The Chestnut Roaster

“Chan’s Roast Chestnut Cart” (2020), watercolor sketch by Alvin C.K. Lam. Scroll to the end of the post for details on this Alvin C.K. Lam x No Joe Schmo collaboration.

They crackle and sizzle like explosive popcorn on the giant wok burner, which is almost the size of Chan Yuk-Lan herself. The woman’s small frame hunches over her cart as she expertly swivels a metal spatula the length of her torso, propelling dozens of chestnuts through a cascade of sugar and sand that caramelizes their shells into a sheen. 

Then Mrs. Chan, 68, hauls over a tank of fresh gas that she’s stored just around the corner. She shovels charcoal into a small cabinet at the bottom of the cart where she’s roasting the largest sweet potatoes I’ve ever seen. Then she returns to the chestnuts, adding water to the wok and continuously working them for 30 minutes, the time required until a batch is ready to serve. Smoke and steam billow around her.

Meanwhile, throngs queue outside her cart on the coldest day Hong Kong has seen all year (48°F, or 9°C). They eye it all hungrily, doling out $20 HKD (about US$3) for a hand-sized brown paper bag filled with freshly roasted chestnuts — plus maybe one of those sweet potatoes, and maybe some of those macadamia nuts or quail eggs that Mrs. Chan also sells. Her retired husband sits on a stool just to the right of the cart, watching silently.

On the sidewalk of a main thoroughfare of the buzzing Mong Kok Flower Market in Hong Kong, Mrs. Chan mans her chestnut stall, just as she has for the past 20-plus years. Born and raised in the city, near Kowloon Bay, she worked in the textile industry until she met her husband, who sold items like bean curd at his family’s market stall. She followed his lead and started selling chestnuts, Mrs. Chan explains modestly. It’s clear who’s running the show now, though.

Roasted chestnut carts aren’t unique to Hong Kong, but they represent something special here. Street food hawkers — market stalls selling goods from fishballs to pork intestines to stinky tofu — have been around as long as the streets themselves. They’re an integral part of what makes Hong Kong, Hong Kong. People buy a bag as much for the nostalgia as for actually wanting to eat fresh chestnuts. It’s an experience. Brute force is the most effective way to crack the shell, but one can also wedge a fingernail into the shell to peel it back and reach the edible flesh inside.

By the 1970s, more than 50,000 hawkers lined the streets of the city. Then the government cracked down and implemented regulations. With only a handful of exceptions, new itinerant hawker licenses like Mrs. Chan’s haven’t been issued in over 40 years, and existing ones cannot be transferred or passed down. (Itinerant hawker licenses mean a stall must be mobile in nature, or change where it’s parked; fixed-pitch licenses tie a hawker to one spot. The latter is much more common.)

As a result, the number of licensed hawkers have declined dramatically over the past few decades. By Mrs. Chan’s husband’s estimate, there are only about 20 people left in Hong Kong with roast chestnut carts. Once they pass away, chestnut stalls will very likely be a thing of the past in a rapidly changing city.

Despite that very literal transformation, Mrs. Chan hasn’t seen her work change much over the years. “Nothing’s different. I just go to work every day,” she says. “The cost of materials has risen, I suppose. Supplies and ingredients used to be a lot cheaper.” 

The raw chestnuts are mostly imported from Tianjin, a major port city in northeastern China known for a particularly tasty variant due to its chilly climate. But the powerful gas stove is really where the magic happens, Mrs. Chan says. Chinese cooking often centers on the firepower of the wok. After raking a batch of chestnuts through the sugar-and-sand mixture for 30 minutes, she sifts them through a large metal strainer and sets aside any imperfect ones.

In the hour spent with Mrs. Chan on New Year’s Eve, about 50 people — maybe more, I lost count — lined up with arms full of fresh flowers from the adjacent market. She laughs and chats with most of them in Cantonese, not pausing once for a breather or even a sip of water. It was cold and festive, the makings of a good day and part of a good season. “People are more used to going out now than last season,” she says, meaning in early 2020, when the coronavirus was first rearing its head. 

Roasting chestnuts is a cold-weather business. Customers don’t want chestnuts during the hot months, which is most of the year in Hong Kong. During those months, Mrs. Chan works various other jobs, including cleaning offices. 

“I like it when business is good,” Mrs. Chan says matter-of-factly when asked about her favorite part of the job. She qualifies a good day as selling an entire 66-pound bag of chestnuts. “It’s hardest when there’s rain or bad weather that affects the flow of customers.”

Her days begin at 5 a.m., when she rises for work at the office-cleaning job before scarfing down a quick lunch and wheeling her chestnut stall to an open spot in the flower market. She won’t elaborate on any competition among vendors, but there seems to be a mostly tacit understanding about who covers which areas of the city. 

Then it’s a 7-hour stretch behind the cart donning thick fireproof gloves and her purple gemstone necklace. She closes up shop at around 7 p.m. when the flower market shuts down, a few hours earlier than in pre-Covid times. 

“Of course I’m tired, but this is what it takes [to survive],” Mrs. Chan says. She doesn’t think much about the city’s changing landscape, about how its street food culture is disappearing. “You can only do what you can. It is what it is.”

The fragrant, sultry aroma of the charcoal and chestnuts wafts up, making shoppers with different food in hand pause to reconsider their life choices. Mrs. Chan doesn’t mind the smell, she says — just don’t ask her to eat them. She doesn’t like the taste of chestnuts at all.

Price: About $20 HKD for a brown paper bag of chestnuts; $44 HKD (US$5.50) per pound

This interview was translated in real time at Mrs. Chan’s stall by Alvin C.K. Lam, an artist whose work is featured at the top of this post in collaboration with No Joe Schmo. His ongoing collection titled “Unspoken stories, unsung heroes,” featuring watercolor sketches painted by hand and on-site around Hong Kong, is available for purchase here. All photographs above by Megan Hess.

One thought on “The Chestnut Roaster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s