Spicy noodles and marinated fish: Chinese restaurants are setting up shop in Hong Kong

The hungry came to taste a dish of spicy fried beef or steamed fish head at home. Waiters, speaking in Mandarin, delivered plates heated with green and red chili peppers.

It was the Hong Kong opening night of Return Home Hunan, a well-known mainland Chinese chain trying to establish itself in the city’s competitive dining scene. Huang Haiying, the restaurant’s founder, greeted customers in a bright red suit while waiters handed out red envelopes stuffed with coupons.

Hong Kong is a tough place to open a restaurant these days. Fewer people are going to restaurants and more restaurants have closed than opened this year. But mainland Chinese restaurateurs, facing their own challenges at home, see an opening.

“Everyone has their own way of surviving, and now it’s about surviving on the margins,” Ms. Huang said. “We will see who has the most courage and succeeds.”

Return Home Hunan is one of more than a dozen famous Chinese restaurants that have opened in Hong Kong in recent months. The owners have been encouraged by a steady flow of new customers from Hong Kong, who have traveled to Shenzhen, the neighboring mainland city, in search of more choice.

But the arrival of these restaurants in Hong Kong raises some hesitation. A Chinese territory that has long operated with a high degree of autonomy, Hong Kong is increasingly under the influence of Beijing. For some city residents, the migration of these restaurants is an illustration of how Hong Kong culture is slowly being taken over by the rest of China.

Not far from Return Home Hunan, new restaurants offer dishes from three southern Chinese provinces: there’s Guizhou Rice Noodle Restaurant, Guangxi River Snail Noodle Shop, and Guangxi River Stinky Tofu. Hunan province.

These establishments cater to local residents and a growing community of mainland Chinese, some of whom have made the city their home over the past decade.

“When I first came to Hong Kong, it was difficult to find authentic restaurants with mainland cuisine,” said Karen Lin, a banker and part-time business school student at the University of Hong Kong, who ate spicy fried beef at Return Home Hunan on April 23. a recent evening.

“The Chinese restaurants here were all based on Hong Kong’s ‘local tastes,'” said Ms. Lin, who has lived in the city for six years.

The complaint among mainland transplants that Hong Kong’s food is bland is more acute for locals these days, grappling with the city’s changing identity.

In 2020, Beijing implemented a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong after pro-democracy protests across the city. Many expats and local Hong Kongers have left the city. This exodus has been intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic and the public health measures put in place by the city, among the strictest in the world.

Today, as Hong Kong moves closer to China’s orbit, an economic slowdown and a real estate crisis on the mainland are weighing on its long-awaited recovery.

The fastest-growing group of migrants in Hong Kong are people from mainland China seeking better jobs and securing special visas that the government has started offering. They discovered a city more welcoming than it was before the pandemic, when mainlanders were often greeted with hostility by Hong Kong residents.

“Hong Kong has become much more inclusive for mainlanders,” said Zheng Huiwen, manager of one of the Hong Kong branches of Tai Er Pickled Fish, a Sichuan fish restaurant in mainland China. At the restaurant, waiters announce the arrival of a dish in the inflected style of traditional Beijing opera, declaring: “A delicious fish is coming!” »

Mr. Zheng, who moved to Hong Kong as a teenager from neighboring Guangdong province and spent his summers waiting tables, recalled how Hong Kong diners treated him more rudely once that they heard his continental accent.

The tone is changing as Hong Kong residents spend more time across the border, eating and shopping.

Tai Er Pickled Fish has become so popular among Hong Kong tourists in Shenzhen that in December the company opened four locations in Hong Kong.

Among the newly built apartments next to where Mr. Zheng is a director, in a shopping center where the city’s former Kai Tak Airport once stood, more than half of the apartments for sale in March were acquired by buyers from mainland China, local media reported. .

At Xita Grandma BBQ, a new Chinese restaurant, Cambridge Zhang, the franchise owner, complained that mainland diners are mainly interested in trendy restaurants. Mr. Zhang wanted to find different customers in a new market.

He soon discovers that many others have the same idea.

“I came here and found out, ‘Hey, here’s this mainland restaurant, and there’s another mainland restaurant,'” Mr. Zhang said animatedly.

For some local restaurants that are barely holding on, the wave of openings is disconcerting. In April, nearly twice as many restaurants closed as opened, according to OpenRice, an online restaurant and market information platform.

In the Shek Tong Tsui neighborhood, where Return Home Hunan opened in May, many brightly colored restaurants – once neighborhood mainstays – have recently closed their doors. A restaurant that served cheap noodles and milk tea was gone, as was a restaurant where retirees gathered to eat dim sum and catch up on the news of the day.

“The restaurant business is hard work,” said Roy Tse, a local restaurateur who sold rice dishes once popular with office workers in Hong Kong’s Taikoo Shing business district. There are fewer visitors at lunchtime these days. Those who still come command the bases.

Yeung Hei, the manager of Fu Ging Aromatic Noodles, a longtime local restaurant in Hong Kong where a chef simmers brisket outside the entrance window, said he has customers coming in every day .

“But one day they disappeared and never came back,” he said.

These days, restaurants that offer cheap food tend to do better. Many newcomers from the mainland lure diners with deep discounts, coupons and fan club specials.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Chester Kwong and Sonja Cheng were hunched over large bowls at Meet Noodles, a fast-food chain famous for its spicy-sour noodles made with potato flour from the city of Chongqing, in southern China.

“It’s very cheap,” Mr. Kwong said. He was referring to a set of hot and sour noodles that Ms. Cheng ordered for 36 Hong Kong dollars, or $4.61. It included a bowl of sweet and sour noodle soup and a side of fried chicken.

Ms. Cheng and Mr. Kwong, recent college graduates, expressed concern that Chinese restaurants could replace their favorite local eateries. “It’s good to have these places and these options for Chinese food, but it’s a little scary to think that one day they might surpass what we had in Hong Kong,” Mr. Kwong said.

There are others who feel the same way and choose not to patronize mainland restaurants.

“I take every opportunity to help local restaurants,” said Audrey Chan, who grew up in mainland China but moved to Hong Kong as a student six years ago and identifies as Hong Konger.

Fu Ging Aromatic Noodles once counted residents of the middle-class Chai Wan neighborhood as its main source of income. But so many people moved – many out of Hong Kong – that she found herself looking for new clients.

Ms. Huang from Return Home Hunan said she knew it would be difficult.

But, she added, “no matter the economic situation, people still need to eat.”

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *