How Hongkongers overseas preserve, and adapt the city’s famed cuisine

Josephine Chow moved to the UK with her parents in early 2022. She opened a factory producing Chinese cured meat in Birmingham. Photo: Ring Yu/HKFP.

This report was written by Irene Chan and originally published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on February 10, 2024. An edited version is published below as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

After more than three years in Britain, Hongkonger Charlotte Wong, her husband William Kan and their two children are adapting to the changes in lifestyle.

Before leaving the city in the summer of 2020, they rarely cooked. “We were busy with work, so our daily three meals relied on a domestic helper,” Wong told HKFP.

But in the kitchen of their new home in Southampton, they have discovered a new interest in cooking. Starting with char siu, a type of barbequed pork, and mooncakes, they went on to experiment with turnip cakes, rice cakes and XO sauce.

Speaking to HKFP in Cantonese by phone, Wong said that she started to cook because she missed the taste of her hometown. Last August, the couple decided to try their luck in the catering industry. They obtained a food licence for a home kitchen and launched an online shop featuring Hong Kong-style food. Wong said:

We were surprised there were many orders – mostly from Hongkongers in the UK, but also orders from people in Hong Kong who wanted to buy gifts for their friends or families in the UK.

Business aside, she wanted her children to grow up appreciating the cuisine of Hong Kong:

When we left Hong Kong, our daughter was less than two years old. Now she has fully integrated here and has a ‘UK stomach.’ She doesn’t have many impressions of Hong Kong. We really hope the kids can taste the flavour of their hometown and learn more about Hong Kong through food.

Chinese sausage with brandy

Hong Kong witnessed a migration exodus following the 2019 protests and unrest, along with strict COVID-19 controls and the Beijing-imposed national security law (NSL) the following year.

Hongkongers have settled in the UK, Canada, Australia and Taiwan, along with other destinations. According to the British government, some 135,400 Hongkongers arrived in the country between early 2021, when it launched a residency route for holders of British National (Overseas) passports, and September 2023.

Partly from homesickness and partly from the need to earn a living, many Hongkongers overseas have opened cha chaan teng, Hong Kong-style cafes, snack shops or online food shops.

Josephine Chow had larger ambitions. She founded a factory in Birmingham producing Chinese cured pork sausage and cured pork belly.

Born into a Hong Kong family that specialised in curing meat, Chow used to run a factory in Yuen Long with her father. Preserving meat using salt and dehydration is said to date back thousands of years, and in Hong Kong, cured meat evolved into a seasonal food for autumn and winter, often served with steaming hot clay pot rice.

Business was tough in Hong Kong, with fierce competition from dozens of brands — some of which held on to market dominance by mass producing in mainland Chinese factories. Rising temperatures throughout the year were a contributing factor, too, as very few purchase cured meat when the weather is hot.

But it was politics rather than the climate crisis that ultimately prompted her to leave the city. Her parents and brother also decided to go after witnessing the 2019 protests and unrest.

The family moved to Birmingham in early 2022 after selling the factory and other assets in Hong Kong. After months of struggling to settle into a new country, Chow made up her mind to open another cured meat factory. “I don’t want this craftsmanship to be lost.”

She learned the British tax and food industry policies from scratch and worked closely with regulatory departments to apply for a food licence for her factories. According to national regulations, Chow's family can’t make their own soy sauce to pickle the meat in the UK.

When an old flavour was missing, she simply tried new ingredients. Traditionally, Chinese rose wine is added to Chinese sausage. Chow found a new way around it,

We experimented and added VSOP brandy. It tastes good — rose wine offers a top note and brandy offers a base note.

She has named her new British brand of Hong Kong-style cured meat “Home Place”.

Fellow Hongkongers

In the southern city of Southampton, when Wong and Kan decided to make turnip cakes for the Lunar New Year festival, they thought of Home Place.

We cold-called Josephine in the hope of filling orders. We know Home Place is short of supply as the demand is huge, but Josephine worked really hard to fill our orders, We’re grateful that Hongkongers are helping each other.

Turnip cake is a traditional Chinese dim sum dish made of white radish, Chinese cured sausage and flour. Some chefs also add dried scallops, dried mushrooms and dried shrimp. Along with rice cake, the dish is often served during the Lunar New Year festival as its name in Chinese is a homophone of “high,” symbolising progress and promotion.

Turnip cakes produced by Charlotte Wong and William Kan for Hongkongers in the UK before Lunar New Year in 2024. Turnip cake is a dim sum dish popular during Lunar New Year. Photo: Charlotte Wong.

As the Lunar New Year approached, orders for turnip cakes increased. From late January, the couple worked in their kitchen every night after their kids had gone to bed until 3 am or 4 am.

Earning a living in the UK was not easy, said Wong, who worked as a makeup artist in Hong Kong while her husband was in the procurement industry.

For their first two years as immigrants, Kan found freelance gigs as a deliveryman, and Wong worked as a cleaner in schools. They made ends meet but found it hard to save.

Running their own business also poses challenges. To reduce risks, they started with an online shop. “The UK is large, and Hongkongers are scattered in different areas. Shopping online is convenient for them,” Wong added. Six months after launching the business, orders were flowing in.

In late January, they took part in the London Lunar New Year Fair, with around 100 stalls manned by Hongkongers selling food and handicrafts. After the fair closed, many got to know each other, sharing their experiences of cooking, applying for licences and other business tips.

I felt really moved. People used to say Hongkongers were pragmatic and driven by material interests, but here, I feel that we’re united, appreciating each other, and generous in sharing experiences.

Chow said she felt optimistic:

We still can’t make ends meet right now as the factory is too small and can’t produce enough for orders. But I am happy and hopeful. Hongkongers in the UK are very supportive. And the weather here is always cold. Good for cured meat!

Cha chaan teng as a community

People enjoy their food at the cha chaan teng September in Taipei, in early January 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP. Credit: KYLE_LAM.Y.K

After graduating from a Taiwan university in 2018, Andy, who did not want to give his full name, contemplated opening a Taiwan-style restaurant in Hong Kong. His plans changed in the summer of 2019 while he was looking for a place to rent. Sitting in his cha chaan teng called September, which he opened in September 2019, Andy told HKFP in Cantonese,

I was watching whether the government would listen to the people, help the people. I felt disappointed ultimately and I couldn’t see any hope. So I decided to run my business in Taiwan.

The restaurant in central Taipei has become a centre for the Hong Kong community. It not only offers toast, lemon tea and rice dishes, but also screenings of Hong Kong movies, book launches and seminars. Andy said:

In Cha Chaan Teng September, we can do anything and sell anything. I hope this space can offer a space for Hongkongers to come together and [share their political views].

Since 2020, many Hongkongers have moved to Taiwan via an investment immigration scheme, a professional immigration scheme or a special permit for activists fleeing their home city.

But many subsequently left the island for destinations such as the UK and Canada after failing to secure permanent residency, international media outlets have reported.

Andy did not have the same issue and got a resident certificate after moving under the investment immigration scheme, he told HKFP in January.

To run a cafe, the 30-year-old businessman had to innovate and adapt flavours to the local market.

Initially, we cooked Thai jasmine rice — a favourite of Hongkongers — but Taiwanese are not used to that.

He explored multiple varieties of rice before settling on Chihshang plain box, a Taiwanese species also enjoyed by Hongkongers. To make Singapore-style fried noodles, a staple of cha chaan teng, he used rice noodles from Hsinchu instead of Cantonese ones.

Andy has lived in Taiwan for over four years and said he has integrated well. The last time he returned to Hong Kong was at the end of 2019. He said he has not dared to visit since then because the events he hosted in his canteen might be deemed by Hong Kong authorities to be seditious. Andy said:

I still dream that I am going back to Hong Kong, but… at the end of the dream, somehow I am unable to board the plane.

Cantonese food, Hong Kong food?

In Taipei’s Ximending, a bustling commercial district, Bryan — who also only provided his first name — has run a snack shop for over three years. Most of his customers are Taiwanese, but sometimes he has visitors from Hong Kong.

Bryan worked as an office clerk in Hong Kong and seldom cooked. He joined the crowd at legal, peaceful marches in the summer of 2019 when protests against an amendment to the city’s extradition bill began.

He and his parents decided to leave for Taiwan after witnessing the Yuen Long mob attack in July 2019. Police were criticised for failing to intervene in the attack on protesters and train passengers.

Bryan said starting a snack shop cost around HKD 100,000 (USD 12,800), much less than it would have in Hong Kong:

I learned from scratch to cook snacks such as steamed rice rolls, tripe stew and imitation shark’s fin soup.

The shop was launched in February 2021, offering a menu full of Hong Kong-style snacks. During Hong Kong’s migration wave, business was good, with Hongkongers making up nearly 70 percent of customers. However, many have left the island since 2022 after waiting for a long time and failing to obtain long-term residency.

With fewer Hong Kong customers, Bryan had to change the menu:

The culinary cultures of Hong Kong and Taiwan are actually quite different, but I found that the Taiwanese do love steamed rice rolls. Therefore the shop features this dim sum dish, offering rice rolls with different toppings and flavours.

Bryan has also tried to innovate, adding different sauces to rice rolls to cater to Taiwanese tastes.

Like the Chinese sausage with brandy in Britain and rice rolls in Taiwan, the Hong Kong diaspora is creating something new from the traditions of their former homes. “Let’s do it better anywhere in the world, ” Bryan said.

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