Hong Kong Restaurants
With apologies to Rupert Brooke, there’s a Hong Kong British pub that is forever England. The Better Ole in the Northern New Territories has been in the Yuen family for three generations, one of a dwindling number of family-run eateries in a city awash in chain restaurants.
Hong Kong Pub Favoured by British Troops
The exact origins of the Better Ole are hard to pin down. There is a neon sign over the bar saying that it was founded in 1947, but yellowing newspaper clippings indicate that the English pub might actually have been founded earlier than that.
The only thing that is clear is that by the early 1950s, the Better Ole had become a favoured hang-out of British troops and police officers stationed in the New Territories, serving hearty dishes from the homeland at prices that underpaid servicemen and civil servants could afford.
With political turmoil in the mainland in the 1950s and 60s, the Better Ole’ also became a hangout for journalists, who were unable to get visas to cover events in China, which was undergoing a series of tumultuous political upheavals.
First came the Land Reforms, then the anti-Rightest campaign, then the Great Leap Forward, then the Cultural Revolution.
With such chaotic movements sweeping the country, journalists would travel to the border at Lowu and catch a return train, interviewing travelers exiting China.
If they turned up anything newsworthy (and they often did), they would hop off the train at Fanling to file their stories by telephone at the Better Ole, which was originally located a hop, skip, and a jump from the Fanling Railway Station.
The pub serves as an important footnote in Hong Kong history, particularly in New Territories history.
Hong Kong Pub Served as Window on China
“For a while in the 1960s, the Better Ole briefly became the cockpit from which the world looked on China,” the late Kevin Sinclaire once wrote in the South China Morning Post.
“I remember catching the first trains up to Sheung Shui, the last station before the border, and waiting for the 10.30 am train coming down from Lowu.
“Travellers from Guangzhou would have rattled down to the border, crossed the Lowu Bridge under the stern gaze of Chinese soldiers and the surly glare of fanatical Red Guards and, with great relief, got on the train to Kowloon ….
“By the time the train got to Fanling, we’d have a story, would leap off the train and run to the Better Ole to grab the phone and call through the story to four offices.
“Many a twist in the revolutionary fury got out to a startled world via a telephone call from the Better Ole.”
The Yuen family took over the Better Ole in the 1950s. When a new railway station was built, they were forced to move the business to the centre of Fanling, one of the many market towns scattered across the New Territories.
In the years that followed, more outlets were added in other market towns such as Taipo and Sheung Shui. One by one they closed, falling victim to urban renewal. The Sheung Shui Better Ole is the only one that survives to this day.
Best Restaurants in Hong Kong
In 2018, third-generation restaurateur Stuart Yuen took over the helm of the Better Ole, which is believed to be the oldest British-style pub in continuous operation in the New Territories. The popular watering hole is also one of the oldest such pubs in all of Hong Kong.
With a history of more than seven decades, the Better Ole was a bit worse for wear when Stuart took over.
One of his first orders of business was to carry out some well-needed renovations and purchase some new equipment. Then he set about rediscovering the pub’s storied past.
Stuart had long conversations with his grandmother, asking her about what things were like when she was his age.
New Hong Kong Menu
According to Stuart’s grandmother, she took the bus to Yuen Long every morning to procure freshly slaughtered pork and other fresh ingredients.
One of the ingredients was fresh coconut milk, which was a key ingredient in a curry dish that was particularly popular with the servicemen and journalists that frequented the place.
Stuart decided it was time to re-think the menu, trimming some old dishes that had fallen out of favour and adding some new dishes that he thought would find favour with contemporary diners.
He has also revived some old favourites, such as the curry dish made with fresh coconut milk that had been ever-so popular with servicemen and journalists in the days of yore.
Colonial Style Hong Kong Food
The Better Ole serves a colonial-style Western menu that runs from grilled steaks and pub favourites to pasta, fresh salads, vegetarian dishes, seafood, and rice plates. There are lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner set menus.
According to Stuart, customer favourites include home-made Russian borscht, pig’s knuckle, and escargot imported from France, which he describes as “the best in Hong Kong”.
One of Stuart’s brain storms was a re-think of the set menus. My personal favourite is the Steak and Escargot Set Dinner, which is served Monday to Thursday evening from 5.30 pm for as long as it lasts. And that usually works out to 70 covers.
The three-course meal starts with a choice of lobster bisque or Russian borscht, followed by a choice of escargot or smoked salmon salad.
The main course is sirloin steak cooked to order with sides and a choice of three sauces. Coffee or tea is included. An upgrade to wine is available.
Priced at HK$99, this has got to be one of the best deals in town!
Introducing Stuart Yuen
A third-generation restaurateur, Stuart Yuen (32) was born in Sydney, Australia, but he spent his formative years in Hong Kong.
He attended Pui Ling Primary School and St. Francis Middle School, both of which are located in Fanling in the Northern New Territories.
Stuart went to Australia to further his studies at the University of Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese and English Literature and a Master of Arts in translation. Stuart has also trained as a pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu in London. Fluent in Cantonese and English, Stuart returned to Hong Kong is 2012 to join the family business.
Stuart was appointed General Manager of the popular Sheung Shui pub in 2018.
Better Ole – 35 – 39 Fu Hing Street, Sheung Shui, New Territories, Hong Kong. Tel: (852) 2639-2286.
The historic Hong Kong restaurant one of the most popular restaurants in Sheung Shui. It is a short walk from the Sheung Shui MTR Station on the East Rail Line.
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