Employees only: the factory canteens serving tempting food to Hong Kong diners, if you know where to look
Lobster risotto, scallop udon, beef pho, sweet and sour ribs – a hipster dining scene has emerged in the converted industrial buildings of rising art district Wong Chuk Hang; officially, you have to work in one to sample the food, but …
From street level, the Kingley Industrial Building looks like just another uninviting, monolithic tower in a gritty part of Hong Kong’s south side.
But ride its service lift to the 25th floor and you’ll find Goodwill Production: a hipster cafe serving elegantly plated lobster risotto, eggs Benedict, and salmon fillet with mashed potatoes for bargain prices in the most inconspicuous of settings.
This is one of Wong Chuk Hang’s “factory canteens” – restaurants opened to serve people working in the area’s industrial buildings, and which are increasingly being gatecrashed by the public.
Harris Lau, 30, opened Goodwill in 2014. It was his first restaurant and he picked Wong Chuk Hang because “the rent was low”, he says.
“We did no promotion when we opened,” he says. “We just put a poster on the street outside our factory building. We had one customer a day in the first week. But then she told her colleagues to come, and the same thing kept happening.”
Today, manga comics and Gundan figurines line the restaurant’s shelves – Lau’s childhood collection – and Goodwill is so buzzing it’s hard to get a seat around lunchtime.
The idea of a factory canteen goes back to the second half of the 20th century, when Wong Chuk Hang was a hub of manufacturing, churning out rubber goods, electronics and clothes by the truckload to be shipped across the globe.
“In the 1980s, there were a lot of dirty street food stalls around Wong Chuk Hang,” says Michael Yu, administration manager of the GaGa factory canteen. “The government wanted to clean it up. They suggested we move off the street and said they would organise a new style of licence for a factory canteen.”
Today, industrial premises are permitted to turn a small percentage of their floor space – normally 10 per cent – into a factory canteen. Officially, they must only serve that building’s staff, keep prices low and not sell alcohol. Unofficially, there appears to be some wiggle room.
GaGa opened in 1986 and was, Yu says, one of the first factory canteens. It is tucked away inside the Shui Ki Industrial Building, which is distinguished by a black-and-white fish mural on its exterior, which was painted by Japanese graffiti artist Taka during last year’s HKwalls street-art festival.
A bundle of fairy lights at the back of the building’s loading bay signals the entrance to GaGa. On the door, a big red sign reads: “FACTORY EMPLOYEES OF THIS BUILDING ONLY.”
Looking around this huge, colourful cha chaan teng buzzing with hipster patrons tucking into bowls of beef brisket pho, char siu rice, and French toast, I’d guess that many of the diners are not factory workers in the Shui Ki building.
“We can only serve the workers of this building,” Yu says. “But if they tell me they work here, I have no right to check their documents. I have to believe them, right?” Lau explains that he complies with the canteen regulations by having customers pay at his kitchen, then walk down the corridor to dine in a different restaurant area.
Most factory canteens have no English menu, so we point on menus to what looks good – and we aren’t disappointed.
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These days, Hong Kong manufactures very little and this area is, to use a dirty word, gentrifying. The opening in 2016 of a new MTR station put Wong Chuk Hang within kissing distance of the city’s Central business district. Art galleries such as Blindspot have taken space in old factories, and fashion brands including I.T and Lane Crawford have rented sleek converted warehouses for their headquarters. There is even a hipster craft brewery.
The one missing ingredient in Wong Chuk Hang, however, is a decent scene for these arty newcomers to schmooze and booze in – zoning laws make it almost impossible for restaurants to operate in industrial buildings.
True, you can eat well there without setting foot in an industrial building. Dining options, such as African cafe ACT and The Golden Monkey, serving Vietnamese food, have sprung up in the new tower blocks rising in Wong Chuk Hang.
But the factory canteen licence attracts restaurateurs eyeing the cheaper, and more plentiful, spaces in industrial buildings.
Finding these canteens is a bit like going on a treasure hunt. Generally, they aren’t signposted, are hidden on a random floor of a building, and have warning signs on their doors, like the one at GaGa.
Under a flyover on Wong Chuk Hang Road, we discover the Sun Kwan Shing Canteen, where a bowl of squid noodles or a clay pot rice costs just HK$42 with a soft drink. Opposite the Ovolo Southside hotel, at Uncle Chong’s Diner, a whole fried catfish is served with pickled vegetables for half the price of a cocktail in Central.
On the sixth floor of Derrick Industrial Building, Kayobi Kitchen sells Japanese fare, such as scallops in udon soup (HK$62), and sea eel rice (HK$74).
“When I first took a job in Wong Chuk Hang, I thought this area was so bad for food,” says Janice Leung, who works for a designer furniture company, while dining at Kayobi Kitchen. “But then I realised there are great restaurants here, they’re just hidden in these buildings.”
Maria Bizri founded Pomegranate Kitchen, a Middle Eastern catering business and private kitchen, in Wong Chuk Hang in 2013.
“When I moved to Hong Kong, Wong Chuk Hang was a ghost town,” recalls Bizri, who grew up in the UK, Lebanon and Syria. She was attracted to the area by its warehouses, which offered unusually large spaces for Hong Kong and provided “a blank canvas”.
“Back then, you wouldn’t see any suits around here. But when One Island South [a Swire-owned commercial skyscraper] opened you started seeing really funky looking people,” she says.
Demand for Bizri’s cooking has grown with the influx of businesses, and she is applying for a factory canteen licence to turn Pomegranate into a restaurant. “Like everything in Hong Kong, it’s a bit fluid,” she says of the factory canteen licensing system.
“I think being in the industrial building is cool and hip. Men are playing mahjong in the corridors, cats are howling outside. People come here dressed in suits and nice dresses and wonder if they’re in the right place, but once they’re inside they love it.”
That sequence of confusion, discovery and delight, it seems, is the charm of dining in Wong Chuk Hang.
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Six factory canteens to try in Wong Chuk Hang
25/F Phase 1, Kingley Industrial Building, 35 Yip Kan Street, Wong Chuk Hang, tel: 2889 6528
Block C, Vita Tower, 29 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Wong Chuk Hang, tel: 2580 8100
Uncle Chong’s Diner
Evergreen Industrial Mansion, 12 Yip Fat Street, Wong Chuk Hang, tel: 2552 6254
Sun Kwan Shing Canteen
60 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Wong Chuk Hang, tel: 2555 1775
Flat 6B, 6F, Derrick Industrial Building, 49 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Wong Chuk Hang, tel: 3568 4245
4/F, Sing Teck Industrial Building, 44 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Wong Chuk Hang, tel: 2580 0663