Freedom of Noodles

Causeway Bay, Friday, 4:45 pm. I have just emerged, dizzy and exhausted, from my long march through the Dante-esque labyrinthine purgatory that we here in Hong Kong call Yi ga ga si: Ikea. Suddenly, the hunger of ages hits me like a thunderbolt, right here in the middle of Great George Street. It’s not a lunch hunger–I had lunch at two. It’s not a dinner hunger, because anyway it’s too early for dinner. This gnawing is deeper, urgent. For five months I have been in New York exile, on a low carb diet. Now what I want–what I must have— is a bowl of noodles. Hong Kong noodles.

Repression twists the soul, and now my soul, with the help of my feet is staging (as Long Hair might put it), a spontaneous protest action. Pure passion drives me along packed, sweaty Hennessy Road, then under the expressway overpass. I weave through a market street busy with shoppers, guys pushing carts loaded with bags of rice and flour, teetering with big square tin cans of cooking oil. Fish flop and splash in open plastic pens alongside giant prawns, lung ha, as big as bananas. And–oh my god!–it’s hairy crab season! Entire shop windows are stacked with the first shipment of the tempting little Shanghainese fresh water crustaceans, their claws trussed up in crabby bondage.

For an instant, I’m gripped by a fear: will it still be there? Hong Kong is a fast moving place, and during these go-go days, the pace of change is even dizzier than usual. You go away, even for a month or so, and you can be sure something you cherish will be gone when you return. It took me three days before I could work up to taking a stroll around my Soho neighborhood–I didn’t want to get depressed over how many of my favorite shops and spots might have disappeared in my absence. (In fact, the damage wasn’t as bad as I expected, because most of it has been done already.)

But I shouldn’t have worried. This place is an icon. (Hong Kong food icons, unlike Hong Kong architectural and heritage icons, don’t get steamrolled so easily. We’ve lost Queen’s Pier and the Star Ferry Terminal, the Graham Street Market is on the chopping block–but, dammit, you can still get a piping hot, Chris Patten-approved daan taat at Tai Cheong Bakery in Central!) Sure enough, I look up, and there it is, the familiar sign:

自由麵餐

Ji yauh mihn chaan.
The Freedom Noodle Shop.

Like a lot of shop names in Hong Kong, this one makes me laugh. I know that the intention behind the name is to let potential hungry customers know that in this shop, you can “freely” pick and choose among various ingredients offered as additions to your basic bowl of noodle soup. Won tons, fish balls, beef tendon–Hong Kong noodle shops were the pioneers of the now familiar Western fast-food concept “Have It Your Way.” (There’s even a special name for these Hong Kong shops, Che Jai Mihn. It means “Little Car Noodles”, and it refers to the carts that used to ply these cheap meals in the street during and after World War II).

But the characters 自由 have other meanings. They can translate as “freedom” or “free” but also as “Libertarian”, or “Liberal”. As in Hong Kong’s dearly beloved “free” market political organization, 自由Ji Yauh Dong–the Liberal Party.

I try to imagine the Liberal Party’s slick, opportunistic clothing tycoon and wine connoisseur James Tien popping into the neon-lit formica tabletop splendor of Freedom Noodles for a quick fix of fish balls. But I can’t. Anyway, Tien is too busy these days campaigning for Regina Ip, the pro-Beijing bouffant-ed ex-bureaucrat who is now, officially, running for the empty legislative council seat in Central. Back in 2003, Tien made his political reputation by dramatically resigning his government position in protest over fellow minister Regina Ip’s proposed Article 23 legislation. Now he’s slithered back to her side, and was last seen the other day at her inaugural press conference, smiling like a cat who ate the fish balls.

Tastes change, of course. It’s possible, over the years, to develop a taste for something that used to make you turn up your nose, like stinky tofu or Regina Ip. That’s why Hong Kong is full of shops like Freedom Noodles, and parties like the Ji Yauh Dong. No matter what you feel like supporting or eating, it’s all there!

Sorry, I really was intending to write about food, not politics. The trouble is, so many of the little secret eating places I know about in Hong Kong were introduced to me by politicians. In Hong Kong, as in America, political figures must grab their meals on the run. Bill Clinton was famous for his ability to sniff out the tastiest pizza, fried chicken, or Mexican taco spot while on the campaign trail. I have Long Hair to thank for dragging me along to some of the more excellent cheap eating places in this city, like Wong Yuk Man’s wife’s great Taiwanese joint in Mongkok.

My connection with Freedom Noodles goes back to 2004, when I joined the pack of reporters following Long Hair around Hong Kong. Freedom Noodles is right downstairs from the local office of the Hong Kong Teacher’s Union. They were hosting a press conference for the now-legendary grandmother, Lo Siu Lan, who threw a monkey wrench, in the form of a judicial challenge, into what was supposed to be the biggest real estate investment trust public offering in history. (My friend Kempton was on the scene then, and you can watch that story unfold in his documentary.)

After Granny Lo’s press conference, a bunch of us–Long Hair, Kempton, me and Carrie Chan, the chief political reporter for The Standard– repaired downstairs to Freedom Noodles. At the time, I couldn’t read much Chinese at all, and Freedom’s menu has no English whatsoever. Long Hair, too impatient to read the options out for me, made a unilateral decision to order me beef noodles, which is what everybody else was having. The noodles and the soup were stunning, but I found the beef a bit tough and chewy.

I didn’t return to Freedom Noodles until more than a year later. My friend Karrie was in in town, visiting from New York, and the anti-WTO demonstrations were in full blast. Although Karrie was pretty jet lagged, I insisted on dragging her down to the cordoned off protest area near the Wan Chai sports ground to watch the Korean farmers chanting and singing. After a few minutes of raised fists and “Down! Down! WTO!”, Karrie looked at me balefully and said, “I’m really hungry.”

It was late, and we weren’t close to any place I knew. Then I remembered that long-ago snack at Freedom Noodles. Ten minutes later, we were there. The place was exactly the same as I remembered it–except for one thing. Now I could read Cantonese. The endless columns of characters on the menu, and posted on the walls of the shop, had meaning for me. I no longer had to depend on someone else to make decisions for me. I could choose, freely, for myself.

Seui gaau mihn…leung wun! I called out to the woman tending the big vat of broth in the front.

You should know a bit about Karrie. She’s not a big fan of Chinese food. When we hang out together, she prefers French bistros, Italian trattorias, even sushi. But after her first bite of the seui gaau ravioli, she looked up at me with delight and amazement. “What is in this? It tastes amazing.”

The seui gaau at Freedom Noodles is a handmade
ravioli stuffed with minced bits of shrimp, dried mushrooms, a hint of carrot. The filling is tightly packed together and folded into a homemade wheat flour pasta wrapper in the shape of a half-moon. Whoever makes the seui gaau at Freedom leaves a lot of wrapper ruffle around the edges. They resemble fins, and whenever I scoop the ravioli into my spoon, it feels like I’ve captured some exotic ornamental macaroni-colored goldfish.

Bite into it–carefully, for it is steaming hot–and the strong flavors of salty fresh shrimp, pungent Chinese mushroom, and a hint of carrot sweetness surge through the palate. The intensity of that experience needs to be balanced by a few spoonfuls of Freedom’s soup broth, which is salty, slow-cooked, then repeatedly strained to a beautiful clarity. Finally, when the three fat white goldfish are gone, it’s time to savor the perfection known as the Hong Kong Cantonese Wheat Noodle. Freedom’s are as they should be–freshly handmade, probably at the shop down the street in the market, thin and rich with fresh wheaty flavor. The genius of the Hong Kong soup noodle is that it realizes a paradox: it is tender enough to slurp, but also firm enough to allow the satisfaction of chewing.

Since
that sublime second visit with my pal Karrie, I’ve returned again and
again to Freedom Noodles. I’ve tried the fish fillet noodles, the meat
ball and the won ton mihn. I’ve ordered the two, and sometimes
the three combination noodles. I feel lucky that such a place exists,
and fortunate that my knowledge of Cantonese allows me to choose for
myself, rather than be subject to the decisions of others. Freedom of
Noodles is, indeed, a wonderful thing.

But in Hong Kong, noodles are the just about the only thing that is ji yauh. The
classic criticism of late capitalist societies is that they offer people a
profusion of choices about what to consume, but almost no
choices about any of the important things that shape their lives. How they will be governed. What happens to the profits of their labor, their tax resources, their homes and environments. Governments in China, and in the U.S., are both betting that as long as people are happy and preoccupied with an abundance of small, unimportant choices, they will complacently accept whatever repressive, illegal, or unjust actions their government cooks up.

In Hong Kong, the political menu du jour has but two dishes on it. There’s Anson Chan, former government bureaucrat, fighting Regina Ip, former government bureaucrat, for an eight month term in Legco. Both of them, while in office, sold out the cause of Hong Kong democracy –Ip, during the infamous Article 23 affair, and Anson Chan, when she pushed to get Beijing to “reinterpret” the Basic Law for the first time, keeping mainland immigrants’ children from getting the Right of Abode in Hong Kong. (My friend Jackie pointed out to me the other day that Anson’s precedent set the table for all of Beijing’s future “reinterpretations” of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the fragile document that is the only thing standing between Hong Kong’s remaining legal freedoms and the unchecked power blowing down like a chill Mongolian wind from the north.)

If Chan versus Ip just sounds like two different brands of the same fish ball to you, then come and meet me down under the overpass on the border of Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, at Freedom Noodles. We’ll order a couple of bowls of–well, it’s up to you, of course–and as we slurp bowls of Hong Kong’s best seui gaau mihn we can imagine what a paradise this city could be if its
politics offered people as many happy choices as the menus in its noodle shops.


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