Tablescape and Cityscape: Urban planning on a cha chaan teng table

It takes not only relevant professional knowledge but also political courage to keep urban planning as packed and yet orderly as a cha chaan teng table.

Original article in Chinese: 茶餐廳桌面的城市規劃- Tablescape and Cityscape


Visiting a Hong Kong style affordable restaurant, or cha chaan teng (茶餐廳) is part of Hong Kong people’s everyday lifestyle. I was in one of these restaurants not long ago and ordered a buttered Pineapple Bun (波蘿油), ham macaroni and a hot coffee with tea (鴛鴦). I observed the traditional cafe table that had a tabletop size of less than 26 by 26 inches. It was piled with food, knives and forks, chopsticks, and spoons. In addition, there was also the usual salt, pepper, soy sauce, chilli sauce, toothpicks and disorganised menus scattered around the congested leftover space on the table. A table could – and did – fit four people; each ordered a different food. The person on my left ordered oats, hot ovaltine and buttered toast, and the person opposite ordered pork chop spaghetti, Borscht, egg sandwich and red bean ice drink, the person on the right was enjoying his roasted chicken wings, bun with condensed milk and cold milk tea. Such a typical table setting shows both the multicultural side and overcrowding situation of Hong Kong.

The tablescape was an epitome of Hong Kong’s cityscape.

 

Evolution

Hong Kong’s urban areas experienced several eras of Town Planning Ordinance and Buildings Ordinance over past decades. The streets of old districts are narrow, and cannot support allowable developmental density under regulations laid down years agos which failed to anticipate the density. Giving witness to Hong Kong’s prosperity, busy streets filled with people and cars. On popular streets of Wanchai and Mong Kok, you will see busy passengers,loading and off loading lorries and parking illegally in every corner.

People in these areas live by unwritten, psychological contracts that make these dense living conditions possible.. They are considerate and don’t dwell on the historical flaws of town planning for such problems. It is not that the lorry drivers like to stop at illegally parking spaces to offload, nor that taxi drivers like stopping at restricted areas to drop off passengers; with only moderate management measures, the public’s everyday life is not much affected. We understand that government officials have the responsibility to maintain smooth and orderly traffic flow. However,they understand that these unauthorised actions arise from necessity due to the problems left behind by previous town planning regimes.

However, on the other hand, in processing planning applications of some community facilities, departments like Transport Department adopt conservative standards in estimating the traffic flow on days with social and public events that occur a few times a year.

 

Like a cha chaan teng

Hong Kong is an extremely densely populated city, with scarce land resources and limited urban space. The effective operation of cha chaan tengs is a concerted effort of the restaurant staff and customers. Hong Kong’s prosperity in the past in part relied on this spontaneous social synchronisation. So why would department officials not embrace this “Lion Rock” spirit?

Much of the blame lies not with conscious decisions of current urban planning officials, but rather in the nature of long standing urban planning mechanisms that need reform. First of all, Town Planning Board (TPB) members were appointed by the Government. Members came from different social backgrounds and industries, and most of them did not have professional urban development backgrounds. Most of them could not understand complicated technical issues. The purpose of this composition was to enable participation in decision-making for people from all walks of life. The intention was good, but when it comes to actual operation, it was not the case. Town Planning Board members rarely disagreed with recommendations of the Planning Department.

Under the current system, the Planning Department (PlanD) serves as the Secretariat of the TPB. Upon receiving a planning application, PlanD will circulate the applicant’s proposal and its technical assessment reports to relevant departments for comments. When views from all concerned parties are gathered, feedback is given back to the applicant via PlanD.

But divisions between similarly ranked departments mean that PlanD is generally unwilling to challenge, much less overturn, unreasonable objections from other government departments, such as the Transport Department.

Yet, sometimes the Transport Department uses overly conservative approaches and unscientific references to assess the traffic impact for certain projects. The reason for this may not be that individual officers are not professional, nor due to excessive bureaucratic cautiousness; the genuine reason is due to opposition from the local residents and District Councillors.

 

NIMBYism rears its head

Residents often worry that social facilities would affect their housing price. Under such circumstances, they strongly oppose planning applications for essential social facilities. This “NOT-IN-MY-BACK-YARD” attitude (or NIMBY-ism) has been damaging to the broader interests of Hong Kong. Some District Councillors choose to distort the truth to agitate public opinion in order to build a base of voter support and secure their future electoral success.

This opposition puts pressure on officials. In order to avoid offending District Councillors (DC), officials would tilt their judgement scales to align with the DCs. Therefore, it is difficult to obtain support from the Planning Department on NIMBY-vulnerable facilities initiated by government or private developers. Under the existing system, the TPB members also rarely present opinions contrary to the recommendations of the Planning Department acting as the Secretariat of the Town Planning Board.

The abnormal phenomenon described above has led the TPB to reject applications on projects such as public housing and private columbaria. Stagnant development, economic activities stifled, social facilities under acute shortage – is this good for Hong Kong people?

Our cramped cha chaan teng tabletop reflects the highly dense urban development of Hong Kong. In the crowded cha chaan teng environment, there are considerate customers and dedicated and thoughtful rational waiters maintaining the overall order within chaos, ensuring the efficient and orderly dining functions. Imagine a restaurant where the managers demanded strict order on the table with only one unchanging menu, severe restrictions on cutlery and condiments and a restricted number of patrons per table. It just wouldn’t be Hong Kong – and it wouldn’t be a very good cha chaan teng.

I appeal to the public to let go of the NIMBY-ism attitude, Councillors to give up their populist strategies, and officials to relinquish their excessive bureaucratic cautiousness. It is time breaking the silo segregations and uphold the “Lion Rock” spirit.

Francis Neoton Cheung

Francis Neoton Cheung

Francis Neoton Cheung is an urban designer who believes in people and, in particular, the people of Hong Kong. In his architectural and planning projects, his ideas about space have always been people centric.

Cheung is Founder and Convenor of Doctoral Exchange and of Central-Wanchai Reclamation Study Group. He also founded and chairs Neodimensions Group.

Francis Neoton Cheung