Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: Fresh Noodles in a Winter Wonderland

At work - Photograph by Nicolas PetitNoodle wonderland - Photograph by Nicolas PetitNoodle sheets - Photograph by Nicolas PetitSnow in Hong Kong - Photograph by Nicolas Petit

There is a place in Hong Kong where it snows. It snows all year round, be it summer or spring – a miniature winter wonderland hidden among the back alleys of Shek Tong Tsui. It snows white flour as a stripy cat leaves its paw prints behind on the ivory dust. And in the midst of this winter wonderland is a man in charge of the snow, a man who works round the clock to satisfy a daily need: Hong Kong’s insatiable appetite for fresh noodles.

Zolima_Winter Wonderland_Nicolas Petit-6 copyFrom his small headquarters at the Tim Kee Noodle Shop on Whitty Street, Dou Wo and his family churn out about 1200kg of noodles a day. There are thin and bouncy wonton noodles, thick and white Shanghainese noodles, brown egg noodles for frying, dried shrimp noodles, green spinach noodles, square wonton wrappers, round water dumpling wrappers, all piled high in any available corner of this cramped workshop.

“Come! Come Come!” Dou Wo waves us in enthusiastically, his body as white as the running shorts he is wearing, coated in his main ingredient from head to toe. As we walk to the back of the workshop, our feet leave puffs of white cloud in our step. The walls behind him are white on white, wheat flour on tiles, with a small family shrine bringing in a pop of colour: turquoise, red and orange. Dou Wo’s grin is wide and mischievous. He is someone who takes his duty seriously, but enjoys himself as he uses his forearms to press down on a spinning roll of dough. This snowy workshop is in action from seven o’clock in the morning to eight at night, the machines buzzing and twirling and slicing. Endless bags of flour sit in a corner, buckets of cracked eggs alongside it and an oversized tub of the all important Cantonese 碱水 (gaan2 seoi2), a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. The special mixture adds alkalinity to the famous wonton noodles, turning the dough yellow and giving them their extra bite and chew.
Zolima_Winter Wonderland_Nicolas Petit-3_copy copy“We usually use about one thousand eggs a day, though sometimes I only use the egg whites as they make the dough more refreshing and tasty,” Dou Wo explains as he cuts stacks of dumpling wrappers with a sharp cleaver. “You have to be a weatherman to do this job properly. I check the weather forecast everyday, but you need to feel it in your bones. To have the perfect noodle, you need to develop the right texture with the exact water content, so on more humid days I may use less water or knead the dough more. You have to feel it!”

All the noodles made at Tim Kee are mixed with wheat flour, sometimes from Hong Kong, sometimes from China or Singapore. The grains are processed in these countries, but the actual wheat usually comes from Canada or Australia. “Depending on the season, we use different wheat. Each one has a different texture. For wonton noodles, the best wheat is usually Canadian wheat,” says Dou Wo. Perhaps one of Hong Kong’s most representative dishes, the city prides itself on making the best wonton noodles in the world and while the delicate shrimp dumplings may be just as important to the dish, the star of any good bowl has to be the perfect noodles. No one wants them soggy; when done right they give new meaning to the term al dente.

Snow in Hong Kong - Photograph by Nicolas Petit

Snow in Hong Kong – Photograph by Nicolas Petit

The different noodles made by Dou Wo’s family are made to order and hand wrapped in paper packages for delivery, mostly to congee and noodles shops, big restaurants and tea restaurants. Most deliveries go out by eight in the morning, before they start making the new orders for the next day all over again. “We cannot stop, these places need fresh noodles everyday!” Dou Wo exclaims. “You won’t believe me, but I only take three days off a year around Lunar New Year. The rest of the time I am here.”

Tim Kee Noodle Shop has been around for over 50 years, always in the Sai Wan area of town. Over the years they have moved between several locations, but they settled into their current Whitty Street spot about 20 years ago. The shop was originally owned by the family of Dou Wo’s wife and it was passed down through the generations from father to son. “I was lucky to meet her,” he says. “I was already learning to make noodles somewhere else and then now we work together.” His wife manages the retail side of the business, bundling up smaller packages as individuals lucky enough to be from the neighbourhood drop by to take home a portion of their favourite noodles or wrappers.

Noodle wonderland - Photograoh by Nicolas Petit

Noodle wonderland – Photograoh by Nicolas Petit

In the past, many households in Hong Kong made their own noodles at home; certainly most restaurants and noodle joints did. Over time, establishments started looking for ways to outsource the time-consuming practice of noodle making and this family business was born out of the necessity to fill that demand. More and more neighbours started asking the family if they could provide them with noodles and the business grew.

The machines rotating in the background behind Dou Wo are caked with flour. There is one for rolling out the first dough, a huge one for kneading and smaller ones for slicing the noodles to different thickness requirements, all heavy with rounds of yellow dough. They remind me of oversized antique pasta machines with mechanical levers and tough red rope holding nuts and bolts together. The machines are still made to order in Hong Kong, but not many use them anymore.

Zolima_Winter Wonderland_Nicolas Petit-8 copy50 years since the creation of Tim Kee, bigger, more industrialised noodle makers have taken over, with the result that only a few family-run businesses making their own noodles are left. Of Dou Wo’s three children, one of his sons is following in his father’s footsteps. “It takes at least two years to learn to read the dough, to understand the wheat and to speak the same language,” he says. “It’s not an easy job, we work hard and most young people don’t want to be covered in flour all day, they think it’s dirty.” Dou Wo is one of the few with someone in his family to pass the trade on to, many of these businesses disappear once the current owner retires. His son started learning from him since he was twenty years old and has now been working with him for eight years already. “Hopefully he will continue to do this, but it’s up to him in the end.”

When I ask if he ever gets tired of seeing noodles or working with noodles, he waves the question away and laughs. “I could eat noodles three times a day! I will never be sick of doing this.”

Tim Kee Noodle Shop, G/F 18 Witty Street, Shek Tong Tsui, Hong Kong +852 2549 7180 

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.

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