What is Hong Kong going to do next when the taste of home can only be found abroad?
Crispy roast pork belly at Tak Kee, Berlin - an authentic Hong Kong delicacy available only on weekends
One of the unspoken rules many Hongkongers abide by when they travel to Western countries is to stay away from Chinese restaurants.
I’m sure there are plenty of great Chinese restaurants in the West – perhaps in Vancouver or Toronto where many Hong Kong people reside, though I haven’t had the opportunity to visit those two cities.
But for some strange reason, some of the restaurants I have seen in the West which claim to be serving Chinese or Hong Kong cuisines did not seem quite right.
The food was either cheap, greasy Chinese takeaway – fried noodles, dumplings made out of one-inch-thick pastry and sweet-and-sour pork (too sweet or too sour) – or Chinese dishes made with a Western twist (which means not Chinese at all).
Call me conservative, but as someone who grew up with fresh seafood and authentic Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine, visiting Chinese restaurants was never on my agenda during my stay in Berlin. I’m completely fine with salad and schnitzel.
But a recent experience in the German capital changed my perception a little bit.
By chance, a Hongkonger who has spent a great deal of his life in Germany recommended that I visit Tak Kee in Charlottenburg. I was told that the restaurant, founded by Hongkongers, offered the most authentic Hong Kong cuisine in Berlin. I was sceptical, but being an adventurous traveller, I still gave it a go.
As I walked down the streets, following the instructions on Google Maps, a red sign resembling the design of a KMB bus stop caught my eye. It wasn’t only a signage for the restaurant, but also a surprising connection to home.
Stepping into the cosy restaurant, a large banner depicting Hong Kong’s famous skyline was hanging on the wall. Having stayed for more than a month in an extremely green and spacious city, with countless parks and low-rise buildings, the image of neon signs and skyscrapers along the Victoria Harbour waterfront suddenly made striking just how far away I was from home.
There was nothing fancy about Tak Kee’s dishes, but its authentic Hong Kong flavour connected me with my home city: clay pot rice with chicken and mushroom; fried broccoli with garlic; stir-fried morning glory with chilli and preserved bean curd paste; and crispy roast pork belly, which was a delightful surprise.
An authentic Hong Kong meal that made me feel like at home in Berlin
It was the taste of home. It blew away not just me, but also fellow Hongkongers living in Berlin and travellers who have enjoyed the Hong Kong experience.
One of the German-speaking Hong Kong owners of Tak Kee told me that the restaurant had been around for two years.
The lady said running a restaurant in Berlin was much easier compared to Hong Kong as the rent was much lower, overhead costs were lower, and she could get better and leaner meat for the crispy roast pork belly, their signature dish.
“And there is so much space in Berlin. In Hong Kong, you can only afford living in a shoebox. How can you live a life that that?” she said.
She had a point. What kind of life are people in Hong Kong leading? Many enslave themselves for nothing but buying a small flat at an exorbitant price. Many people have to give up on dreams and ambitions that do not generate enough money to pay the mortgage or rent.
This hurts much more when you consider that Hong Kong likes to pose as the cultural hub of Asia, investing billions of dollars into cultural infrastructure like the West Kowloon Cultural District. But how can we expect young people to be creative and dream big when buying a flat has become their sole life goal?
Just as I was contemplating this, I received a WhatsApp text message from a friend in Hong Kong: “Do you know [that] your favourite restaurant in your ‘hood has closed?”
Where's Hong Kong heading to?
“Charlie’s Place is no longer there. It cannot afford the high rent any more,” the friend said.
Charlie’s Place in Landale Street, Wan Chai, was my favourite because it served simple, home-cooked, MSG-free fare including rice, soup or drinks at just HK$45 to HK$65. It was the taste of home.
“The owners said they would try to find another affordable location but I don’t think it’s possible,” my friend continued. “Nothing is affordable in Hong Kong. I don’t know what they are going to do next.”