Wednesday, April 20, 2011


In the North East of Hong Kong SAR is an area that used to be among the most rural and isolated of places, despite having been inhabited for longer than much of the former colony: Tai Po District (大埔區).
Tai Po Keui is mountainous, with green slopes decliving down to a sheltered bay where non-Chinese tribal fishermen and pearl-divers once lived in stilt-houses along the shore of Tolo Harbour (吐露港), until gradually supplanted and absorbed by the expansion of the Han Chinese, eventually disappearing entirely by the time of the Sui (Cheui doi 隋代 589 - 618 CE) and Tang (Tong doi 唐代 618 - 917 CE) dynasties.

Except for a period four centuries ago during the early Ching (Manchu Dynasty: Cheng doi 清代 1644 - 1912 CE), when the coast was evacuated by imperial order (known as the 'great clearance'; chin kai ling 遷界令) with the intent to deny aid and succor to the Ming (明) loyalists operating out of Taiwan, the area surrounding Tolo Harbour has been continuously populated - though not necessarily by the same ethnic groups.
Today, the natives comprise the descendants of Tanka (蜑家) boat people, Hoklo (鶴佬) from further up the coast, Yue (粵) from the Cantonese interior, and Hakka (客家) who took advantage of land and settlement permits issued when the evacuation was ended in 1669.

Until comparatively recently, the different groups did not get along with each other. That, and the sparseness of settlement, spurred the building of walled villages (wai 圍) for protection against ethnic war and brigandage.
Several of these walled villages still exist, some barely changed since the late nineteenth century.


Nine centuries ago, when the Northern Song (Pak Sung 北宋 960 – 1127 CE) was collapsing under the assault by savages from beyond the frontiers, Tang Lam (鄧林) came to Lung Yuk Tau (龍躍頭 "dragon frolic ridge") from Kat-Soei (吉水 "fortunate waters") in Jiangxi (Kwong-Sai 江西).
Over the next several generations his descendents flourished, becoming one of the most important lineages in the entire Hong Kong area. They are still dominant in the district, and it was under their aegis that the market town Tai Po (大埔 "big market") was established.

A number of walled villages of the Tang clan (Tang Tsi 鄧族) in the New Territories are still occupied, and support a way of life that has nearly disappeared elsewhere. Along with the other walled villages in the territory, the inhabitants speak a version of Cantonese that has a distinct 'rural' flavour to the modern urban ear (known as Wai-tau Wa 圍頭話 'walled village speech').
In some fortified settlements dialects of Hakka can be heard.

Several Hong Kong walled villages are well worth visiting:
Tsang Tai Ok (曾大屋 'the great hall of the Tsang 曾 clan' - Hakka); Seung Soei Wai (上水圍 'On the Waters Fort' - Liu 廖 clan from Fujian); Fanleng Wai (粉嶺圍 'Powder Peak Fort' - 彭氏 Pang clan); Hakka Wai (客家圍); Tai Tau Leng (大頭嶺 'Big Head Peak' - Hakka), and others.
Characteristics of interest are the relatively intact walls, iron main gates, cannon towers, narrow interior lanes, and grand ancestral halls.
One of them still has a moat - Seung Soei Wai (上水圍).


If you follow the road along the coast around Tai Mo Shan (大帽山) north from Sha Tin (沙田), you'll first go by Wo Che (禾輋), then Fo Tan (火炭), Kau To Shan (九肚山), Ma Liu Shui (馬尿水), Tau Po Kau (大埔滘) and the nature park (白鷺湖互動中心), after which you finally end up in Tai Po.

[大帽山 (taai mo san): big hat mountain. 沙田 (sa-tien): sandy field. 禾輋 (wo che): rice stalk tribalist ("the rice fields of the heathens"); 輋 (Che) is the name of an ethnic group once more prevalent in Kwantung than it is today. 火炭 (fo tan): burn charcoal, charcoal burning place. 九肚山 (kau tou san): nine stomach mountain. 馬尿水 (ma niu soei): horse pissing water. 大埔滘 (taai po gaau): great market creek. 白鷺湖互動中心 (paklo-wu wudong chongsam): white egret lake reciprocal-moving (interactive) central-heart (centre); Kerry Lake Egret Nature Park. 大埔 (taai po): great market; po (埔) means the central district of a market town.]

Or you could simply take the MTR and get off at Tai Po Market Station (大埔墟).

[大埔墟 (Taai Po Heui): great market hillside, or great market moor. 墟 also means a wasteland, and can describe a blasted heath..]

Tai Po Market is only one station removed from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (香港中文大學) MTR station (大學) at Horse Pissing Water. Like many of the world's newer universities the university was built where land was affordable in its region - by the same process SFSU is out in the foggy hinterlands on the south-west corner of San Francisco, and City College is in a high-crime zone. The 'Heung-Kong Chongman Taai-Hok' is, consequently, a little removed from the centre of the Fragrant Harbour urban conglomerate, in a place with an unusual toponym (long since bowdlerized to 馬料水 "horse feed water").

An area whose most salient feature is equine effluvium - either the significant presence thereof, or its characteristic odour - will be naturally ideal for establishing a campus; heap cheap real estate!

I do wish they had kept the original name. It's so much more evocative and vibrant!


Tai Po still has a countryside feel, despite the high-rise housing estates for commuters that have sprung up around it. While some parts look extremely modern, the centre of the settlement is older and also more lively. Many of the locals have relatives who emigrated to England and elsewhere in Europe during the sixties and seventies - it is partly because of the funds that they sent back, and partly because of the proximity of both the housing estates and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, that Tai Po is both a vibrant community and a very pleasant place to visit, even if you are only going to eat there. And really, you should eat there; the same cultural diversity that was mentioned earlier (Yuet, Hoklo, Tanka, Hakka) is reflected in the local food, especially in the town centre, where there are a lot of Hakka.

Don't worry! There is no need to learn any new languages to communicate here - everybody speaks Cantonese!

From the Tai Po Market MTR station (35 minutes from Tsimsatsui) you can catch a bus into the centre of town, or you can walk - it's not far, and this is a very pleasant area.
Go west on Tat Wan Road (達運路) to Nan Wan Road (南運路), turn right and follow the curve up into Wan Tau Street (運頭街), past Pui Yin Lane (培賢里).
You can either stay on Wan Tau (on the right), or turn left onto Heung Sze Wui Street(鄉事會街). Either way, you're heading into a very busy area with a lot of small shops and eateries.
If you keep on Wan Tau, turn left on Tai Ming Lane (大明里) and head towards the square.
If you took Heung Sze Wui, turn right on Tai Kwong Lane (大光里).

There are far too many restaurants and eateries here to list all of them, and you can stroll from one place to another having little bits to nosh on at whichever place looks good.


Shop 2A, Tai Kwong Lane
大光里 2A

[Right up from the corner of Heung Sze Wui Street (鄉事會街).]

Ah-Po Dau Fu Fa: 'Auntie's Fresh Tofu'

Personally, I'm not really into daufu fa, as a large helping of beancurd gives me cramps - even soft and silky fresh beancurd, which is what this place sells. But I will admit that it is a great and comforting snack, especially with palm sugar syrup and tapioca.
This place may have the best daufu fa in Hong Kong - a great many people think so - but for rather obvious reasons I have NO real basis for comparison.

Address: No. 26 Dai Ming Lane
大明里 26號
Tel: 2638 3071

[Between Tai Gwong Lane (大光里) and Kwong Fuk Lane (廣福里).]

Kwan-Kee Tseng-Tong Naam: 'Kwan-Kee Clear Broth Brisket'

An extensive menu, considering that they specialize in one thing, and do it very well. There are several cuts of beef to choose from, but what you come here for is beef brisket noodle soup (清湯腩).
Fresh noodles with meaty chunks (brisket: ngau-naam 牛腩) in a clarified broth. Some people aver that this place is far far better than Kau Kee (九記牛腩 ) on Hong Kong Island, most especially because of their truly superior and richly flavourful broth. That alone makes it worth a visit. They open around late morning, and keep serving till they're out of food.
If you delay till evening they might have already closed when you get here.
Really, I have NO idea why brisket-noodle soup should not be the best way to start the day.

CSF27, 2/F, Tai Po Market Complex, Heung Sze Wui Street.
鄉事會街 8號, 大埔墟街市及熟食中心, 2樓 CSF27舖.

Tung-Kee Seunghoi Mien: 'Tung-Kee Shanghai Noodle'

豬扒粗麵 Thick wheat-flour noodles with vegetable (choi sum) in broth, accompanying a juicy breaded pork cutlet with a superior golden crust, cut into thick segments. Highly recommended. Why a breaded pork cutlet with soup noodles is Shanghainese I do not know. It's a Hong Kong mystery.
雪菜肉絲 Suut-choi yiuk-see - pork shreds and pickled red-in-snow. A classic taste.
上海雲吞 Seunghoi wan tan - also recommended.

7 Kwong Fuk Lane.
廣福里 7號.

San Ming-Fat Sik-Gaa: 'The New Brightness Diner'

Homey restaurant, comfortable, rather old style.
Right on the park, west side. They've got ice cream, family style dishes, and dimsum.
排骨蒸飯 spare ribs steamed rice - recommended.
水餃 soei gau (biggish shrimp wonton) - recommended.
雞飯 (chicken rice) is good, so is 鳳爪排骨飯 (spare ribs and chicken claws over rice) and 雞扎 (fried tofu skin roll stuffed with chicken).

Block A, Po Wah Building, 5 Tai Ming Lane.
大明里 5號, 寶華樓 A座

Yat-Lok Siu-Laap Fan-Diem: 'Supreme Joy Barbecue Restaurant'

Anthony Bourdain likes it. And that IS a recommendation, as quite often his opinion is based not on any pretentiousness, but whether he actually enjoyed the food.
Their charsiu (叉燒) is noted, so is the roast goose (燒鵝) and the roast duck(燒鴨). The roast pork (燒肉) has a scrumptious crusty skin. Along with their other offerings, these basic products are used in a number of composed dishes typical for this kind of place.
What is highly unusual, however, are the dishes that include clams (蛤).

Shop 20, Jade Plaza Shopping Centre.
安慈路3號, 翠屏花園商場, 地下20號

Seng-Chai-Kee Mien-Sik: 'Kid Seng's Noodle Eats'

Good wonton. That's about it.

No. A2, Mei Sun Building, 4-20 Kau Hui Chik Street.
舊墟直街4-20號, 美新大厦, A2地舖

[About seven or eight blocks north-north east, on the other side of the main drag.]

Chiu-chau Laang Siu Chaau: 'Chao-Zhou Cold Plates & Small Stir-fry'

Recommended: 花生炆豬手 (fa sang man chu sou) stewed trotter with peanuts. This is something most people might associate with Hakka cooking, as they are known for their keen approach to trotters. But as previously noted, this area of the New Territories has been home to disparate groups with different traditions, and there has been considerable sharing of ideas in Hong Kong, especially about food.

In the offal category, there are two specialties which you must try: 糯米釀大腸 (lo mai yeung tai cheung) fried big intestine stuffed with glutinous rice and porkfat, and 豬潤浸皇帝菜 (chyu yun zam wongdai choi) pig liver with 'imperial' vegetables - it is especially good.

Chiu Chou goose is also wonderful: 鵝三寶 (ngo saam po) goose three treasures (liver, dark meat, and breast). 滷水鵝片 (low soei ngo pien) marinated goose slices.

And of course, you need something from the sea: 烏頭魚 (wu tou yu) steamed fish with fresh blanched small vegetables on top. 蔥花炸蠔爽 (tsong fa ja ho song) finely sliver-cut scallion (蔥花 tsong fa) generously accompanying deep-fried oysters. 煎蠔仔餅 (chien ho chai beng) pan-fried baby oyster omelet.
酥炸蟹棗 (so ja hai jow) fried crispy-flaky crab "dates". 酥炸蝦棗 (so ja haa jow) fried crispy-flaky shrimp "dates".

Plus vegetables: 咸菜炆豬肉 (ham choi man chyu yiuk) salt veggie stewed pork (well, the emphasis is really on the pork....).
油炆荀 (yau man seun) oil-seethed bamboo shoot with a little chili.

--- --- ---

The attentive reader will notice that I do not mention any Hakka-style restaurants at all in Tai Po.
There is a good reason for that: I do not wish to fight with over a quarter of a million Hakka who live in the area - Hakka tend to be quite as stubborn and opinionated as the Dutch (though altogether more loveable), and each and every one of them know their own food.
You should have no trouble getting recommendations for Hakka-cuisine (客家菜) from the locals.

Bon gusto, y'all.

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