In 2016, “dai pai dong” was added as a Hong Kong English term in the Oxford English Dictionary, referring as “a traditional licensed street stall, typically with a small seating area, selling cooked food at low prices; (now more generally) any food stall of this type.” The term “dai pai dong” 大牌檔 literally means “big license stall”, which attributes to their bigger license paper compared to other street vendors. In Chinese, “dai pai dong” can also be written as 大排檔, meaning a “row of line-up stalls”. Street hawkers have been around in Hong Kong for over a century. The number of street hawkers increased dramatically after WWII, when unemployed citizens were eager to make a living by setting up all sort of vendor stalls on the street, including food stalls. In response, the government put forward “dai pai dong” licenses as a measure to regulate and standardize the food stalls. During its heyday between 1950’s to 1970’s, some say there were more than 3000 dai pai dongs across the city. To control street hygiene, avoid traffic congestion and give priority to urban developments, the government stopped issuing dai pai dong licenses in 1956, and restricted license transfer to spouse only, eliminating the chance of passing the business down the generation. As the city’s economy boomed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, dining options exponentially increased. Along with the government’s constraints and fierce competition of dining options, undesirable hygiene, absence of air conditioning, and the relatively crowded seating have all led to the dwindling of dai pai dongs. In 2011, there were 28 dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong: Central (10 stalls), Wanchai (3 stalls), Sham Shui Po (14 stalls), and Outer Islands (1 stall). From one of the most popular causal dining options in the 1960’s to a disappearing urban heritage that appears as diorama in history museums nowadays, the rise and fall of dai pai dongs reflects the rapid evolution of Hong Kong in the latter half of the 20th century.
Often promoted as a unique component of Hong Kong’s culinary heritage, scenes of dai pai dongs are often displayed as backdrops in museums and amusement parks. A typical dai pai dong consists of a 4′ x 6′ green metal stall used as kitchen, and a long bench topped with three small wooden stools as extra seating. In the past, the number of customers was restricted to two folding tables and eight portable chairs. Opened for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late night meals, dai pai dong may serve congee, noodles, stir fry, dessert, and/or coffee/tea. Despite street stalls are disappearing fast, dai pai dong dishes and their cooking techniques have been well preserved at many neighbourhood restaurants in Hong Kong. Often described as good wok hei (鑊氣), which literally means excellent “breath of wok” or the rich aroma and flavour of the wok, the spirit of dai pai dong cuisine remains as one of the essential aspects of the local cuisine. While the taste of dai pai dong may live long, it is the vibrant street ambience, the causal interactions with vendors and fellow customers, and the carefree dining experience topped with cheap beer and loud laughter that would certainly be missed.
Man Yuen Noodles (民園麵家), a former 80-year old dai pai dong in Soho, Central, was the spark that ignited the city’s attention on dai pai dong conservation. In 2005, there were 30 dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong. Wong Kwong Hing (黃光慶), the license holder of Man Yuen Noodles, passed away. The Lee brothers, disciplines of Wong’s father and the operators of Man Yuen for many decades, attempted to continue the hawker license but were rejected by the government. A number of district councillors, legislators, and 3000+ Hong Kongers made a petition, urging the government to let the Lee brothers continue with the business. Their petition failed, and the famous street stall was forced to close down. Yet, the 2005 incident successfully captured the media’s attention and brought out the issue of the dying culture to the public. The conservation effort gained momentum in the next couple of years, and eventually led to the change of license regulations in 2008, allowing non spousal license transfer to be considered. Despite the effort, the numbers of dai pai dongs continue to drop. Without anyone’s notice, the end of dai pai dong could become reality in less than a generation’s time.
Whenever I flew with Cathay Pacific, I often selected Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Chungking Express (重慶森林) from their entertainment system when I was about to take a nap. Indulging myself in the repeating music of Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’, and Christopher Doyle’s dynamic shots of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central always relaxed my mind. Chungking Express is undoubtedly one of my most favorite Hong Kong films. Chungking Express is lighthearted, complex, ambiguous, and beautiful. There are two stories in the film. The first story follows policeman 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a female drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. The second story follows policeman 633 (Tony Leung) and a female staff (Faye Wong) at Midnight Express, a snack bar in the entertainment district of Central. Released in 1994, three years before Hong Kong was returned to China, the film did capture a mixed bag of sentiments and mood of that era: sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, loneliness, loss, affection, impermanence, desire to change, hope for a brighter future, etc. Without pretentious shots of the city’s famous skyline, Chungking Express is a visually dazzling film that captures the daily life of Hong Kongers happened in wet market, snack bar, old tenement apartment, convenience store, and the Chungking Mansion, a huge mixed use complex in Kowloon where new immigrants and tourists gather and stay the night. Director Wong Kar Wai describes the film as his love letter to Hong Kong. 27 years have passed. Chungking Express remains as an icon of Hong Kong cinema, and an exquisite documentation of the ever-changing city in that particular moment in history.
Perhaps it is because both protagonists Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Faye Wong (王菲) are two of my favorite Hong Kong stars back in the 1990’s, or The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is too overpowering, or the filming locations in Central are just a few blocks from where I spent my childhood, I always like the story of Midnight Express more. Every time watching the film would remind me the old Central before the disastrous urban renewal projects that have torn apart Graham Street Market and gentrification that have wiped out uncounted tenement apartments and small shop owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketed rent. 1994 also marked the first anniversary of the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯), a 800m escalator system from Downtown Central up to the Mid-Levels. Wong Kar Wai chose the escalator and an adjacent apartment unit (home of Christopher Doyle, the legendary cinematographer of many Wong’s films) as the major film set for Chungking Express. Wong’s selection prominently imprints the escalator in the cultural atlas of the city, and introduces such unique urban feature to the whole world. In fact, the success of Chungking Express has consolidated Wong Kar Kai’s name onto the stage of international cinema, paving the way for his triumphs in the later half of the 1990’s, including Happy Together and In the Mood for Love.
Today, the 800m escalators system remains the longest in the world, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2015, CNN website picked the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator as one of the coolest commutes in the world. The idea of building an urban escalator system began in early 1980’s, when the Hong Kong government considered various options to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation between Central, the business district of Hong Kong, and Mid Levels, the residential neighbourhood on the slope of Victoria Peak. Cable car and monorail were also considered, but an escalator system was eventually selected. After 2.5 years of construction, the system was opened to the public in 1993. Wong Kar Wai seized the opportunity and became the first director to shoot a movie there. The escalator soon became popular among residents and office workers in Central, and led to dramatic gentrification of the surroundings. Buildings along the escalator system were torn down for new apartments. Small shops were replaced by bars and upscale restaurants, forming a vibrant entertainment district that we now call Soho. For both good and bad, the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator has been a major catalyst that wipes out the old Central I have known as a child. Yet on the other hand, the convenience it brings us who live in the area has undeniably become an inseparable part of our daily routine.