Keeping the dim sum and tea tradition alive

Teapots and teacups on display at Lok Cha
Dumplings in a bamboo steamer
Various steam buns in a bamboo steamer
Lotus paste buns at Lin Heung Kui
Shrimp rice rolls at Lin Heung Kui
A traditional dim sum trolley at Lin Heung Kui
Tea served the traditional way at Lin Heung Kui
Blue teacups on display at Lok Cha
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Luk Yu Teahouse

Pouring tea into the pot with deftness, the waiting staff weaves through tables of customers heaving with teas, dim sum and conversations. It is lunch hour at the Luk Yu Teahouse and it is as busy as a hive. With new dim sum restaurants opening up in Hong Kong, one would imagine the charm of the old teahouses would fade. Still, despite some reverses in fortune, many continue to hold strong, attracting a steady stream of faithful clientele that keeps coming back for artfully crafted dim sum (small steamed baked or fried dishes) and freshly brewed tea.

Cheung Po Hung Early Hong Kong Eateries

Dim sum and tea go hand in hand and the teahouses of yore served both, one satisfying the stomach and the other fortifying nerves or restoring calm. According to Cheung Po Hung in Early Hong Kong Eateries, the earliest teahouses in Hong Kong date back to 1846. With the introduction of electric lamps in 1890, nightlife became possible, and teahouses became economically viable. In 1897, the flourishing of teahouses was further aided by the scrapping of the night curfew and a bill requiring the Chinese to carry adequate paperwork and night lanterns. The popularity of teahouses climbed after the Second World War, when much of the daily routine centred around tea and serving dim sum. Teahouses became social hubs where families got together for meals, entertained guests, and transacted and sealed trades. However, the opening of other restaurants during the post-war period and the re-development of pre-war teahouse buildings in the late 1950s were largely responsible for their decline. 

Crowded yet efficient, simple yet charming, the teahouses of Hong Kong serve as hubs for social interaction

Despite this trend, the upscale Luk Yu was established in 1933 on Wing Kut Street and moved to Stanley Street in more recent years. The wooden facade of the Luk Yu Teahouse, with its gilded name and window grills beckons with the promise of cool interiors and a satisfying meal. As you enter, a glass cabinet of tea packets, cups, knickknacks with the restaurant’s credentials reassures you that it is going to be an afternoon well spent. It’s a traditional decor, with tables covered with crisp, white tablecloths and wooden panelling and chairs lending it an old-world charm. At two o’clock in the afternoon, the ground floor is still packed with people.

Lok Cha

Another teahouse in the heart of Central is Lok Cha, located in a white colonial building nestling in the green environs of Hong Kong Park. It opened in 1991 and started out as a tea shop but is now a busy teahouse serving vegetarian dim sum with other locations in Tai Kwun and West Kowloon. The tea menu far exceeds the dim sum menu, and you get your own electric kettle to pour hot water into your teapot. It is a little private tea service you perform for yourself. The decor is warm and inviting, furnished with wooden tables and chairs, carved wooden panels, and an imposing arch of red lacquer that divides the teahouse into two parts. Tea is serious business here. There is the Master’s Selection for the more discerning, and there are green, white, yellow, red, floral, Pu’er teas and several varieties of oolong. The teahouse usually runs full, yet the vibe is cosy and intimate.

Lin Heung Kui

A more traditional teahouse is Lin Heung Kui on Des Voux Road West. The two-floor establishment is busy and bustling at lunchtime, a testament to its popularity among students, the well-heeled and tourists. The interiors are modest, reminiscent of old teahouses where food trumps decor. That it is a more traditional teahouse is confirmed by the trolley system and the practice of washing the teacup, bowl, and chopsticks with hot tea and sterilising it at the table. You pick your food off the trolleys – lifting the cover of the dim sum basket and peering at what’s on offer is still an accepted practice. It is refreshingly simple and egalitarian. The dim sum is delicious, and the char siu (barbeque pork) is tender and juicy. The desserts come in a trolley; if you’re a newbie, you can look at the other tables and see what’s popular. Lin Heung Kui comes with a Michelin Guide recommendation as does Luk Yu. After a hearty meal, the bill is modest.

Woo Cheung

The more modern teahouses such as Woo Cheung, which opened its doors in 2021, cleverly blend the old and the new, serving dim sum in a modern, flashy setting, extending its reach beyond the locals to the expats and tourists. As you climb up the stairs to what used to be the historic Pawn, instead of the old lounge and restaurant, you are greeted with the colourful and modern interpretation of a teahouse. The menu is extensive; there are dim sum as well as sections on meat, poultry, seafood, and barbeque dishes. In that sense, it is more of a restaurant serving Cantonese fare than a teahouse. The first floor serves dim sum, tea and has a well-stocked and good-looking bar. The second floor has private dining areas with tasting menus. The outdoor verandas encasing the restaurant overlooks Johnston Road, giving diners a view of the historic tramline. The scene is over a century old, and as you step indoors you’re reminded how even in a modern interior, you’re still in a building that has been around since 1888.

Woo Chueng is far from your typical old-style teahouse. Its upscale, chic interiors create a fusion of Western decor with Eastern cuisine that’s refreshingly eclectic and charming. The bold floral wallpaper and modern furniture are a new, imaginative setting for serving ancient teas and dim sum. And this is a trend that’ll probably continue in Hong Kong. The love for dim sum and tea is unlikely to change, but the art of presenting them might, although one hopes that the old teahouses continue to hold on to their legacy and give the people not just a taste of dim sum and tea but also preserve the tradition of serving them in an iconic environment, with all the organised chaos and the jostle that makes dining at a teahouse such a distinct experience.

Text Shikha Bansal / Photo Shikha Bansal & Cammy Yiu