My soft spot for Johnnie To’s crime thriller PTU partly comes from having wandered onto one of PTU’s sets during the film’s shoot and nearly shutting a door on star Simon Yam’s hand. It’s not that I’m thrilled to have almost caused Yam to lose his fingers (he was a real mensch about the whole thing, by the way). It’s just that stumbling into a movie production at 3 a.m. while looking for the 24-hour McDonald’s is a validation of just how authentically To portrays Hong Kong in his films. Sure, as with many Hong Kong action films, it’s usually another bunch of gangsters (and cops) doing a bunch of gangster shit. But they’re doing it within an authentic, everyday cultural context.
Take, for example, PTU’s opening scene, filmed at the Fong Wing Kee hot pot restaurant in Kowloon City. The restaurant used to be outside the former Kowloon Walled City, which is notorious for its densely populated, interconnected buildings run by triads, at least until the Hong Kong Government intervened in the 1970s. After the Walled City was torn down in the 1990s, Fong Wing Kee moved to its current spot, just a few steps away from its former location.
This makes the restaurant an ideal setting for a scene on the psychology of table domination, considering that it’s likely fed a number of both triad members and police officers over the decades. After all, who better to illustrate the importance of seating hierarchy than people who have a real stake in saving face?
It’s worth noting that Fong Wing Kee’s layout is similar to a cha chaan teng, the genre of Hong Kong teahouses serving “soy sauce Western food” that’s low in price and nutritional value but high in all other areas, including deliciousness (milk tea, ham macaroni soup, chicken steak instant noodles). The interior of these teahouses is the default blueprint for most local working-class restaurants, actually, seeing as it’s designed to crowd as many people into one space as possible without resulting in fisticuffs.
There are booths or small tables with as much surface area as a Monopoly board, all lined up along walls. Larger round tables typically sit in the center of the room. Booths are usually given to couples or small groups of friends who wouldn’t mind squeezing in together. When a restaurant is busy, individual customers are never seated in a booth unless it’s to cram them in with cartons of evaporated milk. Otherwise, sad loners are seated at a round table and expected to bolt their food down under the gimlet eyes of the waiters, who take away their plates the second they appear to be done eating, effectively kicking them out.
If you’re in a large group, obviously you’re going to want a table close to the center of the room. In Hong Kong’s cramped restaurant real estate, the table nearest the door leaves you vulnerable to people jostling you as they enter and leave. Sitting too close to the door also violates both feng-shui rules (you’re in the path of negative energy) and the advice of business coaches (it’s a defensive position that subconsciously causes stress).
The table at the back isn’t bad if you don’t mind being squeezed up against the wall. You get to view the entire restaurant, and it provides you with a protected flank. Sitting with your back against it, by the way, is also both feng shui and business-coach-approved (reasonably good energy flow, secure position that lets you view the room).
But the sought-after center table ensures that the waiters can’t ignore you, and it lets you command more room. The prime seat at this table is the one that lets you sit facing the door with your back against another customer’s back. This puts you in a dominant, secure position (the other person’s back is protecting yours) that has the added benefit of blocking people from walking behind you.
In PTU, the center table is already occupied by a lone Hawaiian-shirted diner when long-haired tough Ponytail and his henchmen enter Fong Wing Kee. Judging by the staff’s fearful smiling, Ponytail is clearly a big-shot triad member (later we find out he’s a triad boss’ son), and the gang is quickly seated at a back table. It’s acceptable, so they don’t complain until the air conditioner starts dripping. At which point they take over the center table, and poor Hawaiian shirt is ignominiously whisked away to the back.
By now, there’s no doubt that Ponytail is a bad guy (beyond bullying Hawaiian shirt guy). Villains are usually all about dominance, and dominant animals tend to stay close to the center of their territories. One of the most memorable examples of table domination by a bad guy may be the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas: Not only does Henry Hill get a center table, but he gets a table that wasn’t even there in the first place.
The downside to this visible dominance, however, is that it leaves you vulnerable to challenges and attacks, and we’ve become used to seeing violent things happen to bad guys sitting at center tables. It’s something that has played out countless times in Westerns, where the villain is always seated at a dominant center table in a saloon when the good guy struts through the doors to interrupt his card game. You can see it in John Woo’s Hard Boiled when the gun smugglers occupying the center table are ambushed not just by the cops but also by a rival gang member.
So when Sergeant Lo comes into Fong Wing Kee and spots Ponytail, we’re primed for a showdown. The anticipation of violence is increased when Sergeant Lo decides that he doesn’t want to join Hawaiian shirt at the loners’ table and boots Ponytail from the center table. It has the effect of asserting his own dominance—and it offers the biggest hint that Sergeant Lo is far from what we’d consider a good guy.
Ponytail and his gang move back to their original table, and Hawaiian shirt is shifted to possibly the worst table, which faces the back kitchen (not a good sight if you want to enjoy your meal).
But nothing happens between Ponytail and Sergeant Lo, aside from many exchanges of evil glances. It’s only after both Sergeant Lo and Ponytail’s henchmen leave on separate errands and Ponytail settles down to eat that Hawaiian shirt takes out a knife and stabs Ponytail in the back.
And therein lies the twist: Director To has set us up to think this scene was about table domination, but it’s actually about table whacking. Table whacking doesn’t have anything to do with domination; it happens to people who are having a meal at a non-dominant table, like when Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey while they’re sitting at a back table. It’s also what arguably—assuming that people are still arguing about this—happens to Tony Soprano in The Sopranos finale. He seals his table-whacking fate the second he sits in that diner booth. Diners are almost impossible to dominate because of their booth-heavy layout, which makes it relatively neutral territory. It’s the perfect place for bad guys to go when they’re just trying to lay low (like Jules and Vincent after their shitty morning in Pulp Fiction), because you’d have better luck proclaiming your supremacy in an Olive Garden.
We never see what happens to Hawaiian shirt after he table-whacks Ponytail and escapes through the kitchen. However, we can probably hazard a guess as to his fate from the real-life event that may have inspired To: A year before PTU was released, a businessman was table-whacked at the Luk Yu teahouse in Hong Kong’s upscale Central neighborhood while sitting at a back table, much like Ponytail. His assassin strolled out of the back door amid the panic, only to be apprehended later and sentenced to death in mainland China.
As for Sergeant Lo, he ends up having a very, very bad night. Still, his successful table domination ensures he survives to commandeer a cha-chaan-teng center table another day.