My latest from Globespotters, the New York Times travel blog. You can leave your comments there. (Or here, of course, if you can penetrate my crappy MSN Live Windows interface thingie)
A Ban Looms, but Outdoor Dining Still Alive in Hong KongBy Joyce Hor-Chung Lau
HONG KONG | In its near-obsession with tidying up the city, the Hong Kong government can impose some silly restrictions. Like the recent one against walking up the escalators in the MTR subway system. Or the one against sitting outside to eat.
In January, the local government in the Central and Western areas – which includes the bustling financial district and the popular wine-and-dine areas of Soho and Lan Kwai Fong –- decided to greatly restrict outdoor dining.
One of the targeted restaurants is Gaia, a lovely Italian place with a terrace that my husband and I have been frequenting since it opened in 2004. It’s rather pretty, done up with white tablecloths and fairy lights. It’s also within walking distance of Central, but far away enough from traffic that you don’t see, hear or smell it. (See our previous post featuring its sister restaurant, Isola.)
The site ILoveHongKong.hk has started an online petition against the ban, garnering support from local residents.
Gaia has been given an exemption through July, and its terrace has been busier than ever. We recently had thin-crusted parma and arugula pizza and homemade rabbit stew at the last available table.
The war between al fresco restaurants and the government long predates this most recent battle. It also goes beyond the expensive, high-profile eateries that usually make the news.
For decades, working-class Hong Kongers ate at “dai pai dongs” — outdoor stalls serving steaming bowls of soup, noodles and rice on plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk. It was cheap, authentic and reasonably hygienic, probably given the very fast turnover. (Just keep you eyes on the soup bowl, and not on the floor beneath your chair). And because of the proximity of the dai pai dongs to the city’s wet markets, the ingredients were fresh.
The government hasn’t banned the dai pai dongs yet, but it has stopped issuing new licenses for them, ruling that existing licenses can only be passed down through families. So, if the younger generation doesn’t want to work over a steaming wok like their parents, that dai pai dong will close.
At one time, there was probably good reason to crack down on the city’s old let’s-bludgeon-this-fish-to-death-on-the-sidewalk method of food preparation. Hong Kong has been hit by various animal-related diseases –- the avian flu and the H1N1 flu among them -– that have frightened away tourists and spooked the government.
But banning outdoor eating will do away with two defining Hong Kong characteristics: the love of all things culinary, and the energy and chaos of its street life. So if you’re wandering downtown and see a bunch of stools set up on the sidewalk, I recommend that you sit down and eat there while you can –- and never mind if you can’t read the menu. That place might not be there the next time you return.
Happily, al fresco dining is still alive and well in other parts of the territory. Check out past Globespotters posts on Knutsford Terrace in Tsim Sha Tsui, which is a packed, urban experience; seafood dining in the outlying area of Sai Kung; and the beachside area of Stanley.Even if the government goes through with its crackdown in Central and Soho, there are still plenty of places to sit outside in the summer night with your grilled seafood and your glass of wine.
DAVID -- A good article, as always. Do you know if they actually have a rationale for taking away the exemption or is it just a 'rules is rules' thing?
For the dai pai dongs I think it is the weasly way they are doing it that is the most annoying thing about it. If there are genuine concerns with dai pai dongs then there should be a genuine debate about it and, if necessary, reasonable regulations to address those problems directly and fairly, e.g. regulations about hygiene, obstructing access etc. instead of the current weasly cop-out of using licensing arrangements to gradually phase them out.