There are few things more satisfying in Hong Kong than sweating it out over a bowl of hot noodles on a noisy street corner. The cook may be dangling a cigarette from the corner of his mouth in his tight metallic green booth, flames flaring under his wok, so loud you can barely hear the conversation of the neighbours seated at your shared table, but you’re too busy to notice, eyeing the dishes whizzing past you, wondering if you should have ordered something else instead.
Someone from abroad may balk at this apparently unhygienic scenario, but it doesn’t get tastier, speedier or more authentic in this mad city. This is one of the remnants of Hong Kong’s past: the dai pai dong (daai6 paai4 dong2 大牌檔).
Dai pai dongs were once a fixture of Hong Kong’s dining scene. These days, you are more likely to find people eating at cooked food stalls in covered markets – or in air-conditioned restaurants with four walls and a door. While these restaurants may cook up similar dishes to what you can now get at dai pai dongs, the relatively sterile environment of the former simply does not deliver the same experience. With Hong Kong cleaning up its act over the past 50 years, the dai pai dong is one of the few ways to get down and dirty with the past. If you aren’t sweating or sitting near some kind of drain pipe, it isn’t the real deal.
The name literally means “big license plate stall,” reflecting the large size of the original government operating licences, which were granted to families of civil servants who had been killed or injured during the Second World War. Unlike the government crackdowns on street food hawkers, this was a way to help civil servant families make a living and legitimise their food businesses. Instead of specialising in one or two dishes like street food hawkers, dai pai dongs would stir-fry almost anything you asked for. They weren’t mobile like a hawker card, either, so they became permanent fixtures.
In the 1950s, dai pai dongs were everywhere. They not only offered hot, affordable food, they were also neighbourhood gathering places. Eat, sweat and be merry. Too much merriness, however, led to noise and traffic complaints. By the mid-70s, the government had changed its mind and stopped handing out new licences. Existing licences could only be transferred to a spouse, so when the government offered to buy back the licences of dai pai dongs in the 80s, many elderly owners chose to give them up.
Today, the official count of remaining dai pai dongs stands at 25. New rules enacted in 2014 allow each district council to determine whether licences can be passed on to sons and daughters, or whether they must remain with the original owner and his or her spouse. After the dai pai dongs on Stanley Street were renovated by the government in 2011, Central and Western District to decided to loosen transfer regulations, meaning the next generation can now decide if the wok6 hei3 (breath of the wok – 鑊氣) is for them. In Sham Shui Po, where most dai pai dongs are located, the district council has taken a more hardline stance, pointing to complaints about smoke and noise.
There seems to be hope that tourism will keep dai pai dongs afloat, quenching the thirst of those looking for a true flavour of the city. While dai pai dongs no longer play as much of a central role in neighbourhood community building. Maybe a new wave of support will bring them back again.
Traditional dai pai dongs pretty much allowed you to invent your own dish as long as the ingredients were available. Today, menus are more fixed, with cheaper dishes at lunch and larger seafood and meat dishes for dinner. It can be tough make your choice when the options are so vast, so pray for a neighbour who might be willing to give you a taste. Chase whatever you eat down with some ice-cold Tsingtao beer – it’ll help with the heat.
Some of our favourite dai pai dongs
Sing Heung Yuen, 2 Mee Lun Street, Central, 8:00-17:30, +852 2544 8368
Famous for its tomato soup macaroni and crispy fried buns.
Sing Kee, 9-10 Stanley St, Central, 11:00-15:00 and 17:00-23:00, +852 2541 5678
It’s all about the stir-fries here, pick anything and it won’t disappoint.
Keung Kee, 219 Ki Lung St, Sham Shui Po, 7:30-21:30, +852 2394 0894
Don’t miss out on the Je Je Chicken pot, it’s finger-licking good.
Leaf Dessert, 2 Elgin St, Central, 12:30-00:30, +852 2544 3795
With a rare focus on Chinese desserts, this dai pai dong is there to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Oi Man Sang, 215 Lai Chi Kok Road, Sham Shui Po, 18:00-1:00, +852 2393 9315
Nobody will judge you for ordering sweet and sour pork here – it’s a classic.
Ping Kee, 5 Shepherd Street, Tai Hang, 6:30-15:00, +852 2577 3117
Quick and easy, they specialise in French toast and milk tea.
Tai Chung Wah, 539 Fok Wing Street, Cheung Sha Wan, 18:00-1:00, +852 9045 4863
Comfort food experts. The claypot rice with preserved meat and their famous stir-fried glutinous rice keeps customers coming back for more.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.