Thousands of holidaymakers descend on Cheung Chau every day, but few of them seem to make it to Kwun Yam Beach, a modest crescent of sand on the island’s eastern shore. Derek Liu likes it that way. “I don’t want it to get too popular,” he says.
Liu is the third-generation owner of the Hing Kee Beach Store, a loveable shack where you can drink good beer, have a barbecue, rent a kayak and fill your rumbling belly after a brisk swim. Deeply tanned, dressed in board shorts and a t-shirt that reads “Aloha,” he looks perfectly at home as he ambles past tables made from old wooden swimming paddles. He takes a seat at one of the high tables arranged on a concrete platform overlooking a stream that flows across the beach and into the sea.
Nearly every beach in Hong Kong has a snack bar or concession of some sort, but few are as venerable as Hing Kee, which was opened by Liu’s grandfather around 70 years ago. “Back then, it was only foreigners who came to this beach – no locals,” says Liu. That’s because Kwun Yam Beach was once whites-only, reserved for the European missionaries and other expats who lived on Cheung Chau Peak.
These days, it draws a diverse crowd, though it retains the atmosphere of a place apart. The beach is tucked into a secluded cove, surrounded by steep green hills that cascade into the sea. When we meet Liu, it’s one of those blue-sky July days when the air is scorching hot but perfectly clear. Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are visible in the distance, Victoria Peak looking especially triumphant over a landscape of skyscrapers. To the left, across the stream, a band of lifeguards relax in the shade of their concrete hut, chatting as the waves lap ashore and they watch a handful of American-accented students swim out to the platform.
Beyond that, the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre is perched on a rocky bluff. This is where Cheung Chau native Lee Lai-shan won Hong Kong’s first-ever gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics. The waters here are relatively calm in the summer, when the wind blows from the south, but the winter’s northeast monsoon can be a formidable opponent.
Historically, Kwun Yam is one of Hong Kong’s cleanest beaches, according to a 20-year analysis of E. coli bacteria levels by the Environmental Protection Department. Liu says the water is clearest in the winter, when the current runs from the open Pacific; in the summer, the current changes, bringing silty water from the Pearl River estuary. “That’s why it looks a bit yellow – it’s Macau water,” he says.
Liu spent his childhood at the beach, but when he grew up, he left the island to work in the garment industry elsewhere in Hong Kong. A few years ago, as his father’s health faded, he asked Liu to return and take over the business.
“My dad’s generation was a bit old fashioned,” he says. “It was painted grey, green – not so bright.” One of the first things he did was repaint the store in cheery hues of red and turquoise. “I only changed it a little bit at first so my dad would be okay with it,” says Liu. “Unfortunately, he passed away soon after I came back. Since then I’ve made little changes every year. I want it to feel younger.”
Hing Kee’s new selection of craft beer helps them along the road to happiness, with bottles and cans from local brewers like Gweilo, Kowloon Bay and Heroes. “Tsingtao, Blue Girl – they’re very common, you can get them at any bar,” says Liu. “When people come here, they want something special. And I like drinking it myself.”
The store is busiest on weekends and holidays. You can rent a canvas chair, table and umbrella on the sand, or you can install yourself at one of the sheltered tables next to the bar. Charcoal smoke wafts over from the store’s barbecue area. “On the weekends I turn on the karaoke machine,” says Liu, grinning.
Even so, Kwun Yam Beach is still much quieter than Tung Wan Beach, the long, narrow strip of sand that attracts most of Cheung Chau’s beachgoers. Customers are greeted warmly by Liu and his family, who use the store as a kind of outdoor living room. “We have three generations of regulars,” he says. “They came here, then they had kids and brought their kids, now their kids come with their own kids.”
Things are changing, though. Kwun Yam Beach is five times busier than it was 10 years ago, when just 138 people visited the beach on an average weekend day. Today, that number has risen to 566 people, and peak days attract as many as 1,200 visitors. Hing Kee’s Instagram account, with its tempting shots of azure skies and cold beers, might have something to do with that. But it’s more likely that Hongkongers are simply going to the beach more often than they were in the past. Overall beach attendance has risen 22 percent in the past 10 years, from roughly 9 million to 11 million, according to figures from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
That’s good for Hing Kee’s bottom line, but Liu wants to keep the atmosphere low-key. “When people come here, they should feel happy,” he says, looking around. A few customers are chatting over drinks; Liu’s elderly mother sits nearby, eating her lunch. The sky is clear and a light breeze rustles the leaves of the gnarled tree that rises next to Hing Kee. A few words come to find, and happiness is definitely one of them.
Cheung Chau can be reached from Central Ferry Pier 5. Kwun Yam Beach is located just beyond the Warwick Hotel and the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre.