A Dying Breed: Last of Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong Hawker Stalls
Once upon a time every street corner in Hong Kong had a dai pai dong. Literally “stall with a big license plate” in Cantonese, these are outdoor hawker stalls with no-frills seating areas, so named to distinguish between smaller, mobile food stalls also of yesteryear.
Known for churning out delicious local dishes at great speed and rock-bottom prices, dai pai dong have always been popular with Hongkongers.
Joining the ranks of other disappearing Hong Kong memories, these are becoming almost extinct – and here’s why you need to visit them ASAP. Over the last few decades, the government has been phasing them out due to concerns for hygiene and traffic congestion.
Which is why you see so few of them these days. Today only 25 licensed dai pai dong exist in Hong Kong, and they won’t last forever. Licenses can only be passed on to the holder’s spouse and expire after their death, meaning one day these will completely cease to run. So go pull up a plastic stool and slurp on all the noodles while you still can.
Sitting among the glitzy restaurants and watering holes of SoHo is Leaf Dessert, a dai pai dong that’s been around for almost 100 years (and in all likelihood has existed for longer than all of the other places nearby put together). You’ll spot it right away: its charming digs sit on a slope on Elgin Street. Here you’ll find Hong Kong traditional dessert offerings: think black sesame soup, mango sago. If those don’t sound like your thing, take your pick from soup noodles aplenty. Just don’t come here expecting any kind of service – the staff are notorious for being rude! The ageing owners have been around since time immemorial, though, so they get a free pass for being grumpy now and then.
Sing Heung Yuen
Gough Street institution Sing Heung Yuen is famous for one thing: its rich, juicy tomato broth, in which noodles or macaroni is usually served. Then there are the crispy buns: sweet, buttery toasted dinner rolls served with condensed milk and peanut butter. Don’t get too comfy eating here, though: this is the slurp-and-go place where they won’t appreciate you lingering for too long. (A recurring theme at dai pai dong: impatient staff who are all about hustling and turning tables.) Come with an empty stomach, and don’t wear white!
Keung Kee takes the dai pai dong experience one step further with Cantonese dishes that are a little harder to find like cuttlefish cake with intestines and “jerjer chicken pot”, which sees chicken cooked right inside a claypot alongside pig liver. With so many adventurous ingredients it’s probably not for the picky eater – but if you want to experience Guangdong’s very best dishes you should pencil Keung Kee, located in the historic district of Sham Shui Po, in your itinerary.
You’ll come across Sing Kee while venturing through SoHo’s hilly terrain: the dai pai dong takes up a sizeable chunk of an alleyway space on Stanley Street, close to the soon-to-be-closed Graham Street Market. Sing Kee churns out classic local dishes good for sharing:
stir-fried shrimp and eggs, garlic bak choi, razor clams with black bean sauce, just to name a few. Order up bowls of rice to share – you’ll want something to scoop up the sauces with. Don’t be surprised by loo rolls placed on the tables: they serve as napkins. With the Graham Street area set to be redeveloped, we fear Sing Kee will be the next to go before the owners even retire. Another one for the top of the list!
Tai Hang was once a mostly residential neighbourhood with mostly car repair shops, but these days it’s a full-fledged foodie haven with hipster coffee shops and trendy Japanese eateries and bars. Still, Bing Kee stands proud to this day. Expect comfort foods like the signature pork chop noodles in soup, Hong Kong-style French toast and soy sauce-marinated chicken wings. At lunchtime this place is packed to the brim, so come in the morning or for afternoon tea.
Sham Shui Po’s Cheung Fat takes up a space inside a tin house, a rustic, bare-bones space that puts food above all else (yes, that includes service, which is pretty nonexistent). The dai pai dong is famous for its fish balls. For the uninitiated, it’s a common street food found in southern China made from fish paste, rolled into a firm, flavoursome ball shape. Order it with rice vermicelli in soup. Speaking of noodles, try their signature “supreme soy sauce noodles”: that’s noodles fried and tossed with premium soy sauce, with a generous sprinkling of scallions on top. A supreme hangover cure, if you ask us!
Andrea Lo is a freelance journalist and translator based in Hong Kong. After cutting her teeth in the industry as a staff writer at a lifestyle magazine, she embraced the freelance life in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. She spends her time exploring the best of Hong Kong’s dining and nightlife scene, trialling new fitness trends, and travelling to exotic locales – all in the name of “research”.