Post war Hong Kong, a bustling city teaming with hundreds of thousands of newly arrived immigrants from the Chinese Mainland;; alongside a renewed and revitalised British ex pat presence form the beginnings of a newly invigorated and flourishing cosmopolitan city.
Amidst this backdrop of eastern and western cultures colliding, mingling and weaving through and amongst each other, a new foodie revolution began to take shape and the cha chaan teng was born. Literally translated from Cantonese, as “tea meal room”, these Chinese diners or cafes popped up across the city as a response to the arrival of western cuisine in Hong Kong.
The original 1950s-1960s Hong Kong cha chaan tengs were bustling and fast paced café diners where Hong Kong’s burgeoning lower middle-class could afford to go and sample the then enigmatic and mysterious “Western” Cuisine. Menus, literally with hundreds of items, were filled with playful Chinese interpretations of Western dishes, a fusion of east and west in an informal and frenzied environment.
Factory workers needed to eat cheap, and fast, away from home. They also had a bit of disposable income to spend on the novelty of “Western” foods re-interpreted by chefs to please a Cantonese palate.
Cha chaan tengs were the comfort food heart of post war Hong Kong as well as the place you would go to satisfy those in-between meal food cravings. When nothing else would do but a white crusty roll slathered with butter and garnished with condensed milk. Or a bowl of soup filled with instant noodles and fish balls. Accompanied, of course, by the cha chaan teng’s main attraction: the milky tea.
Not quite Western and not quite Chinese, playful yet traditional, comforting yet creative, drab but in a cheerful kind of way, the cha chaan teng was always a little confused.
With the playful chaos so ingrained in the original cha chaan tengs because they held such a powerful emotional place in the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers. They knew that the reimagining of a reinterpretation of an original East meets West café born in the East and brought back to the West may just confuse everyone.
The difficulty of paying homage to a cultural tradition while at the same time trying to redefine it does mean a level of authenticity must be conceded a long the way
But then again something new and provocative is born…
The reinvented Cha Chaan Teng focuses on the playful, curious and creative fusion of east and west comfort food. Indulge in a little bit of eastern hustle in the heart of London.