Hong Kong’s food and beverage industry makes around  $141 million per year, which isn’t bad for a city with a population of almost seven million. The high rate of food export out of Hong Kong is largely due to its diverse mix of cultures, spanning from Great Britain to Japan. A history of colonization followed by a thriving independence has allowed the food scene in Hong Kong to utilize many international influences and while Hong Kong culture is heavily influenced by Mainland China, its food has a distinct character that’s inspired by both the East and the West.

Sailors, Pirates, and Fishermen

Due to its location, Hong Kong has a similar culinary beginning to many other coastal regions of the world. A country of only 1104km², Hong Kong’s coastline measures an incredible 456km. With such easy access to the sea, the fishing industry was a huge food source for pre-colonial Hong Kong. Much like other ancient Chinese cities, growth in the region was dependent upon plentiful access to good nutrition.

Sailors (and even pirates) would often need something that sustained them during long voyages, and without the luxury of refrigeration, early sailors would hang dry fish to take with them on their travels. This later evolved into the Hong Kong classic — salted fish or 鹹魚. The humble fisherman provided a solution to an ancient problem and in turn, created a timeless, traditional dish.

British Colonisation

In 1842, when Britain took control of Hong Kong, there weren’t just enormous political and economic changes, but changes to the local food culture as well. In particular, the British introduced pastry to Hong Kong, which was incorporated into many traditional Hong Kong dishes, such as dumplings and banana rolls.

It was around this time that a duchess in England decided to take a regular tea break between lunch and dinner. This was quickly exported to the colonies, and while high tea between lunch and dinner is reserved for more special occasions, Hong Kong locals adopted this mentality of taking a break to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack of milk tea and a pineapple bun (among other choices).  Walking around Hong Kong, you’ll also find plenty of pubs, revealing a clear British influence.

Post-War Immigration

Following World War II, Communism was starting to take hold in China. Since Hong Kong maintained the capitalist and democratic ideals from the British colonization, many Chinese citizens fled to Hong Kong to avoid persecution and maintain a high quality of life. With a mass influx of immigrants arriving so quickly, the 50s and 60s saw even more change in Hong Kong cuisine. Coffee shops popped up all over the place, modernizing the culture, and the growth of factories meant mass production of instant food products such as sliced bread, peanut butter, and instant noodles.

Hong Kong has come a very long way from its fishing village beginnings, having been occupied and influenced by several foreign cultures. But all of these changes have resulted in a unique food and beverage culture that is distinctly and exclusively Hong Kongese.

One thought on “Food For Thought: The History of Hong Kong Cuisine

  1. […] of taking a tea break between lunch and dinner also spread throughout the British colonies. Hong Kongers adopted this mentality, and cha chaan tengs have become a typical spot for locals to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack break. A […]

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