End of an era as retiring couple close kitchen three decades on

It was last orders on Sunday for Raglan’s little piece of China – the iconic Hong Kong Kitchen, open just about all day every day in its prime downtown spot for the past 30 years.

At 70 or thereabouts Gun Lai’s retired and so too has his wife Kelly, 17 years his junior.  The pair worked together over the decades serving up Chinese takeaways – and other more Kiwi fare – while also bringing up two children in their home above the shop.

It’s the end of an era for the hardworking couple but also the start of a quite different use for the premises.

Says their 27-year-old son Adam, a mechanical engineer-turned-DJ who returned recently from Auckland to help his parents sort things and move out: “A whole new chapter for this place is about to begin.”

Adam’s sister Julia is in Japan, where the 24 year old designs luxury handbags for French fashion house Louis Vuitton.

But Raglan has always been home for the siblings, from first learning to speak English at the local kindergarten through to the area school where both ultimately became high achievers.

Their parents came here before they were born – for a holiday after the sharemarket crash of the late ‘80s in which, Gun reveals, they “lost everything”. That’s when they spied the abandoned burger bar on the corner of Wi Neera and Bow Streets.

The then single-storey building up for sale was “leaking everywhere”, Gun recalls, and the walls were falling down. But they renovated it “bit by bit”.

They’d just opened a restaurant opposite the Auckland Library before the crash, so simply transferred all its furnishings to Bow Street and opened the Hong Kong Kitchen, initially with a sit-down restaurant.

They lived in a caravan out the back while Gun built a second storey to house his growing family.

“I never actually experienced (growing up in) a residential area, only commercial,” Adam says. Road surfaces downtown were rougher back then, he reckons, whereas now they’re “good for skateboarding”.

“And town just got busier and busier with more and more developments,” he adds.

In more recent times the Lais have leased out prime parts of the old stucco building to other businesses – currently INDI skate-surf-cafe and Wrong Skate Shop – while continuing to run their own takeaways from an annexe with an outdoor courtyard which includes an impressive goldfish pond.

They say this has helped offset Waikato District Council’s ever-rising ground rents on the harbour board lease land – spiralling costs which have now forced them out.  “We thought we’d be here forever,” Gun laments.

First up in their retirement they’re off to Hamilton – where Kelly’s father lives – to do a bit of house-hunting, although Gun has no idea really where they’ll end up. He even mentions Australia as a possibility.

He’s unfazed by retirement, though was still wondering late last week what to do with the three boats and jet-ski littering the backyard bordering Wi Neera Street

Gun was a commercial fisherman in the Hauraki Gulf for a time, and operated a few charters here in Raglan. But he says he came from a market gardening background way back, working the land in the Wairarapa with family who emigrated from China to escape Communism.

“I’ve done quite a lot of different things,” he reflects of a life which has also included work in commercial art and mechanical (aircraft) engineering.

One initiative Gun’s probably best remembered for around town is organising spectacular community fireworks displays every year for a decade from about the year 2000.  “I used the profit from selling fireworks (in the shop),” he explains.

From this week the Hong Kong Kitchen’s new owner – Brian Ruawai of Cornerstone Roots, and instigator of Raglan’s Soundsplash music festival – was all set to take over, promising new developments focusing on a music and performance space.       

Edith Symes