The penultimate night in business for Hong Kong’s iconic Tung Po Kitchen was just like any other. Buckets of Blue Girl beer were perched on every other table, the bass riff to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean pulsed in the background, and the restaurant’s chatty manager Robby Cheung took selfies with his customers.

Tung Po Kitchen. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Located in Java Road Cooked Food Centre in North Point, the decades-old eatery was only informed of its untimely fate last Friday, when the Food and Environmental Health Department (FEHD) said it had violated tenancy terms and would need to move out in seven days.

Diners packed the house on Thursday ahead of its closure the following day, downing one last beer from the blue and white bowls – a Tung Po tradition – as they reminisced about countless birthdays and milestone celebrations spent at the restaurant. Waiters, holding trays of steaming food fresh from the kitchen, snaked between crowded tables and dodged reporters who had come to document its final moments.

Customers take photos of their food at Tung Po Kitchen. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Tung Po Kitchen opened in 1992, back when the cooked food centre did not even have air conditioning installed. Industrial fans hang from the white-tiled walls, covered by old movie posters from a bygone era.

“Come November, we would have been in business for 30 years,” Cheung told reporters. “We’ll think about moving elsewhere, but let’s see. Rent is expensive nowadays.”

A kitchen worker cuts apart a chicken at Tung Po Kitchen. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

New Dim Siu Yi, an offshoot of Tung Po, opened in North Point in 2020. But Cheung said he is no longer affiliated with it.

More than food

Razor clams, deep-fried “wind sand” chicken and squid ink pasta are just some of the signature dishes at Tung Po Kitchen – but many customers agree that the restaurant is as much about the animated atmosphere as it is about the food, the former only enhanced by Cheung’s antics.

Robby Cheung, the manager of Tung Po Kitchen, takes a selfie with customers. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

A regular customer surnamed Yeung – who arrived at Tung Po at 4:30 p.m. to secure a table on Thursday, an hour before they normally open – said there was “no place quite like it.”

“One time I came with friends, and Robby asked us what we wanted to eat,” he said, referring to the manager by his first name. “We looked at the menu for no more than a few dozen seconds before Robby snapped jokingly, saying, ‘Ugh! You lot are so troublesome. I’ll pick for you.'”

“Our dinner that night was like omakase,” Yeung added, referring to a high-end Japanese meal where the menu is decided by the chef. “All we did was order bottles and bottles of beer.”

Robby Cheung, the manager of Tung Po Kitchen, teaches a customer how to open a beer bottle using a chopstick. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Other customers recalled being impressed by Cheung’s dance moves. The manager, in his early 60s, is known for breaking into splits and teaching diners how to do the moonwalk in between taking orders from tables.

Cheung also often demonstrates his unconventional beer bottle-opening skills, placing a chopstick beneath the rim of the cap and whacking the bottom of it with the heel of his palm – a trick he has passed on to many patrons.

“Everybody knows that at Tung Po, before 8:30 p.m., it’s dinner time. After 8:30 p.m., it’s party time,” said kitchen worker Lai Gor, who had worked at Tung Po for 14 years.

Lai Gor, a kitchen worker at Tung Po Kitchen. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Mrs. Kwok, also a regular, arrived at Tung Po late on Thursday afternoon – but not to eat. Having failed to make a booking on the phone for dinner with friends on Friday, she decided to come to the restaurant in person and speak to the staff.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a child. Basically any occasion, like for birthdays or other gatherings, my family would book a table here,” she said. “We still eat here. I’m sad to see it close.”

Responding to an enquiry from HKFP, the FEHD confirmed that Tung Po Kitchen had violated its tenancy agreement, which states that tenants “shall carry on business as a sole proprietor” and cannot sublet stalls to others.

The restaurant can launch an appeal within 30 days, but Cheung said doing so would be “useless.”

Two customers drink beer out of Tung Po’s traditional beer bowls. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“We would definitely lose,” he said, adding that he did not want to pay more for a lawyer than he already had.

Until next time

Amid the clinking of beer bowls and alternating playlists of 90s Cantonese classics and Western pop, three customers were engrossed in something else entirely: their drawing pads, on which they were sketching the scene in the restaurant.

An artist does a watercolour sketch of Tung Po Kitchen. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Dipping her thin paintbrush into red paint, Duck Tam wrote the Chinese characters for “Tung Po Kitchen” on her sketchpad. Next to her, her friend – who asked to be identified by her nickname, Van – had captured the little details of the celebrated eatery, including the cobalt blue plastic stools and the metal shelves outside the kitchen.

“We want to remember this special place,” Van told HKFP.

For Tung Po’s loyal diners, the closure of the iconic, Tourism Board-recommended restaurant represents another loss to Hong Kong. It follows the shutdown of the well-known Mido Cafe in Mong Kok and Central’s Lin Heung Tea House, which had been around for more than 100 years, in July and August, respectively.

Robby Cheung, the manager of Tung Po Kitchen, downs a bowl of beer. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Cheung, however, has accepted the reality and is not overly sentimental about the loss. As he made the rounds of the restaurant on his second-to-last night of work at Tung Po Kitchen, he stopped at tables and topped up customers’ beer bowls, pouring one for himself too.

Clinking bowls with the table’s customers, Cheung proceeded to chug his beer in seconds before assertively slamming his bowl down. “If it’s meant to be, we’ll see each other again,” he told them.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.