were the size of small saucers, its mouth like a shovel scoop.
We wanted this Garoupa. No, we needed this Garoupa, said our leader. No other Garoupa would do. This particular Garoupa would crown our meal. It would be a Garoupa worth remembering — memorialized in print on the pages of the travel writer’s important newspaper. The article would be accompanied by a photo of the travel writer himself holding up the beast. But alas, this was not to be.
THE GAROUPA WAS NOT PLEASED
“Let’s get the Mother of all Garoupas out of this tank so we can really see her.” The merchant demurred. The travel writer insisted. The merchant shook his head back and forth emphatically. The travel writer nodded his head up and down just as emphatically. And so it came to pass. A very large net on a long handle was brought forth. Have you ever attempted to net a fish? Even a small fish?
Several minutes later, after much splashing, heaving and grunting, the Mother was brought forth. She weighed in at 27 kilos, about 60 pounds, shaking and tossing at one end of a hand-held balancing scale. The Mother of all Garoupas was agitated. It took two men to hold the scale aloft by its rope. A crowd had gathered. It seemed like most of the village came to watch and cheer. Now, the action happened very fast, like a jerky, old-time movie.
THE TRAVEL WRITER WAS NOT PLEASED
Beaming with pride of the chase, the travel writer asked “How much?”
“A lot. Three hundred and fifty dollars U.S.,” our translator replied.
By now the cheering had stopped. The onlookers smiled. The merchant frowned. The wind was out of our sails. And the Mother of all Garoupas was returned to her tank where she sulked. We settled for a junior grade, miniature submarine, took it and the rest of our purchases to one of the Lei Yue Mun restaurants and had a memorable meal anyway.
I ran into the travel writer the next afternoon in the Peninsula lobby. He was checking out and heading for the airport. He wore his silver plastic jumpsuit and his jodhpur boots. He was a fine travel writer, but if he wrote about leading an assault on Lei Yue Mun, I never saw the article.