A taste of Hong Kong

A pas­sion for the busi­ness and fo­cus on qual­ity have seen ‘cha chaan teng’ chain Tsui Wah blaze a trail de­spite ‘earth­shak­ing’ changes in the sec­tor, says helms­man Lee Yuen-hong. So­phie He re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - HONG KONG - So­phiehe@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

The cater­ing in­dus­try in Hong Kong is fac­ing more chal­lenges now than ever be­fore, but young­sters with real pas­sion for the in­dus­try can still ac­com­plish great things, said Lee Yuen-hong, chair­man of Tsui Wah Hold­ings Ltd, which op­er­ates the epony­mous and hugely pop­u­lar Hong Kong-style “cha chaan teng” chain.

Start­ing out as a small “ice cafe” in Mong Kok in 1967, Tsui Wah now boasts more than 50 restau­rants in Hong Kong, two in Ma­cao and about 20 on the Chi­nese main­land, Lee told China Daily.

Lee said he joined the cater­ing in­dus­try as a de­liv­ery boy for a lo­cal res­tau­rant in 1966, when he was still a teenager. He slowly worked his way up to cook, chief cook and chef while work­ing at a num­ber of restau­rants from 1973 to 1989.

In 1989, Lee took over Tsui Wah’s busi­ness by ac­quir­ing the San Po Kong Tsui Wah res­tau­rant, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s an­nual re­port.

Lee said that the trans­for­ma­tion of Hong Kong’s food and bev­er­age sec­tor dur­ing the past few decades has been “earth­shak­ing”.

“When I joined the in­dus­try, there were barely any ‘cha chaan teng’ in the city, there were only some ‘ ice cafes’ to serve the grass­roots,” he re­called.

The ‘cha chaan teng’ con­cept ap­peared dur­ing the 1970’s. To­day, Hong Kong has thou­sands of these eater­ies and they ac­count for about a third of the city’s cater­ing in­dus­try, said Lee.

“I be­lieve that the ‘cha chaan teng’ is deeply rooted in Hong Kong cul­ture and it has a sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on so­ci­ety,” he said, ex­plain­ing that the ‘cha chaan teng’ is such a com­fort­able place for Hong Kong peo­ple, it does not mat­ter whether you are rich or not, you can en­joy a meal or high tea at such a res­tau­rant.

“This is why the in­dus­try is boom­ing,” he as­serted.

Tsui Wah ex­panded its busi­ness to the main­land by open­ing a ‘ cha chaan teng’ in Shang­hai in 2009.

Lee said that be­fore en­ter­ing the main­land mar­ket, the com­pany ob­served the in­dus­try on the main­land for years, as it be­lieved that Tsui Wah should not just copy what they had been do­ing in Hong Kong as they sought to draw main­land din­ers.

“We have to adapt to lo­cal cul­ture and com­ply with the lo­cal sys­tem,” Lee said.

The first res­tau­rant turned out to be a huge suc­cess — peo­ple in Shang­hai wel­comed the res­tau­rant as a very au­then­tic Hong Kong ‘cha chaan teng’ and the food Tsui Wah served as au­then­tic Hong Kong fare, said Lee.

“Be­fore we opened the res­tau­rant in Shang­hai, I was con­cerned as I didn’t know if the cus­tomers there would ac­cept us, for­tu­nately we did very well,” he said.

Their first res­tau­rant in Shang­hai broke even within six months and that en­cour­aged Tsui Wah to open more branches in the main­land fi­nan­cial hub. Cur­rently, Tsui Wah has over 10 branches in Shang­hai.

Lee ad­mit­ted that run­ning a busi­ness in the cater­ing in­dus­try in Hong Kong and the main­land is be­com­ing more and more chal­leng­ing, as both rents and worker wages have in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly dur­ing the past years, while com­pe­ti­tion has be­come in­creas­ingly fierce.

The only way to cope with the chal­lenges, Lee be­lieves, is to con­stantly im­prove the qual­ity of the food and the qual­ity of ser­vice. Be­sides, be­ing cre­ative is also cru­cial in the fast-chang­ing in­dus­try, he pointed out.

Tsui Wah de­vel­oped a new point-of-sale sys­tem be­tween 1998 and 1999, a move that changed the tra­di­tional way of plac­ing or­ders in restau­rants, ac­cord­ing to Lee.

Servers at ‘ cha chaan teng’ used to take down or­ders on a pad and then hand in the piece of pa­per to the kitchen.

“By the time we opened this four-story res­tau­rant in Cen­tral, with the main kitchen lo­cated at the base­ment, we needed this ef­fi­cient sys­tem for bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween cus­tomers and the kitchen.”

He said at first ev­ery­one had a dif­fi­cult time adapt­ing to this brand new sys­tem that re­quired wait­ers and wait­resses to in­put or­ders in hand­sets and com­put­ers in­stead of just writ­ing them down.

But Lee stressed that the ef­forts they made fi­nally proved very re­ward­ing, as the sys­tem is ul­tra-ef­fi­cient, and now a large num­ber of eater­ies in both Hong Kong and the main­land use this sys­tem.

Lee also men­tioned that this four-story res­tau­rant in Cen­tral will un­der be un­der ren­o­va­tion from Sept 11 to early De­cem­ber. He hopes this bold move of ren­o­vat­ing a high-pro­file res­tau­rant in a prime lo­ca­tion will be re­ward­ing, as the res­tau­rant will have a com­pletely dif­fer­ent look af­ter the ren­o­va­tion and bring a new ex­pe­ri­ence to din­ers.

Although run­ning a res­tau­rant chain in Hong Kong is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult, Lee be­lieves young­sters with real pas­sion for the in­dus­try can still achieve great things.

“If young peo­ple in Hong Kong want to open their own res­tau­rant or cafe in the city, they need to be very hard­work­ing and not care too much about the pros la­bor in­come.

The prob­lem in Hong Kong has been ex­ac­er­bated by the abo­li­tion of the cap­i­tal gains tax in the 1970s to help fa­cil­i­tate the city’s bid to be an in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial cen­ter.

The abo­li­tion of es­tate duty in 2006 has fur­ther con­sol­i­dated wealth in the hands of the few mon­eyed dy­nas­ties.

In Hong Kong’s ser­vice­ori­ented econ­omy, a large por­tion of the cap­i­tal is in­vested in fi­nan­cial and realestate as­sets rather than in and cons of the mo­ment. But most im­por­tantly, they need to be pas­sion­ate about the in­dus­try.”

Lee said he loved the cater­ing in­dus­try ever since he started out as a de­liv­ery boy and he was happy to go to work ev­ery day. To this day, he re­tains that pas­sion as if he were just join­ing the in­dus­try.

The story also ap­plies to Lee’s mid­dle son Kenji Lee Tsz-kin, 30, who has been work­ing for the com­pany for eight years. the man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try, which can cre­ate well-pay­ing and steady jobs.

This has the ef­fect of push­ing up prices of real-es­tate as­sets that are in short sup­ply.

As a re­sult, the widen­ing wealth gap has been man­i­fested most sav­agely in es­ca­lat­ing prop­erty prices, forc­ing many Hong Kong fam­i­lies to live in tight quar­ters with lit­tle hope of climb­ing up the so­cial lad­der.

The gov­ern­ment is mak­ing huge ef­forts to in­crease

“When he was still a stu­dent, he would work for the res­tau­rant as a de­liv­ery boy and wait ta­bles dur­ing his sum­mer va­ca­tions. He likes work­ing in the res­tau­rant, even now.”

Lee Yuen-hong said that he has faith in young­sters in Hong Kong, as they are very smart and cre­ative — if they put their mind to do­ing some­thing, they can achieve it.

Con­tact the writer at hous­ing sup­ply that can help drive down prices to more af­ford­able lev­els.

If Piketty’s book is any guide, the gov­ern­ment will need to take a more proac­tive ap­proach to ad­dress the is­sue through the re­dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth.

This would call for a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from the gov­ern­ment’s so­cial and eco­nomic poli­cies.

The ques­tion is whether Hong Kong is ready for such a re­vi­sion­ist change.

The best-selling book by French economist Thomas Piketty would res­onate with res­i­dents of Hong Kong, where the widen­ing wealth gap has been man­i­fested most sav­agely in es­ca­lat­ing prop­erty prices.

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