A disappearing Hong Kong institution, dai pai dongs are open-air food stalls serving up some of the best—and cheapest—eats the city has to offer. And a one-of-a-kind cultural experience, too.
Every day at 7 a.m., Irene Li and her siblings, all 60-something Hongkongers, start setting up their “restaurant” Sing Heung Yuen for breakfast service on Mee Lun Street, a narrow lane in Hong Kong’s Central district.
The place isn’t your traditional café. To begin with, it’s outdoors. An open kitchen sits on one side of the lane, and it’s a tiny space crammed with pans, a couple of gas stoves and precariously balanced toasters plugged into even more precarious-looking electric outlets. Heaps of vegetables and various cuts of meat lie neatly on a steel counter, while pots of macaroni soaked in clear chicken broth are placed on the floor. On the other side are a handful of tables, foldable and made of cheap Formica, and a bunch of brightly colored plastic stools. The staff—the Li family—takes them out every morning and puts them away when they close at 5 p.m. They’ve been doing so for the last 61 years.
The place isn’t your traditional café. To begin with, it’s outdoors.
Sing Heung Yuen is a da pai dong—an open-air food stall, and one of Hong Kong’s most quintessential eateries. Ten other spots just like it—some bigger, some smaller—can be found minutes away in the area. Eighteen more are scattered across the city, for a total of 28. Once, there were hundreds of them, occupying every street corner of the former British colony.
The remaining ones, which have all been around for decades, have come to represent an essential part of Hong Kong culture–and a dying breed of its identity.
The OG of Hong Kong’s Street Food
Da pai dong translates literally as “stall with big license plate.” The plate in question (larger than average plates, hence the name) is a non-renewable license the colonial Hong Kong government began granting to families of deceased or injured civil servants and immigrant Chinese people after World War II, giving them official permission to run hawkers-style stalls, and make a living. The stalls were ubiquitous in the city and offered cheap eats and simple diner-style food: milk tea, fried rice, dumpling soup.
“Da pai dongs were essentially entry-level businesses created to employ destitute families, refugees and small entrepreneurs,” says Daisann McLane, founder, and director of food concierge and experiential tour company Little Adventures in Hong Kong. “They offered job opportunities to people from different backgrounds–both socially and ethnically—and met the demand for affordable comfort food in post-war Hong Kong.”
The licensing scheme had a few strict rules: the plates couldn’t be sold, nor transferred to anyone but the owner’s spouse or his direct descendants. In the late 1950s, the government stopped issuing them altogether. “Authorities didn’t want street carts to proliferate and get out of control,” McLane says. “The plates kept vendors in check. But they also put an expiration date on these establishments.”
“They tell a story that’s not just about food but about Hong Kong’s culture and socio-economic past.”
In the span of a few decades, an untold number of da pai dongs were indeed forced to cease operations. Many were transferred into indoor cooked food centers—sanitized food halls in municipal buildings managed by Hong Kong’s Urban Council—or moved into brick-and-mortar shops, called cha chaan teng (literally “tea restaurant”). Concerns for hygiene, fire hazards and traffic congestions also led the government to buy some of the licenses back. “It’s been one long disappearing act,” McLane says. “Which makes the existing da pai dongs all the more important. They tell a story that’s not just about food but about Hong Kong’s culture and socio-economic past.”
“Dai pai dong are a uniquely Hong Kong institution,” chimes in Charmaine Mok, Editorial Director of Food & Wine for Hong Kong-based publishing company Edipresse Media Asia. “In our rapidly changing dining scene, these open-air street stalls are a welcome antidote to the gradual gentrification of local neighborhoods. As they dwindle in their numbers, the remaining dai pai dongs are reminders of simpler times.”
Cheap and Varied Classics
In a city that’s among the most expensive in the world, da pai dongs offer some of the most inexpensive food you’ll ever find. Average items on the menu are generally under 50 Hong Kong dollars ($6 USD), and are filling, deeply comforting dishes.
No one type of “cuisine” unifies the different stalls, however.
Sing Heung Yuen is an institution for its noodles or macaroni in rich tomato broth, and toasted bread rolls with condensed milk and peanut butter. Patrons show up at 8 a.m. sharp to order these two staples. By lunchtime, there’s a queue going around the block for them, which gets even longer on weekends.
The menu is “Cantonese-meets-diner” Li says, and features some 50 dishes, including tomatoes with a variety of meats and egg combos, pork chops, chicken wings and spam. It has stayed the same pretty much since the place opened in 1957, although, Li says, “We changed things a bit ten years ago, to modernize it slightly. We even introduced a vegetarian dish.”
On Gutzlaff Street, 800 feet away, Shui Kee specializes in stewed beef brisket and assorted cow offal—tripe, lungs, intestines, you name it—with noodles. Business starts at 11:30 a.m. and runs till 5:45 p.m., but lines usually form way before it opens.
“We’ve been serving the same dish for 70 years, since my great-grandfather was first given the license,” says Fai Ho, whose father currently owns the da pai dong. “We start prepping at 7 a.m. I clean the meat, which we get fresh every morning from a trusted supplier, while my dad takes care of the noodles and the open-flamed stoves. It’s tiring, but we take a lot of pride in what we make. And I think people see that, which explains the queues.”
Business starts at 11:30 a.m. and runs till 5:45 p.m., but lines usually form way before it opens.
A block down, on Stanley Street, where a few da pai dongs operate next to each other and also run boisterous dinner hours, Sing Kee is famous for crab and clams, while Chung Kee does beef balls noodles and rice dishes.
The offerings differ around the city, too. So Kee, in Sham Shui Po, a blue-collar neighborhood across the harbor, is great for the buttery French toast. In working-class Tai Hang, a sleepy hood a few subway stops away from Central, Bing Kee is uber popular at breakfast for the rich, thick pork noodle soup.
“Because of their grassroots origins, each da pai dong is different,” says McLane. “Some do straight up Chinese food, some focus on breakfast, some serve roasted meats. There’s constant variety.”
Both Li and Ho agree. “We all do our own thing,” Li says. “There’s no competition because we all have different menus or different takes on the same dish. At the end of the day, we just want people to get a real taste of food they can only find in Hong Kong.”
“It’s all about mastering the recipes of your own da pai dong,” Ho adds. “We want our beef briskets and offal to be the best we can offer, and make that the reason customers come. There’s so few of us left, it’s like being part of a small community.”
Among varied menus, sizes and locations, there is one element that’s a recurring fixture of almost all remaining da pai dongs: the communal dining experience.
Visit any of these street stalls, and chances are you’ll be sharing a table with a group of strangers, a constant sound of chatter in the air.
The crowd is likely to be mixed: there are plenty of loyal elderly customers who’ve been coming for decades, local professionals on their lunch breaks and, increasingly, a good dose of stylish groups of 30-something craving hearty, home-style food.
“Dai pai dongs, just like noodle shops and cha chaan tengs, are part of Hongkongers’ collective memories,” Mok says. “Those of us who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s will have had some memory of dining at one of these establishments, and go back for nostalgia reasons.”
You’ll also spot younger looking patrons, ready to get their ‘gram on because a food blogger has raved about the diner-type food being served there. “A lot of younger people think of da pai dongs as ‘hipster places’ these days” McLane says. “Affordable eateries doing unique food and boasting a pretty unique atmosphere.”
For some of these millennials and Gen Xers, eating at an open-air stall might also be a political act of sorts. “Da pai dongs represent Hong Kong identity like few other places,” McLane explains. “Pulling up a stool and ordering a plate of scrambled eggs and tomatoes on the street is a way of showing pride towards their city—particularly as mainland China’s control tightens over it.”
A Dying Breed
Despite new customers and younger demographics, da pai dongs are still at risk of disappearing.
Li, who’s been working at Sing Heung Yuen since she was 14 and her father ran the place, says she doesn’t think the next generation in her family will take over the business once she retires.
“It’s a really tough life. We wake up at 6:30 a.m. every day—my sister even earlier, 4 a.m., to go to the market—start cooking at 7 a.m. Younger people don’t really want jobs like this anymore.”
“It’s a really tough life. We wake up at 6:30 a.m. every day—my sister even earlier, 4 a.m., to go to the market—start cooking at 7 a.m.”
Ho is also unsure how much longer he’ll keep the stall going once his dad stops working. “I think da pai dongs are so very important, and I love what I am doing, but it’s difficult to predict what will be left of us in ten years’ time.”
Still, while they’re around, no visit to Hong Kong would be complete without ordering a milk tea and an egg (or rice, or noodles, or goose) dish at a da pai dong—greasy kitchens, rickety seats and questionable hygiene aside (or included).
“It’s something anyone should try,” McLane says. “Not until you’ve sat down on a plastic stool on a folding table on a street tilted at a 45-degree angle you’ll have had a true Hong Kong resident experience.”
All Photos Courtesy Of Marianna Cerini