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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of the cha chaan teng, the humble Hong Kong tea restaurant

By Janice Lam 10 September 2021

Header image courtesy to @tsudaniel (via Instagram)

An amalgamation of Chinese and Western cultures, the cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; “tea restaurant”) is the perfect allegory of Hong Kong: efficient, brassy, shrewd, but good-natured.

Besides public transport on weekday mornings, a cha chaan teng at lunch hour is probably the wildest scene in the city. The long lines outside waiting for seats or takeout obscure the bustling restaurant; inside, people sit shoulder to shoulder, heads crammed above tables, devouring bowls of noodles or plates of rice; everyone is a bit cranky from the congestion, but none as irritable as the waiters and the cashier, often the owner or their spouse. This vibrant and busy environment makes cha chaan tengs a compelling backdrop for intense dialogues in many local productions—take Mido Café in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Man Shing Restaurant in Overheard (2009), for example.

Despite the controversial service attitude and hygiene condition, the colourful chaos and menus filled with bizarre dishes have undoubtedly made cha chaan teng an integral part of Hong Kong life. But how did it all come about? Read on to learn about the history of the celebrated cha chaan teng.

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Bing!—The birth of cha chaan teng

It all began when the bing sutt (冰室; “ice room”)—the cha chaan teng’s predecessor from Guangzhou—came to Hong Kong. A bing sutt typically provided light, chilled refreshments, such as red bean ice and sandwiches, but not full meals. Some also had their own bakeries and sold freshly baked goods like egg tarts, pineapple buns (菠蘿包; bo1 lo4 baau1) or cocktail buns (雞尾包; gai1 mei5 baau1). 

Because of the colonial background of the city, Hongkongers started integrating Western eating habits into their daily life—eating cakes, putting milk into their tea, and so on. However, Western restaurants were expensive and inaccessible to the common working class in Hong Kong. 

To accommodate this change in tastes, some bing sutts began to serve what is known as Hong Kong-style Western cuisine (also known as “soy sauce Western”). These Western food analogues mostly made use of canned food, or food that did not require heat for its preparation, because open-fire cooking was not permitted in restaurants holding light refreshment restaurant licences—a.k.a. sai pai (細牌; “small licence”)—as opposed to the ones with ordinary restaurant licences, a.k.a. dai pai (大牌; big licence). (The “dai pai” here is not to be confused with the mobile stall licence of dai pai dong, which got its name from the physical size of the licence, rather than the business scale.)

In 1946, Lan Heung Shut (蘭香室; laan4 hoeng1 sat1) in Central was the first eatery on record to use the name cha chaan teng

In 1960, the Food and Health Bureau created the cha chaan teng licence, which has combined dai pai and sai pai, allowing a wider variety of menus at more affordable prices for the local working class, after which most bing sutts switched to the cha chaan teng licences. Yue Lee Tai (漁利泰) was the first cha chaan teng running with the new licence.

The oldest standing cha chaan teng is Lan Fong Yuen (蘭芳園) in Central. It is also one of the few remaining street-side dai pai dongs in Hong Kong.

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An abundance of cha chaan tengs

There are confusions regarding the names: bing sutt, chaan sutt (餐室; “meal room”), and cha chaan teng. A common explanation is that bing sutt refers to the traditional eateries that serve light refreshments but not proper meals, chaan sutt is a variant of ordinary restaurants, and cha chaan teng is the combination of the two. Despite the differences in names, the lines between the three modes of restaurants have been blurred in recent decades, as they all fall under the umbrella of cha chaan teng now. 

However, a handful of traditional bing sutts still exist in Hong Kong. Guong Shing Bing Sutt (廣成冰室) in Sheung Shui, for one, is a rare bing sutt that sells only light treats.

The efficient and delicious dining experience of cha chaan teng has become one of the most flourishing businesses in the local food industry, with cha chaan tengs in the city numbering in the thousands now. Over time, cha chaan teng has become a symbol of Hong Kong culture, with its traces visible in numerous local on-screen productions and various Chinatowns across the globe.

What you can find in a cha chaan teng

The front of a cha chaan teng is sometimes a siu mei counter or a bakery for more convenient to-go orders, which also serves as a visual and olfactory invitation to hungry passers-by. Inside the restaurant, you will often find pastel ceramic bricks in a mosaic pattern and menus on the walls, crowding around cosy booth seats and tables in the room. Each table has a clear surface to display menus and clip down handwritten receipts; on top of the table, self-served eating utensils, condiments, and water.

When it comes to efficiency, there is no other like cha chaan teng. During busy times, you may be seated with strangers to make space for more customers, a common practice known as 搭檯 (daap3 toi4). Upon sitting down, you will be immediately served a glass of water and expected to order.

Waiters all write in the distinctive cha chaan teng shorthand. For example, 0T stands for lemon tea, as zero (零; ling4) in Cantonese is homophonous with the first character of “lemon” (檸; ling4) and the number two (二; ji6) signifies hot (熱; jit6) drinks because of the similar pronunciations. The waiters will also yell out orders using their own slang, like 走青 (zau2 ceng2; leave out the greens) if you don’t want scallion in your food, or 行街 (hang4 gaai1; walking down the street) if you are buying takeaway.

After ordering, your drink will arrive within minutes—in thick ceramic cups with beverage brand logos if hot, and a tall transparent plastic glass if cold—then, a plate of food will be plopped down onto your table soon after.

Because of its speed, cha chaan teng is an all-time favourite for many office workers who want to grab a hearty breakfast before work, a quick lunch, or a simple but filling dinner after an exhausting day in the office.

Do not expect patience or cleanliness from the waiters, though, since the goal of cha chaan teng is to serve meals to its patrons instantaneously. However, if you are a frequent customer, you may be able to strike up a conversation with chatty waiters or even the owner (outside of busy hours, of course), in whom you will often find big hearts and amusing stories, or just meandering complaints about their workload. This crudeness is considered by some to be a flaw of cha chaan teng, but to many, it is what makes a cha chaan teng unique and fosters affection in a neighbourhood.

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The food in a cha chaan teng

A notable feature of cha chaan teng is the adaptable regular menu (常餐; soeng4 caan1). Reportedly inspired by the Western all-day breakfast, the regular menu is offered throughout the day and usually comes with a bowl of noodles, a bun or a slice of toast, eggs, meat, and a drink. Some cha chaan tengs put out different set menus at different time slots, but the items are more or less the same. This was even satirised in a famous skit in the local animation series McDull.

If you are having a specific craving, cha chaan teng can surely satisfy you with their diverse food items. Want something savoury? Try the spicy lo ding (撈丁; instant noodles without soup) or the piquant satay beef noodles

On the lighter side, you will find macaroni soup with sliced ham—a staple for every child visiting a cha chaan teng with their parents—or spaghetti soup with char siu. For a tea-time guilty pleasure, look no further than the classic combo of a decadent Hong Kong-style French toast with red bean ice. They even serve Chinese dishes such as sweet and sour pork or steamed minced pork at dinner.

Hong Kong-style milk tea, yuenyeung (鴛鴦; coffee with milk tea), 7-Up with salted limes…these are only some beverages that originate from cha chaan tengs. Some restaurants have also recently come up with inventive drinks such as grapefruit soda with salted limes, and milk tea served in an ice bath (冰鎮奶茶; bing1 zan3 naai5 caa4) that keeps the milk tea cool without watering down its flavour. If you are lucky, you may encounter the outlandish raw egg in boiling water (滾水蛋; gwan2 seoi2 daan2) or cream soda with milk (忌廉溝鮮奶; gei6 lim4 kau1 sin1 naai5), as well as the beloved and nostalgia-inducing bottled Vitasoy.

Unspoken rules in a cha chaan teng

Hong Kong netizens have compiled a list of unspoken rules observed in every cha chaan teng. Here are several of them for your amusement.

Photo: 美生茶餐廳Sogo店 (via Facebook)

The first cup of water

When you settle down at a table, a waiter will often bring cups of hot water or tea for the table. However, the water or tea is customarily not for drinking. Most patrons use them to wash the utensils, as they can always ask for another cup of water or order a drink.

A waiter's look in The Lucky Guy (行運一條龍, 1998). Photo: Yahoo! Finance

Waiter’s pen

Cha chaan teng waiters generally wear white shirts with a front pocket, where they typically keep their pen and notepad for convenience. Occasionally, waiters tuck the pen behind their ears, creating an iconic look that is emulated in movies and TV shows.

Photo: Kayauheizee (via Wikimedia Commons)

Wet receipt and moving water cups

With rapid rotations, the tabletops in a cha chaan teng are wiped a lot and do not have enough time to dry before the next customer sits down. So more often than not, the receipts placed on the table are soaked, and the pen ink will bleed through the paper.

Because of the slippery table surface, the plastic water cups often slide around on the table. When this happens, you may sometimes see children using this opportunity to pretend they are moving the glasses around by telekinesis.

The rich history and eccentricities of cha chaan tengs have earned them much respect from Hongkongers. Milk tea, yuenyeung, egg tarts, and pineapple buns—all of which are cha chaan teng essentials—are considered to be part of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage. If you want to give these Hong Kong specialities a try, check out our list of cha chaan tengs that are most worth trying to taste the charm of this unique culinary experience.

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Janice Lam

Editorial intern

A passionate writer, a curious learner, a pineapple enthusiast—these are just some of the identities Janice has taken up. In her free time, you can usually find her in her room obsessing over a new show, making a new playlist, or getting lost in her thoughts. When she’s in the mood, she can spend an entire day walking around a neighbourhood, searching for inspiration and food.

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