Hong Kong (CNN) – A giant blue and red neon sign hangs over a narrow street on Nathan Road in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei area.
Its five bold Chinese characters read “Tai Ping Koon Restaurant” – the famous name of China’s first “Western” Chinese restaurant. Today, it is one of the longest-running family restaurants in Hong Kong.
Opened in Guangzhou in 1860, Tai Ping Koon had two branches in the Chinese city before moving to Hong Kong during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. (The family relocated due to conflict and political instability, and now has four remaining locations around Hong Kong.)
The Yau Ma Tei branch, opened in 1964, is almost always packed with local office workers and tai tais during weekday lunch hours. Wood panelling, lace-voile-covered windows and leather cockpit seats exude vintage elegance.
Most diners come for one dish in particular: TPK Style Roasted Pigeon. A waiter in a bow tie brings it to the table with an unlikely accessory: plastic gloves. Because there’s no better way to get a crispy, juicy bird than with your hands.
But as popular as the dish is, few pigeon-eating diners know that this palm-sized piece of bird changed the course of modern Chinese history.
The birth of soy sauce in Western cuisine
Andrew Chui is the fifth generation owner of the Tai Ping Koon restaurant chain, one of the oldest family restaurants in Hong Kong.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
Andrew Chui, the fifth-generation owner of the Tai Ping Koon restaurant chain, spent seven years visiting libraries around the world to learn more about his family’s origins.
“Tai Ping Koon’s history is significant not only because it has been here 160 years, it is also part of the country’s history and has influenced Cantonese food culture,” says Chui, who has written two books about his family’s business.
Tai Ping Koon’s stories are from the years after the First Opium War (1839-1842), when Westerners opened treaty ports for trade in Canton – now Guangzhou. Foreign businesses were allowed to operate in these ports, including restaurants.
Always run by a foreign chef and catering to foreign sailing merchants, these eateries hired local chefs to help in the kitchens.
“My great-great-grandfather was hired as a chef at Chui Lo, a restaurant within an American trading company. So he became one of the first Chinese chefs to be trained in Western cuisine,” says Chui.
Chui spent seven years visiting libraries around the world to find stories and information about his family’s business.
Or Ping Koon
But the work did not last. After a disagreement with the trading company’s agent, Chui Lo-ko quit.
With no money, he had to figure out how to make a living using the only skill he had: cooking Western food.
“It was a problem,” added Chui.
“The Chinese back then didn’t like western food; most of them didn’t even know what western food was.”
Chui Lo Ko came up with an idea to cook beef steak with soy sauce and collect the food on the street.
Introducing an unfamiliar ingredient with a familiar flavor, his fusion dish was an instant hit with local Chinese.
Once he had saved enough money, Chui Lo Ko opened the first Tai Ping Koon (meaning “house of peace and stability”) restaurant in 1860, thanks to its location on Tai Ping Sa Street in Canton.
This would mark the beginning of what is now known as soy sauce in the West, a cooking style that has influenced Cantonese food culture for over a century.
Roast pigeon power game
Tai Ping Koon’s famous roasted pigeon.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
It was said that Soong’s eldest sister, Soong Ai-ling, and her husband Kung Hsiang-hsi, one of China’s richest men and a leader of the Kuomintang party, loved Tai Ping Koon’s roasted pigeon so much that they organized a special. Party leader Chiang Kai-shek’s party and then-wife Chen Jieru’s banquet.
But what Chiang and Chen didn’t know was that there was apparently a hidden agenda to the party.
Sitting strategically next to Chiang was Soong’s younger sister, the charismatic Soong Mei-ling.
Squabs were not a common ingredient in China back then. So when roast pigeon, a relatively new European-inspired dish, was served, Soong Mei-ling took it upon herself to teach guests how to taste the dish by hand.
Legend has it that Chiang Soong fell in love with his younger sister after the banquet. In 1927, he divorced his three wives and proposed to Soong.
Chiang’s ex-wife Chen later recounted the episode in her memoir, saying the pigeon dinner was actually a scheme to “get rid of her husband.”
Mysterious (non) weddings
The Yau Ma Tei branch is one of the remaining Tai Ping Koon restaurants.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
The pigeon dinner was one of the interesting moments that Chui discovered during his research on Tai Ping Koo.
“These stories were passed down from generation to generation without much detail. I heard that Chiang and Soong returned to Tai Ping Koon for roasted pigeon in the 1930s because they were associated with the dish. But was it true?
“It was like police work. I have to be careful not to make up a story. I want to prove that the story is about Tai Ping Koon,” says Chui.
Chui visited all the public libraries and universities around Hong Kong. And when those didn’t give enough results, he flew to various libraries in the US, from Stanford to Chicago, to explore the massive collections devoted to Asia.
“I read every book. I mean every book. You have to be very passionate or crazy to do that for seven years. I’m crazy with passion,” says Chui.
Finally, he found loads of news and anecdotes in books that allowed him to connect the dots.
There were also some unsolved mysteries, such as the supposed marriage of former Vietnamese Prime Minister Ho Chi Minh and Chinese midwife Tang Tuyet Minh. It was He said it would take place in 1926 at a Tai Ping Koon restaurant in Guangzhou. However, the Vietnamese leader never officially married.
Now closed, Guangzhou’s Wing Hon Road located in the center of Tai Ping Koon was frequented by many politicians in the past.
Or Ping Koon
In 1925, the local media spread the news that Zhou and Deng had arranged Tai Ping Koon’s wedding. As it was considered a high-class restaurant, it would have been inappropriate for the Communist Party leader to hold the event there.
The rumor was so widespread that Zhou and Deng later tried several times to clarify that they had not planned a ceremony at Tai Ping Koon. It was a simple dinner treated by a well-meaning friend, knowing that the cash-strapped couple did not have a proper celebration for their relationship.
“Even today, no one knows the truth. There were people who believed either side of the story,” says Chui, pulling out two-inch-thick binders filled with news clippings.
“Part of Hong Kong’s history and food culture”
Photo of Andrew Chui’s grandfather, Chui Hon Chor, taken at the Yau Ma Tei branch.
Or Ping Koon
Growing up with a family restaurant so steeped in history, Chui says it’s a great honor but also very stressful, especially since Covid-19 has put a strain on the business over the past two years.
“When people do business, they keep going if they make money. If they can’t make money, they can close. For me, closing is not an option,” says Chui.
“It’s part of Hong Kong’s history and food culture. If we can keep the business going one more day, the legend would last one more day.”
Tai Ping Koon continues to respect its traditions in many ways, providing free accommodation and meals to its employees near restaurants in prime locations where rents are very high. Free accommodations were a standard employee benefit before the 1970s, when transportation was inconvenient. It is believed to be the only restaurant left in Hong Kong that keeps the Tai Ping Koon tradition alive.
Recipes have also been preserved.
“Pigeon is still made the original way: fresh pigeon marinated in homemade soy sauce and fried to order. The only difference was that, a long time ago, we had our own pigeon house in the backyard,” says Chui.
When he was young, he says his parents would learn how to make the famous roasted pigeon in Tai Ping Koon’s kitchen.
Today, he regularly brings his 13-year-old son into the kitchen to learn how to make the enormous souffle — another signature dish — by hand, hoping that one day he would carry on the family legacy.
“I hope it instills a sense of pride. I pass down generations of stories about Tai Ping Koon to my children, only the funny ones so far to keep them interested. Maybe I’ll tell them about the hardships later,” laughs Chui.