Now reading Dim Sum Democracy: The Story of Tim Ho Wan

Dim Sum Democracy: The Story of Tim Ho Wan

How a Hong Kong restauranteur's desire for independence and economy in dim sum mirrors the political aspirations of a territory.


This story comes from Lucky Peach #17: The Breakfast Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine! 


ong Kong’s downtown core looked like a concrete commune. On the tropical autumn morning Mak Kwai Pui met me for milk tea last November, police and pro-democracy demonstrators were clashing yet again.

Members of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement had been camped out for fifty-six straight nights. The Admiralty district’s busiest thoroughfares had become tent cities housing tens of thousands of student protesters.

They called themselves the Umbrella Revolution, a reference to the yellow umbrellas they’d used to protect themselves when police started tear-gassing and pepper-spraying them. The Yellow Umbrellas knew their rights—kind of. They definitely knew they were right. They were engaged in a pacifist act of civil disobedience. They were also pushing it. They’d barricaded commercial towers and stormed the Legislative Council Complex and were still causing interminable traffic disruptions, and not only were they taking on motherfucking China—they were actually getting away with it.

Companies located in the protest areas were struggling, some even going bankrupt. Yet even with the specter of Tiananmen-level repercussions dangling over it all, the Umbrella Revolution refused to die. The protesters had shut down major bank branches inside the monetary capital of Asia, and there was nothing that all the tweaking directors of financial stability or the chairmen of the stock exchange or the hired triad thugs or even the People’s Liberation Army garrisoned nearby could do about it.(Hundreds of thousands of locals were joining the sit-in during bigger rallies. There was also an upsurge of public encouragement after security forces—allegedly bolstered by members of triad groups—violently attacked peaceful demonstrators in October.) Nobody could figure out how to bulldoze the wretches out of there. There were way too many of them, too many people watching.

“What the students are asking for is fair,” Mak told me, taking a sip of steaming tea. “Somebody had to speak up and say that things need to change—but change is a long-term process. Democracy here is not an easy destination. And you can only do it step by step. It requires sitting down and talking, not violence and agitation. This is too extreme. The methods the students are using are not acceptable.”

As measured and diplomatic as his assessment may sound, Mak has a firsthand understanding of how conflicted Hong Kong’s soul actually is. Considered one of the most influential people in Asia by CNN, Mak, at fifty-two years old, is a deeply humble man who bears the unusual distinction of running Tim Ho Wan, the world’s cheapest chain of Michelin-starred restaurants. Six years ago, he walked away from the financial security of a career heading up the dim sum section at the Four Seasons’ three-Michelin-star Lung King Heen restaurant to reconnect with his true self—and then found his fortune making char siu bao. A typical meal at Tim Ho Wan costs around $10 a head, about twenty times less than the tasting menu at Lung King Heen and well below the price at Hong Kong’s other abalone-and-shark-fin fine-dining temples, although it isn’t cheaper than thousands of other down-home dim sum parlors around town.

Before becoming a luxury good, dim sum was an everyday food. Mak combined the best of both those worlds: he sells high-end dumplings that aren’t expensive. But as affordable as his restaurants are, he’s not a rebel Robin Hood figure: he’s a top dumpling master who started an immensely successful restaurant chain. Like any capitalist, he wants businesses here to be able to run smoothly.

“I’m in the middle,” as he puts it. “I respect both sides.” After all, Hong Kong hasn’t held him back. Quite the opposite: there are already branches of Tim Ho Wan in Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New York. Mak represents the complicated face of Hong Kong today. By figuring out how to democratize Michelin-level dim sum and make it accessible to the masses, he started a multinational craze, just as democracy itself looked to crash-land in the vicinity of Victoria Harbor.

True freedom is something Hong Kong has never fully known. During British rule, Hong Kong’s governor was selected by England. Under the “One Country, Two Systems” constitutional policy established after the 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong has its own currency, its own laws, and a certain degree of political self-rule—although it still answers to the Communist Party in Beijing. The territory’s chief executive is appointed by an electoral committee made up primarily of powerful, moneyed corporate and special-interest groups with strong ties to Beijing, known collectively as “functional constituencies.”

The archipelago has thrived as a liminal puppet state, but it would like to change that reality and assume a greater level of freedom. In 2017, for the first time, Hong Kong’s general population will potentially get to vote on a representative of their choosing. But only if China lets them—and there’s no indication that it will.

“Hong Kong’s greatest asset today is its independence, which remains limited,” explains Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at New York’s Asia Society, and the author of numerous books about China (including, most recently, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century). “The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ rule allows Hong Kong to enjoy total independence in terms of financial fundamentals, but it has also been trying to evolve the independent nature of its governance—and that’s where the Umbrella Revolution hit the wall. It ran up against an absolute limit to what Beijing would accept. China would never countenance the idea of a politically independent Hong Kong.”

The Umbrella Revolution got underway after Beijing issued a white paper in June 2014 asserting its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong—a display met with riots. Five hundred people were arrested on the anniversary of the July 1 transfer of sovereignty from Britain. Then, at the end of August, China’s main legislative committee announced some electoral reforms: instead of letting Hong Kongers nominate their own candidates to the chief-executive position, they’d only be allowed to vote for one of the three preapproved candidates of Beijing’s choosing.

To China’s Communist Party, allowing citizens to vote in a vetted figurehead is what passes for universal suffrage, notes Schell. “In classical Chinese fashion, they are right—according to their own technicalities. In the Western liberal democratic sense, what they’re proposing is completely corrupted. But in defense of Beijing’s position, China never intended to let Hong Kong have open elections. So the situation we’ve been seeing is not quite as inconsistent as the democracy protesters pretend. In 1997, when the handover took place, China was more liberal in temperament. Yet even so, there was enormous skepticism then that Beijing would really allow Hong Kong to become autonomous in a meaningful way. We’ve now arrived at the tipping point: demands for real autonomy—a chief executive chosen democratically—have arrived. And Beijing, which is itself in the throes of Leninist conservative counterreaction, is not about to let Hong Kong take that step.”

Students went on strike in September—the movement attracted more than a million supporters. By the time I arrived, Hong Kong was pretty torn up. The sociopolitical upheaval was causing family members to stop talking to one another. Chinese officials had cast the uprising as a West-backed coup. Nobody really bought that line. Anyway, public sentiment was on the side of systemic reform. It’s hard to argue against freedom, especially in a place this capitalistic.

Eight weeks in, with the sit-in showing no signs of letting up, residents were growing frustrated with the effects the Umbrella Revolution was having on the city’s infrastructure and economy. The massive civil disorder had just been inconveniencing things for too long.

Even as Mak and I drank our tea, police forces were trying to clear the remaining protesters from the Mong Kok encampment just down the street from our café. He’d brought me to a Kweilin Street hole-in-the-wall called Sun Hang Yuen, where he likes to order sai do si, HK-style french toast. The dish, a classic of the city’s breakfast repertoire, consists of two thin slices of white bread, sometimes plastered together with peanut butter, doused in egg batter, fried into golden blissfulness, then topped with butter, sweetened condensed milk, and honey.

Mak lives nearby and has been a regular at Sun Hang Yuen his whole life. No matter how crazy things get, he can always start his days with a basic cup of milk tea at this unassuming cha chaan teng. In Hong Kong, a local expression for crazy is chi sin. It means “sticky lines.” And lines have been getting increasingly sticky for him. The syrupy moltenness of the honey on Mak’s sai do si mirrored the unrelenting balminess of the day outside. The café we were in only compounded that wooziness: the tables and stools were so teensy it felt like a tea party in a dollhouse. There was barely enough room for waiters to move; they kept doinking us in the back with platters of beef-and-egg-sandwiches as they passed. That space is money is an ineluctable reality of life here: Hong Kong is currently ranked as the number one most “severely unaffordable” place to live in the world.

In 2009, when Mak left Lung King Heen to open a no-frills, nineteen-seat dumpling joint, he wanted to simplify his life and get back to his roots making dim sum for the people. The goal was to create an environment in which he and one other chef-partner could run everything together. “Our whole intention was for the two of us to manage it all ourselves,” Mak said. They called their joint Tim Ho Wan, meaning “to add good luck.” The name was auspicious. Massive queues started the moment he opened. Customers were waiting as many as five hours to get in. Sticky lines.

Within two weeks of opening, they had to start hiring staff. Within two months, Tim Ho Wan had become a phenomenon. “No local people could get in anymore,” Mak recounted. “We wanted locals to be able to eat our dim sum, so we had to open another one.” It, too, became instantly and unremittingly slammed, which led to another place, and then another place. The crowds kept coming. To add good luck, Tim Ho Wan was then awarded a Michelin star, opening a crack in that institution’s fine-dining-clad walls.

If a person were to try and outline Tim Ho Wan’s greatness in a single sentence, I’d say it has a lot to do with Mak’s greatest specialty, his baked char siu bao, the art of which he has spent three and a half decades perfecting(In a rare moment of justified pridefulness, Mak let it slip that he considers himself “the number two char siu maker in the world.” “Who is number one?” I asked. “My master,” he replied, bowing his head. “Where is he?” “He is no longer in the world.”), and then I’d point to his ultrathin crystal-skin har gow shrimp dumplings, so simple yet so absolutely fulfilling, and then there’s a spongy steamed egg cake (ma lai go) that tastes the way custard would taste if custard somehow left its home in the Shire and found itself having a peak experience atop an active volcano in the farthest reaches of Narnia—like it gets transmogrified into an entirely different fantasy universe—while his congee with pork and century egg is so pitch-perfect it seems to me to be the self—actualization of Cantonese cuisine, and he also makes crispy-gooey pan-fried turnip cakes (lo bak gou) that trill like angelic clarinets upon your synapses and find their neuronal complement in an order of deeply pitched, fully-timpani-esque pork-liver chee cheong fun rolls, although to experience the full symphonic effect of Tim Ho Wan, you have to succumb to the way those flecks of tangerine peel shimmer like vibraphone notes both upon your axons and within their cello concerto of steamed beef balls and bean-curd skin—oh, and don’t forget to wash it all down with that 25-cents-per-­person pot of Pu’er tea—and of course you always suspected spring rolls could be this dementedly perfect, but you never had proof before and now you do, also his black-bean spareribs are so flavorful it feels somehow indecent, not to mention his chicken feet are legit perverted, and his kitchens churn out these chiu chow dumplings that taste so good you begin to wonder whether by eating here you are committing an immoral act, but the only thing you’ve done wrong is not order the pork dumplings filled with conpoy and golden mushrooms before moving on to dessert, which is where you encounter a double-boiled papaya soup with snow fungus that is fully out of this world, like it is so otherworldly it might make you believe in extraterrestrial organisms, because if something like this actually exists on Earth, then of course it is self-evident that there must be life in space, and then just when you think it’s time for the bill—inevitably lower than it should be—they bring you this tonic medlar-and-petal thingy in the form of a translucent amber gelatinous cube containing a suspended three-dimensional Matisse still life of tiny flowers and goji berries that tastes like the sort of ambrosial life-marrow that could sustain spirits made up entirely of light.

The basic philosophy of Tim Ho Wan can be summarized in three words: peng, leng, and zeng. “Everything we do needs to be peng leng zeng,” Mak told me, repeatedly. “Peng means ‘money’ or ‘wealth,’ and to us that means that the prices need to be low. Leng means ‘beautiful’—the presentation has to look enticing, but also taste just as delicious as it looks. Leng is not about decoration or garnishes—something super unadorned like our sponge cake is leng in the way that the custard quality has to retain some juiciness: it cannot be dried out. And zeng means ‘wow effect,’ especially in terms of mouthfeel.”

“Traditional dim sum is what local people like best, and it is always better than the new way,” he said. “A lot of fancy restaurants here like to try new ideas, new sauces, and new ingredients, but they don’t realize the defects in what they are doing. It’s pretty to make a shrimp dumpling look like a fish, but what really matters for har gow is that the skin be whisper-thin. If you make the skin too thick, that’s a defect. And with these new-school dumplings, they often need to use a thick wrapper, because if it’s too thin the entire construction will collapse.” Mak isn’t a revolutionary in the kitchen. He prefers to do things the old-fashioned way as often as possible.

The thick-skinned quagmire at the heart of zoomorphic-dumpling-wrapper innovations made me think about Hong Kong’s political turmoil. If new things aren’t always better, would a fully democratic paradigm actually be an improvement over the present one? Mak had no idea. All he was saying is that dumplings made to resemble goldfish are innately compromised and aren’t fulfilling their leng requirement of tasting as good as they look.

He brought me into the kitchen above the Fuk Wing Street location—now greatly expanded from its initial nineteen seats—to show me how they work. My first reaction was: I can’t believe he’s showing this to a journalist. The kitchen wasn’t filthy, exactly, but it certainly couldn’t be considered even remotely clean by North American hygiene standards. Walking anywhere entailed sloshing through inches of greasy water. Bits of dumpling dough and minced pork were floating around aimlessly. The walls were coated in a film of oil; there was flour everywhere. The ventilator system looked like it dated back to the Tang dynasty, and hadn’t been cleaned since then, and there were all manner of exhaust pipes jutting out, coated with dreadlocks of matted gray dust.

There was a low, unusual sound coming out of a little white speaker attached to the ceiling in the corner of the room—a bleeping-blooping kind of static-filled noise that sounded vaguely like mauled birds chirping. At first, I thought it was just a broken radio station, but it was less melodic than any music I’d ever heard, and simultaneously had a precise intentionality that felt distinct from a poor signal.

“It’s a recording of distressed rats,” Mak explained. “Restaurant kitchens here often play those recordings—they are intended to scare small animals away and deter them from coming in.”

Fifteen or so people were working away, very quickly and efficiently, in a state of deep focus, one with their surroundings. An employee was preparing custard for the sponge cake in a giant bowl. Another guy was pinching off nubbins of putty-like dough made from fermented wheat starch, flattening them with back of a cleaver into rolling-paper-thin dumpling skins, then scraping the wrapper off the surface with the edge of the blade. Others were filling dumplings, peeling vegetables, preparing chicken feet, and generally doing things as fast as humanly possible. “It takes ten days for a disciple to learn how to wrap har gow correctly,” Mak declared. “But it takes two straight years of doing nothing but har gow to become a master. To prepare two hundred har gow in one hour is standard for a master.”

I asked him how it is that his chain is capable of maintaining quality levels at all the different outlets. “The measurements and the timing and the techniques are very precise,” he replied. “I teach my cooks, I give them instructions, I show them how to do it, and then they ­simply need to follow the procedures correctly.”

“So you are capable of delegating without too much difficulty?”

“Absolutely,” he replied. “My teammates need to do it properly, and they need to take care to watch all the details, because the bottom line is that cooking times need to be strictly observed in order for the dishes to be at their best.”

It takes exactly two minutes to steam har gow properly. It is crucial, Mak specified, not to let it steam any less or any more. “If it cooks for twenty seconds too long, it’s ruined—the outcome is not Tim Ho Wan, it is rubbish,” he said. “And if that happens, the person responsible will be warned that they cannot work here any longer.”

It was another moment where Mak seemed to personify the two entwined chambers of Hong Kong’s heart: democracy and dim sum on the one side, authoritarianism on the other.

After touring the kitchen, Mak and I were joined by a friend of a friend, an American dim sum lover who’d accepted a job in Hong Kong in part because he’d be able to eat dim sum all the time. Mak ate with us as well—proving that he had no hand in how the dishes were prepared beyond having designed an ingenious dim sum deployment system that can apparently be replicated anywhere in the world.

My friend had already eaten at Tim Ho Wan on numerous occasions, but he was still amazed at the quality of the food. “You can go to the Four Seasons and pay ten times more for a three-Michelin-star experience,” he said, “but I promise that you’ll end up liking the dim sum here more.”

My friend was right: in the end, I dined at some glitzy dim sum temples in luxurious surroundings where the waiters looked like upper-management finance bros and the bill was ludicrous and they were definitely good restaurants, but their food lacked soul. Dim sum translates as “to touch the heart,” after all, and I left those meals unmoved.

Watching Mak sitting there in his simple golf shirt, among all the other diners, it occurred to me that the thing he wanted most when he worked at the Four Seasons was independence. He’d left his corporate overlords and struck out on his own with a youthful fantasy of a grubby kitchen to prove it. Part of the reason Mak is so revered here is that his life is a reflection of his home’s dearest aspirations.

Hong Kong, ever China’s mistress, enjoys a modicum of freedom but still lacks true independence. And Beijing likes it that way. “China today has a very ambivalent relationship to independent institutions,” Schell told me. “Financial institutions are the most digestible form of an independent organization to them. Much less so are freestanding political parties, freestanding media, and freestanding civil-society organizations. Of late, what we’ve seen is increasingly encroaching party control over all aspects of Chinese life that have an independent nature. Which is why the Umbrella Revolution never stood a chance.”

On the morning I arrived in Hong Kong, I strolled through the main protest site at Admiralty, stopping every now and then to talk to a friendly young occupier. They’d been here for two months, and they spoke defiantly about staying until their demands for universal suffrage were met. Some of them spoke of their dreams of a fully free Hong Kong; they had no problem with the idea of separating from China, if possible. What they were already doing was almost that radical.

They were staying up until dawn. They were eating meals of marshmallows dipped in chocolate sauce and rolled in cornflakes. They were reveling in the possibility that their buoyant idealism might actually result in political rejuvenation. The occupiers were so entrenched that they’d even planted a plot of organic vegetables in a triangular green space, in hopes of becoming “food self-sufficient.” Plants were bursting from the dirt: bok choy, kale, corn, chili peppers, even a patch labeled as freedom choy sum.The Yellow Umbrellas lived here, on Connaught Road. They showered each morning in the dressing room of a fitness center around the corner. They used the bathrooms in a nearby mall. Medical volunteers were on hand 24/7. A generator-powered study center was set up with tables and desk lamps in the middle of the campsite. As intense as it felt, these kids were also having fun.

Some of these green-thumbed freedom fighters were undoubtedly rioting harder than others, but most were prepared to go the distance—no matter how far—to attain their goals of a truly democratic Hong Kong. Mak echoed that observation, insisting that it will necessarily take a very long time for the demonstrators’ vision to become reality. The end won’t come in 2017, even if open elections are allowed—it might, however, be the beginning of something.

It was impossible to stand there at the sit-in and not be overcome by the staggering romance of it all. These people were massing together in immense numbers, staring down one of the most powerful, most repressive autocracies in the world for their right to what? To vote. It was basically a modern-day Asian reenactment of the climax of Les Misérables; in fact, a Cantonese version of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”—sung in the voice of a heartstring-swabbing young girl—had recently gone viral. Protesters chimed in at the top of their lungs during late-night sing-alongs:

We should all carry the responsibility to defend our city.
We have inborn rights and our own mind to make decisions.
Who wants to succumb to misfortune and keep their mouths shut?
May I ask who can’t wake up?
Listen to the humming of freedom.
Arouse the conscience which shall not be betrayed again
By the government.

The second time I visited the Occupy Central site, I got there around seven thirty a.m., when the protesters were waking up and having breakfast. There was a communal area with homemade bread, sushi rolls, as well as congee and rice noodles available to any takers. There was no dim sum at the site, but when I asked whether any protesters eat at Tim Ho Wan, they nodded enthusiastically and burst into grins. The two students manning the food station told me that “real breakfasts” would be arriving shortly, and that I was welcome to join them.

“What are real breakfasts?” I asked.

“Filet-O-Fish sandwiches,” answered one of the students, a twenty-something girl with piercings.

I laughed, certain she was kidding. She didn’t smile back.

“You can have one too, when they get here,” she said.

“Really?” I checked, frowning in confusion. “McDonald’s?”

“Yes, we order breakfast there almost every morning. Usually fish sandwiches. Seven hundred fifty at a time.”

When the delivery arrived, I ate one with them, dazed at the contradictoriness of it all: the radical members of the Occupy Central movement starting each shining new day with a trashy McDonald’s fried-pollock sandwich. But the longer I thought about it, the less strange it became. Hong Kong has a strong affinity for the West, due to its ­Ribena-and-Horlicks British decades. McDonald’s is probably the corporation that most perfectly embodies the USA’s capitalist-imperialist version of freedom, which everyone here was essentially striving for. Their message was basic but timeless: being able to muddle along doing your thing (whatever your thing may be) without a government hindering you is preferable to state repression, oppression, and censorship.

Just as those protesters were fighting for their right to Filet-O-Fish, Tim Ho Wan isn’t all that far off from McDonald’s. It’s a global food chain—one that provides its employees with better wages and incentives and offers its diners higher-quality food—but a global food chain nonetheless.

The protesters I met at Central stayed on valiantly for another two weeks or so. By the middle of December, however, all the occupied zones had been cleared by authorities, mainly without resistance. The Umbrella Revolution was over. Hong Kong’s fate remained undetermined. Over the intervening months, not much has happened. There have been cautious attempts at official electoral reform, to little effect.

A small movement aiming to separate Hong Kong from China has been gaining momentum. These secessionists call themselves localists. The idea is still just a seedling.

At the end of August 2015, Hong Kong’s authorities charged the eighteen-year-old leader of the student protests, Joshua Wong. At that time, he told reporters outside Hong Kong’s police headquarters that there was more to come. “I believe we will have another Umbrella Movement,” he said. “What matters is that we better prepare ourselves for the next one.”

Schell is less than optimistic about the movement’s potential. “Whether or not there will be more street demonstrations, I think we are going to have another chief executive who is chosen from the pool of ­Beijing-accepted candidates. And then who knows what will happen? China is going to be less and less inclined to countenance any revolutionary fronts. We may find new and improved techniques for nipping these in the bud. We just need to look to 1989. Tiananmen was seriously mismanaged, and the repercussions were profound. Beijing is passionately devoted to cultivating its soft power, to improving its image around the world, and that was a torpedo through the bow of China’s efforts at soft leadership. What they learned then is: don’t let these things start. They didn’t imagine it would come to what it did in Hong Kong, and they didn’t have direct controls over managing it—but they will the next time around.”

For now, there’s an image that will always stay with me. It is a newswire photograph of cleanup efforts after protesters vacated Admiralty. During the civil-disobedience campaign, the wall alongside a staircase leading to a government building had been plastered with thousands of Post-it notes containing messages of hope and support. Afterward, these notes were all removed, save for a few dozen of the colored stickies spelling out the only words that could possibly approach the truth of that time and place:

We are dreamers.