Pazu Kong (second from left) and Oat (second from right) together with waitresses from the local community in front of the Spinn Cafe Photos courtesy of Pazu Kong

Tibet Autonomous Region in southwestern China has become a popular destination for Hong Kong travelers in recent years. Captivated by Tibet's tranquil and serene beauty, mesmerizing landscape and the local people's religious zeal, more and more Hongkongers are heading toward the region braving harsh and inclement weather and defying high altitude sickness.

A corner of the cafe decorated with bricks

Bored with his job, Kong was looking for an utterly different kind of holiday, one that was far from the madding crowd and the humdrum of city life. He decided to take a trip to Tibet not just to savor the unique ethnic culture and to savor its breathtaking landscape, he also had in mind something else.

Kong decided to open a coffee shop in the autonomous region with his Thai friend Oat. The coffee shop, named Spinn Cafe, was opened in April last year.

The duo had visited the region last year by undertaking a three-month cycling marathon from Thailand. By opening the cafe, Kong and Oat hoped to share their travel experience with visitors from all over the world.

"It is not for money. I am sick of city life. I was under constant work pressure there. Here I take it easy and work in a leisurely fashion. I don't have any work pressure here. I wanted to do something different," Kong said.

"I have always wanted to settle in places outside Hong Kong, longed to learn the language and culture there. When you talk about minority history in China, Tibet is my favorite place," he said.

Kong still has not fully recouped the start-up capital of HK$100,000. During peak tourist season, the cafe's sales can reach HK$1,000 a day. But the earning can be as low as HK$20 a day when the business remains dull and slow.

Kong said the main portion of the cafe's revenue comes not from tourists but from the local people. "Tourists generally travel on a budget and they spend less money. The Tibetans here do not have such concern. Some may order an entire carton of beer," he said.

Counter of the cafe decorated with wood

How does he view the Tibetans? Kong said the local people stoutly defend their culture and resist anything against their customs, but that does not mean their outlook is narrow and hidebound. The local people are eager to try new kinds of food provided they do not contain garlic, he added.

To satisfy the locals' taste buds, Kong introduces Hong Kong-style cuisines, such as fried instant noodles, in the cafe. He, however, keeps the instant noodle's name Gung Zai Min in the menu card as used by Hongkongers instead of Fang Bian Mian in Putonghua.

"The Tibetans are very open-minded. They are even willing to try dried durian from Hong Kong," Kong said.

Even the toys Kong had brought with him - UNO card games, Jenga Stacking, and others - have drawn attention from the tourists and local people.

Kong, however, is aware that the cafe could not sustain its business just depending on local customers. He has to extend his customer source by attracting tourists. To that end, he has started providing tourists with travel information and selling equipment they need, such as bicycles and torches.

Besides running his business, Kong spends time in learning the Tibetan language. He believes learning local language is essential to integrate with the local community. He is planning to offer the children there free English classes in return for his learning the local language.

"But I have to sort out the logistic problem first. School finishes late here and sometimes children will not get back home until 10pm," Kong said.

He, however, faces difficulties in getting things done. He was required to team up with the local people for the business registration.

He feels frustrated over the bureaucratic procedure in the region. He was asked to apply for a temporary residence card by the local police. When he had done that, he was told that he needed another document for living in Tibet.

Despite the problems, Kong loves to stay on and is not willing to leave Tibet.

"I won't leave the place because of these problems. The cafe is the right platform for sharing experience with the tourists. I feel excited that I am able to run it with just HK$100,000 when I am only 30. It's like a dream come true," he said.

(HK Edition 02/14/2008 page4)