Bor Kee at Champagne Court
Looking back, i’ve probably visited more than a hundred old shops and their owners in the past couple of years, and some of them particularly touch my heart. Bor Kee is one of those very special ones. I feel compelled to write a good story to give justice to their long history. The story starts with my encounter with Andrew, the son of Uncle Bor. In today’s busy Tsim Sha Tsui district, surrounded by branded shops, you won’t see too many reminders of our childhood days, but every so often you come across an exception to the rule. In the basement of Champagne Court Block B, a building with over 60 years of history, you’ll find Bor Kee Provisions Store. A shop that personifies the struggle of a hard-working Chiu Chow family.
Uncle Bor arrived in Hong Kong from Mainland China in the 1960s, and with help from a relative, he started working in a stall that sold rice in a very popular neighbourhood hangout place. After a while, though, he thought to himself that rather than working for someone else, he should try to start his own business. And so in 1970 he established a provisions stall in Hankow Road. The landlord kept putting the rent up - similar story to today - and so he first moved to Kimberly Street in 1982 and then finally landed in the current location at Champagne Court, near the now Mira Hotel. Uncle Bor gets really emotional when remembering the sacrifices he made for his relatives in mainland China. He did everything he could to help them leave the mainland and settle in HK, but in return came disappointment and heart-break when things didn’t work out. You can feel the kinship spirit he has and it pains to see this old man not being able to let go of the past.
The dried food stall started as a retail shop but slowly evolved to be a preferred supplier for nearby restaurants. There’s a real variety of provisions here, include bottled sauces, canned food, rice, dried Chinese food ingredients and much more. Uncle Bor has a typical Chiu Chow entrepreneurial spirit, full of ideas, and he started sourcing good suppliers and building connections with them. Auntie Bor is also very good at networking, and she worked on building partnerships with the restaurants. There are quite a number of Korean restaurants in the TST area, and through the years Uncle and Auntie Bor have become very good friends with the Korean community, who in turn have been staunch supporters of Bor Kee.
For many years, the basement of Champagne Court had its own community with shoe shops, a wood carpenter, food stores and more. Nowadays, only Bor Kee and a local tea house are left. Andrew told me that when he was little, he remembers his Mum and Dad together with him and his sister had to bunk up inside the warehouse with a single wooden board for a bed for the whole family to sleep on. Their daily shower was a running water tap and a few loose wooden boards in the back alleyway. Uncle and Auntie worked every single day, Sundays included, and only ever took 3 days off a year, at Chinese New Year, in order to save up to send their four children abroad for education. Not for them the traditional Chinese culture of only looking after the sons, they ensured all their children were entitled to a good education. Very forward thinking indeed.
As for Andrew, he graduated in the United States and obtained a licence as a practising Architect. When he returned to Hong Kong, he also served as a Police Inspector for a few years. When the time came for Uncle Bor to retire, however, Andrew decided to take on the family business and safeguard this place and its memories. He insists his parents put no pressure on him at all, it was the fact that they had made sacrifices their entire lives to help give their children the best possible start in life, and now it was his turn to give something back to them. His decision illustrates the great love he has for his parents. On the day of the interview, Uncle and Auntie kept asking me to stay to eat, a real home-made Chiu Chow lunch. In the old days, Uncle Bor used to cooked lunch for the whole family and the staff, which was constantly interrupted by taking orders, sorting out invoices and greeting customers all at the same time.
And now, sadly, fast-forwarding to present day, Bor Kee Provisions Store faces a certain relocation. It can no longer escape the hands of the property developers, who for years have been buying out units in Block B of Champagne Court and have given Bor Kee one more year to operate. This understated yet very special place in the basement will become just another memory of old Hong Kong.
Perhaps if you are in the area over the next few months, go and say hello to this very welcoming family.