Q&A: Cho Chong Gee

(Image credit: press)

Bar, restaurant and hotel owner, Cho tells us why he's hooked on the Doncheng district of Beijing

With no less than four venues all set within Doncheng, proprietor Cho Chong Gee has had some pretty firsthand involvement in the regeneration of this up-and-coming part of town. A Malaysian entrepreneur based in Beijing since 2001, Cho started out from the humble beginnings of a small hawker stall in Malaysia, to becoming the creator of some of the capital’s more interesting spaces.

Café Sambal, his first Malaysian restaurant in China, was one of the first to be located within the confines of Gulou’s hutongs. Bed Bar and 3 + 1 Bedrooms, his boutique hotel, both followed not far away and Paper, a modern minimalist Chinese restaurant sits quite comfortably on Gulou Dongdajie. Here he reveals his special relationship with the district, and his tips on the best that Dongcheng has to offer.

What made you decide to set up in Beijing?

Beijing wasn’t planned, it happened completely by chance. I happened to be on holiday in Beijing and met a local businessman. I decided to come back and work with him on various design and restaurant projects, together with some management consultancy work.

All of your ventures – 3 + 1 Bedrooms, Café Sambal, Bed Bar and Paper - are based in the Dongcheng district. Is there a reason for this?

It is one of the very few charming old hutong districts left in Beijing. Its history goes back to the Qing and Ming Dynasties. Local residents inhabit many of the hutongs in the district so everything still feels very authentic and real. You could say the place serves very much as a sort of ‘living history’ of Beijing.

So would you say that you have a special relationship with the Dongcheng district?

No, not really. Having said that, Cafe Sambal was the first 'foreign' restaurant & bar in this area. When I first set it up, not even ‘Beijingers’ or local Chinese people were visiting the area. Café Sambal then led on to the creation of Bed Bar, Paper and 3+1 Bedrooms. Of course, this area has now grown to become one of the more popular areas in Beijing and our relationship with the district keeps growing stronger and stronger!

Could you describe your business set-up and philosophy?

I always try to create a space that myself, my friends and my family would feel very comfortable to be spending time in. It is so important to produce something special and unique in its own right, whilst making sure that it fits well into the area and that the customers are given the very best. For example, the menus that I put out comprise of food that I love, and the food served always has a quality that would pass by my very own standards.

What are the challenges of working in Beijing?

There is a lot of uncertainty sometimes. Dealing with the local authorities can be challenging, added to the fact that there are changes in rules and regulations on a daily basis.

What is your next project?

There are a few things on the go. There is the possibility of setting up a Cafe Sambal in Shanghai, perhaps another concept restaurant in Beijing, and a design consultancy firm with a few partners from Guangzhou and abroad.

Rosa Bertoli was born in Udine, Italy, and now lives in London. Since 2014, she has been the Design Editor of Wallpaper*, where she oversees design content for the print and online editions, as well as special editorial projects. Through her role at Wallpaper*, she has written extensively about all areas of design. Rosa has been speaker and moderator for various design talks and conferences including London Craft Week, Maison & Objet, The Italian Cultural Institute (London), Clippings, Zaha Hadid Design, Kartell and Frieze Art Fair. Rosa has been on judging panels for the Chart Architecture Award, the Dutch Design Awards and the DesignGuild Marks. She has written for numerous English and Italian language publications, and worked as a content and communication consultant for fashion and design brands.