Culturesplosion.


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Get your geek on at Mong Kok’s Sino Centre

This is my second real post about Hong Kong and, of course, it’s about a mall again. Malls are inescapable in this city, but I really don’t mind the opportunity to shop in an air-conditioned space with lots of reasonably-priced selections, especially if that selection is comprised of cute and nerdy goods.

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Make sure you look up to find this sign.

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Boring entrance facade, perfect camouflage for the silly delights within.

Sino Centre (信和中心), located at 582-592 Nathan Road in Mong Kok (map!) is a favorite shopping destination for teens and geeks of all ages. You can easily spend a couple of hours in here wandering around, and I guarantee you won’t come out empty-handed.

There are basically four main levels of shopping, with some more shops hidden in higher floors. First is the basement, with a branch of e-animate (not to be confused with the Japanese-originated Animate, a branch of which is located in north Mong Kok) and many stores dedicated to imported CDs (lots of j-pop and k-pop), Japanese-language magazines, and weekly/monthly “phone book” manga (get the latest Shonen Jump here). If you want Japanese-language manga in tankoubon-form, you can get them at the Sogo Asahiya Bookstore in Causeway Bay or try the Animate linked above. You can score some cheap gems here and there, but for the most part, expect prices to reflect the Airmail paid to get them here from Japan. This stuff is for people who want the real deal.

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Head back up the escalators to the 1st floor (ground floor is just elevators and the street), and you’ll be greeted with an assortment of little box stores selling all sorts of things to take up space in your apartment, but are potentially irresistible. The 2nd and 3rd floors are about the same. A more detailed sampling of what’s available:

1) Chinese-language manga/manhua (漫畫/漫画), either originating from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or translated from the latest Japanese series. Many of the books seem to come from Taiwan, as Hong Kong also uses traditional Chinese characters, and I imagine the translating/publishing industry is bigger in Taiwan.  Any genre, you name it, they probably have it. If your Cantonese isn’t too rusty, you can probably ask a store clerk to order for you any titles not stocked on the shelves. Retail prices are printed right on the book covers themselves and usually range from US$3-$5, a steal compared to North America, but of course, you have to be able to read Chinese! I have not seen any manga using simplified characters. You can also get translated Japanese light novels, again in traditional characters.

There are a number of shops selling manga. The ones with the latest volumes are located near the escalators on each floor. For example, there’s a good one immediately to your right as you arrive on the 1st floor. This shop also often has flyers up advertising upcoming comic/cosplay/fan events happening in Hong Kong. Definitely worth a look.

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This is the one I’m talking about.

Some manga shops, which can look like the home of a hoarder librarian, sell used volumes collected into full sets. If you are hankering to buy 50 volumes en masse of that vintage shonen manga that defined your adolescence, you can probably get it for a good price here.

2) Figurines – from cheap little plastic knock-offs the size of a strawberry to big hulking Gundams, there’s something here for everybody. There are perhaps half a dozen shops specializing in collectible figurines (e.g., Figma, Nenderoid) and are pretty up-to-date in their selection, although hot items do get sold out quickly. Prices will probably be cheaper than in Japan, but again, for the good stuff, expect to pay a reasonable market price. Some shops do charge more than others, so it’s best to walk around first and compare prices before buying, a method which should be applied to purchasing anything in this mall, really.

For the non-brand-name stuff, just a cute Luffy or Hatsune Miku for your computer desk, a few bucks should be enough to get what you need. Almost every other shop has a small selection of figures, so keep your eyes open for that perfect one.

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3) Photos/tchotchkes of your favorite pop/movie star.  There are around 3 “idol shops” that sell photos, posters, and accessories plastered with images of recently popular stars. There’s a lot more K-Pop representation recently, so expect lots of Girls’ Generation, Big Bang, and SHINee, but also many Hong Kong and Japanese stars. You can even get pics of Taylor Swift, Justin Beiber, One Direction, and other Western celebrities. How much of this stuff is just pulled from websites without permission, we’ll never know, but if you’re planning on plastering your bedroom walls and ceiling with your favorite singer’s big shiny smile, you can get it done pretty cheaply from here.

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4) Electronics accessories – have a smartphone or tablet? In addition to earbuds, wires, and chargers, Sino Centre has a giant selection of cases and covers for every taste and budget. You want that ostentatious Iron Man case with the light-up arc reactor? Got it. Just a cheapy little $1 bumper that barely does anything? Yep. A classy leather one for mom or dad? Sure. A lot of stores carry the same items, so shop around. If the price isn’t marked, you can try to gently bargain. The competition is pretty stiff as almost every store has some selection of smartphone cases, screen protector stickers, and spare battery packs.  (If you’re thinking about picking anything up at Sino Centre, consider a spare battery pack. It often comes in handy on travels).  If you buy a screen protector, the shop clerk should help stick it on for you in a way that no dust gets trapped underneath.  I’ve had a clerk mess up 3 times and throw out the protector each time before getting one on to her satisfaction, and I wasn’t charged extra. This just shows how big a profit margin the stores are making on these things, where they’re comfortable throwing a bunch out.

For more advanced accessories geared towards iPads and laptops, you will have better luck at the Golden Computer Centre/Golden Shopping Centre in Sham Shui Po.

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5) Scrapbooking materials – Sticker enthusiasts rejoice. Scattered around are shops with a very wide variety of well-designed and cute stickers (patterns, animals, flowers, mascots, etc.) at ridiculously cheap prices, i.e., HK$5/sheet (US$0.64).  You can also get patterned tape, decals, notebooks, cards, letter-writing sets, and other little trinkets designed to add flair to an otherwise blank piece of paper. Definitely head to the 2nd or 3rd floors to find the cheapest ones. 1st floor shops sometimes price them as high as US$3/sheet. You might have to do a little digging around on the shelves inside, but these stores are usually easy to spot. You can make out like a crafting bandit with a giant pile of adorable stickers for just a few bucks U.S. This is something I know from experience.

Store 228, "UCUBE". Best place for stickers and other goodies.

Store 228, “UCUBE”. Best place for stickers and other goodies.

6) Cute random – If you’re a fan of Arpakasso and his fuzzy alpaca friends, then prepare to have your head explode and all your money GONE, because there are tons and tons of Arpakassos of all colors, sizes, and tiny hats available. They’re quite cheap by Arpakasso standards (but perhaps not by general plushie price standards), so leave some room in your suitcase if you’re interested in an Arpakasso shopping spree.

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There are also tons of other plush toys, Sanrio goods up the wazoo, Line mascot stuff, Disney (people still going nuts for Monsters University and Lilo & Stitch stuff), Despicable Me minions, anime goods not already referenced, and a shop selling bling and Bakelite goodies in the shape of animals, flowers, and pastries to glue onto any object you desire:

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7) Beauty supplies and fashion accessories – There are a couple of hair care shops selling dyes and goo to make your mane do anything you’d like, along with places selling colored contact lenses of questionable safety (seriously, just go to an actual optometrist and get proper-fitting lenses so your eyeballs don’t die, there are plenty of reputable colored ones on the market). Hairclips and other cheap accessories are on sale, but you could do better in price by visiting the Argyle Center 旺角中心 in Mongkok. There’s also some shops selling belts and bags that are sometimes worth a peek.

8) Games and toys – a shop on the 1st floor sells board games and other miniature-sized things to goof around with. You can pick up a small Chinese chess or mahjong set and try challenging old men in parks or old ladies in dim sum houses when you feel ready (although I’m sure they would still slay you in battle). There are also many shops selling the modern video games we all love and hate, as well as a magic shop if you want to pull bunnies out of your shirt or…something.

9) The tawdry items – Just so you are prepared, there are still a few shops on the 3rd floor selling Japanese AV stuff, but I think they are slowly being taken over by more shops dealing in categories (1) through (8).

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In case all of that wasn’t enough for you, you can take an elevator or stairs to the floors above 3rd and check out some truly hidden away shops. These caverns offer more toys/figures, CDs, character goods, etc. Just take a look at the directory listing near the elevators and pick a destination!

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Yes, there are shops here.

If you’re visiting Hong Kong, or living here and want to indulge in fandoms and neat little things, carve out some time and give Sino Centre a visit. Bring cash, have fun.


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Let Me Tell You About MaiMai GreeN

Since my last post about MaiMai PLUS, Sega has released an updated version called MaiMai GreeN! (Yes, the N is capitalized). While the gameplay and machines are still the same, there have been some changes to the experience. Some of them I love, some not as much, and I thought I’d share my thoughts on them here.

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Yes, the machines are “GreeN” now too.

I explained all the basic elements of gameplay (slap buttons or tap a screen to match colored rings appearing in beat with a song) and using the personal Aime card in my original post, so if you’re new to the game, please read my write-up there.

NOTE: When I first tried to use my Aime card on a MaiMai GreeN machine, an alert popped up saying once you configure your card to the new machines and import your player data, you cannot go back to using the Aime card on a MaiMai PLUS machine. I imagine most, if not all, of the arcades in Asia with Aime-compatible MaiMai PLUS machines have already upgraded to GreeN by now, so it shouldn’t be an issue for players, but just  something to be aware of.

There are 3 major changes in MaiMai GreeN from MaiMai PLUS:

1) New songs, plus sorting 

I am SO happy with the songs out on MaiMai GreeN. They still have all of the old songs and your scores for them are saved if you have Aime. Meanwhile, they’ve added excellent hits such as L’Arc~en~ciel’s “Ready Steady Go!“, Exile’s “Choo Choo Train“, Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s “Rewrite“, and Flow’s “Go!!!“. All you FMA and Naruto theme song fans can rejoice! There are also some relatively new songs to enjoy. One of my current favorites is a quirky song by the Japanese girl group Momoiro Clover Z, “Saraba, Itoshiki Kanashimitachi yo” or “Farewell, My Dear Sorrows”. Whoever programmed the game’s ring sequences is also a genius, because this song is SUPER fun to play.  Here’s the music video, viewable in-game:

A new feature of the game allows you to sort the songs by popularity ranking and this one always ranks high. You can also sort by difficulty level when you only want to play Master level 11 songs, ha.

*All songs are listed on the Sega MaiMai GreeN site here.*

2) Maimile points

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On MaiMai GreeN, you can now earn “maimiles” to “buy” things in the game, such as new songs and icons/nameplates/wallpapers for the screen above your head while playing.  The game just throws a bunch of points at you at the beginning of each game, and you can get more points by scoring high or getting certain achievements.  I like that you can earn points to buy new songs, but I’m not too sure about shelling out points just to dress up your profile screen.  Some of them are quite “expensive” too, costing thousands of maimiles! I’d rather save them up for songs I can play. The menu to choose from isn’t bad either.

3) No more classic leveling-up

This might be the biggest change, in my opinion. In the past, as long as you kept playing and playing, you could level up, all the way past level 100. I’m not sure what the maximum level anybody reached was, but it seemed like you could only go up. In MaiMai GreeN, your ranking can now go up OR DOWN depending on how well you play. When I switched my player data over to GreeN, I vaguely remember it converted my 110+ ranking into a 5 or 6, and as I kept clearing/mastering new songs the ranking quickly went up in increments ranging from 0.01 to 0.1 all the way to 10.

Above 10, however, it becomes more and more difficult to level up. I’ve been playing for a few weeks and am currently stuck hovering around 10.42. If I happen to play worse on a song than my all-time high score, the ranking can drop. It’s a bit frustrating, actually, but I guess the game discourages grinding to level up.  I haven’t figured out the exact science of the plus and minus, but in short, you can’t slack off!  So far, a number of more advanced players in Hong Kong are somewhere around 11.xx.  I haven’t personally seen anyone break 12 yet, but perhaps it’s possible (Update: Seen it! Yeah, I lost that round of VS Play, ha). Anyway, I’m not sure how I feel about this new feature because even though it gently pressures you to keep improving, it’s really discouraging to see the ranking drop when you’re not in top form that day and just want to play a few rounds for fun. This system is definitely catering to more competitive players.

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That’s about all it for the major changes.  Overall, I still think MaiMai is a great game and continue to play the new version often. I’m also very happy to have now tried it out in seven Asian cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Taipei, and Bangkok). It’s been really enjoyable to see the different songs that are popular among players in each location, as well as their enthusiasm for the game.  Although I missed out on this, it looks like Sega held MaiMai tournaments in various cities, and some players are now sporting MaiMai-branded gaming gloves in the arcades.  So cool!  I’ll just have to be satisfied with my plain black ones in the meantime. To any players reading, DEFINITELY get a pair of gloves. It will save your hands and improve your game a lot. Just a simple pair from a costume shop will do. They don’t have to be special capacitative ones.

And to the powers that be at Sega, PLEASE bring this game to North America. I would be ever so grateful if you plopped a MaiMai GreeN machine in say…New York City. I’ll be there soon and would love to play it!


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Let Me Tell You About MaiMai PLUS

I haven’t been this excited about an arcade game in a very VERY long time, and since there doesn’t seem to be much English-language fan-blogging about it, I thought I’d share this discovery with you. After checking it out for the first time in Japan back in January, I’ve been playing it a lot in Hong Kong, and hope it will make its way to North America soon.

[Sept. 2013: Sega has now released an updated version, MaiMai GreeN. You can read my write-up about it here.]

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Released in mid-2012, maimai PLUS (or just “maimai”) is a touch-screen-based rhythm game developed by Sega, kind of like DanceDanceRevolution for your hands. Colored circles ripple out from the center of the screen in different speeds and combinations, depending on the level and the song, and you have to either push buttons or touch the screen in matching rhythm as the rings cross a large circle on the screen to score points. This incredibly sparkly promotional video from Sega gives you the introductory gist:

Gameplay is pretty simple. There are 3 kind of “rings”: pink circles, yellow circles, and blue stars. Pink circles appear individually, so you tap the button one at a time. Yellow circles appear in pairs, so you have to use two hands to push two buttons together at the same time (or do it fancy one-handed on the touch screen if you have a large hand-span). Sometimes the circles turn into long ovals, and that means you have to hold down the button a few beats, instead of just tapping quickly, until the oval disappears. Blue stars can appear individually or in pairs, and after you push the button, a dotted line appears across the screen and you have to swipe across the screen with your hand along the line, at the same speed as blue star, which will also be moving down the line. It’s a little difficult to describe how to play using only words. Just watch a person play once, though, (or search on YouTube) and you’ll figure it out immediately. There is also a tutorial mode on the machine for new players.

Some players, including me, prefer to use only the buttons and just touch the screen to swipe down the blue-star-line. Some people play entirely on the touchscreen. There are dotted points around the screen that you can touch instead of pushing buttons. I’ve found that there are pros and cons to either method. Using only the touchscreen allows greater versatility (e.g., the one-handed yellow-ring move I mentioned before) and speed when playing, but it’s often hard to get good accuracy when you want to aim for a “perfect” sync as the rings cross the line. Using buttons is more accurate since you have a larger target to push, and you get the personal satisfaction of slapping buttons, but it’s harder to do trick moves and really challenging on the fast and difficult songs. So take your pick! I’ve seen players at all levels use either method.

Playing VS mode with my friend. You can play on different levels in VS mode or do Sync mode at the same level and try to match each other's performance for a high sync score. If there are enough machines at the arcade, you can even do 4-player mode!

Playing VS mode with my friend. You can play on different levels in VS mode or do Sync mode at the same level and try to match each other’s performance for a high sync score. If there are enough machines at the arcade, you can even do 4-player mode!

There are dozens of songs to choose from, most of which are quite new and popular. The most often-played ones are in the “J-Pop” (lots of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and AKB48 songs) and “Variety” categories (here’s a track list: http://maimai.sega.jp/song.shtml). A few of my personal favorites are “Samurai Bloodshow”, “LukaLuka★Night Fever”, and “WORLD’S END DANCE HALL”. The machines are always updating with new songs, which keeps the gameplay fresh.

To start playing, I recommend getting an Aime card, which usually costs around US$4.50/HK$35, so that you can save your progress as you level up and unlock new songs. There’s a sensor on the maimai machine where you place your card, and it will recognize your individual card number so your “saved game” comes up on the machine. The first time you use the card it will ask you to make a username on the machine. Afterward, you can go to the maimai website (https://maimai-net.com/maimai-mobile/login.htm), sign up for a SEGA ID, register your Aime card, and keep track of your scores, gameplay, trophies, and levels. You can change your username and thumbnail icon (which appears on a screen at the top of the maimai machine when you play) anytime online.

My poor little beat-up Aime card...

My poor little beat-up Aime card…

When you first start playing, you can play on Easy, Basic, Advanced, or Expert level for each song. You can clear a song and level up by ranking A-minus or above (i.e., A, A+, AA, S, SS). After every song, the screen above the machine gives you your stats and tells you how many rings you got “perfect”, “great”, “good”, or “miss”. When you rank “S” on an Expert-level song, you unlock the “Master” level of that song, which is often SUPER HARD but SUPER FUN. You can get “trophies” for certain accomplishments, such as clearing a whole category of songs, ranking S on a certain number of songs, getting to level 10, 20, 30, 40, etc. Once you get to level 100, I think the game makes it so that you level up more slowly, but you can still get trophies for other things. Check out the Japanese wiki of the game (http://maimai.wiki.fc2.com/) for all sorts of interesting information. You can feed it through Google translate to get a fairly understandable English translation.

Huzzah! Level 100!

Huzzah! Finally at Level 100!

There is also an option to record your gameplay so that you can upload it to the Japanese video site NicoNicoDouga (or maybe keep for yourself? I’m not sure), but I always just hit “disagree” on recording when I get the prompt. Even if you “agree” and it records your game, you always have the option to delete the video at the end of the song if you don’t want to keep/upload it.

I’ve been enjoying this game for the fun catchy songs and the good cardio I get from playing on Master level. In the beginning, I was of course super-slow and missing lots of rings, but after practicing, much like on a musical instrument, I could almost feel the neurons zapping in my brain as my hand-eye-coordination improved with each round. It’s definitely worth a try, no matter what your age, and can be quite relaxing once you get the hang of it. In the Hong Kong arcades I’ve visited so far, I unscientifically estimate the player ratio for maimai PLUS is about 40% girls, 60% boys, so the game definitely has wide appeal. (And the girls do play at a high level! It’s not just the dancing booth babes on easy mode you see on YouTube!)

Right now, it costs anywhere from US$0.75/HK$6 per person for each 3-4 song round to US$0.65/HK$5 per 2-3 song round. In Japan, it’s 100yen per person for 3-4 songs, if I remember correctly. There are also consoles in various cities in Asia, such as Singapore, Jakarta, and Taipei. You can search for them on the Zenius website (http://zenius-i-vanisher.com/v5.2/arcadelocations.php#location:0,0,1). Just scroll down, click on “Music Game” and search for “maimai” or “maimaiPLUS”, but be careful, some of the “maimai” locations might not have Aime card readers. Lesson learned in Singapore: if you want to you use your Aime card, go to the arcade in Bugis Junction, not Bugis+.

(Update – April 23, 2013: A recent jaunt to Manila has revealed that even a maimai Plus machine might not have Aime card readers. The one at Quantum arcade in SM City Manila currently does not have this capability. I am not sure about other locations in the country. I guess it has more to do with whether the individual arcade has Aime hooked up, which probably needs an internet connection. It was very impressive watching the people there play. They all have to play as a “guest” and S-rank an expert level song to unlock the master level EVERY SINGLE TIME. On top of it, they don’t get to save their progress or get trophies! Lots of people were still playing excellently, though, so that must mean they had to practice many many times without the benefit of a saved game. That’s love and dedication!)

I’m not sure if Sega will release this game outside of Asia, but the version outside Japan is all in English, so it could easily be imported to North America. If it does get there, I hope the game will still be as affordable to play as it is here. In the meantime, if you happen to come to a city in Asia where there is maimai PLUS, give it a go!

(And if you have to wait your turn to play at the arcade, you can always do what all other Hong Kongers are doing right now and play Candy Crush Saga on your phone! ^^)


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Dragon Centre: Frugal Shopping With Standards

Hello from Hong Kong! Hard to believe it’s been so long (almost 9 months!) since my meatstravaganza post, but here I am again, and on the other side of the globe, no less. Time for some Culturesplosion: HK edition!

I’ve been living here for a couple of months now, and it’s a very different experience compared to a week’s vacation. With more time to explore slowly, I’ve uncovered a few gems, although I am sure there are still tons yet to be discovered.

One such gem is  Dragon Centre (map!) or “西九龍中心”/”west kowloon centre”, located in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood of Kowloon. The easiest way to get there is via MTR subway. Once you step out of the station, you are totally transported into “old school” Hong Kong where the neighborhood is a little bit rougher around the edges (quite a contrast from most neighborhoods in trendier Hong Kong Island), but populated by nice locals. After walking past a couple of blocks of street hawkers selling the most random of electronics gear (oh look, a dusty power drill next to the 1980s-style home-stereo equipment next to the iPhone 5 cases!), you’re confronted by the big glass behemoth:

Behold! You and a small (or large) amount of your HK dollars are soon to be parted.

你好, Mr. Dragon!

There are escalators that go up two stories at a time, in case you’re in a hurry but are not quite so desperate as to take an elevator.

I’ve explored many a mall since I’ve arrived, and found this 9-story wonder to be among my favorites, both for selection and price. There are the usual big-box/chain stores which are conveniently located but not particularly noteworthy (PriceRite and Japan Home Center for household goods, Wellcome for groceries, obligatory 7-Eleven, Watsons drugstore, etc.) and mid-range clothing/shoe stores of every kind. There are also two arcades and even an ice-skating rink.

The best attractions, though, are the little independent shops situated either in little mall-carts that ring around every floor or in the “Apple Mall” on the 5th-7th floors.

Just a small example of what’s available. Don’t jump all at once, decora kids!

These “box stores” are amazing. There are dozens and dozens of little shops, some no bigger than a walk-in closet, squished together selling all sorts of interesting and cute wares. I saw many 1-person nail salons creating crazy nail art (non-local that I am, I might be a little wary of the hygiene levels, but they also sell manicure supplies and decorations to do it yourself at home!), hair styling/extension shops, endless accessories boutiques that would put our American Claire’s to shame, arts & crafts stores catering to all your creative needs, and every kind of adorable mascot knick-knack your hoarding heart desires. This mall is fueling my Rilakkuma obsession like nothing else.

Omg, lemonade cheers! ヽ(°◇° )ノ Are they drunk on lemonade? I’ll bet Kiiroitori spiked it. (I.D. card holder, HK$3 (US$0.39, gahhh!))

Best of all, everything of decent style and quality is still cheap. Cheaper than in Mongkok, which I used to think was the bastion of cheap shopping, but now has become more expensive as probably more tourists make the area a destination. As an example, very pretty hair ties found for HK$40 (US$5.61) in Mongkok were sold for HK$5 (US$0.65!) in Dragon Centre. Stationery supplies are almost half the price compared to what’s available on Hong Kong Island. And you can be sure everything is emblazoned with enough cute and color to satisfy even a resident of Ponyville.

Finally, when you’re done running around from shop to shop like a crazy person buying many many sheet of stickers, you can hop over to the dun-dun-dun FOOD COURT (8th floor) for some serious nosh of all varieties.

Do not be frozen by indecision. Pick a noodle, any noodle.

There are tons of authentic Chinese dishes available, of course, but also Japanese, Western-style, sweets/desserts and…Turkish! The one drawback is that many of the menus are in Chinese, so even I will have to decipher and taste everything gradually as I learn more characters, but enough places have English for a good sampling, and there are many sit-down restaurants scattered all over the entire mall itself which have English menus. They are definitely worth a visit as well.

If you still have the energy after journeying through Dragon Centre, I would also suggest a visit to the nearby Golden Computer Center/Gold Computer Arcade (map!) (HK is so loose with the “Center/Centre” spellings, really) where you can look for bargains amidst the insane crowds. Or, if nothing fancies you, you can always go to watch some K-Pop videos, playing on a multitude of screens in endless loop.

Gangnam Style/PSY was EVERYWHERE. There was no escape.

Happy consuming! You won’t need a lot of money to have a good time, I promise.


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Meatstravaganza at Picnic Garden!

It’s hard to believe we’re almost two months into 2012. DH and I started off our new year with a seemingly ridiculous resolution to complete a 30-day vegetarian challenge, just to see if we could do it. As a result, January went by in a whirlwind of tofu, egg, cheese, and various vegetable matter. We avoided restaurants during that month for the most part, lest we be disappointed by the various menu options which we could not consume, so perhaps we saved some money. Upon completion, however, I wasn’t sure what we really had to show for it, other than a burning desire to consume meat. Meat. MEAT.

Unsurprisingly, February has become a bit meat-centric. We marked the completion of the challenge with a victorious visit to HILL COUNTRY BARBECUE MARKET (map!) where we stuffed our faces with beef brisket (lean & moist varieties) and pork spare ribs, 1 1/2 lbs total.

Time to dig in.

The barbecue was flavored very well, but a bit too salty. The free bread that came with our meat helped balance it out, but our tongues were kind of done by the end. I would love to just have a sandwich next time.

Meanwhile, we had been eyeing another contender for our post-vegetarian stint, but decided against going right away because it was a bit far. Like, Flushing, Queens far. And so, PICNIC GARDEN (map!), home of an unbelievably glorious concept called the ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT-KOREAN-BBQ had to wait for another day…

…but that day finally arrived this past weekend! Let the hedonistic meat-consumption begin!

You could smell the meat grilling from 2 blocks away...glorious for visitors, probably terrible for the neighbors.

We first discovered the existence of all you can eat Korean barbecue joints while we were in Los Angeles (yes, in between all that healthy eating, ha!), and had resolved to find a similar experience on the east coast. Manhattan’s Koreatown does not offer this kind of deal, based on our highly scientific Googling, so the choice was to trek to either Queens or New Jersey. The Queens location was closer and more accessible by public transportation, so off we went.

And goodness, what a mess the traveling was. Attention, all ye internet readers, check the train schedules! We decided to take the LIRR (which would have arrived closer than the subway 7-train), but managed to miss BOTH the departing and return trains by 5 minutes, and they only run once an hour on the weekends. Whoops. Uh, time for some loitering around Penn Station? Once we did get on the train, it was a 20-minute ride, plus a 4-block walk in the snow to finally get to the restaurant.

But it was totally worth all the trouble.

By now, we were desperately hungry and hoping to still be able to catch the lunch price ($23 per person on weekends, something significantly higher for dinner). We were quickly seated by a very efficient hostess/waitress/meat-cutter, who turned on the grill at our table and then left us to go pick out the well-marinated animal parts which would soon be charred to deliciousness in front of us.

THE BUFFET. BUFFET OF MEAT. And other delicious things.

For what is basically a meat palace, the name “Picnic Garden” might not be the best description of the offerings available at this restaurant. It rather makes me think of laying on a checkerboard blanket and eating watercress sandwiches. That thought, however, was quickly dashed.

The big ticket items. Galbi, short-ribs, spicy pork, and other meaty glories.

I liked this setup even better than our experience in Los Angeles, where you had to ask the waiter to bring you more meat. Here, you pick and choose exactly what you want, and there is no shame in going back for seconds, I mean, fourths. There is also a variety of prepared ban-chan side dishes (mmm, good kimchi and potato-egg-apple salad), rice, and soups (the seaweed soup is out of this world, slurp slurp slurp), which I thought were terrifically tasty and just as worthy of merit as the beef/pork/chicken/seafood.

The aroma is swoon-worthy. Come on, cook faster!

The waitress kept good attention to our table and cut up our meats into bite-sized pieces as they cooked, stopping by every once in awhile to give them a little stir for even grilling. When they were done, we made our little lettuce wraps and heartily munched with satisfaction.

Just look at that. Not my fault if you lick the screen.

Several rounds later, we were pretty much stuffed to the brim. We polished everything off with some fresh orange slices, and finished just in time for the end of lunch. For about $50 total before tip, that was a great value.

Word of caution, as iterated by many voices on the internet, YOU ARE GONNA SMELL OF MEAT WHEN YOU’RE DONE. Oh yes, the smell will linger for hours, reminding you of the glory that was your meal, and causing all your friends with noses to froth with jealousy that they didn’t get to go. Or you’ll just smell like some meaty weirdo around strangers.

Heeding those words, we wore easily washable clothes which we knew would go straight into the laundry once we got home, and brought a garbage bag to stuff our winter coats into. It feels a little weird to go to such lengths, but those tiny drops of meat grease will splatter, and the aroma will soak into your coats, so better to bag than having to head to the dry-cleaners.

And after you’re done, you can go across the street to this place:

PUPPIES PUPPIES PUPPIES

I like how the PUPPIES x3 are bulleted. And were there ACTUAL adorable little doggies inside? The answer is yes.


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Memories of London and Its Gastronomic Variety

Hello internet, I’ve been absent from this blog for a little while, but it was for a good reason. In November, I indulged in a separate writing project and completed my first NaNoWriMo (“National Novel Writing Month”), typing out over 52,000 words of a story which hopefully makes some sense. It was just for fun, and I don’t know what will come from this, but I enjoyed spending some time on fiction-writing, if only for 30 days. Since then, December has been all about the holidays, and I’ve discovered that it is quite difficult to get to the computer when one hand is holding a drumstick or a forkful of mashed potatoes for about half the month.

But now I’m back, if a littler fatter, and I’m bringing the food stories. To start, here are some additional highlights from London, covering a little more ground beyond just a proper afternoon tea:

1) London is the home of a great variety of ethnic cuisines. A top selection, of course, is Indian food. On our recent trip there, DH and I spent our first evening at PUNJAB (map!) in Covent Garden and had the best welcome ever.

The smell of delicious cooking softly wafts outside...

The exterior is fairly unassuming, but a peek through the window and you will see that it is a packed house for dinner. We gladly wandered through the neighborhood during the half-hour wait for a table, and were immediately seated upon our return. The restaurant interior is a bit maze-like, and our table was in one of many cozy rooms filled with people happily chatting and scarfing down their meals. The atmosphere was really fun and boisterous. We spent a long time looking through the menu, which had a lot of tempting options, and in the end, decided to go with the classics of Punjabi and Anglo-Indian cuisine:

PAPADUMS - totally addictive. We asked for a second order. And those sauces/chutneys/pickles! I wish I could take them home with me.

Sweet lassi - makes the yogurt lover in me go woooooo

Butter naan in your face! I could eat this at any time of day, any day. Nom nom smack smack. Mmm, bread.

Butterrrrrr Chickennnnn!!! It was the first time we ever had this classic punjabi dish, and it was awesome. Like, "let's put the whole dang spice rack in this dish" awesome.

Saag paneer. Sassy cheese and spinach ohhhh!

And the British "national dish", chicken tikka masala!

We tried very hard to savor every bite and not eat like vacuum cleaners, but it was really tough when all the food was so soft, tasty, and begging to be devoured. Each dish had its own unique taste and the chicken was super-tender, pairing very well with our side of basmati rice. When we finally came up for air and started digesting, we saw that the patrons around us were a mix of South Asians, Anglos, and tourists, and everyone looked equally satisfied with the plates in front of them. DH and I were convinced when we waddled out of the restaurant that it was a solid choice.

And the price? Yeah, every dish is less than 10 British pounds. Yessss.

2) After our Punjab dinner, we were totally in the mood for more chicken for the rest of our trip. Lucky for us, a dear friend and recent transplant from the States introduced us to NANDO’S (map!). Nando’s may be a chain establishment, but it serves up some mighty good chicken of the Afro-Portuguese variety.

In case you don't know what they're all about. It's CHICKEN. Chicken made with love.

There are multiple locations in London (and astonishingly, in Washington D.C. too! I am so there!), and we went to the one in the clean and spacious Jubilee Place mall in Canary Wharf, where we feasted on “peri-peri chicken” and its accompaniments. I liked the restaurant setup. A hostess seated us, then we went up to the cashier to place our order, and a waitress brought the food to the table a few minutes later. Easy!

Yowza.

We also got some pita bread with a red pepper dip.

Yeah, these were all gone in about 3 minutes.

The chicken tasted ridiculously fresh. My mind is blown as to how something of this quality exists in a fast-food-ish context. Next time I am in the D.C./Maryland area, I have to try the U.S. version to see if it’s just as good. I hope it is! (I also recently saw the Nando’s marinating sauce for sale in NYC, so I’ll be picking up a bottle soon.)

3) And then it was time for some coffee. I try to make a point of visiting a good coffee shop in each city we visit, and by now I’ve gotten just a teensy bit tired of the Brooklyn-hipster aesthetic. Sure, if it’s seriously good coffee, I’ll drink it out of a barrel served by a hobo (SOOO indie), but we’re across the pond now. How is London going to serve its coffee to me?

THE NORDIC WAY. Oh.

I love NORDIC BAKERY (map!). I had researched the location online to find a place to rendez-vous with another dear London friend (who happens to have quite a soft spot for the Nordic countries and was glad to meet there, yay!), and had already fallen for the bakery’s website! (Oh, sweet Helvetica font!) Seeing the space in person confirmed my expectations, and it was a wonderfully simple and relaxing place to catch up and have a quiet conversation.

There are some tall ceilings, and the surprisingly un-tacky wood walls had a nice calming effect. Pretend you're in the woods, now!

The latte and hot chocolate was quite tasty as well.

Sugar and caffeine make the world go 'round. Round and round in cute Teema cups.

When I’m back in London again, I’ll have to come and try the actual baked goods. I was eyeing their pastries, but my stomach was still full of chicken then. Next time, pastries. Next time I will eat you so much.

4) Finally, to top off our trip, what else could we eat except good ol’ British fish and chips? And where else could we eat them except for a place with a name as cool as MASTERS SUPER FISH (map!)? I wanted to eat some super fish. Wouldn’t you? So DH and I took a stroll across the Hungerford Bridge and down to the Waterloo area, which was decidedly residential and unexciting, except for this chip shop. We were the first customers, charging in eagerly just as they opened for business that day.

When it comes to chip shops, does divey-er equal better? Maybe.

Our waitress brought us some bread and fresh cooked shrimp (shell on) as complimentary appetizers and we proceeded to peel and eat the sweet and salty little prawns with gusto.

I would have seriously paid some poundage to eat a whole bucket more (I'm not even sure they were on the menu), but we were there for the fish.

And maybe some calamari…

Batter, A++ would fry again

Fried cod and plaice with chips and mushy peas. YUM.

Goodness gracious, let’s get a closer look:

Ah, lovely fish. Your death was not in vain. It was such a tasty fate. A fate covered in tartar sauce.

This is the kind of fried food no one should ever have to feel guilty about. The crispy coating was so light and clean-tasting that you’d almost think it was good for you! The fish, of course, was very fresh and flaked in just the right places. Totally worth it, and again, very reasonably priced for SO.MUCH.FISH.

So those were my top picks for London, but I’ll throw in two more suggestions: anything at the supermarket section of Marks & Spencer (amazing prepared foods that put Whole Foods to shame; I ate tons of their fruit salad) and the many, many amazing selections at the outdoor Borough Market (produce that puts the Union Square greenmarket to shame; omg tomatoes):

"Fruity Beauty Cocktail", with honeydew AND cantaloupe that tastes good? I'm sold.

It's tomatosplosion here on culturesplosion.

So what’s that they say? Cheers? Yes, cheers. Now go eat!


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Saturday at Smorgasburg!

I have to thank my fav restaurant buddy for introducing me to her colleague as “my friend with the food blog,” because this new acquaintance then went on to give me the scoop about SMORGASBURG (map!), a cool Brooklyn food fair that happens in Williamsburg every Saturday.

Curious about this weekly event (organized by the same people who set up the Brooklyn Flea markets), DH and I picked a glorious day to visit.

Ok, maybe not so glorious. Where's the sun??

The sky was not nearly as beautiful as in all the press photos, but I wanted to try those fried anchovies I had read about, darn it! So we braved the rain and gloom under a tiny umbrella while making our way east from the L-train stop, and thankfully saw that a good number of other people had also made the same trek for a chance to taste some good Brooklyn yums.

So many places to try! First stop: BON CHOVIE (omg, their website is great. I’ll never think of anchovies the same way ever again. Apparently they are the rock stars of the sea?)

Tiny oily fish are effin' metal, dude.

We weren’t hardcore enough to go for “heads on”, but no matter. They were delicious! That smoked paprika aioli on the side was pretty special too.

And to think, you guys could have been canned and sitting on the shelf of a supermarket somewhere for MONTHS. This is a much better fate for you, fishies, I promise.

After that tasty little appetizer, we were on the prowl again. This time, we wanted something carby, with a little more heft. Ooo, what’s that over there?

Pupusas? PUPUSAS.

A little background. Pupusas are a Salvadoran food – thick tortillas filled with any variety of amazing things. (Long confusing story short: the first time I tried them was in Scotland, homemade by a Taiwanese-American girl who learned about them while visiting Latin America. A truly global treat.) And now here was SOLBER PUPUSAS, dishing them out! We ordered a traditional pork one and a fish one. They came with curtido (pickled cabbage), tomato sauce, sour cream, and jalapenos. Then we also grabbed some juices at the Red Jacket Orchards stand.

Time for a bigger photo:

I really like the colors in this picture.

Ohhhhmyyygodddd. These pupusas were totally gold. The combination of the tortilla, meat/fish, and all the condiments was just the most amazing mouth-happy experience ever. Not only was there a good taste, but the curtido gave each bite an excellent crunch, so the texture was great too. We scarfed it all down like animals, it was glorious.

So now we totally had the hunger. More carbs and meat, please?

Hmmm, that BOCATA stand smells pretty good.

Who can say no to sausage on a roll? One please!

I didn’t get the combo, which would have come with a side of fried shishito peppers, but they let me have one as a sample, and it was very good! (On a later occasion I bought some fresh peppers and tried to make an approximation at home. It’s a great healthy snack/app!) The sandwich itself, though, was also top-notch.

*CHOMP* Mmm, chorizo sausage and manchego cheeeeese...

Now, what about dessert? We need a unique baked good:

A stroopwafel. Perfect!

This bit of cookie-caramelly goodness was courtesy of the nice lady at THE GOOD BATCH stand. I haven’t had a stroopwafel since my visit to Vandaag way back (has it been 10 months already??), and this was a good specimen. I also got some AMAZING iced coffee from GRADY’S COLD BREW to go with it.

I am such a fiend for well-brewed coffee. Tiny bit of milk, no sugar needed. ZERO BITTERNESS. That is what I need. NEED I tell you.

I was tempted to buy some of their concentrate. Enough great coffee to last quite awhile! Maybe next time, though.

These lads know their craft well.

And they gave us our change all in $2 bills! Is that so hipster? I think that's kind of hipster.

In case you were ever wondering what the back of a $2 bill looks like. It's the presentation of the draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress. NOT the signing. Factoid for the day.

Although I also really wanted to try a popsicle from the PEOPLE’S POPS stand, I was just a little too full and the weather was getting just a little too cold, so we had to pass on it. However, just a couple of weeks later I stopped by the stand at Chelsea Market (another foodstravaganza under one roof) and got my chance to sample their frozen goodies:

Roasted red plum. CHOCK FULL of fresh fruit. I had no regrets.

I would love to go back to Smorgasburg again on a better-weather day and try more selections. There were a lot of other choices that looked appetizing. If you want an opportunity to sample the new wave of artisanal, independent foods that are originating out of Brooklyn nowadays, this is a good chance to graze all in one place.

And after you’re done stuffing your face, you can open up your wallet at the vintage market around the corner!

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