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When we reach the bridge leading up to the impressive floating restaurant, it’s darker and more quiet than we’re used to. Sea Palace, capable of providing 600 people with steamy dim sum baskets, is nearly empty. A hard pill to swallow for the people behind the extraordinary restaurant – still opened every day.
Following our previous collaboration with Hoi Tin, Warrior Shanghai is now partnering up with the people behind Sea Palace and releasing a custom clothing line.
The design of the items is inspired by the iconic red neon letters on the roof, which have always been a small beacon of China in Amsterdam.
In the run-up to the release of the collection, we met with owner Kaji But and his mother. Her husband, Chuen Yau But, was one of the founding members responsible for the kitchen. In the restaurant we spoke with them about their rich backstory, the upcoming Chinese New Year and finally, the letters on the rooftop.
Can you tell us something about the birth of Sea Palace?
Kaji: We started in 1984, although at that point the project had been running for some time. The initiator wasn’t my father, but mister Wong, who used to run an administration office on the Geldersekade. He’s still alive. He wanted to start the project, but just couldn’t do it on his own, both financially and execution wise. He then asked a group of entrepreneurs to help him out. My father was one of them. So in that sense he was one of the founding fathers of the restaurant.
At the start it was quite hard because we’re not located in the best part of Amsterdam. There used to be addicts, prostitutes and a lot of industry around. The Dutch Postal Services used to be here, back when it was still called the PTT. Our boat was in front of the entrance. Through the windows you could see the basement of the building. I remember seeing people manually sort letters.
Where did the idea to start a restaurant on a boat come from?
Kaji: There used to be some restaurants like that in Hong Kong. One that was called Sea Palace, too. That’s where the idea hails from. I think there’s still one left, the Jumbo.
Mrs. But: It went bankrupt…
The original restaurant in Hong Kong
There’s one in Rotterdam too, right?
Kaji: It came later. I recall one day I was eating with my father when a man stopped by. He said he was interested in buying our boat. My dad told him it wasn’t for sale and then they made one of their own, in Rotterdam.
Was the boat built in the Netherlands?
Kaji: Yes. As far as I understand the foundation of the boat is a recycled concrete vat, towed to this location. The restaurant was then built on location. I remember my father taking me to see the construction on Saturdays. At that time, lots of materials and decoration wasn’t available for purchase in China due to the closed economy. So we bought lots of material from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Mrs. But: The eagle is from Taiwan.
The restaurant with the original letters
Is it true that there’s a special table layout to maintain the balance of the boat?
Kaji: Well, let me put it this way. We had a group of guests once, some sort of club if I recall correctly, who were a bit on the heavier side. They sat in a corner next to the toilettes, in a semiprivate part. When they sat down we noticed the boat skewing a bit. The bridge scraped the pier.
Was the process of getting a boat at such a central location difficult? I can hardly imagine something like that being allowed today.
Kaji: I think nowadays it would be impossible, haha. I guess those were other times. Back in the 80’s Amsterdam wasn’t as prosperous as it is now. There was a lot of crime in the area near the Zeedijk. Around 2000 they started demolishing and constructing new buildings and that’s when everything changed.
Did something change for you as well? Customer wise?
Kaji: I think our current customer base is very different than the one we had in 2000. Around that time I started working here, and we still received a lot of big guest groups. People didn’t really book trips on the internet back then; they still went to a travel agency. Those organized trips used to make up a big part of our income.
Speaking of that customer base, when I came to eat here a while ago, I saw a big group eating mussels with French fries. Do you serve that as well?
Kaji: Haha, those were probably the pilots from China Cargo. We work with them all the time; the pilots eat here every day. At least they did before the whole COVID situation. Now we bring the food to hotel they’re staying in. In the beginning we made a different menu every day but at a certain point you’re out of ideas. So we told them to tell us what they’d like to eat. Sometimes they’ll ask for a steak.
Kaji: When I started here in 2000, we still served Chinese-Indonesian dishes. Around 2006 we removed them from the menu. The thing is - when China was put in a less positive light last year, our revenue went down. What to do? Should we stick to cooking authentic Chinese food or should we focus on Asian food in general? What matters to me is serving great food in a pleasant ambience. Maybe it shouldn’t matter whether the food is Chinese or not. It’s a difficult question.
The design of the clothing is a homage to the aesthetic of Chinese restaurants, based on the neon letters on the rooftop. To our surprise, we didn’t see the letters when we arrived just now. Where have they gone?
Kaji: That’s a funny story. Back in the 80’s the municipality often turned a blind eye to things. The neon letters that used to be on the rooftop had been there since the late 80’s. However, in 2006 a new destination plan for the boat was developed. We had to move the boat to its current location. When they write these plans, they determine the height, width, that sort of stuff. It’s usually quite narrow. I wasn’t really paying attention when the plans were made, and the neon ended up exceeding the maximum height of our plot. That’s why we had to remove them. Such a shame.
Soon it’ll be Chinese New Year, for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic. How did you celebrate the previous years and how will you celebrate this year?
Kaji: Before, we were a location where people came to celebrate the new year. Many families used to come have dinner here. Besides that, a lot Chinese clubs used to book us as a location to have their celebration. We’ll miss that for sure. This year we will have some classic New Year’s dishes on the takeaway menu. For example poon choi, a stew from South China.
This year it’ll be the year of the ox. Does that carry any special meaning?
Mrs. But: It symbolizes working hard, haha.
Kaji: An ox is, of course, a working animal. Hard work pays off. This is the year we’ll have to build up again, after the pandemic.
Kaji and Mrs. But, thanks a lot! The Sea Palace x Warrior Shanghai collection will be available online on warrior-shanghai.com and through Sea Palace starting Friday.
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