Meals to go with the news

Sin Wan Kei - Hong Kong Economic Times

[中文][Apr 2011 - The Journalist] "It's dinner time!"

That's what the lady who takes my order over the phone says. A warm phrase, really, compared to what she normally says -- "Your order's ready!".

It serves as a reminder for a troubled reporter that we still have to eat even in these crazy times when people scramble for table salt to protect themselves against radiation from Japan.

There are no standard working hours for journalists. Nor fixed meal times. What we do is to gobble down whatever on the table as we rush to beat news deadlines.

The alternative is to wait until we get off work - often past midnight for newspapers - and turn our late night suppers into dinners.

But obviously there are times when deadlines are relatively far away and reporters can have an anxiety-free meal. But being anxiety-free doesn't make it enjoyable.

The canteen at Apple Daily - located in Junk Bay, mind you - is operated by the company that tried to cut paid meal breaks for its staff.

Some say that every dish its serves has exactly the same degree of saltishness. Others say the first bite is tasty, the rest is tasteless.

Apple Daily workers joke that eating in the canteen is like eating junk in a landfill.

The paper's union organised boycotts. They repeatedly demanded improvements, but to no avail. It's reached boiling point, and some would rather stick to their cup noodles than to make the risky trip to the canteen.

At the other end of the world, Sing Tao Daily sits just next to the renowned Shau Kei Wan Main Street East. Journalists there often lead large groups to enjoy a variety of reasonably priced selections.

Inflation may have swept through most of the city, but you can still find $24 three-topping cart noodles that can be filling for most men.

And not just for choice and flavour, Main Street also features a big spending cha chaan teng boss who hands out $50 lai see (red packets) to Sing Tao reporters he's friendly with when the Lunar New Year comes around. But this year, the owner said they had missed the opportunity when journalists rushed to greet him.

For Ta Kung Pao and Hong Kong Economic Times in Quarry Bay, journalists patronise by the cha chaan tengs at King's Road and Tsat Tsz Mui Road.

Beef brisket noodle in soup, Hainanese chicken rice, chicken leg rice in Swiss sauce. chicken fillet with udon. Seemingly a lot of options, but if you stick to take-aways all year round even the best flavours turn sour. Especially when what changes are really the soaring prices.

So to counter the careless canteens and the terrible takeaways, some reporters bring their own lunchboxes, or even try cooking their own meals.

Cooking in a newsroom is no fantasy. In Ming Pao there used to include meals in its benefits package -- from chief editor down to intern reporters, everyone got to eat for free.

Three dishes and a soup at every table. Grab a seat when it's time to eat - while supplies last!

As a Ming Pao reporter recollected, the dishes were considered very average in terms of quality. A normal day will see scrambled eggs with barbecue pork or stewed fish in tomato sauce. Luncheon meat would be brought out on special occasions.

Most suspected the chef pocketed some of the money for the food. After moving to Chai Wan, Ming Pao kept up the tradition of meals for all until the early nineties. Until today the paper still provides meal coupons of $13 a day to reporters - only for use at its canteen.

The quality of food served there, however, seems comparable to those served at Apple Daily. Rumour has it that new journalists have to go through diarrhoea periods before they completing their probation.

The South China Morning Post certainly has something different to offer compared to the two canteens.

Its cafeteria at its Tai Po headquarters, sends out a "tea lady" all the way out to its Causeway Bay town office to sell coffee muffins and sandwiches.

The "tea lady" that used to work there could even remember everyone's preferences to go with her friendly chatter. Unfortunately, she has left the post.

It may take me another 3,000 words to go on and on about the bright and not-so-bright sides of meals in newsrooms.

In these times of "radiation from Japan", I hope all reporters will not give in to tastelessness, inflation or deducted meal breaks. And no matter how tight deadlines may be, please remember to keep a balanced diet with two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables every day.

And don't forget: An apple a day keeps the doctor away