The afternoon trade is picking up at Wah Lok Café on the corner of Tung Street and Cat Street in Sheung Wan. Chan Cheung-ming is busy behind the cash till next to the counter where the proprietor and waitress are bustling in and out with afternoon tea specials. These include the obligatory pineapple bun with a solid bit of butter tucked inside, plates of beef noodles, and a signature pork chop with a secret marinade – more on that later.
Now in his 70s, Uncle Ming, as Chan is known, takes things a little easier and just works part time these days, but he has been a part of this eatery since he was 18 years old. “The boss was always very good to me and the other staff. He looked after me when I was ill,” he says, in a striped shirt, moving over to the counter to pass over prepared dishes. “He made sure I took my medicine, and he was good to all the neighbours round here as well. If you needed money he would give you a loan.”
The boss he’s referring to is Ma Kin-hoo, the café’s third and main proprietor. He died at the age of 86 in 2014, after ensuring that the café survived for decades including through the dire water shortages of the 1960s and all the ups and downs of Hong Kong life that came afterwards. He and his wife Ma Ho Wai-lau worked seven days a week while bringing up four children. Their perseverance made Wah Lok an institution in their neighbourhood.
Their two daughters, Pauline Ma Po-yee and Anny Ma Po-fun have joined their mother, Mrs. Ma, 85, this afternoon for a chat and food alongside conservationist Katty Law Ngar-ning, who grew up in Cat Street. (She comes every Sunday and loves the beef noodles.) Born in 1962, a year after their parents married, Pauline grew up in the café when it was in its previous premises further up Tung Street, at number 28. Wah Lok Café has been an institution since the 1940s and is now on to its fourth proprietor, Luk Mei-yee, Pauline and Anny’s sister-in-law.
The sisters are unsure of exactly when Wah Lok Café opened, but they know it was in sometime in the late 1940s that two men Yu Tak-wah and Chan Lok, combined their efforts — and their names — to open the business. But the thread that runs through the café’s long history is Ma Kin-hoo. He was born in 1928, the youngest of a family of 14 children, in Sun Wui — today known by its Mandarin name, Xinhui — which is a district of Jiangmen in Guangdong province. His family suffered the deprivations and dislocations experienced by millions of Chinese people from the combined destruction of the Japanese invasion and Chinese Civil War.
“My grandparents died of hunger,” says Pauline. “My father had an older sister, 10 years older, and she looked after him.” Of the 14 siblings, only four survived the war that they know of; the others were either killed in bombings or simply disappeared. One older brother who also came to Hong Kong died of tuberculosis. “It was very common then,” says Pauline.
As a teenager, their father found work at the Wah Lok Café as a cleaner, carrying out the trash and cleaning the floors. He then moved on to find other work, joining up with a partner in North Point to sell ivory at one point. But the partner cheated him, so he returned to Sheung Wan, working next door to the Wah Lok Café for another caterer, but popping in once in a while to have a coffee.
As the sisters speak, Luk brings plates of beef noodles, egg toast and marinated pork chop on the table. Law explains that unlike some other Hong Kong-style restaurants, the pork chop at Wah Lok has no coating — it’s not rolled in breadcrumbs or given a batter — and so its deliciousness comes entirely from the secret marinade.
The interior of the café dates back to 1980. It is classic cha chaan teng style: The walls are clad with orange and cream tiles, and along the side there are booths you slide into on hard benches. Formica tables are packed into the middle of the space. Big plastic jugs filled with prepared coffee are lined up along the counter. There’s a round clock on the wall. It’s coming up to 3pm and more regulars are coming in for tea time.
“The first café was a big space,” explains Pauline. “Three small units combined into one.” But the building had a wooden structure and the government wanted to demolish it. “Above the original café lived a relative and my mother would go and visit her and that’s how she met my father,” says Pauline. The children of cafe founders Wah and Lok weren’t interested in taking over the business, so it was sold to a proprietor called Chan Chen-keung, but, says Pauline, he wasn’t that successful. Then her father bought the business in 1958, before her parents married in 1961.
It was arduous work. The café was open 365 days a year from 6am until midnight and their father did every kind of job to save money, keep the place going and ensure it could function if anyone was off sick. Their mother had been a cleaner in a Chinese restaurant previously, and now also worked as the cashier.
The everyday grind wasn’t the only hardship. Just a couple of years after Ma bought the café, Hong Kong was hit by its worst-ever water shortages. Although water had been rationed for years, the territory’s reservoirs unable to cope with a rapidly growing population, the situation reached a crisis point in 1963 and 1964, when water flowed for just four hours a day, every four days.
“You had to store up water in big buckets,” says Pauline. “That would be for the drinking water. But for taking showers people would just take the water from the mountain. Within the café there were mini tanks to store the water so we could carry on.”
Then, one day, something unexpected happened. “Then there was a bit of a miracle because the staff could hear the sound of water in the pipes – how come?” says Anny. “So the staff tried to open the faucet and water comes out and it is because there is a water line from the shop to the hospital nearby. So the hospital will consistently need water and so we were never actually short of water. So people wondered how come Wah Lok can do the coffee, how come it doesn’t have any problems and have to close? And it was because of that.”
“By a lot of grace I would say,” adds Pauline.
At the original larger premises Wah Lok Café also had a bakery section with the baker coming in in the early hours to make muffins and cakes. Ma was known as a kind employer, able to diplomatically solve disputes among staff. But it was a tough life. Not only was there the monthly rent to pay, but in addition all the glasses and utensils were leased, not bought, so there was the monthly payment on those, too. Ma nonetheless gave double wages for Lunar New Year and would cook special meals for his staff.
“During the Lunar New Year, the wet markets would close and he would cook for the workers,” says Mrs Ma. On the first day it would be bamboo shoots with preserved duck and sausages. On the second day there would be carp for offering to the gods.”
“Dad would also give red envelopes to the customers,” says Pauline.
Their mother was quite innovative, using a sewing machine at home to make the large coffee bags used in the café. They introduced takeaway dishes, but used their regular plates and cutlery so all that was collected afterwards. One or two temporary staff members decided to deliver the takeaways, keep the money and not come back, so after that Mrs. Ma kept their ID cards when they were out for a delivery. But her big innovation was air conditioning, which she introduced to the Wah Lok Café in the 1970s. “She was quite the behind the scenes strategist. The customers loved it,” recalls Pauline, who by then was a student at the Sacred Heart Canossian College, but would work as the café cashier in her free time.
The story of the Wah Lok Café is also the story of the old neighbourhood, some parts of which are still thriving. Aside from the café, on the neighbouring street is the Yuen Hing Spice Company, which has been going for a good 110 years, if not more. The occasional smell of cloves wafts over the table as Pauline, Anny, Mrs. Ma and Law speak. The shop has been undergoing some renovations in recent months, but the stall out the front has huge tubes of cinnamon, vanilla, the cloves and an abundance of other spices in big cloth bags opened at the top.
The two businesses have long worked together. “We’ve always had our spices from Yuen Hing,” says Mrs. Ma. “When we make the spaghetti with satay sauce, there’s the curry powder, satay ingredients, white and black pepper, and deep fried garlic, which they provide.”
It’s a neighbourhood where some of the residents have been friends for decades and worked together to help one another’s businesses. Diagonally across Cat Street is Chiu Kee Metalworks. For years, the proprietor made copper utensils, says Mrs. Ma, but the son hasn’t continued the business, it now sells antique or vintage items. Pauline and Anny remember calling him Coppersmith Chiu.
In 1980, when the government announced it would demolish the building home to Wah Lok’s original location, Mrs. Ma and her husband searched urgently for a place to rent to continue their business. It was a stressful time. They searched as far out as Shau Kei Wan to find a rent they could afford, but would their customers follow them? A café needs ventilation, a proper exit at the back for safety, and Coppersmith Chiu knew this.
Where the Wah Lok Café is today was a shop that sold live geese and ducks but the premises was now vacant. It had an exit at the back. While the couple were out searching, Chiu realised this space was ideal for a café, so he paid the down payment to hold the premises and then told Mrs. Ma and her husband. “I was so touched that he would do this, put down this down payment,” she says.
The couple began to relax a little in the years that followed: the 18-hour opening hours, which were done in shifts, have now been reduced, with opening hours of 7am to 4pm. “My husband loved the job and respected it,” says Mrs. Ma.
It remains a joint enterprise that has moved on to the next generation: two years ago, Luk Mei-yee was best placed in the family to take over the reins of the business. It has been quite a transition. “I was a full-time housewife with a part-time job in accounting,” says Luk, but while the numbers training helped, there were still the daunting challenges of running a catering outlet during Covid and keeping the rent covered, replacing old pipes and paying electricity bills.
But so far, so good. Luk is savvy on social media and has been highlighting the café online. She is also a cat and dog lover and has set up a pet pals site on Instagram. “I wanted to carry on this business,” she says. “I really have some good customers. It’s all about the human relationships. Some customers have been coming for 60 years and bring their grandchildren. My mother-in-law has always said I need to do it from the heart.”
Now about that secret marinade sauce for the signature pork dish?
“No, that’s staying a secret,” laughs Pauline.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referred to Ho Wai-lau. Her full name is Ma Ho Wai-lau and she prefers to be referred to as Mrs. Ma, not Mrs. Ho. The article has been amended to reflect this.