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Hong Kong culture

First all-vegetarian cultural tour of Hong Kong offers an immersive meat-free experience

  • Hong Kong Greeters is the first group to offer completely vegetarian tours
  • It gives residents and visitors a chance to experience a side of the city they may never have seen before
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 1:46pm

Nadia Kiely leads a small group of visitors through the hectic concourse outside Wong Tai Sin Temple, a bustling place of worship and tourist attraction on Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula.

She explains the temple’s different features, such as the bronze lion and dragon’s feet, polished bright by countless pilgrims’ hands touching it for luck. She demystifies the ritual of fortune stick shaking and discusses the unique heritage of the multi-faith building, which welcomes believers of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism under one roof.

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Afterwards, the group discusses their predicted fortunes over a hot sesame bread pocket filled with mushrooms and vermicelli noodles at Shanghai Teng restaurant.

Kiely is a guide at HK Greeters, which organises a tri-weekly “Vegetarian Food and Culture” tour, designed to offer a touch of history and local lore alongside opportunities to taste a selection of local meat-free food.

The newly launched tour takes in two Kowloon locations and one in the New Territories, immersing guests in Hong Kong life – from riding public transport and experiencing life outside Hong Kong Island’s Westernised bubble, to ordering meatless items from a menu and gaining an appreciation for the pockets of tranquillity the city has to offer.

“Our main target was to show different sides of Hong Kong to make it more intimate for people,” Kiely says. “We chose Wong Tai Sin because it’s a place of worship for three different religions: it’s an introduction to the diversity of Hong Kong, how versatile and accepting it is of differences, and that very nicely coincided with vegetarian food being available nearby.”

Vegetarians in Hong Kong can sometimes feel like they are missing out on a key aspect of the city’s culture: food. Omnivorous travellers to the city return with tales of curried fish balls, sizzling pork intestines on sticks picked up from street vendors and meat-filled morsels of siu mai.

Snacks free of meat include egg waffles and egg tarts, while fully vegan snacks are limited to stinky tofu and rice noodle rolls (the Chinese for which – jyu cheung fan – confusingly means “intestine noodle”) and are generally less widely available than meat options.

Two of the four routes run by Hong Kong Foodie Tours cater to vegetarians, while another company, Little Adventures Hong Kong, can customise pre-existing tours to meet a range of dietary requirements. But HK Greeters’ is the first tour of its kind in Hong Kong that is entirely vegetarian.

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“We felt it was something missing in Hong Kong; there are so many foodie tours but vegetarian visitors weren’t being catered for,” Kiely says. “When you look on Google, some blogs come up, but it’s always just [the same] one or two places. What if you have vegetarian visitors? Where do you take them?”

Visitors expecting classic Hong Kong food experiences, such as snacks served from a hole in the wall, traditional cha chaan teng or dai pai dong, might be disappointed by the tour’s three locations, which are slightly more upmarket than local fare, but the ethos behind HK Greeters’ stop-offs is to give people a dose of local knowledge and keep the focus on sustainability.

“With the current trend towards green and environmentally conscious living, the places we’ve picked are about reducing the carbon footprint, eating locally and supporting local businesses,” Kiely says.

We felt it was something missing in Hong Kong; there are so many foodie tours but vegetarian visitors weren’t being catered for
Nadia Kiely

After the plates are cleared at Shanghai Teng, Kiely takes the group to Chi Lin Nunnery, one stop away on the MTR, where the host allows time for everybody to peruse the idyllic gardens and take a breather in the cafe over a Happy Cow dairy-free ice cream made in an array of distinctively Hong Kong flavours, including sesame, green tea and red bean.

From there, it’s a 25-minute double-decker bus journey through the Lion Rock Tunnel to Tai Po and its former police station, which has been turned into a small arts centre, with a museum, zero-waste shop with locally crafted goods, and vegetarian cafe Eat Well Canteen.

The spread that awaits uses produce grown in the allotments surrounding the colonial-era building, promoting farm-to-table dining and seasonal, low-carbon food culture. The menu changes according to availability, but visitors can expect a blend of Chinese and Western options, including quinoa and chickpea salad, falafel, and steamed tofu with seaweed.

After filling up from shared plates, it’s a five-minute walk back to the MTR and everyone goes their separate ways. Anyone could find their way to the three locations by themselves, but the value in Greeters’ tour lies in its guide’s enthusiasm, knowledge and raconteurial charm.

Kiely, who learned Mandarin living in Shenzhen before moving to Hong Kong, navigates the city with ease. She teaches newcomers how to eat delicate soup dumplings, knows the city’s bus routes like the back of her hand, and orders the tastiest food on each menu.

Jen Ritchie became vegetarian while living in China because of fears over the quality of meat available, but incorporated meat into her diet after moving to Hong Kong, where she lives with her young family in Kam Tin. Joining Kiely’s tour was more about experiencing an unfamiliar side to parts of the city she thought she knew well. Having previously enjoyed Greeters’ Tai O tour, Ritchie, 34, decided to try the vegetarian one with a visiting relative.

“This tour was the first time I’d been to Wong Tai Sin Temple and I used to live within a 10-minute walk from it,” she says. “I had never been to the nunnery gardens, despite walking around them to the Diamond Hill MTR almost every day. I did not even realise they were there.

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“If I had gone to the temple by myself, I wouldn’t have dared go and help myself to the fortune sticks or have my fortune told … I feel closer to Chinese culture now I know how to participate in it.”

Kiely also takes her guests on the MTR and buses, which she says is an important part of the experience.

“Some people we take on our tours never use public transport … but we tell them that by using public transport they’re helping the environment and reducing their [carbon] footprint. People from other countries are unsure at first and would prefer to take a private car, but we show them how efficient it is. We usually don’t wait longer than five minutes for the bus. It’s an introduction to one of the best sides of Hong Kong.”

Despite having lived in the city for nearly a decade, Ritchie hadn’t visited any of the places on the itinerary and she wasn’t confident taking public transport.

“It’s changed my relationship with the city,” she says. “I went on the tour at the right moment – the city was driving me nuts and I felt like I needed an escape plan. The temple in particular reminded me why I’ve chosen to live here for so long. It made me fall in love with Hong Kong again.”

Adults: HK$495, children: HK$225. Transport costs not included. See hkgreeters.com for more information.

Five other essential stop-offs for vegans and vegetarians in Hong Kong


Pure Veggie House

Hidden in a drab and unassuming building at the back of Hong Kong Park, Pure Veggie House is a rowdy dining hall for big groups, serving Buddhist vegetarian food, including mock meats, fried rice and noodles.

3/F Coda Plaza, 51 Garden Road, Mid-Levels, tel: 2525 0552

Chi Lin Vegetarian (Long Men Lou)

Although the HK Greeters tour visits Chi Lin Nunnery and gardens, there’s no stop-off at its famous vegetarian restaurant. Hidden behind a waterfall lies a pretty restaurant that serves a range of authentic Buddhist vegetarian food.

Nan Lian Garden, 60 Fung Tak Road, Diamond Hill, tel: 3658 9388

Grassroots Pantry

A modern Hong Kong institution, Grassroots Pantry led the recent boom in meatless dining in the city selling fresh and creative takes on both Western and Chinese dishes.

108 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, tel: 2873 3353

Loving Hut

Cheap, cheerful and completely devoid of any animal products, Loving Hut is a chain of restaurants in Hong Kong serving inexpensive vegan food in a canteen-style setting.

2/F, 93-99 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2574 3248

Shop G242-245, Amoy Plaza II, 77 Ngau Tau Kok Road, tel 2751 1321

Branto

Undeniably the best spot in Hong Kong for vegetarian Indian food, Branto is an unadorned restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui that has been quietly meeting the needs of herbivores since 1993 with its large selection of curries.

1/F, 9-11 Lock Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2366 8171