Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am

Wallace Lai Tse-fung remembers being sent by his parents as a child to buy noodle soup from pushcarts, which were once ubiquitous in Hong Kong. The soup and disposable chopsticks would be put together in a plastic bag. Sometimes the chopsticks would poke a hole in the bag and soup would drip out onto his clothes. The memory makes him smile.

'My dad was a traffic cop and my mum was a homemaker. I have a brother and a sister, and we lived in a very small police dormitory [in Western]. We didn't have much money to dine out and the noodle soup was quite a treat,' says Lai, 32, who runs three noodle bars in New York's Chinatown.

Called Hong Kong Station, the chain takes its cues from the street vendors Lai visited in his youth, serving pre-prepared produce, such as beef stew, fish balls and vegetables, and many types of noodle, which are cooked in front of the customer. For New York's Hong Kong immigrants, it is comfort food that reminds them of home - and at only US$5 or US$6 a bowl, it is comfort that can be enjoyed often.

For Lai, who decamped to the United States in the summer of 2003 with only US$20 in his pocket, success has been dramatic. In Hong Kong, he had applied his entrepreneurial talents in various fields, from insurance to graphic design. He had ups and downs but it was the Sars epidemic, in 2003, that almost broke him.

'I had just invested in a doughnut shop in Shenzhen; the machines had been purchased and the lease had been signed. Then 'bang', no business. I lost all my money - HK$500,000. It was the lowest point of my life,' says Lai.

When he married his long-term girlfriend in New York (she was working in the US city for an insurance company), he couldn't even afford a wedding banquet - but he could see an opportunity.

'Me, my parents and their parents were born in Hong Kong. When I came to New York, I missed Hong Kong food. But the food here, they call it 'Hong Kong style'. You know what that means? It's not really Hong Kong food. It's like Italian people would never say, 'I want Italian-style pizza,'' he says.

Lai spent six months visiting restaurants that were up for sale, to study their location and customers. In 2004, he found what he was looking for. The first day of trading for Hong Kong Station lasted just two hours - because it sold out of food. The second shop was opened a year later and the third a year after that.

Lai lives in the heart of Chinatown, and other than during the six hours a day he spends sleeping, he can always be found in one of his shops, as can his wife, who left the insurance business.

'To me, being tired physically is enjoyable. If I have plenty of time but nothing to do, that's what makes me really tired.'