Michelin accolade a mixed blessing for Hong Kong street food vendors

Rent rise forces one restaurant lauded in latest edition of popular food guide to close and another to move, but has boosted business for others. We visit three long-serving vendors in Kowloon and the New Territories to learn more about what makes them special

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 December, 2015, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2015, 12:45am

Street food is an important part of the cultural identity and history of many Asian cities. Hong Kong owes much of its street food to the influx of migrants from China last century, many of whom opened small roadside stalls or food carts selling snacks ranging from bean curd pudding to fried noodles.

Most have long since moved into regular shop spaces. While they may not offer fine dining, the owners of the best street food outlets take great pride in what they serve. This focus on quality and painstaking preparation has kept them going for decades – and earned Michelin approval for some establishments.

Watch: Serving Cart Noodles since the 80s: Michelin-recommended noodle shop in Hong Kong

However, recognition in the new street food section of the Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau has been a mixed blessing for some owners.

If [property companies] want to redevelop the area then we may have to leave. But for now we’re here
So Sung-lim, owner, Kung Wo Bean Curd Factory

Pan-fried dumpling chain Cheung Hing Kee closed its outlet in Tsuen Wan, citing an unaffordable rent rise. And the owner of Kai Kai, a Chinese dessert shop in Jordan, also considered closing the business after his landlord raised the rent by 120 per cent to HK$220,000 per month around the time of the Michelin accolade.

“The rent increase and Michelin announcement came at about the same time. There’s a chance the two are related, but I can’t say for sure,” says Elken Chiu Wing-keng, 27, who took over the dessert shop that his father started 40 years ago. “I felt angry when I learned about the rent increase. I thought it was ridiculous.”

Luckily, an old customer learned of their predicament and offered to rent them a space in nearby Ning Po Street at the “friendship” price of HK$90,000 per month.

Watch: How smooth, golden and affordable fried bean curd is made 

“Still, I worry that our business will be affected,” Chiu says. “The new shop will be smaller [by about 40 per cent] and the street outside is narrower.”

Of course, earning Michelin recognition is a huge encouragement for small traditional food businesses, says Daisy Tam Dic-sze, an assistant professor in cultural studies at Baptist University. “The endorsement adds to the pride owners have in their craft,” Tam says. “More importantly, it raises [society’s] awareness that Hong Kong needs more spaces that can incubate independent food businesses ... not everything has to be run like a chain store.”

But the possibility of rent rises triggered by newfound fame is a major issue: “This is a headache that all small independent shops have: you’re dead if you do very well, and you’re dead if you do poorly.”

Compared with cities such as Taipei and New York, Tam thinks Hong Kong has lost most of its vibrant street food culture.

“Street food has been displaced from informal spaces – food carts and independent vendors selling snacks at street corners or the base of staircases – to formal spaces like shopping malls,” she says.

Watch: How Hong Kong-style glutinous rice pudding with red beans is made 

This is largely due to the government prioritising food safety over maintaining Hong Kong’s street- food culture, she says. “In Taiwan, going to street-food markets at night is an event. There’s no such thing in Hong Kong. What independent street-food vendors need are low-cost, informal spaces to sell informal food.”

We visited three places in Kowloon and the New Territories that have operated for at least two generations and are featured in the street food section of the Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau.

 

Colourful Noodles, 49 Shui Wo Street, Tsuen Wan. Tel: 2492 2831

Wong Yee-lin, 59, and her husband So Kam-sing, 61, began hawking cart noodles in the 1980s on the streets of San Po Kong, then a factory district. And after more than 30 years, Wong never thought her humble cart noodle stall, now based in a small street in Tsuen Wan, would be the focus of media attention.

Cart noodles became popular in Hong Kong in the 1950s because they were cheap and convenient. Customers could choose from a variety of ready-made toppings, including stewed pig offal, beef balls, vegetables and mushrooms, which were added to the basic bowl of soup noodles.

“[San Po Kong] bustled with factory workers and lunchtime business was really busy,” Wong recalls. “My husband would be cooking noodles, I would be scooping the toppings, my daughter, who was seven years old then, would be putting the noodles in takeaway bowls and collecting money, and my son would be handing out the bowls to customers. He was about three years old when we first started.”

The family relocated to its current premises in Tsuen Wan in 1993 and has kept going on word-of-mouth recommendation and loyal customers.

Colourful Noodles continues to be a family-run business. Wong’s son and daughter-in-law manage the day shift from 10am to 8pm, preparing and selling the noodles. Then, at around 10pm, Wong and her husband take over, cooking, cleaning and working on any repairs overnight until 11am the next day.

It is tough, often repetitive work, Wong says. “But I feel satisfied when I see people happily eating my food.”

Wong hopes the fruit of her painstaking labours over the years can continue after she and her husband retire. “This shop has supported our family for so long, I hope to pass it on to my son and daughter-in-law.”

Following in Wong’s footsteps, daughter-in-law, Chan Mei-lei, 35, also ropes in her three children, aged eight, 10, and 14, to help out at the stall between school and tutorial classes “I want to keep this shop going, I’m used to working here and I can keep an eye on my children while I work,” says Chan, smiling. “It’s a good balance.”

 

 

Kwan Kee Store, Shop 10, 115-117 Fuk Wah Street, Sham Shui Po. Tel: 2360 0328

The store has been selling a variety of traditional Chinese sweet snacks such as glutinous rice pudding (put chai ko) and sesame rolls for more than 50 years.

Fu Wing-cheung, 60, is its second-generation owner; his father, Fu Kwan, started the snack business in the 1960s to support his family. “My father used to steam the cakes in our wooden shack home in Sham Shui Po before my mother took them to sell on the streets,” Fu recalls.

When his father retired in the early 1980s, Fu Wing-cheung decided to get a licence and continue selling from a shop space. He has been selling sweet snacks from the same site on Fuk Wah Street since 1984, with the mixing and steaming done at two little spaces in a nearby back alley.

These days, Fu, his wife, his younger brother and two younger sisters keep Kwan Kee Store going with the help of a couple of employees. The shop now sells about 400 glutinous rice puddings daily.

Younger brother Fu Wing-hong usually arrives at the kitchens every day at 2.30am to begin the cake making. “We have to start very early because steamed cakes need to cool to room temperature before they can be sold,” explains the elder brother. “The whole process usually takes five to six hours, depending on the type of cake. It is not complicated, but it is time-consuming.”

While his younger brother works in the wee hours, Fu Wing-cheung shuttles between the kitchen and the shop until it closes at 11pm. The women in the family manage storefront operations.

“We stand out by sticking to the traditional methods of making cakes. Not many people grind their own rice [batter] now, but we still do it the hard way. The methods are still the same as my dad’s,” Fu says.

With his son and daughter pursuing their own careers, Fu doubts that they will want to carry on the family business. “But who knows what will happen in the future,” he says.

 

 

Kung Wo Bean Curd Factory, 118 Pei Ho Street, Sham Shui Po. Tel: 2386 6871

The shop in Sham Shui Po is buzzing at lunchtime. At the front, customers are buying freshly made tofu blocks. Inside, others stop for a quick bite of pan-fried tofu with fish paste, tofu dessert or a glass of soy milk.

Kung Wo is an institution in Hong Kong, known for the quality of its soy products, including fried tofu puffs, tofu skins and fermented tofu. It was started in 1893 by a man named Lok Pong, whose black and white photograph still hangs at the back of the shop.

Lok’s children continued to run the business but in 1996 they decided to sell it before emigrating ahead of the handover. That’s when ownership passed to So Sung-lim, 56, who ran a nearby wonton shop and had known the family for decades.

He now operates Kung Wo with his daughter Renee So, 30. “The place hasn’t been renovated or changed much,” she says. For example, mattresses are still set out on the second floor for staff on early shift to catch a quick nap.

According to Renee So, the original shop was on Canton Road and moved to Kowloon City before settling in its current location in 1967. “It used to be so busy here at night, but these days more people come to eat during the day,” she says. Still, Kung Wo’s inclusion in Michelin’s street food section has brought marked increase in customers, particularly tourists, Renee So says.

Its tofu offerings remain fairly inexpensive because the shop is in a low-income district: a small cup of soy milk is HK$6 and a bowl of sweet tofu dessert HK$10. Their tofu is made fresh every morning, the soya beans ground several times before the soy milk is extracted and made into different soy products.

While So hopes his daughter will eventually take over the business, Renee is conscious
that their decision may be shaped by other forces. “It just depends … if [property companies] want to redevelop the area then we may have to leave. But for now we’re here.”