Deciding what to eat in Wan Chai is never an easy task. Not because the restaurants serve no good food, but quite the opposite. Egg tarts, Tai Shi Gwoh Jia, pizza, crème brûlée and sushi, to name but a few, numerous delicacies from all around the world assembled in this district on Hong Kong Island.
Cultural studies scholar Luce Giard argued foodstuffs and dishes were spread and arranged according to a system of social values, customs and norms at different times and places. The creativity derived from these restrictions, however, have contributed to a unique alimentary style of an area in a given period. While enjoying your meal on streets and alleyways, have you ever wondered about the relations between these cuisines and changes of the community? How do they shape the district culture of Wan Chai?
The theme of this year’s Wan Chai à la Carte is “Dap Zan Wan Chai” (Wan Chai Flavours). The Cantonese colloquial term “Dap Zan” directly refers to munching the taste of the food, but it can also mean appreciating the essence of Wan Chai culture by extension.
Urban Diary invited LI Mei-ting, a Hong Kong literary scholar, to write two articles on the literary landscape in Wan Chai. Called “the Little Japan” in Hong Kong back in the 1920s, Wan Chai was an area where the Japanese had lived since the 1910s. They ran various businesses in the district, such as department stores, bookstores, Seiko watch shops, Japanese-style cafés, as well as Kato Yoshokuten on Praya East Street illustrated by Xie Chenguang. At that time, Xie gathered a group of like-minded modernists to form a literary society, and his home in Wan Chai became a base for them to discuss their life and artistic creations.
In the second article, LI collected writings by LIU Yichang, Xiao Si, HUANG Guliu and others on bars, Chinese restaurants and the night market in Wan Chai since the reclamation in the 1930s. Built on the reclaimed land, Lockhart Road became the new coastline and a “red-light district” primarily serving the Navy in early Hong Kong. As the British writer Richard Mason searched for romance in the bar district through an exotic gaze, LIU Yichang depicted a more realistic image of bargirls from a local perspective, spotlighting their struggles. Besides bars, the secular night market at Southorn Playground was another significant scene in Wan Chai. Being bustling throughout the night, the market is described as an alienated world in the eyes of the main character Xia Qiu from HUANG Guliu’s “Story of Xiaqiu”, but a place full of human touch in HUANG Yu’s poem.
Today’s Wan Chai has a variety of food options. Even though the Japanese colour faded, and the night market at Southorn Playground was closed long ago, we can still go back in time, taking a glimpse of Wan Chai in the past by reading different literary texts.
The project is sponsored by Wan Chai District Council and Hong Kong Trade Development Council, co-organised by Integer Foundation Association Limited and the Wan Chai District Council Cultural and Leisure Services Committee. Details can be found at: http://www.hktdc.com/web/foodmap/index_en.html
De Certeau, M., Giard, L., & Mayol, P. The Practice of Everyday Life. Vol. 2: Living and Cooking. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.