Cha chaan tengs, local diners that serve comfort food all day, are a cornerstone of Hong Kong culture. At a cha chaan teng, you can order beef satay noodles for breakfast, a cup of milk tea stronger than any Starbucks coffee, lo mai gai (glutinous rice and chicken wrapped in a lotus leaf), and more. To many Hongkongers, cha chaan tengs evoke a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. Indeed, it was precisely these feelings that drew me, a Hongkonger living in America, to translate Chung Kwok-keung’s remarkable poems.
Chung wrote “The Cha Chaan Teng on Fortune Street” in 1996 about a Cha Chaan Teng he visited in Sham Shui Po while running an errand. He no longer remembers what the errand was for, he writes in a blog post, but “words have helped [him] remember concrete details of that cha chaan teng.” At the same time, he also wonders whether there is something about a place that is lost forever once it no longer exists, no matter what we write down. As evocative as the details in this poem are, from the “soft clink” of utensils to the “grease-soaked hair” of a waiter, the poem ends on a note of uncertainty, unsure of whether words can safeguard memory.
By KEANE SHUM
There used to be an actual line. That we had to actually wait in. We used to line up from the elevator bank in the Harbour View Hotel across the bridge and over to the Great Eagle Centre, or double-backed towards Central Plaza, and we used to wait.We waited in the balmy near-summer heat if it was the prom after-party, or in the wincing wet cold when we were back from college for the holidays. We waited, we paid cover, we had tickets. We were young.
I got caught in a deluge the other night, and when it hit me, it hit me just like that, italicized, like the rain was coming down so hard even the words to describe it were soaked and falling to the ground. I was in the back streets of Sheung Wan, an old part of town on the outskirts of Central that rests against the side of a hill. Steep stone staircases run up and down and through the area, and on a sunny Sunday morning you can play snakes and ladders with the past, sliding down to a street of antique stores that sell Bruce Lee posters from the 60s and twin-lens reflex cameras from the 30s, or climbing up to peek inside the few Edwardian mansions that remain, the once proud homes not of colonial officials, but of the Chinese compradors who even then—or maybe especially then—had a thing about putting the white man in his place.