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Write on...:A tale of three menus‧1

【明報專訊】''John, why don't we go around the corner to the Sun Tai Ping Restaurant,'' Gregor said as he finished his sweet coffee and smacked his lips. I finished my box of soya drink and paid Hung Sok at Alan's Café. I think Hung Sok's countenance and gravel voice scared a lot of people away, but over time I found that beneath his hard facade he was a very good and generous man. I was later told that before he married and settled on Cheung Chau he had been in the merchant marine and had circled the globe many dozens of times.

Gregor and I turned down a narrow alley and walked the short distance to the Sun Tai Ping. We passed the restaurant's back door where a cook and his helpers were squatted in a semicircle cleaning green vegetables and slicing meat and fish over an open drain. Like all alleys on the island, the drains on either side of the walkway were narrow troughs meant to carry away rain water. In some places they are covered with concrete tops, but in most places they weren't covered at all. Behind the Sun Tai Ping, the kitchen staff had appropriated half the alley. A hose ran continuously as water was sloshed about on the food as they washed it. Raw red meat went into a big enamelled pan, fish into another one, and the rinsed vegetables were pressed into a large plastic colander. Everything was sloshed again and again with water and the waste trickled along the path and down the drains. Fish still alive flopped on the walk as they were slashed and filleted, and blood from chopped meat was washed into the drain. Next to this alleyway operation, someone with a hand pump was filling a container with kerosene for the kitchen stoves, pumping it from a large drum into a two-gallon container.

''Don't look,'' Gregor advised. ''Our dinner will taste better if you don't look.''

I stopped looking.

We entered the restaurant and went upstairs to sit at the front window looking down onto Tai Sun Street. Even at that time of day, pigs were still being unloaded on the wharf, forced into cone-shaped wire cages and piled three or four high onto flatbed carts to be pulled down the alley to the butchers. They squealed in protest, and kids at play poked them with sticks and pulled on their tails to make them squeal louder.

''Someone told me,'' Gregor said quite solemnly, ''that the Sun Tai Ping Restaurant has three menus. One menu is only for the local Chinese; one menu is for the Chinese tourists that come out from Hong Kong; and the other menu, that is for us, the gweilos,'' he said. ''Which one do you think we are going to get tonight, John?''

We didn't have to wait long for an answer. A tall woman with a gaunt face approached and we were given menus.

To be continued

̷̷ by John Bell Smithback ̷

© John Bell Smithback

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