Former food and drinks editor of SCMP, Susan Jung reflects on her 25 years of work eating the best of Hong Kong food, and her new book, “Kung Pao and Beyond.”
The True Story of Mr. Wongs: Student Food and Booze Paradise
by: Rubin Verebes
January 10, 2022
Mr. Wong’s is a phrase, person, restaurant, and experience that has been on the minds and itineraries of exchange students studying in Hong Kong for more than a decade.
Any English-speaking student who has come to Hong Kong for a semester or year-long study abroad programme will be familiar with a night of flowing, green-canned beer, plates of succulent Cantonese food, and the buzz and warmth of Mr. Wong’s reception and service, all for the sweet price of HK$80.
Every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday night will see waves of hungry faces enter the Mong Kok diner to begin their night at Hong Kong’s cheapest and rowdiest free-flow buffet restaurant, paired with beer that is thrown around like free money.
With the incredibly low price point, for a restaurant to fare in one of the world’s costliest cities, rumours have circled for years about how Mr. Wong’s can survive selling unlimited food and beer for so cheap — suggestions of illicit activity have all been floated in recent years.
To discover the truth, The Beat Asia was granted an exclusive interview with Mr. Wong himself to uncover the true story of how Mr. Wong’s came to be and the secrets behind his food, beer, history, and restaurant.
Mr. Wong, full name Wong Shu Kau (王樹球), was born in 1964 in a small farming village outside Guangzhou, China. The youngest of three siblings, Wong Shu Kau joined his brothers and parents on the farm at a young age, growing vegetables to generate a living for the poverty-stricken family.
With only a primary school education at 15-years-old, Mr. Wong fled south to Hong Kong in 1979 in search of freedom from a China that was reeling from the lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution that had ended three years prior.
Mr. Wong quickly found his new home in Mong Kok as a teenager, earning a small living working at stalls, selling toys and clothes on Tung Choi Street in the famous Ladies Market. He would spend the following two decades working odd jobs in restaurants and household goods shops helping friends.
In 1997, at the age of 33, Mr. Wong was enlisted to take over a friend's restaurant, a traditional Cantonese cha chaan teng in Mong Kok. There, Mr. Wong learned the craft of running a restaurant, training chefs, sourcing ingredients, and managing customers.
Seven years after becoming manager of his friend's restaurant, Mr. Wong opened a bookstore in 2004 opposite the road in a first-floor space to fuel his life passion for reading and study of the English language. His office sitting above his current “Mr. Wong’s restaurant” is littered with Chinese and English books in American history, European language phrasebooks, and old Hong Kong newspapers.
In 2012, Mr. Wong opened what is known by exchange students today as Mr. Wong’s on Shamchun Street, a three-minute walk from Mong Kok’s MTR; to his local customers, it is 康樂餐廳 (hong1 lok6 caan1 teng1), meaning “happy and peaceful restaurant,” the four characters that hang in bold red neon at the front and back of his restaurant.
It was only nine years ago that Mr. Wong had his first group of Western exchange students visit his first restaurant in 2007 to eat “some local Cantonese food,” Mr. Wong told The Beat Asia in an interview in his cramped office above his restaurant.
Four British students studying at Poly University ventured out to Mong Kok one Friday night, wandering around the local area in search of a Cantonese dinner, eventually finding themselves at Mr. Wong’s diner. “At the time, I didn’t speak English,” Mr. Wong explains, “they did not speak [or read] Chinese, so I made them basic Chinese food.”
Usually catering to local Hong Kongers who are familiar with Cantonese flavours, Mr. Wong was unable to ask or listen to what the group wanted to eat, so, he guessed and made what he thought Westerners would like.
He ordered his chefs to make “very basic and easy food,” such as sweet and sour pork, egg fried rice, steamed broccoli, soya sauce beef, and curry chicken, resembling today’s menu at Mr. Wong’s.
Mr. Wong charged the students HK$40 each, a price that just covered the ingredients of the food he was using, and offered them a crate of beer to wash down their food with.
A few days later, as he recalled, word spread, and a group of 20 students arrived, hailing from Austria, Germany, Sweden, France, and the U.K., to make use of his bargain buffet deal. Almost 15 years later, the crowds of students have not stopped, and the deal has not changed – apart from a 200% price increase.
The menu has not changed slightly since 2007. Every paying customer is served a rolling buffet of fried spring rolls, sweet and sour fish, curry chicken, beef tenderloin with black pepper, stir-fried broccoli, salt and pepper fried tofu, soya sauce egg noodles, egg fried rice, and of course, a free flow of Kingway beer.
“[With the European exchange students], they don’t know what they like or don’t like when eating Cantonese food,” Mr. Wong says. “Hong Kong people know.”
Mr. Wong explains that he allows local Hong Kong people to select and eat whatever they desire, a lack of a language barrier allowing them to articulate in Cantonese what they want.
But with Western exchange students, according to Mr. Wong, it is easier to charge a base price of HK$80 and cook the same dishes for everyone, avoiding dozens of different orders in the kitchen and use of more expensive ingredients.
“When [the students] leave home and come to Hong Kong, they don’t understand everything of this fresh place. They know McDonald’s and Pizza Express, but they don’t know the local food.”
“We make dishes that are safe and basic, but also traditional [Cantonese] style; my two chefs cannot make everyone’s choices.”
Mr. Wong said that he once he tried to experiment with going to the supermarket and buying fresh fish, asking his staff to serve the students steamed fish. “They didn’t like it, nobody wanted to eat it!” Now, Mr. Wong and his staff stick to the basics: egg rice, chicken, beef, broccoli, dumplings, and the occasional plate of French fries.
The choice of beer has been a constant throughout the 14 years Mr. Wong has marketed Hong Kong’s cheapest buffet deal: Kingway, a bright green 330ml can of lager beer brewed in Shenzhen. One can bought in a supermarket costs just HK$3.
Previously, Mr. Wong would buy over 100 boxes of 24 cans every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday night. Now, he has a year contract with the factory to sell crates full of cans directly to his Mong Kok restaurant, filling the large white refrigerator in the back.
“Every week we have a shipment. It’s good business for them, we sell a lot of beer,” he says.
Mr. Wong has operated on three price points for his buffet and beer deal since it began. In 2007, HK$40 was a reasonable price charging students for unlimited food and as many beers as they could drink.
When Mr. Wong and his team, some of whom have been following him for 35 years since his first restaurant venture in 1986, moved to his now Shamchun Street location in 2012, his deal increased by HK$20 to HK$60.
Finally, in 2017, to counter rising food prices, cost of purchasing the beer locally, and wages for his team of a dozen staff, Mr. Wong increased the all-you-can-muster-eating-and-drinking deal to HK$80.
Dedicated to his service filling the bellies of hungry students, he rarely takes a day off from working.
Mr. Wong says that he spends little time at his home in Olympics, a modest two-bedroom apartment in the luxurious Hampton Place, where apartments on sale in the market average for HK$9 million.
Mr. Wong spends up to six days working a week and usually scrapes an average of four hours of night sleep. He eats all three meals at his restaurants, occasionally preparing a meal of instant noodles at home if he has the time. “I have never cooked in [my] restaurant[s] in 20 years,” he says.
During the early stages of fandom for his special buffet offer in the late 2010s, Mr. Wong would finish lunch service at his old restaurant serving his local customers and return to his bookstore to study English from his selection of study books, before venturing back to deal with his Western customers.
He eventually closed his bookstore in 2013 to focus his full attention on running his two Mong Kok restaurants, his cha chaan teng and Mr. Wong’s.
The one question that every present and former customer braving through the doors of Mr. Wong’s has is one of foremost importance: how does he make money selling unlimited food and beer for HK$80?
Answer: he does not. “I make more money in the daytime [serving breakfast and lunch to local customers] than nighttime,” Wong says. “I do this for the students, not about the money. I don’t care how much money [I make], it’s only for my heart.”
He can afford to sell free-flow food and beer for HK$80 to students from the profits he makes during his daytime three-meal service catering to his local customer base, and from his side-business renting, buying, and selling properties in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
Mr. Wong currently has four properties dotted around Hong Kong which he owns or rents out: a makeup store on Star Street in Wan Chai, a clothes shop in Jordan, his cha chaan teng diner in Mong Kok, and 康樂餐廳 (Mr. Wong’s). Collecting rent, Mr. Wong can make a modest living and support his sons, both of whom have completed university degrees in the U.S.
With the rent and revenue generated from his property portfolio, Mr. Wong is able to survive on a thin margin, even suffering from the major loss during nighttime hours selling food and beer at a cut-throat price to hungry students.
The bulk of his restaurant revenue, however, is generated mainly from the breakfast and lunch services, catering to his wealth of local Hong Kong-Chinese customers.
Arriving at his restaurant daily at 7 AM, he sells everything for locals, from sock-ice milk tea and Hong Kong French toast, pineapple fried rice and soya sauce noodles, set menus for HK$40 of dim sum, to frying fish and meats that his friends bring to the restaurant that they are eager to eat.
Mr. Wong sees his nighttime buffet business more as a form of advocacy, a self-prescribed service to spread international respect for the Hong Kong people and city.
“These students stay in Hong Kong too short [of a time]. They come to Hong Kong from different countries and different cities and don’t know what to expect. When they go return home, they say to people they’ve been to Mr. Wong’s and go back with a good image of Hong Kong.”
“I hope myself that I am doing things that can help Hong Kong [a little with its image and what foreigners think of the city].”
“I have been [cooking for] students for 13, 14 years. Many best friends come back to Hong Kong to see me.”
Despite curing a lengthy legacy in Hong Kong, Mr. Wong rarely talks about himself or the restaurant to promote it. When he relocated to Shamchun Street in 2012, only his veteran customers followed him. With exchange students largely staying for one semester in Hong Kong to study, word spreads about his buffet deal when the groups of European and North American students return home and preach about the food and beer at his restaurant.
Mr. Wong is very media shy too. “For myself, I don’t like [doing] interviews,” he says, “I am so small,” posing the question of why he would be worthy for a press report or interview. Word of mouth is, inadvertently, Mr. Wong’s number one advertising tool for drawing hordes of customers to his nighttime buffets.
Google “Mr. Wongs Hong Kong” and you will not however find any Google Maps location listing his name, likeness, phone number, or menu, but the rude “Ching Chong Cock’N’Ball Dungeon.” Despite Mr. Wong’s research into how his Google listings was changed, he cannot find the answer to who, how, or why it was changed. “I don’t know who did this!”
A lot has changed for Mr. Wong’s in the past three years, bracing the impact of the 2019 protests and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Wong kept his restaurant open in the nighttime during the height of the 2019 protests, a time when local businesses were forced to shut early due to customers protesting rather than dining in. Mr. Wong reported that the restaurant saw more crowds than usual, a calculated refusal to budge and shutter early.
Mr. Wong stated during nighttime service before the pandemic, he and his team would see close to 300 customers eating at his restaurant, with 13 staff cooking, serving, and dealing with hungry and drunk students.
In 2021, under COVID-19 rules imposed by the government in the restaurant industry, Mr. Wong’s sees fewer than 150 students every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. With seat numbers capped and the police wary of his outdoor dining habits, Mr. Wong is happy with the situation now. “I don’t like more [numbers of students], because before it’s so wild. Now, it’s calmer.”
When speaking about the future of his student hangout and evening buffet service, Mr. Wong is realistic about where his restaurant may head in the future. “My staff have been following me for 35 years. Some of them are 65, 70-years-old. When they cannot work anymore, I retire. I cannot get new [staff].”
His admirable connection with his staff is the last straw when it comes to eventually close his business and life in Hong Kong. When the time arrives for his elderly crewmembers to retire, Mr. Wong has set his eyes on returning to the U.S., and even beyond.
“I will go very easily [to New York City]. I escaped China [once], I can escape Hong Kong. I can go anywhere, Japan, Canada, Germany, [the] Netherlands, so many [countries]. I have so many friends [across the world] who want me to make them food, Cantonese food.”
Since 1997, Mr. Wong has been an American citizen; so too have his two sons, one of whom graduated from Bentley University in Boston and another who is studying at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Mr. Wong met his wife at 15 years old when he first arrived in Hong Kong in 1979, eloping several years later. A Hong Konger born-and-bred, his wife gained U.S. citizenship when she studied for her undergraduate in Tennessee at Vanderbilt University in the late 1980s. The pair traveled to the States in 1997 to give birth to their first son to obtain a passport for their child and himself.
“The last time I went [to the U.S.] was 1998. I planned to go in May  but flights got canceled.”
Neither the rumours nor anonymity of Mr. Wong’s has dissuaded or reduced the cultural impact and significance of his HK$80 nighttime buffet deal.
The restaurant has earned a local fame and fortune among the incoming waves of Hong Kong’s exchange student community, with fresh faces entering quarterly and yearly. It is the first stop of the itineraries of many who venture to the city for a raucous time studying and partying and the one restaurant that many may continue to frequent until they leave.
“I love doing this and I don’t want to stop,” Mr. Wong tells The Beat Asia. “I love the students and my restaurant.”
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