It’s early afternoon at Saam Hui Yaat, a small tea house on a sleepy slope of Sai Ying Pun. Customers are still chattering away over hot tea and steaming bamboo baskets of dim sum. To the side is a stone staircase wide enough for only one person, which leads to a little kitchen tucked away from the warm sun. There, dim sum chef Wong Charn-chee, clad in a well-worn shirt, is quietly dusting cream-coloured dough with flour before folding in some barbecue pork shreds with his slick and calloused fingers.
“Char siu buns, har gow and siu mai have always been the three musketeers of dim sum restaurants since I was a boy,” he says.
Yum cha is the quintessential Hong Kong ritual. Families and friends gather to sip tea and nibble on small dishes called dim sum. These days, most of them end up in chain restaurants or large banquet hall establishments. Small-scale neighbourhood places like Wong’s shop, which make their own dim sum by hand, are becoming a rare sight.
Wong has been wrapping buns and dumplings at Saam Hui Yaat for 30 years. The small tea house was set up in 1978, when three Chinese restaurant chefs—Fung Wai, Yeung Chi-keung and Law Shu Tak—wanted to be their own bosses. Law consulted deities about his business prospect through fortune telling sticks called kau4 chim1 (求籤). He received an unlucky lot. His father then advised him against co-owning the tea house, so he ended up working as an employee instead. This gave the tea house its name, Saam1 Heoi3 Jat1 (叁去壹) which means “Three Minus One.”
Eleven years later, Wong, who wanted a change after working at several dim sum restaurants, joined the team and became the third shareholder. Interestingly, he was never particularly fond of eating dim sum. “In the 1980s, the food industry flourished in Hong Kong,” he recalls. “Many people had to start working at a young age to help out in the family. When I was 14, I found a job in a Chinese restaurant serving dim sum to customers with a tray that was tied to my neck. These dim sum servers, now disappeared in Hong Kong, were called ‘the little buses’ whereas dim sum carts were known as ‘the big buses.’” He later served as an apprentice to dim sum chefs, who recognised his talent and trained him into the dim sum expert he is today.
When the original three Saam Hui Yaat chefs left the company in 1997, Wong recruited his best mates Lee Bing-yiu and Ng She-shui, who used to work with him as dim sum cooks at Jordan’s V.I.P. Restaurant, which had closed two years earlier. That same year, Wong further invited Lee Kam-shui (not related to Lee Bing Yiu), who was an experienced cha chaan teng cook in Tuen Mun. Lee Kam-shui has been Saam Hui Yaat’s stir-fry cook ever since.
Small tea houses—known as siu2 caa4 lau4 (小茶樓) or caa4 geoi1 (茶居)—serve simple dim sum, steamed rice bowls and plain tea to their local neighbourhood. The dishes aren’t particularly sophisticated, the prices are cheap and the portions are big. According to Dim Sum 60, published by the Kwan Sang Catering Professional Employees Association (the largest non-profit organisation connecting Cantonese chefs in Hong Kong), the earliest recorded tea houses were the Plum Flower House (杏花樓) and Valedictorian House (三元樓), which both opened around 1864 in Sheung Wan.
Their precursors were tea huts (caa4 liu4 茶寮); the character liu4 (寮) means “little hut” or “little window.” Originally, these weren’t eateries but residences. According to Louis Chan, a food critic, it was common for neighbours to share and spare one another groceries. When someone was short of food, his or her neighbours would pull up their blinds and open the windows to help. Gradually, it became a phenomenon for people to gather at one another’s little huts to eat – the origin of Cantonese dim sum culture.
Tea huts thrived in Hong Kong’s village-like shantytowns, offering tea made with mountain stream water that customers credited with giving the tea a more refreshing taste. As shantytowns began to be cleared for public housing in the 1950s and 60s, tea huts gradually began to disappear.
But tea houses were flourishing in Hong Kong’s urban areas. Originally open only for breakfast and lunch, they began to extend their hours in order to draw more customers, and some also recruited Cantonese singers to entertain guests. This marked the dawn of Hong Kong’s lavish banquet hall-style tea restaurants (caa4 lau4 茶樓), which were bigger, grander and more appealing to affluent customers. Some of the oldest are still operating today, including Luk Yu, Lin Heung and Go Sing.
Tea restaurants proliferated all over the city, which put pressure on neighbourhood tea houses, leading to their decline. And it’s not hard to understand why a tea house owner might decide to close shop: it’s not an easy business to run. Every morning at 3am, Saam Hui Yaat’s five cooks are already hard at work at their stations. Wong starts his day by kneading dough for buns. “It takes time for the dough to rest so that the buns will be fluffy,” he says.
This used to be the norm. In the days before refrigeration was common, dim sum cooks made everything from scratch with fresh ingredients purchased that day. Today, many restaurants source pre-made dim sum from factories in Hong Kong or mainland China. But not Saam Hui Yaat. “The customers can always tell when the food is prepared with heart,” says Wong, spooning a huge piece of egg into a big chicken bun.
Customers begin flooding in at 6am. The whole team is on deck, bringing out pots of hot tea and baskets of steaming food. Lee stir-fries vegetables, rice and noodles in a frenzy of steam and fire. A mountain of at least 60 bamboo baskets forms in the tiny front kitchen, where sometimes the busy cooks directly hand the dim sum to their customers through the window. By 3pm, the mountain has disappeared, but the cooks are already back at work cleaning baskets, rearranging the pantry and preparing more dim sum for the next day. “I have no idea how many baskets there are – I never counted,” Wong’s son, Kin-sun, says with a laugh. Zolima CityMag’s team counted at least 150.
Saam Hui Yaat’s menu has barely changed since it opened. “We make the dim sum according to the recipes passed down to us by our masters when we were still apprentices,” says Wong. On their menu are only 20 types of traditional dim sum such as braised soy sauce chicken feet, rice noodle rolls, steamed buns with lotus seed mash and Malay sponge cake. The tea house’s veteran chefs have no intention to modernise their recipes or expand their menu. “We’re a small shop,” says Lee says. “We can’t manage to make more.”
That approach has plenty of fans. Chan Chak-yan, a regular customer, says he values the expertise of Saam Hui Yaat’s chefs even if it has fewer dim sum options than chain restaurants. “If you’re a frequent dim sum goer, you can tell that their freshly made dim sum are of above average quality,” he says. He enjoys being able to chat with the staff whenever he visits. “This harmonious scene is really hard to find in big Chinese restaurants today,” he says.
That’s not to say Saam Hui Yaat is resistant to change. Last month, Lee Bing-yiu and Ng She-shui retired, having suffered from leg pain for some time. To replace them, Wong recruited his son, a former cha chaan teng employee, and two other young men, Lee Chung-king and Ma Chin-hang. “I was actually not too enthusiastic about working in a tea house – waking up at 2am is no fun at all,” says the younger Wong. But his mind changed when he saw how much effort his father poured into the business. “When I saw that he couldn’t bear to lose the shop, I quit my job to help him out.”
Today, it isn’t just nostalgic customers or old-time neighbours who flock to Saam Hui Yaat; the tea house is popular with University of Hong Kong students, young couples and curious tourists, too. “We don’t make dim sum like chain restaurants do,” says Wong. “But what we make, we make with our heart and soul.”
Watch how this unpretentious restaurant has been serving customers since 1978.
Saam Hui Yaat (叁去壹) is located at 11 Pok Fu Lam Road, Sai Ying Pun.