EVERY morning for 16 years Raymond Kwan Wai-hung has left for work at 4.30 am. Hardly awake, he leaves his Wan Chai home, and heads towards a narrow shopfront tucked away in a corner of Quarry Bay, ready to start another hectic day at one of Hong Kong's typical eateries - the dai pai dong. 'Dai pai dongs are on the way out,' said Kwan, folding the tables and chairs and tidying up 'Chung Kee', his dong (shop), after almost 12 hours of non-stop cooking and serving. 'The Government in the last several years started making it illegal for dai pai dong owners to pass their business on to their family. 'This type of eatery will sooner or later become a rarity if not altogether extinct,' explained Kwan, better known to shop neighbours as 'Ah Hung'. It must be a good life, judging how hungry customers fight for seats at the 10 tables, but Ah Hung says: 'Life for us is not just hard, it's very hard.' By the time Ah Hung returns home in the evening and checks his accounts, it is 9 pm. He has very little time for his wife and their four-year-old son. Ah Hung runs his shop with the help of four sisters and a brother. Employing workers was far too costly, he said. 'Competition is keen, especially when we have the disadvantage of having seats out in the open without the comfort of air-conditioning other eating places offer.' Chung Kee specialises in a short but typical menu of porridge and noodles with, of course, indispensable side dishes such as pan-fried rice noodles (cheung fun), deep-fried Chinese doughnut, and the two combined, the ever-popular ja lo leung . 'We keep our prices pretty low to generate business, but it also means we need a large turnover to make gains,' explained Ah Hung, who was a cab driver, then a food hawker before opening his own dong. 'Newspaper vendors, taxi-drivers, night shift workers do drop in before daybreak,' Ah Hung said as he put on a huge pot of porridge, 'with sometimes women from the nearby ballrooms joining them, although later in the day white-collar workers predominate. 'Getting new customers is hard, but losing one is easy,' said Ah Hung, who knows well the temper of regular individuals and tries to retain them. 'Students used to have breakfast at a dai pai dong, but with the downtrend in economy, those youngsters are eating at home instead.' The dai pai dongs are at the mercy of Hong Kong's weather which drives customers away and leaves the owners with wasted food. But freezing the food is not the answer. 'Hong Kong people's taste buds are refined and hard to please. They could pick out frozen food right away. 'I like this work better than driving taxi, which is monotonous. By keeping a dai pai dong well, you really feel great when customers give their thumbs-up for the food,' he said. Is there a particular profession you would like to know more about? Any ambition you would like to achieve? If there is, drop us a line. Write to: Lifelines, Young Post, GPO Box 47, Hong Kong, or fax us on 2811-1048.