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 Cheung Heung Tea Restaurant in the summer of 2017, and the dates and ages of the people are per the notes I took back then.
Cheung Heung in Kennedy Town is a quintessential cha chaan teng 茶餐廳 – which literally means “tea restaurant” in Cantonese. Such Hong Kong-style cafes are omnipresent throughout the city, serving a wide selection of low-cost Chinese food and “Western” food that has been adapted to suit the local palate. Classic items in a cha chaan teng menu include tea and coffee served with condensed milk, lemon tea, French toast, scrambled eggs, and instant noodles topped with fried spam and eggs.
Opened since 1967, Cheung Heung has been operating in Kennedy Town for more than 50 years. Often cited as one of the best cha chaan tengs in Hong Kong, Cheung Heung is known for its handmade pastries and milk tea.
The no-frills cafe is run by two brothers in their 40s, having taken over from their father who had done so from their grandfather who acquired the business in 1978. When I was there, the younger Chau 周 brother was manning the cashier. Looking slightly bored, he shared that he had been working at Cheung Heung for close to two decades.
Cheung Heung’s regular customers are older than those patronising the trendy restaurants in the vicinity – probably an average of mid-50s, Chau Junior mused – and they tend to eat at the same place every day. Chau paused to order a coffee through the intercom and turned to collect the payment through a window from an elderly man on the street who must be a regular as Chau didn’t even have to ask him what he wanted.
In the past, long before the Kennedy Town MTR station opened, most of Cheung Heung’s customers were people who worked in the area from the warehouses, slaughterhouses, wholesale fish and vegetable sellers, and bus drivers. The clientele has since changed as some of these businesses moved away or closed while more residential developments arose in KTown.
What has not changed through the decades is that Cheung Heung fills up by 5.30am – they open at 5am – every morning, catering to customers such as bus drivers and market vendors who have an early start.
Unlike most other cha chaan tengs which rely on factory-made pastries, Cheung Heung makes its own every day. Its most popular sweet and savoury pastries include the buttery cookie-crust egg tarts (牛油皮蛋撻), pineapple buns (菠蘿包), and cocktail buns (雞尾包) which are filled with lotus paste instead of the usual shredded coconut.
While it would have been easier to get pastries from a factory instead of making it from scratch, the former is not feasible at Cheung Heung due to the small kitchen area as a larger space will be needed to defrost the pastries. Working through the night, the pastry sifu starts work at 11pm and prepares the dough at 3.30am so that the freshly baked goods will be ready when the cafe opens two hours later. With practiced dexterity, Hong Sifu rolled out the balls of dough, spinning each into a tidy twist.
Out in the front of the kitchen is the hot station where a cheery Seng Sifu was busy frying eggs and preparing toast. He deftly removed a loaf of sandwich bread from the bag and removed the crust, explaining that many people don’t like the tough crust and it is for food safety as often the loaves are placed on the floor in a bakery. I found myself distracted by his bright red t-shirt featuring smiley cha chaan teng foods around a cup of Black & White evaporated milk cup!
Next to Seng Sifu was the coffee and tea sifu – I never got his name. Sporting a deep tan and muscular arms, he gamily posed for a few photos. Interestingly, he has not drank any coffee for many years and drinks tea every day instead.
I took a breather to have some milk tea – served in the classic Black & White evaporated milk cup, together with an egg tart, my favourite item from Cheung Heung. Chau Junior mentioned that he does not eat at the cafe – “I see it everyday!” – and instead eats at the neighbouring restaurants.
Work starts at 7am every day for him. He knows how to prepare everything that is served at Cheung Heung except for the pastries which require special skills. When asked if he would pass on the business to his children, the fourth generation, he candidly replied: “I hope they would be able to do something else otherwise they would be stuck here all day.”
When I went upstairs to bid farewell to some of the staff who were having an early lunch before the crowd arrived, I met Chau Junior’s father. The senior Chau was having eating steamed rice, eggs, minced meat and vegetables with some of the staff. When told what I was up to, he kindly sat with me in one of the booth seats for an impromptu chat.
While he has retired, he comes by the shop every day when he goes out for a walk in the neighbourhood. Having spent most of his life at Cheung Heung, he is very much attached to the cha chaan teng. He shared some of the challenges of the business – which largely have to do with rising costs due to rent and hiring people.
What will become of Cheung Heung in the future? He doesn’t know but he is happy to have provided for his family with this business.
Cheung Heung Tea Restaurant 祥香茶餐廳 | 107 Belcher’s Street, Kennedy Town, Western District 西環堅尼地城卑路乍街107號