Like the best romances, it wasn’t love at first sight. I was new to Hong Kong, barely 21, living on the other side of the world from my family, their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, and their expectation that I would forge a career as a full-time minister.
At first the restaurant window full of garish barbecues and slabs of cow stomach was just another oddity. My daily walk to work, in a publisher’s marketing department, meant stepping around the local florist squatting on the pavement as she trimmed stems into the gutter. Farther down the street, chickens squawked their way to a grisly end in the "wet" market, its floor blood-stained and slippery. On some mornings, I preferred to look the other way.
Day by day, this strange new world slowly became more familiar. Eventually an Australian colleague encouraged me to venture into the restaurant, to order some fried rice for lunch. Given the tonal complexities of Cantonese—get your pitch wrong and a simple request can turn into a vile insult—it’s a miracle they gave me food, not a slap in the face. I was so pleased with my success, I didn’t think of checking inside the Styrofoam takeaway box. Triumphant, I simply scuttled back to the air-conditioned refuge of my office. It was only as I sat down at my desk and lifted the lid, chopsticks at the ready, that I realised my mistake: instead of fried rice, the box was brimming with chunks of glistening red meat, sticky with glaze, their edges blackened over a high flame.
I would like to say that my love affair with char siu pork began then, but that would be a lie. The truth is I was disappointed at the sight, and even more disappointed by what it said about my fledgling language skills. The epiphany only came as I began to eat, every tender, sweet mouthful making my mistake seem more fortuitous. This simple lunch somehow made my new life feel less daunting.
I was soon ordering char siu regularly. In the context of my self-imposed exile, it wasn’t just a cheap, quick meal for all those days when I was short of time, money or both. It was a symbol of my independence. At times it seemed as though each plateful—sometimes too fatty, sometimes too tough, sometimes even burnt—was a reflection of life itself. Hong Kong’s economy rose and fell and rose again, my own fortunes waxing and waning with it, and yet through it all char siu remained a constant: a taste of stability.
As my Cantonese progressed, I began to develop a kinship with the waiters in my favourite char siu restaurants. I got the same, mostly surly service as everyone else—lukewarm cups of jasmine tea slammed down in front of us—but my food was delivered with a familiar nod, sometimes even a smile. As I had traded in my entire past for this new existence in Hong Kong, small kindnesses meant a great deal.
After ten years, life took me away from Hong Kong, to Los Angeles, Shanghai and now Berlin. It’s been a circuitous and nomadic existence that continues to be defined by the calibre of the local char siu: too often woeful, nothing at all like it should be. So please forgive me if ever I excitedly tell you I’ve just found a place serving the real thing. The kind of place where the sing-song melodies of Cantonese can be heard drifting from the kitchen and where the char siu has all the qualities that make it just right: succulent chunks on a mound of rice steamed until it clumps together. You might see only a plate of pork, but for me it’s a meditation on life. A reassuring reminder that home needn’t always be a family or a place, it can also be a voyage of discovery.
Pictured The author drinking bubble tea in Shanghai. "And probably", he says, "thinking about char siu pork"