Skip to main content

Hong Kong's disappearing outdoor food stalls

By Wilfred Chan, for CNN
updated 5:21 AM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
Diners feast at a dai pai dong on Stanley Street in Hong Kong's Central district on June 21, 2013. Once a common fixture of Hong Kong street life, now only 28 licensed dai pai dong remain in the city. Diners feast at a dai pai dong on Stanley Street in Hong Kong's Central district on June 21, 2013. Once a common fixture of Hong Kong street life, now only 28 licensed dai pai dong remain in the city.
HIDE CAPTION
Last of Hong Kong's outdoor food stalls
Last of Hong Kong's outdoor food stalls
Last of Hong Kong's outdoor food stalls
Last of Hong Kong's outdoor food stalls
Last of Hong Kong's outdoor food stalls
Last of Hong Kong's outdoor food stalls
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Only 28 licensed dai pai dong, or outdoor food stalls, remain in Hong Kong
  • Dai pai dong famous for Cantonese classics like beef noodles and steamed clams
  • Government is not offering new licenses, so future of dai pai dong is uncertain

(CNN) -- With tanned shoulders and a wrinkled smile, Lam Tse-Sing has the easy demeanor of a guy who knows his job.

For nearly 30 years, he has worked at the same open-air food stall in Hong Kong -- known as a dai pai dong -- flanked by open flames as he prepares dishes from fried rice to steamed clams.

But Lam, now in his 50s, is one of the last examples of a dying Cantonese culinary tradition.

Decades of urban transformation have decimated Hong Kong's throngs of dai pai dong, supplanting them with glitzy malls and big name eateries.

According to vendors I spoke to, there were hundreds of dai pai dong in the 1960s.

Today, there are just 28 left.

It's a shame, says Lam. Modern restaurants have "no culture, no taste."

Stalwarts stand firm

In Hong Kong's Central district where skyscrapers crowd out the surrounding sky, Lam's dai pai dong, named Sing Kee, retains a proud tradition of old-school street life.

On a sweltering weeknight, I sit on a sticky blue plastic stool under a faded red umbrella. Patrons tuck into scrumptious dishes delivered by scrambling wait staff and the sound of hearty chatter mingles with the smell of cigarettes and kitchen grease.

The key to dai pai dong-style cuisine, he tells me, is wok hei, a Cantonese phrase that literally translates to "wok essence" and refers to the distinctive flavor that can only be achieved from a sizzling wok.

By using scorching flames, boiling hot oil and a fast, muscular stir-fry technique that launches the food airborne (Lam sometimes saut├ęs two woks at once), the food is infused with a rich taste that evokes the brash old city.

Lam Tse-Sing: \
Lam Tse-Sing: "The hardest part of this job is the heat."

The stir-fried beef noodles (HK$48) are springy, slick and satisfyingly salty. The grouper filet and seasonal vegetable (HK$54) offer slippery bites of soft, savory fish and bok choy stir-fried al dente in a light sauce.

They all have that home-cooked aroma that would send me running to the kitchen as a kid.

The question is, will Hong Kong's future children be able to experience dai pai dong cooking?

"It all depends on the government," explains Lam.

Lack of government support

For years, Hong Kong's administration has encouraged the decline of dai pai dong, which are viewed by some officials as fire hazards, health risks and public nuisances.

According to vendors, the government has paid hundreds of dai pai dong owners to give up their licenses and no new licenses have been granted in decades.

But locals say more should be done to preserve the tradition.

"The government should protect dai pai dong," said Yu Tse-Pang, 24, a cashier at a local dumpling restaurant. "They're friendly, tasty, and cheap. My friends and I eat there all the time."

Lo Kwan-Sing, 81, agrees. "I don't know any ordinary citizen who wouldn't support them. You get more choices and cheaper food. But if you're a rich guy who eats in hotels all the time, of course you wouldn't care."

Despite their popularity, dai pai dong face an uncertain future. Dai pai dong licenses may only be transferred to relatives, but vendors say their children have no interest in continuing the trade.

"They say this work is too difficult, the weather is too hot," says Lam. "When I pass away, the next generation isn't going to take over."

Until then, Lam will continue doing what he does best.

"There aren't many places that still cook like we do," he says. "But if you're someone who knows how to eat, then you'll know how to appreciate it."

Sing Kee: 9-10 Stanley Street, Central, Hong Kong

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests or political reform are still censored in China.
updated 2:01 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
CNN's Brian Stelter talks with CCTV correspondent Jim Spellman on how the Chinese media has covered MH370's mystery.
China's economy has bested many others in just the past 10 years.
updated 2:02 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
In China, users of the "Life Black Box" website can set up final farewells to their friends in case they suddenly die.
updated 1:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
A recent university study claims Chinese micro-blogging activity might not be as vibrant as expected.
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chinese art has been fetching some serious cash -- here's how we can elbow into the market
updated 10:51 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
A Shanghainese collector paid $36 million for this tiny cup decorated with chickens.
updated 2:57 AM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
Ben Richardson on corruption in China: a veil of secrecy shrouds the links between power and wealth.
China's economy is slowing and growth in 2014 could fall short of the government's official target, according to a CNNMoney survey of economists.
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is the first foreigner to visit the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.
updated 9:26 PM EDT, Sun April 6, 2014
If the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 caused a rift in China-Malaysia relations, the two countries appear to have put it behind them.
updated 1:17 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
Martin Jacques argues that in the twenty-first century, China will challenge our perception of what it is to be modern.
A new survey of university students in China shows where they most want to work. What are the dream employers for Chinese students?
updated 9:24 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
What are President Xi Jinping's greatest goals as he visits the EU headquarters in Brussels?
Last year, thousands of Chinese tourists flocked to Yellowstone National Park to view the mountains, the buffalo and Old Faithful.
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
A senior Bloomberg News journalist quit his role earlier this month, saying the "mishandling" by his bosses of a story critical of China was behind his departure.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
"The aim is to let [families of MH370 passengers] express anger while keeping them restrained," says a Chinese official.
updated 9:58 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama's secret weapon in China? Michelle.
updated 10:53 PM EDT, Wed March 26, 2014
Private schools that employ humanistic pedagogy for young children are becoming popular in China. A look at the factors behind the boom and potential pitfalls.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT