Hon Kee Café – A Hidden Gem in Macau’s Coloane Village
Walk towards the ferry pier in Coloane Village, then turn right, and trek over the hill until you see a row of eerie, abandoned shipyards on your left. Keep walking until you reach a jumble of colorful, corrugated iron houses. This is Lai Chi Vun Village, where most of Coloane’s boat builders used to live. A little further ahead is Hon Kee Café… essentially a large open shed with just four wooden tables, ringed by tall trees, which provide additional shade and almost cause you to miss the unassuming place altogether.
I must have walked past this gem a hundred times, never giving it a second thought. Then, one day not too long ago, a local woman told me about Ah Hon, owner of Hon Kee Café. Both, man and café, turn out to be nothing less than local legends…
Many years ago, Ah Hon was one of the young boat builders working in the shipyards. In 1986, an accident with a rusty saw nearly severed his left arm just above the elbow. Two bones, muscles, and blood vessels were gone. Ah Hon almost lost his life that day due to severe blood loss. In the weeks that followed, his body fought against life-threatening infections. His doctors urged him to amputate the arm but, as our stubborn local hero let CNN know during an interview in 2013, “I told the surgeon I’d rather not live than live without my arm.”
Thankfully, Ah Hon’s body won the battle against the infections. However, many surgeries and experimental nerve transplants later, Ah Hon’s arm had shrunk to the circumference of a thin bamboo stick. It was clear, he would never be able to work as a boat builder again.
At a loss of how to earn a living and provide for his family, Ah Hon began thinking of transforming one of the abandoned buildings in his village into a café for the boat builders. His first application for a restaurant license was rejected by the government. Not willing to give up, Ah Hon wrote a letter to the Portuguese mayor of Macau, imploring him to interject on his behalf. The mayor did… and the government authorities relented.
Despite his weak left arm, or rather, as a self-made form of physiotherapy, Ah Hon began building his café all by himself. He fortified the structure of the abandoned shed. He built his own furniture. By the time he opened Hon Kee Café in 1991, Ah Hon’s mangled arm had regained a little of its functionality and strength. This was encouraging, but compared to its former brawniness, the arm still felt useless.
What else could Ah Hon do?
Kung Fu, a simple wood stove, and coffee provided the answer.
Ah Hon built himself a wooden dummy in a small alcove inside the café and began practicing Kung Fu on it. “I am no Kung Fu Master,” he says, “but practicing daily on the dummy certainly helped me regain my physical power.” To exercise even more, he bought the heaviest axe he could find and pushed himself to chop wood for his coffee stove on a daily basis.
During the café’s early days, a foreign couple stumbled upon it. They decided to escape the afternoon heat and have an iced coffee in the shade. Soon, they engaged in lively conversation with Ah Hon and suggested to him to hand-beat his coffee, to lend it a unique strong texture and taste. Ah Hon dismissed the idea at the time. Then, one day the famous Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat stopped by and ordered a coffee. Star struck and embarrassed to serve the great international movie star a regular cup, Ah Hon remembered what the couple had taught him and made his very first hand-beaten coffee.
He has been hand-beating his coffee ever since.
According to Ah Hon, he beats each cup 400 times. This, of course, also with his left hand, which, through the café owner’s many years of relentless exercising, is back to its former vigor. Ah Hon uses instant coffee powder for his one-of-a-kind brew. First, he stirs a spoonful of thick coffee mixture for a few hundred rounds at high speed until it thickens. The process takes a few minutes. When more hot water is added to the coffee, a thick layer of foam and cream rises to the top, creating an unusually viscous texture and an irresistibly aromatic scent.
As for food, Ah Hon’s is the simplest and most charming menu I have ever laid eyes on. You have your choice of either toast or instant noodles, with egg, pork, or canned sardines. To add additional spiciness, there is a small squeeze bottle of homemade chili sauce on each table, which I personally find irresistible.
Since 2005, all of Lai Chi Vun’s shipyards have been abandoned. However, even with his initial customer base gone, Ah Hon’s café keeps going strong. Local and international TV stations and newspapers still pay him the odd visit. Macanese as well as Mainland Chinese customers come for some instant noodles and the famous hand-beaten “Chow Yun Fat” coffee. Ah Hon’s story has inspired many. A visit to the humble and cozy Hon Kee Café reminds his customers that everything is possible if your heart is in the right place and you never give up.
Hon Kee Café
Merendas de Lai Chi Vun Park, Coloane, Macau, +853 2888 2310
Open daily, except Wednesdays, from 7:00am to 6:00pm