Dai pai dong is characterised by its green-painted steel kitchen, untidy atmosphere, the lack of air conditioning, as well as a variety of low priced great-wok hei dishes. Regarded by some as part of the collective memory of Hong Kong people , genuine ''dai pai dongs'' are scarce today, numbering only 28, situated in , Sham Shui Po , Wan Chai , Tai Hang , and Tai O .
Although the term ''dai pai dong'' is often used generically to refer to any food stall operating on the roadside with foldable tables, chairs and no air-conditioning . Legally speaking the term can only refer to those 28 stalls which possess the "big licenses".
Unlicensed food stalls, which provided cheap everyday food such as , rice and noodles to the general public of humble income, appeared in as early as the late 19th century in Hong Kong. The stalls could be found not only in Central, but also in Wanchai and the peripheries of Happy Valley Racecourse around Wong Nai Chung Road. In fact, the great fire at the racecourse in 1918 was caused by food stalls set beside the podium. There were also stalls assembled by piers, which formed the so-called ''Waisik Matau'' , to serve ferry passengers.
After World War II came to an end in 1945, the colonial Hong Kong government issued ''ad hoc'' licenses to families of deceased and injured civil servants, allowing them to operate food stalls in public and thereby earn a living. This kind of license was considerably larger than the ones normally issued, as a photograph of the licensee was required to appear on them. The license, therefore, was jocularly called "''dai pai''" by the locals. From then on, the "big license stalls" began to flourish on every busy street and lane in Hong Kong.
However, ''dai pai dongs'' soon became the cause of traffic congestion and hygiene problems, and some licensees even began to let out their stalls on the black market. In response, the government stopped issuing new "big licenses" in 1956, and limited their transfer. The licenses could no longer be inherited, and could only be passed on to spouses upon the licensee's death. If the licensee did not have a spouse, the license would simply expire.
Since 1975, many ''dai pai dongs'' have been moved into temporary markets, like the ones on Haiphong Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, or into cooked food centres, usually located in municipal services complexes managed by the Urban Council, for easier control. In order to improve worsening public hygiene, the government began to buy back "big licences" from the licence-holders in 1983. Since most of the licensees were aged, and the licenses are only legally transferable to their spouses, many of the licensees were willing to return their licenses for compensation. Since then, the number of traditional ''dai pai dongs'' has declined rapidly.
Today, most ''dai pai dongs'' survive by operating in cooked food centres, while the more successful ones have reinvented themselves as air-conditioned restaurants .
It was reported that revenues of ''dai pai dongs'' increased considerably in 2003 when Hong Kong was plagued by SARS; as people regarded air-conditioned places as hotbeds of the virus and patronised open-air and sun-lit stalls instead.
Features of ''dai pai dongs''
*One can order tailor-made dishes.
*It is customary to have to share tables with complete strangers when there is a shortage of seating.
*Unlike ''cha chaan tengs'', most ''dai pai dongs'' do not provide set meals.
*"Cross-stall ordering" is possible: for instance, when one is sitting and eating in a stall selling noodles, he or she can order a cup of milk tea from another stall, which may be several stalls away.
*The stalls can be roughly divided into those operating in daytime and those doing business at night. The ''dai pai dongs'' which operate at night usually sell seafood and other more costly dishes: one dish usually costs from HKD$ 40-70. The day-time ''dai pai dongs'', on the contrary, provide cheap food including:
** and youtiao ;
**, toasts, sandwiches and instant noodles with ham, , or sausage;
**rice or noodles with siu mei ;
**fried rice and ''dip tau fan'' ;
**Chiuchow-style noodles .
In May 2005, the existence of ''dai pai dong'' in Hong Kong caught considerable public attention, as Man Yuen Noodles, a ''dai pai dong'' selling noodles in Central, faced imminent closure due to the death of the licensee. The news came after the closure of a bakery famous for its egg tarts, also located in Central and forced to close because of the rise of rent. The bakery reopened in October 2005.
Despite calls for its preservation by many locals, including some politicians, the stall was closed on July 30, 2005. The Hong Kong government was criticised for not trying its best to preserve ''dai pai dongs'' as part of the Hong Kong culture. The news of the closure coincided with the government's proposal of the development of West Kowloon Cultural District. The stall has unexpectedly reopened at a nearby shop on December 1, 2005.