May 22, 2008|
When someone tries to describe Hong Kong’s cultural identity, they often fall back on trite clichés. But does “east-meets-west” and “melting pot of Asia” really paint an accurate portrait? Out of Hong Kong’s 7 million people, 6.4 million are Chinese, and almost 6 million of these are Cantonese. Hong Kong historically being a southern city in Guandong, it’s small wonder that Cantonese traditions such as dim sum and Cantonese Opera dominate here.
But the story isn’t that simple—if Hong Kong really is a melting pot, it is mostly a melting pot of Chinese cultures. Hong Kong’s Chinese culture is far more diverse than it seems. The 2006 census shows that a staggering 289,027 people speak minority Chinese dialects as their native language—that’s more than Putonghua and English speakers combined (60,859 speak Putonghua, 187,281 speak English). So no matter how much we consider ourselves Canto through and through, there are huge groups of Chinese minorities in our communities, each with their own culture and language. Many have been here for years, making their mark on Hong Kong culture and even making huge contributions toward shaping our city.
But with second and third generation Chinese minorities increasingly assimilating into Cantonese culture, their own customs are fast vanishing. However, there are still plenty of windows for outsiders to celebrate and explore these minority cultures of Hong Kong, chiefly through their food, restaurants and neighborhoods.
We explore some of the finest minority restaurants in Hong Kong to get an insight into life as an ethnic Chinese minority.
The Hakka farmer hat may look exotic, but trust us, delicious Hakka fare is no stranger to your dining table. More city-dwellers are rushing to the greener side of Hong Kong to get a taste of the organic life and experience the authentic Hakka big pot meals. Hakka means “guest families”—they settled in the South during the late Sung to farm. To provide enough energy for demanding farm work, fatty pork and poultry developed as a staple of the Hakka diet. The traditional fatty pork with preserved vegetable is now seen at almost every Chinese family’s dining table. Another staple is the chicken simmered in yellow wine. One of the restaurants that still preserves the primitive richness of this dish is Eryi Tower in Wan Chai (1/F, Allied Kajima Building, 138 Gloucester Rd., Wan Chai, 2511-1228).
Reluctant to forgo agriculture after retirement, Yiu Cheung, 73, who belongs to the first Hong Kong-born Hakka generation continues to tend the fields in Ta Kwu Ling, in the far north of the New Territories. From pak choi and choi sum to lychee and papaya, Yiu treats farming as his life-long profession. His son Ming, 45, spent his childhood helping his father on the farm while studying, but has not followed his father’s footsteps.
Nevertheless, Ming, who now lives in the city, never forgets his roots. Every festival, big or small, Ming brings along his seven-year-old daughter Billie to see his grandfather and enjoy a hearty meal. On New Year’s Day, the traditional dragon is replaced by a unicon-like qilin in a celebratory dance. The youth dance with their colourful qilin to greet every household in the village.
Hakka settlements dating back to the Ming dynasty have been found in Hong Kong. The tribe has left their footprints from Hong Kong Island to the north of the New Territories, where local Hakka live in villages bearing their family name. Law Uk in Chai Wan was once the settlement of the Law clan, though it has now been converted into a museum. Being one of the remaining examples of Hakka architecture standing intact, Law Uk museum (14 Kut Shing St., Chai Wan, 2896-7006) allows the visitors to get a first-person experience of Hakka cuisine, namely their modest kitchens and utensils.
You may be surprised how much Chiu Chow cuisine influences Hong Kong dining culture. Marinated goose, oyster congee—even a simple bowl of rice noodles with fish balls hail from Chiu Chow. Not to mention the late night suppers we have in dai pai dongs, you know, the ones that serve up brightly orange colored squid and pig intestines, soy sauce meat and cold crab. It’s called da nang and it’s traditional Chui Chow fare.
As a matter of fact, the influence of Chiu Chow people in our city is enormous. Household names like tycoons Li Ka-shing, Albert Yeung and Joseph Lau, famous food critic and writer Chua Lam and singer Miriam Yeung are all Chiu Chow people, and according to Chief Secretary Henry Tang and Barry Lam, Secretary of Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce, there is roughly one ga-gee-nang (Chui Chow native) in every six Hongkongers. The community is impressively united—there are more than 100 Chiu Chow organizations in Hong Kong—probably because they’ve had it rough. Their ancestors first arrived in Hong Kong in the Qing dynasty. Life for them was tough so they came to Hong Kong in hopes of a more prosperous life. Many of them were fishermen with no education –so they ended up with labor-intensive jobs, living in poor areas like Sai Ying Pun and Kowloon City. But Chiu Chow people are famous for their relentless, hard-working attitude, according to Chiu Kam-cheung, director of the Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce. They started to build up businesses of their own and then move to better-off areas.
But that doesn’t change their fraternal unity. “We watch our brothers’ backs,” Chiu says. “We give back to society, set up schools and offer scholarships.” And every year, Chiu Chow people return to the Chiu Chow neighborhoods for the Hungry Ghost Festival so they can celebrate.
You don’t need to wait for the Hungry Ghost Festival to get a taste of Chiu Chow life. Kowloon City and Sheung Wan have excellent Chiu Chow restaurants. Actor Chow Yun-fat loves dining at Chong Fat (60-62 South Wall Rd., Kowloon City, 2383-3114) while Hong Kong Islanders flock to the Chiu Chow staple, Sheung Hing Chiu Chow Restaurant (29 Queen’s Rd. West, Sheung Wan, 2854-4557). Here, you’ll be able to experience the traditional dining custom—tiny cups of bitterly potent kung fu tea (think Chinese espresso shots) before and after a meal. It’s Tieguanyin (Iron Bodhisattva) tea and it helps digestion. But it’s not just for health—Chiu Chow people believe sipping tea is a time to bond and catch up with their fellow ga-gee-nang.
And while you’re in Kowloon City, stock up at the Chiu Fat Grocery Shop (46 Nga Tsin Wai Rd., 2382-0555), which sells special Chiu Chow ingredients and pickles, while Woo Kee Loong Bakery (35 South Wall Rd., 2382-4642), a household name for half a century, makes excellent Chiu Chow pastries. If you are lost in translation and desperate to learn the dialect, get a language kit at the Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce (9/F, 81-85 Des Voeux Rd. West, 2559-2188).
The Fujianese saying goes, “Live by the sea, eat from the sea”, and no wonder. Fujian is a port city and their native diet is composed mostly of seafood. Like Chiu Chow people, they started coming to Hong Kong as early as the Qing dynasty, settling in North Point, though they have now dispersed to other areas. You can still see many Fujianese traits in the neighborhood. In fact, Chun Yeung Street is known as the “Little Fujian”. Mun Nam Restaurant (25 Kam Ping St., North Point, 2887-2381) is Fujianese owned and run, and you can try out various authentic dishes such as oyster omelets and even worm jelly, if you dare. We were told it would make our skin glow.
You can also spend time wandering around the street market in Chun Yeung Street, which has many Fujianese grocery stores, selling all kinds of fish balls—Fujianese claim to be the first to make them. The only difference between them and the Hong Kong style ones is that they stuff minced meat in the middle. One lesser-known fact about Hong Kong Fujianese is that chocolate imported from Manila is a favorite snack. Apparently, during the 60s, Fujianese were shipped to the Philippines, even though their snakeheads, or human traffickers, promised to take them to Hong Kong. When they finally arrived in Hong Kong, they had already grown accustomed to Filipino foods, which is why all the grocery stores sell this Manila-brand chocolate.
If you think that these Chinese minorities might be insular and unwelcoming to outsiders, think again. The Fujianese are all friendly people and love to talk about their culture. They’re even more welcoming if you learn how to say “Nee-huh” (or “hello” in Minanese, the Fujian dialect) while greeting them.
Tony Or, a second generation Fujianese who works for his family-owned business thinks that the culture is inevitably fading. “In my generation, we still need to learn Minanese in order to communicate with older people. But now it’s not necessary as we slowly become one Chinese, even in Hong Kong,” he says. “Now the only way to remind us of our unique Chinese culture is by cooking authentic dishes from time to time at home.”
Admit it, Hong Kong loves all things Shanghainese. Be it steamy Eileen Chang or steaming xiaolongbao, we admire their tenacity, industriousness and cooking skills. The Shanghainese have three “knives” under their belt, namely the tailor’s scissors, the barber’s razor and the chef’s chopper, and their professionalism has made them perfectionists. “I remember my father making a huge fuss to re-cook a dish because he forgot to sprinkle sugar, and this is just an ordinary home dinner, not a gourmet dish” says Mr Chu, the son of a Shanghainese barber and a passionate cook. Mr Chu’s niece Monique echoes her uncle, “My grandfather would never allow any imperfection. The dried beancurd must be finely shredded. Unlike my uncle. He often ruins the beancurd by slicing it!” Mr Chu’s father worked at his barbershop until the age of 80. “Shanghainese tend to work for as long as they can. Though being a barber wasn’t exactly a respected profession in Hong Kong, many regular customers visited my father for a shave because of his experience.”
Shanghai cuisine is generally meaty and dark in color. Unlike their Cantonese counterparts, they prefer cooking in sauce to steaming. And if you wonder why Shanghainese look whiter than their neighbors, the secret lies—or so they believe—in their love for soya bean. Shredded dried beancurd is cooked with a variety of ingredients such as pork, chicken or vegetables. Get your Shanghainese ingredients at the local provisions store, New Sam Yung (49 Hau Wong Rd., Kowloon City, 2383-3809). A lesser-known yet popular Shanghainese dish is deep-fried anchovies. The crispy dish can be found in Great Shanghai Yap Pan Heung Restaurant (LG, Kimberley Plaza, 45-47 Kimberley Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, 2721-1663).
With Shanghai resurrection as a cultural center in China, and with Shanghaiese restaurants all over Hong Kong, loved by Chinese and non-Chinese alike, there is no doubt that Shanghainese culture is being well preserved in Hong Kong.
Sichuan cuisine is famous for its extremes—hot chili and numbing spices. “Maybe it has something to do with our diet, as Sichuanese are famous for their bluntness, directness and decisiveness,” says Wong Siu-king, the owner-cum-chef-cum-Sichuan folk singer of private Sichuan kitchen Da Ping Huo (L/G, Hilltop Plaza, 49 Hollywood Rd., Central, 2559-1317). “We all say Sichuanese girls are hot chicks—well, in terms of fierceness “But actually, we make good wives. The women I know have good virtues, and they all know how to run a household, helping their husband inside and outside the house, and cooking good dishes,” she says.
Well, this can’t be truer coming from Mrs Wong’s mouth, as this is what she’s been doing for the past seven years: helping her Sichuanese husband Wang Hai, artist and owner of the restaurant. As an artist, Wong Hai thinks the best way to inherit or pass on a culture is through its food. “That was my goal when I opened this restaurant. Food can say so much about a place’s culture. I feel bad that common Hongkongers mix Sichuan cuisine with Pekingese and Shanghainese. That’s why I want to open this place. It’s my way to preserve my own Sichuan culture.”
Da Ping Huo offers authentic Sichuan dishes—they even import salt from Sichuan, as they insist that it tastes richer than ours. Also, unlike pseudo-Sichuanese restaurants, the level of spice here is simply non-negotiable. Try their stewed beef brisket or their numbing Sichuan pepper and taste
For a quick Sichuan fix, head to Wing Lai Yuen Sichuan Noodles Restaurant (15-17 Fung Tak Rd., Wong Tai Sin, 2726-3818) for their legendary dan dan mian. And if you really like spicy food and want to test your limits, try shui zhu yu (hot fish), which is basically fish braised in a red-hot soup with all kinds of chilli and spices. It’s done the best in private kitchen Sijie Sichuan Dishes (2/F, 285-291 Lockhart Rd., Wan Chai, 2802-2250). Also not to be missed is Alcove Simple Gourmet Studio in SoHo (1-3/F, 37 Staunton St., Central, 2975-9722), where furniture designer Nelson Siu gives a stylish twist to the cuisine with funky décor and adventurous Chinese-wine cocktails.