Hee’s Garden, an iconic Cantonese restaurant in Auckland, closes after 42 years serving Chinese communities
Hee’s Garden, an iconic Cantonese restaurant in Mount Eden, is set to close on Wednesday after 42 years of hospitality. Unlike other restaurants hit by the pandemic, its closure is due to the termination of its lease and plans to develop the property for a different crisis, housing.
For loyal customer Tony Yang, Hee’s Garden was his first dining out experience in New Zealand, on December 15, 1986. “I still remember it very well,” said Yang. He invited his friends Peter Lao and Peter Wong, also long-serving fans, to join him to reminisce, and share a last meal together.
Hee’s Garden has been serving yum cha and popular southern Chinese dishes like Peking duck. Yang and his friends’ favourites were siu mai, chicken feet, prawn dumplings, and rice rolls.
Lao said “everyone knows this restaurant”. He and his friends were very sad to see it close. “Not that much changed” since it first opened, he said.
* Amid loss and separation, Chinese New Year traditions take on special meaning
* Chinese Language Week: Chinese Kiwis reconnecting with their native language
* Chinese Language Week: Talking food connects Auckland chef to his parents
* Waikanae restaurant, takeaway business on the market
Wynsome Wong, who had worked at Hee’s Garden for 35 years and owned the restaurant for 28 said, “The closure of Hee’s Garden in Mount Eden doesn’t mean the closure of the legacy of Hee’s Garden.
“There might be another Hee’s Garden somewhere else in some later time. You never know … I would be quite happy,” said Wong.
The restaurant was founded by two men who had migrated to New Zealand from Hong Kong in the 70s and began operating the restaurant in 1981. One of the men was Wong’s ex-husband, Mr Tong.
He was the son of a very successful restaurateur who had owned about seven Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, said Wong. With his training, he was the main chef, and they locally recruited “whoever they could grab” to work in the kitchen when it first opened.
The owners studied the menus from her father-in-law and made changes according to the ingredients, materials and seasonings they could acquire in Auckland. Wong said they were able to adjust the cooking according to the tastes of Chinese and non-Chinese customers.
Around the late 70s there were “hardly many Chinese people in New Zealand or in Auckland and not many Chinese restaurants,” according to Wong. Their sweet and sour pork was an iconic dish.
Wong began working part-time doing administration, payroll and other paperwork. When her two business partners left the restaurant for different reasons in 1989, Wong took over and ran it with the help of family and staff.
The name Hee’s Garden 喜鹊酒楼 came from the original restaurant in Hong Kong.
Another Hee’s Garden was later opened in Toronto by one of Tong’s brothers, after migrating to Canada. ‘Hee’ is anglicised from ‘hei2 zoek3’ (喜鹊) meaning magpie in Cantonese, which symbolises happiness and good luck.
“It’s a little bird that always sings and chirps [and they’re] very happy. So my father-in-law’s intention was that people who come in the restaurant can be as happy as a magpie,” said Wong. “They can meet up with friends … sing and dance together … to have happiness and to enjoy friendship and social connection.”
Hee’s Garden occupies a corner on Mount Eden Road which used to be a chemist, dairy and picture frame shop. Wong said when they announced the start of building the restaurant, they received a lot of objections from locals who wanted to keep the shops.
“Ironically, the first customers we started to serve were those who had raised objections to the opening of the restaurant.”
All the decor and materials were directly imported from China with Wong’s father-in-law’s help. “The style of Hee’s Garden … is the typical style of most Chinese restaurants in China and Hong Kong at that time.”
The interior design of the restaurant had attracted several television producers to film advertisements inside.
“We make changes; we make moderations according to the requirements of the society [and] of the communities,” said Wong. She believes that the restaurant has been able to survive because of their adaptability to different phases and needs of society.
For example, when the Government opened the country’s doors to immigrants in 1989 after the 1987 stock market crash, many people according to Wong, came from Taiwan and Hong Kong because of the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China. To cater for the preferences of these groups, Hee’s Garden started yum cha from 1992, a Cantonese food tradition.
Wong retired in 2017 after working there for 35 years. “For me, I’m happy that I have owned it and run it for such a long time.”
She learnt a lot from running the restaurant and it was a training ground for her children that made them into who they are today, Wonga said. Since her retirement, Peter Guo and Emmy Lai are two of the three owners of Hee’s Garden.
Guo worked for Hee’s Garden for about four years before taking on the restaurant. During his last six years of ownership, the restaurant has dealt with growing competition from other Cantonese restaurants in Auckland, and more recently the challenges of Covid-19.
Prior to the arrival of the virus, the restaurant catered to many Chinese tourist groups. To mitigate the loss of the crowds during the pandemic, their menu was put onto food delivery apps like Menulog, Uber Eats and Hungry Panda.
Following Wong’s principle of adjusting to the changes in society, the owners employed new chefs from northern China to add specialist regional dishes like hot pot beef and kung pao chicken to their mainly southern Chinese menu.
“I think the older immigrants from China are mostly from [southern China]” said Guo, but he has noticed that more recently Chinese immigrants have come from the North and wanted to add northern dishes to the menu, “but not too much”. Barbecue dishes such as roasted duck, char siu, and roasted pork belly are very popular among Chinese and non-Chinese customers.
Emmy Lai became a waitress at Hee’s Garden in 2003, after working at other Chinese restaurants in Wellington and Auckland.
“The customers have been quite supportive even after all these years of business,” said Lai*. There are lots of loyal customers who have been coming since the time she started. She will miss seeing the customers’ children grow up.
Following the closure of Hee’s Garden, Lai will retire. “On behalf of Hee’s Garden, I’m really thankful for our customers’ support over all of these years.”
Guo said he enjoyed witnessing the restaurant being a part of families’ social rituals.
“When two generations start coming to our restaurant, [it] just makes you very happy.” He remembers a boy who used to sit in the high chair in the restaurant and is now bringing his girlfriend there to eat crayfish.
He witnessed older customers around their 70s and 80s come most days of the week for yum cha, unofficially claiming specific seats and being so regular with their orders staff knew what they wanted to eat.
Wong’s most treasured memories of the restaurant are all the friends she has made through it. “Some of them have become my longtime friends.”
*The interview with Emmy Lai was conducted in Cantonese and has been translated to English.
Denial of responsibility! galaxyconcerns is an automatic aggregator around the global media. All the content are available free on Internet. We have just arranged it in one platform for educational purpose only. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials on our website, please contact us by email – [email protected]. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.