A culinary celebration of Cantonese culture

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 August, 2010, 12:00am

There are probably no more distinctive Hong Kong-style restaurants than cha chaan teng. An adaptation of inexpensive Western food to cater to the taste of local diners, these popular restaurants have, over the years, become an integral part of Cantonese grass-roots culture. Now they are spreading their influence across the border as our entrepreneurs capitalise on this unique gastronomic culture. In doing so, they have also started a culinary trend in southern China. Hong Kong has often been criticised as being a cultural desert but here is a style of food that is indisputably ours. And as a type of local fast food, it comes to epitomise the lifestyle of the working class and the fast pace of life in the city. Such restaurants even come with their own distinctive decor, with special tiles, tables and chairs, fluorescent lighting and wall clocks.

At a time when the central government and Guangzhou authorities are perceived to be promoting Putonghua at the expense of Cantonese, the predominant southern dialect, cha chaan teng may offer a measure of home comfort, a part of Cantonese culture that would be hard to erase.

They have also become big business all across Guangdong as more Hong Kong residents live and work across the border. Most were started by Hong Kong people but their success is now being imitated by Guangdong locals. Their popularity partly stems from the wide varieties of food they serve. While pineapple buns, French toast with butter and stocking milk tea are essential in any self-respecting cha chaan teng, the menu is incredibly flexible, leaving owners great latitude in catering to local taste.

The government estimates about a quarter of a million Hongkongers regularly visit Shenzhen, Dongguan , Guangzhou and Shanghai; it is these cities that see the greatest number of cha chaan teng. While exact numbers are difficult to establish, such restaurants can be seen on most major streets and in shopping malls. Here is an intangible heritage that is well and truly alive, one that fills the stomach and celebrates Cantonese culture.