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Macau's kung fu coffee master
Amid abandoned shipyards an unusual cafe owner is blending Macau's most intriguing coffee
Life-threatening accident, kung fu training, chance meeting with a mysterious foreign couple, encounter with a golden movie star and a pot of instant coffee -- Leong Kam Hon’s story reads like a crazy Chinese adventure movie.
“Two bones, muscles, blood vessels -- all gone," says Leong. "But I told my doctor, giving up my arm means giving up my life.”
Leong, 55, is the Macanese owner of Hon Kee, a small café hidden in an abandoned shipyard in Macau.
He brings up his arm quickly in conversation, because had he lost it, he would never have gone on to brew the most famous coffee in Macau.
The coffee, which appears underwhelming when it comes to you, is as surprisingly flavorful as Leong's life.
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From kung fu to coffee
In 1986, Leong was working at a local shipyard when an accident with a rusty saw nearly severed his left arm just above the elbow.
Fearing an infection could put his life at risk, a surgeon advised Leong to have the arm removed completely.
Leong believed a ship-builder losing an arm would be like a musician losing his hearing. He refused the advice.
"I told the surgeon I'd rather not live than live without my arm," he says.
The arm was reattached and Leong was observed for signs of infection or restricted blood flow. His risk paid off -- the operation was a success.
Following the operation, Leong was transferred to a hospital in mainland China for an experimental nerve transplant.
“At the time of my operation, they were still developing the technology on lab rats in Guangzhou,” says Leong.
“The surgery went well but my arm -- which hadn’t been used for months -- had shrunk as thin as a bamboo stick.”
During the long recovery from the accident and subsequent medical procedures, Leong thought about alternatives to ship building (his arm remained weak long after the surgery), eventually hitting on the idea of opening a cafe that would serve the workers from various shipyards in the port.
"It wasn't an easy process," says Leong, recounting not just the difficult career transition, but the red tape that opening a business requires.
The local government rejected his initial application for a business license in 1990.
"They said it's an industrial area," recalls Leong. "But I had to make a living, so I wrote a letter to the Portuguese mayor of Macau. He granted my request regardless of the (local) official's initial rejection."
Leong got to work, first building his café from scratch, by himself.
In an effort to rebuild the strength in his arm, he also built a wooden dummy and began practicing kung fu on it.
“I remember the first night I finished practicing kung fu, I slept through the whole night without waking up in the middle of the night," he says. "The pain and numbness in my arm prevented me from sleeping well -- that was the first night in a very long time that I managed to sleep through the night.”
Ever since, Leong has practiced kung fu on the wooden dummy each morning.
“I’m no kung fu master, but it certainly helped me regain my strength and even have strength for blending my coffee,” he says.
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“Chow Yun-Fat” coffee
Leong says his self-styled kung fu training helped hone his coffee blending skills.
Leong's product isn't some sophisticated fresh roasted coffee. It actually comes from -- look away, coffee snobs! -- instant coffee powder.
It's the way Leong blends it, however, that makes it special.
First he stirs a spoonful of thick coffee mixture a few hundreds rounds at high speed, like a motor, until it thickens. The process takes a few minutes.
When water is added to the coffee, a thick layer of foam and cream rises to the top, creating an unusually creamy texture and aromatic smell.
“A foreign couple [Leong doesn't know from which country] taught me this way of coffee-making," he says. "They used to come every year during the Grand Prix, sit here and drink their coffee for the whole day."
“The last time they were here, they came to me and tried to teach me how to make a coffee.”
Unable to speak to each other -- the couple spoke English, Leong speaks only Cantonese -- they communicated through sign language.
That was in the early 2000s. Leong never heard from them again.
“It was so troublesome to make coffee (their) way," he says. "I used to just boil a whole pot of coffee. I didn’t give them much thought and continued to boil my coffee my own way until the day Chow Yun-Fat came to visit the cafe."
A local legend, the Hong Kong-born Chow is known internationally for his starring roles in movies such as John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” and Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Leong was star struck.
“I thought, 'what kind of coffee is good enough for a star like Chow?” he says.
The rest of the story isn't tough to figure out -- Leong blended the coffee the way he'd learned from the foreign couple.
Chow loved it, Leong says, claiming it tasted better than the coffee he had at his hotel.
Travelers, local and overseas media flocked to Hon Kee café for the “Chow Yun-Fat” coffee.
That was 2004.
The burst of fame came just in time. A sharp decline in the area shipping business had been hurting his business. As his customer base began losing their jobs, Leong was forced to take on outside work.
He feared he wouldn't be able to afford to stay in business, but the unexpected noteriety kept the café alive.
The media attention and fame were short-lived.
With its inconvenient location, Hon Kee is still off the radar for most travelers, and not widely known among locals.
Hon Kee café is in Lai Chi Wun Village in Coloane, on the southern side of Macau.
It’s in the area of one of the last fishing villages left in fast-developing Macau. This fact alone makes it an interesting excursion from the vibrant gaming and tourist scene that dominates most of Macau.
Getting there: If your cab driver doesn't know the way to Lai Chi Wun Village, you can start at Coloane city center and walk toward the shore. Turn right when you see Ponte Cais De Coloane (the pier in the picture above) and walk until you reach the police station. Then crest a small slope and walk by the shipyards. The entire walk takes about 10 minutes.
Hon Kee Cafe, Lai Chi Wun Road, Coloane City Center, Macau; +853 2888 2310; open daily except Monday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m.
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