Spicy Noodles and Pickled Fish: Chinese Eateries Move Into Hong Kong

The ravenous came for a taste of home in a dish of spicy fried beef or steamed fish head. Waiters, speaking in Mandarin, delivered plates heated with green and red chiles.

It was opening night in Hong Kong at Return Home Hunan, a well-known chain from mainland China trying to wedge into the city’s competitive food scene. Huang Haiying, the restaurant’s founder, greeted customers in a bright red suit while waiters handed out red envelopes stuffed with coupons.

Hong Kong is a difficult place to open a restaurant these days. Fewer people are dining out, and more restaurants have closed than opened this year. But restaurant owners from mainland China, facing their own challenges at home, see an opening.

“Everyone has their own way of surviving, and now it’s about surviving on the margins,” Ms. Huang said. “We’ll see who has more grit and succeeds.”

Return Home Hunan is one of more than a dozen famous Chinese eateries that have opened in Hong Kong in recent months. The owners have been encouraged by a steady flow of new customers from Hong Kong, who have been traveling to Shenzhen, the mainland city next door, in search of more choices.

But the arrival of these restaurants in Hong Kong has been met with some hesitation. A Chinese territory that long operated with a high degree of autonomy, Hong Kong has increasingly come under the tighter grip of Beijing. To some people in the city, the migration of these restaurants is an illustration of how Hong Kong’s culture is slowly being taken over by the rest of China.

Not far from Return Home Hunan, new restaurants offer food from three southern Chinese provinces: There’s the Guizhou rice noodles place, the Guangxi river snail noodles shop and stinky tofu from the province of Hunan.

These establishments cater to locals and a growing community of mainland Chinese, some of whom have made the city their home in the past decade.

“When I first came to Hong Kong, finding authentic restaurants with mainland cuisine was difficult,” said Karen Lin, a banker and part-time business school student at the University of Hong Kong, who was eating spicy fried beef at Return Home Hunan on a recent evening.

“The Chinese restaurants here were all based on Hong Kong ‘local tastes,’” said Ms. Lin, who has lived in the city for six years.

The gripe among mainland transplants that Hong Kong food is bland has more of a sting for locals these days as they grapple with the city’s changing identity.

In 2019, Beijing enforced a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong after citywide democracy protests. Many expatriates and local Hong Kongers left the city. The exodus was intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic and the city’s public health measures — among the strictest in the world.

Now, as Hong Kong is pulled closer into China’s orbit, an economic slowdown and real estate crisis on the mainland is weighing on its long-awaited recovery.

The fastest-growing group of migrants to Hong Kong is people from mainland China looking for better jobs, obtaining special visas that the government started offering. They have found a city that is more welcoming than it was before the pandemic, when mainlanders were often greeted with hostility from Hong Kong residents.

“Hong Kong has become much more inclusive for mainlanders,” said Zheng Huiwen, the manager at one of the Hong Kong branches of Tai Er Pickled Fish, a Sichuan fish restaurant from mainland China. At the restaurant, waiters announce the arrival of a dish in the inflected style of traditional Peking Opera, declaring, “Delicious fish is coming!”

Mr. Zheng, who moved to Hong Kong as a teenager from neighboring Guangdong Province and spent his summers waiting tables, recalled how Hong Kong diners would treat him more rudely once they heard his mainland accent.

The tone is changing as Hong Kong residents spend more time on the other side of the border, eating and shopping.

Tai Er Pickled Fish became so popular among Hong Kong tourists in Shenzhen that, in December, it opened four locations in Hong Kong.

Among the newly built apartments next to the location where Mr. Zheng is manager, in a mall where the city’s old Kai Tak airport once stood, more than half the apartments for sale in March were snapped up by mainland Chinese buyers, local news media reported.

At Xita Grandma BBQ, a new restaurant from China, Cambridge Zhang, the franchise owner, complained that mainland diners were interested mostly in trendy restaurants. Mr. Zhang wanted to find different customers in a new market.

He soon discovered that many others had the same idea.

“I came here and found, ‘Hey, here is this mainland restaurant, and there is another mainland restaurant,’” Mr. Zhang said animatedly.

To some local restaurants that are barely holding on, the flurry of openings is baffling. In April, nearly twice as many restaurants folded as opened, according to OpenRice, an online restaurant and market insight platform.

In the Shek Tong Tsui area, where Return Home Hunan opened in May, many of the brightly colored restaurants — once neighborhood mainstays — had recently closed down. A diner that served cheap noodles and milk tea was gone, as was an eatery where retirees gathered to eat dim sum and catch up on the day’s news.

“The restaurant business is hard work,” said Roy Tse, a local restaurant owner who sold lunch rice dishes once popular with office workers in the Taikoo Shing business district of Hong Kong. There are fewer lunchtime visitors these days. Those who still come order the basics.

Yeung Hei, the manager of Fu Ging Aromatic Noodles, a longtime local Hong Kong restaurant where a chef stews beef brisket in the front window, said he used to have customers who came in every day.

“But then, one day, they just disappeared and never came back,” he said.

These days, restaurants that offer inexpensive dishes tend to do better. Many of the mainland newcomers attract diners with deep discounts, coupons and fan club specials.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Chester Kwong and Sonja Cheng were hunched over big bowls at Meet Noodles, a fast-food chain famous for its spicy-and-sour noodles made with potato flour from the southern Chinese city of Chongqing.

“This is dirt cheap,” Mr. Kwong said. He was referring to a hot-and-sour noodle set that Ms. Cheng had ordered for 36 Hong Kong dollars, or $4.61. It included a bowl of hot-and-sour noodle soup and a side of fried chicken.

Both Ms. Cheng and Mr. Kwong, recent college graduates, expressed concern that the Chinese eateries would replace their favorite local spots. “It’s good to have these places and options for Chinese food, but it’s a little scary to think that one day they might overtake what we had in Hong Kong,” Mr. Kwong said.

There are others who feel similarly and choose not to patronize mainland restaurants.

“I use every opportunity to help local restaurants,” said Audrey Chan, who grew up in mainland China but moved to Hong Kong as a student six years ago and identified as a Hong Konger.

Fu Ging Aromatic Noodles once counted nearby residents in the middle-class neighborhood of Chai Wan as its main source of income. But so many people have moved away — many of them out of Hong Kong — that it has been left searching for new customers.

Ms. Huang of Return Home Hunan said she knew it would be tough.

But, she added, “no matter how bad the economy is, people always have to eat.”