Saturday, March 8, 2014

Eating in a Chinese Tea Room

Written by Karen.
We asked a local woman we had recently met where we should go for lunch that was close to our hotel in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.  Something local.  Nothing fancy.  She replied that we should go to a tea room down the street and right next to the HSBC bank and ATM located on the corner.  This tea room had good food, she continued, and people from the local neighborhood went there.  We nodded.  We knew exactly where the HSBC bank was as we had used that particular HSBC ATM on several occasions already.  

A few minutes later we were standing off to the side of the narrow sidewalk, right in front of the HSBC bank at the corner, as solid streams of people made their way past us.  Where was the tea room?  We figured that we wouldn’t see a sign written in English, but we thought that we would see restaurant tables from the sidewalk as our cue that this was the place.  The building right next to the HSBC bank was a small room with red lanterns, red signs with large black Chinese characters, a small tree full of orange tangerines, and a small table with a lone woman sitting there. This didn’t look like a tea house. We backtracked our steps a bit to see if we had missed it.  Did we misunderstand that the tea room was next to the bank? There were small restaurants, cafes, and assorted stores all around us.  But nothing that looked like a tea room.  Perhaps it was down another block or on the other side of this street?  

And then we noticed the line forming in front of this small room next to the HSBC bank.  Every couple of minutes a group of people squeezed into a tiny, groaning elevator and headed up somewhere inside the building. We have found the following statement to be universally true.  If you see hungry-looking people standing in a line during the lunch hour, follow it or get in line. You will almost always be rewarded by eating some very good food.

So, the next time the small elevator opened its doors, we piled in with everyone else, and the elevator started upward with a lurch.  No one got off at the second floor, so we stayed on the elevator as well.  We got smiles and nods as the elevator slowly made its way to the third floor.  The elevator door opened and we felt the force of a dining room in full roar envelop us.  

Somehow we had stumbled right into the recommended tea house.  Something local.  Nothing fancy.  Just local folks.  And us, wondering what to do next.

One of the women pushing along a stainless steel cart heaped with bamboo baskets full of unknown food pointed at a large community table with a few empty chairs in a corner of the room.  We sat down.  We were brought a big pot of hot tea and chopsticks.  In Hong Kong, it is up to the customer to bring their own napkins, and we were fully prepared with our travel package of kleenex.  Okay, what next?

We watched our neighbors.  Some would jump up and run to the rolling stainless steel carts and take a bamboo container from the four or five stacks of piled high bamboo containers full of food.  Others would wait until the woman pushing the cart would pass by before requesting a particular container.  But, how do you know what’s inside those covered bamboo containers?  Our table neighbors, sensing that we were unsure of what bamboo containers to choose, took care of us by smiling and pointing to various containers that we should take and try.  I have no idea what we ate.  But it was all good.  

Near the end of our meal, another rolling food cart came our way.  This time there were piles of something that I recognized.  Spring rolls and soft boiled dumplings. Yes please, we’ll take one of those.  And one of those.  And that one too.  

The deafening din that emanated from around the dining room never stopped the entire time we were there.  It wasn’t off-putting noise though.  The deafening din was the sum of clanking dishes, conversations, shouts, the squeaking of the stainless steel cart wheels, the re-filling of tea pots, the crinkle of newspapers being read, the washing of dishes, and the kitchen on overdrive. It was a snapshot of a community sharing and eating together.  We didn’t understand much.  We didn’t really know what we were eating.  But, we basked in the noisy swirl of the moment.  

Our kind neighbors - despite not speaking each other’s language - made us feel included in their neighborhood as we dined in their tea room.  Our large round table seemed to shrink in size as we enjoyed the shared experience of eating great food together.  

When we left, after paying our bill, we stepped back into the elevator and watched the elevator doors slide shut.  It was immediately silent again.  We exchanged nods and smiles with our neighbors as we slowly made our way back onto the narrow sidewalks of Hong Kong. 

Our tabulation of what we had eaten so far.  Each time we took a bamboo container or a plate of food, the woman who was pushing that particular stainless steel food cart would stamp the appropriate box.  At the end of the meal, we brought up this card to the cashier who would add everything up.
This tea room was packed with people eager to eat the various types of food.  The tables were fairly large and were often used as community tables.  The dining room was surprisingly large and extended around the back of this picture.  
One of the women pushing the food cart is heading towards us.  There were about six different food carts being pushed through the dining room at any given time.  The kitchen is just behind the woman pushing the food cart and was very busy putting together the various bamboo containers.  
One of the customers talking with one of the tea room workers.

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