From decades-old holes in the wall to multi-million dollar businesses, Hong Kong’s noodle scene is a moneyspinner in a city that runs on quick and affordable comfort food.
Steaming bowls are served up 24 hours a day, often in clear richly flavoured broths and topped with fishballs, beef tendon or pork knuckle.
Other favourites come with Spam and fried eggs, an echo of the city’s British colonial past.
Lau Fat-cheong is one of the last traditional noodle makers in Hong Kong, preparing them fresh each day for customers at his three Lau Sum Kee restaurants in the bustling working class neighbourhoods of Sham Shui Po and Cheung Sha Wan.
In an old method rarely used now, he sits at the end of a five-feet-long (1.5 metre) bamboo pole, nimbly bouncing on it to pound balls of dough on a workbench underneath.
Lean and wiry, in his mid-40s, Lau started working for the family noodle business at the age of 11.
His grandfather founded it in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in the 1940s before Lau’s father took it on, moving to Hong Kong and selling shrimp dumplings and noodles from a street cart.
“We’ve been doing this for all these years and have developed an emotional connection to it,” said Lau, explaining why he adheres to traditional methods.
“There’s a satisfaction in the work.”
Customers across his restaurants slurp more than 500 bowls of fresh egg noodles at around HK$30 to $40 ($4.5) each day.
The best-selling dishes come with wonton — shrimp and pork dumplings — or tossed liberally with dried shrimp roe, harking back to Hong Kong’s origins as a fishing village.
“It’s fresh, you feel it’s much better than anywhere else,” said student Gavin Lee, 17, who prefers Lau’s creations over food from Hong Kong’s noodle mega-chains.
But despite the steady stream of loyal visitors, Lau said rising rents and wage levels are a challenge.
He fears the next generation will not take up the mantle, admitting the work can be “hard and tedious”.
There is also pressure from Hong Kong’s lucrative noodle empires with branches all over the city.
Popular Tam’s Yunnan Rice Noodles chain, known for its variety of spicy broth bases and customisable toppings, was recently sold to Japanese restaurant operator Toridoll for HK$1 billion.
Tsui Wah, which started as a small cafe in 1967, has also grown into a multi-million-dollar mega chain, serving Hong Kong staples alongside more modern alternatives.
But food writer Janice Leung Hayes said independent businesses like Lau’s still survive because of a sense of nostalgia and classic flavours.
“They have never gone out of fashion, so I do feel like even though there are big chains trying to dominate, the small ones still have a chance,” said Leung.
Hong Kong’s noodle culture reflects its history as a city of migrants from all over China as well as its colonial history which has led to Western-style noodle toppings from cheese to canned tomatoes and luncheon meat, first imported in the 1950s post-war era.
A quick, filling bowl also appeals to Hong Kong’s fast pace, with office workers often grabbing one on their breaks, a cheap option in a city where the cost of living his sky-high.
“Hong Kong people love things that are efficient,” says Leung.
Ho Shun-kan’s shop, Kan Kee Noodles, perched on a sloping street in the heart of Central district, is a linchpin of the city’s noodle scene and has been serving customers for 70 years.
Stacked with cabinets of noodles made to Ho’s family recipes, the store supplies 200 restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau as well as selling to individual customers.
Buyers pick from a variety of flavours including spinach and abalone, preferring them to the mass-produced brands ubiquitous in supermarkets.
“You can no longer taste the shrimp roe in the (big brands) — and you can’t get these traditional flavours elsewhere,” said customer Ami Wong.
Ho inherited the shop from his father and has worked there since he was 18, when the store supplied neighbours, local eateries and even a church in the community.
“We have preserved all the measurements (for the recipes),” said Ho, as he compressed sheets of dough with a machine at the back of his store, alongside his son who is in his thirties.
The gentrification of Hong Kong’s traditional neighbourhoods has raised concerns that small businesses like Ho’s will be pushed out.
He has outsourced the production of noodles that require baking to a factory in the city after he was told the oven in his store could be hazardous to a luxury apartment complex to be built nearby.
Ho hopes the next generation, like his son, will keep the old techniques alive.
“If you want to stay in this business, you can’t do it without the younger ones taking over,” he said. — AFP