The Cafe Conflict

It all started at the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop, a Hong Kong airport café requiring customers to order at the counter and wait for their number to show up. Online reviews for the chain are extremely complimentary – Yelp is full of comments about some of the best fried noodles and congee to be found, high praise indeed for a food-obsessed place like Hong Kong. There are, however, occasional references to a certain brusqueness of service at the airport branch, a very large menu that is difficult to process in a hurry, and an anxious overcrowding that can cost dawdling customers their table if they don’t keep a watchful eye for their order number.

Some or all of these elements combined for two Mainland ladies in 2018, who had plainly already had a miserable time on their Hong Kong vacation.

“I felt like I was subjected to shame and humiliation,” one had tweeted earlier, as reported in the South China Morning Post by Naomi Ng. “In Hong Kong, if you speak English, people will be polite to you. If you speak Mandarin, they will roll their eyes at you.”

At the café, waiting for their homebound flight, they got into a scuffle with a member of staff. They complained about poor customer service. He told them to stuff it and swore at them. Both sides, according to one witness, started throwing food around, until the man pushed a tray of congee and noodles at them, splashing some on one of the women’s clothes.

Reading between the lines: it was post-Christmas/New Year rush, people had probably been working overtime and covering for winter flu. The café was crowded, and the staff under pressure to keep tables moving. Someone misses their number; someone takes their table; someone gets told to hurry up; someone says they wanted theirs without chili not with it. After some shouting, the women were refunded their bill and left, but a media footprint was already growing – including shots of the incriminating tray, left on the floor for mere minutes afterwards.

Social media magnifies and preserves such incidents in a way not possible in previous generations. The pictures and the online footprint of something that would have otherwise been forgotten in moments provided enough material for newspaper follow-ups. It is a story I can access years later, and part of a narrative that continues Hong Kong’s cross-cultural stand-off of “dogs and locusts.” I remain in two minds about whether this is a good thing, and here’s why.

In 1991, I was witness to a hysterical altercation at a family-run fish restaurant in Kending, Taiwan. As best as I could tell, someone had married someone they shouldn’t, and granny’s inheritance risked being frittered away and someone should have cleaned out the pumps, and in what seemed like mere seconds, a scrum had developed at the front of the restaurant, open to the warm summer-night air and the beach beyond. The old granny grabbed a meat cleaver and smashed its blunt corner into the glass fish tanks, inundating the plaza outside with water and gasping trout. The crabs made a break for it into the street, scuttling through swerving traffic, as the old lady sat sobbing at one of the empty tables. Her children scattered back to the kitchen and rushed to clean up the tables, and everybody pretended there weren’t a dozen huge fish dying on the patio.

I had no idea what was going on. At the time, I lacked the Chinese or the authorial pushiness to really ask. But the only evidence of this is me telling you. I didn’t have a film studio in my pocket that could document it all. Access to the World Wide Web was still a year in my future. I’m sure that the Great Kending Fish Restaurant Fight was an order of magnitude of drama and controversy above a scuffle in an airport café in 2018, but the technology we use in our everyday lives has changed the way that we prioritise and remember. In the 21st century, such technology can be used for the evils of fake news and filler, but it can also be used to swiftly escalate issues in food safety and law. Access, accountability and archives are a feature of modern social media, and the way we talk and think about food and the food industry.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

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