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Hong Kong's International Food Scene Gets Political

In its diaspora around Asia and the rest of the world, Hong Kong's identity is closely tied to its food and tea. Now with the pressures from the mainland, the stakes are suddenly multiplied.

Hong Kong's International Food Scene Gets Political

A chef in Hong Kong preparing a Chinese style barbecue

Lee Chiu Hing

HONG KONG — Hot wonton soup, a cup of milk tea: These are among the dishes Hong Kongers around the world long for when they want a taste of their hometown. Leaving Hong Kong is a challenge for some, less so for others, but virtually all expats eventually grow tired of dishes from their adopted countries, and seek familiar flavors. But more and more, this desire has developed beyond nostalgia to become a question with much more at stake.

The evolution of Hong Kong food culture has, in retrospect, become a construction of the city's identity, from the internationalized food scene in the early years of the last century, which gathered regional cuisines from around the globe, to exportation, which has brought about a new generation of Hon Kong-style tea restaurants in China, Taiwan and even Japan.

The challenges to Hong Kong's independence, and even its possible disappearance, is evident to all. In light of that risk, the reconstruction of this national identity through the new international trend of Hong Kong cuisine is its own story.

An international culinary republic

Over the past few decades, when you walk into a Hong Kong bistro, the names of the dishes are as varied as a map of the world. The massive entry of foreign dishes into a city reflects the process of establishing a kind of culinary republic, from the gathering of northern and southern cuisines to the construction of an internationalized metropolis.

With the Chinese diasporas coming to Hong Kong over the last century, local dishes were a way of citing different provinces and cities of China: Fujian fried rice, Zhenjiang pork ribs, Yangzhou fried rice, Beijing stuffed duck, Shunde double-skinned milk.

Russian shredded beef tenderloin with rice, Swiss chicken wings, baked Portuguese chicken

That's how Hong Kong came to be the most open place in Asia for absorbing international food culture. In addition to the names of local Chinese food, there was also a range of more far-flung flavors. The gourmet mixing testified to Hong Kong's position as the springboard for Chinese to leave the country and as the center of the Chinese immigrant community in Southeast Asia.

Needless to say, there are now more "Hong Kong-style international" flavors that even people from those countries say they have never tasted: Russian shredded beef tenderloin with rice, Swiss chicken wings, baked Portuguese chicken with rice and Kagoshima pork cartilage. (Another famous dish, German salted pork knuckles, does have a real origin).

People queue up in front of a bubble tea shop in Kennedy Town, western Hong Kong — Photo: Marc Fernandes/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Becoming a cosmopolitan food capital

Through the internationalization of homemade food, a collective awareness of the vitality and direction of the city sprouted before it was truly internationalized. Whether it was due to the movement of people bringing in exotic cuisines or their quest for virtual globalization (actively inventing international foods to make themselves appear international), the result was the same: Hong Kong has since, literally step by step, become a cosmopolitan food capital, and has marked its culinary traditions on the world food map.

To see how the dual effects further shape Hong Kong's culinary characteristics, we can take the example of its most famous output — Hong Kong milk tea. It is an exotic product; it was first introduced into the British diet, and at the height of the British colonial era, Sri Lankan black tea, accompanied by milk, was traditionally served for breakfast or afternoon tea.

But the Hong Kong version is an easy replica of this foreign drink. Although it will not be called English milk tea (exotic enough), its foreign nature is actually the same. The localization process of Hong Kong milk tea to English black tea is done through a simplified pragmatism; that is, the milk is directly washed into the black tea, creating a taste of kitchen mastery but also enhancing the efficiency of the drink.

With the milk tea story becoming a Hong Kong story of its own, Hong Kong tea restaurants have been expanding across China as well as the world. It is worth noticing that, even with the challenge and reshape of Hong Kong's identity, Hong Kong restaurants are becoming a trend in mainland China. But it is more of a reconstruction of nostalgic Hong Kong aesthetics being imagined by mainlanders, associated with Hong Kong TV series from the '80s and '90s that fascinated Chinese audiences and eventually became part of their zeitgeist.

Can this preserve Hong Kong's DNA?

The development of this situation is of course highly ironic, as the old Hong Kong customs and identity are now suffocated in the "real Hong Kong," facing extinction or exile, and those TV shows are also drifting away from Hong Kongers; it is surprisingly transformed to survive in the mainland, in another form.

How much of this is the preservation of Hong Kong's DNA? It is hard to say, but it does reconstruct Hong Kong — or at least an illusionary "Hong Kong" — full of misinterpretations. Those tea restaurants are just symbols and replicas from second-hand texts, especially the cafeteria in film and television, but completely ignoring the development of Hong Kong's story over the years.

A political storm brewing

Another recent trend of Hong Kong tea restaurants elsewhere is related to the political clashes of recent years, making Hong Kong food a calling card for exiles in the diaspora. More than just food suppliers, from Japan to Taiwan, the yellow-labeled (which indicate resistance) tea restaurants are political statements promoting Hong Kong's sovereignty. With new immigrants and those abroad dining in these establishments and continuing their discussions on Hong Kong, the meeting places are endeavoring to preserve Hong Kong's identity, and to witness the continuing social movements.

Chinese and Hong Kongers clash over food and politics.

In Japan, with its culture of discreteness and privacy, it is hard to tell whether the tea restaurants are "yellow" or not; while the millions of Chinese immigrants would also clash with the Hong Kongers due to their different views, either on food or on politics. The situation is better in Taiwan, but Hong Kongers are also teaming up to defend their cultural output, with the recent case of Hong Kong communities rejecting Taiwan bakeries for naming a pastry "pineapple bun," as the authentic ones are only Hong Kong products.

Nevertheless, for Hong Kong food itself, it is both actual nourishment, the life-sustaining element, and also an identity, maintaining the collective Hong Kong experience throughout the world. The diaspora tea restaurants might even be called monuments, as they are the locales that reunite the scattered people and memories, passing on the experience and knowledge of an era in Hong Kong through taste, both in visual language and rituals. But of course, no matter their missions and stances, as essentially economic entities, their food only holds power if it is delicious.

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