Written by Jaspar Chan | Photographs by Jaspar Chan
Near the gated community of Laguna City is the historic squatter village of Cha Kwo Ling. Located at the foot of the hill that is its namesake, the village is spread out along the stretch of road leading from Kwun Tong to Yau Tong. Originally a Hakka mining village centred around a clay pit, it greatly expanded in size and population during the refugee surges experienced by Hong Kong in the decades between 1950-70, with many layers of makeshift dwellings erected by poorer refugees from the Chinese mainland swaddling the original Hakka village. Nowadays it is sparsely populated, with many of its villagers having moved out and into better accommodations in the wake of numerous fires and subsequent government efforts to relocate the village’s considerable refugee population. In spite of this, many of the ramshackle houses in the village still stand, the remnants of a fading village in the outskirts of Kowloon.
The Wing Wah Cafe (榮華冰室) located on the narrow alleyway serving as the village’s main street is perhaps one of the more well-known features of the village. It is inside the outermost layer of the village, and can be easily reached from the Cha Kwo Ling road that stands between the village and the Victoria Harbour coastline. The cafe resides in a narrow two-story stone house, with a variety of residences and mom-and-pop stores adjacent to and opposite it. A bulky, antiquated drinks cooler and a tiny cash desk to either side of the entrance are the first things you see upon entering the cafe. It is a cosy, cramped space, with two parallel rows of snug wooden benches and tables lining the sides of the walls, and the rear inner portion of the cafe is given over to the kitchen area.
I visited the cafe on a Saturday afternoon when I thought there would not be too many diners present. The stout house across the narrow alleyway cast a long shadow over the cafe, and the lighting from fluorescent tubes flickered through the rotating ceiling fan. The menu was written on a whiteboard to the side, and offered a variety of local fare served by most Cha Chaan Tengs.
The cafe offers a variety of quintessential Hong Kong Cha Chaan Teng cuisine – a selection of light snacks, sandwiches, noodles, and drinks.
I was quite absorbed in the wall of photographs and newspaper clippings prominently featuring the cafe. For some time I alternated between looking at the menu and the wall of clippings, and taking in the surrounds of the cafe, which, although undecorated and quite cluttered, retained an old-timey charm. My curiosity towards the aesthetic of the cafe must have shown, as the aged female restaurateur, 鏡嫂 (Jing Sao, or Aunt Geng) sat down across me at my booth after bringing me my drink and asked about my visit to her cafe.
“Oh, we get requests like this all the time”, she says when I inform her of my intention to interview her about the cafe. “This must be the sixth or seventh time I’ve been present at an interview here”, the woman at the adjacent booth interjects, and Aunt Geng introduces her as a former villager, and a regular at the cafe. “I’ve watched her grow up, like so many of the village children, and even after they’ve moved away a lot of them still come back to visit”, she tells me proudly. “I’ve been servicing four generations of villagers now,”, she says, “and even some of the grandchildren of people I’ve grown up with have settled down with families of their own.”
I ask her about the origins of the cafe (she and her husband have been operating it by themselves since 1962) and about the low prices of the food they serve (they see no need to factor in inflation as a reason for price increases, seeing as the only diners they serve are villagers from Cha Kwo Ling.) “The only business we get most of the time are from Gai Fong, (街坊, a common Cantonese figure of speech roughly equivalent in meaning to ‘neighbour’), and we don’t see much advantage in increasing the price of food anyway.”
Remarking on the collage of photographs that adorn a section of the wall, she informs me that she’s received numerous interviews about her restaurant. “Some of these I’ve cut from magazines and newspapers”, she says. The photographs feature various celebrity figures with one or both of the couple in their cafe, as well as family photos.
For a while, I listen in to the conversations between the diners and Aunt Geng. The topics discussed range from the rising price of school fees and the increasing cost of living outside of the village, to matters of village welfare and a petition to implement a minibus stop at the village. “These [petitions] almost never work; the district councillor wants nothing to do with our village. But there is no harm in trying anyway”, says the women in the adjacent booth. It is clear that the cafe serves not only as an eatery, but also as a gathering place for the villagers as well. “The village office is seldom open, but we can always count on the cafe to be open” says the woman’s friend. “I have been running this establishment for over fifty years without fail, and I’m open almost all of the time” Aunt Geng adds. “Except during the Lunar New Year, I don’t really have that many rest days.”
Tucked away in a corner of Kowloon, this cafe in a backwater village embodies many of the qualities that are considered to make up the Hong Kong culture – not only in the food they serve, but also in the strong sense of community it makes possible, and in the resilience and tenacity of Aunt Geng and her husband to have stayed behind in their village even while their friends and family left and the village shrank around them. As such, it is a cafe worth visiting, for its village charm and for its persevering sense of community.
The Cha Kwo Ling village can be reached by taking the 23B and 23C minibuses, which stop across the road from the village. The Wing Wah cafe’s opening hours are from 11am to 5pm from Monday to Sundays.
Editor’s Note (13/06/18): It has been verified that Aunt Geng passed away due to a sudden sickness a few months prior to the time of writing. The writer and the Xiao Hua web editorial board expresses their condolences to Uncle Geng and the Cha Kwo Ling community.