Hong Kong (CNN) – A huge blue and red neon sign floats above a narrow alley on busy Nathan Road in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei area.
Its five bold Chinese characters read “Restaurant Tai Ping Koon,” the famous name of the first Chinese-owned “Western” restaurant in China. Today, it is one of the oldest family 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 moved due to conflict and political instability and now li four locations remain around Hong Kong. .)
Opened in 1964, the Yau Ma Tei branch is almost always packed with nearby office workers and tai tais during the weekday lunch hour. Wood-paneled walls, lace sail-draped windows and leather cabin seats exude an old-world elegance.
Most diners come for one dish in particular: the TPK-style roasted pigeon. It is brought to the table by a server in a tie along with an unlikely accessory: plastic gloves. Because there’s no better way to devour crispy, juicy birds than with your hands.
But as popular as the dish is, few diners who eat pigeons know that this palm-sized piece of bird supposedly changed the course of modern Chinese history.
The birth of soy sauce 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 background.
“Tai Ping Koon’s story is significant not only because it’s been here for 160 years; it’s also part of the country’s history and has influenced Cantonese food culture,” says Chui, who has written two books about his family business .
The story of Tai Ping Koon dates back to the years after the First Opium War (1839-1842), when treaty ports in Canton, now Guangzhou, were opened for Westerners to engage in trade. Foreign businesses could operate in these ports, including restaurants.
Always run by a foreign chef and catering to foreign sailing merchants, these restaurants hired local cooks to help in the kitchens.
“My great-grandfather Chui Lo-ko was hired as a cook in the restaurant of an American trading company. So he became one of the first Chinese chefs trained in Western cuisine,” says Chui.
Chui spent seven years visiting libraries around the world to find stories and information about his family business.
Tai Ping Koon
But the job didn’t last. After a disagreement with the trading company’s agent, Chui Lo-ko resigned.
With no money, she had to figure out how to make a living with the only skill she had: cooking Western food.
“Which was a problem,” Chui added.
“Chinese people back then didn’t like Western food; most of them didn’t even know what Western food was.”
Chui Lo Ko came up with the idea of cooking beef steak with soy sauce and cutting his street food.
By introducing an unfamiliar ingredient with a familiar flavor, his fusion dish became an instant hit with local Chinese.
When he saved enough money, Chui Lo Ko opened the first restaurant Tai Ping Koon (meaning “house of peace and stability”) in 1860, named after its location on Canton’s Tai Ping Sa Street.
This would mark the beginning of what is now called Western soy sauce cuisine, a cooking style that has influenced over a century of Cantonese food culture.
The roast pigeon power play
Tai Ping Koon’s famous roast pigeon.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
Soong’s older sister Soong Ai-ling and her husband Kung Hsiang-hsi, one of China’s richest men and leader of the Kuomintang party, were said to love Tai Ping Koon’s roast pigeon so much that they hosting a special banquet for 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 party.
Sitting strategically next to Chiang was Soong’s younger sister, the charismatic Soong Mei-ling.
Back then, squabs were not a common ingredient in China. So when roast 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 younger sister Soong after the banquet. In 1927, he divorced his three wives and asked Soong for her hand in marriage.
Chiang’s ex-wife, Chen, later recounted the episode in her memoirs, claiming that the pigeon dinner was actually a scheme to “rape the husband”.
(Not) Mysterious Weddings
The Yau Ma Tei branch is one of four remaining Tai Ping Koon restaurants.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
The pigeon dinner was one of several interesting moments that Chui discovered during his research on Tai Ping Koon.
“These stories were passed down from generation to generation without much detail. I heard that Chiang and Soong went back to Tai Ping Koon for roast 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 not to make up stories. I want to show that the story is really about Tai Ping Koon,” says Chui.
Chui visited all public and university libraries in Hong Kong. And when they didn’t yield enough results, he flew to several libraries in the United States, from Stanford to Chicago, to explore their massive Asia-focused collections.
“I read every book. I mean every book. You have to have a lot of passion or be crazy to do it for seven years. I’m a crazy guy with passion,” says Chui.
Eventually, he found piles of news and anecdotes in books that allowed him to connect the dots.
There were also a few unsolved mysteries, such as the supposed wedding of former Vietnamese Prime Minister Ho Chi Minh and Tang Tuyet Minh, a Chinese midwife. Was It is said to have taken place in one of the Tai Ping Koon restaurants in Guangzhou in 1926. However, the Vietnamese leader never officially married.
Now closed, the central Wing Hon Road Tai Ping Koon in Guangzhou was frequented by many politicians in the past.
Tai Ping Koon
In 1925, local media widely covered the news that Zhou and Deng hosted their wedding at Tai Ping Koon. Since it was considered a high-end restaurant, holding a ceremony there would have been considered inappropriate for the leader of the Communist Party.
The rumor was so widespread that Zhou and Deng tried to clarify a few times in the following years that they did not hold any ceremony at Tai Ping Koon. It was a simple dinner arranged by a well-meaning friend, knowing that the cash-strapped couple had no suitable celebration for their relationship.
“Still, nobody knows the truth today. There were people who believed either side of the story,” Chui says, pulling out a few two-inch-thick folders filled with news clippings.
“Part of Hong Kong’s food history and culture”
A photo of Andrew Chui’s grandfather, Chui Hon Chor, taken at the Yau Ma Tei branch.
Tai Ping Koon
Growing up with a family restaurant that is so intertwined with history, Chui says it’s a great honor but also very stressful, especially since Covid-19 has put a strain on business over the past two years.
“When people do business, they keep going if they’re making money. If they can’t make money, they can close it. For me, closing is not an option,” says Chui.
“It’s part of Hong Kong’s food history and culture. If we can keep the business going for one more day, the legend would live on for one more day.”
Tai Ping Koon continues to respect its traditions in many ways, offering free accommodation and meals to its staff right next to its restaurants in prime locations, where rents are notoriously high. Free accommodation was a standard benefit for staff before the 1970s when transport was inconvenient. Tai Ping Koon is believed to be the only restaurant left in Hong Kong that still keeps the tradition alive.
The recipes have also been preserved.
“The pigeon is still made the original way: fresh pigeon seasoned with homemade soy sauce and 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 roast pigeon in Tai Ping Koon’s kitchen.
Today, he brings his 13-year-old son into the kitchen regularly to learn how to make the huge souffle, another iconic dish, by hand, hoping to one day carry on the family legacy.
“I hope it instills a sense of pride in him. I’m passing on the generational tales about Tai Ping Koon to my children, just the fun ones so far to keep them interested. Maybe I’ll tell them about the hardship later,” laughs Chui.