Definitely not for the finicky or faint-hearted
HONG KONG—His job is not for the squeamish, and surely not for wimps.
Simon Yin, wacky host of History Channel’s equally wacky travel-adventure program, “Hidden Cities: Extreme” (“HCE”), is no stranger to exotic cuisines and outrageous stunts.
“Try anything once” is the mantra that Simon lives by when thrill-seeking around Asia for his show.
“I walk into a situation without knowing what’s going to happen. You can’t be rigid or you’ll miss a lot of stuff. You just have to go with the flow,” Simon told a group of journalists from across Southeast Asia on a recent press junket here.
There were times, however, when he was made to eat or do things so gut-lurching, he nearly chickened out midway, he confessed. Whenever such challenges presented themselves, he said, he just had “to take a deep breath and do it.”
And take many deep breaths, he did.
For the second season of “HCE,” Simon devoured wriggling coconut grubs in Vietnam, drank cow urine in India and took part in a mud cow race in Indonesia, among countless zany activities. Though he took away a curious sense of pride from pulling off such feats, Simon said he was pretty sure there wouldn’t be a second time for a lot of those.
“You go in expecting the worst—and it’s usually much worse than you feared,” he quipped, laughing. “We ate the coconut grubs raw. They explode in your mouth and taste like rotten, sour cheese. Locals say they’re great sources of protein. I hated it!”
In India, Simon tried “Cowpathy,” an ancient system of medicine that involves—but is not limited to—consuming bovine urine. “You put a jug under a cow and then drink the pee! It is believed to detoxify the body and cure illnesses,” related Simon, who is also an actor, director and producer. “Once is enough for that!”
He recounted, drawing laughter, “I drank it straight up…just not from under the cow.” He hadn’t met a dish he turned down, he said, “but I wouldn’t eat dog meat. There is a moral or ethical line I am drawing for myself there. I wouldn’t eat poo, either…or humans!”
There sure are perils to the sports and activities he engages in, Simon pointed out, and he admitted that there were times when he really feared for his safety. Puca Jawi, the annual cow mud race in Indonesia, for example, requires the jockey to ride a sled pulled by two wild cows across deep pools of mud.
“If you make a wrong move, you can break your legs and get dragged and drown in the mud,” he said. “There are real dangers to face, and you get scared, but you just have to trust the system—that the people,wherever you may be, will not let you get hurt, because they’ve been doing the same things for many years.”
Asked whether he preferred eating bizarre food to doing daredevil stunts, Simon chose the latter, saying that they were more rewarding. “Eating weird stuff is cool, but anyone can do that,” he said. “Doing stunts is far more interesting because you become part of something, physically and mentally. It’s exhausting and dangerous, but you get to put yourself to the test.”
In “HCE” Season 2, which features eight episodes, Simon explores Manila, Philippines; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Padang, Indonesia; Gansu and Inner Mongolia, China; Busan, South Korea; Tokyo, Japan, and Mumbai, India.
“That’s like having eight separate shows, since each of the places was unique and had its own look and feel. Japan was weird and quirky, Philippines was high-octane, Indonesia was nice and cultural and India was full of surprises,” Simon said.
Unlike the first season, when everyone was still feeling his way around the show, Simon said shooting the episodes for the second season was a lot more fun and relaxed. “Now we let loose. If things didn’t quite work out the way we wanted them to, we just went ahead with them,” he said.
Simon said he was lucky to get a “sympathetic” crew that never made him feel he was in the challenge alone. “If I ate something, everyone else had to eat that as well. They did whatever I did. I think that created a good bond,” he explained.
That same kind of bond, he managed to forge with reporters on the media junket. To give us an idea of what it was like to walk in his shoes, Simon gave us a tour of the city to try things comparable to what he usually did on every excursion for his show.
Over dinner at Sushi Kuu in Lan Kwai Fong—where a set meal that included grasshoppers, bee eggs, shirako (cod fish sperm) and several other peculiar dishes were served—Simon related his experience of eating balut and field mice in the Philippines, setting of “HCE” season two’s pilot episode airing this week.
“I was in Cebu for season one,” he related, “and we went to a balut factory. We cracked one open and it was still raw—the duck embryo was alive, bloody and moving. It was freaky and tough for me to eat. After that everything else was easier.” Simon grimaced as he spoke.
On his most recent trip to the Philippines, Simon headed to Pampanga to help local farmers rein in rat infestation in the fields by catching and eating the pests. “We chopped, skinned and fried them in garlic. They tasted good—like pigeon,” said Simon, who also took the media to Yunnan Ren Jia in San Po Kong for a plate of fried critters, and then to Shia Wong Hip in Sham Shui Po for snake soup.
The TV host likewise arranged a game of Airsoft—a recreational sport that makes use of replica firearms loaded with pellets—as a teaser for a tactical gun shooting challenge he had earlier done, also in the Philippines. He said he also played a game of underwater hockey with the Philippine team in the Manila episode.
Simon led the media to the Yip Man Wing Chun Martial Arts Association to learn the basics of Wing Chun, a style of kung fu, from Master Sam Lau.
There are other cable shows that have more or less the same concept as “HCE’s.” Asked what he thought made his show successful, Simon said that, aside from researchers coming up with fresh stories and finding new places to feature, it was the feeling that he represents “the every man.”
Noted Simon, a US citizen of Taiwanese descent, “I’m not an expert who teaches you how to survive. I’m just like any other guy who’s experiencing things for the first time.”
He grew up in the United States and moved to Hong Kong five years ago to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. He started hosting in Turner Networks in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, before becoming a VJ for MTV in New York.
Simon, who also previously worked as an investment bank researcher, said he was “lucky” to host “HCE,” in which he gets paid “to do cool and fun things.”
Ball of energy
“Hosting this show is amazing; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My job seems all fun and games, but there is a lot of hard work involved,” he said. He announced that he would be seen next in a Hollywood movie “The Man with the Iron Fists 2,” and that he was currently raising funds for a few TV projects that he was executive-producing in Singapore.
Quite the ball of energy, Simon described himself as a “simple guy, who wouldn’t go out of his way to seek crazy things.” But having done “HCE,” Simon has become more daring and outgoing. “I used to be happy in my own sphere and comfort zone. Now I go out more,” he said. “I’ve also realized that there’s so much to explore out there. And if I put my heart and mind to it, I know I can do anything,” Simon said.
The second season of “Hidden Cities: Extreme” airs on History Channel Tuesdays at 10 p.m. It premieres in the Philippines on Feb. 25.
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