Borscht and Baked Rice

Hey! It’s been 2.5 years since I’ve posted anything. Lots of stuff has been happening, but instead of an update, I’m going to post some writing.

A book has been kicking around in my head for a long long time, and I finally did something about it. This is an unedited, first draft. But I thought I’d put it up here. Let me know your thoughts.

Wong Kar Wai’s 2000 film In the Mood For Love is a masterclass in mood setting. Using muted colors, half heard conversations over phones to tell the story of neighbors Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chen (Maggie Cheung) slowly coming to realize their respective spouses are having an affair in 1962 Hong Kong. First deciding to discuss the affair, they end up at Sun Kwong Nam Restaurant and are shown eating steaks. With practiced ease, Mr. Chow supplements Mrs. Chen’s steak with a slight dollop of mustard. “Do you like it spicy?,” he asks. Originally planned to be a movie titled A Story of Food, the themes of eating often pop up. The protagonists continue to meet over noodles, over sesame syrup, over sticky rice, but what may strike viewers unfamiliar with Hong Kong as unusual, was their initial choice of steak, rather than something traditionally Chinese or Cantonese.

That initial dining scene, however, was not shot in Sun Kwong Nam, but in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay neighborhood in an enduring restaurant named “Goldfinch.” Replete with the red leather booths and large menus of a time gone by, restaurants like Goldfinch continue to serve a style of cuisine uniquely Hong Kong in origin.

“In the past, this was one of the very few upmarket Western restaurants around. It wasn’t so easy to come in here. Only people with some money could afford to,” said Wong Kin-wing, a manager who has worked at Goldfinch for more than 20 years.

During the post-war era, restaurants serving what would be recognizable as “Western food” were scarce and expensive – however, influences as disparate as the Portuguese, Malaysians, White Russians and obviously British colonialism combined to produce a brand of cuisine known as Soy Sauce Western or Hong Kong Style Western food.

In Anthony Bourdain’s 2011 visit to Hong Kong for his Travel Channel show The Layover he visits ???Sing Heung Yuen. The outdoor eatery or dai pai dong in Cantonese is famous for it’s tomato soup base instant noodles served with luncheon meat, hot dogs or cubed pork. Bourdain termed it “mutant Western cuisine” or the sort of food that a drunk college student would make at 2 in the morning, and theorized that the genesis of the food was similar to Korean fusion, from Western GIs stopping through on R&R trips during the Korean or Vietnam War. While Bourdain is right about the drunk college student part, the origins of Hong Kong’s Western cuisine are more interesting and reflect Hong Kong’s place as a stopover for the world’s travelers and population migrations.

I grew up in Los Angeles, myself. But not one of the suburban Chinatowns either, but rather the deep suburbs. My Chinese experience was one of weekend trips to Monterey Park, Arcadia, San Gabriel for dim sum, and then Chinese supermarkets. One of the things I did not understand growing up was the presence of strange Western food at Hong Kong style cafes around the San Gabriel Valley, with items such as baked pork chop rice and shrimp toast.

It wasn’t until I moved to Hong Kong in 1997 that I began to explore the world of Soy Sauce Western Cuisine by eating the length and breadth of Hong Kong. With recent restaurant closings of Goldfinch and Louis Steakhouse, and the rise of actual Western food, and sophisticated tastes in Hong Kong, where HKers are able to experience actual steakhouses, Italian food and Russian cuisine, versions of this cuisine may be dying away, and the nostalgic taste of the 60s and 70s may soon disappear from Hong Kong altogether. But to explore this, we must begin at the beginning, and that’s with borscht.

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One Response to Borscht and Baked Rice

  1. uzbekcelia says:

    Welcome back. Keep writing.

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