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Hong Kong Revisited

When the Chinese took control of Hong Kong, fans of the city worried that its restaurants were doomed. The truth, as the author learns on a return visit, is far more interesting.

No one in Hong Kong says "takeover": The word of the day is handover. In 1997 Britain handed over its former colony to the People's Republic of China, and in this city of high tea and colonial tradition, it's hard not to envision white gloves and an object rather like a vase. Is Hong Kong indeed like a vase, though, a thing that can pass from hand to hand intact? The Hong Kong Tourism Association would have us believe that in the past four years nothing has changed, on the restaurant scene or elsewhere. But is that true? I dragged my husband and two children halfway around the world to eat and understand. For in Hong Kong, to eat is to understand. You take in what you take in.

"One country, two systems" means Americans still don't need a visa to visit Hong Kong; even the Chinese embassy refers to Hong Kong as an entity distinct from the mainland (for which a visa is still required). Other things feel familiar, too: It wouldn't be Hong Kong if there weren't something big and bold just completed, for example. I was pleasantly unsurprised to arrive at a brand new airport shaped like a plane and designed so it can be expanded to three times its current capacity. As my family and I were whisked to town via the new, blue-lit Tsing Ma Bridge, our driver proudly informed us that it is the longest suspension bridge with a railway in the world. ("In the world" is a phrase one hears often in Hong Kong.)

The bridge and the airport impressed us, but the real points of interest in Hong Kong lie below the surface. I have come to the city five or six times over the past 30 years, and each time the city has revealed itself to me in new ways. On one trip, for example, I was amazed to find that in a hot nightclub called Disco Disco people danced not with each other but with their own reflection in an enormous mirror. Was this what happened when Confucius met John Travolta? On this recent trip I was struck by what a buzzing, blooming confusion the city seemed to be in, an identity crisis of an order that's almost--is it parochial to say so?--American. As always, West was colliding with East, the new with the old, but now there were other collisions too, not only between capitalism and communism but between an older brand of capitalism and its newer, brasher cousin.

I got my first glimpse of all this while spending the morning with some artist friends at Mido Café. An old-fashioned, Western-style dive, the café is open on two sides, with metal latticework and tiled walls. Locals drifted in and out while I lingered over a cup of Mandarin Duck, half coffee and half tea--an acquired taste, needless to say--and sampled quintessential Hong Kong snacks: macaroni soup, a coconut pastry called old wife's cake, "chicken tail" sweet buns. Much of the talk was about the sea change in progress: While the intellectuals at the table generally thought it better to be ruled by fellow Chinese than by foreigners--Good riddance, Brits!--mainland rule seemed to raise just as many issues of identity.

"Are the mainland Chinese even really Chinese?" one friend asked me. This might seem an odd question, from an American perspective, but as another friend pointed out, the traditional Chinese culture embodied in ancient arts like calligraphy, painting and opera has been relentlessly subverted by the Communists. My companions seemed to view Communism as just another foreign influence, making the mainland as bastardized a place as Hong Kong.

They shook their heads over the ways foreign influences have changed Hong Kong's Chinese culture and looked with envy--ironically enough--at China's historic enemy, Japan: Now there's an Asian country that's held on to its traditions. "The Japanese have systematically collected and preserved even their folk art," a friend noted. "They know how to value their culture." To be Japanese today is simply to be Japanese, went the lamentation, whereas they doubted there were any pure Chinese left in the world. Were we not all amalgamated in some way, not unlike our cups of Mandarin Duck?

As an American, of course, I looked askance at notions of purity and took a more benign view of assimilation--attitudes easier to hold in a country that has never been invaded. I certainly shared my friends' despondency over the general waning of things Chinese in Hong Kong. Few people wore cheongsam dresses or mandarin-collar jackets these days. And all the teahouses have closed, my friends lamented, because no one has time to sit and chat anymore. The truth, without a doubt; yet what I will probably remember most vividly about the morning was how syrupy time in the café seemed, how Old World the pace. I was the only person who ever thought to look at a watch; only one customer had a cell phone. People shuffled as if wearing slippers. An artist at the table brandishing a calligraphy brush inscribed a book of his art to me, magically producing an elaborate drawing that took up an entire page. In the afternoons, my friends told me, there was old-fashioned entertainment on this block--a cabaret of some sort, I gathered. The afternoon seemed a long, long time away.

From Mido Café, we wended our way to a calligraphy seal and paper shop across the street. The shopkeeper left off practicing his brushwork to show my friends the quality of a certain batch of rice paper. As they fingered it and held it admiringly up to the light, I took in the enormous selection of ink stones and brushes. In another age, dozens of scholars would have been shopping for ink sticks from which they might slowly, slowly grind their ink--a preparation for writing that was as much spiritual as it was physical. I remembered being taught proper ink grinding: One was never to use pressure, one was simply to circle and circle one's hand. The exercise, of course, was about patience and the shunning of force; as a writer now, I see its wisdom.

The handover is bringing more to Hong Kong than a fresh threat to the arts in the form of Communism. It is also bringing a new, no-holds-barred capitalism that is changing Chinese cuisine--as I realized while eating at Xiao Nan Guo, an elegant new nouvelle Shanghainese restaurant that was packed when I visited. Set in a mall, as many Hong Kong restaurants are, it is decorated in an upscale fusion style. The walls feature a blend of Eastern and Western elements--bold, dark woodwork, with insets of padded suede and rice paper, and elegant striped upholstery. The owner, Wang Hui Min, got her start 13 years ago when she and her sister opened a six-table restaurant in Shanghai. That first restaurant stood next door to a behemoth, state-run restaurant called Da Nan Guo (Big South Country), so they named it Xiao Nan Guo (Little South Country), for it was indeed, then, little. Now it is a phenomenon: There are seven branches in Shanghai alone, serving thousands of people a day. While everyone expected the much vaunted Hong Kong restaurant scene to expand into Shanghai, Wang has been so successful that she has expanded the other way.

And sampling the food, I could see why this restaurant, like her others, was so crowded: Everything was enticing. Bean sprout tips were stir-fried with gossamer egg-white threads and cubes of ham the size of kosher-salt grains, in a dish that exemplified the sophistication for which Shanghai is known. A dessert soup of preserved rice-wine syrup with little dumplings floating in it was sprinkled with a veritable hoarfrost of tiny white flowers. A Szechuan-style fried chicken with chiles was perfectly presented, an extravaganza of red peppers and bay leaves.

It was all so lovely that I was wholly unprepared for what Wang had to say about her approach to cooking. This involved a research center, one purpose of which was "to develop dishes that reflect the current desires of the customer." In short, to do market research. Well, all right. It was the other purpose of her center that almost made me choke: "We work there on standardizing the preparation of dishes so that they can be prepared by anyone. Training new chefs takes us three weeks....Our model is McDonald's." Wang herself is not a cook and has no allegiance to any particular regional tradition. She calls her restaurant Shanghainese but in fact will cook anything people like to eat. "My dream," she finished, "is to have restaurants worldwide."

This unabashed assembly-line thinking reflects a strain of capitalism new even to profit-obsessed Hong Kong. Restaurants have always sought to make money, but in Hong Kong the profit motive has traditionally been mixed with other motives. Witness such phenomena as the craze for Chiu Chow food, which currently holds Hong Kong in thrall. The Chiu Chow people come from a hardscrabble, clannish part of nearby Guangdong province and speak a dialect somewhere between Fujianese and Cantonese. Blocked from other businesses because they were outsiders, the Chiu Chownese got into real estate back when it was a losing game. They struck it fabulously rich in the boom of the 1990s.

The culinary result is restaurants like the Carrianna. One of the oldest Chiu Chow restaurants in Hong Kong, it is owned by a group of friends who wanted to do their entertaining in their own place. Their motive was partly economic; they entertained so much that owning a restaurant was a bit like owning a condo instead of renting one. But partly, too, they wanted to eat food that reminded them of home.

When my family and I had dinner there, we began with various cold appetizers, including pickled mustard greens, jellyfish and sliced marinated steamed goose, a signature Chiu Chow dish. We then moved on to enormous, flowery sea crabs with spectacular patterned shells and an unusually creamy roe. These were steamed, then served cold with a vinegar sauce. My children loved them. Deep-fried scallops were a hit as well, as were fried prawn balls, with crispy cubes of bread on the outside and tender shrimp inside. We also had shark's fin soup with fins about the thickness of a toothpick (a sign of quality; thinner ones are inferior), served with brown vinegar in the Chiu Chow style, not with a clear broth as the Cantonese do. The heart of the meal was the fried bean curd with minced pork, which had been marinated in the house lo shui, a soy sauce-based marinade that is boiled and reused indefinitely and that requires months, if not years, to acquire depth. Connoisseurs avoid new Chiu Chow restaurants until the lo shui has had time to develop.

It was a delicious meal, but also a poignant one: I suspect that the heyday of Chiu Chow cooking may be passing. The wealth of the Chiu Chow people derives from the old British policy of keeping so-called Crown land off the market, which made real estate prices high. The Communist government's intention of selling off the former Crown holdings will bring prices down. And as the fortunes of the Chiu Chow people decline, so, quite possibly, will the prestige and quality of their cuisine.

Happily, the Hong Kong restaurant scene today is not only about flux. It is also about traditions likely to survive handovers and more, as exemplified by Tam Sek Lun of the Dynasty Restaurant in the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel. One of nine chefs in his family, Tam remembers many intergenerational fights, all of which revolved around food: Where his father held that cornstarch could be added only once to a dish, for example, Tam believed a cook could taste the sauce and add a bit more without ruining it. Some scenes were stormy; Tam's father kicked him out of the kitchen when he was 14. The result, though, is a cuisine at once rooted in tradition and suited to modern times. When I talked with him, Tam noted the many technical advances the Cantonese kitchen has had to absorb: finer cornstarch, ever more specialized sous-chefs. Still, his cooking, like his father's, is classically Cantonese in its emphasis on bringing out the essence of a dish with minimal amendment.

The food I sampled was fabulously simple. Lobster meat sautéed with egg whites was sublime in texture. And who knew an unadorned slab of glazed baked cod could be so subtly sweet, both crisp and tender? Tam is known not only for these sorts of sophisticated banquet dishes, but also for home-style cooking, which his richest clients often crave. I was sorry--well, sort of--that his famous snake soup, made with three types of venomous snakes, was out of season. His chicken cooked with rice and broth in a clay pot, though, was a headily aromatic consolation.

I had heard that while some top chefs had left in anticipation of 1997, most had returned. Tam confirmed this rumor but went on to say that he himself could not leave. Why? "Because the ingredients in Hong Kong are the best in the world," he said. In contrast to Wang Hui Min, with her ambitions to expand worldwide, Tam maintained that real Chinese food can be made only with ingredients from China. How could a real chef go without without the tender-boned, fragrant Qingyuan chickens from Guangdong province, for example, or hairy crabs from Shanghai--not to mention the endless variety of seafood available in Hong Kong? What's more, he believed stoves in Hong Kong were hotter than those in Vancouver (where a lot of chefs fled before the handover) or the United States. But most important, he said, he couldn't imagine how he could maintain his standards without the competition of other Hong Kong chefs and the expectations of a demanding clientele.

The clientele could dwindle if the economy falters, and competition could lessen. Still, I left Tam cheered and stepped onto the Star Ferry, my favorite Hong Kong institution, in a buoyant mood. The aisles of the ferry, which connects Hong Kong and the Kowloon Peninsula, are luxuriously wide for a city with 10,000 inhabitants per square mile, yet no one, to my knowledge, has ever suggested they be narrowed. As I crossed the harbor, I marveled at my fellow passengers. I could tell which ones were from the mainland; there were just a few of them, but they were not exactly dressed in Armani and were looking around with curiosity. The well-heeled Hong Kong natives, in contrast, were enjoying their moment of peace. Hong Kong might be changing for having changed hands, but just now these passengers knew where they were headed, at least in the near future. They closed their eyes and had faith; soon enough, they'd be there.

Gish Jen, a second-generation Chinese American, is the author of Who's Irish?, Mona in the Promised Land and Typical American. She is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute.

Published November 2001
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