The death of a beautiful city

Hong Kong’s iconic Mido Café is no more. It was a slow but inevitable death, formally announced in a cryptic note posted on the building’s shuttered entrance on 18 July. Over the last decade, the café had been closed for several extended periods of time (when business was slack or when the owners wanted a rest) but the Covid pandemic, or rather the government’s draconian response to it, seems to have convinced the owners that the time had finally come to close it down for good.

Coming so soon after the mysterious sinking of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in the South China Sea, it was another reminder – if any were needed – that Hong Kong is not what it used to be.

The Mido first opened its doors in the heart of Kowloon in 1950, and stubbornly refused to move with the times. The mosaic tiled walls, small Formica tables, cheap metal chairs and hard-backed booths never changed. The menu, likewise, always retained its exhaustive list of Chinese/colonial British fusion classics. After a few visits, you did not need to consult the menu, just order your favourites – mine, grouper curry with rice (石斑咖喱饭). The café was never going to win a Michelin Star but the food was comforting and reassuring. When you asked for the check, you were given a hand-written note on a scrap of paper which you took to the granny in the booth guarding the entrance. She would tell you the price and you would pay in cash. No new-fangled contactless payment systems here.

The café occupied the ground and first floors of a four-storey building, adjacent to the Tin Hau Temple, on the corner of Temple and Public Square Streets in Yaumatei. The overhanging first floor curved around the corner of the building providing shade to pedestrians below and panoramic views for the diners above.

We always sat upstairs, in one of the window booths if possible, overlooking the park where fortune tellers and sex aid vendors gathered after dark, illuminated by the Mido’s flashing red and green neon sign. Every ten minutes or so, an open top tour bus would pause outside and the tourists on the top deck would gaze at the diners inside through the thin lead-framed windows.

Unlike just about every other restaurant in Hong Kong, the Mido was not refrigerated by industrial air-conditioners. Instead, ceiling fans rotated and the windows opened to the heavy air outside.

The Mido had a very cinematic feel to it – like stepping into a Wong Kar-Wai movie. In fact, it did feature briefly in Days of Being Wild, as well as several other Hong Kong movie classics.

And for me, the cinematic connection was enhanced by the proximity of Hong Kong’s main arthouse cinema, the Broadway Cinematheque, just a couple of blocks away. In fact, we would usually go to the Mido to eat after watching a movie there. And like the movies, the Mido offered an escape, the chance to sit and relax and not worry about events in the world outside.

The lifespan of the Mido (1950-2022) corresponded with a very particular period in Hong Kong history – the last half century of British colonial rule and first quarter century of One Country Two Systems. It was a period of rapid and irrevocable change; politically, economically and socially, but somehow the Mido remained untouched – until it couldn’t resist the tide of history any longer.

The Mido is emblematic of what Hong Kong used to be. The name means Beautiful City, and like the Hong Kong I first knew in the 1980s, it has gradually been squeezed out of existence. In their farewell note, the café owners hinted that the Mido might return in some form at some point in the future but, even in that unlikely event, it will be a very different place for sure.

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