It works like this because everybody there is on the brink, like the place itself. My Hong Kong friends know what it’s like to be juggling cultures on a daily basis. We can all swing either way, East or West, and we eat ambidextrously. In conversation, there is much that doesn’t need to be explained, which is a huge relief. And Hong Kong is multicultural and international in a way that China still isn’t. Even the taxi drivers speak a mix of Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
Hong Kong people will choose, in an evenhanded way, whether to have croissants and Italian coffee or steamed chickens’ feet with oolong tea for breakfast. They might go out for a bit of ‘soy sauce Western food’, or shop in a delicatessen that sells both dried abalone and Spanish membrillo. Everybody dips their deep-fried prawn dim sum in salad cream; their beancurd rolls in Worcestershire sauce. To visiting tourists this seems like a bastardisation; in Hong Kong, it makes perfect sense.
The first such teahouses opened in Hong Kong in the 1840s, but they began to flourish only after 1897, when the British authorities abolished their night-time curfew for Chinese people. From the 1920s until the 1940s, they sprang up all over the territory, and they acquired a vital social function in the post-war economic boom. Whole families were then living in cramped accommodation, sharing apartments with limited cooking facilities, or even no kitchen at all. Teahouses were cheap and convenient, as much for family meals as entertaining guests or discussing business. Some became known for particular trades, like the Kam Kong restaurant, frequented by dealers of watches and gemstones; others for their board games or musical entertainments. Visiting a teahouse became so central to Hong Kong life that people began to greet one another by asking, ‘Have you had tea yet?’ instead of the more traditional, ‘Have you eaten?’
After my breakfast in Lin Heung, I wandered out into the streets of Central. In a market, an old woman was stripping the green peel from tangerines, releasing their sharp, citrus fragrance into the air. Nearby, the sweet, heavy scent of freshly baked custard tarts drifted out from a small bakery. Cured meats and sausages hung over market stalls; butchers worked with cleavers on wooden blocks. Behind every shopfront, red lamps glowed before shrines to protective deities. Hong Kong Island may have one of the world’s most hypermodern skylines, and an infrastructure so efficient it makes you think cramming over a million people on to a tiny piece of land in the South China Sea is a great idea, but at street level, away from the designer shops and the grand hotels, you can still find the grit, the intense physical sensations, and the echoes of a much older China that give the city-territory its enduring appeal.
Hong Kong is a city obsessed with eating. Everywhere you go, there are people slurping noodles, devouring dumplings, picking up a skewer of deep-fried sparrows at a street stall. Sounds of frying and delicious smells emanate from all around. And if you start a conversation about food among Hong Kong Chinese friends, be warned that you will unleash a runaway train of food reminiscences, cooking tips, and hot restaurant recommendations. And because the object of all this passion really is eating, rather than glamorous décor or being seen in the right places, people aren’t snobbish at all. They know that you will very likely find the best beef noodles in Hong Kong at a shabby dai pai dong, or a sensational Muslim pastry in a shack in Kowloon. It’s not uncommon to find rich men cracking open seriously expensive bottles of wine in some cramped backstreet café with chipped formica tables. And if you wander through the Wanchai wet market, you can be sure to see chauffeur-driven Mercedes parked nearby, their motors running as the tai tais (the Hong Kong equivalent of Ladies Who Lunch) buy impeccably fresh vegetables and seafood for their Thai or Filipina housekeepers to cook.