I walked into the restaurant. A space converted from an ex-grocery store, its walls were deliberately brushed on with a blatant layer of cement. The attic has been torn down to create a higher ceiling, and a sense of spaciousness is created by balancing it with a moderate level of roughness. The choice of retro furniture proves to be a smart move, with the century-old design Starred A stool, the faculty chair left behind from the British colonial period and the wooden countertops and marble-based long dining tables resting within. None of it was over extravagant, and in fact it reveals a subtle sense of refrained taste. Even so, the strong Loft style presented by the visuals in the store has made me mistakenly thought that this would be the focus of the entire interview; that we would talk about the intricate space planning and design or the exploration within such aspects of lifestyle. Yet it turns out that I was wrong, and I was delighted by that.
I forgot to mention that the large sign on top of the restaurant door was overshadowed by a circularly arched classic embossed glass window. During the afternoon, when I sat in the restaurant with its owner B for the interview, the strong sunlight infiltrated the space through the window and refracted into gentle rays, lighting up the flowing dusts in the air, which made his next words seem somewhat quaint and distant. “I tried to keep the initial appearance of the space, the flooring is original and we even told the workers to protect it during renovation… Other than that, we also stuck old photos of the grocery store before it was demolished here and we told our friends to help with the shoot.” It was then I realized that on either side of the store, there were a few black and white photographs hung on the gray wall. Against the messy storage shelf, the empty brick floor, the Buddha painting and the portrait of the King of Thailand which was placed side by side, was a family photo of blooming smiles. These rotating images constantly suggested ideas such as “away from home”, “remote”, “return” and “passing” in my mind, and without much caution, my thoughts easily fell into such family-related memories.
Chaophraya, is the transliteration of Thailand’s Mekong river and is also the name of this Thai restaurant. It wasn’t a coincidence in choosing Kowloon City as its address. After the Kowloon Walled City was removed during the ’80s and the airport was relocated after the city’s sovereignty was returned, these low-rise buildings which were here for hundreds of years, standing half a century before the war, has inhabited a mix of Chaozhou and Thai. They were the people who gave this little spot in the center of the Kowloon peninsula a magical undertone. B, the boss of Chaophraya is a Chinese-Thai mix and he has been living in Kowloon City for all his life. Being able to speak both Chinese and Thai has allowed him to seamlessly exchange ideas with both groups of residents, being one of the third generation individuals who was bred by this old city.
“I first learnt Thai when I was young, and on the first day of kindergarten, the teachers could not understand what I was saying and had requested to talk to my parents. That was the time when I realized that I was not speaking the mainstream language.”
B’s grandmother was the first in the family to immigrate to Hong Kong from Thailand. Later on, B’s grandfather and mother followed and settled down in Kowloon City. At first, their family ran a grocery store, and it was not until B’s grandmother and several other shareholders set up Banana Leaf Limited did they open various Thai restaurants in Kowloon City. With a few dozens of employees, everyone referred to his grandmother as “Sister Long”. When “Sister Long” passed away and less people visited the area because the airport was relocated, Banana Leaf Limited disbanded and most of the restaurants they owned closed down. B’s family only kept the grocery store on Longgang Road and the grocery store on South Point Road which they live in.
B was only ten years old when his grandmother died, so he did not know much about the golden period of his family. He only knew that he is from a Thai descent and knew how to speak Thai, but other than that, he is no different from the average Chinese teenager who was educated and brought up in Hong Kong. Since graduating from college, B has been helping the family run their grocery store and has never had a clear mind about his future.
“At the time I used to live with my mother in the grocery store attic and there were lots of old photographs, from which I learned about my grandmother’s past and how amazing she was. Later I suggested to my mother, why don’t we open a restaurant! Since I can speak Thai and the grocery store can act as a stable supplier, we decided to overtake the Thai restaurant on Longgang Road which was about to close down and this was how we opened our first store.”
At the end, the restaurant took Chaophraya as its name to pay tribute, not only to their home and the spirit of the Mekong River, but also to the other restaurant that his grandmother used to own, which had the same name. From such, we can vaguely sense a family heritage.
The little finds in the attic have initiated B’s idea of opening a restaurant. Yet, the courage to really start his own business was inspired by his previous experience of being a translator for a Thai monk.
“In the past, I would feel that knowing how to speak Thai is useless. It was not until I grew up did I realize that not a lot of people can speak Thai, and even fewer is fluent in both Chinese and Thai like I am.” Due to his unique background and language skills, he came in contact with a Thai monk through his family and became the translator for the monk when he was in Hong Kong. “This became a turning point in my life and because of this I got to know a lot of people, more than you can ever imagine. Say if you were working in a specific industry, you would only get to know the people within that industry; but after I became the translator for the monk, I got to know people from all different kinds of industries and this has given me confidence to open my first restaurant.”
His advantageous language ability has given him easy access to Thai culture, which he used to understand more about his family roots. Last year, he followed such roots and went back to Thailand to take part in ordain practice.
Traditional Thai culture and Buddhism are inseparable, and almost every Thai boy has experienced a short-term ordain practice. This sort of short term training ranges from seven days to three months, and during the period, each practitioner is required to shave their hair and eyebrows and to walk barefoot on the oil cypress road and pavements, going from door to door to beg for alms. “I asked the monk I followed if I could have ordain practice at his temple and he immediately said yes. I became a monk for seven days with no special reason. Since I am half Thai, I felt that I should experience it for once. I chanted every day, cleaned the place and went out to beg for alms. The process of begging for alms is very hard because there are lots of car accidents on the roads of rural areas in Thailand, so there were broken glasses everywhere. Since monks cannot wear shoes, we just had to walk on the gravel and broken glasses to go beg for alms.”
Before departure, he brought a prepaid SIM card at the airport, but later found out that it couldn’t be used. “I originally intended to use it at night when I’m bored, so I could go on the internet. Now I feel that the internet-free experience was in fact a delightful accident, because I got to spend seven days without using a mobile phone. At first I was very frustrated because I did not have access to information like I did in Hong Kong. Yet after three days, my mind was almost blank and I felt very comfortable mentally.”
“If there is a chance, I would like to go again.” He laughed and said.
Apart from digging deep into the cultures of Thailand and learning to run his business from his roots, B also cherishes the local culture. If you look at the furnitures and decorations in the store closely, you would find shadows of our old Hong Kong. He said, “Apart from Thailand, I also wanted to add in Hong Kong elements, such as the tables here which were made majorly by Hong Kong artisans, and the chairs which were bought from old-fashioned grocery stores in Hong Kong. They look a lot like Starred-A design stools but apparently Starred-A has already stopped producing goods, so I looked around for quite some time until I found this alternative replacement made by New Ocean.”
In addition to vintage goods and handmade products, there are also traces of local fashionable brands in his restuarant. B himself is a vintage goods fanatic, and because he has a good relationship with local vintage brand Workware, he made a set of denim uniforms for his staff to prevent them in being frustrated about what to wear to work. With hats and aprons as well, this uniforms worn by every staff in the restaurant is printed with “Chaophraya” and “Workware”, making it a collaborative project.
B also pointed at the plant decorations on the wall and told us that it was created by local plant art brand Plantist. “There isn’t a lot of plant art for store fronts in Hong Kong. Our customers think that it is very interesting to have such a large scale plant decoration.”
During meal time, B first introduced to us the “Pumpkin & Soft-Shell Crab” and said, “This dish is an experiment by our chief and I. At first, we came up with “Curry Crab”, but even though it tasted very good, the shells were very troublesome to dismantle so we switched to soft-shell crab instead. We chose pumpkin because it matches very well with curry, and our curry is sweet. It’s not easy to choose the right pumpkin though, as it has to be the perfect size and we must choose it ourselves. We use the orange pumpkin from Japan because the shape of Thai pumpkin is not that attractive, plus orange pumpkin and yellow curry is more matching in color anyways.”
Then came the “Grilled Chicken (with Bamboo Scent) & Sticky Rice”, an original dish by the new store. He further explained, “This bamboo clip was actually made by bamboos which were brought back by one of our staff from his home town in Thailand. It was then manually filed and grilled with the chicken. This is why when you eat the chicken, you would slightly feel the fresh scent from the bamboo shoot.”