One week after arriving in Hong Kong, on a Monday night, I found myself sitting around two old tables, surrounded by unfamiliar faces; a laundry basket filled with drinks was placed next to me, and a steaming hot platter of dumplings was placed in front of me. At that moment and for the following four hours, I was at Mr. Wong’s.
The past week of settling into Hong Kong was filled to the brim with trials and tribulations: from navigating the country’s strict COVID policies (which included quarantining in a hotel for three days, then self-monitoring with rapid tests and avoiding dine-in areas for the following four), to unlocking my debit card after it was flagged for fraud at a local ATM, to handling jet lag and a 12-hour time difference from my friends and family in Philadelphia. After one week, my roommate Julie and I were looking forward to being able to eat out and meet new people, as our quarantine period had conflicted with many of the international welcome events at Hong Kong University. We were lucky enough to join a group of incoming students in a guided tour of the Central region, during which our tour guide gave me another exchange student’s number. He said that she and a few others were getting dinner together, and that we would likely be welcome to join. Obviously, my FOMO and my desire to make friends made me text her right away!
A few hours of navigating the Hong Kong subway later, Julie and I found ourselves in an alley in the region of Mong Kok, a 30-minute ride from our apartment. All of the restaurant signs were in Chinese (and we do not read Chinese). After pacing up and down the street for a minute or two, Google Maps lead us to a narrow, brightly lit business; giant red characters adorned the sign, and sliding glass doors gave way to a modest dining area, in which about ten international students were squished around two small tables. This was Mr. Wong’s, the infamous restaurant where for just HK $88 (about US $11), you received all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink. After we met the others and sat, huge platters were placed in front of us, containing heaps of dumplings and spring rolls, mounds of steamed broccoli with nuts, hearty chicken and beef dishes, pounds of noodles, and fried fish in a pineapple sauce. It was an amazing first meal out after having to eat in our rooms for the past week, and an almost reassuring breath of fresh air after a stressful start to the abroad experience. The energetic Mr. Wong himself came up to us right away and immediately started chatting with us. He might be the most jovial restaurant owners I’ve ever encountered; you could tell how excited he was to joke with us, ask us about our home countries, and serve us. We spent the next four hours there until the restaurant closed at 10pm and we continued outside on the sidewalk. With how friendly and open the environment and company were, it was hard to imagine that we had only just met everyone that night. We waved to Mr. Wong as he closed up shop, got in his car, and drove off into the night, vowing we would return.
And return we did; dubbing it “Mr. Wong Mondays,” an even larger group of us found our way back the following week, and the week after that. Word had spread fast; there were so many of us that Mr. Wong now puts together about 10 tables out back, forming an L shape in the small alley behind the restaurant! Just like the first time, he gave us all more than we could eat and drink, teased us and asked about our backgrounds, and made the night memorable. This personalized and unique dining experience, complete with cheap but delicious food and a spirited host, is definitely a Hong Kong specialty. I would recommend any international exchange student dine here in their first few weeks; it’s a great way to meet new people and eat your heart out. It’s certainly become a tradition of ours to frequent Mr. Wong’s, and I’m excited to return in the following weeks.