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Trading stories: Two cafe owners talk change through the generations

Cafe connoisseurs pour over the differences between our city's modern and traditional eateries

Cha Chaan Teng trading stories top-2020-3-17-SE
Calvin Sit
By Time Out Hong Kong |
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Hong Kong’s fast-paced restaurant scene sees various establishments come and go, with closures of some of the well-loved traditional cafes that locals are used to. The closures of local favourites like Mong Kok’s legendary China Cafe and the famous Pak Ho Cafe & Cake Shop in Sai Wan Ho saddened locals who frequented the shops for their unique variations of Hong Kong-style milk tea and buttered pineapple buns. Fortunately, there’s still hope for the city’s traditional cafes, bing sutt, as a new wave of young restaurateurs open ventures continuing the traditional institution, but with a modern twist.

Meet the cafe owners 

Or Ping-Kin is the 67-year-old second-generation owner of 54-year-old bing sutt Cheung Sha Wan’s Sun Wah Restaurant. He recently handed down the day-to-day operation of the cafe to his daughter Natalie.

Image: Calvin Sit

35 year old Leo Chan is the supervisor of Mei Ho Cafe in Shek Kip Mei. Leo has a passion for Spanish culture and a desire to infuse the cha chaan teng experience with Spanish flavours. 

Image: Calvin Sit

Trading stories

L: Sun Wah Restaurant has a very traditional aesthetic, which gives off a semblance of history. Please share with us the story behind the place. 

O: Yes, this is Sun Wah’s 54th year in the business. It began as a collaboration between my father, his brothers, and his cousins. It was initially hard to manage because all the partners had other ventures on the side, like the famous Man Wah Cafe & Bakery that closed back in 2016. Eventually, my father got fed up with the way the cafe was being operated and bought out the partners in 1982. Mei Ho Cafe must be quite young in comparison?

L: Mei Ho Cafe is actually a part of a community revitalisation project. Mei Ho House, where it’s located, is a six-story estate that was built in 1954 to resettle the squatter dwellers displaced by the infamous Shek Kip Mei Fire of December 1953. The resettlement building in Shek Kip Mei Estate marked the beginning of Hong Kong’s public housing initiative. The building’s historical importance led to its revitalisation as a youth hostel. Travellers can gain an understanding of what it was like to live there.

O: How did you get into the business?

L: I’ve always admired Spanish culture, and even studied the language at university. When I studied in Spain, the laid-back lifestyle and casual pub culture inspired me immensely, and I wanted to bring it to Hong Kong. Maybe it was fate because shortly after that, I saw that they were calling for bids on Mei Ho Cafe. I thought it’d be an interesting project, so I talked to some of my friends in the food and drink industry, and the rest is history. Did you inherit the restaurant from your father?

O: Indeed. I’m from Chaozhou in China, and I’m the eldest son in the family. And as tradition goes, I was to be the one responsible for taking care of my family. After I graduated from secondary school in 1983, my father retired and placed me in charge of Sun Wah. 

"A family business is like a well that’s already been dug and there’s already water there to drink – isn’t that neat?"

L: It must’ve been challenging for a restaurant to survive in Hong Kong for half a century. How does Sun Wah do it?

O: A good cup of milk tea! Everybody knows that silk-stocking milk tea is one of Hong Kong’s signature beverages, but it is difficult to master. Preparing milk tea is an art form that requires patience, experience, and skill – mixing the tea leaves, pouring the milk and tea, and controlling its temperature. A lot of restaurants nowadays don’t put their heart into it. Our staff are extremely experienced and dedicated to their craft; that’s why our milk tea is different from others out there.

L: We offer traditional Hong Kong-style milk tea at Mei Ho Cafe too, but we’re mostly focused on innovation. But we’re also like a cafe, most of our dishes are western-style, such as all-day breakfast, pasta, rice casserole, and burgers. 

O: We’re old-school and offer regular set meals like satay beef noodles. Traditional cafes are so rare that being an old-school bing sutt has become a unique selling point. We have our own bakery that serves up egg tarts, cocktail buns, pineapple buns, cha siu buns, and ham and egg buns, and our popular princess whipped cream cake, every day! 

L: In terms of the shop’s aesthetic, from mosaic flooring to green folded gates, we used a lot of old-Hong Kong elements into our restaurant to recreate a nostalgic feel. Sun Wah, on the other hand, comes with it. Is it your intention to keep it this way?

O: Whether it’s the upstairs seating and the mini elevator that sends food up and down, or the calligraphy plaque and the menu design, it’s all authentic and original. The only maintenance works we do are minor repairs to make sure the place doesn’t fall apart. Having an indoor balcony for upstairs seating used to be really mainstream in Hong Kong, but as building regulations change and old establishments are torn down, designs like this have become a thing of the past. We’re one of the very few that’s still around.

L: Today, it’s not easy to be in this industry. Servers aren’t exactly as resilient or savvy as they were back then – how do you manage your staff?

O: It’s a different world – almost everybody has a university degree now and more options for work. We’re an old establishment, and most of our staff are veterans that have worked with us for decades. The older generation is more warm-hearted and loyal. They’d be willing to stay with you through thick and thin. And of course, it’s because we are good to our employees too. 

L: Aside from staff management, the looming pressure of expensive rent in Hong Kong is another big issue.

Or Ping-Kin's daughter, Natalie Or. Credit: Calvin Sit

O: Thankfully, the shop has been our own property since the early days – we don’t have to answer to landlords as many do in the industry. And we certainly don’t have to think about relocating every few years due to rent. It’s a lot easier when you can settle in one place and develop a regular customer base from there.

L: Do you have concerns about passing the restaurant down to a new generation? A lot of family businesses have trouble finding someone to continue their legacy.

O: The hours tend to be long in this industry – there were times when I had to work for 18 hours. I’m 67, and I’m not as physically able as before. I had some concerns about who was going to keep the restaurant alive but it was reassuring when my daughter offered to help. I spent a whole year teaching her the business. Now, I can finally retire.

L: A lot of bing sutt owners don’t want the next generation to inherit their business because of how much work it entails and how difficult it can be. What are your thoughts on that?

O: A family business is like a well that’s already been dug and there’s already water there to drink – isn’t that neat? Young people shouldn’t back away from hard work. That’s how I started. I’m all for my daughter taking over.

N: I’ll follow in my father’s footsteps, and keep things traditional, that’s what makes us unique.

O: Yeah, like using machines to put in orders. Most of our staff are from an older generation and not tech savvy. It’s easier to just let them scribble orders on their notepads. Some of them are far sighted – how are they supposed to adjust to reading tiny letters on a screen?

N: Still, I’d say that there is some space for improvement. For instance, I’d like to redesign the menus – we could put in some photos of our food, so that tourists could order with ease. What about you, Leo? You must have a lot of fresh ideas for Mei Ho.

L: The goal is for our establishment to go beyond an eatery. Since I took over the cafe, we’ve been hosting a lot of events to connect tourists with local residents. We had a Georgian night, an Indian carnival, a German Oktoberfest, and so on. With food as a medium, we bring together people from all walks of life and celebrate!

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