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    Heritage on Ice: How young Hongkongers saved a bing sutt
    Meet the 50-year-old Tai On Coffee and Tea Shop, saved from closure by a group of young Hongkongers determined to preserve a piece of history.

    If you’re looking for an authentic dose of Hong Kong nostalgia, pay a trip to one of the city’s traditional bing sutt cafés. Literally “ice room” in Cantonese, these humble restaurants proliferated in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, serving deliciously refreshing cold drinks and western-style snacks to working class Hongkongers – not to mention providing an air-conditioned respite from the summer heat.  

    Portable radio

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Man at Tai On Bing Sutt

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Think freshly baked egg tarts, pineapple buns served with a thick slab of cold butter, iced milk tea or a chilled red bean ice: these light meals can all found in a bustling diner straight out of a Wong Kar-wai film. As rents go up and owners retire, bing sutts are becoming increasingly rare – but at the Tai On Coffee and Tea Shop in the historical neighbourhood of Yau Ma Tei, a group of young Hongkongers is helping to keep a little slice of heritage alive. 

    Food at Tai On Bing Sutt

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Embracing 70's style

    Opened in 1969 right next to the Yau Ma Tei Theatre – another historical landmark – Tai On sat alongside a number of bing sutts which flourished on Canton Road in the 1970s. Today, Tai On is the last one standing – and it almost didn’t make it. The ground floor bing sutt was set to shutter its doors in 2022 when the owner moved abroad, until Tiffany Yeung Chiu-yi stepped in. A passionate advocate for local heritage, Yeung used to lead walking tours of the city’s old neighbourhoods, before taking over the restaurant in March last year.

    Exterior of Tai On Bing Sutt

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Woman working in Tai on bing sutt

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Yeung has kept everything intact. From the retro patterned wallpaper and mottled storefront signs to the steel shutters and even the ancient, water-cooled air-conditioner, entering Tai On is like stepping back in time. Yeung certainly has an eye for detail: the waiters’ uniforms, the takeaway bags and even the order sheets are straight out of the ’70s.  

    Clock, Tai on bing sutt

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Chair legs on retro floor Tai on bing sutt

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Retro glass bottles Tai on bing sutt

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    "We didn't want to take over the space as if we were not part of the community. Our intention is to maintain and continue Tai On's heritage, not to turn it into something new," she says.

    Old-school snacking, with a new-school twist

    At Tai On, the only real changes you’ll find are on the menu itself. In order to appeal to the younger generation, Yeung and her team have added a few modern twists to well-loved bing sutt classics.

    “Our goal is to transform Tai On into a Hong Kong-style café that celebrates authentic local culture,” says manager Timothy Fung Poon. 

    Coffee

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Booth, Tai on bing sutt

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    For instance, Tai On embraces the city’s thriving coffee culture by refreshing the traditional bing sutt drinks list. Their speciality coffee menu features an egg tart-flavoured pour-over. Classic lemon tea gets a refresh too: Tai On has conceived a sparkling version of the classic drink, topped up with soda water. Takeout customers are encouraged to return their reusable glass bottles of cold brew for a HK$2 refund.  

    Egg tart and milk coffee

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    2 dollar coin against glass bottle

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    “It’s a memory of the good old days,” says Poon. 

    The food menu offers a combination of traditional and contemporary dishes, mostly light bites and desserts. The signature Tai On Smoked Duck Breast Pineapple Bun combines the classic Hong Kong bun with Peking duck, stuffed with hoisin sauce, cucumber and leek. 

    Tai On’s egg tarts come fresh out of the oven at 10am every day, and the team has concocted a number of original flavours: think milk tea, sago pudding and yuen yeung, the uniquely Hong Kong blend of rich coffee and strong tea. For true fusion food, Poon recommends the signature fried chicken with a rich and tangy lemon sauce – served with pasta, not rice. 

    Egg tarts

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Bowl of noodles

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Paper bag next to baked goods

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Tai On champions Hong Kong culture and heritage beyond the menu. It recently hosted a Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting exhibition, and will be showcasing a display of tattoo photography until mid- May. Ahead of the Dragon Boat Festival in June, visitors can sign up for a zongzi (sticky rice dumpling) workshop.  

    Poster on wall

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    "We hope that Tai On will become a place where multiple generations can collaborate and share knowledge, and a place for travellers to soak up Hong Kong’s historic and contemporary culture,” says Poon. A place for everyone – that’s what the bing sutt has always been. 

    Team of Tai on

    Credit: Elvis Chung

    Hero image: Elvis Chung

    G/F, 830 Canton Road, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon, Hong Kong, 2385 2774 

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