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    Dining Cars: How an On-Board Snack Became a Guangdong Legend

    They weren’t fancy. They weren’t even Cantonese. But for generations of Guangzhou-Kowloon through train riders, the fresh chicken legs served on board made the whole trip worth it.
    Apr 28, 2023#food#history

    For some, their strongest memory of grad school is a test, a class, or perhaps even a party. For me, it’s a leg of marinated chicken.

    In fairness, this wasn’t just any chicken. In the late 2000s, I was living in Guangzhou and studying in Hong Kong. I had three options for my weekly commute between the two cities. The first and cheapest was an intercity bus, but traffic jams frequently added an hour to my trip. The fastest was to take the Hong Kong East Rail Line to Shenzhen, then transfer to the Guangzhou-Shenzhen intercity rail line, but that meant crossing the border at the hectic and unpredictable Luohu station. The third and most expensive option was the Guangzhou-Kowloon through train, known in Mandarin Chinese as the Guangjiu train, which connected downtown Guangzhou to Kowloon in Hong Kong. It cost an extra 50 yuan (then about $7.33), but it was reasonably fast, simple, and avoided the long lines at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border.

    It also had by far the best food. Boarding the Guangjiu train was like taking a trip back in time. The cars’ vintage furnishings exuded the air of a grand but aging state-owned hotel, its old-fashioned style so completely unlike the bright simplicity of the high-speed rail cars then just coming into service on the mainland. The ride was a leisurely two hours, and if you timed it to coincide with dinner service, you could enjoy your pick of dishes from the train’s open fire kitchen car, a rarity in China. The menu featured a mix of Cantonese classics: steamed bass, soy-braised bitter melon beef, and, of course, those chicken legs. Not long after departure, the conductor would roll out a large pot filled with the legs, their scent wafting through the otherwise stale air of the train car.

    The food aboard the Guangjiu train was unique — and uniquely edible — among Chinese railways. Although rail service between Hong Kong and Guangzhou began in 1911, the line’s existence was geopolitically fraught. Traffic was suspended after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 and wouldn’t resume until the early days of China’s “reform and opening-up” movement. When it did, in April 1979, it quickly became one of the primary routes into the mainland. Between 1979 and 1980, the heads of state or foreign ministers of 25 countries began their visits on the Guangjiu train.

    Coming out of the Cultural Revolution, officials were desperate to win over international investors and political leaders, and they ensured Guangjiu riders were greeted by food from some of the best chefs Guangzhou had to offer. The railway authorities in Guangzhou recruited chefs from the city’s top restaurants to cook made-to-order meals in the train’s open fire kitchen car. The importance mainland officials attached to the rider experience can be seen from a comparison to the handful of Guangjiu trains operated by Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway system. Closer to a subway than the Orient Express, the MTR trains were a significant step down in comfort and class, although popular among riders from the territory who found the idea of eating on trains culturally unpalatable.

    But for all the effort the mainland put into the dining experience on its Guangjiu trains, the most popular dish was arguably the simplest. The marinated chicken legs were not a Guangjiu invention — they weren’t even Cantonese. They could be found, with slight variations, in almost any train station on the mainland. But they were the apex of the form, and over the years, as rising incomes made the Guangjiu train more accessible to riders, the reputation of the “Guangjiu Big Chicken Leg,” as it was popularly known, spread far beyond the railway. By the 2010s, homebrew recipes were circulating online, and countless restaurants, snack bars, and online stores attempted to imitate it.

    Ironically, these imitations outlasted the real deal, as the Guangjiu chicken leg could not survive the high-speed rail revolution. With the opening of new expressways and high-speed railways, the commuting time between Guangzhou and Hong Kong was gradually reduced to about an hour, luring the passengers who once rode the Guangzhou-Kowloon to newer alternatives. The last straw was COVID-19: After the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the border between Hong Kong and the mainland closed for three years. In late April 2022, the South China Morning Post reported that the Guangjiu train would be shuttered permanently.

    When train service between Guangzhou and Kowloon finally resumed in January of this year, the stately Guangjiu cars and their more utilitarian MTR counterparts were nowhere to be found. In their place were identical high-speed trains operating between Guangzhou and the new West Kowloon Station. The kitchen car that once made the Guangjiu train so special was likewise gone, rendered unnecessary by the shortened travel time between the cities.

    Fans of the Guangjiu Big Chicken Leg, myself included, are mourning its loss. According to a January report by the Guangzhou Daily, many Guangjiu passengers selected it for the food on board. After all, it was never the fastest or cheapest option. The appeal was precisely in its unique, old-world approach to train travel.

    In response to public nostalgia for the Guangjiu train, the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high-speed railway has started offering a 20-yuan portion of “Chaoshan-style marinated chicken legs,” reheated from a package. I suppose it’s better than nothing, but I’ll hold onto my memories of a whole pot of chicken legs being pushed down the aisle, their fragrant scent calling out to me through space and time.

    Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Train Z823 en route to Hong Kong, 2016. From @N509FZ on Wikipedia)