Posted by: Sam Olsen | June 9, 2012

Lunch fun

I’m about 9 weeks into my new job, and it is all rather good. The role itself is rather challenging, but there is a lot of potential and we seem to be making good progress already.

One particularly pleasant element is my colleagues. Although one could hardly describe the office atmosphere as anarchic, or even febrile, there is a buzz about the cubicles. A source of this is perhaps the way that most people go out to lunch eat day with each other, in groups of two, three or more: bonds are therefore socially refreshed each day.

As most of the staff are Chinese, the usual lunchtime haunts are the mom-and-pop local restaurants that exist by the hundred on the back streets of Hong Kong, no matter how smart the neighbourhood. My team seems to have fallen in love with two of them, one nicknamed the ‘red’ restaurant, one the ‘yellow’, down to the decor rather than any reflection on the use of food colouring. The average cost of a huge plate of rice and meat at one of these places is about $40 (£3.20), which begs the question of mercury poisoning and a large dose of lead. But the fact that I only eat out about twice a week – meetings normally bag the other days – means that hopefully I am not too exposed to heavy metal poisoning.

The experience is good fun, but perhaps slightly different to having lunch in a Western restaurant.

When I was a student and visiting London one day, I was taken out by a friend to Chinatown and a well-known restaurant called Wong Kei (or Wonkees as everyone knows it). It was the first time in my life that I had been made to sit next to strangers in a restaurant, and the experience was apparently also quite novel for the other six people crammed onto our table. What a novel marketing idea I thought. Until I came to Hong Kong, that is.

Guess which restaurant this is

Walking into the yellow restaurant one is struck violently by the smell of cooking, that oily, tepid odour that can only come from Chinese food. The owner will look at you expectantly, not saying a word, waiting to see how many fingers you hold up representing the number of seats required. You are then placed, Wonkees style, onto any table that has space for your group. The etiquette seems to be that you totally ignore the unfamiliar folk opposite and carry on with your meal as if seated at your own table. In Wonkees of course everyone tries to be polite and make small talk with the man you’ve been perched aside, but not here.

This side-by-side arrangement can have its downsides for the diner. As the Chinese are probably not the world’s most delicate of eaters, bits of their food can often fly off their chopsticks or out of their mouths and land solidly on your own meal. If they notice they will apologise, of course, but apart from that there is not a lot more to be done other than smile and carry on noshing. At the same time, if your neighbour happens to order something not quite to your taste – like whole baby pigeons in sauce – there is not much one can do other than avert one’s gaze and try not to imagine the “cheep cheep cheep” as their little necks were wrung.

At least it’s got pictures

Despite all this, eating lunch local Hong Kong style has become something of a longed-for experience in our household, and indeed amongst the gwailos at work. Jim, my Texan colleague, loves it so much he even goes along to the red or yellow restaurants when our Cantonese-speaking colleagues aren’t there to translate the menu (which is invariably not in English at all). I just hope my liver doesn’t get too full of lead.

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