September 30, 2021

Farewell, my favorite sandwich

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Tonight I am mourning the passing of Dan Yiu (姚有福) - who many of us knew as 福哥 - the former proprietor of my beloved Yue Hing (裕興). He was diagnosed with lung cancer just around 3 years ago, and I was sad to hear the news that he finally lost the battle and is no longer with us.

My first visit to this street stall was back in 2010, pretty much right after I saw my friend KC's post about their sandwich. This became my favorite place for breakfast sandwich in no time, and that was during the days when my life was a little more leisurely and no one batted an eyelid when I strolled in to work past 9:30. Just before what I thought would be a permanent departure from Hong Kong, I made sure to have one last breakfast there before leaving.  It was that important to me.

Thankfully I have made many return visits since then, and in fact notched up over 100 visits over a span of 9 years, For years this was one of my favorite places to have breakfast or lunch. The wait was somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes from the time your order was placed to the food arriving. The stall only had two burners, which had to handle cooking noodles, frying the noodle toppings or sandwich fillings - all while Dan was busy toasting the bread and mixing the drinks. Everything was cooked to order, and Dan was methodical and meticulous. It may be simple food, but you knew it was cooked with a lot of heart. And that meant waiting patiently for it.

Seats here are at the end of the street, with only a parasol to shield you from the elements. In the summer, I could be drenched in sweat after a bowl of their delicious instant noodles with luncheon meat, sausage, omelet and cabbage (全拼公仔麵). Sometimes the sewers didn't smell too nice. None of those put me off coming.

I have introduced their unique, signature luncheon meat and egg sandwich (午餐肉蛋三文治) to many friends, and some of them have, in turn, introduced it to their friends around the world. People are surprised by the combination when they see it. The sandwich with slices of pan-fried luncheon meat and scrambled eggs is found all over Hong Kong, but the addition of cooked cabbage in the mix is something I haven't seen elsewhere. Apparently this is an effort to give customers a balanced diet, and stems from Dan's mother telling him to eat more vegetables as a child.

But things really take a strange turn when you see peanut butter dripping from the sandwich. WTF?! How does THAT work? But it does, believe it or not. This was the change Dan made when he took over the stall from his father. And it's fucking genius!

There have been some major changes since I made my first visit. The most significant was the change in regulations regarding daipaidong (大排檔) - these types of old school street hawker stalls which are, believe it or not, properly licensed. The old rules dictated that the licenses could only be passed to a spouse, and as the license holders grew old and passed away, the number of licenses in issue dwindled down to a very, very small number. I suppose that was the intention of the Hong Kong government - to have this type of establishments die off naturally. But after some lobbying by the community a number of years ago, rules were changed so that licenses could be inherited by the offsprings of the holder. So Dan's father, who had started the stall in the 1960s, retired.

As the regulation change was taking place, the government came in and mandated new stalls, so Yue Hing - along with the other stalls on the same street - got new stainless steel structures. They also had switched to gas hobs and did away with the old charcoal stoves. Everything looked cleaner after the renovation, and there were new awnings, tables, and parasols.

The other was when Nissin (日清) bought Fuku Noodles (福字麵) from Taiwan's Uni-President Group (統一集團). The instant noodles here used to be made with Fuku Superior Soup Instant Noodles (福字上湯伊麵), which I really liked. After Nissin's takeover, there was apparently pressure to get them to switch over to Nissin's Demae Iccho (出前一丁). The soup base was different, and I missed the old taste. But there wasn't anything that any of us could do about that.

I remember when I first found out about Dan's cancer diagnosis. I was living with someone who was going through treatment for lung cancer, so it was something I could relate to. When Dan was strong enough to return to the stall after his first round of treatment finished, I went to visit the stall the day after he and Elaine reopened. We spoke about his treatment, his condition, as I wasn't totally unfamiliar with what this disease could do. I knew that he had a long road ahead of him, but hoped that he could somehow overcome this.

May 28, 2019 was the last time I saw Dan. I was lucky enough to have been able to order their corned beef and egg sandwich (咸牛肉蛋三文治) for lunch.  They usually run out of bread before noon, but Elaine knew that I always preferred their sandwiches over their instant noodles, and she let me know that they hadn't run out of bread that day.  I was really, really happy.  Little did I know that this would be my last bite at Yue Hing.

Two weeks after this visit, they announced that Dan was going back into treatment and the stall would be closed until further notice. They did reopen during the last 2 months of 2019, but by then I was already busy globetrotting both for business and for short weekend trips to eat. I didn't spend a lot of time in Hong Kong during those two months, and would never have to chance to give them any more business.

I knew the chance of Yue Hing reopening would be slim as long as Covid was still with us, but what I really hoped for was for Dan to get better. It didn't matter if they never reopened... that wasn't what's most important. Having brought us a lot of happiness through his food, I only wanted Dan and Elaine to have a happy life together. They deserve it.  They've earned it.

Thank you, Dan, for all the joy you and Elaine have brought me and my friends. You were always so busy, so I tried not to bother you by chatting with you too much. We were never really friends, but I hope you knew that I was a big fan and a loyal customer. My hundred visits would attest to that. I hope you found some peace after a lifetime of toiling behind the stall.   

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