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Capturing 80s Hong Kong at Bao Bei

Hong Kong in the 1980s was in a league of its own.

The international airport was in the middle of the city, making for precarious landings, Kowloon Walled City, the most crowded place on earth, was thriving, and Victoria Harbour was a little on the nose, so many used the name “Hong Kong”, which translates to “fragrant harbor”, ironically.

And of course there was the neon. As iconic as its skyline and food culture, Hong Kong’s neon sign aesthetic inspired films including Blade Runner and has become snyonymous with the nation.

Thirty years later, and neon is fading into the past. Heritage groups have moved in to preserve this intangible culture, but there are estimates that as much as 90% of the city’s neon has been lost in the last twenty years.

To walk into Bao Bei, Vise Hospitality’s newest restaurant, is to walk into 80s Hong Kong nostalgia. A cacophony of colors and smells clamor for attention from the moment I step in, while the attentive staff quickly catches me at the entrance and promptly shows my party to our seats. Through the speakers, one of Hong Kong’s greatest singers croons a massive hit from the 80s. It’s instantly recognisable to all Saigonese, as the song has a Vietnamese version.

The in-house design team commissioned each neon sign in the establishment to fit with the feel of the restaurant, which moves through the various enclaves of Hong Kong as one goes further into the building. It starts out with a streetside dining vibe covered in neon menus calling out various dishes, and quickly moves past various train station signs to a serene Chinese tea house around the corner.

They’ve kept the neon mainly purple, wisely capitalizing on the current global Miami Vice trend of a mostly purple neon palette, signalling that while this is a homage to the 80s, it is also well entrenched in the present. The decor also works because the neon does not contend with the food for one’s attention.

The menu is inspired, showcasing many classic Cantonese dishes that are not in regular rotation at other Cantonese-style eateries in Saigon, as the Bao Bei team want to capture the spirit of Hong Kong in the 80s – a palate that includes regional influences that are consumed as “everyday food” even today. The classics are here in larger variety – dim sum includes the rarely seen crystal-skin dumplings and the roast meat selection includes roast duck. There’s also pan-fried white radish cake, crispy fried egg noodles, steamed eggs and meats cooked in XO sauce, black bean sauce and black pepper sauce. They’re all delicious. The local Saigon favorites are here too - deep fried calamari, dumplings, Hong Kong-style roast meats, kung pao stir-fries, sweet and sour dishes and a variety of buns.

The crossovers between Saigonese food and Cantonese food also deserve a mention, such as the rice flour rolls, or banh cuon, treated here in Hong Kong style chee cheong fun. The yum cha classic of Lo Mai Gai, steamed glutinous rice stuffed with a mix of meat and mushroom and wrapped in a lotus leaf, is available here, as is the chicken feet.

Apart from just Cantonese food, Bao Bei are singlehandedly trying to broaden the Chinese menu selection by including regional dishes from the Chinese diaspora too. Family-style dishes such as Three Cup Chicken and Xiao Long Bao originally hail from Taiwan, and there are a few Sichuan-style dishes dotted throughout the menu, such as the fried string beans with fermented chilli bean paste. The region is famed for their love of spicy food and a pepper so potent that scientific papers investigate its tongue numbing effects.

Bao Bei also gives guests who have never experienced the joy of black chicken an opportunity. The Silkie chicken, a black-fleshed chicken with black bones and blue earlobes, is commonly understood to have more medicinal benefits than an average white-fleshed chicken, is double boiled with Chinese herbs and sold here. Like all other chicken soups across cultures, this is purported to be a cure-all for anyone low in energy – it can make your cold feel better, make your children do better at school and aid with post-partum recovery.

What the Bao Bei team are most proud of is their goose. I chose the “Chiu Chow” style braised version from yet another region of China. The dish's growing popularity in Hong Kong resulted in a 2018 write up in the Michelin guide for a restaurant specializing in the dish. It comes out well-braised, the bone almost crumbling as you pick at it.

One of the things I miss most about Cantonese food in Saigon is the huge variety of condiments. Thankfully, they are in abundance at Bao Bei. For starters, there’s vinegar at the table. As common a condiment as white pepper and soy sauce on many tables in Hong Kong, it is far too absent in Saigon.

Moreover, there are also five types of chilli. Saigon’s chilli game is on point, and Bao Bei has taken it to the next level with their chilli oil.

Bao Bei’s sophisticated older sister, Qui, may be all warm lighting and soft edges, but Bao Bei, true to theme, has a “family dining in a neon alley” vibe.

The tables are another unique touch. Where traditional tables are usually made of dark wood with marble tops, Bao Bei updates this style with a dark marbled top in pinks and dark blues to match the fish scale tiles that line the windows looking into its kitchen.

Perhaps the most telling modernization is Bao Bei’s name. It means “precious” or “beloved” in Mandarin, a language widely adopted in Hong Kong long after the 1980s

When we get up to leave Bao Bei, we are left with full bellies, satisfied palettes and memories of the neon shimmery fever dream that was Hong Kong in the golden age of its cinema. Overhead, another Cantonese hit plays, “Kiss Goodbye.”: an apt farewell for a restaurant that seems to care about its customers so well.

 

Bao Bei's website

Bao Bei's Facebook

090 136 33 88

285 Cach Mang Thang Tam, D10, Ho Chi Minh City

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