All photos by Laurent Derche.

Hong Kong's Greasy Diners Are a Dying Breed

Facing competition from large chains, Hong Kong's artery-clogging, Western-style <i>cha chaan teng</i> restaurants are cutting costs on their greasy spoon fare.

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Aug 23 2016, 4:00pm

All photos by Laurent Derche.

A bowl of macaroni is slammed down on the table, served in oily chicken broth, with three chunks of salty Spam floating on top. A plate of fried lo mein with grease-laden beef, sliced thin, comes out of the kitchen along with French toast, a fried fatty batter on both sides and swimming in butter. There's a sweet spread made from condensed milk soaking in between the sugary, crisp slices of bread. There's a glass of pilsner on one side of the table and a chocolatey glass of malt over ice on the other.

No, this isn't a hungry stoner's best binge-eating dream. At New Five Dragons (新五龙), one of Hong Kong's locally run cha chaan teng—best translated as "tea restaurant"—Chinese comfort food is served up fast, cheap, and ready to clog your arteries.

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Spam macaroni, beef lo mein, and French toast, served with Horlick's malt and San Miguel pilsner at New Five Dragons. All photos by Laurent Derche.

These bizarre fusion diners first became popular in the city back in the 1950s, when local Chinese began developing a taste for some Western foods in the ex-British colony. It's not unusual to order Spam and eggs over noodles with a sticky, saccharine pineapple bun and lemon iced tea, or hot Coca-Cola. And in today's Hong Kong, it's hard to pass from one street corner to the next without finding a cha chaan teng.

But there's a big problem for the ubiquitous mom-and-pop establishments looming just on the horizon. Cha chaan teng operated by large chain restaurants—like the ever-popular Tai Hing—are threatening the comfort food diners run by local families. Tsui Wah is another, which unabashedly raises prices on common cha chaan teng dishes. The corporate-backed diners are moving in fast, with locally run restaurants struggling profoundly to keep abreast of the chains' resources.

And the area where New Five Dragons is—Sai Ying Pun, just west of Hong Kong's central financial district—has been changing at a breakneck pace. There's a new subway stop, more luxury developments popping up, and an influx of edgy bars. This, of course, means higher rents. In real-estate hungry Hong Kong, one square foot in Sai Ying Pun cost an average of about $3,000 in 2015, finds real estate agency Squarefoot. That's nearly double the price of a square foot in Manhattan; having to shell out even more money for a space, without corporate backing, is hard to imagine.

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Keeping up with the large chains, which have little trouble affording these skyrocketing rents, will be a steep uphill battle—and not one that locally run cha chaan teng will necessarily win. "We saw that local establishments like family-run cha chaan teng were the first to go after the subway opened last year," says Judy Chan, who advocates for conservation in the area for artists, activists, and long-time locals. "I don't think there's a very bright future for these restaurants," she says.

The differences between a family-run diner like New Five Dragons and mega-chain Tai Hing is wildly apparent from the dining experience. While its food is deliciously true to the cha chaan teng tradition, New Five Dragons is clearly cutting back to save costs and survive. Like at most other local diners, customers aren't given napkins—packs of tissues can be purchased—and there are absolutely no unnecessary frills.

Many other local cha chaan teng have minimum spending requirements and maximum times for which you're allowed to sit (which are usually quite short). Most Hong Kong locals say never to eat the soup that's served with the noodles. It's well known that many local cha chaan teng make large vats of it in the morning with just instant noodle packets, pawning it off as a bone broth.

Meanwhile, at a Tai Hing—where I ate at just near the border with the Chinese mainland, at an enormous shopping mall called Landmark North—servers clock your orders into hand-held electronic devices. There are napkins on every table, and free pitchers of water carefully doted on, too. But the food isn't very good. I tried Hong Kong's famous char siu—barbecue pork, usually with a sweet glaze—over rice, but it was tough and flavorless.

Despite how the food tastes, though, Chan says that "these chains have marketing teams, promotion schemes, and all these types of things to help them—but what can local cha chaan teng owners do? It's very difficult to say what will happen."

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For Chan, it's up to Hong Kong's government to intervene and save local mom-and-pop diners from these growing restaurant wars. "We can't stop this problem without a policy—and if the government just lets these local establishments go, while the rent keeps going up, then we can't keep our local culture," she says. Chan's advocacy group, Sai Wan Concern, wants the government to buy property for local establishments like family-run cha chaan teng and control the rent.

New Five Dragons, for now, seems to be surviving. At 8 PM on a Monday night, it's not packed, but customers are in and out to get their fill of homey Cantonese dishes. The waitress makes a joke that I should eat more of the French toast because it's so delicious, even though it's going to make me fat. It's my first time there, but I'm already a friendly face.

"People here don't always want big developers and big changes," says Chan.