Header images courtesy of @bing_kee (via Instagram)
Despite Hong Kong’s defining trait as a high-speed, modern metropolis in constant motion, in the brief intervals of repose where we can catch our breath and let loose a little, we love ourselves some afternoon tea.
A product inherited from Hong Kong’s colonial past, afternoon tea was first introduced to the city by the Brits, but over time, the practice has evolved into a rich culture uniquely its own, bringing along with it the birth of beloved local delicacies like Hong Kong-style French toast and milk tea.
But how did this cultural treasure take root and gain prominence despite the odds of a city that runs non-stop? Read on for a brief history of afternoon tea in Hong Kong and how it became our favourite meal of the day!
As most Hongkongers know, there is little that gets us as excited as putting a pause on our hectic lives for a well-earned afternoon tea break—a fact amply testified by the ubiquitous phenomenon of hotels and local restaurants across town whipping up their own incarnation of seasonal afternoon tea in their menus.
In truth, our cult-like fervour for drinking tea is nothing new; the Chinese have had a long-standing love affair with tea since the third millennium BC, and Hong Kong even used to grow its own tea leaves. Nevertheless, the ritualistic, mid-afternoon meal complete with energy-boosting brews and light bites is largely a legacy left behind by the British, who are credited for inventing the concept of afternoon tea circa 1840.
As the story goes, afternoon tea came into existence in England one summer’s afternoon when Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, was afflicted by a persistent “sinking feeling” in her stomach that would occur in the late afternoon—understandably so, as it was common back then to go long stretches of time in the afternoon without food. In order to assuage her hunger, she started requesting tea and light snacks to be brought to her room every day at around four o’clock.
Initially low-key, the ritual was quickly turned into a fashionable social event when the duchess began inviting her friends to join her. It was not long before the idea of sipping tea and nibbling on light refreshments in the afternoon spread throughout the upper class, becoming a quintessential British pastime.
Coincidentally, the inception of afternoon tea roughly corresponded with the time when Hong Kong came under British rule, but there was a bit of a lag in the adoption of the trendy gustatory practice in Hong Kong. It was not until 1928 that the concept of the afternoon tea made its grand entrance to the British crown colony, introduced by none other than colonial-style luxury hotel The Peninsula Hong Kong.
Shortly after opening its doors in December of 1928, the glamorous arched lobby of the five-star hotel became a prime social gathering hotspot for the affluent and influential, holding talk-of-the-town Sunday concerts, lavish dinners, as well as afternoon tea dances. Befitting its noble pedigree, the afternoon tea dances were an elaborate affair, an occasion where high-society individuals would mix and mingle, dance to live classical music, and indulge in a charming array of finger sandwiches, scones, cakes, and tea.
Although these formal dances are no longer, The Peninsula’s afternoon tea has withstood the test of time, and to this day, afternoon tea at “The Pen” is still considered an unmissable experience at the hotel. To keep up with modern tastes and trends, much of their afternoon tea menu is regularly updated with the seasons, but they make it a point to ensure that tradition is still very much felt in every other aspect, including the classic three-tiered presentation and their signature warm, buttery scones, which sticks to the same time-honoured recipe that has been gracing tables for over half a century!
The Peninsula’s roaring success spurred other prestigious hotel eateries, as well as high-end Western restaurants, to follow in its footsteps. Over the next few decades, the city saw the proliferation of afternoon tea menus, albeit their reach still remained mostly limited to upper-class expatriates.
Around the 1960s and 1970s, the custom of afternoon tea finally began trickling down into mainstream society, in step with the influx of Western influences in Hong Kong’s culinary landscape after the Second World War. For a long time, Western ingredients were expensive and out-of-reach for the average working-class Hongkonger, but even so, being a British colony meant that the eventual assimilation of Western tastes was inevitable, and it resulted in a unique gastronomic concept: Hong Kong-style Western food.
Hongkongers learned to substitute and modify, finding cheaper alternatives with canned food and local ingredients to create quasi-Western dishes that pandered to local palates, or what is often coined as “soy sauce Western cuisine.” Instead of adding fresh milk into their tea like the British, they used canned evaporated milk and filtered the coarse tea leaves with stockings to achieve a silky-smooth texture. In pastry- and bread-making, butter was often eschewed for the more cost-friendly and accessible lard.
Hong Kong’s modified Western-style cuisine was initially served in local establishments called the bing sutt (冰室; “ice room”) and their later successor, the cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; “tea restaurant”), which emerged prominently in the 1960s as an economical version of upmarket European eateries.
While Hong Kong-style Western cuisine was inclusive of all meals of the day, its afternoon tea fare proved to be just what the public masses ordered, with famous representatives like Hong Kong-style milk tea, French toast, and pastries emerging as crave-worthy and distinctly Hong Kong offerings. And thus, by way of adaptation and improvisation, the traditional British ritual spawned its own culture in Hong Kong.
As undeniably tasty as these newfangled fusion delights were, the question remains: How exactly did punctuating our workday with a light meal become a city-wide phenomenon? Ironically enough, the mid-day practice was popularised not by upper-class Chinese communities, but by blue-collar workers instead.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong’s flourishing labour-intensive industries were chiefly managed by the British, who would routinely take breaks in the afternoon and enjoy their teatime. Accordingly, workers too would have to pause for a rest when their overseers were not around. While colonial masters would enjoy a fanciful afternoon tea, workers would flock to local dai pai dongs and cha chaan tengs to fuel up on egg tarts, pineapples buns, French toast, and sandwiches, before continuing their sprint to the end of the day.
It was not long until the rest of Hong Kong caught onto the appeal of taking an unfussy mid-afternoon meal, and the custom grew so prevalent that it even earned its own colloquial saying: “三點三，下午茶時間,” meaning “Three fifteen, time for afternoon tea.” As cha chaan tengs ensconced themselves as an iconic part of our dining culture, the tradition of teatime also got its rightful share of the limelight.
Despite the presence of a new breed of afternoon tea, the classic British-style afternoon tea did not fall by the wayside either, but simply grew alongside it. Hotels and Western restaurants continued peddling dainty treat-laden afternoon teas to great success, which gradually attracted more local diners as consumer spending power increased towards the end of the twentieth century. Having established a strong hold over Hong Kong’s dining scene, these businesses continued to thrive even after the handover in 1997.
For the tremendous change that Hong Kong has undergone over the past few decades, transforming from an industrialised city to a service-oriented hub constantly moving at a breakneck speed, our fondness for afternoon tea has remained surprisingly steadfast. In fact, with the progressively international dining landscape, eateries specialising in virtually every type of cuisine are churning out their own variation of afternoon tea, with options abounding for every budget across the spectrum.
Understandably, the way that we enjoy this mid-afternoon affair has tweaked itself to keep pace with modern schedules and flexible dining. Usually served between 3 pm to 5 pm, afternoon teas are often taken as a late lunch or an early dinner when we’re crunched for time. However, on occasions when we can afford to carve out time and splurge a little, we are all about treating ourselves to a sumptuous English afternoon tea at our favourite hotel restaurants (preferably with a stunning view of Victoria Harbour).
Afternoon tea in Hong Kong is much more than a colonial legacy—it has evolved into a unique dining culture that has woven itself into our DNA. Whether it’s a full-fledged feast at a luxury hotel with scones and tiered cake stands, or just a simple buttered pineapple bun with a cup of smooth, tannin-rich milk tea, there is always a time and place for tea and tasty nibbles in-between our hectic afternoons.