Preserving a place in our hearts for our not-so-haughty cuisine

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2010, 12:00am

Heritage is something that a society inherits from previous generations. It is up to that society to then preserve this heritage for future generations. It is a vital part of the life and unique character of a city like Hong Kong. When we refer to intangible heritage we mean the collective memory of the people, which reflects our lifestyles. I would like to see the cha chaan teng [Hong Kong tea cafe] added to the list of the city's intangible heritage, because it is a reflection of the lifestyle of Hongkongers and is a unique feature of the city.

The culture and traditions of a society are regarded as part of its intangible heritage and that is why the cha chaan teng is a suitable candidate. After the second world war, these cafe-style restaurants provided Western cuisine. Later this was expanded to include traditional Chinese dishes. These restaurants are known for their varied and affordable menus.

When looking back at their history, you are given a glimpse of the lives of Hong Kong people from lower-income groups. Despite their financial constraints, they wanted the chance to try Western cuisine. Their role has changed since those early days. Now Hong Kong people see them as efficient places for tea or a quick meal. The food is ordered, served and paid for at great speed, which is a unique part of the eating culture of this city. Generally you will get your dish within 10 minutes. Customers pay at the counter rather than giving money to the waiter, and diners also share tables.

These restaurants reflect the changes in society and represent a crossover of historic and modern lifestyles. A city without its own distinctive characteristics is a mediocre place. The cha chaan teng is unique to Hong Kong. There are similar restaurants on the mainland and in Chinatowns in other countries. But they have nothing to do with the unique eating culture of this city. I can see no reason why the cha chaan teng should not join the list of Hong Kong's intangible cultural heritage.

Wong Yin-ting, Tsz Wan Shan