There’s something comforting and enlivening about feeling a part of your community, not just feeling like a local – but feeling like a regular. Caught up in busy lifestyles we all seem to pursue late nights and wake up only to rush into the office, which is where morning traditions and routines can be lost. The thought of catching up with a friend over an eight am coffee might seem ridiculous to most of us, but it’s commonplace on every street corner in Hong Kong.
Cha chaan teng, or tea restaurants, are a Hong Kong institution. Most mornings you’ll see groups of animated and chatty folk congregating at rickety wooden tables, passionately arguing the issues of the hour, or just catching up on gossip with even more enthusiasm. The owners and proprietors of these places know their customers and often join in the discussion; they know that your sister recently got engaged and what your stand is on the tobacco tax increase. It’s a relationship that’s much deeper than the waitress at Starbucks knowing you like a caramel latte with soy milk – it’s a community.
Us Foodies are passionate about our own local community in Sheung Wan, so we set about finding the cha chaan tengs where we too could become regulars – and that meant acquiring a taste for drinking yuen yeung.
The name, ‘yuen yeung’ itself is taken from Mandarin ducks, birds that in Chinese culture are a symbol of united love. Usually seen in couples, the male and female ducks are strikingly different and this idea of an ‘unlikely pair’ lends itself to yuen yeung. In Hong Kong, the colloquial usage covers everything from mismatched socks to the traditional Hong Kong drink that is a mixture of coffee and milk tea. Like most other cha chaan teng staples, it can be served hot or cold and its quality is dependent on ‘smoothness’. Starbucks in Hong Kong and Macau attempted to concoct a Frappuccino version for the masses back in 2010; the ‘Yuen Yeung Frappuccino Blended Cream’, which was all very well but undoubtedly the best way to sample this traditional beverage is at a cha chaan teng.
We almost tripped over our first discovery, New Hip Shing Restaurant, an inconspicuous establishment just off Hollywood Road. Nestled down a side street, we met Ms Lai who has been working in the industry for nearly twenty years and her repartee with morning customers proves it. This crowd are the true-blue regulars, “I talk with them everyday,” she says, “it’s important - these people make or break my business.” As far as yuen yeung is concerned, many places have their own secret recipes and sacred ratios of how much coffee to tea. After sampling several brews in the area, we pressed Ms Lai for what gives her blend of the drink its unique aroma, “We dry-roast eggshells before placing them in a fabric bag and steeping them in the brewing coffee,” she reveals. After mixing it with the milk tea she sneaks in the finishing touch, a tiny slab of butter to add a little guilty indulgence and ensure decadent creaminess.
A stone’s throw from Hip Shing is For Kee, another cha chaan teng, semi-famous among the Sheung Wan workforce for its pork chop dishes but it also hosts a bustling morning crowd. Owners Mr and Mrs Lo have been in the culinary business for over thirty years, and For Kee is their pride and joy. Mr Lo is a man of few words; he’s the mainstay behind the bar taking care of orders while Mrs Lo spins a yarn with customers as the face of the business, “Our regulars are the backbone to our business,” she says.
We wondered if the proliferation of café culture had impacted small businesses like these, but our concerns were snorted at, “How much do they charge for a coffee? Thirty odd? We only charge twelve,” Mrs Lo replied. Ms Lai at New Hip Shing shares this view, “I haven’t lost any business to Starbucks or Pacific Coffee – that’s a different clientele – one that can afford thirty dollars for a coffee.” Unfortunately, many of these traditional eateries are still under threat as Ms Lai explains, “It’s the rent that’s making business difficult. It’s getting so high in HK that profits margins are very small.” That’s not to say that establishments aren’t taking steps for resurgence and just off Gough Street there’s an outdoor cha chaan teng that offers proof to that argument. Sing Heung Yuen guarantees delicious yuen yeung, milk tea, tasty snack morsels and almost certainly – queuing. Having been open for nearly thirty years, it’s made a name for itself amongst Hong Kong locals as well as tourists and its positive word-of-mouth is a powerful, if unintentional, marketing tool. As we tucked into the friendly server’s recommendation of tomato soup noodles, iced yuen yeung and absolutely heavenly toasted crispy buns, a group of five sat down beside us. They recited their orders without so much as a glance at the menu before giddily gossiping about their new boss.
As we walked through the doors of our local cha chaan teng for the third time in a week, the morning crowd warmly greeted us two frazzled writers as Ms Lai automatically brought us each a cup of yuen yeung. We nestled back in the wooden booth at what has begun to feel like our own secret club, relishing that even if it’s just for today, we’re just two regulars tucked in at our local cha chaan teng.