Chun Wah leans against the tarnished blue and cyan tile wall of China Café. “The red bean ice drink looks smaller than I remember,” he says as a frosty treat emerges from the kitchen. “But it could be because as a short kid I used to look up from the edge of the table at the glass, which always seemed so desirable – yet unreachable.”
He deftly spoons his red bean ice with a narrow straw and steel spoon. He has spent his whole life in Hong Kong, and now he is retired after a career as a civil servant. But the café brings him back to his youth and he has been a regular customer here for many years. Like many bing sutts, China Café has barely changed since it opened in 1963, on the ground floor of a seven-storey tenement building. Like many of these mid-century buildings, the ground floor shops occupy double-height spaces with a mezzanine, and China Café’s split-level layout is typical of many such cafés that opened during this era. It faces a boisterous street market on Canton Road filled with tuckshops, barbershops and stalls selling vegetables, fruit, fish and meat.
Bing sutt (bing1 sat1 冰室) literally means “ice chamber,” and it is a type of local eatery that originated around Guangzhou in the 1880s. At first, it was frequented by wealthy people who could afford the luxury of the icy drinks, ice-cream and slush. While bing sutts in Guangzhou served hot drinks such as milk tea and coffee as well as baked goods, Hong Kong’s licensing requirements for light-refreshment kiosks—a system that originated after World War II—meant that bing sutts could only sell drinks, sandwiches and pastries that do not involve baking, deep-frying and stir-frying.
In the middle of the 20th century, most Hong Kong households could not afford refrigerators. So they visited bing sutts during the sweltering summers to cool themselves down with an icy drink. It was a more comfortable option than lunching outdoors at dai pai dongs or at a hawker stall under the scorching sun. “Apart from workers taking a break, it’s a popular place for couples who would choose the more intimate and private booth seats,” smiles Chun Wah, reluctant to reveal whether he, too, was one of the bing sutt-goers sipping away these “fancy cocktails” with their significant other.
On the classic bing sutt menu are the five icy drinks: red bean ice, lotus seed ice, grass jelly ice, pineapple ice and mixed fruit ice. These ingredients are all commonly found in Hong Kong, and canned fruits are relatively affordable and can be stored for a long time without refrigeration, which explains why they became the top choices for creating these simple summery pleasures. Shovel in a cone of ice cubes and pour in syrup (for the fruity drinks), evaporated milk (for the red bean and lotus seed drinks) or coconut milk (for the grass jelly drink) and you are rewarded by an explosion of flavours and textures all within one glass.
Despite the simple combinations, creating a good icy drink takes knowledge, skill and hard work. Wong Shing-fan, the manager of Mido Café, claims that she only buys red beans from dried seafood shops, which sell also dried grocery goods such as rice and beans, that import the product from Tianjin, a major port city in northeastern China where the soil and weather conditions make it the optimal region for growing soft, rosy, round and flavourful red beans. She gets her lotus seeds from Hunan, where creamy lotus seeds have been produced for over two thousand years, according to Yue Jue Shu (jyut6 zyut3 syu1 越絕書), a comprehensive scripture recording the historical affairs of the State of Wu and Yue.
Lau Tak-neng, the head chef at Tuen Mun’s Man Fong Café, says the drinks’ smooth texture and balanced flavour come down to the proportion of ingredients. Take red bean ice as an example. Eight catties of white sugar are mixed into every ten catties of red beans (a catty is equivalent to 600 grams). Lau says red beans should occupy around 60 percent of the glass, which is typically shaped by a lotus flower. The last step is to pour in two tablespoons of evaporated milk.
“The beans have to be simmered for 45 minutes,” says Wong at Mido Café. “If they’re overcooked, the texture will be too mushy.” The processing of lotus seeds is even more complicated. They have to be boiled and then rinsed immediately with ice water for maintaining the round shape, before being simmered to soften. “Our cooks sometimes have to remove the bitter core one by one,” she says.
Red bean drinks remain the most popular among all – “possibly because it’s the most similar to the much-loved Chinese red bean sweet soup,” says Man Fong Café’s owner, Peter Tam. But customers sometimes choose different icy drinks depending on their mood and the weather. The sourness of pineapple and mixed fruits is said to enhance one’s appetite in the hot weather. Grass jelly made with Chinese mesona has a cooling property according to Chinese traditional medicine perspective. Red beans replenish red blood cells. Lotus seeds improve skin elasticity.
Naturally enough, all icy drinks share one common ingredient: ice. Before ice generators were available in Hong Kong, ice blocks were imported from Europe and America. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that some Hong Kong cafés acquired the skill of making their own ice cubes by chipping and shaving down huge blocks of ice delivered from local ice factories.
“It was quite a scene to watch labourers sliding blocks of ice at the pier in the Western District back when I was young,” says Wong. The café’s staff would sit on a narrow wooden bench specially installed with a blade, scraping each block off bit by bit to make ice cubes. Hand-shaved ice has a fine, pillowy texture when compared to machine-made ice cubes, but it’s also a lot of work to produce. Today, Mido Café has its own ice machine, producing as many as 20 pounds of ice cubes every day.
While icy drinks embody the spirit of the bing sutt, they are only part of the picture. You can always spot a traditional bing sutt from its mid-century decor: yellowed blue and cyan mosaic floors and walls; balustrades with a wooden top rail on the mezzanine; calligraphed menus plastered on the wall; squeaky three-blade ceiling fans. Bing sutts are reliably unchanging in a city that seems to change every week.
“The hardwood cabinet where the utensils are kept has been here for decades already,” says a middle-aged waitress at China Café as she calculates the bill off the top of her head, marking the figure on a receipt that she slips beneath the table’s glass cover. “Sturdy wood makes the most reliant cabinet.”
On top of the cabinet is a giant tin water kettle, and at its foot are a few tin buckets for piling up the dishes. “Not only were these common sights in bing sutts, the buckets were also fundamental tools for Hong Kong residents to collect water during the difficult time of water rationing until 1964, when at worst water was delivered every four days for four hours,” Chun Wah recalls.
The vintage decor is not necessarily deliberate. It’s hard to make a fortune by selling icy drinks and low-cost food. But there wasn’t much room for lifting the business when bing sutts limited themselves to selling icy drinks. After flourishing in the 1940s and 50s, bing sutts became the prototype for and progenitor of cha chaan tengs, serving Chinese-Western fusion cuisine epitomised by Hong Kong-style spaghetti bolognese, egg tarts, French toast, pineapple buns, Western fried rice (so called because of its tomato sauce) and milk tea. Many bing sutts closed down when more and more cha chaan tengs opened across town; others transformed into cha chaan tengs themselves. But the line between cha chaan tengs and bing sutts has always been blurry; many cafés that call themselves bing sutts operate much like cha chaan tengs, with a wide variety of dishes.
Even the famous icy drinks aren’t as common as they used to be. There are simply more summertime options these days, from Taiwanese bubble teas and Frappuccinos to smoothies. Only red bean ice remains easy to find in cha chaan tengs and local fast food restaurants; the other classics are limited to a handful of purist bing sutts. Even then, many consider red bean ice to be too sweet. At Man Fong Café, Lau Tak-neng says he now adds two fewer catties of sugar into the red beans. “A lot of customers prefer less sweet drinks,” he says.
But Wong Shing-fan isn’t concerned about the future of bing sutts. “Hong Kong is known for embracing diverse dining cultures,” she says. “Where there are people, there is a demand for food – and a place for bing sutts. It’s the city’s very own culinary identity.”
Back at China Café, Chun Wah agrees. For all the options available on Hong Kong’s dining scene today, he prefers the classic taste of a bing sutt. “There’s nothing better than savouring a tall, sweet and refreshing glass of red bean ice during the high summer heat,” he says, smiling. “Like the good old days.”
Five bing sutts we recommend
1/ China Café
1077A Canton Road, Mongkok. Open daily 6:00-19:00. Tel. +851 2392 7825.
An two-storey bing sutt opened in 1963 that has been featured in local films such as Fruit Chan’s Tales from the Dark (2013) and Lau Ching Wan’s Endless Love (1993).
2/ Mido Café
63 Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei. Open Sunday-Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday, 9:00-21:00. Tel. +852 2384 6402.
3/ Man Fong Café
Shop 10, G/F, Chee King Garden, 35-55 Kin Tak Street, Yuen Long. Open daily, 7:00-21:00. Tel. +852 2870 2777.
A well-lit bing sutt, open since 1959, still retaining its original interior design, including vintage movie wall paintings.
4/ Kam Wah Café and Bakery
47 Bute Street, Prince Edward. Open daily, 6:30-23:30. Tel. +852 2392 6830.
Known for its signature crispy pineapple buns, this hugely popular bing sutt serves both traditional drinks and its own original creations, which are available after 11am.
5/ Capital Café
Shop B1, G/F, Kwong Sang Hong Building, 6 Heard Street, Wan Chai. Open every day 7:00-23:00. Tel. 2666 7766.
A modern bing sutt-themed cha chaan teng opened by local musician Eddie Pang, of the band EO2, which serves all five traditional icy drinks, as well as a contemporary cha chaan teng menu made with halal beef and Hokkaido milk.