Any foreigner visiting Hong Kong will not fail to notice a unique feature of Hong Kong’s food culture: the popularity of the Hong Kong Style Tea restaurant (Cha Chan Tan). The Cha Chan Tan developed from its earliest precursor, the street Café, (Dai-pai-dong) to the “Ice-chamber” (Bing-sat -- a café for cold drinks) in the 1950s, to its present form. My father and uncles started the early Cha Chan Tan, the famous “Kowloon Café” at Shanghai Street (later made a title of a Hong Kong movie) and the still existing Hoi-On Café in Sheung Wan, HK were started by my father, Mr. Wong Keu in the 1950s. In the 1960s, he further established the “Coffee Saloon” in West Point. My seventh uncle started the “Lan Heung Café” in Central while my tenth uncle opened, probably the first HK Style Café, Lan Heung Kok (Parlor) in the 40s. My thirteen uncle launched “Wing Fong Café” in To Kwa Wan also in the early days. My father opened the ‘Tsit Wing Emporium’ in 1932; it was later known as “Tsit Wing Coffee”. My fourth uncle, opened “Bright Sun Coffee” in 1929. It is now run by my cousin.
Nowadays, the owners of the famous Cha Chan Tan chain, the Tsui Wah and Tai Hing restaurant group - are my good friends. We often get together to discuss how to raise the quality of the catering and beverage industry. Mr. Li Yuen Hong the owner of Tsui Wah started off as a waiter in “Hoi-on Café” in Sheung Wan in his teenage years. I’ve known Brother Hong for more than 40 years since our ‘teenage ruffian’ days and we have always been good friends. Brother Hong’s personality, with a strong passion for the past, has led him to continue his catering business. As a result, he set up the famous Tsui Wah group of restaurants. He is respected in the industry due to his enthusiasm. Mr. Chan Wing On, the owner of Tai Hing started his career as a pork hawker in the wet market. Now he is one of the top entrepreneurs in the catering and beverage industry. Both of these success stories bear witness to the industrious and self-improving spirit of Hong Kong people.
Can anyone become Brother Hong or Brother On, who have developed successful businesses in Hong Kong? Not really; their success hinges on their good management passion and dedication to the industry. Only the best can survive.
The Strong Survival Power of the Cha Chan Tan
When Hong Kong was plagued by SARS in 2003, over 2000 restaurants and catering businesses closed. However, once the SARS crisis was over, the first businesses to revive were the Cha Chan Tans. In 2003 there were around 4000 Cha Chan Tans in Hong Kong. Now there are over 6000! Since the onset of the financial tsunami in September 2008, many up-market restaurants have lost business and struggled to survive. In contrast, Cha Chan Tans have kept their business and many have expanded their market into the middle-class segment. We can say that the Cha Chan Tans have the most resilience and surviving skills!
Running a catering business is no easy job in Hong Kong, with difficulties arising from food safety issues, natural disasters, bird flu, and swine flu, to name but a few. However, after SARS, catering business professionals have taken active steps to improve their standards of food safety and environmental hygiene by employing trainings in management and human resources. These measures help caterers to stay competitive in the market.
Spread of the Cha Chan Tan Culture in Mainland China and Overseas
Cha Chan Tans have spread to Mainland China and the Chinese communities overseas such as the US, Canada and Australia. In Mainland China there are currently over 2000 Hong Kong Style Cha Chan Tans. Hong Kong Style Milk Tea has even spread to some foreign chain-caterers such as MacDonald’s and KFC, and has quietly revolutionized their beverage culture.
The Symbolic Meanings of Hong Kong Style Cha Cha Tan
Cha Chan Tan is more than just a name. It’s a passion and a heritage. It has a strong nexus of meanings for Hong Kong people:
1. Hong Kong Spirit—A spirit to allow different ideas in same stage, allowing different type of culture (food) in the same premises: Hong Kong food culture has successfully incorporated elements of different traditions, including those of the East and the West; e.g., “Yuan Yang” (a mix drink of tea and coffee) is one of the greatest inventions by Cha Chan Tans.
2. Strong Human Touch—in the Cha Chan Tans, it’s more than a good meal or a good coffee and tea that people enjoy, it’s also the strong human touch that comes with the people who run the Cha Chan Tans. The customers enjoy chatting with the owners and waiters/waitresses about all kinds of topics: politics, world affairs, horse-racing tips. And of course many business deals are negotiated in Cha Chan Tans and many couples also use Cha Chan Tans as their favorite dating places.
3. Collective Memory: The feel, the touch, the smells and the flavors of Cha Chan Tans all form an intrinsic part of the collective memory of Hong Kong people: HK Style Milk Tea, Pineapple Buns, Egg-Tarts—all these are symbols of a Hong Kong heritage, a strong sentiment of ‘Hong-Kong-ness,’ which is shared by all Hong Kong people.
Survival of the Fittest
Cha Chan Tans have arisen from the unique history of Hong Kong: it’s part of our precious cultural heritage. In this competitive world, Cha Chan Tans symbolize the strong surviving skill Hong Kong people process.
Have a cup of Hong Kong Style Milk Tea, and understand the history of Cha Chan Tans. Get a touch of Hong Kong Spirit, and re-live the feel and smell of some of our collective memories. Let’s refresh ourselves, get re-charged and re-energized with a cup of Hong Kong coffee and milk tea for today’s work!
(Acknowledgment: Thanks to Dr. Angel Lin And Dr. Sean Tierney for their contribution to the translation of this article.)