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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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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Eat a lot at Eataly!

I have a strong affinity for large indoor food markets (a bit odd, I guess, but there could be worse things…). They’re like malls, but with fewer teenagers and more things you can eat!

Prime examples include Chelsea Market, Reading Terminal Market, Pike Place Market or Mitsuwa Marketplace, but basically, if it’s big and filled with delicious things, I’ll be visiting. Given this, you can imagine my excitement when EATALY (map!), Mario Batali‘s “Italian culinary funhouse”, opened up last year.

This line stretched ridiculously long.

Located in the Flatiron District, Eataly is an impressive 50,000 sq. ft. of all things dedicated to chowing down and loving it. Here, you can shop for any manner of ingredients as well as enjoy the complete and cooked versions at various restaurants. There is so much to see, taste, and smell, you could seriously build a day trip around this place. Sure, it gets crowded on weekends, but it takes more than a few dozen elbows and poorly positioned mini-shopping-carts to keep me from snagging the groceries or dishes I want.

AMEN.

My first favorite thing about Eataly is its massive selection of high quality goods. The prices are reasonable for what you’re getting, and I’ve found stuff here that would be tough to locate elsewhere (really, fresh wood ear mushrooms?? hallelujah!).

Hey! We're not in plastic boxes! Yay!

There is a department for every genre, and every time I turn around, there’s another area of the store to be explored. Go browse around and stare at stuff: veggies, meat, cheese, beer, pasta (dry/fresh), bread, canned/preserved, cakes and pastries, coffee/espresso, seafood, rotisserie, charcuterie, beer, etc. It’s a chef’s paradise, really.

Take us home! You know you want to!

I never thought I could use the word "beautiful" to describe a meat department, but I guess now I can. And check out the silver pig statue!

You have to buy some of this fresh pasta. It'll make your home-cooking taste even more fantastic. The experts behind the counter are all incredibly jolly too.

My second favorite thing is the menu for actual eating. With casual restaurant sections devoted to seafood (Il Pesce), veggies (Le Verdure), and pasta & pizza (La Pizza & Pasta, fittingly), there is something for everyone.

During peak mealtimes, this place is PACKED.

If sitting down isn’t your thing, you can also go to La Piazza, a stand-up eating space to get your wine, salumi, and cheese plate on. Give it a try, you’ll feel so Europe.

You'll probably have to fight for a table on Sundays. All worth it for some choice cured meats.

There is also Manzo, a formal dining space for a little more haute, and various options for to-go treats and meals.

On one occasion, DH and I went to Il Pesce for some tasty fruits of the sea, and were enthralled by the Fritto Misto alla Ligure (assorted fried seafood Ligurian style):

Variety on a plate, served light and crispy.

And recently, we went to La Pizza & Pasta for some satisfying carbs:

Spaghetti al pomodoro...so al dente, so good.

Fettuccine con Coda all Vaccinara (Homemade Roman pasta with oxtail ragu). OMG.

Ok, so let’s talk about the fettuccine for a second. This dish was nothing short of mind-blowing. If you can eat only one thing at an Eataly restaurant, you have to eat this. The oxtail ragu? AMAZING. The flavor and texture made each and every bite worth savoring, and I was absolutely brokenhearted when I finally had to look back at an empty plate.

To temper the sadness, of course, we had to get gelato. My top choice remains the fig and chocolate combo, although the fig flavor is seasonal. Still, WHERE ELSE can you ever hope to find FIG-flavored ice cream?? Again, amazing.

Gaze at its gloriousness.

So that’s Eataly. Now there’s another reason to head to this neighborhood other than Shake Shack and Home Depot, and it looks like a BEER GARDEN is opening up on the roof in the spring. Even more to look forward to.

Buon Appetito!