We all have that friend whose phone eats first. You know the one – the friend who won’t let you pick up a fork before all the plates have arrived, are arranged just so, and have been snapped from many different angles. If you don’t have that friend, by the way, that’s because you’re the friend that does that. That’s okay, we love you anyway.
Food plays a huge role in Hong Kong culture. We like to give it the attention it deserves. We have things like mooncake for the Mid-Autumn Festival, nin go (a sticky, chewy “cake”) for Chinese New Year, and egg tarts for, well, any day we like.
Which is why my week’s experiment - spending a maximum of HK$315 on a full week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners - felt so difficult.
Obviously, I know that many people in Hong Kong either have to, or can, live on less. I’m not saying what I did was particularly noteworthy, or praiseworthy. I’m not trying to make out that, just because I managed to feed myself on HK$15 per meal, people who spend more are in some way wrong and need to make the same change. I know I won’t. I ended my week with a massive sigh of relief, and ordered a delivery that night, just because I could.
What interested me, going into this, was what sort of impact that type of planning and eating has on a person, if any. With no oven, one lonely hotplate, a tiny rice cooker, and a fridge (with a faulty freezer) in my flat, I wasn’t exactly able to set aside a whole day to food prep for the rest of the week. I didn’t want to bulk buy anything either, because that would have defeated the whole purpose of what I was trying to do.
A government census in 2016 revealed that more than 200,000 Hongkongers live in subdivided flats, cubicle homes, or cage homes. Of that number, 50,000 of them are aged 18 or younger. That means there’s a pretty good chance that there are many young Hongkongers out there that live on roughly HK$15 for each meal. They might not have room for a huge bag of rice in their home. They, or their parents, might be too busy to cook a week’s batch of lunches and dinners. Even if they did, they might have to share space in a fridge with other people. If they don’t have the time to prep food, or have the room to store it, then I shouldn’t either.
The actual process of buying a few ingredients every night wasn’t so bad. I enjoyed going to the wet market, and eyeing up all the different ingredients. It’s cheaper and potentially more environmentally friendly than shopping at the supermarket. There’s a lot more variety, too, and I’ll probably do a lot more shopping at the wet market from now on.
The actual cooking for myself became tiring. Trying to cook on the shelf my flat has the audacity to call a kitchen was bad. I began to resent my hotplate. There was a lot of taking-one-pan-off-putting-one-pan-on going on all week. Back in Britain, I had a big kitchen, a full hob, and an oven. That made cooking fun and relaxing. It’s also pretty uncommon to eat out all the time in Britain. Throw a stone 100 metres in any direction from your Hong Kong home, however, and you’ll probably hit a restaurant or cha chaan teng. They’re everywhere, open early, and shut late. Why go through the trouble, right?
Having to make my own food every night after coming home from work, and then washing and tidying all become tedious – as did consecutively eating my leftovers from dinner for lunch. I’m the sort of person that gets bored of what I’m eating halfway through my meal. Knowing I’d eat the same thing the day afterwards put me in a bad mood, which I’d then feel guilty about because at least I had food to eat, unlike many other people.
I turned down a few invites for dinners and lunches over the week because I knew I couldn’t afford it and had my own food anyway, which made me feel as if I was missing out on hanging out with my friends. I could probably have gone regardless, and either let them pay for me, taken my own food, or eaten before or afterwards, but I didn’t. I suppose I felt like I didn’t see the point if I couldn’t eat the same dishes as them; somehow, it felt like it mattered to me.
So much of our social lives revolves around food. You go out for a burger with your boy/girlfriend, or you meet your friends for a chat over coffee and cake, or you catch up with your cousins at hotpot. That’s not to say we can’t do any of these things without the food aspect, but … well, we don’t.
Nor am I claiming that people who normally live on less than HK$15 a meal can’t do these things, but there’s much less spontaneity. They need to plan it, and save up for it. They have to think twice about ordering something from a menu, about buying an ice cream, or even about accepting a friend’s invite to eat at their home, because they might not be able to afford a gift for the host.
At no point during the week did I feel as if I was truly starving. I had plenty of base ingredients, like rice, pasta, and potatoes, but none of it was particularly inspiring. If I felt peckish, I didn’t feel as if I could justify buying something from a vending machine, or from a 7-Eleven. I probably could have, but I couldn’t help worrying about how much money I’d have left for tomorrow, or the day after that.
Perhaps I should have – because according to nutritionist Wynnie Chan, my daily calorie intake averaged 975kcal, my protein intake about 47.1 grammes, and my fat intake was around 29.1 grammes. Chan said that the recommended Dietary Reference Values for each of these should be about 2000kcal, 50 grammes, and 70 grammes, respectively. My diet was also lacking in potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and B group vitamins B2, Niacin, and B6.
I can’t say that I went into this experiment thinking that it would be particularly easy, but I don’t think I had imagined it would be quite as difficult as it actually ended up being, either.
I’m very fortunate to be in a position where, if I wanted, I can choose to drop more than HK$315 on a single meal. Of course, there are many people out there in the same position as me, who would argue there’s absolutely no need to do that. They’re right – but they could, if they wanted to. They have the option of choosing not to.
I’m not saying there’s a right or a wrong way to go about it. If you choose to spend HK$150 on a meal instead of HK$15, that’s awesome. If you choose not to, then that’s great too. Equally, you don’t have to do what I did to “experience what it’s really like”, because I don’t think everyone who has to do that every day feels bad or sad about it.
My experiment wasn’t perfect, of course (pizza, ramen, and hugely calorie-deficient), and it has helped me realise how much I take for granted. There shouldn’t be 71,000 families in Hong Kong that have to live on HK$15 per person, per meal, at all. They should not feel as if they have to choose between eating well for the next few days and hanging out with their friends. I have a much greater respect for those who are able to eat well and healthily on HK$45 a day if they want to, because I know I couldn’t be happy doing the same thing. Could you?