Sunday 22 March 2015

Afternoon Tea @ The Helena May

Back in the days when I was in uni, I was fascinated by a colonial-style building on Garden Road every time I travelled from HKU to Admiralty by bus. My heart ineluctably jumped as I peeped through the tall windows and caught a glimpse of the elegant interior. I had no idea what it was because Google Maps wasn't even invented back then (this is going to give my age away :P). I asked a number of my friends if they had noticed that quaint white building near the Peak Tram Terminus, but they only gave me a puzzled look that had once made me wonder if I was the only person who could see the building...  :0

Then I graduated and no longer saw the building on my way home. I had forgotten all about it until one day, when one of my bosses told me about a club for women called The Helena May. She said she loved that place for its gracious atmosphere. "Is that on Garden Road?" I asked excitedly, before my boss confirmed that the mysterious heritage building was indeed the club that she was talking about. 

The Helena May. I was happy that the mystery was finally solved, and I thought that's the end of it. Since it's a private club it had not occurred to me that I would have the chance to visit it. But then a few years ago, I was invited to my chongmate's wedding banquet which was hosted at The Helena May! I was exhilarated and could not help counting down to the wedding. It's only later that I learnt from my friends that The Helena May was in fact a very popular wedding venue (to book the venue you have to be a member but the joining fee is reasonable) and was far more accessible than I had thought. 

Finally my chongmate's wedding day came and I set foot in The Helena May for the first time. I was not disappointed at all. The decor was pretty much like what I had imagined: whitewashed walls, wooden floor, arched windows, curtains with exotic prints greeted every guest with an air of Britishness. I was 100% certain that a historical British establishment like this would offer afternoon tea. It has to, I thought, or it would be like a man without a soul. 

While I was contemplating various ways to ask my chongmate's wife to take me there without sounding odd, I read from The Helena May's official website that the club welcomed visitors from the public on their annual open day and visitors could enjoy the dining facilities on the day! This piece of info had saved me from much awkwardness. ;P

I eventually made it to their open day last year. To say it's an open day is in fact quite misleading, because technically the premise was not open to the public until the afternoon. We were ushered into the charming sun-filled Garden Room, where the guided tours started. We learnt from our guide that The Helena May was founded in 1916 and named after the wife of the then-Governor of HK. Its mission was originally to support women who moved to HK from foreign countries. Nowadays, it is meant to be an affordable club for women from local and international communities to meet and socialize. 

Leafy garden outside the Garden Room

We entered the the old-fashioned library from the garden, breathing in the scent of old books. This library reminds me of the college libraries in Oxford. As a bookworm I am sure that I can spend a whole day here. :)

The highlight of the tour was the guestrooms (one can stay here by becoming a resident member), which are generally not accessible as they tend to be occupied. On our way to the rooms, we were shown this interesting set of devices, the speaking tube and bell. It allowed residents on different floors to communicate back in those days when there was no telephone. 

One of the guestrooms

I think this is called The Green Room. There's scaffolding outside the windows because major renovation was underway to prepare the Helena May for its 100th birthday next year. 

My favourite room is, needless to say, the Blue Room. :) Love love love the royal blue theme colour and the heavy use of velvet in this room! 

Lounge area just next to the dining area

At the end of the tour, visitors were welcomed to enjoy afternoon tea in the Main Lounge. It's crazily popular and almost no one walked away without trying their tea sets! Hellish and I were glad that we were in the first tour of the day so we were seated immediately. :) There were 2 tea sets on offer:

The Helena May platter (clockwise from top) - scone, mango filo roll, quiche Lorraine, ratatouille pizza, Scottish salmon open face sandwich, finger sandwiches (cucumber and tuna), chocolate petit fours, raspberry macaroon, carrot cake

1916 Platter (clockwise from top) - finger sandwiches (cucumber and tuna), walnut macaroon, fresh berry tart, sherry trifle, mushroom vol-au-vent, mango filo roll, scone, vegetarian burrito, grilled vegetable focaccia

I was slightly disheartened that the tea sets came in the form of platters rather than being served on tiered stands as usual. Yet I fully understood that with the large number of visitors, they needed to churn out tea sets rapidly to ensure a high turnover, so pre-arranged platters was their only way out. And anyway, as a non-member I was already very grateful that I could have tea there!

It would be a mistake to judge the food by its basic appearance; most of them were surprisingly good despite the simple ingredients and unpretentious names. I actually expected the food to be so-so or perhaps even a bit stale because that's normally the case for mass-produced dishes. The crispy filo roll, crunchy pizza and egg-shell-like texture of the macaroons however all screamed freshness and protested against my preconception. :P The scones were amazing in particular. They were big enough to be eaten with lots of jam and cream but also dainty enough to whet our appetite rather than killing it. They had that beautiful, golden brown sheen on the top, and were crumbly on the outside but airy on the inside - you know, just what classic English scones should be. They seemed to be conveying the message that, although the colonial era has long passed, the English tradition has been well preserved and is still thriving here at The Helena May. 

Last but not least, at a time when good value for money has almost gone the way of the dodo, it's comforting to know that each tea set cost only $98, tea or coffee or soft drink included. It appears that the Helena May lives up to its mission - to be a welcoming and affordable organization. 

Mission completed and I was satisfied. :) It was such a lovely afternoon. 

Ambience: A+ (I wish I could live here. I mean it!!)

Service: A (Service was efficient but courteous)

Food: A-- (Quintessential English afternoon tea despite the absence of tiered stand!)

Overall remarks: As the government continues to tear down heritage buildings thoughtlessly and allow historical monuments to be turned into soulless hotels in the name of "revitalization" one after another, The Helena May has stood firmly for almost a century, contributing to the preservation of local heritage and Hongkongers' collective memory. This alone deserves respect and support. This year they cancel their open day due to renovation, but do watch out for their update regarding their 100th year celebration! :) 

The Helena May (website)
35 Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong
* Helena May is normally open to members only, but it is open to public on certain special occasions. Please see here for more information.


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