1 November 2021 update: Hoi On Cafe served its last customers on 30 October...
According to local media, the closure is not due to the pandemic or gentrification – the café owners would simply like to take a break. They only told a few close regulars that they would be shutting shop and did not want to make a fuss. We wish them all the best.
On bustling Connaught Road West in the heart of Sheung Wan, a five-storey tong lau (tenement house) is noticeable for its off-white facade and a few cherry-red Chinese characters screaming “Hoi On Cafe”.
I discovered this building while trundling along the streets on the city’s iconic tramway (affectionately nicknamed “ding ding” by the locals) when I first moved to Sai Ying Pun. To me, it’s the most romantic way to feel the pulse of Hong Kong and appreciate its glamour.
I have to admit that, at first, judging by its rusty and dilapidated metal sliding door, which seems to have been locked up for quite awhile, I thought that Hoi On Cafe was closed for good, leaving only the signage of the establishment untouched – until recently, when I saw a friend’s post on social media about a French toast garnished with minced beef, scrambled egg and green onion that she had enjoyed there. Truth be told, this 69-year-old café is probably one of the city’s oldest bing sutts still in operation, and it remains unchanged in the same location since its inception in 1952, years after land reclamation of Sheung Wan’s waterfront and the vigorous development of skyscrapers in the neighbourhood.
Not many of us are aware that Hoi On was founded by Hong Kong’s “coffee king”, who is said to have created the bing sutt concept in the early 1950s. The café was later transferred to one of the staff members and became a small, family-run operation ever since, the current owner, Annie, recalled during an interview with a local media.
Bing sutt is a type of traditional cold drinking house started in Guangzhou (Canton) that spread to Hong Kong. These bing sutts arose in the 1950s and 1960s. They are characterised by old furniture and settings such as the small tiled floors, hanging fans, folding chairs and so on. A bing sutt provides light meals and drinks and is neighbourhood-oriented. It is believed to be the predecessor of the cha chaan teng. – Wikipedia
Bing sutt, translating to “ice room” in Cantonese, is a type of coffee shop emerging in the early 1950s serving affordable Canto-Western fare, where people can take a break from a hard day’s work and enjoy cold beverages during the sweltering summer heat of Hong Kong.
Hoi On Cafe is distinguishable as an authentic bing sutt for many reasons. Its floor-to-ceiling glass door pasted with large prints of the establishment’s name, a glass-fronted fridge storing cold drinks sitting on one side of the entrance and a separate outdoor counter advertising a mix of homemade, traditional HK-style sweet treats on the other side radiate a retro vibe.
Stepping inside the 50s-style café, I was immediately smothered by a wave of nostalgia, as if time were frozen. Burgundy diner booths and wooden stools around small tables were occupied by patrons enjoying their favourite dishes or sipping shaved iced with red bean beneath old-fashioned ceiling fans. “No spitting” warning signs, which are quite common in old-style cha chaan tengs, can be seen hanging on the beige-coloured plastic walls, in contrast to the chequered tiled floor. A vintage rotary dial phone looks as if it has been there from the very beginning. Although a small place with simplistic decor, Hoi On creates an atmosphere that makes people feel welcome and comfortable.
Janis and I were ushered to a table near the open kitchen at the back of the café. Since it had already passed lunchtime rush hour, we were able to switch to a booth after the other diners had finished their meals. I remember that a waitress insisted on having the booth cleared and sanitised before she bellowed to us that it was ready. This kind of attention to detail really carves itself into memory.
On the wall next to our booth, I was impressed by the laminated menus with appealing images and beautiful handwriting describing the café’s featured dishes. Crispy bun with satay beef, cubed honey French toast with pure New Zealand butter, chicken wings lo mein (tossed noodles) with speciality soy sauce, Hoi On’s club sandwich – the temptations were hard to resist. The core menu also offers an abundance of lunch combo choices, and one particular dish captured my interest.
Honey-glazed char siu (BBQ pork) is a popular item at Hoi On (I overheard diners at the table nearby gushing about it with delight). Janis already knew what she wanted, and I had decided to try their lo mein combo with honey-glazed char siu and sliced beef ($48). Our waiter took our orders with determined briskness, and he also firmly announced that I had gotten the last order of their BBQ pork that day. Char siu is served at Hoi On from 12pm on a first come, first served basis while stocks last. I was certainly a lucky one that day!
My combo plate with lo mein, a humble meal celebrated by the café’s regulars, was truly fit for a queen. The nicely sliced char siu had a well-balanced ratio of lean meat and fat and was glowing with sweet-and-sticky sauce. This perfectly charred pork meat infused with its savoury marinade was exceptionally delicate and juicy. The velvety fillet of beef sprinkled with sesame seeds was also aromatic and delicious. These two toppings seriously did magic to one simple plate of tossed instant noodles.
Janis was quite content with her lavish clay-pot noodles with an impressive mix of sliced beef, chicken sausage, sunny-side-up egg, luncheon meat and duck breast ($48) – since the char siu was sold out, it was replaced by duck breast. The luncheon meat is made with Jinhua ham (a famous dry-cured Chinese ham), and it was utterly delectable, with a smoky aftertaste. Hoi On is very particular about selecting quality ingredients.
We also shared an order of French toast topped with minced beef, scrambled egg and green onion ($35), a special toast they have created to draw the crowds. I had to be meticulous with every bite, trying not to let the generous portion of toppings spill out.
As the noise of the café began to subside, the diligent team were preparing to call it a day earlier than usual as Tropical Storm Lionrock was approaching. Janis and I were still leisurely sipping our silky-smooth milk tea, indulging in the 1950s-style atmosphere of Old Hong Kong. A young couple, also first-time visitors to Hoi On, were chatting to the lady at the till as she passionately shared the history of the café with them.
“A patron drew a sketch of our café while he was here enjoying afternoon tea and gave it to us as a gift,” the lady said, pointing to the painting on the wall with enthusiasm.
Last year, rumour had it that Hoi On might be closing permanently owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were able to persevere and survive. As more and more old-fashioned cha chaan tengs have closed their doors for good, the fact that Hoi On can continue as one of the remaining bing sutts of the city has a special meaning to many Hong Kongers. Nostalgia aside, Hoi On is a heartwarming place where people can connect with their community and build memories while digging into local delights such as iced milk tea and pineapple bun.
Seasons change, and so do cities. Nevertheless, Hoi On ensures that the flavours of the traditional bing sutt culture that Hong Kongers hold deeply in their hearts remain unchanged.
7 Connaught Road West, Sheung Wan, 2540 6340 (open Monday–Saturday except public holidays from 7:30am, closing at 4:30pm on Monday–Thursday, 3pm on Friday and 4pm on Saturday)
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