|Cha chaan teng|
|Jyutping||caa4 caan1 teng1|
|Literal meaning||"tea restaurant"|
Cha chaan teng (Chinese: 茶餐廳; Cantonese Yale: cháhchāantēng; "tea restaurant"), often called a Hong Kong-style cafe or diner in English, is a type of restaurant that originated in Hong Kong. Cha chaan teng are commonly found in Hong Kong, Macau, and parts of Guangdong. Due to the waves of mass migrations from Hong Kong in the 1980s, they are now established in major Chinese communities in Western countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Likened to a greasy spoon cafe or an American diner, cha chaan tengs are known for eclectic and affordable menus, which include dishes from Hong Kong cuisine and Hong Kong-style Western cuisine. They draw comparisons to Western cafés due to their casual settings, as well as menus revolving around coffee and tea.
Since the 1850s, Western cuisine in Hong Kong had only been available in full-service restaurants—a privilege limited for the upper class, and financially out of reach for most working-class locals. In the 1920s, dining in a Western restaurant could cost up to $10, while a working local earned $15 to $50 per month.
After the Second World War, Hong Kong culture was influenced by British culture, with locals beginning to add milk to tea and eating cakes. Some Hongkongers set up cha chaan tengs that targeted a local audience. Providing different kinds of Canto-Western Cuisine and drinks with very low prices led to them being regarded as "cheap western food", or "soy sauce western food" (豉油西餐).
In the 1950s and 60s, cha chaan tengs sprang up as rising lower class incomes made such "western food" affordable, causing "soy sauce western restaurants" and bing sutt ("ice rooms") to turn into cha chaan teng to satisfy the high demand of affordable and fast Hong Kong-style western food.
In recent years, the management of cha chaan tengs has adapted to developments in the Hong Kong economy and society. During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, cha chaan tengs became much more popular in Hong Kong as they still provided the cheapest food for the public.
Before 2007, most cha chaan tengs allowed people to smoke, and some waiters would even smoke when working. Since 1 January 2007, Hong Kong Law prohibits smoking within the indoor premises of restaurants.
In April 2007, one of the Hong Kong political officers suggested that cha chaan teng be listed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, because of its important role in Hong Kong society. On 19 December 2007, lawmaker Choy So Yuk proposed, during a legislative council session, that Hong Kong's cha chaan teng be recognised and put up to UNESCO as an "intangible cultural heritage of humanity". The proposal came about after a Hong Kong poll found that seven out of ten people believed the cafes deserved a UNESCO cultural listing. However, despite these proposals, cha chaan teng was not added to UNESCO's lists.
In June 2014, a number of famous dishes in cha chaan teng—namely milk tea, yuenyeung, pineapple bun, and egg tart — were enlisted into the first Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of Hong Kong.
The name, literally "tea restaurant", serves to distinguish the restaurants from Western restaurants that provide water to customers instead of tea. Cha chaan teng establishments provide tea (usually weak tea) called "clear tea" (清茶 cing1 caa4) to customers as soon as they are seated. (Some patrons use this hot tea to wash their utensils, a common custom in Hong Kong.) The "tea" in the name refers to inexpensive black tea, which differs from the traditional Chinese tea served in traditional dim sum restaurants and teahouses (茶樓).
The "tea" may also refer to tea drinks, such as the Hong Kong-style milk tea and iced lemon tea, which are served in many cha chaan tengs. The older generations in Hong Kong refer to dining in these restaurants as yum sai cha (飲西茶; lit: "drinking Western tea"), in contrast to going yum cha.
Some cha chaan tengs adopt the word "café" in their names. This is especially the case when located in English-speaking countries where they are commonly known as "Hong Kong–style cafes" and are instead best known for their serving of yuenyeung and Hong Kong–style (condensed milk) coffee.
Usually, tea restaurants have high customer turnover, at 10–20 minutes for a sitting. Customers typically receive their dishes after five minutes. The waiters take the order with their left hand and pass the dishes with their right hand. This is said to embody Hong Kong's hectic lifestyle. During peak periods, long queues form outside many restaurants.
The staff in a cha chaan teng work long hours, sometimes also night shifts.
Because of the limited land and expensive rent, cha chaan tengs are gradually being replaced by chain restaurants, such as Café de Coral, Maxim's, and Fairwood. As chain restaurants dominate the market, Hong Kong's cha chaan teng culture is disappearing. They are, however, increasing in popularity overseas, with many opening up in Cantonese diaspora communities as a casual alternative to more traditional Chinese Restaurants.
To speed up the ordering process, waiters use a range of abbreviations when writing down orders (essentially, a Cantonese equivalent to the phenomenon of American diner lingo).
Customers similarly use special phrases when ordering:
A cha chaan teng serves a wide range of food, from steak to wonton noodles to curry to sandwiches, e.g. Hong Kong-style French toast. Both fast food and à-la-carte dishes are available. A big cha chaan teng often consists of three cooking places: a "water bar" (水吧) which makes drinks, toast/sandwiches, and instant noodles; a "noodle stall" which prepares Chiuchow-style noodles (including wonton noodles); and a kitchen for producing rice plates and other more expensive dishes.
The invention of drinks like yuenyeung (鴛鴦), iced tea with lemon (凍檸茶), and Coca-Cola with lemon (檸樂) is often credited culturally to this style of restaurant.
Adding ice in a drink may cost an extra fee. Some people simply ask for a glass of ice.
A feature found in cha chaan tengs is set meals. There are various sets available throughout the day for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The lunch and dinner sets usually include a soup and a drink. Generally, there is an additional HK$2-3 charge for cold drinks. Sometimes, an additional HK$5 is charged for toasting the bread (烘底).
Other sets include:
Generally, the tables in cha chaan tengs are square for 4 people, or round for 6 to 8 people. For each table, there is a piece of glass that covers the top and some menus are placed between the table and glass. During lunch or dinner, customers are sometimes requested to "daap toi" (搭枱), meaning they share a table with other customers who were already seated before. This helps save space, provide waiting guests with seats faster, and give customers in a hurry a seat.
Much of the plastic-ware found on the table is provided by beverage companies as a form of advertising. This plastic-ware includes containers holding toothpicks, plastic menu holders, etc. Brands like Ovaltine, Horlicks, and Ribena are the usual providers. To minimise costs, cha chaan tengs also rarely have utensils that bear their own brand name. As a result, the same utensils can be found in many different cha chaan tengs, even different chains. These utensils can be bought in supermarkets, department stores, and stores specializing in restaurant supplies.
Walls and floors in cha chaan tengs are often tiled because they are easier to clean (especially in Hong Kong's humid summer weather). In overseas communities, these restaurants are famous for stocking Chinese newspapers and having LCD televisions on the wall, broadcasting Hong Kong news services.
Other kinds of local restaurants related to cha chaan teng in Hong Kong include chaan sutt (餐室; lit. "meal chamber"), bing sutt (冰室; lit. "ice chamber"), and bing teng (冰廳; lit. "ice dining room"), which provide a lighter and more limited selection of food than cha chaan teng.
In the old days, these eateries only sold different types of "ice", sandwiches, and pasta but no rice plates. However, some of the restaurants bearing these titles today ignore the tradition, and provide all kinds of rice plates and even wonton noodles. Original chaan sutts, bing sutts, and bing tengs, which can be regarded as the prototype of cha chaan tengs, are now scarce in Hong Kong.
In June 2009, Hong Kong retail design store G.O.D. collaborated with Starbucks and created a store with a "Bing Sutt Corner" at their store on Duddell Street. It is a concept that fuses the retro Hong Kong teahouse style with the contemporary look of a coffeehouse.
Some cha chaan teng have moved to a buffet style of service. Fei Du Du Cha Chaan Teng, owned by Stephen Cheng in Tsuen Wan, was the first known cha chaan teng to move to a buffet style, on 1 March 2013. The idea originated when Cheng, facing high rent, decided to try a new method to run his business to compete with the high inflation rate. With reported success, several other restaurants also switched to buffet style.
Customer reception seemed generally positive, as prices decreased. One customer from Sham Shui Po said the meal was almost 70% cheaper than the food served in the industrial regions nearby.