Hong Kong has always been considered a “food lovers paradise”, a truly international city with an equally diverse cuisine to match. Throughout history, so many factors have had an influence in shaping the foodscape we now know today; from ancient Chinese cultures, to British colonisation in the 1800s, and subsequent immigration from Asia and the rest of the world.
A commodity that doesn’t always spring to mind when thinking of the vibrant food culture in Hong Kong is milk. In fact, prior to British involvement, the Chinese had no place for dairy produce in their cuisine, some even found the taste offensive. Despite this, milk has subtly been a key driver in evolving not just types of food people can regularly consume, but how they can access them.
This tour is designed for anyone who is interested in an often-overlooked heritage behind Hong Kong’s foodscapes, whether you are a historian, food tourist, or a curious citizen. The journey you are taken on will involve a mixture of walking and using the MTR, Hong Kong’s underground transport system, so don’t forget your Octopus card! Each stop along the way will try to demonstrate how milk is embedded (or not) in Hong Kong’s culture.
Throughout the tour, try to think about your own consumption of milk- How much do you drink? Where and what type do you buy? Do you know where it is sourced from?
Site 1 – Pok Fu Lam Dairy Farm Ruins
Start the tour at Central MTR station (Exit C) at Takshing House and walk south east along Des Voeux Road Central for 100m to the bus stop at The Landmark. From this bus stop, take the 90B towards South Horizons, stay on for 20 stops (approximately 25 minutes) and then depart at Pok Fu Lam Tsuen. There will then be two sections of ruins on either side of the road, however they are hard to find so you have to search for them off the path. It may prove difficult to find at first but there is an easy access point to the forgotten estate through a garbage collection point off Pokfulam Road, opposite the Chi Fu Estate.
You are now at the site of Pok Fu Lam Dairy Farm Ruins, a dairy farm that was set up in 1886 by Sir Patrick Manson, a British man attempting to supply himself and his family fresh milk due to the lack of dairy in the Chinese diet.
Unfortunately, cows are not suitable to subtropical climates so were faced with different forms of diseases and discouraging environments to mate. Despite this, Manson still managed to supply milk around the whole of Hong Kong, and in fact were the first to do so. This was the starting point of production and consumption of milk in Hong Kong.
This long-forgotten part of Hong Kong’s history still remains, although some areas of the site have been redeveloped. Find the entrance and explore the longstanding buildings and land that tell the story of where milk originated from in Hong Kong. Have a walk round to witness the history first hand, see if you can see the old sheds and the tanks.
Once you have taken the time to see the Dairy Farm Ruins, this tour will take you to the Ice House Street. Manson expanded his business within the city and collaborated with ice companies, to ensure that the milk could be stored in a cold environment.
Site 2 – Ice House Street
Return to the bus stop at the Pok Fu Lam Shine Skills Centre and catch the 22 towards Central Exchange. Ride for 20 minutes and get off at Wyndham Street, then follow the road around to the Ice House Stairway.
Although it may seem like every other well-developed shopping-centric avenue of the Central district when you first approach Ice House street, it is in reality steeped in history and played an important role in the expansion of Hong Kong. As you can probably guess, the inspiration for its name came from the warehouses that used to store raw ice blocks here during the 1800s.
The origins of the ice trade in Hong Kong goes hand in hand with the milk industry there. Prior to the British, the local diet did not consist of food that needed to be kept in a chilled environment. However, with the introduction of Ice Houses, it made the accessibility and consumption of many more foodstuffs possible, which eventually changed their eating habits.
As you approach the street from the south, you will be greeted by a building that now houses the HK Fringe Club and the Foreign Correspondents Club. However, immersing yourself into the history of these buildings, you’ll be interested to find out that it was once the Old Dairy Farm Depot, which was used to sell ice cream and refrigerated milk to the city.
Be sure to stop by the Bing Sutt (Ice Room) Themed Starbucks adjacent to Ice House Street to appreciate the wall displays and traditional design that replicates the original coffee houses of Hong Kong.
Site 3 – Hoi On Café, Connaught Road West
To get the next site on the tour, you can choose to walk 20 minutes from Ice House Street, by following Wellington Street north west for 1km, then turning right onto Morrison Street to reach Connaught Road West where the café is situated. Alternatively, you can walk to the Central MTR station by following the signs north and then take the Island Line 1 stop west to Sheung Wan station. Use Exit C and continue along Connaught Road West for 200m until you reach Hoi On Café. It may blend in to all the other shops so look out for it!
Hoi On Café is small, neighbourhood café with rustic furnishings that offers up all the local delicacies. There are countless little shops and stalls all over the city that sell the iconic Hong Kong staple of milk tea, however the simplistic setting and loyal customers that frequent Hoi On Café perfectly embody the feel of days gone by.
While it is similar to the British drink of black tea with milk and sugar, Hong Kong-style milk tea uses evaporated milk instead of fresh milk to produce a richer and creamier texture. As a large proportion of Hong Kongers drink milk tea everyday (900 million cups of the stuff a year!), it has become embedded in their culture and a part of their daily lives. But as they only use condensed or evaporated milk they don’t rely on the fresh variety. As stated previously, dairy products had never been a part of the traditional Chinese diet, in fact in some areas upwards of 90% of Chinese adults suffer from some level of lactose mal-absorption.
Although the need for fresh milk in the society is not as great because of its significantly different taste, the uplifting beverage demonstrates an amalgamation of British and Chinese cultures. A quick food tip for Hoi On Café: make sure you try HK-style French toast to accompany the milky cha, you wont be disappointed!
Site 4 – Sheung Wan Market and Cooked Food Centre
The next site is a short walk away. Walk back along Connaught Road West and then down Morrison street towards the Sheung Wan Market. It is the big grey building.
A wet market is the place to go for a cheap, routine shop- selling all sorts of food like fish, meat, vegetables, and traditional dried foods. However, milk does not fall into this list when shopping in wet markets. There is a distinct lack of dairy products in all wet markets and cooked food centres across Hong Kong. This is because there is no dairy classification from the government for the sale of them in wet markets.
Additionally, with the lack of space in people’s homes and kitchens, there is limited cold storage space for dairy products. If left out, dairy products will go off very quickly.
Have a wander round the vibrant marketplace and take in observe the daily practices, but also notice the absence of any dairy products for sale.
Site 5 – Wellcome Supermarket, Sheung Wan
Exit the Wet Market and walk back to the MTR station at Sheung Wan. Ride the MTR westbound for two stops to HKU station, then use Exit C2 to come out right next the Wellcome Superstore.
Founded in 1945 through Dairy Farm, Wellcome was the first supermarket chain to be established in Hong Kong. First opened on Ice House Street, these stores were born out of the need to store dairy products originally in a cold environment. As Hong Kong started growing as an importer, foreign products also started to be sold such as wines, biscuits, and canned items. Without the need for chilled food items, initially milk, supermarkets would not have come to Hong Kong in the way that they did.
When you’re in the supermarket, go to the dairy produce section and take a look at the labeling on all the products they have. You’ll notice there is a distinction between ‘milk’ and ‘milk drink’. According to local regulations, in order to be called ‘milk’ the product has to be 100% milk and not diluted or have any other substances added to it, like many local varieties.
In Hong Kong there are only 3 fresh milk suppliers remaining; Dairy Farm, Kowloon Dairy, and Trappist Dairy. The rest of the milk you will see is imported from all over the world, however the cheaper varieties will be from neighbouring countries in Asia. Check the back of the cartons/bottles to see where they are from, how much it costs, and whether it is a ‘milk drink’ or not.
Site 6 – Oliver’s the Delicatessen
Leave the Wellcome and hop back onto the MTR at HKU, travel eastbound for 3 stops to get back to Central. From here, use exit H and head towards the Prince’s building where you will find Oliver’s on level 2.
Here you will experience a much different shopping atmosphere than that of the wet markets or the supermarket. Contrary to Wellcome, which is an affordable supermarket that many normal Hong Kongers are now starting to shop instead of local wet markets, Oliver’s is an upmarket store that caters to a more westernised diet.
If you take yourself to the dairy aisle of this store, you will notice that a lot of the milk is imported from typically western nations such as Australia, Canada, and the US, and is marketed at a much higher price compared to its local competitors.
After completing this journey, how pivotal do you think milk has been in shaping the foodscape of Hong Kong? Do you think it has integrated into local diets or is it still seen as a western concept?