Meet the people behind the rise of ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong culture in the GTA

The Hong Kong-style diner, or cha chaan teng, has existed for decades throughout the Greater Toronto Area, spurred by the influx of immigrants in the ’80s and ’90s, but in recent years I’ve noticed another wave of new spots, this time leaning harder into the retro atmosphere of that era.

Think less of the red lanterns and ornate gates of Chinatowns, and more of the mah-jong parlours, the neon signs that illuminated the busy streets, and posters for movies and television shows kids who grew up in Hong Kong watched.

To find out more I reached out to Alan Wu, a Stouffville resident who’s gone viral among Chinese netizens across North America since his car hit the road in April. It’s not a flashy sports car or a classic car, but rather a Hong Kong taxi.

“The taxi is the icon of Hong Kong. It’s the consistent thing among the chaos of that city,” said Wu, 45, who works a day job in real estate.

Wu takes the taxi out for spins and parks it outside Hong Kong diners, much to the delight of customers and restaurant workers who often rush out to the parking lot to take selfies. (Fans follow his account @HKTaxiToronto to get updates on where the cab will be next.)

The taxi, for Wu, is symbolic of growing up during what he calls a golden age of Hong Kong pop culture. For some, the yearning for nostalgia from this period of Hong Kong might be an escape from the current turmoil between Hong Kong and China, but Wu said his car isn’t meant to be a political statement.

“It’s just for fun and to relive a bit of history that a lot of people here share,” he said. “It was a time when we had movies like ‘God of Gamblers’ and people around the world knew about Hong Kong cinema. You don’t have that as much now.”

Wu purchased the car, which was made to look like a taxi for film shoots (it made an appearance in “Pacific Rim”), from a Pickering dealership for $10,000 earlier this year. He spent another $2,000 on upgrading the engine and adding decals and props.

He rents out the car for photo shoots and events, but don’t bother asking to get behind the wheel: his insurance won’t cover it. And no, you can’t hire him like a taxi or Uber.

“In every movie or TV series, you’ll see the cabs in the background,” said Wu, who was born in Toronto and grew up watching Hong Kong cinema and learning Cantonese with his aunts while living in downtown Chinatown.

Wu took me to meet the owners of Cafe De Hong Kong, which opened about a year ago at First Markham Centre, a plaza just south of First Markham Place in Markham. Since opening, it’s not unusual for customers to have an hour-long wait to get in.

A line forms before it opens since the place doesn’t take reservations. While most restaurants see a post-lunch lull, here, that’s when it’s most busy.

The afternoon tea crowd comes in for cups of milk tea and French toast with a salted egg yolk that spills from the centre, or a basket of squid tentacles to gnaw on.

Pineapple buns are a bakery staple, but here they follow the newer trend of treating them like burger buns: split open and piled high with juicy brined fried chicken. The precariously stacked burgers are primed to get Instagram likes, but they’re also a strong contender for one of the best tasting chicken sandwiches that popped up in the GTA during the pandemic.

The look of the place also leans hard into the retro atmosphere reminiscent of the ’80s and ’90s-era childhoods of its owners.

“We wanted to bring the experience of our collective memories to the customers,” said co-owner Kenny Lam, 37, who moved to Toronto when he was 13. “We have posters of old movies and ads for things that don’t exist anymore. It’s basically my childhood memories.”

Lam and co-owner Henry Chan, 35, met while working at a long-term-care home and got the idea to open their take on a cha chaan teng that served the classics their parents ate such as baked rice casseroles and satay beef with instant noodles.

After paying our bill, one of the servers, Jim Chan, comes out to inspect the cab and gets Lam to take a picture of himself in front of it. Chan told us he used to drive a cab just like this in Hong Kong.

I hop back into Wu’s taxi and we head to another recently opened diner where he is a regular: Cha Kee, also in Markham.

Cha Kee is best known for its Cantonese-scrambled egg dishes, or smooth scrambled eggs as they’re called on the menu.

Think silky and never dry, slightly jiggly and perfectly fluffy scrambled eggs with barbecue pork or shrimp over steamed rice (my mother prepares it the same way). Also worth getting is the scrambled eggs with steamed rice and a pork chop with ginger-scallion oil, a three-ingredient condiment that goes with everything as it brings a zing of salty, spicy and herbal flavours.

The food at these diners is meant to be simple and something that could, in theory, be replicated at home. My mom tells me that because apartments in Hong Kong are notoriously tiny, it’s just easier to eat out. And when you’re dining out every day, you want foods that are easily prepared rather than something you’d save for the weekend or a celebration.

The cuisine is also heavily influenced by more than a century of British rule, and thus, afternoon tea is just as much a staple. But afternoon tea in Hong Kong is heftier: a fried chicken leg with fries is a common sight. Cha Kee’s is light on the grease and heavy on the crispiness.

Curry fish balls, a ubiquitous Hong Kong street food particularly popular with students (my parents met as teens at a curry fish ball cart), come by the bowls here.

Owner Jacky Lau moved from Hong Kong to the GTA when he was 15 in 1995. He opened the first Cha Kee in Richmond Hill in 2019, followed by the Markham location in May 2020.

Compared to Cafe De Hong Kong, Cha Kee has more subtle retro decor elements. For example, at the entrance are two rows of vintage metal letterboxes that are also from a bygone era of Hong Kong.

“We miss Hong Kong a lot and it’s getting more tough to go back because of the pandemic. Even when you go back, you might not be able to get those feelings back … so we try our best to bring the memories back,” said Lau, adding that Hong Kong culture, from food to pop stars, spreads a lot faster online because of social media and that is driving the demand.

“I don’t think my parents would have the energy to do this,” he said, referring to sourcing the old letterboxes or designing the takeout menu to reference Chinese schoolbooks. “The younger generations have either experienced a bit of it, or never experienced it, and wanted to relive how good it was or keep it going as long as possible.

“The sprit of the cha chaan teng is that you make friends there,” Lau added. “That’s what we’re trying to create here. Customers might become our friends and not only come back because of the food, but the relationship we’re building with them.”

Read more about: