Indentured Labour: Camy Shanghai Dumpling House’s secret, part 2

Last time that I mentioned Camy Shanghai Dumpling House, I conjectured that the popularity was due to its open secret status and cheapness. At least now we know where the cheapness comes from: not paying their staff. From the Herald-Sun:

Mr Chang worked 13-hour days from 9.30am-10.30pm with only five-minute breaks, which had to be approved by the boss, for $100 a day.

He worked six days a week and his only holiday was Christmas Day, according to Federal Magistrate Grant Riethmuller. “It is clear that the patrons attended for the quality of the Shanghai dumpling-style cooking rather than the ambience of the premises,” Mr Riethmuller said.

Mr Chang feared if he lost his job his visa would be cancelled and he took action only after he had permanent Australian residency, the magistrate said.

The court found that Mr Chang had been underpaid from December 2004 to January 2008.

Mr Riethmuller ordered restaurant owners Min-Seng Zheng and Rui Zhi Fu to pay $172,677 in unpaid overtime and penalty rates, and $25,000 of superannuation. Their lawyer, Alex Lewenberg, said the owners planned to appeal.

I also praise Federal Magistrate Grant Riethmuller for his knowledge of the premises.

City Hall Maxim’s Palace, Hong Kong


When people play the standards well, it is still exciting. To be sure, City Hall Maxim’s Palace isn’t the sophisticate jazz stylings of Lung King Heen but those culinary riffs wouldn’t exist without a benchmark. In Hong Kong dim sum, that ticking metronome is Maxim’s. They make the classics in plenteous quantity and they do it consistently well. Whatever your expectations are about Maxim’s dim sum, it is likely that they’ll be met.

After negotiating the queue, Maxim’s is like stepping into a Chinese wedding where you don’t know anyone. There’s a preponderance of movement, food, red and gold but the focus is getting you seated and a meal inside you at speed rather any nuptial function. The cheapish chairs and tables are somehow reminiscent of a suburban reception centre. It is a mixed crowd. Local families read newspapers while their children tend to their Pokemon, or whatever it is that children interact with on their Nintendos these days. Backpackers look bewildered.


Steaming trolleys rotate through the cacophonous hall, waitresses yelling out the names of their contents. I speak yum cha. I don’t know the words for “Goodbye” or even “Thank you” in Cantonese but I can ask for a plate of fried squid. It isn’t the most functional or appropriate way to know a language but I never go squidless. I probably sound like the rudest person in the room, but also, the hungriest. The waitstaff are au fait with you poking around on their trolley and taking your time. You could nurse a few dumplings for the best part of a morning. It would be the most pointless of mornings, but you could do it.

Anyhow, on with the dumpling porn

Har gau, two sizeable prawns lurk amongst the shredded bamboo shoot within. In the background is cheong fun but with chicken and shiitake instead of the usual prawn. Maybe Maxim’s does take the occasional liberty with dim sum standards.

Sin Chet Kuen

Siu Mai, plus corn and prawn ball that I picked out because it looked hilarious. Eating for one’s perverse sense of humour is probably not the best idea.

The damage: around HK$400 for two.

Address: 2nd Floor, City Hall Low Block, Hong Kong
Phone number: 852 2521 1303

Lung King Heen: 3 star dumplings

lung king heen
Scallop and prawn dumpling, Lung King Heen

It’s a strange thing to live in the bottom half of the planet that has no Michelin stars. In some ways, it has an internal logic for Michelin: the guide’s ostensible purpose was to get people out into the provinces by car and thereby burn through more Michelin rubber. Awarding stars to somewhere that can’t be accessed by automobile does not sell more French tyres. Hong Kong is one hell of a drive from France: it’s a possible but improbable journey, but the stars, they be there.

Maybe Michelin makes tyres for planes these days.

With low-cost carriers now offering flights for roughly the price of buying a beer onboard said plane, I thought that it was about time that I did some serious offshore eating and start collecting stars like a proper, credentialed food critic. Maybe it would convert me to the lifestyle of a high-end eater and my days eating delicious soup in the gutter would be over. I could credibly complain about foie gras and table linen like somebody that works for a serious but doomed print publication.

So I booked in for at Lung King Heen, Hong Kong’s only three Michelin-starred restaurant. I’m probably not making the most of the experience by eating dim sum but then again, what have I got to prove to anyone? I love dumplings. If I could take the chance at having a meal at the only Cantonese restaurant that Michelin has awarded three stars to, and have them make me a selection of dumplings I would. And did.

Critics probably like writing about serious dining because it gives you much more to write about. Filling a thousand words is easy when you eat twenty courses and you’ve got much more leeway to pick faults when you’re paying a huge bill at the end. They seated me five minutes late. The linen on the table was not perfectly flat. Service is obvious, cookie cutter silver service. English is great. The room is simple: wood panelling; huge windows frame Hong Kong’s harbour which is the “View of the Dragon” to which the restaurant’s name refers. These things are utterly meaningless when it comes to food, but maybe they’re supposed to matter to someone.

Physically, Lung King Heen’s menu has weight and silken texture. Inside, it’s much the same, classic Cantonese dishes subtly tweaked with premium ingredients and new presentation. It is a menu that plays with your memory of other Cantonese food from your past – if you don’t eat much of it, you’d never notice but if you’re an aficionado, I imagine that Lung King Heen’s head chef Chan Yan-tak is permanently winking at you from the kitchen.

There are both vegetarian and organic vegetarian options on the menu which must seem abhorrent to the average Cantonese chef, but if it’s bringing in the stars, maybe it matters. I skipped most of it for the dumplings but ordered roast suckling pig. On with the dumpling porn.

Lung King Heen Xiao Long Bao

Xiao long bao come served on individual baskets; minimising the chances of puncturing the soup filled dumpling as you extract it from the steamer basket.

lung king heen roast pork

The roast suckling pig is presented separated; squares of rich meat topped with a square of pancake and a larger, thin pork skin hat. It’s tough to tackle with chopsticks and keep together in a single bite.

Lung King Heen Goose ball

Sesame balls, unexpectedly filled with chunks of roast goose. Scallop dumplings have two whole scallops in them; spring rolls with sea whelk crispness on the outside and gooey interior with chunks of whelk that taste like the fresh sea. The pastry on the beef and morel dumplings tasted like unadulterated butter.

About ten dumplings in, the whole experience reminded me of Maytel from Gut Feeling’s assessment of Thomas Keller’s food:

I know that if I was to put an oyster with a big dolllop of caviar and cover it all in a butter sauce people would probably applaud me too

Top end dining seems to be caught in a self perpetuating cycle – you get lauded by Michelin, you ramp up the use of premium ingredients, you get lauded further. Lung King Heen’s use of luxury ingredients is still restrained and judicious amongst the dumpling menu but it could go awry very quickly.

Does Hong Kong need Michelin’s external validation? The locals already know that they’re onto a good thing and somehow quantifying that experience into a range of zero through three stars seems to do it a grand disservice. I’ve always found anonymous food reviewing somehow dishonest. We all bring our prejudices to the table and stating those prejudices brings out the best in critics; even if that prejudice is unadulterated dumpling love. I’m not looking forward to Michelin stepping south of the equator. We have our own laughable hat system.

Price: ~HK$400 a head
Location: Four Seasons Hotel, Fourth Floor, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong
Telephone. (852) 3196-8888

Red Emperor, Melbourne

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Har gau from Red Emperor, Melbourne

I always thought that only tourists ate on Southbank.

It’s the wrong side of the river for me; that strange cultural divide that bisects wherein both sides can say that the other is the morally and culturally wrong side. Since the Casino that dominates the south bank of the Yarra is now taking restaurants more seriously than ever, it is time to reevaluate my prejudices. Southgate, the slightly earlier development on the river still looks like a soulless, polished shopping mall but maybe the food within has changed.

Red Emperor, the Cantonese restaurant within the Southgate complex, is showing its age. The mirrored tiles on the roof, cheap vinyl seats and silver spray-painted concrete columns make the restaurant feel more like a suburban reception centre than one of Melbourne’s leading proponents of Cantonese food (and specifically, yum cha). The superlative view of Flinders Street Station and Melbourne’s skyline from across the Yarra remains unchanged; floor to ceiling windows lend ample distraction from the interior.

Yum cha means “drink tea” in Cantonese. Dim sum is what you eat at yum cha. Yum cha is what you do at Red Emperor. I’ve never ordered much more than a plate of stir-fried gai lan or an extra serve of fried squid from their menu. My guess is that if the gai lan is A$22 a plate, then the rest of their à la carte fare will require me to promise them my first-born in exchange for one of the lobsters crowding their tanks at the entrance.

Red Emperor Squid, Melbourne
Salty, fried squid tentacle.

I’ve never set foot in the place after dark. Lobster before noon is morally reprehensible.

As a midday meal, yum cha is more about the company that you keep than the food itself. It is built to be social: the most memorable yum cha meals should have very little to do with the food. Bamboo steamer baskets filled with mystery dumplings waft by on a trolley for your pleasure, you pick whichever takes your fancy, and then get back to the real task of constructing a conversation. Memorable dumplings help but are not essential.

At least since the last time I’d eaten at Red Emperor, the more interesting items that drift by on the trolley have vanished. The pickles, slices of 100-year old egg, and the cartilaginous steamed chicken’s feet have disappeared. I thought that Melbourne was well past gentrifying its , but in this case, I guess not.

The quality of dumplings – while still good – is only marginally better than you’d receive at one of the mid-range yum cha-focused joints around the CBD, like Westlake, Shark Fin House or Shark Fin Inn. Trekking out to the suburb of Box Hill is even better. At $40-ish a head, you’d get better value elsewhere and charging $8 for tea, normally gratis, is a bitter end to the meal.

Anyhow, on with the short depth of field dumpling porn.

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Har gau (North); Random seafood roll (East); “Shark’s Fin” dumpling, not containing actual shark’s fin (South); Siu Mai (West).

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Sin Chet Kuen: Beancurd skin rolls stuffed with prawn and shitake mushrooms.

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Char Siew Sou: Flaky pastry topped with sesame seeds, filled with sweet red roast pork. My friend J uses these salty-sweet pastries as his yardstick for a good dumpling joint, which makes sense. Both an excellent pastry and top roast pork are hard to achieve, not to mention plating them up to the punters steaming hot.

Red Emperor, Melbourne

Level 3 Southgate,
Southbank, VIC 3006
Tel: (03) 9699-4170

Lunch: Mon – Sat 12 to 3pm, Sun 11 to 4pm
Dinner: 6pm onwards, daily

The outing of Camy Shanghai Dumpling House’s secret

Camy Shanghai Dumpling House

When salmonella went feral a few years ago at a favorite Turkish restaurant, hospitalising a wardful of unlucky diners, I felt the urge to eat there out of solidarity with the owners but sadly, the health inspectors had put paid to my plans. The joy of returning to a previous favourite restaurant is built entirely on nostalgia. If a restaurant is beloved enough, you can eat an objectively bad meal there and love it, which tends to happen most of the time at Camy Shanghai Dumpling House.

The food at Shanghai Dumpling is not the drawcard as much as the price of the food. When you ask a fan of Camy for their reasons, they inevitably reply “It’s cheap” without much elaboration on the dumplings themselves. They’re filling, greasy and lack subtlety. The pork dumplings taste like pork when steamed and like lardy starch when fried. Even though there has been much conjecture as to the dodginess of their dumplings, there hasn’t been an outbreak of anything deadly there. If there was, I’d still go back.

So from whence does the fierce, nostalgic pang for Camy arise?

You’re not likely to be surprised by anything on the menu except for the prices. Shanghai Dumpling is one of the few places that you can get a sub-$5 plate of dumplings or even get change from $10 when sharing a multitude of plates amongst other Camy cognoscenti.

Camy Shanghai Dumpling House soup
Bland wonton and noodle soup, topped with the least piquant pickle available. But only $5.80!

The furnishings and staff don’t necessarily drive the nostalgia. Since my departure to Cambodia, the decor has morphed from typical cheap Asian to velour banquettes and chairs; glass over the top of wooden tables. I don’t miss it. The tacky art (CopperArt?) remains as does their much-loved policy of hiring Melbourne’s shirtiest front-of-house staff. I assume that the price of the dumplings shows a close correlation to the size of their paychecks. Tea is still self-serve into plastic mugs; the rest of the plateware uniformly melamine. My biggest surprise was that secret menu item: ordering the wonton soups sans-soup, has now slipped into the public domain. And this made me realise why Camy is so loved.

Camy Shanghai Dumpling House is the perfect example of an open secret. Everyone already knows about it but revels in the joy of feeling like they own privileged information. Their alleyway position helps: just hidden enough to make it an unmemorable location; as does the nondescript-ness of the decor, menus and ultimately, food. But the pleasure of being let into the fold, of knowing something that you believe that few others do, never wears off.

See also: Melbourne Gastronome’s I ate at David and Camy’s Shanghai Dumpling and survived (but only just) Facebook group

Location: 25 Tattersalls Lane (Between Little Bourke and Lonsdale), Melbourne CBD