Wang Xiaoling and the Winglaiyuen Brand

SINCE its establishment in 1947, the Winglaiyuen restaurant has become a well-known Hong Kong brand with an international reputation. Its development and expansion is largely due to one woman’s single-minded devotion. She is Wang Xiaoling.

“Running a successful restaurant is lucrative, but also hard work, because it demands whole-hearted devotion. Many brands build their reputation over many years, as is the case for our restaurant. As a Buddhist, I think people should express gratitude for good business, which is why we donate almost half of our yearly profits to charity,” Wang said.

The many honors showered on the Winglaiyuen in recent years include the Jinpu (Gold Menu) Award for famous Chinese old brands, the international gold award for food quality, and the title of patriotic business. In her role as the restaurant’s helmsperson, Wang has also earned many awards and titles, among them the excellent manager of Asian brands, outstanding contributions to China-Korea economic exchanges, and “Person of the Year for Brand China (Catering Industry).”

A Last Wish Honored

Yang Dianhu founded the restaurant that was later renamed Winglaiyuen in 1947. One of his relations worked as a chef for the royal family in the Qing Dynasty, and so was privy to many outstanding recipes. The restaurant’s signature dish is hand-made Dandan noodles (Sichuan noodles in a spicy sauce). Served in specially seasoned soup, the dish is a gourmet delight. It received special mention in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun in 2007. The journal described Winglaiyuen Dandan noodles as a world-class dish popular both among Hong Kong locals and the SAR’s thousands of international visitors.  

When it first opened the restaurant was in the vicinity of several film studios. Its patrons hence included movie stars and personages such as entertainment industry bigwig Sir Run Run Shaw. In 1950 a fire that started in the nearby makeshift huts destroyed the restaurant, and the HK $2,000 needed to reconstruct it was beyond Yang’s means. Resigned to closing it down, help unexpectedly came his way from distinguished director Han Hsiang Li and movie star Li Lihua (Theresa Li), who provided the finance to rebuild and reopen the restaurant. Li renamed his small eatery the Winglaiyuen, meaning “endless flow of customers.”  

Born into a rich family, Wang Xiao-ling was always a fanatic film star fan. To see star Patricia Lam Fung in the flesh, Wang often came to the neighborhood to eat noodles at the Winglaiyuen. On one occasion Wang arranged to meet her fellow film star fan in the restaurant, but she didn’t show up. After ordering and eating a bowl of noodles, Wang found she hadn’t brought enough cash to pay the bill. After Wang had lingered in the eatery for about four hours, Yang, the owner (and her future father-in-law) understood her predicament. Smiling, Yang said to her, “Young lady, it’s late. Go home!” Feeling both ashamed and guilty, Wang decided never to visit the restaurant again.

Wang, however, was fated to know the Yang family. It was not until she attended a dinner with her parents where restaurateur Yang was also present that she realized that he and her father were acquainted. Before long she got to know Yang’s son, and there began the love story of a rich girl and a less fortunate boy that ended in marriage.

Newly-wed Wang grew very close to her mother-in-law, and misses her to this day. When the old lady became afflicted with hysteroptosis, Wang urged that she be hospitalized and undergo surgery. Complications, however, occurred after the operation, and she did not survive. Her mother-in-law’s last words to Wang were, “Help me preserve the Winglaiyuen.”

Blaming herself for her mother-in-law’s death, Wang suffered deep sorrow at her passing. Her resolve to honor her mother-in-law’s last wish and develop the restaurant was her only consolation.

Spurred by love and respect for her mother-in-law’s memory and a grateful heart, Wang led the Winglaiyuen to prosperity.

Man Proposes, God Disposes

Making the transition from housewife to a successful entrepreneuse was no easy task. Wang daily worked long hours in the restaurant kitchen for more than four years.

In 1988, the Hong Kong authorities announced the demolition of squatter huts in the Diamond Hill area. As figurehead of the 60,000 families striving for their rights, Wang figured in the headlines of various newspapers. Many local residents accepted the resettlement offer and left the area. The number of Winglaiyuen diners consequently dropped dramatically, on some days only bringing in around HK $300. At that time of looming bankruptcy, Wang’s husband was running the restaurant. Wang, meanwhile, devised various special offers to keep it in business, such as a free glass of orange for customers that ordered noodles, and free bus tickets.

In 2000, squatter huts in the area were finally torn down. The same year, a group of senior chefs at the restaurant reached retirement age. All these adverse factors seemed to make closing the restaurant inevitable. Indefatigable, Wang found a new location for the restaurant and invited her chefs to come out of retirement and back to work.

“Before the relocation I handed out 100 questionnaires. To the question of whether or not they would continue to eat at the restaurant after it moved, most respondents said that they would,” Wang said. “The customers’ warm support and loyalty to the Winglaiyuen buttressed my confidence sufficiently to keep it running.” Wang later built the magnificent new Winglaiyuen premises in Whampoa that not only survived but grew.  

To expand overseas business, in 2009 the Winglaiyuen established its logistics base for flour supply in Foshan of Guangdong Province. It also trained 10 workers to mill the flour to ensure its quality and quantity. In 2010, more resources were devoted to training young chefs who would eventually have the opportunity to work in the Winglaiyuen chains in Japan, Dubai, the United States and China’s mainland.

Wang makes a point of always keeping her word and of showing gratitude to former employees. “As the proverb goes, when drinking water, one must not forget its source.  Our achievements today are all due to the devotion of old employees. Their loyalty to the Winglaiyuen stopped them from ever leaving, even when offered a higher salary,” Wang said.

Wang is indeed something of a philanthropist. She has used the restaurant to raise funds for the elderly and disabled, and makes a point of employing people who are disabled and widowed.

To maintain its prestige and quality, the restaurant has a daily Dandan noodles sales quota of 1,800 bowls. Each customer is allowed to order one bowl only. People are often willing to wait for hours to taste this signature delicacy. “We owe the expansion of our business to customers’ support. Dandan noodles have nurtured three Yang generations, and the happiness I feel when old clients and their offspring drop by is beyond description,” Wang said.

“When it became plain that it would be difficult for a local restaurant to earn a high reputation, I decided to branch out to Japan, and so add glamour to the home Hong Kong establishment. At that time, multiple Japanese media as well as the Hong Kong press came to interview me,” Wang said.

Winglaiyuen’s delicacies have a strong following among HK diners. A long-term client once observed that even though the restaurant features palace dishes, the food here is not expensive — around HK $100 per person. High quality and reasonably priced, it’s no wonder diners need to book in advance to eat at the Winglaiyuen.

Super Craftsmanship Creates Dainty Delicacies

The Winglaiyuen is easy to find in Hong Kong’s famed Whampoa Gourmet Place through its tell-tale long queue. Here, you can taste the dishes that Japanese gourmets drool over – the Hong Kong number one Dandan noodles and various savory Yangzhou cuisines.

In the Hong Kong Tourism Board-sponsored food appreciation activity in 2006, Winglaiyuen dishes were described by a Japanese judge as “ingeniously taking advantage of ordinary food materials to magically create dishes of excellent color, aroma and taste.” The restaurant hence won the reputation for making “magic” food.

When there is such an abundance of dishes throughout the world, how does one decide which is most delicious? In Wang’s view, the tastiest dish is produced through the cook’s love, care and creativity.

Wang has devoted herself unreservedly to running the Winglaiyuen. She takes into account various opinions and suggestions in setting out constantly to improve the restaurant’s work procedure. For example, she has customized cooking utensils and presents food in various guises to please customers and stimulate their appetite.

Innate HK Virtues

The Winglaiyuen’s success stands testament to the attributes of the Hong Kong people – fortitude, tenacity and social responsibility. In 2008 the Winglaiyuen had its name inscribed on a monument by the Great Wall for its participation in financing a renovation project. Wang insisted the restaurant name should appear together with that of the Hong Kong people, as her donation was in the name of her home region.

Since the fire disaster on Diamond Hill, Wang has been active in repaying what she sees as her social debt. Almost half of the Winglaiyuen income is earmarked for the foundation she established in honor of her mother-in-law to help senior citizens in need.

To ensure her employees are comfortable in retirement, Wang decided to undertake franchised chain stores on the premise that each hired at least one employee nearing retirement age and gave them preferential treatment. In return, Wang provided Winglaiyuen recipes to franchised stores to ensure their service quality.

When in May 2012, Wang traveled to Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, to attend a forum on traditional Chinese culture and medicine, the idea came to her to bring Dandan noodles to Chairman Mao Zedong’s birthplace.

Wang was captivated by Changsha’s ambient “love of leisure and delicacies” as reflected in its good-humored, welcoming citizens. “I want to give Changsha people the chance to taste authentic Hong Kong Dandan noodles without leaving their hometown,” she said. She also extended her charity program to the mainland city. Disabled senior citizens in Changsha are also eligible for help from the Winglaiyuen charity foundation.

In February 2012, Winglaiyuen cooperated with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in organizing a charity activity to celebrate the university’s 75th anniversary. Star of the event was the red date and walnut meat mooncake made from a palace recipe. After deducting costs, all receipts were donated to the university’s teaching and research activities and to the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation. The 2013 Mid-autumn Festival saw the Winglaiyuen’s introduction of more imperial recipe-based mooncakes that cater to modern tastes.

Winglaiyuen also set up its scholarships at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the City University of Hong Kong, so giving financial help to excellent but impoverished students. Wang’s donations have moreover helped to reconstruct the ancient Temple of Great Mercy in Yong’an County of Jiangsu Province, build two Hope Primary Schools in Guizhou, and bolster the funds of the Senior Citizen Home Safety Association and Hong Kong Federation for the Blind.

Clear Conscience

Wang is a devout Buddhist. After experiencing both hardship and glory, she has gained much practical insight while at the same time becoming removed from material concerns.

Wang confessed that she has left her Hong Kong business to her three children to run while she heads for Guangzhou, Japan, the U.S. and Dubai to build a food kingdom on a new brand.

“I think I’ve done all I can to honor my mother-in-law’s wishes. If I’m not successful enough to earn credit, at least I know I’ve done my job. I don’t demand payback, but instead try to keep a clear conscience,” Wang said.

When asked on one occasion how she felt about making donations, Wang replied that they carry a sense of sacrifice, as the money has been hard-earned by Winglaiyuen. Wang is nevertheless unhesitating in her donations. “My son once said to me that any money I donated was borne of hardship,” Wang said. In the name of Winglaiyuen and as an ordinary Hong Kong citizen, Wang has donated a considerable portion of her income.

Wang’s legendary life has been mentioned in local media on many occasions. “Behind each success lies people’s strenuous efforts and hardship. I hope my story will exert positive influence in this field and encourage young people eager to achieve success to strive hard,” is her only comment.

Wang also values the traditional virtue of filial piety. “My failure to spend more time with my family is a matter of great regret to me. I sincerely urge young people be filial to their parents while they still have the opportunity. Showing concern for other people is a sign of maturity and virtue.”

The way in which Wang and the Winglaiyuen Restaurant have shaped each other testifies to the saying that “a career makes women more beautiful.” Wang’s most commendable attributes lie in her belief in traditional virtues and in the fortitude and wisdom that are prerequisite for an entrepreneuse of her stature.