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Sai Kung: a second helping

Beaches of Tai Long Wan, Sai Kung

The old man hovers over our table and grins, lowering his voice to almost a whisper. “Order the Singapore noodles,” he admonishes, “It’s the best.”

Long a staple of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous cha chaan teng – those small teahouses and diners serving generous portions of comfort food – Singapore noodles are in fact a Cantonese creation. It is something of a misnomer; gastronomes would be hard pressed to find this exact dish in the Southeast Asian city-state, so famous for its street food.

But the true origins of Singapore noodles remain clouded in uncertainty. Some believe it was returning Cantonese migrants who brought the recipe back from then-British Malaya and the Straits Settlements. Others say it is more likely the invention of an anonymous chef, who penned a vaguely exotic label to describe the gentle heat and yellow colouring so integral to this dish.

Either way, Bama and I are charmed by the sincerity of the old man’s proposal. More than two years earlier I had dined at the same beachside restaurant, whose shaded rows of plastic chairs and tables were a welcome respite for hungry hikers from the midday sun. It was here that I discovered the tastiest rendition of a childhood favourite: sweet and sour fish.

When I tell him, the old man is not even surprised. “The way it’s cooked is very typical of Tai Long Wan. We use huge woks and firewood.” I would later learn that this combination was responsible for that coveted, elusive quality known as wok hei – “breath of the wok”.

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White sand at Sai Wan, the first beach

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Bama carries a local cat

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Village house, Sai Wan

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Pandanus fruit

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Looking back at Sai Wan

Ham Tin Wan, ‘salt field bay’, is a rather prosaic name for this vision of uncrowded sand on one of Hong Kong’s most beautiful stretches of coastline. From the south, it is the second of four beaches lining the greater expanse of Tai Long Wan, so named for its sizeable waves rolling in from the east.

“I’ve lived here more than thirty years,” the old man tells us. “I moved from the city. After working on the High Island Dam, I liked this area so much I decided to stay.” Much of his teeth are missing, but the man’s eyes glow with a rare sparkle – one I have never seen in the footbridges and subterranean tunnels of downtown Hong Kong. It speaks of contentment, pure happiness and a life lived outdoors. “I’m the one who brings supplies from Chek Keng.”

Do you come by boat? “No, by cart.” He uses tse, a universal word that can describe just about anything with wheels. In this case it’s a noisy cross between a handcart and a tractor, with treads for handling the switchbacks and steep climbs beyond the beach.

“I go diving to catch fish, but things here have changed a lot.”

The deliveryman sweeps his arm out towards the bay, over a makeshift plank bridge lashed together from recycled timbers and even a discarded metal sign. “The beach used to be even whiter before. Ever since they introduced plastic – PVC – it’s changed colour. But the sand is made from shell powder, it’s so fine.” At this, the old man rubs two fingers against his thumb. “You can’t find it anywhere else!”

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Ham Tin Wan and above it, Sharp Peak

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Weekday hikers

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The final approach

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Ham Tin Wan’s plank bridge

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Into the forest

Eventually the grinning deliveryman bids us goodbye, puttering up the trail on his handcart-tractor to his home above the beach. By contrast, Mr. Lai, at turns both the restaurateur and chef, strikes me as a man of few words. He seems dour – almost unfriendly – as he hands us the menu, a straightforward A4 sheet in black and white.

A young Mandarin-speaking visitor stands waiting when I go to place my order. “You ren ma?” Is there anyone there? Mr. Lai emerges from the darkness of the kitchen, casting a wary eye down the list before pointing and responding bluntly in Cantonese. “Mo ah, ni di yeh!” We don’t have these things! Confused, the patron smiles nervously and returns to her table, agonising over the menu for alternatives.

Meanwhile I try my best to be faultlessly polite, hoping that the badly-accented Cantonese would not raise his ire. “Mister, do you have squid and sweet and sour fish today?”

“Yau ah!” Yes, he says firmly, “but you’ll have to wait a while.”

No problem, I chime; we’re not in a hurry.

Bama and I wait in hungry anticipation, looking out towards the beach as a European couple fish out a pair of saran-wrapped stuffed baguettes from their backpack. It is perfect weather for ice cream and sandwiches, but I am craving more fuel for the two-hour hike back to the main road.

As it turns out, the Singapore noodles are a sheer revelation. It comes as an inviting heap of delicate rice vermicelli, neither too sticky nor too slippery; a telltale sign of being stir-fried in the perfect amount of oil. The curry powder – source of its colour and flavour – is unexpectedly potent, with tiny flakes of chilli tickling our palates.

And yet, its smaller components are no less delightful on the tongue. We relish the firm but juicy texture of the shrimp; the crunch of green and red bell peppers; the unfolded cabbage leaves and sweet slivers of onion, with their sides wonderfully charred. I’m surprised by the moistness of the egg, at first glance almost inseparable from the turmeric yellow of the noodles.

We scoop up mouthful after mouthful until only drops of golden oil remain, glistening like tiny constellations on an ocean blue sky. For a moment, I imagine the old deliveryman somewhere up the hillside, grinning away at the balmy weather, the magnificent scenery and the thought of Mr. Lai’s Singapore noodles.

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Singapore noodles – easily the best I’ve had

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Salt and pepper squid

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Sweet and sour fish

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The rising tide at Chek Keng

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Mangrove shoots

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Scars of a hill fire

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Abandoned house in Chek Keng

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Riding the breeze

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. tra #

    I miss there!

    February 18, 2014
    • I really should try to go there more often!

      February 18, 2014
  2. “…neither too sticky nor too slippery…” that was exactly what I thought after taking a mouthful of the Singapore noodles we had. It’s arguably one of the best rice vermicelli dishes I’ve ever had by far. Speaking of the misnomer, that reminds me of Bika Ambon: you can’t find it anywhere in Ambon but in fact it is a very famous cake from Medan. However the trip to HK provided me a revelation about its origin. That golden cake I had in your house was amazingly identical to Bika Ambon – probably it was the Hokkien people who introduced it to Medan.

    I’m really glad we met and talked to that happy old man whose youthful spirit was something I didn’t see a lot in Hong Kong.

    February 18, 2014
    • Oh, it was total perfection! We would have truly missed out if it weren’t for the friendly old deliveryman. I was surprised the man at the next table left half of his Singapore noodles… he could at least have the decency to bring it home. After that experience, I don’t think I could ever order it back in the city.

      I never knew about Bika Ambon until you brought it up… nor the sheer similarity between beef hor fun and kwetiau goreng. 🙂

      February 18, 2014
  3. You write beautifully.

    February 18, 2014
  4. Sai Wan looks so beautiful and peaceful

    February 18, 2014
    • It was, Sue – on a weekday there was hardly anyone there.

      February 18, 2014
  5. Nice article…i liked so much…

    February 18, 2014
    • Glad you liked it, Leonila.

      February 18, 2014
  6. What a beautiful place, had no idea this even existed! Ham Tin Wan does look too spectacular to be called ‘salt field bay’. And the food at the end looks absolutely mouthwatering. A delightful read James. Loved every word and photo 🙂

    February 18, 2014
    • Thank you, Madhu. 🙂 That’s the thing with Chinese place names, they either come out very poetic or far too straightforward. The hike to those beaches is not very strenuous – I’m sure you and R could do it easily!

      February 18, 2014
  7. afellowsapient #

    Absolutely breath taking photography and a nice article to read.

    February 19, 2014
    • I appreciate it – thanks for those kind words.

      February 19, 2014
  8. What a post, James 🙂 Great write up and stunning images 🙂

    First image is a class apart… I really enjoyed the composition.

    February 19, 2014
    • It’s my pleasure, Sreejith! 🙂 Could not have asked for better conditions on that day.

      February 19, 2014
  9. I like this landscape so much!

    February 24, 2014
    • This is without a doubt one of my favourite parts of Hong Kong… I’m so glad it’s off the usual tourist trail!

      February 24, 2014
  10. I was already drooling over the description of the dishes, and by the time I got to the photos I’m pretty sure I’m just an embarrassing mess. Those look absolutely phenomenal! And especially after a hike!

    March 10, 2014
    • Oh, you would have loved it for sure! You could say the food alone was enough to justify the hike.

      March 10, 2014
  11. Thanks for transporting me to another place through your photos. That photo of the abandoned house was very poignant while the rest of the photos had a calming effect

    April 7, 2014
    • You’re welcome, Donald. It is such a shame about that abandoned village – it is really not that remote as there’s a pier close by and the main road (with frequent buses) is just 30 minutes away on foot.

      April 9, 2014
  12. Wonderful article!

    April 12, 2014
  13. Intrepid Freelancer #

    Gorgeous photos and fabulous insights. I admit that Singapore hadn’t been on my “places to visit” list until my recent trip to Thailand. Your post solidifies the fact that Singapore will soon be in my travel horizons!

    May 8, 2014
    • Thanks for the comment, Suzi. Just a quick clarification – ‘Singapore Noodles’ is actually the name of a popular Hong Kong dish, and Sai Kung (the place shown here) is an outlying district of Hong Kong. You won’t find scenery like this in Singapore because it’s very flat!

      May 8, 2014
      • Intrepid Freelancer #

        Whoops–sorry about that blaring mistake! By ‘Singapore’ I did mean Hong Kong! Thanks for the reply and the clarification 🙂

        May 9, 2014

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