What If The Chicken Sneezes?


There may be enough seats in Hong Kong’s restaurants for the whole population to sit down to dinner at the same time. That’s 6.8 million people. It seems a lot, but there are a lot of restaurants. Restaurants in Hong Kong had total receipts of A$9.5 billion last year and the figure should exceed A$10 billion this year.

Despite scares about the produce from the mainland, Hong Kong’s enthusiasm for food in restaurants doesn’t show signs of flagging. Except for poultry.

One of the reasons Hong Kongers relish eating is because the memory of starvation is so recent. Many of the older generation over 60 remember starvation as a constant fact of life in China. Old people tell you about eating bark and grass on the mainland.

A busy Dimsum restaurant in Hong Kong

A busy Dimsum restaurant in Hong Kong

The habit of eating out goes back to when many Hong Kong people lived in tar paper and cardboard shacks with no kitchens, and nowadays a lot of people live in very small apartments where kitchens are tiny, (or non-existent) just a couple of gas rings on a bench-top. For an extended family to eat in any comfort it is necessary to go to a restaurant. And extended families eating out together in the evenings and on weekends is a reminder of the inter-generational affability of Chinese people.

Then there’s the lunch crowd looking for quick meals at a low price. The Chinese middle-classes, new and old, are gourmands and the sky’s no limit to luxury in Hong Kong. McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Hong Kong in 1973 and the Golden Arches now has 200 outlets here and employs 10,000 people.

The dai pai dongs, or street-side cooked food restaurants, are almost a thing of the past. Once ubiquitous, these stalls grew very popular in the 1950s and 1960s to meet the demand from immigrants without cooking facilities at home. Now, they are confined to a few remaining licence holders. The licences cannot be transferred and will not be renewed when the licence holders die.

Dim sum has a special place in Hong Kong. The variety of dim sum dishes may symbolise the values of diversity, inclusiveness, change and adaptability integral to the identity of Hong Kong. Earlier this year when a Hong Kong Government report advised that eating many types of dim sum regularly may be bad for your health, it caused a storm of adverse comment but no noticeable change in one of the city’s favourite pass-times. The Government’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department found high fat and high salt levels and low calcium and low fibre levels in 750 dim sum samples.

The Government seems to have a thorough regulatory regime to ensure food is uncontaminated and that it is prepared in hygienic ways. Food inspectors roam the markets, restaurants and food shops. Despite all this activity, food contamination stories are a staple of the ‘horror from the mainland’ genre of stories that the Hong Kong media exploits. Not without good reason; earlier this year when there was a scare about fish contamination, the ‘registered’ fish farms on the mainland, adjacent to Hong Kong where freshwater fish were supposed to come from, were sometimes non-existent.

Hong Kong has a network of 79 wet markets and 26 cooked food markets. Cantonese cuisine favours fresh food over frozen or tinned ingredients and the cook from each household goes to the local markets in every neighbourhood at least once a day for fresh meat, fish, poultry and vegetables. Tanks of live fish are a feature of wet markets, supermarkets and restaurants alike. Fish are killed on the spot after being selected by the customer. The same fate awaits live chickens in the wet markets.

However, all this activity around food and eating may soon alter dramatically.

Destroying large numbers of live chickens will be the most effective way of stopping the avian flu virus jumping to humans. The Government plans to destroy all live chickens in retail markets if one case of avian flu is found in Hong Kong. There seems to be agreement between Government and the poultry trade that if there has to be a cull of chickens that will be the end of the live chicken trade in Hong Kong.

Already the daily average of live chickens imported into Hong Kong has dropped from 30,000 per day to 20,000 as fears of bird flu intensify and authorities on both sides of the border step up surveillance and reporting mechanisms for suspected cases of bird flu.

Harry Horsefield’s last instalment about Hong Kong’s 3Rs was about Real Estate.

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