Package deals: film crew catering, Hong Kong style

As glamorous as the film industry can be, the catering is usually more grease than glitz, writes Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 11:19pm

WHAT'S THE MAJOR difference between a film set here and in Hollywood? For the majority of cast and crew, it's the catering.

Movies made in the American system will have an entire department called craft services dedicated to providing food, snacks and beverages to satisfy everyone on the set. The "craft" in the title refers to technically trained workers, including lighting, sound, props, make-up and gaffers.

"I've done American films and it's like going to a gourmet buffet," says Antony Szeto, a fight choreographer turned filmmaker whose directing credits include the animated DragonBlade, Jackie Chan Presents: Wushu, and the soon-to-be-released, Roger Corman-produced, Fist of the Dragon.

"I will be doing a Jean-Claude Van Damme film and we're having all these conversations about what hot foods to have, and catering to people's low-fat and fruit diets. You don't normally have this on a Chinese shoot."

On Hong Kong film sets, lunch isn't so fancy. A lowly lackey would be sent out before a break to bring back a large stack of lunch boxes. Of course, there are exceptions - usually the big stars.

"Someone like Sammo Hung will bring in his own chef," Szeto says. "Most film people are foodies. But when it comes to shooting, it's about eating quickly and getting on with the job. That's why the lunch box is so popular. It's basically eating on the fly. You're holding it in one hand, chopsticks in the other and still wandering around moving cameras and issuing orders."

Convincing foreign film crews to adapt to Hong Kong ways is challenging. "One of the most troublesome things is figuring out where to eat," says Becky Lee, a producer at Freebase Media, a company that handles the co-ordination, logistics and location dilemmas for overseas media and film shoots.

"I had one crew where one person was vegetarian, another ate chicken but not pork, another didn't eat gluten, another was allergic to rice, and I was like 'where do I take them?'"

Lee has worked on The Dark Knight, Contagion and even stood in for Natalie Portman when Chris Hemsworth needed to reshoot a short segment of Thor while in town. But she is essentially a fixer who gets what producers and directors want, including chaperoning them to restaurants.

"Local guys are not particular at all. I find they just eat what they are given. Foreign crews will just rely on us to take them to places. So it depends if they are adventurous or not," Lee says.

"Some ask, 'Are there TGI Fridays or Denny's?' Then others say, 'Hey, let's go for Chinese' and I'll take them for hotpot or dim sum. If they have the budget, we go to Yung Kee. It's safe because it's nicely presented in a big environment. As for the big movie stars, they will usually just eat at their hotel, whether it's in The Upper House, Grand Hyatt or Four Seasons."

There is an impression that all film crews go out for group dinners and midnight snacks after wrapping up. That happens occasionally, but the long hours on set or location just make everyone from the biggest star to the lowliest extra want to go home and sleep.

"There are no rules. It all depends on the day to day details. If everyone has been working late and then they have an early morning shoot, then you just want to go off to bed," Szeto says.

"If we have a day off, then usually a few of us go off and eat in a late-night cha chaan teng or go for yum cha after a night shoot. In Hong Kong, usually you have someone who lives close by and they'll say 'Oh, I know a place'. But it would mostly be Chinese food."

That's something Ngo Ka-nin can relate to. The TVB actor has had film roles that included a part in Ip Man 2. Health and nutrition may be important but he also loves his hotpot. However, after consecutive 14-hour days starting at 6am in make-up and costume, he says there's little desire to stay out.

"We do go out occasionally but it's rare. No one wants to get fat and be hounded by reporters, so often we just go to TVB's canteen or a local cha chaan teng in Tseung Kwan O. Sometimes, we'll go to Kowloon City for hotpot. Claypot rice is another favourite," he says.

"If there are new actors, we'll invite them along so we can all get to know each other. Some programmes can last over four months, so you want to get to know your fellow cast members and new people are usually shy. Having a meal allows them open up more, relax and be less intimidated."

Szeto also uses food as a tool to bond. "In pre-production, there is a lot of socialising that goes along with it, and you do try to get out there. Perhaps with my Western background, I do more drinking with my crew than dinners. I'm about ordering a few beers and some satay. The Fringe Club is one of my favourite places for pre-production meetings and a beer."

Back on location, it's almost always a box of rice and barbecued meat. For Hong Kong's budget-minded productions, it's cheap, fast and safe.

Ngo says it also keeps the cast from disappearing. "Probably over 30 years ago, film people were responsible for their own meals and one time an actor went missing after lunch break. No one could find him," he says.

"Eventually, someone went to his house and there he was just eating his lunch. The guy was from a generation where they believed in going to the wet market and shopping for ingredients for every meal, so he took a bus to the market, took another bus home, then cooked.

Obviously, that took a lot of time so the producers couldn't really blame him. So from then on, they decided to provide lunch boxes for everyone. My favourite is char siu and chicken rice. It's the simplest and safest."

The most popular choice of all for Hong Kong crews has to be canned ham and fried egg on rice - with a packet of soy sauce on the side, says Lee.

"That's popular catering because on a shoot the schedule is sometimes so tight the food may arrive and sit there for two hours," she says.

"If you have stuff with a lot of sauce it will absorb into the rice and be mucky and soft, but ham and egg doesn't have that problem. It's the crew who told me they like this because it can sit there for three hours and still be edible."


Film and Food: Movie folks pick their favourite places to eat

Ngo Ka-nin: “I like doing hotpot the most. Lots of TVB people go to Great Beef Hotpot (36 Nam Kok Road, Kowloon City, tel: 2383 9863). They have valet parking, it’s convenient and they know us well and give us a discount.”

Antony Szeto: “Located near Sham Shui Po, Tai Chung Wah (539 Fok Wing Street, Cheung Sha Wan, tel: 9045 4863/6096 0082) is quite popular with film people. It’s cheap but good. There is often such a large income difference between film people that we try to go for the cheapest place.”

Becky Lee: “A lot of foreign film crews enjoy hotpot and we take them to Him Kee Hot Pot (1/F-3/F Workingfield Commercial Building, 408-412 Jaffe Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2838 6116). They love the idea and the taste. Sometimes for lunch we’ll take them for dim sum. Maxim’s Palace (2/F Low Block, City Hall, Central, tel: 25211303) is always popular with foreign crews.