Char siu, or barbecued pork, is one of the three main types Cantonese roasted meat, other than roasted goose and roasted pork belly. Glistening with fat on the outside, it is made by slow roasting pork and glazing it with honey, rose wine and barbecue sauce until it is tender, golden and succulent. A delicacy on its own, char siu is also the star ingredient in many local dim sum and dishes such as char siu buns, char siu pastries and char siu scrambled eggs with rice. It is so popular that a survey published by Wen Wei Po in 2011 found that locals consumed roasted meat at least four times a week – and char siu most of all.
Despite this gleaming reputation, it is no compliment to be compared to a piece of char siu. In the 1950s and 60s, a saying commonly heard among Hong Kong families was saang1 gau6 caa1 siu1 hou2 gwo3 saang1 nei5 (生舊叉燒好過生你) – “better to give birth to a piece of char siu than you.” Whenever parents were angry at their disobedient, ungrateful, or underachieving children, they would utter this expression to air their frustration, or to imply that they were disappointed by their children.
But why char siu? It has to do with the struggle faced by families in Guangdong after the Communist Revolution in 1949. The Agricultural Collectivisation Movement governed the food supply across China, and food tickets (leong4 piu3 糧票) were issued in 1955 for people to exchange for rations. Different types of tickets were issued for fabric, rice, oil, condiments and meat. Meat tickets were the most expensive, and people could only get a small portion of pork with each ticket. The Cantonese expression came into existence when parents made sarcastic remarks about how if they gave birth to a piece of char siu, they could have a taste of luxury, instead of suffering from saving up food for naughty children.
Although Hong Kong was a British colony at the time and it never endured the food rationing of mainland China, the expression spread here with the millions of mainland Chinese refugees that settled in the city in the 1950s and 60s. As Hong Kong prospered in the 1970s and 80s, many more families could afford pork in their daily diet. The char siu expression has become less common since then, but it is still used by parents to rebuke their children in a humorous way, because at least a piece of char siu doesn’t talk back.
Char siu is such an iconic dish, it features in plenty of other Cantonese expressions too. Sik6 caa1 siu1 (食叉燒, “eat char siu”) suggests a ripe opportunity, like when a volleyball team has created a fat chance for the opposite team to slam the ball back into its own court. Baan3 caa1 siu1 (扮叉燒, “pretend to be char siu”) mocks pretentious people who pretend to possess great substance.
All these char siu expressions point to one thing: Hongkongers’ unrelenting love of roasted meat. Perhaps parents in other Chinese regions might prefer to give birth to dumplings or kung pao chicken, but in Hong Kong, it’s a juicy piece of pork that offers food for thought.
This article makes use of the jyutping system of Cantonese romanisation.