Tsui Hang Village, pillar of Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong, still adding new twists to traditional dishes after 44 years
Hong Kong restaurant chain has always had an innovative approach to traditional Chinese cuisine. Now the challenge is to appease more health-conscious customers for whom taste is as important as their blood pressure
Jimmy Ho Kwong-yuen retired last year but he can’t resist checking in with his “children”: the three Tsui Hang Village restaurants he managed for Miramar during a career spanning more than four decades at the Hong Kong hospitality company.
The sprightly 80-year-old has fond memories of his time at the restaurants, which are known for their traditional Cantonese dishes.
When Ho arrives at the Tsim Sha Tsui branch – the first of the chain, still in its original location on the corner of Nathan and Kimberley roads where it opened in 1974 – staff affectionately welcome him as “Yuen Goh”, or older brother Yuen.
Ho had been working at a Miramar club that put on a revue of Chinese songs three times a day when his boss, group co-founder Young Chi-wan, asked him to manage the newly opened Tsui Hang Village.
The restaurant chain – there is another in Central and one in Causeway Bay – has since gone on to become an institution in Hong Kong thanks to its innovative approach to traditional Chinese cuisine and hospitality.
Tsui Hang Village, which will celebrate its 45th anniversary next year, is today best known for its roasted meats such as char siu, and its signature salt-baked chicken and delicate dim sum. The consistency and wide-ranging menu of Cantonese dishes have made it a favourite gathering place for families, while it also counts a number of celebrities among its regular patrons.
The late Young was not only a passionate foodie, but also a proud patriot who originated from Tsui Hang Village near Zhongshan, a city in China’s southern Guangdong province. Revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen was also born in the village, and a life-size portrait of him originally hung on a wall in the Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant.
Ho says the first restaurant had just 19 tables in its early days. At lunchtime, diners tucked into a la carte dishes such as stir-fried shredded beef with preserved vegetables, and sautéed vermicelli with shredded barbecue pork, shrimps and pickles. Dim sum – now hugely popular at Tsui Hang – was served only after 2.30pm.
The clientele were predominantly factory bosses with offices in Tsim Sha Tsui, Ho recalls, who was then in his mid-30s. His own boss dined there almost daily to check on the business.
“You have to treat each table the same otherwise people will notice a difference,” he says. “I also had to make sure the food wasn’t too salty or too bland, and the portions were just right.”
That kept the young manager on his toes, working seven days a week for the first six months before Young told him to take a break – hinting that if he didn’t, Ho’s wife might not be around much longer.
Ho was generously compensated for his hard work. “I made HK$5,000 a month at the time, with a HK$3,000 bonus each month,” he says with a smile. “My boss even gave two flats to me – one to live in and one to rent out.”
Several initiatives earned Tsui Hang Village a reputation for being innovative. One saw Young lure Chinese chefs back from Japan in the 1970 and ’80s to work in the restaurants. They were chosen for their ability to make dishes look more appealing, such as with intricately carved garnishes. This helped Tsui Hang Village compete with Maxim’s, the restaurant group that had cornered the market for banquet-style food.
Another innovation stemmed from Young’s interest in regional Chinese cuisine. Unlike today, when overseas guest chefs are regularly invited to the city, Tsui Hang Village was one of the first restaurants to invite guest chefs to showcase different examples of Chinese cuisines. They came from regions as diverse as Shanghai, Sichuan, Hangzhou, Fujian and Zhejiang.
Hong Kong’s economy boomed in the 1980s, and popular dishes at Tsui Hang Village included a number that have proven so popular they remain on the menu to this day: braised superior shark’s fin soup with shredded chicken in casserole; double-boiled sweetened imperial bird’s nest; and deep-fried crispy chicken topped with spring onions and soy sauce.
Gloria Ho Mun-yee (not related), 58, is one of Ho’s proteges. She shows a photo of herself dressed in a cheongsam (qipao) standing at the doorway of Tsui Hang Village when she first started working there.
She had previously worked in hotel coffee shops, including at the Furama Kempinski and the Regent, because it paid better than office work. But when she had a chance to double her salary, she signed up straight away to work at Tsui Hang Village.
“Yuen Goh interviewed me and said they were opening a new Tsui Hang Village branch in Central,” she says, adding that the new branch, in New World Tower, opened in 1977. “I didn’t really know what to do, and my colleagues patiently taught me how to greet customers, pour tea, fill a rice bowl.”
She and Yuen Goh recall that a slew of celebrities have dined at Tsui Hang Village, including Cantonese opera star and actress Connie Chan Po-chu, and actors Patrick Tse-yin and Chow Yun-fat.
“[Chow] was celebrating his birthday at the restaurant, and he went from table to table, taking pictures with everyone,” she says. “Then he saw us standing around and came over to take pictures with us too. We were so excited.”
Mok Ming, 62, is the brand chef for all three Tsui Hang Village restaurants and has worked for the company since 1977. He jokes that Yuen Goh has watched him grow up over the years.
“At the time I started, the restaurant was known for its stir-fried vermicelli and we made our own smoked trotter jelly [similar to a terrine]. The restaurant wasn’t as well known for its dim sum as it is now,” he says.
In the early years of his career at the restaurant, Mok rotated through different sections of the kitchen, such as meat cutting, steaming and frying. “We had to do a bit of everything and that’s how we learned things,” he says.
In the past 20 years, Tsui Hang Village has become famous for its smoked meats, char siu in particular, and dishes such as its boneless salt-baked chicken. At the same time, Mok observes, customers have become more health-conscious. “Before, it was all about taste, but now it’s about keeping the blood pressure low,” he says, citing fried king prawns in mango sauce as a popular “healthier” dish that has been introduced to the menu.
One of Mok’s proteges is 33-year-old Bosco Li Ka-ting, who has worked as head chef in the Tsim Sha Tsui branch for almost seven years. Of the three outlets, his is the only one that has received a special mention each year in the Hong Kong Michelin Guide since 2013.
Li says now that the Tsui Hang Village brand is almost 45 years old, the challenge is updating traditional dishes with new elements.
“It’s the kind of restaurant where older people bring their grandchildren,” he says. “It’s a place for everyone and I like making dishes for everyone. I feel satisfaction seeing customers enjoying their meal, and when I come out [of the kitchen], they tell me which dishes they like. Or having children watch us prepare dishes from the window, because we are an open kitchen.”
Although Ho is retired, he is concerned about the future of not only Tsui Hang Village, but the restaurant industry as a whole.
“There aren’t enough people joining the hospitality industry,” he says. “Before, the boss would tell us to just hire more people if we didn’t have enough help, but now you can’t even find people. I hope bosses think about this. Customer service is so important – we have to treat each customer like a VIP.”
Mok is also concerned about finding the next generation of cooks dedicated to the craft.
“I tell young chefs in our kitchen that I will give them two to three years to figure out what they want to do. If they are interested in cooking, they will pay attention and learn … Even if young cooks have studied at the Chinese Culinary Institute, performing on the job is different. They still have to learn from us.”
Li says chefs in the kitchen range in age from their 20s to their 50s, which inevitably leads to generational clashes. The older ones tend to berate the younger ones, who may sometimes have what Li describes as “glass hearts” – they don’t take constructive criticism well.
“We have to reassure the younger ones that the older ones didn’t mean to berate them, but to teach them. When I explain that to them, they are happy and realise they shouldn’t take things personally. Luckily I have a good team and they are keen to learn.”