While many of us are sleeping like a rock at 3am, somewhere in Hong Kong white, fluffy char siu bao (BBQ pork buns) are ready to be served to night owls and early risers.
I recently watched an episode of Chua Lam’s Colorful World and realised that within 15 minutes’ walk from my home there is Sun Hing Restaurant, a handmade dim sum joint recognised by CNN Travel as the best after-hours restaurant in Hong Kong, most likely because it’s the only one open at such ungodly hours.
It felt like serendipity. I’m definitely not a morning person, and the last time I forced myself to wake up at 4:30am was to catch a cheap flight at the airport (ugh, the COVID-19 pandemic is still roaring). Rather than feeling grumpy about not being able to travel freely yet, I channelled my negative emotions into something unusually positive. I decided to wake up in the dark and check out this dim sum spot before the world was illuminated by sunrise. To my delight, two of my friends agreed to join me.
Tucked away on a busy street of Kennedy Town, Sun Hing is probably the only place in Hong Kong that opens daily at 3am, serving handmade Cantonese dim sum till 4pm.
When I arrived just a few minutes past 5am, to my surprise this neighbourhood restaurant was already busy and almost fully seated, with customers including elderly folks sipping tea with other early risers, students from the nearby university seeking late-night bites and even tipsy drinkers. The whole place was so lively, a stark contrast to the quiet streets outside. The restaurant is small, and I had to be careful trying not to knock things over as I made my way to the table where my friend Janis had already snatched some seats for us.
Lucky us. We don’t need to share a table, I thought with a smirk. Sharing a table with strangers is quite common at dim sum parlours in Hong Kong. If you’re flying solo, you might sit with other diners at the same table but will be separated by plastic partitions. When my other friend, Ann, arrived, Janis beckoned us to go to choose the dim sum we like, since we were both first-time visitors to Sun Hing.
As Hong Kong’s beloved food critic Chua Lam once said on his YouTube channel, all those good dim sum joints in the old days were self-service restaurants, just like Sun Hing. The tradition of yum cha, meaning drinking tea with dim sum, emerged as early as the 1930s, when many teahouses opened at 4am. Unlike modern dim sum restaurants where you normally check off the items you’d like to order on a paper menu, everything is pretty much self-service at Sun Hing. You make yourself a pot of tea by choosing the loose tea leaves you prefer from a stainless-steel shelf – black tea, Iron Buddha (tieguanyin), pu’er, just to name a few. Patrons choose from stacks of bamboo baskets cradling a variety of dim sum on the steam trolleys.
Diners can also watch the kitchen staff tirelessly rolling and flattening dough balls on the counters and skilfully folding dumpling wrappers into beautiful half-moon shapes. Once the dim sum dishes are fresh out of the steamer, a server will call out the orders and diners can pick up their freshly made dim sum from the food arrival counter.
Opening the baskets on the steam trolley is a lot like treasure hunting, especially when everyone is trying to get the popular dishes. “Yay, it’s har gow (shrimp dumplings) – I want one.” “Wow, it’s fung jow (chicken feet) – let’s have it.” After they mark your table’s card, which connotes the types and numbers of dim sum you have selected, a server can help to carry the dishes to your table (so you don’t need to worry if you’re a klutz like me).
The excitement took over when our choices of dim sum were laid out on the table, with a waft of delicious aromas awakening us from our drowsiness.
Fung jow (chicken feet) is a must-have and my personal favourite. The tender, gelatinous skin braised in black bean sauce and garnished with red chilli slices is immensely delicious. My friend Alex once said that watching me chewing chicken feet and spitting out the bones reminded him of the dinosaurs eating humans in Jurassic Park. Albeit avoided by many Westerners, chicken feet is such a celebrated dim sum dish – a flavourful delicacy.
Sun Hing is a place where people can enjoy traditional and nostalgic dim sum. Steamed shrimp dumplings, BBQ pork buns, steamed spare ribs, Cantonese-style sponge cake, curry beef tripe – the list goes on. There’s nothing fancy, and certainly no innovative versions such as black truffle dumpling or siu mai with crab roe. That’s why this is such a lovable spot in the neighbourhood, in business for almost 50 years. Nowadays, when many restaurants offer factory-made dim sum, the chefs at Sun Hing are still committed to making their dishes by hand and ensuring that every customer can enjoy the simple joys of fresh food.
“Golden lava bun, any takers?” a kitchen staff bellowed to the parlour. This is one of the specialities at Sun Hing, so we raised our hands. My eyes lit up when I split the hot, delicate bun into two parts while it was still oozing with the creamy, lava-like egg custard filling. Janis mentioned that she used to come here with her father to enjoy these heart-warming buns together.
When we were ready to foot the bill with our happy bellies, I was delighted to realise that the eight dim sum dishes we had eaten had only cost us $169!
By the time we walked out of the restaurant, the sun had risen and a bright new day had begun. Strolling around the harbour-front neighbourhood of Kennedy Town, I was still fascinated by the fact that, after all these years, Sun Hing continues to open every day at 3am and a mix of customers keep coming in for dim sum before dawn. Hoi Suk (Uncle Hoi), who has been with Sun Hing since it first opened decades ago, still works diligently every day for at least eight hours with the other staff members, even though he’s already 91 years old. “It’s difficult to hire new workers in this business, so I want to help out as much as I can,” Hoi Suk said on Chua Lam’s YouTube channel.
Sun Hing is the epitome of Hong Kong’s Lion Rock spirit: the staff are hard-working, down-to-earth and never cease to strive for excellence. And, most importantly, this is a place where folks can embrace human touch beyond the taste of food.
Going forward, I will have more determination to wake up early. After all, the early bird catches delicious dim sum!
8 Smithfield Road, Kennedy Town, 2816 0616
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