Neither British nor Chinese: Hong Kong’s cha chaan tengs

Words by Louise Benson; Illustration by Kenn Lam

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Chinatown is changing. As I write this, I am thinking of my own Chinatown in London’s Soho, a handful of yarrow stalk streets that was once talked about as a community but increasingly looks like one big ‘retail opportunity’. But I am also inevitably talking about your Chinatown too, wherever you are in the world. Has it not seen an explosion of diverse regional cuisines in the last few years? Is there not a bubble tea shop on every corner? Has your local, friendly property developer suddenly clocked that this strip of land that no-one wanted 50 years ago is now prime real estate and acting accordingly? Almost certainly yes. Your own Chinatown may have its own individual character and unique problems to overcome, but broadly the pattern is the same ─ rents are rising, the older generation is moving out, Cantonese specificity is being replaced by a broader focus on China and East Asia. And at the centre is the change happening in the biggest Chinatown in the world, the ur-Chinatown itself: Hong Kong.

When Britain provoked a trade war in China all those years ago, there were many unintended side effects but one of them was the inadvertent birth of Chinatowns, areas predicated on an unequal relationship between the West and the East. While shards of Hong Kong became embedded in every major city via its restaurants, so too was a small part of the West encoded within Hong Kong cuisine itself: the cha chaan teng. That both are changing, some might say declining, is no mistake because that relationship is changing and they are mirror images of each other. Both value the idea of hybridity, that identities need not compete, that multiple identities can in itself be a unique form of identity. But in this new world we are increasingly forced to choose one or the other ─ the “authentic” over the “inauthentic”.

Today’s newsletter by Louise Benson is about this hybrid identity, how it is impossible to speak of identity in the smallest possible terms without talking about it in the largest, and vice versa. Many commentators have talked about what is happening in Chinatowns in terms of it being good or bad. In Lucky Peach a few years back, Fuchsia Dunlop wrote about the undoubted positive aspects: the increase in choice for diners. This year much has been written about the negative, particularly Angela Hui’s excellent reporting for Eater London. This newsletter does not make a decision on that: all it is necessary to know is that Chinatown is changing, and that the change is as complex, as shifting and unpinnable as identity itself.

Neither British nor Chinese: Hong Kong’s cha chaan tengs, by Louise Benson

The correct number at dim sum is three. Bamboo steamers come filled with triplets of dumplings, and a clay pot rice or bowl of congee is too small to be willingly shared by any more than three spoons. Growing up in North West London, a few tube stops away from Chinatown, my mum, my sister and I made the perfect three. I felt confident with the dim sum menu in my hands, ordering “har gau” and “mai lai go” like I was speaking my own language. At the dim sum table, I feel Cantonese. 

In reality, I am half-Chinese, the daughter of a Hong Kong-born mother and a white British father. I have never lived outside the UK and cannot hold a conversation with my Cantonese-speaking grandmother, who occupies a tiny flat on Hong Kong Island. As I increasingly struggle to maintain my relationship with Hong Kong, the former bond between the territory and the UK is slowly breaking apart. Following the handover in 1997, the English that I used to overhear on the streets of Hong Kong as a child became less frequent. The familiar yet dated British products on the supermarket shelves – UHT milk, corned beef, brown sauce – began to fade away. My ambiguous status in the city, masquerading at times as a local, dissolved until I felt unmistakably like a tourist. The dim sum table is now one of the only places that I still feel some claim to my own mixed identity, intuitively carrying out the rules and gestures of the highly choreographed meal, where I can exist somewhere in-between my status as both English and Chinese. 

My personal heritage is rooted in Hong Kong’s colonial past, which brought my mum to the UK at the age of 14 when she was sent overseas to boarding school in the late ’70s – a privilege of my grandfather’s job in the civil service. She met my English dad at university in London and never went home. My mum enthusiastically embraced her new British nationality via food, shaped in part by her early experiences at the school canteen. She loved powdered custard and had an enduring fondness for Yorkshire pudding. And although Cantonese food remained a constant in her life, it was often inflected with the flavours of England.

She kept the cupboard stocked with Nissin instant noodles in a rainbow array of flavours, but was just as happy tucking into a chicken-and-mushroom Pot Noodle. Never a big home cook, she would prepare her own deluxe version of soup noodles when she was in a good mood, featuring takeaway char-siu and cabbage cooked in an Oxo-cube broth. Tinned luncheon meat from Marks & Spencer was a familiar sight; I can still picture the pink block glistening on the plate. She would laugh at my scrunched-up face of disgust, telling me about the spam they used to eat at her family dinner table. I remember the handfuls of White Rabbit milk sweets that she kept illicitly in her desk drawer, pearly white amongst the Dolly Mixtures and Jelly Babies. These combinations were not only a means of connecting with her new home, but a mirror of the unique fusion of Hong Kong’s colonial cuisine. 

As a British colony for more than 150 years, Cantonese cuisine is indelibly marked with the influence of the UK. Nowhere is this clearer than in the tea cafés of Hong Kong, known as cha chaan tengs”. The cha chaan teng bear a strong resemblance to your typical British caff, complete with formica tabletops and the lingering scent of the deep-fat fryer, but serve dishes that are neither wholly British nor Chinese. In these cafés you will find such inventions as fried egg and spam on instant noodles, garishly simple enough to evoke the creative scarcity of student cooking. Some cafés still bake their own buns, and are filled with the smell of hot sugar, butter and coconut. They serve Hong Kong-style milk tea (often called “silk stocking” or Yuenyeung in Cantonese), which combines coffee, tea and condensed milk in a single cup; an English-inflected version of Chinese tea culture, and now officially an Intangible Culture Heritage of Hong Kong.

These historic Hong Kong diners sprung up during the 1950s, a development of the earlier “bing sutt” cafés where local restaurateurs sought to appeal to the Western palette of their new British colonial compatriots. The aim is to offer affordable meals to working people, and the menus frequently serve set, fixed-priced lunches, usually featuring various combinations of eggs, toast, noodles, macaroni and tinned meat, washed down with a cup of strong coffee or tea. Served on brightly coloured melamine plates, the clatter of the constant stream of orders and washing-up reverberate throughout. Crates of instant noodles and glass-bottled Coca-Colas typically sit stacked to one side while booth seating is common, adding to the evocation of a Western diner experience more commonly associated with American roadside stops or nostalgic British caffs.

This is Hong Kong’s fast food culture, where tiny Chinese grandmothers sit nursing an iced red bean soy milk and harangued office workers in smart shirts step in for a rapid solo lunch break. Students often sit in packs, picking at frankfurter sausages or plates of rice. These were the cafés that I visited regularly with my mum on our family visits, typically for a quick breakfast or late lunch, as they offered an intimate alternative to the enormous round table of the dim sum gathering crowded with aunts and uncles. Sometimes she would visit one of the many cha chaan tengs alone, after we had already gone to bed, and I can imagine her nursing a horlicks and a baked bun with the endless clatter of city life around her. In a sense, these cha chaan teng dishes are not far from how I would describe my own mother’s cooking as a lifelong devotee of ready meals and quick dinner fixes – food that would be better described as assembled rather than made from scratch.

It is only in recent years that I have observed the connective power of the cha chaan tengs in an ever more unequal society. They are some of the few places remaining that transcend the boundaries of class and wealth in Hong Kong, where people from all walks of life sit shoulder to shoulder. Ironically, given their original ambition to appease Western tastes, tourists are a rare sight in these institutions. In truth, the cha chaan teng is now slowly disappearing, and with it the “soy sauce western” fusion cuisine that is unique to Hong Kong. Rising rents have led some to close their doors for the last time, while others fear the outcome of China’s draconian new security law, which limits peaceful protest. Britain’s influence over the territory is fading as the power balance transfers back to the mainland. 

In London, the historically Cantonese origins of Soho’s Chinatown have dwindled – a reflection of the shifting tides of influence that stretch far beyond the streets of Hong Kong. There are fewer dim sum restaurants in Chinatown now, replaced by Taiwanese bubble tea, Chinese hot pot and jianbing pancakes. The diversification of Chinatown is no bad thing, but it reveals as much about the changing tastes of modern diners as it does the greater wealth and international mobility of the East Asian region, particularly mainland China. Well-travelled patrons typically crave the most accurate rendition of a dish, whether it be crisp shengjianbao delivered just like in Shanghai or a tonkotsu broth to rival a hole-in-the-wall in the backstreets of Tokyo. Restaurants accordingly cater with narrower remits, specialising their output to national dishes or even regional delicacies. Long menus are treated with suspicion. This shift in diners’ expectations raises the loaded question of authenticity – the byword of the globalised age of Instagram, Google Maps and Airbnb – where the ultimate goal is to achieve proximity to culture. It is no coincidence that the slogan of Airbnb is “belong anywhere”. We are chasing experiences that feel believable or genuine: something close to the real. 

What then of a food culture that favours adaptability over authenticity? In Hong Kong’s cha chaan tengs, buttered toast sits comfortably alongside noodle soup. While they serve dishes that are representative of Hong Kong’s cultural mix, and are arguably just as authentic as either a jiaozi outpost or traditional fish and chip shop, their specific melding of the two cuisines makes them difficult to place and therefore increasingly out of fashion. For the cha chaan teng, like chop suey in America or yōshoku in Japan, its strength lies in its fluidity; it is precisely its slippery relationship with authenticity that makes it so unique.   

For my mum, true comfort could be found in spaghetti bolognese seasoned with soy sauce, or sweet and sour pork flavoured with ketchup. She relished these hybrid dishes, just as she  would frown at newer outlets, serving unconventional egg ball waffles topped with whipped cream or green matcha-flavoured Cantonese desserts – Instagram-friendly examples of pan-Asian cuisine – that she deemed as inauthentic or “just for white people”. For her, each of these recent creations represented the brainchild of an individual rather than the organic growth of an entire culture. She saw them as rootless, synthetic as bubblegum, grown from nothing more than the empty desire to make a quick profit. 

At Jen Cafe in London’s Chinatown, peanut butter and condensed milk on toast is listed next to an array of homemade dumplings. With their nostalgic interior decoration and brisk service, these cha chaan tengs are a world away from the modern dining experience. There will be no blackboard specials, small plates, minimal graphic design, blonde wood or focus on seasonality here. Often their seats are left empty as waiters anxiously pace between the tables – a relic of a colonial history that is quickly fading from memory. 

Since my mum’s death three years ago, I’ve felt lost. She was the connection to a heritage that I still don’t fully understand, telling me about the comic books she used to read as a child in Hong Kong, or rolling her eyes at the latest bubble tea outlet opening in London. Our perfect three at dim sum has become two. The black caramelised edge of char siu has me thinking of her clacking her chopsticks together in anticipation; I’m affronted on her behalf if I am served an oversteamed set of dumplings, the skins flabby and cloudy with heat. Her memory spins in front of me like the lazy Susan, bringing me close to tears; but who wants to go for dim sum alone? 

Wandering the shelves of the Asian supermarket in my neighbourhood, I pick up crumbly egg roll biscuits in an elaborate purple box and tins of pickled cabbage to add to my noodle soup. I find a packet of preserved tangerine peel, like the one we would eat on humid July afternoons in Hong Kong, and I think of my mum puckering her mouth in exaggerated delight, her hair still thick and bobbed around her jaw. I wish I could ask her more about the snacks that we used to buy. I wish I could ask her more about her childhood. There are many questions that she will never answer. Maybe that’s what grief feels like: it seems to be a lot like walking repeatedly down a one-way street. 

I have spent my whole life between two cultures, but increasingly I inhabit just one. If I’m being honest, without my mum around I feel less authentically Chinese. I still encounter her most vividly at the dim sum table, noisily sucking the skin from the braised chicken feet and topping up our tea cups like she used to. But I visit Chinatown less often now. Our old favourites, Poon’s, Jade Garden and Mr Kong, have all closed down. I no longer have access to the ‘secret’ lunch menus, written in Chinese only, which she used to translate for me. Only a few of the waiters still ask after her, the turnover of the staff and restaurants washing away her memory like the tide.

Louise Benson is a writer and editor who you can find on Twitter and Instagram. She is deputy editor of Elephant, the London-based art and culture magazine, and co-founder of Scenic Views, a magazine of overlooked interiors focusing on the places that often go unnoticed.

The illustration was done by Kenn Lam, an illustrator and visual artist whose inspirations range from classical Japanese Ukiyo-e art to traditional Chinese medicine labels and Victorian headstones. You can find his work on his website or his Instagram.

Both Louise and Kenn were paid for this newsletter.