Nestled in a quaint Sha Tin village that overlooks trains rumbling along their tracks, Hong Kong’s historic Lung Wah Hotel has weathered many storms.

Lung Wah Hotel
Lung Wah Hotel. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

It survived the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, when part of the site served as a base for soldiers. Decades later, it was forced to halt its hotel operations after the government said it had breached fire safety regulations, leaving only its restaurant. And when SARS hit in 2003, Lung Wah had to rethink how to continue serving its signature dish – roasted pigeons – as authorities banned the live slaughter of poultry.

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, almost proved too much. Mary Chung, the managing director of Lung Wah Hotel, said she had to sell a home six months ago because she owed her staff several months’ salary. Sensing that the 84-year-old business was on its last legs, property giants approached Chung and offered to buy the land for hefty sums.

“We considered the offers as a last resort, in case we were in really dire straits and couldn’t make it,” Chung told HKFP on an October afternoon as she took a break from helping out in the kitchen.

Lung Wah Hotel
Diners at Lung Wah Hotel. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“It would be quite lucrative [for companies] to build luxury high-rises here. Big pieces of land like this in Sha Tin are rare,” she said.

Thankfully for Lung Wah, it has not reached that point, yet. Instead, the Hong Kong icon is pressing on in a city that has seen a number of its oldest, most recognised dining establishments collapse recently under Covid-19.

Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen, which shut indefinitely in March 2020, was towed away in June after failing to find a new operator before capsizing in the South China Sea. The century-old Lin Heung Tea House in Central closed in August, saying it was “defeated by the pandemic.”

Covid woes

When HKFP visited during a mid-week lunchtime, soon after the government relaxed Covid-related social distancing rules to allow 12 people per table, Lung Wah Hotel’s main dining room was around three-quarters occupied. Its round tables teemed with roasted pigeon, fried noodles, stir-fry vegetables and other traditional Cantonese-style dishes, and the light chatter of customers filled the air.

Lung Wah Hotel
A roasted pigeon at Lung Wah Hotel. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Two other dining rooms, however, lay unused. Their lights remained on for customers to wander in and take photos of the faded Bruce Lee printouts that decorate their walls; the late actor was said to have been a frequent visitor of the restaurant.

Founded in 1938 by the wealthy Chung family, Lung Wah Hotel is now in the hands of the second generation. Mary, who is married to the 92-year-old heir Chung Kam-ling, shuttles between Switzerland, where her husband lives, and Hong Kong, overseeing the restaurant’s operations when she is in the city.

The space also has a garden with a water feature, a small children’s playground, event spaces and a miniature menagerie, home to two peacocks and a giant turtle.

Lung Wah Hotel
A worker clears the tables at Lung Wah Hotel, where print-outs of Bruce Lee decorate the walls. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Armando Lai, the restaurant’s spokesperson, told HKFP that Lung Wah Hotel had been struggling since mid-2019, when protests against a proposed amendment to the city’s extradition bill broke out. Sha Tin became a flashpoint during the months-long unrest, deterring customers from coming and companies from holding their annual dinners there.

Business nosedived further as Covid-19 hit. “During some lunchtimes, there were literally no customers,” he said. “The worst months was when the government banned dining in after 6 p.m.”

Lung Wah Hotel
A peacock in Lung Wah Hotel’s mini zoo. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Food delivery offered a lifeline for many of Hong Kong’s floundering restaurants, but Lai said Lung Wah Hotel did not have much success on delivery platforms, perhaps due to its higher price points. The restaurant’s clientele also skews older and are less likely to be regular users of those platforms.

Its remote location – uphill and in a village almost 20 minutes’ walk from Sha Tin MTR station – also made it an unwelcome choice for takeaway, he added.

Lai said the restaurant slashed its full-time staff count by more than half – retaining a bare bones team of waiters, kitchen workers and a head cleaner – while some workers in their sixties and seventies retired. Everybody else is part-time, coming and going per the needs of the restaurant.

Lung Wah Hotel
A woman poses for a photo in a garden at Lung Wah Hotel. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“Our head pigeon chef was put on unpaid indefinite leave,” Lai said. “We still haven’t asked him to come back.”

The road ahead

After almost three years of strict Covid-19 restrictions, Hong Kong is picking up the pace in rolling back some of its strictest measures. The city’s authorities have stressed that Hong Kong is on a “path to normalcy,” and Chief Executive John Lee is expected to announce a clearer roadmap in his policy address on Wednesday.

Over the past month, the government has axed the mandatory hotel quarantine rule for incoming travellers, allowed cruises to restart and ended a ban on live music in bars that had been in place for over two years.

Lung Wah Hotel
A photo in Lung Wah Hotel of the younger Chung Kam-ling and his late mother. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Chung and Lai believe that after riding out on-again, off-again evening dine-in bans and a cap on two, four, eight and now 12 diners per table since Covid-19 began, the restaurant’s darkest days are behind them.

Business has taken a positive turn since groups of 12 have been allowed to eat together, they said, while recent media reports on the restaurant’s challenges during the pandemic have given them a much needed publicity boost.

“The restaurant is hiring some full-time staff again now that it’s getting busier,” Lai said. He added that as measures are relaxed further, Lung Wah Hotel hoped to bring back some of the activities it used to hold before 2019 – including tours of the restaurant’s farm around 10 minutes’ walk away and workshops about cultural preservation.

Lung Wah Hotel
Lung Wah Hotel. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Chung said that during the toughest months, the offers from development companies were tempting. “Wouldn’t it be great? We’d have this big sum of money and we wouldn’t have to struggle anymore.”

“But are always making new memories here. There’s so much we would miss,” she said.

“Like just yesterday, there were some deaf customers who came who were non-verbal,” she added. “They kept making hand gestures and we thought they wanted to take pictures.”

“Then we realised they were giving us a thumb up, telling us to fight on. This encouragement means a lot.”

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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.