Keep dai pai dong alive

Keep dai pai dong alive

HONG KONG - In the 1993 tearjerker film C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri, the two sweethearts played by Lau Ching Wan and Anita Yuen were strolling along the alleys of Temple Street on their first date.

"I want a white one; give him a caramel-coloured one," the young impetuous Cantonese opera singer played by Yuen told a street hawker selling put chai ko - a steamed, sugared rice pudding.

At the end of the film, as she lay dying on a hospital bed, the bone cancer-stricken woman tells her lover she wants a taste of put chai ko again.

The film, credited for helping to make the early 1990s a golden era for Hong Kong movies, shows how such humble street food took centre stage in the people's lives at the time.

But in the past decade, there are fears that it is fast disappearing from the city.

Hong Kong food blogger K.C. Koo, who was sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board to write a food guide on Singapore's hawker food, posited - controversially - in an interview with The Sunday Times that the Republic's hawker fare is better than Hong Kong's street food.

While the city retains its edge in fine Cantonese cuisine as well as classics such as wonton noodles and roast meats sold in eateries, it has not done as well with their more rustic counterparts.

These range from snacks such as curry fish balls, fried pork skin, fermented tofu and fried cuttlefish to che zai meen (cart noodles loaded with innards and beef balls), congee and even fake shark's fin soup. For those with a sweet tooth, there is put chai ko and gai dan zai (egg waffles) to choose from.

These were sold by enterprising itinerant hawkers and dai pai dong (roadside stalls) which crowded the streets in the 1950s to 1960s, providing a cheap source of sustenance, as well as jobs.

The roadside stalls here are quaint green-painted metal shacks, out of which hawkers niftily serve up favourites from deep-fried pork intestines to tong shui (sweet soups). Customers eat off makeshift tables and dinky stools.

Today, the street peddlers are gone, while there are just 26 dai pai dong left, says a spokesman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. Most are found in Sham Shui Po and Central, with others in Tai Hang and Wan Chai.

Due to hygiene and traffic congestion concerns, hawkers were urged to get off the streets starting from the 1970s.

Some were nudged into low-rent food centres in public housing estates - Hong Kong's version of Singapore's hawker centres. But the government stopped building them in the 1990s, because shopping malls now "largely fulfil the local public housing tenants' demand for convenient food", said a Housing Department spokesman. To date, there are just six food centres.

Others set up eateries or kiosks but were unable to cope with high rentals, wrote cultural writer Ho Ng in his book Eating In Hong Kong. Recent challenges include tightening operating regulations, higher food costs in mainland China - the main source of produce - and the difficulty of attracting youngsters to the trade.

This has drawn comparisons with Singapore, which some think is doing a better job of preserving its street food culture. In an article last month, the Hong Kong Economic Times wrote: "As Singapore revives its street food culture, Hong Kongers are feeling again the grass is greener on the other side of the pasture."

Some are urging Hong Kong to consider the steps the Republic is taking, including the latest - a training programme for hawkers to pass on their skills.

Two years ago, the Singapore Government also announced it will build 10 new hawker centres, after a lapse of 26 years. Mr Chan Chi Kwong, 42, who runs his father's 40-year-old dai pai dong in Tai Hang selling che zai meen and fried egg rice, says: "I hope that like Singapore, which has outdoor hawker centres, our government will mark out a place for dai pai dong."

Another possibility, says Mr Ko, is for the city's hospitality vocational training institute to offer an apprenticeship programme similar to Singapore's.

But for now, there are no plans to revise existing policies, say the government spokesmen. These include strict controls over dai pai dong licences, transferable only to spouses.

Just nine licence-holders were given permission to transfer it to their children.

To be sure, there are reasons why the authorities keep a tight leash on street food. Even today, rats and cockroaches can be spotted near the dai pai dong in Central.

But more can be done for the hawkers by helping them set up stall in a clean environment, argue proponents.

Mr Chan, for one, is now waiting for permission for his father's dai pai dong licence to be transferred to him. The engineering graduate, who used to run a construction company, took over the stall nine years ago together with his sister. Customers include stars such as Chow Yun Fat and Eason Chan, he says.

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