“What you want?” asks the stocky, apron-clad man before shoving me down on to a creaky old wooden stool. Granted, it’s not the most chivalrous dinner invitation I’ve ever had, but I’m tired and hungry and too generally bewildered to decline it.
After a second day of island-hopping and exploring, I had been walking back in the direction of my “hotel” (that needs another blog post by itself!), planning to grab some more irresistible dim sum for dinner along the way. As so often happens when I’m in unfamiliar surroundings, however, I got momentarily distracted – this time by a somewhat disorganised-looking indoor market which was practically deserted. It consisted of a stall here and there, surrounded by piles of tat and the odd middle-aged woman arguing over the price of a bicycle tyre with an elderly, pipe-smoking man in a rocking chair, his pet caged bird on his knee. It was certainly like no market I’ve visited before, and I’ve been to a lot!
I wandered further and further inside, certain that there had to be more, as I had the unsettling feeling of being in a derelict warehouse inhabited by homeless people rather than in the market that the sign outside had promised. The hundreds of colourful stalls and bustling crowds, however, completely failed to materialise.
Rather disappointed, I was turning to go back when I caught sight of a man in a chef’s hat ducking under a low beam and hurrying out of sight. Obviously I followed him. I had to bend almost double to get in, and when I emerged on the other side, I found myself in a different world.
Gone were the dark, dank, empty garage-like spaces and piles of assorted junk. I was now in a brightly-lit, cavernous space, every square inch of which was crammed full of rickety tables and chairs, tiny kitchen islands spewing forth clouds of steam, and scruffily dressed men howling orders at the kitchen workers. It wasn’t a restaurant so much as a food court, each little kitchen unit presumably owned by a different person and serving food to those seated directly around it. It was impossible to tell where one ‘restaurant’ ended and the next one began. And, oh yes – the place was packed. This was clearly an extremely popular place to eat, despite the rather unusual entrance route.
I stood and stared in delight and bemusement at the scene before me. It was like finding a noisy and exciting Narnia filled with noodles and dumplings and stressed out men yelling in Cantonese.
There was no order or structure of any sort to the layout of the place, so I just started to walk tentatively forward, weaving in and out of the tables and dodging the people laden with bowls and plates as best I could. The air was filled with yelling and spices, like my local Chinese takeaway back home times a million. Every available surface was plastered with brightly-coloured posters displaying menus and prices, but I couldn’t understand a single word: unlike in the majority of places outside in the real world I had just left, absolutely none of them contained English or pictures.
I hesitated, feeling slightly intimidated as clearly the only foreigner there, but my empty stomach dying to try whatever it was that smelled so good. A man hit me roughly on the arm and shouted at me, which brings us to the present moment, or the start of this story.
“What you want?” asks the man, pushing me into a seat and indicating that I need to stop getting in everyone’s way. I look helplessly at him, and at the sea of confusing, meaningless characters on the posters all around me. “I don’t know!” I say nervously, and he goes off into a spiel before dragging me over to his little kitchen and pointing out various ingredients to me. I still know nothing. “Um… just let me have some of that,” I tell him despairingly, pointing at the dinner of a man at another table.
A mere blink of an eye later, my bowl of “that” is unceremoniously slammed down in front of me, and my host – who used his entire 3-word English repertoire when he greeted me – continues to chat loudly to me every time he passes my table. The “that” is extremely good, especially after I decide that the chunks of meat amongst the noodles are definitely, definitely beef, and focus on nurturing this belief and faith as I eat.
I finish, pay, and attempt to take a photo of my incredible surroundings, which earns me another shove and frantic head shaking from my host, who apparently did not notice the shots I was snapping from my corner while I ate. “Oh… no photos?” I ask apologetically. “Sorry. Thank you. Good food!”. I point and give a thumbs-up, and he flashes me a brief but genuine smile, grabbing my arm when I turn to leave. He scoops up a couple of freshly made dumplings and wraps them in a large leaf, which he presents to me with evident pride. “Good food!” he repeats carefully. Then he gives me another shove and I make a hasty exit before he regrets his gesture and takes the dumplings back.
I walk back through the insanely crowded Hong Kong streets, eating my free dumplings and smiling to myself. This is living. Someone remind me never to leave it so long to go travelling again!