ultramarinus – beyond the sea

LEGACY OF TRIANGULAR PIER: Hoi On Cafe (海安咖啡室), Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong

On 30th October 2021, Hoi On Cafe (海安咖啡室) opened its doors one last time to serve the Sheung Wan community. “Hoi On”, literally means “safe at sea”, was a traditional cha chaan teng (茶餐廳) or Hong Kong style cafe established by Wong Kiu (黃橋) in 1952. Known as the “Coffee King” and founder of Tsit Wing Coffee Company (捷榮咖啡), Wong was a well known figure in the coffee trading industry. His decadents still control a whopping 80% of coffee bean wholesale in the city. Began as a small cafe offering simple meals and refreshments for seamen and dockworkers from the Triangular Pier area, Hoi On had eventually outlasted all the surrounding piers. As time goes by, Hoi On became a sole survivor from a bygone era on Connaught Road West. Its retro shopfront and four-storey building stood out from the adjacent buildings. In the past few years, it was a common sight to see customers queuing up outside their glass door during breakfast hours and weekends. In the cafe, young visitors and tourists often took photos of their dishes before moving their forks, while loyal customers chit-chatted with the staff about everyday matters. It was hard to imagine that just over a decade ago, Hoi On was battling for its survival. Its change of fortune in recent years was largely due to efforts from the Au Yeung siblings, whose father was the second owner and former staff of Wong Kiu. From an aging establishment serving mainly elderly customers, the Au Yeung siblings successfully rejuvenated the cafe into a hub for nostalgic tourists, celebrating its community history, friendly ambience, and vintage decor. While preserving the old, the siblings also introduced a more diverse and innovative menu, and higher hygiene standards. Their efforts triumphantly turned Hoi On into an Internet sensation, and a mecca for the search of collective memories from a lost Hong Kong.

Despite knowing their name for quite a while, it wasn’t until we moved to Central/ Sheung Wan in 2019 that we paid our first visit to Hoi On. Maybe it was the nostalgic ambience, or the convincing quality of food, or the relatively tidy interiors given its age, we immediately fell in love with the cafe. Hoi On was not the closest cha chaan teng from our home, but it was one of our favorites. It even made us getting up earlier to make a breakfast detour before going to work. Given their busy scenes, affirmative online comments and media coverage, few would have predicted that Hoi On could suddenly close for good. Many netizens expressed sadness to the news. Some old customers (including ones from Taiwan and Malaysia) even offered to take over the business. Many thought it was due to an unreasonable rent increase, but according to some online sources, that wasn’t the case here. It was a personal decision from the owners. Bidding farewell to an community icon is always difficult, but we respect the owners’ decision, and admire their heartfelt efforts for writing a brilliant finale for the age-old business. Hong Kong is never a place known for permanence. Seizing the moment to enjoy while it lasts is always the key for living in an ever-changing place. As customers and members of the Central/ Sheung Wan community, we are grateful that Hoi On has left us some fond memories, no matter how brief our encounter was.

Before land reclamation of the 1970’s, the waterfront of Sheung Wan was always busy with dockworkers. [Street food stalls selling sweetmeats, Praya, Hong Kong, around 1910. Photograph by Henry Rue. Image courtesy of SOAS, Historical Photographs of China HR01-077, University of Bristol Library (www.hpcbristol.net), (CC BY_NC_ND 4.0)]
A poster in Hoi On Cafe reminded customers of its history and the old Sheung Wan waterfront. [2020]
As most shop signage are made with computer fonts nowadays, even the Chinese calligraphy of “Hoi On Cafe” at the cafe door have become precious remnant from the past. [2020]
Nothing fancy, the cakes, tarts and buns of Hoi On were good representatives of the traditional taste. [2020]
The wooden banquette seating and furniture articulated a certain vintage ambience. [2020]
For a 70 year old cha chaan teng, tidiness at Hoi On was very well maintained, especially if compared to other decades old cafes in the city. [2020]
Diversification and evolution of the traditional cha chaan teng dishes greatly contributed to the renaissance of Hoi On in its final decade. [2020]
Neat presentation and fresh ingredients of Hoi On’s dishes captured the attention of foreign tourists and young foodies. [2020]
Turning a traditional Hong Kong style French toast into mini toast and topping instant noodles with BBQ pork and beef were some of their lovely twists to an old menu. [2021]
The BBQ pork and beef noodles often sold out quickly. [2021]
Many furniture pieces at Hoi On had become antiques. [2020]
Old telephone and signage that says “spitting is prohibited” became parts of the vintage decor of the cafe. [2020]
A metal fan belonged to the age before air conditioning. [2020]
In its last decade, Hoi On had become popular among the younger generation. Apart from smartphone snapshots, some of them had used their own ways to document the lovely cafe. [2020]
Without the nostalgic shutter and eye catching signage of Hoi On, this stretch of Connaught Road West would never be the same again. [2020]
After the closure of Hoi On, their iconic red signage has been taken off the building canopy. [2022]
Despite the closure of Hoi On Cafe, the four storey building silently remains on Connaught Road West, awaiting for the next tenant. [2022]

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