I had lunch with Rambo yesterday — no, not that Rambo. My Rambo was a Asian salesgirl with her hair tightly tied in a ponytail, immaculate makeup and dressed in a smart black shop keeper uniform. In the crowded tiny noodle shop, this salesgirl blended perfectly in the mass of humanity slurping their noodles. She only caught my attention as I lifted my eyes from my noodle bowl and noticed her memorable name on a name tag attached to her shop uniform. And it made my chuckle a bit …
Whilst her name is incongruous, it is not the most unusual “English” name I’ve come across in my time in Hong Kong. That honour goes to a woman who worked at a major American bank in the Private Wealth Department — and her English name is “Chewbacca”. Honestly.
It is traditional for young Hongkers to select an English nickname during their pre-teen years. As such, whilst I could understand these cool and funky childhood nicknames, I find it bizarre that people would continue to use these nicknames in their professional/business life. That said, it’s their choice and bravo to them!
So I thought of Chewbacca as I shared my communal table with Rambo at my favourite noodle shop.
Nam Kee, on Stanley Street, is my ‘spicy wonton noodle’ mecca for the past seven years. It’s almost always packed to the gill because the noodle soup is so satisfying and relatively inexpensive. Sad to admit it, but, I only ever order the spicy wonton noodle dish. I should try other noodles but each time I order at the counter, I default to what I know and what I love. It’s always “#6 please with a large soybean milk drink”.
In 2007, a bowl of spicy wonton noodle was HKD 23. Now, it is HKD 32. Whilst it is still very affordable, the price has increased almost by 40% in seven years! And, hidden in the price increase is the “value engineering” which happened in the interim. The wontons are now a little smaller and a little less meaty than before. I’ll still happily pay 9 dollars more for my favourite Chinese noodles, but, I often wondered about the price increase on the local community. Nam Kee is the go-to place for locals, students and shop assistants for cheap and hearty eating.
The secret to good noodle eating in Hong Kong is to ‘be local’ and not just to ‘go local’. A clear and obvious truism is that you should always go where the local goes. But, what is often unsaid is that visiting local establishments is not enough. To be local, you actually needs to be a little pushy and unapologetically determined. This is especially true during the peak hours. When the noodle shop is packed full, the moment a seat at the communal table becomes free, you need to secure this seat with a pack of tissues (or something of no monetary value) to signal that the spot is now reserved. Then order your noodles at the counter. Your noodles are prepared fresh and your number will be called (in Cantonese!) at the collection counter. 99.9% of the time, the seat that you’ve reserved is respected. But if someone is sitting at your seat, then you will need to challenge this and 99.9% of the time, you will prevail. During peak hours, it is not unusual to have strangers hoover over you waiting for you to finish so that they can claim your seat once you are done. For some, this can be off-putting. But, this is how the locals do it. And, to be frank, this is worth it for a good bowl of noodles.
Good noodles. At a relatively good price. And, sometimes, you get a good chuckle with your noodles if someone interesting, like Rambo, sits at your table.