A massive blue and red neon sign hovers above a narrow alley off busy Nathan Road in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei area.
Its five bold Chinese characters read “Tai Ping Koon Restaurant” – the famous name of the very first Chinese-owned “Western” restaurant in China. Today, it’s one of the longest operating family-run restaurants in Hong Kong.
Opened in 1860 in Guangzhou, 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 conflicts and political instabilities and now have four remaining locations around Hong Kong.)
The Yau Ma Tei branch, opened in 1964, is almost always filled with nearby office workers and tai tais during weekday lunch hours. The wood-paneled walls, lace voile-covered windows and leather booth seating exude an old-world elegance.
Most diners come for one dish in particular – the TPK Style Roasted Pigeon. It’s brought to the table by a bowtie-wearing server along with an unlikely accessory – plastic gloves. Because there’s is no better way to devour the crispy and juicy poultry than with your hands.
But as popular as the dish is, few of the pigeon-munching diners know that this palm-sized piece of poultry allegedly changed the course of modern Chinese history.
The birth of soy sauce Western cuisine
Andrew Chui, 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 background.
“Tai Ping Koon’s history is significant not just because it has been here for 160 years now; it’s also a part of the country’s history and has influenced Cantonese food culture,” says Chui, who has written two books about his family business.
Tai Ping Koon’s story traces back to the years following the First Opium War (1839-1842), when treaty ports were opened in Canton – now Guangzhou – for Westerners to engage in trade. Foreign businesses were allowed to operate in these ports, including restaurants.
Always helmed by a foreign chef and catering to foreign sailing tradesmen, these eateries hired local cooks to help out in the kitchens.
“My great-great-great grandfather Chui Lo-ko was hired as a cook at the restaurant inside an American trading company. So he became one of the very first Chinese chefs trained in Western cooking,” says Chui.
But the job didn’t last. After a disagreement with the trading company’s agent, Chui Lo-ko quit.
Penniless, he had to figure out how to make a living using the only skill he had: cooking Western food.
“Which was a problem,” adds Chui.
“Chinese people 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 hawk his food on the street.
By presenting an unfamiliar ingredient with a familiar flavor, his fusion dish became an instant hit among local Chinese.
Once he saved up enough money, Chui Lo Ko opened the first Tai Ping Koon (meaning ‘house of peace and stability’) restaurant in 1860, named after its location on Canton’s Tai Ping Sa Street.
This would mark the beginning of what’s now referred to as soy sauce Western cuisine, a style of cooking that has influenced more than a century of Cantonese food culture.
The roasted pigeon power play
With its unique offerings, Tai Ping Koon soon became a fashionable hangout among the affluent and powerful in China, with guests including Sun Yat-sen – the revolutionary leader and national hero of modern China – as well as the influential Soong sisters reportedly dining in its original Guangzhou restaurants.
It was said that the eldest Soong sister, Soong Ai-ling, and her husband Kung Hsiang-hsi, one of the richest men in China and a leader of the Kuomintang party, adored Tai Ping Koon’s roasted pigeon so much that they hosted a special banquet for fellow party leader Chiang Kai-shek and his then-wife Chen Jieru.
But what Chiang and Chen didn’t know was that there was allegedly a hidden agenda attached to the fete.
Seated next to Chiang, strategically, was Soong’s own younger sister, the charismatic Soong Mei-ling.
Squabs weren’t a common ingredient in China then. So when roasted pigeon, a relatively new European-inspired dish, was served, Soong Mei-ling was tasked with teaching the guests how to savor the dish by hand.
Legend has it that Chiang fell in love with the youngest Soong sister after the banquet. In 1927, he divorced his three wives and asked Soong for her hand in marriage.
The pair became one of the most influential and high-profile political couples in modern Chinese history as the first president and first lady of the Republic of China in Taiwan.
Chiang’s ex-wife Chen later retold the episode in her memoir, claiming the pigeon dinner was actually a “husband-snatching” scheme.
The pigeon dinner was one of several interesting moments Chui discovered during his Tai Ping Koon research.
“These stories were passed down through generations without many details. I heard that Chiang and Soong came back to Tai Ping Koon for the roasted pigeon in the 1930s as they were connected by the dish. But was it true?
“It was like police work. I have to be careful I am not making up stories. I want to prove the story is really about Tai Ping Koon,” says Chui.
Chui visited all the public and university libraries around Hong Kong. And when those didn’t yield enough results, he flew to various US libraries, from Stanford to Chicago, to dig through their massive Asia-focused collections.
“I read every book. I mean every book. You need to either have a lot of passion or are crazy to do that for seven years. I am a crazy guy with passion,” says Chui.
Finally, he found piles of news reports and anecdotes in books that allowed him to connect the dots.
There were a few unsolved mysteries, too, like the alleged wedding of former Vietnamese prime minister Ho Chi Minh and Tang Tuyet Minh, a Chinese midwife. It was said to take place at one of the Tai Ping Koon restaurants in Guangzhou in 1926. However, the Vietnamese leader was never married officially.
“But if I had to pick a historical moment (related to the restaurant), I want to travel back in time when Zhou En-lai, first premier of the People’s Republic of China, was said to marry Deng Ying-chao at Tai Ping Koon,” says Chui.
In 1925, local media widely covered the news that Zhou and Deng hosted their wedding at Tai Ping Koon. As it was considered a high-end restaurant, throwing a ceremony there would have been considered inappropriate for the Communist Party’s leader.
The rumor was so widespread that Zhou and Deng reportedly tried to clarify a few times in later years that they didn’t host any ceremony at Tai Ping Koon. It was a simple dinner treated by a well-meaning friend, knowing the cash-strapped couple didn’t have any proper celebration for their relationship.
“Still, nobody knows the truth today. There were people who believe either side of the story,” says Chui, as he brings out a few two-inch-thick binders that are filled with news clippings.
‘Part of the history and food culture of Hong Kong’
Growing up with a family restaurant that is so interwoven with history, Chui says it’s a huge honor but also very stressful, especially as Covid-19 has put a strain on business for the last two years.
“When people do business, they keep going if they are making money. If they can’t make money, they can shut it down. For me, closing is not an option,” says Chui.
“It’s part of the history and the food culture of Hong Kong. If we can sustain the business one more day, the legend would be extended for one more day.”
Tai Ping Koon continues to respect its traditions in many ways, providing free accommodations and meals for their staff right next to their restaurants in prime locations, where rents are notoriously high. Free accommodations were a standard staff benefit before the 1970s, when transportation was inconvenient. Tai Ping Koon is believed to be the only restaurant left in Hong Kong still keeping the tradition alive.
The recipes have also been preserved.
“The pigeon is still made the original way: fresh pigeon seasoned in house-made soy sauce and deep fried when ordered. The only difference was that a long time ago, we had our own pigeon coop in the backyard,” says Chui.
When he was young, he says his parents would make him learn how to make the famous roasted pigeon in Tai Ping Koon’s kitchen.
Nowadays, he brings his 13-year-old son to the kitchen regularly to learn how to make the humongous souffle – another iconic dish – by hand, hoping he’d one day continue the family legacy.