Bun while it lasts
Kam Wah's milk tea and pastries impress Janice Leung Hayes
With her elegant, coiffed hair and pearl earrings, Chan Fong Chik-mui seems almost out of place in Kam Wah Cafe, her husband's cha chaan teng in Mong Kok. Indeed, the cafe wasn't part of her life until her children went to Britain to finish their schooling a decade ago.
"I was a housewife, but after my children left, I was determined to do something," says Chan. Her husband, Chan Tim-wo - a baker's son - opened the cafe in 1973. "A cafe was the least expensive business to start. A Chinese restaurant would need too much money," she says.
"Before I started [working there], I thought all my husband did was drop into the cafe every day and tend to the cashier, but in my first week I saw it wasn't that easy," she adds. "My eyes hurt just watching everyone come in and out of the shop."
Breakfast time draws the most customers, and with full meals costing about HK$20, it's easy to see why. "We're always hesitant to raise prices because we have so much support from our regulars," some of whom have been coming for more than 30 years, says Chan. She almost feels guilty about charging them at all. "[Cha chaan teng] are about serving good food at low prices. That's what people come for, and we've been fortunate enough to have their support for all these years."
Initially, Kam Wah served a few bakery items and drinks. Today, queues form for the bor lor bau, (pineapple bun), named after the topping that resembles pineapple skin.
The original recipe for the bun came from Chan's father-in-law, but has been modified over the years. "There used to be a soft pastry on top in a diamond shape pattern," says Chan. "But my husband is always trying to perfect it, according to customers' tastes." It now has a crisper, sugary top.
Its menu has expanded, to include substantial rice and noodle dishes. Chan says: "To keep up with the rent, we had to make sure customers were coming in all day."
Rent issues prompted her to open the space next door two months ago. However, she sees that move as a contingency rather than an expansion. The landlord of their original shop has sold the entire building to a property developer, so she believes their rent will increase dramatically - enough to force them to shut down - once their current contract is up in another year or so.
"I'm not ready to give up the cafe; none of the customers want us to give up," she says. "People come to us from all over the world. I want to keep serving them genuine, quality Hong Kong food."
Kam Wah Cafe, 47 Bute Street, Mong Kok, tel: 2392 6830. Open: 6.30am-midnight