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Hidden Hong Kong: A look into Hong Kong’s fast-food chains

By Celia Lee 12 January 2023

Header image courtesy of Café de Coral

Hong Kong has no shortage of fast-food restaurants and eateries. Being a fast-paced city, you can always find people of all kinds looking for a quick meal in the middle of the day, whether they be workers, students, or otherwise. When it comes to fast food, global franchises usually come to mind, such as McDonald’s, KFC, and Subway. But these restaurants are not strictly speaking “Hong Kong” fast-food chains, just imported brands.

Hong Kong fast food finds a kinship with casual establishments like the historic cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; “tea restaurant”) or dai pai dong (大排檔; open-air food stall) but these are not the only ways in which local fast-food culture has developed in the last century. Let’s take a look at the history of popular Hong Kong fast-food chains and their unique identities.

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Hong Kong-style international cuisine

While Cantonese and other regional Chinese cuisines have made an impact on Hong Kong cuisine, these are not the only influences that make up the unique food DNA of the city. Due to Hong Kong’s history as a British colony and an international port of commerce, you can find traces of a variety of Asian and Western fare in its cuisine.

From Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, Hokkien, and Shanghainese to Japanese, Korean, Thai, Singaporean, Malay, Indian, and Western delicacies, this large pool of culinary influences represent the city as an international meeting place for people and their food. One place you can find Hong Kong iterations of these cuisines is in its fast-food restaurants.

Examples include the traditional British fry-up, which is transformed into a more familiar counterpart in Hong Kong fast-food restaurants. Out of all ingredients usually present in a fry-up, only the eggs, toast, and protein (usually in the form of a fried fish fillet, beef fillet, or chicken chop) remain. New to the combo is a bowl of noodles, Hong Kong-style macaroni in a tomato broth, or porridge, and a drink to complete the meal.

When it comes to curry, there is a myriad of varieties out there. And of course, the popular dish also grabbed the appetites of Hong Kong inhabitants many years ago, evolving from their South Asian speciality to the Hong Kong-style curry we now know.

Noodles are part and parcel of Asian cuisines, and Singaporean fried vermicelli is certainly one of the staples of Hong Kong-style food. Contrary to what the name of the dish might suggest, the recipe is a Cantonese creation but it shares an association with a Malaysian stir-fried noodle dish. No matter the point of origin of the dish, you can find it in most local fast-food chains in Hong Kong and also in cha chaan tengs.

Hong Kong’s home-grown fast-food chains

We’ve spoken an awful lot about the type of food you can expect to find listed on the menus (colloquially called 水牌; seoi2 paai4; “water sign”) at local Hong Kong fast-food chains, but where would you find them in the city? We have selected four fast-food chains that we think best represent home-grown fast-food culture below.

Café de Coral

Beginning in 1968, Café de Coral has grown from a restaurant chain to a massive food and beverage group. Now with 10 brands operating across Hong Kong, Café de Coral touches the lives of local people in many ways. The originating brand of the same name, Café de Coral, is one of the fast-food brands that operate under the group.

大家樂 (daai6 gaa1 lok6; “happiness for all”), as the fast-food chain is known locally, champions the cultural understanding of eating as a way of connection. It started as a humble family restaurant in Causeway Bay, but you can now find outlets of Café de Coral almost everywhere you go across the city. Having serviced Hong Kong families for well over half a decade, Café de Coral has become known as the “Hongkongers’ canteen.”

The restaurant has undergone numerous changes throughout the twenty-first century, including the omission of its smoking areas under the 2007 smoking ban, but two things stayed the same: its iconic logo and the meaning of the restaurant to local people.

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Fairwood

Founded in 1972, Fairwood has now become one of the biggest local fast-food chains in the city. Its Chinese name, 大快活 (daai6 faai3 wut6; “big cheerfulness”), bears witness to the company’s commitment to offering casual Hong Kong cuisine at affordable prices.

In recent years, Fairwood has introduced various campaigns and menu items that keep the diner’s well-being in mind. Its “No MSG” series was launched as early as 2008 to promote healthier eating, followed by the “Tasty & Green” series for vegetarian customers, and the “Wholesome Delight” menu, which pairs healthy red rice with health-conscious dishes.

Fairwood’s iconic, orange “jumping man” logo can be recognised immediately from afar, but it did not originate from the founding of the brand. When the first outlet opened on Chung On Street, Tsuen Wan, the restaurant was emblazoned with the face of a smiling clown with the restaurant’s name written under its chin. Missing also was the signature shade of orange so closely associated with the brand today. Only after the company’s 2003 brand revamp did the “jumping man” come about, intended to resemble the first Chinese character of the restaurant’s name, “大”. It is also from this point on that the orange palette was introduced.

Photo: Chanaoide Gunhario (via Wikimedia Commons)

Tai Hing

Tai Hing opened in 1989 in Sai Wan Ho as a siu mei (燒味; siu1 mei6; honey barbequed meats) speciality restaurant. Although siu mei remains the main attraction at Tai Hing, the restaurant has developed into a casual dining concept over the years.

You can find classic cha chaan teng-style dishes at Tai Hing during lunch and dinner service, and the restaurant itself is positioned as a more comfortable and modern iteration of the classic cha chaan teng, offering food at slightly higher, yet still affordable, price.

Its signature siu mei is prepared in-store every day, while the “five-star roast pork” is prepared in Tai Hing’s food factory three times a day and delivered to each store based on demand to ensure the freshest and best quality when served.

Tam Jai

In recent years, the Hong Kong fast-food culinary scene saw the popularisation of mixian noodles. One of the most popular places for mixian in Hong Kong has got to be Tam Jai. First opened in 1996, Tam Jai has now become a city-wide franchise, with Tam Jai Yunnan Mixian and Tam Jai Sam Gor Mixian operating under the same brand.

Serving up Hong Kong-style Yunnan mixian, Tam Jai is certainly a fast-food restaurant of choice amongst working locals and students in the city. Ordering at Tam Jai is easy—simply choose your noodle base, soup base, spiciness level, and your toppings.

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Photo: Melanie Lim (via Unsplash)

When you enter fast-food restaurants like Fairwood and Café de Coral, you will find dishes that can be easily made at home. Even at Tai Hing, the dishes offered are not dissimilar to those from a cha chaan teng. So what is the enduring appeal of these fast-food chains?

As time goes on, and as cha chaan tengs and dai pai dongs recede from the Hong Kong casual dining scene, these fast-food restaurants become places in which the younger generation grows up. In turn, the memories this generation associates with their upbringing in Hong Kong is unlikely linked to dining in traditional eateries as their parents would have done, but in the modernised, yet no less authentic, fast-food franchises across the city.

Fast food is accessible to all, no matter where you are in the world. With their affordable prices and informal settings, these restaurants are often the place of choice for a quick meal between friends, an easy lunch or dinner, or even a casual family meal.

On weekends, you will often see young families packing Fairwood and Café de Coral outlets as parents and their kids share a meal before their tutoring sessions or extracurricular activities on Saturday mornings, and before church on Sundays. During weekdays, you can expect to find secondary school students crowding Tam Jai for a quick lunch. In the evenings, especially on public holidays, Tai Hing is usually packed with families dining out in celebration, the restaurant made lively with chatter and laughs.

Despite the ever-changing dining landscape of the city, Hong Kong’s fast-food chains will continue to hold a special place in the hearts of Hong Kong people not mainly for the food, but also for the fond memories they have made whilst dining there.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.

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