Last Tuesday, after walking around the neighborhood of Tsuen Wan a while and chatting, one of my informants took me for ice tea – something which I longed for in the heat. She asked me if I wanted to go to a local place or MacDonalds. “Everything but MacDonalds” was my response (leading to a discussion on how it is possible that this is the cheapest ‘restaurant’ in Hong Kong). Hence, we headed to a local restaurant. My informant ordered a typical Hong Kong-style drink for me: milk tea, made cold with the use of ice cubes.
While chatting, my informant (a woman in her early 60s, who came to Hong Kong from Shanghai in the beginning of the 1950s) shared with me how the milk tea, and actually the whole menu of the restaurant we were sitting in, “is just like Hong Kong”, meaning a mixture between Chinese and English influences. The basis for milk tea is black tea. During British colonial rule, the practice of afternoon tea, where black tea is served with sugar and milk, became popular in Hong Kong. However, the Chinese adjusted the practice to their personal taste: they made the black tea stronger, eliminated the sugar, and started to add (sweet) condensed milk.
While trying to enjoy the iced milk tea (still not my favorite; for my taste the bitterness of the strong black tea doesn’t seem to blend well with the sweet, thick texture of the condensed milk) my informant and I took a look at the rest of the menu, which showed us the usual Hong Kong-style dishes one can find in a place like this: thick toast with butter, peanutbutter and condensed milk (which I’ve never tried; the sound of it really puts me off!); instant noodles (Chinese) with scrambled eggs and luncheon meat (British); and other dishes that signify Hong Kong’s different identifying aspects, namely British and Chinese.
Hence, even the local food culture shows how Hong Kong is a mixture between different influences, British and Chinese (or in more generalizing terms: “West” and “East”). Food habits have been taken from the British and adjusted to local taste, resulting into something unique for Hong Kong. Food (alwasy an important aspect of Chinese culture) as a symbol of culture.
While pondering over this with my informant, I looked around. The restaurant was half-empty; we came in between lunch and dinner hours. The people that were sitting in the joint were mainly older people; I would say at least 50 years old. This might have been a result of the fact that the younger generation would be working (after all, it was a Tuesday afternoon). However, it might also be an indication of how this local Hong Kong restaurant, with its unique Hong Kong-style menu, is unable to attract a younger crowd – a crowd that perhaps rather hangs out in a Starbucks, a Western restaurant, or even a MacDonalds.
If this is the case, then what does this example of a very local Hong Kong-style restaurant say about larger identity issues in Hong Kong?