When Yung Kee Cooked Their Goose
Once upon a time, Yung Kee Roast Goose Restaurant was Michelin-accredited and listed in the world’s top 15 restaurants by Fortune Magazine (1968). And no wonder, as the restaurant was started in 1938 by a humble Kam Shui Fai, who, together with his family, built it into a billion dollar business after seven decades. Unfortunately, the restaurant never lived to reach its eighth.
The rise of Yung Kee has to be traced to its roots. Kam Shui Fai had no teacher, but as stall hand, he observed and curated his own technique and ingredients to master the perfect roast. Banking on sheer grit and determination, Kam was a self-made master chef. In 1942, he started his own business near the shipyard in Hong Kong.
Eventually, his two sons – Kinsen and Ronald – assisted Kam in the stall and grew Yung Kee into the iconic restaurant it was. As Hong Kong developed into a bustling city, Yung Kee grew along with it. Yung Kee transformed from a sidewalk food stall to a well sought after eatery in the central business district’s Wellington Street, serving thousands of tourists and locals. It was also one of the few traditional restaurants that was able to survive the astronomical land prices in Central Hong Kong.
When Kam passed away in 2004, he divided his shares in Yung Kee Holdings Ltd amongst three of his children – Kinsen (45%), Ronald (45%) and Mei Ling (10%). Ronald subsequently bought over his sister’s share, increasing his controlling stake to 55%. With so much money and power in the hands of so few, the fall of Yung Kee was undesired but unsurprising.
Despite Kam buying apartments for his sons in the same building, his departure only opened the gates for the brewing discontent to surface. With a greater stake in the company, Ronald was perceived by Kinsen to restrict his right to manage the company. Kinsen was further antagonised when Ronald appointed his own son to be a director in the company.
In mid-2010, Kinsen filed a suit for the liquidation of Yung Kee Holdings Ltd if Ronald refused to buy him out. The brothers could not privately agree on the sale price of Kinsen’s shares, thereby dragging the matter into the public’s eye. To pile misery upon misfortune, Kinsen passed away in 2012 due to cancer and never lived to receive his worth of shares.
This animosity and tension between the brothers continued to seep into the third generation. Kinsen and Ronald’s children and families still live in the same apartment that Kam bought. However, they are like complete strangers to one another. Even when they bump into each other in the lift, neither party acknowledges the other.
Mdm Kam is ruefully out of the picture. There is no mention of how she contributed to bring the family back together.
In 2015, after a long-drawn battle, the Hong Kong court gave the ultimatum for the brothers to reach an agreement on the value of Kinsen’s shares, or have the company liquidated. Ronald offered HK$1.1 billion for his shares, but Kinsen’s family demanded HK$1.3 billion. With that, the Kam family cooked their goose and in its 77th year, Yung Kee Roast Goose came to a close.
One may say that the legacy of roast goose continued through Kevin and Hardy Kam, the sons of Kinsen, since they progressed to open Kam’s Roast Goose following the close of Yung Kee. In fact, Kam’s Roast Goose was awarded its very own Michelin star, giving testament to the prevailing heritage that the grandsons of Kam Shui Fai carried in them.
However, from another perspective, it can be said that the legacy of Kam Shui Fai died along with him. Due to the bitter feud between the two brothers, Yung Kee lost its Michelin star in 2011. The culture that Yung Kee had built to serve all customers alike also turned into a practice of elitism, where customers were treated differently according to how much they were likely to spend.
Looking at this melodrama that smacks of Hong Kong soap operas, imagine how heartbroken the late Kam would be if he knew that Yung Kee would come to this end.
It is meaningless, then, for wealth to pass on without values transfer.
- Asia Sentinel: The Recipe For Chinese Family Business Failures
- Miss Tam Chiak: Kam’s Roast Goose: Moving On From Yung Kee to the Michelin Star
- South China Morning Post: Life after the goose feud: brothers open new restaurants in wake of Yung Kee battle
- The Straits Time: Hong Kong’s Yung Kee roast goose restaurant winds up after 5-year court tussle
- The Straits Time: Family feud could lead to Hong Kong losing roast goose institution Yung Kee