"滚水" you hear the waiter roar as he shoulders his way through the crowd leaving you startled but not surprised. You try to catch his colleague's attention, who without so much as a whisper simply gestures you to an open booth in the corner. As you squeeze into your seat you don't even get a chance to breathe out for the waiter is back, hovering over you like a vulture pestering for an order. Franticly you peer over at the local who brought you to this circus that is a Cha Chaan Teng in the first place, as she barks back "西多士以后鸳鸯两杯". And so you've no choice but to be whipped along for this out-of-body experience that is a day in the life of a Hong Konger.
WHERE WORLDS COLLIDE
A simple conjunction of the spheres, where East met West, it was at the height of colonial rule in Hong Kong when Cha Chaan Tengs first began to pop-up. Striving to provide daily delights that appealed to both oriental and colonial alike, restaurateurs began adding elements from contrasting cuisines into their menu, in essence the beginning of fusion food in the region.
From buttered bread and eggs to luncheon meat and instant noodles or thick cut French toast and a red bean ice cream float, there were a plethora of combinations ready to satisfy any craving at any time of the day. Before long, businessmen, grandmas, construction workers and tourists alike were crowding around these eateries and they just kept coming back.
THE UNMISTAKABLE CORNERSTONE
With every order came one staple item, the Yuan Yang. Encapsulating perfectly what Hong Kong's ridiculously fast paced life is really like. Where patrons were craving afternoon tea, even though they didn't have the time, yet wanted something with an added kick of caffeine just to get them through the rest of the day. And once that genius decided to add a shot of coffee into their milk tea, life was never the same again.
Imagine with me, the bright acidity of the coffee accented by the floral notes of the tea, while the bitterness of the caffeine smoothened out by the addition of milk. Topped with a dash of sugar and served over ice, it genuinely doesn't get any better than that.
Through it all, the people's reliance on the Canto-Western cuisine simply grew stronger with time. Even when the British left, their midday habit of tea-time stayed. At this point Cha Chaan Tengs are even being considered to be added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list!
At the end of the day, there's really nothing more iconic in Hong Kong than the Cha Chaan Teng, apart from maybe Chow Yun Fat. And although the Yuan Yang beverage first found it's footing in Hong Kong, there's no denying this humble drink has found a home in almost every heart across greater Asia.
And as the region continues to prosper, and designer lattes take over the scene, it's no sin treating yourself every now and then, but at the end of the day there's no denying the deep, longing craving for a good cup of Yuan Yang to get you through the day. The same way it's done for generations before and will continue to do so for generations to come.