5 Things I’m Glad Hong Kong Kept (Part 2)

5 Things I’m Glad Hong Kong Kept (Part 1) can be found here.

Tsang Tai Uk

Walled Villages

What is the biggest pain of living in Hong Kong? Well, that’s a no brainer: the cost of land, of course! This city, for 6 years straight, was ranked the “least affordable housing market” in the world. What if I told you that there’s a chance you can get free land in Hong Kong?  

Sounds ridiculous, but it’s true! You are entitled certain rights – including land – if you’re lineage is indigenous to Hong Kong. How do you define indigenous, you ask? Well, by the government’s definition, you’re indigenous if you can prove that your ancestors were here before 1898, when the Brits took over.

For some, Hong Kong has been their homeland since the Song dynasty. Fortunately, some of their homes, which are now called “Ancestral Walled Villages,” have been preserved. There are around 75 walled villages in the city, with some over 500 years old.

Built in 1847, Tsang Tai Uk of Shatin translates to "Big House of the Tsangs"
Built in 1847, Tsang Tai Uk of Shatin translates to “Big House of the Tsangs”

A long time ago, Hong Kong was inhabited by two tribes – the Punti (translates to “original inhabitants” and the Hakka (translates to “guests”), each with their own culture. Attracted by the fertile plains of New Territories, they’ve migrated here in clans, which are groups of loosely related family members. For generations, they’ve lived in tight-knit villages.

Tsang Tai Uk is a Hakka Village
This walled village belongs to the Hakka tribe

Frontier days in Hong Kong was no place to fool around. Clans erected high walls to protect their families against bandits, pirates, opposing clans, and yes, even tigers. For hundreds of years, people harvest crops, raised children, and generally spent their lives within these walls. As a result, these villages are priceless time capsules of local history and culture.

So many generation of lives were lived behind these walls
So many generation of lives were lived behind these walls

I highly recommend you visit these historical relics. You’re bound to be close to one if you’re ever in Shatin, Tai Po, or Yuen long. Each village has their their unique own story to tell – a few have moats, others have cannons, and some even have their descendents living in them. They’ve all been modernized to a certain degree, but you’ll certainly get a good sense of what life was like before the Brits.

Ancestral Walled Village
The main Ancestral halls needs some remodeling

So, about the free land. Even if you do qualify (by the way, you have to be male), it’s incredibly difficult to get. There’s mountains of paperwork and years of waiting involved. If you ask me, you’re better off buying land the good old fashioned Hong Kong way – Mark Six baby!

Immerse yourself in the local culture

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Cha Chaan Teng “Hong Kong Style Cafe”

Mido Cafe
Mido Cafe – 60’s style HK Cafe in Yau Ma Tei (Credit: hkmagazine)

When I was younger, my mother would use various techniques to get me to eat. The craftiest method of all was that she would pretend to take my order like a waitress in a cha chaan teng. She would ask me if I want “A chaan” or “B chaan” (meal set A or b). Lapping it up, I would play along and she would serve up whatever she already had made for me. Indulging in the fantasy, I would happily chomp down anything she puts in front of me.

But folks, enough about my college days. Cha chaan tengs are a Hong Kong institution. I’ve tried so-called “HK style” cafes from all over the world, but nothing comes close to the taste, atmosphere, and innovation of the old fashion Hong Kong cha chaan tengs. Over the years, brands such as Tai Hing, Cafe de Coral, Maxims, and many others has tried to dethrone local cha chaan tengs as the reigning champions of Hong Kong style fast food, but none have succeeded.   

Food doesn't get any better than this (Credit: Danielfooddiary)
Food doesn’t get any better than this (Credit: Danielfooddiary)

There are good reasons why Cha Chaan Tengs are not going anywhere. First of all, they serve affordable comfort food. Hong Kong people are not going to get sick of milk tea and pineapple buns just like New Yorkers will not get tired of thin crust pizzas and bagels.

More importantly, however, is that cha chaan tengs were born as a social response to racial oppression. Take a moment to ponder this question – typical cha chaan teng food: milk tea, baked pork over spaghetti, french toast – what do they all have in common? Yes, you got it. They are not chinese foods. In fact, if you think about it, cha chaan tengs are actually Western restaurants.  

Yin Yeung
Who knew coffee mixes so well with Milk tea? (Credit: HKStories)

Back in the days, Western restaurants in Hong Kong didn’t serve the local Chinese. Enterprising locals, in response, opened up their own restaurants and adapted a Western menu for the underserved Chinese. Cha chaan tengs took off in the 60s as more and more people worked in factories and could finally afford to eat out. These restaurants competed fiercely on things the working class cared most about: cost, efficiency, and taste. That’s why from an outsider’s perspective, cha chaan tengs almost always have terrible service. It’s not personal, it’s just part of the experience!  

Must eat before you die: Custard topped bun with butter (Credit: Dennis Wong)
Must eat before you die: Custard topped bun with butter (Credit: Dennis Wong)

Over the decades, cha chaan tengs have become a beast of its own. They took what was British or French and adopted it to what we know and love today. In 2007, the Legislative Council pushed for cha chang tengs to be recognized as a UNESCO “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” This came about from the result of a poll conducted in which 7 out of 10 people believe cha chaan tengs deserve an UNESCO listing. This is all well and good. My only question is, what the heck were the other 3 people thinking?

Dim Sum (a.k.a Yum Cha)

Full disclosure: Personally, I’m not a Dim Sum fanatic. In part, because I’ve had it nearly every weekend growing up. Also, after every meal, I inevitably feel like a bear desperate to hibernate. Despite my personal opinions (or shortcomings, as some would put it) I recognize Dim Sum’s influence in Hong Kong, hence its place on this list.

Yum Cha (translates to “drink tea,” meaning “going for Dim Sum”) needs no introduction. If you’re not living under a rock, then you’re likely to have already experienced it, and therefore have been ensnared by its delightful charms.

Dim Sum A.K.A food coma express
Dim Sum AKA Food coma express

Dim Sum originated in Southern China, but owes its present form to Hong Kong, where it spent years evolving from a modest snack into an esteemed culinary art. Chefs found themselves constantly tweaking ingredients and cooking methods to impress the picky palates of Hong Kongers. Every year, new items make it to the menu – mini wasabi prawn burgers, truffle shiitake buns, crab meat spring rolls with mozzarella – to name a few. Certain dishes, on the other hand, go out of style and disappear. Not every item can last as long as the beloved Ha Gow & Siu Mai (shrimp dumpling and pork dumpling). Jump back a few decades and you’ll find ladies wheeling propane trolleys carrying very different types of dishes.

Lin Heung Tea House
Old fashion Dim Sum trolleys at Lin Heung Tea House (credit: strippedpixel)

If Western fine dining is like a ballet, then Yum Cha is certainly a rock concert. Traditionally, Dim Sum is breakfast for older folks, but it has since evolved to become a meal for families and friends to bond. Yum Cha, where each dish is designed to be shared, is the perfect counter-balance to an increasingly anti-social world. All in all, Dim Sum is served best with a pot of hot tea and a side of conversation.

Yum Cha itself is steeped in tradition. For example, there’s a specific order to pour tea (from seniors to below) and a gesture to signify gratitude when receiving tea (gently tapping the table with your index and middle fingers). The origin of that gesture has to be the most frequently told tale in our culture.

Rinsing Bowl
Another interesting tradition – don’t forget to to rinse your own bowls and utensils! (Credit: Food for thought)

For those who haven’t heard: Centuries ago, Qianlong Emperor and his entourage snuck out of the palace in disguise. They visited a local Maxims (or whatever corporate chain they had back then). Being the prankster that he is, Qianlong grabbed the teapot and started to pour tea for everyone. For context: the Emperor is the son of Heaven and the only remotely appropriate response was to drop to your knees and start kowtowing. This puts his guards in quite a bind. Luckily, the first guard was no slouch, without revealing his disguise he quickly devised the “finger-kowtow,” which was then passed on through the generations as a the official gesture of gratitude when receiving tea.  

Qianlong the Prankster
Qianlong the Prankster… social experiments since 1711

I know earlier I said I was not a fan. But that’s really not true. Yum Cha is a big part of life and deep down I have a genuine love for the art. There’s really nothing quite like it.

Thanks for reading. Stayed tuned for other Hong Kong related articles posted every week! 

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About the Author

Danny

I'm originally from Hong Kong and grew up in California. I am now back in Hong Kong, reminiscing about old Hong Kong, and seeing a new side of the city with my camera lens. I love biking, swimming, and anything salt and vinegar flavored.

 

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