Why retro dining is getting a boost in modern Hong Kong

Some Hong Kong restaurants are taking advantage of the powerful draw of nostalgia, with retro-themed decor and modernised dishes from the past

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 5:25pm

If you wander along Wellington Street in Central, the evidence is clear. Loyal Dining has rebranded local favourites in an upmarket cha chaan teng. Chinese vegetarian spot Kasa’s lime green décor mimics the look of a tong lau (tenement building). Even venerable Mak’s Noodle has been renovated recently, not to look more modern, but a move towards vintage chic.

Hong Kong scenes shot by an early 20th century tourist

The economy is a mess, housing is utterly unaffordable, and politics are dividing the city. No wonder we’re sick of the uncertain present and pine for an escape into gastro-reminiscence.

“I think people really do miss the old Hong Kong,” says Joe Lee Kwok-chun, the culinary director of Lee Lo Mei, the new retro-themed restaurant occupying two floors of 8 Lyndhurst Terrace. “You see the negative news but I don’t know if it’s the only factor. Local people always enjoy going back to street food and favourite dishes. But not many places offer it in a nicer environment so maybe that’s why they are excited by this trend. Now, they don’t have to go to Mong Kok for it.”

Where Cantonese chefs got their taste for shrimp paste

Lee was a protégé of Harlan Goldstein – the chef who was originally lined up to take care of the food and beverage outlets in the building. Lee took over after Goldstein’s abrupt departure, and with Lee Lo Mei, created a place loaded with retro Hong Kong motifs and trinkets, while serving modern Hong Kong street food.

“We think it’s a unique place. There are a lot of classic dishes we want to present but with modern touches. A lot of the old restaurants from the 1970s and ’80s are disappearing. One by one they are closing, but there are still a lot of people looking for these environments.”

Like its cheeky name, Lee Lo Mei – which literally means “Lee’s Good Food” but also sounds like very rude Canto-slang about one’s mother – is about capturing the spirit of a bygone era but not slavishly recreating the past.

Before the bulldozers: a look back at Hong Kong’s long-lost buildings and what replaced them

“If I just did pure local food, people won’t come here. You would go to Jordan or Mong Kok for more traditional flavours for a lot less money. And if we did pure fusion, I don’t think it would be as interesting for customers, either. So, what we try is to keep the essence of Hong Kong in a new refined menu.”

Nearby, everything old is also new again at Dragon Noodles Academy. Owner Benjamin Ang is navigating the same terrain for his ambitious 200-seat venue, adorning the modern diner with real Lion Dance drums and paraphernalia, kung fu accoutrements, and traditional Chinese medicine dispensary cabinets. Imagine a sleek, hip mixology bar run by Ip Man.

Ang’s own wistful longing for Chinese nosh is the main inspiration for his restaurant’s signature noodle.

“There are three elements of the menu,” Ang says. “There is dim sum, the noodle part, and some larger dishes. The noodle idea came from a trip to Europe. My palate is very Chinese and I started craving a hot bowl of Asian noodles. My wife and I were having lobster bisque and I thought if we only had some noodles to put in this fabulous bisque it would make my day.”

Hence, lobster (dragon) noodles. However, everything else here is faithful to Hong Kong culture, identity and kung fu films.

“We spent a lot of time looking for authentic local craftsman, not just getting things made in China. The youngest one is about 70,” Ang explains. “I did a lot of research, visiting old places. There is a thin line between tacky and modern. A lot of people know Hong Kong through the films with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, etc, and it’s part of my life too.

“Retro has come full circle. I am not a post-90s millennial. I grew up with this stuff, so this makes sense to me, and it lets people explore a lot of their sweet memories too.”

Dragon Noodles Academy serves refined local flavours that don’t dilute the food’s authentic Chinese character, whether it’s dim sum, rice dishes, or Peking duck. “We’re not fusion food. People want to recognise these flavours, but we just clean up the presentation so it’s neat and tidy,” Ang says.

Of course, if you want unadulterated old-school food, diners could just go to places like Tai Ping Koon and Mido Café.

But nostalgia is about recalling memories subconsciously photoshopped to be better than the real history.

It’s why the Starbucks on Duddell Street, designed by GOD’s Douglas Young, is preferred over a real bing sutt (ice house). And why overseas visitors dine at the stylised Sino-posh of China Tang rather than the honest Cantonese of Lin Heung and its bad-tempered waiters.

Even in the edgiest of modernist Chinese cuisine, sentimentalism is an enticing ingredient. Alvin Leung’s new Bo Innovation is filled with homages to the chef’s memories of Hong Kong culture. The Demon Chef changed the restaurant name to Bo Innovation: The Hong Kong Story.

“It’s very personal and from my distinct perspective. It’s about what I have seen and known of Hong Kong from when I arrived as a kid to now,” says Leung.

The most audacious recreation of Hong Kong culinary nostalgia might be at the Peak Tower. The Epicurean Group went full retro e for Lu Feng, with a venue that looks like it comes straight from the 1970s, with wood panelling, mosaic tiles and, in certain dining areas, groovy carpets. Named after the old structure that previously stood on the site, the restaurant caters to tourists and locals with old-time offerings such as gold coin chicken, a calorific favourite consisting of barbecued honey-glazed layers of chicken liver, pork meat and pork fat.

Hong Kong localism, and nostalgia, behind revival of interest in Canto-pop

“I think a lot of Hong Kong people miss this old culture,” says Epicurean Group executive Sheila Chan. “I think it also gives the new generation a chance to experience old Hong Kong food. I talked to some younger guests and they have no idea even of the 1970s Canto-pop music we play, and sometimes even their parents have never tried the food.

“A lot of local restaurants aren’t making these dishes anymore. It’s too complicated and a lot of chefs just don’t know how to make it. Obviously we are projecting a lot of nostalgia but the food has to be good, or people won’t come here.”

For their back-to-tradition menu at Lu Feng, the Epicurean Group turned to former Mandarin Oriental sous-chef, Harry Hung Kwai-pan. “The fact is that a lot of the old dishes are salty and fatty,” Hung says. “Today people are more health-conscious. It’s a challenge to find new ways to make the dishes appetising. To be honest, I could drench the dishes in hot oil and they would come out smelling and tasting great, but I don’t want to do that.”

In the end, the move towards nostalgia is less about preserving history than a need to connect and build identity. Change and uncertainty can be scary, but there’s a sense of comfort and familiarity in these retro restaurants.

As Lee says, “A dish can conjure up so many memories. It’s about bringing people back to a happier time, a more relaxed state of mind, and more free and easy past.”

Lu Feng

Shop 3A-B, Level 2 & 3, The Peak Tower, The Peak, tel: 2886 8680

Lee Lo Mei

8 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, tel: 2896 7688

Bo Innovation: The Hong Kong Story

Shop 8, 1/F, J Senses, 60 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2850 8371

Loyal Dining

66 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 3125 3000

Dragon Noodles Academy

Shop G04, Man Yee Building, 68 Des Voeux Road Central, tel: 2561 6688