Classic Hong Kong restaurants: Yung Kee, Central
Yung Kee is famed the world over for its fine roast bird, but much of its success is down to an ability to navigate the city's changes, writes Janice Leung Hayes
KNOWN THE WORLD OVER for its roast goose, the origin of Yung Kee's name was little more than a coincidence. "It was the name of the dai pai dong my grandfather took over when he bought the business," says Yvonne Kam Kiu-yan, Yung Kee's financial controller, and a third-generation member of the family business.
Her grandfather Kam Shui-fai, the restaurant's founder, was a Hongkonger typical of his time. Kam left school when he was 12 , to try and supplement his family's meagre income. Starting by taking on whatever work he could find, he ended up in a restaurant doing odd jobs, moving up to become the chef's apprentice.
It was there Kam learnt to make Cantonese barbecue, including the goose that is so famous the restaurant on Wellington Street now sells it in boxes, ready to be carried on a plane (hence the name, "jet goose").
Kam was a hardworking apprentice, but he was never taught the chef's roast goose recipe. It is said that he sneaked into the kitchen after work every day to weigh all the ingredients, so he could work out how much had been used, and therefore discover the recipe.
Eventually Kam left the restaurant to start his own business, taking over a dai pai dong on Kwong Yuen West Street in Sheung Wan. He offered roast meats along with rice, noodles, and congee, and was content with the roaring trade that came from the area's lunchtime crowds.
But everything changed in 1941, when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong. The city's new rulers were said to have found hawkers unhygienic, and Kam was worried that he would be shut down. In 1942, during the chaos of the occupation, he made the bold move into a restaurant on 32 Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, and took the Yung Kee name with him.
If you believe in numerology, then 32 seems to have been Kam's lucky number. When the Sheung Wan location was destroyed by air raids, Yung Kee relocated to 32 Pottinger Street, and later 32 Wellington Street. By 1978, Yung Kee had been located on Wellington Street for over a decade. Seeking to expand, Kam knocked down the buildings next door to make Yung Kee Building, the maroon and bronze-tiled institution that now takes pride of place on this busy Central street.
The increased frontage added gravitas to a restaurant that was already gaining worldwide acclaim (it was the only Chinese restaurant in a 1968 list of top 15 restaurants in the world by Fortune magazine). It also meant that the restaurant now had multiple storeys. Since then, the ability to dine on different floors has become a part of urban mythology, and moving up the levels is worn as a badge of social status.
Takeaway and retail counters share the space with a canteen-like room on the ground level, and lone diners and small groups share communal tables.
"When my grandfather opened the new Yung Kee, he wanted to be able to grow with his customers. The ground floor clientele is similar to that of his old dai pai dong," says Yvonne Kam.
From the first floor upwards, it's regular table service on private tables; by the third floor, things have become more refined, although this floor is not closed to the public, as many assume.
The third floor feels more subdued, there is more space between tables, and it also has private dining rooms. That may have led to its reputation for exclusivity.
Yung's Club, a series of private dining rooms, sits on the seventh floor. "We saw private kitchens and chef's tables becoming more popular, so this is our take on that kind of dining experience," says Yvonne Kam.
Often dubbed the "super VIP" floor, entry to this section of the restaurant is by membership only. It has its own kitchen, and menus are customised for each party. Dishes such as goose liver sausage and stuffed goose leg, old-time delicacies that are now hard to find, make frequent appearances.
Dark timber flooring, dimmer lighting, and streamlined modern Chinese furniture, make these rooms feel decidedly different from the bustling, bright storeys downstairs.
"Most of the decor [on the lower levels] is unchanged since my grandfather's time. On the first, second and third floors, there are wood carvings made around 40 years ago. We've been trying to restore them, but finding the right people to do that has been very difficult," Yvonne Kam says.
She also points out the Dragon and Phoenix banquet hall, where elaborate wall hangings of the eponymous mythical creatures are the highlight of the room. The hangings were the epitome of grandeur in the 1960s and 1970s, and they haven't lost their kitschy charm.
Yung Kee's success can be defined by its ability to overcome everything that has been thrown in its path. The city was shattered by the second world war and the Japanese occupation, but Kam still saw an opportunity to expand his business and hone his craft roasting geese. During the drought of 1963, staff took turns standing in line for water trucks, and eventually built a well.
More recently, bird flu stopped the sale of geese, and this inspired the creation of new dishes such as charcoal grilled lamb, which uses the same grill used for roasting geese. It is one of the few charcoal grills still allowed to be operated in Hong Kong.
After the recent food safety scares, and the rise of organic produce, the restaurant started producing organic turnip cakes for Lunar New Year. But "we'll never do anything too 'fusion'. Our brand is all about authenticity," Yvonne Kam insists.
Her own succession to the family business was only recently cemented. After Kam Shui-fai's death in 2004, tensions over ownership and control of the restaurant arose between his two sons, Kinsen Kam Kwan-sing, who was the eldest, and Ronald Kam Kwan-lai, Yvonne Kam's father.
The family's legal battles became a dramatic public affair because of the restaurant's fame. The struggle appears to have subsided after Kinsen's death last year, and his children's subsequent decision to leave the company.
Authenticity is what governs the future of Yung Kee, repeats Yvonne Kam. Despite offers to open branches around the world, she says that their goal is simply to carry on the legacy that her grandfather built.
Yung Kee, 32-40 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2522 1624. Open: 11am-11.30pm