Editor’s note: Lucky Peach was a magical food magazine that existed from 2011 to 2017. It was beloved by readers, regarded as a destination publication for writers, and won a slew of James Beard Awards. After its untimely demise, the website—and all the stories it ever published—disappeared into the digital ether. In the spirit of resurrecting the dead (and because the copyright reverts to the author), The Takeout will be republishing several stories from Lucky Peach’s archives—for posterity. I wrote story for luckypeach.com in October 2015.
We Chinese have kicked ass and taken names in so many areas we’ve lost count—engineering, concert pianists, opening ceremonies, Internet censorship—but there’s one thing we’ll admit to falling behind Westerners and never to catch up: owning a sense of irony.
Really, we don’t even have a word for “ironic.” The Chinese character is deeply rooted in earnestness, so having to explain “I actually mean the opposite of what I say for humorous effect” is a confusing concept. Just ask my parents when I was 16.
I bring this up because a Hello Kitty-themed dim sum restaurant opened in Hong Kong in 2015. Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine is the restaurant’s English name, and it’s located off the tourist drag in the dense working-class neighborhood of Jordan. Not surprisingly, its novelty drew robust interest from the Western press—Buzzfeed, The Daily Mail, Eater, Time, and others.
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Inside, there’s a red-and-gold Ming dynastical feel to the proceedings, what you’d imagine if a Western interior designer was told to replicate a Chinese teahouse—except, and this is the key difference, Hello Kitty’s unmistakable hair-bowed visage is on the surface of every available square foot of real estate. Everything. Everything.
I walked by a phalanx of Hello Kitty plush dolls on sale, next to a four-foot-tall Hello Kitty statue, in order to get to my table (emblazoned with Hello Kitty’s face), where I was served Iron Buddha tea from a Hello Kitty teapot with a Hello Kitty saucer, provided with a Hello Kitty wet nap, and, handed a menu where each dish featured her likeness in some form. Conveniently, her head is shaped like a dumpling. For more shapeless dishes, there were allusions to her feline majesty: beef noodles were topped with a hair-bow of shredded eggs, or garnishes of hearts, or more overtly, the company logo pressed on with food-grade dye.
Before I even tasted a bite, what struck me about the restaurant was the clientele. Young parents towing kids were a given—it was the adults who were there for a casual lunch, who weren’t. They weren’t hovering above the table with a camera and conjuring some snarky tweet in their head. They came in—and this was a remarkable concept to me, a jaded American food writer—to eat. To those customers, and to the wait staff, the fact that Hello Kitty’s face was on goddamn everything seemed incidental. There was no verbal acknowledgment of the cartoon from servers, no scripted lines, no song nor dance, no whatever-the-equivalent-is-to-“Let It Go” on a loop, no evidence any staffers exhibited unbridled love for the namesake character. It operated, efficiently and unironically, as a restaurant. You could bring people here blindfolded and they’d never know it was some gaudily themed restaurant.
When the food arrived the har gow were facsimiles of Hello Kitty’s head. Her iconic hair-bow was made from tapioca flour wrappers dyed yellow-and-red, her eyes and nose appearing to be sesame seeds, and the three whiskers on each cheek drawn on. Ma lai go, the steamed sponge cake, received the same make-up. None of these visual add-ons changed the flavor of the dim sum one iota — it’s like icing on cake (except that frosting is delicious), only there was some deviant pleasure in chomping half of Hello’s head off to reveal her prawn brains.
Even in the glutinous rice, where the components were deconstructed to form its Hello Kittiness (red pepper bow, black bean eyes, corn kernel nose), it tasted like... glutinous rice everywhere else. These were all middle-of-the-road dim sum, nothing to garner Michelin stars. It was just a dim sum restaurant off the tourist drag in the working-class neighborhood.
Before I arrived, the potential for ironic commentary had me salivating. By the time I left it had dried to a crust of realization that this, in fact, was a rather savvy business idea. Hundreds of dim sum restaurant operate in Hong Kong in obscurity. For a licensing fee to the Sanrio corporation, this restaurant slapped a mouthless Japanese cat on its logo and stood out from the pack. And for what? Charging 50 percent more than comparable dim sum parlors for food of middling quality, and then get enough write-ups in the media to a make a publicist’s toes curl? Wow, that goes well beyond irony—it enters the realm of satire.
Note: Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine has since closed.