Bamboo baskets sigh wisps of steam, each rich with childhood memories of Saturdays past. Inside are cloud-soft buns and delicate parcels of shrimp and pork. The aroma, borne aloft by a breeze, climbs sinuously up to the heights of a vaulted ceiling as daylight, white as porcelain teacups, streams in through a glass frontage. Revolving fans mounted on slender columns give the impression of a palm oasis. Wooden booths, at once expansive and cosy, shelter their occupants with high lacquered partitions.
This is Dim Sum The Art of Chinese Tit Bits, known in Cantonese as Jyu6 Mun5 Fong1 (譽滿坊), and it has been this way since the Happy Valley tea house opened in 1992. The restaurant has been a reassuring delight in this quiet neighbourhood, where its faithful staff have tended it well these last 28 years. But now those days are over. Faced by rents that rise even as the economy plunges into recession, Dim Sum must close. On June 24, 2020, its red and green neon sign will be extinguished for the last time.
Peter Lam Sei-pui has been head chef here since it opened. Wreathed in expansive smiles he settles into a booth, pours two cups of jasmine tea and slides one of them across the cool granite tabletop. “This restaurant was started by our first boss, José Wu Chang. He’d recently returned to Hong Kong from studying overseas and dreamed up a place like this,” says Lam. “To begin with, the concept was partially inspired by Luk Yu Tea House in Central and [by] old shops. He later incorporated imperial Chinese stylings. His restaurant would specialise in traditional dim sum. When it opened, it was the first restaurant in all of Hong Kong, if not the world, that focused on dim sum exclusively.”
Wu Chang laboured over the restaurant’s design, devising its unusual pole-mounted fans, for which he found his inspiration in books about palaces. The interior fittings, from booths to geometric mirror frames, are built from solid teak and polished to a sheen. “It was all made in Hong Kong,” says Lam. “Every stick of furniture was built on-site – 100 percent made here by the sifu. Fitting out this small restaurant took two months.” Even the restaurant’s coiled dragon logo, which is sandblasted on a glass screen at the entrance, was exhaustively researched. “He took reference from dragons on emperors’ robes,” says Lam. “Just think about that when imagining his expectations and requirements.”
Only a fraction of this furniture will be preserved beyond the restaurant’s closing date with the rest destined for a skip when the premises are reinstated and handed back to the landlord. The intended fate of the neon sign, which hangs outside, was unclear until the eve of this story’s publication. Thanks to an intervention by Zolima CityMag and the non-profit organisation StreetsignHK, it was granted a surprise reprieve. G. Wu Chang, the brother of José Wu Chang—the original owner who designed the sign—has agreed to donate all of the restaurant’s signage, including the neon light and the shop sign hanging over the entrance, to StreetsignHK, who will restore and exhibit them.
With a 28-foot ceiling, Dim Sum’s space on Sing Woo Road is certainly unusual for Hong Kong, whose commercial spaces are normally cramped. The high ceiling adds to the restaurant’s palatial grandeur, but for all its refined decor, Dim Sum has acquired the feel of a neighbourhood hangout, and its regulars regard it affectionately.
“Some of our customers have become so familiar that they just drop in for a chat. It’s not just a restaurant-customer relationship,” says Cherry Chan, the restaurant’s effervescent manager. “We’ve seen some of our customers from childhood to adulthood. There are neighbours who have supported us for over ten or even 20 years and this really is a blow to them. They ask, ‘Will you move to a new location?’ They leave us their contact details just in case.”
Dim Sum’s fare is considered expensive but its standards are uncompromising. “Our dim sum is bigger than usual and we take pride even with common items, like har gau (haa1 gaau2 蝦餃) and siu mai (siu1 maai6 燒賣), because our ingredients are a cut above,” says Chan. “Other people chop their shrimp up very small but in our har gao they really are whole shrimp. This is why our customers make a special effort to come to us. Real gourmands don’t mind the price.”
The restaurant’s menu hasn’t changed in 28 years, save for a few seasonal items. Chan says the standouts are nostalgic dishes including glutinous rice steamed buns (no6 mai5 baau1 糯米包), sausage steamed buns (laap6 coeng4 gyun2 臘腸捲), and black sesame rolls, sometimes called film rolls (zi1 maa4 gyun2 or fei1 lam4 gyun2 芝麻捲/菲林捲). This has earned the restaurant a diverse following. In its earlier days, Dim Sum became well loved by Hong Kong’s Japanese community, and over time it also gained considerable attention from European and Korean residents and visitors. “Each year a Korean magazine comes to interview us to update their readers,” says Chan. The eatery’s bilingual neon perhaps indicates an early openness to guests of all nationalities and backgrounds.
With its photogenic interior, Dim Sum is used to fame, and its clientele includes a number of well-known people. Cheng Lai-ying, better known as Sister Ying or Ah Ying, has worked as a server at the restaurant since it opened and safeguards the establishment’s collective memory. “In the beginning it was Chow Yun-fat who would come the most. He loved photographing this place,” she says. “The Korean guests always ask, ‘Where did Leslie Cheung sit?’” She points to a round table in the centre of the room and a booth to the left. “Oh, Leslie, he often came here with his mom. They didn’t have a favourite table, they just sat everywhere.”
Anita Mui favoured a middle booth on the left. Chris Patten, noted egg tart enthusiast and Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, once dined with his family at the long table in the front. Teresa Teng and Anson Chan both enjoyed a quiet corner booth to the right of the entrance while Aaron Kwok—“He always drove great cars,” says Ah Ying—and Nicholas Tse preferred takeout. Tse’s one time wife, Cecilia Cheung, had no preferred seat but once supped with Eason Chan. Sumo wrestler Takanohana Kōji had no favoured booth because he was too large for one; he sat on two chairs instead.
And then there were Faye Wong, Carina Lau and Stanley Ho, all of whom liked a round table near the back. “Ho would only come at night and he’d station two bodyguards by the door,” interjects Lam. “We’ve also served all four of the Heavenly Kings” he adds, referring to pop stars Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai. “You don’t have enough paper for these names,” Chan says with a laugh. But she and Ah Ying continue reminiscing. “Sam Hui’s wife once brought Bruce Lee’s family here – Linda and her daughter, Shannon. They sat in the back booth. Once we even served an Oscar winner,” says Ah Ying, struggling to recall her name until it finally comes to her: Gwyneth Paltrow. “She sat there, in the second booth on the left. So sweet and so beautiful.”
For all its famous visitors, Dim Sum has known tough times, and this is not the first time the restaurant has struggled. “The 90s were a good time and people could afford to eat. Now it is much worse,” says Ah Ying. In 2012, ownership was handed over to a man who had been a regular diner. “When he took over the business, his motivation was to preserve this restaurant and to keep the staff [employed]. In truth he had been avoiding closure for some time but now there is no choice. There are underlying reasons, so the only option is to close, at least for now,” says Chan.
For Dim Sum’s stalwart staff, it is the regulars that will be missed most. “To close down after so many years really is a shame. The customers have been very good to me. They are our friends,” says Chan. “It didn’t feel like much when we first heard the news but the closer we get to the day when the doors will actually shut, the more I feel it and the faster it seems to be coming.”
Lam sadly adds that since 1992, “every single plank, every staff member was put in place by me. I built the restaurant and raised it to maturity. I watched over Dim Sum the whole time and will do so till the end. I feel a deep sadness.”
Ah Ying remains stoic but positive about the situation. “After we close I will rest awhile,” she says. “It’s difficult enough for the young ones to find work these days, let alone an old timer like me. But if we are destined to, we will cross paths again.” Even at this sad moment, Chan offers a small glimmer of hope. “If there really is a chance to open somewhere else in future, we’d like to have the old staff back,” she says. “We can’t confirm anything for now but we will play it by ear.”
Asked whether she would return, Ah Ying is emphatic. “Yes!” she exclaims. “If the boss would have me back then of course. The people are really nice. The manager is very good to me.”
Chan laughs and lays a hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “You are also very good to me. Till we meet again.”