2.330 Har Gao


1 (Thu) December 2011

Har Gao


-Hong Kong, China Special Administrative Region-

with AUSOM colleagues

Research Trip to China (Day 1 of 4)

In Hong Kong.  With a contingent from AUSOM, we are here to attend the Frontiers in Medical and Health Sciences Education Conference (Friday and Saturday), hosted by the University of Hong Kong Li Kai Shing Faculty of Medicine.  I delivered a presentation on my health ethics course.

All giddy with anticipation, I find myself in the capital of Cantonese cuisine. The official objective of the trip is the conference.  Unofficially, of course, food is the only thing that matters.  Quite happily, I plan to gain a lot of weight while I’m here for the next 4 days.


Soon upon arrival, the gastronomic journey launched to great success over a quick lunch at a fast food joint that had English menus.  Per my recommendation, we all had roast duck noodle soup and an additional side order of roast duck for good measure, which I try to make my first meal arriving in any country that offers it.  Everyone seemed pleased.  Unsuspecting of the folly that would soon follow, I announced with supreme confidence that I would take full responsibility for ensuring that subsequent meals would be even better.


Communication is always a barrier in China, for me.  When I last visited Hong Kong in 1993, it was still a British colony where English was at least reasonably understood by anyone with a possibility of coming into contact with foreigners, such as restaurant staff, taxi drivers, storekeepers.  But after China regained sovereignty in 1997, the influx of immigrants from the mainland drove a rapid cultural shift back to everything Chinese, most notably with respect to the vernacular, rendering English a rarity in present-day Hong Kong.  At dinner, I soon realized that language would present an obstacle in achieving complete culinary satisfaction during this trip.

While stopping to take this photo of the restaurant after dinner, I noticed a prominent photo of har gao in the window.

The leader of our gang declared that he was too tired to go anywhere far, so we walked down the street from the hotel and sat down at the first restaurant that we encountered.

Finding the menu written only in Chinese and without photos, everyone in the group looked to me to make something happen, probably because I’d been boasting ad nauseam about my affinity for and familiarity with the local eats.  I turned to the old woman waiting to take our order and said, “har gao,” figuring that the ubiquitous shrimp dumpling was an easy and obvious opening choice, with shu mai soon to follow.   But she looked puzzled and shook her head.  Thinking of tones, I tried “HAR gao” and “har GAO” and “haaaaaar gao” and “har gaaaaaaao.”  Nothing.  Fortunately, the restaurant had a small selection of ready-to-go items that we could choose from, though no har gao.  A few minutes later, the old woman brought out a steamer of what appeared to be har gao for the customers at an adjacent table.  I stopped her and pointed. She looked at the dumplings and back at me and said, “har gao.”

Most of the dishes, which ranged in price from HKD $10-$15, were passably unremarkable.

One problem with the Chinese language is that even the simplest of words is often excruciatingly difficult for novices to pronounce.  The language comprises a limited number of homophonic syllables, each having several meanings that can be distinguished in writing through different characters but can be differentiated in speech only when vocalized in precise tones, which are something like inflections though exactly modulated. Although the tones are often imperceptibly subtle to untrained ears, they’re crucial to native speakers.

The second and perhaps more frustrating problem is that, once the pronunciation is off, the Chinese make no further attempt to understand what the speaker is attempting to say.  Okay, fine, so I didn’t pronounce “har gao” with the appropriate tonal nuance.  But I mean, come on, at a dim sum restaurant, wouldn’t the vaguest approximation of “har gao” provide a pretty good clue as to what I want?  If a Chinese tourist were to walk into a Korean barbecue joint and ask for “gal-BI,” I’d like to imagine that the server would think for a moment and reply, “Ah, ‘GAL-bi.'” Right?!

(See also FOODS)

(See also PLACES)

These are screen-shot comments from the prior site. If you wish to leave a new comment, please do so in the live comment section below.

Leave a Reply