Part rant, part Chinese cooking factual, part cultural discussion on the history of Hong Kong.

Travel TV shows don’t often appeal to me, if only because getting a foreigner and self-proclaimed expert to explain someone else’s culture back to a foreign audience can be hard to stomach.

It’s so easy to make insincere comments, or phrase things incorrectly and thereby spread lies. Orientalism, imperialism and all their buddies rear their ugly heads.


But I do love a good cooking show. So when I watched an episode of the Hairy Bikers’ Asian Adventure for the first time tonight about my native Hong Kong, I thought, hey, this might not be so bad after all.

Some of the guests they asked to appear on the show with them were all pretty cool people with pretty cool things to say.

One of these guests mentioned ‘wok hay’, or ‘wok qi’ in Mandarin. It means the heat of the wok, which is an essential characteristic in Chinese frying technique, where you really have to blast the heat up underneath the wok to bang them flavours out of your initial ingredients. Often that’s the garlic, ginger, onions and some chilli if hot spice is required.

wok hay ginger chilli garlic chinese
© Sum Sze Tam

They then moved onto what Hong Kongers traditionally have for breakfast. They met with guest Suzie Wong, who’s very famous as an agony aunt/lifestyle/voice of wisdom celebrity. I used to ride a pony named after her.

She took them to a funny old cultural product called a ‘cha charn teng’. The literal translation is tea restaurant, or tea canteen. I would describe it best as a fusion diner, and the food is bloody delicious.

As far as I can gather from what English-language travel writers have said, these came about in the 1950s-60s when the native Chinese communities in Hong Kong, still under British colonial rule, decided that they wanted more Western food in their dining experience.

The markets responded, and the cha charn teng was the result. It’s an experience where British food and ingredients like tea, corned beef, spam, sammiches and so on are re-purposed and recreated using Chinese ingredients and methods.

The result is deep-fried french toast, scrambled egg sandwiches with the most artificial and white bread, often crustless, a Cantonese take on the Portuguese pasteis de nata, and tea made with evaporated milk:


There’s instant noodles with spam and fried egg:


Buns with a crusty pineapple topping:


I’m not currently in the country, so all the above pictures were from blogger whatshieats’s website.

Imagine my dismay, then, when the two Hairy Biker guys dismiss the cha charn teng experience that Suzie Wong so thoughtfully chose to show them, and are then seen bumbling off to the other side of the street in search of ‘more authentic’ Chinese food.

My opinion? There is nothing more fucking authentic than a cha charn teng!

It’s the most alive, and beloved symbol of Hong Kong’s colonial past. I’m not an imperialist, nor am I condoning imperialism, but Hong Kong has never ignored its colonial past.

I remember a Monocle travel writer saying (and I am paraphrasing here) that the fact that we still have trams on Hong Kong Island was a sign of how confused we were over whether we were Chinese, or a colony community.

hong kong occupy central civil disobedience china democracy
Photo: Calvin YC

We don’t have a confused identity – we learn from our past, no matter how recent or ancient that might be. We pride ourselves as Chinese, but we also pride ourselves as Hong Kongers – and though these two categories overlap, they are not the same.

Towards the end of this episode of the Hairy Bikers, one of them said that he loved Chinese food, for their fresh ingredients, cooked very quickly.

But what about our many stews, barbecues, baked products, or soups? Most of these take over a couple of hours to make.

In order to fit a relatable understanding of a foreign culture into a very short space of time, filmmakers are forced to be shallow, and only brush the surface of what they discover. I bristle a little at the thought of people settling on a perception of Chinese cooking as consisting only of stir-fries. But maybe that’s me assuming that viewers take these things at face value? I don’t know.

Travel presenters take from the places what they like and reject the stuff that they don’t like. It’s troublesome, and kind of annoying. But reading this, it might just sound like a proud/sensitive/defensive whitewashed Chinese girl ranting. I guess it’s up to you to decide whether to take that at face value or not either.

When I first came to the UK almost two years ago, a certain line of thought in the discourse I found myself surrounded by was the really alienating, detached way the British spoke about ‘Americans’. Even the word ‘American’, when uttered by a British person, sounds awkward and incongruous, although maybe that’s just in my head. (Or maybe it’s the word itself spoken in an RP British accent).

There’s also something about the way Brits use the word ‘America’ rather than ‘the US’ – obviously I’m no expert on native American discourse (lol punz), I’ve never even been there – but I can’t shake the sense that Americans refer to their country as ‘the US’ a lot more often than Brits do.

Part of the reason why this phenomenon has struck such a chord with me is probably because I come from Hong Kong, where it doesn’t matter so much where you come from as it does what race you are. Despite its supposed position as a hub of cosmopolitanism, Hong Kong is actually quite racist in that anybody with white skin is automatically given an elevated social status. Even that supposed cosmopolitanism only applies to those rich enough to be trendy, well-educated and intellectual.

diversity in Hong Kong_white people

Based on that logic, all white people in Hong Kong are just that – white. Their nationality doesn’t matter so much, and we have the English next to Americans next to South Africans next to Australians next to Kiwis and so on. There are Scots next to the Irish, with a few Welsh(wo)men. Imagine my surprise, then, when I come to a country actually predominantly inhabited by white people, to find that these unions and boundary-less realities didn’t hold up.

For all that I get lectured at university about the limitations of nationalism and imperialism, a large part of the British population, and so many of the people I’ve met here, just blindly follow the belief that Americans are dumb, Americans are rude, Americans are vapid and get up to all sorts of strange things. They forget that America is a nation made up of 50 states, and that the sheer number of people that fill those up will indicate a massive range and diversity of personalities. You can’t just say that Americans are [insert deprecating adjective].

The moment somebody attributes something about Americans to their Americanism, especially regarding dislikeable characteristics, that person is no better than a racist.

Kevin Lau – an ex-editor and renowned journalist of the Ming Pao newspaper in Hong Kong (basically our version of The Guardian) – was recently stabbed in broad daylight. An uproar has exploded in the city since, and Hong Kong citizens from all around the world have joined in the fray.

Before you start to think, Oh god, what a load of boring ball hocks, here’s some context. China and Hong Kong have always had a very tense relationship regarding how much control the former should have over the latter. Nobody wants a reputation as a willing ally of China when you’re as dependent on the Western world as Hong Kong is.

But wait, I hear you say. Isn’t Hong Kong just another city in China? Trust me, if you want to earn brownie points with somebody from Hong Kong, don’t ask that question. Before 1997, Hong Kong was under the control of the British, which explains why the city is so, so, so much more westernised than China and other Asian countries. In 1997, in a treaty called ‘one country, two systems’, Britain handed Hong Kong back over to China, but stated that Hong Kong would be allowed to keep running the way it had been before, rather than changing to fit China’s economic and political system.

That’s why Hong Kong is technically classed as a Special Autonomous Region; that’s what the S.A.R. stands for when Hong Kong is listed in official documents, and not a reference to the 2003 SARS outbreak (which is what I believed up until a few years ago). This means we’re largely self-governing, but China is responsible for our military defences and foreign policy. It means Hong Kong runs a capitalist economy, alongside China’s socialist one. When you think about it, isn’t it amazing that we’ve managed to work out such a strange co-operation?

cock rooster Sum Sze Tam

But the system doesn’t really hold out forever – the agreement between the UK and China only lasts 50 years, and what lies beyond that 50-year threshold is a dark and murky mystery. I often wonder why people aren’t planning ahead for it, but the obvious answer is that a lot can happen over a decade, never mind multiple decades. Still, as of 2014, we only have 33 years of what could be relative heaven left.

Obviously the media have a big part in this; a free-flowing media and information system is one of Hong Kong’s most distinctively anti-China features, and if that gets contaminated, what do we have left with which to identify ourselves as ‘progressive’? Hong Kong media is almost a microcosm of the region itself, and it doesn’t bode well for the future of the city when the media is increasingly being taken over, inch by inch, by mainland Chinese interests. People are scared that this is an evil long-term scheme by China to take over Hong Kong in advance of when the 50-year ‘one country, two systems’ agreement stops.

Examples include the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s newspaper of record, where the encroachment of mainland Chinese politics can be felt when you look at the reshuffling of all the executive staff; the SCMP was owned by News Corp (Rupert Murdoch!!!) up until just before Hong Kong’s handover to China, where it has since been owned by the pro-Beijing Malaysian Kuok family.

ming pao daily news hong kong Sum Sze Tam

Ming Pao, on the other hand, has been relatively independent until recently, when Kevin Lau was dismissed under mysterious circumstances, and another pro-Beijing Malaysian tycoon has stepped into the Ming Pao scene. What is with all these Malaysians, srsly. Ming Pao is the newspaper my parents read from, like most most middle-class families in Hong Kong, and it’s our baby in the sense that it has a reputation for being reliable, and upholding professional journalistic standards. It’s the newspaper I’d read if I could read a word of Chinese.

Needless to say, people are hurt and angry over the whole Ming Pao debacle. For one, stabbings like these occur so very rarely, because the crime rate in Hong Kong is so low, it really comes as a shock when somebody as prestigious and in the spotlight as Kevin Lau gets targeted. It’s clearly a public message, which is being interpreted in many ways. And who is the message from? Who is the message to? There are so many questions waiting to be answered, and how (if?) they’re answered will have a profound implication on Hong Kong-China tensions.

One of my own friends from the London School of Economics has started a campaign (there’s a description in English if you click ‘See more’) with her fellow society members in protest of these recent developments. Great girl. There’s an ongoing social media campaign she’s doing too, and both have been quite successful. I’ve signed it, but to tell the truth I’ve always had mixed feelings about activism (this is the bit where you point at me and go HYPOCRITE, because of the Cardiff University Living Wage campaign I helped out in, amongst others), but that’s a post for another time.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Hong Kong politics – this is all pretty entry-level really – and if I got some things wrong above, then please do correct me. But it’s been a long time coming that I’d consolidate somewhere my own knowledge of the current situation, specifically for people who don’t know it.

Also, stabbings/choppings/cleaver attacks are terrible. Just imagining a stabbing makes me shudder.