The plate of fish and scrambles, my usual,
Weighed next to nothing in my tray, adrift
Amid the sea of diners. I stood, out
Of place, here in this fast food shop, dazed by
How little room there was to manoeuvre
And to steer clear of eye contact, until
I snatched an almost empty table—save
An uncle with his pensionary meal.
“Excuse me, sir,” I cursorily asked,
“Mind if I join you here?” The gent returned
A grin; I reckoned as consent and grabbed
My corner quick—the furthest one from his.
Before the food sublimed between my teeth
And never reached my gut, I dug into
My breakfast and I worked it as a chore.
I knew the shrunken ration wouldn’t be
Enough, for I had sneaked myself a treat
Despite the frown on “outside food”—a crisp,
Buttery bo lo yau, fresh from the bakery.
Although the airy bite was scarcely “food”,
I nibbled sheepishly and stole a peek
Around, at the restless flutters of news-
Papers that squawked along the border-town
Cacophony of sing-song languages.
My neighbour was oblivious, nonetheless,
Of me or of anyone, relishing
His every bite with smiling eyes shut up
In faraway nirvana. Did the gent
Mistake his lo mai gai for manna from
Above? The blandness of my morsels felt
Quite strangely lifted when I washed it down
With coffee in that given pause for thought—
The drink had hardly tasted bitter too.
I nodded him a bye while getting up
To leave; it’s only then I noticed which
The uncle had hung loosely at his side
Was in fact a white cane for the blind.
Café de Coral is the largest local fast food chain in Hong Kong. This inseparable mainstay of our city’s food economy is the most accused and villainised defendant in every episode of minimum wage controversy, whereas its lunch prices are often referenced as an inflation indicator akin to the Big Mac Index. They rarely hire any celebrity to promote their brand, and when they did a couple of years ago, quite oddly but not too surprisingly, they put up the face of a financial analyst instead.
Bo lo yau is the buttered version of bo lo baau (or “pineapple bun”), the conventional staple to any bakery in Hong Kong, as well as a typical example of our fusion food culture which was bred and fostered during the British colonnial years. As much a victim to the soaring rent and inflation as the shrinking portions of Café de Coral’s, comparing to the historic recipe, the now overly leavened breakfast roll is often ridiculed as more air than bread.
Lo mai gai is a traditional Cantonese breakfast dim sum, which is a steamed ball of glutinous rice with bits of chicken, mushrooms and (sometimes leftover) meat wrapped within. As the name of the dish suggests, it might have been a pauper’s emulation of savouring a whole chicken (gai).
While the scene was inspired from a real table-sharing encounter at the title’s namesake during the summer, this blank verse focused in particular the social dynamics amidst the hasty merger between the Mainland and Hong Kong since the latter’s changeover of sovereignty. Well over a million Mainlanders have migrated to the city, with many having settled in the border towns along the railway. The ease of border crossing and subsequent integration of societies have given rise to, among many conflicts of interests and social values, an unhealthy level of parallel trading, which has not only been disruptive to the economy of our everyday commodities and services, but also exacerbating to the already-too-expensive rents and related costs for businesses.
The poem was submitted to a local literary publication for consideration, where it was duly declined. Perhaps, I should have written a more encouraging ending, after all. But, alas, it was not too much of a let-down, considering how way leads on to way, when this writing has sparked new creative pathways in my narrative voice, characterisation and metaphorical expressions, as seen in more recent works like Bestie, The Mundane Train Ride (The MTR) and the ongoing Sweatshop Stories. The effort was worthwhile.
Photo Courtesy: foodspotting.com