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Craving for Hong Kong- Wong Kei

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Justin Cheuk: When HK Meets UK

I no longer have the crave of home food.

Old Wong Kei chopsticks. From Wikipedia.

That is to say (in the Asian sense) that I don’t need to have rice every day just to feel that the day has passed ‘normally’.

However, there was a time not in the distant past (perhaps as recently as 5 years ago?), when that was exactly the case. Disgruntled by whatever the school threw to us for suppers, a typical and regular enough (money permitting) Saturday day out to London would consist of a meal in Chinatown, and the ferrying of supplies back to the boarding house. With the improvement of college food and/or my culinary skills, these days are no more.

Yet good (or some cases, any) food is always to be appreciated. East Asian cuisine in London has travelled through great lengths in the recent years, and there are now evermore selections, and not only confined in the Chinatown/West End area either.

But for curious reasons, I do keep going to back to the same places. Especially when alone, there is only one place to go: Wong Kei of Wardour Street. And there I was again.

The heyday of Wong Kei has clearly passed. In an earlier blogpost, I have described the place as a ‘miracle’: food is mediocre at best, service infamously poor, yet immensely popular, helped by one of the lowest prices in central London: it can certainly fill you up for less than £5.

In the most Hong Kong-esque way of valuing efficiency and productivity over everything else, these are a few rules of note to ensure a more pleasant eating experience. Based on observation, the waiters’ temper, which is short to start with, shrinks even more if you happen to look Chinese, or speak any Chinese dialects (perhaps because they assume that you ‘know the drill’?)

Rule #1: DO NOT choose where to sit.

On entering the restaurant, you will be greeted either in Cantonese or Mandarin, or heavily-accented English asking for the same thing: ‘How many’? Upon receiving the information, the waiters will then direct you to any of the 4 floors of the restaurant. (Hence the famous ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ slogan.) This process repeats itself until you are seated. At their instructions.

The waiters do not seem to tolerate any requests before ordering food; they will simply ignore you. So I would recommend just to sit wherever you were told.

Rule #2: Expect to share tables

A common practice in the Chinese-speaking world, and it makes business sense. In order to push capacity to the max, why shouldn’t the restaurant make sure all seats are occupied by people instead of bags or rucksacks? This is something that I grew up accustomed to. (Although they do it to the extreme here. On a 4-seater table already occupied by 3 people, they WILL still try and push a fourth in it)

Yet is perfectly understandable that some people just cannot get used to it. Why do I have to stare at a rather large middle-aged man slurping noodle while I nervously wait for my own food?

This seems to be a bigger issue when eating alone. Although if you rarely have this sort of experience, you might actually find it quite interesting. Since it makes sense to have your eyes wander while you wait (instead of staring straight at whoever opposite you), it’s a great excuse to people-watch.

Rule #3 Order a-la-carte, single dishes. (i.e. takeaway style)

There are menus. But don’t bother. Nobody orders them, and instead order different types of meat on bowl of rice, or noodles, just like one would from a takeaway restaurant (the Cantonese term for them is 碟頭飯.)This is also the ‘true’ Hong Kong style of eating, after all. Also, this is how to keep the cost down (as if you still need to…) at Wong Kei.

How, I have spent the whole post bashing the place, really. Then why do I still go, especially when alone?

Because Wong Kei is the closest thing to the local Hong Kong experience you can find in the United Kingdom. This is EXACTLY how going to the corner eateries in Hong Kong feels like. Old Style decor; sharing with strangers, newspaper opened; poor-quality Chinese tea; eating bowl of rice; mediocre food; ‘cheap’ prices; efficiency trumps all.Although they do take things to the extreme, I suppose that’s how they became (in)famous: occupying 4 floors, it is bizarrely one of, if not, the biggest Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.

It is this kind of small, stupid things that reminds you most of Hong Kong. That’s perhaps why I continued to return. Just last week.

p.s. This is indeed modelled upon an older post I have written about Wong Kei. But I did go back on the day just to get the same doze of feeling again. This earlier post in Chinese can be found here.

Wong Kei

41-43 Wardour St, London, Greater London W1D 6PY ‎


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