Aquintessential Hong Kong scene glimpsed from a set of steps descending towards the city’s famous waterfront: a dense crowd of suits, hipsters and elders lunching on plastic stools. More stand behind, ready to pounce the moment the diners’ chopsticks hit the table. Through a forest of sharp elbows I glimpse bowls of flaccid macaroni swimming in tinned tomatoes, each topped with a curling slice of fried luncheon meat and a crispy egg. Twenty one years after Westminster handed the city back to China, our dubious gastronomic legacy is still going strong.
The “Pearl of the Orient” may be famous for its high-end, high-rise restaurants, but as Jeremy Pang, a British-born chef in love with the culinary culture his parents left behind, puts it in his book Hong Kong Diner (Quadrille, £15), “The heart of Hong Kong does not float high in the air, but rather is nestled down at street level, crowd level”. His desire to celebrate Cantonese comfort foods such as peanut butter French toast and pork chops with Worcestershire sauce and ketchup is driven by more than mere nostalgia – rapidly rising rents are putting many family firms out of business. We visit one dim sum house about to close after a century in the Central district, despite being so rammed with hangry aunties that after 15 minutes of hopeless hovering we concede defeat, seeking siu mai elsewhere.
Less well known to visitors are the cha chaan tengs,“one part UK greasy spoon… one part US diner”, says Pang, that sprang up in the postwar period to cater for increasingly Westernised tastes among locals too poor, or too Asian, to eat in British establishments. Offering the ubiquitous “pantyhose” milk tea and all the roast meats, noodles and rice porridge you could wish for, these bright, Formica-clad caffs would feel like a relic from another age – if they weren’t stuffed so full of teenagers.
Pang takes us to one of the tea houses popularly known as “snake pits” in honour of their clientele of skivers sacking off work in favour of a sly five minutes with a fluffy pineapple bun. Her Majesty’s last governor, Chris Patten, was partial to a tea house egg tart, while one elderly lady recommends a crumbly pork and egg pastry that bears more than a passing resemblance to the gala pie my school served to visiting parents.
Disappearing fastest of all are the kerbside stalls, or dai pai dongs, originally intended to provide an income for relatives of civil servants killed or disabled in the Second World War. They’re dropping like flies thanks to a law that dictates licences can only be passed on to immediate family members. Sing Gor inherited his 60-year-old spot on Stanley Street in Central from his father 30 years ago, but the next generation has no interest in taking it over.
In a city where nothing stands still for long, these proudly old-fashioned places offer comfort and familiarity, but don’t expect to linger: we’re chucked out of a cheung fun joint for talking too much and eating too slowly: “I have customers waiting!” (The flat rice noodles, stuffed with fried dough and drizzled with hoisin and chilli sauces, were well worth this verbal ear boxing.)
Everyone I speak to concurs, rather despondently, that these gloriously eccentric, defiant symbols of Hong Kong culture, the pavement woks, sugar cane counters and white-tiled milk bars, will soon be mere memories in a city with its face turned firmly to the future. So long, Hongkers, and thanks for all the Spam.
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry