The once ubiquitous street food stalls are being driven out by a high cost of living and an uneasy relationship with preservation
I was being successfully upsold on some salted dried mandarin orange peels at Kowloon Soy Company when I casually asked the salesman about the small open-air street food vendors around the corner from his busy shop in Hong Kong’s Central district. “Oh yeah, those,” he said, dismissively. “They’re part of a big rat problem. They keep a few of them around for the tourists.” Though the stalls and their iconic green awnings have long been a part of the landscape, the reputation of these vendors, known as dai pai dong, isn’t great. “You might have a little problem with hygiene,” said the concierge at my hotel.
These small, no-frills, typically outdoor eateries have long been a part of Hong Kong’s breakfast culture. Keung Kee [a stall in Sham Shui Po] wakes up office workers with claypot chicken and cuttlefish cake. At Duk Yu, you can try traditional Hong Kong-style French toast and milk tea. Sin Heung Yuen is famous for tomato noodles and crispy buns, while Ping Kee is equally beloved for pork chop instant noodles. The list goes on and on. “Dai pai dongs are the original restaurants,” says Janice Leung Hayes, a Hong Kong-based food writer and founder of Tong Chong Street Market. “For a long time, they were the only way people sold food.”
But even as dai pai dong are gaining global recognition, they face extinction at home. Fewer and fewer licenses are being handed out to operate dai pai dong, and the overall number of number of these businesses has declined significantly in the past several decades. Licenses are being “grandfathered,” which means that present operators can continue their businesses but procuring new licenses and even passing them down across family generations is becoming prohibitively difficult. According to one 2014 report in the South China Morning Post, there are only 25 dai pai dong remaining in Hong Kong.
Dai pai dongs have made a clear contribution to the city’s breakfast culture. “I've heard many older Hong Kongers talk about their neighbourhood congee shop or breakfast sandwich dai pai dong, and that they'd just go downstairs in their pyjamas to get takeaway breakfast for the family,” Hayes says.” Celia Hu, editor-at-large for Hong Kong’s Foodie Magazine and blogger at Girl Meets Cooking, says that these simple, “homecooked” and cheap meals have long been the pick-up spot for early morning congee or soy noodles. “Locals get ready for their busy work day by sipping rich condensed milk-infused red tea,” says Hu.
Dai pai dongs are often coupled with more conventional cha chaan dengs—basically, Hong Kong diners serving local comfort foods round the clock. At Lan Fong Yuen, a busy dai pai dong-cha chaan teng in Central, locals and tourists were sitting on stools crowded around circular tables. Some were eating fried ramen and others the crispy bun with pork chop. I ordered the French toast and very strong milk tea. About three bites into my very eggy, heavily buttered and golden-syrup-covered French toast, I became convinced that it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I managed, for a moment, to shut out the clamor—waiters yelling, groups of students giggling, a mother-daughter team taking an impressive range of selfies—and relax into the unfussy goodness in front of me.
Even though many Hong Kongers recognize dai pai dong as an iconic part of the city, there’s very little political or social will to help them thrive. The fate of Hong Kong’s dai pai dong underscores two major issues in Hong Kong: the rising cost of living and operating a business, and the city’s sometimes uneasy relationship with preservation.
“Some Hongkongers think dai pai dong are less hygienic than restaurants and this city does have a slight obsession with hygiene,” says Hayes. “They think that moving forward necessitates destruction of remnants of the past.” Others believe the dai pai dong are both an important food legacy and a cheap contemporary food option (dai pai dongs can typically operate more cheaply than restaurants paying commercial rent) in a place with a very high cost of living.
Hong Kong also has indoor food markets similar to the famed hawker centers in Singapore, and many believe that this will be the ultimate fate of dai pai dong-style eateries. Hu says that Hong Kongers are pragmatic about both limited space and the need for change “but [in getting rid of dai pai dongs] you sacrifice culture and identity, the neighborhood stories and community feel that Starbucks can't replace.”