A view of Hong Kong, where the lifeless body of Wiji Astutik Supardi was found on June 8. (JG Photo/Dessy Sagita)

HK Goes Halal to Tap Tourists

MARCH 10, 2015

With ubiquitous skyscrapers, stunning skylines, endless shopping strips and beautiful seafront vistas, Hong Kong has been one of the favorite holiday destinations for Indonesian tourists for the past few decades.

I first visited Hong Kong in 2012 on a backpacking trip with my cousin, thinking about nothing but Disneyland and the Victoria Peak view at night. While I immensely enjoyed the city's vibrant atmosphere, my first visit to Hong Kong was slightly disrupted by the weariness of trying to find halal food.

Because Hong Kongers love their pork.

While I'm quite adventurous about trying new things and visiting places that might not be too common for tourists, I have always been careful about Muslim dietary requirements and try my best to avoid eating pork or drinking alcoholic beverages.

So when I was invited by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to join a Muslim-friendly tour of the city, I immediately agreed because I wanted to see if the city really did offer better access to culinary options for Muslims.

Hong Kong is home to more than 300,000 Muslims, and tourism industry officials say they have recently made more serious efforts to make Muslim tourists feel welcome by providing a range of halal restaurants throughout the city.

Hong Kong's tourism industry has been embracing Muslims tourists by joining efforts with the government to promote services that cater to Muslims' needs.

More restaurants, hotels and tourism attractions such as amusement parks now serve halal food, as does luxury cruise ship SuperStar Virgo, which docks in Hong Kong harbor, as well as airlines like Cathay Pacific.

Ocean Park Hong Kong, a marine-themed amusement park on Wong Chuk Hang Road in Hong Kong's Aberdeen district, is one of the top tourist spots that recently decided to open a halal kiosk for Muslim visitors.

"We've seen a boom in the Southeast Asian tourist market in the recent years, and therefore we decided to include halal food in the menu in 2013," Beryl Watt, the operations manager of Ocean Park, told the Jakarta Globe.

With the halal kiosks serving halal fare such as beef satay and chicken tandoori, more Muslims tourists, mostly from Malaysia and Indonesia, have prebooked their trips to Ocean Park, Beryl said. He added that the Ocean Park management planned to open more halal kiosks to cater to its growing Muslim clientele.

In the busy Tsim Sha Tsui district, tucked in a corner of Hau Fook district, tourists can find Ma's Restaurant, which serves only halal food.

"This is a second-generation business; this family business has been around for 40 years," said owner Louis Ma.

Following his family's path, Ma immigrated to Vancouver to open a halal restaurant there before he decided to return to Hong Kong and start a certified halal restaurant that serves food from the majority-Muslim Xinjiang province of northwest China, where his family is originally from.

Ma recommended the veal goulash, the first item he developed for his restaurant, a fried dumpling with a thick flour wrap filled with a generous portion of ground beef or veal. The flavor was rich and flowing with juice from the meat and vegetable stuffing. Ma's restaurant is also famous for its lamb rolls and vegetable dishes.

Ma said the growing number of Muslim tourists had helped him expand his business.

"A few years ago, my biggest challenge was finding halal meat, but now it's easier to find halal meat in Hong Kong," he said.

More than half of the restaurant's patrons are actually not Muslim.

"Only around 40 percent of my guests are Muslims; the rest simply love the food and they recommend the place to their friends," Ma said.

Ma also gives discounts to Indonesian domestic workers who come back to the restaurants with their employers.

Muslim tourists can also try out authentic Cantonese dim sum in the Islamic Canteen, situated on the fifth floor of the Osman Ramju Islamic Center in Wanchai.

The popular canteen, opened in 2005, is the only restaurant in Hong Kong that serves halal-certified Cantonese dishes and dim sum. The halal meat is sourced from mainland China and Brazil.

The canteen, a favorite among Indonesians living in Hong Kong, opens from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, but is closed throughout Ramadan.

"But we provide free food for fast-breaking and there are a lot of Indonesian sisters who come here," said Ma, the owner of the Islamic canteen.

For a slightly fancier dining experience and exotic food, tourists can visit the Ottoman Palace on Ashley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. The restaurant serves authentic Turkish food, my staple every time I'm abroad.

As an avid fan of Turkish kebabs I can confidently say Ottoman Palace serves the best Turkish food I've ever tasted, with portions that are generous and flavorful but not overwhelmed by spices.

The food is served fresh, as head chef Mustafa Akkoyun attentively prepares the food as soon as it is ordered.

For Muslim tourists who wish to pray while traveling in Hong Kong, a visit to Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Center should not be missed. The mosque is one of six main mosques in Hong Kong, and features rustic European architecture and a fascinating history going back to the 19th century.

Situated at the corner of Nathan and Haipong roads, the Kowloon Mosque is the first and largest on the peninsula. It was built in 1892 by Muslim soldiers serving in the British Army who felt they needed a place to pray together.

The mosque can accommodate up to 3,500 people for prayers as well as banquets and other religious activities. The mosque also has a madrassa , or Islamic school, where children can learn more about Islamic teachings.

Extremism is strictly prohibited at the mosque, where one of the main objectives is to promote Islam as a peaceful and tolerant religion.

"We also hold an interfaith dialogue every month with leaders [of other faiths]; this month we discussed extremism in Islam," said Qamar Z. Minhas, the chairman of the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community of Hong Kong.

"We Muslims have no problem, and we don't allow extremism here; Shiite and Sunni pray together side by side," Minhas said.

He added that the Muslim population in Hong Kong was quite fortunate because the government was very accommodating of individuals' religious activities.

"For more than 275 years Muslims have been living in Kowloon and we have a peaceful history, we live side by side with the mainstream population," he said.

He said that with the growing number of Muslim tourists, the board of trustees had received more applications for halal certification.

"In the past two years, there has been a big demand for understanding halal food, and Disneyland now has a halal restaurant. Cathay Pacific and even some five-star hotels also now serve halal food," Minhas said.

After several days of wandering the streets and trying halal restaurants throughout the city, I left Hong Kong assured I'll never go hungry for lack of halal food there -- and already looking forward to my next visit.

The Jakarta Globe's media visit to Hong Kong was sponsored by the city's tourism board.