2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Starting Afresh With New Drinks and New Insults

Starting Afresh With New Drinks and New Insults

Jell-O Shots in Hong Kong

The phases of my Hong Kong are delineated by drinks and the places in which I consumed them. Towards the end of Year 10 and shortly after the Handover, I downed Jell-O shots with my friends in Lan Kwai Fong, perched on little stools that spilled out onto the street the way dai pai dong stools used to but seldom do now that the government has run them into near extinction. The shots came in standard Jell-O flavors, like lime and raspberry, and were delivered to us in tiny disposable cups by a man who was mostly irritated by having to serve Jell-O shots to loud-mouthed international school kids.

In Year 11, I drank cheap Chardonnay and dodged American sailors and chatty, lonely Cathay pilots passing through Soho. On less exciting days, we bought beers at Park-n-Shop, which we cheekily called “PK,” shorthand for pokgai, the Cantonese curse meaning “fall on the street!” It’s lame in translation but has as much venom as “go to hell.” We cracked the beer bottles open on the edges of escalator stairs and sipped them, only a little discreetly, on benches at Festival Walk.

My last year of high school was punctuated by nights at Staunton’s, where you can watch people tripping down along the Mid-Levels Escalator through enormous windows. Sanmarie and I hit the peak of our somewhat embarrassing amaretto sour phase at Staunton’s. Jimmy and I were sent off to college from the bar with Midori-branded rugby shirts. It is amazingly still open after all these years and still teems with gweilos.

As kids, we treated the city like a very fun sinking ship. I’ve long since moved on from amaretto sours and away from Hong Kong. In my absence, Hong Kong has evolved and in many ways, the relatively safe city to get into trouble in no longer exists.

I’ve now lived long enough in America that it’s been years since I’ve needed to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius to know if I need a coat, HKD to USD to figure out if it’s worth the money, and miles to kilometers to tell you how far I’m going. They’re also kilometers now and no longer kilometres. When I return home at Chinese New Year, it takes me a few days to acclimate, to find the right Cantonese words to use, to figure out where to go at night. To find my sea legs again.

Speakeasy-style cocktail bars are now dotted all over Soho and their offerings range from the respectable to the totally absurd. At the Envoy, I catch up with my friends over mezcal cocktails in cactus-shaped glasses. Other drinks we’ve had there: a blood-red beet juice cocktail served in a blood bag and one that comes in a bird-shaped glass tied with a tiny scroll bearing a poem. A few streets away, the Quinary serves a pyramid of foam that is their Earl Grey Caviar Martini.

In Hong Kong, nostalgia runs deep. At Little Lab in Soho, you can get an alcoholic version of yuanyang, the classic cha chaan teng combination of coffee and milk tea.

Some of the Envoy’s cocktails reach deeper into my childhood than Jell-O shots in Lan Kwai. I order a Coco Candy Old Fashioned, infused with the caramelized coconut flavor of that old-school Chinese New Year candy dish staple. The cocktail has an origami crane folded from a coco candy wrapper perched on the rim of the glass.

I’m terrible at giving directions to tourists in Hong Kong since I get around by tracking how it feels passing certain fixed landmarks. Storefronts, restaurants, and bars can be unreliable and barely factor into my mental city map. They change too often, turning over more rapidly than anywhere else. New facades and new hurdles need to be learned with every passing year. Shuttered businesses quickly fade from public consciousness, kept alive only by being glued to our memories of celebrations and sadnesses, among the background noise of momentous occasions.

In Hawaii, my other home, it is the opposite. It can feel like closed businesses never fade. On Oahu, people give directions according to where the old Arakawa store used to be, where the Liberty House was, and where Don Quijote is, but which some people still call Dai-Ei or Holiday Mart. In Hong Kong, we are constantly starting afresh, relearning the landscape and defining new phases with new Old Fashioneds.

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