For many Hongkongers nowadays, Christmas means getting together with friends, or spending a two-day holiday binge-watching television dramas on streaming platforms – or a trip to an amusement park to soak up the jovial ambience. But for many people in the decades between the 1950s and 90s, the holiday was a rare opportunity to get properly dressed up for a four-hour dinner at what they thought was a Western restaurant. But this was not the Western cuisine anyone outside Hong Kong would recognise.
Lilith Lam, a 27-year-old law student, still remembers a Christmas 20 years ago when she enjoyed a full-course meal with her mother and grandma at Tai Ping Koon, a local institution that first opened in 1938. They feasted on nine dishes, with a unique festive atmosphere missing from the year’s other meals. “It wasn’t purely about the vibes, but also the cuisine,” she says. “When I was young, the Christmas feasts comprised special dishes exclusive for those two weeks. The sense of ritual made me look forward to that particular period of the year.” Among the dishes were crispy fried shrimp toast served with pigeon liver pâté, minced chicken soup with bird’s nest, and roasted pigeon – her grandmother’s favourite.
But most people younger than Lam—and even most of her peers—would never have experienced such a tradition. When she went for a Christmas dinner with a girlfriend several years ago, the variety of dishes seemed to have shrunk, even if each portion was larger. She lamented the loss. This year, Tai Ping Koon has recreated its original 1938 Christmas menu. But Hong Kong’s dining scene has expanded since then, and tastes have changed, so anyone who doesn’t have a nostalgic attachment to this old cuisine may find it perplexing.
Lorra Lo, 27, remembers visiting Tai Ping Koon with her boyfriend for Christmas when she was 18. “I was curious about what traditional, old Hong Kong tasted like,” she says, adding that her family does not celebrate Christmas. “I have heard about Tai Ping Koon since I was little. But it didn’t taste as good as I had imagined. It wasn’t Christmassy.” She dismisses it as “yet another disappointing restaurant for me to have my belly filled. It wasn’t bad, but it was also not good.”
Tai Ping Koon and other restaurants of its ilk were once massively popular. Today, most of their clients are decidedly senior. To understand what has changed, you have to understand the roots of the cuisine served here, which is often described as “soy sauce Western.” That’s a term often associated with cha chaan teng—affordable neighbourhood cafés—but it has its roots in more upscale restaurants in prewar Shanghai and Guangzhou, two cities heavily influenced by colonial European rule. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large areas of both cities were governed as concessions owned by Western powers, including the United Kingdom, France, the United States and Russia.
It was in Guangzhou that a cook for American trading house Russell and Company, Chui Lo-ko, established Tai Ping Koon in 1860. It was one of the first restaurants in the city that attempted to modify Western food to suit the Chinese palate. Rice was served instead of potatoes or pasta, and meat was heavily seasoned with soy sauce to eliminate the gamey odours and flavours that most Chinese people find unpleasant.
This was the origin of soy sauce Western cuisine, but it continued to evolve as thousands of so-called White Russians—exiles fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917—settled in the foreign concession of Shanghai. They recruited Chinese cooks—usually from Shandong province to the northeast of the city—which gave rise to a cuisine known as haipai (hoi2 paai3 sai1 caan1 海派西餐, literally “Shanghai-style Western cuisine.”) It combined the traditions of several cuisines from other regions of China with an Eastern European style of cooking. Among the representative dishes are chicken kiev, beef stroganoff, Shanghai-style borscht—which contains no sour cream or beetroot—and Shanghainese pork schnitzel, which was usually served with Worcestershire sauce, a zesty condiment invented by a pair of English chemists in the 1830s.
Many of these Russian-trained cooks ended up in Hong Kong, along with many of the White Russians, after the Chinese Civil War ended with a Communist victory in 1949. So did the cooks from Guangzhou who had been working in that city’s Western restaurants. “These cooks drew on local resources and elements,” says Sidney Cheung, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies food and identity. “Although soy sauce isn’t used in all dishes, it is an analogy in representing what they believed Western food was with their own cooking techniques, because most of them never had an opportunity to travel abroad.”
Advertisements promoting Christmas catering services became prevalent in the 1960s as Hong Kong people became more willing to try Western dishes. The phenomenon corresponded to the surge in the city’s manufacturing capabilities following the 1950s post-war industrialisation, a decade widely considered the first pivotal point for the city’s economic boom. The city’s rising middle class considered a Western type of Christmas meal a prestigious and special treat.
Even though the colonial government in Hong Kong designated Christmas Day and Boxing Day as statutory holidays as early as 1875, it remained a tradition limited to the European and Christian communities. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the majority of Chinese people in the city began celebrating it, likely because by then it had been commercialised as a year-end consumerist frenzy.
Tai Ping Koon has offered its special Christmas menu every year since opening its first branch in Hong Kong in 1938. It provided an alternative for locals to enjoy the festival when luxury hotels, such as The Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental, posed “too high a threshold” to ordinary Chinese people, says managing director Andrew Chui, who is a great-great-grandson of Tai Ping Koon’s founder. “Authentic Western restaurants were hard to come by, almost exclusively found in large hotels,” he says. “Ordinary people didn’t know much about Western cuisine, so they regarded eating with a fork and a knife while wearing a suit already as having Western dishes.”
Today, Tai Ping Koon sells its Christmas menu for HK$550 per person, up from HK$1 in 1938. A worker’s monthly wage has also gone up too – it’s now HK$17,000 on average, from anywhere between HK$2 and HK$45 in the 1930s. (For context, rice cost an average of 12 cents per kilo in 1939.) This means that, when Tai Ping Koon first opened, a Christmas dinner for an ordinary household would likely have cost a significant amount of their income – not to mention that families in those times tended to have more mouths to feed, making such luxuries especially unaffordable.
“In the past, people dined out only on rare occasions because it was too expensive,” says Chui, who has worked at Tai Ping Koon for more than two decades. “Eating out during the Christmas holiday used to be a big event which some children could even anticipate for an entire year.”
Like other decades-old eateries, Tai Ping Koon has capitalised on a sense of nostalgia to invite visitors to seek out the tastes that harks back to the days of colonial Hong Kong. Dining at Tai Ping Koon during Christmas has become a tradition for some families. Chui says some parents used to go there to have a date and later take their sons or daughters for Christmas dinner after they got married, and now those sons and daughters take their next generation to Tai Ping Koon. “That sense of belonging and the familiarity in tastes have carried the restaurant onwards,” he says proudly, adding that he does not want to lose Tai Ping Koon’s tradition in his generation.
But the way people celebrate Christmas has changed over the years, forcing him to make adjustments on the restaurant’s Christmas menu accordingly. “People used to finish Christmas dinner and go home. The dinner was the entirety of the celebration,” he says. “But now, our guests can’t afford to spend four hours on a refined meal. We have to rearrange the Christmas meal set so that they can finish it within two hours and continue with the rest of their festivities.”
Now, instead of the 1938 version’s nine-course meal, Tai Ping Koon’s Christmas package consists of six dishes, reducing two soup dishes to one and replacing the more delicate braised veal pie with a piece of five-ounce Angus ribeye steak, which is apparently easier to manage in mass.
There’s also the matter of competition. Compared to decades past, it’s easier than ever to find genuine, sophisticated Western cuisine in Hong Kong. Soy sauce Western cuisine doesn’t enjoy the prestige it used to. Two classic restaurants serving such food, Goldfinch Restaurant—where Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046 were filmed—and Louis’ Steak House folded in 2015 and 2016, respectively, unable to afford increasingly high rents.
The surviving restaurants rely on a small but loyal clientele that consists mainly of older people and tourists. It may seem entirely normal that such historical relics are inevitably fading away. But for those who are fortunate enough to taste the tail end of history, it’s a situation that inspires a sense of bereavement. For her part, Lilith Lam understands why things are changing – but it doesn’t make it any less upsetting. “It is just that the part I am nostalgic about has vanished.”
Where to enjoy classic soy sauce Western cuisine
Tai Ping Koon
60 Stanley Street, Central
Tel: (+852) 2899 2780
Open daily 11:00–midnight
Shop 18, L1, Festival Walk, 80 Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon Tong
Tel: (+852) 2527 4288
Open daily 11:00–23:00
148 Prince Edward
Tel: (+852) 2381 1516
Open daily 8:00–22:00
Shop B, 16/F, Lee Theatre Plaza, 99 Percival Street, Causeway Bay
Tel: (+852) 2890 2029
Open daily 11:30 –23:00