Monday, April 18, 2011

Hong Kong vs Singapore...a (semi)-Epicurean perspective [Guest contributor]

Guest post by D.Z. 
(D.Z's disclaimer: midnight thoughts after too many glasses of whisky. Gastronommy's disclaimer: midnight agreement to post D.Z's article after too many glasses of whisky.)

Hong Kong versus Singapore...a rivalry that has existed for almost a century. What parameters to choose?  Long-term economic potential? Freedom?  Quality of life? Cost of housing?

Its a tough debate.

Hong Kongers criticize Singaporeans for their faux democracy, but to Singaporeans that's a little rich coming from what is ultimately a province of a communist country where most of the "elected" representatives are a mixture of Beijing's nominees and Hong Kong's entrenched elite.

In terms of quality of life...there are two equally divided camps.  There are the 20-something expatriates who love Hong Kong for the somewhat Bohemian culture against which squeaky clean Singapore pales in comparison. Yet five years down the road many of those same expatriates will seek a move to safer Singapore, with a wife and child in tow, seeking better air and a more balanced way of life, sans C, E, and K.

Commercially and financially, the rivalry is equally stark.  While the HKEX and SGX vie for listings, private bankers in both markets struggle after the same pool of rapidly growing wealth across the region.  In the former, Hong Kong has done better in recent years, while in the latter Singapore has won the race, in part because the Chinese don't particularly want to put their money in a place which is ultimately part of China!

Its an odd rivalry for two city-states with so common a history.  Both colonial outposts, each wearing the vestiges of European imperialism in their own special way, each competing to be the gateway to Asia, when in reality they both claim title - one as the gateway to China, and the other as the pretender to whatever's left, but will someday be.

But rather than get into a spirited debate about something as boring as geopolitics and macroeconomic directions, we would like to look at life in a way we think matters to us all, irrespective of colour or race or political disposition.  We shall compare Hong Kong and Singapore in the way that matters most to our hearts, which is through our mouths, our stomachs, and whatever comes next.

Hong Kong and Singapore are both known for their diversity of cuisines, be it the ultra-chic restaurants that somehow make their way into Michelin or Miele guides, or the street food that true locals prefer.  Hence a comparison of the respective strengths of each country is doomed to criticisms of favoritism.

Instead, we would like to explore Hong Kong and Singapore from a different angle, which is how well their respective food cultures relate to each other, across the price range.  How better to show each other up?

Exhibit Number 1 - Faux Origin
One of the curious things about the Hong Kong - Singapore rivalry is that each has a dish named for the other that nobody in either home country will recognize.  At various hawker centres in Singapore, Adam Road, Newton, etc., you will find a dish called Mee Hong Kong. It is a dish of noodles, seafood and a starchy gravy stir-fried by an Indian Muslim or Malay chef that I have never seen even a cousin of over several years of living in Hong Kong.  The counter-equivalent in Hong Kong is a curiously popular dish called "Singapore Bee Hoon" or "Xing Zhao Mai Fun" whose only link to Singaporean cuisine is the addition of some curry powder to what is otherwise just a typical Southern Chinese dish.

Exhibit Number 2 - Diasporas
People living away from home will always pay a premium for the sense of comfort that a taste of home food imbues, and "foreign" food in any market will always command a premium.  So a "roti prata" that would cost a Singaporean US$0.50 is sold in the back alleys of Lan Kwai Fong for US$3, while a bowl of macaroni soup with a fried egg at Hong Kong Street Cafe in Singapore sells of US$6 against a home price of US$2.  On this metric my view is that Hong Kong wins...there are way more faux "cha chan tengs" peddling overpriced Hong Kong street food in Singapore than there are restaurants selling what is ostensibly Singaporean food in Hong Kong (the "Katong Laksa" in Sheung Wan notwithstanding).

Exhibit Number 3 - Reverse Diasporas
This is an interesting theme - restaurateurs who have taken their cuisine across the South China Sea and brought it back.

The most widely-known example is that of Crystal Jade.  A restaurant group founded in Singapore by a Hong Konger who brought modern Cantonese cuisine to the otherwise staid Singaporean palate, they distinguished themselves by subsequently opening in Hong Kong to huge success.  Talk about selling ice to the Eskimos!

Unfortunately in this category I have struggled to find an appropriate example out of Singapore.  Cepage from the Les Amis group fails to qualify on account of the underlying cuisine being French.

Exhibit 4 - Haute Cuisine
This is the most boring of metrics.  For every Pierre Gagnaire or Joel Robuchon in Hong Kong, there is an Wolfgang Puck or Santi Santamaria equivalent in Singapore, especially since the opening of the two "Integrated Resorts" at Sentosa and Marina Bay.  In terms of less globally commercial names, for every Bo Innovation there is an Andre or an Iggy's.  So on this factor we have to call it a boring tie.

Exhibit 5 - Diversity
Here, Singapore finally takes one back. Yeah, Hong Kong has its fair share of Indian, Nepalese, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Lebanese and Mexican restaurants.  And the range and quality of regional Chinese cuisines available in Hong Kong far outstrips Singapore.  But what Singapore has in its favour is that in addition to having a fair mixture of international cuisines available across the island-state, more fundamentally its cultural concept of cuisine is inherently a mixture of its own rich history.  The colonial influences of the Portuguese, Dutch and English still persist in Peranakan and Eurasian cuisine, while the typical Singaporean's idea of a day's meals involve a hodge-podge of Indian , Malay and Chinese cuisines - prata for breakfast, nasi lemak for lunch and bak kut teh over dinner.

So here we are, and the verdict is open.  At the end of the day, we all get to choose, but I like my cha siew bao in the morning with a nice cup of teh tarik.

Over one too many glasses of fine whisky on a breezy Tuesday evening with a friend, a discussion that originally began over critiquing Cepage in HK evolved into the never ending comparisons between Hong Kong and Singapore. Here, my friend churns out his 2am thoughts on the matter. (view points in the article are entirely his own) -Gastronommy


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