Let me lead you on a journey of rice through time and space in Hong Kong – delving into a chequered past, and exploring the meaning of rice for the 7 million people in Hong Kong who consume 869 tonnes of the stuff every day.

Rice represents an important part of Hong Kong food culture. The Cantonese saying “有米” (literally “have rice”) means very rich[1], and the Chinese metaphor rice bowl means food and well-being in general; it is the most important cereal grain in world.

On this tour we will explore the cultural heritage and cosmopolitan nature of rice, alongside how globalisation has influenced access to it. Therefore, the tour should be of interest to food tourists, local Hong Kong people, and historians.

A shift in cuisine, tastes, and eating habits is taking place due to the upward mobility of the working class, but rice remains a staple across all classes. The social history of rice aids understanding of the cultural meaning, processes of cultural change, and the formation of a Hong Kong food identity. Rice also plays a key role in the food justice agenda, through the dependence on imports and the effect of supermarketisation.

Throughout the tour, think about your own rice consumption – When, where and what type do you buy? Do you know which country it is from?

The Tour

The tour takes place throughout the New Territories (NT) and Hong Kong Island. The sites signify different elements of the rice supply chain.

full map of tour

Map: Full tour

Site 1 – Lai Chi Wo, NT

Start the tour at Ma Liu Shui Ferry Pier (nearest MTR University Station – walk along Chak Cheung Street and onto Science Park Road to the pier).

university to ferry pier

Take the 90 minute ferry to Lai Chi Wo. It is suggested to spend the day at Lai Chi Wo and continue the tour the next day.

ferry route

Lai Chi Wo is a 400 year old traditional Hakka village and a prime example of the rice cultivation movement in Hong Kong. Pre 1950s, the majority of local people relied on rice production in this region.

local rice varities Photo: Varieties of local rice (Hong Kong Museum of History)

During the 1970s farming was abandoned as villagers migrated abroad for work and urbanisation spread. Today, over 90% of food is imported to Hong Kong, and nearly 70% of rice is imported from Thailand, creating a very different food system.

Sustainable Lai Chi Wo is a project revitalizing indigenous rice culture and conserving the landscape and cultural heritage. It enhances agricultural skills, improving food security, and even though locally produced rice is expensive, many consumers support it[1]. Preferences for organic and sustainable produce and boycotting ‘bad’ food from Mainland China are constructing a local food identity. However, this can exclude the working class, revealing a weakness in local food.

Take time to walk around, look out for old farming tools, and imagine the hard-working Hakka women in the fields.

hakka woman

Photo: Hakka woman after harvesting rice – 1946 (Hong Kong Museum of History).

Site 2 – Fo Tan, NT

Return to Ma Liu Shui, walk back to University MTR and go one stop to Fo Tan. Follow the river, turn right towards Shan Mei Street, take the pedestrian tunnel and turn right onto Shan Mei Street until you reach Fo Tan Cooked Food Market.

fo tan map

This area used to be fertile agricultural land, producing some of the finest rice in China which was sent as part of the annual tribute to the Emperor in Peiping . Rice was so important that rent for agricultural land was payable in rice.

Wander through the now heavily urbanised flood plain – the buildings tower, the air is heavy, the river unnatural, and all signs of rice production are absent. The only rice available now is from the dai pai dongs or small stores.

dai pai dong fo tan

Photo: Dai pai dong along Shing Mun River

759 store rice

Photo: Thai rice sold in 759 store, Shan Mei Street

This area feels dilapidated; people live illegally in cramped apartment blocks above declining dirty industrial workshops. It is such a contrast to the greenery and once esteemed reputation of rice. This significant part of history has been bulldozed without a trace.

Site 3 – Connaught Road West, Sheung Wan

Return to Fo Tan MTR and follow the route below to Sai Ying Pun MTR.

fo tan to sai ying pun mtr

Exit at B1 and walk along First Street and turn left onto Centre street. Continue and turn right onto Connaught Road West.

sai ying pun to 143 connaught map

There are many rice wholesalers in this bustling area of Sheung Wan; visit in the morning and you will see food traders in action, unloading sacks, and stacking boxes on rickety trolleys.

Walk along Connaught Road West from number 143 to 72.

connaught road west map

Start with the quaint shop at no. 143 with samples of rice in wicker bowls:

rice samples wicker bowls

Photo: Thai Hom Mali Rice samples

Next is the formidable building of Yee Woo Loong Rice Trading Company (no. 141), followed by Mega Food Co. (no. 106); operating since 1958 and selling Thai Golden Royal Bowl rice. They claim this rice is served in Michelin restaurants.

You will begin to appreciate the competitive nature of this trade. It was not always like this though. Rice was rationed between World War II and 1954, followed by the Rice Control Scheme in 1955 which regulated the import/export of rice and maintained a reserve stock for emergencies and softening price fluctuations. The rice trade was liberalised in 2003; abolishing import quotas and allowing retailers to import rice directly from suppliers. This decreased the price of rice as supermarkets became large importers.  However, rice is still a reserved commodity, with a 15 day reserve stock in case of shortages.

Continue past Chung Shun Hong rice trading co (no. 79), the red marble Rice Merchants Building (no. 77-78), and finally Lam Kee Hong Ltd (no. 72).

golden camel rice

Photo: Lam Kee Hong Ltd Thai Golden Camel rice varieties.

Throughout the tour you will observe rice originating from mainland China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, and the USA.

Site 4 – 118 Jervois Street

Continue along Connaught Road West, onto Wing Lok Street and Bonham Strand, right onto Morrison Street, and left onto Jervois Street.

connaught road to jervois map

At no. 118 you will find a traditional rice seller with six huge barrels of rice on the street, sourced from Thailand.

rice seller barrels

Photo: Barrels of Golden Phoenix rice

Jervois Street provides a prime example of the juxtapositions in the foodscape of Hong Kong. Here you can glimpse how rice was typically sold before 1974. In 1974 a policy was passed where supermarkets could start selling rice, and they offered cheaper rice than the markets. Many rice sellers like this closed down. Supermarkets offered one-stop shopping in a convenient and clean environment, cementing their market share.  But this little gem is nestled in a gentrifying area, where trendy coffee shops are taking over with their honey-processed West Java Aromanis coffee…

Consider buying some rice from here whilst you can; not only to support a traditional business but to experience shopping in contrast to the supermarkets. You can scoop up the quantity of rice you desire and there is no plastic packaging in sight.

Site 5 – City Super, International Finance Centre (IFC)

Continue along Jervois Street, turn left onto Cleverly Street, turn right towards Hillier Street, and go under Connaught Road Central. Walk right along Man Kat Street, slight left onto Kong Chung Lane, right onto Finance Street and enter the IFC.

jervois to ifc map

Here you will experience a sharp contrast to the rice sold in traditional stores and markets. The commodification of rice is visible; check out the alluring packaging with images of cherry blossoms and farmers, and the sheer variety being sold – organic, glutinous, milled, pearl, Icheon brown, Koshihikari short grain, wild, black and red rice from all over the world, with some varieties checked for radioactivity.

You may notice Japanese and Taiwanese rice stored in a chiller. This is because the higher humidity and temperature in Hong Kong could speed up oxidation if stored at room temperature[2].

rice shelves

Photo: City Super rice shelves

Unfortunately many people are stuck buying big bags of Thai white rice from supermarkets, which has fewer nutrients, and costs more than they can afford because many traditional markets have been replaced with monopolising supermarkets in poorer areas. This is unjust as the availability and affordability of rice is jeopardised.

Thinking about other people’s challenges leads onto the last site.

Site 6 – Feeding Hong Kong, NT

Walk through the IFC Mall to Hong Kong station. Follow the route below to Yau Tong MTR.

hong kong to yau tong map

Take exit A2, cross the road towards the fire station and head down Ko Fai Road to no. 17-25, unit 715-17.

yau tong to FHK map

Once you have made your way up the frightening cargo elevator in this warehouse, you emerge into the oasis that is Feeding Hong Kong (FHK) HQ; floor to ceiling glass walls, a state of the art training room, and durable storage spaces. But most of all friendly, passionate staff who work tirelessly to redistribute food waste from the food industry to hungry people in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, rice is the number one food needed but it is never donated. To improve this situation, FHK organises ‘food drives’, where schools offset waste by donating rice.

FHK rice shelves

Photo: the sparse mixture of rice in FHK warehouse.

To finish

Head back towards Central to find yourself a hearty rice based meal and reflect upon your day.  Kwan Kee Clay Pot Rice or Sang Kee Congee Shop, both in Sheung Wan are great options, or you could support Happy Veggies in Wan Chai; Hong Kong’s first non-profit social enterprise vegetarian restaurant which employs elderly and hearing impaired people looking for work. I can highly recommend the baked rice.

happy veggies

Photo: Happy Veggies rice menu

[1] Personal interview, Hong Kong University, 18th April 2017

[2] Email communication with City Super, Hong Kong, 21st April 2017