Infernal “Cha Chan Ting”

I remember this café in Hong Kong which was frequented by renovation contractors. And another which was overrun by gangster-looking men. One half expected to see a Tony Leung lookalike mole ala Infernal Affairs to walk in.

 Initially, I had thought they were construction workers – burly men in work clothes covered in cement, dragging their sand-dusted boots. Then, I realized most had the contractible tape measure clipped onto their waist, giving their trade away. Nowhere were we near any blue-collar area but smacked right in the middle of the swanky tourist district of Tsimshatsui. Imagine my surprise when these brawny men began descending in droves into this humble café, known affectionately as “Cha Chan Teng” in Hong Kong. (“Café” in the Cantonese dialect.) This little enclave appears to be a hub of sorts for construction workers, at least in this area.

 Having worked their butts off for the morning, they fervently tucked into hearty meals of mainly rice dishes and other Cha Chan Teng staples. Many with mobile phones clinging onto their ears, busy returning calls to potential and existing clients – giving updates of work done or firing away quotations. Taking a much needed breather, most took a drag on their cigarettes while sipping hot, Hong Kong style milk tea – a thick brew of Ceylon tea with generous amount of evaporated milk and sugar.

 Brute they were not, with impeccable manners; they were careful not to encroach upon your personal space when you share a table with them. (It is common for customers at a “cha chan teng” to share a table during the packed, peak-hours.) Beneath the rough surface, these guys have a charm of their own. Some were even roguishly handsome exuding a dangerous air about them. No wonder some were seen to be whispering sweet nothings into their mobile phones – I’m sure these guys are not short of girl friends.

 The camaraderie among them were obvious, greeting each other with a slap on the back, bantering away and trading the latest prices of tiles, water pipes and other materials. Exchanging trade tips among them, they sneak in an occasional gossip here and there – yes, men do gossip. Seeing these men at play allows one to get a glimpse of another side of these oft misunderstood workers.

 On another fine afternoon, I walked into a café in search of Hong Kong’s famed egg custard tart and milk tea only to find myself walking straight into what seemed like a den for gangsters and informers.  Perhaps plainclothes policemen were among them too.

 Tough looking guys in …huddled together speaking in undertones while throwing occasional sidelong glances at anyone passing by. Exchanging knowing nods at alliances, they sit down to place their regular orders. The air of conspiracy is unmistakable. 

This may look like any Hong Kong café that you and I patronize but lurking among them could be a mole planted by both sides – the police and the triads. As it is, it wasn’t easy to tell the cops from the triads. Is the guy with the flashy tattoo always the bad guy?

 “Yao mo liu do ah?”

 The line between the two worlds seemingly blur as a plainclothes policeman asked his usual informant for news in colloquial Cantonese.  It is akin to the arms of law dipping into the murky waters of crime in an attempt to bring justice to those who deserve it.

 The practice is often seen as a necessary evil in the industry. After all relying on solid investigation is only half the battle. What better way to get information than from the fringes of society?  

 Unfortunately, I did not hear any other more intriguing conversation. Either that or they were all speaking in codes. Besides the air of conspiracy, the café looks surprisingly ‘normal’, unlike the smoke-filled rooms that one often sees in movies.

 Would I return to that café? You bet! I have yet to witness a shoot-out or even a police chase. But first I must be able to locate the café on my next visit for I had stumbled upon it by chance and couldn’t quite recall its exact location. Pray do let me find it again 😛

 It makes one wonder what would happen to policemen should their informers disappear overnight? And do cops need crooks for their existence? If there were no crooks do we still need laws? Is it a demand and supply question? Or one of prevention?

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