Farewell to Nam Fong 南方燒臘 After 35 Years in Chinatown
The classic Hong Kong-style roast meats shop is closing for good on Sunday, Sept. 24.
You may have seen the notice that went up earlier this month: Nam Fong’s last day of business will be Sunday, Sept. 24. I was shocked. For me, char siu and roast duck are synonymous with the meaty slabs hanging on hooks in Nam Fong’s window. It’s one of the quintessential businesses of Chinatown—old-school, no-frills, humble and beloved. My dad took me there when I was a little kid, but it’s way older than me.
I hurried to the shop on Maunakea Street for my last fill of char siu and roast duck and for the first time met owner Kim Chiu Tsun, who also goes by the name Dylan Tsun. He’s retiring, he told me. It’s time to close the shop after more than 35 years.
And I learned the story of Nam Fong. Tsun told me that when he left Hong Kong in the 1980s and moved to Hawai‘i, he could not find an authentic char siu place. The local char siu at the time was dyed red and tasted nothing like what he’d grown up eating. That’s why he opened Nam Fong in 1988 using the roasting techniques he’d learned from his father starting at age 14.
Day in, day out, Tsun has been single-handedly preparing an assortment of Hong Kong-style barbecue, including roast pork, chicken feet, pig’s feet, spareribs and whole suckling pigs. His alarm goes off at 2:30 a.m., and he’s in the shop by 3 to start roasting before the 6:30 a.m. opening.
Roasting a suckling pig takes 15 to 20 minutes of slowly turning the spit by hand at an open fire, basting the meat, poking holes in the skin and letting the fat drip off. Tsun’s astonishing attention to detail achieves a crisp and crackling skin with minimal charring. During peak seasons like Chinese New Year, he can make more than 30 suckling pigs in a day.
But where Nam Fong used to open until 5 p.m., these days, business slows down after 1 p.m., leading to shorter hours. It’s also harder to find workers, so while Tsun’s son Dominic comes in after his job to help, Tsun does all the roasting himself.
With market prices going up and business going down, it’s no wonder retirement called. Tsun’s son and daughter are both married and living independently. He’s ready to hang up his hooks and travel.
Could Nam Fong be passed down or sold? Tsun deliberately did not teach his children the ways of the business. It’s hard work, and he wanted them to pursue their own passions. At this time, the property has no buyer, so it will likely remain vacant for a while after the restaurant closes.
Change isn’t bad, especially when it’s a well-deserved retirement. It’s just a bit sad to see the places I remember from childhood disappear. And finding out only now the incredible amount of work that has gone into Nam Fong’s treasured meats, I feel like I’m almost too late. But I’m glad I found out. It deepens the salty-sweet flavor of all my memories of their food.
While the shop is closed today, Tuesday, you have until Sunday to use your gift certificates, grab your last orders and say goodbye. Since the closing sign has been up for a while, plenty people are coming in and things are selling out by 11 a.m. or sooner. Come early and be prepared to wait in line for the goods.
Tsun is thankful to the customers who have kept him in business for decades. I ask how he feels, closing after all these years. “Free,” he says with a big smile.
Open from Wednesday, 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., last day of business Sunday, Sept. 24, cash only, 1029 Maunakea St., (808) 599-5244, @nam_fong_restaurant