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Dim sum before the sun: the struggles of a traditional K-Town restaurant

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Sun Hing opens at 3am every day but one employee says that business is getting tougher

When it comes to food, Hong Kong was built on dim sum. Be it har gow, char siu bao or siu mai, this iconic cuisine is celebrated from the rafters in our city. But, over the years, the massive chains have come in and dominated alongside those eateries which ‘modernise’ the food or add cute touches like in the case of Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine in Yau Ma Tei or Dim Sum Icon in Tsim Sha Tsui and Central. However, there are still independent eateries that hold true to the traditions. And one of them is Kennedy Town’s Sun Hing Restaurant, a venue that opens at 3am every day and touts itself as a true purveyor of authenticity.

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The delicacies that are served at Sun Hing are all homemade and every member of staff pitches in. And that includes Tsui Hoi, who’s in his early 80s and is usually found stationed at the cash register. He says he’s been working at the restaurant for more than 20 years. “Everyone thinks I’m the founder,” he says, “but I’m just an employee.” Sitting at the front desk, mentally calculating everyone’s bills, socialising and also helping out around the restaurant, Tsui claims to be the longest-serving employee at Sun Hing. On the walls are pictures of him next to local celebrities like music star Eason Chan.

Tsui says that many independent traditional restaurants in Hong Kong are struggling, though, due to the big chains and the modernisation. “It’s not busy at all in any independent Hong Kong dim sum restaurant, really, these days,” he admits. “In fact, even chain restaurants have been closing down recently. It’s a difficult business.” Tsui says that there’s been a ‘lack of people interested in dim sum’ of late, in his opinion. “Not so many locals come in here,” he says, “as the environment may not be comfortable enough for them. Many of our customers are actually tourists who just come and go quickly.” It’s all impacted on profits, claims Tsui. “The monthly rent is around $130,000 here, making it practically impossible to gain any profits.” Tsui also agrees that now that Kennedy Town has an MTR station, the rents have increased a lot, making it hard for some businesses to adjust. Some have already closed down, being replaced by chain stores or more Western businesses.

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“One of the toughest struggles we face is hiring,” says Tsui. “Some people don’t want to get into this industry any more because of the long working hours. They just don’t want to work too hard.” Tsui says Sun Hing is struggling to sustain its business as there’s a shortage of employees, so everyone basically has to pitch in where they can. And then there’s the pay. “Do you know how expensive it is to pay a salary?” asks Tsui. “You have to pay people by the hour even if you’re only asking for a few more minutes of work.” Tsui also says the dim sum trade is a labour-intensive industry. Simply, if the manpower is insufficient, the restaurant becomes disorganised.

Regardless of the struggles, though, Sun Hing is nevertheless feeding people who arrive in the wee small hours of morning, as well as decent lunch and dinner crowds too. “In the early morning our customers are usually taxi drivers, foreigners or students,” he says. Opening up in the middle of the night, in fact, is what makes this Sun Hing so special. That and keeping true to old Hong Kong traditions with the authentic food, the ethos of serving well before the sun rises and creating a ‘place of rest’, even if some do see it as ‘not comfortable enough’. But, after all this, Tsui is nevertheless optimistic about the future. “Quality over quantity is what we focus on here in the restaurant,” he concludes. “It’s important to keep your integrity, I think. And if the rent becomes too unaffordable, then we’ll just move somewhere that’s cheaper and where we can easily employ workers. Our dim sum will continue.”

By Ashley Ho

To visit Sun Hing Restaurant, head to Shop C, 8 Smithfield Rd. Call the team on 2816 0616.

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