There is no Chinese arch above any particular street in Brussels, but there is a cluster of Chinese shops and restaurants scattered around the centre of the Belgian capital: a noodle shop here, a frozen goods store there and a large Chinese supermarket to bring it all together. You may not have the unlimited choice of London, Amsterdam or Paris, but ask any local Chinese where to eat and you will be pointed in the direction of Beijingya.
Don’t be fooled by the name. This is no outpost of northern Chinese cuisine; instead, you’ll find a slice of Hong Kong. There are roast ducks and char siu barbecued pork (caa1 siu1 叉燒) hanging in the window, a few dim sum dishes on the menu and a wide variety of stir fries, hot pots and southern Chinese vegetables. The Chinese name of the restaurant is more reflective of its reality: Kyun4 Si1 Fu6 (權師傅) – Master Kyun. The master in question? Owner/chef Wu Yin-kyun.
Born in Hong Kong, Wu moved to Brussels over 40 years ago. He met his wife here, his children were born and raised here and his business is here, but Hong Kong is where his roots are and his family’s ties to the city are still strong. Originally from Ha Tsuen Village in Yuen Long, Wu started learning the art of traditional Cantonese roast meats (siu1 mei6 燒味) at the age of 16. He first trained as an apprentice at a restaurant near the Canal Road flyover in Causeway Bay, then moved onto another one in Chai Wan.
There are few things worth lusting more after in Cantonese cuisine than siu mei, which means “roast taste,” especially when you are tired of moules frites (mussels and fries) and Belgian beer. A simple whiff of that caramelised, succulent meat — whether pork, duck or chicken — is enough to leave any meat-lover dreaming of their next bite. Siu mei is one of the hallmarks of Cantonese cuisine, a fixture of Chinatowns from New York to Johannesburg, master meat roasters were highly sought out in the West and in other regions of China. In 1986, when a friend was looking for a master to work in a Brussels hotel’s Chinese restaurant, Wu was well-trained and ready to go.
Not long after, Wu met his wife, Françoise Truong, a Vietnamese-Chinese whose family fled home during the Vietnam War. After growing up in Belgium, she moved to Canada for her studies, then back to Brussels for work. After working at the hotel restaurant, Wu and Truong first opened a Chinese traiteur (takeaway deli) before moving to their current prime spot in the centre of town. They have been running Beijingya for the past ten years, finding success both with the local Chinese crowd and with a loyal following of Brussels-based Europeans who come back again and again for their favourite dishes. It is not rare to see a lone diner of any ethnicity come in and ordering without even a glance at the menu. “It makes us happy when our customers keep coming back, because they know we keep our standards high,” says Truong. “Sometimes we can guess what they will order already before hand.”
They open up the restaurant at 11am, but the working day starts long before. Wu hangs the ducks and meats up to dry overnight, then comes in early to begin the roasting process. He checks the roasting 11 times in total, at 15-minute intervals. “By then the small kitchen is very hot, so it is essential to do it early in the morning,” he explains. “When we have to prepare the other lunchtime dishes, the kitchen has already cooled down a bit.”
In the past, there were many siu mei apprentices in Hong Kong, but today the profession is dwindling due to long hours and tough conditions. “You would assist and watch the master for about three months, then you would be promoted only when someone leaves,” he says. “You learned by doing and observing, how to prepare the sauces and how to adjust the fire to get it just right. You would stay with the same master for years, until he retired, then you would move to a new place or become the master yourself.”
Opening a Chinese restaurant in Brussels was relatively easy, though finding the right location and keeping the restaurant running is still hard work. Since the Chinese community in Brussels is not that large — there are only 11,000 people of Chinese descent in Belgian, according to the government, and most of them live in Flanders, not Brussels. This means it can be a challenge to find workers. Wu says most of his staff is introduced through relatives or friends. “It’s all about the network,” he says. That’s especially true now that many Chinese immigrants to Belgium have more money and no desire to work in a business with such long hours and low returns. When it comes to sourcing ingredients, however, Brussels is well served, with quality meat and produce from Belgium, the Netherlands and France.
With a decidedly Cantonese menu, how did Beijingya get its name? It turns out that when Wu’s youngest son was learning Mandarin, he kept repeating, “Beijing, Beijing” which is how the idea came to the couple. They added “ya”, meaning “duck,” to represent the roasted ducks that are their specialty. Fluent in French and Cantonese, the Wus have made an effort to pass on their heritage and culture to their two sons. Every Saturday, the children attend Mandarin school to learn how to read and write, and at home they speak Cantonese. The multilingual kids are now studying at university in Brussels, but the family still returns to Wu’s native village in Yuen Long every year. “For Chinese families, the relational bond is strong, especially when you are from a village,” says Wu. “It is important to keep your family connections tight. The children have always loved going back every year, though I don’t know if they will continue to do so in the future.”
While his children’s future is open, Wu and Truong have very clear plans of their own. “When we retire, we are definitely going back to Hong Kong,” says Wu. “Once a village man, always a village man.” Hong Kong’s people may have scattered across the world, but it turns out their roots are still strong.
Find Beijingya at 8 rue Melsens, Brussels, Belgium, tel. +32 02 514 36 88. Open for lunch and dinner, closed on Thursdays.