⟨ Misc ⟩

Chaophraya

A Thai restaurant of three generations.

Words / Phaedrus Lam
Photography / Kimio Ng

進到餐廳,由雜貨店改裝的空間,牆身刷上不加掩飾的水泥,閣樓也拆掉讓樓底顯得高聳,營造出一種適度的粗糙與空曠感。而即使是復古傢俱的揀選也很明智,上世紀設計的紅A圓櫈、英殖時期的教職員坐椅、木紋檯面而底座連著雲石的長餐桌等;都不致於淨華誇張,流露出一種低調克制的品味。誠然,店內這種Loft風格的強烈視覺感,令我誤以為這次訪問的重點,會落在那玄妙的空間規劃設計,或是某種生活品味上的探索;而估計錯誤,其實令我欣喜。

剛剛沒說,是在餐廳大門招牌的上方,還有一面拱圓形的古典壓紋玻璃窗。下午時份,我與主理人阿B在餐廳中場休息訪問時,猛烈日光從窗口滲進,經玻璃折射後擴散開來變得溫婉,照亮了空氣中飄揚的塵絮,令他接下來的話都顯得莫名地古樸和遙遠。「我盡量保持餐廳的原貌,像是這裡的地板就是原本的,我們整修時還特別叫工人要好好保護它⋯⋯另外,我們還有貼一些雜貨店清拆時的舊照,也是特別叫朋友幫忙拍的。」而我這才注意到在店的兩旁,灰黑色牆身上鑲有好幾幅黑白照——凌亂的貨物層架;清空的石磚地板;佛畫與泰皇的肖像並置;綻放著笑容的全家幅;輪轉的影像,腦海裡蹦出了像「離鄉」、「異地」、「歸人」與「過客」這些字眼,一不小心,思緒就被捲進這個家族的回憶之中。

I walked into the restaurant. A space converted from an ex-grocery store, its walls were deliberately brushed on with a blatant layer of cement. The attic has been torn down to create a higher ceiling, and a sense of spaciousness is created by balancing it with a moderate level of roughness. The choice of retro furniture proves to be a smart move, with the century-old design Starred A stool, the faculty chair left behind from the British colonial period and the wooden countertops and marble-based long dining tables resting within. None of it was over extravagant, and in fact it reveals a subtle sense of refrained taste. Even so, the strong Loft style presented by the visuals in the store has made me mistakenly thought that this would be the focus of the entire interview; that we would talk about the intricate space planning and design or the exploration within such aspects of lifestyle. Yet it turns out that I was wrong, and I was delighted by that.

I forgot to mention that the large sign on top of the restaurant door was overshadowed by a circularly arched classic embossed glass window. During the afternoon, when I sat in the restaurant with its owner B for the interview, the strong sunlight infiltrated the space through the window and refracted into gentle rays, lighting up the flowing dusts in the air, which made his next words seem somewhat quaint and distant. “I tried to keep the initial appearance of the space, the flooring is original and we even told the workers to protect it during renovation… Other than that, we also stuck old photos of the grocery store before it was demolished here and we told our friends to help with the shoot.” It was then I realized that on either side of the store, there were a few black and white photographs hung on the gray wall. Against the messy storage shelf, the empty brick floor, the Buddha painting and the portrait of the King of Thailand which was placed side by side, was a family photo of blooming smiles. These rotating images constantly suggested ideas such as “away from home”, “remote”, “return” and “passing” in my mind, and without much caution, my thoughts easily fell into such family-related memories.

昭拍耶,泰國湄公河的音譯,也是這間泰國菜館的名字。當初選址九龍城並非偶然,從八O年代清拆的九龍寨城;主權移交後的機場搬遷;動輒有半世紀的戰前低矮樓房;以至混雜著潮州、泰國人的聚居環境,統統都讓這個位置在九龍半島中央的小區,添上一分魔幻主義的意味;而昭拍耶的老闆阿B,這位中泰混血兒,從小就一直住在九龍城,通曉中泰兩語讓他能與這兩群住民無縫交流,是這座老城孕育出的第三代人。

「我小時候是先學泰文的,結果在我幼稚園入學的第一天,老師都聽不懂我在講甚麼,要求跟我的家長面談。而是從那時候起,我才意識到自己講的不是主流語言。」

阿B的外婆是家族中最先從泰國移居香港的,及後阿B的外公、媽媽也跟隨落腳到九龍城。原先,他們家是經營雜貨店,直至後來阿B外婆與幾個股東成立了蕉葉集團,在九龍城開了多家泰國菜館,底下管理著幾十名員工,人人都喚他外婆作「隆姐」。而直至「隆姐」過身,機場搬遷令區內人流減少後,才令蕉葉集團解散分家,旗下的餐館幾乎全數結業。阿B一家也只保留了龍崗道的雜貨店,以及同作為住處的南角道雜貨店。

外婆去世時,阿B只有十歲,對這段家族的黃金歲月所知不多。他只知道自己有泰國血統,通曉泰文,此外卻跟一般的華裔少年沒兩樣,接受著香港的教育和文化。而自從大專畢業後,阿B就一直幫家裡顧雜貨店,還沒摸清自己往後的方向。

「那時候我跟媽媽住在雜貨店的閣樓,那裡有很多老照片,我從中才得知道外婆的過去,知道她是個很厲害的人物。後來我就跟我媽提議說,不如我們就來開一家餐廳吧!那時候想到自己會泰文,雜貨店又能提供穩定的貨源,剛好龍崗道有家泰國餐廳要結業,我們就決定頂手,開了我們第一家店。」

最終,餐廳起名為「昭拍耶」,名字既是對湄公河這個精神原鄉的追憶,但同時間,也是外婆生前其中一間餐廳的名字;隱約中嗅到一點家族傳承的意味。

Chaophraya, is the transliteration of Thailand’s Mekong river and is also the name of this Thai restaurant. It wasn’t a coincidence in choosing Kowloon City as its address. After the Kowloon Walled City was removed during the ’80s and the airport was relocated after the city’s sovereignty was returned, these low-rise buildings which were here for hundreds of years, standing half a century before the war, has inhabited a mix of Chaozhou and Thai. They were the people who gave this little spot in the center of the Kowloon peninsula a magical undertone. B, the boss of Chaophraya is a Chinese-Thai mix and he has been living in Kowloon City for all his life. Being able to speak both Chinese and Thai has allowed him to seamlessly exchange ideas with both groups of residents, being one of the third generation individuals who was bred by this old city.

“I first learnt Thai when I was young, and on the first day of kindergarten, the teachers could not understand what I was saying and had requested to talk to my parents. That was the time when I realized that I was not speaking the mainstream language.”

B’s grandmother was the first in the family to immigrate to Hong Kong from Thailand. Later on, B’s grandfather and mother followed and settled down in Kowloon City. At first, their family ran a grocery store, and it was not until B’s grandmother and several other shareholders set up Banana Leaf Limited did they open various Thai restaurants in Kowloon City. With a few dozens of employees, everyone referred to his grandmother as “Sister Long”. When “Sister Long” passed away and less people visited the area because the airport was relocated, Banana Leaf Limited disbanded and most of the restaurants they owned closed down. B’s family only kept the grocery store on Longgang Road and the grocery store on South Point Road which they live in.

B was only ten years old when his grandmother died, so he did not know much about the golden period of his family. He only knew that he is from a Thai descent and knew how to speak Thai, but other than that, he is no different from the average Chinese teenager who was educated and brought up in Hong Kong. Since graduating from college, B has been helping the family run their grocery store and has never had a clear mind about his future.

“At the time I used to live with my mother in the grocery store attic and there were lots of old photographs, from which I learned about my grandmother’s past and how amazing she was. Later I suggested to my mother, why don’t we open a restaurant! Since I can speak Thai and the grocery store can act as a stable supplier, we decided to overtake the Thai restaurant on Longgang Road which was about to close down and this was how we opened our first store.”

At the end, the restaurant took Chaophraya as its name to pay tribute, not only to their home and the spirit of the Mekong River, but also to the other restaurant that his grandmother used to own, which had the same name. From such, we can vaguely sense a family heritage.

閣樓上的小發現,令阿B萌生起開餐廳的念頭,然而開展個人事業的勇氣,卻是從阿B在前些日子,為一位泰國僧人充當翻譯的過程中累積得來。

「以前我會覺得自已會泰文沒有用處,直至長大後才發現,原來不是太多人會泰文,也很少有人像我這樣中文和泰文都流利。」因著他特殊的背境和語言能力,經家裡接觸到一位泰國僧人,因緣際會下成為了僧人在港的翻譯人員。「因為這個轉捩點,我認識到非常多的人,多得你無法想像。像是你身處在一個產業,只會認識到產業裡的同行,然而自從我當僧人的翻譯後,就認識到很多不同界別的人,這些種種促成了我開第一家餐廳的勇氣。」

語言的優勢,使他更容易進入到泰國文化,了解自己和家族的根源。去年,他就循著這個根源回到了泰國,剃度修行。

泰國文化與佛教的傳統密不可分,幾乎每個泰國男生,都有過短期修行的經驗。這種短期修行的時間,由七天到三個月不等,期間修行者需要剃光頭髮和眉毛,赤腳走在油柏路和行人路上,逐家逐戶地叩門化緣。「後來我跟那位僧人問說,可不可以到他的寺廟修行,他爽快答好,我就當了七天的和尚。也沒有太特別的理由,只覺得自己是半個泰國人,就想體驗一次。當時每天的生活就是打坐唸經、清掃地方,還有就是出外化緣。化緣的過程非常辛苦,因為泰國鄉間的公路經常有車禍,地上非常多玻璃碎,而因為和尚不能穿鞋,就只能赤腳踩在路上的碎石和玻璃碎上去化緣。」

而其實在出發前,他就在機場預先買好了電話SIM卡,誰知道後來卻發現不適用。「原先打算晚上無聊的時候,可以在晚間休息時上網,不過我覺得是因禍得福。過了七天沒有手機的日子,一開始思緒非常凌亂,相比以前在香港可以一直接觸到很多的外來資訊,沒有手機害我一直心煩。然而三天之後,我的腦袋幾乎是空白一片,精神上相當舒適。」

「有機會的話,我還想多去一遍。」他笑說道。

The little finds in the attic have initiated B’s idea of opening a restaurant. Yet, the courage to really start his own business was inspired by his previous experience of being a translator for a Thai monk.

“In the past, I would feel that knowing how to speak Thai is useless. It was not until I grew up did I realize that not a lot of people can speak Thai, and even fewer is fluent in both Chinese and Thai like I am.” Due to his unique background and language skills, he came in contact with a Thai monk through his family and became the translator for the monk when he was in Hong Kong. “This became a turning point in my life and because of this I got to know a lot of people, more than you can ever imagine. Say if you were working in a specific industry, you would only get to know the people within that industry; but after I became the translator for the monk, I got to know people from all different kinds of industries and this has given me confidence to open my first restaurant.”

His advantageous language ability has given him easy access to Thai culture, which he used to understand more about his family roots. Last year, he followed such roots and went back to Thailand to take part in ordain practice.

Traditional Thai culture and Buddhism are inseparable, and almost every Thai boy has experienced a short-term ordain practice. This sort of short term training ranges from seven days to three months, and during the period, each practitioner is required to shave their hair and eyebrows and to walk barefoot on the oil cypress road and pavements, going from door to door to beg for alms. “I asked the monk I followed if I could have ordain practice at his temple and he immediately said yes. I became a monk for seven days with no special reason. Since I am half Thai, I felt that I should experience it for once. I chanted every day, cleaned the place and went out to beg for alms. The process of begging for alms is very hard because there are lots of car accidents on the roads of rural areas in Thailand, so there were broken glasses everywhere. Since monks cannot wear shoes, we just had to walk on the gravel and broken glasses to go beg for alms.”

Before departure, he brought a prepaid SIM card at the airport, but later found out that it couldn’t be used. “I originally intended to use it at night when I’m bored, so I could go on the internet. Now I feel that the internet-free experience was in fact a delightful accident, because I got to spend seven days without using a mobile phone. At first I was very frustrated because I did not have access to information like I did in Hong Kong. Yet after three days, my mind was almost blank and I felt very comfortable mentally.”

“If there is a chance, I would like to go again.” He laughed and said.

對泰國文化,是深耕細作地去經營、學習。然而在泰國文化以外,阿B對本地文化也同樣惜愛。細看店內的傢俱和擺飾,你會發現眾多老香港的影子,他說:「泰國之外,我們也想加入香港味的元素。像這裡的桌子,大部份都是找香港工匠打造的,而椅子則是從老式雜貨店裡買到的⋯⋯又像紅A設計的椅子,原來紅A自己已經不生產了,多番尋覓後才找到這張新海洋製的替代。」

而在古早品、手作品之外,也有香港本地時尚品牌的足跡。阿B本身是個古著迷,因為與本地古著品牌Workware素有交情,又一直苦惱於每天出門上班的搭裝,就想到索性作一套丹寧材質,連同帽子和圍裙的員工制服,全餐廳統一穿著;其制服上更分別印上了「Chaophraya」和「Workware」二字,是一次聯乘合作。

阿B又指著牆壁上的植物裝飾,介紹那是本地植物藝術品牌Plantist的創作,他接著道:「香港現在還沒有太多用植物藝術的店面。我們店的客人覺得很新奇,有這麼大型的植物擺設。」

Apart from digging deep into the cultures of Thailand and learning to run his business from his roots, B also cherishes the local culture. If you look at the furnitures and decorations in the store closely, you would find shadows of our old Hong Kong. He said, “Apart from Thailand, I also wanted to add in Hong Kong elements, such as the tables here which were made majorly by Hong Kong artisans, and the chairs which were bought from old-fashioned grocery stores in Hong Kong. They look a lot like Starred-A design stools but apparently Starred-A has already stopped producing goods, so I looked around for quite some time until I found this alternative replacement made by New Ocean.”

In addition to vintage goods and handmade products, there are also traces of local fashionable brands in his restuarant. B himself is a vintage goods fanatic, and because he has a good relationship with local vintage brand Workware, he made a set of denim uniforms for his staff to prevent them in being frustrated about what to wear to work. With hats and aprons as well, this uniforms worn by every staff in the restaurant is printed with “Chaophraya” and “Workware”, making it a collaborative project.

B also pointed at the plant decorations on the wall and told us that it was created by local plant art brand Plantist. “There isn’t a lot of plant art for store fronts in Hong Kong. Our customers think that it is very interesting to have such a large scale plant decoration.”

上菜時間,阿B先跟我們介紹這一道「南瓜軟殼蟹」,他說:「這道菜是我跟主廚實驗出來的,當初想到另一道菜『咖哩炒蟹』,而雖然味道很好,不過要拆殻太麻煩,最後就改用軟殼蟹。為甚麼選用南瓜,是因為它跟咖哩的味道很搭,我們咖哩的味道是偏甜的。不過南瓜的選擇也不輕鬆,要大小恰好,必須親自去挑選。我們用的是日本產的橘色南瓜,泰國南瓜的外形不太好看,橘色南瓜搭黃色咖哩,在色澤上也比較匹配。」

接下來的則是「竹夾燒雞扒配糯米飯」,是新店獨創的菜式,他續說道:「這個竹夾,其實是我們的一位員工從他泰國老鄉採集回來,再自行磨砍竹子,最後夾住雞扒一起燒。吃雞扒的時候,你會微微感覺到肉裡面的清新竹香。」

During meal time, B first introduced to us the “Pumpkin & Soft-Shell Crab” and said, “This dish is an experiment by our chief and I. At first, we came up with “Curry Crab”, but even though it tasted very good, the shells were very troublesome to dismantle so we switched to soft-shell crab instead. We chose pumpkin because it matches very well with curry, and our curry is sweet. It’s not easy to choose the right pumpkin though, as it has to be the perfect size and we must choose it ourselves. We use the orange pumpkin from Japan because the shape of Thai pumpkin is not that attractive, plus orange pumpkin and yellow curry is more matching in color anyways.”

Then came the “Grilled Chicken (with Bamboo Scent) & Sticky Rice”, an original dish by the new store. He further explained, “This bamboo clip was actually made by bamboos which were brought back by one of our staff from his home town in Thailand. It was then manually filed and grilled with the chicken. This is why when you eat the chicken, you would slightly feel the fresh scent from the bamboo shoot.”

看到阿B推薦的招牌菜,都是新派的、改良的泰國菜式,讓我想到市面上的泰國餐廳,幾乎都標榜是「正宗」的泰國味時,就覺得繞富趣味。

然後我記得,訪問中途我們走出了餐廳閒聊,阿B說他原本不太能吃辛辣的食物,是直到開餐廳後才稍為適應,他後來還說:「那時候去泰國取經,女朋友跟我說泰國菜的口味太重,如果要天天吃會受不了,我就想到原來追求正宗口味這回事沒甚麼意思。我會覺得,出生第一口吃到的食物,就是正宗的食物;就像你在連鎖式迴轉壽司店,吃到的第一口的壽司,以後就會覺得壽司的味道本該如此。」

而就像「昭拍耶」,取名是泰國湄公河的意思,地點卻落在這片異鄉的風景中。那是當我們談及原鄉、原味時,往往不是指一個總體的、單一的面向,而是從每個個體的理解中拼湊出來。沐浴在精神原鄉的河道,有人在嬉水、有人在沈思、有人在回憶昨日的黃昏,也有人寄望在旭日初升時,潮湧上會映照出不一樣的光波。

All of the signature dishes recommended by B are new and modified versions of traditional Thai food, which reminds me of how most of the Thai restaurants in the market advertise on their “authentic-ness”, making this experience all the more interesting.

Then I remembered when B and I had a casual chat outside of the restaurant, he said that he couldn’t really eat spicy food, it wasn’t until he opened a restaurant when he sort of got used to it. He even said, “When I went to Thailand to learn about the culture, my girlfriend said to me that the taste of Thai food is too strong, she would not be able to stand it if she had to eat it every day. That was when I realized there isn’t much point to replicate the original taste. Since I feel that the first bite you take out of anything would make you feel that it is the ‘original’ taste anyways, much like when you eat the first piece of sushi from a sushi chain, you would feel that all sushi should taste the same.”

Just like Chaophraya, a name which was taken from the Thailand Mekong river, it is really about a place which is located in a distant land under exotic and foreign scenery. This is why when we talk about our original hometown and the original flavor, it never refers to a general and single direction, rather a puzzle which has been put together by the understandings of different people. Bathing in the spiritual river of home, some play in the water and some ponder; some go back to their memories of the setting sun from yesterday, whilst others anticipate that when the sun rises again, the tides would reflect a different wave.