Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: The Better ‘Ole, a Classic Pub 72 Years in the Making

One of Hong Kong’s oldest, cosiest and most quintessential pubs is not in Central. It’s not in Wan Chai, either, or Tsim Sha Tsui – or any of the other bar districts where you might expect to find it. Instead, it’s in Sheung Shui, across from a towering banyan tree that shelters a shrine to Kwan Yu. The border with mainland China is three kilometres away; the urban areas, nearly an hour by train.

“We don’t get many people who come in here by accident,” says the owner, Stuart Yuen. And yet it is already filling up early on a Wednesday evening – despite the lack of horse racing on television. “This is normally one of the quieter nights,” he says, sipping a pint of beer near the front entrance.

A host of regulars sit at the bar, bathed in the blue glow of a neon sign: “Better ‘Ole, Since 1947.” In the corner of the dining room, with its well-worn tables, umber walls and faux fieldstone columns, a middle-aged man is settling in with a bucket of six Blue Girl beers. Young couples begin to file in, ordering iced lemon tea or pints of lager, perusing a food menu that runs from Hong Kong-style classics like braised ox tongue to classic pub food like fish and chips. “This was the first pub in the New Territories that served fish and chips,” says Yuen as waiters prepare for the dinner rush.

Yuen is the third generation of his family to run the Better ‘Ole. And he is determined not to be the last. “I grew up here, in the pub, in the area,” he says. “For me, it’s home.”

The story begins after World War II, when a former British serviceman known as Pop Watson opened a pub in a tin-roofed hut next to Fanling railway station. He named it in reference to a cartoon drawn by British soldier Bruce Bainsfather, in which two army men sit in a crater, appearing resigned as shells explode around them. One of the men looks at his companion: “Well if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.”

The soldiers and police officers who served in the northern New Territories quickly made the Better ‘Ole their favourite hangout. “Better ‘Ole in NT Serves Fish, Chips; Servicemen Delighted,” reads a headline in a 1952 edition of The Hong Kong Standard. The pub offered Carlsberg, Asahi and Tiger beer, according to the paper; its best-selling dish was ham, eggs and chips, but it also sold 300 meat pies a day to hungry soldiers nostalgic for home.

That’s what caught the attention of Yuen’s grandfather when he moved to Hong Kong from Zhongshan. “He saw the ashtrays were always full and thought that was a good sign,” says Yuen. He bought the pub in 1962 when Pop Watson retired.

Yuen’s grandmother ran the kitchen. When a customer asked for a T-bone steak, she had no idea what it was, so the customer later returned with a fresh cut of meat from the butcher. “She had never seen one in her life,” says Yuen with a laugh. Soon after, a French engineer working on the Plover Cove Dam drove to the pub with barrels full of mussels he had harvested from soon to be flooded beaches. “He taught my grandmother how to cook them,” says Yuen. “We still use that recipe today, only now we get our mussels from New Zealand.” 

The pub’s fortunes tracked with Hong Kong’s growing prosperity. More and more local customers joined the expats at the bar, and as increasingly well-heeled families sought out the pub for a taste of Western food, Yuen’s grandfather gave it a high-minded Chinese name, Sik1 Ngaa5 Caan1 Teng1 (適雅餐廳, “Comfortable Elegant Restaurant”). But regulars would have none of it, and they invented their own transliterated version of its English moniker: Bat1 Daa2 Ou3 (畢打奧, “End Beat Abyss”).

In the early 1980s, the Better ‘Ole was forced to move when Fanling station was rebuilt to accommodate the Kowloon-Canton Railway’s conversion into a modern metro line. Its customers followed. One of them was Kevin Sinclair, a high-spirited journalist and loyal friend to law enforcement; he’s the one who first described the Hong Kong police as “Asia’s Finest,” in those more innocent days before the current political upheaval. He wrote several paeans to the pub over the course of his long career.

“Weekends are packed and if you listen to those speaking, you’ll hear every accent from Southampton to Dundee,” he wrote in one article, adding that “Hakka and Cantonese whose families have been running restaurants in Britain for years seem to love the place.” 

In another article, Sinclair recalled how, for a time during the Cultural Revolution, journalists from around the world gathered at the Better ‘Ole after trying to report on what was happening on the mainland, whose border was firmly sealed to foreigners. 

“Myself and other newsmen from the afternoon press would get abroad at Sheung Shui and as the old steam trains clanked down the track would try to find a passenger who had seen any atrocity, massacre or lunacy,” he wrote. “By the time the train got to Fanling, we’d have a story, would lead off the train and run to the Better ‘Ole to grab the phone and call through the story to our offices.” 

It was thanks to one of those articles that a writer named Michael Taylor found himself at the Better ‘Ole after he moved to a nearby village in 1997. The pub had recently expanded to Tai Po and Sheung Shui, but the Fanling location remained much as it had for decades. Taylor remembers each regular had his own seat at the bar. That may have been intimidating at first, but he soon discovered they were a generous and jovial bunch. “I would drink myself silly and the bill would be HK$50,” he says. It was only later that he realised his tab was so low because the regulars kept buying him drinks.

It’s possible that Taylor and Yuen crossed paths in those years, although Yuen was only 10 years old at the time. His parents had moved to Australia in the 1980s, but his dad moved back to Hong Kong in 1993 to help run the pubs. Yuen and the rest of his family joined in 1996. 

“My dad wanted me to learn Chinese so he put me in a local school,” says Yuen. “Oh god – it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.” When he started, his Cantonese was poor and he remembers feeling like his local classmates were infinitely more quick-witted. He persevered, but as soon as he finished school he decided to return to Australia for university. 

At the time, Yuen had no ambition to take over the family business. “When I was a kid, this was the last thing I wanted,” he says. But when he finally returned to Hong Kong in 2012, he discovered the pub had fallen on hard times. The Fanling branch had closed in 2007, along with the Tai Po outlet. There was just one location left, in Sheung Shui, and it was struggling to distinguish itself amidst other local bars. “The funny thing was, when I was away, nothing changed,” says Yuen. “I think that was the problem.”

It wasn’t easy for Yuen to convince his family to change things up. “It’s very tough working with your parents,” he says. “I wanted to change everything and they want to change nothing. Eventually we met in the middle.” 

Yuen tweaked things bit by bit. Like many Hong Kong pubs at the time, the Better ‘Ole had just one beer on tap, Carlsberg, and most customers ordered beer by the bottle – specifically a bucket of six Blue Girls, served with a towel, bottle opener and ice. Yuen convinced his parents to expand their range of draught options. “It’s a lot more expensive than bottled beer but people liked it,” he says. 

Next, he focused on the food. Yuen travelled to London to study at the Cordon Bleu culinary school. When he came back, he worked with the Better ‘Ole’s longtime chef, Yan Yip, to trim down the menu and refine some of the dishes. He wanted to strike a balance between tradition and quality. 

There’s no more orange sauce duck breast or oxtail soup, but steaks are still served Hong Kong style, on a hot cast iron plate with a side of black pepper sauce. Escargot is still a favourite dish – a throwback to the 1970s, when it was “the height of sophistication” for local diners, says Yuen. And the pub still serves English meat pies, even though they aren’t especially popular with local customers. “I think my father eats more of the pies than anyone,” he says.

Yuen formally took over the Better ‘Ole in 2018. Gregarious and imposing, he suits the role of a publican. “I think I know most of our customers,” he says. One 92-year-old retired detective, who was a regular at the Better ‘Ole’s very first incarnation at Fanling station, still comes in every Wednesday for beer and baked garoupa. 

Sipping his pint, Yuen looks over at a framed photo of the pub’s regulars taken before the old Fanling location shuttered. Next to it are news clippings and a Royal Hong Kong Police plaque. “When I think about my granddad, and how he came to Hong Kong [and] opened a pub, I’m still amazed,” he says. “It’s a great piece of Hong Kong history, isn’t it?”

 

The Better ‘Ole is located at 35 Fu Hing Street, Sheung Shui, New Territories.

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