Despite its strangely specific name, the Australia Dairy Company was not a dairy company, nor was it located in Australia. It was a restaurant located in an area of Hong Kong called Jordan, between chain hotels and seedy karaoke bars. Hong Kong was peculiar in that way and in many ways.
The evening before our last day in Hong Kong, my sister and I went on a search for good breakfast places. I wanted to eat somewhere locals ate, the real Hong Kong, the one that I couldn’t find in Sausage and Egg McMuffins. My search led me to the best English-speaking concierge at the hotel we had been staying at. I asked for her breakfast recommendation and on the back of the hotel’s business card, she drew a map comprising of two straight lines that formed a right angle. She indicated the hotel’s location on the longer line and scratched an asterisk in the middle of the shorter line to mark the restaurant.
“Are you Chinese?”
“Kind of. Not really. My grandparents are Chinese. And my dad too, I guess.”
“You don’t speak Chinese? No Cantonese? Mandarin?”
“No. My grandparents spoke Hakka when they were young but they haven’t used it in years so I think they forgot. I want to learn it someday.”
“Hakka? No one speak Hakka anymore. It’s a dead language.”
“It’s ok. I write down your order for you.”
“Breakfast Set, huǒtuǐ tōng fěn with chǎo dàn and not shuāng dàn,” she wrote several identical-looking Chinese characters underneath her map and handed me the business card. “Show this to waiter. Very good.”
“Is it dim sum?”
“Not dim sum. Traditional Hong Kong breakfast. Very cheap.”
“Traditional? Like real traditional? The locals eat it and everything?”
“Yes, yes. Very traditional. Comes with Hong Kong style tea too.”
“Perfect. Thank you so much. Xièxiè.”
My sister and I followed the map the next morning, down Austin Road and then left on Parkes Street, until we looked up at a pale yellow sign comprising of six backlit panels, with stark black Chinese symbols in the middle. Underneath the symbols, AUSTRALIA DAIRY COMPANY was written in small letters. We joined a short queue from the door that trailed down the sidewalk. A couple of sweaty foreigners were fishing bills out of the money belts tucked under their sweat-resistant t-shirts. I was pleased to see four locals leaning against the restaurant’s windows and chattering in a language I knew to be Cantonese only by the strange pacing of its tones. A few more locals joined the queue behind us so we were sandwiched together by the rhythmic lilt of their voices.
“There’s a menu by the door,” my sister slipped the hair tie off of her wrist and pulled her hair back out of her face into a ponytail. She wiped the moisture off her upper lip. “I’m gonna go check it out.”
I wanted to tell her that the concierge at our hotel told me what to order the night before, that Breakfast Set was the traditional breakfast but with chǎo dàn and not shuāng dàn, but I held back. I watched as she walked toward the door and studied the menu for a few seconds. She smiled apologetically at the foreigners who had to move around her when they were ushered inside by the man standing by the door. He seemed to be the host but it didn’t seem like the type of restaurant to have a host. I moved up so that I was beside her and she pointed at the menu mounted on the windows.
“It’s all in Chinese.”
“It’s okay. The concierge told me what to order already. Look.”
I pulled the business card out of my back pocket and showed it to her.
“What does it say?”
“Breakfast Set. Huǒtuǐ tōng fěn with chǎo dàn and not shuāng dàn.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. She said it’s traditional Hong Kong breakfast and it comes with traditional Hong Kong style tea.”
“Maybe it’s jook.”
The locals chattered louder around me and it felt like I was trapped in an overgrown forest, surrounded by endless cicadas emitting a thunderous buzz around my head. I cleared my throat and looked straight. An employee from the restaurant stuck his head out of the door and yelled something at the locals in front of us. One of them held out four fingers and the man nodded. The four of them proceeded inside and we moved up to the front of the queue. I peered through the grime-covered window into the restaurant.
The inside of the restaurant was extraordinarily underwhelming. A series of small booths lined the edge of one wall. The center of the restaurant was filled with small square tables, each edge accompanied by a short round stool. People were cramped elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for their food which was brought out by waiters in consistent thirty second intervals. Every now and then I noticed a few chairs scattered at random around the room, but they were never vacant for long. It seemed that every minute, people finished eating and new people were ushered in their places.
“Remember when we got our wisdom teeth out and you tried to make jook? You were on the phone with Dad for like an hour and all you had to do was like boil cooked rice and add some flavour to it. It seemed so easy but it didn’t taste the same as when he makes it. Then we went to Lola’s house and got the Filipino version-“
“It was gross. Too much ginger.”
“I kinda liked it. I wonder what Hong Kong jook will taste like.”
“Probably the same as Dad’s. Jook is the Cantonese name for it and Hong Kong is Cantonese.”
“I think so. I looked it up once.”
The man leaned out of the door and nodded at us. He said something in Cantonese that neither of us could understand but before my sister could ask him to speak in English, I lifted two fingers. He nodded, shouted something to someone in the restaurant and gestured for us to come in.
He brought us to a table where two middle-aged Chinese men were seated, drinking glasses of water. He shifted them around so that each of us sat on a different side of the table, then stacked two menus covered with incomprehensible symbols in the center. I reached at one and slid it in front of me.
“I’m gonna ask for an English version,” my sister reached for my menu but I pulled it back before she could touch it.
“We don’t need them,” I raised my hand and made eye contact with a waiter.
He came by our table, dropped two glasses of herb-scented water in front of us and a bill in front of the Chinese men. He pulled out a pad of paper as I placed the business card on top of the menu. He picked it up and narrowed his eyes at the smudged symbols then scribbled something on his pad. He looked up at me and asked something in Cantonese.
“Uh,” I tried to curl my tongue around the unfamiliar words. “Huǒtuǐ tōng fěn with chǎo dàn. Not shuāng dàn.”
The Chinese men handed him a few bills and stood back, the legs of their stools scraping loudly against the floor. The one that was beside me said something to me in the harsh tones of Cantonese but when I didn’t answer he switched to Mandarin, though I couldn’t understand that either. He spoke again and I avoided making eye contact with my sister.
“We’re Canadian,” she pointed at me then herself then back to me. “From Toronto.”
The men laughed loudly and apologized, in English. The man beside me patted me on the arm and they stepped away from the table. I watched as they hobbled unsteadily out of the restaurant as if they were drunk. The waiter cleared his throat and I looked up at his black eyes.
“What you want to drink?” His voice was heavily accented. “Coffee or tea?”
“Hot or cold?”
“Uh,” I looked across at my sister and she shrugged.
“Cold, ten dollar extra,” he tapped his pen against the pad.
“Okay.” He ripped part of his paper, placed it on our table and walked away to the kitchen but soon returned with two large teacups, filled to the brim with creamy brown tea.
I didn’t drink tea often, except when it was brought out to me at Asian restaurants back home. And I never drank my tea with anything in it, much less milk and sugar. I always thought that it was a thing that gweilo did, like the English or Americans, and that doing so would somehow in some way ruin it. I sipped at it anyway but found that it was bitter despite the clear presence of milk and sugar.
“Why do they always talk to you in Chinese?” My sister traced her index finger around the rim of her teacup.
“Because I look Chinese. Why else would they?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t they talk to me in Chinese?”
“Because you don’t look Chinese.”
She looked away from me, for a moment, and swallowed the rest of her tea. She placed the teacup back on the table and looked down into it. Her face looked strange, like she had noticed that there was something wrong with her tea, but when I followed her gaze, I could only see bits of dark leaves floating in the last few drops of caramel-coloured liquid. I stared into my own teacup and swished around the tea so that different shades of yellow-brown swirled together.
“The tea is so good.”
“It’s full of milk and sugar.”
“It’s still good.”
“It’s barely tea.”
“It doesn’t really change the fact that it’s good.”
“Maybe you just have bad taste.”
“It reminds me of that instant Filipino coffee mom brought back from the Philippines when she buried her dad.”
“That stuff is shit.”
“I like it.”
“You can have mine then.”
“I don’t want it. It’s yours.”
It had only been a few minutes since he took our order, but the waiter returned to our table with an identical plate in each hand. Another waiter followed him, holding two shallow bowls.
“Breakfast set, huǒtuǐ tōng fěn with chǎo dàn, no shuāng dàn,” he placed the plates in front of us, then took the bowls from the other waiter and placed those on the table as well. He gave us both a typical Western metal spoon and fork instead of chopsticks and a Chinese spoon.
Four slices of buttered toast towered on the edge of my plate and a huge glob of yellow scrambled eggs sat in the center. The bowls were filled with macaroni floating in a fluorescent yellow broth. Thin slices of pale pink ham were scattered on top of the noodles. Despite its strange appearance, it smelled completely ordinary, like a can of Campbells chicken noodle soup.
I stared into my soup and then at my scrambled eggs. Everything was yellow, unnaturally so. I wanted to look away but I didn’t know why. It was just soup and it was just eggs.
I hoped that my sister wasn’t looking at me. I didn’t know what I would say to her if she tried to talk to me in that moment.
I wished that we had gone to McDonald’s. We could’ve been eating McMuffins and I would have never known about the soup or the eggs. The business card was still on the table, face down so that I could see the concierge’s map and the symbols she had etched underneath it. I took the business card in my hand, and under the table I ripped it in halves again and again until the pieces were small enough to sprinkle onto the linoleum tiles. I glanced down at the mess I had made on the floor. The Chinese symbols that the concierge had written were now as incomprehensible to anyone else as they had been to me.
I picked up my teacup and downed the rest of my lukewarm tea, accidentally swallowing a tea leaf that felt more like a piece of glass as it moved down my throat. I coughed and put down my empty cup. There was a crack at the bottom of my teacup, a lightning shaped fissure that split it in half.
My sister dipped her spoon into the soup and filled it with several pieces of macaroni and broth. A piece of ham floated into her spoon but she flicked it off with her finger. She lifted the spoon to her mouth and blew on it slightly, before testing the heat against her lip. She slurped the soup into her mouth and looked up at me.
Caitlyn Ng is an emerging writer and an undergraduate student in the BA English program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Photograph courtesy of the author.