When the uninitiated first explore Galaxy Macau, one of the largest casino, hotel and resort complexes on the Cotai Strip, getting lost in the gargantuan labyrinth is almost to be expected. For Joanna Lui, however, founder and curator of the new concept cafe and luxury lifestyle store Cha Bei, it’s all familiar – and familial – territory.
Cha Bei, of course, means “Tea Cup” when translated from Putonghua. It’s the perfect name for a venue inspired by tea culture, and which recently opened in the landmark property. “I believe that every cup has a story,” says Lui, whose name card reads “Hospitality Development Manager of Galaxy Entertainment Group”. “Creating Cha Bei has been a longstanding dream of mine: to bridge the gap between my love for culture, design and tea with a place for everyone to share their stories and good moments.”
With its recurring flora motifs, distinctive Tulip Chairs from Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ Moooi line, tailor-made silk wallpapers with oversize leather florals by Lala Curio, a garden-swing chair and decorative birdcages, the cafe is pretty as can be. Add exquisite cutlery, vintage teacups sourced from specialist collectors and flea markets across the globe, and a delightful and cherry-picked menu, and the result is a venue without equal in Macau, and a sure-fire choice for the discerning.
“Of course, I did my research and figured there’s an opening in the market for such a venue,” says Lui, scion of the family that owns Galaxy Macau, as we wait for our order. “Macau is such a contradiction. It’s really small in size but, by sheer numbers, there are innumerable eateries. They don’t really have a healthy-food option like this. You can bifurcate it as local dining or fine dining, and with the odd little coffee shop here and there. For a bit more wholesome, comfort food, there weren’t many options.”
Options is what the heiress (loathe as she might be personally to choose such a Hiltonian label) offers, and Cha Bei’s menu boasts four distinct sections: Healthy & Wholesome Choices, Comfort Choices, Communal Choices and Guilty Choices. In curating the menu, Lui surveyed what people like to eat, both when at home and when eating out, and the things they crave? “If you ask an expat living in Macau, or a local who’s been here for generations,” Lui says, “the answers were so interesting and diverse, and yet you discover what is missing really fast.”
The result of her survey is a heavenly haven where one can sit and relax, read a little, nibble and watch a parade of world travellers come and go – essentially a picturesque window into life in vibrant Macau. “I see the menu as comfort food with a healthy twist,” Lui says. “You don’t really want to eat like a rabbit – salad forever? No thanks! – and eating really high end is not a viable option all the time.”
Galaxy Macau offers, of course, a huge array of quality wining-and-dining opportunities. “For me to do something in Galaxy Macau, I always thought there was this missing element,” Lui says. “I’ve travelled to many cities, particularly in the first year of working in Galaxy. While many people think of Paris, Spain or London as great food stops, Copenhagen really blew my mind when it came to dining. The farm-to-table concept, the all-natural ingredients, getting the original taste of that food that’s neither manufactured nor so overcooked that you don’t take in what it’s supposed to taste like. I knew we could do healthy-living style here without making it boring.”
Born in San Francisco, Lui grew up in Hong Kong. College was at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where she studied child psychology and development. A raised eyebrow pre-empts the obvious question: how is that expertise related to what she does now? Lui answers with a beatific smile.
“Actually, I worked before at Grand Hyatt [in Hong Kong] for a few years,” she says. “I really loved the hospitality industry and the service industry. Then I worked as a teacher for a year, when obviously my educational background helped, but it wasn’t enough for me. I kept wanting to go back to the service industry. Now I’m not saying child psychology is directly linked to this, but there’s a mindset you need in the service industry. You have to think about wants and needs, so yes, my background informs me even now.”
Lui laboured upstairs and downstairs in the hotel, gaining a thorough understanding of the demanding hospitality industry. “I worked front desk, banquet halls, behind the scenes, customer care … but I really loved F&B,” she explains. “I love seeing people smile when something is really good. When they drink or eat something, when it’s really great, you see it in their expression immediately. That gratification really works for me.”
Which brings us neatly back to Cha Bei, which combines three elements: in-cafe dining, a grab-and-go takeaway and a retail wall. “We like to give guests more experience than they came for,” Lui says. “It’s the surprise element. The concept was born around nine months ago – it really is like my first baby and I’ve been involved every step of the way: the initial idea, overseeing the construction, picking the brands of tea, coffee, the retail products … I’ve tried everything on the menu, each dish, every smoothie. I know where the ingredients are sourced, I’ve incorporated superfoods like avocado, chia seeds. Opening a restaurant, you have to try everything 10 times and, yes, I’ve tried every item 10 times!”
As in any fast-paced city, folk rush by Cha Bei’s window with takeaway cups from … well, let’s just call it a famous American coffeehouse chain. “I don’t see other fast-food cafes as competition,” Lui says in response. “It’s an entirely different ballgame. Our piloting is very different from them; they do volume, we do the overall experience, lifestyle. When you step into the space, it’s definitely not the same as Starbucks or Pacific Coffee.”
So will Cha Bei become a franchise or a chain down the road? As Galaxy Macau covers an astonishing 11.8 million square feet, Lui could easily open another cafe far from the first within the same resort property. “Let’s just focus on the first one,” she says, smiling, “making it great before we move on to the next one, shall we?”