Shin Hong-woo first came to Hong Kong in 1981 as a consul in Seoul’s diplomatic mission.
In the career diplomat’s initial years in Hong Kong, he and many of his compatriots pined for a taste of home, with authentic Korean cuisine a genuine rarity here.
Shin then began to entertain the thought of running a Korean restaurant. The decision came in 1993 when he quit his job for a sortie into the food business. The consulate-to-kitchen switch shocked his family and colleagues, with many bewildered by his jumping off the gravy train to start his own business on a whim, with zero job security, and, on foreign soil.
He named his restaurant Sorabol, the ancient name of his hometown Gyeongju.
Shin’s foray was everything but smooth sailing, as it turned out.
The biggest blow came in 1997 when the local economy was scourged by the Asian financial crisis. Had it not been for his landlord’s compassionate offer of rent concessions, Shin would have closed his then four-year-old restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Shin’s business survived, and while eateries and food joints always come and go in key commercial precincts, his restaurant is still in the same venue as when Shin welcomed his first patron 24 years ago, with the lease extended eight times already.
Interestingly, the myth about kimchi as a dietary therapy against influenza helped his restaurant buck the industry-wide recession during the 2003 SARS pandemic.
While other caterers experienced slow business as Hongkongers stayed home, Shin was inundated with customers. Many thought the fermented napa cabbage and radishes might be why Korea recorded single-digit infections and zero death, even when the deadly contagion wrought havoc in other parts of Asia.
Today, Shin’s restaurant still serves the special set meal which includes kimchi.
In recent years, the cult following of K-pop, Korean TV dramas and movies has given a further boost to Hongkongers’ appetite for Korean cuisine.
For instance, My Love from the Star, a sensational hit that intoxicated fans in Hong Kong and across Asia, has also made Korean-style fried chicken and Gejang – crab in soy sauce – the new favorite of foodies at Shin’s restaurant, where fusion dishes and seasonal items have found their way into the menu.
But the signature dishes remain unchanged: kimchi, gogi-gui (Korean barbecue) and, of course, bibimbap.
Shin’s own favorite is samgye-tang, or ginseng chicken soup.
His dedication to authentic ingredients and ways of preparation may be seen as obstinate when there is always a long queue outside almost all Korean restaurants in the city.
Rather than sourcing pre-processed, canned products from mainland suppliers, Shin makes sure his kimchi is still salted and pickled by experienced Koreans in the restaurant. And when local produce is not in season, all vegetables are transported by air from Korea. He even refuses to make kimchi less spicy or salty simply to suit Hongkongers’ taste.
That steadfastness earned Shin a name check in 2011 in the prestigious Michelin Guides (Hong Kong edition), the first ever Korean restaurant in the city to be honored by the discerning culinary specialists.
The recognition also made headlines back in Shin’s hometown, and the local TV station even sent a crew to Hong Kong for a feature program about his restaurant.
Contrary to the prevailing complaints about the adversities facing SMEs and start-ups, Shin rates Hong Kong’s business environment and rule of law highly. Cultural and geographical proximity also add to the appeal.
“We Koreans can understand some of the traditional Chinese characters used here, so living and getting around in the city is relatively easy. And it’s less than four hours by air to Korea, so whenever I feel homesick, I can just head to the airport and in a few hours’ time I’m home.”
Having spent 36 years in Hong Kong, Shin, now 65, will go back to his idyllic hometown after retirement to indulge in his lifetime hobby — farming, a genuine luxury in Hong Kong.
Sorabol, from just one location, has expanded to Causeway Bay, Macau, Singapore and the mainland.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 22
Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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