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Hong Kong food sector facing Shenzen challenge

HONG KONG’S FOOD KING revealed that he started out working at McDonald’s, the US fast food giant.

Tommy Cheung, who represents the food industry at the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, revealed that his first job was making burgers while studying in the United States. “I bought my first used car with my first paycheck I got from them,” Cheung said. After completing a Master’s degree in Business Administration, he initially aspired to become a CEO in the United States.


But eventually he was drawn to return to Hong Kong to help with the family business—which was in the restaurant trade anyway.

There’s nothing more fundamental to business in this part of the world than an abacus.

It makes sense. Hong Kong is one of the world’s great food capitals. Some years ago, a global Time Out survey revealed that more people “ate out” more regularly in this city than anywhere else on the planet.

As a result, the city now has a record high number of 17,000 restaurants. But the development of Shenzhen, now just minutes away on a train, is creating a challenge—more on that below.

But it is undeniable that the food in Hong Kong is great. Nearly 100 Michelin stars have been showered on the city. And the full range of types of cuisine and price points is right there.

In the past, it was the high class eateries offering fine dining that was associate with the Michelin stars. But no more.

For example, there are queues night and day outside Michelin-starred Sister Wah in Tin Hau, on the edge of Victoria Park on Hong Kong island. This is despite the fact that it is a humble noodle shop in a tiny room.

[Watch the interview below, or scroll down to see more of this written report.]


In the tumult in the middle of the previous century, people from all over mainland China came to Hong Kong, Cheung says. “Since 1949, Hong Kong has attracted numerous individuals with exceptional entrepreneurial and culinary skills.”

His ancestors were among them. “My father used to make excellent food in Guangzhou, so when he came to Hong Kong, after a few years of doing other businesses, he opened a three-story restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui. That was his first venture in the early sixties.”

Cheung highlighted the pivotal role played by Hong Kong in introducing diverse Chinese regional cuisines to food lovers from around the globe. The city’s culinary success lies in its ability to cater to a diverse range of palates, and to craft exceptional fusion dishes.

As well as a range of cuisines from across China and the wider world, Hong Kong has its own specialties, too—some humble dishes that are surprisingly popular. Cheung said he enjoys a cup of yuenyeung (a drink mixing coffee and tea) to wash down the city’s famous pineapple bun – a large (pineapple-free) roll of soft bread with a baked sugar-butter topping.


Nowadays, various factors such as global inflation and climate change have led to increased costs for imported goods, including transportation expenses for ingredients.

Ten years ago, you would pay just HK$6,000 to HK$7,000 for a staff member to wash dishes, but the average cost has now more than tripled to HK$20,000 to HK$22,000.

As a result, prices have risen, and Hongkongers are increasingly opting to go and eat out at restaurants in Shenzhen or the Greater Bay Area, instead. There, they find whole new food experiences to try out—and prices are significantly lower.

How should Hong Kong react? Cheung said that Hong Kong needs to address staffing shortages by introducing imported labor. By allowing individuals from Shenzhen or the Greater Bay Area to work in Hong Kong without officially relocating, the gaps in the local food industry’s workforce can be filled.


But the food sector has always been tough. “In the restaurant business, you win some and you lose some. That’s just part of the percentages,” he said. To spread his risk, he has invested in eateries in mainland China and in Thailand.

As for his other life, as a politician, that has always had its ups and downs too. His first attempt to get into politics, in 1995, was a failure. However, he carried himself will after the loss, and continued to serve his constituents. “When you do, the voters will reward you in the future,” he said.

All images from Friday Beyond Spotlights.

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