Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tea Time!

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!


Vin said...

Hey Alice, just wanted to say your economic and commercial insights are always fascinating, but also your 'reminiscing' posts are great too! I've taken to asking mum about her recollections of the same time.

Alice Poon said...

Hi Vin, you are kind. Thank you so much for reading my posts. I just thought that having grown up and been educated in such an interesting time and place that it might be worthwhile to chronicle some of the little episodes in my life. I'm glad you like these reminiscing posts!

Snowdrops said...

Hi Alice, I stumbled upon your blog from ESWN and really admire your trenchant analysis of the socio-economic situation in HK, but I also have to agree with Vin and say that I enjoy reading these reminiscing posts of yours the most! Would you consider writing a book that chronicles that golden era in HK through the experiences of you and your family? I'm thinking something along the lines of Adeline Yen-Mah's family memoir "Falling Leaves"? I enjoyed Yen-Mah's book immensely, but her portrait of HK finishes around the post-war decades, and I found it a real pity that there hasn't been more contemporary literature in English that deals with life in Hong Kong in the 70's and 80's from the locals' perspectives. Perhaps you could fulfil this gap?

Alice Poon said...

Hi snowdrops. Thank you for dropping by and your kind words. The idea of writing a memoir did cross my mind, although I'm still just toying with it. I guess my greatest fear is that, like Graham Greene once said, the longer life goes on, the more surely one finds that old memories will be painful..