Update‘It’s really not fair’: forced closure of Tung Po Kitchen, a Hong Kong icon, over tenancy breaches has a chef and long-time diner in despair
- The 30-year-old restaurant in a cooked-food market in North Point has long been a must-visit for tourists, but has its legions of local fans too
- Accused of violating the terms of its tenancy and given notice of its proposed termination, on August 26 the restaurant was given a week to close up
After 30 years in business, Tung Po Kitchen, an icon of Hong Kong dining, will shut down on September 2.
The sudden closure of the restaurant in the cooked-food market of the Java Road Municipal Services Building in North Point follows its unsuccessful appeal against a notice of proposed termination issued a month ago by the Hong Kong government’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.
Tung Po Kitchen’s written response to the notice was rejected, and the FEHD issued another notice to the restaurant on August 26 to cease operations by September 2.
In a statement, the FEHD said it reminded tenants of government-owned market stalls to abide by regulations, including the terms of their lease, and that in any case of a breach, the department may immediately repossess the stall and terminate the tenancy agreement.
It outlined the reason for terminating Tung Po Kitchen’s licence: it was because of the findings of an investigation that began in May 2021 to look into suspected illegal subleases by the four tenants. It was discovered that they did not operate as sole proprietors and were therefore in breach of their tenancy agreements.
In accordance with regulations, Tung Po Kitchen will have 30 days to appeal the decision, although it will be unable to operate pending the outcome of the appeal.
The FEHD highlighted that there have been 11 similar cases since 2018 where stall tenancy agreements have been terminated because of illegal subletting - only three tenants appealed, and all were dismissed.
For some long-term patrons such as veteran chef Eddy Leung, the decision raised question marks about why the venue had been allowed to operate in its current state for years and to renew its licence annually – a question that applies to many other businesses in other cooked-food centres.
Leung, a loyal diner at Tung Po Kitchen for decades, slammed the FEHD’s decision to shut it down as “really not fair”.
“I never expected things to happen so suddenly, with [FEHD] only giving them a few days to close down,” he says. “I think this is unacceptable.”
He points out that the practice of cooked-food stall owners taking over neighbouring spaces is commonplace in the city, and that if the same rules were to be applied across the board, restaurants in cooked-food markets such as those in Hung Hom, Ap Lei Chau and Happy Valley would also need to shut.
He suggests that Tung Po’s struggles are indicative of “tall poppy syndrome”.
“I guess [Tung Po] was just too outstanding. The food was great, the atmosphere too. It’s friendly and a true Hong Kong gem. Among all the dai pai dong in Hong Kong, it has to be one of the best.”
Tung Po Kitchen has long been an icon of Hong Kong’s dining scene.
It had a high-octane atmosphere, fuelled by blasting pop music, overflowing bowls of Blue Girl beer, and the antics of its rambunctious co-owner and manager, Robby Cheung. He was often seen showing wide-eyed customers how to pop open bottles with a single chopstick, and showing off his splits and moonwalking skills on the market’s slippery tiles.
For many in Hong Kong – and indeed around the world – Tung Po Kitchen is firmly a part of the city’s cultural fabric, a destination that was loved by residents and tourists alike.
When Leung was president of the Hong Kong Chefs Association, he would often take visiting chefs and culinary competition judges from around the world to the restaurant.
“At one point, there would be 80 to 100 people dining together at one time,” he says. “It’s a place that really opened up the eyes of many chefs.”
Leung is certain that on September 1, Tung Po’s final night of service, “there won’t be any room to stand” as fans will flock to say their farewells.
“Everyone there last night had tears in their eyes,” says Leung, who visited the restaurant on its penultimate evening of service.
He says he feels terrible for the restaurant’s employees, who have already been struggling throughout the pandemic.
“They’re suddenly out of work, right? Dozens of them. The government says they want to help the small guys, but have they thought about them at all?”