By all other accounts, none of this makes sense. Macaroni with diced luncheon meat in clear broth. Scrambled egg in pineapple buns. Hot cola. To the average Hong Konger like me, these are go-to orders in a cha chaan teng (“tea restaurant”): perfectly symphonic and also salvation.
During the recent 99 years of British governance of Hong Kong, brought about by the ultimate dope-deal-gone-bad, this strange but much beloved mash-up cuisine emerged. It's reflective of the people’s cultural displacement: ethnically Han Chinese operating under Western systems, we were strangers in our own home.
In the middle of the century, post-WWII and smack bang in the middle of the British “lease” of Hong Kong, our island became awash with sundries from the Western industrialised era. Canned meat, evaporated milk, golden syrup and caster sugar flooded the shelves. Strapped to that imported cargo were the bourgeois dreams of “taking tea” with milk and cafe culture, but with a glaring absence of any instruction manual.
So in true Hong Kong style, out of tile-lined, ceiling-fan-powered little shopfronts, the largely working class got to reinventing, creating affordable interpretations of Western fare served right alongside Cantonese staples.
Individual-sized casserole dishes nestled baked pork chop rice in tomato sauce (ours, of course, made from 'ketchup' and roux!) and chicken baked rice in Portuguese sauce (Canto-bechamel made with evaporated milk and a hint of spice). There was our version of French toast, essentially a peanut butter sandwich, dipped in egg then deep-fried, served with golden syrup.
With no regard for compatibility but more for practical co-existence, gon chow ngau ho (dry stir-fried beef rice noodles), si yao wong chow mein (soy sauce fried noodles), and century-egg pork congee flew out the same kitchens in equal voracity. Though a curtly drawn line continues to divide the “Western” and Cantonese dishes on the menus, there's common ground in the quintessential cha chaan teng beverage: the Hong Kong milk tea.
Made with propriety blends of largely Ceylon black tea boiled in tea stockings and served with evaporated milk and white sugar, our milk tea has the uncanny ability to wash down both sides of the menu.
As with many of my brethren who fled Hong Kong to Australia ahead of the looming Chinese Communist Party takeover in 1997, I was a young child unceremoniously yanked from my roots and crudely replanted. Whether I took to the foreign soil or not wasn’t a consideration. Like the cha chaan teng adoption of Western ingredients, neither continuity nor coherence mattered. It’s what’s here now, make it work. In essence, the Hong Kong migrant is a cha chaan teng menu personified.
Though a curtly drawn line continues to divide the “Western” and Cantonese dishes on the menus, there's common ground in the quintessential cha chaan teng beverage: the Hong Kong milk tea.
It is of little wonder then that Hong Kongers both at home and abroad have such a symbiotic affair with cha chaan teng. It is a cuisine for people accustomed to facing change armed only with pragmatism and little fanfare. It is for a people expected to make things their own, because a sense of belonging would not otherwise be provided. This also stands to reason why cha chaan tengs can be found the world over – including in Australia, where they are dotted about suburbs that house Hong Kongers forever in search.
For me now, it could be any one of the “‘woods” here in Sydney – be it Eastwood, Burwood or Chatswood. On any given day, at a hard rosewood ka wei (booth seating) covered with jade green paisley laminate, I sidle in. I’m surrounded by specials scribbled on mirrors that line the walls from end to end. Finally, a home.