Organic food has come a long way since the mid-20th century, when groups of concerned producers and consumers, mostly in Europe, banded together in pursuit of alternatives to highly mechanised, input-heavy conventional agriculture. Decades of activism, alongside growing recognition of the natural resource degradation caused by industrial food production, have led to support for organic agriculture being embedded within many national governmental policies. However, a look at consumers of organic produce (OP) reveals that they are often interested not only in the food’s environmental credentials, but other characteristics too – most significantly, supposed health-promoting qualities and superior taste, amongst others. Accordingly, retailers have begun to employ a wide range of narratives about OP and its virtues which deviate from the original, predominantly environmental, philosophy of organic agriculture.
This tour explores the adoption of messages surrounding OP in Hong Kong (HK), and examines them with a critical eye. It is designed for anyone interested in the diverse ways that scientific principles (such as the production systems of organic agriculture) become incorporated into the food system as tools of differentiation and marketing. The tour takes in six sites: four in Central District, the main business and administrative hub of HK1 – and two in Tsim Sha Tsui on the southern part of the Kowloon Peninsula, host to many museums and cultural attractions1. A combination of walking and transit on the MTR, HK’s underground system, is required. A topped-up Octopus card will help you move around.
The tour starts at Sheung Wan MTR station, situated on the Island Line in Central District. Directions are provided in italics.
To Stop 1: Grassroots Pantry
Take Exit A2 from Sheung Wan station, on the corner of Hillier Street/Des Voeux Road. Follow Hillier Street going south, crossing Wing Lok Street and continuing until you reach Bonham Strand. Turn right here and walk for approximately 100m until you see Cleverly Street on your left. Take this turning and walk along until Cleverly Street reaches what feels like a dead end. Find instead the steps in front of you and follow them to emerge on Queen’s Road Central. Walk left towards McDonald’s, then take the pedestrian crossing leading you onto Ladder Street. Take the flight of steps up onto Hollywood Road. Turn left here, walking gently uphill for around 50m; your first stop, Grassroots Pantry, is at number 108, with circular windows and potted plants outside.
The upmarket restaurant Grassroots Pantry is the tour’s first stop, where chef-owner Peggy Chan is passionate about using organic, plant-based foods and favours ancient varieties of grains such as Ethiopian teff. This is driven by her desire to support developing-country smallholders whose activities remain ‘untainted’ by the patented seeds of industrial agri-business – providing an interesting 21st-century anti-corporation parallel to the original organic movement’s rejection of industrial agriculture. The restaurant has a mission to create “food that heals”; the philosophy behind much of what goes on here seems to converge well with internationally-accepted guiding principles of organic agriculture, which emphasise fairness, care and health as well as ecology. Whilst you are here, however, think about the limits to this model, and which growers or eaters it might exclude.
To Stop 2: So Ha Vegetables
Leaving Grassroots Pantry, turn right and continue uphill on Hollywood Road. Walk straight until you reach Peel Street (a left turn in front of a mural of American movie icons). Take this and walk downhill until you hit Gage Street. Turn right here and walk until the next left for Graham Street, home to the food market where So Ha Vegetables is situated. Their stall is at the very top of the market; their retail outlet, a short way down the slope, in a courtyard on the left.
So Ha Vegetables provides an immediate contrast to the polished messages of Grassroots Pantry. A rustic blackboard invites shoppers with promises of ‘organic veggies’, but a visit inside reveals that customers must be willing to rely on trust as the main means of verifying whether the food has been produced according to official organic principles. Notice the loose produce without any description of provenance or organic certification. This is not to say that So Ha’s produce is not organic, but it does raise the issue of third-party accreditation in protecting producers’ reputations. Many jurisdictions regulate OP labelling and sales, but Hong Kong is not one of them. This has implications for food justice; honest organic producers are institutionally disadvantaged as there are no legal ramifications for those who label conventionally-produced food as organic. There are indeed clear incentives for doing so, as OP frequently sells for 3 times the price of conventional, reflecting (in the case of true OP) the higher production costs and risks inherent in organic production.
So Ha does stock, however, some local mushrooms accredited with the well-respected USDA Organic Seal. The label displays some interesting marketing choices – the food, despite being locally grown (a rare thing in HK, a city heavily dependent on food imports) chooses not to capitalise on this cachet, but rather portray itself as benefitting (through its certification) from a great tradition of American quality, proclaiming ‘Real USA Taste!’.
To Stop 3: Catch Juicery
From the So Ha Vegetables shop, carry on downhill until Graham Street adjoins Wellington Street. Turn right onto this road; follow it for approximately 100m, passing under the Mid-levels Escalator as you go. Shortly after the escalator you will find Catch Juicery on your left (number 67).
Another stop, another contrast: Catch Juicery is a trendy outlet serving 100% organic fruit and vegetable-based juices with ‘cleansing’ and ‘detoxifying’ properties: the emphasis here is very much on the value of OP for personal health. During my visit, I spoke to the friendly manager who shared her beliefs in the higher nutrient value of OP (for which there is tentative but extremely limited evidence), as well as its superior taste. The company also runs an organic fruit and veg home delivery service, stocked with almost exclusively American and Australian produce. The business’s narrative is strong and consistent – organic for health – but here one can see how far organic food has morphed away from one of its founding principles – “those who… trade or consume organic products should protect and benefit the common environment including landscapes, climate… air and water” (IFOAM, n.d.) – into a global industry which relies on emission-heavy air transit to feed health-conscious Hong-Kongers.
To Stop 4: Oliver’s The Delicatessen
To reach the next stop, carry on further up Wellington Street. The road will start to descend; when you reach D’Aguilar Street, turn left. Walk down here, taking the wide zebra crossing over Queen’s Road Central and angling slightly to the left to continue down the narrower Theatre Lane. Follow this all the way to Des Voeux Road Central. Turn right onto this road; at the fork bear left underneath the Armani shop, bringing you onto Chater Road. Continue until a right onto Ice House Street (immediately after Prada). Soon on the left-hand side is a signpost for ‘Prince’s Building’ between Piaget and Chopard. Take the glass doors to enter Landmark, the premium shopping mall where Oliver’s is situated (second floor).
Oliver’s is a supermarket like few others you may have experienced before. Suited-and-booted retail assistants wait at every corner, eager to provide the personalised shopping experience. The clean luxuriousness of the setting extends to abundant provision of organic products. Oliver’s goes beyond offering just a single organic option for a given food product, stocking for example a whole array of organic eggs – from New Zealand, America, Australia and more. This perhaps gives a clue towards the types of individuals who shop here – given the extent to which food choices are bound up with identity construction and acknowledging that consuming familiar food products can be a powerful way of dealing with identity conflicts experienced by immigrants during processes of adapting to a host culture. It is worth reflecting here if all immigrants are equally able to access foods from home (organic versions or not). Is this a just foodscape?
If you can, take a look at the gigantic organic onions – selling for almost 33HKD each (around £3!).
To Stop 5: Fair Circle/Hong Kong Fair Trade Power
Reaching stop 5 requires some travel on the MTR. From Oliver’s, retrace your steps back onto Chater Road, this time crossing over to the far side. An entrance to the Central MTR Station will be on your left. Enter the MTR system and travel three stops north on the Tsuen Wan line to Jordan, passing under Victoria Harbour on the journey. At Jordan Station, take exit C2 surfacing on Bowring Street. From the exit, walk straight ahead (westerly) until Bowring Street intersects Woosung Street. Turn left onto Woosung Street. After around 80m there will a building on the right with a large green fascia, where Fair Circle is located (ground floor).
As a fascinating juxtaposition to Oliver’s, Fair Circle also stocks highly international products, but of very different origin. The organisation’s ethos lies in supporting small-scale producers in developing countries, and a representative of the business told me that they believe sourcing food products through the organic system makes it more likely that such producers will receive a fair contribution for their efforts. This type of marketing relies on the altruistic motives of a certain consumer group willing to purchase OP on the basis of its ability to deliver benefits to an ‘other’, whether that be the environment, a farmer, or another life-form (in the case of high-welfare animal products). This stands in contrast to egoistic motives which concentrate on the benefits which accrue to the individual consuming the organic food. Which stops on this tour do you think rely more on altruistic interest in OP, and which more on egoistic interests?
To Stop 6: C!ty’super
The tour’s final stop is 10-12 minutes’ walk from Fair Circle. Turn right as you leave the shop, walking a short distance to Austin Road. Turn right here and walk downhill until you reach Canton Road. Use the pedestrian underpass to cross over to the far side of Canton Road, and continue walking to your left (in a southerly direction). Walk past Tsim Sha Tsui Fire Station, staying on the ground-level section of Canton Road (not the flyover), bearing right. After passing under the flyover, continue on the right-hand pavement with red railings and you will soon see an entrance to Harbour City mall. C!ty’super is located on the third floor of the mall complex.
The tour’s final stop provides an interesting combination of elements to observe. Like Oliver’s, C!ty’super is a supermarket offering a premium shopping experience and a large range of OP. However, in contrast to Oliver’s, much effort has been made here to highlight the stocking of OP which has been produced in HK itself. Of all the sites on this tour, C!ty’super is the only outlet drawing any specific attention to Hong Kong’s own certification scheme, which is managed and monitored by the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre and has its own logo (see photos). A whole refrigerated section is dedicated to produce ‘Direct from [the] Farm’; accompanying posters provide customers with information about local producers and their values. In this way, the company is doing much more than the other sites to promote organic agriculture in HK, giving visibility to a small section of its society working towards a more just, sustainable and food-secure city.
Reflecting on what you have seen on this tour, think perhaps about your own perceptions of organic food and the meaning it has for you personally. Do you share any, or all, of the understandings of organic food represented here?
1 – Dorling Kindersley (2015) Top 10 Hong Kong. London: Blue Island Publishing.