The Hong Kong history lesson for today is a continuation of an earlier post which was introducing you to Hong Kong cuisine. I think it’s fair to say that we may not have covered too much ground, bearing in mind the size and scope of China as a whole, and also bearing in mind that there are over seven million Hong Kong citizens dining somewhere tonight (or this afternoon) while you are reading this post. This culture vulture recognizes and appreciates the many, many dialects, cultures and culinary aspects of Chinese and Hong Kong cultures.
People from the outside may seem to think that because we are essentially ruled by a communist regime, we are all the same and we all march to one tune. In that sense, the perception may be that we do not enjoy as much cultural freedom as many westerners do, but you’d be surprised. This quick post follows up on the earlier introduction to Hong Kong cuisine with an outline on its origins. It’s divided into three areas mainly.
Because of time constraints, I cannot go further back than the nineteenth century colonial era, but what I can tell you so long is that the ancient history of Hong Kong and Chinese cuisine is as fascinating as that of ancient Chinese medicine. Just remember where your pasta comes from, if you’re one of those that enjoy Italian cuisine, say. I much prefer my stir-fries, they’ve got Southeast Asian origins mainly, and the traditional Hong Kong noodles that I can quickly snap up at any Hong Kong cafeteria around here.
Make no mistake; I still love my pizza and pasta. I suppose it’s a cultural thing, these preferences.
Nineteenth Century culinary origins
I am intrigued by the British colonial influence mainly for one reason. As a young child I was always quite excited when we headed off for a month-end dining out family treat. Ok, so this did not always happen every month, but it was a feast fit for an Emperor and his harem. One course after the next, course after course. Yummy, but, boy am I full. As a child I really was confused. Was this really a regal Chinese tradition while so many of us were eating so frugally? Well, apparently not. This is how the British royalty and their wealthy commercial cohorts used to dine.
Nineteen twenties Cantonese migrations
While in many parts of the world, grinding poverty was about to become a first-hand experience for men, women and their families, it was no new experience for the rural Chinese, mostly Canton in this case. Cantonese migrants drifted across the Hong Kong border in their thousands, in search of new work opportunities, Hong Kong was growing economically, and to escape the impending communist tyrannies of Mao. Cantonese cuisine is recognized traditionally as poor man’s food but is also becoming more appreciated as a range of delicacies that include expensive dishes that include the meat of the shark.
Shanghai and the communist revolution
After the Cantons came the Shanghai’s. This happened after the communist revolution of 1949 well and truly exploded. Like the Cantons before them, the Shanghainese fled across the border into Hong Kong to escape more poverty and at least resuscitate their lives as free citizens of Hong Kong. And so they brought their own traditional cuisine too.
The modern western influence
The Canton and Shanghai rural traditions were nicely fused with comparative British opulence. The argument goes that the Chinese food that we eat today is as a result of that epochal year of nineteen forty-nine. But I still say one needs to go back much further to truly appreciate modern cuisine as it stands now. How were healthy influences brought about from the ancient days? How did the rural poor trade and cohabit with the ruling classes? And did the western influence not go well beyond modern Hong Kong as we know it today?
But, do you know what, not much of that really matters today. What we enjoy eating today is also a joyful acceptance and appreciation of what others different from us has to put on the table for us.