Freedom Beyond Noodles

This little note at the bottom of a column in today’s South China Morning Post reminds me it’s been some months since I visited my favorite noodle shop:

Celebrating 20 years of Freedom Noodles

the economic downturn and a series of closures in the catering sector,
a popular, yet humble restaurant called Freedom Noodles – founded 20
years ago on the ground floor of the Professional Teachers’ Union’s
clubhouse in Causeway Bay – is still going strong.

Cheung Man-kwong, who is head of the union, said the 20th anniversary
of the Tiananmen Square crackdown this year had a special meaning for
the shop, which was a favourite in the neighbourhood.

“There is
more to the name of the shop than the freedom for customers to choose
whatever combination of ingredients they wish for their dish of
noodles. The owners were active supporters of the pro-democracy
movement before June 4, 1989,” Mr Cheung said.

I didn’t know that the owners of Ji Yauh Mihn Ga were pro-democracy supporters, but this knowledge will add to my pleasure and comfort the next time I happen to be near the Bowrington Market in Wan Chai and duck into the steamy shop and order a bowl of their delicious and utterly satisfying seui gau mihn.

Lately, there’s been a foodie scramble to anoint one or another Hong Kong noodle shop as the “best” won ton noodle place in town. I blame this urge to categorize and rate on the recent release of the Michelin Guide for Foreign Tourists Coming to Hong Kong who Can’t Read The Chinese Menu and are Afraid Someone Might Slip Dog Meat in their Dumpling. The “classic” elements of the won ton noodle soup have been analyzed and proclaimed by these experts. If a soup does not contain slivers of the more expensive white chive (as opposed to the lowly green one, which is so cheap that the vendors in the gaai sih will often give a bunch away for free to customers, like a pack of Kleenex at the 7-11), it is instantly crossed off the golden foodie noodle list.

According to the believers of the Won Ton Bible, just about the only “real” noodle shop in Hong Kong is a place on Wellington Street called Mak Gei. Now, I live about a two minute walk from that shop, and I eat there from time to time, and their won ton mihn is fine by me. The broth is richer than usual, and suitably shrimpy. The won tons are a good size, not too big or small, and the noodles are springy and chewy.

Still, Mak’s is not a noodle soup that I go out of my way to eat. For one thing, it’s pricey and they’re a bit mingy on the portions–$38 Hong Kong dollars only gets you a bowl the size of a teacup, three small wontons and a baby’s fistful of noodles. If you want to make a lunch of it, you really have to order two bowls, which puts your tab close to $10 US–a lot of moolah for a bowl of noodles in the Time of Financial Tsunami.

But it’s not money that makes me less interested in eating a bowl of Mak’s noodles than a $14 bowl of Freedom’s. Soup, no matter what culture you are in, is not just about the ingredients–it’s about the soul. In this chilly month, of this cold, cold year, I want to be comforted by friends and familiar faces. I want to pick up my porcelain spoon and chopsticks, lower my head to the steaming bowl, and knock elbows with teachers, unionists, market vendors and taxi drivers. I want freedom from the gnawing fear that these people, this shop, and this won ton mihn will disappear in a blink, replaced by some rapacious developer’s crappy concrete tower filled with slick corporate restaurants that promise a “perfect” won ton “lifestyle”.

Thank god, we’re done with that. For a while, at least. The upside of the finanical tsunami: a pause, and a space, to be filled not by mere things, but by things that matter.

Like Freedom Noodle’s 20 wonderful years of pro-democratic, won ton soup.

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