When Ten Years was named best film at the 35th annual Hong Kong Film Awards, last month, one of the city’s billionaires condemned the judges’ decision.
He said that no matter how splendid a wonton noodle shop is, it simply can never be regarded as the best restaurant in Hong Kong.
Unfortunately, the reckless, heavily criticized analogy accurately captures the mindset of most Hongkongers – the sad reason behind the decline of Chinese cuisine in the city.
We often proudly say we should safeguard our unique food culture.
Nevertheless, let’s imagine there is a top-notch wonton shop that uses only fresh whiskered velvet shrimp (赤米蝦) for its wonton dumplings.
Its home-made jook-sing noodles (竹昇麵) — from dough that is thoroughly pressed by the chef riding a bamboo log – is made with premium-grade flour and free-range eggs.
In the dipping dish is the famous Chinese red vinegar fermented by Kowloon Soy Co.
Would you be willing to pay more than HK$100 for a small bowl of these wonton noodles?
Would there be a market for it, at all?
It is understandable that the tycoon, who owns several posh restaurants and whose tastes run to vintage wine and fine spirits, will never be able to fully appreciate wonton noodles.
However, even ordinary folk who might not hesitate to pay more than HK$100 for a bowl of Japanese ramen would balk at spending the same amount on a bowl of wonton noodles.
It’s not hard to understand why.
Entering some famous wonton noodle outlets in Hong Kong, you are greeted by the impatient or even annoyed faces of the waiters.
The red vinegar for the noodles is artificially colored and pungently acidic.
Well, when there are so many above-average restaurants out there, why should customers put up with so much unpleasantness for a bowl of overrated food?
It has become a tradition that every Labor Day, staff from Chinese restaurants and fast-food outlets stage a protest, complaining about the industry’s low wages and long working hours.
Relatively speaking, the wages for workers in Chinese kitchens are not particularly low; however, tediously long hours in poor conditions quickly kill their enthusiasm.
Becoming a Chinese chef is a choice made in the absence of better options.
In the last decade, most newcomers to Chinese kitchens are school dropouts who failed to get a job elsewhere.
I don’t mean that there are no talented or diligent people among the candidates.
What I want to say is that, from the word go, Chinese kitchens can’t compete with their peers.
Japanese and western restaurants are often named after the chef, who is frequently also the owner.
However, Chinese chefs are almost designated as employees, because when a person has risen to be in charge of a Chinese restaurant, it is unlikely that he or she will cook.
Thanks to social stigma, being a chef is not a reputable job, and getting rich by wok and wok chaan (spatula) is still difficult if not impossible.
The younger generation of Hongkongers are not keen on Chinese food, not to mention becoming practitioners of it.
What future can there be for Hong Kong’s unique cuisine if no one takes pride in preparing it?
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 10.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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