It is 3:42 pm, when you arrive at the Tim Ho Wan in Sham Shui Po, and you haven’t eaten a morsel of food. A morning coffee and OJ slosh around your empty stomach. You moved hotels from Hong Kong Island this morning, and are staying in a shit hole of the lowest common denominator, a place reminiscent of the Chungking Mansions (not that kind of mansion), so you could walk here. You are already a little peevish before you get sat at a two top, in part because you’re hungry and have low blood sugar, and partially because you could have just gone to a Tim Ho Wan location in Manhattan, or Waikiki, or even Las Vegas.
Tim Ho Wan is famously the “world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant”, a rapidly expanding global chain of dim sum restaurants founded by an enterprising chef, Mr.Mak who left a three Michelin-starred restaurant, Lung King Heen, to start his business. In other words, you could have tasted Tim Ho Wan pork buns without leaving home, could’ve just UberEats’d it to your apartment door. But no, you came to Hong Kong because you are in search of the “authentic”, whatever that means in the context of what is really just a much-hyped international fast food chain.
Worse, you may have lost your appetite on the walk over. You see, you are a foreigner, a stranger in Hong Kong, clueless about the city and the context, other than passing knowledge of its colonial past as a British outpost. But on the walk through Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong’s poorest district, you became progressively more disturbed by what you saw. You passed by thousands of Malaysian, Philippine and Indonesian women lying on cardboard boxes, an endless congregation of young women in pyjamas, socks and hijabs. Your first thought was that there must have been a refugee crisis, which you didn’t hear about. Was a boat lost at sea? Were these women survivors of another tragedy buried in the liner notes of the news?
You ask around and find out these women are not homeless. They are in permanent flux, marginalized like a remainder in a bookkeeper’s equation. Once a week, domestic workers in Hong Kong are given a break from their slavish labour, but they are required to leave their employer’s homes, which also happen to be their (permanent) temporary homes. Known as ‘Maids Day Off’, every Sunday these women lay out cardboard boxes, and picnic blankets, and cell phones and cards and snacks are brought, and they take off their shoes and stretch out their feet and rest in the streets and overpasses and parks. They chat and laugh and enjoy themselves in spite of the miserable working conditions.
The normalization of this local abberation is unmistakably a bellwether for the decline of a democratic civilization, a hangover from Hong Kong’s colonial past before Beijing took control. These women, who cook and clean and care for the wealthy families of bankers and lawyers, have been pushed out into a lawless frontier. And, like Hong Kong itself, the rising tide of progress threatens to brush aside their story into the forgotten annals of history.
Back to Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns. They are brown-bottomed, buttery crispy flaky dough that shreds as you tear it in half and litters your plate with detritus, like a perfect homemade pie crust. Wispy, senescent tails of steam slip from their hot, gooey center, which spills out a sweet and savoury ‘char siu’ barbecue pork that has the unmistakable shine of maltose, and tastes so exquisite that you must lick the saucy dribble off your thumb. Make no mistake, Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns are delicious. When crumbs fall off, you’re tempted to lick the Tim Ho Wan branded paper placemat. They’re so good, you eat all three in quick succession.
When more dishes arrive, you have forgotten about Hong Kong and the outside world. The flavour combinations and gentle textures of each bite work their magic and let you slip out of body into a trance of tastes and aromas. The spicy wonton is so subtle, just a breath of Sichuan pepper’s mouth-numbing ma spice, and a throat tickle of fresh chilli’s la spice. It’s a gorgeous dish to look at, bright with the painted red and green of chillies and scallions contrasted against inky sauce and translucent wrapper. The experience is finished with a wonderful black vinegar nip and fresh ginger click that brings your mouth alive with tingling pleasure.
The turnip cakes are soft, falling apart with a fish flakiness and salty, freshwater crab flavour lanced with a garlicky chili dip. Shrimp har gow, a dim sum classic, is restrained in seasoning and beautifully folded, letting the sweet shrimp flavour stand alone. The steamed chiu chow style dumplings are a garden medley of water rich radish and nutty crunch; a fertile soil sweetness, and a refreshing bit of cilantro green and earthiness among so much shrimp and pork meat. But Tim Ho Wan’s barbecue pork buns are the beginning and end, they take center stage, the only star of this show.
It turns out that eating one of Tim Ho Wan’s baked barbecue pork buns is actually one of those transcendent food experiences, once you get all that other shit out of the way. You smile and nod at all the other tourists and bloggers craning and stooping and angling their Iphones over their small, white trays of buns, and it gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, knowing you’re all about to location tag the same instant, right here, right now. IT makes you think: Oh yeah, this is why I flew fourteen hours and however many thousand kilometers over the melting Arctic ice caps and down across the Russian steppes and over the grasslands of Mongolia, to ingest (and Instagram) this bun in to this body at this exact moment. For now, deep down in that cliche drowned heart of yours, you’re still a romantic, a poet like Byron. You’re in love (with a pork bun) and where thoughts serenely sweet express, how pure, how dear their dwelling-place (like this pork bun) in your belly comes to rest.
In fact, the pork buns are so good, there is a limit of four orders per guest, which limits (sort of) lead you back to the question of haves and have nots in Hong Kong, and “free” time, and the culture of food blogging, and in a tertiary way to you, strolling by all of those working women with your camera and its CANON strap around your neck, like a great big TOURIST sign, and your countless number of privileges, and your ridiculous quest for an authentic pork bun, instead of just ordering delivery to your couch. If right about now you’re getting annoyed with me, and you’re thinking, why don’t I just drop the second-person facade and admit that you are, in fact, me . . .
Well, you’d be missing the point entirely. Because there’s thousands of us, and we’re all lined up for tables, every day in every city in the world, waiting to get our teeth into the perfect pork bun (ramen, burger, paleo, brunch, vegan, whatever), so we can snap a photo and upload it to our stories, before we eat. You see, the old MFK Fisher maxim: First we eat, then we do everything else, no longer applies. First we snap a pic, then we hashtag the fuck out of it, then we share it online, then we eat, and only then, maybe, we do everything else, like live.
In this world of fingertip interconnectedness, this local practice of kicking domestic workers out of the house for a day, of creating a brief but regular weekly wave of homelessness, becomes part of the context of a meal in Sham Sui Po on a Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong. You see, food, trade and labour markets, specifically unpaid or underpaid workers, derogatorily called ‘coolies’, were the backbone of colonialism. There would be no Hong Kong without this ongoing history of oppressed labour. And so, there is history in each bite, a backstory, notes in the margins and secrets between the lines, and in telling these unheard stories, they also become truths.
Mixed results of Tim Ho Wan…
…but still recommended.
So you do a little more research because you can’t resist a good Google deep dive, and something just doesn’t sit right after lunch. It’s not quite food poisoning, just a little bout of acid reflux, probably it was the acidity of your coffee and orange juice and an empty stomach, not the overly sweet filling of the pork buns, and definitely not the lingering undercurrent of racism.
What you find out, way off in the margins, is that Mr. Mak, the founder of Tim Ho Wan, actually has his own history with Malaysia. You see, he opened a Tim Ho wan there to capitalize on all the Hong Kong Malays who knew about his brand. But he failed, spectacularly. Local reports suggested “the price of Tim Ho Wan’s is too high, the food is so and so, and service is poor”. And when the ship went down, rather than accept his losses, Mr. Mak blamed Muslim practices and cultural differences, for the shortcomings of his pork buns.
Note: If you’re curious to learn more about domestic workers in Hong Kong, check out ‘The Helper’, (2017) a documentary by Joanna Bowers.