Return to the scene: Paying homage to Hong Kong's film cameos

Cameos in cult films can turn even low-key restaurants into life-long landmarks, writes Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 9:53am

WHO WOULD MAKE Chungking Mansions their first destination on a visit to Hong Kong? A Wong Kar-wai fan, that's who. This was the homage a friend wanted to pay on a recent trip to the eponymous setting of one of her favourite films.

While the actual location of 1994's Chungking Express might not be particularly scenic, the cinematic associations it harbours give it an emotional value.

And the Hong Kong romantic drama's legacy on its landscape is not an isolated case. Any popular film that possesses the ability to capture the imagination can channel that romance to its elements.

This is what turns an ordinary shooting location into something transcendent, and allows a run-of-the-mill restaurant to become a fan fantasy.

Hongkongers' embrace of progress is matched equally by their social nostalgia. Consider the passionate protest over the demolition of Queen's Pier or the sentimental attachment to the tenements on Sheung Wan's Wing Lee Street, the primary setting of the 2010 film Echoes of the Rainbow.

Yet not all cinematic landmarks are preserved. The Midnight Express snack stand used in Chungking Express is long gone. As is the unfulfilled second part of my friend's pilgrimage to have a drink at California restaurant and bar, torn down with the rest of its building in Lan Kwai Fong.

Commerce usually takes precedence over cinema history, so this is the fate of most dining establishments seen in classic Hong Kong films. Most, but not all.

Two of the oldest tea restaurants in Mong Kok with a degree of cinematic pedigree are the Mido Cafe (63 Temple Street) and the China Cafe. Both are prized by art directors for their old school ambience.

The Mido is the better known of the pair. The two-storey cha chaan teng has occupied its corner site since 1950, when Temple Street still had a sea view on the west side of Kowloon. At one time, the Mido even rivalled Tai Ping Koon for its culinary ambitions.

Its unassuming booths and vintage tiled floor have featured in countless television shows and music videos, conjuring up the mood of old Hong Kong.

Although it looks like it should be in a Wong Kar-wai film, the Mido never was. Days of Being Wild was rumoured to have been shot here, but there's little evidence of this. However, its Bauhaus building, flavoured with a hint of art deco, is visible in a background shot of The World of Suzie Wong.

Walking up its stairwell to the second floor feels a bit like going back in time. That's why it remains a popular haunt for tourists, film buffs and regulars, seeking a pork chop sandwich and strong milk tea.

Farther up the road, the China Cafe, which has been around for more than 40 years, is a more a utilitarian bing sutt (literally, ice room) catering to nearby residents with milky beverages and snacks rather than full meals. In fact, it normally closes around 6pm.

In Johnnie To Kei-fung's 2003 police noir, PTU, it served as the place where officers assembled to brood over each night's routine. Like the Mido, its aged tiled look might have been nondescript when first installed but, as time goes by, it gains a patina of character and depth.

But it's not just memories and film notoriety that make these locations memorable. Just as quaint is the lack of pretension in their pallor and the disregard for contemporary savvy and fashion. Being served in these places is like interacting with a real film waitress who's slightly rude and couldn't care less about being cool. This is the intangible essence that a branded coffee chain or fast food complex can't recreate.

In a sense, the Mido and the China Cafe are anachronisms. Luckily, their owners don't seem to mind.

It helps that these old cafes are not in a prime commercial district. The Goldfinch Restaurant, however, is practically a time warp next to the ostentatious shopping of next door's Lee Gardens mall. Behind its unassuming entrance the booths, dim lighting and wood panelling look exactly like the locations in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love where Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk flirted, and Leung later wooed Zhang Ziyi in 2046.

Opened in 1962, the Goldfinch has stood defiant against the changing times. It specialises in local favourites such as steaks on sizzling plates and baked pork chop rice - Western cuisine with Asian characteristics. In the old days this was considered high-class dining, but not in 2013. This kind of cuisine is readily available across the city in similarly outdated decor. Before being immortalised on film, the Goldfinch was on nobody's dining list. But today they are taking full advantage of the cinematic connection with theme dinner sets and framed posters on the wall.

The same can't be said of the Lung Wah Hotel in Sha Tin. Its link to a classic Hong Kong film is quite tenuous, surpassed in fame by its own history. In the 1950s and '60s, the hotel - which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year - was an iconic and exclusive retreat for the rich and famous when Shing Mun was an actual riverbed and not a concrete channel.

In the old days, the large garden, complete with a zoo, was often used in television and films. Bruce Lee was said to have resided there during secondary shooting of The Big Boss (after major scenes were done in Thailand) and the grounds featured in the film.

Director Pang Ho-cheung also used it in You Shoot, I Shoot (2001; right).

The hotel part is now long gone and the zoo is history (though cages still remain, housing a couple of peacocks and other birds). The grounds may hint at its halcyon days, but it continues as a thriving restaurant.

By Hong Kong standards, it is still a huge property on the fringe of Sha Tin's labyrinth of malls. Where once there was nothing but greenery and a parking lot, now it's all claimed by train tracks and public housing. Still, its signature pathway, lit by red lanterns in the evening, is impressive for new visitors.

Its speciality is roast pigeon and, in its prime, it reportedly sold 5,000 birds a day. Some say the quality has gone down but, if true, that could be because the restaurant is no longer allowed to raise its own pigeons. Considering it still does a brisk business on weekends, Lung Wah's owners - who are based overseas - will probably keep the restaurant as it is, which is a good thing for its long-time patrons.

Ultimately, what allows these old film settings to survive is not that film fans flock to them, or that their food is so fine. They exist because their proprietors own the locations outright. This is how the Goldfinch has escaped paying gouging rent and the Lung Wah Hotel has avoided falling prey to encroaching developers.

This is also how Kowloon City's oldest Chiu Chow eatery, Lok Hau Fook, has managed to reside in the same building since 1954.

The second of its three floors was famously used for the climatic battle in Johnnie To's 1999 gangster drama, The Mission. The Taoist incense altar protected by the ornate phoenix and dragon seen in the film is still a centrepiece and owner Li Chung-man continues to man the entrance nightly.

"I like the traditional look so I am keeping it as close to the original style as possible. I have no intention of giving it a facelift," he says.

Because the film was a hit, for a time the venue regularly had Japanese and Western tourists coming to patronise it and take pictures. But, for Li, that's just bonus publicity. He is proud of its classic dishes, such as sea cucumber and fish maw pot stew and the pan-fried Chiu Chow seafood pancake.

"My chef has worked here for more than 30 years so that's how we can be consistent. The other reason I can keep this place for so long is because I bought the land so I never worry about rent. Instead, I can focus on the food quality and service and don't have to care about profit margins."

A little reality goes a long way in preserving a film fantasy.

Additional reporting by Grace MW Wong