Cross-cultural Code

Kwan Kee Claypot Rice: popular old school eating in Sheung Wan

Even after living in Hong Kong for 9 years, I find myself reminded now and again that there are certain codes of Hong Kong life that I have yet to fully learn.

A couple of nights ago, my cousins, a few friends and I headed to Kwan Kee Claypot Rice in Sheung Wan for dinner with an old high school friend in town for a few days. Like in most old school establishments in Hong Kong, we perched ourselves on little wooden stools, rinsed our bowls and chopsticks with tea, and looked around at the wallpaper of menus lining the restaurant as well as the slightly grease-sticky laminated version on our table with the most famous dishes helpfully noted in English on the front cover. We ordered up a storm of cream sodas in glass bottles, a big pot of pork bone soup, fried squid, fried fish, black bean clams, morning glory with fermented bean curd, and clay pots of rice complete with crispies all around the edge. We feasted and caught up, chatting about new jobs and old, moves to new cities, upcoming friends’ weddings and plans to move back to the city of our childhoods soon-sometime-maybe-after-retirement.

As we talked, soda bottles were emptied, dishes were cleaned out and still we sat on, absorbed in our conversation and general contentedness of seeing old friends. Then the boss lady came over and asked if we could pay the bill as there were people waiting for our table. We looked up to see hungry faces staring at us through the window. My husband muttered to me, “This isn’t the kind of place where you just hang out and chat,” and I realised in an instant that it was true.

The unspoken code of most local establishments is the offer of cheap, simple, good food that’s served quickly. No frills in the plating, no ambience of note, and rather direct and brusque service — but no service charge. In return, customers bring their own tissues (and wine), share tables if need be, order quickly and leave when they’re done, respecting the restaurant’s need to turn another table, make another buck and satisfy the hungry customers waiting outside (or hovering around your table). To be honest, it’s a fair trade with due respect for those doing what they need to do and others waiting as we ourselves have waited many a time. I felt a small wave of embarrassment at having violated the code, forcing boss lady to actually ask us to pay and vacate because we were too oblivious to make a move on our own. We quickly paid the bill (and at HKD$80 a person, great value) and moved our lingering conversations outside.

And I tucked this moment in my pocket as a little reminder to step outside of my moment, to look up or around, because my moment isn’t the only one that matters.


2 thoughts on “Cross-cultural Code

  1. “And I tucked this moment in my pocket as a little reminder to step outside of my moment, to look up or around, because my moment isn’t the only one that matters.” Wonderful. I love how you set the mood of this far away place (for me). So different, but so the same. Your last line makes it real for us all. We don’t need to have ever sat in a restaurant to “get” that our personal worlds need to be aware of the others around us. Perfect ending.

  2. How interesting to note the cultural differences – in the States and elsewhere in the West, we assume it’s our right to linger as long as we wish, the whole point of eating out is self gratifying. And you are right, there is a sense of fair trade – each side in Hong Kong respects the rules of the game. Loved your descriptions of your leisurely meal, though!

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