Ex-shipwright tells bittersweet story behind viral TikTok ‘Dalgona’ coffee

2020-08-19 00:01
BY admin

A coffee-flavoured whipped cream placed nicely on a glass of iced milk originally known by locals as “hand-beaten coffee” has become a TikTok phenomenon under the name “Dalgona coffee”. However, behind the aesthetic regular joe hides the bittersweet story of Macau café owner Leong Kam Hon.

Whisking sugar and coffee together by hand 400-times has been a quarantine must-do since early this year. Making this coffee has become a sensation on TikTok, a mobile app which allows users to create a short video of themselves, often featuring music in the background.

Leong, the creator of Dalgona coffee, told The Macau Post Daily in a recent interview that at the beginning of the year a South Korean crew came to his shop and filmed him making his popular “hand-beaten coffee” – and since then the idea has become popular with the entire world. The name Dalgona coffee was created by the South Korean show host because it reminds him of a childhood caramel sweet called Dalgona, or honeycomb sweet in English.

Leong’s coffee shop, widely known as “Hon Kee”, is in a hidden corner next to an abandoned dilapidated shipyard in Coloane. Even though the coffee shop is not located in the centre of the city, his business is always buzzing.

“People from the mainland always say that they rushed over to try my coffee,” he told The Macau Post Daily last week at his shop in Coloane’s Lai Chi Vun hamlet.

Turn of events

Opening a coffee shop is many young people’s dream, yet in Leong’s case it was all because of an unfortunate accident.

Originally from Zhongshan city some 40 kilometres north of Macau , Leong told The Macau Post Daily that he came to Macau when he was a teenager. Back then, Coloane was the hub for ship building, and he became one of the shipwrights there after being an apprentice for three years.

“On September 6, 1986, a circular wood saw cut through my left arm. I was severely injured and hospitalised for two months. The doctor said the injury to my arm was infected and my arm needed to be amputated. I refused to let him to it because I did not want to become a burden to my family, I would rather die than lose an arm. So, the doctor said we could wait until the next morning to decide what to do,” Leong said, recalling the incident like it happened yesterday. He added that he was lying on his hospital bed hoping for a miracle.

The miracle did happen. Leong said when the doctor changed his bandage the next day, he said that the infection was not as serious as expected, and he did not need to amputate his arm. After spending two months in hospital, he was transferred to another hospital in the mainland to have his nerves reconnected, he added.

“After the successful surgery, it took me four years to regain full control of my left arm. I swum a lot to strengthen my left arm,” said Leong. However, his strength was not enough for him to go back to the shipbuilding business.

He said he still needed to feed his wife and daughters, therefore he decided to open a small coffee shop next to the shipyard so the workers could come over for a meal during their break time.

“The coffee shop was not named ‘Hon Kee’ at first, I named it ‘Wai Ting Coffee’ after my two daughters,” Leong said. However, shipwrights in the area always referred to his place as “Hon Kee” because of his name, therefore it was known that way by most.

Birth of Dalgona Coffee

Leong said he built his shop from scratch, while pointing at the wooden table, chairs and the stove that he built to boil water.

Leong’s coffee shop sold regular noodles, sandwiches, regular coffee and other beverages, until one day, an old foreign couple inspired him to start making the “hand-beaten coffee”, Leong said.

According to Leong, about two decades ago the foreign couple visited his café every year on Thursday and Friday during Macau Grand-Prix season. He said he did not know where the couple was from.

“Sometime around 1997, that was the last time I saw them, they came over and talked to me in a language that I did not understand. They gestured me to mix instant coffee powder and sugar together. Then they made some stirring gesture. I only nodded and smiled because I did not know what they were talking about,” Leong giggled. He added that he did not try making that kind of coffee until 2004.

Turn of events

Leong said his business was sustained only by the shipyard workers but in the early 2000s the shipbuilding business started to decline so that he worried about the future of his café.

A turn of events in 2004 was when Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat of Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon fame came to his shop while visiting the neighbourhood.

“I thought he looked familiar until someone told me he was the famous actor Chow Yun-Fat!” Leong said. “I did not know what food I should serve him. Then I recalled the coffee that the foreign couple taught me years ago,” Leong added.

Leong said he tried to remember every detail of the “coffee-making lesson”. He explained to The Macau Post Daily that he added a full spoon of instant coffee powder to the cup, a full spoon of sugar and started “beating” it until it became a creamy mousse form.

“It was the first time I made it. I wasn’t even sure if that was the right way to do it but I made [Chow Yun-fat] and his group three cups of ‘hand-beaten coffee’,” Leong said with a big smile on his face.

According to Leong, after serving Chow the coffee, the actor told Leong that his coffee “tasted better than the ones [he] had at five-star hotels!”

Chow’s comment spread a thousand miles. “All of the sudden, people from all over the world came to the store and asked for ‘Chow Yun-fat coffee’.” Leong said, adding that this was the beginning of the Dalgona story.

Blessing in disguise

When asked if he minded that his secret recipe was shared all over the world, or if he was happy that his drink got so popular, he said he didn’t mind.

“I don’t mind if my recipe is known by the world because this way of making coffee wasn’t originated by me. I only make the coffee to sustain my family and I won’t be able to take it with me when I am gone. All I care is that people like it and come to my store for it.”

He also said that the whole injury was a blessing in disguise. If it were not for it, Hon Kee’s “hand-beaten coffee” would have never existed.

However, Leong told The Macau Post Daily that even with the success, he still has one regret.

“I wish I never left school,” he said with tears in eyes. He said that he only went to school for seven days then because of a rainy day he stopped attending and left his hometown for Macau.

“On a rainy day, my textbooks were soaked. My teachers got furious and kicked me out of the classroom and made me stand in the rain for hours. Since then I refused to attend school again, even after my teacher came to my house and asked for me in person. But if I were to choose again, I would stay in school,” Leong said wistfully.

He stressed the importance of education and said he wished to see the teacher again and apologise for his behaviour.

“I wish to tell her that I am sorry and thank you. I wish to tell her that it’s okay I am doing fine,” Leong said.

Making of ‘hand-beaten coffee’

Leong demonstrated how to make the original ‘hand-beaten coffee’ during The Macau Post Daily’s visit. He said that first one should add a spoonful of instant coffee, then a spoonful of sugar. He emphasised that the water must be boiling hot or else it would not turn out creamy. Then he started to use a spoon and beat the ingredients.

“I am counting in my head. I’d need to beat 400 times to make the creamy layer,” Leong said while whisking the coffee in the cup.

He then added some more hot water and milk to fill the cup. The whole process took less than five minutes.

When asked how many cups of coffee he usually makes a day, he said he did not keep count because he is just happy that people are drinking his coffee.

Leong’s coffee is like his life, topped with a sweet creamy layer with a hint of bitterness underneath.

The Dalgona coffee creator Leong Kam Hon holds a cup of “hand-beaten coffee” after speaking to The Macau Post Daily last week at his “Hon Kee” café in Coloane’s Lai Chi Vun hamlet.

Leong shows the coffee whipped cream after whisking sugar, instant coffee and hot water together 400 times.

This photo shows the hot version of Dalgona coffee made by Leong last week.

This photo taken last week shows the general view of Leong’s “Hon Kee” café.   Photos: Prisca Tang


Leave a Reply