Hong Kong’s colonial past is plenty authentic

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.

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