Hong Kong’s Kitchen Shorthand
June 13, 2019 4:45 AM   Subscribe

From the essay Hong Kong Food Runes: Nobody knows I’m a fraud. No one here knows where I live, but they assume I live nearby—every evening with my punters’ guide, a black notebook, and a dozen bottles of beer. Like an unassuming creeper, I leisurely slot myself into taking food orders for customers when the noodle-stall keeper does not have enough hands, until eventually I’m asked to simply open the till for change.

Linguist and "failed restauranteur" Lian-Hee Wee infiltrates the noodle stalls of Hong Kong to decipher the spare, mysterious, ingenious cryptographic script that allows the city's often semiliterate servers and kitchen staff to seamlessly and rapidly communicate over a million possible combinations dished up to thousands of customers per restaurant daily.

"Even a small noodle stall will have at least five types of noodles, twenty toppings, various options for sauce, and other add-ons that allow anyone to choose from some 1.6 million combinations. And this just for one person’s noodle meal, not counting drinks. The complexity of choice is what’s captured in the little slips."

Via the Spring 2019 edition of World Literature Today, the first annual city issue devoted to Hong Kong; introductory essay, "Hong Kong's Table Talks," here.
posted by taz (24 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
brilliant, best of web
posted by hugbucket at 4:55 AM on June 13

This is extremely good! Thank you for linking this.
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:59 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

Wow so cool. Hong Kong is a special thing.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:27 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]

Wow, that is interesting.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:33 AM on June 13

Customers do not care if you work for one stall or another, nor are they bothered by how the used dishes from different stalls need to be sorted and returned. Daai paai dong wait staff, and various cashiers, do have to care, do have to be alert.

It’s both comforting and infuriating that the interaction between customer and service staff is truly universal.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:01 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

That aside, the method of shorthand is great — an entire writing (and language) system repurposed for critical daily use by and for a semiliterate population. Some of the shortenings and homophones are genius, and I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:09 AM on June 13

Why, just yesterday, my friend, a chef at a small eatery of the above dimensions was paying HK$35,000/month for rent—this notwithstanding that each customer’s bill averages only HK$50. With utilities, salaries, ingredients, and other sundry costs, that tiny shop must take in HK$8,000 a day to survive—i.e., 1,600 daily orders.

Interesting story; shitty math.

8000 * 30 != 35000
50 * 1600 != 8000
posted by logicpunk at 6:10 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

You're wrong about the first math, logicpunk, because you missed "with utilities, salaries, ingredients, and other sundry costs", but you're right about the second math.

He did say that he's a failed restauranteur, though, so maybe that explains it.
posted by clawsoon at 6:26 AM on June 13 [7 favorites]

dammit you're right, I forgot about the utilities et al. which explains why I am a failed restauranteur as well.
posted by logicpunk at 6:30 AM on June 13 [5 favorites]

A nicer way to put it would be just to note they've mistakenly dropped a zero (the eatery needs to turn over HK$80,000 a day to survive). The $35,000 is just rent-- it doesn't include the other costs that are included in the HK$80k. It's easy to make mistakes, right?
posted by Static Vagabond at 6:31 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]

80,000 per day would be 2,400,000 per month, of which 35,000 in rent would be a tiny amount.

I have no idea which numbers are correct, which suggests that I, too, would end up being a failed restauranteur.

Numbers aside, it's a fascinating article; thanks for posting it!
posted by clawsoon at 6:44 AM on June 13

Somehow it never occurred to me that one could write only a fragment of an ideogram in order to save time and effort, in precisely the same way that one can abbreviate a written word, but makes perfect sense.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:13 AM on June 13 [5 favorites]

I have been thinking about the best way to go about research for a dim sum menu tattoo, and I feel like there are probably some similarities between the shorthand that is mentioned here, dim sum menus, and the cryptic american short order cook language. Maybe it's time for a trip to HK
posted by pagrus at 7:40 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

I'm a little confused about all the synonyms. "wood" instead of "squid", "uncooked rice" instead of "rice noodles", "green" instead of "scallions". Why make those substitutions? Is it because it's assumed that a cook who isn't great at reading may know some simpler / more basic written words? I could certainly believe most Chinese speakers learn the idiograph for "green" before "scallions". At this point there's presumably a shared written language so these are the words you'd use now. But how did this originate?
posted by Nelson at 7:42 AM on June 13

What a wonderful thing to read, this week of all weeks.

Eating at these places is one of my favorite parts of living here - they are like a restaurant boiled down to its purest essence: sit (usually - sometimes you just stand at a counter) at something resembling a table, order briefly, food arrives, you consume it, you pay and leave.

Sometimes there's no roof and you're just under an awning outside, sometimes you're sharing a table of sorts with random other customers, sometimes there's a very clear notice taped to the table: MAXIMUM DINING TIME 30 MINS. You're not here to have a culinary experience; you're here to refuel and then get out so the next diner can eat and so the owner can pay the rent.

Part of what I think gets lost in the Cantonese restaurants I go to at home in suburban Southern California is this reduction to essentials; you end up distorting the speed at which these meals are meant to be prepared and consumed. You have to drive to the restaurant. There is sometimes a wait. You have to order off a menu. You have a little chat with the server. You wait what is comparatively ages. Your food arrives in America-sized portions. There is time to linger. You take the leftovers home (!!!). (Dim sum is a different story - you can sit forever, technically, as long as more baskets are ordered; the tea will keep flowing. I have been at dim sum gatherings that last upwards of four hours and no one seemed to mind us being there for ages.)

But the places described in this article really do exist right at the edge of our insanely high-rent city, and more of them close every day as people become more affluent and want a more comfortable experience (or, like, bathrooms), and as more people move into housing complexes in more suburban areas that don't have the density of foot traffic needed to keep places like this open.

A few favorites of mine, two of which are neighbors:

- Bing Kee, 5 Shepherd Street, Tai Hang - though this neighborhood is fast gentrifying so I don't know how long you've got to get here; also more of a morning/lunch place

- Cheung Fat Noodles, 14 Yiu Tung Street, Sham Shui Po - uh, try the noodles

- Yuen Kee, 15 Yiu Tung Street, Sham Shui Po - more of a seafood place but good to great service
posted by mdonley at 7:44 AM on June 13 [10 favorites]

Oh, this reminds me of a restaurant that I used to work for that had a tough time bridging the customer-server-cook communication loop! There's a LOT of communication, so it's always a concern. But in bigger restaurants it's not usually a real problem because even if the dining room and the kitchen are run in different languages (it's common in the US to have front of house be in English and back of house to be in Spanish, not sure about other places) you only really need the cook running expo to be literate in the dining room's/waitstaff's language and multi-lingual -- but it can become an issue in places too small for a dedicated expo or that run the kitchen short-order style.

About ten years ago, I worked for a Korean/Japanese restaurant in Baltimore, as part of the first wave of hires that didn't speak or write Korean. Up to then, everyone employed there was either family or a family friend from Korea, so everything within the restaurant itself (aside from speaking to English-language customers) could be handled in Korean. Before my group of three or four new English-language servers had come on, the restaurant had used the usual short order cook ordering system, where the waiter wrote the order on his pad and then gave the slip of paper to the kitchen, and that same waiter made the bar drinks himself -- and in this case, that one waiter was the American-raised son of the owners and spoke/wrote both English and Korean fluently. So he could take English-language orders and translate them into Korean when he wrote them down for the back of house staff, who were a group of old Korean men who had no English at all. And like all short-order systems like that, everything was written in a shorthand, in that case a Korean shorthand.

So at first, the restaurant figured that they could just teach us new servers the Korean shorthand word/phrase for each order, we'd memorize it, and the system could continue. Except that they'd hired people like me, who were experienced waitstaff but who had no familiarity with Korean or Japanese food or the Korean language. And it was impossible for us to memorize all the new dishes, all the new ways of doing things (both things particular to this restaurant -- how we were supposed to get ice was a trip -- and some cultural things), AND how to write everything down efficiently in short-hand Korean. So that idea had to be given up within a week, tops. Then the owners wanted to have the cooks memorize English shorthand for all the orders instead, since they could post a cheat-sheet by expo to help with translations. But these guys had no English at all, so differences even in handwriting were confusing, plus there were issues with the waitstaff still learning the menu and making mistakes with the actual orders, too. We kept that up for a couple weeks, but it was pretty much a disaster, and the one waiter who could speak both English and Korean must have been going nuts, because he was having to translate constantly as well as train everybody. And that also meant he couldn't take as many tables (and was already more limited in taking tables anyway because of all of us new servers on the floor), so he was getting less money for more work. And during this time, the restaurant also brought on a couple nephews who'd just arrived in the US, one to bartend and one as sushi chef, and they both clearly knew restaurant work (and the sushi chef especially was amazing at his job) but had basically no English, either, which was tough, because they had to take orders both directly from English-language customers and from English-language staff.

So anyway, within the month, the restaurant ended up getting its first computer system. Because it was impossible to do all this multi-lingual communication between mono-lingual groups of people all by hand and on the fly. The End. :)

It was also a great restaurant and spoiled us with family meal and shift drink and letting us eat all the "side dishes" (basically a bunch of stuff -- different sorts of radish, kimchi, fish cake, etc, that was given out before/during the meal instead of how bread rolls are in American-style places), and unlimited miso and green tea and a small bowl of rice each shift, and the cooks cooking us all these little treats like sugar pancakes and scallion pancakes and whatever else when they got bored. Anyhow, the place is closed now, unfortunately.
posted by rue72 at 7:45 AM on June 13 [15 favorites]

Also, on questions above about why the servers might be 'semiliterate', one point to consider is that compulsory, free primary education is a relatively new phenomenon in Hong Kong and it wasn't until 1971 that going to primary school was even required by law; a significant population of people in their 60s and up today, many of whom work in places like the ones in the essay, may have missed out on formal schooling in written Chinese, despite speaking it natively, and were instead working from a very young age. More in this paper on post-war child labour here (PDF).
posted by mdonley at 8:18 AM on June 13 [5 favorites]

As another failed restauranteur, the don’t forget the 30% rule, where your food cost per menu item needs to be no more than 30% of what you’re charging the customer, or you’re going to go out of business. But, given that, if you’re doing 8000 HKD in sales, your food costs are eating up at least 2400 of that. If the rent is 35000 a month, you can break that down into a soul crushing 1166HKD a day. So you’ve got maybe 4500 left over to pay salary, utilities, and other operating costs.

But yeah, you’re looking at serving 160 people a day, with limited seating and even though you might open early and stay open late, the mass of people are going to come by during a set time, which limits you by forcing people to wait for an open seat, or to watch them go elsewhere rather than wait. And needing to do it all day most every day.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:14 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]

Why make those substitutions? Is it because it's assumed that a cook who isn't great at reading may know some simpler / more basic written words?

That's my guess. I'm semi-literate in Chinese and I know "wood" and "green", but would have to look up "squid" and "scallions".

It's also probably for speed: contrast "wood" 木 with "squid" 墨(魚). The latter takes way more strokes and precision.

From looking this up, I learned that 墨魚 are actually cuttlefish, while squid are 魷魚

Also, some look like they could be simple abbreviations, like "uncooked rice" 米 for "rice noodles" 米粉.

This article doesn't cover one of my favourites, 0T for lemon tea, which is a multi-step, multilingual pun: 檸(檬)茶 -> 檸 tea -> 檸 T -> 0 (as in 零) T.
posted by airmail at 9:19 AM on June 13 [8 favorites]

I'm a little confused about all the synonyms. "wood" instead of "squid", "uncooked rice" instead of "rice noodles", "green" instead of "scallions". Why make those substitutions? Is it because it's assumed that a cook who isn't great at reading may know some simpler / more basic written words?

It's all about shorthand... and therefore speed.

Top left
木 would be short for 木鱼, squid
the second "character" (not sure if it really is one, might be an old character no longer used) is short for 牛腩, brisket
米 is short for 米粉, rice noodles
X 青 青 would be easier to write down than 葱, the actual character for onion

Top center
付 is a homonym for the first character in 腐乳, one type of fermented bean sauce
通才 - here the second character is a homonym for 菜, vegetables, 通才 therefore being water spinach (通 “to go through" refers to the hollow stem of the plant)
X 由 character is abbreviated from 油, missing the water radical, saving 3 strokes

Top right
央 would be shorthand for ying yeung tea, and that refers to a species of bird that mate for life (I think), the characters are rather complicated and I'm not sure of the Mandarin pinyin so can't look the characters just yet

Bottom left
士 homonym for second character in 豆zhi, fermented black bean sauce (zhi is 豆 + 支,for some reason it's not a choice in the Microsoft pinyin input system or at least I haven't found it yet)
召 probably homonym for 炒, stir-fry
显 homonym for 蚬, clams

Bottom right is the easiest of them all
大 large
妹 girl

I remember looking at my checks when living in China and being bemused by the shorthand. For chicken fried rice, I remember seeing 几反,rather than 鸡饭. Liver was 干 instead of 肝. It's all about shortening down what you have to write while still making it understandable and clear to kitchen staff. For example, I can't think of any reason to write 木 down other than to refer to squid.

This brought back memories of when my parents still ran our "Chinese-American" restaurant. (Those words are still painted in huge letters on the side of the building facing the street; I asked my dad about them once in my pre-teen years and he explained that it was to show that they weren't fooling anybody, that most of it wasn't really Chinese, but maybe Chinese with an American twist?) We had an abbreviation for everything on the menu. Sweet and sour chicken was "SS CK" or some variation thereof; egg roll was simply "ER". I personally wrote S/S for the sweet and sour, otherwise with my ferociousness pen-handling it would just look like a giant squiggle. Combination platters were numbered, so a #7 was simply that. It was hard to get confused with what a customer ordered unless you just had sloppy handwriting, or they ordered a dish whose shorthand was similar to another dish. (Rare, but I think it did happen sometimes.) It therefore took minimal effort to take down an order of any size, and putting the order into the kitchen was as simple as taking the carbon-copies of your check to the different stations in the kitchen. The kitchen staff knew exactly what the dishes were, since all it took was recognition of letter combinations and numbers. I wouldn't be surprised if the small mom-and-pop Chinese food establishments out there use a similar system today, if everything on the menu isn't numbered.

Compare that to how everything is computerized now, where you have to oh-so-painstakingly input each little item before the order is sent back, and the difference of speediness is in magnitudes.
posted by ditto75 at 9:57 AM on June 13 [24 favorites]

Homophones, not homonyms -- isn't there a way to edit posts? Or I guess it's too late now...

Anyway, thanks for the memories OP!
posted by ditto75 at 10:09 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

This is great, thanks for posting! Reminds me of a series of blog posts on Language Log (links to previous parts at the end of the post) on Chinese restaurant shorthand worldwide.
posted by btfreek at 7:34 PM on June 13

ditto75: Compare that to how everything is computerized now, where you have to oh-so-painstakingly input each little item before the order is sent back, and the difference of speediness is in magnitudes.

My day job involves automating processes via computerizing them, and I have the constant suspicion that I'm actually slowing everyone down. (Why is it that all the projects made money for a decade before the latest computerized process automation was introduced, and every project since then has been months behind schedule and over budget? Hmm. Hrm.)

Fantastic comment, BTW.
posted by clawsoon at 7:46 PM on June 13 [3 favorites]

Can anyone explain the proverb "Everything also easy-going, where have person (to) give (you) face?" (“Mud doe gum tsui bin, bin yau yan bei min?”)
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:45 AM on June 16

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