What Priscilla So and Brian Hung don’t know about beer probably isn’t worth knowing. So Priscilla has exactly beer in mind to go with the Hong Kong-style French toast served at Harcourt, her new pub in Altrincham.
It’s an imperial stout from the Wander Beyond brewery, which sits under the Piccadilly arches, and weighs in at a solid 12.5%. She fits right in and tastes like coffee beans and chocolate, although for God’s sake don’t order a pint. You won’t be able to stand afterwards.
Harcourt is named after Harcourt Road in Hong Kong, which itself was named after Sir Cecil Harcourt, the Governor of Hong Kong, after it was recaptured by Japan at the end of World War II. It was also the scene of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ in 2014, where protesters began to oppose the government’s electoral reforms.
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It was also the site where Priscilla, Brian and many of their friends were tear gassed and pepper sprayed by authorities in 2019, while protesting the Chinese government’s increasingly alarming control over the former British colony.
Brian worked as a brewer and Priscilla at a craft beer bottle shop before leaving Hong Kong in the most recent wave of migration. In 2022 alone, 76,000 Hong Kong people moved to the UK.
They join others bringing the various flavors of Hong Kong to Manchester in recent months, along with Hong Kong Choi in Salford and the always selling out Pop Chop Curry House in Eccles.
“It seemed like the situation was getting worse every day,” he says. “I couldn’t see any hope in Hong Kong. It’s not the Hong Kong I know. He feels so unknown. Every day was so scary.
“I hesitated to move, because my family was going to stay. But one day, my mother told me ‘you have to go, because this place is not a suitable place for you to live. You could lose your freedom forever.’”
“It was continuous,” Brian says. “People were protesting for months. Every weekend activity was protests. It takes over your life. By 2019, it was getting even more intense. After one or two protests, the government responded violently, using tear gas and pepper spray.
“People thought I would protest until things got better. But no, things got worse and worse, from police brutality to the Hong Kong government’s cooperation with China, attacking normal citizens. They took off the mask and everything for the last 50 years felt like a lie. A breach of contract.”
Priscilla says that leaving their families was immensely difficult. They felt powerless. Priscilla recalls that in 2020, a few months after they left Hong Kong for South Korea, her mother was in a bicycle accident and hit her head. She was in a coma for two weeks, but she was unable to visit her again. “She wanted to be there, but she couldn’t do anything,” she says. “My heart was broken.”
His mother has not yet fully recovered. “I’m trying to live a new life here and be happy, but actually I’m still very worried about my family,” she says.
They now fear that their speaking out publicly and critically about their opposition to the government could prove problematic if they ever try to return to Hong Kong, even for a visit.
“We are looking forward to having done some interviews about the political situation, that the Hong Kong government is quite aware of this kind of thing,” he says.
While all of this is never far from their minds, they have been welcomed with open arms at Altrincham since they opened their doors just a month ago. “I remember in the first week we had a lot of locals come out and show their support,” says Priscilla. “And business owners come in, buy a few drinks, and post their stories on Instagram. It’s a very good neighborhood to be in.”
Greater Manchester became his new home after Brian landed his dream job at Cloudwater Brewery, as a cask aging manager. The couple were already huge fans, the fame of the Piccadilly brewery spreading throughout the world.
One night at work, he overheard Cantonese being spoken at the brewery bar. He went upstairs to see who he was and it was a friend from Hong Kong named Kyle. Neither knew the other lived in Manchester, and he and his wife Fiona became good friends with Priscilla and Brian.
A plan was soon hatched to open his own pub, which, given their shared experience, made perfect sense. The town was ruled out. They wanted something more relaxed and ‘neighborhood’. It has also helped that there is now a sizable population of Hong Kongers in Sale and Altrincham, drawn by the schools, so expats are also pouring in.
Fiona works in the kitchen with her father, a former chef, so the menu is as authentic as it gets for a Hong Kong neighborhood pub. There are specials – this week ‘numbing’ turkey gizzards, numbed by excess Szechuan pepper – but also a solid core of street food classics from home.
There are wings, fried or ‘typhoon shelter’ style, heavy with garlic. There are plenty of warm slices of beef with red chillies and gherkins, and hands down the best sesame prawn toast I’ve ever had. I love the standard swamp stuff just like everyone else. But this is something else.
Dipping the prawns in salted egg yolk seems to be the key. They are very tasty and can be enjoyed straight with a beer or two, like in Hong Kong, not drizzled with soy sauce like we do here. And that French toast, layered with peanut butter and drenched in golden syrup or drizzled with condensed milk, is quite magnificent.
The word is also getting out clearly. It’s Wednesday, the first day of the week they’re open, and it’s packed. I count only one free table at 7 pm.
Priscilla curates the beers and will always specialize in the production of local breweries, as a way of saying thank you to those who have already made you so welcome here. “This place feels like an integration,” says Brian. “We chose the name because it was the place where many protests took place, but also because it is a very English name. The first outsider to set foot on Hong Kong land was one Harcourt. It is a gesture that we are trying to show.
“Our roots may be from Hong Kong,” says Priscilla. “But Manchester is now our home.”