HK Magazine Archive

What's the History of Tsui Wah in Central?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:49pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
I heard that Tsui Wah in Central is closing! What’s the story behind it? – Tsui Woes

I’m afraid it’s true. The Wellington Street branch of Tsui Wah is closing—at least for now. 

The first branch of Tsui Wah was a bing sut snack house in Mong Kok, opened by Choi Cheung-po in 1962. The chain grew steadily over the years, but it wasn’t until an ex-cook and delivery boy by the name of Lee Yuen-hong took over in 1989 and expanded to its first cha chaan teng restaurant in San Po Kong, that it became the Tsui Wah we know today. 

Lee retargeted the usual business model. Instead of courting the laborers and poorer locals who were your usual CCT bread and butter (or pineapple bun with butter, at any rate), Lee opened his new branches in more affluent districts, raising the quality of his ingredients and upping prices to match. He targeted middle-class customers and white-collar workers who were more willing to spend on a meal—but still wanted the flavors they loved.

With a menu that was broader than your average cha chaan teng, Tsui Wah could offer everything from condensed milk buns to fried noodles to Swiss-style chicken wings or an admittedly superb Malaysian chicken curry—and it could charge extra for it, too. 

Tsui Wah began to take an unheard-of corporate approach to its outlets: uniforms and training for all staff, no smoking in the workplace, and hiring women to balance the male-dominated industry. Since 2008 the chain has also instituted centralized kitchens to maintain food quality across all branches. With the introduction of electronic ordering systems, it’s started to analyze sales to optimize the menu. (Although why that led to Tsui Wah replacing classic French toast with their horrible ice cream version is anyone’s guess.) In 2012, the chain even launched an IPO to finance its expansion into the mainland, raising a $756.7 million. It now has 34 branches in Hong Kong, two in Macau and 20 on the mainland.

But aiming squarely at the well-off wasn’t the Tsui Wah masterstroke. The true touch of genius came in December 1998, when the chain opened a late-night eatery on Wellington Street, right at the bottom of Lan Kwai Fong. By day, the restaurant served the worker bees of Central, and all was well. But by night—and especially late, late at night—the Central branch of Tsui Wah became the nexus of Hong Kong’s post-clubbing world, a chance to shovel some food into your stomach before drunkenly weaving home. The Central Tsui Wah at 3am is a harshly lit cross section of the best of Hong Kong: the good, the great, the loud, the gorgeous… and the drunk.

Sadly, Tsui Wah stock is down right now and the chain has decided to renovate the Wellington Street restaurant to drum up more business. And with a reported monthly rent of some $2.3 million, that’s a lot of iced lemon teas they’ll have to shift.

The Central Tsui Wah is set to reopen in November or December. It may be a necessary step, but for four months the SAR isn’t just losing the city’s finest chicken curry: It’s losing a Hong Kong icon.