The customary salutation in greeting a Chinese is nihao (sort of “hello, how are you”). But Chinese often greet one another with the phrase chi fan mei ah (have you eaten yet?) Westerners may joke that forty-five minutes after a Chinese meal one is hungry again. It may well be that the Chinese developed their cuisine to actually produce that result: the Chinese love to eat, anytime, anywhere, and often. And pretty much anything.
Waiter, there’s a wu ying in my soup . . .
For some reason the admonition of my mother, when I was a child, came to me when I flopped into a chair at a table facing the door. Words about the “starving children of China.” It didn’t seem that there was much starvation in Hong Kong: it is reported that there is a restaurant for every eight-hundred inhabitants of Hong Kong and Kowloon. I had walked on past most of them until my hunger overtook my fastidiousness. The chair reminded me of one of the set from my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a kid back in New York: tubular chrome frame with green plastic-covered vinyl seat and backrest with some ambiguous pastel pattern. But the stains were from soy, not marinara, sauce. I chose the chair rather than one of the rickety little stools arrayed at round tables.
Over the open door of the restaurant a large exhaust fan turned lazily, chopping the bright, electric rays of the neon across the street into a bright kaleidoscope. Grease and dust hung from its blades, stalactites formed by the exhalations of uncounted numbers of cigarettes, and untold breaths of “Crystal Chicken Feet in Garlic Sauce,” Blanched Kidney and Liver,” and “Congee with Congealed Duck’s Blood,” among other exotic treats. Now that I saw the device that pumped the thick stew of aromas into the street that had snared me, my appetite quailed. Only a few blocks away, in tourist-gorged Nathan Road, there were golden arches and the gastro-intestinal assurances of other familiar fast food logos.
So why was I sitting here?
I pondered the wobbly table with the chipped formica, the dirty ashtray, and the incomprehensible menu held between the bottle of soy and the napkin dispenser. This was the kind of establishment that separates the gweilos (white ghosts) from the Chinese, and the real travelers from the tourists.
That it could also separate me from my dignity was not lost on me. My appreciation of foreign food does not extend to the exotic; that generally means “no innards.” My Parisian friend Bob once ordered me an andouillete, and I decided when the unappetizing, half-cooked, stuffed section of stomach was put before me that it was less insulting to politely decline to eat it than to have somebody clean up after me.
So why was I sitting here, in a “congeetorium”? These restaurants are actually called dai pai dong, literally “big stores in a row,” although they are anything but big and are sort of the fast food joints of Cantonese cuisine, although they are family-run, open for long hours just to make ends meet, and the staff uniforms are only distinguished from patrons by the excess soy sauce stains on them.
To say that the décor of these places is a Spartan-utilitarian would be to confer upon it an underserved elegance. There are legions of them in Hong Kong. These are where local people of limited means, those without Diners Club cards, come for their congee, the ubiquitous and viscous rice porridge garnished with just about anything—spring onions, pieces of fish or fish heads, bits of chicken, or frog’s legs. The patrons may consume it quickly, if they are local workman, slurping with relish with mouths just centimeters above their bowls, or more leisurely, if they are one of the retired neighborhood elders.
These congeetoria are where one encounters the true “natives” of Hong Kong. Not the three-pieces suited expat investment banker from The City or Wall Street, but the true resident of Cantoville. An old lady with the adjustable aluminum cane sits almost motionless, her breathing imperceptible, for a good twenty minutes. Her legs are splayed out for balance as she bestrides one of the plastic, blue stools. A blue, quilted vest covers the upper part of her black pajama suit. Opposite the spare, gray hair are little cloth Maryjane shoes that are very much a signature of her cohort. When an elderly man in a greasy brown shirt and trousers ambles in and sits at her table the old woman does not register his presence. It is the way of a people who live in such close and constant proximity. His skin is very dark, probably from years of outdoor work, and his glasses, with their warped bows and frame a-kilter, have lenses so thick that his eyes are grotesquely enlarged to the appearance of some silly, imaginary space alien. Without uttering a word he is served his bowl of congee, along with a sponge cake that looks like a brick of Styrofoam. He’s a regular, too.
Two Chinese men were enthusiastically slurping from bowls over in one corner and the man I assumed to be the waiter, wearing an apron, was sitting at a table against the wall buried in a Cantonese scandal sheet and billows of cigarette smoke. I kept the menu open in order to buy some time. Would I be the sophisticated traveler having a gastronomic adventure, or would I cut and run in the direction of Nathan Road. The moment of truth was only being delayed by the waiter’s fascination with his tabloid. There was time for reflection.
My mother’s words about those starving kids in China. She was always telling me that she would send the food I left on my plate to the “starving people in China.” So naturally I expected that the Chinese would by now have acquired a taste for all the Brussels sprouts and lime jello I “sent” them. But the Chinese are smarter than to adopt some gweilo kid’s leavings. I didn’t see a single Brussel sprout or squiggly lime jello dessert anywhere in China. They would rather to take some animal “innards” that look like “road-kill” to a Westerner and turn them into “delicacies” I was totally unfamiliar with because no Chinese mom has ever been heard to say: “You eat up all those duck’s feet and sea slugs or I’ll send them to those starving American kids.”
It wasn’t that I couldn’t identify most anything on a “congeetorium” menu because it was in Chinese, I couldn’t identify them by sight. Very little is wasted in the Chinese diet. This is a people who have known more famine than plenty throughout their long history. Virtually anything that flies, swims, walks, or squirms is fair game for the gustatory latitude of the Sino-palate. To the Chinese “all creatures great and small” translates as “all creatures, lunch and dinner”. Food stalls are festooned with dripping, or desiccated, cooked or raw, creature body parts, all body parts: goat heads, duck’s feet, fish lips and eyeballs, pigs trotters, and things you can’t name. At the public market nearby my flat the stalls for meat have the gruesome appearance of a zoo that has had a direct hit by a fragmentation bomb. There are delicacies displayed in restaurant windows that seem to have come from outer space
The waiter looked over at me again, but didn’t move. I think he was enjoying my discomfort. But I was starting to worry about giving offense. I always fear that I’m going to give insult to a Chinese who is honoring me with a delicacy like Bird’s Nest soup, which is actually made from the bird’s saliva. I’ve had enough with what bird’s do to my car; I’ll be damned if I want them spitting in my soup. But I don’t care if I insult a Chinese by turning down “shark-fin soup.” The suppliers of shark fins simply capture a shark, cut off its fins, and then toss it back into the sea to die a painful death. I tasted shark fin soup once and don’t think sharks should die for something that tastes that mediocre.In fairness I should report that a Chinese guide once complained to me that the food in America was not very good at all. He had escorted a delegation of Chinese businessmen to California and brought home as gifts some canned food.
“I am sorry to say that the dog meat I brought home to my family did not taste very good,” he complained to me.
“Dog meat! Where the hell did you buy canned dog meat in America?” I replied, wondering if the SPCA knew about this.
“At the supermarket, the big supermarket. There were many cans of dog meat with many different names. I bought several kinds but they were all not very good. I am glad that I did not buy the cat meat.”
I wished he had bought canned tuna; at least in that case the picture on the label identifies what’s inside not the animal is supposed to eat it. I thought it better for me to lose face by being from a country that didn’t know how to prepare dog meat, than to cause the guide to lose face by informing him that he had been feeding his family American pet food.
I must have been gazing, lost in my reverie of past meals and hypnotized by the lazy exhaust fan when I noticed the waiter standing beside my table. He had a look on his face that seemed to say “Now what have we here?” I sensed a bit of an attitude of superiority in his posture, something that said: “OK Mr. Gweilo, let’s see what you can order from a menu in Chinese.”
But I was ready for him. He wasn’t going to see me bolt for the door and run for the comfort of those golden arches. No way. In my best mentally-rehearsed Cantonese I looked up at him with a confident gaze and intoned: Mgoi, yaat wùh bóulei (“A pot of dark tea, please”).
©2002, ©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.14.2004)