Sunday, 14 June 2015

badinage de chine

One of my favourite activities when I’m in Hong Kong is quite a mundane one: drinking tea. Of course, there is more to yam char (‘drink tea’) than the name suggests. There are the accompanying savoury delicacies known collectively as dim sum, which I never grow tired of. Over the years, depending on where we were living at the time, Paula and I have been regular patrons at several different restaurants, but the one we go to nowadays has an attraction like no other.

It doesn’t have the best dim sum we’ve ever tried, but the food is certainly good enough to ensure our continuing custom. In fact, if you were to accompany us for morning tea, or afternoon tea, you might wonder what was so remarkable about the experience. But then comes time to pay.

The restaurant is a mere five-minute walk from Fanling station, which is in turn a mere five-minute journey from the border with the rest of China, so there are likely to be quite a few Chinese tourists in the afternoon (not at 7 o’clock in the morning though, which is one of the times we usually go). When such tourists are ready to leave, they call for the bill (‘mai dan’). Locals like ourselves follow a different procedure: we take our dockets directly to the cashier’s desk in order to pay.

And this is where it becomes really interesting. The two ladies behind the counter—one to tot up the bill from the rubber stamps on our docket and one to take the cash—seem intent on testing out my Cantonese, which isn’t all that good if I’m to be honest.

What follows is not a typical exchange but an imagined scenario that incorporates most of the best examples of the kind of banter I have to deal with. The romanization here is my own, because the Wade–Giles system used for Cantonese is rather silly, especially in its treatment of initial plosive consonants.

I hand my docket to the first lady.

Gei cheen? [‘how much?’]” she asks, angling to see whether I can give the correct answer in Cantonese.

This may sound like a silly question, but Paula and I don’t always order the same dim sum baskets, and—this will probably seem odd to Westerners—prices vary depending on whether you are there in the morning, lunchtime or afternoon, and also whether it is a weekday, Saturday, Sunday or public holiday. The cheapest time is in the early morning during midweek, and the most expensive is lunchtime on public holidays. I sometimes know the answer, but unless I’m shown the calculated bill, I can have only one reply.

Ngor m’gee [‘I don’t know’].”

However, occasionally I have a different remark to deal with. This is a typical example.

M’sai cheen [‘no need to pay’].”

There is only one possible reaction to such a comment.

Ho yeh [‘excellent’]. M’goi sai [‘thank you very much’].”

And I walk out the door. Of course, I know that she’s joking, and after ten seconds or so I come back to continue the exchange, which often involves me being quoted an absurd price, as much as double the real bill. There may be other ways to reply to such a blatant attempt to overcharge me, but my favourite, especially since both ladies collapsed in hysterics the first time I deployed it, is the following.

Yow mo gow chor [‘you have to be kidding’].”

Then there was the time when the bill came to $85, and, not wishing to be lumbered with heavy coins, I proffered a $100 note and a $5 coin.

Ngam ngam ho [‘just right’],” said the second lady.

This was an expression I hadn’t encountered before, but I thought it would be a good one to use myself. Consequently, the next time we went to the restaurant, I made sure that we ordered the same dishes so that the bill would again come to $85. I placed $65 on the counter.

Ngam ngam ho,” I said confidently.

Needless to say, this ploy didn’t work.

Other ‘tricks’ that I need to watch out for include not being given the correct change, to which the only possible reply is “m’gow ah! [‘not enough’], and, if my proffered payment includes coins, being told that I haven’t paid enough (because the cashier has blatantly palmed one of the coins).

I don’t want to give the impression that there is any genuine dishonesty involved here. On one occasion when I went to the restaurant by myself, I discovered that I’d forgotten my wallet after I’d placed my order, but the ladies were very understanding, allowing me to pay the next time I came. It’s just a bit of fun, and as I sit here in cold, rainy Britain, I can’t help but miss what is an integral part of my life in Hong Kong.

The restaurant’s combination basket is an ideal choice for someone who is on their own.


  1. What a great post. I think your pic of the food looks quite interesting. Don't think I have had any of those items. Tea is a very peaceful time I relish. I am quite the crazy one to like to try all different types and flavors, fusions.

    1. Although not everyone orders any of the items in the photo, these are all standard dim sum items Momma. Great washed down with Chinese tea.

  2. I enjoy reading this post, but it sounds a bit like "home sick" to me :)
    Where's the restaurant that you just mentioned? Perhaps I can go there to take some fresh pics to cure your home sick.

    1. Thanks for the offer Vlad, but pictures are no substitute for the banter.


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