Dai Pai Dong left me with unrealistic expectations of the good life.
We alighted at Sha Tin MTR and pushed through the crowds of people at the New Town Plaza Mall, a higher-end shopping mall in the New Territories with decent eats. But when my group sped not only through it, but also past the neighboring local mall, my steps grew more hesitant. I only knew that we were eating “local food near Sha Tin.”
“Where are we going?” I asked a friend, as I gingerly stepped over the many insect-encrusted puddles swathing the footbridge. We were entering a dilapidated-looking apartment complex. Moldy laundry hung on every balcony, the faded flags of the working class. Then there was another mall, selling trinkets, t-shirts, slippers, Chinese medicine. The prices in the stalls more closely reflected Hong Kong’s minimum wage of HK$28 ($3.60; £2.18) per hour.
“Do you remember the way?” my friends asked each other in amusement. We were navigating through a parking deck where trucks were loading and unloading.
Suddenly, the concrete walls gave way to light—Christmas lights.
Here was a relic: a union of three giant food stalls, all operating along the roadside with foldable tables and chairs and no air-conditioning. The sticky Hong Kong air clung to our skin as well as the space between the tabletops and their plastic covers. Middle-aged women with frizzy hair yelled out orders and tossed bundles of chopsticks onto patrons’ tables. There were animals slithering in tanks—a pick-what-you-eat type of thing. But there were also lots of shirtless men with potbellies smoking, drinking beer, and combing chicken feet through their teeth.
This was a dai pai dong and the Hong Kong government has been systematically shutting them down since 1983, often to the outrage of those looking to preserve local culture.
Here, one could share tables with utter strangers if there was a shortage of seating. It was obvious that anything could happen. Into this quintessentially local moment, we advanced, a hodgepodge group of ‘Muricans and Hong Kongers, with a unified bring-on-the-beer-and-chicken-“paws” attitude.
While there were plenty of tame entrees, there was a variety of snails and viscera for the more adventurous among us. My favorite dish was the lemon chicken: tart syrup, lemon slices, fried skin. There was also another chicken dish that tasted like pancakes. We gorged on as much food as we pleased and guzzled down tankards of beer, all for under $10 USD/person.
Dai Pai Dong left me with unrealistic expectations of the good life, but of course, our trek back from the core of Hong Kong food culture into the progressively sparkly layers of Hong Kong mall culture left that impression in check.