OUR CITY, OUR FOOD? AN IDENTITY CRISIS IN HONG KONG

   Hong Kong still is—among many other things—a gourmet paradise, a world’s fair of food. Today, Hong Kong is still a prime site for converging global cuisines. And the people of Hong Kong still sport some of the most discerning palates in the world.

   But something odd is going on in the local restaurant industry.

   Consider Eater’s “12 Hottest Restaurants in Hong Kong Right Now,” a definitive guide to local dining. None of the restaurants that make the list are Chinese. Yes, some of them are helmed by Chinese chefs trained in Western kitchens. But none of their restaurants serve Chinese food.

   Then consider CNN’s “Hong Kong Best New Restaurants of 2016.”  These restaurants are Modern French, Basque, Japanese-Peruvian, and draw from Monaco, Mexico City, and Moscow, but none are remotely Chinese.

   Then there’s Conde Nast Traveller’s list of “The Best Restaurants in Hong Kong Right Now, which does feature a handful of Chinese restaurants—three, in fact. But not without heavy modifiers like “creative Chinese,” “elegant Cantonese,” “twists on Chinese comfort food,” “or new-wave dim sum.”

   The Michelin guide also publishes in Hong Kong. For the first time, the number of Chinese restaurants that received stars was more than a third of the list. And yes, it is newsworthy that now a significant portion of the best restaurants in Hong Kong can be Chinese.

   Then, a month ago, San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants were announced. The award is well known within the industry as the primary anti-Michelin competitor: its awards are peer-nominated and widely seen as less stodgy and less Eurocentric. The good news is that this year, seven Hong Kong restaurants made it onto Asia’s 50 best restaurants—a testament to the industry-approved excellence that can be found in the city. But of course, only two are Chinese. The number is only all the more significant in comparison: all three restaurants in Korea on the list serve Korean food. And seven of the nine restaurants in Japan are Japanese.

   So, something odd is going on: the best cuisine the city has to offer is not, in fact, the cuisine unique to the city. On the contrary, the culinary scene most worshiped and celebrated in Hong Kong is brought upon by a massive import of foreign chefs. The hottest, newest restaurants in the city are applauded for pioneering a nouveau cuisine that prefers foreign technique and foreign chefs to our own.

   Of course, it would be disingenuous to say that the best food representative of Hong Kong should only be local. Certainly, the wonder of Hong Kong’s cuisine owes itself much to its external influences. Even before Hong Kong’s colonial history, the cuisine of the land was a healthy, messy mix of the foods ways migrants had brought with them. First, as a small fisherman’s village, locals benefited from the plentiful subtropical bounty and subsisted on a diet primarily of seafood and rice. By the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong had become a military and trading outpost. Throngs of Punti, Hakka, Tanka, and Hokkien migrants then arrived to work, live, and cook in the city. Waves of trade and exchange pushed the cuisine to suit the diverse palate of the newcomers. But it wasn’t until British colonization in 1841 that cuisine in Hong Kong could begin to compare with the more refined Cantonese cuisine developed in the imperial courts of nearby Guangzhou.

   It was during British colonization that Hong Kong’s East-meets-West identity began to truly flourish. In the prosperity that preceded the Second World War, Chinese restaurateurs used the very segregation of the colony, along with recipes and techniques from Cantonese, Shanghai, and even Japanese cuisine to build a dynamic restaurant economy. Consider some of the iconic foods of Hong Kong served in cha chaan teng or Hong Kong tea restaurants: milk tea, lemon tea, ham and macaroni soup, peanut butter-stuffed French toast, corned beef and egg club sandwiches, egg tarts, and pineapple buns. All of them are products of Chinese immigration and British colonization.

   Today, Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan culinary tradition continues. And yet there is a fundamental difference. The most exemplary chefs in Hong Kong are no longer products of “East meets West” as they were, uniquely so, in the case of Hong Kong tea restaurants. Nor is there any meaningful collaboration between local and foreign. These new chefs from Europe, Australia, and the United States are almost all young, ambitious, and talented but still totally alien to Hong Kong. Recruited by global restaurant groups, they cook in restaurants they hardly have the chance to help build and end up building a menu rather than a team, a brand rather than a dining experience. Margins are higher when restaurant oligopolies minimize culinary creativity, so new chefs never get to know Hong Kong, its produce, and its culture.

   The old guard doesn’t help either. Very little has been done to encourage the transmission of tradition and technique to new generations. Often, restaurants close when bloodlines end. As a result, classic recipes disappear. There might be hope if there were any sense of excitement for the culinary arts, but culinary schools in the city are primarily hubs only for vocational training in Western cuisine with no emphasis on cuisine as art.

   Perhaps the city is plagued by fickle customers who demand high price tags and extravagant meals. Perhaps we should blame the oversaturated restaurant review sites for drowning out neighborhood mom-and-pop shops that fail to go viral. But whatever the causes for the decline of local cuisine, Hong Kong should begin to look within. So many culinary techniques and foodways can be found in the city’s Chinese cuisine. And that cuisine should be duly celebrated, molded, and innovated upon to build a fervent cuisine culture that is unique to Hong Kong. For even, the seemingly trivial matter of food and drink deserves to be evaluated with the Confucian doctrine of loyalty and consideration. This is our Hong Kong. We cannot afford to lose it.

Lucas Sin is a member of the Yale College Class of 2015 and the current chef at Junzi Kitchen. Contact him at sin.lucas.ly@gmail.com.

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