This is part of a series of stories on old places in Kennedy Town in Hong Kong. It is based on the anecdotes shared with me by the people who run Sun Hing in the summer of 2017, and the dates and ages of the people are per the notes I took back then.
Eating at Sun Hing always feels like a sensory overload. From the whiffs of steaming-hot baskets of dim sum to the diners’ boisterous chatter, the atmosphere is simultaneously chaotic and harmonious.
Upon entry, the first thing to do is to look for available seats amidst the communal tables while trying not to obstruct the servers as they waltz their way across the greasy floor and between the narrowly placed tables. Sometimes someone would kindly gesture to us to join their table or other people would spontaneously shuffle closer so that we could squeeze in between — in those pre-COVID-19 days, no one minded eating elbow to elbow.
Mr Chui (徐) started Sun Hing in 1975 in a public housing estate in Lok Fu, Kowloon. He moved his dim sum restaurant to Kennedy Town in 1990 as the building that they were in was going to be demolished and the rent in the new location was cheap.
When Mr Chui opened his restaurant in Kennedy Town, it was a much quieter neighbourhood with few high-rise buildings. Most of Sun Hing’s customers in those early days were people who worked in the area, including vegetable and meat sellers and workers at the pier. Their customers have changed significantly over the years as the wholesale food markets, slaughterhouses and factories made way for premium residential developments.
While the 87-year-old Mr Chui has handed over the restaurant’s daily operations to his eldest son, he would often man the cashier. Aside from Heng-gor (“Brother Heng” in Cantonese), none of Mr Chui’s children are involved in running Sun Hing. A youthful-looking 50 year-old, Heng-gor is slim like his father even though he would eat dim sum for breakfast and lunch all the time. The staff at Sun Hing affectionally call him “tai zi” 太子, “prince” in Cantonese.
The Chinese words for “dim sum,” “點心,” literally means to “touch the heart.” However this term was originally used as a verb, not a noun, to describe eating a little snack in between meals. I have enjoyed dim sum since I was a child — I find the literal meaning of dim sum rather charming and love being able to sample multiple small nibbles.
Heng-gor shared that the most popular item on their menu is steamed custard bun (奶黃)流沙包 followed by shrimp dumpling (har gow 蝦餃) and pork dumpling (siu mai 燒賣). Unusual but worth trying is the steamed curry pig tripe (咖哩金錢肚), which I cannot bring myself to stomach, and the steamed Chinese cabbage meat roll (時菜四寶紮). Both dishes have auspicious names which literally mean “curry gold money tripe” and “seasonal four treasures bound together” respectively!
Sun Hing’s shopfront is plastered with photos of the Chuis with celebrities who have dined there over the decades. Business is typically brisk at Sun Hing. It is mostly a local crowd — including former Kennedy Town residents and students from the nearby Hong Kong University, with the occasional tourist.
There is no English menu at Sun Hing and most of the staff do not speak English. But non-Cantonese speakers can get by simply by pointing at whatever looks good in front of fellow diners; going to the front to pick from the steaming hot stacks of dim sum baskets; or getting the attention of the servers as they bring out new items from the kitchen.
Sun Hing opens in the wee hours of the morning at 3am, feeding both hungry late owls and those who start work while the rest of the city is still sleeping. The early opening time is a legacy from long before when many of their customers worked at the wholesale markets, slaughterhouses, and factories or were bus and tram drivers.
Profit margins are slim given the cost of rent coupled with the affordable prices of its food. Working here is tough and the hours are long. This is not something most younger people in Hong Kong will willingly undertake.
Chan-sifu has been making dim sum at Sun Hing for more than 20 years, since 1989 or 1990. He starts work at 1.30am and doesn’t get off until past 3pm. “What to do, I am illiterate,” he said matter-of-factly, and pointed to the bulging varicose veins on his legs which are a result of standing for many hours every day over many years.
Sun Hing is often featured alongside other more elegant or modern restaurants in lists recommending the top dim sum spots in Hong Kong. I would wholeheartedly recommend Sun Hing over most of the suggestions on such lists.
It is unpretentious and singularly focused on serving freshly made dim sum every day. Here, the dim sum is cheap and hearty and is best washed down with thick Chinese tea. I like that it is down to earth. What you see is what you get. You are not paying extra for some fancy interior design. Service may be brusque at peak hours but it is not rude.
Many things, including the people who work there and the dim sum menu, have nary changed over the decades. I hope that Sun Hing will be able to continue to thrive and hold its ground for many more years.
Sun Hing Restaurant 新興食家 | Shop C, G/F 8 Smithfield Road, 士美非路8號地下C號舖