With copper-coloured swivelling fans hanging from the ceiling and spittoons sitting under kettle stands, Lin Heung Lau is a favourite stop for locals nostalgic for Hong Kong’s old-style tea-drinking experience. Tucked away on the second floor of an old building in the central business district, the spot – its name translates as Fragrant Lotus Teahouse – has the look of a traditional 1960s or ’70s restaurant that is hard to find these days.
Lin Heung is famous for its dim sum – pastries and other tidbits that come in dozens of varieties. Some popular treats are steamed beef balls, cotton chicken (made of fish belly, chicken and Chinese mushroom), har gau (steamed prawn dumplings) and lin yung bao (steamed buns with lotus seed paste fillings). Other traditional delicacies include pig liver siew mai (pork dumplings) and braised duck leg with preserved orange peel in rice soup, dishes that are seldom available in the other restaurants nowadays.
Lin Heung is the only survivor from Hong Kong’s ‘Big Four’ old-style teahouses. The others – Tak Wan, Ko Sing and Dai Yat Lau – closed over the years as more people opted for cleaner and more stylish establishments and younger generations grew fonder of Western cuisine.
At Lin Heung, waitresses still push around steel trolleys loaded with dim sum in steaming bamboo baskets. Armed with big, heavy kettles, white-uniformed waiters skillfully pour water into porcelain tea cups, which are quickly refilled every time you lift the lid.
Tom Wan, 25, brings his schoolmates from London to show them the authentic yum cha, or tea-drinking, experience.
This is a teahouse from our father’s generation. It’s very difficult to find restaurants with food trolleys being pushed around anymore,” Wan says. “I want to show them traditional Hong Kong restaurants with character.”
The restaurant is often packed and boisterous with the clinking of chinaware as people rinse their crockery in a bowl of hot water on the table – a ritual to ensure the utensils are clean – before waving at staffers to pick their favourite dim sum. Jostling for seats is part of the fun, with several different groups of strangers often having to share a table.
The floor is littered with used tissues and toothpicks, but that doesn’t put off even the rich and famous. Its clientele includes Hong Kong’s former justice chief Elsie Leung and hell-raising lawmaker ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, movie stars Chow Yun-fat and Stephen Chow and respected food critics.
Retired businessman Ko Sai-hung began visiting Lin Heung when he was 16. Fifty-seven years later, Ko, now 73, remains a devoted fan. He travels an hour every day from his home for a bowl of steamed chicken rice and a cup of Chinese tea.
“I won’t eat it in another restaurant,” Ko says.
Lin Heung is famed for its wide selection of Chinese teas, such as Po li (a strong, black tea), Lung cheng (literally ‘dragon well’, a refreshing green tea), or flower teas like jasmine and chrysanthemum.
“I like the tea here,” says Johnson Lam, a retired civil servant. “The taste is just different because of the way it is served.”
In most Chinese restaurants these days, customers are given a large teapot in which tea leaves are brewed for a long time, tending to leave a bitter taste. At Lin Heung, owner Charlton Ngan serves teas from different Chinese provinces the traditional way: each person has a set of two teacups. You brew the tea with the larger one with a lid and a saucer and pour it into the smaller one to drink.
Ngan, whose grandfather came from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou and opened the teahouse in 1926, said keeping old traditions alive is essential to Lin Heung’s survival.
“If you are an old-style teahouse, it should remain that way,” Ngan says. “You can’t suddenly change your practices or raise prices dramatically after the restaurant becomes famous or pretends to be a five-star hotel. This just wouldn’t work.”
“There is really no better place to go if I want to have yum cha the old way,” says David Wong, a 54-year-old investment consultant who visits Lin Heung almost every day. “There are only a few of such kind of traditional teahouses left in Hong Kong. I miss the old Hong Kong.””