The highs and lows of Hong Kong’s bar scene

La SalamandreIt is a truth universally acknowledged – in Wan Chai, at any rate – that a single man walking down Lockhart Road at night-time must be in want of a nice Filipina lady friend to be the Suzie Wong to his Robert Lomax. Hong Kong’s most persistent mama-sans will tug at your sleeve, trying to persuade you into their lap-dancing bars, where smiling young women from Manila or Luzon (so I am told) will attempt to get you to buy them drinks, at HK$300 – £25 – a time.

But while the image many people have of Hong Kong’s bar scene is probably based on Wan Chai’s pole-dancing clubs and places like the Old China Hand, where homesick expats can watch Six Nations rugby while washing down a full English breakfast with a pint of Stella, in fact the former colony’s drinking places are far more diverse and, sometimes, far, far better than anything you’ll find in Wan Chai. For the over-50 Westerner, Wan Chai is the place to go for a Friday night out. For anybody younger, Hong Konger or expat, the area known as Lan Kwai Fong, in Central, a couple of MTR stops to the west of Wan Chai, is now the wildly thumping heart of Hong Kong’s entertainment world: there is a whole grid of streets where practically everything is either a bar or a restaurant.

But drinking in Hong Kong is not just the Friday night rave scene in Lan Kwai Fong, either. While Hong Kong is not quite yet among the planet’s must-visit bar destinations, it has one of only two bars in Asia to appear in a list of “Great Craft Beer Bars Around the World” in a book by A Multiple Award-Winning Beer Writer due to be published in September, I can reveal (though I probably shouldn’t); it has the highest bar in the world, measured by distance from the ground; it has what must be one of the most unexpectedly situated craft beer bars in the world; and it has one or two of the world’s greatest beach bars. And while the beer in Wan Chai is generally pretty shoddy, if you know where to look you can find an impressive selection of terrific brews elsewhere in Hong Kong.

Agnès b Gough StreetIn fact Hong Kong is starting to be a place where you’ll discover great beer in outlets you’d never have thought had any interest in the idea. One of my favourite places to drink isn’t a bar in any conventional sense, but a French-style cafe chain run under the name of the Agnès b fashion group. They sell the usual sorts of French cafe foods – croques monsieur, baguettes, omelettes, pasta, salads, pastries and cakes – there’s a rather fine florist’s rammed into one corner, and an excellent range of nine or so organic, unfiltered beers from three breweries in the west of France that are the match of anything the best brewers elsewhere in the world can do.

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Gambling on finding good beer in Macau

Macau, today, is dedicated to the excellent pursuit of separating idiots from their money. This little peninsula on the west side of the Pearl River Delta, not even three miles long, and the two islands to its south that make up the Macau Special Administrative Region, both part and not-part of the Peoples’ Republic of China, now pull in annual gambling revenues of US$38 billion: bigger than the whole United States gambling industry and four times the turnover of Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined.

Idiots speeding across the Pearl River Delta to throw tbheir money away in Macau
Idiots speeding across the Pearl River Delta to throw their money away in Macau

But if hundreds of thousands – many from across the border in China “proper”, where organised gambling is illegal – now come to Macau to throw away their cash, does anyone ever go there for the beer? Well, I did – but then, I’m a different sort of idiot.

Actually, Macau is worth visiting for its own sake, not just if you’ve got too much money and can’t think how to get rid of it quickly. Its history – the Portuguese persuaded the Chinese to let them establish a permanent settlement there in 1557, and never gave the place back until 1999 – means that you can find old Chinese temples, pastel-coloured Roman Catholic churches and monuments to sheer over-the-top worship of money all within one 10-minute taxi ride. The food, as you would expect, is a cross between Cantonese/Chinese and Portuguese-colonial, which means Hainan chicken AND chicken piri-piri. Every Macan bakery supplies the lovely Portuguese egg custard tarts, of which I am very fond, hot and nommy. And the wildly bonkers casino architecture is entertaining in itself, even if you don’t put a single pataca in a slot-machine (not that you can: Macau’s own currency isn’t accepted in the casinos, only Hong Kong dollars). A replica of St Mark’s Square, Venice, with canals and gondolas? An 856-feet-tall tower modelled after a lotus flower? A 140-foot-tall fake volcano that “erupts” every evening? Come to Macau.

It’s one of the puzzles of Macau: do the people who visit it to gamble not look around and realise that the spectacular buildings, the rampant showing-off that, for example, filled in the sea between the islands of Coloane and Taipa to make the 250-acre Cotai Strip to provide land to build more casinos (and hotels to provide places for the gamblers in the casinos to sleep when they’re not gambling), the hotels and casinos themselves, each complex costing a couple of billion dollars or so, is all paid for out of their pockets? That however much they dream of winning, the number one rule in gambling is: “In the long run, you’ll never beat the house”, and that everything they see around them is a monument, literally, to that rule?

Macau Beer today
Macau Beer today

Still, there are other ways of gambling. A man called Mark Myrick gambled in 1996 on opening Macau’s first ever brewery, the Macau Brewing Company, in its entire 440-year history as a place of European settlement. It produced three different beers in bottles and kegs from an industrial building about halfway between the ferry terminal and the border with China proper, but was sold to local investors in 1999. They in turn sold the brewery, and all its kit to Kirin, the Japanese brewer, in 2002. The brewery equipment stayed where it was until 2011, when it was removed, but most, if not all, of what Kirin marketed as “Macau Beer” (with a picture of Macau’s most famous landmark, the ruined façade of St Paul’s Cathedral, on the label) was brewed at Kirin’s brewery in Zhuhai, across the border. Certainly today the “Macau Beer” you can buy in Macau – when you can find it – is almost definitely from Zhuhai.

When you CAN find it, it’s a pleasant enough mid-gold beer at the malty end of the rainbow, refreshing cold on a day when the temperature is in the 30s centigrade and you’ve been slogging the streets of Macau trying to discover a bar that offers more than the unholy quartet of Carlsberg, Heineken, Tsingtao and San Miguel. I don’t know why I thought the drinking places in Macau’s casino complexes might offer gamblers wanting a respite from throwing their capital away across the green baize something decent to drink, but clearly gamblers don’t care about what it is they wash away the sorrows of losing with. Hey, Steve Wynn, your Wynn Macau resort may be spectacular (the “Tree of Prosperity”, which rises periodically from the floor in one of the lobbies, is a full 15-minute light-and-sound show), but for a former drinks importer, the beer selection in your casino’s bars is rubbish. Continue reading Gambling on finding good beer in Macau