Dispatches From Hong Kong

What's Hong Kong's Biggest Obsession? Food!
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 15 2004 1:49 PM

Dispatches From Hong Kong

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The central Hong Kong street market
The central Hong Kong street market

Sunday's Hong Kong election already feels like Tang dynasty history. Hong Kong charges forward relentlessly. Even for a New Yorker like me, the pace of change here feels like hyperdrive. You go to sleep, wake up, and walk out of your apartment to find a hole in the ground where your favorite restaurant stood the day before.

Most of the political banners of beaming, eager candidates have disappeared. Only a few sad placards, mainly belonging to losers, sag from the makeshift wooden vegetable stalls down in the central district's gaai sih—street food market. It's a minor miracle that Hong Kong's sprawling, noisy open-air market manages to survive Hong Kong's upheavals year after year, despite being smack in the middle of one of the world's hottest parcels of real estate.

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Wandering down to Queen's Road, I spot a candidate! She's wearing one of those beauty queen sashes and standing on the pavement. Speaking into a microphone, she bows slightly while repeating continuously, in polite, company-manners Cantonese, the words, "Go wai, juk neihdeih do jeh!"—"I wish you thanks for voting for me."

Crowds of Hong Kongers check out the latest cellphone models at SmarTone
Crowds of Hong Kongers check out the latest cellphone models at SmarTone

I stop to admire this very Chinese display of courtesy, then notice I'm the only one standing around watching Tam Heung Man, the new LEGCO functional constituency member representing Hong Kong's chartered accountants. Everyone else whizzes by her—she's invisible. Hong Kongers are back to business. They are thinking about very Hong Kong things like whether to buy that just-released Sony Ericsson Z1010 cell phone. (The cell is the crucial status accessory in a town where 95 percent of the population owns a mobile. For entertainment on Sundays, people stand around rubbernecking at the latest models in the shop windows of SmarTone, Hong Kong's big cell-phone provider.)

And, at this late hour of the morning, people are thinking about that most important Hong Kong thing of all.

Lunch.

Hong Kong is the most food-obsessed city in the world. Sure, Paris has lots of restaurants too, but do Parisians greet each other in the morning by saying, "Neih sihk jo fahn mei ah?"—"Did you eat (rice) yet?" In Hong Kong, food is a conversation starter, a social activity, a business lubricant, an endless source of discussion and amusement.

This morning, around 11:30, I face a tough decision as I stand underneath the escalator near the corner of Wellington Street. Within a 45-second stroll, there are three extraordinary eating places to choose from for a midmorning snack. First, there's Wang Fu, a humble, narrow storefront with tiny tables and plastic stools, owned by an old Beijing family. Here you can get the city's best Northern-style gao ji (little ravioli-like dumplings, filled with lamb or pork or cabbage).

Just around the corner is another favorite, the Shanghainese cafe Ng Yuht Ji Gaan. For only 10 Hong Kong dollars ($1.25), I can have a tall, cold glass of sweet, just-made soy milk and a scrumptious piece of fried fish wrapped inside a sticky rice roll. Or, if I want to stick to a classic Cantonese breakfast, I can walk up Lyndhurst Terrace to Law Fu Kee for a bowl of the best fish congee in the city.

Thinking about the richness of Chinese cuisines within a stone's throw of my location reminds me what I love most about Hong Kong: that it's a city of Chinese immigrants. The reason I can get great Beijing and Shanghai food—along with the famous hand cut noodles of Shanxi, the cold sliced duck of Chiu Chow, and spicy noodles of remote Yunnan is that Hong Kong has communities from all these different parts of China.

That's what makes it different from the big cities on the mainland, even the ones like Shanghai and Beijing that are booming with new money and businesses. You can't stand on a corner in Shanghai and choose food from six different regions of China. Hong Kong is the Chinese version of New York, my hometown. It's not a grafting of East and West, that old British colonial cliché. It's the capital of the Chinese overseas diaspora, the world's great Chinese urban cosmopolitan center. Hong Kongers may move elsewhere, but when the frustration of being an overseas Chinese in a foreign land gets to them, the city pulls them back, if only for a visit. And it pulls back their children—one of the interesting post-handover trends has been the gradual attrition of Hong Kong's young expat Brits, the ones who used to come here to work in banking or finance for a year or two. Now the young foreign professionals are Asian-Canadian, Asian-American, or Asian-Australians.

In the window of Yung Kee today: barbecue pork and chicken, but no goose
In the window of Yung Kee today: barbecue pork and chicken, but no goose

While I'm standing on Wellington Street, my cell phone rings. It's my friend Muna. Hong Kong born and raised, now an artist living in New York. Muna is back for a few days on business and for a hit of home. She asks me, "Are you free later for lunch?"

I tell her to meet me at 3 p.m., at Yung Kee.

I've been meaning to go to Yung Kee, the classic old restaurant on Wellington Street that is renowned for its barbecued roast Cantonese goose. When I left Hong Kong last February, the avian flu epidemic in Guangdong province had halted the free flow of geese across the border. Arriving at Yung Kee for my "last" goose meal, I found instead a TV crew interviewing a room of glum pork-and-chicken-eating diners.

But last June, one Friday evening as I was sitting at my desk in New York, my phone rang: It was my friend Joyce calling from a taxi stalled in a traffic jam outside of Yung Kee. "The goose is back! I thought you'd want to know."

The Guangdong goose affair reveals the less-talked-about aspect of the "One Country, Two Systems" concept. The differences between Hong Kong and the mainland are much more complex than the obvious issues of democracy and law. There are "two systems" of hygiene standards, environmental regulations, water and food handling. Even before SARS came across the border from Guangdong, Hong Kongers had been leery about the mainland's standards of food and water treatment. They're irritated by the thick, acrid smog that periodically comes rolling down from Guangdong's industrial belt. The tap water here comes from China, and I don't know a single Hong Konger who will drink it without boiling it first.

The roast suckling pork and dim sum at Yung Kee: really delicious
The roast suckling pork and dim sum at Yung Kee: really delicious

Personally, I don't care which country or which system my goose comes from. But today that doesn't matter, since I discover, on arriving at Yung Kee, that there's a goose moratorium again. Something to do with the mainland farmers being forced by local officials to upgrade their hygiene standards.

The good news is that goose supplies should be back in a couple of weeks.

The better news is that, both Muna and I agree, Yung Kee's roast suckling pork is incredibly delicious.

Daisann McLane is a journalist who splits her time between New York and Hong Kong. Her dispatchesfrom Hong Kong can be read on Slate and also on her blog, "Learning Cantonese."

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