Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. In this installment, we have a chat with Kamlai Moungchoo, owner of The Spice House, about her labours of love and the people that inspired her along the way. Kamlai, also known as Kik, has been running this beloved neighbourhood Thai restaurant on Stone Nullah Lane for more than 10 years, which has a second location on Amoy Street. She recently opened a new venture on Tai Wong Street East called Kin Kao, a casual Thai eatery specialising in one plate meals.
“My dad is from the North, Chiang Rai, but my mom is from Central Thailand. I grew up between North and Central Thailand. I came to Hong Kong in 1988, for work. You were probably not even born yet.
“The Spice House has been here for a long time. It used to be a grocery shop, almost 20 years ago. Back then, I was working at the Thai restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental and ran my own little grocery store at the Wan Chai market on Stone Nullah Lane. I sold food and groceries at the same time, which is why it’s called The Spice House. It was a small shop, and we would have a pot of noodles bubbling at the back as well as a few fried things, made from my leftover stock. That’s it, that’s how we started. Slowly, I realised that people were eating more of the food than buying groceries. That was when I decided to switch over fully to a restaurant. This one [on Stone Nullah Lane] is the old one, moved from the market, the one on Amoy Street is the second one. Then we opened a little takeaway corner, and then Kin Kao six months ago.
“I focus on local people. The working people—they don’t know what to eat. A lot of times they come by themselves, so at Kin Kao you can order one pork knuckle rice, one chicken rice, one bowl of noodles; you don’t need to come in a gathering or order a lot.”
“Hong Kong people are creatures of habit. We get a lot of regulars. They are happy if they can walk into a restaurant and the staff can already know what they want to eat.
“I’ve worked at high-end restaurants, and I think a simple person like me cannot afford to go there every week, or even once a month. I want something that is simple, a place people can come twice a week, three times a week, to have good food. That’s why I want my restaurants to be simple, clean, and fresh. People can come every day if they want to. That’s Kin Kao, and the defining characteristic of all of my restaurants.”
“Back when The Spice House was still a grocery store, the people from the Sanitary Department would come and tell me off for selling food in front of my store, because I did not have a license. Many times, they came.
“Once, I had to pay a fine. After three or four times, I realised it was the same lady that came, I think her name was Miss Lee. She said to me, “I’ve told you off for selling cooked food so many times, why are you still doing it?” I asked her what I can do, because I’m responsible for the livelihood of so many people. She told me, “It’s okay, I can help you set up a license.” I told her I didn’t know how to do it, so she asked her boss for guidelines on how to do it.
“I got my food factory license, thanks to Miss Lee. From enemy to friend. I don’t know where she is now, I lost her contact two or three years earlier. She moved somewhere because she cannot stay in the same area for her work. She used to call me to ask how I am, to tell me she got married and had a baby, or to ask how to make tom yum goong. She’s a nice person, and I wouldn’t be here today if not for her.”
“I had a boss, an Englishman, and he was very strict. Every table, if you clean the top, you have to clean underneath. He’s fussy about the food, too, and very vocal about it. I kind of like it, you know, because this is the right way to do it. He’s just the manager, he could have done whatever, but he didn’t. He did it so the owner didn’t have to do that. At that time, I really didn’t like him, because he was so demanding. But afterwards, when I’m starting my own business, I think of him. I try to have his attitude towards running a restaurant, but in a different way, no shouting. It’s not there anymore, but the restaurant used to be on the corner of Mosque Junction, called Phuket, a long time ago. It used to be a garage. I haven’t been there in 20 years, but that was the first restaurant I worked at.”
“There are always going to be problems, but I like to focus on the good things more than the bad things. I have more time now, so I use it to improve the quality of my food and the service. A lot of people I know complain too much. They don’t reflect. You should always look within yourself, and reflect. If you're doing good things, whatever happens, people will come.”