A long long time ago (well actually in the mid 80’s) I had the chance to visit Hong Kong. I was actually tagging along with my husband who was on a business trip. What a great opportunity to visit Hong Kong while it was still a colony of Britain and was an economy on the rise. Real estate was selling at ridiculous prices and the latest Mercedes and Rolls Royce motor vehicles cruised the crowded streets.
We stayed in Kowloon but visited the Peninsula for afternoon tea and took the train up to the top of Victoria Peak while the sun went down and all the lights of the city slowly appeared twinkling in the dusk. It was a magical experience.
Now I have to confess that I seem to have been on a perpetual diet my whole life (what woman hasn’t) so I always look for the grilled / steamed version and try to stay away from lots of sauces. Well – hello Hong Kong. I thought I managed it all rather well until one night we chose a particular restaurant in Kowloon for dinner. There I was confronted with a four page menu of numbered items up to (I think) 140. Well I hummed and haa’d over all the descriptions while my husband and his business friend picked out their choices quite easily. Eventually I asked the waiter if I could just have some grilled fish and steamed vegetables. Seems like a reasonable request? You have to remember that back in the mid 80’s not everyone in Hong Kong was totally fluent in English.
The waiter (bless his heart) nodded enthusiastically and said he could give me XYZ unpronounceable fish. I asked if it was grilled. Yes, Yes he nodded again. Grilled fish. Vegetables. No problem. Very nice.
The fish came.
Gulp – a whole fish. With head. And tail. And scales. And eyes. Looking at me with a grimace on its face.
Well I asked for it and now I had to eat it. So, delicately I picked off the skin and the scales and managed to pluck some meat off the bones (ugh) and pushed the whole thing around my plate a few times and then did the time-honoured trick that every kid knows. I hid some of it under the rice. Whew.
Waiter came to collect dishes. Everything OK? Oh yes – smile smile – lovely thank you very much. (not). We get the bill.
What the hell? Number 14 was around $15 (in today’s currency), Number 23 was probably $20 and my fish was priced at what today would probably be over $100. Jeez – did they send someone over the side of the dock to go and catch it.
No ways say the guys to the waiter. This is ridiculous. It was just a grilled fish – no sauce, no frills. The waiter says he has to check. So we sit and wait. It is late by now and the restaurant is almost empty but the guys are not budging. They are not going to pay over $100 for that fish. Waiter comes back. Sorry – manager says that is the price.
Well then – say the guys – let’s speak to the manager. OK – says the waiter. Follow me. We all get up and traipse after him down some stairs and into the basement of the restaurant. Here we come into a scene which felt a bit like an Asian Godfather moment. Five guys sitting around a table playing cards, smoking cigars, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label on the table.
Well now I am distinctly uncomfortable. The head honcho looks up at us squinting through the smoke and asks why we don’t want to pay the bill. The guys explain that it is a rip off but I can sense that they are a bit leery by now. After all – we are in the basement of a restaurant of which we don’t even know the address, listening to a conversation about us which we cannot understand.
Listen – says my husband – the best way to settle this dispute is to call the Hong Kong British Police (there were still a lot of Brit officers in the force at that stage and the police force was universally feared and respected in Hong Kong). At this mention the Godfather Gang go suddenly silent.
With what seems like a sneer – Godfather number 1 fires off a rapid instruction to the waiter who says to us – no problem. I fix the bill. Come this way.
We troop up the stairs after the waiter while he reduces the bill and we slink out of the restaurant.
Holy crap – if only I had just picked number 43!