Impatient diners crowd around carts of steaming dim sum steered by fierce “trolley aunties” at Hong Kong’s Lin Heung Tea House (蓮香樓), one of the city’s most famous restaurants, now fearing for its future.
Lin Heung’s traditional homemade dishes, including cha siu bao (叉燒包, barbecue pork buns), har gow (蝦餃, shrimp dumplings) and ma lai go (馬拉糕, Cantonese sponge cake), have earned a loyal following from locals with a taste for nostalgia, as well as inquisitive tourists.
The two-story restaurant in bustling Central has multiple top listings in global travel guides and serves customers from 6am until 10pm, seven days a week. Diners sit elbow-to-elbow at shared round tables, metal spittoons still tucked beside them, the walls hung with decorative bird cages and menu prices in traditional Chinese numerals.
However, the restaurant said the building’s new owner has not yet contacted it about renewing its lease, despite it expiring early next year, and it feels in the dark about the landlord’s intentions.
That has sparked fears that Lin Heung will be the latest Hong Kong culinary treasure to fall foul of the city’s thirst for redevelopment.
The building’s landlord, CSI Properties (資本策略地產), told reporters that it could not comment on the restaurant’s case.
Lin Heung’s possible demise has been widely reported by local media and worried regulars said that they were visiting as much as they can in case it closes.
Retiree Mr Yip (葉), 80, said he was coming more often to enjoy his favorite dish of pork liver siu mai (燒賣) dumplings and freshly made tea. Dim sum is often paired with a cup of Chinese tea in a tradition known as yum cha (飲茶), literally “drink tea.”
“It’s my habit to sip a cup of Chinese tea and greet everyone here every week. The tea is special and the people too,” Yip said. “I feel comforted when I see the staff. It feels like home.”
According to US-based Demographia, the territory’s housing market was the most expensive in the world last year — the most recent figures available — and developers clamor for prime real estate.
The selling off of older buildings, as well as spiraling rents, has spelled the end for a number of family-run neighborhood favorites across Hong Kong.
Lin Heung is one of the city’s oldest Cantonese restaurant businesses and is run by the Ngan (顏) family, who arrived from China’s Guangdong Province and set it up in 1926. It now has three outlets in Hong Kong and has moved its restaurants around over the decades.
The Central venue on Wellington Street is its main restaurant and has been in the same spot for 22 years.
Restaurant spokesman Terence Lam (林壯大) said that the current lease would end in March next year and he hoped the restaurant would not have to close.
“It’s not only a business. It embodies the legacy of the past,” Lam said. “It represents the hardship of our ancestors.”
Local food writer Wilson Fok said the evolution of yum cha culture was intertwined with Hong Kong’s history as numerous mainland dim sum chefs fled to the former British colony in the 1950s after the Chinese Civil War had ravaged the country.
He describes the atmosphere inside restaurants like Lin Heung as a “piece of history.”
“Going to yum cha is not just a cultural habit where people consume food, but also a way of life that shapes our identity,” said Fok. “Some of these old traditions are often lost in our fast-paced society.”
Tourists visiting the tea house said they appreciated the restaurant’s traditional approach — a rarity now in Hong Kong.
“We usually sit with family or friends in China. But here, we share tables with people we don’t know,” said 20-year-old Chinese visitor Wu Yutung.
Marcelo Garcia, 47, a Brazilian traveler who said he had never before eaten dim sum, said Lin Heung is “an environment with a huge amount of energy.”
“People probably come here again because they feel a sense of belonging,” he said.