Header image courtesy of @mayuinhk (via Instagram)
The familiar jingle of Mister Softee (now known as Mobile Softee) has a way of eliciting a near-universal Pavlovian response, prompting all in its vicinity to instantly perk up with excitement. Encapsulating childhood nostalgia in a nutshell, the roving red-white-and-blue ice cream truck calls to mind balmy summer days of yore and the simple thrill of dropping everything at hand to indulge in a spontaneous frozen treat. Although it’s no gourmet affair, almost everyone who grew up in Hong Kong has fond memories associated with this enchanting ice cream truck. Read on to uncover the elusive appeal of Mister Softee and how it evolved to become the vintage icon it is today!
Mister Softee is a historical icon in Hong Kong, but to speak of the origins of this soft-serve brand, we must go back to 1950s Philadelphia in the United States, when American brothers William and James Conway brought the first Mister Softee ice cream truck to life.
At the time that Mister Softee was founded, the notion of an ice cream parlour on wheels was not exactly revolutionary. Street vendors had been dishing out ice cream from pushcarts from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, transitioning to motorised versions in the 1920s. Notably, Ohio-based ice cream brand Good Humor is widely credited for debuting the first ice cream truck in 1920, selling chocolate-encased ice cream bars on a stick, paving the way as the unrivalled leader of the industry for a long time.
This all changed when Mister Softee entered the scene. By the 1950s, the soft-serve ice cream had become the latest rage, found ubiquitously in American diners and soda shops. Zeroing in on the latest trend, the Conway brothers—who had previously worked for an ice cream machine manufacturer—changed the game by mobilising soft-serve ice cream machines and installing them onto roving vehicles.
And thus did Mister Softee land with an auspicious bang in 1956. Within two years, the business rapidly expanded and outgrew its original location, franchising the operation all across America. It was not long before the roving truck plunged into international waters, putting down roots in England in the early 1960s.
So how did Mister Softee roll its way onto the streets of Hong Kong, chiming its twinkly tune? It was all thanks to one fated trip to London in 1969. A former employee of Dairy Farm Group, Ho King-yuen (何敬源), was inspired to bring Mister Softee to Hong Kong when he witnessed the joyful sight of children gathering around Mister Softee trucks on the streets of London, clamouring for a smile-inducing cone.
Upon returning from his overseas trip, Ho teamed up with his two friends, Ted Drew and Tong Hok-jyun (唐學元), to set up Mister Softee in Hong Kong. The following year, the enterprising trio imported their first truck from England and commenced operation on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Despite its Chinese name—“富豪雪糕,” which translates to “Regal Ice Cream”—Mister Softee has always been a cheap summertime treat, the signature soft serve selling for just $0.5 a cone when the business first started. The emergence of the ice cream truck was incidentally timed with a social climate of growing economic optimism in the 1970s, when people started making just enough to afford little niceties. Compounded by the added element of novelty, Mister Softee naturally took off with a flying start, selling over 1,600 cones every hour!
If you have ever encountered a Mister Softee truck in any other country or place, then you have likely noticed the absence of the jaunty jingle of The Blue Danube. Mister Softee actually has its own designated jingle that is often broadcasted from the trucks in America, but it did not carry over when the brand forayed into Hong Kong.
What may come as even more of a shock is that the first jingle used for Hong Kong’s Mister Softee was not actually The Blue Danube, but Orange and Lemons, another popular jingle closely associated with ice cream trucks. However, the switch was quickly made in hopes to better appeal to the local market, as The Blue Danube was wildly played in children’s music boxes at the time.
Sure enough, it worked like a charm, and the happy little waltz was thereafter known as the definitive prelude to Mister Softee’s tasty frozen treats, not to mention a siren song etched into Hongkongers’ collective memory.
While many businesses outlast their competitors by constantly reinventing themselves, Mister Softee has gone the opposite direction. From the inside out, Mister Softee has stayed true to its humble beginnings. As if paying homage to its American roots, the iconic ice cream truck is defined by its blue crown, red nose, and boxy white body, stamped with the Chinese words “每日新鮮為你製造,” or “Made fresh for you daily.”
And indeed, Mister Softee truck drivers routinely drop by the company’s headquarters in Fo Tan every day to replenish their vehicles with freshly-made liquid soft-serve mix, before parting ways to delight wide-eyed passers-by in all corners of the city. Outside of the company’s roster of designated vending locations, Mister Softee drivers are allowed to take their trucks to random streets of their choice.
On the menu plastered on the side of the van, you’ll find just four simple offerings—the same four that has been dispensed for 50 years. Given the brand’s name, there’s no question that the star product is soft serve, which uses imported milk powder from America for an extra milky flavour, as well as butter to achieve an irresistibly creamy texture. Each cone is filled with exactly two-and-a-half swirls of velvety goodness—no more, no less.
Unlike its American counterpart, Mister Softee in Hong Kong specialises in just one flavour. Done in compliance with local health regulations, which rules that only one ice cream machine can be installed onto each vehicle, the truck can only churn out one flavour.
Unsurprisingly, they went with the universally loved vanilla. The only time there is a slight bend to this customary practice is during Chinese New Year, when a strawberry flavour is offered in lieu of vanilla, presumably to ring in the festivities because the red in the soft serve is considered auspicious in Chinese culture.
If soft serve is not your jam, the trucks also stock nutty drumsticks, ice cream cups, and orange sherbet cups that are available year-round to satisfy your icy, sweet cravings!
Ever revolving—yet ever the same—the fact that Mister Softee has, for the most part, stayed frozen in time is not as much a marketing tactic by way of nostalgia as it is an inevitability. Despite Hong Kong’s vibrant street food scene, local government authorities have been less than enthusiastic about the widespread phenomenon of street hawking, citing concerns about hygiene and street congestion. Since the 1970s, the government has not only been cracking down on unlicensed hawkers, but discouraging street trade altogether.
In 1978—just eight years after Mister Softee was introduced to Hong Kong—the government stopped issuing new hawking licences, so that no new ice cream trucks could be bought and legally licensed. As a result, there are only 14 trucks left chugging up and down the streets, leaving no room for operational growth and advancement.
20 years later, Mister Softee had another scare when the beloved mobile ice cream van was scapegoated for illegal hawking and all itinerant hawking was slated to be outlawed under a new policy by the Urban Council. In protest, Mister Softee took to the Privy Council in London to wage its battle against the decision. After putting up a hard fight, Mister Softee ultimately got their way and the trucks were allowed to keep their licence.
As if all of that were not enough to prove their resilience, in 2010, the founder of Mister Softee passed away and the franchising rights of Mister Softee in Hong Kong were retracted. Mister Softee was thus forced to change and rebrand itself to Mobile Softee. Luckily, apart from the name, everything else, from the production technology to the eye-catching retro outlook of the trucks, has remained the same. It is this subtlety of the change that explains why the brand is still frequently referred to by its former name!
Today, the tinkling trucks can still be spotted in popular tourist hubs like Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui, Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai, and Sai Kung. More recently, prompted by the massive drop in tourism due to the pandemic, some drivers have begun diverting from their usual route and going into residential areas and walled villages in the New Territories.
The exact schedule of the ice cream vans is never definite, often up to the whims of the driver; and that is perhaps the very fun and essence of it all—the serendipitous experience and childlike excitement one gets from chancing upon cool, sweet relief in the sweltering weather.
Delivering on the promise of spontaneity, wonder, and nostalgia, Mister Softee has managed to keep their business afloat in spite of the challenges and hardships that have been thrown their way over the decades. Yet, the threat of these vintage icons becoming a thing of the past is still looming large, especially with street hawking becoming a dying trade. While we cannot predict what the future holds for Hong Kong’s beloved ice cream truck, one thing is for certain: No matter how ice cream trends and flavours evolve, so long as The Blue Danube keeps playing, we will always have a soft spot for Mister Softee!