After 1997, the economic changes in Hong Kong have been stamping out the most authentic of these institutions. However, they continue to grow in Canada, single-handedly keeping the history of Hong Kong alive.
I've never lived in Hong Kong, but I could tell you a million stories about its past. How cheung fun noodles brought neighbours and families together. How irresistible the tofu stands were, even when it was hot and humid. How children would spend whole afternoons crouching in front of the comic book stands on tiny plastic stools, squandering their allowances on fifteen-minute intervals of reading time. How the green and tan minibuses were the best way to get around the city at any time of the day. All of them passed down to me over countless cups of damn good lai cha, milk tea, in Canadian replicas of cha chaan tengs, Hong Kong tea cafes.
Cha chaan tengs are Hong Kong tea cafes, famous for drawing inspiration from practically every Eastern culture and combining those flavours with British staples, an institution like no other. Many of its dishes reflect Hong Kong’s diversity and impermanence; unexplainable, creative, soulful. In fact, they’re often made of ingredients that would never appear in the recipe it came from, as if the chefs are making it up as they go along. You’ll find items like pineapple buns with sliced butter, baked Portuguese curry chicken rice, macaroni soup, sunny side up on wonton noodles, and deep-fried French toast with peanut butter and corn syrup. Why those combinations? No one knows. Nor does it matter. If it’s hearty and easy to make, it belongs on the menu.
These cafés have always been a place of comfort for my family, seasoned with memories and emotions so powerful that my sister and I can feel nostalgia for a time and place we’ve never known. It’s in these restaurants that I’ve felt the strongest connection to my roots, surrounded by 1970’s décor and posters filled with words I can’t read.
My parents are regulars at several cafés in the Markham area, and because of their influence, I’ve become a loyal customer in my own right. There’s Yan Woo Soya Bean Foods, known for its chow mein chow fun and furniture that’s been around since the beginning of time. Jim Chai Kee is famed for its wonton noodles and ability to curb that peckish feeling you get around midday. City Hollywood Café, the Fran’s of the cha chaan teng world, provides the full menu experience and 1950s décor for good measure. Lai Doh, for its lai cha and yin yang coffee. And Kenny’s Noodle, which serves breakfast foods all day and stays open until 1:30 in the morning. Like coffee shops, each has unique customer bases, specialities, and atmospheric appeal. It all depends on what you like, when you’d like it, and whom you want to eat it with.
Yan Woo Soya Bean Foods is particularly special to my father. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it’s significant to most of the over-fifty crowd. Located in the Market Village centre, the eight small white tables and matching chairs don’t seem like much. But when you look closer, it’s immediately apparent that the café is a replica from the good old days. A time when people still wore oversized glasses, permed their hair and met up in their slippers. Even its prices are stuck in the past with the most expensive item priced at $3.25. The staff often gossip as they bus the tables, speaking a version of Cantonese that’s usually found in old television series; sassy, curt, and honest. If you can understand it, you’ll find yourself trying not to laugh out loud at their quips. The menu has sixteen variations of tofu fa (a silken soybean dessert), eight kinds of soy milk, two types of fried noodles, and a variety of small hot snacks. Whether you go for a sweet or salty treat, I bet you won’t be able to stop yourself from ordering seconds.
No matter which cha chaan teng you go to, the owners will always say the same thing, “I don’t know why the recipes are made this way, it’s just how it’s done in Hong Kong.” It’s almost like they’re saying, “You just had to be there to get it.” Take for instance Singapore-style noodles, a Hong Kong invention you’ll have a hard time finding in Singapore. Or Spam egg noodles, which consists of sliced luncheon meat, a fried egg, instant noodles, a long steel spoon, and wooden chopsticks. Or red bean ice. Or baked tomato pork chop rice. Or Swiss wings (no, they don’t come from Switzerland). Or thick toast with condensed milk. All of them could have only been invented by chefs who, seeing the diversity of their customers, created dishes that reflected their tastes while staying true to Cantonese cuisine. In Canada, that diversity isn’t as readily available. It’s just not as easy for chefs to be inspired by the restaurant next door, combine its recipes with their own and confidently believe that customers will try it. Over here, it’s not as common for different communities to frequent the same food markets and share cooking tips and traditions. The philosophy of Hong Kong tea cafés relies on an ever-changing, fast-paced landscape, qualities the Greater Toronto Area lacks. As unfortunate as that sounds, it’s a good thing. It allowed for the preservation of culture. It allowed for people to feel at home, to pass on a piece of history without having it evolve and disappear. It allowed my family the opportunity to share stories, like how my mother used to wait for her mother to come home with a paper bag full of egg tarts every Monday. How she would hear the click of her mother’s heels and run to the door, anticipating the smell of crispy cookie crust and sweet egg custard. How her mother would go to the same tiny shop every week and line up for at least a couple blocks; something to inspire the kids to study harder, she’d say.
America has its cuppa joe diners. Britain, the rowdy local pub. Wherever you go, there’s always a place that represents the everyman or everywoman. They’re a particular kind of space, a setting for escape – friendly tables that are open to anyone who wants to sit down. Their appeal lies in the midway point between the street and home. For some, these places are essential to their way of life, symbolising a sense of community and culture. That place in Hong Kong, preserved here in Canada, is the cha chaan teng.