Almond Lee: from racetrack to restaurateur

When Almond Lee left Hong Kong racing in 2018 he was at a loss for what to do, but has found his calling as a restaurateur with his wife Rainbow.

Former Hong Kong trainer Almond Lee outside his Kowloon City restaurant 滿漢小館. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

Michael Cox



Kowloon City might be the last remaining place in Hong Kong that looks, or feels, anything like the iconic postcard images of the city from the 1980s. 

Neon signs jut out from the tenement ‘walk-up’ buildings over busy, narrow roadways and there are less convenience stores or big-brand pharmacies that give so much of Hong Kong a sameness. This part of town, formerly under the iconic flight path to Kai Tak Airport, near to the former ‘Walled City’ and until recently disconnected from the extensive MTR mass transit rail system, retains that quintessential Hong Kong feel. 

It is also a ‘foodies’ hub, with an array of Thai, Japanese, hot pot and Hong Kong-style dessert options. Along one of the concrete and neon canyons, Fuk Lo Tsun Road, is 滿漢小館 and inside is its owner, former Hong Kong horse trainer Almond Lee. 

“Running a stable in Hong Kong is more like handling the owners than the horses,” Lee answers when asked about the similarities between running a racing stable and a restaurant.


“Running a restaurant here, people come and go, and as long as you maintain the quality you will be fine. In racing, you can have your horse right and still get beat. A lot comes down to luck.” 

Luck, or lack of it, was a recurring theme in Lee’s post-race interviews during a career that spanned 14 seasons. Lee was a long-time assistant trainer to David Hayes before gaining his licence in 2004-05 and training 349 winners, before he was forced to retire at 53 after failing to meet the minimum performance benchmark for a third time in 2017-18. 

On the final occasion Lee failed to meet the then-benchmark of 16 wins, it was by one victory, and he had a runner beaten by a neck on the final day of a season which included 22 seconds and 23 thirds. 

“In those three seasons – the strikeout seasons – I only missed by one win,” he says ruefully. “And there was so many seconds, and a lot of those seconds were by short margins. I had to ask myself, “what’s the message, what is the universe trying to tell me?” 

Maybe it was the horse name of that final frustrating placing that was the omen Lee needed to move on to something new: Enjoy Life, and the horse’s Chinese name, 及時行樂, which translates to the Latin Phrase ‘Carpe Diem’ or ‘enjoy every moment you can.’ 

The Almond Lee-trained Enjoy Life (blue colours) is narrowly defeated on the final day of the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Upon retirement, aged 53 – his three children studying on full scholarships at overseas universities – Lee certainly enjoyed life to the full, visiting seven countries in a year. 

But did he miss racing? 

“To be honest, when I stopped, I felt nothing,” Lee says. “I felt nothing because I was struggling, and I never stopped fighting until the last minute.

“You keep asking yourself, did I make a mistake? Could I have done anything differently? Yeah, maybe. But, really, you need a lot of luck in racing.” 

Once the globetrotting was out of his system, Lee realised he and wife Rainbow, who attended every raceday and helped with office management, would need something else to do. 

Almond Lee and wife Rainbow in Kowloon City. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

A restaurant-owning cousin of Lee’s convinced him to get into the competitive game of Hong Kong eateries and he opened a take-out in Shek Mun, the suburb that can be seen beyond Sha Tin’s back straight. 

Lee then expanded with the store in the Kowloon City location, the menu based in Shanghai cuisine plus some spicy northern dishes to keep things interesting.

A standout with customers is the roujiamo, a Chinese-style beef burger, but Lee’s pride-and-joy is the store’s char siu bao (pork dumplings).  

The store features examples of Lee’s other great pastime, woodworking. He handmade all of the tables, and most of the wooden touches for the fit-out, including the two hand-carved tablets that sit either side of the doors. 

Lee swipes through hundreds of photos on his phone in a folder containing examples of his wooden creations made in his Sha Tin workshop. 

“When I was training it was a great escape from the pressures of winning and losing,” he says. 

Almond Lee celebrates Joyful The Great's Class 3 win at Sha Tin in 2013. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)

Many trainers who have departed Hong Kong, by choice or by being ‘struck out’, can hold a grudge at the fickle nature of the closed-shop jurisdiction. 

Lee has clearly moved on though, at peace with himself in his new vocation, but what he will say is “Hong Kong owners love a winner, they don’t care about second place.” 

“Look at two examples: Tony Millard, ten years ago he had the champion Ambitious Dragon. Millard was one of the most aggressive trainers in Hong Kong, but now he is gone. Francis Lui was the original trainer of Ambitious Dragon, but lost the horse to Millard. Now Francis gets Golden Sixty and Francis is a contender. Neither was an expensive horse, it takes some luck.” 

The only contact Lee has with the sport now is that customers will often talk to him about the latest happenings in Hong Kong racing. 

Luck is now out of the equation for Lee: he is considering opening another restaurant, if only as a take-out to sell that signature char siu bao. 

“I don’t necessarily need to do this: I have my cycling, swimming and hiking,” he says. “I’m 59, my former school mates are semi-retired. I’m an outsider to the restaurant industry, but I enjoy it.”




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