If Hong Kong people were asked what aspect of English culture had affected their personal lives most from the colonial days, I guess varied answers would pop up, depending on their own experiences. My own answer would be, apart from the English language which I love, the uniquely English habit to enjoy afternoon tea, which I had learned at a very tender age, although not directly from the English but from a distant uncle (a second cousin of my father’s) and aunt.
When I was a small kid, my mother used to take me and my two siblings to family gatherings on some weekends at the home of this uncle and aunt who lived in a spacious flat on Robinson Road with their adopted teenage son and a servant. The usual program would be: the grown-ups would play mahjong in the living room while the kids would watch self-made mock movies created by our cousin in a bedroom.
This uncle had been educated in England and worked as a lawyer in a well-known law firm in Central. He liked to wear the Chinese-style “cheong-sam” when he went to the office. As he had a lanky physique, it worked perfectly for him. When he was home though, he would opt for the more comfortable Chinese-style front-buttoned top and pants. His wife, my aunt, liked to wear “cheong-sam” even at home and was always softspoken and gracious. The furniture in their home was mostly made of red wood, and the walls were decorated with Chinese calligraphy and paintings.
My younger sister and brother and I always loved such gatherings, as we had the chance to play with our cousin who was obsessed with making mock movies and who never failed to surprise us with his new creations. Another reason was that this was the only household we knew then who served English-style afternoon tea.
Each time we were there, at four o’clock sharp, Ah Yuk (the servant) would call the kids to the dining room, where the table would be set for tea, complete with an English silver teapot, fine china tea cups and saucers, dessert plates, a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar, a big tin of English assorted biscuits and a plate of egg tarts and cakes. The adults would stop their mahjong playing and join us. While they would be busy chatting away, we, the kids, would raid the tin of biscuits with gusto. When competition became keen over one favorite sort, it would usually be resolved by way of “stone, paper, scissors”.
Those occasional treats for us ceased when I became a teenager. As Hong Kong’s economy was starting to improve, western-style restaurants sprang up everywhere. There was one in Wanchai, on the street (天樂里) that connected Leighton Road to Hennessy Road (on which Central-bound trams from Happy Valley run), that became my favorite in my high school years, although it was only on special occasions that I was taken there to have afternoon tea. It had nice western décor with dark blue carpets and upholstery (I can’t remember the name of the restaurant) and served an afternoon tea set that included English tea and waffles with butter and syrup.
These afternoon tea experiences left an indelible imprint on my memory. Throughout my adult life, nothing delights me more than the simple pleasure of having a nice cup of black tea with milk and sugar and some pastries in a lazy afternoon on weekends and holidays. Even the world-wide craze for Starbucks coffee and their fanciful drinks hasn’t been able to change this afternoon tea habit of mine!