From Chapter 52: China (Summer 2013)
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 52: China, out now.
Photos: Mia Haggi
Tai Pai Dong is a type of open-air food stall, once very popular in Hong Kong. The government registration name in Hong Kong is “cooked-food stalls,” but Tai Pai Dong literally means “restaurant with a big license plate,” referring to the size of its permit, which is bigger than that of other street vendors. There are only a few stalls remaining and Sing Kee is one of the most popular in Hong Kong because of their delicious stir-fries and Tai Pai Dong ambiance.
Mr. Lam Chi Sing has been the owner of and sole chef at Sing Kee Tai Pai Dong since 1948. Stanley Street, in Central, Hong Kong, has been around since 1958 and is full of Tai Pai Dong. Mr. Lam’s stall was originally called Cheung Kee until the owner decided to give the business to Mr. Lam’s father in the ’70s. Mr. Lam took over the business in the early ’80s.
Tai Pai Dong is slowly becoming extinct and places like this may not be here in a couple of years! Come to Hong Kong and check it out while you can.
Has anyone ever complained about the hygiene here?
The stall is located outdoors, and with Hong Kong’s hot and humid weather, you’re bound to see the odd cockroache in the area. I don’t like it when the creepy crawlies get too close to my customers, because it can really affect the business. I’m trying my very best to keep the area clean. If a customer thought the food was dirty, I would just cook them a new one.
How many dishes do you cook a day?
When it’s not raining, I cook up to 1,000 stirfries per day, and each dish takes an average of 30 seconds to cook on the two gas stoves in his stall.
What happens if you get ill and can’t work?
I haven’t been sick since I took over the business. If I really got ill, the stall would have to close for the day. Nowadays we only close for a day bi-weekly or on Sunday during the summer, due to hotness.
Do you have a signature dish?
The tourists and locals are very adventurous when it comes to food. They like to try new dishes with every visit. And seriously, I’m not lying when I say I make the best seafood dish in Hong Kong.
What’s your relationship like with your customers?
Most of the usuals are very friendly ’cause they’re professionals, like lawyers, accountants, doctors, and civil servants. A group of Russian businessmen mentioned to me that they love Sing Kee so much and they visit frequently while staying in Hong Kong. Some Japanese tourists visit the restaurant so much that we’ve becomes really good friends.
Has your business been affected by fast food chains?
Not at all! Because none of the ingredients we use are frozen, and we guarantee freshness. I am confident that costumers appreciate that. Plus, the Hong Kong government has been helping to preserve this vintage culture and keep it a tourist attraction in Central.
More than that, the annual license fee, including the rent, is only $300,000 HKD ($38,639 USD), and it hasn’t increased since 2003. That really helps.
Do you think they should keep the Tai Pai Dong style restaurants going in Hong Kong?
Of course it would be good to keep them going, but it depends how much it would affect our surroundings. Everyone does prefer a cleaner and quieter living environment, but if a stall was located in a residential area, of course the residents wouldn’t like the noise the costumers make at night while drinking. Some of the Tai Pai Dong in Shum Shui Po [a residential area] have alredy moved their businesses to a cooked food market with air conditioning, and are still very popular in Hong Kong. I feel lucky that the government has decided to preserve the stalls in Central, because Tai Pai Dong has definitely provided a different flavor and experience for customers.
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