Category: Hong Kong


Dai pai dong.  Big license plate stall of goodness and cheap eats.  Where it used to be a ubiquitous sight in Hong Kong and Kowloon, these culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong is slowly and surely dying or moving indoors.  When I think of these food stalls, I think of my childhood where we would love to get the yau tieu’s [fried Chinese donuts, although they look nothing like it and they’re savory, not sweet] and congee.  Wonton noodles, rice noodles were other items we would get.

The rich history of these food stalls cannot go unnoticed.  After World War II, the Hong Kong government gave out ad hoc food licenses to injured civil servants so they can make a living.  These licenses had to be visible in public, and since they were food stalls, they were big.  Thus, the big license stalls.  Dai pai dong.  From there, the popularity and the quality of of food just took off.  But because of the amount of dai pai dongs sprouting, it was causing pedestrian and traffic congestion.  Additionally, because owners of these stalls started to “lease” their space out in the black market, the HK government no longer issued these licenses after 1956.  The licenses could no longer be inherited so if the owner passed away, it could only be transferred to their spouses.  If they didn’t have a spouse, the license would expire at the time of death of the owner.  Since 1983, the HK government, in order to promote healthier hygiene, began to buy back these licenses and push these stalls in doors in what could only be described as food courts.  Since the licenses could not be passed down, the owners were glad to be compensated in this way.  The number of dai pai dongs have drastically decreased over the years, much to the chagrin of people like myself.  Were they the safest place to eat food?  Probably not, but they certainly cranked out some of the best the city of Hong Kong had to offer.

It’s a rich food heritage that has come to a slow death in Hong Kong.  It wasn’t just a place to eat for millions of people.  It was a place where one might make their early morning stop to get a milk tea, a place where impoverished families could still go and get a decent meal for cheap.  A place where lower income couples could have their dates while whispering their sweet nothings to each other over a bowl of rice noodles.  But as most things in life, we learn to move on and change.  And while it lasted, the dai pai dong was good to the people of Hong Kong.  It became integrated in their every day lives as they provided meals for hungry souls in the city of fragrant harbor.

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When Do We Say When?

Is there anything relevant in this Steve Jobs interview from years ago to the type of restaurants we visit?  Even though Steve Jobs is the furthest figure from any culinary entry, his bold accusation that “The only problem with Microsoft is that they have no taste” is a very subjective opinion.  Steve Jobs’ issue with Microsoft is that all the while when Apple was slogging through the 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft became the quintessential corporation where hefty revenues were to be had as they dominated and almost monopolized the world of PCs.

How does this tie in to food, restaurants, and experiences that I so passionately want each of us to explore?  The more I travel around Southern California, the more I read about other people’s experiences with their culinary adventures, and the more I travel outside of the US, one thing is certain:  The way Steve Jobs describes Microsoft is how I feel about the culinary landscape in America.  It’s a gigantic generalization that doesn’t work on every level, but here in SoCal, slowly but surely, we are being boxed in by big box franchise restaurants.  Almost everywhere I look, there is another BJ’s going up, another Macaroni Grill, another CPK rearing its nasty head out of the wood works.  These franchises are owned by large corporations and the tally of these chains are both staggering and sad:

  • BJs operates and owns 102 locations in the US.
  • CPK operates and owns 230 locations 32 states.
  • Macaroni Grill operates and owns 230 locations globally.

Think about that for a second.  That’s a lot of pizzas CPK is defining for our palettes in our culture.  And I’m not even tallying Dominoes, Pizza Hut, and Round Table.  Of course, it’s not all about the food.  It’s all about the bottom line.  The revenue and profit margin these chains generate, either for the owners or the share holders if they’re a public company.  It’s all about money.  And a lot of money.  CPK’s average annual revenue is $550M.  That’s a lot of Peking Duck Pizzas being sold and eaten by us.  And like Steve, I share the same view of: “The only problem I have with BJ’s/CPK/Macaroni Grill is that they have no taste.  And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way.”

I’m not saying CPK and the like ought to be eliminated.  There is surely enough white space in the food industry for restaurants like CPK to thrive.  Hell, every once in a while, I also get a craving for Carne Asada Pizza, but I don’t want or need to see one in every city in Los Angeles.  What I am saying is, do these companies ever say “Wow, we’ve made $550M this year, I think that’s good enough.”  Of course not.  It’s the endless chase of “just a little more”.

Recently, I had the chance to watch an interview [click here] to hear Thomas Keller talk about his time in preparing an 8 course meal at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong.  In it, he talks about being a good example of what they do at the French Laundry and introducing it to a place like Hong Kong.  They have flown in some of their ingredients here from the States from Californian Caviar, to Vermont butter, and to Michigan dried cherries.   Taking 7.5 months to plan the menu where each diner will be charged $830US.  One of the questions the interviewer asks is whether Keller is going to open a restaurant in Hong Kong.  His answer?

TK: At the end of the day, how many restaurants does one need?

Interviewer: How many do you need?

TK: [laughs] I don’t need anymore.

Clearly, he has his limits.  6 restaurants.  Maybe one day he’ll open another one.  But his reach has limits because he has a brand and quality to maintain and he will not sacrifice all that for an extra million.  I’m not suggesting that we all now go and only eat at a Thomas Keller restaurant.  That’s not feasible both economically or realistically.  All I’m saying is that some of these American “iconic” restaurants perhaps also lack the “taste” that Steve Jobs is referring to.  They are clearly more interested in making money than the food they serve, even if the food they serve are not all bad.  As Thomas Keller says, “how many restaurants does one need?”  I’d rather have a restauranteur give us 6-8 good restaurants [does not have to be Thomas Keller-esque] than 230 CPK locations.  Even though this is reality, we don’t have to partake in equating pizza with CPK.  Or Italian food with Macaroni Grill.  There can be places in our stomachs and hearts for both CPKs and Pizzeria Ortica’s.  There can be places in our hearts for both Macaroni Grills and Roma D’Italia’s.  It’s not all or nothing.  We can say “when”, and we can do that today.

Depending on where you stand on all-you-can-eat [AYCE] places, they are either a gluttony of goodness or the nadir of culinary ideas that should’ve died at the concept stage, but like a bad virus, has thrived in this country.  With the boon of Las Vegas and its endless supplies of AYCE places, we Americans have come to fall for the gimmick that we’ll somehow eat so much we can bring the establishment to its knees.  The contrary, of course, is true.  The establishment wins every time we go into a buffet because well, the establishment is quite smart.  The marketing itself has beaten our appetites even before we walk into a Hometown Buffet or a classier joint like the Le Village Buffet at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas.  What no one will tell us is that after a few deep fried morsels of evilness, our stomachs are calling it quits, turning our precipitous appetites to vapors.

But not all buffets are created equal.  While having dined at my fair share of AYCE evilness here in the States, not all buffets are crap.  But you have to leave these shores to experience a truly magnificent buffet.  In Hong Kong, where people truly live to eat, there are some amazing buffets to be had.  And I am not referring to cheap “Hometown Buffets” style locations.  The picture above is from the Shangri La Hotel‘s Kaffe Kool, where for $50-$60US per person, you can get great roast duck, sushi, handmade udon and noodles, handmade naan bread with a tandoori oven to boot.  It’s not cheap to eat at Kaffe Kool, but because everything there is made on premise, it’s a far cry from even the Bellagio buffet, where one shells out about $45US per person for a “good” buffet [which I disagree with].  I would give a place like Kaffe Kool 4.5 stars on Yelp if I could.  It is THAT good.  The sushi is better than many sushi places here in LA and the fact that they have made to order noodle bar as part of the buffet is worth the price of admission.  On the other side of the floor is their dessert area.  Handmade crepes with ice cream is just one of the many sweets you can get there.  It really is one of the best AYCE places I’ve ever been to.  A few days later, we visited the Intercontinental Hotel and the buffet there looked even better.

So, while I still maintain that buffets are crap, there are a few that are truly outstanding.  I still haven’t been to a buffet here in the States where it has blown my socks off, but in Hong Kong, they seem to everywhere.  Especially in their hotels, where people tend to go and have a great meal.  Here in this country, we would scoff at dining out for a special occasion at a hotel.  Hotel food, to us, is just overpriced bad food.  But not there in Hong Kong.  It’s another great dining experience.  Yes, it is still overpriced, but people tend to be fine with that because of the quality of the food you get.  Here in the States, I would still encourage us to stay away from buffets if we can help it.  I realize some families view these buffets as a cheap alternative to feed a large family and to that, I say “Do what you need to do” in this economy.  But for those who are not struggling too much, just stay away from the monstrosity.  You won’t regret it.

For those who know me, you know where I stand on proper English high tea.  It’s one of the most colonial and traditional ways to spend an afternoon – sipping English teas and eating finger sandwiches and scones.  And yet, there is something so homey and English about having Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.  I don’t know that it’s the best afternoon tea in Hong Kong, but it’s one of the oldest and one of the most sought after locations by tourists and locals alike.  This east meets west collides right along the Victoria Harbor, where the hotel has become one of the worlds most famous.

When you look beyond the classic “Peninsula green” color that is the signature of the hotel, the magnificent lobby, the luxurious shopping arcade, and the quartet playing high above in the balcony, lies a deeper story of colonization of the British.  The British, by all accounts, had a tremendous profitable trading partner in China in the 1700’s.  With China’s insatiable appetite for silver, Britain was feeling the pressure of supplying silver by purchasing it through other European countries.  When that appetite continued to grow quicker than the supply, Britain turned to opium, a poppy when cultivated, was used as a type of medical morphine.  In large doses and especially through smoking the poppy, it is an hallucinogenic drug.   China would ban the import of opium because its citizens became hooked on it as the main drug of its day.  And thus, the two Opium Wars came about between China and Britain.  We all know how that ended for China – it ceded Hong Kong Island first in 1845, then Kowloon peninsula in 1860.  For the next 137 years since the cessation of Kowloon, Hong Kong would become a financial center of Asia, an asylum of sorts for the Chinese fleeing Mao and Communism in 1949, and where Oriental and Occidental became one.  At least in a governing sense.

With the British sovereign rule came cross cultural blending where east not only meets west, but both started to fuse into one another.  And none of that became more evident then the British lifestyle – clothes, makeup, capitalism, ideas, and of course, food.  Afternoon teas were introduced and people in Hong Kong not only embraced English style tea [with milk and sugar], but they would, over the years, perfect a variation of their own English tea [with condensed milk and sugar through strained steeped black tea leaves].  Here at the Peninsula Hotel, is a world where the English clearly became the forefront from its colonization of a tiny part of China, and turned it into one of the most dynamic and multi-cultural cities in the world.  And yet, when you step inside the hotel, you are transported back to the 1930s and 1940s, where you can still hear the sound of old money in the lobby, talking about life, art, the economy, and the future, all through drinks and food.

When Britain finally handed Hong Kong and Kowloon back to China on July 1, 1997, I think we all feared the worst.  What will happen to this dynamic city where the west has so immersed itself into the culture of the east?  After 13 years, the Peninsula Hotel continues to be a vibrant landmark in Hong Kong, where important dignitaries, celebrities, and wealthy travelers stay as a way to experience something so European in a country so Chinese.  But then again, we’re talking about Hong Kong, where locals drink English tea in the morning, eat congee for breakfast, and have afternoon teas in the afternoon.  It’s a way of life that is still dear in its heart. The colony of Britain, for 137 years, has not changed much in the way of its roots.  One can only hope that the Peninsula Hotel continues to breathe its English history each and every day, while serving its magnificent afternoon teas to all.

Old Hong Kong

Aberdeen is an area on the southern side of the Hong Kong Island.  According to Wikipedia, present day Aberdeen Village was originally known as “Hong Kong” since the Ming Dynasty.  Travelers who came to the “Hong Kong” port mistook the name Hong Kong as the name for the whole island.  When the foreigners realized their mistake, the name Hong Kong had “stuck” as the name of the the whole island.  So, in 1845, it was renamed “Aberdeen”, after the British Secretary of State of War and Colonies, George Hamilton-Gordon, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen.

What was the entry point for foreigners had given a way to hundreds of families that had lived on these “floating” villages for generations where people used to fish for a living.  Now, it is clearly a figment of an era gone by.  Stanley Ho, the Asian casino counter-part of Steve Wynn, has famously created “Jumbo”, a floating restaurant known for its seafood.  The real reason for the restaurant, as some suggest, is so Stanley Ho can legalize gambling in Hong Kong without having a casino on the the actual land.  Whatever the reason, the floating villages of generations past has slowly been dying out.  When we went to visit Aberdeen last year, we met this wonderfully cordial woman who grew up living on these junks and still does, if we were to believe her, today.  As she drove her little junk around the harbor, she told us stories of years gone by.  High rises, land reclamation, and changing commercialism has changed Aberdeen from a once thriving area to a tourist stop.  She said the only way to make a living now is to drive these junks around for tourists who want to see how they used to live or those who only want to eat at the Jumbo restaurant.  Junks are less and less visible now, giving its way to the highly extravagant yachts that are parked at the harbor.  She is one of the last in her generation to still live there, because as she so aptly puts it, “I don’t know how else to live except on these boats and in Aberdeen”.

As she waves goodbye to us, she knows that change is inevitable.  Especially in a place like Hong Kong, where a fad seem to come and go in as quick as a day.  But for some, it’s the only life they have ever known.  I wonder if this women feels as though she has already changed enough for one life time.  Growing up in a fishing village to now driving around people like us in a junk like a tour guide.  And yet, she didn’t sound angry or bitter.  She only reminisced a world she had once known that no longer exists except in her mind.  And yet, you can tell that memory was as sweet as honey for her.  She had a smile telling us stories of “what it used to be” like it was yesterday.  And yet, it’s all too clear that Aberdeen, the original Hong Kong, is just another tourist spot.  Another place in Old Hong Kong that is fading fast into the memory of the generation past.  What else will disappear I wonder.  It will be all too clear next time we visit again, I am sure.

It’s Never What It Seems

The Big Buddha

Prior to our trip to Hong Kong in 2009, I had never been to the Big Buddha located on Lantau Island.  It’s situated in a place called Ngong Ping near the Po Lin Monastery and symbolizes the harmonious relationship between man and nature.  In the picture above, you can see that it sits high on top of the hill near Po Lin Monastery and it’s quite an impressive figure.  The statue was completed in 1993, the exact day of enlightenment that year of Gautama Buddha.  Many monks from the neighboring countries were invited to come to the opening ceremony.  There are 3 levels below the Buddha, Hall of Universe, Hall of Benevolent Merit, and the Hall of Remembrance.  The most holy relic is some of the remains of the alleged Gautama Buddha resides inside.  It’s meant to give homage to a religion that is thousands of years old.

And yet, somehow, we mess that up too.  Where there is an opportunity, there is a way where we Chinese people will see dollar signs.  And none of that is more true than Ngong Ping Village.  The picture is not only of a great view of the Big Buddha, but of the shops and eateries at Ngong Ping.  Gift shops, Chinese restaurants, Japanese restaurants, and even Italian restaurants are there to help satisfy one’s hunger.  Even a place where you can get Pearl Tea [boba] and heaven help us all, a 7-11 along the path to the Big Buddha himself.  It definitely takes away the sense of wonder of the statue.  When you finally arrive at Ngong Ping, you are already bombarded with retail and food – which I have decided are the 2 things we excel at.  Then, as you walk down to the village, you are not only bombarded with more eateries and stores, you are now just part of many tourist groups and travelers coming here to have a good time.  The sense of seeing something unique is no longer in the forefront of your mind, but how you are going to get through it all without walking into the Starbucks for a cafe latte.  Once you do get up to see the Buddha, it is a great sight.  It is worth the visit.  But from far away while riding on the cable car from the Tung Chung MTR station, you only see a glimpse of the Big Buddha in all of its magnificence.

And that’s how I want to remember it.  A sitting statue on top of the hill, looking down in his stillness.  I don’t want to remember the Starbucks and 7-11 near its feet, where people are buying macchiatos and slurpees.  I understand now why people were enraged when Starbucks opened a store at the Forbidden City.  It takes away the allure and history of the place.  And even though the Big Buddha has only been around since 1993, I am sure people who go there to pay respect and bring incense for their ancestors couldn’t care what’s in the village.  For them, I am sure it’s a spiritual journey that ends in reflection and honoring their family members.  And it’s sad to see that we are profiting from that.  But in the end, it’s what you take out of it that counts.  I won’t let Ngong Ping Village smear my memory of the Big Buddha.  I choose to remember that there were monks there, worshipping him.  I choose to remember that Anita Mui, the once famous Hong Kong singer/actress is buried and remembered there.  And I will remember the walk up to meet the Buddha himself, to see the bronze statue and to know that it was built for reasons other than commercialism.

East Meets West

It hasn’t always been the case.  There was a time when I didn’t really enjoy going back to Hong Kong, where I was born.  Most of it is because after a few days, I get really bored.  Now that I’m older and definitely more to be nostalgic about, I really enjoy going back.  Of course one of the things that I enjoy about Hong Kong now, are the reasons I never really thought was all that unique.  Hong Kong, at its core, is as Chinese as any city in China.  But what makes it so unique is not that it is a thriving metropolitan financial behemoth, which in itself would have been enough to visit and write about.  It’s that it was a British colony for over 100 years.  Trade wars, opium wars, and being subjects to Britain’s monarchy has made this singular city an intersection where Occidental collided with Oriental.  And none of that comes through as well as the food.  With its foundation set on Chinese cuisines, Hong Kong has embraced the European expats in the way they have infused its own spin in its foods.  And let’s not forget Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, etc. on top of about 20 other provincial Chinese cuisines.  And what you have is not just a monotonic way of cooking and eating food here in the Big Lychee.

Places like Cafe de Coral are what people in Hong Kong live on.  It’s good, cheap, and the menu is always changing, if only a bit.  At any given point during the day, it will be packed with people from tourists who want a break or Hong Kong lifers who want the same.  It’s a typical cafeteria where you walk in and look at the menu on the wall, walk up to the cashier, order, and at the end of the line, pick up your food and try you hardest to find an empty table.  If you’re queasy about sharing a table with a complete stranger, this probably isn’t the place for you.  But there’s something comforting for me, to go in to a place like Cafe de Coral and order something very Chinese, like sausage and rice in a clay pot, and then order a Hong Kong style milk tea.   Or baked Portuguese pork chop rice and a lemon ice tea.  It’s the East meets West all in one meal.

There’s nothing like that here.  At least not an East meets West kind of food experience.  Here, we have more a South meets North, like a Baja Fresh or Rubios, where Mexican street food meets an American twist.  We do have some Hong Kong style western restaurants here, but it’s not very Cafe de Coral like.  I keep wondering if they will open one here, because it would be crazier than a Kogi truck.  I can’t wait to visit Singapore again one day, where food has become so integrated between the different Asian cultures that it has created is very own Singaporean cuisine.  I can’t wait to go back to Hong Kong again, where I get to try all different kinds of East meets West foods again.