With its patterned tiled floors and walls, hand-painted posters and fans swirling in place of air conditioners, Kung Lee looks like a scene from 1948, the year the sugar cane juice shop opened.
It was founded by Lam Fong-nam, a farmer in the New Territories, who had been supplying his canes to juicers in the city, but decided moving up the supply chain made better business sense.
Chui Chi-sun, Lam’s nephew and second generation owner of Kung Lee explains how his family realised that black-skinned sugar cane, a popular cinema snack before the age of popcorn, was no good for juicing. He says: “The cane grew on rocky soil and the quality wasn’t as good as the kind you could just bite off and chew.” The green-skinned variety of sugar cane that they use is only good for juicing.
Chui has been juicing sugar cane the same way since he started working at the shop when he was 15. The only difference is that now the cane comes from the mainland.
Unlike with fruit, the cane cannot be juiced raw.
First, the thick skin is peeled with a large knife, then the cane is steamed. The next morning, it’s juiced using a roll press, producing the sweet yet refreshing pale olive green beverage.
To look at the shiny, mirror-like stainless steel casing of the roll press, you wouldn’t know they’ve been using the same machine for more than 30 years, juicing about 100 stalks a day. “The bearings need servicing every few months, but it’s still stronger than new machines,” says Chui.
Although many people drink sugar cane juice as a summer refreshment, Chui says the best seasons for sugar canes are autumn and winter, from November to February. He explains: “There’s plenty of juice, it’s just sweet enough and the skin is tender. Stalks harvested in the summer have been ageing in the soil; their juices dry up.”
This kind of knowledge is now being passed on to Chui’s two sons, who have gradually been taking over Kung Lee.
Last year, they opened a new shop in Wan Chai after facing a problem many decades-old businesses in Hong Kong know all too well.
Chui says: “We opened a new shop because this building in Central might be torn down any day now.”
Kung Lee, 60 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2544 3571. Open: noon-11pm. Shop 6B, 113 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, tel: 9886 6364. Open:11am-11pm