Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Restaurant stories: Hong Kong Station
By Jerome Chou

 

Wallace Lai, 34, was born in Hong Kong. He attended boarding school and university in the UK, studying civil engineering, then moved back to Hong Kong to work at a graphic design company. He moved to New York in 2004, and opened Hong Kong Station, a build-your-own noodle soup restaurant in Chinatown in April, 2005.

“When I first got here, I think the food is really bad compared to Hong Kong. In China, if you’re rich, you don’t come to the U.S. A lot of people here are from the villages, they don’t know what good food is. A 2-3 star restaurant in Hong Kong is a 4-5 star restaurant here.”

Lai renovated the interior with a designer’s eye, installing track lighting and expensive tiling, but kept prices low: $1 for noodles, $1 for additional toppings like vegetables, squid, or beef. “Everything sold like crazy,” he says. He opened a second branch a year later, then a third in 2007. In 2009, construction on a new hotel next door to his Hester Street branch weakened the foundation of his building; the city later ordered the building demolished. Lai still operates one Hong Kong Station on Division Street, in a Fujianese area of Chinatown, and one on Bayard, which attracts mostly Cantonese and tourists.

“I look at their dress, I know which part of China they’re from. A lot of Fujianese guys have tattoos. The girls love bling, they’ve got white skin, they wear high heels. They work hard but they’re young, they can spend money. Some of them, maybe they have no bank account, maybe they have no social security number, they come in with rolls of money. When they feel happy, they eat.

For normal people, they rest on the weekends. But for restaurant workers, weekends are the busiest. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday nights they go out. A lot of people come from out-of-state for banquets. Say you work in Maryland, you take the bus to Chinatown in New York, and then go back to work after.”

To an outsider, Chinatown’s streets feel crowded, but Lai and other restaurant workers notice who’s missing. “Things have changed a lot around here. There’s a lot less people than three years ago. Now it’s a recession, people change their habits. Chinese people always save money, now they want to save even more. After 6pm or 7pm, it’s very quiet.

It’s getting harder and harder to run a business. A lot of people are unemployed, what do they do? They chip in to open restaurants together. There are so many new restaurants all the time, it’s hard to get loyal customers. Landlords won’t give you a long-term lease, they don’t trust you’ll make it. Before you could get a ten- to fifteen-year lease, and people would say ‘That’s it? Only ten years?!’ I got an eight-year lease and they said ‘That’s it?!’ Now, all you get is five-year or less.

My landlord is an old guy, very old style. He owns several buildings. He loves to save money. But the second generation is different. They don’t understand market value. They’ll increase the rent a lot, if you can’t afford it they’ll keep [the storefront] empty. They don’t need the money, they don’t want the headache. A lot of them work only Monday through Friday. After a few months, they go to the Bahamas, they go to China.

Right now, my life is career first. Maybe one day I’ll live somewhere else, close to nature. But right now it’s money first. Nothing luxury. I go to the gym and I work. That’s it. When I open my eye in the morning, I’m working. When I close my eye at night, I’m working. In five years, I want to open a Hong Kong Station franchise. Then I can take it easy a little bit. If you can survive right now, you’ll be great afterwards.”

2 Responses to Restaurant stories: Hong Kong Station

  1. Susan Yung says:

    Nice write up!

  2. Phil says:

    I met Wallace in person on New Years Eve with 2 of my friends. End up spending a few hours chatting with him over beer. It was great conversations and Wallace seems to be a nice guy that have a honest interest to make his restaurant great. Give the place a try – I highly recommend it.

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Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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