When I think of “Hong Kong,” a barrage of images comes to mind: friends I met there from around the world, Bruce Lee films, the incredible skyline — in a setting with perfect Feng Shui, juxtaposing mountains, harbors, the ocean, and man-made wonders… and fantastic food, like dim sum, the tantalizing delicacy that no one outside of Hong Kong is able to get quite right .
And out of all this, a stand-out. One of the quintessential Hong Kong experiences is dining at Mr. Wong’s.
Wong’s is located in the heart of Mong Kok, the neighborhood that looks like a movie set, an assemblage of Westerners’ images of Asia: narrow alleyways packed with people, bright neon lights, vague [?] food and diesel smells, and anything and everything being sold, re-sold and haggled over.
In this casbah of a neighborhood, perhaps the world’s densest, Mr. Wong operates his restaurant. A hole-in-the-wall operation, yet amidst hundreds of dining options, Wong’s stands out like a beacon. It isn’t just the all-you-can-eat bargain. It is also Mr. Wong himself.
You’re greeted by the affable Wong, and often told to wait while they prepare the food. For eight US dollars, you can potentially spend all night eating and drinking cheap beer with friends in a dense and byzantine environment.
Wong, like so many figures in Hong Kong, is “shrouded in mystery.” Rumors abound that Mr. Wong is a gold-plated Ferrari-driving money launderer with ties to the elusive Hong Kong Triads. Others have speculated he sells drugs to supplement his income. And still others say he is just a shrewd businessman, who has made deals that boosted him to remarkable heights and returned to the only job he’s ever loved, running his own restaurant. Personally, I think his low prices are only possible by tax evasion, but he has a standout reputation for his all-you-can-eat option and excellent customer service. Whatever the case is, Mr. Wong’s is an essential attraction, and every local insists “you must go to eat there”.
The sterling reputation is for the cheap price and quantity. The food itself is not the best in Hong Kong. Like Mr. Wong himself, the food has a questionable image. His kitchen and entire establishment are incredibly shabby, and perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, it has been blamed for causing mass food poisonings. However the threat of hospitalization is merely part of the essential experience.
In the United States, there are places that are real dives. But even at the shadiest restaurant, you know that the FDA or health department has them on their radar, making sure they play by the rules and are safe. This type of inspection isn’t as common in Hong Kong, though they have been trying to police things in recent years. But Wong’s entire establishment, with its plastic chairs, enormous communal tables, and cramped but friendly quarters, is just essentially Hong Kong-ish. The tables are so close that other diners are inevitably included in your group photos (which are constantly being taken, this is Hong Kong after all) and yet the tables are broad enough that you feel like you’re almost dining privately.
This contradictory vibe is common in Hong Kong, which is a place of extremes and contradictions. Mr. Wong is rumored to be richer than the CEO of the biggest pharmaceutical company in Hong Kong, and yet he offers meals for people on a budget. He allows you to have fun, but he has his own rules, too. Wong’s displays a sign that says “Welcome” in thirty languages, but he won’t seat you if you don’t have at least one Chinese-speaker in your group.
If Hong Kong is a living contradiction, it also has one overall rule. It is lorded over by capital. Money is the key, if you can keep spending, you can keep doing whatever you want, but as soon as the funds dwindle, so does service. That’s the Hong Kong way, and Mr. Wong, like anyone in that city, also feels that way. If you’re white or clearly Western, you are assumed to have money and he’ll try to accommodate you, though he wants you to have excellent language skills or else come accompanied by a few Chinese-speakers.
In the US, most establishments don’t have the owner hovering around, making sure the food is good while also serving you. But here is Mr. Wong, a man with quite a few employees, bringing the food to you personally. He is a one-man show.
Of the many memories from Mr. Wong’s, I most remember a large group of multi-nationals behind us, stacking their beer cans to the ceiling, and having Mr. Wong walk over, look at it, smile and give a thumbs up, and then karate chop the center of it so the cans flew across the room while he laughed maniacally.
Hong Kong, as I have said, is constantly contradictory. But here is another rule. On a personal level, it is a city of characters. Everyone, from the coolie laborer, to the CEO of HSBC, has a story to tell, and even the expats have their secrets. Mr. Wong is just one of the seven and a half million examples of this, and perhaps the best known in the surrounding neighborhoods. One thing I love about Hong Kong and that distinguishes itself from America is that you aren’t told someone’s life story within five minutes of meeting them, and yet you know that this person you’ve just met has a history as rich as any protagonist in an adventure yarn. Wong, with the rumors circling around him like buzzards, is no exception to this, nor is he extraordinary by the standards of this city, just better publicized.
People go to Mr. Wong’s on the same night, as part of the same group, and leave with ten different stories and ten different opinions about the man. It’s part of the allure of Hong Kong; the mystery, the sex appeal, the otherness. That is why, among dozens of stories about my time here, I have to write about Mr. Wong’s. Nothing else does Hong Kong justice more than the man who is a personification of the city’s energy and fascination.
Photo Credit (for the picture of the wall of languages, and the street scene) goes to Elliot DeGuillme, with thanks.
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