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We love our milk tea and egg tarts here in the mighty Kong, so it only seems right that after seven years of intensive research, the government has added them to UNESCO’s catalogue of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
As much as we pride ourselves on being culturally aware here at Localiiz, perusing this lengthy list of 530 items made it clear that there are countless traditions that have slipped beneath our radar. In an attempt to educate ourselves—and you—we’ve broken it down into the customs we know and love, and those we’ve never heard of.
Discovered by Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC, tea has been an integral part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. To make it, locals boil “cooling” herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve the heat and humidity in the body. Yeah, good luck with that in the summer!
There’s a wide variety of teas on offer in Hong Kong claiming to have multiple uses, from quenching thirst to aiding digestion and fixing colds, sore throats, acne, bad breath, and even liver disease.
Traditionally sold at specialised teashops, which can still be found all over Hong Kong today, each variety is manufactured individually on-site using trade secret prescriptions and served in bowls that you slurp right by the shop counter. If you somehow fail to find a tea shop on every corner, hunt them down here.
Known in China as yu (玉), Jade is the royal gem. Boasting similar prestige to gold and diamonds in the West, it is regarded as the symbol of the good, beautiful and precious, and is said to impart the Confucian virtues of wisdom, justice, compassion, modesty and courage.
Jade markets are extremely popular in Hong Kong, and auctions regularly take place across the city. Today, Jade craftsmen and traders have developed extensive knowledge about the formation, structure, texture and proper selection of the stone. Check out the jade market at the junction of Kansu Street and Battery Street in Yau Ma Tei or the shops on Hollywood Road and Cat Street in Central.
An alcoholic beverage made by infusing rice wine or grain alcohol with, you guessed it, snakes, Snake wine is considered an important curative in traditional Chinese medicine, said to improve vitality, health, and male potency. There are two varieties: steeped and mixed. The steeped version sees a whole snake stewed in a jar of rice wine and medicinal herbs for many months, while the mixed variety is consumed immediately in the form of a shot after the body fluids of a snake are mixed into the wine. Bottoms up!
The well-known and much-loved egg tart consists of an outer pastry crust that is filled with delicious gooey egg custardy goodness—that’s a technical term. They were first introduced in Hong Kong in the 1940s by local cha chaan teng establishments and are a hybrid of pastel de nata (Portuguese egg tarts) and English custard tarts.
Egg tarts today have two main types of crust, shortcrust pastry or puff pastry, that are traditionally made with lard rather than butter. So they’re not particularly healthy, but they are totally irresistible. Tai Cheong Bakery is widely considered to be the best for shortcrust tarts, while Honolulu Coffee Shop is renowned for its flakey pastry version.
Hong Kong-style milk tea, also known as “silk stocking” milk tea, is a moderately sweet and creamy hot drink that most local Hongkongers will consume on a daily basis. It’s made by repeatedly pouring hot water into a cloth colander packed with tea leaves, before adding the hot tea to a cup of evaporated milk. Most local Hong Kong restaurants serve milk tea, but few still brew theirs the old-fashioned way. For a taste of the real thing, pay a visit to Cheung Hing Coffee Shop in Happy Valley—the queues don’t lie.
Have you spotted the old guys in their tiny stores selling nothing but chops? No, they’re not pedalling stamps for Hong Kong’s nightclubs. Typically made of soapstone, ox horn, or wood, these intricately carved seals are traditionally used in the place of signatures on documents—and in Hong Kong, chops mean everything.
Official documents require them and a lot of local couriers will insist on a firm chop on their receipts when delivering goods and parcels. They are usually made square and hold the imprint of the office rather than the names of the owners. Produced by specialist seal carvers or by the users themselves, the stamps are chiselled and carved to perfection.
Hakka Chinese is one of the major subdivisions of the Chinese language. Spoken mainly by Hakka people in southern China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, there are numerous regional dialects, depending on the district. The language is thought to have arrived in Hong Kong after the abolition of the coastal evacuation order in 1688 and was predominantly spoken by farming communities in the New Territories.
As education became more available post-war, the Hakka people ventured into different career paths and began to move into urban areas of Hong Kong and overseas. However, Cantonese became more prevalent, and the number of people who still speak Hakka Chinese in Hong Kong is diminishing quickly. Some Hakka villages still remain in areas such as Sheung Shui, Tai Po, and Sha Tin.
Every expat’s nemesis, Cantonese originated in Canton (Guangzhou), southern China, during the British rule, when many workers came to Hong Kong. It is considered the official language of Hong Kong and Macau, viewed as part of the cultural identity for the native speakers, and spoken by 62 million people worldwide. While there are many overlaps with Mandarin, the two languages differ widely in terms of pronunciation, grammar and lexica. Like Mandarin though, the language is extremely tonal, boasting nine in total.
Fishermen’s dialect is the language spoken by the Tankas, otherwise known as “boat people,” a group of fishermen from southern China who lived on junks. Today, the term Tanka is considered a derogatory slur to describe the lower class, so don’t go shouting that one around if you know what’s good for you!
A subdialect of Yue Chinese, it mainly comprises special terms related to fishing and the sea, not usually understood by Cantonese speakers. With the younger generation pursuing different lines of work and moving ashore, the language has little purpose and is losing its presence. It is however still spoken by the elderly in fishing villages today.
Lion dancing is a well-known tradition in Chinese culture. Usually performed during Chinese New Year and at other traditional, cultural and religious festivals, the dance sees two performers mimicking a lion’s movements to the sounds of beating drums while inside an elaborate and colourful lion costume.
Hong Kong culture uses the single-horned Chinese southern lion, whose legend stems from the mythical monster, Dian. During Chinese New Year, the lions perform a ritual called “plucking the greens” (蔡慶; coi3 hing3). Auspicious green vegetables—usually lettuce—are hung on poles and above doorframes for the Lion to eat (and spit out) as a symbol of good luck. Want to see one of these? Just head for the racket during the next Chinese festival.
Cantonese opera is thought to have originated in northern China and migrated south in the Southern Song dynasty. Music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics, and acting are all featured in the many well-known operas—such as The Purple Hairpin and Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower—still performed today.
On deities’ birthdays or the Jiao Festival, Cantonese opera troupes are hired to appease gods by performing in temporary bamboo sheds. Today, there is a dwindling number of Cantonese opera troupes left to preserve the art. Hoping to catch a show? Look no further than these performing arts venues specialising in Cantonese opera.
Using light and shadow, a puppeteer creates a moving world on a translucent screen for audiences to enjoy. The art apparently originates from the Han dynasty, when Emperor Wu asked his officers to bring his favourite concubine back to life. They created a lifelike puppet in her likeness, and cast a shadow onto the wall using an oil lamp. Wu was so impressed he created the concept of shadow theatre.
The puppets are usually made out of leather, are moved on sticks and used to depict fairy tales and myths. Want to learn the true art of shadow puppetry? The Hong Kong Puppet & Shadow Art Centre in Shek Kip Mei offers several different courses that might suit your fancy.
Engor, or the Yingge Dance, is known as the “Dance of Heroes.” A Chinese war ritual originating from the Ming dynasty, it’s popular in the Teochew region of Guangdong. Holding two small sticks or tambourines, dancers dress up as the 108 heroes from the story Outlaws of the Marsh. Performers wear traditional costumes and paint their faces during the production. The parade is usually performed in the Chiuchow communities when celebrating deities’ birthdays or festivals. Keep an eye out—perhaps during the Hungry Ghost Festival...
Every year, the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival features intense races between the world’s top dragon boat athletes. There’s plenty of beer, entertainment, and cheers all around, but also the tradition of throwing glutinous rice dumplings into the water to prevent the fish from eating the beloved poet and public official Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the Mi Lo River as an act of protest against corrupt leaders. Dragon Boat festivities go on all over Hong Kong, but make sure you head to Stanley Beach on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to see it in full swing!
Sugar-figure blowing is a traditional folk art from China, said to have rooted in the Song dynasty. To practice this craft, artists heat up sugar to the proper temperature before pulling out a wad and kneading it into a ball. Using deft movements, they then press a deep hole onto the ball using a finger, pulling out the web of sugar until it becomes a very thin stick. Finally, they blow the sugar into different shapes and sometimes decorate it with paint.
Don’t be fooled by blown sugar art; while the main material is sugar, these pieces of art are (sadly) not made for eating. Stalls should be set up during yearly festivals in Victoria Park and the like for you to feast your eyes, but if you’re hankering to see how these fantastic pieces are made, take a look at the video above.
Also known as water boxing, Hua Yue Xin Yi Liu He Ba Fa Chuan (it‘s a bit of a mouthful, we know) is an exercise originating from the reign of Emperor Guangxu. His disciple Chan Chor Fan (renamed Chan Yik Yan) started teaching the discipline in Hong Kong in the 1940s.
A form of internal Chinese martial arts, the exercise denotes that one body is built with six harmonies, and eight methods are used to maintain it. It is said that through the practice of Hua Yue Xin Yi Liu He Ba Fa Chuan, overall health and strength will improve.
So there you have it: a few of the weird and wonderful Hong Kong customs earmarked for urgent cultural preservation before they’re lost from the Fragrant Harbour forever. If you made it this far and you’re still hungry for more, read the brief descriptions of all 530 cultural entities, click here.