Exam Writing Tips

Two responses to a DSE English essay topic

In the early 1980s, when the Chinese Communist Party permitted overseas Chinese to set foot in their homeland again, Cecilia Chiang made her way from the US to her native city of Beijing: in the intervening decades, while being abroad she had reinvented herself as a restauranter and leading proponent of Chinese cuisine; she was therefore eager to visit her old haunts in the capital and reacquaint herself with the sumptuous meals she had known as a young woman.

When she turned up at a banquet at the Summer Palace, however, she was in for a rude shock. Neither the food nor the hospitality was what she had remembered. 

“What had upset Cecilia so much was that the cooks and waiters just didn’t care; they weren’t taking any pride in what she had planned to be a reenactment of a beloved part of her own cultural upbringing,” observed a friend who was present.

So distressed Chiang was by the loss of her heritage that after a few courses, she barged into the kitchen and took it upon herself to cook and serve the rest of the meal.

As I reviewed a DSE English exam candidate’s very indifferent response to an essay question requiring her to sing a dim sum restaurant’s praises, I felt like doing the literary equivalent of going to the kitchen and serving the rest of the meal myself. I was disconcerted by not so much her poor grammar as by the aversion she’d displayed towards having to write in English, a sentiment made all the more glaring by the fact that she was forced by the question to feign excitement over a matter she couldn’t have cared less about. Not that I think she should be blamed. It is not unlikely that she had been taught by teachers who had likewise never known the satisfaction of crafting a well-written English piece; instead of English, it’s their apathy towards English that she picked up.

Below are the student’s exam script (I sourced it from the website of Hong Kong’s examinations authority) and my response to the same question.

This was the DSE English essay question we tackled:

You finally got the chance to eat at Hong Kong’s hottest new restaurant, Dim Sum One. Write a review for Eat & Drink, an online food guide that allows users to write their own reviews.

  • Write about what you liked, what you didn’t like and if you would recommend this restaurant
  • You can choose to write about any of the following in your review: food, service, dining environment, price.

Student’s essay:

Yesterday was my happiest day  this week! I got the chance to eat at Dim Sum One, which is Hong Kong’s hottest restaurant. I am going to tell all of you about the details of it.

Maybe you will ask me about the food first. I can tell you that the food are very delicious. I ordered seven different types of dim sum. All of it tastes like the traditional one. Specially Siu Mai, which is my favourite Chinese food. When the food was served to me, I immediately tasted it since it might not be hot enough. Luckily, all of them were warm. If you ask me to rate about the food quality (10 is the final mark), I will give it a 9 marks

Then it is about the service. Overall, I concur it is good enough. From the time I arrived and get the seat, I need not wait more than 20 minutes. The workers are very kind. When I asked to get the ticket to wait they answered quite nicely. Also while I am ordering food, they are very patient and not rude. They will repeat what I have ordered again to confirm the order is correct. The serving time of the food are not quite long, just around 10 – 15 minutes, nearly the same as other Chinese restaurants.

For the dining environment, I think they need to be improved. Because of the lights, it is a little dark. Fortunately I didn’t fall on the floor since there is a step that I couldn’t see clearly. I hope they will improve immediately to prevent the elderly from falling down.

Finally is the price part. Compared to other Chinese restaurants, I think it is a little bit expensive. I only ordered seven dim sum and I need to pay around $300. I don’t know the reason why it cost so high. I guess maybe because of the location in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Overall, I would recommend all of you to have a try in this restaurant because of the tasty food and good service. These two parts are the parts I like the most in it.

My essay:

“Does Hong Kong really need yet another high-end Dim Sum restaurant?” I asked myself as my lunch companion and I ventured into the orchid-lined foyer that led to the main dining area of Dim Sum One, the much-hyped new addition to the refurbished Regent Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Less than half-way into the meal, I already knew the reply to my question would be a resounding yes.

We were given a table next to the floor-to-ceiling windows; the weather was fine and Hong Kong’s skyline never looked lovelier. Comfortably settled in plush chairs, we were soon presented with a platter of bite-sized traditional snacks that are seldom served these days: black sesame rolls, roasted chicken liver, Chinese sausage in white bun.

Yes, the meal is a trip down memory lane for older folks, an introduction to vintage Cantonese cooking for young people. The establishment only offers menu-free dining, at a steep $1500 per head for lunch (dinner will set you back at $3000). Its customer philosophy: just fork out a small fortune and trust us. 

The courses that followed certainly didn’t disappoint: bird’s nest and minced quail congee, fried milk fritters, melt-in-your-mouth duck with mashed taro, and soup-filled dumplings. Dessert was good old baked sago pudding with chestnut filling.

Curiously enough, the price tag didn’t scare people away; Dim Sum One is fully booked for four months and counting. The day I was there I saw many families with small children – not the typical clinentale for posh eateries. I eavesdropped on their conversations; many were about to emigrate, and splurging on old-time Cantonese cuisine was their way of saying goodbye to Hong Kong. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that when we get back our freedoms and the children return (presumably as young adults?), Hong Kong’s culinary traditions will still be around to awe a new generation.

Categories: Exam Writing Tips

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