Hong Kong is a truly unique city, with a curious mix of modernity and tradition. While it always keeps pace with the latest in technology, finance, convenience and health care, it has not lost its charm when it comes to food, craftsmanship and culture. Whether you’re a born and bred Hong Kong local, a visiting tourist or an expat who’s made the city your home, there are some customs that will always find a place in your heart.
Lindsay Varty is a writer, journalist and rugby player. Half Macanese and half British by birth, but 100% Hong Kong local by heart, she has written a book called Sunset Survivors about “the trades and craftsmen of the real Hong Kong.” For her, the true taste of Hong Kong lies in visiting a dai pai dong.
“These iconic eateries are typically set up in alleyways and outdoor spaces with a tarpaulin overhead and simple set up below. They serve all sorts of Hong Kong classic dishes; from HK style French toast to an amazing tomato macaroni broth.”
Lindsay, who has traveled the world, believes that the food and the no-frills set up are what make them so special and different from stalls you may find in other parts of the world.
“I suggest everyone should try a dai pai dong! My pick for anyone visiting the city—a visit to Sing Heung Yuen dai pai dong in Central is a must as the food and service is great, the owner Irene Lee is my friend!”
Staying with food and Hong Kong delicacies, Lindsay admits that she is a huge fan of dim sum (who isn’t?). Dim sum is often made in bamboo steamers, but this process is becoming increasingly mechanical – often made by factories in China. To watch a unique local art form, drop by Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company in Sai Ying Pun. Watching the craftsman at work through the little window at the shop is a privilege and you’re sure to be tempted to pick up a steamer or two yourself! Lindsay explains why.
“Master Raymond Lam has been working in his family business for over 40 years! He is the fifth generation owner of his business and works all day every day making steamers for hotels, restaurants, shops and homes all around Hong Kong and internationally as well.”
Lindsay observes that as handcrafted bamboo steamers are being increasingly seen as an art form, bamboo steamers are now being used as candle holders, lamps, storage containers and wall decorations.
She adds, “It’s great to see them being used for any purpose as it builds awareness for their beauty and for Hong Kong culture, but ultimately I think their main use is still for steaming food and Hong Kong locals do plenty of that to keep the industry alive!”
Talking about machines replacing the human touch, it’s also very visible when it comes to the making of mahjong tiles. Mahjong playing is very popular in Hong Kong, with some locals playing all weekend. However, nowadays cheaper, plastic mahjong tiles are replacing the traditional hand painted ones.
“Painting them takes a long time and a lot of effort and the handmade sets can cost about HK$4,000 [approximately US$515]. One of the few remaining traditional mahjong artists Master Cheung Shun-king, or ‘Uncle King’ as he is more commonly known, works in Biu Kee Mahjong in Jordan. He still hand makes entire mahjong sets and hand paints and engraves the tiles himself using a traditional method that has been passed down generations in his family. Interestingly, Master King doesn’t even know how to play mahjong himself—he said he stares at the tiles all day so doesn’t want to look at them when he finally goes home!”
Want to see what it takes to hand paint mahjong tiles? Try one of the workshops in the city as this art form is seeing a revival of sorts. Get in touch with Uncle King or Karen Aruba, and make your own special connection with Hong Kong’s rich culture and history.